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: Easter

Belief and Doubt

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

One of the most endemic aspects of working with young people today is how seriously they take the question of belief. For better or for worse, my sense is that young Christians in ages past had fewer hang-ups about the specific tenets of the faith, and more about what it meant their life would look like.

Speaking at least from my own experience, younger generations today are more prepared than ever to relocate, to reorganize their economic priorities, to adopt new hobbies and habits, to create new community, all for the sake of the things they believe in. But belief itself is hard won; trust is hard earned and easily lost; loyalty is fiercely given but never blindly. Gone are the days when religious communities could sustain periods of stagnancy or scandal so long as they continued in the ancient steps and patterns; gone are the days when evangelism was merely a matter of convincing people how wonderful Christian life is.

For better or for worse, belief matters more than it ever has. First principles and vision are essential to articulate and to own for anyone considering first steps into the life of faith. Get those right, and life will follow.

In this context, our Gospel today is a perfect place to begin, especially because it invites us to consider just what “Doubting Thomas” actually doubted. We always get this Gospel on the second week of Easter. We’ve left the scene of the tomb, and we’re back up in the upper room with the disciples. Evidently the place they had kept the Passover with Jesus the night before he died had become a refuge to them in their grief and their confusion.

By this Sunday, all but Thomas have seen the risen Lord, and their sanctuary of grief has become the center of their rejoicing. They’ve told Thomas what happened, but he seems to doubt it. “Unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, and touch the spear wound in his side, I will not believe.” It’s the sort of statement that has made scientists all around the world love Thomas: here’s an empiricist, right in the gospels, a man after their own hearts! Without solid evidence, he won’t believe the good news his friends tell him. If you ask the scientists, it’s pretty obvious what it is that Thomas doubted: nothing less than the truth of the resurrection, and nothing less than Jesus present in the flesh would convince him otherwise.

But scientists aren’t the only ones with insight into Thomas’s strong reaction to the other disciples’ good news. Psychologists love Thomas too, because he’s such an early example of someone clearly in the stages of grief, specifically denial. Psychologists might respond to the empiricists, Thomas isn’t doubting the fact of the resurrection or the truth of it, rather he’s simply in denial. Remember Thomas was one of those disciples at the Last Supper most insistent about his devotion to Jesus, most willing to go to prison with him and even die with him. There’s a great deal of affection in Thomas for Jesus, and his reluctance to believe the good news might not be so much a rational thing as an emotional thing, having found it hard enough to come to terms with Jesus’ death, let alone the resurrection. It’s all happening so fast, and for someone who feels as deeply as Thomas does, the testimony of others is simply too much for him to process, he needs to see it for himself. If you ask the psychologists, it’s pretty obvious that Thomas doubts not the truth of the resurrection, but his own emotional capacity to bear yet more news, more rumors, more words about this person whom he loves.

But Psychologists don’t exhaust the possible explanations either. If you ask theologians what’s going on here, they’ll give you some variation on what biblical scholars might offer as well. In the context of John’s Gospel, eyewitness reporting composes an important theme: John says repeatedly that his Gospel is reliable because he was an eyewitness to the events he recounts; Jesus is condemned before Caiaphas because the council hears for itself Jesus’ own testimony, which, claiming to be the son of God, makes him a blasphemer in their eyes. Thomas is a perfect case-in-point of what John is trying to accomplish with us his readers. Thomas was a skeptic, and a staunch one, but whose position was immediately reversed upon seeing with his own eyes: the moment he sees Jesus alive and risen from the dead, he falls to his knees and exclaims, “My Lord and my God” — making one of the strongest proclamations of faith in the whole Gospel of John. St. John hopes that you and I, reading an eyewitness Gospel, might respond likewise, and recognize in Jesus the Son of God and Lord of all. If you ask theologians and biblical scholars, they might say that Thomas’ skepticism isn’t about Thomas at all, but about you and me, and the way we choose to respond both to the messaging and to the content of the faith.

No doubt there are more possible readings that these three, and multiple interpretations of just what it was that Thomas doubted, and what the message might be for you and me. Which reading is the correct one, and which interpretation? And what does it have to say about belief in a world like ours?

First of all, there is no single, exhaustive, “correct” reading: each of them and all the others add what they have to add, filling in the picture of Thomas the disciple, and the tensions and challenges of responding to that first Easter. But second of all, Thomas suggests to us that belief is personal — by which I don’t mean individual, but Personal, with a capital P — based in an encounter with Jesus Christ himself, not with words or reports about Jesus, or raw assertions about faith and morals. Thomas’s experience suggests that there is no substitute for face to face interaction with God.

For you and me, that possibility seems a little remote, but probably not more remote than for Thomas, having been present at Jesus’ death and burial. To us Thomas counsels patience: whatever else the risen Jesus might have to say to him, one thing I love is Jesus’ kind, even humorous tone. Jesus affirms Thomas’ very human reaction, and does not scold or punish, but invites further inquiry and deeper experience.

Jesus makes the same invitation to you and me, every day. You and I don’t have an upper room to go to, but we do have church, and we do have the various disciplines of prayer and mercy that Jesus both taught and lived. We cannot force belief, we cannot force an encounter with Jesus; but we can certainly put ourselves in situations where we know Jesus is likely to be: in prayer, in worship, in learning, with the poor, in the act of forgiveness, and caring for one another.

For me one of the most encouraging aspects of the “Doubting Thomas” episode is that, no matter what Thomas thought of his fellow disciples’ and their news that Jesus had risen from the dead, it did not change the way the risen Jesus interacted with him. Finally he appeared to Thomas as well, and spoke to him directly, by name. His skepticism did not finally leave him left out or left behind.

I once knew an old priest who loved to quip, “You might not believe in Jesus, but Jesus believes in you!” Not the way I might choose to put it, but the point is, for Christians, the object of our belief is out there, not only knowable, but personal; not facts in a vacuum, but a Person, continually making himself known to each of us and to all. The degree to which we believe, and the nature of the beliefs we hold, depend first and foremost on our encounter, on our relationship with Jesus, in which we are invited further and deeper into the mystery of his resurrection.

Whatever we might find difficult or even possible to believe; however left behind we may feel when it comes to other disciples, other Christians, may we too find ourselves there with Jesus in the upper room, and declare with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

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

Easter Day, 2018

Collect: Almighty God, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 10:34-43, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Mark 16:1-8

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

Last summer, when I came St. Mark’s to interview with the Vestry, they took me on a tour of the church. One of the things I was most struck by was the series of Creation windows on the north side of the church: six windows in a wonderful style, expressing the six days of creation. They add a great deal of color and warmth to the church, and I appreciate the complementing contrast they offer with the other windows, especially the Tiffany windows opposite. We were all saddened a few weeks ago when news came of the artist’s death, Don Drury, at the age of 90.

Creation is not frequently the chosen theme for a series of church windows, but I think the choice in this case was an insightful one, especially because of what seems like an error: there are six creation windows, but there are seven days of creation. Where is the seventh window? The book of Genesis describes the first six days as the days God made the world; and on the seventh day, as much a part of creation as any other day, God rested. Where is the seventh window? Where is God’s rest?

I’m not sure if the artist intended it, but I have my own theory, and it begins today, on Easter Day. Today Christ has risen from the Dead. Easter Day is the conclusion, the epilogue to the previous week, during which we traced the last steps and experiences of his earthly life. Easter Day is a kind of extended coda on what came before: the whole experience of Jesus’ passion and death, the whole experience of the people of God across uncounted generations, and the whole experience of humanity from the very beginning. Easter Day is in some senses the end of that story: Jesus rises from the dead, and we know that Death, our ancient enemy, holds power over us no more.

But Easter Day is also the beginning of a whole new thing. In ancient times Sunday wasn’t the end of the weekend, but the beginning of the new week. It was a workday. And Christians met to worship in secret in the morning before they went off to the day’s tasks. For Jesus to rise from the dead on the first day of the week, with worship occurring then too, is a way of saying that in his resurrection, God is doing something entirely new.

The Church has taken that to heart, and over the course of the last twenty centuries or so, has built an unprecedented, all-pervading network of humane ethics and institutions, even as the faith spread all over the earth: all of it fired by the belief that the resurrection reveals every human being as of inestimable worth in God’s eyes, and lasting value; that not only am I forgiven, but that God is calling us all to something new, something higher, a new humanity, a restored earth, in which no one is left out or excluded from God’s healing, loving purposes, which no powers of death or hell itself can stop or defeat, and which has its proper end in the very heights of heavenly glory.

These days the narrative often takes a different tone, however. The Church, this denomination among them, has been in the throes of statistical decline. It has been difficult to connect the resurrection’s power and overwhelming mandate to the daily realities of shrinking endowments, crumbling buildings, and cultural changes that threaten the Church’s confidence in its core identity and mission.

The rest of the world is in the same boat: we all hear the news about eroding civic institutions, and we experience, every day, the increasing difficulty to understand what people On The Other Side are saying, let alone empathize or reconcile with them. Scandal and corruption strike at the heart of our ability to come together as a community, as a nation, as a world. Meanwhile, in a sardonic twist, the very scandals that threaten the integrity of our society seem to have become our favorite means of entertainment. We know all too well that the church does not stand apart from all this mess, and that we are merely one more institution among many with egg on our face.

In the midst of all this, Easter Day continues to insist, the end has come: the world as it is, as we’ve known it, is over. God has taken all of its hypocrisy and shame and borne it himself to an ignominious death. The world is over, and a new one has begun. As Christians the world we live in is a world where the innocent can get crucified, but where their innocence remains forever and death itself is revealed as passing away. As Christians the world we live in is a world where powers and authorities can be morally bankrupt, but where such bankruptcy leads only to its own demise, while the meek really do inherit the earth. As Christians the world we live in is a world where I screw up every day, and where I often can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, but where mercy is personal, and where the kindness of God stoops down to touch our eyes and open them to the sunrise beaming through the darkness. As Christians the world we live in is a world where loved ones still die and loneliness still prevails; but where the Spirit of God unites us continually with all who have gone before in one communion and fellowship of abiding love.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the end of the world as we know it, and the beginning of a new world. Our challenge — and our joy! — is to live in this world, as citizens of the new. So, while the church is certainly its own worst enemy, and the world seems bent on its own demise, you and I are in the right place. Here, today, on Easter Day, we assert unequivocally, with music and flowers and glad hymns and a big party, that Jesus is risen from the dead, and life has triumphed over the grave.

We will not see in our lifetimes the completion of God’s good purposes on earth. But here, in church, on Easter Day, we can identify with confidence just what it is that is passing away, we can name the evil and decry the wickedness, while we greet again with joy the victory of goodness and life.

So back to our Creation windows. Where is the seventh day? Where has Drury depicted the Sabbath rest of God? My own theory is that he meant for this church to be his seventh window; for all of us here to enter and to live the Sabbath rest of God, where every tear is wiped from every eye, death is no more, and we rest in joy.

My prayer for all of us on this Easter Day, is that we enjoy some glimpse, some taste, some participation in this new world that Jesus’s resurrection creates; and that as we do, we might rest, and be at peace.

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

The Good Shepherd

This sermon was preached at 8am, 11:15am, and 5:30pm, on the Fourth Sunday of Eater, at St. Michael & St. George, 17 April, 2016. At 9:15am, Bp. Smith made his annual visitation to the parish, and confirmed a class of youth and adult confirmands. A few were also received into the Episcopal Church.

Collect: O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of thy people; Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calleth us each by name, and follow where he doth lead; who, with the and the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

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

Election season seems to be drawing on towards fever pitch, and everywhere you turn there’s someone claiming that he or she will be the best candidate to lead this nation. In schools too, exam season is drawing near, and deadlines for college decisions loom. We try to prepare our young people to be leaders, leaders we ourselves might be willing to follow.

Likewise today is the fourth Sunday of Easter, and we reflect on just what kind of leader we have in Jesus Christ. Last week we heard him challenging us to follow him on the hard road which his resurrection opens. Today we hear him claiming the mantle of the Good Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd. What does that mean? If we were raised on children’s stories from the English countryside, it might evoke for us visions of Little Bo Peep, rolling green hills, and gurgling streams: a pastoral landscape, vibrant and peaceful, where shepherding is easy and flocks can graze to their heart’s content. The shepherds Jesus would have known, however, didn’t have it so easy. Good pasture is hard to come by in the Middle East, and requires constant wandering, constant exposure to the elements, constant danger of coming into conflict over watering holes and routes of passage.

The shepherds Jesus knew did not have an easy lot. He is the good shepherd. But that does not mean an easy life for the sheep, rather it does mean that they can trust their Shepherd to lead them through thick and thin, to be near them in all their wanderings, and to defend them with his life if need be.

But Jesus the Good shepherd was not simply a shepherd to his disciples only. He is your shepherd too, and my shepherd. And, like sheep in Middle Eastern flocks, perhaps the chief thing that means for us is that we can allow our trust to rest in him. We can give him our trust, and let it grow under his leadership. He will honor it, and lead us in the way he has for us: not to harm us or to destroy, but to lead us into life, to lead us into joy.

Plenty of people claim to speak for Jesus the Good Shepherd, and there are plenty who claim his mantle. But do they lead his flock to life, or to death? Jesus always leads his flock further into life, snatches them even from the jaws of death, lays down his own life so that you and I might no longer fear even the power of death. He seeks us out even in the dark places where we find ourselves, He seeks us out even in crevices where we try to hide. Once we place our trust in the Good Shepherd, he himself will honor that trust, and lead us into life.

Where is he leading you? Where is he leading me? We may as well ask, where do we most need the power of his resurrection in our life? That is where he is leading you. Let him lead you there. Turn over to him your fears, your failures, your doubts. He is faithful, forgiving, and leads you into life.

But why should we trust him in the first place? We might object, “It’s all very well and good for some priest to say, ‘Trust the Good Shepherd and it will all turn out all right, but why should I bother? It’s just a bunch of religious talk.” Friends, this is where our Good Shepherd shines most brightly of all. Our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who leads us into life, and offers his own resurrection power to us in all those areas where we are most deathly, most afraid, most rotten; this Good Shepherd is a good shepherd chiefly because he became for us a good sheep. He became for us the very lamb of God: a lamb to seek out all the lost sheep, and offer himself to death even for your sins and for mine. He is a good shepherd because he is a good sheep, because he is himself the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.

His innocence and his goodness may seem strange to us who are so well acquainted with our own struggles, our own temptations, our own sins. Even if we can accept that he is the lamb of God who died in our stead, it can be hard to accept that such an innocent Lamb can regard sinners with anything less than contempt. And yet his innocence is exactly what gives him the strength and the power to regard us kindly, with compassion, to draw us ever onward towards “green pastures” and “quiet waters.” His innocence is exactly what gives him that strength and power.

Yes, Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, who is even my shepherd, my own, and yours too. He is a good shepherd because he is also the Lamb of God, full of tender compassion for all who have gone astray. This Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, is who sits upon the throne of heaven, appearing gloriously as the victorious lamb, who was slain and rose again, and reigns for ever. He forgives our sin, he leads us over all the rough places and dark valleys of our lives, leading ever kindly on, further into his own eternal life.

Won’t you trust him? Trust his voice — His voice, the voice of the one who died for you and rose again, whose designs are for your life and your joy, always to share in his own. Trust him, and see what he can do with your heart. It will not always be easy, but it will always lead further into his heart; His heart — which is your home and mine.

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

Easter Evening, 2016

The following sermon was preached at 5:30pm on Easter Sunday, at the Church of St. Michael & St. George.

Collect: Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9, 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, Luke 24:13-49

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

The road to Emmaus. This has always been one of my favorite Easter episodes. It’s evening of Easter Sunday.  These two disciples have already heard the good news, reports going through their company that Jesus has risen from the dead.  There is uncertainty in the air.  Can it be true?  As they say on the road, they had hoped that Jesus was the one who would redeem Israel, and yet he was crucified in a public spectacle only three days ago.  They need some air, they need to get away, and so they decide to leave Jerusalem and walk to a familiar town, Emmaus, a day’s journey away.  Perhaps some distance will help them understand, perhaps a change of scenery will clear their heads.

On the way, Jesus meets them as they go.  As with Mary Magdalene earlier this morning, Jesus surprises his disciples by catching them unawares, absorbed as they are in the emotional demands of the moment.  Equally amazingly, these disciples don’t recognize him any faster than Mary did.  They find it unbelievable that he hasn’t heard about Jesus of Nazareth and his crucifixion, so they tell him.  He finds it unbelievable that they still don’t understand, so he explains the scriptures to them again, as he must have done a thousand times while he was with them: the Messiah was meant to suffer and die, and be raised up again.  They reach their destination, and they beg their new friend to stay with them, rather than going on as he seemed intent on doing.  So he does, and they eat together.  Finally, as he breaks the bread over supper, they recognize him as Jesus, and he suddenly departs.

It’s a story full of deeply human characters and emotion, entirely believable from a psychological perspective.  Grief, coping, encounter, journey, friendship, hospitality, there’s a lot here to relate to.  The specific observation I want to make tonight is that among the many familiar human aspects of the story, there is also a lot of explaining going on.  The disciples explain to Jesus the last few days in Jerusalem.  The risen Jesus explains to them the Scriptures.  The disciples explain to Jesus their plans to stay the night at Emmaus, and, in the course of agreeing to stay with them, and blessing and breaking the bread, Jesus explains his own priorities: namely, to be with them where they are, and to reveal himself as the bread of life, broken for the salvation of the world.  As if all these explanations aren’t enough, he disappears as soon as they recognize him, and they a left with more questions than answers.  So they rush all the way back to Jerusalem, no doubt arriving in the middle of the night – the same hour as the Resurrection by the way, early that morning 24 hours before – and tell their story to Peter and the other disciples.

More questions than answers.  Explanations leading onto further investigation, further investigation leading onto further experience, leading onto further life and love and beyond.  The point here is that, when it comes to the Gospel of the Resurrection of the Son of God, the final meaning is always a step beyond the last explanation we’ve heard.  When it comes to the Gospel of the Resurrection of the Son of God, the final meaning is always a step beyond the last explanation we’ve heard.

Why?  Why is it that we can never quite seem fully to nail it down?  For the same reason the nails of the soldiers could not keep Jesus on the cross, or the stone keep him in the tomb.  This God of ours, who comes to earth from heaven, dies at our hand, and rises from the tomb, this God is always his own explanation, and his own final meaning.  There is no mastery of his Gospel apart from the knowledge of himself, the personal knowledge of who he is — which is to say, the personal experience of his grace and love.  There is no mastery of his Gospel apart from the knowledge and love of himself.  And as a Person, there is always more to him than we might see at any given moment, just as there is always more to the other people in our lives.

Thanks to Easter Sunday, the Christian life is a fundamentally adventurous one.  No explanation is finally sufficient of itself, for God himself is his own meaning and his own explanation.  No portrait can be complete for Jesus, who bursts through the tomb, through every limit and every convention.  There is no explaining the extent of his mercy or the wide breadth of his creativity.  There is no grasping the depth of the wellspring of his grace, or his capacity to forgive.  There is no telling where he might take us or what might be next.  This God is our God, and he is always one step ahead of us, calling us to follow him further up and further in, through the tomb, through the Garden, to Emmaus, his own Ascension, Pentecost, and beyond.  What’s next?  Where will he take us?  How will we recognize him in an hour, tomorrow, next year?  There is no telling.  His final meaning is always a step beyond the last explanation we’ve heard.

And yet no matter where we are on our own roads to Emmaus, no matter what sense we’ve been able to make of the last few days, of our own lives, or the talk of his Gospel, Jesus Christ meets us on the road, listens to us explain to him whatever sense we’re able to make of him, and stays with us when we ask.  He stays with us, eats with us, shares himself with us – and then goes on ahead of us to draw us further on to where he is.  He has led the way through life and death, hell and heaven, and he calls us further we know not where.  And yet we know that where he is, there he longs for us to be also.

Will you ask Jesus to stay with you this Easter Sunday?  He comes to us on whatever road we walk, and offers himself at this Altar to be the true nourishment of our souls.  Will you ask him to stay with you?  Will you prepare a place for him in your heart?  Will you follow where he leads?  Will you trust he goes on ahead of you to prepare a place for you?  There is always more to him than we can grasp now, and yet his whole purpose is for us to know him forever, to dwell in his love till the ages of ages.  He stays with us; he goes beyond us.  Won’t you follow him on this unknown adventure?  Know that wherever he leads, his love will be our end, our support, our map; his resurrection our guarantee, our gate; and his glory our inheritance and our home.

The Lord is risen indeed! Come, let us worship. Come, let us live — in the surprising, beautiful, ever-widening world of his eternal life.

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