Friday, April 21, 2017

II Easter - April 23, 2017

II Easter
 April 23, 2017
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

To you darkness and light are both alike.

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

The delightful Sufi stories of the Incredible Mullah Nasruddin include one in which the holy man is crawling around under a streetlight in the middle of the night. A friend passing by asks him what he’s doing, and Nasruddin tells him that he is looking for a key that he has lost.
“Where do you think you lost it?” Asks the friend.
Nasruddin replies that he is sure that he lost it “somewhere over there,” pointing off into the darkness.
The puzzled friend naturally asks the mullah why he is searching under the streetlight if the lost key is somewhere else?
Nasruddin explains that it’s dark over there and the only way one can find anything is to search where one can see — in the light!
As usual with these stories, behind the joke there is a profound truth. I think it has something to do with today’s famous story about Doubting Thomas.
Poor Thomas — the twin, the double —  had a double-mind. His finger is the finger we refer to when we speak of the “finger of the doubt.” Because he wanted to verify the Resurrection by touching Jesus’ wounds. He was like Nasruddin, looking for the lost key in the light. One part of Thomas’s double mind insisted on sensory verification. “I will not believe unless…” But his doubt was not the opposite of faith. For faith is not just an opinion about reality; it is also fidelity, and Thomas was the most faithful of the apostles, in that sense: he was the one who admonished the other apostles to go up to Jerusalem with Jesus and die with Him. And it was Thomas who made the orthodox confession we heard today, addressing Jesus as “my Lord and my God.”
So Thomas is a double-minded person. His will was true — and fidelity, is a matter of will, not of the understanding. But Thomas’s understanding, requires verification. Empirical verification. He was looking for the key in the light, like Nasruddin. In that way, Thomas represents all of us, illustrating the double meaning of belief: it can mean either opinion or trust. In the first sense, belief has to do with understanding — what we think is true. In the other sense belief means trust in someone or something. As Thomas shows, it is possible to have faith in one sense and not in the other. It is possible to be faithful to someone, while at the same time not believing everything that is said about that person, however glorious, without verification.  The Resurrection is too good to be true. It is probably not an accident that we remember “Doubting Thomas” on the very next Sunday after Easter.
John says that he has relayed this story about Thomas so that we “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [we] may have life in His Name.” The NAME is not a magic word – I take it to mean reputation or the pubic narrative about someone. So in that sense, Life in His Name begins in faith. Not believing that it is true, but trusting the Name – the narrative – to be a genuine path to life, in spite of our own double-mind, our own doubt. To live in the Name of Jesus, is to hold in our consciousness the stories about Jesus, to accept them insofar as we can, and that faithfully. Our fidelity in remembering these stories and holding them in our consciousness more and more, has the effect — over time — of nurturing the conviction that they are true. So that faith in the sense of fidelity brings about faith in the sense of belief.
Notice that although Thomas said that he would not believe unless he physically touched the Risen Lord, we are not told that he did so, even though the Lord invited him to. Instead, he immediately addressed the Lord as God. He kept his “finger of doubt” to himself. Somehow, his experience of the Risen Lord so transcended the doubting part of his double mind, that it was no longer relevant to his consciousness. He had found the lost key in the darkness, that is in the hidden Mystery of reality vaster that the little spot of light under the streetlight.
The Resurrection is beyond our comprehension. It is far greater than anything we can say about it, and any description will be inadequate. Maybe that is the significance of the detail that the room in which the Risen Lord appeared was locked. Jesus is really there, but He opens to our consciousness astounding new dimensions of reality, so that Thomas’s previous insistence upon verification becomes oddly unimportant to him.
Divine Reality is hidden from us: God is invisible and silent. As long as we insist on empirical evidence, we are like the Incredible Mullah Nasruddin, searching futilely for the lost key to everything in the light of ordinary understanding. But the Key cannot be found there. Ordinary understanding is no help. Divine Reality is to be found in the darkness, that is to say, beyond our ordinary understanding, in the Cloud of Unknowing, as the great, anonymous, English mystic called it, beyond our ability to verify, where the empirical finger of doubt is irrelevant and useless.
Divine Reality — like the Resurrection — is beyond all of our categories, our ordinary ways of understanding reality. God is not to be found there: to God, darkness and light are both alike.

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


Paschal Vigil - April 15, 2017

Paschal Vigil
 April 15, 2017
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

…trampling down death by death…

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

Nowadays, one hears our era called the Anthropocene: the brief geological period in which human beings have succeeded to such an extent that great numbers of species are extinguished by our activity, which may well also result in our own extinction. There are some who observe that this fearful danger is really quite recent. For most of our time, human beings posed no threat to life on earth. The threat has developed as a result of the economic organization known as capitalism. These people would rather call the present geological era the Capitalocene. There is controversy about this, as you may imagine. But most are pretty pessimistic about our future. We must change or die: evolution or extinction, and the smart money is not on evolution!
Pessimism and entropy — things running down, the power of death as the long-term future. It is hard for honest scientists to see anything else, because science — to be science — cannot consider Spirit. Science must proceed without God – as though God did not exist, and material creation without God is a tendency toward death. The Resurrection means that this entropy, extinction, running down, and ultimate death — all that science can properly conclude — is not the ultimate reality.
A couple of weeks ago on the third Sunday of Lent, we heard the remarkable and mystifying story of our Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. The well symbolizes life. Our Lord tells woman that it she drinks of the water He could give her, she will never thirst again. Then He says to the bewildered disciples
My food is to do the will of Him Who sent me and to complete His work.
That is really an audacious thing to say, considering that his Father’s work was the six-day work of creation, after which God rested on the seventh day. Jesus was saying to the disciples and the Samaritan woman that this work of creation was in fact incomplete, and He, God the Son, was come to complete it.
Audacious as this is, it is not entirely without precedent in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the second account in Genesis, we read
So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.
     If we understand the significance of the name of the thing, for the people who composed this record, we have to recognize that Adam — the human one — assisted God in the process of creation, because, for those people, the name is not an incidental label, but an expression of the essence of a thing. So if God waits for Adam to see what he would call the creatures, it means that Adam helps God to create them.  And now the New Adam is come to complete His Father’s work: to flood the world with living water, so that creation might never thirst again — that is that Death might be abolished — and to breathe into the world new life, so that all creation might worship in Spirit and in Truth. In other words, the future of the cosmos is more promising than the Anthropocene or Capitalocene thinkers can legitimately imagine.
The Eastern and Western churches differ slightly in their understanding of the Holy Sabbath that followed Good Friday, the sixth day. Jesus’ last words were it is finished. He referred not only to His own earthly life and suffering, but to the Creation of the world. For His Death was God’s entry into the stronghold of Death. It is hard to talk about that place, because we are talking about that which is not — nihil — the state of annihilation, nothingness, the Abyss, the Void, the triumph of Entropy. The West tends to think of this Holy Sabbath as a rest for the Godman. The East rather thinks of it as a very active Day indeed, in which God the Son Tramples upon the gates of hell, Binds Its Ruler, breaks down its prison walls, and leads all the captives out, spoiling the spoiler of his prey, in our translation of the ancient hymn. Although this all takes place on the Holy Sabbath, it doesn’t sound that restful! It is the consummation of the Victory — the completion of the Work to which Jesus referred when he said It is finished.
Death and separation from God are destroyed. The Word of God, by Whom all things were made, now clothed in the flesh of the New Adam, re-creates the universe. What follows is the unfolding in time of this mighty act. In the words of the final Solemn Collect on Good Friday
All that follows in our history — though it be hundreds of millions of years — is one Day. Science can legitimately discern only repetitive cycles: for the fleshly consciousness, the day that follows the seventh day, is the first day of the following week — over and over again as the cosmos inevitably runs down into stasis and nothingness.  The Resurrection, known to worshipers in Spirit and in Truth, reveals this new first day of the week as the Eighth Day, which is to say a Day that is at once in time and beyond time, the Day when the women came to the tomb before the rising of the sun when it was yet dark, and found it empty. What happened is beyond our comprehension, but the Resurrection is the first evidence of the Victory, the beginning of the completion of the Father’s work of creation, in which, despite all evidence  to the contrary …all things are being brought to their perfection by Him through whom all things were made.
Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God? Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival! 
Is there anyone who is a grateful servant?  Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!
Are there any weary with fasting?  Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour,  let them receive their due reward; If any have come after the third hour,  let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour, let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss. And if any delayed until the ninth hour, let him not hesitate; but let him come too. And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, as well as to him that toiled from the first. To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows. He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor. The deed He honors and the intention He commends.
 Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!  First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice today for the Table is richly laden! Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one. Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith. Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!
Let no one grieve at his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free. 
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hades when He descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he said, "You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."
Hell is in an uproar because it was done away with.
It is in an uproar because it is mocked.
It is in an uproar, for it is destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
 It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God. 
 It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it saw not.
O death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory?
 Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power
forever and ever. Amen!

Good Friday - April 14, 2017

April 14, 2017
And if I be lifted up, I will draw everyone to myself.

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

Reconciliation means the restoration of a broken relationship. When we speak of humanity reconciled to God by the Death of His Son, we conventionally think the sacrifice of Christ has somehow changed God’s attitude towards us, as though God needed to be appeased. But maybe it’s the other way around: the awful death of Christ changes our attitude toward God, the Cross appeases US!

 We all suffer. We want to know why. Especially we want to know why the innocent suffer. It isn’t fair. A good God would not permit that. So, we are tempted to blame God, as Adam did, or to conclude that the whole idea of a good God is a deception. In other words, one way or another we separate ourselves from God.
The Cross rescues us from this brink of death,  because it shows that whatever we suffer God suffers — and more. It does not answer our question as to why it must be so; but it reconciles us to God by showing us that there is no limit to God’s love and mercy.
The Cross does not change God’s attitude towards us; it changes our attitude toward God. Thus does the Cross of the Son reconcile us to God. Whatever forgiveness we need, God has given before we were even born, before the creation of the world. God’s Mercy Is infinite and invincible from all eternity.  The Father of Infinite Love does not require the horrible death of the Only-begotten Son to pay for our sin. What Almighty God cannot do is to compel our love. Love that is compulsory is not love at all. The Prodigal Son’s father cannot force his elder brother to rejoice at the welcome banquet. What will change the brother’s mind? What will overcome his self-imposed separation, that is to say his sin? What will reconcile him to his brother and his father?
God’s answer is the Cross. When we speak of sin washed away by the Blood of Christ — of the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world — we can think of this Redemption as the conquest of our own resentful, self-imposed separation. When we look at the Cross we can no longer blame God for our suffering. God suffers with us. The Creator suffers all the consequences of creation. God suffers everything that we do, including separation from God, which is to say GOD DIES.
All the teachings of wisdom and all the miracles of healing and exorcism might not be enough to overcome our separation. But this public suffering will do it.

And if I be lifted, I will draw everyone to myself.

We worship your Cross, O Christ,
and we praise and glorify your
holy Resurrection,
for the wood of the cross has brought joy to the world.

Maundy Thursday - April 13, 2017

April 13, 2017

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

Communion, service, betrayal, exposure — God-in-the-Flesh says THIS IS MY BODY, referring to the bread He is holding and also to the people who eat it together.  [ Could it be that even expressed that in a gesture?]. A modern Greek theologian wrote an influential book entitled Being as Communion. Everything that is exists in relationship — from atoms to galaxies to parallel universes (if there be any). To be is to be in communion. The relationship between being and communion is especially apparent in living things, and among them it is even more apparent in those capable of reflective self-consciousness: human beings. We cannot live except in communion with each other and the whole world. But we have a choice. One could say that it is a choice is between HOSPITALITY and BETRAYAL.
Foot-washing was a sign of hospitality. Guests reclined around the table, their bare feet at the other end of their couch. Servants would come around and wash their feet. It was kind of like the hot towel offered at a Japanese table. This is the third foot-washing noted in the Gospels: the first two happened to Jesus:  the Woman of Bad Reputation washed His feet with her tears and dried them with her hair at the house of the Pharisee; then Mary of Bethany anointed his feet with extremely costly perfume, causing Judas to complain about the waste.
But this time Jesus Himself does the washing. There are two meanings here: first, He is our Host and we are His guests. But usually it was slaves who washed the feet of the guests, not the host himself.  So Peter objects: The Messiah is the King, and Kings don’t wash anybody’s feet – slaves do that.  And Peter gets the usual rebuke, Because the second significance of the foot-washing is the Mystery of Divine Abasement:  God Almighty has assumed the role of a slave.
In this form, He gives us what He calls “a New Commandment,” that we love one another. (Maundy is an old word related to comMANDment).  Love one another as I have loved you, meaning that we are to make the welfare of the other our chief concern, whatever the cost. This Maundy enacts the meaning of the Mystery of the Bread and Wine:  Communion means that my neighbor IS myself, for we are all one Body, He commands us to act out that unity as He showed us.
But something else happens tonight, something terrible. The Kiss, the sign of welcome and hospitality, the kiss expressing the mutual love and self-giving that He has commanded becomes the sign of betrayal. Judas has exchanged New Life for money, and he seals the deal with a kiss. As our Lord said, it would have been better for that man if he had not been born. Like Esau, he has sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, and Judas becomes the type not only of betrayal but of avarice. Both are the opposite of Communion, both the opposite of life, of being itself, and Judas went out and hanged himself. In this life we choose every day between communion and avaricious betrayal.
And no one makes the right choice every day. Let’s not forget the Judas wasn’t alone in his betrayal, his abandonment of life. The apostles all went to sleep, and then — speaking for all of them — Peter denied Jesus three times, as we will hear tomorrow.
Tonight we focus on the connection between communion and exposure, communion and vulnerability. Those who would live in communion will be exposed and vulnerable to each other. When we carry the Body of Christ to the symbolic GETHSEMANE of our altar of repose, we refer to it as the “Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.” Christ Himself is totally exposed and vulnerable to us. The Great Mystery of the vulnerability of God is part of the significance of this rite.  It is through divine exposure and vulnerability that our sin is overcome we are reconciled to God.
Our sin is our separation from God and from one another. Our sin is our abandonment of communion and mutual service in favor of a miserable Thirty pieces of silver.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Nativity ~ December 24, 2017

Sermon for Chistmas Eve
Year A ~  December 24, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

Those who love me will keep my word, and my  
Father will love them, and we will come to them
 and make our home with them.

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

That has always struck me as one of the most stupendous and mysterious phrases in all of Scripture. How can God move? God is everywhere — and nowhere. God is outside time and space. Motion means time. How can the infinite and eternal One move? It is beyond us, outside the capacity of rational consciousness. It remains a mystery. It is the mystery that we celebrate on this Most Holy Night. God’s moving: coming to make a home with us.
We must not restrict this mystery to the individual, inner, spiritual lives of “those who love.” This promise is, no doubt, true on that level, but it is also true on the interpersonal and cosmic level. Jesus promises that He and the Father will come to “make our home with them" in this world, in history, in this life. He does not promise to come and take us out of the world, but rather to “make our home with them” in this world.
After the decline of the Roman Empire, there was a lot less moving around. In the period we call the Middle Ages, everybody pretty much stayed put — geographically, but also socially and economically. Mobility was not particularly desirable. All that began to change in the High Middle Ages, when the paradigm shifted and many began to think that there was some spiritual benefit in moving — at least temporarily. (They may have got this idea — pilgrimage — from the Muslims, who in any case had the idea before we did.) So people went crazy over pilgrimages: Canterbury, Santiago de Compostela, Rome, and — of course — Jerusalem.
The notion that one ought to move if one could, got deep into our consciousness. The whole capitalist system is based on motion: trading over as wide an area as possible. Worldwide exploration to expand the scope of trade, and imperial domination for the same purpose.
Eventually, many Europeans decided to leave home permanently, and to move to new places, in search of a better life — freedom from old constraints, but mostly for economic improvement. Perhaps more than any other country, our own United States of America is based on the idea of moving. Let’s remember that it became conventional to refer to those original English settlers as pilgrims.  As though there were something holy about their moving.
This became part of our American ideology: anyone with any ability, anyone “worth their salt”, would naturally want to leave home and go somewhere else to make a fortune. This was called ambition, which comes from a Latin word meaning walking around. In the Middle Ages, ambition was regarded negatively, but modern capitalism turned it into a virtue. “Go west young man.” Was the maxim of American expansion, without regard to the effect on the natural world or the genocide on  indigenous peoples. These were what we now call “external costs.”
Here the underlying modern theme of motion reaches the extreme. Paul Ehrlich, an early ecologist, rephrased our national maxim: not “go west young man,” but “foul your nest and move west!” Only now we can’t do that anymore. Oh, we can still foul our nest, all right, but now there is no place else to move to. No more “West” in that archetypical, imaginary sense of the land of limitless opportunity. Still the paradigm of the virtue of motion – our idea that moving is good –  persists, and causes conflict.
I’ve sometimes wondered whether the super-rich really want to take everything, because they recognize that pretty soon there will be big problems, but with enough money they could insulate themselves from the negative consequences of capitalism. With enough money, one could, presumably live in a fortified island of prosperity in the sea of increasing misery. Now, one actually hears that some super-rich people seriously think about pooling their resources to build a spaceship to take them away, once the world becomes uninhabitable, as a result of their rapacity!
This is the ultimate end of the motion-paradigm, of moving to better one’s self, of motion over stability: a voluntary exit from the world into perpetual motion in outer space. But such a project would amount to voluntary damnation. After all, what would those super-billionaires find on their spaceship, but other people who were all used to being on top? What do you think would happen then? “The Lord of the Flies,” that’s what. The billionaires would start fighting and kill one another, probably before they even got out of the solar system.
Motion, in the sense of getting out, leaving  home in the name of finding something better — even in the name of finding salvation — is deep in our consciousness, but it is a dead end. It is a horrible counterfeit of the only motion that can save us: God’s motion, God’s coming to us to make a home with us. Coming into the world, not leaving the earth. That is what we celebrate tonight.
God comes into our darkening world, but things are not instantly changed. Only a few recognize what is happening: the extremely poor, and the extremely wise, who are at the same time humble. But their recognition occurs in private. The immediate public effect of God’s Coming is disaster: atrocity, infanticide, the slaughter of the innocents. The Holy Family has to flee into Egypt as refugees. The darkness is not dispelled. Not right away. And yet the world is re-created. Silently, incognito, out of sight, hidden from the view of the powers of this dying world, unnoticed by the bemused and avaricious who would defile and then escape the world, God sets to work to save the world. That doesn’t mean that things are going to get better right away or any time soon. In fact, things may get a great deal worse, as we are about to find out in our own land. More injustice, more inequality, more misery and heartache, more “Rachel weeping for her children, because they are not.”
But tonight we celebrate hope: Hope that the increasing darkness will not be the end of the story. Hope that the raging tyrant will not have the last word. Not because we imagine that things are going to get better in our time, but because we believe that God is with us. This is the difference between optimism and hope. In our own present moment, when insane avarice seems to have taken over, the words of Karl Barth seem especially pertinent:

Between the rich and the poor heaven does not adopt a posture of neutrality. The rich can take care of their own future. God is on the side of the poor.

Emmanuel. Yes. God is with us. God is with the poor, who cannot afford to dream of escaping on a spaceship. God is also with the rich who are sufficiently wise to humble themselves and identify with the poor and move to where they are:  the rich who indeed get up and leave their own country, their own comfortable home of insulated peace, and journey far into the dangerous world, to find the Holy One, Who has come into the World, in order to deliver their riches to Him, so that He and His human Family may have the mans,  in turn, to get up and flee into Egypt, where they can find refuge until it is safe to return.
In the end, we can’t lose if we love the One born as on this night, for we have His promise:

Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.



Advent IV ~ Year A ~ December 18, 2017

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Year A ~  December 18, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

Behold, a virgin shall conceive…

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

Vigilance,  repentance, expectation are the themes of Advent.
·     Vigilance: waking up to what is happening in history, staying awake and keeping watch
·     Repentance Changing our mind,  a new consciousness about what is real, and living in accordance with it
·     Expectation: or gestation — the pregnancy of history, the fullness of time, the arrival of the Novum, the utterly new and unexpected.

Advent is a season of paradox:  expect the unexpected! The end of the world, in a New Birth. The world pregnant and about to bring forth the Promise, and the world unable to produce anything that can help itself. For the past couple of weeks I’ve emphasized the disconnection between salvation and natural processes — including the processes of the world and its history. But here we are on Advent IV adoring the most basic of natural cycles: human birth. As day follows night, as season follows upon season, as all the world renews itself by its natural processes, so — it seems — is Salvation born from the processes of nature. A young woman conceives and bears a child. What could be more natural?

Her pregnancy, however, is not natural at all. She Is a Virgin; she has conceived by the Holy Spirit. God has entered history to alter its processes, so that creation may coöperate in its own salvation, which is entirely God’s doing, and outside the natural order of things. The two English translations of the prophecy tell us something about our own underlying ideology and our difficulty with the paradox. The Hebrew word almah means not only a “young woman,” as rendered in our modern translation of Isaiah,  but it means, specifically, a “young unmarried woman.” A maiden as opposed to a matron. As in English, a maiden is assumed to be a virgin. In the ancient culture, if a young unmarried woman were not a virgin, she would be in a lot of trouble: she would not be marriageable, and she might be treated very badly, even killed. The connection between almah as “young woman” and almah as “a virgin" used to be so obvious that when Jewish scholars translated the passage into Greek a couple of centuries before Christ, they used the unambiguous Greek word parthenos, or virgin, which is why the Gospel, written in Greek, uses the term.  Our modern translators, I suspect, hesitate to make this connection due to current cultural preferences, but it is historically obvious. I would say, further, that it is quite important, and not simply incidental.

For the virginal maternity of Mary is not just a symbolic way to express God’s Incarnation; it is also the recognition that the natural processes of this world, by themselves,  cannot produce salvation. The Virginal conception of Jesus does not diminish His humanity, but it emphasizes the fact that creation cannot save itself. Salvation comes to the world from outside. God must intervene. The natural processes of the world have a role to play, as willing coöperator of God, but the fallen world has no power of itself to help itself. 

 So, the Advent theme of gestation recalls both natural process and divine act: God’s coming into history to redirect it and transform its end. The cycles of time and season, birth and death and birth again are not the Ultimate Reality. God is bringing them to an end— a glorious End.

And Joseph awoke from sleep. He took Mary as his wife, but she remained a virgin until she had borne her Son. And he named Him Jesus: [YHWH Saves]. For He will save His people from their sins.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Advent III ~ Year A ~ December 11, 2016

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
Year A ~  December 11, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid…
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. 

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

The messianic peace seems unnatural to us: the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the calf, children playing with deadly snakes, and so on. Arresting images, intentionally shocking, because it is so unnatural. Theologically speaking, however, this peace is not unnatural but preternatural. That means that what we think of as natural is really fallen nature or nature in its fallen state — outside the Garden. The Messiah will restore Creation as it was intended by God, and before human beings screwed it up.
Now, we don’t have to think of the Garden of Eden as literal pre-history in a paleonotological sense in order to accept the deep truth of the mythology. Somehow, the world is not as God intends it to be, and there is nothing we can do about it. The world cannot fix itself: it’s own inner processes — the ones we call “natural” — cannot evolve into anything better. The messianic peace comes from outside the world and its natural processes, the processes of its fallen nature. That is why the beloved images of Isaiah are so striking to us. They portray the world as it ought to be, not as we know it or even think it can be.
Above all, the healing of the world’s deformities means the healing of the perfection of God’s image on earth in the world:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
This is a promise of God’s intention for creation. These are the signs of the Advent of the Messiah, which is why Jesus pointed to them rather than testifying to Himself, when asked by John’s disciples whether or not He was the Messiah. He didn’t say “yes I am the Messiah;” but “look at what’s happening: judge for yourself whether the Messiah is among you.”
Vigilance, repentance, expectation or gestation: these Advent themes present another paradox: we are to watch, but also to work. To change our minds and forsake our sins means not passive waiting, but working to bear fruits worthy of repentance: working to build the highway in the wilderness for the coming Messiah. And although the world cannot produce its own healing, by its own natural processes, our expectation is, nevertheless, like the expectation of a pregnant woman. The new creation will be born of the old. But not in an entirely “natural” way — the expectant mother is a Virgin.


Advent II ~ Year A ~ December 4, 2016

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
Year A ~  December 4, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

In this world you will have trouble.
But be of good cheer: I have overcome the world.

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

The Gospel in which we say we hope is not reassuring for those who are looking for peace and comfort, “in our time”.  In our world and in our time, we will have trouble. The Messiah comes with conflict: tyrannical rage and mass infanticide. The Holy Family has to flee the country as refugees. The Godman promises to set family members against one another: not peace but division. The horror of crucifixion comes before resurrection. Everyone sees the Cross, only a handful see the Empty Tomb.
The Gospel has no worldly comfort to offer us. The one Jesus called the “greatest among those born of woman” — that is the greatest and holiest this world had produced — ends up with his head on a silver platter, a reward for a teenaged girl’s lustful entertaining of a tyrant.
John the Baptist represents all the God-inspired prophets who speak the truth to power. He appears in our iconography as a scruffy, unkempt, winged man. This indicates his ancient identification with Elijah, taken up into heaven by a fiery chariot. The Prophet turned into a celestial being in his body. Elijah, who denounced tyrants in his own time, was widely expected to return as the forerunner of the Messiah. Christians identify John the Baptist as this heavenly Elijah.
Last week, the Holy Apostle Paul advised us to “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” and we heard from our Lord Himself, that we must stay awake, be vigilant,  because He will come “like a thief in the night,” that is, unexpected, and not as the result of any natural historical process. To stay awake means to “put on the armor of light” and to watch in hope.
Vigilance, repentance, and expectation or (gestation) are the themes of Advent. But holy vigilance is not passive waiting, and this week, we hear that Gospel hope means active repentance in the form of work to prepare the way of the Lord. Changing our mind is not enough. We have to bear fruits corresponding to our repentance.
As the forces of darkness, in the form of meaningless promises, lies, xenophobia, and bigotry of all kinds, seem to be getting the upper hand, it is not mere coincidence that forces of light make their appearance at Standing Rock. There gather people from all over the world, from all nations and peoples, led by the most oppressed of all, in the largest gathering of indigenous peoples ever to take place in North America, or anywhere, for that matter. The symbolism is striking:
·   the Missouri River, the centerpiece of the Louisiana purchase, which Pres. Jefferson got from Napoleon, doubling the size of the United States and ushering in our own Imperial period, which is now coming to an end.
·   Thomas Jefferson, who referred to the ancestors of the Protectors as “savages” in the Declaration of Independence.
·   The river where they gather calls to mind many of those “works of darkness” that we must “cast away.”
So the Standing Rock Protectors gather at the Missouri River to oppose the darkness of imperialism, white supremacy, greedy despoliation of creation, and the mindless lemming-rush of global-warming denial.
Those who gather with them “heed the words of the prophets and forsake their sins,” in the words of today’s Collect. We pray for the grace to do the same. Go to Standing Rock if you can. If not, do whatever you can do to support the effort. Do not imagine that we live in ordinary time. We are living in Advent — latter days — and the exalted peace Isaiah foresaw comes not without a struggle. As the forerunner said,

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Advent I - Year A - November 27, 2016

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent
Year A ~  November 27, 2016

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar

Let us then lay aside the works of darkness
 and put on the armor of light.

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

Vigilance, repentance, and birth — or, better, gestation — are the themes of Advent.
Christians are forward-looking people: people who expect redemption in the future. We expect redemption not only for ourselves, as persons, but for the world as a whole. Therefore, what happens in the history of this world is spiritually significant for us. Something that I predict will come to be seen as a major historical event is now taking place at Standing Rock.

Plenty of disasters happen in history. The Gospel does not promise otherwise: to struggle against the Prince of this World is to struggle against human sin and wickedness — spiritual wickedness in high places. We who believe the Gospel and hope in its promises are not surprised by the apparent triumph of those forces. Our hope, which the Epistle to the Hebrews calls the “evidence of things unseen,” is the assurance that such setbacks are but temporary. After all, our world is a world of darkness — or rather a world in which light struggles with darkness and all its works. Today, we hear the Apostle call us to cast aside those works and to put on “the armor of light.” As in any struggle, there will be setbacks, but the outcome is not in question: God has judged the world, made it right, re-created it.

Darkness and light — these images come straight out of Persia. It was the Zoroastrian Cyrus of Persia who restored the captive Jews to Zion. The Scripture calls him liberator and actually Messiah. “You are my Anointed though you do not know my Name." Zoroastrianism is a form of monotheism, with a strong emphasis on the struggle of light and darkness in this world. In the process of liberating the Jews, Cyrus had a very big influence on later Judaism, and hence upon early Christianity. 

This influence extended throughout the Roman Empire, to such an extent that Christianity’s biggest competitor in the first and second centuries was a universal religion called Mithraism. Mithra was a soldier in the army of Light, fighting the forces of darkness, in Zoroastrian tradition. No doubt Christianity picked up some of its themes. 

Advent is the season of gathering darkness. Each of the seasons of the Church year invites us to look at our own historical circumstance in a particular way. Right now, the darkness is gathering, but so are the forces of light. We must bear in mind that darkness is the absence of light, not its opposite. This is how we avoid the mistake of dualism, to which Zoroastrianism is sometimes compared. Christians say that Evil has no substance. The Light of God shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. There is no Power in the universe that can oppose God. God has no equal, and therefore no opposite. 

That is why, in our ancient mythology, it is the holy Archangel Michael who fights against the apostate angels. Lucifer  is opposite not to God, but to Michael. God has no opposite. To “cast away the works of darkness" is to oppose Lucifer with the “armor of light.”

The name, Lucifer, bearer of light, is therefore ironic: Lucifer is the angel who imagines himself to be an alternative source of light — just as much a source of light as God. Lucifer thinks that he bears light in himself, not merely as a reflection of the Divine Light. Lucifer insists that he is in his own right, like God. Michael opposes that pretension, asking derisively: “Who is like God?”.  Tat is what his name means. Michael is Lucifer’s opposite, not God. 

Like Michael, we are God’s instruments in opposing the Prince of this World. The old rite use to pray that the newly-baptized might “fight manfully under Christ’s banner against the world the flesh and the devil.” This prayer for a tiny, newborn infant usually elicited at least some giggles. But it is not a joke.

The ultimate instrument of God’s Liberation is the Cross: the tool of ultimate, imperial evil, the worst thing that the Prince of this World could do. Jesus Christ has turned that pinnacle of evil into ultimate good. The strongman has been bound, and his house despoiled — his slaves set free. He writhes around kicking in fury, his death throes unleash destructive power; and they can inflict a great deal of damage. But in the end there is no question of his winning. The Prince of this World has been defeated.

We believe in this Gospel and hope in its promise; we do not hope in the natural processes of this world to bring forth the Kingdom. The Son of Man will come like a thief in the night, that is, when we least expect it, and not as a result of the natural fruition of the world’s own internal processes. Our calling is to expect His Coming always — to stay awake during the night and watch, clothed in the armor of light. While the Prince flails around, not knowing what he’s doing or that he is doomed, we are called to stay awake to the fact that we are no longer his subjects, but heirs of the promise.

As the forces of darkness, in the form of meaningless, lying promises, xenophobia, and bigotry of all kinds, seem to be getting the upper hand, it is not mere coincidence that forces of light make their appearance at Standing Rock. There gather people from all walks of life from all over the world, from all nations and peoples, led by the most oppressed of all, in the largest gathering of indigenous peoples ever to take place in North America, or anywhere. The symbolism is profound: the Missouri River, the centerpiece of the Louisiana purchase, which Pres. Jefferson got from Napoleon, doubling the size of the United States and ushering in our own Imperial period, which is now coming to an end. Thomas Jefferson, who referred to the ancestors of the Protectors as “savages” in the Declaration of Independence. The river where they gather calls to mind many of those “works of darkness” that we must “cast away.” So the Standing Rock Protectors gather at the Missouri River to oppose the darkness of imperialism, white supremacy, greedy despoliation of creation, and the mindless lemming-rush of global-warming denial.

To stay awake means to “put on the armor of light” and to watch in hope, but that does not mean passive waiting. Gospel hope means repentance, and work to prepare the way of the Lord, which we will consider next week.


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