Sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany

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

Friends in Christ, after the horror of last Wednesday what words I had prepared about the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, seem less apposite. With your leave, then, I want to make just one point, relatively briefly, about this morning’s readings, and then to share with you our presiding Bishop’s “Word to the Church” released on Friday.

This one point I want to make has to do with the nature of water. It is necessary for life. It is the means by which we are given new life through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. It is a blessing.

And yet water, in itself, is chaotic. Our historic prayerbooks, with their many prayers for those at sea and those facing storms, capture this reality in a way missing from our contemporary book. Take for example the following from our 1928 Book of Common Prayer For a Person, or Persons, going to Sea”:

O Eternal God, who alone spreadest out the heavens, and rulest the raging of the sea; We commend to thy almighty protection, thy servants, for whose preservation on the great deep our prayers are desired. Guard them, we beseech thee, from the dangers of the sea, from sickness, from the violence of enemies, and from every evil to which they may be exposed. Conduct them in safety to the haven where they would be, with a grateful sense of thy mercies; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This and prayers like it from our liturgical storehouse were clearly written by people for whom the great waters were more than the place for a leisure cruise.

And so, in itself, the primal element of water is a thing of chaos and danger. But what does scripture tell us about what God has done? In the very opening lines of the bible, from which we heard a few moments ago, the Holy Spirit descends upon the waters, ordering the chaos. In the 29th Psalm, which we just recited, we are assured that God sits above these chaotic waters in majesty and judgment, that he reigns even above the flood.

My brothers and sisters, we experienced this week chaos in our nation’s capitol like the rushing of dangerous waters. We saw the dams burst with rage and violence by those whose hearts and souls and minds were given over to a spirit of destruction. But God reigns. He is the only one whose word can transform this powerful primal element into a blessing, as the Prophet Amos foretold: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Pray that God will accomplish it, and that right soon.

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

Sermon for Christmas 2 2020

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

Perhaps the most difficult thing for many of us to do is to “take flight” when the situation calls for it. It’s not always been so. Though we are wonderfully created in the image of God—though we are indeed moral creatures unlike anything else under the sun—human beings are still in a sense “animals”, and anyone who’s studied animal behavior will have heard of the “fight or flight” mechanism. Certainly, earlier in the history of the human race, we were, like any other animal, largely controlled by reflexes which would determine if a fight (perhaps with a mastodon or a person from another tribe) was winnable and, if not, our reflexes would set us into flight.

Over the millennia, with the development of civilization, this natural response came to be suppressed and to be cast as cowardice. “Run Away” is not a very inspiring battle cry, unless, of course, you’re Monty Python’s version of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Retreat is seen as a negative thing, an embarrassment when necessary and to be avoided at all costs for the sake of honor- or something like that.

Thus, we might find the response of the Holy Family in this morning’s Gospel to be initially less than inspiring. The machismo of our modern sensibilities might not align with Joseph’s response to the threat of Herod. Joseph didn’t organize a militia of sympathetic Bethlehemites; he didn’t sit on the porch swing, shotgun in hand, daring Herod’s soldiers to step onto his property. He ran away.

It’s too bad that our natural response is what it is. It’s too bad that we have a hard time seeing how brave St. Joseph and Our Lady were to pick up the Christ Child and retreat to an unfamiliar place, and to sojourn there, without knowing who would help them or how they’d survive, but only knowing that it was God’s will that they go.

In truth, sometimes the bravest action, the action God desires for us, is flight. Despite the Monty Python joke, sometimes “run away” is the most valiant battle cry. Too often we hear on the news or even from personal acquaintances, stories of battered women and men, who are frightened to run away, the tyranny of whose Herod-like spouses has instilled a degree of fear which immobilizes. In those sorts of situations, the choice to flee is both courageous and unimaginably difficult.

A dear friend of mine since kindergarten, wouldn’t be alive, unless his father had made a courageous decision to run away. He was among the hundreds of thousands of Indo-Chinese who, persecuted by their government, got his family on a rickety boat that they might escape imprisonment, torture, and potential death.

Examples of courageous decisions to flee could be multiplied. However, most of us, though I suspect not all, have been fortunate enough to be spared extraordinary situations like abusive families and oppressive governments. Even so, most of us find ourselves in situations where a brief retreat of our own, a brief sojourn in Egypt as it were, is necessary.

Perhaps the most common case I’ve seen among my friends and acquaintances, is the need for spiritual retreat. So many of us these days are stressed to the brink all the time. In some ways “workaholism” is the disease of the American middle class today. I’m not suggesting that one ought not do one’s job and do it well, that one ought simply to run away when things get tough, but sometimes we permit our physical, emotional and spiritual health to suffer because we cannot but be busy all the time. In these situations, perhaps the best thing is to retreat to a place of calm and of prayer. There’s certainly a balance to be maintained in this regard, and we cannot engage in avoidance or laziness, but the overworked, overstressed person today must permit himself or herself periods of quiet and calm and reflection in the midst of a busy life in order to maintain a good and gracious disposition at work and in the home and in all of the other places in which we live and move and have our being.

I used to love taking retreats at monasteries; now in the age of Covid a spiritually edifying book and a cup of tea in my living room is a pretty good substitute, albeit less than ideal. Some people go out into the woods or down to the beach. The important thing is that we give ourselves a little time to flee from the terrible nonstop rush of things in order to spend quality time with God on God’s terms.

And just like the Holy Family on their retreat, our retreat may present itself as the context for a certain kind of peril. Perhaps it will not be the peril of not knowing how we are to survive, but rather the danger that when we do quiet down and listen to God for a while, He might demand something new and different from us. He might make it clear that His will for us is a radically different course in life. Too often we subconsciously avoid listening to God because of this very real possibility. But like the Holy Family, and like all those who flee awful situations for the good, we must approach our own flight, our own retreat, with courage and with faith that God’s will is always to the good.

And we can take heart in the fact that however treacherous the path may seem, God makes it safe for His people. God said to the prophet Jeremiah “I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble.” God will do the same for us if we only let Him, if we only trust Him to make the path smooth, if we only determine to flee to Him when He calls us.

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

Sermon for Advent 4 2020

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

You all know that I am sometimes a controversialist when it comes to theological claims that seem to have little bearing on what most people in church and society care about. These, I think, are usually meant to be jolly debates. I’m not talking here about disagreements on the nature of Christ or the Church or the Sacraments, which, you know, I tend to feel very strongly about my obligation to argue for what I take to be the orthodox position. I mean those less consequential debates about things like whether or not blue vestments are appropriate for Advent or whether liquid wax candles and artificial greenery are appropriate substitutes for the real deal. These are not matters on which one’s answer is significant in terms of salvation, at least as far as I can tell.

Sometimes, though, one stumbles into an argument which unintentionally hits a nerve. That being the case, I’ve tried over the years not to talk too much about my thoughts on the popular song “Mary Did You Know?” except to say that yes, Mary absolutely knew, because Gabriel told her. I suppose one can give the songwriter the benefit of the doubt, that it is just a rhetorical question, but it just occurred to me the other day, due to an article written by an Australian baptist theologian named Michael Frost last year, that might actually be a pretty sexist song. “It treats [Mary] like a clueless child,” Frost writes. “Could you imagine a song asking Abraham 17 times if he knew he’d be the father of a great nation?”

And, forgive me, just one parting shot, which those of you who tuned in to my dangerously borderline rubrics-bending mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception last week might be aware, the song’s claim that “this child that you delivered will soon deliver you” is debatable, because some of us (probably a minority of Anglicans, but presumably all Roman Catholics since it is for them a required dogma) believe that God bestowed upon his earthly mother as a gift outside normal, linear human salvation history, a special grace of redemption at her own Conception.

All that said, there is a point here. I am biased as a person with a deep love of and devotion to our Lady in a Christian Communion where this is not a given, but I think sometimes that we don’t give the Mother of Our Lord and Savior her due. We bring her out, all meek and mild, from the boxes in which we store our creche for eleven months of the year and then pack her away again. As an aside, a quick cross reference of some hymn-texts suggests to me that calling our Lady “mild” must have been an invention of Victorian translators- take for example Catherine Winkworth’s translation of Luther’s “Von Himmel hoch” where “Von einer Junfrau auserkorn” “of the virgin chosen one” gets translated “of Mary, chosen mother mild,” I guess because mild both rhymes with child and fits the Victorian image of a submissive little lady.

I just don’t see this sweet, retiring person in this week’s Gospel. We know from the bible that angels are not comforting apparitions, but pretty scary creatures who often have to start whatever message they have to deliver by saying “don’t be afraid.” So, this overwhelming, celestial being appears in the Virgin’s room, and without so much as a “how do you do” proceeds to tell her that the whole world is about to change and that she’s right at the center of this tremendous thing. And how does she respond? “Ἰδοὑ” is what she says in Greek. “Behold.” Look here, Gabriel, make it so!

Two of my favorite images of Our Lady capture the Virgin Mary I love. One is the image, found throughout sacred art, of the Virgin crushing a snake, indicating her active, courageous role in setting things in motion for the ultimate destruction of evil. The second is much more specific, though it carries essentially the same meaning. It’s an image from a 13th Century manuscript that depicts our Lady coldcocking Satan right in the nose. I have it as a refrigerator magnet, accompanied by the inscription “Hail Mary, full of grace, punch the devil in the face.”

The rest of Mary’s response, after this morning’s Gospel ends makes it even more apparent that this is not some wilting flower, but a woman of courage, faith, strength, and confidence in God’s plan. It is the song she sings, and which we call the Magnificat. I saw a thread online earlier this week between a congregationalist preacher and a modernist biblical scholar, where they were discussing the nature of this song. To paraphrase, one says, since this was written down 100 years later (first mistake, nobody thinks Luke was that late) and since we can assume Mary didn’t say this, where did it come from? The other responds with something like, maybe an elderly Mary or Elizabeth fashioned something like this much later, and the author of Luke got some version of it from an intermediary, but that this seemed a little too much like wishful thinking. Notice, both of these fellows (of course, they’re fellows), immediately assume that Mary couldn’t have said these things (I guess because she couldn’t have spoken poetically), that the Holy Spirit could not have inspired Luke to record them accurately, and that the burden of proof lay on those who claim the scriptures contain a trustworthy record rather than those who reject it. This approach is called “applying a hermeneutic of suspicion” and sadly it has become the default posture among those who want to be taken seriously in some academic circles. Incredulity is reckoned smart and faith is reckoned dumb.

So, here for another of my regular exercises in outing myself as a religious troglodyte, here’s what I think: Mary said it, I believe it, that settles it. And what did she say? It’s a familiar text to many of us, but perhaps sometimes so familiar that we forget how powerful and radical our Lady’s words are. They speak of a God who is coming to change everything for the better, to lift up the lowly and lay low the powerful. And they remind us of a woman, not meek and mild, but so full of faith that she speaks of this radical reorientation of all creation as if it has already happened. These are the words of the Blessed Mother we honor and with these words I will close:

My soul doth magnify the Lord, *
     and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded *
     the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from henceforth *
     all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me, *
     and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him *
     throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm; *
     he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, *
     and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, *
     and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, *
     as he promised to our forefathers,
     Abraham and his seed for ever.

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