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: Holy Spirit

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.

Past vs Present

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday July 23, 2017, the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost.

Collect: Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion, we beseech thee, upon our infirmities, and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, mercifully give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 44:6-8, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

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

Two weeks ago in my sermon on Romans 7, I suggested you all go home and read Romans 8. I should have looked ahead in the lectionary, because I would have seen we’d go on to spend three weeks in Romans 8, last week, this week, and next, as the second reading these Sundays.

There’s a lot here, but first of all it makes me think of a close friend of mine. A few months ago now, she checked herself into rehab for alcoholism. It happened as it sometimes does: she reached a crisis point, which played itself out in a more public setting than anyone might have wished. This set in motion a series of events that led to her going to rehab. It’s uncertain now what will become of her job, her marriage, her housing. But it’s a good start that she’s finally getting the help she needs.

Why do I bring this up? Because as her friends, all of us had noticed that she liked to drink, but it simply didn’t occur to any of us that there was a problem until that final moment in the pattern. Then it was obvious, then we all felt stupid for not seeing it before and trying to do something that might have helped.

This scenario isn’t all that unusual. At some point or other we all ask ourselves, “How could I have been so blind? I didn’t see it until it was too late.” We hear it in the news all the time too. No one can see the pattern until the final tragedy, which always comes as a surprise. 

Crises are like that, it seems. The final event is what finally reveals the pattern that made it inevitable in the first place. How could we have seen? What could we have done to prevent it? The truth is that we couldn’t see, not until the final event made the pattern visible, and then it was too late.

It’s not just crises either that work this way. Positive events run the same kind of course. When we fall in love, get married, have children, discover our vocations, or any number of other major, joyful, life events, it causes us to stop and re-read our pasts. Suddenly it all makes sense, it all seems inevitable. While we slogged through a former, unhappy career, or kept trying and kept striking out on the dating scene, or shopped for churches until one “clicked,” in the middle of it all nothing made sense. And then when we found it, or him, or her, it all made sense. Everything before suddenly seemed to have prepared us for this exact moment.

These kinds of events, whether crises or joys, all cause us to re-read the past, whether our own or our society’s, to see how it led us here. Crises or joys both make it clear, that while the past is what got us to this moment, at least in our minds and hearts this present moment tends to recreate, reinterpret the past, and not the other way around. The present is what reveals the pattern that no amount of research, profiling, or soul-searching could have revealed while it was still unfolding.

So what then, is the past somehow subject to the present, with all of its “changes and chances”? Must we stop attempting to discern any kind of patterns whatever? No, that would be a pretty grim world if it were the case. Life would be governed by fate, by chance, and all we could achieve would be a stoic acceptance of whatever life happened to throw our way. Enthroning the present above the past makes for people with very strong characters, but not much sense of humor. Or the opposite, it creates people with such flippant attitudes towards everyone and everything that life becomes nothing more than a means to my own pleasure. Both approaches lead to narcissism, and a self-destructive nihilism.

There’s a problem then in the way we think about both past and present. The past cannot have final say because it’s always the present that finally reveals the pattern. But the present cannot have final say either, because it would make us prisoners to fate, to the uncontrollable march of time and events. 

What to do then about the past and the present, and the way they relate to each other? If you’ve watched, read, or listened to the news lately, you might say this exact question is the crisis point in American public discourse at the moment. But the same question was also one of the fault lines in ancient culture too, into which Jesus was born, exercised his ministry, was crucified, and rose again. And this is also the fault line that Paul is exploring here in Romans 8.

How to make sense of the Church’s Jewish past, of Paul’s own past, and the forgiveness and freedom from the Law that Christ brings? How to make sense of so many conflicting pressures both in tradition and in experience? How do you and I hold onto hope when friends take a stumble, family disappoints, or respected mentors fall from grace? For that matter how can each of us face the darkness in our own lives with grace and courage? Paul’s answer is Romans 8, an extended meditation on the Holy Spirit, and Love at the heart of God.

“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba, Father,” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.”

There’s a lot of crying and groaning in this passage, and that’s true to life. We wish we had seen it sooner, been able to help before it got this bad. Mothers sometimes tell me about the fierce love they have for their children, which often surprises themselves in how instinctual and almost animal it is; it gives mothers’ prayers for their kids a solidness and a force hard to reckon with.

There’s a pressure in our spirits about these kinds of things, which surpasses words. And when we direct it towards God, the Spirit himself joins in and offers the whole thing, with our selves included, up to God. This prayer, this offering, this love, is the unfolding of the new creation begun in us at our baptism, begun in all the world at Jesus’ death and resurrection. And it liberates us from the impossible tensions both of past and present. This kind of prayer, this kind of beginning, is oriented not towards the past or even the present, but towards the future: towards its logical conclusion, towards the consummation of creation’s purpose, when all things are made new in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

Don’t miss how revolutionary this is: the Gospel makes our primary reference point not the past, nor even the present, but the future. And the Good News of the Kingdom of God is that the future is breaking in all over the place. It’s great inauguration was the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, but it continues now: in the life of the Church, all over the world, in you and me when we pray, and in the Eucharist, when we are fed not just with bread and wine from the altar, but with the very life of God from heaven itself. All of these moments are the future Kingdom of God breaking in on us, and they reconfigure what we think of the present, as well as what we make of the past.

The Kingdom of God is always unfolding, not yet complete. And because of that, you and I have no need to be bound by our pasts. There is no blame to be assigned for missing the pattern the crisis revealed, there is no inescapable conclusion we must draw about our society or our world, no hand of fate inexorably dragging us to destruction, no sin which cannot be forgiven, no death without the possibility of resurrection. It means that every moment is pregnant with the opportunity to begin again, fresh, new, in the Kingdom of God, his children, the heirs of eternal life.

As we approach the communion rail this morning, may we remember the future. May we be nourished now in the present by the foretaste it offers of the culmination of all things, united by the Holy Spirit in the eternal offering and receiving of Love.

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