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: Refreshment

Seen and unseen, said and unsaid

The following is more of a meditation than a sermon — occasioned in part by Jesus’ connection of the cross with Moses’ serpent of bronze in today’s Gospel, and in part by some of the responses to last week’s sermon — variously jubilant or concerned that I had downplayed the doctrine of the Atonement. My intention was not to downplay the doctrine, only to shift focus from the mechanisms of forgiveness to the God who forgives. The meditation below is an elaboration on that shift in focus, as well as a continuation of previous themes on worship in general. It was preached on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Refreshment Sunday, 11 March 2018 at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. The choir sang a setting of the mass by Arvo Pärt. The photo is of the rood screen and chancel at Christ Church, New Haven, CT, by Lauren Larsen Photographs.

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: Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

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

One of my favorite churches is in New Haven, Connecticut, the parish where I served as a seminarian years ago. They have an old-fashioned rood screen like ours, an open, carved wood lattice placed at the juncture between the nave and the chancel. A great, almost life-sized cross stands at the summit, and all the carved work makes the screen feel like a sheer, breezy curtain into some Moorish walled garden in some desert palace long ago. It marks a transition from one place to another, one attitude to another, one world to another, as communicants pass beneath the cross on their way to the altar to make their communions with the One who hangs there.

As you walk under the cross, your eyes shift to the altar, and to the communion rail ahead. But behind you, up on the beam that supports the cross, there are words carved into the wood — facing backwards, facing back towards the altar. It’s a quote from John’s Gospel, a later repetition of one of the verses we heard just now: carved in the old King James,’ “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”

It’s an architectural way of making a very complicated and very beautiful theological point, plain for all to see on any given Sunday at the administration of communion. It’s also a reminder to the clergy, who is really the MC, the conductor of the Liturgy: Christ himself, more than any one or group of his ministers. It is his action, his love that orchestrates the whole celebration, his grace that calls us to the altar and that binds us to one another in these holy mysteries.

But as Jesus makes clear with Nicodemus in the Gospel today, the cross is also a direct reference back towards the episode in Numbers which we also heard today: the people of Israel have made their Exodus from Egypt, and they have wandered in the wilderness for years now. They’ve had a bit of bad diplomacy with the people of Edom, who did not permit them to cross their country on the way to the Promised Land, and so now they’re taking the long way around. They grumble, against Moses and against God, and they complain about the manna, the food from heaven which they’ve receiving miraculously every morning for nearly forty years now. God seems to be a bit bad tempered as well, because he responds to their grumbling by sending fiery serpents to bite and afflict the whole ungrateful bunch. God tells Moses to craft a bronze serpent and raise it on a pole — so that anyone suffering from snakebite can come to it and look at it and be healed.

It’s a weird story, no question about it, especially since the Ten Commandments are fairly explicit about making no images. The brazen serpent appears again in the book of Kings. Apparently the people had kept it and treasured it long after they had entered the Promised Land. It held a special place in the temple, and they would burn incense before it. King Hezekiah, one of the last great kings before the exile, undertook various religious reforms and finally destroyed the brazen serpent, fearing it had led the people to idolatry at last.

In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus it’s fairly clear that he’s referring to the healing properties of the snake: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” There’s something refreshing about the connection, at least to my mind. All that the people of Israel had to do was look at the serpent and they would be healed. No elaborate public displays of penitence, no sacrifice required; not even an apology or an admission of guilt. Just look at the serpent and be healed. Somehow the action itself was enough, the action itself contained all that might have been said and more.

There is certainly dramatic irony in play, and a painful one at that — having to look at the image of the thing that caused injury in order to be healed. But such a task also reminds them that the snakes were not the primary cause of their unhappiness, rather their own all consuming regard for themselves and their appetites, much as in the Garden of Eden, the serpent was only the vehicle of temptation and not the agent of the fall. Looking up at the bronze snake to be healed, away from the ground and away from their navels, in a sense points out their narcissism and restores a proper sense of perspective. Likewise for us to behold Jesus on the cross is to be reminded that his lordship is as victim, not as tyrant, and if there is anything wrong with this picture it is with ourselves who are so slow to recognize the victimizing power of our own misdeeds. But all this and all the inexhaustible more that might be said about the cross and about what happens there and about what good it does us, is contained and communicated in the simple act of looking up at it. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Just as the people of Israel were healed by looking at the serpent, so are you and I, by beholding the cross.

It’s an architectural way of making a very complicated and very beautiful theological point, which mingles the sign with the signified and liberates final religious meaning from priests and scholars and poets and restores it to anyone with a beating heart, who with humility and love yearns to be forgiven, to be healed, to be free.

Just look up, behold the cross, from whatever vantage point you possess, whatever you are feeling and wherever you find yourself. And in that action, behold the axis mundi, the central hinge of the whole world, both healing and mystifying us, in relation to which our lives make sense as being drawn to the very brink of heaven — but which loses all meaning the minute we make it serve our own ends; and more, in that moment it stands in judgment against us, for it was just such a self-seeking appropriation that led Jesus to be condemned in the first place.

The difficult thing about architectural points is that they are made silently, without words to interpret. Buildings are their own interpretation, speaking themselves to us as whatever life they are built to enable is lived out within them. So it is with the Church, the Sacraments, the Bible, Prayer, Doctrine, and the Cross. They exist not to be explained or defended or appropriated, but to enable a life in touch with God. Let them touch you, let them populate the landscape of your imagination. Look up from wherever you are to behold these mysteries on the horizon, and find God close at hand to help and to save.

This morning as we come to the foot of the cross above our own rood screen, and at the altar make our communions, may we find ourselves refreshed by the simplicity of our task, beholding the source of our healing and transported across time and space to the antechambers of Paradise: to that walled but un-gated garden where the serpent finally is crushed and death is no more, and the dead wood of the cross bears fruit for the healing of the nations.

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.