Sermon: Site Clearing

3 Epiphany, Year 1, RCL
26 January 2020

Recently, in my perennial quest for something undemanding to occupy myself with at the end of the day, I started watching Time Team. Time Team is a BBC show that is about 20 years old, and the premise of it is that a team of archaeologists is invited to a location and given three days to dig it all up and figure out what was going on in the past. They find Roman villas in farm fields, barrows on hilltops, castles in back gardens — the general impression I get is that you could dig up any random square yard in Britain and find about five eras of human occupation.

But though Britain might be rich in archaeological finds, it’s not always easy for the Time Team to figure out what they’ve got. It’s not like Stone Age folks looked at their watches and said, “Welp, it’s the Bronze Age now, better throw away these flints.” And even when you do have a situation where Britons of the Iron Age do something of the sort and start imitating Roman styles and technology to build houses and towns, it’s still not always clear what was going on in the location under study. It takes all the archival research, all the magnetic and radio imaging, all the digging, and a serious amount of mental agility to answer the questions posed by the site.

An ongoing joke among the archaeologists is that when they don’t know the purpose of some feature, they fall back on saying it was for “ritual purposes.” But, being scientists, they don’t usually stop there. They keep digging, and when they can’t dig any more, they let the remaining questions rest unanswered for the next people to tackle.

Of all the seasons of the church year, the season of Epiphany is the most like an archaeological dig. It digs down into specific prophecies and relates them to specific incidents in the life and ministry of Jesus, showing all the layers in between and illuminating how we see and do things today. “Behold a triple mystery,” says one of the antiphons for the season’s daily offices. “The wise men come with precious gifts; Christ comes to the waters of Jordan; and water is changed into wine.” Those seem like three pretty different things at this distance. You have to dig down into the layers to find out what was the point of the Magi, the significance of the Jordan to the people living near it, and what kind of story is being told when jars meant for purification suddenly hold rich wine.

Today’s readings are another keyhole trench into the manifestation of Jesus the Savior of the world. The location: Zebulon and Naphtali, the region occupied by two of the ancient tribes of Israel and now called Galilee. It’s an area that seems to be known for being dumped on throughout the ages. Tricky to farm, maybe. Equally difficult to defend as a whole, but it seems like it might be a good place to become anonymous in. In today’s Gospel reading, the top layer of the story is that Jesus finds out that John the Baptist, his forerunner, has been arrested; so Galilee is where he goes. Specifically, he goes to Capernaum, a fishing village by the Sea of — Galilee or Tiberias, depending on who you’re talking to. The town’s name later gave rise to a word that means “a disorderly accumulation of objects,” and that seems to be about right for our little archaeological dig. A place where misfits wind up, you might call it.

And this is where Jesus winds up. But instead of becoming anonymous, he starts preaching. Fishermen drop their nets and follow him. People are healed. Synagogues are electrified. Matthew draws a line between this and a passage in Isaiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”

Right, so we have something brewing in a fishing village in what everyone thought was nowheresville. What does it mean?

There’s a clue in what Jesus is said to have preached in this place. His message was: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is pretty close to the message John the Baptist was preaching before he was arrested. But where John’s message seemed to start an argument about who really needed to repent, Jesus’ message here seems to be received as exciting news. A lot of people here don’t have a high horse to fall off of. They are not offended by the idea that they need to repent. What gets their attention is the part about the kingdom of heaven coming near. They don’t have to go to it: it’s coming to them.

“One thing I have asked of the Lord, one thing I seek,” says the psalmist. “That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” But the temple has come to the Galileans instead. The major site is not the major site — at least for this part of the story.

It’s Jesus who is the vector for this encounter with God.

Now, because we know what happens after this, we want to know where it fits in. We know that Jesus went from here eventually to Jerusalem and the cross. In fact, the end of the Epiphany season is concerned with the Transfiguration, in which Jesus, preparing for his final journey, is manifested in his glory to his closest disciples, the ones he calls in the gospel today. These three are witnesses at the beginning in this place, and at the end in Jerusalem.

The place and the witnesses point to Jesus, and they point to the cross.

The cross is what we are being asked to look at. It’s the focal point of any season in the church year, but in each season the context is different. In Lent, we look at it in the context of sin and repentance. In Easter, we look at it in the context of victory. At Christmas, we contemplate the poignancy of God’s sharing our humanity, even to death by torture.

During Epiphany, we look at the cross in the context of illumination, of suddenly understanding ourselves and where we are and who we are with. We let go of our previous assumptions about what’s under our feet and dig down and shed light on what it means to encounter God. Paul tells the Corinthians, “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.” He doesn’t say “to those who have been saved,” he says “to those who are being saved.” We ourselves are being excavated, conserved, brushed free of obscuring dirt, and lifted into the light of God’s understanding. That is, if we invite God to come and work his triple mystery in our hearts. If what we want is to bulldoze the whole thing and build a resort, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

But we don’t want to see God’s wisdom revealed just to satisfy our own needs and curiosities. No, we want to be vectors of the power of God too. We want to magnify the illumination for the benefit of the world. We want knowing what we know to do some good. We want to be witnesses in a way that matters.

And that is what we pray when we pray today’s Collect.

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sermon: Time and Space

Advent 4, Year 1, RCL
22 December 2019

The mathematician John Wheeler is said to have said, “Time is what prevents everything from happening at once. And space is what prevents everything from happening to me.” Now that we’ve come to the last days of Advent, and the last days of the calendar year, we find ourselves with plenty of occasion to think about time and space. But even when we’re taking the time to think about time, we don’t really seem to know much about it.

The other day I ran across a picture of a longtime online friend who lives in Canada, taken with her sons in front of a historical monument. I said, “Who are these young men with you? I thought you had little boys!” She did have little boys five minutes ago, I could have sworn.

Three minutes is a vastly different time depending on what you’re doing with it. It goes in a blink when I’m triaging my inbox at work. But a few weeks ago when I was fencing a man half my age in a timed bout, I found myself thinking, “Isn’t there a break coming up soon?”

Time prevents everything from happening at once. But we don’t know how long it will take for a lot of things to happen. A friend of mine was moved to hospice this week; she’d been dealing with cancers for what seemed forever, and they are now beyond treatment. Her daughter posted to Caring Bridge saying, “I knew we would be here eventually, but I didn’t think it would be so soon.” We don’t know how long things like this take to happen.

We schedule everything according to chronos, time, measured in seconds and minutes and hours and days and years. But we live in kairos: the time appointed, the time not measurable, the time that’s only recognizable when we’re in it. 

God said to Ahaz, “Ask me for a sign. Anything, from all time and space, from the darkest depths to the brightest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I won’t put God to the test.” Ahaz didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to know how long it would take for the crisis to pass. Maybe he was afraid it would be bad news. Maybe he thought the answer would be too hard to hold out for.

In this story, God lost patience and said to Isaiah, “Well, whether he likes it or not, I’m giving him a sign. The time it takes for a young woman to give birth, to name the child after my presence, to wean him and to teach him not to cross the street without looking both ways: that’s how long it will take for Israel to be delivered.”

Now, on one level, that’s a measurable amount of time. We know human gestation takes nine months. We know when to expect basic milestones of our little ones; we watch for them to come along — early, late, in between.

But depending on what you’re doing, it could be any time at all. You just had a baby; you get submerged in the everyday work of caring for the child, and suddenly, the baby’s walking. How did that happen? But if you’re Ahaz, worrying in your tower, glancing nervously at your borders, it could take forever.

Time prevents everything from happening at once. But you can only measure the experience of it by what you’re doing while it passes.

In our gospel for today, we meet Joseph at a particular point in time: after he has made a formal contract of betrothal to Mary, but before they are actually married. He finds out, it doesn’t say how, that she is expecting a child. That’s out of place in the time-series: something is not right. The obvious conclusion is that Mary did something wrong, so Joseph decides to quietly cancel the contract and let Mary go. It hasn’t occurred to him to ask for a sign, but God sends an angel to give him one. Go ahead with the plan, says the message. God is in the act of saving God’s people. God is going to be born among you. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit who breathed over the waters before there was ever such a thing as measurable time.

And Joseph, who like the rest of his people has been silently crying, “How long? How long will tears be our food and drink?” — Joseph believes.

God has entered the time-series. God has knitted God’s self to the sequence of our DNA. We are perpetually unraveling, and God is stitching us back in. When Mary’s child is born, Joseph names him Jesus: God saves.

I don’t know about you, but I too am perpetually unraveling. I have to-do lists on sticky-notes that unpeel and fall off and are forgotten; I look up and suddenly there’s a massive pile of laundry to be done, there are emails I owed people two weeks ago, and it’s almost tax season. I’m making plans for the next year’s writing projects, because I have to do these things even if I don’t know what’s coming next. All I can do is pray for God to re-knit me day by day, to help me make good use of my time and to forgive me when I don’t. I pray for God to keep me centered in kairos when chronos threatens to eat me alive.

And in that spirit, I pray today’s Collect again.

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Sermon: Who is Your Life?

Proper 13, Year C, RCL
4 August 2019

800px-Hans_Holbein_the_Younger_-_The_Ambassadors_-_Google_Art_ProjectIf you go to a place like the Nelson-Atkins art museum, and take a wander among the paintings of the Renaissance period, you are likely to see at least one portrait or still life with a human skull set somewhere in the scene. This was called a memento mori, a reminder of death, both in art and in the scenes it represented — a reminder that we are mortal, lest we grow too arrogant and self-centered. Even in a painting like Holbein’s The Ambassadors, which is seemingly nothing to do with death, the artist put a skull in the foreground, disguised by optical illusion as a piece of driftwood at the explorers’ feet.

At that time it seemed like a very healthy thing, to remind ourselves that one day we will also die, not for the sake of being morbid, but for keeping a sense of perspective about things. And I think in our day and age, we could learn a little bit from that.

One of the reasons I think this is that we are, globally, suffering from the effects of our most deeply cherished — and false — religious belief. Regardless of what creed we hold to, or even if we hold to no creed at all, we all are steeped and stained in this belief. And that belief is that anything that happens to us is a thing that we deserve.

Oh, we pretend we don’t believe it. We write whole books asking why bad things happen to good people, and we know from our everyday experience that floods and fires, illnesses, accidents, random acts of malice, continue to happen to people whether they “deserve” it or not. We say we don’t believe it.

But we do. If we enjoy good fortune, ample money, relative safety, we tend to think that it’s because we’re just that kind of person: smart, industrious, centered, well-brought-up. And if something bad happens to us we become deeply haunted, not so much by the suffering itself, as by a horrifying suspicion that it happened because we’re the kind of person bad things happen to.

This belief has become so entrenched that we apply it to nearly any situation whether it is true or not. And, as humans do, we develop patterns for how misfortunes occur, automatically connecting illness with people who are overweight, crime or indigence with people of color, unintelligence with poverty, not as structures that catch people up regardless of their choices, but as indictments of the character of individuals we meet or hear about.

Why on earth would we persist in such a pernicious and demonstrably false belief? Why would we hold to it more dearly than even our belief in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Well, there’s one very good reason why, and that is that we can’t bear to grapple with the alternative: which is that Stuff can happen at any time, to any of us, and there is nothing we can do to prevent or control it. It’s just easier, sometimes, to face thinking you’re a bad person than that you can’t control the circumstances you’re in. It’s easier to think that it’s your fault than to contemplate what it might mean that it’s not your fault. It’s less scary to think that somehow it happened because we made it happen to us, that always some chain of our choices could have altered it, if only we’d known, if only we’d thought.

This is the kind of locked-in dichotomy that the memento mori was designed to counteract. And we see it throughout the scriptures for today. Our first reading comes from Ecclesiastes, which we tend to think of as a sort of existential text that doesn’t have much to do with religion. But the Hebrew name for this book undercuts that idea: the Hebrew Bible titles it Koheleth, “the Teacher,” “the Rabbi,” “the worship leader.” Tradition says it was written by Solomon, the king of Israel who had more money and women than he had time to enjoy them in, all because he asked God for wisdom instead. But if the book is any indication, the wisdom has turned to ashes in his mouth. “Useless,” he says, “useless! Everything is useless. No matter what good things I do, they could fall apart at any moment, and even if they don’t, I will die anyway, and the person who comes after me could destroy what I’ve built and I wouldn’t be able to stop them. What even is the point?” In another place in the text, the Teacher describes the flux of events that many people know from a song by the Byrds from the peace movement of the 60s, and the King James version of the text renders one passage in magnificent language: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

It’s not an accident that we think statements like that are an insult to piety. It’s not an accident that we think it’s against our religion to tell people it doesn’t matter if they try to be good. I mean, if people aren’t afraid of losing God’s favor, then how can we keep any order at all?

This summer we’ve been going through the parables of Luke, and all of them are designed to rile the authorities by getting in different ways at a single point. A father, who doesn’t care that his younger son squandered half the farm, celebrates his return in spite of the protests of his hardworking older brother. A man from a despised ethnicity takes pity on a man beaten on the side of the road without knowing or caring whose tribe he belongs to. Workers who only worked an hour get paid as much as people who were hired at the beginning of the day. Wherever Jesus goes, patterns are broken. A woman hungry for the Word is served the good stuff rather than being sent to the kitchen. A sinner is declared forgiven without permission being asked first. Everywhere you look, people are escaping their lot in life — and getting away with it!

When Jesus is on the scene, nothing happens according to what we think people “deserve.”

So, why is this important? Why do we care about this? Well, if your Facebook feed is anything like mine, it’s chock-full of this false dichotomy that I’ve been talking about. Every day some new cruelty, some tweet reporting or boasting the next atrocity — each one casually justified by saying that the people these things are happening to are the kind of people these things ought to be happening to. Mass extinctions, 100-year weather events happening daily, spray-painted swastikas, children in cages — a barrage of filthy chaos that gives us no respite from thinking that the only alternative to this being all our fault is our being utterly helpless to stop it. So we take up feeble arms against this sea of troubles, and post artful memes about living in the moment, appreciating beauty, checking out for a bit to take time for ourselves, cultivating tiny spaces of hope. Honestly, I do this a lot. “I just read this horrible tweet. So here’s a picture of my cat.”

But don’t we ache for a real escape?

What if we gave up even trying to make an argument that someone, or even we ourselves, don’t deserve to suffer? What if we stopped letting that dichotomy set the terms of the debate? What if we stopped wasting outrage on people who are outsourcing their own fear of death by inflicting punishments and deaths on other people? What if we stopped hoarding self-justification against a day when people might see us fall into misfortune and pass judgment on us?

What if we just dropped it. Right at the foot of the cross.

In our epistle reading for today, this is exactly what we are encouraged to do. “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” Not only are we going to die for certain, in a real and non-trivial sense we have already died. We have descended into the extremity of helplessness, been looked upon with compassion by the eyes of ultimate reality, and been called blameless. And we have gotten away with it.

It is because we have gotten away with it that we are free to take action, to drop our pettiness, to be generous, to be angry without being poisoned by it, to take risks, to persist. We can and must reject all patterns that tell us who deserves what kind of suffering, because we are being renewed in the knowledge of the one who created our risen self. “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”

And we can understand that “being generous toward God” is a paradoxical kind of generosity, because we are not hoarding up reasons to believe we are good people, but allowing God’s own generosity to us flow out in what we give and do.

If we as Christians intend to live and act in these times that we are facing, we need to ask ourselves: Who is our life? It’s a dangerous question to ask, because it strikes at the heart of the dearest religious belief outside (and inside) of the church. It’s also the safest question to ask, because if the ultimate helplessness of your human self is in the safekeeping of God’s reality, what can a false belief do to that?

Who is our life?

Who is your life?

Let us pray the Collect for today.

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sermon: Bigger on the Inside

6 Easter, Year C, RCL
26 May 2019

You may be familiar with a BBC television program called Doctor Who. Doctor Who is a time lord, more or less exiled from his (and her) original home planet, who can travel to any place and any time in the universe, with the help of what looks like an ordinary blue British police telephone box called the TARDIS. Now, if you’ve watched this program you know the defining feature of the TARDIS, which is that it’s bigger on the inside. You go into what ought to be a cramped little booth, and once through the door you find yourself in a miraculously spacious and complex ship that can travel through space and time at the Doctor’s lightest command. Half the fun of that, of course, is seeing this ordinary police booth suddenly appear standing on an alien landscape, or in a prehistoric field, or flying through the air in a modern city. It makes you see both the blue box and its space-time location differently. And it’s that kind of juxtaposition, that kind of double-take paradox, that our readings deal with today.

In our place and time, one of the great challenges in celebrating the season of Easter is the fact that by the time we get to the Sixth Sunday of Easter, the whole culture has already moved on, and we ourselves don’t really have the capacity to sustain that sense of inbreaking wonder at the Resurrection. By the time the first week of Easter is over, a lot of us are going, well, now what?

Jesus’ disciples went through a similar reaction, that first-ever Easter season, as our readings the past few weeks have shown. Now what? Do we go back to our fishing careers? Do we hang out in Jerusalem for the rest of our lives? What next?

In fact it isn’t until the disciples experience Pentecost that the world breaks wide open for them. The Holy Spirit descends, and they are no longer just disciples, followers of Jesus, but apostles — the sent-out ones. Their message is no longer a garbled gabble of incoherent amazement but a clear mission. The arena they are operating in is no longer a small patch of Palestine but the whole world.

This is what Jesus promised them, on his last night. The disciples were worried, anxious, jumpy; and Jesus wasn’t doing anything to reassure them that he and they were going to escape being crushed by this gathering political threat. They wanted to hear that the powers of domination were going to pass over them like the destroying angel and leave them alone. Or that Jesus would rebuke them, like he had rebuked death itself to raise Lazarus, and they would back down. Jesus, they thought, could and would make them resign their power and let the people breathe free.

Instead, Jesus was talking about saying goodbye. “Peace,” he was saying, which was the greeting for both hello and goodbye in their language and culture. “Goodbye,” he was saying, and, “if you loved me you’d be glad for me, because once I go through that cramped, painful door of death, I’ll be in a space that’s bigger on the inside. Don’t be afraid.”

But they were afraid. To go into death was to go into a non-place, to be a non-self, to be ended while the whole ugly uncaring world goes on. It was all very well for Jesus to say that he and his Father would come to them and make their home with them. What did that matter, if Jesus’ whole life was about to shrivel to the point of a pin and go out?

It wasn’t till later that any of what Jesus was saying made sense. But as he promised, the Holy Spirit came alongside them and opened up the world to them. They took the message and began to spread out.

Paul, who called himself the last and least of the apostles, “the one untimely born,” joined the mission and began making journeys, and in today’s reading, he has a dream in which a Macedonian urgently beckons him to come and share the Word. In our time, the land then known as Macedonia has been trodden by many, many Christians, and some of the oldest churches in the world are there. But at this point, Macedonia is unknown territory for apostles of the Word. Paul and his companions set out to change that.

They come to Philippi, a Roman city, and have a number of adventures there. But one of the first things they do is go looking for an informal place of worship. They find one by the river, and start talking to a businesswoman named Lydia. The Word catches fire in her heart. She rounds up her whole household and they are baptized. She says, “If you can trust that I’m your comrade now, come and stay at my house.” And the first house church in Macedonia strikes a light. As Jesus promised to make his home with those who keep his word, Lydia opens her home to those carrying the light of Christ. The unknown territory becomes a home place.

The apostles begin to realize fully that the whole world means the whole world, not just people willing to align with their own ethnicity but all peoples. As the psalmist wrote, “Let the peoples (plural) praise you; let all the peoples praise you. Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge all the peoples with equity and guide all the nations on earth.”

The Word of God is bigger on the inside.

In our reading from Revelation, one of these apostles has come close to the end of his mortal life. He is seeing visions and dreaming dreams, and in this vision he is standing on a high place and sees the bright city of Jerusalem coming down from heaven, no longer a place on Earth but a place that encompasses Earth. There is no temple because it’s all temple; there is no light because it’s all light. It’s an open city. It has no shut gates, no closed borders. All bright souls stream into it and add to its glory. The river of the water of life flows right through the middle of it: that grieving stream that poured from Jesus’ broken body when the centurion’s spear stabbed it is now a pure, sparkling, inexhaustibly abundant flow. Its stream feeds the healing tree, and nothing has power to pollute it — not cruelty, not lying, not destruction, not the urge to degrade people or presume the right to punish them. The whole world fits into this Jerusalem, and the uglinesses and horrors that are so visible to the normal eye, just brush off like dust.

What can a vision like that say to us today? Generations upon generations of Christians have walked all over the world. Some have even walked in space. We twenty-first-century humans see that we are afloat on a tiny island of life in the universe — an island that too many of us seem willing to pollute and destroy to spite the people we hate. We are insignificant, and worse than insignificant, we are ugly. We would be no credit to the heavenly Jerusalem. What does an old vision, barely hearable through so many mouthings over the centuries, have to say to us?

I think that we who follow the Lord of Love should keep close to us his word of peace. “My own peace I give you,” he says. “I do not give as the world gives.” This peace is no casual hello and goodbye. There is no quid pro quo, no pecking order, no social nicety. It’s a peace that is a true courtesy from equal soul to equal soul. A peace between true comrades in the midst of what looks like business as usual. A connection, a spark inviting the downdraft of the Holy Spirit. It’s a breath of freedom that seems so tiny, so easy to extinguish, so easy to ignore.

But it’s bigger on the inside.

Let us pray today’s Collect again.

O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sermon: The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

Lent 4, Year C, RCL
31 March 2019

If you happen to go up to Chillicothe, I am told that there is a museum commemorating the first bakery to produce commercially pre-sliced bread. People had been wanting to buy pre-sliced bread for ages, but they hadn’t been able to figure out how to keep it fresh after it was sliced. But someone eventually came up with a patent, as humans often do, and Chillicothe was the first town to use the inventor’s commercial bread-slicing machine. It was such a welcome advance that a couple generations later, kids grew up not knowing that bread came any other way.

Now, of course, you can go to Hen House Market, take an unsliced loaf of bakery bread, and put it through the slicing machine they have there, and have up-to-the-minute pre-sliced freshness. Human ingenuity is a wonderful thing.

But there are some things that human ingenuity just can’t address. We’re very good at finding new and better ways to cope with the world around us — or the part of the world we can see or touch or hear or taste. But when it comes to what we can’t see, there are whole realities that we often fail to take into account. I think this is part of what Paul was talking about when he writes to the Corinthians: “From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view,” though up to this point we had regarded everyone, including Jesus, that way. The older translations put this in the phrase “according to the flesh” — a word that commonly meant something like our mortal bodies, with all their limitations and their self-referential points of view. In newer translations we get “human,” because there’s been a move away from talking about the body as if our bodies were inherently bad.

They’re not. And when Paul talks about “the flesh,” he adds another layer of meaning to the usual one. He uses the word to call our attention to the ways in which the whole person, body and mind, can not just refuse to account for, but actively oppose, the purposes of God. So part of what Paul is saying here is that we are not only limited in our view of God’s reality, we want to be limited. We’re stubborn and recalcitrant. We want to see people the way we want to see them.

In the Gospel reading for today, we see that stubbornness on full display with the parable Jesus tells to the Pharisees. We’re used to thinking of “Pharisee” as a word for “the bad guys,” but in reality the Pharisees were a lot like us: moral, fairly middle-class people trying to negotiate life in an empire without compromising our principles or debasing our religious beliefs. And doing that successfully often depended on knowing who was right and who was…well, a sinner. We humans have always had this sneaking belief that everybody gets what’s coming to them. As we saw with last week’s gospel, we still really do think that if something good happens to you, it’s because you deserve it somehow — and if something really bad happens to you, well, you deserve that too. Otherwise, we would have to confront the stark and terrifying fact that we have much less control over what happens to us than we think we do.

But our way of coping — or not coping, as the case may be, means that we don’t look at people according to reality. We don’t look at people as God looks at them. The Pharisees are upset because Jesus has been hanging out with “sinners” — people who failed to get a job, or whose job is something people looked down on; people whose choices in life get whispered about in corners; people with addictions; people who suffer the kind of misfortune that we all, down through the years, think they could have avoided if they were just better people.

And on some levels, they, and we, would be correct. Because we humans are not just plagued with the knowledge that we have committed particular sins. We are also painfully aware that we are all caught up in a power called Sin that puts us behind the 8-ball no matter what we try to do. On some level we are all aware that we can’t set things right by ourselves. We need intervention. We need God. We don’t want to look at God’s terrifying reality, but we know we need it. Our bones wither away and we groan all day long, when we look inward, and when we look outward. When we read the headlines. When we remember how we failed to act — or how we acted wrongly without being able to help ourselves.

We might, like the Pharisees, think we can escape by cutting our losses and ousting people who are clearly not making the grade — by writing them off as just “sinners,” not really people. So when Jesus not only hangs out with them but talks to them and talks about them as though they are really people, as though they are equals, it’s extremely upsetting. “Only God can forgive sins,” they say, and the unspoken end to that sentence is, “and of course God’s not going to do that.”

So Jesus tells a series of stories, trying to get them to look at the whole picture. “Say you own a flock of sheep, and the shepherds tell you one got lost. Wouldn’t you go looking for it, instead of saying, ‘Welp, at least I have 99 non-sinning sheep!’ Or say you’re doing your household accounts and discover you’re missing a 100-dollar bill. Wouldn’t you turn the house upside down until you found it?”

They’re not convinced. So Jesus ups the ante and tells a story about a loving father who has two sons. One of them, the younger one (and remember in Israel’s history how many times the younger son becomes the hero of the story of their faith) — the younger one asks to have his inheritance now instead of at the father’s death. He sells everything off, goes to the city, and spends it all on hookers and blow. Then a crash hits, he finds himself destitute, and finally says to himself: “I’ll go home, and ask to be a servant so I can at least get something to eat.” He prepares a sales pitch to his father, who he imagines will show him the door unless he grovels convincingly.

But while he’s still a half-mirage figure walking down the road, his father sees him, drops everything and runs to him where he is. Hugs him, holds him, starts calling for proper clothes for his son and party arrangements. Notice, this younger son’s repentance is mostly out of self-interest. If he hadn’t lost everything, would he have confessed, even to himself, that he was a sinner? Probably not. The older brother sees this, and is enraged. He stalks out of the house in disgust and goes away to sulk.

At this point, Jesus has turned the tables on his listeners. Up till this point, his stories laid the Pharisees alongside the people who had lost something, trying to get them to see these sinners as beloved members of their own community who — precisely because they were valuable — were a terrible loss that needed to be retrieved. But they didn’t buy it, so in this story, Jesus reveals them as the older brother, the one who is outside sulking while everyone else is having a party. More than that, he seems to be saying that even if they’re right that these sinners are a dead loss, if they would never repent except out of self-interest, it is Jesus’ prerogative on God’s behalf to go to them where they are.

That’s the thing about God’s reality. God comes to meet us where we actually are, not where we ought to be. And if we’re tempted to think that’s not costly, imagine a time when you’ve done the same. Is it not costly to us to meet people where they are in their relationship to us, rather than where they should be? In fact, it can be a staggering cost to us — damage and toxicity inflicted on us by people who ought to have done better, who ought to have wanted to do better, and didn’t. The power of Sin in this world is so great that God has a lot of cost to bear in order to set it right. When Jesus tells this story about a troubled family, he is already thinking about the cross.

God’s righteousness is costly, but it’s also an active power, and can sustain us in our little righteousness. Just as Israel were fed from God’s hand on manna until they could make bread themselves, God feeds us in our efforts to repent, in our efforts to forgive. And if anyone is in Christ, Paul says, there is a new creation; the old things have passed and the new ones are here! And more than that: “all things” are of God, Paul goes on to say — the old things and the new things are, if you look at it right, God’s continuous active work of righteousness, of setting things right. And we have been made ambassadors for this new reality. We have been empowered to speak of reconciliation, of the cost God paid, taking our sin, that Power we could not fight, and wearing it as God’s own identity, so that we could be called righteous.

We are obligated as Christians to key our thoughts and our perspectives to this wider reality, this new creation. We are obligated to see people not as losses to cut, but as people for whom Christ died. That is costly, and it is frightening: but it is real. It is more real than anything else we could try to do. For that costly and awesome work, we can and should call on God for God’s sustaining help.

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

Sermon: Go Tell It

Advent 4, Year C, RCL
23 December 2018

Back when I was in college, there was a man who lived in the city who was famous for one thing. Every year at Christmas he would put up a massive display of lights, a display so extravagant that every night a long slow line of cars filled his street, making pilgrimage to see his Christmas lights. He must have found some way to make peace with the neighbors, because there was scarcely room to drive in his neighborhood from dusk till midnight. And his electric bill had to be astronomical. But evidently it was worth it to him, because every year the local news would check in at some point to mention him and give the whole viewing area his address.

There is something about this time of year that heightens the contrast of this paradox between what is hidden and what is on display. We do more entertaining at this time of year than any other — or at least it seems like it, as we make our way through the darkness to homes lit up not just with the usual lamps but with trees garlanded with strings of lights, with candles both real and electric on tables and windowsills, with curtains open at picture windows to let people see the oasis of glowing coziness inside. We sweep and dust and lay in stocks of food and convivial drink; we bake cookies and make fudge and open storage boxes full of ornaments and mementoes of Christmases past. We wrap presents, hiding what’s inside from their recipients — and we display them under the tree, their bright wrappings reflecting the colored lights above.

And we ponder in our hearts those thoughts that come when the range of daylight is narrow and darkness reigns. We grieve, we grizzle, we worry. We hold our prayers and excited anticipation close like small candles. We introspect. Do my feelings match this festive mood? we ask ourselves. Am I really feeling it this year? Or am I missing out? We think about the things that are hidden, waiting for the right moment to bring them forth.

Our readings today are all about this paradox of things hidden and brought forth. In the reading from Micah, the prophet estimates that it will take about the length of a pregnancy for Israel’s fortunes to change — “when she who is in labor has brought forth,” he says, a ruler will come who is strong enough to take away the violence being done to God’s people. Meanwhile, “how long,” cries the Psalmist, “how long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people? Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

Look at us. Look at us where we are, in the darkness, “mourning ‘neath our sorrows’ load.” Our future is hidden from us, like a baby in a womb: it’s bound to come, but we don’t know what it will be. Micah may have been estimating the course of one particular political upheaval, but his words have the power of metaphor and more than metaphor. Like the flare of a candle or the halo of icy clouds round the moon, that waiting is eternally applicable, coruscating and, well, prophetic.

And so we come to a young woman in the first century of our common era. A young woman who has just been told that she will bring forth the Savior of the world. The Gospel of Luke says in several places that Mary “pondered and treasured these things in her heart,” but that isn’t all she did. In today’s reading, she also gets up and makes haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Around this time of year, we like to talk about the great risks Mary dared to say Yes to God; about the shame and the violence she faced for bearing a child that was not the result of a husband’s decision. About how scary such a risk would be to a young girl in a rural village.

And that is certainly something to ponder, something to take seriously. But in today’s reading we are also given a glimpse of something else, the other side of that paradox of risk and undeserved shame: we are given a glimpse of a radical, even an aggressive, joy. The letter to the Hebrews urges its readers to take Christ for their model, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God.” Christ, in turn, it seems, had a model in his mother, whose Magnificat is prayed every day all around the world, declaring that the first shall be last and the last first.

The seventeenth-century bishop Jeremy Taylor writes, in a sermon about the Visitation, a description of this meeting:

Mary found no one so fit as her cousin Elizabeth to share the first emanations of her overjoyed heart, for she was to be the mother of the Baptist, who was sent as forerunner to prepare the way of the Lord her son. It is not easy to imagine what collision of joys was at this blessed meeting; two mothers of two great princes, the one the greatest that was born of woman, and the other his Lord. When these who were made mothers by two miracles came together, they met with joy and mysteriousness. The mother of our Lord went to visit the mother of his servant, and the Holy Ghost made the meeting festival. Never, but in heaven, was there more joy and ecstasy. For these women were hallowed and made big with religion and they met to unite their joy and their eucharist. By this God would have us know that when the blessings of God descend upon us, they should be published in the communion of the saints, so that our charity and eucharist may increase that of others, and the praises of God be sung aloud, till the sound strike at heaven and join with the alleluias which the morning stars in their orbs pay to their great Creator.

The joy of this meeting between two mothers is a festival as bright as the first flare of all the stars in the universe — a joy that we can only attempt to emulate with our Christmas light displays. And it’s interesting that Jeremy Taylor’s takeaway from this meeting that no one else saw or participated in or even heard about until later, is that joy should be published. Witnessed to. Shared as a blessing like broken bread and poured wine.

In the chapter from Hebrews that we read today, a few verses on from today’s reading, we are urged to act in response to Jesus’s offering of himself: “The blood of Jesus makes us free to enter the sanctuary with confidence by the new and living way which he has opened for us through the curtain, by way of his flesh…let us make our approach in sincerity of heart and the full assurance of faith, inwardly cleansed from a guilty conscience, and outwardly washed with pure water.” That which was veiled has been uncovered; that which was hidden has been made known; the light of God’s countenance has been turned to shine fully on us. God sees us; God bears witness to us; that is the joy set before us that makes us strong to dare any hazard.

The word “conscience” in this passage of Hebrews appears many times in the New Testament, and nearly always its context is the act of witnessing. To these writers, our conscience isn’t simply that thing that makes us feel guilty when we do something wrong. It’s our inner witness, the part of us that is awake and ready to testify to reality. So when we pray asking God to “purify” our conscience, we are not just asking to be made aware of our sins so we can repent them. We are asking God to make us able to testify, accurately, to the reality of God’s joy. We are asking for unclouded vision so that God’s face will not be obscured from us.

That’s a thing we really do need to ask for, in this season in which we clean and polish and decorate our homes, in which we are urged to jump into celebrations whether we’re feeling it or not. Purify our inner witness, Lord, so we can see you when you come to visit. Let our praises ricochet like light from a thousand prisms, multiplying our joys like the songs of the morning stars, silent and yet louder than a cataract of shouts.

Let us pray this morning’s Collect again.

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Sermon: Whose Kingdom?

Proper 22, Year B, RCL
7 October 2018

There’s a comedic fantasy series you may be aware of, commonly called the Discworld books, by the late and great Terry Pratchett. If you haven’t read any Pratchett and want to, you can google up whole flowcharts as to which of the many books in this series you want to start with, but personally, my favorites are the ones in which Granny Weatherwax appears. Granny Weatherwax is an old and cantankerous witch, who doesn’t hold with highfalutin educated language but is very powerful and dedicated to helping people in need — the salt of the earth but definitely not the sugar of the earth. In one of these books, she has a conversation with a young man about the nature of sin.

“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment on the nature of sin, for example,” says the young man.
“And what do they think? Against it, are they?” answered Granny.
“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”
“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that–“
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes–“
“But they starts with thinking about people as things…”

Today’s readings are all about the consequences of thinking about people as things. Let’s start with the gospel. When I was growing up, this gospel passage was one of the scary texts that people would use against others. “Don’t get divorced!” seemed to be the main thrust of it. “And if you do get divorced, you can’t remarry or you’ll have broken one of the Ten Commandments!” And nobody ever made a distinction between men and women in talking about these verses — the assumption was that this saying of Jesus applied in the same manner both to husbands and to wives. And given his talk with his disciples, it does seem like that. Continue reading “Sermon: Whose Kingdom?”

Sermon: Taken, Blessed, Broken, Given

Proper 14, Year B, RCL
12 August 2018

I try not to look at Facebook too much these days — or at least, when I get on there, I scroll as quickly as possible through all the random photos and links and placards of outrage and shallow quotations and horrifying news, just looking for the basic updates of my friends’ lives. But even as I scroll past all of that, I can’t help some things just sticking with me.

One of those things was a picture. A small child, a refugee, who had been separated from her family, found herself with a piece of chalk. With the chalk, she drew an outline of her mother on the hard concrete. Then she curled up in a little ball over the chalk-mother’s heart and went to sleep.

Now, like a lot of you, I have been pretty exhausted of my capacity for galvanizing rage and compassion. So the reason why I keep returning to this image in my mind has less to do with a feeling of urgency to help that particular child and others like her, and more to do with how that child, that particular child, is bearing witness to something going on in all of our hearts.

A person can be provided for with all the basics necessary for physical life — food, clean water, safe shelter, warmth. But cut a person off from their source of blessing — from the gaze and the voice telling them that they are loved and claimed permanently — and they become lost and bewildered. The basic provisions become irrelevant, even useless. This is a wound that can follow us all of our lives, and so we find ourselves trying to get back to the source somehow, drawing in chalk a placeholder image that we can go to for our blessing.

Elijah found himself in a similar situation. He fled into the wilderness because the king of Israel was seeking out the prophets of God and putting them to death. He was trying to exterminate the very ones who were called to keep God’s people connected with their source of blessing. He was exhausted and heartsick. He said to God, “I am no better than my ancestors. Just kill me.”

Now why would Elijah say that, if he is the prophet trying to recall Israel to their best selves? His failure to speak an effective word was so devastating that it seemed to drag him down along with his people. His failure has cut him off from the same sense of blessing he was trying to bear witness to. He is exhausted and heartsick. So what does God do about this? Well, the first thing God does…is feed him. God doesn’t try to argue with Elijah, not yet. God feeds Elijah, and Elijah finds the strength to get up and walk to Mount Horeb. To Mount Horeb, the historical place where Israel was incorporated as a people. God gives Elijah what he needs so that he can get back to the source, where, in the next passage, he will discuss the problem with God and decide what to do about it.

And in today’s passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus makes explicit what is implied by Elijah’s story. Yes: it is important to feed the people of God with physical food — generously, abundantly, ungrudgingly. And what makes that feeding effective and worthwhile — the point of feeding people — is so that they will feel the contact between themselves and the source of their blessing. Jesus says baldly: “I am the bread of life. I am the source of your blessing. I am God’s Word spoken to you, to claim you and name you the Beloved. Believe. This physical food keeps your body going, but it’s the blessing that will give you the real life. And you can try to draw this blessing for yourself, but…it’s just chalk. The real Source draws you.”

We can see from these passages what it means to need our source of blessing. We can see that it’s a deeper and more fundamental need even than food and water. And we can see what it is to cut someone else off from that source, because all of us have some idea of what it’s like to be cut off ourselves. The monk and theologian Henri Nouwen says: “To be chosen as the Beloved of God is something radically different. Instead of excluding others, it includes others. Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, it accepts others in their own uniqueness. It is not a competitive, but a compassionate choice. Our minds have great difficulty in coming to grips with such a reality. Maybe our minds will never understand it. Perhaps it is only our hearts that can accomplish this. Every time we hear about ‘chosen people’, ‘chosen talents’, or ‘chosen friends’, we almost automatically start thinking about elites and find ourselves not far from feelings of jealousy, anger, or resentment. Not seldom has the perception of others as being chosen led to aggression, violence, and war.” We cannot afford to be jealous of our blessing. To hoard the blessing is to kill it.

In today’s reading from the letter to the Ephesians, we hear this: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, for that Spirit is the seal with which you were marked for the day of final liberation…. Be generous to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. In a word, as God’s dear children, you must be like him. Live in love as Christ loved you and gave himself up on your behalf, an offering and sacrifice whose fragrance is pleasing to God.”

Just like the bread that Jesus held up at the feeding of the multitude, just like the bread that we will watch the priest hold up in the Eucharist, God has taken us up: chosen us. God has pronounced a blessing over us. With our consent God breaks us; and then God gives us away. Just like Jesus. Not just chalk.

Our mission…should we choose to accept it…is to magnify, propagate, and channel the Source of blessing, through our very brokenness, through our very exhaustion, through our very complicity in the sins of our people. These are the conditions — there are no others — in which God sustains us, and draws us, and gives us what we need to keep going. Our very exhaustion, if we make an offering of it, is something God can use. After all, Jesus took a boy’s lunch and served it to five thousand people. And then he sent his disciples out with baskets to collect the leftovers, “so that nothing will be lost.”

Realize: God is paying attention to the broken pieces. Because those pieces have been personally blessed. God will not see one person lost. God will not see one person left unchosen. So when we give our alms today, let us make an offering of ourselves as we actually are. And when we take communion, let it give us the strength that we need. And when we share our lives together, let us remember that it is God who does the impossible stuff. Our jobs are bite-sized jobs. Let us taste and see that the Lord is good, and take joy in trusting him.

Let us pray again together today’s Collect.

Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Becoming Beloved Community

Rev. Martha Frances

Meditation for Saturday Noonday Prayer—-Rivendell General Chapter—-23 Jun 18

Becoming Beloved Community

Becoming—always in process, moving toward s/he whom Godde continues to call each of us as gift we’re to be in the world.

Beloved—being loved, a receptive stance, open & accepting, drawn to the lover by the sheer power of holy desire, the anticipation of being created & creating anew

Community—those transformed by the lover’s compelling joyous creation, that imitate the multiplicity of their one creator by gathering in holy community where they respond in awe & adoration with the work of the people to worship, to further create, to accept & welcome, to care for & witness to their living into their own sense of being beloved & playing their gift forward to widen the sacred circle of beloveds

The sacred circle welcomes both those easily beloved & those who bother us the most for our Godde reaches those who most need to be beloved, all of us muddling through community-building & living into Godde’s reign.  

May we in Rivendell continue the journey our creator loves us into day by day.


Sermon: The Hidden Kingdom

Proper 6, Year B, RCL
17 June 2018

When I was growing up my family used to have a subscription to the National Geographic magazine, and I always looked forward to seeing the maps and pictures of artifacts and amazing vistas from all over the world. I would pore over each new issue looking for glimpses of the world beyond what I could see by walking out my own front door.

But some of the articles were not simply fascinating; they gave me a frisson of sympathetic horror — underwater photos taken of debris from the Titanic, bones in ancient tombs, glyphs and monuments of civilizations destroyed long ago. One image has stuck with me: I can still call it vividly to mind. It was from one of the articles about the city of Pompeii, destroyed by an eruption of the volcano in whose shadow it lived. Archaeologists had not only uncovered the city interrupted in its daily life and preserved in all its detail like a fly in amber; they had also found the remains of people caught in their very attempt to save themselves. One such cluster of bones had been preserved so perfectly that you could see exactly what their last moments had been like: a large skeleton, curled shieldingly around a smaller skeleton, curved still more protectively over a tiny one.

Of these three people there is nothing for us to know, except this. Only their bones are left to testify to us about their lives and deaths. Their names, their occupations, their experiences, are all hidden in the flow of ash and time that exiled them from us living in the present.

Bones don’t seem like much of a testimony. But to the twentieth-century scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, bones and fossils built up in him a deep, unshakable conviction of the hidden presence of God in our material lives. Teilhard became a priest on the strength of this conviction, and testified in his prayers and writings of the blazing compassion and involvement of God in every detail of the world, whether we could observe it or not. And more than that, he believed that we as Christians are charged with the responsibility of not just testifying to, but helping to mediate the growth of the universe into what God desires for it.

The scriptures today are all about the hidden dimensions of our lives. In the story of David’s anointing we hear that Samuel has gone to Bethlehem in obedience to God’s secret command to identify a new king for Israel. Jesse shows all his sons to Samuel one by one, and though to Samuel’s eye they are all likely-looking men, God says to Samuel, “I can see what you can’t. I am looking at their hearts. And none of these will serve.” Samuel finally asks Jesse if he has any more sons to look at, and Jesse has the youngest pulled in from from his work watching the flocks. This is a recurring theme in the Hebrew scriptures: the unlikely younger son becomes God’s chosen, to further the divine plans for the world. The story tells us he was good-looking from the outside point of view, and more than that, God saw that he was ready and responsive to bear the charge of the Spirit. Continue reading “Sermon: The Hidden Kingdom”