a quiet death (Good Friday sermon)

We began this Holy Week thinking about crowds. The crowds that followed Jesus, shouting Hosanna in the Highest, and waving palm branches. A crowd, that, as Fr. Noah pointed out, so quickly changed from “Hosanna” to “Crucify him”—a crowd caught up in the energy of celebration which quickly turns to discontent. A crowd that follows Jesus, until it… doesn’t. As the shouts of “crucify him” fade away, we find Jesus carrying the cross, alone on the way to Golgatha.  

There are the soldiers, and later on, a few disciples—mostly women. There are the passersby on the road who read Pilate’s inscription. But there are no crowds… celebratory or mocking or otherwise.  

And as most of the soldiers leave, a quiet descends over Golgatha.  

A quiet so loud that it rings in your ears, as they adjust after the noise of the week. A quiet punctuated only by the shuffle of the guards, or the cart-wheels of a wagon passing by.  

Punctuated only by an occasional sob from the disciples, whose grief is mostly expressed in wordless, soundless horror.  

Punctuated by increasing sounds of labored breathing, as the crucified struggle for air, in a slow death by suffocation.  

It is quiet now, as the crowds have fallen away, refusing to go this far. The energy that came from getting caught up in the crowd has deflated.  

The shouts, and echoes, of “crucify him”, have fallen away, as those people go on about their normal lives, or go home and try not to think too hard about the implications of the words that they’ve just said. Jesus of Nazareth is just another man, another revolutionary, another lost hope in a sea of hopelessness.  

And it is at this bottleneck of the cross that we, sitting, watching, and waiting in this quiet, discover just where it is that Jesus will come to us.  

At the point of pain and death—the end of all things—that is where the crowd will not go. We humans will do a great deal to avoid death. We refuse to speak of it, or refer to it with kind euphemisms like “passing away” or even sometimes love and fear it so much that we pretend to are lords and masters over it—able to mete it out as if we can judge when someone deserves to… die.  

But whether we avoid talking about it at all costs or find in it our solution to uncomfortable truths that we would rather not face about ourselves and others, death has outsized power. Seeing the death of Jesus, of whom they shouted “crucify”, is too much. It reminds the crowd of the very real possibility of their own death.  

And after all, there’s no point in following Jesus now, since he is at a place of desolation. The end. A place where, after dying a painful, torturous death, the kindest act of remembrance humanity can offer is clean linen cloths and a new tomb. A kind gesture of, I’m sorry it had to end this way. 

We, who sit in this tension of knowing this story, and sitting again at the cross, on this Good Friday, know that it was not the end. But for the crowd, the disciples—there is no such hope.  

But is into this hopelessness that the true grace of the Incarnate God comes. It is into this hopelessness that Jesus comes. Jesus, exemplar of a human life of love and service, comes to death—the epitome of our desolation and fear. Jesus comes to our end, and dwells among us, redeeming the thing we fear most. Jesus goes to the place where even the zealous crowd fears to tread.  

And so Christ meets us in the place we fear may be our end. He meets us, afraid, lingering in the silence of Golgatha, or behind locked doors, or in the thoughts we are unable to name out loud. He meets us at the cross, and at the cross, deals with us, as Thomas Aquinas says, not as we are, but as we are becoming. Jesus draws us out of hopelessness by entering that place of fear, and redeeming it, and us.  

Jesus, crucified, saves us by vanquishing hopelessness itself, showing us that this end of all things is instead a re-beginning. That one day, we too shall be at this thing that humans call an end, and instead, as we hear in our funeral liturgy, “even at the grave… make our song”. 

Jesus in the quiet, in the absence of crowds, became incarnate even unto death on a cross.  

Incline Our Hearts to Keep This Law (sermon)

If you were a student, or young monastic in fourth century Egypt, your classroom was more likely to be a desert than a library. Instead of regularly scheduled class times, you’d wait weeks, or even months, for a great teacher to emerge from silent contemplation and prayer, and say something wise, like “repent and pray!”. Some of the sayings of these early Christian teachers, the Desert Mothers and Fathers have made it to the 21st century, like this story of Abba John the Dwarf.

Abba John the Dwarf  said, ‘a house  is not built by beginning  at the top and working down. You must begin  with the foundations in order  to reach the  top. They said  to him, ‘What  does this saying  mean?’ He said, ‘The foundation is our neighbour, whom we must win, and that is  the place to  begin. For all the commandments of Christ depend on this one.’

Abba John’s words find us, on this third Sunday in Lent, beginning with another set of commandments—the Ten Commandments, from the book of Exodus. These are the same commandments that the scribe in Mark references when he asks Jesus “which commandment is the first of all”. Jesus, as we know, answers the greatest commandment is love of God and love of neighbor—an answer that summarizes these ten injunctions.

I wonder, for you, what you think of when you hear ‘the ten commandments’. Do you think of a Sunday school lesson, or having to memorize them? Do you think of Charles Heston as Moses, walking down the mountain with two tablets of stone? For my own part, I think of the gold-lettered tablets inscribed over the altar of a colonial church I interned at. Common, and even required, in colonial and victorian churches, the pairing of cross and tablets in a sacred space is forever engraved in my mind.

The commandments begin with the reaffirmation of a relationship: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” Notice the “your” here—if you accept God as “yours”, if you claim the gift of freedom from bondage in Egypt, then THEREFORE you shall have no other gods. This is not a God who appears out of nowhere, summoning authority out of the blue. Rather, the God who made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the same God who saved you, and is committed to your wellbeing, and desires relationship with you.

The second commandment is about this relationship too—Do not make for yourself an idol, for I am a jealous God. God and God’s people are in relationship, and unfaithfulness is devastating to that relationship. The following eight commandments detail how to be in relationship with God, and with others: you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet. These are rules around how we are to live in community, a baseline for being God’s people in the world.

And, these ten commandments don’t just show up in our Bibles or in Sunday school. We’ll hear them in the decalogue, (next week), which takes the place of the penitential order for one Sunday of Lent. Decalogue—deca meaning ten, logue meaning words—the ten commandments, broken up individually, with a congregational response to each one.

I’d like to draw your attention to this response. We have two rites of our Eucharistic liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer, most immediately differentiated by a presence of ‘thee’ or ‘thou’ in Rite I, and contemporary language in Rite II. However, the two have moments when they are distinct theologically: not just in how we’re praying, but in what we’re praying. The congregation’s response in the decalogue is one of those moments. In Rite II, we respond to each commandment, saying “Amen. Lord have mercy.” It is a response that says ‘yes, I hear this commandment, and I acknowledge my and our failure to obey it. forgive, Lord’.

But, the Rite I responses are, I think, actually a better indication of what our own responses to these commandments should look like. Rite I covers the same ground as ‘Lord have mercy’, but takes it much further. Listen to this:

Lord have mercy upon us,

and incline our hearts to keep this law.

Lord have mercy upon us,

and incline our hearts to keep this law.

This response continues until the final commandment: thou shalt not covet, when we respond:

Lord have mercy upon us,

and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.

“we—this community of people—acknowledge our failure to obey this commandment. we ask for help in remembering… for the desire to keep it, and for it to be inscribed on our hearts”

What I think this response captures is that obedience to this communal covenant… this rule of life together, isn’t just about showing up to confess, and receiving a slap on the hand, and then being forgiven. Our Christian life isn’t just about trying to color inside the lines, or walk a tightrope to be as good as we possibly can be until we die—if that’s all we’re about, that’s a very bleak prognosis. But that’s not what this Rite I response is saying—for when we say ‘incline our hearts to keep this law’, we’re not just asking for forgiveness. We are asking to be changed. We are asking for the innermost parts of ourselves to be transformed. We are asking, not just for the chance to have a do-over and do better next time, but we’re asking for our desires… the very things that we want and that we prioritize to be transformed, so that we may live into our true identity as people made in the image of God.

Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley writes of this ‘turn towards divine desire’ as a transformation of our ‘very capacity to think, feel, and imagine’… what becomes an ‘erasure of human idolatry and subtle reconstitution of human selfhood in God’. In other words, the Ten Commandments become something more than just a checklist. These ten commandments are the bones, the relational foundation, of our transformation.

When we say ‘incline our hearts to keep this law’, and ‘write all these thy laws in our hearts’, we are asking for the desire and courage to change, so that our lives may reflect God’s reality. Like the psalmist, we are asking that words of our mouths and even the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in God’s sight.

The ten commandments are not a set of rules to follow, in order to stay out of trouble, but are part of the foundation for a transformed life. And while this is really exciting, and compelling, it also feels, to me, like a substantial commitment. I’m not excited about the ten commandments as a checklist of rights and wrongs… but transformation, and change, also feel intimidating. How much work do I have to put into this? What will I have to give up to be in this relationship with the living God? What of my beliefs, interests, political convictions, or habits, might change if I open myself to the gradual work of holy transformation? What will my friends or family think?

The final, the most essential part of our response to these questions, can again be found in the decalogue.

Lord have mercy upon us,

and incline our hearts to keep this law.

Perhaps you’ve noticed it already—there is no singular first person “I” statement in sight. Each response is first person plural: “we” “us” “our”. The commitment to this transformed life, to following Christ, to living into God’s reality, is not undertaken alone. Transformation always begins in the work of community, be it prayer to the God who is Three in One, or care of our neighbors.

Abba John had it right, that ‘The foundation is our neighbour, whom we must win, and that is the place to begin. For all the commandments of Christ depend on this one’. We must begin at this foundation—that we are not individuals trying to out-perform one another, but people whose transformation cannot begin without each other.

As we continue on this journey through Lent, and remember through prayer and penitence how much work there is still to do, may we live into our call towards transformation, as we pray

Lord have mercy upon us,

and incline our hearts to keep this law.

Have you not known? (sermon)

You know how you remember movies—from your childhood, or perhaps other important moments in your life? Perhaps it’s your favorite childhood movie, or a movie from a date, or something you watched with a loved one. One of the movies that lives in my head from my own childhood is The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. It was an old video cassette, recorded straight from television sometime during the 90s, so every viewing would mean fastforwarding through the same ads, all Christmas-themed, from years past. Perhaps you know this beloved Narnia story—four children accidently stumble into a wardrobe, into a new, magical country. Narnia is under enchantment, an enchantment that can only be broken by the return of the lion Aslan, and the fulfillment of prophesy.

One of my favorite moments in this movie is when the four children are sitting in the beaver’s dam. It’s the first time they hear the full story of all that’s going wrong in Narnia, and the first time that they hear that they have a role to play in fixing it. Their first response is fear—how are they ever going to save Narnia from the white witch, and become kings and queens? But there’s another important piece of information: Aslan is on the move. The children don’t know who Aslan is, but in this 1988 film, the moment when they hear his name, something happens. When the name Aslan is spoken, each child begins to imagine a world where there are flowers, and greenery, and summer parties in the woods—no longer winter. The movie shows this in a montage, before returning to the plot at hand. When the name of Aslan is spoken, for a brief moment, the children see Narnia as it should be—full of life, and growth and beauty.

Of course, we are not in Narnia on this winter day. We are here on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—a moment in our church calendar that is beginning to feel quite exciting. The season after the epiphany spans from the Star in the East on January 6th, to next Sunday—the Transfiguration, and we have been building up to that moment on the mountaintop for quite some time. Today is the penultimate Sunday—Moses and Elijah haven’t appeared beside Jesus yet, but there’s excitement in our lections: something is about to happen. There’s a buzz about Jesus: ‘everyone is searching for you!’ Who is this guy? Why do we feel like there’s something different about this wandering prophet? We also encounter Paul, who says he’ll do anything for the sake of the Gospel. Tangible excitement… all of this good news really matters, somehow.

The lectionary choices for today pull us toward the questions found in Isaiah: Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? Isaiah gives voice to the excitement and escalation of this Epiphanytide. Have you not known, that Jesus is more than just a prophet? Have you not heard, that, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”?

The writer of this portion of Isaiah is addressing a particular audience—likely those who returned from exile in Babylon, to resettle in a new and strange Israel… to do the hard work of community-building, and remembering their history as a people chosen by God. For the writer of Deutero-Isaiah, remembering history is all about remembering where we as humans stand in an enchanted universe—a universe which God has created and maintains and recreates. Their particular audience are people who, as Paul Hanson writes, “are looking for magic, not for miracle; for a genie, not for the Creator of the universe.” The writer of Isaiah 40 begs the people of Israel, and maybe even us, to remember that their history does not begin with them as individuals, or with rulers and nations, but begins… with God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. 

This invitation to think differently, is the core of our lectionary readings today… but it is not an easy invitation. If you’re anything like me, you might feel a bit called out by verse 27 of Isaiah, which critiques people who say “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”. I can’t tell you the number of times I have basically prayed this same set of words to God—“tell me what I’m supposed to do” or “seriously, God, what have you gotten me into?”. Or, perhaps, like me, you feel vaguely discomforted by our reading from 1 Corinthians, where for the sake of the gospel, Paul has “made himself a slave to all”, and become “all things to all people”. That seems like a LOT—if I did the same, would I still be me? Is there any part of myself I can keep separate from this all-encompassing job of evangelism?

The invitation to imagine ourselves in a great big story—the one that the writers of Isaiah, and Psalm 147, and Paul both try to paint—is incredibly difficult, once we begin to think about it. How do we even begin to give up so much of ourselves, our individualism, our ‘rights’, our autonomy? We don’t like to think we are in a great big story—it’s easier to just do church one day a week, or examine the context of the Bible instead of reading the words of the Bible itself, or to think that Paul might need some vacation time, and a little self-care.

But where, at least, my own bravery and imagination fails, is where Isaiah begins. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? The task of Deutero-Isaiah is this great big story… as Hanson again writes, “the construction in words of a universe renewed and restored around its life-giving, loving Center”.

“’It’s no good, Son of Adam,” said Mr. Beaver, “no good your trying, of all people. But now that Aslan is on the move—’

‘Oh, yes! Tell us about Aslan!’ said several voices at once; for once again that strange feeling—like the first signs of spring, like good news, had come over them.

‘Who is Aslan?’ asked Susan.

I have read, and watched The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, hundreds of times, and this moment still gives me chills and goosebumps. Each child, in this moment in the book and on screen, saw a vision of springtime, and a flash of the world made right. “Like the first signs of spring, like good news”, like a snatch of an old song that you loved but had forgotten about, like a memory of home and belonging—wherever that is or was—that makes your heart ache, like a world that could be, hovering just around the corner… If you know that feeling of anticipation of something that is unimaginably good, then what you know is the invitation of Isaiah. Have you not known? Have you not heard?

And perhaps, for all our fears, and doubts, and worries, seeing ourselves as part of this great big story—God’s story, is the thing we are being called into right now. Perhaps, on the cusp of experiencing the Transfiguration afresh and entering Lent yet again, we are being invited to be brave, to take a step or five, to imagine our world with God at the center, “he who sits above the circle of the earth”, who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless”.

The story of the Gospel—God’s story of salvation and redemption—is powerful, and as Christians, we believe it is good beyond any kind of good that we can even imagine. It is a great big story that rivals the likes of Harry Potter, and Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, and even Narnia, that it is possible for us to be a part of. It is a great big story that asks us to imagine a better world for all people, and to invite others into that great big story. This is the story that Jesus came to show us, that Paul believes is worth everything. THIS is the story that enables us to look at this world with confidence and hope and dreams of a better future. THIS is the story that makes other people look at us and wonder: what do they have? What do they know that I’m missing out on? Maybe I want to be a part of that.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?

Has it not been told you from the beginning?

Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth”, that this is the great big story of our salvation?

happy are those whose hearts are set (sermon)

In the fall of 2013, I took a travel-writing class, and as part of that class, went on my first walking pilgrimage. A bunch of unruly and excited young adults—IT majors and business majors and fashion majors—laced up our hiking books and grabbed our notebooks and boarded a plan to Madrid for spring break. We wound our way north to the city of Léon, and then pulled on our backpacks and headed out to hike parts of the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James. Originally a pilgrimage route dating from the 9th century, or even earlier, people of all classes and ages and genders walked these 800 kilometers, seeking greater faith, seeking forgiveness and years off of purgatory, seeking to venerate St. James the Apostle at the Compostela.

Nowadays, the Camino has as many secular hiking enthusiasts as religious pilgrims, and routes that once took months, or years, can now be undertaken in a month. But regardless of why people choose to walk the Camino, they all find themselves following an ancient route through the towns and cities of Galicia, a route marked with a scalloped shell.

As college students there for just a few days, just barely familiar with Spanish geography, we knew that eventually, we’d walk the several kilometers into Santiago de Compostela, but for the most part, we just walked, taking in each new sight, each new village, and enjoying each others company.

There’s a saying that it’s not the destination, but the journey, but that’s too simple, too saccharine to describe what was happening to me, as a sort of pilgrim on the Way. There was, of course, an overarching goal, a destination of special magnificence, which was our focus at the beginning. But as we progressed on, our goals became smaller. When your feet are achingly tired from a 20km day of rough terrain, it’s not Santiago, so many kilometers away, that you think about to keep going. Your goals become smaller: finding the next trail marker, waving and saying ‘buen Camino’ to the next person you meet, reaching a new town, or your next meal.

Today, on this second Sunday of Christmas, we read about some pilgrims. Tradition says there are three pilgrims, but Matthew is the only gospel writer which records this story, and he never actually specifies. Three? Six? Ten?, who bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We don’t know much about them—they are described as wise men from the East. What makes them wise? Were they renowned as wise rulers or judges in their own countries? Or were they wise simply because they saw the star and knew the prophesy, and started on a journey? Their words are few, but poignant all the same: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

We may not know very much about these pilgrims, but they are very clear about what they know, and why they are searching. In this year’s virtual Christmas pageant, our three wise pilgrims are brilliantly depicted by Laura Jane, Emma, and Daniel. They are on the way to find Jesus, camel and all. In the pageant, they make a quick stop by Herod, and when Herod says “what king?”, they almost literally shrug, and continue onwards, following the star. Herod is not an essential part of this journey for the wise men—just a bystander, someone who might know something about the route. While the conversation with Herod takes up a significant portion of this morning’s Gospel, the only thing it tells us is that the wise men know what they are looking for. The pilgrims know the path they are on, and are just looking for the trail marker and maybe a good meal.

They have one stated question: Where is he?

And they have one stated goal: We have come to…

When Herod can’t answer their question, they shrug and move on. Where is he? For this is why we have come.

The wise men are often categorized as an essentially Christmas story. They’re part of the nativity, and after Epiphany, and these twelve days of Christmas have gone by, we pack up our creches and say goodbye to them for another year.

This Christmas, perhaps some of us feel particularly disjointed—that Christ has come, that Love has come down, and yet, we’re still waiting for joy, for healing, for the world to be set to rights. There’s a sense of unfinished business, knowing that we celebrate the birth of our Savior while waiting for Christ to come again. It’s the same in-between times that Christians have always lived in, but perhaps we feel it more this year, in a year of waiting and hoping for better things.

If this feeling resonates with you, then I invite you to do something: don’t pack up your wise men this year.

Because these intrepid travelers and wise pilgrims are more than just a sweet story. We may not know much about them, but we call them wise because they know what they are looking for. We have come to pay him homage. Where is he?

We may not know much about them, but we know that they took this journey seriously, examining every trail marker, watching the stars, and asking everyone, where is he? For we have come.

In John’s gospel, Jesus, some thirty years later, says that “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light”. These wise pilgrims were the first to set out to find this Way—not through some lofty ideal, but through the slow, hard, and tedious journey—full of elusive trail markers and aching feet.

Our psalmist writes in Psalm 84 that

Happy are the people whose strength is in you!
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.

As Christians, we know that Christ has come to us, God Incarnate. We know that this Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Light. And Christ is the Way that we embark on again this Christmas, putting one foot in front of the other, waiting for the next trail marker.

Because ultimately, while we know that Christ will come again, that is a destination which feels impossibly far off, most days. So far off, that we must make our goals smaller, like my classmates and I did on the Camino de Santiago. Our work, our life of faith becomes reliant upon these trail markers and rest stops, for confirmation that we are in fact, following Jesus our Way.

As Christians, our life of faith imagines a destination that is not dependent on how fast we walk or run. Instead, what matters about being faithful pilgrims on the Way, is that we keep moving.

Our hearts are set on the pilgrims way.

We know what our guiding question is: where is he? Where is this king, whose star we have seen and followed from our own homes and lands? Where is God acting the world right now? Where do I need to show up, to partner with God in works of justice and mercy?

We also know why we have come. Just as the wise men knew that they had come to pay homage, to worship, to be overwhelmed with joy, each of us, I hope, knows even a little bit about why we have come. What keeps you coming back to church, or logging into online worship? What keeps you praying, or studying Scripture? What have you come for?

So as you think about putting the ornaments back in their boxes, and putting away your holiday baking supplies, and folding the tree skirt, I invite you to leave your wise men out, if you have them, for a little while. 

Let them be a reminder to you to look for the trail markers in your life of faith,

To know what your guiding quest is: where is He?
To know what keeps you coming back to God: I have come for—
Let these wise pilgrims be a reminder to you, that
Happy are the people whose strength is in you!
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.

Sermon begins at about 23:00.