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: Hope

Ash Wednesday, 2018

This sermon was preached on Ash Wednesday, 14 February 2018, at St. Mark’s Church. I did not see the news until after the evening liturgy, but it was the same day as the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

In one of the parishes I served previously, there was a parishioner who loved Ash Wednesday, but who always refused to receive the imposition of ashes. She delighted in pointing out the irony in the way we observe the day: Jesus says in the Gospel appointed for today, “Do not make an outward show of your piety,” while here we are today, imposing ashes on our foreheads as an outward sign of our piety.

She’s not making it up, the irony really is there. But here we are anyway, about to receive the imposition of ash. Is the church really just that hypocritical? Or is there something more going on in what we do today?

The short answer is, No, I don’t think we’re being hypocritical, or at least not necessarily; and, Yes, I think there is something more going on in what we do with the ash today, and what we do with the rest of our prayers, our penitence, and our Lenten fasting.

So what’s the long answer? We live in a world where it’s more obvious than ever that doing good is no guarantee of success or security, and that unscrupulousness and downright wickedness bets ahead, time after time. Ash is a fitting symbol for such a world as this: a world where peace and goodness are discarded in favor of personal ambition and selfish grasping at things — individual ego or social power or both — can only lead to its own destruction both morally and literally. Ash is a sign of recognition, even a sign of protest, that such a world is not God’s intention, that more is possible, bore is necessary, if we are all not to end in fire and ruin. Ash is a sign of things to come, in such a world as this.

But the ash on our foreheads today is also a sign of hope. I will mark the ash on your forehead in the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross indicates death, no mistaking that. But more specifically it indicates Jesus’ death, and carries with it the symbolism of his resurrection from death. Jesus met his death on the cross, and with him must go all this world with all its selfishness and greed. But with him the world also rises from death into a new life free of death, free of every cloying, corrupting, destroying thing. The cross is a sign of hope, that what we see in the life of Jesus is being wrought in all creation by the Holy Spirit making all things new.

The ash is a sign of protest and the cross a sign of hope for the whole world. But it’s also inescapably personal. It’s on your own forehead after all. It’s a reminder that though we rail against the corruption and disorder of this world, we are implicated too: by our own choices, in our own way, small or great, we too have some part in the ruination of the world and of our souls. Every choice for self above others, every smug glance, every snide comment, every lost temper, contributes to the impoverishment of humanity and of myself at least as much as bad policy, unjust laws, or rapacious economies. I will go to destruction along with the world of which I am a part, I am not separate, I am not uninvolved, I am not innocent; so the ash reminds us.

And at the same time, Ash in the sign of the cross on your forehead recalls the moment when the same pattern was traced in the same place, in holy oil at your baptism. Another inescapably personal moment: when the forgiveness for which Jesus prays from the cross washes over you and becomes yours; when his death becomes yours, and his resurrection too. Ash in the sign of the cross a reminder and harbinger of death; and yet full of confident hope, that death does not have the last word, and that I, along with all things, am being made new.

So the imposition of Ash on Ash Wednesday is more than simply an outward display of piety; or it ought to be, if it’s to mean for us all that it can, and if we’re to escape the charge that Jesus levels against the Pharisees of his own day. It’s a sign of protest against this world and all its wickedness, a prophetic act by which we declare it can only end in fire and ruin. It’s also a penitential act, by which we’re reminded that we are not innocent either, and that we have some part in the ruination we see. But it’s also a hopeful act, for our world and for ourselves, that just as Christ himself died and rose again, so is the promise of God for each one of us: though the world around us turn to ash, yet new life “springeth green” out of the tomb.

It may be ironic that Our Lord counsels us against public displays of piety. And yet in our world today, public displays of piety are a powerful symbol both to ourselves and to the world, that there is a larger picture to which all of us are accountable, and to which we hold ourselves accountable; a larger narrative beyond this election cycle and beyond even this modern and postmodern era of the world. By our piety — by our prayers, our penitence, our fasting, our ashes — in short by our faithful and affectionate religion we participate in that larger narrative, gain some glimpse even now of its final promise, and are strengthened to do our part to live as if that promise were already here in full.

So this Ash Wednesday, let’s be conscious that these ashes are a way for God to say something to us, as well as a way for us to say something of God to the world. Wear your ashes boldly, let them be a sign, of penitence and the promise of new life.

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

Prisoners of Hope

This sermon was preached at St. Michael & St. George on Sunday July 9, 2017, the 4th Sunday after Trinity/3rd after Pentecost. It was my first Sunday back from vacation in California and England. Among other things, the choir sang one of my favorite anthems, Howells’s “Mine eyes for beauty pine.” (Text by Robert Bridges: Mine eyes for beauty pine, My soul for Goddes grace: No other care nor hope is mine, To heaven I turn my face. / One splendor thence is shed, From all the stars above: ‘Tis named when God’s name is said, ‘Tis Love, ’tis heavenly Love. / And every gentle heart, That burns with true desire, Is lit from eyes that mirror part Of that celestial fire.)

Collect: O God, who hast taught us to keep all thy commandments by loving thee and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to thee with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reighneth with thee and the same Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Zechariah 9:9-12; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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

Just before I left on vacation, a woman came to my office to share with me something important that had just happened in her life. She was very nervous: she had made a momentous decision that was the fruit of many long months of anxious thought. As she told me about it, it was clear that this was a decision for the best, but I also noticed that she was so overwhelmed she was visibly shaking. I didn’t want her to be embarrassed, I’ve been in that situation before too. Momentous decisions tend to have that effect on us: it’s hard for us to separate our selves from the matter at hand. And it’s the nature of the thing, decisions like these actually do a lot to shape who we are as people, and how we operate in the world. No doubt you have your own set of moments like this one, where so much of yourself is invested in the outcome that it becomes a part of you.

The prophet Zechariah seems to have something like this in mind today in our first lesson, when he addresses people whom he calls, “prisoners of hope.” “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” It’s the end of a passage we usually read in Advent, or Palm Sunday. But today, the 9th of July, it’s an invitation to consider our own moments as prisoners of hope: when we are so invested in a positive outcome we find it hard to separate our selves from our hope. Maybe that’s something as simple and good as a successful pregnancy, or maybe something more dire: hoping for relief from some kind of affliction, or help for someone else; hoping for Mom to stop drinking, or for Dad to fall in love again; or for Illinois to get its budget figured out. Whatever it is, we can find ourselves completely wrapped up in the pressures of the moment, prisoners of hope, or else prisoners of anxiety or fear.

St. Paul continues the same tack, in one of his most famously neurotic passages — and actually one of the earliest examples of writing of this kind: the passage we heard from his letter to the Romans is full of intense self-searching, self-doubt; a psychological exploration of the body’s complicity in sin, along with the will’s impotence to accomplish the good it desires. He concludes with one of the most despairing cries in Scripture, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Thankfully St. Paul follows this passage from Romans 7 with Romans 8, and if you want the end of the story go home and read Romans 8; copy it down, memorize it, take it with you everywhere, put it under your pillow at night. But for now, Romans 7 presents us with Paul himself as a prisoner of hope: full of hope for the good, but a prisoner to the anxiety of his mind.

One of the best analogies I can think of is digital and social media: Facebook, YouTube, television, email, all of them are what I call “infinity devices,” to which there is effectively no end: we keep scrolling, we keep watching, there’s always something more to see, to read, to “like.” Our minds are like that too: there’s always another pressure, another distraction, another task that needs doing, idea that needs exploring, event that needs unpacking, emotion that needs expressing. This constant “mindstream” can imprison us, keeping us from exploring the full range of the world around us, keeping us from doing the good we wish or loving as we ought. What to do?

In the midst of all this, the Gospel promises relief: Jesus gives us one of the most famous of his Comfortable Words, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

How is this? What is the relief that Jesus brings? How does he loose the bonds of us prisoners of hope?

As Christians we think a lot about the God who saves us, and how that’s accomplished. But we don’t as often think about who it is that God saves. That’s you and me. And if you’re like me, maybe sometimes you could do with a little more thought, a little more consideration for you, yourself, just you, whom God saves; not in a narrow self-centered way that makes ME the center of the universe; but in a way that frees us from our various anxieties and emotions, and places us on secure footing in the simple, unconditional love of God. Only the love of God frees us to engage all the more fully with our neighbors, freed from the pressure of our “mindstream” infinity device.

Be still for a moment. Stop. Just listen. Let the love of God drive a wedge between you and the constantly playing screen of stories and reactions and worries in your head. Let them be, but you just step aside for a moment without them, and consider that here, alone, in the quiet, just yourself, with nothing else, you are with God.

You are not merely the sum of your emotions, your opinions, even your convictions; you are not your failures, your talents, your sins, your virtues; I am not my anxiety, or my fortitude, or whatever. The Lord’s yoke that is easy, his burden that is light, is simply the knowledge that you in yourself, without anything else, in silence, the person that God made, is the person whom God loves, whom God saves.

All this might sound like pop psychology, but it is deeply rooted in the Gospel, and the hard work of Christian prayer. The better we know ourselves as creatures of God’s love, the better we can know God, as the one who loves us. The more we do that, the more we can love our neighbors and our world for God’s sake and theirs, selflessly, not needing them to answer our own worries or hopes, but allowing them to delight us with who they are as creatures of God’s love themselves.

We all have hard decisions to make, and I’m not advocating we ignore them or pass them off as mere distractions. But I am suggesting that the Gospel releases us from imprisonment to our mindstreams, and equips us to see the world for what it really is: a surprising, unnecessary creation which God made for the sheer delight of it, in which you and I may find our places as creatures of his love, of his forgiveness.

May we hear today Jesus’ voice calling through the fray, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. For I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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

Home

This sermon was preached at the Church of St. Michael and St. George, on July 3, 2016: the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, “Proper 9.” It was my first Sunday back from vacation, and Independence Day was the next day. The previous week’s news included the ISIS attack in Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, the death of Bp. Edward Salmon, and several other deaths in the parish. It was a difficult week for many, especially here in our church community.

Collect: O God, who hast taught us to keep all thy commandments by loving thee and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to thee with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 66:10-14, Galatians 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-12, 16-20

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

Home. It’s a powerful symbol for many of us.  It’s the Fourth of July weekend, and many of you are either going home or are welcoming family back home for the holiday.  I’ve just returned home from vacation, though it might be a little ironic that I left here in order to go home too, sort of: I was at a family reunion, something we do in my family once every ten years or so, where I saw lots of aunts and uncles and cousins in Colorado, a place I’ve often visited with my family.  The fact that this is an election year also has many of us thinking about the kind of home we want our country to be, and what hopes and fears we might carry about its future.  One way or another, home is something close to many of our minds at the moment.

And so it’s fitting that our readings today touch on home in many ways.  The prophet Isaiah reflects on Jerusalem as Israel’s home, even its mother.  St. Paul reflects on different domestic attitudes within the community of the church, how we ought to help one another, hold one another accountable, what criteria we ought to use to articulate our membership in this family in the first place.  And Jesus sends out the seventy to continue his work in the world, living as guests wherever they go, not counting their accomplishments as anything to stand on, but dwelling only in the mercy of God to have chosen them for their work.

What strikes me about each of these passages is that home — for Israel, for Paul, for Jesus, and for the disciples — home for all these people, the home they describe, is not there yet.  They do not yet experience it.  Isaiah writes to a people under threat of conquest and exile.  Paul writes to the Galatians that what matters for them is neither their beliefs nor their obedience, but their being made a new creation: begun in baptism, but not yet complete.  And Jesus tells his disciples, the things you might be tempted to rest in provide only a false confidence, a flimsy dwelling.  Rejoice only in your name being written in the book of life: a book that will not be opened until the end, when he returns to “judge both the quick and the dead.”

It may seem strange to hear Scripture refer to home — the one place at the beginning and end of every one of our earthly days — as something far off, yet to be established.  And yet to a degree, this is something whose effect we can all see in each of our lives.  “Home is where the heart is,” we say.  And we know the heart wanders where it will amid time and space.  Where is home when a beloved spouse dies, or a parent, or a child, as too often happens?  Where is home if we are under constant threat of danger, or when we live day by day with mental or physical ailments, which undermine our peace or security?  For that matter, where is home when things are good and everything is satisfactory?  I’ve lost count now of the number of people who have confided in me, that despite all the good things in their lives — a happy, healthy marriage, successful careers, confident, well-behaved children — that despite all these things, they are still lonely, their heart still longs for something more that it can never quite grasp.  Home may be where the heart is, but the heart is always at least a step or two beyond wherever it is we find ourselves at any given moment.  Isaiah knows this, and so does Paul, and so does Jesus.  They are all pointing beyond the present, trying to articulate for us to learn just what sort of home our heart is really pointing us towards.

And what sort of home is that?  For Isaiah, the home we seek goes well beyond any present sense of security or danger, and has more to do with the promises and purposes of God, to establish his people for ever, a people for his own, by whose prayer and praise the glory of God grows to encompass the whole earth, every living thing, and every stage of life and growth.  For Paul, the true home of faith is not a possession that any of us can acquire, no status or fortress we can fall back on.  Rather for Paul, the true home of faith is a posture, an attitude, starting first with receptiveness to God’s mercy: mercy for ourselves and for each other.  There is no pride in faith, no personal glory to be gained or exploited.  There is only glory in the cross of Christ, and his mercy to each one of us.  For Paul, home is not a place but a posture, of humility and gratitude for mercy; just as for Isaiah, home is not present security but a promise, the purposes of God to create life and infuse it with joy.

What about Jesus?  What sort of home does he suggest in his words to the seventy this morning?  The disciples obey his instructions, and they are astounded at the authority of his name, even to cast out demons.  And yet Jesus reminds them that even Satan himself once made his home in heaven.  Authority, residence in high places, great respect, is not enough of its own to make a home, not enough finally to belong somewhere.  Jesus tells these disciples not to let their enthusiasm or their pride get the better of them, not to let authority go to their heads.  He teaches them that their principle source of joy should rather be that the God in whose name they have done these things, that this God knows their names.  That he knows their names.  Great teaching, miracle working, casting out demons; none of these mighty works are shelters or foundations or homes, but rather simply that God knows their name.  God knows their name.

God knows your name too, and mine.  And this is the beginning of what it means for you and I finally to have a home in this world.  Isaiah teaches us to have confidence in the promises and purposes of God to create life and infuse it with joy.  Paul teaches us the posture of humility and gratitude as the way we respond to it.  And Jesus shows us that power and might do not avail for giving us peace or security at home, but only the confidence that God knows our name, and does not forget his kindness towards us.

So what about home?  How do we understand it in this world?  How do we build it, how do we give thanks for it, how do we protect it?  Our Scripture lessons this morning remind us that home is not something we can totally possess in this life.  If we seek it as a reward for good behavior, or the final end of all our work; if we want it to carry the freight of all our dearest emotions, or if we flee from it as the scene of trouble, we will always be disappointed.  Why?  Because for Christians, however we experience our homes in this world, they are finally not possessions or citadels in which we are safe from trouble or harm.  They are never as permanent as we’d like them to be, never as strong as we might need.  Rather they are the beginning of hope.

Our homes are what teach us to long for completion in the kingdom of God.  They are what give us glimpses of its perfection, its peace, always at the end of the long road which wends past the cross and through the grave, on its way up the mountain to the house of God.  That home takes root in this one, and by its own way it grows like Jack’s beanstalk up to the new Jerusalem, our “dear native land.”  So hope adorns our homes, making them shine with the light of that kingdom, growing now but not in flower yet.

And so, this weekend, as many of us go home or come home or celebrate home, let us thank God for our homes.  Let us live there in joyfulness.  And let us look forward in hope, all the more expectantly to our final, true, and lasting home, in the glory of God for ever.

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