Monday, October 12, 2015

Sermon for Pentecost 20
Proper 23 B  ~  October 11, 2015
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
…go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,
you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,
We pray in today’s Collect that God’s grace may always precede and follows us. Can we doubt that it does, whether we recognize it or not? As is so often true, the words of our prayer are intended not to get God to do something, but to alert us to what God is already doing. Grace preceded and followed the Rich Young Man. In today’s Gospel. Jesus recognized him as a genuine spiritual seeker, loved him, and told him what to do if he wished to complete the journey. Can we doubt that the advice came with grace sufficient to follow it? Well yes! Or rather, yes and no.
Grace is always on offer, surrounding us before and after, but grace does not force itself on us. Grace is not tyrannical. We still have a say in the matter. We cannot doubt that sufficient grace was offered to the Rich Young Man, but whether or not he accepted it was still up to him. We are free. Even when it comes to grace, I think. Grace offers new possibility that we could never enjoy on our own, but God will not force us to enjoy it.
We don’t know what the Rich Young Man actually did, except that he went away sorrowful. Conventionally, we interpret this to mean that he didn’t follow Jesus. But the Gospel doesn’t say that, does it? In fact it says that IC advised him to go away “Go, and sell all you have &c.” The first step in obedience was to go away, which he did. We are also told that he went in sorrow “because he had much.” Again, we conventionally interpret this to mean that he was so attached to all that stuff that he just couldn’t bear to part with it, and he was sorry that he couldn’t follow IC. But the Gospel doesn’t say that either. It could just as well be that he was sorry because all that stuff he had was going to take a long time to liquidate. Maybe weeks or even months. He couldn’t follow IC right away – not for some time, pro-bably, even if he were determined to do as IC said. All the Gospel records is that he followed Jesus’ advice. At least the first part of it.
So, we just don’t know. For all we know, the Rich Young Man went and sold everything, and then came back to become a disciple, an early Jewish Christian and even a martyr! It’s an open question, left that way intentionally, I believe. Maybe he was a camel who did pass through the eye of the needle.
And so now it is time to rehearse, once again, certain  linguistic facts that may (or may not) shed some light on this bizarre image of camels and needles. In Greek, the word kamel is imported from Syriac, in which it is one vowel different from rope. And like Hebrew and Arabic, Syriac vowels were not written – the reader had to supply them. This fact was noticed of old and produced a controversy about the translation. None less than Cyril of Alexandria thought that kamel was a misspelling and that ROPE was intended. Literarily, that does make more sense. After all, a rope CAN go through the eye of a needle if it is completely unwound and disentwined. That could be a metaphor for what rich people have to do to enter the Kingdom of God: get stripped down to the bare essentials, rely on God’s grace alone and not their own accumulation.
On the other hand, it would require a miracle for an actual camel to go through the eye of a needle, which would explain the disciples’ astonishment, and the Lord’s observation that anything’s possible with God. But a problem remains with this standard translation, too. Jesus’ observation refers only to the rich, but the disciples seem to think it refers to everyone: “who, then, can be saved?” IC’ answer implies anybody: "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." Grace, again.
Let’s notice that the camel/needle dialogue takes place in private, between Jesus and the disciples. I have a little theory that these private conversations, which so often follow a public pronouncement or incident in the Gospel, may be later commentary: the early Church pondering the events and trying to figure them out. In this one, there is teaching about salvation: detachment from literal wealth is necessary, but maybe that’s not all that is meant. The disciples’ astonishment may be due to their understanding that riches means ANYTHING we are attached to in this world and are unwilling to give up. Our mystical tradition would say so. It is possible to idolize anything, including the most sacred of human relationships. “Who, then, can be saved?”
Another fact we sometimes forget is that our Lord didn’t give the same advice to everyone. The Gospel tells of those who wanted to follow Him, whom He told to stay home with their families. Maybe that was the way of perfection for them. Why should we assume that IC’ advice to the Rich Young Man, understood as literal poverty, was the universal standard for everybody? Maybe it was just for the one to whom it was given.
In Matthew, the story says “if you would be perfect, go and sell &c.” In Mark and Luke the perfection or completeness is stated negatively: “you still lack one thing.” Jesus’ advice to this particular man was what we call a counsel of perfection.  Maybe it is a universal, spiritual truth: one who is called to perfection must let go of everything.  But maybe the literal meaning is not intended for every last person in this life.
On the other hand, worldly wealth is extremely seductive. The conventional interpretation of this incident teaches that the illusion of possession gets in the way of spiritual advancement – for everyone.  Anyway, the advice to give up possession is a counsel that sooner or later we shall all obey, isn’t it? Whether we want to or not. The way of the perfect is to do so willingly, before death: at least to move in that direction, becoming less and less attached to illusory temporalities and more and more absorbed in the only Reality worthily so called, the Kingdom of God.
Like the Rich Young Man, God’s grace surrounds us – precedes and follows us – so that we may be given to this good work, if we consent.  Maybe the Rich Young Man is every one of us. As in the Gospel, his story is incomplete: will he or won’t he? So is ours: will we or won’t we?



Sermon for Pentecost 19
Proper 22 B  ~  October 4, 2015
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,

As the Russian armies drove westward to meet the Americans and British at the Elbe, a Soviet patrol picked up a Mrs. Bergmeier foraging food for her three children. Unable even to get word to the children, she was taken off to a POW camp in the Ukraine. Her husband had been captured in the Battle of the Bulge and taken to a POW camp in Wales. When he was returned to Berlin, he spent months rounding up his children, although they couldn't find their mother. She more than anything else was needed to reconnect them as a family in that dire situation of hunger, chaos and fear. Meanwhile, in the Ukraine, Mrs. Bergmeier learned through a sympathetic commandant that her husband and family were trying to keep together and find her. But the rules allowed them to release her to Germany only if she was pregnant, in which case she would be returned as a liability. She turned things over in her mind and finally asked a friendly Volga German camp guard to impregnate her, which he did. Her condition being medically verified, she was sent back to Berlin and to her family. They welcomed her with open arms, even when she told them how she had managed it. And when the child was born, they all loved him because of what he had done for them. After the christening, they met up with their local pastor and discussed the morality of the situation.   
This true story comes from an influential book called Situation Ethics, by the Episcopal theologian, the Rev. Joseph Fletcher.  Right-wingers sneer at the term, but today's gospel makes it clear that our Lord was, Himself, a situational Ethicist. The plain fact is that actions do not occur in a void, but in a context.
Concerning today’s passage, I have previously observed that the law of the time permitted a husband just to sign a piece of paper and throw his wife out.  He was then free to marry someone else.  But Jesus said that although the law permitted this, it was not God's will, and it was in fact adultery. A woman so divorced, though, had very few options.  Unless someone else were willing to marry her, or unless she had sympathetic male relatives to take her in, pretty much her only alternative was prostitution.  Although her former husband was within his rights, according to the law, his action amounted to adultery. In other words, the lawfulness of an act could not be assessed apart from its context – the situation in which it was done. 
Love alone is good in itself.  Love (selfless agape, caritas) is the only thing that is always right, regardless of context. When asked, Jesus said that we are to love God and to love our neighbor, adding that on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.  In other words, love is first, and whether any action conforms to God's will depends on whether it is loving, not whether it conforms to a written rule or commandment.  That is what we mean by the spirit of the law as opposed to the letter. Mrs.  Bergmeier certainly broke the letter of the Seventh Commandment, but equally certainly, she fulfilled its spirit by restoring the wholeness and integrity of her family. 
It is supremely ironic that our Lord’s insistence upon the primacy of love in the specific context of our actions has been turned into another law, superior to love, which must be obeyed literally in all situations.  Jesus’s words forbidding divorce in His own historical context have been made into a universal commandment. But our Lord’s teaching is clear to any willing to notice the context of His remarks, and here I refer to the literal context of in the Gospel narrative.  Right after His answer to the Pharisees, He makes children exemplars of the Kingdom. That context is not accidental. Both women and children were considered socially inferior – persons of no account. Or rather, not persons at all, according to the Law. To affirm children as models of the Kingdom right after affirming women as equal in importance to men is revolutionary. Jesus turns the world upside down.
That is the essence of the Good News:  It is unheard of and unexpected. The Kingdom, God’s Reign, the Spirit fulfilling the letter of the Law softening our hard hearts. Paul will elaborate this revolutionary teaching in his comments about spirit and letter, and the new freedom in Christ.
It is not to be confused with antinomianism – the notion that I can do anything I want – because if anything, the primacy of love requires more profound obedience. Real antinomianism would be to think that I can do anything I want as long as I obey the law. If the law doesn’t forbid it, then I can do as I please. NO! If the law doesn’t cover something, I must still act according to love. If I really do put love first, I will love God. If I really love God, I will, as Jesus said, obey His commandments, which are all fulfilled by loving others as myself – in every situation. Then I can’t go wrong.
In St. Augustine’s startling turn of phrase, “Love God and do as you please.”


Friday, September 25, 2015

Sermon for Pentecost 18
Proper 21 B  ~  September 27, 2015
Christ Church, Bayfield

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,

This is one of my favorite passages in the Gospel!  It is so exaggerated that no one could seriously be expected to follow the advice, and what's more, no one ever has.  That helps faithful readers to understand that everything in Holy Scripture is not meant to be taken literally.  After all, if you combine this passage with St. Paul's observation that everyone — without exception — has offended and fallen short of the glory of God, then why aren't all the faithful Christians stumbling around blind and footless?  Obviously, the meaning of these frightful commands is on a level other than the literal.
Maybe the Collect for today gives us a clue: we address God as the One Who displays “almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity” — compassion, in other words.  Then the Collect aska for grace to run without stumbling the race that is set before us.  Well, aside from the fact that we can't run very well with amputated feet, how do these words about the Divine Compassion relate to the image of self-mutilation?  
The Gospel is all about mercy: completely free and undeserved grace.  If I think I have to earn my way into God's favor, then I have to gouge out the eyes that see things that way, and cut off the hands and feet that try to earn God’s grace.  I think this is a way of saying that it is just impossible to be righteous enough to earn my own way. The self I have to mutilate is spiritual, my false self, my ego, which Paul calls the flesh. This is the life that I have to lose in order to find life, as our Lord said in the Gospel a couple of weeks ago. Paradoxically, the part of myself that I have to cut out is the part that thinks there is anything I have to do to make myself acceptable to God. The life I have to lose is my illusion of life on my own terms. What I have to cut out is every doubt that God already accepts me. I think the awful images today symbolize that. They also symbolize the necessity of purification. 
Everyone will be salted with fire.
I think that is a reference to purification.  Purification means to be cleansed by fire: purification.  And salt, which draws the blood out of meat, was also use to purify it according to the dietary laws.  So we all need purification.  "Everyone will be salted with fire."  At the top of the list of defilements that require cleansing is every tendency of our ego to judge and condemn other people and to imagine ourselves as separate from them, which is simply  the other side of the coin that   says we have to earn God’s favor.
This is the aspect of our consciousness that St. Paul called the flesh.  That is what needs to be purified, cut off, burnt with unquenchable fire.  As long as there is any trace of mercilessness left in us, we burn in hell, and we will continue to do so until our mercilessness is burnt away.
There is nothing more important than mercy.  Everyone senses this, on some level, which may be why Pope Francis is so wildly attractive: he is an authentic embodiment of mercy.  He reminds us what true religion is all about.  To run the race that is set before us is to act more and more like God Himself, Whose almighty power declares itself “chiefly in showing mercy and pity.”
“What is a merciful heart?” asked the great, ancient spiritual teacher, St. Isaac the Syrian. “It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation, for men, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for all creatures” (Mystic Treatises, edited by A. J. Wensinck, Amsterdam, 1923, p. 341).
As for hell, we create our own in so far as we refuse mercy to anyone — not that God wants to punish us, just waiting to get us for our lack of mercy. That’s absurd.  God's mercy is infinite, and greater than our sin, even when we show no mercy to others.  But God has created us in such a way that we can find joy only in Him, and our mercilessness does have to go before we can share the life of the One Who is mercy itself.  The elder son has to give up his egotistical condemnation of his prodigal younger brother before he can go in to the banquet of the fatted calf. The door is open, the father wants him to come in, but the elder brother has to embrace their father’s mercy. In denying it to his brother, he rejects it for himself. He will go in to the feast only when it is more appealing to him than his own delicious sense of self-righteousness.
Likewise, all of our merciless egoism is a kind of hell fire.  As long as I nurture the ego and its resentments, I keep the fire going, I suffer at my own hands.  Only when I am willing to gouge out the eyes that mark every offense, to cut off the feet that rush not to God but to condemnation of others, and the offensive hands willing to inflict judgment on anyone I think deserves it, can I run the race to God. I have to leave those offending parts to burn out in the fire.
Last week I mentioned St. Gregory of Nyssa, and his vision of eternal life as perpetual growth in love and joy.  That begins with purification.  Everyone will be salted with fire.  Gregory — the very definition of an orthodox Church Father — taught that hell is not permanent, except insofar as we make it so.  Gregory said that Christians may legitimately hope even for the redemption of the Devil! The fire that is unquenchable is our own mercilessness; the worm that never dies is our own ego.  
The race that is set before us is running away from that toward God.  We can begin running right now, but most of us do not finish the race in this life.  As long as we are stuck in our ego, the love of God is a torment. Hell after death is really no more unpleasant than earthly slavery to ego in this life. Gregory teaches us that everyone, without exception, may complete the race after death.   Until we have become perfectly merciful — perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect — we suffer fiery, purifying pain, which is in fact an instrument of God's mercy, God’s love helping us to let go of what hurts us. It may take some of us longer than others, but sooner or later everyone can reflect and enjoy God's infinite compassion, God’s mercy and pity, which is the chief expression of God''s Almighty Power.  


Friday, September 18, 2015

Sermon for Pentecost 17
Proper 20 B  ~  September 20, 2015
Christ Church, Bayfield
…not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure… 

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,
Earth and Heaven are metaphors, symbols. Earth means everything that is passing away heaven means everything that is permanent. It is obviously foolish to worry, as the disciples worried and argued, about things we can't do anything about, such as the fact that everything is always changing.  Today’s collect is prays for what it is now fashionable to call mindfulness: the art of learning not to be distracted by little, day-to-day nuisances — or even big day-to-day delights — and learning to pay attention to the unchanging beauty behind them.
Preferring the heavenly to the earthly certainly does NOT mean scorn of the beauty of the physical earth, God's creation.  The beauty, even of temporal things, points to God.  But that is just the point: there is something behind or beyond earthly beauty, that does not change — Someone, rather.  The beauty of things that are passing away reflects the permanent, unseen Beauty.
I don't know about you, but the beauty of the earth always fills me with longing.  Especially the brief seasons of spectacular natural beauty, such as the one we are now entering, or the lilac-and-apple-blossom Spring.  I know that it will soon be gone, and there is a twinge of sorrow about that.  Maybe it isn't exactly sorrow, but it is a kind of desire, the longing to possess the beauty, to keep it.  I suppose that's why I take pictures — which, however, I rarely look at later!  Spiritual teachers would say that what I really desire is the Source of the beauty, which earthly beauty only reflects.  I long for union with Beauty Itself.
Everything we see is passing away.  In fact, everything we are is passing away.  This is what Jesus’ disciples, all lively young men, didn't get.  It is silly to argue about who is more important, because everything is passing away, including all such distinctions.  Jesus advises them to be like a small child, who as yet has no such concerns.  The "adult" world of striving, jockeying for position, ambition, craving, and conflict is not yet, the child's world.  Furthermore, the child is helpless.  It won't survive at all, unless other people help, although the child is unaware of that fact.  Furthermore, it continues to be true, even though, as it grows increasingly independent, the child acquires the illusion that it is not helpless. But in the world of change and decay, we all are finally helpless. Everything we see is passing away and everything we are is passing away.  You and I are passing away.
Facing this unpleasant fact, the foolish distract themselves in meaningless pursuits of craving and ambition, acting out their unconscious anxiety “about things that are passing away" as the disciples did.
But what God has prepared for us is unimaginably greater, and it has nothing to do with our own notion  of greatness.  Ambition and craving are a waste of time, a distraction from the indescribable joy to which we are called.
Our life in this world is a life of change from moment to moment.  In fact, that is a pretty good definition of life: change.  So what are we asking when we ask to hold fast to things that shall endure?  Since life itself is change, what does it mean to live outside time?  In the end, we don't know.  But one of our greatest teachers, St. Gregory of Nyssa, thought about it like this: Eternal life is a journey, not a static destination.  What we call the Vision of God is the process of more and more      knowledge, love, and joy.  The Bible says that no one has ever seen God.  That is because God is infinite and we are finite.  In that sense, we can never experience God completely — we can never see God.  In that sense, the Vision of God is impossible. But we can, in the words of one of our prayers for the dead, go from strength to strength, ever increasing in God's love and service.  In other words, eternal life is change, just as temporal life is change. Life is becoming. But while the becoming of temporal life includes changes for the worse, the becoming of eternal life is change only for the better –  from lesser to greater, from less life to more life.  Gregory, who was one of the most important early theologians of the Trinity, taught that God invites us to a life of infinite growth – from glory to glory –  in our capacity to enjoy ever more and more of God's infinite Love and Beauty, forever and ever, world without end. 


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 19B  ~  September 13, 2015
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

 it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature,
and is itself set on fire by hell.

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,

James seems to wish we would keep our mouth shut.  Peter shows us why this is a good idea.  The Brother of God wants us to bridle our tongues, advice from which Peter clearly could have profited.  The only problem is that Jesus Himself asks us to speak: Who do men say that I am?  Who do you say that I am?  Jesus requires an answer, He requires us to talk.
   Peter exemplifies the problem.  On the one hand, he is inspired by God to pronounce the truth (Orthodox dogma).  On the other hand, he goes on to say way more than he should.  His first confession arises not out of his own research (flesh and blood has not revealed this to you) but from divine inspiration.  His subsequent advice, which earned him the rebuke as satan or adversary, DID come of his own experience, his background, culture, and history – his own knowledge: flesh and blood, human thoughts, not divine.  The problem seems to be that our talk about God (theology) inevitably contains both. God-given insight and our own baggage – flesh and blood along with spirit.
   It is tempting to think that it would be better if we just shut up, but we are not at liberty to do that.  So, we need to be humble, and to recognize that whatever we do say will likely contain a lot of mistakes, even though it may also contain some truth.  As St. Paul told the Corinthians, all of our knowledge — and hence all our pronouncements — are partial, incomplete, and usually accompanied by extraneous material, as Peter's were.  But we still have to make them.  We have to answer the Lord’s question about His identity.  That is one big difference between Christianity and Buddhism.
   Christianity is the religion of the logos, the word.  A word is an expression of a concept.  But God is inconceivable.  So, Buddhism prescinds, because talking about God is "unprofitable."  We cannot conceive the inconceivable, and so it is foolish to speak of it.  But Jesus, the Word Incarnate, requires us to speak of it.  In so doing, we are almost certain to turn, like Peter, into adversaries. The same tongue that confesses the truth about Jesus at Cæsarea Philippi also denies Him with cursing in Jerusalem.
With [our tongue] we bless the Lord and Father,
  and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.
From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.

And in this, Peter is our model. If we shut up out of fear of error, we also stifle the Good News. Like Peter, we are bound to get it wrong, but also like him, we must be willing to risk it.
   The Lord’s rebuke comes with the answer to Peter’s problem: “Get behind me.” In other words, get with the Program. Follow me, even if it seems all wrong, from everything you know so far. We are going into uncharted territory. Everything you think you know will be challenged. Now that you know Who I am, trust Me and not your own thinking.



Saturday, September 05, 2015

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 18B  ~  September 6, 2015
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

…you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,

A strange way of putting it. Usually boasting is considered bad form. But the Collect refers to St. Paul’s boasting about the Cross. (Galatians 6:14). Boasting is public self-congra-tulation – public proclamation of one's own virtue.  The Apostle says, the only thing we have to boast about is the Cross.  In other words, our own total helplessness.  God Incarnate was totally helpless on the Cross, from the World’s point of view.  Yet from that apparent helplessness He spoke the most powerful words ever heard on Earth: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."  Our public boast is the invincible power of mercy.  How, exactly, do we boast of divine mercy?  Keep that in mind.
In many accounts of Jesus' miracles, we find two features: privacy and the faith of the one healed. Although He does not praise the Syro-Phoenician woman precisely in this way, He does link the healing to her own inner state, expressed by her daring interchange with Him.  In many places, Jesus simply says "your faith has saved you."
But James seems to say the opposite, asking the rhetorical question "Can faith save you?"  James observes that faith without works is not faith at all, a truth the woman exemplifies, because she didn't just sit around waiting for God to heal her child, she went to the Lord and insisted on it.  Her trust motivated her action, but without her action nothing would've happened. I suppose the point is that, as the Collect says, what heals us is not our own inner strength, but trust in God's mercy.  If we rely on our own strength, we’re sunk. Nevertheless, what little we actually can do, we must do in order for there to be real trust.
The Collect prays for spiritual perfection: to "trust in God with all our hearts."  ALL our hearts.  That means with our whole being.  Complete trust.  No room for any reliance on our own efforts at all.  Spiritual perfection is increasing reliance on God's mercy only and not on our own strength. Paradoxically, that doesn't mean that we make no effort — just that we don't expect our effort to produce anything by itself. To trust in God's mercy is, in fact, to act as the woman acted: not to sit at home waiting for God to do it, but to take action rooted in the faith that God will do it.  To "trust in God's mercy."
Mercy is essential, because we are free.  All of God's dealings with us, from start to finish, are merciful.  To create us in the first place is an act of mercy.  To create us in the divine image is the ultimate mercy.  To bear God's image means to be free.  As parents must turn their children loose, if they love them, so God turns us loose.  That is also mercy. A parent who loves a child wants the child to be independent. A parent gradually relinquishes control and authority.  But to be really free means running the risk of hurting ourselves.  And we do.
From the beginning, God suffers for us: first by a voluntary limitation of divine omnipotence and even omniscience.  In creating us, God limits Himself by creating another who is free as God is free.  “God waited to see what Adam would name the creatures.” Even God dpesn’t know what Adam would do, because God had made Adam free.  God suffers further in watching us hurt ourselves.  
What is God to do?  Keep us from hurting ourselves?  That would be to destroy His own image in us.  By the way, I think that is why so many of the healing miracles happen in private.  Jesus is not some kind of sorcerer seeking to compel belief by working wonders.  The ancient world has plenty of those; Jesus is not among them.  That's why the miracles are private — almost secret.  They happen to people who already trust Him.  He does not heal people in order to make them trust Him; He heals people who already trust Him enough to ask Him, and He heals them mostly in private. But the secret is impossible the keep.  
There is a fine paradox in today's account, which may be a sly allusion to this fact: Jesus restores the faculty of speech, and then commands the healed person not to use it! “Tell no one.” That’s impossible. He would tell them just by talking. Should he pretend to remain mute? No. But by saying anything at all, he publicizes the healing –  in a sense, he boasts of it just by speaking.
Likewise, God announces universal mercy from the Cross: “Father, forgive them…” Henceforth, human beings can do the same. Like the deaf-mute, God has given us a capacity we didn’t have before; by using it, we boast of it. Now we can show mercy, like God. We boast of God’s mercy, publicly, by forgiving others.
The Cross shows us that judgment and mercy are identical.  To insist otherwise is the only way we can go wrong, by imagining in our deepest hearts that God cannot or will not save, that someone cannot be forgiven.  That is to turn away from God's mercy.  We are free to do that, in which case we find exactly what we expect to find: judgment — merciless judgment — not because it is God’s will, but because it is all we are willing to recognize.   Salvation is trust in God's mercy.  Perfection is to trust God's mercy with all our hearts, and to boast of it by displaying it. God will never forsake those who thus make their boast of His mercy.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 17B  ~  August 30, 2015
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

Graft in our hearts the love of your Name

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,

There are number of ways to interpret this prayer. I have, before, emphasized the mystical practice of the Jesus Prayer, by which we invite God’s Love to be united to our own personal centers.  The prayer may also refer to our story or narrative about God.  As I have also said before, name means reputation, a person's public story.  So, here is an obvious meaning: May God help us to love the story about His activity.
However, since God's activity is love for us, the "love of your Name" could also mean God's love as revealed in the story.  Not our love for the story, but God's love for us as revealed in the story.  In that interpretation, we are not asking God to excite in us feelings of piety or reverence for the Bible and tradition (although there's nothing wrong with that!); rather, we are asking that the whole import of the story — the awful Love of God — may take over our innermost selves.
Graft in our hearts the love of Your Name.
The Love of God's Name also reminds us that God has a Name known to us.  Now, a name is a word.  A reputation, a story, a narrative, is nothing but a collection of words, a description.  The presupposition of revealed religion is that God has given us a self-description.  God has identified Himself in language we can understand.  The problem is that our words are limited, while God is not.  Therefore, the story we have been given is incomplete and, in a certain sense, faulty. It has to be, because it is given in terms we can understand (up to a point), but the Object of our understanding is, by definition, incomprehensible!
Even though God has told us His Name, we must not pronounce it, because it is holy.  That means it is entirely removed from us — "utterly other."  To speak it is blasphemy.  That is the primary meaning of the Third Commandment: the Name of God is holy, and so we may not even utter it aloud. As Wittgenstein famously observed, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.”
All this is a colorful way of expressing our basic problem, as adherents of divine revelation:  God has revealed Himself, but God is still Utterly Other.  We may know the Name, but we must never say it, because to do so is to describe God as less than God, to "take the Name… in vain."  So what are we to do?
At the very least, I think, we must recognize that anything we say about God is conditional, provisional, and incomplete.  It cannot be otherwise, since we are finite while God is not.  That means that it is the extreme of arrogance — rising perhaps even to blasphemy — to say that my pronunciation of the Name is right and yours is wrong.  In giving us His Name, God has not given us certainty, at least not the kind of certainty that warrants persecution of those who disagree.
At the same time, God has revealed something of Who He is.  If we must be very careful not to take the Name in vain, it is because God Who so commands has already identified Himself as our Liberator: "I am the LORD your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery."  (The original Hebrew has the unutterable Tetragrammaton, which we render as LORD, all in capitals, to avoid pronouncing it.) Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, you see!  We can say something about this Utterly Other One, something about His identity.  We can say that God has freed us from slavery, because God has told us so.  The very One Who commands us not to take the Name in vain, also commanded us to recognize God’s acts of Love in history – and to tell of them. We may not be able to speak of God out of our own limited consciousness – “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent” – but it is God Who is speaking here, not us, Who says
I am the LORD your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery."  
            Of course there will be those who deny this.  We have to say that they are mistaken, because we have experienced God's liberation and heard God’s self-identification – we know God’s Name.  That does not mean that we are permitted to hate anyone or persecute them, just because they don’t acknowledge the Name.  In fact, they may know things about God that we don't.  They may know God by another Name, which is just as holy and faithful.  That is none of our business.
The paradox is that this salutary humility, arising out of our recognition of our own limitations, is commanded by the One Who has revealed Himself to us and identified Himself — Who has, in other words, told us His Name.
Lately we hear many who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious."  I suppose this means that such people recognize within themselves the desire for the Unnamable One, a desire we would say God has given them.  In Augustine's great prayer:
You have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.
I suppose our spiritual-but-not-religious friends hesitate to be duped by all the counterfeits available in the religious supermarket. I suppose they have come to Wittgenstein’s conclusion about the limits of our ability to name God. Finally, I suppose they may hesitate to acknowledge the Name, out of a kind of awe — an instinctive horror of taking the Name in vain.  If so, this is good.  "The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom."  
The good news is that God has spoken.  God has told us His Name.  The Utterly Other, silent by definition, is also the Word spoken from the Beginning, Who has become flesh and dwelt among us. Our own hearts are restless until that Word enters them and comes to dwell in them — until the Love of the Name grafts itself in our hearts, as a new vine grafted onto an old root, causing the steady increase in true religion, which is to say increase in our bond with Love Himself, by the Holy Spirit's nourishment with all goodness, unto the fruition of good works.



Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 16B  ~  August 23, 2015
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

This teaching is difficult.  Who can accept it?
+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,
We pray today that we may be gathered together in unity by God's Holy Spirit, and that we may show forth God's power among all peoples. The power we are to show forth, however, is not what we usually mean by power.  It is not any kind of coercion. It is certainly not military domination.  This is what power means to the rulers of this world, as Paul calls them. Imperial power. In the world of separation from God, human beings try to dominate one another.  The world calls this "power".  It is opposite to the power of God, the Power the Church is sent to show forth.
The power of God is the power to give life.  That is, it is the power of love.  The power of God is the power to overcome separation and alienation, which is to say, Sin.  The power of God is the power to include everyone who wishes to be included, and to attract them, as our Lord attracted the Twelve, who stayed with Him because they could not imagine anything better – however difficult His teaching.  The considerable number of disciples who did stop going around with Him, show us that God's power does not coerce.  It attracts, but it does not coerce.  Finally, the power of God is the power to suffer and to overcome evil.
All those evildoers mentioned in today's Psalm — those whom God will punish and destroy — are not to be thought of as human persons, but rather the mysterious forces of wickedness that cause people to find His teaching too difficult.  These forces are all around, they are found in social and economic systems, as well as in our own psyches.  Sometimes they are just annoying, at other times they are really dangerous, in any case, they all are ways of confirming our separation from God and from one another, and beckoning us toward death. That is what the Psalm seeks to destroy – not other people, but the spiritual forces of alienation.
I ran across an image our individual psyche — ego, consciousness, subconscious — as a bus or light-rail car, crowded with passengers, each of whom has a particular agenda.  They get on and off the car at various stops, sometimes they get very close to us and bother or delight us.  The point is that what we usually think of as "Me" is more like a crowd of tendencies, agendas, and forces, which — taken together — are really Me.  (This would explain why other people may sometimes surprise us with their opinions of who we really are: these opinions may differ vastly from our own.)  I can use this picture to understand and apply the notions of judgment and punishment I encounter in scripture, such as today’s psalm: the annoying and dangerous passengers on the car will be thrown out.
Evil shall slay the wicked, *
and those who hate the righteous will be punished.
The LORD ransoms the life of his servants, *
and none will be punished who trust in him.

The power of God, not our own effort, improves the crowd on the streetcar of my inner being.  Likewise, it improves the whole world, but not by force.  The Power of God in the world is the power of the Cross: that is the power to endure all the abuse the world has to offer, and thereby to overcome it. 
The Joly Spirit gathers the Church.  That is, we are called out of individual separation into unbreakable Communion — out of sin into righteousness, out of slavery into freedom, out of death into life.  But that is not the whole deal: it is not simply about our individual salvation — not just about the improvement of the population of our individual subway-cars, nor even about our rescue from individuality itself; because the Church is also commissioned to show forth God's power among all peoples.
That means the Church is to exercise the divine capacity to absorb all the world's evil –  all the forces of sin, slavery, and death – and by absorbing to vanquish them.  To show forth the power of God among all peoples is to universalize the Victory of the Cross.
The Cross, after all, was the world’s assertion of ultimate power.  Crucifixions showed forth the power of Rome among all the peoples of the Empire.  The crucified person was utterly powerless, totally subject to the will of the Emperor.  The Cross was imperial propaganda: the symbol of the invincibility of Rome, and the folly of opposition, made legible in the suffering victim. But Jesus Christ has turned that on its head.  The Son of David has slain Goliath with his own sword.  The power of God in the world appears as powerlessness, but Christ has turned the ultimate symbol of imperial domination into the emblem of liberation from that kind of power, altogether.

The repose of the Julian Bond has given occasion to remember the civil rights movement of a half-century ago.  The freedom riders, the voter-registration organizers, the numerous martyrs like our own Jonathan Daniels, and hundreds of confessors, who suffered short of death, had no power at all, from the world's point of view. Their only power was their capacity to suffer without retaliation. Yet, in the words of their hymn, they did overcome.  United by the Holy Spirit, they showed forth the power of God among the people of the United States.
The Communion of the Holy Spirit – God’s New Creation, the Church – shares Christ’s power to endure all things, and by doing so shows forth God’s power among all peoples.



Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 15B  ~  August 16, 2015
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

Jesus is also an example of Godly life. In other words, He shows us how to participate in His Liberating work. What did He do? Healed the sick, forgave sins, raised the dead, and proclaimed good news to the poor. We too, are called and empowered to do all those things –we being the Church as a whole. Some of us will literally heal the sick, many more will contribute to the steady increase in physical well-being of all creatures.  Others raise people from the death of ignorance and slavery, beginning with the proclamation of the Good News of their supernatural dignity as Gods image. All of us will exercise the divine power to forgive sins – anything unjust done against ourselves.
Forgivenesss means the obliteration of any rupture caused by human will. Human beings cannot heal the breach, but God can. The Cross gives us the power to do the same in His Blood. God gives us the divine power to forgive so perfectly that it is as though the acts themselves  had never been done. They are obliterated – forgotten by the omniscient God.
That is the godly life of which Jesus is the Example. It is not a question of practicing virtue or developing character, It is a matter of joining Him in the completion of Creation.

This week, we rejoice in a particularly stellar list of saints who did so:

Laurence the deacon and martyr
Clare of Assisi
Florence nightingale
Jeremy Taylor
Jonathan Daniels
The Bl. Virgin Mary

These examples of Godly life come from widely different times and places. You will know their stories, so I can be brief:
Laurence was an early martyr, who joked with those who were roasting him to death on a grate! For that reason, he has become the patron of cooks and chefs …and comedians! Although the legend is probably the result of a copying error, which turned the word suffered into roasted, Laurence is still important because he personified the diaconal ministry of active work on behalf of the poor. In fact, the reason the prefect roasted him was that when he commanded Laurence to produce the Church’s riches, the Deacon brought the poor and crippled. Laurence had given the poor as much as he could to keep it from the State. He also hid the Church records, which has made him the patron of archivists.
Clare was a contemplative, who lived a completely cloistered life – St. Francis other half in the sense that while he went out into the world to sing about God, she stayed in the monastery.
Jeremy Taylor was a faithful royalist, known for his unsurpassed English prose and for his advocacy of tolerance in theological matters. He was imprisoned, briefly, by the Puritans but made a Bishop in his native Northern Ireland after the restoration. He authored one of our most exquisite prayers: O God Whose days are without end and Whose mercies cannot be numbered, make us deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of human life….
Florence Nightingale was a devout Anglican. Unorthodox only in that she rejected the class prejudices of Victorian England, including those of the established church, she was considered eccentric by her fellow-aristocrats. But she believed her calling to serve the poor was from God. Her active work on behalf of the sick and wounded, and later on behalf of women’s rights, is well known. Less so is her contemplative side. She studied and wrote about the Christian mystical tradition, as well as those of other cultures, to whom she extended Taylor’s Anglican tolerance. Non-Christian religions could also lead to God. Her openness in this matter seems unremarkable to us, but in her time it was another mark of eccentricity or worse. Florence Nightingale – one of the most famous activists in history – was also a mystic.
Next Thursday is the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels. (We observe August 14, the day his group was jailed in Alabama, as the commemoration of civil rights marytrs).  Upon learning of Daniels' murder, Martin Luther King, Jr. said that "one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels". The teenager he died to save, Ruby Sales, went on to Episcopal Divinity School. She later worked as a human rights advocate in Washington D.C.
Finally, August 15 is the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin. Her Son is the Firstfruits of the Resurrection of the Dead, but He is not alone in His bodily glory. The Assumption of the BVM is an impenetrable mystery, which we can only adore. We Anglicans do not speak of it officially, even though it is a widely held belief from ancient times. It points to our hope for every human being and for all creation: corporeal transfiguration and glorification. What happened to Christ’s Body happened also to his Mother’s, as it will happen to ours. So that the Godly Life of which Jesus and the Saints are examples, will be achieved as actual participation in the Life of God.



Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 14B  ~  August 9, 2015
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

….the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,
Today’s  first reading suggests a pattern: Elijah is despondent, God sends what he needs to revive his spirit and persevere.  Elijah tells God he wants to die, and then he goes to sleep. (Even the greatest of prophets, who had lots of personal experience of God, had his bad days.) He was depressed and wanted to quit.
But God wouldn’t let him. God sent an angel with food. Elijah ate and then went back to sleep. That is the detail in the story that struck me. Even after being visited by an angel and nurtured with miraculous food, Elijah still wanted to die! God didn’t try to cheer him up, but neither would He let him sleep. God’s angel kept poking Elijah until he got up and ate enough to sustain him on the difficult journey ahead.
So, like last week, it is possible to see ourselves in Elijah. How often we would just like to go to sleep. Even when we get what we need, we happily take it and then go BACK to sleep.  But, it seems, God won’t let us alone.  For some reason, God wants Elijah to go on a journey. To  Horeb, the mount of God. Another name for Sinai, perhaps. Doesn’t matter. It means heaven, where God dwells. The point is Elijah’s three states: sleep, waking, and the mount of God –  ordinary consciousness, spiritual awakening, and union with God. I notice that this is the same form as last week’s story about the rebellion in the wilderness: the people despair and complain and God feeds them, so that they can journey on to some unknown destination, which for all they know may be purely imaginary.
Once again, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, in that this seems to be the pattern of our individual spiritual lives, too. Elijah’s example makes it at once more individual and more communal. I suppose we are never more alone than when we sleep - except when we die.  Of course, sleep is a metaphor for death. Elijah wants to die: to lose consciousness. But God won’t let him. God keeps prodding the great prophet and God also provides everything he needs to keep awake and to keep going. Bread and water.
It is obvious why the lectionary pairs this account with our Lord’s proclamation that He is the Bread of Life. Elijah suggests that it is all about consciousness: sleep is our ordinary consciousness. We have moments of awakening but our inclination is to go back to our ordinary state. God’s Bread and water help us to wake up more and more, so that we can go to the mount of God, a third level of consciousness, perhaps: something beyond imagining.
The bread and water are the center of Elijah’s story. They are what he must have to make the journey. They bring him out of sleep into consciousness, out of death into life. They give him the strength to go to the mount of God. But it’s not just about him.  The bread and water belong to the world. Christ gives His Flesh for the life of the world, that is, of all the cosmos together. Furthermore, while water occurs in nature, bread does not. Bread is a human artifact the product of civilization. Is this meant to suggest the communal nature of the journey? Even our journey to the unknown heights of Horeb? To get there, Elijah needs not only God’s gift of water,  but bread, God’s gift  through  human society. If Elijah’s sleep represents death and solitary alienation, is not his awakening the opposite: life and communion? Elijah’s Bread represents the Communion that Paul describes, the Body in which we are “members of one another.” Is not that the Communion that brings the world to life?
The bread that I will give for the
life of the world is my flesh.
Bread is the center of the story. Bread awakens Elijah and Bread also gives him what he needs to go on through the desert.
Elijah’s destination represents our encounter with God, which is to say eternal life, a condition as far exalted above ordinary waking consciousness as that consciousness is above sleep, a condition as far exalted above ordinary life as that life is above death. In today’s Gospel, our Lord calls it heaven. But something is different in the Gospel:   Elijah has to go to the Mount of God.  But in the Gospel, Life comes to us. We don’t have to go anywhere; Life comes down from heaven:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.



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