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: Humility

Thanksgiving Day, 2017

This sermon was preached on Thanksgiving Day at St. Michael & St. George.

Collect: Almighty and gracious Father, we give thee thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we beseech thee, faithful stewards of thy great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Deuteronomy 8:7-18, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, Luke 17:11-19

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

This year, more than in previous years, I’ve been struck by the irony of our Thanksgiving Day service here at St. Michael & St. George. What’s the irony? Well, we’re the Episcopal Church, we were founded as the American colonial branch of the Church of England. We all learned in school that the Pilgrims, in Plymouth that first Thanksgiving, came across the sea to start a new life with the freedom to practice their religion. What exactly did they want freedom from? The Church of England! So here we are, celebrating Thanksgiving Day, when the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by people who were only too happy to have escaped our company. Yes, our forebears in the faith were actually the bad guys in the Pilgrims’ story. And here we are celebrating their holiday.

Of course in the meantime we’ve made it just as much our own as it was theirs, and it wasn’t until President Lincoln came along, two hundred and fifty years (or so) after the Pilgrims, that Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the first place. But this year I find myself reflecting on the irony all the same, especially that we were the bad guys in that story; we were the ones demanding so much uniformity in religion that the pilgrims found it intolerable in England, and escaped to the New World.

Of course there are two sides to every story, and the good guy/bad guy dynamic is never monolithic. Still it occurs to me, there may be some value, even some virtue, in hearing stories in which you and I are the bad guys.

Now that was three hundred, four hundred years ago; none of us were responsible for the scenarios in play at the time. But if we want to be heirs of our ancestors’ legacies, we also have to own their mistakes. If we want to be good, honorable beneficiaries of their successes, we also have to be humble enough to admit where they got away with things they shouldn’t have.

When I preach about the Communion of Saints, I often point out that Death is not the divide it once was; since the Resurrection of Jesus Christ the living and the dead are knit together in profound and abiding ways. That’s a great comfort to families mourning a loved one. But it’s also a double-edged sword, especially today as we rehearse stories like the Pilgrims and that first Thanksgiving. In the Communion of Saints, we Episcopalians are implicit in the Pilgrims having fled their homeland.

So what does that mean? Does it change the way we celebrate this holiday? Does it mean our own offerings of Thanksgiving are somehow less acceptable? Not in the least. What it does do, is to point out for us that we do not always have to be in the right; we do not always have to be the underdog; we do not always have to be the heroes in the story in order to give thanks. And in fact, it might help us give better thanks if we considered the alternative once in a while.

We have this attitude sometimes I think, that giving thanks is like any other transaction of goods for services. You give me something, and I thank you for it. And if what you’ve given me isn’t any good, then I’m under no obligation to say Thanks, let alone to be grateful. So, when we find ourselves not in a position of being the hero in the story, or of playing a different role than we thought, a different role than we’d intended, we have no idea what there is to be grateful for anymore. We may even start to feel in debt, and that is no position for thanks, only a position of weakness and vulnerability. Who gives thanks for liabilities, or bad credit, or criminal records?

Why on earth should Episcopalians give thanks on Thanksgiving Day, when our forebears are the ones who kicked out the Puritans, the ones who lost the English Civil War, who lost the American Revolution, and found themselves continually at odds with prevailing national currents? Even today there are plenty of people who are keen to paint us as the bad guys both of history and of current events. I’m not saying they’re right or wrong; only that these are stories people tell, and it’s hard to be full of thanks when they are not the stories we’d want to tell about ourselves.

But if we find it difficult to give thanks in these circumstances, I suggest we might have the wrong attitude about Thanksgiving in the first place. It is NOT a transaction of goods for services. It is NOT a reward for good behavior. It is NOT about feeling blessed by my own good fortune. It is NOT about being the hero, or even the teller of my own story. Rather, for Christians — Christians of any stripe, whether Episcopalian, Pilgrim, or otherwise — Thanksgiving is the humility to recognize where we fall short, the humility to see the holes in our favorite stories about ourselves, to take stock of our failures, moral and otherwise; and Thanksgiving is the decision not to stand on my own ego but only on the forgiveness and the providence of God. Thanksgiving, for the Christian, is the humility to recognize our shortcomings, and the decision to stand only on God’s forgiveness and providence.

Every farmer knows the mistakes that get made every season, and every farmer knows the miracle of harvest regardless. The act of Thanksgiving teaches every Christian not to rely on my own wisdom, my own accomplishment, but only on God’s forgiveness, and on God’s providence, to provide for those whom he loves regardless of their deserving. Because the critical piece is not my success, my deserving, or my good fortune; not my good reputation, my bank account, my clear record, or my party platform, but only the love of God. The critical piece is only the love of God, love both for me, and for the one who thinks I’m the bad guy.

So, this Thanksgiving, let’s you and I give thanks to God, that in his infinite sense of humor he puts Episcopalians and Pilgrims in the same country to figure it out, and muddle through together. And let’s give thanks, that despite the continuous ways we screw up, despite the stories we like and the stories we don’t, that God loves us still; that Christ offers himself for us still; and that in this way we are being brought beyond history, beyond its winners and losers, its story-tellers and its victims, to be remade in the image and glory of God, finally what we were meant to be: creatures of thanksgiving at all times, and in all places, for all persons, and in all love.

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

“Manners make the man” – or do they?

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on August 28, 2016, the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Pentecost 15/Proper 17).

Collect: Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Sirach 10:12-18, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

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

“Manners make the man,” or so they used to say. But manners have gotten a bad rap lately. They’ve fallen out of fashion in favor of “the honest truth” — by which we usually mean raw opinion, unfiltered by any kind of consideration or restraint. We don’t like manners because we don’t know if we can trust them. So often they are merely a pleasant veneer over an ugly core, or an elegant mask covering malicious intent. It is a truism of contemporary society that manners don’t matter: all things considered we’d rather have the unfiltered version, the director’s cut, uncensored. Maybe that will render us unfit for polite society, but then maybe polite society should just go fly a kite.

It’s a little bit troubling, then, that in today’s Gospel Jesus seems intent on teaching a lesson in manners. No matter your own personal rank or desert, when you are invited to a dinner party, take the lowest place. Yield to those who may be beneath you. Have some manners! If your host sees fit to raise you higher, then so be it. If they don’t, then don’t sweat it.

This has to be one of the most practical lessons Jesus ever taught. “You are the salt of the earth” can be hard to figure out; how do we do that? But “take the least honorable place at a dinner party” is pretty straightforward. And every one of us, at one moment or another, on a large scale or small, will have opportunity to practice this lesson.

“But there’s just one thing, Jesus,” we can hear the Pharisees saying. “What if we actually are the most honorable personage present at a particular gathering? Shouldn’t we by right take the place that belongs to us? Anything less would lower my own dignity; and even if I could surrender my own dignity, I must certainly look after the dignity of my office (whatever that might be.). No Jesus I’m sorry, I really ought to be the one sitting at your right hand at this dinner; I really ought to be the one honored here. And if I know I’m the most honorable present, then what good does it do to put myself in the lowest spot starting off? Doesn’t that call even more attention to myself when you inevitably ask me to sit up higher? No it really is best if I take the best spot to begin with, less trouble that way all around, really it is.”

The Pharisees in today’s Gospel seem to have taken a page out of our own 21st century book. They have no time for niceties, no time for manners. They insist on the honest truth, and getting on with the facts of social stratification as they know and live them. But Jesus insists, to them and to us, that there is another way, a better way.  

Manners: in this episode, Jesus sums up the whole project of manners in a word: yield the right of way to someone else, even and especially when you know it belongs to you, whether or not you’re feeling particularly generous. Jesus teaches us this morning that manners mean yielding the right of way to someone else, even and especially when you know it belongs to you, whether or not you’re feeling particularly generous.

Why? Why bother? Why does Jesus ask this of us? Doesn’t it mean, on occasion, that we will have to be less than truthful about how we’re actually feeling towards our neighbors or our fellow dinner guests? Yes, that’s exactly what it means. How does that square with the Gospel? Aren’t we always supposed to be truthful? At the very least, manners allow that our moral accountability rests in a higher law, a higher condition, a higher promise, than the sum total of our feelings at any given moment. Manners, together with its cousin Courtesy, assert that there is a higher world above this one, which it is our privilege to imitate on earth, and our chief hope finally one day to enter and dwell there.

A higher world: the kingdom of heaven — in which no one takes what is not first given freely, no one claims what is not first offered without cost, and the discipline of virtue does not limit our horizons but expands them continuously until we are brought face to face with the Sun of Righteousness himself, Jesus Christ, who surrendered all the trappings and deserving of divinity itself in order to seek and serve you and me. Manners belong to this higher world, and no matter how they might be abused or manipulated, their sheer existence bears witness to that heavenly kingdom.

What if we don’t feel like exercising virtue, or yielding right of way to those who might be clearly in the wrong? By behaving as if we did, we remind ourselves of this higher world, whose prince laid aside far more right, far more honor than we will ever earn no matter how high a place we reach. Furthermore, by behaving with manners, even in direct contradiction to our prevailing attitude or desire, we make small steps towards that world in which we will actually love and desire the Good above our own flawed self-interest.

I’ll never forget a sermon I heard in seminary, in which one of our crustiest and most lovable professors finally snapped a bit at our class. The year was dragging on and we were starting to feel tired, and maybe even a little bit sorry for ourselves about all the work we still had to do. He said, “I don’t care if you’re tired, I don’t care if you feel like it. I’ve heard one too many times that you all think you need “selfcare” more than you need to show up in church and pray. You don’t feel like it? So what? Fake it! Get on your damn knees, and fake it.”

It was a scolding, and a scolding we deserved, no doubt. But he made a very good, very Christian point: fake it! Your feelings are not the final arbiter of truth. In fact, they are the least reliable arbiter of truth out there. Faking it, in spite of our feelings, according the higher standard of the kingdom of God, is a lot more truthful than whatever unpleasant venom you might want to spit just now. Faking our way into the kingdom of heaven, is much more reliable than waiting for our feelings to change or for some kind of sudden, transformative religious experience.

When it comes to manners and our moral and ethical behavior, the same holds true. If you wait for your feelings to change before acting according to Christian conviction, you’ll be waiting a long time. Rather, start now, by giving way to those you think are lower than you, giving way to those you think are in the wrong. Take the lowest place yourself. The Son of God did no less, and quite a bit more, taking the form not even of a guest, though he was the host, but a servant. He did not take the form of vassal, though he was the King of all, but rather that of a criminal condemned to die. He did not claim his own righteousness or innocence before Pilate, Herod, the crowds, or anyone else, but suffered misunderstanding and death.  

His was an ignominious life, full of dishonor and injustice, which he could easily have avoided had he only spoken and acted according to his true status as the king of kings and lord of lords. And yet he didn’t. So great was Jesus’ courtesy, so genuine were his humble manners, that he suffered death rather than correct his accusers or prove his innocence. And what was the result? That the power of death is destroyed for ever; you and I are freed from the the bondage of sin; and we are made citizens of His kingdom forever.

No, manners really do make the man, even if they will never vindicate him before the world this side of death. Whether or not we feel particularly inclined, let us likewise exercise gentleness with one another, not claiming our due but giving it away at every occasion. Let us fake it if we have to, having confidence that our actions will speak louder than our feelings. So may we find that our feelings start following our wills rather than the other way around. So may we finally be fit for the place Jesus reserves for us at the table in his heavenly home.

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

Oh no, Father, I give thanks to God…!

Collect: Almighty God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of thy people, and in our time grant us thy peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

“For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.” In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen:

This is a true story:

Once there was a very old monastery on top of a very tall mountain. It was so near the peak that some parts of the monastery had to be connected to each other by means of ancient, rickety, rope plank bridges over chasms dropping far below. The community had grown old, and they had also grown just a little bit too comfortable. One day their abbot died, and the head of their order sent a much younger replacement, a new abbot full of reforming zeal.

The young abbot worked hard to get everyone in shape, and he worked especially hard on one particular brother, who had, over the years, grown several cassock sizes larger than he had been before. This brother worked very hard, and enjoyed some success, but never enough to satisfy his new abbot.

One day, he was walking from the cloister to the chapel over one of their rope bridges, when suddenly the wood underneath his feet buckled and broke, and he fell through — only stopping from certain death by getting stuck around his middle. The monk cried out for help, and his brothers with their abbot all rushed to his aid.

When they had pulled him out of the hole and gotten to safety, the abbot said, predictably, “You see, brother! You could have lost your life, you’ve just got to get in better shape!”

The monk replied, “Oh no, Father, I give thanks to God I’m this big! Because if I were skinny like you, I’d have fallen straight through that hole!”

Everyone immediately fell to pieces laughing, and they were all much gentler with their brother from then on, the Abbot chief among them.

This is a true story, about one of the communities on Mt. Athos in Greece. I was totally charmed when I heard it, and I’ve been looking for an excuse to tell it ever since. But it’s not just a charming story: friends, I submit to you that this brother’s response is the entire fulfillment of the Law, and the heart of the Gospel. This is not some sort of fuzzy, “I’m okay, you’re okay” nonsense; gluttony is a sin after all, and this brother probably could have stood to lose a few more pounds. Rather it is about the entire orientation of our lives as the giving of thanks to God the Father, including our flaws, imperfections, and yes even our besetting sins.

In today’s Gospel, the people of Nazareth are about to toss Jesus over a cliff because they are offended at his teaching. First of all, they can’t figure out the source of his inspiration: “Where did this man get all this? Isn’t he Joseph’s son?” And second of all, what he is telling them about the prophets’ mission beyond Israel goes against the prevailing conventional wisdom of their day. They were expecting a wonder worker, since they’d heard the reports from his healings in Capernaum. They were prepared for that kind of dog and pony show. But they were not prepared to hear someone – a local, even – tell them they were all wrong, and that he would be the one to set them straight.

This scene in Nazareth, from the beginning of Luke’s Gospel is a microcosm and a foreshadowing of the rest of the Gospel, particularly as Jesus falls afoul of the Pharisees, and goes to be crucified. But if we leave it here, Jesus can look to us only like the zealous, reforming abbot, demanding more than his people are able or willing to bear. And we can see ourselves as this struggling brother, aware of his need but without much direct help except in moments of acute crisis.

In reality, you and I might very well be this poor monk, struggling with whatever it is we wish to leave behind. But Jesus is not just another reforming abbot. When the Son of God became human, he assumed all of human nature into himself, including its weaknesses and imperfections. As he went to the cross he bore the sins of the whole world. And as he died there, He completed an entire life which had consisted chiefly in giving thanks to his Heavenly Father: in his own private prayer, in his preaching, in raising Lazarus from the dead, the night before at supper and again in the garden; and then even on the cross itself he finally gave his life as a final thank-offering back to the Father. He bore an enormous burden, and yet he always gave thanks.

What about you and me? It’s awfully hard to give thanks in the midst of our various challenges. Thanking God is often the last thing that comes to mind in a particular crisis, and when it does, we often give thanks for whatever good things we can find, not for the trials themselves which we face. And yet one of the great Christian paradoxes suggests we might benefit from doing just that: “O Felix Culpa,” O Happy Fault — the Church has learned to give thanks even for the sin of Adam, because by it God has given us such a savior as to save us all from sin and death forever.

Forever. However dimly we can see ourselves now, however imperfectly we understand God’s work in our lives, however incomplete the work of grace remains in us, God in Christ has knit himself to us, and his Spirit is our life. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams recently remarked in an interview, “There is no competition for space between God and his creatures, no either/or. And the way for you and I to be godly is not to grasp at the perfection of Divinity but to rest in the humility of being creatures.” Jesus has shown us how, and by our baptism his righteousness becomes our own. The paradox continues: the Happy Fault leads to the Godly Creature.

When we rest in the humility of being creatures, giving thanks to God for every part of our lives, we can easily look like fools. Humility doesn’t pay out in this world, and neither does gratitude. Giving thanks and living humbly is not a recipe for fame and fortune. But it is a recipe for building relationships that encourage and sustain life. It is a recipe for living into what it means to be a human creature. And it is a recipe for catching glimpses, through the glass of our mortality, into the distant realms of God’s heavenly kingdom. We do not yet see clearly how it shall be when we get there. But we know that when it comes, we will be drawn into the perfection of His love who opened its gates once for all upon the cross.

Meanwhile, with those monks on Mount Athos, let us laugh and be gentle with one another, giving thanks to God in all things.

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