Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

Tag: death

Where are you?

This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on June 10, 2018, the Third Sunday after Pentecost. This week has seen several high profile suicides on the national scene, and a number of tragic young deaths on the local scene. Mortality has been very much on our minds, which, together with this Sunday’s reading from Genesis 3, created an occasion for me to reflect on the pain of separation which often lies so close to the human experience. Those who know Bach’s St. Matthew Passion will recognize the text of one of the final recitatives, Am Abend da es kühle war, underlying a passage towards the end of this sermon. For more on the specifically religious quality of the separation between God and humanity, I suggest Matthew Myer Boulton’s book, God Against Religion.

Collect: O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 3:8-15, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:20-35

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

One of the worst phone calls I ever received was from a friend of mine, in the summer after we’d both finished college; he’d gone to New York to pursue a career in finance, and I was still getting ready to leave for my MA program starting that fall. Our group of mutual friends was aware he was having a hard time adjusting to his new life, we all were in our various ways, but no one could have foreseen the shape it would take for him. I remember vividly that desperate phone call late at night, my friend making no sense at all but clearly terrified and clearly in trouble. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise to ask for clarification; and finally, in tears, he asked plaintively, “Where are you Blake, where are you?” Before hanging up. It was bad enough my friend was in trouble, it was even worse feeling totally helpless, and unable even to understand what was wrong. We later learned it was a schizophrenic breakdown. He was hospitalized, treated, and has long since recovered. But his plaintive cry still haunts my memories of that summer — “Where are you?”

“Where are you?” One of the reasons that question cuts so close to the quick is because of what it presupposes about the other person. It presupposes that they are already such an important part of our life that we feel they must be there for our life to be recognizably our own — meaningful, safe, full of warmth and love. It presupposes their presence, permanent and reliable, a part of the furniture of our lives. Whether dear friends, husbands and wives, or especially parents and their children, “Where are you?” is a cry almost guaranteed to bring the other person running without a second thought. And when that response is prevented, either by distance or by other obstacle, we don’t just feel disappointed, we grieve. We grieve the loss – or at least the absence – of something presupposed, something reliable: a presence sustaining and life-giving, without which we no longer know what to make of our lives, let alone the world we live in.

When we usually read Genesis 3, the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent getting punished for their parts in the affair with the tree and its forbidden fruit, we most often concern ourselves with how to explain what they did wrong, how you and I continue to be implicated in their misbehavior so many countless generations later, the role of the serpent in the whole business, and what the set of curses God issues means for the subsequent history of the world and of religion as a whole.

Today though I want to start somewhere else. Genesis has been relatively light so far on giving specific details of dramatic setting. But here in chapter three, after Adam and Eve eat the fruit, suddenly it’s evening. And not just evening, but “the time of the evening breeze.” They hear the sound of God walking in the midst of the garden, and they hide themselves because they’re afraid. God says, “Where are you?” And Adam replies, “We heard you walking and I was afraid because we were naked, so we hid ourselves.”

“Where are you?” “We were afraid so we hid ourselves.” This is it, the whole tragedy in a nutshell. What’s remarkable to me is less the litany of curses and the subsequent dysfunction, and more the fact that God assumes that Adam and Eve are around in the first place, and available for conversation and fellowship. The implication seems to be, that “at the time of the evening breeze” God was accustomed to spending time with them, and they likewise. Somehow, Adam and Eve and God had enjoyed an easy, daily fellowship, a fellowship which, judging from God’s question, “Where are you?” Had grown into a communion of mutual confidence.

Forget the fruit, the pain here in Genesis 3 is that the communion between God and humanity’s first parents is broken — and broken to such a degree that Adam and Eve’s first impulse at hearing God’s approach is to be afraid, and to hide. “Where are you?” is now the defining question articulating the relationship between God and humanity. Gone are the days of easy, friendly intimacy; and by the third verse of the next chapter there have already begun the long eons of sacrifice, misunderstanding, murder, and estrangement.

The pain of separation, of estrangement, is real. There are lots of explanations for how it happens, whether we’re talking about Adam and Eve and God or the people in our own lives who were once very close but are no longer: time passes, life changes, people make different decisions, they prioritize different things, and a million other such theories. But none of them are ever satisfactory, because the simple truth is that human beings weren’t made for estrangement. We were made for communion, for an abiding fellowship of love with one another and with God. And the degree to which we are prevented or inhibited — whether by sin or injury or injustice or indifference, or the simple increase of distance or passage of time — is the degree to which we are dehumanized and the world reflects that much less of God. This is the way death crept into the world, and we have been paying the price ever since.

How do we fix it? How do we get it back? How do we restore the communion we lost, the grace from which we fell? First of all, treasure the loving relationships you have, thank God for them and let them be signs to you of what was intended at first and what will yet be fulfilled in the course of Providence. Treasure the ones you have lost as well, lost to death, time, or any of the other moths that fret away what is mortal, for the signs they were and remain of the same promise.

But second of all, and more than that, while we cannot erase or fix the terms of our estrangement, God is quietly but surely sewing back together the fragments of our shattered world. In Nazareth the Son of God joined himself to human nature, overcoming once and for all the separation between God and humanity. And while in the evening God asked Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” when he could not find them, on another evening the dove returned to Noah bearing an olive branch indicating the flood had lifted. And on still another evening, they laid Jesus in the tomb, whereupon he harrowed hell to seek and to find every lost soul and to carry them back to his Father’s home, where they shall be lost no longer forever.

Today God continues, “soul by soul and silently,” to restore the lost communion humanity was created to share: chiefly by the Sacraments of Baptism, the Eucharist, Reconciliation, and the others, in which we participate most clearly and specifically in God’s own life; but also and more frequently by the simple decision of people every day to recognize love when it is being offered, and to reciprocate the gift likewise. We can’t always recognize it, and we can’t always give what is being asked. But by God’s grace we can begin to translate across the gulfs of separation, need, and capacity to requite the love with which we are surrounded, both human and divine. This will take much of our time, and all of our patience. We will need to practice forgiveness continually, and penitence too for the injuries we will inevitably cause. We will need to turn ourselves back to God time and time again, in order to catch the vision afresh, the vision of just how beautiful creation is as it is intended to be, how deeply it resonates in our spirits and how far it reverberates throughout the world. But such is the gift of the Holy Spirit, living and active within us to accomplish what we cannot even see by ourselves alone let alone achieve.

In the meantime, we cannot settle for a world where isolation and estrangement continue to bring death and destruction to so many. It is “the way the world works,” as cynics correctly identify; but it is not the way it was intended to work, and it is not the way it will finally conclude. “Where are you?” God’s chilling and heartbreaking question to Adam and Eve is answered by the gift of Emmanuel, “God with us,” sent from heaven to earth to reach out and find you and me beyond all the barriers of sin, fear, silence, and regret we’ve thrown up in the way.

Let’s you and I continue to reach out in his Name. Don’t wait for someone else to do it. You and I are the connection required, the missing link, in order to begin right here in this place overcoming fear and shame to restore the communion we were made for. Do not settle for “the way things are,” but reach out, and let love be requited with love, to the glory of God, for the life of the world.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

Now what?

This sermon preached was on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 4 February 2018, at St. Mark’s Church in Berkeley, CA. It was the Sunday of our Annual Meeting, when we held a single combined service at 9am, and proceeded directly to the parish hall for a pot-luck lunch and proceedings.

Collect: Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 40:21-31, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

One of the saddest stories I hear as a priest is a story I’ve heard many times. An alcoholic husband or wife checks into rehab, finds AA, and begins recovery. A happy story! But too often, the change creates new challenges which are too different, too difficult to bear, and the couple divorces. Totally apart from moral evaluation, sometimes it seems the system, with its relationships, roles, and expectations, had grown dependent on the sickness, and healing was too great a change to sustain.

Or in other cases during a long illness families will rally around the sick member, but when healing finally comes there is no energy left for living life. I remember one case specifically, first-time parents had a infant son born prematurely, with several medical complications. It was two years before he was strong enough to begin a normal childhood development. The family was thrilled at his recovery, but within a few months there was trouble. The mother finally came to me and said, “You know in some ways it was easier when he was sick, I knew what to do and what was expected of me. But now what? Every small accomplishment my son achieved before was a reminder to me that there was still hope. But now I just find myself annoyed all the time, and unsure what to do next, or even what to hope.” I didn’t know what to tell her, except to affirm the difficult message that healing is sometimes just as hard to manage as sickness.

Today’s Gospel lesson is no stranger to this kind of tension. Simon Peter’s mother in law is sick. We don’t know how long she was sick, but it seems long enough at any rate for Peter to have gone to his work fishing on the Sea of Galilee, met Jesus walking there, started following him, and brought him back to Capernaum. When Jesus heals her she gets up and begins to serve them. It’s the first time in the Gospel that the word we translate as “deacon” is used, and by some renderings that makes Peter’s mother-in-law the first Deacon. Talk about a change in relationship and expectations! And for that matter, she’s his mother-in-law — was Peter still married at the time he was called as a disciple? And what would that have done to his relationship with his wife? Or, as one church tradition holds, was Peter a widower taking care of his late wife’s mother? Either way, the healing that Jesus brings is a life-altering kind of healing. Nothing will ever be the same again, either for Peter or for his mother in law.

A lot of times I think we look for healing as a kind of answer to our problems, and certainly it resolves whatever presenting issue of illness or suffering we might be facing. But what then? Life was not the same for Peter or for his mother-in-law; and when you and I try to get back to life as usual, so often it fails so spectacularly that we find our relationships breaking down, to a place where they might not recover.

So what then? Is “life as usual” just a myth? Is healing not worth having after all? Our passage from Isaiah might be one of the most glorious in all of Scripture: “Those who wait for the Lord will rise up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” But is it just an illusion? I don’t think so.

Healing is certainly one of the things the Gospel promises, certainly one of the chief marks of Jesus’ ministry on earth and one of the chief marks of his Church’s mission. But the simple truth is that Christian healing doesn’t fix anything. One of my favorite examples is Blind Bartimaeus, sitting on the road to Jericho calling to the Son of David. Jesus restores his sight, and immediately Bartimaeus follows him on the road: the road that will lead directly to Jerusalem, Good Friday, and the tomb. No, Christian healing doesn’t fix anything. If anything it only clarifies our powers of sight, to enable us to face death more squarely; more squarely and with greater hope.

Forgiveness presents the same problem: it cuts off the memory of sin and wrong, dissolving it in the grace of God. As a priest it has been my privilege to hear many first confessions, as well as make my own, and every time the experience is similar: the penitent often feels awash in a sense of immediate and transcendent liberation, the weight gone which had become so familiar they’d forgotten it was something they were carrying. And yet, even in such a powerful moment as that, the problem remains: what now? The psalmist reflects, “Our sins are stronger than we are” – but what happens when they’re gone? What do we do with our newfound freedom? What do we do with what do we fill our time, and our memories?

Healing and forgiveness both present great blank walls to the Christian imagination. What came before is over. Now what? There can be no return to business as usual. Forgiveness and healing both reveal business as usual for what it is: a vast series of compromises and concessions, overfunctioning and underfunctioning, to compensate for the pain, difficulty, and disappointment which characterize so much of our life in this world. There can be no peace with anything that diminishes life, no return to patterns of corruption and decay.

So what do we do with that blank wall? What do we do with the vast unknown stretching out beyond the joy of healing, beyond the freedom of forgiveness? Simply put, that is where Christian life begins, the door from which the Kingdom of God opens onto unknown horizons. We make our first faltering steps through that door and find the blank emptiness resolving, into all the manifold splendors of God.

We cannot tell what each of us shall be on the other side, just as in Scripture we hear no more of Simon Peter’s mother in law, or indeed of almost anyone whom Jesus heals. But we know that our steps beyond will lead us finally to the truth of who we are, and to a fullness of life which nothing can diminish; an innocence, a naivety, which is not ignorance but a new delight in everything that is good, no matter how drab or shabby “Business as usual” becomes.

The challenge, of course, is to make these faltering steps into the unknown of healing and forgiveness even now, today, while we are still afflicted with everything that grieves us. This is part of why worship is so important: here in church, by the Holy Spirit, we are put in touch, literally in touch, with the food and furniture of heaven, even with the body and blood of Jesus.

The disorientation is strong, highlighted in church by the unfamiliar in architecture, language, music, and even occasionally incense; highlighted in life by the unfamiliar which healing and forgiveness reveal in our loved ones, the unplumbed depths of the mystery of human persons. And yet enter the tension we must, if Christian healing and forgiveness are to mean for us what they can, if we are to move through the disorientation towards a new sight: not just to face death, but to enter into life, and walk along its paths into the further undiscovered horizons of the all-abiding love of God.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.