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: suffering

Strangers to ourselves

This sermon was preached on the First Sunday of Lent, 18 February 2018, at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. It was the Sunday following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and amid the national grief I wanted to explore ways toward what might constitute the beginning of a specifically “Christian” response — at least for myself and my own community — that did not rest on platitudes or attempt merely to soothe such grief and anger as cannot (and should not) be soothed.

Collect: Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted of Satan: Make speed to help thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations; and, as thou knowest their several infirmities, let each one find thee mighty to save; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15

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

Well, here we are again. Another Lent, another school shooting, another weekend where we are all too aware of the fragility of human life amidst the forces that work to undo it. The pain in Florida is all the more acute as the stories come out that the policies and procedures designed to protect against someone like Nikolas Cruz broke down, and that those who were most worried could not get the help they needed before he started shooting.

Such things should not happen; such things continue to happen. One person with evil intent can ruin untold lives as easily as pulling a trigger or clicking a button. So we learn, and relearn, painfully, every time. Decades of love and support between parents and children, decades before that of growth and marriage and life, ended in the blink of an eye. Why is it so easy to ruin life, while it’s so difficult to nurture it?

Even deeper than the questions of gun control or public policy, why on earth does violence, killing, and death come so easily to so many, as a solution to problems or an outlet for emotions — or even, as in the case of Nikolas Cruz, as a pseudo-vocation?

In the face of such challenges as these, the world seems less and less familiar to us, and once-intimate places and confidences and relationships begin to break down, without a clear sense of where we’re going or how the tension can possibly be resolved.

As I’ve said before, our Religion doesn’t offer a convincing or even a reassuring answer to these questions. But it does give us a language for the grief, and Lent is as good a place as any to start. We began today with the Great Litany, as thorough an account of sin and suffering as there is, with dozens of petitions for forgiveness and deliverance. Today I at least am glad for the petition for God “Finally to beat down Satan under our feet” since at the moment Satan seems a good deal more in our faces than usual.

It’s worth reminding ourselves of the personal nature of evil: not just impersonal forces at work in the world, but forces in which in my own small way I participate, and by which I affect others, individuals as well as communities. School parents in Florida are finding evil inescapably personal this weekend, just as you and I do in smaller ways every time we examine our conscience. Praying the Great Litany here at the beginning of Lent collects all our griefs and all our shortcomings into one cry to God, one cry which unites the seemingly disparate “Save us, else we perish,” and, “Have mercy on me a sinner.”

And then we get in the Gospel Jesus being tempted by Satan. St. Mark doesn’t give us details, but you’re probably familiar with the longer telling from St. Matthew: Jesus makes his own 40 day fast, his own Lent in the desert just after his baptism by John in the Jordan, where Satan comes to tempt him. The three temptations he faces are the three which undergird every other temptation we might face: the temptation first to change stones into bread, and so to remove a deadly threat both from Jesus’ own immediate experience and by extension one of the chief threats to life throughout the world. Second the temptation to rule all the nations, and, presumably, then, by wisdom and grace to solve all the problems they face and institute peace and justice once for all, at the cost merely of bowing the knee to worship the devil. And finally the temptation to cast himself down from the temple, for the angels to save and so reveal who Jesus really is, the son of God, and make everyone respect him accordingly.

You know the story: Jesus resists every temptation, and then he goes about his ministry. But it’s hard to overstate just how clever the devil is. He tempts Jesus with all the things he already is, he tempts him with the truth about himself: Jesus is the bread of life, the one without whom nothing was made that was made, the true life of all; Jesus is, in Isaiah’s words, the king of kings, before whom nations rightly pay homage; and Jesus is the Son of God, who needs neither angels nor human respect to prove who he is. The irony is, that if Jesus were to fall to the devil’s tempting, he would be betraying the very identity to which the temptations appeal.

This is how temptation works: the devil appeals always to what is closest and best about ourselves, not so that we might give up those things, but so that we might turn them to the devil’s nefarious purposes, and so find death in the midst of life.

In this way, sin makes us strangers to ourselves. We think we know what we’re getting into, and we find suddenly we’re somewhere we didn’t intend. A friend or a loved one confronts us, shows us how what we said or did affected them, and in that mirror we don’t recognize the self that we see. It made so much sense when we said it; it seemed inevitable, and self-evident when we decided on that course of action. And yet somehow it took us to a place where we don’t recognize who we are.

I think this is why it’s so hard for us to admit our wrongdoing, because it doesn’t always look like wrongdoing to us, despite the way it results in real, observable harm. And if it’s hard for you and me, how much harder for a whole community, or a whole nation, to see that its own dearest-held ideals have led directly to suffering, loss, and death.

So what do we do? Do we jettison group or national ideals, or surrender the whole project of self-examination in the first place? No, but this is where our religion might start to offer practical aid after all, where its language of grief and petition offers a solid starting point.

If we are often strangers to ourselves, then so much the more is the world, our home, a strange and unfamiliar place, full of unexpected threats and injuries. Much of our religion exists to mark and articulate the pain and the longing which go along with such a state. In the Church, and especially in Lent, we are given permission as it were not to feel at home in our world, or in our lives. And we are given a language both to lament this state of things and to hope for something more, something better, something warm and familiar and secure, something full of life, with a future beyond the current horizon, even if it be something we’ve never seen or considered before.

Lent takes us right to the doorstep of Holy Week, and to Jesus’ passion and death. We know that our own Lenten wandering will take us, too, right to the gates of death and beyond. The promise is that when we feel most a stranger to ourselves and to our world, there God is near, there God is more familiar to us than we are to ourselves. There a different pathway begins beyond zero-sum games of mercy or justice, compassion or righteousness, life or death. There God’s love recreates us, into the people we were always meant to be. There God’s love refashions the world.

This Lent, as we give voice to our grief, and voice to our longing for a better world and a better heart, let us not shy away from feeling a stranger to ourselves or to our world. It’s okay, to feel that things are not all right, and that we are not at home. We don’t have to have all the answers. But we do have to articulate our grief, and we do have to place our hope beyond where we can see right now.

So God draws near: mysteriously, unseen, where we feel most estranged and confused, even angry and unbelieving. There God sheds whatever tears are left after ours have long dried up, and in the desert where they fall a new world begins.

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

Why?

This sermon was preached on Sunday, October 8, 2017, at CSMSG. This year every week seems to bring with it some new disaster, some new crisis of faith, and this week especially with the news of a mass shooting in Las Vegas. In this context it’s all the more natural to ask “Why?” especially of God – but one of the perennial troubles is that God is not always forthcoming with an answer. This sermon is an attempt to point the way towards a specifically Christian response to the matters at hand, as well as to the larger question of faith and suffering.

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve: Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy, forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord; who live the and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

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

I’ll never forget, in the first weeks of being ordained a deacon (I wasn’t a priest yet) I went to the hospital with my father to see my grandmother. She had just undergone a complicated procedure for pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis which had taken her — and all of us — completely by surprise. Most of my dad’s four siblings were in Grandma’s room with us, and we were all talking quietly while she slept off the residue of the anesthesia. One of them asked me point blank, knowing I’d just been ordained, “So all right Blake, now tell us why this happened.” I confess I was at a total loss for words. I’m sure I mumbled something unsatisfying, and the conversation carried on.

Or another case, years before: a friend of mine committed suicide after graduating from college, after suffering through depression and various family issues for years. In his last email to me before jumping in front of a train, he said the one thing that troubled him the most, was “Why anything at all?” Not just, “Why is there bad in the world?” or, “Why is there good?” but, “Why is there anything at all?” He’d grown up a person of faith, but something about that particular moment in his life prevented him from seeing any reason at all behind any of the things he was facing. There was no satisfactory answer I could give.

The last time I preached, Houston was in the middle of historic flooding after Hurricane Harvey. In the few weeks since, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria have both hit, and we’ve just had yet another record-setting public shooting, this time in Las Vegas. “Why” is still the question on my mind, and I’m sure it’s an important question for many of you too — whether about these specific incidents or something else you might be facing. Are there any answers to be had from Christian faith? And if none are finally satisfying, why should we bother in the first place?

This is where the parables in the Gospel, and actually the whole Gospel itself, really begins to shift us out of our comfortable patterns of thought. In today’s parable about the vineyard and the wicked tenants, Jesus is telling a parable about himself, among other things. He is the son in the parable, who willingly goes to the tenants, and gets killed by them. Why on earth is this the way it works? We don’t know, though we’ve spent the last two thousand years coming up with one theory after another about why it has to be this way. The son gets killed by the tenants in the Gospel parable. The Son of God gets killed by those he comes to save in the Gospel. Why does it have to be this way?

You may know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian in the Second World War, who refused to collaborate with the Nazi state and found himself in a prison camp, where he was executed mere days before the Allies liberated it. In the letters he wrote from prion, he observed that asking why was always the wrong question, because it revealed two flawed assumptions. First, asking why is the wrong question because it assumes that knowledge will always fix things; and second, because it assumes the chief function of God is to satisfy our curiosity. The problem with this first is that knowledge simply doesn’t always fix things; more often than not it creates further problems of its own. And second of all, if God exists merely to satisfy our curiosity, then God can be dethroned in our hearts by anything that offers a more enticing or convincing explanation. This is the heart of all the so-called “Science and Religion” debates. If God exists to offer explanations, and if science offers a more detailed account of how atoms work (or whatever), what reason is there for holding the doctrine of creation?

But this is not what God is for, this is not what doctrine is about. God is not here just to offer explanations for thorny questions, questions about either the nature of reality or the painful experience of suffering. Jesus did not take on human flesh in order to answer our questions or to give us a satisfying “Why.” Instead, he came to cast a vision, and to live it out to its end: a vision where the Son of God shows up in our world not as the enforcer of some kind of divine fairness, or the all-knowing oracle who untangles all knots — in our parable today the son does not successfully demand anything out of those tenants, or convincingly explain to them their error. No. The Christian vision is where God himself shows up and gets murdered; where Jesus shows up in the world he made, and reveals himself not the enforcer but the victim; the Victim whose offering of himself on the cross breaks the whole economy of death and bridges the chasm between heaven and earth. For Jesus there is no answer to suffering, except to suffer it himself, and in so doing establish the victory of life over death, out of which victory he brings healing to the nations and to your heart and mine.

This is the paradox, the mystery at the heart of Christian belief: that in suffering, in loss, in pain, injustice, and unfairness, somehow God is present and heaven is near: not as the solution to a problem, not as the explanation, not as the cause, but as the victim, whose death breaks the power of death forever, and whose life is the source, the pattern, and the guarantor of all human flourishing and joy.

No, Christian faith does not answer any questions. It does however question us: do we really want to embrace the vision which Jesus casts? Do we really want to live in a world where the Son of God is the victim and not the cavalry; the suffering servant and not the righteous landowner? Do we really want to live in a world where the last are first, and I might not get what I have coming to me after all? Do we really want to live in a world where justice and righteousness and even law itself do not avail but only mercy, weakness, and love? Do we really want to live in a world where the meek inherit the earth, and where the rest of us will have to be content with a backseat when it comes to the priorities of God?

Make no mistake, this is not a satisfying answer, logically or rhetorically. And yet it is the answer which God offers, both in today’s parable and in the Cross. If the Cross is an answer at all, it is the answer to a question no one is asking. It doesn’t answer our “Why?” to Harvey or Irma or Maria. It doesn’t explain Stephen Paddock, pancreatic cancer, depression, suicide, or Bonhoeffer’s Nazi captors. But the God who is last, who puts himself into the breach and suffers the consequences he neither asked for nor deserved — this God is our God, whom we worship here this morning and whose table we will approach in a few moments.

No this is not a satisfying answer. But somehow I think we intuit that it might be the correct answer. We are always moved to see the photos of people shielding one another from bullets with their own bodies. We sense something deeply right about this, even while we know the cost is too much to pay; and it helps with sketching out the only response the Gospel offers. If there is a Christian response to these sorts of things, it is never to fight fire with fire; never to come up with reasons why it must have been the will of God; never finally even to pass or repeal legislation. If there is a Christian response to these sorts of things, it is to step into the breach with our own lives after the pattern of our Lord — and find, when the darkness closes in, that a Light shines there which the darkness cannot comprehend. In this way Heaven continually breaks into our world from within, not standing offering explanation or escape from without.

This is the only way the Gospel could be Good News to my grandmother. At that point there was no stopping the cancer. It could only be what it was, while the rest of us could only sit and watch in dismay. There was nothing anyone could do to fix it. Yet in her own quiet way, even as she slept in that hospital room, she gave the answer I could not offer. In her graceful dying, concerned only for the well-being of her family, she bore witness to Christ himself on the cross giving Mary and John into each other’s care; and, finding Jesus there in the midst of her dying, there is no question that he himself carried her home.

So, if you find the vision compelling and you really do want to be a part of the Christian response to the suffering in our world — don’t try to explain it, or offer some kind of half-baked solution that only makes yourself feel better and does no justice either to those who are suffering or to the God who claims them for his own. Rather, if you want to offer a specifically Christian response, put yourself in the way of heaven; put your own life into the breach. Let heaven break into the world, into your heart, from within; not reserving it to judgement or escape from without. Go where life is most threatened, most vulnerable, in the world and in your own soul. There, say with Jesus, “Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” And find: that, embracing the God who is last and least, the victim of all earthly powers, his strength will transfigure your weakness, his death will transfigure your life into his own eternal love.

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

Wrestling with God

The following sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday, October 16, 2016, the 21st Sunday after Trinity (Pentecost 22/Proper 24).

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in Christ hast revealed thy glory among the nations: Preserve the works of thy mercy, that thy Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 32:22-31, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

“And Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint.” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen:

Our passage from Genesis this morning is one of my favorite episodes in the Old Testament, partly because it is so strange, and seems to come out of nowhere. (Maybe that says more about me than it does about Jacob, but still, it’s one of my favorites).

Jacob is returning home after fourteen years’ sojourn with his kinsman Laban. He has gotten married, twice, and amassed a large family and personal fortune. As he gets closer and closer to home, he gets more and more worried about his brother Esau. Remember Jacob cheated Esau out of his birthright, and promptly ran away. This is his first return home since then, and naturally he’s worried about his reception. So he sends gifts to Esau ahead of the caravan, and then sends the family on ahead to spend the last night of the journey alone.  

Why does he send them on ahead? Is he cowardly, wanting to put as many bodies as possible between himself and his potentially murderous older brother? Is it somehow to protect them, with distance between himself and the people he cares about? We’re unsure, the text doesn’t say. At any rate, as soon as they’re gone and Jacob is settling down for the night, a stranger appears out of nowhere and attacks Jacob. They wrestle all night long, neither of them getting the upper hand, until morning — and as day is breaking, the stranger touches Jacob’s thigh and puts it out of joint so he can get away.

Jacob is convinced he has wrestled with God, and the stranger certainly plays it that way, giving Jacob a new name in the way that God seems prone to do now and then. “Your name shall now be Israel, for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” The dawn breaks, Jacob goes on his way, and finds his brother not murderous at all but overjoyed to see him again.

It is a strange episode. Is it a dream? Why did the stranger resort to these semi-miraculous means putting Jacob’s thigh out of joint in order to get away? If the stranger is indeed God himself, it certainly looks like God is prepared to cheat in order to win this wrestling match. As Genesis proceeds, we don’t really get any answers about this event. Jacob enters the Promised Land and follows in the steps of his forbears, becoming a great Patriarch, father to the twelve tribes of Israel; though he walks with a limp for the rest of his life.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever felt as though you were wrestling with God, or even that God seems to be cheating to get the better of you? At morning prayer over the last few weeks we’ve been reading through the book of Job. Now there is a man who has spent a long time wrestling with God: facing suffering he didn’t deserve, with friends whose easy answers tended to make things worse rather than better. Job doesn’t get any answers either, even worse for him since God himself shows up, unmistakably, and refuses point blank to answer the questions Job asks. Like Jacob, at the end he seems to come out better for having wrestled with God, but I have to think his life remained scarred for the losses and pains he endured.

Maybe you know what it feels like yourself: in the middle of life, politely minding your business, making your way as best you can, like Jacob maybe a shortcut here or there but on the whole trying hard to be conscious of God’s gifts, thankful for your blessings. And then out of nowhere, the stranger at the river Jabbok shows up and throws you off balance. You fight and you struggle, but it seems there is no way out. How is it fair? Loss, hardship, confusion, loss of confidence, all of it is difficult to endure. Is God responsible? Has God even cheated at the game, played dirty with fate or chance or Providence? Perhaps God even seems to you the unjust judge from Jesus’ parable today, and you or I like the widow, suffering some injustice and unable to get a fair ruling: coming day after day, night after night to God’s door begging for mercy and hearing only silence.

Albert Einstein, objecting to what he thought was the craziness of quantum physics, once remarked, “God does not play dice.” But all too often, our lives as we live them recall another quote, “Not only does God play dice, but the dice are loaded.” If God cheats with Jacob, if he refuses to answer Job’s cries, does that merely leave us to soldier on in the midst of whatever challenge we face? Are merely supposed to bear suffering like the ancient stoics, to bear loss of meaning or security by saying it must be God’s will and move on?

All of a sudden this strange story alone at night at the fords of the River Jabbok starts to sound more familiar, and all too common. What do we do when we are at our wits’ end, and the wrestling match takes a turn for the worse? What meaning are we supposed to make of it?

Consider for a moment that when it comes to making sense of our lives, we usually worry only about one side of the story, our own side. But I dare you, for just a moment, to consider the other side, God’s side of the story, the stranger stealing into Jacob’s camp at midnight.

Consider God’s own affair with the world from the first moments of creation: a world to love, and creatures to delight as they reflect his glory, persons made in his image, who are very good. But from our first disobedience in the Garden, the world fell from its first grace, and over the millennia God has been wrestling time after time to win us back to him, to redeem what was lost and restore it to glory.

Late in the match, long after Jacob and Job, He sent another stranger into the fray, his own Son, to wrestle the powers of sin and death which held the world in bondage. Not at night this time, but in broad daylight: as Jesus’ gave up his spirit on the cross, He cheats again, putting the whole world’s thigh out of joint.

The cross is where God puts the whole world’s thigh out of joint. And as he rises from the dead, and ascends into heaven, all who are touched by him receive a new name, his own Name. You and I are made members of a new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, where sin and sorrow and death are no more.

Certainly the hardships and struggles and sorrows of our lives scar us, and we bear those marks forever, just as Jacob limped his whole life long and the risen Christ bears the marks of the nails. Jacob, like Job, like you and me, asked himself “Why me? What does it all mean?” at the thought of the dangers he had gone through and the dangers ahead of him. It was a dark night for him at the fords of the Jabbok, and he did not know what the next day would bring; his preparations, sending his family on ahead, make him seem paralyzed with fear or dread. Would God be faithful to the promise he made to Jacob? Would his brother forgive him?  

But God did not answer his questions, did not allay his fears. He he did not answer Job’s charges either, and neither does answer ours — save by showing up himself. God does not answer our questions in any other way than by showing up himself: in our darkest, loneliest hour, grappling with whatever suspicion or anger or violence or doubt we might want to throw at him.

God himself shows up and picks a fight with us to bear, himself, all our rage, and cheating, at the last minute, bringing us up short, wounding us with his grace, so that we might be reconciled to one another and enter the land he has prepared for us with a new name, the one he has prepared for us from the beginning, a name befitting his sons and daughters.

If God has put your thigh out of joint, do not worry, he has put the whole world’s thigh out of joint at the cross of his Son. He did not cause your suffering, he is not hiding in the darkness, he is not afraid of your frustration. But his answer is to be with you in the midst of it, to suffer the brunt of it himself, and, as with Jacob, to grant you the grace to see his face right beside you, and to receive his blessing.

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