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: love

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.

Pentecost

This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on Pentecost, Sunday, May 20, 2018. Much of this homily was inspired by a recent re-discovery of a hymn text by Thomas a Kempis, “If there be that skills to reckon” reflecting on the glory of heaven and the character of its society. One of my favorite stanzas goes as follows: “There the gifts of each and single all in common might possess; there each member hath his portion in the Body’s blessedness; So that he, the least in merits, shares the guerdon nonetheless.”

Collect: O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

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

Well this is it. The long period of waiting is over. What had been promised is now fulfilled, we can all celebrate and carry on our ways with a little extra spring in our step, with a delight that wasn’t there before, and with some newfound inspiration to boot.

I’m talking of course about the Royal Wedding, though the same could be said about today’s holiday of Pentecost. I wasn’t able to watch yesterday’s broadcast, but as I read the various reports and reviews, one thing I’m struck by is the common refrain. Everyone — whether on Twitter or Facebook, the New York Times, Esquire, or the BBC — is remarking on how the preacher took everyone to CHURCH.

The preacher was our own presiding bishop, Michael Curry, and somehow his remarks had such an effect that the commentators have largely left aside their focus on dresses and clothes and royal lines of succession, and have started talking about love: love as a force, a power, and desperately needed in our world right now. The Telegraph is estimating that as many as two billion people watched or heard the wedding yesterday, by television, radio, or internet. And by most accounts, nearly all two billion of them are now talking about love.

What happened that so many people heard the same message? Somehow the miracle of Pentecost has occurred again in our time: all the people gathered from every corner of the world heard Peter preaching in their own native language. All the two billion people watching the wedding have heard something told them about love.

The whole thing brings to mind another royal undertaking, many thousands of years ago deep in the misty reaches of the undefined past. You may remember the story of the Tower of Babel. In order to make a name for themselves, the leaders of the people decided to build a great city with a great tower reaching all the way up to heaven. Now at that time, as the book of Genesis renders it, there was only one people on earth, and they all had the same language. To foil their hubris, God confused their language, and they could no longer understand one another. They stopped building the city with its tower, and from then on they were scattered all over the face of the earth.

It’s difficult to underestimate the sadness of this story. It’s the last chapter in the prologue to the book of Genesis; Abraham appears immediately after, and from then on Genesis concerns itself chiefly with his perspective and that of his descendants, no longer with that of all and sundry. The confusion at Babel marks the last in a set of universal curses that punish human arrogance and explain the difficult conditions under which we go about our lives in this world.

Pentecost, which the Church celebrates today, is the reversal of that curse. All of a sudden, the world’s confusion of language is ended and they can all understand Peter speaking in their own native tongue. What does he say to them? That the love of God poured out on the whole human race in Jesus of Nazareth, that love is theirs too; God’s love is for them too. Forgiveness is not only possible, but it is freely offered. Life beyond death is not only possible, but it is the new order of the day. Even more, this love which God offers goes ahead of us to encompass all the human race, represented by every conceivable language, and binds us all together.

From Pentecost on, Christians believe that deep down at the heart of things it is impossible for there to be competing peoples and nations at enmities. All are one in the Holy Spirit of God, all are given the same language of love, no longer to make a name for themselves with a tower reaching to heaven, but to find their name already given them, as they give themselves to one another.

This is the truth which Pentecost reveals: the burden of translation, the fear of being misunderstood, are transfigured into occasions where words give way to actions, where argument makes allowances for affection, and where love is finally what we long most desperately to say, offer, prove, and achieve.

In short, Pentecost reveals that our own first language is love, though in the meantime we may have forgotten how to speak it. Pentecost reveals that our own first inclination is towards the communion that love creates, though in the meantime we may have forgotten how to identify it. This is why it’s so important that the Holy Spirit arrives on Pentecost not just as a power to reveal these things, but also as a gift, as a help, for us to live into them.

I remember one year in high school our school band director had signed us all up for a competition. We were going to go to Virginia with other school bands from all over the country to play for a combined audience and to be judged. The music he had chosen was difficult, and I remember one rehearsal where by that point we should have made more progress than we had done. We were frustrated with ourselves, and I’m sure our director was too. But instead of yelling at us, he was full of encouragement. “Don’t worry,” he said, “You’ll get this. I know you can do it. I wouldn’t set you up to fail.”

I remember that phrase, “I wouldn’t set you up to fail,” because it was the first time I’d heard it. It took me a minute to understand what he meant, but it was a huge relief — that, at that moment, somebody in authority had more confidence in me than I did, had more knowledge of my own ability, had more excitement about our band’s potential for success than we could muster. And here he was doing everything he could to help us succeed.

You don’t have to be a musician — though it helps! — in order to understand or at least guess the (tongue-in-cheek) proximity between music directors and God. Which is only by way of offering, that God doesn’t set us up to fail either, and continually gives us the gifts and the resources to accomplish the work we are set; chief of all, his own self in the Holy Spirit.

On Pentecost the Holy Spirit of God shows up, not just to guide or to teach, but to be the gift, God’s own self the gift, revealing what was true all along: the love, the potential for good, the desire for common understanding and communion deep at the heart of human life; and not just revealing what is true, but healing the divisions which prevent its fulfillment, drawing us into a single Body nourished by God’s own self. That gift is the Gift of Gifts, and it remains a stupendous mystery for us to contemplate as well as a dynamic life for us to live.

No, God does not set us up to fail, but reverses all the curses with which we are afflicted, to enable love to flourish among us and within us. Let us allow that love to guide us into closer relationship with one another and with God. Let that love overcome our resistance to meet and know those who are different from us, and embolden our confidence to trust.

So may we find ourselves understanding one another in our own native language of love. So may the love of God grow within us to embrace our selves our communities, and our world.

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

The Good Shepherd

Collect: O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 4:5-12, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

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

Yesterday I was watching some of the footage of the funeral for Barbara Bush, and I was struck by one or two of the readers as they read the passages from Scripture which had been chosen for the service. It often happens at funerals that I notice this same phenomenon: the readers aren’t necessarily professionals; they aren’t trained to within an inch of their lives (as ours are here at St. Mark’s!). And yet in most cases, at funerals, they seem to get the point across — no matter how nervous they are, no matter if they happen to stumble over a word or two. Something about the task at hand causes me to be able to hear something in their words that in other circumstances I can miss.

Noticing this again in the funeral footage yesterday reminded me of a story I treasure; though I admit, in advance of telling it, that it’s probably apocryphal, and undoubtedly too warm and fuzzy for words. But I love it, so I’ll tell it anyway.

There was once a funeral for a grandmother who was much loved by her family and had many friends in the community. Her ten-year-old grandson was asked to read the Psalm, the 23rd Psalm, the one we’ve just heard ourselves. He was so nervous about the task that he’d decide to memorize it. He began trembling, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” But he gained steam as he went on, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters,” and so on. When he finished reading, there wasn’t a dry eye in the whole congregation; everyone had fallen to pieces quietly weeping, while a gentle, holy quiet had settled over the church.

It just so happens there was an actor in the congregation, a friend of Grandma’s from a long time ago. He was amazed at the congregation’s response to this little boy’s reading. After the service at the reception he went up to him to offer a “Job Well Done.” But he couldn’t help himself, and went on about how dumbfounded he was: the actor said, “I must have read that Psalm a hundred different times over the years, and people never cried; they’d clap often enough, and once I got a standing ovation, but never tears, and never the silence I just experienced. How did that happen? What’s your secret?”

The little boy didn’t miss a beat and replied, “I don’t know, it sounds like you know the Psalm way better than I do, but I love my grandma, and I know the Shepherd.” The actor was duly humbled, and left him alone.

It’s a sweet story, but it makes a very good point. There is something about genuine love, both of God and of human persons, that manages to shine through despite whatever skill or professionalism we might possess or lack.

This same point was made at my own ordination to the priesthood. The Gospel reading was this same passage, Jesus the Good Shepherd. The preacher went to great lengths to communicate just how far Jesus was willing to pursue his people, and commended to us the same love as the chief task of any who were called to follow in his steps: Love the people of God, and whatever confidence or talent feels missing will be more than supplied by the Holy Spirit and the gift of grace.

But it’s an overwhelming task, both for clergy specifically and for all Christians. Love the People of God, love them to such a degree and with such a spirit that each can feel recognized and known as being of supreme worth to God and to one another, and that the life to which we are all called is one of peace and tranquility in the house of God forever.

It’s simple enough to express in the quiet of an office, obvious enough to say in the anxiety of a hospital room, and easy enough to claim in the anonymity of a newspaper or a facebook post, though such contexts have their challenges too. Much harder in the chance encounters of everyday life, and much harder still in the long, fraught relationships of family, friends, and colleagues in which our life consists: where betrayal often goes hand in hand with devotion, where we aren’t always clear about our own motivations let alone anyone else’s, and where we wind up wounding most the people we love best.

It seems that forgiveness has to go hand in hand with love, otherwise we’re all lost, stuck with high aspirations but no capacity to fulfill them, while we undermine ourselves at every turn.

This is where the Church as a whole starts to be aware of Jesus the Good Shepherd as fulfilling some basic need we all have: of clearing the way for us to return, of speaking the word of forgiveness which enables us to restore our relationships and continue moving forward. We say in the creeds, “He suffered death, he descended into hell” to seek and save the members of his flock even there. There is no place now on earth or in all creation where Jesus the Good Shepherd has not gone to find us, and that means there is no place now where we are alone, where either our own foolishness or the wickedness of others finally puts us beyond the reach of healing and restoration.

That sort of thing is fairly straightforward to say in a creed, or note down in a class; easy to affirm publicly and to celebrate: Jesus is the Church’s Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep and leads them all by name just as they hear and know his voice. What’s harder is to remember, the work of a Shepherd is personal, they go out to each lost sheep wherever it is; they can put only one lamb on their shoulders at a time, to bring them back to the fold.

What do I mean by that? Jesus the Good Shepherd comes for you and for me, and not just for sheep as a category of particularly wayward livestock. Jesus the Good Shepherd speaks your name, and mine finding us wherever it is we’ve managed to wander, whether or not we even realize we’ve wandered.

How do we recognize his voice when we hear it calling? It’s the voice of one who knows us better than we know ourselves, who leads us out of darkness into light and refreshment and peace.

But it’s never easy, and it’s always humbling. Being taken out of the brambles means having to notice the brambles in the first place, and more often than not admitting to the Shepherd that somehow I managed to get myself caught there. It means having to acknowledge, I was not on the right path after all, and despite how sure I was it only led me further away from everyone and everything I loved.

This is a vulnerable moment, and despite what we say and affirm publicly in the creeds or otherwise, it’s a scary one. What if I am punished or received harshly? What if I have to give up what I have dearly bought?

These kinds of fears, more than anything else, keep us from hearing the Good Shepherd’s voice, or if we do hear, keep us from responding. Because, too often, we simply do not place enough confidence in the mercy of God. We find it difficult to trust that being made vulnerable will be met with kindness and compassion. But while there may be consequences — the brambles may tear as we are lifted out of them — we will be free, and more than that we will be touched by a mercy that does not keep score or hold grudges, that meets us with knowing, and with love, reliably, every time.

Don’t get too distracted focusing on the brambles, and what they are or how to avoid them; there are enough of them to drive us mad if we let them. Instead just listen for the voice of Shepherd, listen for the voice who knows you better than you know yourself. Trust the kindly leading that wends through the valley of the shadow of death to the green pastures and quiet waters, to the table of God set with the overflowing chalice of his mercy.

The Good Shepherd is your shepherd as much as mine, yours individually as much as that of the church as a whole. Listen for his voice, and let him lead you into life.

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

Good Friday 2018

Collect: Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Hebrews 10:16-25, John 18:1-19:42In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

As many of you know, or may have discovered thanks to the suddenly eased traffic, this week is spring break at Cal. It’s the first time since I’ve come to St. Mark’s that class has not been in session, and I’m struck by the very noticeable quiet of it all. This isn’t the first time I’ve been in a university community during spring break, but for some reason I’m particularly struck by it this year. It’s certainly not silent: buses continue their routes, HVAC units continue their hum, the construction project up the street carries on, and planes fly overhead like they always do. But the human bustle is much reduced: I notice far fewer random bits of conversation and general hilarity rising above the fray, while the groups of pedestrians walking past my office are gone, leaving only solitary, somewhat harried graduate students. The coffee shops are empty, and for the first time, I don’t have to wait in line when it comes time for lunch. It’s not an easy kind of silence, like summer break, but the gathering of a breath, a waiting kind of silence, for the press and stress of the last weeks of the year suddenly to descend.

For whatever reason, this silence has impressed itself on me this week, and has put me in mind of Good Friday all week long. There on the cross as Jesus hangs from noon until three, a darkness covers the whole land. The sun goes out, I imagine the birds have stopped singing, and the onlookers, frightened out of their mocking, have gone home. They leave only a dry hill with three dying men. The wind blows in the grass, and all creation waits for the last breath.

I post the texts of my sermons to a WordPress blog, which I’ve named, “Between Noon and Three.” The title is a phrase I’ve borrowed from W.H. Auden, who uses it repeatedly in a number of the poems in his series on the Divine Hours, the traditional offices of prayer throughout the day. Today here we are, literally “between noon and three” as we meditate on the last hours of Jesus’ earthly life, the period of time he hung upon the cross.

One of the things I like about Auden’s poem cycle is that every one of them seems to take place on Good Friday: it is a day that does not pass away, that remains forever. But despite the way the crucifixion pervades the poems as well as the poet’s consciousness, the narrator never quite manages to figure out what to make of it. To Auden, Jesus’ death is the sort of thing that seems inevitable and long-planned, as if the whole arc of human history has been leading up to the murder of God; and at the same time it seems the sort of thing that comes upon us from who knows where. Suddenly the deed is done and we’re left struggling to figure out just what it is that’s happened, let alone what it means.

Auden describes, near the end of the cycle, his dream that one day he might finally discover “Just what happened today between noon and three.” The Church locates the salvation of the world in these three hours, although it has never explicitly defined how, or satisfactorily explained why. Why this solution, of all solutions? To answer, we have to take stock of the silence which prevails from noon until three, silence that defies easy explanation or understanding, silence that seems eternal and yet stings as a sudden wound.

Like the silence here in Berkeley these last few days, but in a much more profound way, this silence at the cross is not an absence or a void, but a watchfulness, a waiting, a regard even, where God and creation are intensely aware of one another. Our collect for today reflects the same stillness, the same awareness: “Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross.” We pray God simply to behold us; for God only to just look at us. It’s as much as we can muster on Good Friday. And the silence of the Cross is the surest sign we can point to that God is answering our prayer. “Just look at us,” we pray. And on the cross God does.

There is a dialogue here in the silence, a kind of speech that’s exchanged within this mutual regard, this mutual beholding. Dare we say that there is love here, somewhere, in the sight of God and in our own sight, as we behold one another? That, at any rate, is the conviction of the Church: that somehow, mysteriously, as Jesus is exposed to all the world and death itself; as we stand exposed to God for all our beauty, all our shabbiness, and all our sin, we are reconciled to one another. The silence enables us to know one another more profoundly than before: God is known to humanity in infinite compassion; and humanity is lifted up into the nearer presence of God.

It’s not really so hard to believe. Years ago, in one of my adult confirmation classes, there was a mother who had a son in college. His school was in the same town, and he would come home frequently, for laundry and all the rest. But she was missing him, and lamenting the fact that they didn’t talk much anymore. What would become of their relationship? She felt he was slipping away and that she was, too; that they were fast becoming strangers to one another. This caused her a lot of grief and worry.

One day she appeared in tears, having just received a diagnosis of breast cancer. But it wasn’t the cancer that had caused her tears. She had managed to corner her son because she wanted to share the news; she was afraid how he’d react, but instead he just looked at her: really looked, and she felt as if he’d actually seen her for the first time in a long time. He didn’t say much except “I love you, Mom.” But that look was all she needed. Her tears were from bittersweet happiness, from learning afresh that she really was seen and known and cared for, despite a terrifying diagnosis. She didn’t worry after that: about her health certainly, but not about her son.

This kind of love is what the silence of Good Friday enables. This is what we assemble together here today to remember, to encounter, and to venerate: to see, and hear, and say, and touch, what we cannot understand or communicate by words alone. We are here today to pray God “To just look at us,” and in the looking, to be known and reconciled and loved.

This is why Good Friday and the moment of Christ’s death is a moment that does not pass away but remains forever. The silence of mutual beholding, between God and creation, is the still point in a turning world, the seed of hope and an everlasting comfort. It is the moment where love reigns supreme despite all the forces of death arrayed against it.

Whenever we are tempted to think all is lost, or to throw up our hands in the face of chaos, or to despair at so much wickedness in the world and in our hearts: the cross is there, its silence is there, speaking loudly and clearly of God’s gracious beholding, calling us to new life in a Love that does not pass away.

Faith and Folly

This sermon was preached on the Third Sunday of Lent, 4 March 2018, at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. In some ways it’s a reprise of themes from before Ash Wednesday, on worship as the exercise of love, but with a Lenten twist focusing on the love of God revealed in the cross.

Collect: Almighty God, who sees that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended form all adversities which may happen to the body, and all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17,1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22

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

Do you ever wonder how Jesus himself would have processed some of the things he did? Like did he ever regret being so short with Simon Peter, when he said, “Get thee behind me Satan”? Later on did he think, “Huh, maybe I shouldn’t have been quite so hard on him”? Or in our Gospel reading today, clearly he’s very angry with the money changers in the temple, and I wouldn’t dare suggest that he wasn’t right to do what he did, driving them out. But I wonder how Jesus himself thought about it in the next few days. Did he think, “Hmm, maybe that was over the top, I’ll be a little less intense next time.” Or was he happy for it to have been such a public moment?

I confess I’m not much given to those kind of public losses of control very much, but sometimes it happens, and almost always regret it later. I don’t want to project myself too much on Jesus, but I have to think he at least wondered how his words and actions were affecting other people.

The thing is, we don’t actually know. All we know is how the disciples remembered what they saw and heard. And they saw and heard some pretty amazing things, including some pretty crazy and off-putting things, things which I at least, and probably a lot of you too, would regret having done pretty immediately afterwards.

Does it limit or otherwise sabotage shat we think of Jesus if all we have is the record of how he was received by others? — if it’s most colorful points are moments when he let his emotions or even his own foolishness get the better of him?

Maybe, but then perhaps it reveals something important too. As an introvert, for me the alarm bells start to go off internally if I notice I’m getting chatty or too talkative, because it’s not my natural inclination; my friends though seem to enjoy it, and say they’re glad to see this different side of my personality. It’s scary for me because talking too much makes me feel like I’ve lost control. But my friends don’t see a loss of control, they just see facets that were there all along. What feels like foolishness and even embarrassment to me can actually be received as warmth and openness to others, helping them to see and know more than they might otherwise.

St. Paul seems to think something similar is going on with Jesus: that in whatever folly he might have felt at his outbursts, the rest of us see something of God that we might not have seen otherwise; and chief of all, in the embarrassment and humiliation of the cross, we know something profound of the lengths to which love and grace can bring even God himself.

I once heard a wise priest use an illustration about eggs. If you put an egg into a pot of water and turn up the heat, and someone asks you, “What are you doing?” there are three ways to respond. First you can say, “Oh I’m boiling an egg.” Second you can say, “Oh I’m raising the temperature of the water, causing molecules to move faster and faster until a chemical change comes over the egg and it transitions from a liquid to a semi-solid state.” And third you can say, “Oh I’m making breakfast.” This priest went on to say, in the current state of the world, we are especially obsessed with the second way of answering, and sometimes with the first; but for the most part we’ve totally forgotten how to just make breakfast.

I don’t know about all that, but at least as far as Jesus and the Cross goes, he’s got a very good point. Too many people want to explain the Cross as merely the way God manages to bring himself to forgive us our sins. Or they take another tack and explain how such a sacrifice functions to expiate the indignation and wrath of a righteous judge. But Paul’s letter to the Corinthians seems to suggest that neither of these explanations quite hits the mark, and something both more simple and more difficult to explain might really be going on: simply that, as Jesus goes to the cross, he faces his final folly. He refuses to tell the truth about his mission and identity to Pilate. He refuses to correct the record for the high priest or perform tricks for the crowd to remind them they’d only just hailed him as the Messiah. And the result of his failure to correct the record is that he goes to the cross and dies.

What is he doing? Why doesn’t he try harder to save his own life? Why doesn’t he use the proper process of religious reform to clear the temple of the money changers? Why doesn’t he help Simon Peter see what’s really at stake, and instead just yell at him? Because he’s human first of all in addition to being the Son of God, and therefore given to limitations in judgement. But also and maybe more importantly, he’s heartbroken. He’s not “boiling an egg,” he’s not “increasing the speed of molecules” (although those are involved). What he is, is heartbroken. And heartbreak makes us do foolish things.

Why’s he heartbroken? Just turn on the news. He’s heartbroken that a world created for goodness has turned on itself such that it finds solace in murder rather than life, in manipulation rather than nurture, in networks rather than friends. And in the heartbreak of God, Jesus becomes human and goes to his own death.

Folly, plain and simple. It doesn’t fix anything, any more than a tub of ice cream or a long walk eliminates or resolves our own sadness or the works of our own foolishness. But what it does do, for Jesus’ disciples at least, is to reveal on Easter Day that love is stronger than death. The foolishness of God leads Jesus to a preventable and humiliating death. But the foolishness of God reveals also that death is not the end for those whose life is located in the love of God; that there is no last word sin or wickedness can claim over those who put their trust in God’s mercy.

Which brings up a very important question: how do we figure out what God is up to in the first place, and how do we measure our own success at following the mission we’ve been given? We’ve got to keep boiling eggs, and we’ve got to keep raising the temperature of the water in order to do that. But let’s not forget to make breakfast while we’re at it, and even more importantly, to eat it with relish.

By which I only mean, the foolishness we commit either from happiness or from heartbreak might be closer to the truth of things no matter how painfully it burns or how impossible it is to explain. It reveals something about the very deep love of God, and it sanctifies fools and victims of folly alike.

Whatever our favorite metric for personal or financial success, as far as God is concerned, the degree to which we are willing to let ourselves look foolish in the love of God, for better or for worse, is the degree to which we are aligned with God’s purposes. Do we have a particularly cherished image of ourselves? Are we pleased to be regarded as smart, or kind, or successful, or responsible, or popular, or dignified? Let the image go. Look a fool in your own eyes, and find yourself a friend in God’s.

As Lent carries on, then, let us have the courage to play the fool in love, so that we might grow all the closer to the heart of God.

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

On behalf of the absurd

This sermon was preached on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 11 February 2018, at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. In some ways it is a continuation of the theme begun last week, on worship – where it is directed, how it is conducted, what it means to participate, and the kind of life it shapes in those who undertake it as a regular part of their routine.

Collect: O God, who before the passion of thy only-begotten Son didst reveal his glory upon the holy mount: Grant unto us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: 2 Kings 2:1-12, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

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

I always think it’s remarkable, that all the gospel writers and especially Mark seem to make such a big deal of Peter at the Transfiguration, and how he comes off like a blathering idiot. Maybe it’s just self-deprecation — tradition holds that Mark is a student of Peter’s, and wrote his Gospel from Peter’s remembrances — but whatever the source they all seem to dwell on it. “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”

And for that matter it’s not really so idiotic as all that: on one level it’s just good hospitality: if a couple of prophets show up, especially ones taken up to heaven before their death and now shining with the glory of God, it’s just good manners to try and make them comfortable. I always thought Peter got short shrift: he’s not being an idiot, he’s being practical. And anyway, what else are you supposed to say when the voice of God speaks from heaven like thunder?

In our first lesson Elisha is in the same boat: Elijah gets taken up to heaven in chariots of fire, and all he can stammer out is an amazed exclamation, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Like someone cheering on a sports team, or, like in old stories of besieged cities, where at the last moment reinforcements finally arrive, unexpected and unhoped-for. It’s a crazy exclamation — “The chariots of Israel, and its horsemen!” But then it’s a crazy sight — fiery chariots descending from heaven, and taking up his friend and mentor. What else is he supposed to say?

The church has interpreted both of these stories, and particularly the Transfiguration as a moment of great theological clarity. On the mount of Transfiguration, God reveals something particularly significant about Jesus: not only does it reveal him as the Son of God, but also the dazzling brightness suggests the final, twin end of darkness brought about by his ministry: Jesus brings about the end of the darkness of death as well as the end of the darkness of ignorance. This is why we always read the Transfiguration on the Last Sunday before Lent, because it encapsulates the themes of the Epiphany, while also pointing us clearly towards Holy Week and the Resurrection.

But too often we stop there. Too often we consider religion something that we think about, have opinions about, even beliefs about, something that we have to explain or systematize. And all that stuff is important. The imaginative system that results is rich and beautiful, full of insight and loveliness. But thinking is only the beginning, if it’s even that.

I remember a story about a recently deceased bishop, who loved to rail against what he described as “voting for God.” Just as there’s more to civic engagement than appearing at a ballot box every four years, so there is more to religion than just deciding God is all right, saying so at convenient opportunities, and otherwise going about your business. This bishop was once on an airplane, traveling to some conference and wearing his clericals. The person sitting next to him noticed what he was wearing, and said something to the effect, “Oh you’re a priest! I believe in God, too.” To which the bishop replied, in a mood probably more saucy than charitable, “Great. How’s that working out for you?”

The wonderful thing about Peter and Elisha in today’s readings is that they point out to us: even at the very brink of profound and clear revelation, even before the face of Christ himself shining brighter than the sun, even when we hear the very voice of God in heaven thundering into our waking ears; even there and maybe especially there words fail, reason can go no further, and Peter and Elisha are both reduced to wild exclamations, remembered more for their absurdity than for their eloquence or profundity.

In that absurdity there is the suggestion that there is something closer to the heart of religion than words, or ideas, or clarity of expression; and that something is love.

I pointed out this week in my greeting in the leaflet: that there is something wonderful about the Transfiguration occurring with just Peter and James and John and not all twelve of the disciples. It’s an intimate moment: Jesus revealing the truth of himself to his three closest friends, not even to the rest of the twelve. And it suggests that at least as far as Jesus was concerned, the knowledge worth having, the knowledge worth sharing, begins with love, and not the other way around.

Same thing with Elisha: he and Elijah have been talking and walking long upon the road. Elijah is his mentor, his boss, and his friend; and whether or not Elisha’s request is granted is contingent not on any of his behavior or performance, but merely on whether or not he sees Elijah in the moment of his departure. Despite the absurdity of his cry when the chariots of fire come to collect, there’s no denying that it’s an episode full of tenderness, Elisha not wanting to leave this person who has meant so much to him.

I’m sure Elijah taught him many things; but it’s not the teaching that Elisha will miss, rather the teacher. It’s not the end of the ideas that gives him grief, but the sundering of their bond of affection across whatever gulf was coming to separate them. Yes as far as religion is concerned, the knowledge worth having begins with love, and not love with knowledge.

So back to the bishop on the airplane. He was irritated that this fellow merely wanted to share his “vote for God.” The bishop’s somewhat caustic reply was aimed at asking the deeper question: how does your belief matter, how does it make a difference in your life, where does it begin, and where does it end? Most importantly, what about your heart? You believe in God; do you love God? Do you love God’s people, God’s world? Because without that, I’m afraid your vote for God doesn’t count for much.

So knowledge worth having starts with love, and not the other way around; and love always brings us to the brink of what can and cannot be said, of what can and cannot be put into words. By that accounting, Peter and Elisha both are pardoned for their absurdity, and much beloved.

This year I am particularly conscious myself, being in a new place, of the limits of my own skill and capacity; which has me thinking about the limits of our religion as a whole. It makes me wonder, too: what we do on Sundays, and throughout the week: all our worship, all our prayers, all our writing and our reading; speaking at least for myself, sometimes I think we flatter ourselves that it is our part to articulate the mysteries of God just as the voice from heaven proclaimed to Peter and James and John the truth of who Jesus is, and to clear up all the darkness by our own brilliance. But I think it might be nearer the case that all our words and all our learning and all our worship, when they’re at their best, are nearer to the crazed expostulations of Peter and of Elisha: “My Father, My Father! The Chariots of Israel and its Horsemen!” “Lord it is good that we are here, let us make three tents, one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

These exclamations do not make sense on their own; no exegetical or scholarly acrobatics are sufficient to explain them satisfactorily. And yet, taken as part of a whole defined first by affectionate encounter between persons who love one another, we can both laugh at Peter and recognize in him something of our own deeply felt devotion and tenderness. So let our own worship, and prayer, and thought serve as faltering, imperfect, even absurd steps of love towards Peter’s God and ours.

Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany and Lent is right around the corner. Today let’s resolve afresh to resist the temptation to explain or even understand before exercising our faculties of tenderness and of love. So may we find truth revealed for us: not as so many facts or laws or doctrines or even as so many convictions or beliefs; but rather as an encounter of love, with Christ who first loved us.

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

No time to waste

This sermon was preached on Sunday, September 9, 2017 (13th after Pentecost) at CSMSG. It was Labor Day weekend, and Hurricane Harvey was wreaking havoc in Houston and elsewhere as it made landfall. Meanwhile I’ve just started reading some of the works of the late Rev. Dr. John Hughes, an English priest and theologian, one of whose scholarly concerns was to articulate an Anglican “theology of work” as inseparable from worship, love, and joy. It’s a version of one of his theses that I offer as the resolution to this sermon.

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 Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Jeremiah 15:15-21, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

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

“There’s no time to lose!” There certainly isn’t in Houston. The Red Cross, Episcopal Relief and Development FEMA, and scores of other helping organizations are partnering with thousands of local churches, groups, and individuals to help with the flooding. The damage is enormous. There have been other disasters, but as crises always are, this one is immediate and life-threatening for many, and life-altering for countless more. In this moment of great need, there is no time to waste.

For St. Paul too this morning, there is no time to waste. I don’t know about you, but I’m breathless after reading the long “to-do list” he writes in today’s passage from Romans: no less than thirty commands give the Romans, and we ourselves, marching orders from Paul. There’s no time to waste: from “Let love be genuine,” to “weep with those who weep,” to “feed your enemies,” and everything in between. The scope of the work is overwhelming. Any one of these commands might take us an entire lifetime to achieve. We’d better get started, there’s not a moment to lose.

It’s not just the number of commands either, but the nature of what Paul tells us. The first on the list is hard enough: “Let love be genuine.” Who among us hasn’t ever said ‘Thank You,’ or ‘Have A Nice Day,’ through gritted teeth? And yet not just one, but thirty. I don’t know what’s on your to-do list, if it’s anything like mine you’ve got enough to do already to take you all the way through this life and well into the next. But the stakes here are high. “Overcome evil with good.” “Take up your cross and follow me.” 

If we allow these commands to govern our lives, we find ourselves on a completely different footing than the one we’re used to doing business on. The insult your mother-in-law shot your way; the way your friends or coworkers take advantage of you; even that rude driver in the other lane who can’t seem to merge at the right time; you’re just going to have to turn the other cheek. Because there is no time to waste. We are citizens of a higher country, a heavenly one. According to the rules of that country, turning the other cheek is not a sign of weakness but an offering of love, which refuses to demonize even the demons, and allows Life the final word — not death, corruption, or decay. We are not given enough time on this earth to waste it holding grudges or worshiping idols, whatever your favorite idols might be. There’s no time to waste. Get busy already!

And yet: If you’ve ever been in a position to volunteer in a crisis, whether for a natural disaster or a loved one’s illness or something else, you’ll have discovered an important truth — that even the most acute crises make for a lot of waiting around. The patient’s family waits for the surgeon to finish. The surgeon waits for the patient to emerge from anesthesia. The patient waits for the doctors and the body to do their work of healing. Volunteers wait for deliveries of sandbags. Delivery drivers wait for the next convoy. And so on. And the moment when you’re standing there feeling like you’re there, and you ought to be doing something already, is often the moment when most you are.

Sick people recall first not how busy the nurses were, but how attentive they were and how kind. Flood victims recall first not how efficient the relief agency was but the way they paid attention to them and their needs as if they were the only people on earth. Sure, work has to get done, and fast, no mistaking that. But in the final analysis, so often it’s the time spent waiting around, seemingly wasting time, that proves the most meaningful, the most restorative, on a personal level.

Love is a lot like that. Love doesn’t grow by tasks accomplished or any other kind of efficiency metric. It grows by two people wasting time with each other. Not treating the other as anything other than themselves: not as a means to an end, or a tool for my own gratification, but by simply wasting time with each other. Prayer is like that too: wasting time with God. So is the whole incarnation of Jesus Christ: the Son of God comes to earth in order to waste time with us lousy people, who were just as easily distracted then as we are today. 

By any metric, Jesus’s incarnation was neither busy nor efficient. He spent thirty-three years on earth and only three of those in ministry of any recognizable kind. The “converts” he made in his lifetime all either betrayed or abandoned him at the cross. Jesus came to earth to waste time with you and me, and in the process to consecrate time itself to his use, to his glory, forever. He went to the cross to consecrate even death to the purposes of Love, and ascended into heaven that you and I might waste time with him there too.

So we’re left with a problem. On the one hand, there’s no time to waste: we’d better get cracking if we’re going to live up to our identities as Christians, and accomplish all that that entails. That’s no joke. And yet on the other hand, not wasting time any time toward that end, will require us to be okay with wasting time.

Or, put it another way. We’re used to thinking of Work and Rest as being opposed to one another. But in the Kingdom of God, they are not opposed, they converge. Work and Rest converge in the worship of Almighty God, and in his kingdom’s economy of love. For Christians, Work and Rest converge in the worship of Almighty God, and in his kingdom’s economy of love.

The work we are called to is to waste time loving God, our neighbors, our enemies, and each other. The promise is that we will find the time we waste in this way drawing into eternity, opening windows on earth into heaven.

So, here we are. It’s a Sunday morning, we’re all in church. The world is falling down around our ears in different ways every week. So what’s new? There’s no time to waste, not a moment to lose. Let’s quit acting surprised by it all and do something already. Say your prayers. Come to the altar. Be fed with the bread of heaven. And get busy wasting time with God and one another, loving in whatever material, emotional, or spiritual way you can muster. Take up your cross, lose your life for Jesus’ sake — your reputation too, your influence, whatever you most like to hoard — and find those windows onto heaven have become your own home, and the work of God has become your own rest.

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.

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.

Surprise!

This was one of the most fun sermons I’ve ever preached: for a wedding (the couple’s names have been “redacted” to protect the innocent!), which for various reasons took place on April 8, 2017 — the night before Palm Sunday — usually verboten, I know, but it all makes sense in context. The wedding was a surprise: all the guests thought they were coming to an engagement party at a venue in the city, and all were enjoying the evening — when the bride sprung the announcement that a priest (me) was waiting in the next room along with a string quartet, and that the wedding would take place immediately. I had no idea whether the congregation would be happy or furious, hence my hesitation at the beginning of the homily, and my strategic decision to emphasize the element of “Surprise!” In the event, I needn’t have worried: the congregation couldn’t have been happier for the couple, and I couldn’t have been more honored to do this.

Collect: O gracious and everliving God, you have created us male and female in your image: Look mercifully upon this man and this woman who come to you seeking your blessing, and assist them with your grace, that with true fidelity and steadfast love they may honor and keep the promises and vows they make; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Song of Solomon 2:10-13; 8:6-7; Colossians 3:12-17

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

Well, Surprise!

As N. and N. and I have been preparing for today, I’ve been threatening them that I’d preach a 6-hour homily, but just in case some of you don’t like surprises as much as these two, I’ll make this short before you start lobbing rotten tomatoes in this direction!

Surprises: At first glance nothing seems to be further from the kind of long-term faithfulness at the heart of marriage. When choosing a partner we weigh our options carefully, engage in serious soul-searching based on our own experience, our personalities, our priorities and needs and wants. Nearly every corner of the relationship market these days has completely sold out to the idea of analytical compatibility, which leaves very little room for any kind of real surprise. Surprises are not welcome by this kind of metric!

But I think surprise is one of the chief cornerstones of any good relationship, no matter how many years you’ve spent together or how well you know each other. One of the things at the heart of the Church’s conviction about who people are is that each is made in the image of God. As God is infinite, inexhaustible, so is any mirror put up to reflect his image. We spend our whole lives on this earth getting to know God and the things he has made.

Recently I was at a bedside giving last rites to a man many regarded as exceptionally wise, strong in faith over many decades of life’s many episodes. What was going through his mind as he lay there dying? Great thoughts of profound meaning about his life and the people he loved? Not by any measure — he was remembering the stories of his childhood, and the songs he learned in Sunday School. He went to his death croaking out the tune “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Here on his deathbed he was still full of the wonder of a child, ready for more mysteries to unfold, more surprises to be unveiled, just around the next corner.

Why do I tell this story at a wedding? Because just as this man was full of childlike wonder before entering the nearer presence of God, so in this life you and I are constantly brought face to face with persons who bear his image: whose depths we can never exhaust, who are always just one step ahead of us no matter how well we think we might know them.

This is the way it is with every person in our lives, and the degree to which we allow them to surprise us with who they are is the degree to which we learn to love as God loves.

In no relationship is this more profoundly the case than in marriage. Sometimes I’ll hear from someone married a long time, that they’ve lived with their husband or wife for forty, fifty, sixty years, and they still don’t understand them. It’s often meant as a quick quip, a light joke, but there’s a very deep truth there. The person whom you marry will always be one step beyond you, eluding your complete understanding, evading your complete grasp. 

As the poet in Song of Solomon calls his beloved from where she lies to where he is going, a husband or wife calls the other from out of the current moment into the beyond, into the realm of God’s love, where mercy is new every morning, and worlds on worlds are created for sheer joy. There is no exhausting that love, no possessing it, no controlling it. Here we are on the eve of Holy Week, when we remember chief of all that even death itself can have no lasting hold on God, and the more it tries the more it is undone.

Which is all a very long way of saying, N. and N., surprise one another! Be ready to be surprised. There is no telling how the years will unfold, or what you will have made of each other when you face your own last moments. But understand there will be many surprises along the way, many unforeseen moments, many chances to see afresh, to make anew, to forgive, to restore, to nurture, to flourish. Welcome the surprises, use them as occasions to learn something of God, and to grow in love. Easter is the surprise that remakes the world. Let your marriage be the occasion for God to remake you, as you love one another in his Name and in his power.

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