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: Lent

What good does it do me?

This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 18, 2018.

Collect: O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

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

Recently l was talking with a parishioner, and the subject of prayer came up. “I learn the words,” he said, “But part of me also wonders, what good is this really supposed to do me?” I confess I sputtered a bit, because I normally operate from the presumption that prayer is an objective good in itself, valuable despite whatever benefit we might or might not derive from it. It doesn’t usually occur to me to ask “What good does it do me?”

I’m sure I answered with something unsatisfactory, and the conversation moved on. But I’ve been thinking ever since. Even if it is an objective good, apart from any personal benefit, there should be something to say about the good it does. One good place to start is the passage from Jeremiah this morning. “I will write my law on their hearts and on their mouths; and they shall not need to teach one another, saying, ‘Know the Lord, for they will all know me.’”

There is something about the repetition of words and phrases, which begins to sink into the mind and heart. It’s easier to feel loved when a loved one says “I love you,” on a regular, repeated basis. And when the going gets tough, those repeated affirmations become an internal backstop, a confidence which underlies whatever surface struggles or tensions we might face.

So it is with prayer. Words repeated over time enter the mind and heart and begin to undergird our daily reality with the promise and presence of God. When the going gets tough, and often when we least expect it, whatever prayers have sunk into our hearts resurface and work as guiding lights in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.

It reminds me of a story a father once told me about the first night his infant son was in the hospital. It was a sudden and unexpected emergency, and that first night, helpless, the father turned to prayer after a long time away from praying. He said he felt utterly stranded, he couldn’t think of a single word to say, or any way to start praying — just that he wanted to, and was devastated he couldn’t. But in that moment as he knelt in agony, without even words to offer, a childhood prayer came back to him which he remembered somehow from Sunday School. It was all he could offer, and yet in that moment it was enough; and as he said the words, a calm came over him that he never thought possible. From that moment on, he was convinced he had met God, and in a very powerful way he had.

We pray so that the words of our prayer might sink into our hearts and minds, and become second nature, a second language. But it doesn’t stop there. So often in life the things we adopt as second nature — the activities and hobbies where we spend our leisure — all become more than second nature. They come to shape our imaginations and define who we are. That’s clearest in a sacramental framework where a person ordained a priest really becomes a priest; or where married persons become something more together than the sum of their parts. But it’s also true in a smaller way in everyday habits and patterns. We introduce ourselves by our professions, our hobbies, our loyalties, our relationships. “I’m a teacher,” one person says, or think of all the cartoons and memes featuring some variation on, “Work at the firm pays the bills, but my life is fishing.” — or golf, or music, or whatever. We define ourselves by the second natures we adopt; and in doing so the second nature shapes and directs our primary nature.

Our whole lives long we are still becoming what we will grow up to be. For prayer to come as second nature to us is for it to shape our imagination, our powers of perception, until our primary nature is marked by openness to the presence and power of God. A life of prayer is a life of becoming more and more aware of the movement and mystery of God’s grace within and beyond whatever happiness or anxiety we face in any given moment. In this way, the words of our prayer and the choice to offer it become less like going to a river to sip water — it does nourish us and it does strengthen us — but more than that, it’s like getting in a boat and sailing downstream and out to sea. We move through the landscape from a completely different perspective, carried by the river at least as much as we navigate it ourselves, until it finally opens up onto a limitless horizon, and we look back at the land, our home, from the sea and see just how good and precious it is.

“In that day no one needs to teach one another saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” As God’s words enter our hearts, our hearts enter God’s. Far from a small enclosure, there is room there for the whole creation and all worlds that ever were or might ever be.

Which brings me to the last piece of good that prayer does for us: and that is, that it puts us in touch with God himself at work within us, just as he is at work in all life. Prayer is something that happens in us, something that God accomplishes within us, at least as much as it is something we say or offer ourselves. When we pray, “Our Father,” as Jesus taught us, we offer the same words Jesus himself offered to God, we step into his own prayer, into his Spirit, who prays his prayer within us. When we pray, we open ourselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit who gives us life, who is the ground of who we are and who we are meant to be. In short we are put in touch with the core of our inmost nature: made in the image of God, yet still unfolding in every moment of our lives.

In this way we can understand a little better then what Jesus means in today’s Gospel when he reiterates the same thing he said to Nicodemus last week: “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He makes from the cross his own final prayer, “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit.” — His final prayer, which is the heart of all prayer: the Son of God offering himself to God the Father, opening himself continually to the movement of the Holy Spirit, even in the face of death itself. There is a magnetism here which the whole creation is bound up in, everything that is created by God and depends on God for life; and when death itself is drawn into prayer in this way, whatever power it had to sever and break is ended. When we pray we are brought back to this moment, this eternal offering of the Son to the Father in the Holy Spirit, this unity of all creation in love.

What good does it do us? It may not be measurable by clinical or financial standards. But it does put us in touch with the whole reason and mystery and majesty of life. And the more we open ourselves to this mystery, the more wonder-filled and delighted we will be as persons; the more capable of weathering the storms and difficulties that inevitably come; the more bound up in one another our lives will become, and the more we will recognize ourselves as creatures of love whose lives are hid with Christ in God.

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

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.

“Rose” Sunday

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on March 26, 2017, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, “Rose” Sunday.

Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which giveth life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

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

Maybe you noticed we’re wearing a different color today: Rose, instead of the usual unbleached linen for Lent. Why Rose? Today is the 4th Sunday of Lent, midway through a long period of fasting. The Church in its wisdom has simply had the humane tradition of relaxing a little on this Sunday. We wear rose vestments, the readings aren’t quite so penitential, even small elements of the Lenten fast can be relaxed. In England this is Mothering Sunday, their version of Mother’s Day; also called “Refreshment Sunday,” because we bend the rules a little bit to allow a brief respite, a breath of fresh air, a moment to catch a glimpse of Easter joy in the middle of Lent.

Maybe it’s fitting then that our readings are principally about vision: recognizing in unexpected people or events something new of God; seeing in a new way, horizons expanded. Samuel, with each successive introduction to one of Jesse’s sons, is sure the Lord’s anointed stands before him. You can just imagine the awkward silence when Samuel has to tell Jesse that none of the sons he’s seen have been the Lord’s anointed. So they go get the youngest, David, out tending the sheep, and lo and behold, This is the Lord’s anointed. God says to Samuel, “You look on the outward appearance, but I see the heart.”

It’s a good reminder of how much further you and I ought to look than we normally do, to see the truth of a situation. But more than this, God seems to be bending the rules a little here. As so often in Scripture, God chooses the youngest to inherit the kingdom. Not the oldest, not the strongest, not the most clever, as was usually the order in the ancient world; as was usually the order in ancient Israel for that matter, and in our world too. Here with Samuel and Jesse and his sons, God bends the rules, and David becomes king, as he was always meant to be.

In our Gospel, too, Jesus seems to bending the rules, and maybe even outright breaking them. Why is everyone so angry at him? Why are the parents so afraid? Jesus breaks the Sabbath in order to heal the man born blind: he makes mud with his spit, anoints the man, and heals him, all of it work, all of it in violation of the command not to work but to rest on the Sabbath. But the result is that a man who was blind can now see, while the Pharisees, who think they see so much, are shown to be blind when it comes to matters of God.

If you a parent of a high school student here at St. Michael & St. George, and if your son or daughter has been a member of our mission teams, you may have heard them talk about what they call “God-sightings.” Every day after work is done, students report moments where God has been real to them in a particularly strong way, and these moments are shared with the group. Maybe you have God-sightings of your own, moments in the course of a day, or your life, when God has been real to you in a powerful way.

As a priest people often tell me about these kinds of moments, and one of the most consistent things about them is that they tend to take us by surprise; or else they’re so quiet we might not notice unless we’re paying attention. And, almost every time, God seems to bend the rules to get the point across. 

One of my favorite “God-sightings” is probably also one of the strangest. St. Seraphim of Sarov was a hermit who lived deep in the forest. One day, as he was out gathering berries, he was set upon by a ferocious, hungry bear. But instead of running away or putting up a fight, Seraphim simply spoke to the bear, and invited him to his hut for lunch since he had more than enough berries for them both. The bear was just as startled by Seraphim’s politeness as Seraphim had been by the bear’s ferociousness. He humbly accepted the invitation, and over lunch the two of them became fast friends. In later years they would often be seen walking through the forest together, enjoying the sun and the singing birds.

Maybe you’ve never made friends with an angry bear. But I’ll venture a guess that there are moments in your life when it seems God has broken in, and has broken the rules to do so.

What do we make of all this? Do the rules not matter after all? When we relax the Lenten fast to wear rose, or to peek ahead a few pages in the story for a glimpse of Easter, are we devaluing our penitence, or this season of preparation? Does Samuel devalue normal governmental procedure by anointing David? Does Jesus devalue the Sabbath by healing the blind man on that day? Does God devalue nature by making friends between a predator and his potential prey?

No. Rather, in these occasions, as in all our other “God-sightings,” God is drawing us into a different way of seeing: where our assumptions about life, and the patterns by which the world carries on “business as usual” are revealed for what they really are: not the permanent, lasting, reliable things we think, but halfway measures and stop-gaps to make life manageable in an imperfect world. In such a world as this, where greed, violence, and self-preservation are the order of the day, God breaking in necessarily breaks the rules. And when he does, he draws our vision to his kingdom, his purposes, which created the world for his glory in the first place: his glory and our good, to be what we were always meant to be.

Easter of course is the great moment where God breaks the rules even of death itself to bring us to eternal life. But even our normal Lenten penitence does not leave us in the midst of sin and wrong, but is the occasion for God to break the rules again: to forgive us our sins, to set us in a place where we can see his kingdom stretching out before us, and we can take our first, halting steps in a Godward direction.

When God “breaks the rules” it is always to point us towards that world which is deeper and higher than ours, where as King David writes in our psalm, ‘mercy and loving kindness shall follow us all the days of our life, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever;’ where the Lion will lie down with the Lamb, and every tear will be wiped from every eye.

So what? This is all a long way of saying, in this fourth week of Lent, as we turn the corner towards Holy Week and Easter, put on your Rose-Sunday-colored glasses! Do not deny the difficulty or challenge or wickedness of this world, least of all of all those things in yourself. But at the same time, in the midst of your penitence, as you begin to experience the grace of forgiveness afresh, be prepared for God to break in. Be ready to break the rules for God’s sake, and see his kingdom come.

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

“Everything just feels right there.”

St. Louis Abbey

The following homily was preached on Sunday, March 6, 2016 (the fourth Sunday of Lent), at a service of Choral Evensong at the St. Louis Abbey, sung by the CSMSG choir as part of our continuing relationship with the monks of that Community.  I officiated and preached, and we were all the grateful recipients of warm hospitality from the Abbot and brothers. “A good time was had by all!” I think this is one of the best things we do here at CSMSG, and I pray this relationship continues a long and happy one!

Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which giveth live to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Lessons: Romans 8:11-25; John 6:27-40

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

A friend of mine is a parish priest in Denver, Colorado.  Just this weekend he returned from making a Lenten retreat at a nearby monastery.  In the course of telling me how it went, he praised the quiet, the mountains, the hiking, the other guests; but most of all he appreciated the community and the life they led.  He summed up his experience by saying, “I’m convinced it’s one of the most sacred and beautiful places on earth for me.  Everything just feels right there.”

Everything just feels right there.  His words resonate with me, and I suspect with a lot of people.  There are places we go in life where everything just feels right.  Monasteries seem especially able to communicate this.  There is something fundamentally right about the work of God which is carried out here, something deeply beautiful about a community’s life ordered as a school of the Lord’s service.  They are places which are resonant with the Spirit calling as deep to deep, where “the final revealing of the sons of God” often seems to be at the very brink.  The church, the grounds, and most of all the members of the community themselves, impress themselves on the visitor as icons of the way things ought to be.  I always find it remarkable how quickly visitors start to feel at home in a monastery, even on their very first visit; and I have to think that a large part of that is a response to the feeling that here, things are as they ought to be.

Of course, this side of heaven, things are rarely as they ought to be, even in a monastery.  And in fact, the more things appear to be just as they ought, the more vigilant we must be, not to let evil and vice creep in unnoticed.  Parishes are the same way, and families; cities and states and nations too.  It is often very easy for a generous visitor to see a new country as the portrait of its own ideals.  But its citizens can always tell a different story.

Why is it that visitors see the good, while citizens see all the rest?  Are they simply deluded?  I don’t think so.  I think rather that there is simply something about being a guest in a place, that clears the vision and allows the good to shine through.  Likewise, there is something about being a citizen of a place that highlights its weaknesses, its challenges, and the work that still has to be done.

Which of these aspects is the more true?  The grace witnessed and experienced by the guest, or the mundane, ordinary life of the citizen?  Probably a little of both.  The English spiritual author G.K. Chesterton once observed that our “spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like [our] physical sight: [we] see two different pictures at once, and yet see all the better for that.”

The world wants to see contradiction and hypocrisy in the Church because so far we do not yet exhibit the holiness and perfect unity in love which our Lord promised and for which he prayed the night before his death.  Likewise we can be dissatisfied with our vocations, wherever they may plant us, because it is much easier to see grace at work abroad than in the complicated and confusing humdrum of our own lives.  The place where everything is as it ought to be, where “everything just feels right,” is very frequently somewhere else, somewhere farther on ahead of us, which we may visit from time to time but cannot yet call our own.

What, then, are we to do?  How do we answer the world?  How do we resolve our own contradictions?  Where can we go to be finally and forever at home?  Our lessons tonight suggest that the best answer to these questions is to be always at prayer.

All may not be right with the world or with ourselves, but in prayer we are moved by the Spirit into the presence of our heavenly Father, who is our eternal home.  In prayer the two contradictory visions of our spiritual sight overlap, and we see in three dimensions. Our sin: not just our fall from glory, but also the occasion of our redemption.  Heaven: not just a promise for the end of time, but also our strength and nourishment even now as the Spirit moves within us.  Though the world about us fall to pieces; though we ourselves be racked by temptation, disquiet, and uncertainty; in prayer we are joined to Our Lord’s own eternal offering of himself to his Father, even as we are also joined to the Father’s gift of his Son for us and for all creation.

In prayer, we are always at home — even if we be thousands of miles away, even if we be separated from our families or broken from their fellowship.  In prayer, the groaning of whatever suffering we experience in this present life is joined to the agony of Our Lord and the birth pangs of the Spirit.  In prayer we begin to be made new.  All might not be right with this world, with ourselves, with whatever place it is we are.  Yet in prayer,  however agonizing it might be for us, in prayer we are at home: everything is as it ought to be, we are on the doorstep of heaven, and the One who dwells there recognizes us for his own.

As Lent draws on towards Holy Week and the Paschal Mystery, let us resolve to be people of prayer: which is to say, let us be guests of heaven.  Let us throw ourselves on Heaven’s hospitality.  And so heaven’s Host will wash our feet, bind our wounds by his own, give us his peace which passeth all understanding, and feed us with his own Body and Blood.  So we shall be both guests and citizens at once, heirs of his eternal life.

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

“Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.”

The following sermon was preached on Sunday, February 21, 2016 (the second Sunday of Lent), at the Church of St. Michael & St. George.  Services today, as all through Lent, begin with the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) and Penitential Rite (Summary of the Law with Confession), in which each commandment is read aloud followed by the whole congregation saying together, “Lord have mercy and incline our hearts to keep thy law.” Following all the commandments we say the general confession and hear the words of pardon. This takes the place of the Confession later in the service.

Collect: O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from thy ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of thy Word, Jesus Christ thy Son; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 15:1-18Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

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

A few years ago I met a priest who had been a guest preacher at Eton College Chapel in England.  As you may know, Eton College is one of the world’s great boarding schools, where boys from 13 to 18 years old have been educated in the shadow of Windsor Castle since the reign of Henry VI, in 1440.  The school has sometimes been called “the nursemaid of the empire,” and it has been the alma mater of monarchs, statesmen, and churchmen alike (both the present Prime Minister and Archbishop of Canterbury are alumni, to name two examples).  Since its founding, daily worship has been offered in the school chapel, according to all the seasonal changes and chances of the Book of Common Prayer.

This preacher whom I met had arrived at the chapel early, since he wanted to check a reference in his sermon against the Prayer Books in the chapel seats (which of course were then — and still are! —  the Book of Common Prayer of 1662).  He chose the nearest prayer book, and on opening it, the pages fell naturally to the “Table of Consanguinity,” the page that lists all the persons in a person’s family whom he or she is not permitted to marry.

This amused the preacher, and as he scanned the familiar list, he noted some writing in the margin: next to the line saying that a man may not marry his grandmother, some poor homesick boy had written, “Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law!”

Of course the boy was making a wordplay on the lines we just spoke earlier this morning: they are part of our “Penitential Rite” which we use at the beginning of our services during Lent, and which are spoken with at least the same frequency in the English prayer book.  “Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.”  Whether reciting the Ten Commandments or steeling ourselves against the charms of Grandma, it’s a wonderful prayer to keep in our back pockets and at the tips of our tongues!

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus is also engaging in a little wordplay.  First he calls Herod a fox, which is funny enough: this Herod was not his father: his father was the Herod who talked himself into a fruitful alliance with the Romans, who had engaged in massive building plans, negotiated with the three wise men, and left his kingdom far stronger than he found it.  This Herod, the son, was no great politician.  He had presided over the fracture of his father’s kingdom into much smaller bits, an outright takeover bid by new Roman Governors, and couldn’t manage to keep a lid on the intrigue in his own house let alone his kingdom.  Jesus is making fun of Herod by calling him a sly fox.  But then he continues, by referring to himself as a hen!  Foxes and henhouses, the implication is clear: Herod is out to get him.  Jesus reflects that as much of a fool as Herod might be, Jerusalem will still be his doom, even as it was the doom of all the prophets before him.

Jesus concludes his rueful reverie with yet another wordplay, this one a little more biting: “Behold, your house is forsaken, and I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'”

“Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.”  First of all Jesus is referring back to Psalm 118, one of the great liturgical psalms used in Jewish feasts, in which the whole people of God is summoned to praise the Lord, “whose mercy endureth forever.”  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” is one of the concluding verses of that Psalm, and serves to point the whole singing congregation towards the saving activity of God on behalf of his people.  It is one of the great summaries in Scripture of the whole purpose of the prophets.

Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.  By saying that people will not see him until they say this line, Jesus is identifying himself with that tradition of prophecy and praise.  But more than this, he is also foreshadowing his own triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  In true prophetic fashion, his witty play on words serves a real predictive purpose: this is exactly the chorus that the crowds will shout on Palm Sunday: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna to the Son of David!”

Of course the irony, which Jesus knows all too well, is that the crowd will not crown him king except with a crown of thorns, and they will not set him on a throne but nail him to the cross.  The even deeper irony is that, though they do this to mock him, their coronation is a true one: the Lord of Glory, who comes in the Name of his Father, does reign from that tree: from that cross he works the salvation the prophets had promised, and truly is it said of him, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Jesus’ wordplay here is not just the tired and somewhat caustic commentary it initially appears to be.  His wit plays the whole prophetic and religious tradition of his people off of his own upcoming triumphal entry, passion, and crucifixion.  In a moment of sly humor, Jesus makes a wonderfully cheeky comment about his own future and the nature of his gospel.

What about you and me?  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” has some resonance for us too, just like the homesick Etonian and the line “Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.”  We repeat “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” at every celebration of the Holy Eucharist, whether quietly at a midweek service in the chapel, or to music at this choral mass on Sunday morning.  It comes immediately following the Sanctus, when we repeat Isaiah’s great vision of the Lord enthroned in glory with the three-times acclamation “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.”

When we sing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” in church we are doing two things: first, we recall the act which Jesus accomplished on our behalf upon the cross and give thanks for the salvation it works for us; and second, we also turn our attention towards the coming Eucharistic Prayer, and recognize Jesus’ presence among us under the sacramental signs of bread and wine.  In effect, we are saying,  “Thank you for what you did for us on the cross; and thank you for the nourishment we are about to receive, the fruit of that same redemption.”  Singing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” locates us as recipients of God’s grace, and throws us on the Name of Jesus as the one through whom we receive it.

But this isn’t all.  There is more wordplay to offer.  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  It is a witty remark by Jesus which reflects on prophetic tradition and predicts his own triumphal entry and crucifixion.  It is pithy line by which you and I remember his sacrifice and prepare to receive the ongoing nourishment of his body and blood.  But it’s not just a way of reflecting on the past and preparing for the present.  It is also an anticipation of the future.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  You and I, with all the baptized, have put on Christ as a garment by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Day by day, in Lent especially by our individual disciplines, we are being conformed to his image and growing into the fullness of his stature.  When God the Father looks at each of us on Judgement Day, He will see the likeness of his Son and the virtue of His sacrifice, not our own meager efforts.  On that day, as we enter into the joy of our Master, the whole chorus of angels will sing of each one of us, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord,” and all heaven will laugh at how well the wordplay fits for each of the redeemed.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  What am I trying to say with this whole wandering series of reflections on wordplay?  Only a very simple point, which some of you have been hearing me make all week long.  That is, that the Christian religion is not a sad or a depressing thing.  Sure we discipline our souls and bodies, especially in Lent, and of course we mourn our sins.  But the whole brilliant wonderful reason for doing all this is that, thanks to God, our sins do not have the last word, they cannot speak the last judgment against us.  The power of sin and death have been defeated by him who faced them on our behalf.  And all that’s left, he deepest truth about heaven and earth and each one of us, far deeper than our sin and failings, is the mirth, the good cheer, the laughter of God.

There’s a wonderful line in the classic film, “Becket.”  Richard Burton, playing Thomas Becket, the recently appointed new Archbishop of Canterbury (who did not go to Eton College, by the way) has just given away all his former possessions to the poor.  The Bishop of London, his more worldly friend, is scandalized by his profligacy, thinking it merely a clever political ploy to win favor with the crowds.  But Becket reassures him by laughing and saying he never felt better.  He says, “I’m simply enjoying all of this.  I’m beginning to believe he’s not a sad God after all.”

Friends, we do not serve a sad God, but one who delights in laughter and good cheer, whose abiding mirth is a far firmer foundation than anything sin and death can throw at us.  This Lent, let us rejoice to lay aside the sin that clings so close, to walk with Jesus on the way of the cross, to see all of heaven opening before us, and to say with prophets, saints, Angels, and all the redeemed, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.”

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