Sermon for Easter Sunday 2017

Alleluia, Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

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

There’s an interesting distinction made in the New Testament of which the preacher should always be aware. It’s between the Greek word διδάσκω, meaning to teach, and the word κηρύσσω, meaning to proclaim. Both can be and sometimes are translated as “preach”, and both are used when Jesus or the Apostles deliver what we would recognize as a sermon, but each implies a different, valid, approach to preaching. Those of you who’ve been regularly subjected to my sermons know that I probably do more of the former than the latter from this pulpit. So, I shall start this morning on familiar ground with some διδάσκω—a little teaching—and then proceed to proclaiming, partly because the latter is a more inspiring way to end a sermon, but mostly because Easter is a day on which the latter just seems more appropriate than the former. More about that in a minute, but first, the didactic portion of this sermon:

There is a reality with which we must come to terms if Easter is to mean anything. That reality is death. It’s a reality that’s hard to face, because we live in such a death denying culture. Many of you know that this point is one of my hobby horses, so here I’ll trot it out again. We don’t think about death; we ignore it until it arrives at our doorstep and somebody in a funny getup like me gives some puffy platitudes to try to numb its sting. We’ve even coöpted religion to help us say that death isn’t a reality.

Well, I’m here to tell you, and on Easter morning of all times, that death is real. And, though death is our enemy, a sad result of the Fall, it’s a good thing it’s real. You see, Easter wouldn’t be anything more than bonnets and bunnies and Cadbury eggs if it weren’t.

The following may shock you, though it is a reality which the Gospels and the Church have always proclaimed— when you’re dead, you’re dead. You see, life eternal is not just some natural process to which we’re somehow predestined by virtue of the way things have always been. There’s not some sort of automatic transmigration of the human soul into either beatitude or gloom, death being some kind of illusion between this experience and that. No death is real, and that makes Christ’s Resurrection and its promise for us mean something. If it weren’t Christ’s Resurrection would have merely been didactic, like this part of my sermon; it would have simply been a lesson that death wasn’t something to fear. A good lesson, but hardly worth getting all dressed up on a Sunday morning for.

But, you see, Christ didn’t just unmask death as an illusion. In the most powerful expression of God’s power ever, at what two nights ago I called the hinge point of history, Christ actually conquered death. He waged a glorious battle against that most sinister of our enemies and left him powerless.

In his Holy Sonnett ‘Death be not proud’ John Donne wrote the following:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

Donne having been an Anglican priest (albeit a somewhat naughty one) we shouldn’t be surprised that the poem’s an interesting piece of theology. First it acknowledges the reality of death by addressing it before naming its powerlessness, its incapacity to confound us thanks to Christ’s Resurrection. And while death remains, its sting this day is taken away and it shall, we are promised, ultimately be vanquished entirely, when on the last day we shall be raised incorruptible- not just as some ghosties to play harps on a cloud somewhere, but whole and entire, bodily and perfectly, to enjoy life in a new heaven and a new earth with each other and God in unmediated, perfectly gracious, eternal, loving communion.

This is, in the final analysis, the Good News of Easter, but we can be sure that those who first witnessed the Resurrection didn’t have such lofty theology in mind when they heard the Good News of the Risen Lord. They were most assuredly less interested in the διδάσκω than they were in the κηρύσσω- more excited to share the Good News than they were to reckon all its implications, moral and theological. The women who went to the tomb surely cared less about the doctrine of the eschaton and more about their dead friend, Jesus, who suddenly appeared again when all hope had been lost. Their first reaction to the good news announced by the angels was not to sit down and write the Nicene Creed, but to share with joy that Good News- to tell the others that their dear friend was alive. Peter and the beloved disciple, alone among the Apostles in not entirely dismissing the Good News as an “old wives’ tale,” turned out to be no mean theologians, but they did not stop on the first Easter Morning to ponder the religious implications of the message if it were true- to make sure St. John’s Gospel and the two epistles general of St. Peter would be doctrinally compatible. Rather, they ran to see this wonderful thing that had happened.

You see, there are two different but (I think) equally valid responses we may have to this wonderful news- the theological and the personal; the didactic and the declamatory. We can focus on the teaching, the doctrine, or simply receive with joy the good news and proclaim it to others, to run to the apostles like the women or to the empty tomb like Peter. Both are valid approaches, both are necessary and useful, but, at least on this day, I think we should take our cue from the women and from Peter and John. There will be plenty of time in the next fifty days for you to hear me belabor the finer points of the theology of the Resurrection, but on this day, just rejoice. Simply be glad that your friend and Lord still lives and loves you; that from his throne of glory in heaven, in the most precious sacrament of the Altar, and in our own hearts he is alive and active. If that’s not true, if that’s not really the best news of all time, then we really might as well have slept in this morning. But I, for one, can’t think of anything more thrilling, more life-changing, than what we celebrate today.

And it doesn’t just end with hearing the news and rejoicing, for the Good News of the Resurrection, the triumph of God over death and hell, is a message which compels us to pass it on. This doesn’t necessarily mean standing on Main Street waving floppy King James Bibles in the air and shouting. That’s not our obligation; that’s not even effective in my experience. What is our call and, indeed, what can be our greatest delight, is to share with others in gentle and loving ways the joy that we have found in knowing the risen Lord. For, just as the women at the tomb felt compelled to convey the Good News to the apostles, so too should our exceeding joy—the joy we experience in knowing that our Lord and God and dear friend is alive—compel us to speak and to celebrate. So, let our hearty “alleluias” resound in the streets of this city as powerfully as they do in our own hearts, for

Alleluia, Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.


Sermon for Good Friday 2017

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

“They shall look on him whom they have pierced.” We join them today. We join the crowd which jeered our Lord as he took his dying breaths. We join the chief priests who had denied the birthright of Israel by proclaiming Caesar their only king. We join Pilate who finally chose political expediency over the good by overseeing a miscarriage of justice. We join the soldiers who, as so many over the course of human history, had been enthralled by principalities and powers and could take little comfort in claiming they were “just doing their jobs.”

At the hinge point of human history we see the inversion of power and authority. The mob, the soldiers, the governor, and the priests are revealed to be powerless. They choose evil, which St. Augustine tells us is not a thing but a privation of something, the absence of good- a vacuous, pointless, vain nothingness. Their apparent power is shown the be thanatos, the death impulse, the will not to be which destroys the very agency which chose it. That, I think, is what hell is. The powers which slew the Lord of Life, which vainly believed death and nothingness could blot out life and light, simply cease to matter. The scene is, as Shakespeare put into the mouth of Macbeth, “sound and fury signifying nothing.”

What is left? The darkness which comes over the crowd serves to highlight the only thing that matters in this scene, the only thing that is true and lovely on Golgotha: a dying man, his mother, and the disciple whom he loved.

Woman, behold your son.
Behold your mother.

Amidst all the storm and stress, the pain and sorrow, Jesus gives his last lesson, and it’s the only thing that matters.
It reminds me rather of a popular song from the middle of the last century. I’ll call it “the Gospel according to Nat King Cole”:

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.

Over and over again, as Jesus approached his ignoble execution he gave one lesson.

Simon, do you love me?
Feed my sheep.

Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

A new commandment I give you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

As I mentioned on Sunday, we can argue all day about the historical issues surrounding the crucifixion: Who killed Jesus? How exactly did it happen? We can argue all day about the theological nature of the event: Did Jesus die to save some or all? Did he suffer in our place objectively as a substitute or was it more didactic or are we meant to suss out some more complex metaphor? If you’ve read my Easter letter you know my thoughts on that matter – namely, that our discomfort with Christ as an atoning sacrifice (a propitiation, to use an old-fashioned word) leads us into dangerous territory with regard to the whole Christian Gospel. But, believe it or not, I don’t think that, as important as it is, is the task before us today.

I think the task before us on Good Friday is to look on him whom we have pierced, to place ourselves at the foot of the cross and pay attention. And when we do, what we get is very simple:

Woman, behold your son.
Behold your mother.

The last thing Jesus wanted those whom he loved most to hear, the thing he wanted us to hear at the very end, was “love and care for those whom I love.” Oh how complicated we try to make our faith, sometimes so we can get away with not really loving those whom Jesus loves. It’s just that simple, though. How we delight in making arguments to ourselves that don’t make any sense: I love so-and-so, I just don’t like him and I’m not going to do anything loving for him. Actually, any sentence like that is internally inconsistent. The “I love so-and-so” part of such a statement is clearly a lie.

Love – not warm feelings, not civility, not “bless her heart”-ptyalising pity – honest-to-God love is what Jesus demands of us. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoner, care for the widow and orphan, support the weak, give of your own good for the good of others, don’t discriminate between family and friend and enemy when it comes to being gentle and merciful and gracious. That’s love. We’ve got to learn how to do it, because, my friends, that’s really all we’re here for.

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.

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

Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2017

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

Over the years I have been asked by a number of people, both Christian and non-Christian, what precisely the “Maundy” in “Maundy Thursday” means, and I wonder if we don’t use a more updated term because the real meaning has the potential to embarrass us. Let me explain…

Maundy comes (by way of Middle English and Old French) from the Latin word mandatum, which means, as one might guess, “mandate” or “commandment” or “obligation”. Two specific obligations are highlighted today: firstly, the obligation to be faithful in observing Holy Communion which was established this night so many centuries ago, and secondly, the obligation to love each other sacrificially as it is so powerfully symbolized in the washing of feet.
I said that we might be embarrassed by the meaning of Maundy Thursday, and that might be why we’ve retained this rather precious, old-fashioned word for the day rather than calling it something like “Obligation Thursday”. The concept of obligation seems so foreign to our modern sensibilities. It seems to us modern people to be almost quaint; it’s an imposition, we might say, that we grew out of generations ago. We are so taken with ideas like “self-determination” and “individual choice” that the very suggestion that we have obligations beyond those we determine for ourselves flies in the face of the our contemporary, individualist dogma.

If you don’t believe me, consider how so many people approach religious life, and I only point this out because I have fallen victim to the same misdirected approach more than once over the years. We might ask ourselves “what do I get out of going to church?” or “do I feel inspired by the service?” as if that’s the most important thing. Certainly, our theological edification and spiritual growth are terribly important secondary effects of participation in some kind of religious life, but at least it seems to me that those benefits are just that- secondary. Our primary task in church is to worship God as well as we can (particularly in that paramount expression of worship which is the Lord’s Supper), and doing so is an obligation.

Likewise, our contemporary discourse about charity is beset by the modern obsession with benefit to self. I remember being in college, spending a great deal of time doing various kinds of charitable work through my alma mater’s center for outreach and volunteerism. Too often, people were enticed to volunteer by promises of what they would get out of the experience- benefits which ranged from how attractive such experience would look to potential employers or graduate admissions boards to the seemingly less mercenary incentives of “receiving more in terms of emotional satisfaction than one can give in terms of effort” or of “learning about oneself and one’s priorities in the light of those suffering from homelessness or hunger or whatever.” I was, I am sure, no less motivated by such self-interest than were my classmates.

Again, though, it seems to me that the warm feeling we get after showing humble loving-kindness to a brother or sister—of metaphorically washing his or her feet—is a secondary benefit. We love our neighbor, which doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re fond of him but that we treat him as a beloved child of God, that we sacrifice our interests for his, and this is our holy obligation.

“I give you a new commandment,” Christ says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” He does not say “I give you a new suggestion in your quest for self-actualization” or “love one another when it is convenient” or “love one another as long as it doesn’t interfere with your own agenda” but he calls it a “commandment” and says, “love one another just as I have loved you.” That “just as”, by the way, is the Greek word καθος which doesn’t mean “because” but rather “in the same manner”. And so, we are to love each other “in the same manner” as Christ loves us, and (as we will no doubt be reminded tomorrow) that is to say that we are to lay down our lives for each other. This is true whether or not we have warm feelings after we sacrifice our good for another’s. This is a commandment, our obligation.

If you’ll forgive me for reminiscing, which I know I do far too often, I’ll never forget a series of class sessions we did in my parish’s youth group when I was a teenager. Our teacher was this lovable hippy type fellow with whom I never felt much commonality aside from the fact that we all loved each other and we all loved the church, which was, of course, enough. Anyway, he wanted to do a course on other religions and other expressions of Christianity, so we visited the local mosque and the local synagogue and we had one of the Benedictine Sisters give us a tour of the local convent. (I remember being shocked to discover a swimming pool in the basement of the convent and wondering if nuns had pool parties!) On a number of occasions, one young man in the group would say admiringly about the religion du jour something like “they seem to take their religion so seriously; they follow these rules just because they’re supposed to.” I was confused at first, and then I was saddened after I realized what was at the heart of his interfaith admiration. The Muslim prays five times a day and gives alms because he’s supposed to. The Jew follows the Mosaic Law and practices hesed (that is “loving-kindness”) because she’s supposed to. The young man’s implication was that if we (teenage Episcopalians) went to church or practiced loving our neighbor or refrained from sin, it wasn’t just because we were “supposed to”, but because we were getting something out of it.

Of course, we were all churchgoing young people and most of us (myself included) weren’t forced by our parents to go to the young churchmen’s meetings on a Tuesday night, so we probably were “getting something out of it” and that’s great. But what if we went through a period in our lives when we stopped “getting something out of it”, or at least stopped “getting something discernible out of it”? I suppose that if my young friend’s assumption were correct, we’d stop practicing Christianity.

But then, at least for most of us, a nascent sense of obligation finally arose. We might have preferred (especially in our college days) to have slept in on a Sunday morning. We might have preferred (also especially in our college days) to spend that extra ten bucks on cheap beer rather than the fellow on the street needing some food or to spend Spring Break in Cancun rather than on a mission trip. But, (you know what?) we finally realized that our status as disciples of this Jesus fellow (that status given us in baptism whether we knew it or not) came along with some obligations.

We will, at the Easter Vigil (just as we do every year) rehearse that list of obligations again; we will again remind ourselves to renounce evil, to believe in God, to remain steadfast in the church’s common life, and to reach out to those who need our love. This year we will even welcome a new follower of the way, young Elijah whom many of you know, taking on for himself those obligations and joining us in the lifelong work of loving God and neighbor with all our life and substance.

For now, though, let me leave you with a recommendation; unlike Jesus, I give recommendations rather than commandments most of the time. Try to forget, at least for a little while, that axiom which we tell ourselves and others so much: “Don’t do such-and-such because you have to; do it because you want to.” Try for a little while to sacrifice your time or treasure for another just because you’re supposed to. Try to take time out of your day to pray for no other reason than that it is your obligation. Try divorcing for just a bit your spiritual practice from an assessment of how you’re benefiting from it. The benefits will, of course, remain, but you might just realize that they’re icing on the cake, as it were, that there is something to that old, starchy, stick-in-the-mud preoccupation with obligation after all.

We practice loving-kindness, not because we want to, but because we owe it to God, and then our desire to do good will grow stronger in us. The obligation won’t be so onerous and we’ll probably forget we did it out of obligation to begin with. But beginning the process by asking what it is we owe God, what we are obliged to do, will grant us strength to keep on doing it during those periods when the benefits seem to have ceased, to remain steadfast in prayer when our prayer seems to avail little, to continue sacrificing ourselves for others when we find it harder to get that warm fuzzy feeling. We must continue to run the race with endurance, knowing that our goal is ever before us and the risen Lord himself beckons us toward it.

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