Saturday, July 08, 2017

Pentecost 5

Sermon for Pentecost 5
Sermon for Pentecost 5
Proper 9, Year July 9 , 2017

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

Love God and do as you please.
In the Name of  God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

Thus St. Augustine summarized Christian ethics in a remark that serves as a charter for what is called the sovereignty of conscience. It is, in a way, a paraphrase of our Lord’s own Summary of the Law, to which today’s Collect refers, saying that God has taught us to fulfill the whole law by loving God and our neighbor. If we love God, we cannot help but love our neighbor, because our neighbor is like God.
And yet we all fall short of this simple standard. It may be simple but it’s not easy. Because loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength means not only refraining from the worst kinds of outward offenses, but it also means never thinking about anything but God, which means forgetting ourselves entirely. Like Paul, in his famous lament and to the Romans, we find that we cannot do that, however much we may wish to:

The good that I would that I do not,
and the evil that I would not that I do!

Whenever I read this passage, I remember the great Krister Stendhal, the Dean of Harvard Divinity school and later the Bishop of Stockholm, who came to our Episcopal clergy conference here in Minnesota in the early 70s. He had a terrific sense of humor even though, as he explained, he had been prepared for confirmation by Ingmar Bergman’s father! Stendhal was a noted Pauline scholar and he argued that this passage we heard today is not really the anguished cry of a tormented soul, but a rhetorical trope of the kind commonly found in classical literature. “There is no way out of my conundrum, but look! Surprise! There is a way out after all.”
This form may also be detected in today’s Gospel – a kind of bad news/good news joke. What we heard today was a series of sayings of Jesus — so-called “unattached logoi”, or sayings that seem to have been collected individually and piled up on the evangelist’s desk, and then selected seemingly at random, to be tacked on wherever there was room:
I piped in you did not dance &c,
John came fasting and you said he had a demon, I came eating and drinking and you said I was a glutton, there’s no pleasing you!
Thank God that all this is hidden from the wisdom of this world, and revealed to the simple. The Father is unknown to all but the Son, and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal the Father.
My yoke is easy and my burden is light.

It is a challenge to find any common theme here, but I’ll try! Maybe a key to interpretation can be found in Paul’s diatribe about feeling trapped, and the Collect’s reference to the Summary of the Law, which Augustine paraphrased as “love God and do as you please.” At first glance, Augustine’s advice seems to contradict St. Paul’s. Even with the best of will, Paul finds that his propensity to forget God is always close at hand — ready to pounce, as it were. Krister Stendhal’s studies led him to observe that Western European Christians are way too quick to identify this kind of expression with Luther and his famous spiritual struggles.

But there is little evidence that Paul’s temperament was much like Luther’s. The famous passage we heard today is not a cry of existential, Teutonic anguish, but a rather cheerful and humorous thanksgiving for liberation from this kind of pagan trap. When he wrote this, Paul was most likely smiling, not beating his breast! Sure, our condition is absurd, but thanks be to God, because of Jesus Christ there is humor in that condition, instead of despair.

So, we are like the little children: on the one hand, there is no pleasing us —
We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.

While on the other hand, the Good News is hidden from the sophisticated, and revealed to us infants. The Good News is that in Christ, God has overcome sin, and freed us from its death-house. Our decrepit will to do the right thing is not our only weapon in this struggle: thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ.

The “body of death” in which we are imprisoned is not our physical body, but rather the sense of separation in our individual consciousness. This is the “law of sin in my members" which Paul laments, and ridicules. But Jesus Christ has overcome that separation — Thanks be to God. He has overcome it for everyone, although He had revealed the fact, for now, only to a few: to us whom He has commissioned to spread the Good News. No one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.

This open secret, which we now shout from the rooftops, is hard to hear. Even public proclamation doesn’t necessarily reveal the secret. People can hear the words and not get it. Part of the secret is that the “yoke is easy and the burden is light.” Just the opposite of the anguish that Paul ridiculed. God knows that He is calling those who are weary and heavy laden. All God asks is that we love Him. God also knows that His adorability is infinitely greater than our capacity for love.

“Don’t worry about that,” He says, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  In other words, do your best to love Me. I will gradually increase your capacity to love. My easy burden and light yoke will gradually form your conscience — the secret place within your inner consciousness where you know Me and I know you. As for everything else, as My servant, Bishop Augustine of Hippo, put it: do as you please!



Saturday, July 01, 2017

Holy Apostles

Sermon for Pentecost 4
(Sunday within the octave of
the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul)
Year July 2 , 2017

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

Anyone who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.
  +In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

The feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, June 29, commemorates the traditional day the Empire killed them. Tradition also reveres them as the apostolic founders of the Church in Rome. These two Jews, very different in background and social position, brought the Gospel to the Imperial capital. There’s lots of symbolic meaning here. Ancient Hebrew monotheism transcends its ethnic roots, extending to all nations, and polytheistic paganism embraces monotheism. Peter, the rough working-class Apostle, is joined by Paul, the Roman citizen of the Diaspora — not even from Palestine but from Asia minor, who spoke Greek as well as he spoke Aramaic possibly better, the disciple of the most noted rabbi of the time, Gamaliel. Peter and Paul represent the universality of the Church — They are the Catholic Apostles, par excellence.
The Sunday after the feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul often falls around the time of our national holiday which makes it a good time to reflect on the relationship of church and state. I mean that in a broad sense, not in our usual legal, constitutional sense. All our scriptures make it clear that human political arrangements are temporary and instrumental. That is, when they promote God’s purpose of peace and justice among creatures, God may bless them, but when they work against those purposes, God shows them no favor. Among the worst kinds of idolatry, also among the most prevalent, is the identification of one’s own society, culture, or nation with the Kingdom of God.
One reason the Hebrew Scriptures seem authentic is the criticism they often level against the People whom God has chosen to be His own. The basic message is that the status of chosen people is not something any nation can claim, but only receive as the gift of God, and the chosen status can turn into judgment if the people ignore God’s commandments.
Today’s Collect identifies the Apostle and Prophets as twofold foundation of the Church. The prophets leave no doubt that God insists on our obedience to commandments: not so much commandments about ritual purity and religious observance, but commandments of social justice. If this is true of the descendants of Abraham by blood, how much more is it true of any other country or nation that thinks of itself as specially favored?
From the beginning, we Americans have thought of ourselves that way. Some even went so far as to dream that we could rebuild a whole new society here, free of Original Sin. A new secular order, as our motto on the Great Seal — found in the back of the dollar bill — proclaims. Deep in our national DNA is the notion of American exceptionalism: we are new and different. We are specially favored by God. Even as we killed indigenous people and enslaved Africans. But this is in fact a kind of apostasy, a blasphemy, a form of idolatry because it places the nation on the throne in place of God.
That is not to say that the United States — or any nation — may never be used by God. But it is a warning against the kind of national pride that easily turns into idolatry. Scripture threatens unpleasant consequences for that! As long as we — or any other nation —genuinely try to advance the cause of peace and justice on earth, we may have God’s favor. But whenever we begin to think that God favors us and so we can do whatever we want, we are in for a big surprise. I’m afraid that surprise may now be upon us.
I think of our present time as a “slow-motion crisis.” We have elected an incompetent, infantile man to be president. A Hebrew prophet would take this as the judgment of God, which we have called down upon ourselves. Of course the ancient Hebrews were not individualists: they did not think in terms of individual rights or deserts. It’s fine to quote H.L. Mencken and say that “democracy is the form of government in which the people get exactly what they deserve”, but what about all of us who didn’t vote for that nincompoop? Well, modern human rights law may take a dim view of collective punishment, but the Hebrew Scriptures didn’t. When the nation departs from the way of the righteous, everybody suffers –  even the individually innocent.
All of this is important to remember in conjunction with our national holiday. I do not intend to turn it into a day of mourning by reciting our innumerable transgressions. I just want to observe that human empires sometimes serve God, and sometimes they don’t. The Roman Empire served to help spread the Gospel throughout the entire known world (at least that part of the known world  mattered to anyone in that culture), and then having served that purpose, it declined and fell — or at least changed into something very different.
We remember Peter and Paul as the founders of the Church in Rome. According to tradition, both died there on the same day — one crucified, the other beheaded as a Roman citizen. Although the Empire may be an instrument, it is never the friend of the Church. The Gospel would spread under the protection of the Empire, and eventually conquer it, even though it killed the first apostles.
One important, underlying message of all this is that parochial or ethnocentric religion — religion too closely identified with one ethnic group — must become universal.  
              Anyone who loves father or mother more
 than Me is not worthy of Me.  
These difficult words we heard last week could well apply here: if you think God favors you particularly because of your nationality, if you love your own ancestry, your own blood more than you love Jesus, then you are not worthy of Jesus. The Gospel is for everybody, not for any particular bloodline.
The Roman Empire was universal, and the Good News that Peter and Paul brought to Rome was salvation for everybody, not only for the blood descendants of Abraham. As the Empire was universal, so would be the New Israel, the Catholic Church. All human classifications, all divisions, all categories would be transcended and abolished. Just as there was one Emperor, there would be one Lord and Savior of all peoples. Once that was firmly established, the Empire had served its purpose. The Empire became Christian, and more or less continued in Constantinople and Moscow right up into the last century (remember that Tsar means Cæsar.) But these Imperial tools eventually outlived their usefulness and disappeared. While the universal Church continued to prosper.
As our own nation and our own world Empire declines, dramatically, let us not be amazed. We cannot predict the future: it may be that the United States of America has served whatever purpose God intended for it — and we can all guess what that might be. [For my part, I think it has something to do with the promotion of universal human rights.] But then it may also be that God will repent, turn back our decline, cleanse us, and lead us in the paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake.
It is possible, but don’t count on it. In the end, the Gospel is opposed to Empire. Sooner or later, the Empire will attack the messengers of the Gospel, crucify and behead them as Rome did to Peter and Paul. But the Holy Apostles will have the last word.


Monday, June 26, 2017

Pentecost 3

Sermon for Pentecost 3
Year A  June 25 , 2017

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
  +In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity

We don’t always know what’s best for us. What seems like catastrophe may be a door to something better. Hagar could only see death for her child and herself, but what was in store for her was a greater future. From servitude, God brought her and her son, Ishmael, to prominence. Ishmael became the father of “a great nation,” the Arabs. But in order to enjoy this reversal of fortune, poor Hagar had to endure a kind of death. She was sure she was going to die and — what was worse — her only child would die too.

Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

This saying is a kind of summary of the whole Gospel. St. Paul expands on it in the passage we just heard from his Letter to the Romans. Share in Christ’s resurrection because we have also shared in his death. As the Gospel says if we are really His disciples, we will take up our Cross. This is anything but “good news”: strife within families, persecution from the authorities, all kinds of misfortunes and disasters. Everyone experiences them to some degree, very few get off easy, and no one escapes death.

Abraham’s family is divided, Hagar and Ishmael driven off into the desert. This is not peace, but division.

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

That is, an instrument for cutting apart. And

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me…

But our responsibilities to our parents are first in line after our duties to God, as we see in the order of the Ten Commandments. What is more painful than conflict within the family, conflict with those closest to us? Where is the good news in this?

These extremely negative pronouncements sound like the opposite of good news to me! What’s more, if sin is separation it sounds as though Jesus is promising to bring sin into the world: the sword of division. This is intentionally provocative. St. Paul faced the problem head-on by asking the Romans, Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?

After all, if Jesus is come to bring not peace but division, then maybe we should wallow in the division! “Of course not!” Says Paul.

How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?

In other words, to be a Christian, is to participate in Christ’s Death. Part of the illumination of Baptism is the consciousness of sharing His Cross.

… whoever does not take up the Cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.

Perhaps the good news in all of this is to be found in the words “take up.” To accept all of this suffering consciously leads to glory.  Embrace the Suck! As the marines say. (Possibly you thought I would never find anything edifying in military culture!) St.Paul put it somewhat more loftily:

Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

We don’t know what’s good for us. That should be abundantly clear on every level, from our personal lives to our social and political and spiritual lives. If we try to save ourselves on our own terms, we will fail. Hagar the serving woman is our models in this. She accepted her suffering, even her death, and what is worse, the death of her only child. But what appeared to her as ultimate disaster, was really the path to glory.

Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Corpus Christi

Sermon for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi
[Second Sunday after Pentecost
Year A  June 18 , 2017

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

You gave them bread from heaven, containing within itself all sweetness.

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

When we pray that our Father may give us today our daily bread, we refer to The Bread of the Holy Eucharist. The word translated as “daily” is unique in Greek, found only in the New Testament. It appears to mean something entirely different, translated in Latin as super-substantial. In the Greek and Slavic liturgies it is still called that, in the West, following St. Jerome, it is interpreted to be a reference to the Bread of the Exodus: the manna from heaven that appeared every day, saving the lives of the Israelites in the desert, who commanded to share it equally among themselves, because there was always more than enough.
16 This is the thing which the LORD hath commanded: Gather ye of it every man according to his eating; an omer a head, according to the number of your persons, shall ye take it, every man for them that are in his tent.'
17 And the children of Israel did so, and gathered some more, some less.
18 And when they did mete it with an omer, he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack; they gathered every man according to his eating.
19 And Moses said unto them: 'Let no man leave of it till the morning.'
20 Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto Moses; but some of them left of it until the morning, and it bred worms, and rotted; and Moses was wroth with them
The impulse to hoard, the view that there may not be enough and I had better provide for me and mine, and forget about everybody else produces stinking corruption. The life-giving manna from heaven cannot be hoarded: everyone gathers just enough for each person in the family. Every person gets an equal amount. This equality pre-figures the Eucharistic Banquet, in which all communicants are equal.
In any case, when we utter this prayer for our “daily bread”, we ask and not for daily sustenance, alone — “not for bread alone” — but for “the Word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” For that is what this Super-substantial Bread is: the Word Of God, by Whom all things were made, the Word made flesh, by Whose word, the Bread is become His Body. By His Word also, we to become His Body when we eat it. No more distinctions of any kind: neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, rich nor poor, high nor low, neither better nor worse, educated nor uneducated, beginner nor adept. All are equal in the New Adam, equally invited into the heavenly banquet, where this collective Humanity, representing all of creation, joins the three Divine persons around their table of mutual, self-forgetting Love.
No one who eats this Bread and drinks this Cup receives any more or less than anyone else. All are perfectly equal. Samson the Ethiopian reminded me of this supernatural fact the other day in the gym. It was wonderful to have the testimony of one who is about as different from me and my culture and history as anyone can be. Wonderful because of the testimony to universal equality embedded in the core of the Christian revelation, the Gospel received by an Ethiopian before any other Gentile, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.
I call the Eucharistic equality a supernatural fact, because it refers to the perfection of human nature in Christ, a perfection already achieved in His Mystical Body, here on earth, where we already participate in the Eternal Banquet. But this supernatural, or super-substantial perfection is not to be put off until the Last Judgment, when it shall be consummated in a Judgment that is not a condemnation, but the vindication and perfection in all righteousness. The Holy Eucharist signifies this Judgment of perfection. It begins now. Here and now, as our Lord said: “Now is the Judgment of this world, now is the Prince of this World cast out.”  Here and now we are delivered from Evil; here and now we creatures who bear the image of God, become also like God as we forgive sin — the sin of those who sin against us; here and now God’s Kingdom is come and God’s Will done on earth as in heaven, as we share equally in the one loaf of super-substantial Bread. Here and now, the sin of this world, which separates people into categories and levels of privilege, is destroyed in the Communion of perfect equality and perfect love.
As we may not pretend that this blessed state comes only at the end of time, neither may we imagine that it has nothing to do with this world, except in the time-warp we call the Liturgy. We have promised to pray, work ,and give for the spread of God’s Kingdom, here on earth. That means to work for peace and justice in this world, which means among other things to work for equality. Not just equality of opportunity, but equality of life and dignity. It is well to remember that human projects to achieve this equality without God have the nature of antichrist. Without God, our attempts to improve society too easily lead to Auschwitz and the GULAG. On the other hand, the recognition of that danger can too easily become an excuse for what is called quietism, the heresy that counsels against any human effort to advance the Kingdom of God.

In receiving the Super-substantial Bread, our daily Manna from heaven, like the ancient Israelites we receive a miraculous gift: the sustenance necessary to move on toward the Promised Land, the Kingdom in which God's will is done on earth as in heaven.

So mortals ate the Bread of Heaven.
You provided them food enough.

Monday, June 12, 2017


Sermon for the Feast of the Most Holy and Life-giving Trinity
  Year A  June 11 , 2017

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

  +In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

St. Helena, from the Roman garrison town of York in what is now England, was a Christian, and she was also the   mother of St. Constantine, Peer of Apostles, who ended the persecution of the Church in the Roman Empire. Early in the fourth century, she made a famous tour of the Holy Land, where she was shown the traditional sites of the Nativity and the Resurrection. Under her influence, her son built great churches there to accommodate increasing numbers of pilgrims. The basilicas can be visited to this day in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
At the urging of Constantine’s mother-in-law, a third great church was built in southern Judæa, near the ancient city of Hebron, at the place remembered as the home of Abraham and Sarah, in a grove of oak trees called Mamre. According to Genesis, it was there that Abraham welcomed three mysterious Visitors. The text calls them “men”, but Abraham addresses them sometimes in the singular and sometimes in the plural. Sarah prepared a lavish banquet for them, after which the Visitor promised that within a year’s time she would have a son. Sarah was ninety years old, and so she laughed at the news. And the Mysterious Visitor joked back that she would call her son, Isaac, which means “he laughs.”
Constantine built the third basilica at Mamre in honor of the Trinity. By the fourth century, Christians had a well-established pattern of searching the Hebrew Scriptures for veiled hints about Jesus. Abraham and Sarah’s guests were interpreted to refer, prophetically, to the Mystery of the Identity of Jesus as the Son of God from all eternity. Jesus revealed to humanity something we could never invent on our own: One God, three Persons. It took a long time to work out the theological formulation, and it was not complete even in Constantine’s time, but this was all based on Jesus’ shocking habit of referring to God as “My Father,”
Until Jesus, there is no record of anyone, anywhere, addressing God in that way. The Gospel also records that He commissioned His Apostles to baptize people of all races and cultures in the Name of the “Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” There are, indeed, passages in the Hebrew Scriptures quoting God as addressing David as “my son,” but David does not turn around and call God “my Father.” In the Psalms, the meaning is symbolic. Symbolic and prophetic, in the view of the early Church, because God’s honorary “son”, David, would be the ancestor of the One who would call God “My Father,” because He would be — in fact — God’s Son.
So, Constantine built shrines in honor of the three great Mysteries revealed in Jesus Christ: the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the Trinity. It is poetically appropriate, perhaps, that the Basilica of the Trinity did not survive the later Arab invasions, since the Nativity and Resurrection can be placed in time and space, but the Trinity cannot be so located. The basilica at Mamre commemorated a cryptic event in Scripture, later interpreted to refer to the Mystery of the Trinity. The Nativity and Resurrection were visible. The Trinity is not. It is only by looking back and rereading the Hebrew Scriptures in the Light of the revelation of Jesus Christ, that we can detect a reference to the Trinity.
Christians also find a Trinitarian hint in the very first chapter of Genesis, when God created heaven and earth. We read that the Spirit of God moved over the abyss, and then that God spoke the Word of creation: Let there be light. So, it is possible to see the Three Divine Persons in that account of creation. It is important to notice that all three participate in the creative act. Since we are talking about something that we can never really understand, it is all too easy to err by simplifying the Mystery into something that we can understand. These simplifications for the sake of comprehension actually close off the Mystery. They are called heresies.
One of the first heresies was the idea that Father, Son and Holy Spirit simply referred to three activities of the one God, toward creation: the Father creates, the Son redeems, and the Holy Spirit sanctifies.  In fact, we do tend to associate these three Divine activities with the three Divine Persons in this way. The heresy is to think that “Father, Son and Spirit” are nothing other than names for these activities. If that were true, then the Trinity could not be thought of as being before the beginning of time and creation. And yet Scripture also teaches us that the Son was with the Father from before all eternity.  So, “Creator” does not name the First Person, nor does “Redeemer” name the Second, nor “Sanctifier” the Third. “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” refer to relations between the Three living in perfect harmony outside time and space, all Three participating in every act of God.
One reason to be aware of this heresy, called “modalism”, is that it tends to obscure the Reality that one contemporary Orthodox theologian has called “Being as Communion.” Before creation, God is not simple, undifferentiated Unity: from before all eternity, God is a Society of Perfect Love. If one is looking for a scriptural warrant, it can be found in John’s epistles, where we read that “God is Love." Love is God’s essence, as our own Bishop Gore taught us a century ago. But if love is God’s essence then God’s love did not begin with the act of creation. God’s love is active from all eternity, outside time and space.
Love, however, is an act between persons. Indeed one could go so far as to say that the definition of a person is one capable of love. We know this from our own, human experience, which is a reflection of Divine Reality. God is personal, and you can’t be a person by yourself!
Sadly, our human reflection is dim, the image marred, and the love imperfect. Human love is limited, and marred by the alienation tradition calls sin. In God, there is no such alienation: the love among the Three Divine Persons is infinite and perfect. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot be separated from one another, but neither can they be confused with one another: they remain entirely distinct, yet inseparable in the Community of Love.
The great Russian icon of the Most Holy and Life-giving Trinity seeks to express this Mystery. The golden wings behind the figures symbolize divinity, and they touch each other. I think they represent the Unity of the Divine Essence of Love. The icon also expresses the mutual love of the Three Persons by seating them around Abraham and Sarah’s table, upon which stands a cup, a shared cup — a symbol of community, communion, and sacrifice. The original icon depicts a tiny sacrificial lamb within the cup, recalling the Gospel’s metaphor of cup as sacrifice. The shared Life of Divine Love is a Life of self-giving.
Self-giving is an aspect of the essential Being of the One God. The icon expresses it in its deeper structure: the inner lines of the two outer figures replicate the shape of the chalice in the middle, as if to say the very essence of God is self-giving, that is life-giving Love.
A final Mystery can be seen in the perspective of the icon, which is reversed. Look at the dais upon which the three figures sit and then consider the riddle, “How many are gathered around the table?” Well, the obvious answer is three, but the reversal of perspective means that the focal point of the picture is not somewhere deep within it but rather outside it. The focal point is, in fact, where whoever is looking at the icon is standing. That means that instead of three, there is an indefinite number gathered around the table. All who will open their hearts are invited into to the Communion of the Three Divine Persons, into the interpersonal Love and Life of the Holy Trinity.




Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost
Year A  June 4 , 2017

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…

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

Pentecost in Judaism was the feast of the first-fruits of the harvest — the winter wheat. By the time of Jesus, it had also become the feast of the giving of the Law on Sinai. Law is a supernatural gift to God’s chosen people, a gift that makes them holy, set apart from other nations, a gift that nourishes their consciousness as the winter wheat of the original feast nourishes their bodies. The law, therefore, is not something antithetical to the Spirit, but rather a gift of the Spirit. As we say in our Creed, the Spirit “spoke through the prophets,” which means, first and foremost, through Moses, through whom God gave the Law.
So, we must not think of the Christian identification of Pentecost with the Spirit as a correction or a contradiction, but as an enlargement, an extension, a fulfillment. As of old, the Spirit inscribed the Law on the stone tablets of Sinai, for Moses to carry down to the people, so now the Spirit inscribes the Law on the hearts of humanity, as God promised through the Holy Prophet Ezekiel. Spirit and law are not in opposition at all. When we speak of the distinction between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law, we are talking about something else. The inscription on the stone, the letter of the Law, does not give life, but that which produces the Law does: that is the Spirit, Whom in the Creed We Call “the Lord, the Giver of life.” The letter of the law cannot save us, it cannot bring us to the fullness of God’s intention for humanity. The underlying Spirit of the law, of which the letter is an expression for a particular place and time, comes into the world in an unprecedented way on Pentecost.
The Spirit does not replace the law; it fulfills it, expands it, and renders it intelligible and life-giving to all flesh. Thus, all the various nationalities assembled in Jerusalem hear the Apostles in their own languages. These people are not pagans, they are Jews of the Diaspora — people who had arranged to come to Jerusalem from all parts of the Empire, to celebrate the feast. And many of them, we are told, were proselytes, that is pagans who were not Jews by birth, who had converted to Judaism. They knew the law. Probably many of them could read it in the original Hebrew.  But now, they were amazed to hear the Apostles proclaiming it in their own languages. In other words, the Spirit extends the Covenant, of which the Law is the outward sign, to all flesh.
The Law, which was originally given to set one people apart from all the rest, the Law which had been the marker of that people as chosen above all other nations, this same Law now enlightens all nations, universally. The Spirit is the extension of the gift of the Law to all flesh. The life-giving nourishment of Pentecost now appears as a gift not given exclusively to the Chosen People, but to all flesh. The Chosen People are chosen not to dominate other peoples, but to act as God’s instrument to enlighten and liberate them.
I was reading the story of Saul and Samuel this week, and one detail jumped out at me in this context: “at that time the Ark went forth with the Israelites into battle.” The Ark, where  the stone tablets of the Law were kept, was carried into battle against the Philistines, and others. The Law was the sign of God’s favor to Israel, as opposed to everybody else. At least, that is how it seemed to the people at the time, about 1000 years before Christ. They thought what it meant was that their nation was chosen by God to rule everybody else.  
Occasionally, however, the Ark was captured by the enemy, which naturally produced great consternation amongst the Israelites! God had to intervene by causing all kinds of misfortune to these enemies until they sent the Ark back! This may have been an early clue that more was going on here than the ancient Hebrews understood.
Gradually, the consciousness grew that this Ark — the symbol of the Presence of God in human society — God With Us, Emmanuel — was not the possession of Israel: on the contrary, Israel was the instrument of God. The Ark represented Israel’s identity: Israel’s heart and soul, what made Israel Israel.  The ancient Hebrews understood that very well. What they learned gradually was that the Ark was not merely the sign of God’s Covenant with a particular people, but the sign of God’s purpose for Israel as a Light to enlighten the Gentiles. The holiness the Ark represented was to extend to all flesh.
The literal commandments, inscribed in stone by the finger of God, and enshrined in the Ark, were to be inscribed anew on the hearts of all people: as the Holy Prophet Ezekiel had foretold, the hearts of stone would become hearts of flesh, upon which God’s righteousness would be written. The first-fruits celebrated on the Feast of Pentecost, would nourish not only the people of Israel, but people of every race and nation.
As foretold by the Hoy Prophet Joel, the Spirit of God is poured out upon all flesh. The sign will be the new wheat of Pentecost celebrated in Jerusalem, made into bread transformed by the Spirit. This transfigured Bread will be the sign of the New Covenant as the tablets of stone are the sign of the Old. By this Bread, all races and nations of humanity come into the Covenant and become the instrument of the Spirit’s transformation of Creation.





VII Easter

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
Year A  May 28 , 2017

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?
This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven,
will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.

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

The angels’ comment following their derisive question seems to be a non-sequitur. If He is going to return in the same way He left, then why NOT look into heaven? Where else SHOULD we be looking? Unless what they saw was not really Jesus floating up into the sky, but something else, which they couldn’t describe precisely. So they talked about clouds, and being “taken up”.
Maybe it was something like what happened in Emmaus, when having broken bread with the two disciples, He “vanished from their sight”.
In both instances the disciples’ reaction was surprising. Cleopas and his companion went right back to Jerusalem, with a kind of confidence and joy. And Luke says that after the Ascension, the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” But why weren’t they sad? The Lord had disappeared. Why were they joyful? It must have had to do with what they had seen, which they could not describe in words, but in images that made sense to the three-storied model of the world that they shared.
Giving free rein to imagination, maybe in our day we would say something like this. “While He was blessing them, He seemed to grow radiant until He just dissolved in brightness. But He didn’t seem to be gone, even though we couldn’t see Him anymore.” If it were something like that, then it would make no sense to stare into the sky, and it would explain the joy. They must have felt that the Lord was still with them.
Our picture of the world may be not entirely unfriendly to this sort of thing. After all, we think of the visible world as bundles of energy ~ of light, speaking poetically. So maybe visions like the Transfiguration and Ascension ~ and whatever happened when the empty tomb was emptied, and in the subsequent appearances ~ all had to do with a new organization of the particular bundles of energy that had previously been known as Jesus. But then, this kind of speculation is probably just another way of “gazing up into heaven”. Appropriate enough ~ for a few minutes ~ but not what we are called to do indefinitely.
Like the Apostles, we are called to live in the world, in time, but also in joy and anticipation, and to spend our lives blessing God. We are NOT called to know the Day and the Hour of His return and the Restoration of the Kingdom. Any attempt to fix the date is impious. And when He does, return, it will be “in the same way as [we] saw Him go.” That is, we will recognize Him in a completely new and inexpressible way, as present in the world, filling it, and permeating every ounce of matter and every atom and subatomic particle unto the perfection of the cosmic recreation He has already begun, and the Transfiguration of creation which we taste already here and now at the Table in the Temple where we are continually rejoicing and blessing God.

VI Easter

VI Easter
 May 21, 2017
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

If you love me, you will keep my commandments

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

Now, commandments are given only by God. Jesus does not call his precepts “my Fathers commandments.”  Jesus does not claim the role of a prophet, God’s mouthpiece: Jesus claims the authority of God in His own right. Not “Thus saith the Lord,” but "Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father.” Just after the part of the Discourse we heard today, Jesus says

Anyone who loves Me will keep my commandments. My Father will love them, and We will come to them and make Our home with them.
I often repeat that to you. It is an amazing saying. Among all the stunning upsets of conventional reality found in the Gospel, this is right up there at the top: the Father comes to us. The Unmoved Mover, the Creator of all, the Ancient of Days outside and above all that is, visible and invisible, dwelling in light inaccessible, before time and forever, gets up, as it were, and moves to take up residence with US! The Father’s House Is the world made fit for Him to dwell in, not so that we may leave the world and escape to that House, but so that the Father’s House may come into the world — that the cosmos may become the House of Many Mansions.
How are we to reconcile the inclusivity of the Many Mansions with the exclusive-sounding declaration that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus? That’s not too hard, really. It all depends on what coming to the Father means. I once had a friend who was a parish secretary. He had a little sign made for his desktop that said

Joseph Spires, Parish Secretary
No Man Cometh Unto the Father but by Me

Okay. That’s funny because of the pun on Father. The word has more than one meaning. Likewise to come to the Father may not mean what is obvious to us: to come to God. In the very same passage, which we heard last week, Jesus refers to God: “You believe in God, believe also in Me.” But then He refers to My Father. We understand that God and Father are synonyms. Jesus could have said “No one comes to God except through Me.”  But He didn’t: He said “No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  That may simply mean that no one could come to acknowledge God as Jesus’ Father, except by acknowledging Jesus as His Son — which is kind of obvious. In order for God to be Jesus’s Father, there must be a Son.  Jews and Muslims don’t call God Father. Nobody ever did until Jesus taught us to. That doesn’t mean that Jews like Abraham Joshua Heschel or Hindus like Mahatma Gandhi, or Muslims like Rumi, or all those sages and prophets outside Israel, who taught humanity to hope and who are acknowledged as messengers of God by our own Catechism, have no relationship to God, that they are deceived. Far from it! Who can say that they are not among those who keep the Son’s commandments, even though they don’t think of it that way?
In the next passage, Jesus summarizes His commandments:

 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 

Those who love one another, who devote their lives to the poor and oppressed, will be loved by the Father of Jesus. Whether or not they know God as His Father, Jesus promises that the Father and the Son will come to them, and make Their home with them.  The only difference between them and the disciples to whom He is talking is that the disciples know what is going on.

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

The implication is that the Father has plenty of servants, who do not know what He is doing, but nevertheless obey his commandments – obeying what the Son has commanded, even though they be unaware of their own obedience.
These servants, who obey God even though they do not call God Father, are not outside salvation. In another place, Jesus tells us that they will be surprised, when they come to their judgment and learn that they have been serving Jesus all along. “When did we do that?" they ask, and the King responds that they did it when they had mercy on “the least of my brothers and sisters,” that is upon any other human being. They do not have to know anything about Jesus or His commandments in order to hear the glorious words: “well done my good and faithful servants, enter into the joy of your Lord!”
Those who do know — whom Jesus calls “friends" — are no longer “servants,” and they enter the fullness of eternal life now. They know Jesus as the Son of the Father: they keep His commandments, and they know they are doing so. That is eternal life: as last week’s Collect puts it, Jesus is the One “whom truly to know is eternal life.” The fullness of eternal life includes the experience of Jesus as the Son of the Father. That doesn’t mean that those who lack this knowledge are excluded, just that they haven’t yet been let in on the secret. That is why the King calls them “faithful servants” at the Last Judgment, just before He invites them into eternal life sharing the joy of the friends of the Lord. Salvation understood as a healthy relationship to God includes all the servants of God, who do not know Him, as well as all the friends who do.
The fullness of eternal life includes knowledge. Knowledge is one of those good things that pass our understanding, of which the Collect speaks, which the Father has prepared for those who love Him. In this life, human beings are given various levels of knowledge; but those who keep His commandments, as He tells us, are those who love Him. And in loving Him by keeping His commandments, they come to know Him, because the Father and the Son will love them and come to them and make Their home with them.

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
And giving life to all in the tombs.    


Saturday, May 13, 2017

V Easter

V Easter
 May 14, 2017
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

I go to prepare a place for you.

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

Today we hear the beginning of what is conventionally cal-led the Farewell Discourse — St. John’s account of Jesus’ last teachings, set after the Last Supper, after the departure of Judas and the purification of the foot-washing, and before the Passion. I’ve often thought that they might just as well have been spoken on the Mount of Olives, just before the Ascension, which is where we put them in our liturgical lectionary — to be read on the final Sundays of Eastertide. They are packed with important pronouncements about the Identity of Jesus, what He has accomplished, and what the Church can expect.  They have to do with the changes God has wrought in creation: not only the repair of damage done by creatures — visible and invisible — but the elevation of creation to new glory.
Our Lord begins by telling us not to be disturbed in the core of our being by any outward events. “You believe in God, believe also in Me.” Trust Me. He asks us not to believe things about Him, but to trust Him, to believe Him when He tells us “You will do greater works than I have done”. Indeed we have done. We have abolished crucifixion and gladiatorial combat. We have covered the world with hospitals and orphanages. We have very nearly abolished chattel slavery, and achieved formal recognition that it is outside the norm of civilized practice. Same with torture. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we have laid the foundation for the international law of human rights, based on what our own Baptismal Covenant calls respect for the dignity of every person. This 70-year-old agreement of almost all the nations of the earth is as close as we have come to a charter of the Kingdom of God. The world has learned from Jesus the unique value of every person, without exception. It has learned this through His Church, insofar as we have been faithful to His teaching and kept His commandments. Remembering the important reservation that no human system is, in itself, the Kingdom of God, we may still recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in propagating the Gospel precepts throughout the world, with or without explicit reference to their Author. In my Father’s house are many mansions.
It is possible to seek and serve Christ in every person, as we promise at baptism, without consciously thinking of it as such: without any reference to the Holy Name. Let’s remember Karl Rahner’s famous category of “anonymous Christians:” people who do His will, even though they may not think of it that way.  On the other hand, to acknowledge the Name is not simply a matter of tacking it on to the end of our petitions. It is not a magic formula, which guarantees the doing of our will! To ask anything “in (His) Name" means to ask what is consistent with His Identity, His public reputation, and His Mission as revealed in Scripture and tradition. We cannot expect Him to do anything inconsistent with that, even if we say we are asking in His Name, because we really are not. What we really do in that case is to take His Name in vain! Furthermore, we can never know for sure whether or not our perception of what needs to happen in order to fulfill His Mission is really accurate. Just saying “in the Name of Jesus” doesn’t make it so. We always have to add “thy will be done.”
What our prayers accomplish is mysterious. The great Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most influential theologians of the last century, who marched with Dr. King at Selma, said:
To pray is to expand God’s Presence.
God’s action in the world sometimes  comes through our prayer, through our bringing God’s will into consciousness and action. Heschel went on to say
For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.
That is what it means to ask something “in the Name of Jesus.”  It is neither a magic word, nor even a conscious glorification of His Reputation, but an act in solidarity with His Mission, which is the Kingdom of God, God’s will done on earth as in Heaven, an act that expands God’s Presence in time and space.
These astonishing sayings, in the Farewell Discourse, unveil more of the Mystery of the Incarnation, and its continuation in time, in the Church – the Body of Christ, living in the world and chan-ging it more and more to resemble His Kingdom. Jesus says He goes to prepare a place for us in His Father’s House of Many Mansions. It may be a mistake to think of that as the preparation of a refuge from the world, a place to which we flee, somewhere out of the world.  The Son prepares the world through us, who do works greater than He did when we really act in His Name, whether or not we know that is what we are doing. The Son also prepares the House of the Father to accommodate us. He says he will come to us again, so that we might be where He is. We usually think that means He will take us out of the world, but what if it meant that He will bring the Father’s House of Many Mansions into the world?
And how in the world (or out of it) can we reconcile the House of Many Mansions with the proclamation that “No one comes to the Father except through Me?" Tune in next week!
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And giving life to all in the tombs.


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