Jesus Frees the Demoniac

Comment

Jesus Frees the Demoniac

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 23, 2019

Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. (Luke 8:35)

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen. 

       When I was younger, I had an aunt and uncle who lived in DC.  My uncle had been to medical school at Georgetown, and sometimes when we would visit, if we were in Georgetown, he would point out the steep steps used for a scene in the 1973 horror film The Exorcist.  At the time, I had never seen the movie, but later on I did, and I began to realize why for my uncle these steps, indeed any of the images from the movie itself, had become part of the imagery of our popular culture.  My uncle could just assume that we’d know what the steps were.  And I’ll bet that you have some images from that film in your own parlance, even if you’ve not seen it—demons that throw people down stairs, that make heads spin around, that lift bodies off the ground in spasms and fits—dramatic stuff that makes for very good shock value if nothing else.  The Exorcist and movies like it captures our popular imagination—the sheer drama of the scenes arrest our attention and shock us, scare us, thrill us—take us out of our normal every day images of the world, if at least for just a moment, in a medium that is safe—up there, on the screen—unreal, imaginary, pretend—something we can stand outside of and observe.

       But in reality, of course, exorcism is nothing like the event portrayed on the silver screen—it’s simply a prayer for the deliverance of evil.  Remember when we ask baptismal candidates if they renounce Satan, the evil powers of this world, and the sinful desires that draw them from the love of God?  This is an exorcism—a prayer for deliverance from evil, a turning towards God.  Not nearly as dramatic as the scene in the movie—or even as the scene in our gospel lesson today--the story of a man possessed by demonic forces.  Demons have him bound up, evil controls his life.  He can’t keep his clothes on, he lives among the tombs; even when he is shackled with chains, he breaks them and runs off into the wild.  Evil has had a real impact on his life—where and how he lives. 

       To be clear, in this story, there is no indication that the man himself is evil—rather, we learn that he is possessed by evil.  We know that evil is something we can do--and it’s something that can be done to us--or happen to us.

       And today we’d probably call what’s happening to the man schizophrenia, or psychosis. Perhaps a psychiatrist could help him with medication.  Medical personnel might even carefully restrain him to keep him from harm--or to keep his actions from hurting others.  We might describe his “possession” as a chemical imbalance, or a structural difference in his brain.  While our understanding of possession might be different, we can still understand that he would feel the effects--recognize the thing that binds his life up, that makes his days feel as though he is possessed by demons.

       We recognize in this story, in this man’s situation, the reality of evil--and in our own lives today.  The impact of sin, of evil, of brokenness--whatever word and category fits for the situation--the impact is real.  The thing itself is real.  When the demonic spirits that bind the man leave him, we see them go.  We see the impact of evil when the spirits they enter a herd of pigs, which then run into the lake and drown. 

       Evil is real, and it has real consequences.  And while we may not suffer as this man suffered, we certainly know demons, sources and manifestations of evil, that possess us—things that bind us, that control us, that cause us and those around us harm:  those things that bind us, that control us, that keep us running among the tombs, separated from one another, separated from God.  Addiction, greed, lust, pride—even social conditions like racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia—these can be the chains of evil that bind our brothers and sisters, that bind ourselves, and separate us, hold us back, from the fullness that God intends for us in creation. 

       And we only have to look around to know the consequences of evil; our families, friends, neighbors—the entirety of society—are impacted in real ways by evil.  The pigs really do run into the lake and drown. Someone loses a food source, a livelihood, when the spirits enter these pigs.  And our relationships are really broken by personal and social ills that plague and bind us.  People are hurt, and some die. 

       I was lamenting with a colleague last week that the things we preach about Christian community--the things we read about in scripture--the expectations that we have that we love one another as Christ has loved us--these things never quite get lived out the way we want them to be.  We laughed as we named the thing that throws everything off course--the thing that keeps us from living in the fullness of the kingdom of God.  It’s just sin.  Plain and simple. Sin done to us, sin that we commit.  Anything that separates us from God--from the vision of the kingdom of God--from living in the way that God created us to live--that thing is sin. And it’s real. And we know the consequences, the pain, the brokenness that follows in its wake.

       We can see it easily in the image projected on the screen--the dramatic movie character with a head that spins around.  We can envision the ravages of pathology when we hear a brother or sister wailing in the streets of New Haven, calling out to voices that aren’t really there. We can name it when there’s a DSM category we can assign.  But evil lurks quietly in our own lives as well. 

        In the face of evil that prowls around us, we have hope in our Lord Jesus:   Jesus, who frees the man possessed by demons.  Though they are many, Jesus speaks their name and takes power over them and casts them out.  The possessed man knows the weight of the evil that binds him, and he goes to Jesus—just when Jesus steps from the boat onto dry land, there the man is, seeking him out.  And we can, too—we can ask for and receive the freedom that Jesus gives from bondage to sin and evil and death.  We can expect that sort of restoration and healing as real and work for it even now, even if it is to come more fully in the life to come.

       If we but reach out, Jesus is there, with the power to forgive, to heal, to free from evil, from sin, from death.  That is the hope of the resurrection, friends, the story that Luke is pointing us towards in these stories—that Jesus has the authority, the power, to heal and to save.  And I don’t mean a magical power; healing and restoration isn’t just flipping a switch, is it?  The healing of the sort of societal ills that lead to gun violence, to incarceration of those who have not committed crimes on our southern border, the racism and oppression of people of color in our society, the political divisions that tear friendships and families and cities and our nation—those are things worth taking on, worth seeking healing and wholeness.  Friends in recovery from addiction tell me that it’s a day to day process for them—one day at a time--and they are really honest about their need for God  in those daily decisions to stay sober, safe, and clean—they are honest that Jesus is there, unbinding them, unbinding us, from the evil that enslaves us.  One day at a time, in Jesus, it is possible.  We can work for it.  For the kingdom of God has come near.  It has come near, and is coming.

       Each month in the parish vestry meeting the whole vestry reads and reflects on a passage from scripture as part of our time together.  This month we read this particular passage.  As we shared in the room what images, words, and ideas captured our imagination, several people highlighted the reaction of the community when the man was healed.  We were surprised by the reaction.  You’d expect that people would be glad, happy even, that the man was free of the torments that had held him for so many years.  But instead, scripture tells us, “they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.” (Luke 8:35).  And again, they “asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” (37)

       A member of their community was healed.  And they were afraid.

       If you’re a fan of family systems theory, the typology developed by psychologist Murray Bowen, you’ll recall that systems--groups of people, organized and behaving in particular ways--systems are hard to change.  They default to what they have known.  Change can even be frightening, anxiety provoking.  In the system that is this community in our gospel reading, the people know how to deal with the man who is possessed by demons.  They’ve chained him up, they’ve figured out how they can best handle him.  They’ve gotten used to his ranting and his tearing around town with no clothes on.  But when he is actually healed, sitting at the feet of Jesus clothed and in his right mind, they become afraid.

       What is it that’s frightening to us about change?  What is it that stops us from believing that things can actually change?  What stops us from knowing, as the man who was possessed comes to know, that the kingdom of God has come near? 

       I suspect that if the townspeople really believed what they had seen they might have tried out a different world view.  Rather than expecting that it was normal for the possessed man to be tormented, they might have expected hope and healing. 

       What would our world look like if we believed that the kingdom of God has come near?

       What would it look like if we believed that God in Christ Jesus is healing and restoring all things to himself?

       What would it look like if we were to live differently?

       We know that there is a cost to evil; that doesn’t magically go away.  Some pigs may still run over the cliff.  Our lives may be inconvenienced.  We may have to get involved, to risk disappointment, pain, fear, or even loss. 

       But there on the shore, friends, we meet Jesus--the one who can cast out all demons, who restores all things to wholeness.  The one who brings hope, healing, and new life.

       Where do you need Jesus’s healing in your life today?  What do you need to be freed from?  What evil is impacting us, what sin is tearing our world apart?  Name it, acknowledge it, and know that the kingdom of God has come near.

       Jesus is about the work of freeing us.  Meet him at the boat, feel his loving embrace, and run to tell the whole world about who you’ve met there on the shore.

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Sermon for Corpus Christi

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Sermon for Corpus Christi

The Rev’d Armando Ghinaglia
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Feast of Corpus Christi
June 20, 2019

How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me? (Psalm 116:10)

 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

I am currently serving at a church that uses Rite II for the Eucharist every Sunday. One Sunday earlier this year, the priest-in-charge there asked me what I thought about switching over to Rite I for a season. There was, after all, an east-facing altar, like the one here, that the church had used until a little over a decade ago.

 “Why not?” I thought. “It won’t be that different.” But when we got around to it, the next Sunday, I realized something for the first time.

 In Rite I and in Rite II, once everything is set up (or close to it) and ready to go, the invitation to Communion usually goes like this: “The Gifts of God for the People of God.”

 When I celebrate in Rite II, I recite the optional line afterward: “Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.” And then I proceed to administer Communion with the typical and beautiful words of Rite II: “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” “The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.”

 Rite I, by contrast, has two alternatives to those words of administration. But they’re long. “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.” “The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.”

 If we recited them every time you came up to the altar rail, we’d be here for hours. Still, they’re worth lingering on for a bit, because they reflect something absolutely crucial about how we celebrate the Eucharist.

 As a high school student, I remember my French teacher asking the classroom what the English equivalents of “tu” and “vous” were. I raised my hand smartly: “It’s like you and y’all!” That was not the sophisticated answer she was looking for. Silly as it may sound, the difference matters, not just in French or Spanish or other languages, but here, in our own language.

 Rite II observes that Christ died for the ambiguous you, the singular you and the plural you. Rite II leaves it to me to decide what the priest means when she says “Christ died for you.” Does she mean that Christ died for me? For some of us? For all of us? I promise I’m not blaming the drafters; it’s not their fault—that’s just how contemporary English works.

 But Rite I does something different because it’s able to, using early modern English instead. “Christ died for thee.” The Body of Christ “was given for thee.” The Blood of Christ “was shed for thee.” There is no doubt, no ambiguity, in this phrasing.

 Christ died for each and every single one of you.

Christ’s body was given for each and every single one of you.

Christ’s blood was shed for each and every single one of you.

Not just y’all, or the indefinite you or us, or vous or nous.

But you and me individually, whom God knit together in the womb, whom God calls by name, whom God loves more deeply than we could ever ask for or imagine.

 And that’s just as true for every single person outside the walls of this church.

The person walking on the streets around us. The person sitting in their car outside.

The person getting ready for a lavish meal. The person looking for shelter, or food, or water.

The person resting quietly at home. The person locked up in a detention camp.

No exceptions.

 Any worship or adoration of the Body of Christ must start with this fact: Our encounter with the sacrament of his Body and Blood is “not only,” as Thomas Cranmer writes, “a sign of the love that Christians ought to have with one another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death.”

 We come before that Sacrament asking ourselves the same question as the psalmist today: “How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me?” For freeing us from the bonds of sin and death?

 Note that the psalmist has already given us the answer elsewhere: Repayment isn’t actually possible. “We can never ransom ourselves, or deliver to God the price of our life,” we find in Psalm 49. “For the ransom of our life is so great that we should never have enough to repay it in order to live for ever and ever.” We can’t go to God and say, “well, thanks for getting me out of trouble, here’s my money, let’s call it even.” It doesn’t work like that.

 And yet the psalmist talks about repayment. If repayment isn’t about executing a transaction where we balance our budget with God, then what does God want from us?

 That we may have life, says Jesus—and have it more abundantly. That you and I may receive it as a gift, freely given, just as Jesus indeed gives his body for thee, for you and for me.

 And so, Jesus says, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” For “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

 God wills that we come to the altar, to the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, to the marriage supper of the Lamb, not unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.

 St. Paul effectively says the same thing in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”

 All true loves meet in those commands. First, the love of God, as we lift our voices with the Israelites in the wilderness: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And our Lord takes bread and wine and makes them new: “Do this,” he says, “in remembrance of me.” And so we do—and we eat his flesh and drink his blood.

 Then, the love of neighbor, as we heed St. Paul’s warning: “Examine yourselves.” Coming to the Sacrament is not enough by itself. There can be no love or communion with God if there is no love of neighbor. As we find in 1 John, “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Christ died for you and me. And Christ died for our neighbors, even the ones we don’t see, even we don’t like.

 So we approach the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood with due reverence and deliberation. We pray to God for the forgiveness of our sins. We share the peace with our neighbors. We come to the altar and receive the bread and the wine.

 There’s just one last thing to attend to.

 As St. Augustine asks:

“When does human flesh receive the bread that Christ calls his own?”

 In other words, when do we know that we have been good and faithful servants? That we have done all that the Lord has told us to do?

 His answer:

“The faithful know and receive the body of Christ if they labor to be the body of Christ. And the faithful become the body of Christ if they strive to live by the Spirit of Christ, for that which lives by the Spirit of Christ is the body of Christ. . . . This bread the Apostle sets forth saying: We being many are one body. O sacrament of mercy! O sign of unity! O bond of love! Whoever wishes to live, draw near, believe, become a member of the body, that you may have life.”

How else could we ever repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for us?

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Join in the Dance

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Join in the Dance

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Trinity Sunday
June 16, 2019

In this sermon on Trinity Sunday, the Rector invites us to think of the Trinity as a relationship amongst the persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This relationship of self-offering, self-communicating love—given and received amongst the persons of the Trinity—is an invitation to us and to all of Creation to join in relationship with God and one another—to join in the dance of self-offering love that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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Come, Holy Ghost!

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Come, Holy Ghost!

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Pentecost
June 9, 2019

In this sermon in the month of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the Rector reflects on the events of Pentecost and asks the question, “What were the people in Jerusalem hearing that day when the disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, spoke?” Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, people of all languages and nations heard a message of God’s love that drives out fear and hatred and invites us into unity, to wholeness, to relationship with God. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, which is given to us in Baptism, we are invited to share that message of love with the whole world.

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Amazing Love!  How Can It Be?

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Amazing Love! How Can It Be?

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Seventh Sunday of Easter
June 2, 2019

In this sermon the Rector reflects on the story of Paul and Silas in Acts, inviting us to envision what fears and anxieties bind us in chains—and to imagine a world where our chains fall away, just like Paul and Silas’s did, as we become aware of the light of God’s love shining on us and all people.

As Charles Wesley writes in a hymn the congregation will sing this day,

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

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That's Strange!

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That's Strange!

Ms Angela Shelley
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Feast of the Ascension
May 30, 2019

In this sermon for the feast of the Ascension, Ms Angela Shelley, Children’s Ministry Coordinator, shares a story from the Parish’s children and invites us to be witnesses to the joy of the Resurrection: to tell the strange and wondrous story of Jesus’s love to the whole world.

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Getting Dirty:  Easter, Rogation, and the New Creation

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Getting Dirty: Easter, Rogation, and the New Creation

The Very Rev’d Andrew McGowan
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Sixth Sunday of Easter: Rogation Sunday
May 26, 2019

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About eighty days ago, at the beginning of Lent, many of us received the sign of ashes with the words “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

At that time, these words were given and heard with solemnity, even perhaps dread; dust or dirt introduces Lent as a time of reflection on the shape of our life and particularly its finitude. In that context, the reminder of our connection with the earth is solemn or even fearful. “Dust” here has a particular sort of poetic bleakness; but we could just as well say “soil” or “dirt." All these represent our origins and destiny.

Yet so much depends on context. The historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith tells a story of working on a farm while while preparing to attend an agricultural school:

"I would have to rise at about a quarter to four and fire up the wood burning stove, heat a pan of water and lay out the soap and towels so that my boss could wash when he awoke half an hour later. Each morning, to my growing puzzlement, when the boss would step outside after completing his ablutions, he would pick up a handful of soil and rub it over his hands." (Map is Not Territory, 290-91)

When the callow youth eventually confronted his boss with the oddity of this gesture, the farmer responded:

“Don’t you city boys understand anything?…Inside the house it’s dirt; outside it’s earth. You must take it off inside to eat and be with your family. You must put it on outside to work and be with the animals” (Map 291)

While we sometimes speak of what is “soiled” or “dirty” to connote some sort of act or object that is out of place, our relationship with dirt is not simply negative. In the Book Genesis (see Gen 2), the story of creation is presented as the formation of the human person from the earth; that first human is named Adam, meaning in Hebrew earth, dirt. The connection with dirt and dust is not a threat only, but a miracle; we are made of the dirt, of the same stuff, the atoms and molecules in all other things, yet also fearfully made, crafted in the divine image. Striking as our mortality is, the more striking thing is that matter itself is, that it is wondrously and beautifully ordered, that we are a part of it, and we are given the extraordinary and daunting gift of its care and use - all this being made of dust, of dirt.

And yet in human history as in Genesis, our stewardship is plagued by disobedience from the outset - our affinity with the earth is forgotten, and we treat it and each other not as wondrous creatures bound by loving purpose, but as objects to exploit. Ironically we talk about treating people like dirt; but dirt is the stuff of creation, and itself demands a kind of reverence it rarely receives, in the industrialized world at least.

We can also make things “dirty,” but this has little to do with actual dirt. The comic Lenny Bruce once said "You can't do anything with anybody's body to make it dirty to me...you can do only one thing to make it dirty: kill it. Hiroshima was dirty."

This unlikely source of theology speaks a deep truth, exemplified also in the story of Jesus. In Christ, God shares in being dirt, not merely in the benign sense of material existence, but in the malign sense of becoming subject to rejection, defilement, and degradation. The cross of Jesus is God’s submission to our sense of the dirt; on the cross, Jesus becomes dirty, a "curse" as St Paul puts it, to deliver us from sin and death (see Gal 3:13).

If Lent encouraged us to consider the limits of our dirt-based creatureliness, and the need to reconsider how we make each other and the world itself “dirty”, Easter does something different.

The resurrection of Jesus is not the defiance or refusal of the world of dirt, in the sense of our embodied existence, but its renewal and transformation. Ancient Jews expected a resurrection of the dead as sign of the end of all things; recall Martha and Jesus speaking at Lazarus' tomb, close to the fateful events of Easter; he said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’

The scepticism of many of his contemporaries to Jesus’ resurrection initially lay less in the mere possibility of resurrection, as in the audacious claim that this man whose body had been cast aside as rubbish, as dirt, was in fact the new Adam. Martha reflects the widespread Jewish belief that there would be a last day and that resurrections belonged at that time; but by rising, Jesus is not just proclaiming his own victory over death, but the inauguration of that new world here and now, rather than only in an unknown future.

Today’s reading from the Revelation to John is part of the seer’s vision of a “new heaven and a new earth.” He describes a world transformed, even without the institutions of religion and government but still with dirt, apparently; for even though there is nothing unclean in this new heavenly Jerusalem there is "the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

The resurrection of Jesus puts our earthy physicality in a new light. Jesus does not reject or transcend the dirty world - he restores its purpose, and ours. We are still made from the dust of the earth, but the earth is now also a sign of God’s promise, that extends beyond the immediate fate of our embodiment. Like him, we do not escape or transcend the earth; we find instead, and even become, the signs of the new earth.

Baptized, we are born to this new life. In the Eucharist we receive food from the earth of this world, transformed into the food of the new, where all are fed equally. Now every tree hints at the Tree of Life, every creature glows with the glory of God, and every fellow-human is a miracle of divine promise, made from dirt and destined for glory.

Today is Rogation Sunday, the beginning of a week that traditionally involved prayer for seasonal weather and successful crops. This year I invite you to consider getting dirty for Rogationtide; to put your hands in the soil of a creation made good, and which is also a sign for us of a new world, where the tree of life grows. Plant a seed, or a tree; tread with care and awe on the soil of this fragile earth; love one another, feed one another. Thus we will prove followers of the risen Lord, in whose body the old earth and the new have met.

Amen.

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Love Carries Us Through

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Love Carries Us Through

The Rev’d Dcn Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 19, 2019

In this sermon, preached on the weekend surrounding university graduations in New Haven, graduating seminarian the Rev’d Patrick Keyser reflects on transitions, weaving Jesus’s command to his disciples to love one another with Peter’s vision of a sheet filled with animals and Peter’s experience of the Holy Spirit that brought him to understand God’s love for all people. Fr Patrick invites us to “let love carry us through,” for the Holy Spirit is already there in the places that God calls us to go.

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The Good Shepherd

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The Good Shepherd

The Rev’d Ann Broomell
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 12, 2019

In this sermon priest affiliate the Rev’d Ann Broomell reflects on the love of Jesus the Good Shepherd for us—and invites us to love and serve God and one another.

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Joy Comes in the Morning

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Joy Comes in the Morning

The Very Rev’d Robert Willis
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Third Sunday of Easter
May 5, 2019

In this sermon guest preacher the Rev’d Robert Willis, the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, brings greetings from Canterbury and relates a heartwarming and moving story of interfaith relationship, compassion, and hope from the Cathedral. Using scripture, psalms, and stories from The Wind in the Willows and his own experience of an interaction with the Islamic community of Canterbury, the Dean invites us to reflect on the call of Jesus to us to love one another—Jesus, who loves us and goes ahead of us to prepare a place of joy and light. Take time to listen to this Eastertide message of resurrection, encouragement, and hope.

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My Lord and My God

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My Lord and My God

The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Second Sunday of Easter
April 28, 2019

In this, his final sermon at Christ Church, New Haven, the Curate invites us to consider Saint Thomas—his longing to experience the presence of the risen Lord Jesus—and to consider for ourselves Jesus’s longing to be present with us. How will we respond? May we, like Thomas, exclaim “My Lord and my God!”

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Christus Vincit!

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Christus Vincit!

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Easter Day
April 21, 2019

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:18)

 

Friends, we have walked once more the Way of the Cross and come again to Easter--the celebration of our Lord’s Resurrection.  On Maundy Thursday Fr Carlos invited us to experience God not merely as an idea but as the one who is, revealed in the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ--to have our feet washed, and to experience the presence of God’s all-encompassing love in the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.

We watched and prayed in the garden all night long with our Lord, and on Friday we mourned his crucifixion, reflecting both on the historical event itself and on the nature of sin and evil.  Mother Kathryn invited us into the experience of our Lady, Mary, the Mother of God--how she mourned her son’s death--but also understood that he would triumph over death.  The cross, Mtr Kathryn reflected, is like a black hole--a nexus of collapse--a place into which death and destruction fall--but paradoxically a place, too, where new life springs forth--a promise that Christ has conquered death and sin, even in the midst of death itself.

And last night, at the Vigil, we lit the first fire of Easter, came by candlelight into this space, were reminded of our death and resurrection in the font of our baptism, and celebrated the joy of the first mass of Easter--as time stopped and the ancient mystery of the resurrection unfolded.  Fr Patrick placed the historical event of Christ’s resurrection on a cosmic scale, inviting us to see the implications for ourselves--and for the present day--in light of Christ’s triumph over death--to see beyond what the world may call an idle tale--to the deep truth of God’s faithfulness, God’s power, and God’s desire and love for us.

And today, in the new light of day, we pray our Sunday rounds together, celebrate the resurrection, and receive again his presence in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood--we proclaim the Body of Christ.  And we hear again the story of his resurrection--today through the person of Mary Magdalene, the first to see the empty tomb.  We hear the story of how she came to recognize the risen Lord Jesus in the garden--and how she shared that good news with the world.

Each time I hear this story I’m struck by that image of how the world turns for Mary--how initially she believes Jesus is dead, and she’s looking for his body--but suddenly, when he calls her name, she recognizes him, the man whom she first thought was the gardener, but now knows as the Lord of Life, her friend and teacher, Jesus.

When I hear that story my mind fixes on her confusion.  How could she not recognize this person she loved so much--this person who loved her so much? 

And it reminds me of another time of mistaken identity--one that was quite understandable.

Before I was ordained, when I was working at a community center in Atlanta, Georgia, I bought a condo.  It was the first home I’d owned.  The price was right, so naturally renovation was required.   The condo was in a pre-war building off Piedmont Park that had seen better days.  I spent about a month working with my father and friends and family installing new hardwood floors, molding, bathroom fixtures and tile, and painting everything.  It was a wholly new space by the time we were done--and I was glad we were finished.  But one of the most interesting things I remember about the renovation was meeting my next door neighbor.  One afternoon as I was on a ladder painting he stopped by, walked in the door which had been propped open, and began to talk to me--no introductions, just talk about painting and carpentry.  Before I knew it, he was asking me if I could stop by his apartment and give him a bid for renovations.  He had assumed I was a professional painter, not just an amateur do-it-yourself sort--and when I introduced myself as his neighbor, we both laughed and were glad to have met one another.

I think of that story--that case of mistaken identity--every time I hear this story in the gospel.  Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize the risen Jesus.  She thinks he’s the gardener.  Now, this is I suppose an understandable mistake--like my neighbor that thought I was the painter--because I was painting.  Jesus was after all not in the tomb where Mary thought he’d be; he was, in fact, in the garden.  And surely through her tears, or in her grief, or just through the shock of it all, she can’t be expected to recognize our Lord on first glance.  Except that Mary had known Jesus for three years!  She’d been with him, with the disciples, everywhere, and financially supported Jesus’s ministry .  She’d entered Jerusalem with him, maybe even been at table with him, had been by the cross at the crucifixion, had helped bury him--and she was returning to attend to his body again.  How could Mary, who knew Jesus so well, not recognize him?

I suppose it’s not so very surprising, however.  For don’t we too fail to recognize the risen Jesus in our own day?  In our own lives?  Mary knew Jesus for three years, but we’ve known Jesus for two thousand years.  How can we failing to recognize Jesus’s face today?

There is something that Mary and we share in this failure to recognize.  There’s something more going on here than mistaken identity.  There’s a fundamental problem in what we are looking for--what we are expecting.

Listen again to Mary.  She believes that Jesus’s body has been taken away--she says this to Peter and John, who then go to the tomb, look in, and seeing the grave clothes, leave--believing, we assume, that Jesus’s dead body has been taken away.  She returns to the tomb, weeping, and angels ask her, “Why are you weeping?”  And she repeats what she believes--that Jesus’s body has been taken away. Finally she says to the man she believes to be the gardener, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.”  Three times Mary expects that Jesus is dead--and his body has been carried away.  She cannot imagine that Jesus is alive.  She expects to see death when she comes to the tomb.

This makes sense, doesn’t it.  We cannot fault Mary for having cloudy vision, or being overwhelmed with grief.  Mary is sensible--she knows the physical laws of nature, she knows she has seen the dead body of her friend, and she knows his corpse should still be there--but it is not--so surely someone has moved it.

If we move beyond the historical event of Jesus’s body in that space and time, in that place, there with Mary, if we look into our present day, would we not assume the same thing?  Would we not also believe that death has the final word?  After all, that’s certainly what it looks like to our eyes--to our consciousness.  In the midst of life we are in death, the funeral anthem we read at the Holy Saturday liturgy says, and isn’t it true? 

When I think of the tapestry of musical sounds here on Easter Day we hear sounds of great beauty--bells, organ voluntaries, plainchant with the richness of organum, anthems and psalms and hymns, all sounds that lift our senses to a place of joy and hope and peace, they seem otherworldly when compared to some of the soundscape of our city.

But part of the sound tapestry of New Haven is something different.  What we know about the world is something other than what we might experience in this place.  For woven in and amongst the shouts of joy and bubble of convivial conversations amongst her residents is also the sound of sirens wailing all day and night, emergent responses to disaster, illness, peril, and even death.  Gunshots, the sound of violence, and screams, deep wailing--these are the sounds for some in our fair city.  Across the world, today in Sri Lanka, where almost two hundred have been killed in churches and hotels this morning, the explosion of bombs shatters the stillness of the morning calm. Calling out, begging, the voices of desperation in our streets, even the sounds of addiction weave together the tapestry of need, of loneliness, and anxiety.  And the quiet desperation of those who are alone, who are without hope, that silence fills the warp and weft of the tapestry of sound.  We might be understanding of those among us -- of ourselves -- if we were to miss the voice of Jesus calling out, “Mary!”  If we were to miss, amongst the voices of death, the voice of our Lord calling out our name in love.

But Mary does not hold her expectation of death for long.  She hears Jesus’s voice calling out her name--Mary!-- and instantly she recognizes him.  Her confusion falls away, and immediately she knows it’s he--and she calls out, Teacher!  The one whom she loves, the one who loves her, calls out -- calls her name -- and suddenly the world is changed.  She didn’t expect Jesus’s resurrection--she didn’t expect to meet life there in the garden--there at the tomb--but it is real.  He is there.  And she runs to tell the others, I have seen the Lord!

It’s no surprise we, too, miss seeing the face of Jesus in the world around us, here and now, in our lives, in our city, in our present day.  Perhaps we expect to meet despair and death instead.  After all, that’s what we hear about constantly--what we witness, isn’t it.  But there he is, in the garden, standing outside the empty tomb, waiting for us to turn, waiting for us to look, waiting for us to hear as he calls each of us by name--his beloved friends. 

Why are you crying?  the angel asks Mary.  Where is my Lord?  Mary says.

And here he is.  Calling out to Mary, calling out to us, even now.

And in that very moment our lives are changed.  As Jesus calls out to us, we see him here, just now, and our world is changed.  Everything we know is different in the light of his resurrected glory.

There is a chant in the church that I love--the Christus Vincit, or Laudes Regiae--series of acclamations patterned on the acclamations given in ancient Rome to a conquering general or an emperor.  The chant itself is complicated; it’s been sung at coronations, and even at the entrance of the King of France into the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Easter.[1]  So the collusion of temporal and heavenly authority is, so to speak, complicated with this one.  But what I love about it most is the refrain--a simple, powerful chant:  Christus vincit!  Christus regnat!  Christus imperat!  Christ conquers; Christ reigns; Christ commands. 

Friends, this is the story of Easter.  Christ has conquered death.  Not even the worst that death can deal can stand against the love of God revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ.  Christ conquers.  Christ reigns.  Christ commands.

His resurrection is not merely an historical event--something that Mary Magdalene witnesses--but something that is real, here, and now--something that involves us.  As he stands at the empty tomb, conquering, victorious, we learn that everything we thought about the world is wrong.  That sin and death have no power.  That only Christ conquers.  Christ reigns. Christ commands.

Let me be clear about the truth of the resurrection:  Christ’s death and resurrection do not mean that there is no evil--that there is no suffering--that there is no death.  The fabric of what we thought was true doesn’t go away.  But there is a greater truth, a seamless garment woven in one piece, from the very love of God--the truth of Love that casts out fear and death.  In light of Christ’s resurrection, death no longer has the last word.

My friends, don’t believe the lies that the devil tells us.  Death is not the final truth.

Christ is the final truth.  Only love is truth.  Only life is.

Mary came to the tomb, expecting to find death.  And instead she found life--calling her very name.

Where are you today?  Where are we today as a community, as a city, as a nation?  Will we have the courage to expect something different? Will we have the courage to look inside the tomb, and not turn away when we find it empty, but keep looking?  To turn around, to look again, and keep looking and expecting until we see Jesus, standing by us, calling us by name? 

If you are searching, if you are looking into the empty tomb today and longing to see his Body, if you are longing to find the love and light of Christ’s truth, come to the altar today and receive him.  Let him fill you with his love.  Stay here and watch.  Look again.  Listen for his voice.  He is not in the tomb, he is risen.  And he stands just beside you, calling your name. 

If you’ve already met the risen Lord, if you are filled up with the light of his glorious resurrected presence, will you share it?  Will you turn and run to tell your friends, to tell the city, to tell the whole world what you know--that God has conquered even death, and that the world is overflowing with hope and joy?

Jesus said to her, Mary! She turned and said to him in Hebrew, Rabbouni! (which means Teacher.)

Christus vincit.  Christus regnat.  Christus imperat.

  Alleluia, Christ is Risen.

The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia.


[1] http://modernmedievalism.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-laudes-regiae-christ-conquers.html

Comment

Why Do You Look for the Living among the Dead?

Comment

Why Do You Look for the Living among the Dead?

The Rev’d Deacon Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Easter Vigil
April 20, 2019

‘“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”’

 

+ Alleluia. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Happy Easter dear friends. We have come to this the greatest of all nights, the night of rejoicing, the night of celebration, the night of Christ’s victory over death. This is the night, proclaims the Exsultet, when we are delivered from the gloom of sin and restored to grace and holiness of life. This is the night when earth and heaven are joined, and we are reconciled to God. The great theologian and preacher of the early Church John Chrysostom spoke of it in this way in a Paschal Homily:

Let none bewail [their] transgressions; for the light of forgiveness has risen from the tomb. Let none fear death; for death of the Savior has set us free. He has destroyed death by undergoing death. He has despoiled hell by descending into hell. He vexed it even as it tasted of His flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he cried: Hell was filled with bitterness when it met Thee face to face below; filled with bitterness, for it was brought to nothing; filled with bitterness, for it was mocked; filled with bitterness, for it was overthrown; filled with bitterness, for it was put in chains. Hell received a body, and encountered God. It received earth, and confronted heaven. O death, where is your sting? O hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen! And you, o death, are annihilated![1]

 

This night we proclaim this good news on a cosmic level and we also hear again the unassuming story of those who were the first to witness to the reality of Christ’s resurrection. And of course those first witnesses were the faithful women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women who, though unnamed, were dear to our Lord Jesus and followed him until the end. Despite nearly two thousand years of interpretation and commentary on the Scriptures the Church has seemed unable or unwilling to fully recognize and acknowledge the role and importance of these faithful women who stayed with Jesus through his death and burial and who then went to the tomb to attend to his body. St. Luke’s gospel tells us that following Jesus’ crucifixion, a good and righteous man named Joseph from the town of Arimathea took Jesus’ body from the cross and laid it in tomb where no one had ever been laid. The faithful women who had followed Jesus all the way to the cross, those who had stayed when no one else did to see Jesus suffer and breathe his last, they saw where his body was laid and then returned to prepare spices and ointment for his body.

They rested on the sabbath day, and on the first day of the week at early dawn they went to the tomb. They went out that early morning to visit the place of the dead. Their hearts were still broken; they were still numb and overcome with the pain and grief they felt from the loss of their Lord. When they arrived amidst the darkness of the early morning they found that the stone to the tomb was rolled away and inside the body was gone. They were confused and distressed, but then such a dazzling and bright light broke through the darkness that they knew only to bow down in fear and wonder. And then those blessed words rang out that have shaken the very foundations of the world ever since: ‘why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’ They would not find Jesus there among the dead.

The faithful women heard these words and they believed. Then they did the only thing they knew to do: they ran away from that place and began to spread this good news, this most impossible and incredible news. They went to the eleven apostles and told them what they had witnessed. They told it to those whom Jesus had selected to follow him and minster with him, the eleven who had spent so much time with Jesus yet who had deserted him in his most desperate hour. But the eleven did not believe them and this incredible news that they brought of Jesus’ resurrection. It was, they believed, just an idle tale. The women must have been overly emotional or hysterical from the grief and the early morning. I fear some things have not changed despite the advance of time. The faithful women boldly spoke the truth they knew in their hearts and had witnessed themselves despite the unbelief of the eleven. There was something in Peter, however, that was stirred by their testimony, and something compelled him to go and see for himself. And so he did, and of course what he found confirmed what the faithful women had told. The tomb was empty save the linen cloths. Peter was amazed. Idle tale became the very news of salvation. The resting place of the dead and reminder of what seemed to be the triumph of evil became the sign and witness of Christ’s victory over death. The tomb stood empty, and the world began to rejoice.

This night we come, like the faithful women, to hear again this good news. We have walked together the journey of this week, from the washing of feet, to betrayal and desertion, to the cross and Jesus’ death, to the silence and stillness of that day when God slept in the flesh and Jesus’ body rested in the tomb. We have witnessed the very worst of this world, but tonight is our night of victory for we proclaim again the good news that death had no power over Jesus. He broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave. This is our good news, yet for so many it may still seem but an idle tale. We need not look far to be reminded of the brokenness of our world and the evil that seems to reign. It may seem like an idle tale when gun violence rages in our country and in our very city, when people are shot not 200 yards from the doors of this church. It may seem an idle tale when yet again unarmed African Americans are shot by the police; when children are ripped from their parents and subjected to unspeakable and irreversible trauma; when hate-filled gunmen murder people at prayer in their own house of worship. It can seem to be too much; it may indeed seem but an idle tale. But tonight we gather to remember and proclaim a different story, the truth of that message of Easter that rings across the ages. Death does not win; the evil, hatred, and violence we see in our world will not reign supreme. Resurrection comes; sin does not have the victory. The tomb is empty. We will not find the living among the dead. Christ has risen from the dead and beaten down death by death. And now he goes ahead of us to bring his love and healing, into the streets of New Haven, into the broken places of our country, and to the very ends of the earth, and when we seek him there we will find him. This is our message of good news. Like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, and all those women whose names and depth of faith are known to almighty God alone, may God grant us the faith and courage to go out into the world and proclaim that good news:

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! +


[1] http://www.orthodoxchristian.info/pages/sermon.htm

Comment

The Cross and Mary

Comment

The Cross and Mary

The Rev’d Kathryn Greene-McCreight
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Good Friday
April 19, 2019

A headline in The New York Times, April 10, 2019:

“Darkness Visible”:

“Astronomers at last have captured an image of the darkest entities in the cosmos, an image of a violent phenomenon that has mystified them for more than half a century. The image doesn’t show the black hole itself; black holes are black because no light can escape them.”

The cross of Good Friday is like, and yet unlike, that black hole. Both are violent phenomena. Both mystify. Both take prisoner all the light that surrounds them. Both are Darkness Visible.

Yet Good Friday’s Cross is different from the black hole: the Cross of Christ transforms all the light it imprisons, and shoots it back into the world as new light, as Easter fire.

Five days after the NYT, another headline in the NYT read: “Fire Mauls Beloved Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris”. This article included a photo of a golden cross, still shining in its place at the east end of the Cathedral, gleaming out over the charred rubble. The altar beneath it remained intact under the shelter of the cross’s wings.

Good Friday’s cross is like, and yet unlike, this cross standing watch over the altar at Notre Dame: the Cross of Christ protects through the flames. Both defy death. Both shine with the light by which we see Light.

The Cross of Good Friday is more like the cross of Notre Dame than it is like that black hole. But this is Good Friday, and the Empty Tomb is yet to come.

Good Friday marks the hinge of the three scenes of the one saving event: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. And so today our gaze is transfixed by Jesus’ Cross.

While we might want to turn quickly away to the joy of the Resurrection, the light of the Easter Fire doesn’t make the Cross any less of a black hole, any less of a Cathedral’s destruction. We have to look intently at this cross, and not avert our eyes.

In the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome stands Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of this Darkness Visible, where Mary holds her dead son. It is a traditional scene in the history of art: the descent from the Cross. The sculpture is known by the Italian word for pity, or compassion. The Pieta.

It is a simple, traditional image, but unique in the way it presents the moment after Jesus’s body is removed from the Cross. Mary tries to hold her adult son on her lap. His body spills across hers. She holds Jesus, her left hand, palm upturned, extended slightly outward from her body, and away from his. Literally dead weight, Jesus is sliding off of her. She lets him go, releasing him.

Now consider this image: Mary, the new mother, holds Jesus the lively infant. In our own Lady Shrine is one of these traditional scenes. There Mary holds the baby Jesus close, lest he squiggle away, as babies often do. Mary cradles him in her arms and nurses him, as mothers often do. This new mother will nurture her son Jesus, rear him, and prepare him for adult life. And she prepares herself to give him up, to let him go, to let him slide off her body.

It is true of any parent, of course, that we must let go. We rear our children in order to hand them on to the world. But Mary’s task is gut-wrenchingly unique, because she raises her child for slaughter. She knows what is to come. She knows that the black hole of his cross will indeed swallow her son, the Light of the world.

How does she bear this? Mary knows in advance, as she has known all along. Mary knows the promises to God’s people, Israel. And the angel Gabriel has told her that her son yet to be born will embody and fulfill those promises. At first Mary questions how this can be, but she trusts the angel’s word: “nothing will be impossible with God.” (Lk 1:37). Mary’s response to the angel is assent: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” (Lk 1:38)

Mary knows, looking forward. But we know only looking backwards, through Mary’s song, through Scripture. We know what comes of this death only because we have seen the Easter life shining through the witness of prophets and apostles.

We see the cross, therefore, as the cross at Notre Dame’s east end. Unlike that black hole, the cross of Jesus brings resurrection, New Creation, the reconciliation of all creation to God. We know this because Mary knew, and because she let go of her son.

Without Mary’s assent, even to that black hole of the cross that captures all light, we would not know the Light of life.

Tradition has it that Mary stands at the foot of the cross. The disciple John flanks her on the other side. You can see this on our rood screen. Mary is there at the cross, with the Disciple whom Jesus loved. But notice: Mary is not among the other women who visit the tomb. This is important. The other Mary’s go to the tomb, expecting to prepare Jesus’s lifeless body for burial. Those Mary’s do not know what Mary the Mother of Jesus does know.

The mother of the Pieta does not go to the tomb, because she knows it is empty. She knows that Darkness cannot ultimately overcome Light. But this is not simply because darkness is not dark, nor the black hole not black, nor the fire not scorching.

Today on Good Friday, we must not glide over Mary’s grief. Her tears are not play-acting. She truly mourns. She is indeed the Lady of Sorrows. She knows that her son will be laid in the tomb. And she knows why.

She knows that death has yet to be conquered, and this will come only through Jesus’ entering into it and coming out the other side victorious.

And so she stands at the foot of the cross. She peers into that swirling black hole that truly does threaten to imprison all light in its abyss. She watches the ravaging flames lick up the cathedral built in her name. She witnesses the violence of the cross murdering the fruit of her own body.

She stares it down and does not flinch.

In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Comment

Who God Is

Comment

Who God Is

The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Maundy Thursday
April 18, 2019

Blessed be the name of the Lord, from henceforth, and forevermore. Amen.

 

In January, the newest edition of the International Journal of Systematic Theology was published. What made this issue unique was its sole dedication to the theological work of John Webster.

 

Before his death in 2016, Webster, a priest of the Church, served as the Chair of Divinity at St. Mary's College, University of St Andrews, Scotland, prior to that he served as the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, a prestigious chair in which he was immediately preceded by Archbishop Rowan Williams.

 

In one of the journal’s essays, entitled The God-Intoxicated Theology of a Modern Theologian, written by a mentor and former professor, Katherine Sonderregger, Webster’s lifelong work is described as the labor of a man focused on who God is, not what Deity is.[1]

 

Who God is, not what Deity is.

 

Webster’s work was concerned with knowing more deeply the greatness and vastness of God. A God who cannot be grasped by human understanding or wisdom, but by divine revelation. Out of his own sovereignty God reveals himself to us as the great I Am. And this great mystery, the boundless unknown, freely takes flesh, our flesh, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The very Jesus who on this night took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. The very Jesus who on this night tied a towel around his waist and washed the feet of his disciples. The very Jesus who on this night gave us a new commandment – “Love one another just as I have loved you.”

 

A being so infinite, luminous, and powerful, comes to us in the person of Jesus. And so the question who God is, in its full revelation and perfection, is answered in the life, ministry, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Through which we come to know God more fully not by some great personal insight or technical achievement, but by God’s own revelation, God’s very actions and words.

 

On this night we find Jesus at dinner with his friends. With his betrayal looming, Jesus pours water into a basin and washes the feet of his disciples. An act which Saint Peter first rejects. The great disciple of the Church, the one whom God’s church will be built upon, rejects our Lord’s gesture. We are not told why, but we are told Jesus’ response to Saint Peter - "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Unless I am able to make you clean, you will not share with me.

 

Saint Peter’s understanding of who God is? Or better yet, what deity is? would not permit him to have Jesus, God made man, wash his feet. How could God, the great I Am, the creator of heaven and earth, the maker of all things seen and unseen, stoop down to the ground and wash the feet of a mortal man. But this is who God is.

 

In the act of lowering himself to wash the feet of his disciples, our mortal eyes are given an image of the radical nature of God in Christ. Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is but an archetype of who God is, it is but a reflection of his Incarnation, God’s ultimate revelation. In the act of washing the feet of his disciples, we are witnessing mutually a revelation and a commandment of Who God is… and who God wants us to be.

 

Jesus says “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet... Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples”

 

This commandment of love comes to us in the words and actions of Jesus. And Jesus comes to us by God’s outpouring of himself in the Incarnation. An act of divine kenosis, that is God’s self-emptying of himself into the world. In this act of self-emptying through which God becomes man, God also reveals to us a new radical notion of love. God doesn’t give what he has… he gives what he is, his very being.[2]

 

 

 

 

Therefore, the Christian notion of divine love is formed by the fact that God does not give us what he possesses or owns, but his very self. This ultimate revelation of divine love, God giving his full and unconditional self in the life, ministry, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, needs to guide our participation in the Triduum, our celebration on Easter Day, and our Christian life.

 

But how?

 

How do we live out Christ’s command, how do we proclaim, and more importantly, embody the Christian notion of love?

 

The most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review features an interview with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. In it, he is asked, “How do you encourage people to bring love into their workplaces?” A true capitalist question about love if I’ve ever heard one.

 

The Presiding Bishop responds with these words:

 

“In the past couple years I’ve started thinking of love less as a sentiment and more as a commitment to a way of being with others. As a sentiment, love is more about what I’m getting out of it than what you’re getting out of it. But as a commitment, love means I’m seeking your self-interest as well as my own—and maybe above and beyond mine.”[3]

 

Believing and living out love not as a sentiment, but as a commitment, is how we’ll be able to follow Jesus’ commandment. It is how we can show the world God’s ultimate revelation in the person of Jesus. It is what God in Christ came to show us about himself, inviting us to follow and lower ourselves to serve those in need. And by that same token, allowing us to admit to ourselves and God, without shame or fear, that we are in need of the service and love of others. Allowing us to be ones whose feet are washed by Jesus himself.

 

This can be difficult. Our ego, pride, and even fear can get in the way. After all, the love that God offers for the world is showcased on the cross. The love that God reveals, his very being, will be rejected.

 

And yet Jesus never gives into the world’s desire to undermine his way of love. He is betrayed, he stumbles and falls, but never gives in to the world’s hunger and lust for power. True power belongs to God and therefore it belongs to Christ, and Christ belongs to us whom Christ is willing to serve and wash us again, and again, and again… but only if we let him. If we allow ourselves to be made new by the love of God in Jesus Christ there is nothing to actually fear. Love is no longer an idea to attain, but a reality.

 

Will you accept who God is?


[1] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/ijst.12342

[2] Zizek, S., & Milbank, J. (2009). The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? (C. Davis, Ed.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

[3] https://hbr.org/2019/05/lifes-work-an-interview-with-bishop-michael-curry

Comment

What Will You Remember?

Comment

What Will You Remember?

The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
April 14, 2019

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

If you travel two miles outside the old city of Jerusalem, you will find yourself in the hills of the Mount of Olives. Standing in its ridges, if you but slightly look west, your eyes would gaze on the holy city of David. Jerusalem’s horizon from the Mount of Olives is nothing short of spectacular. It is simply beautiful. For ancient and modern residents and pilgrims, the prospect of Jerusalem holds an important and incomparable role in our Christian faith and history.

 Today, the Western Church once again enters into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. To follow in the way of Jesus. To follow in the way of the cross.

 Two thousand years ago, crowds welcomed Jesus as they did King Jehu and kings of old by laying down their cloaks on the road. However, the rule of Jesus of Nazareth takes a radical turn. While Jesus enters Jerusalem with the crowds shouting: "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!"

 This joyous proclamation is shortly swallowed up by a different cry: Crucify him! Crucify him!

 The glory of Jesus’ entrance in Jerusalem, and his proclamation as blessed and king, is taken over by his arrest, interrogation, and crucifixion. This is the story we remember on this day. This is the story we contemplate and embody in our Holy Week liturgies.

 But why?

 Why do we recall the darkest and most painful moments of the life of Jesus?

 Simply put, to remember and never forget.

 To remember and never forget the tragedy of the cross. To remember and never forget the violent and brutal acts endured by our Lord, acts that are still endured by individuals in our day. To remember and never forget that amidst his passion, Jesus remains faithful to his vision for the world, even if the world tries to destroy. To remember and never forget the world’s salvation: the invitation for all of creation to be made whole through the power of God in Jesus Christ. To remember and never forget the greatness of the Resurrection – that God through and in the midst of death is able to bring forth life. Life that no human hand can take away, life that shall have no end.

 The Church invites us to follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, to remember and never forget.

 So what will be your response? How will you follow Jesus on the road?

Will you join in the sacred ritual of foot washing? Will you stay up if just for an hour and keep watch on our Lord’s Body? Will you venerate and kiss the wood of the cross? Will you come to the tomb and in the midst of death light the new fire?

What will you remember and never forget this Holy Week?

 I know I have thrown many questions at you. Please know that this is not an interrogation of how you will spend your Holy Week, by no means, rather an invitation for you to bring forth your full self – your broken and beautiful self, that which needs healing and transformation. The road that ultimately leads to the beauty that radiates on Easter Day, the beauty of life.

 But before we can enter the third day, the day of Resurrection, and before we can enter into the liturgies of Holy Week, let us for a moment place ourselves on the Mount of Olives. Picture yourself as a disciple on that mount. Proclaiming in a loud cry the kingship of Jesus as he is mounted on a colt. Not knowing at exactly what is about to take place in the days to come, but knowing that something is different this time. That the life of Jesus, our teacher and friend, will never be the same, and therefore, our own lives will never be the same.

 In the eighth century, Saint Andrew of Crete, Bishop and theologian, in a Palm Sunday sermon called his flock to the mount with these words:

 Let us go together to meet Christ on the Mount of Olives. Today he returns from Bethany and proceeds of his own free will toward his holy and blessed passion, to consummate the mystery of our salvation.

 He who came down from heaven to raise us from the depths of sin, to raise us with himself, we are told in Scripture, above every sovereignty, authority and power, and every other name that can be named, now comes of his own free will to make his journey to Jerusalem.

 He comes without pomp or ostentation. As the psalmist says: "He will not dispute or raise his voice to make it heard in the streets. He will be meek and humble, and he will make his entry in simplicity."

 Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish. Then we shall be able to receive the Word at his coming, and God, whom no limits can contain, will be within us.

 In his humility Christ entered the dark regions of our fallen world and he is glad that he became so humble for our sake, glad that he came and lived among us and shared in our nature in order to raise us up again to himself. And even though we are told that he has now ascended above the highest heavens – the proof, surely, of his power and godhead – his love for man will never rest until he has raised our earthbound nature from glory to glory, and made it one with his own in heaven.

 So let us spread before his feet, not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before him. Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of his victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches. Amen.

 

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What a Waste

Comment

What a Waste

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 7, 2019

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  (John 12:1-3)

 

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        You will not believe the story of how I spent my Thursday evening.  I have been waiting all weekend to tell you about this—it’s crazy, and I’m still not sure what to make of it.  So last week I got a call from my friend Martha—the one in catering that lives in West Hartford.  She’s the friend whose brother was so sick—what’s his name, starts with an “L”—the doctors say he actually died…   I don’t know how he made it out of the ICU!  Anyway, he’s back up and around now.  And that’s what I was trying to tell you!  So Martha called and invited me to dinner on Thursday—all the way up to West Hartford.   And there at dinner was that brother of hers!  He looked totally normal, as if nothing had ever happened!  It was totally amazing—even slightly creepy.  He was sitting about three seats down from me—and he looked just fine!  So this dinner party was for some guy called  Josh— Martha’s sister Mary always talks about him, hangs on his every word.  You might have heard of him, the one that comes from way out somewhere near Derby—he was at their last dinner party where Martha ran around in a frenzy and Mary just sat there listening to him talk.  I think he’s some sort of a rabbi or something.   Well, there we were, having a nice dinner, and—this is the crazy part—after the soup, Mary just left the table.  No explanation.  It was particularly strange because, you know, she never helps in the kitchen.  And suddenly she bursts in with this huge bottle of perfume—I recognized the label—it’s Joy, you know, that Jean Patou fragrance—except it’s the real perfume, not the watered down stuff—and I had NEVER seen a bottle that big!  I thought for a minute maybe she’d gone down to the city to buy it--but it was such a big bottle, they must have had it specially ordered—seriously, it was a whole pint of the stuff!  I was stunned—it must have cost almost everything Martha made last year!  And the strangeness doesn’t stop there—she went over and poured all of it on that Josh guy’s feet!  She just moved everyone out of the way and actually got down on the floor and poured it all over his feet right there in the dining room—weird, right?  But wow, it smelled so good—and then, and this was even weirder—she wiped it off with her hair.  WITH HER HAIR.  Martha and that brother of hers were just watching and smiling.   I was so creeped out!  Some guy I didn’t know at the other end of the table was moaning about what a waste it was.  He was right—they could have given that money away, not just poured it out on the ground like that.  Most people just sat there staring—it was SO UNCOMFORTABLE!  I’m telling you, I just poured another glass of wine and watched it all happen.    And that Josh guy was totally cool with it—he just said, “Leave her alone.  She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  (John 12.7-8)  How weird is that? What is he talking about, his burial?  SO creepy.  And seriously, the guy at the end of the table was right—it was a total waste. 

        Now, that conversation is clearly a work of fiction, right?  But how would people at dinner with Mary and Martha and Lazarus have understood what happened that evening?  How would they have reacted to the incredible scene the gospel writer describes for us?  It really is a strange scene, isn’t it?  Strange enough that it makes it, with very few differences, into all of the four canonical gospels.   It is a story full of emotion—a story that provokes reaction—that makes us, well, it makes me, feel something.

        I wonder how you react to this story?  What would you say if someone came into your dining room and did something like this to a friend?  How would you feel if you were the person that this happened to—someone washing your feet with costly perfumed oil?  How would you feel if you were the person making this gift, this offering?  Where do you find yourself in the story?  What’s going on here?  Just what is happening?

        I must confess to you, as you can probably tell from the earlier narrative, that I am not entirely comfortable with this story.  It’s too intimate—too close for comfort.  Don’t touch my feet, I’d want to say if this happened to me.  Stop it, get away!  The very action of anointing in and of itself draws attention—both to the recipient but also to the one who offers—to Jesus and also to Mary.  I find myself, like Judas, annoyed—annoyed at the sheer audacity of the action, the inconvenience to the other dinner guests, the presumed intimacy of the whole thing, and the wastefulness of it all. 

        I wonder, am I the only one who feels this way?  Surely not.  After all, Judas points out that they could have sold the perfumed oil for 300 denari.  Now if a denarius is maybe a day’s wage for a common laborer, then the sum is significant—almost a whole year’s pay for some people.  The perfumed oil is nard—a fragrance extracted from the spikenard plant, which would have been imported at great cost from the foothills of the Himalayas.[1]   This was an extravagant gesture to be sure—an incredible waste of money, Judas says.  And he’s not wrong, is he?  That gift could have been sold to give money to the poor! 

        John is quick to point out that Judas isn’t actually concerned with where the money goes; he keeps the group’s pooled money—he’s the treasurer—and he’s apparently skimming from it.  We will later learn that this is the same Judas that for thirty pieces of silver—just a tenth—a mere fraction of the value of this perfume—for those thirty pieces of silver Judas gives Jesus up to be arrested, tried, and crucified.  So Judas’s motives are suspect, aren’t they.  Nevertheless, even if Judas weren’t a thief, why wouldn’t we be concerned about this great waste of money?  That’s only rational, right?  Only appropriate. 

        But that’s not what Jesus says, is it?  He says “Leave her alone…  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  What’s this about, Jesus?  Wouldn’t Jesus be thrifty?  Wouldn’t he want the poor to have this money?

        What is it about Mary’s gesture that we are to learn from?  What is it that Jesus recognizes in her action, in this extravagant gesture?

        Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities, in his commentary on John[2] points out that Mary is responding out of gratitude—her action is a response to Jesus’s love for her and her family.  After all, Jesus is friends with them—he has dined at their table; he has wept at his friend Lazarus’s death; he has raised Lazarus back to life from death.  Mary has experienced Jesus’s love, and it has transformed her.  She responds out of this love, from a place of gratitude. 

        What’s more, Varnier points out, Mary probably realizes that Jesus is in danger—that in that act of raising Lazarus has crossed the line.  The religious and political leadership hear of this resurrection of Lazarus, and that’s it.  They call for Jesus’s arrest.  And indeed, Mary’s action is like an anointing of king—but it is also like an embalming.  The contrast with the stench of the dead Lazarus and the beautiful fragrance of this perfume is striking—but the foreshadowing is not lost on us nor likely on the crowd.  Jesus himself says, “you do not always have me.”  The triumphal entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate next Sunday, Palm Sunday, comes just the day after this dinner party, and just as soon as we’ve heard those shouts of praise, we will hear the gospel of the Passion—the story of what comes next—the trial and execution of Jesus.   Mary knows that, in raising Lazarus, Jesus has poured out his very self—he has offered his own life.   She knows he will die.

        And Mary responds to this great love that Jesus has shown her and her family; she is changed by it.  She responds in gratitude—and suddenly keeping that costly gift, even for Jesus’ burial, seems foolish.  She pours it out immediately, then and there at dinner, not worried about how uncomfortable or strange it seems or about the cost to her and her family—she pours it out as an offering.  She pours out herself—her love—in wasteful joyful abandon.  She showers the very feet of Jesus with this beautiful fragrance, with this anointing of her own gratitude and love, in an act of worship and praise and adoration. 

        Because she knows Jesus’ love, Mary learns how to love.  Everything she can offer in that moment she gives—not holding back, not holding on, not protecting herself or making excuses or avoiding, but rather embracing Jesus in that moment—giving him all she can offer, pouring out herself, her own love, as a fragrant offering of thanksgiving.

        Friends, this is what we are building to this Lent—this wasteful abandonment of self, this loving union with God.  Every story we have heard, every moment of Lent—the story of Jesus’ own temptation, the image of Jesus gathering the people of Jerusalem to himself as a hen gathers a brood under her wings, the parable of the fig tree, the parable of the man who had two sons—the story of the prodigal father, as the Rector calls it—all of these stories are about our relationship with God.  All of them are about a God who draws us to himself again and again in love.  In this season of self-examination, a season of repentance, we take time to figure out what it is that is separating us from God, to look honestly at the things that impair our relationship with God—and to change them—to enter into relationship more fully with God—to turn our hearts to God and to love him. 

        But that’s too much, Judas says.  It’s a waste!  Nothing is ever wasted when poured out for God.  For brothers and sisters, if we give our whole selves, the entirety of our time, our skill, our prayers, our focus, and yes, our money, and our love—if we give it all to Jesus, don’t you think that the poor will be fed?  That the naked will be clothed?  That those in prison will be visited with justice and mercy?  If we give God the tools, if we give God ourselves, God can use them—God can use us—to heal relationships in this world—and to build relationships in the next. 

        But we have to take that step—to enter into this strange and wondrous story of God’s love.  For just like Mary, we are loved by Jesus.  He has chosen us.  And now it’s our turn to run in joyful abandon to his feet—to really get up close and personal—to tell him of our love—and to live that love in the world. 

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[1] I am grateful to Angus Trumble, formerly Senior Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art, for the analysis of the significance and value of nard.

 

[2] Jean Varnier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2004.


A version of this sermon was preached previously in 2013 at Grace Church in New York.

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The Prodigal's Return

Comment

The Prodigal's Return

The Rev’d Deacon Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 31, 2019

‘Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”’

In the name of God: + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Many of you know that I grew up in a very small town in rural Virginia. Located as we were far away from any major urban area and all the resources and opportunities that come with that, life was, in many ways, quite simple. As a child free time was spent mostly outside playing in the fields and woods around my home, playing baseball, fishing, and boating and spending time on the water. Though I knew how to tie a boat to a dock and catch crabs with just a piece of string and a chicken leg, I knew virtually nothing about the worlds of art and music. The only museum within miles of my home was a small fisherman’s museum that told the history of a nearby fishing village. So when I left my hometown for college and was exposed for the first time to the riches of art and music I was struck all the more powerfully by the ways these and other expressions of beauty can captivate us and connect us with the divine. I will never forget first seeing Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica. It is a work of haunting beauty: Mary lovingly holds the corpse of her son Jesus, who has been taken down from the cross. In beholding this masterpiece, Mary’s grief and Christ’s crucifixion became more real and more profound to me. Art can move us beyond ourselves and beyond the work itself to reveal to us deeper truths.

I hope that many of you have been graced with the experience of seeing a work of art or some part of creation of such beauty that you were left humbled and awed by the splendor of God. Art has long held an important place in Christian spirituality, and given the prominent role of Christianity in Western history, many of the most famous works of art reflect a Christian focus. Today I would like for us to approach the parable we just heard by attending to one particular piece of art that draws on this story– ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ by Rembrandt, the 17th century Dutch master. It is an absolute masterpiece that has captivated and inspired people for centuries, perhaps most notably in the case of Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Roman Catholic priest and former professor at Yale Divinity School, who wrote an entire book bearing the same name as the painting that describes his encounter with this piece. A copy of this painting was included in this week’s E-pistle from the parish office to accompany Angela Shelley’s lovely reflection, and I hope many of you saw it. I hope this gives you an incentive to read the E-pistle each week! If you didn’t see it I hope you will take a look later. I would like us to revisit this most beautiful and inexhaustible parable of Jesus by focusing especially on the scene of the prodigal’s return and Rembrandt’s depiction of it.

The title ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ reminds us that there was first a leave taking, and that is where Jesus begins his parable. A man had two sons, one of whom came to his father and said, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ We must not miss the outlandish nature of this request. This son was asking for the inheritance that he would gain upon his father’s death while his father was still living. His request is effectively a wish that his father were dead. The father does not reject this insulting request but instead does as his son asked. The son takes his share of the inheritance and departs for a distant country, leaving behind his family and everything he had ever known. His new life of luxury and wealth is short-lived. Before long he had lost everything. With no money and absolutely desperate for food, he finally finds a job feeding pigs. It was a messy and demeaning job. It isn’t difficult to imagine how horrible and disgusting it must have been to work and spend so much among the slop and filth of those pigs. But one day in the midst of all of this mess, he ‘came to himself.’ He suddenly remembered, ‘it doesn’t have to be this way. This has not always been my life. Maybe I can go back. Maybe I can return to my father, and though I am no longer worthy to be called his son, maybe he will treat me like one of his hired hands.’

So he sets out, retracing the steps of his original journey, returning to a place he surely never planned to see again. He must have been filled with fear and anxiety. He had rejected his family and squandered the entirety of his inheritance. Now he returned home, hoping beyond hope that he might be given just one more thing– a place as one of his father’s hired hands. Even this modest request felt like too much. He makes the long journey home filled with this fear, but while he was still far off, his father sees him. It’s almost as if the father had been waiting for him, looking out across the horizon, still after all this time hoping see his son once again. When he sees his son far off, the father is so filled with compassion that he runs out to him, wraps his arms around him, and kisses him. It is a tender yet shocking moment. It is, I think, the defining moment of the entire story and in many ways summary of the gospel in one image. Perhaps that is why Rembrandt chose to depict it. It deserves our attention.

In Rembrandt’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son,’ the focus is undoubtedly this embrace of father and son. The younger son kneels with his back to the viewer. His appearance is so striking as to invite pity. His hair is thin and nearly all missing. His clothes are tattered and dirty from overuse and lack of cleaning. His shoes are worn down, the heel missing on one of them. Here is a person of utter desperation and brokenness. Here is someone who has experienced misery and hardship. But then there is the father. He is bent over his poor son, with both hands on his shoulders. His hands grip his son firmly yet tenderly. His eyes radiate compassion and love. His loving embrace of his worn-down son says, ‘it doesn’t matter what you did wrong; it doesn’t matter that left us and lost everything; the only thing that matters is that you came back; you were dead but alive again.’ This embracing father orders that new clothes be brought to his poor son. He orders the best robe, a ring, and sandals be brought to him. Then a celebration must begin. The fatted calf must be killed because this celebration demands the best food. The embrace of father and son is an absolutely ridiculous scene. Here is incomprehensible forgiveness. Here is grace.

This image can frighten us. It defies our expectations. Something about it seems unfair. We expect consequences for our bad actions. We expect punishment when we do wrong. The prodigal son should face consequences for his poor decisions. Even he believes he should be punished; he comes asking to be treated like a hired hand. But Jesus turns our expectations on their head. God does not seek to punish us when we go astray. God is longing and waiting to meet us and embrace us when we turn back, and God comes to meet us when we are still far off. I wonder what difference it might make to our Lenten disciplines if we consider them not as means of punishment but as a way of returning ourselves to our God who waits to embrace us. An important example is found in the sacrament of confession, which many find an especially important practice in the season of Lent. Though it has sadly been so wildly misunderstood and distorted through historical practice and popular depiction in film, confession is not about feeling guilty in the face of an angry God who wants to punish us. No, confession is about turning again toward God, naming our sins, and receiving the grace of the sacrament and the divine embrace of our God who runs out to us when we turn back home. It’s about meeting God, not punishment.

Rembrandt’s great painting is not just a depiction of the prodigal son and his father. Another figure features prominently–the older son of the parable. Where his brother had been reckless and disobedient, he was steady and steadfastly loyal. While his brother fled away to a distant land, he had stayed home and followed everything his father had every done. In Rembrandt’s painting, the older brother stands watching the embrace of his father and brother. He stands at the edge of the painting, away from father and brother. He stands tall, supported by a walking stick. His expression is cold and distant. His resentment and dissatisfaction is apparent. He is devoid of joy. It isn’t fair. His brother does not deserve such forgiveness. He had wronged his father. He had lived a reckless life and lost everything. Now he should pay the consequences.

I think it is much easier for us to accept the dissatisfaction of older brother than it is for us to accept the embrace of the father. In the face of such radical forgiveness, in the face of pure and unconditional love, we struggle to accept it. How often do we speak the words of the older brother to ourselves: ‘you do not deserve this love; you do not deserve this forgiveness; it is too much.’ But Jesus tells us something different. Jesus tells us that no matter how far we stray or how many things we do wrong, God is always waiting to run and embrace us when we turn back. Can we remember that tender embrace of father and son? Can we see, can we believe that God is longing to do the same for us? Come let us return to our God, who longs to embrace us and welcome us home.

In the name of God: + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Comment

Take Two:  Judgment and Grace

Comment

Take Two: Judgment and Grace

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Third Sunday in Lent
March 24, 2019

Have you ever had a conversation with someone that went something along these lines?  “I want to tell you something I did--but don’t judge me!” And then the person goes on to reveal some sort of thing that, of course, they have already judged themselves for.  Usually this is a silly sort of thing, right?  “I wore two different shoes today.  Don’t judge!”  To the truly tragic, “I may have texted my ex  last night and asked to get back together.  Don’t judge!”  You get the idea.

These are silly examples, but there is some truth to the way that phrase works in our culture…  Don’t judge.  Don’t judge me.  Don’t disapprove of what I have chosen.  Don’t tell me I am wrong.  And outside this silly sort of communication that is tweeted, texted, or otherwise thrown into the electronic milieu that is social media, that craving for acceptance, that avoidance of judgment or criticism or anything like disapproval, comes through into our larger lives—into our real world relationships.

There is something about judgment that awakens that small child within, isn’t there?  It’s as though we’ve been sent to the headmaster’s office for a scolding—and we know that detention is surely in the future for us.  It’s as though someone is going to call our parents and boy, then will we be in trouble!  It seems childish, doesn’t it?  But I see this sort of response again and again in myself—and in people with whom I interact as a priest, as a person.  Our relationships can be overshadowed by this fear of judgment.

Sometimes we locate that judgment, though, in our relationship with God.  Sometimes we get stuck in a view of God as a parent—after all, we talk about God as Father, of Christ as the begotten Son—and if we get stuck on thinking of that as the limit of our relationship with God, well, we end up thinking of God as just that, a parent who tells us right and wrong, who tells us what to do, maybe even a parent who scolds.  It’s a child’s perspective of God, isn’t it—and some adults—well, most adults I’d venture to say—hold onto that idea well into adulthood!

If we really dig down and look honestly at what we’ve done wrong, we may be afraid of judgment…  And we make the leap quickly from judgment to punishment, just as the people in today’s gospel lesson do.  In today’s gospel reading Jesus is teaching, probably in the midst of a large crowd, and someone asks about a tragedy—something that would have been on the minds of the crowd—a story ripped from the headlines, as it were.  Remember that time, Jesus, when the Galileans were making sacrifices and they were killed?  What are we to make of that?  Was God punishing them because they were sinners?  You can almost hear the question.  And Jesus replies, Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  And what about those people that were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them?  Were they worse than all the other people in Jerusalem? 

No, Jesus says.  Of course not.   Despite the fact that insurance carriers insist on calling natural disasters “acts of God,” Jesus tells us that, of course these sorts of things aren’t the result of God’s judgment.  When confronted with these sorts of tragedies, our rational minds can help us understand that of course these tragedies are the result of crowd behavior, of bad engineering, of bad choices made by tyrannical rulers even—but not acts of God.  Jesus tells us that disasters aren’t sent by God as punishment for particular people. 

These people who suffered at the hands of violence, who died at the hands of tragedy, were no worse sinners than anyone else.  And yet, Jesus says, unless we repent, we too shall perish.  Unless we change, amend our lives, we too experience a kind of death.

There is judgment.  There is consequence to our sin.  But maybe we’re not understanding how God judges.  Maybe we’re not understanding how God responds to our sinfulness.  Maybe we’ve forgotten, in our anxiety and fear, about God’s grace.

Jesus gives us an illustration about the nature of God’s grace.  He tells a story.  The vineyard owner plants a fig tree that bears no fruit—for three years he waits and watches, and there is nothing.  And finally he wants to cut the tree down.  But the gardener says, wait—leave it one more year, let me work with it.  And if it bears fruit next year, that’s great—and if not, you can cut it down.

One more year.  Wait for it to bear fruit.  Yes, if it never bears fruit, the fig tree will be cut down.  But wait—give it more time.  The story isn’t over yet.

It turns out that it takes a few years for a fig tree to bear fruit.  And the gardener knows this.  He keeps tending the tree patiently, faithfully, waiting for it to bear figs.  Waiting for it to become  the thing that it is designed to be. 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us that sin is more than merely wrong actions—that sin is anything that separates us from God, anything that makes us less than the goodness that we are created to be.  We are made for goodness, and sin is that thing that deforms us, that makes us less than the thing God has made us to be.  There is sin—there is wrong action, wrong doing, wrong being—because we have options, we have choice—we truly can choose to ignore God, to separate ourselves from him, to refuse to accept his love, to refuse to be in right relationship with God and with our neighbor.

We can fail to show fruit of that good relationship—of that only relationship—that relationship with God.  And if we fail to bear fruit, if we fail to be—to thrive—to live in that relationship, well, then we have already cut ourselves off at the root. 

We are all guilty of sin, of separating ourselves from God, in different ways to be sure, for none of us are exempt.  But God doesn’t abandon us.  Jesus continues to till the soil, to give us his love again and again.  The story isn’t over yet.  We can turn, change, repent, refocus our lives, our attention towards God, our love for God and neighbor.  We can fall in love with God again and again, because God first loves us.

Basil, Cardinal Hume, the Archbishop of Westminster (UK), told a story –a parable really—that illustrates the nature of God’s grace.  When he was a small boy, Basil says, he sneaked into the pantry of a neighbor’s kitchen and found there a bushel of apples.  They were so ripe, so fragrant, so beautiful--and there were so many in that great big bushel basket--no one would miss just one apple, Basil reckoned.  So he took just one.  No one would know. 

Of course his neighbor did indeed catch him and made him put the apple back.  Hume says that at the time he felt scolded and guilty—what he had done was indeed wrong—and he carried that sense of shame into his adulthood as a way that he thought about God.  God was there, pointing a finger, saying, Basil, put the apple back!  Later, however, Hume came to a different understanding of God.  He came to believe that, while the neighbor scolded him and told him to put the apple back, God might have said to him, Basil, I see you have an apple there.  They are beautiful, aren’t they--so ripe, so fragrant.  Here, why don’t you take another apple as well! Go on, take two!  Take two.[1]

And that is what God does, isn’t it?  Even in the face of our disobedience—even as we worship the golden calves of our lives, even as we fail to bear good fruit, even as we fail to love God with our whole being—all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind--God is still there loving us, giving himself for us.  Christ pours himself out on the cross for us even as he forgives the thief that hangs by him.  For you see, God is in a covenant relationship with us.   Even in the face of our disobedience, even when we grab as many apples as we may with no thought for God or neighbor, God says, take more.  Here I am. 

What if we moved from seeing God as that finger-pointing guard in the pantry, that judge that knocks buildings down on people and strikes them dead in judgment, to seeing God as the generous giver of the apple story—that generous giver in Creation, in our stories of deliverance, and in our stories of salvation?  There is sin, there is judgment—Jesus says unless we change we will all perish—but God continues to love us and draw us closer, to change us, to redeem us.  Even the thief he forgives.  Even us he forgives. 

Jesus the judge is also the gardner who is tending us still, waiting for us to bear good fruit.  God who has made us for goodness is the same God that delivered the Israelites out of bondage in Egytp, that still delivers us from bondage to sin and death, that stands there in the face of our sinfulness and loves us and gives himself for us in the body of his dear Son.  Here I am, take two.  My brothers and sisters, in the face of that great love, how can we be afraid.  I pray for us all this Lent that we may have the courage to accept God’s great love.  The courage to examine our lives, to repent.  And the courage to become the very goodness that God has made us to be.  Beloveds in Christ, I pray for us all a Holy Lent.

 

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Portions of this sermon previously preached at Grace Church in New York and Saint Philip’s Episcopal Church, Coral Gables.


[1] Basil Hume: Ten Years On, ed. William Charles.  London: Continuum, 2009, p 101.

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Go and Tell that Fox

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Go and Tell that Fox

The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Second Sunday in Lent
March 17, 2019

On this second Sunday in Lent, Jesus is warned by a group of Pharisees of Herod's desire to kill him. Instead of confronting this evil desire with anger or fighting back, Jesus tells those who brought him this message to "Go and tell that fox [Herod] for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work." In the face of evil, Jesus offers us a different way to be. While not denying Herod's evil wishes, Jesus is busy doing the work of the kingdom -- work that in itself will destroy sin, evil, and death on the cross. With the rise of evil embodied in forms of racism and white supremacy, most recently captured in the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, we are invited to once again recommit ourselves to following Jesus—to face the very evil Jesus faced 2,000 years ago in Herod's violent fear and desire for murder, and join our savior, Jesus Christ, this day and always in casting out demons and curing those in need of healing in our day—thereby sharing the Good News that Jesus has come to show us the way to salvation: a way of life that can overcome and defeat the evil and sin we encounter in our world. 

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