Sermon for Good Friday 2018

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

Who have we crucified this day? A criminal? A radical? A terrorist? Have we not, in fact, crucified all that makes us lovely? Have we not, in fact, crucified all that makes us lovable? We demanded justice and we killed not only a God but all that makes us truly human. In despising the spark of divinity in our brother, we find we have come to hate ourselves. We have murdered a human being, but in so doing we have expelled a god, extradited our Creator from his own Creation.

It is madness, yet we continue to this day. Every man, woman, or child who goes hungry, every sick person that is denied healthcare because of poverty, every maimed or murdered body in Parkland, Florida, every young girl in Africa and the Mideast who is denied education, every young black man in the city streets of our own country who fears for his life, every immigrant whose very being has been reduced to the documents she has in her pockets, every afflicted soul that is stripped of its dignity, cries out as another nail in the hands and feet of Christ, another spear-wound in his side.

We pray. That is necessary, but just as important is that we choose. There are few moral binaries in this sin-sick world, slivers of black and white divided by a sea of gray. But there is one principle which is as zero-sum as it gets. Shall I be the crucifier or shall I be the crucified? Do I love others enough to sacrifice myself for their good, or will I stop short? To what degree will love compel me to act?

There was a song we sang at church camp when I was a kid, and I suspect they’re still singing it: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love; yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Do they know we’re Christians? Does the world see in me the same self-giving love to which I’ve pledged my life made manifest or not? Do they find my life a compelling witness to the power of sacrificial love, or do they just see some quasi-charitable window dressing?

Sometimes I look in the mirror and wonder if Christ died in vain. Sometimes I read the newspaper and I wonder what in the world was accomplished on Calvary.

But other times I see and feel and taste the love of God powerfully shared through the mediation of my fellow Christian, and I’m brought back from the brink of despair. Sometimes the faintest glimmer of the sunrise can be glimpsed. Was it really dawn or was it a trick, an illusion? Even in the darkest hour, we must hold fast to hope, Christian hope (a fool’s hope, but a folly I must hold onto), which shames the dark powers of this world.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few days of a poem by Thomas Merton, a seemingly inappropriately titled poem- it’s an aubode, a song in celebration of the dawn, yet its content is dark as Good Friday. It speaks of poverty and racism and injustice, the sorts of things which the dawning of the light of Christ ought to have dispelled. But listen carefully (and maybe even look it up and read it for yourself later) and perhaps you too may find a little reason for hope amidst the desperation of our world, for the coming of the true light to dispel our darkness. It is with Merton’s poem that I will conclude.

Aubade-Harlem

Across the cages of the keyless aviaries,
The lines and wires, the gallows of the broken kites,
Crucify, against the fearful light,
The ragged dresses of the little children.
Soon, in the sterile jungles of the waterpipes and ladders,
The bleeding sun, a bird of prey, will terrify the poor,
These will forget the unbelievable moon.
But in the cells of whiter buildings,
Where the glass dawn is brighter than the knives of surgeons,
Paler than alcohol or ether, shinier than money,
The white men’s wives, like Pilate’s,
Cry in the peril of their frozen dreams:
“Daylight has driven iron spikes,
Into the flesh of Jesus’ hands and feet:
Four flowers of blood have nailed Him to the walls of Harlem.”
Along the white halls of the clinics and the hospitals
Pilate evaporates with a cry:
They have cut down two hundred Judases,
Hanged by the neck in the opera houses and the museum.
Across the cages of the keyless aviaries,
The lines and wires, the gallows of the broken kites,
Crucify, against the fearful light,
The ragged dresses of the little children.

Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2018

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

Wheat and grapes- they’re terribly ordinary things. The former has been cultivated for about 12,000 years, and its so easy to grow, so resilient, that it takes up more farmland than any other crop on earth (over half-a-billion acres worth). The latter has been used to make wine for at least the last 8,000 years. While today oenophiles might prefer wines from particular regions made with particular varieties of grapes, if one isn’t picky the grapes grow wild and the fermentation process is just nature taking its course. We’re not picky here, by the way. We don’t use fine wine for the Mass. It’s pretty cheap stuff- Taylor Port from New York. I think that’s appropriate, though, lest Holy Communion become a wine-tasting exercise.

Anyway, the ordinariness of wheat and grapes, of bread and wine is, I believe, at least part of the point our Lord was making when on this night, so many centuries ago, he established the Eucharist. They would have been part of every meal, as much of a given as a fact that the host of that meal would be made of flesh and blood.

An older friend of mine once told me that the worst thing her mother could have said about anybody (tantamount to a vulgar epithet) was to say that they were “common.” Now that kind of pretension can find no place in the upper room, in this sanctuary, or on the pilgrim way which is our common life, because that’s the meal we eat; those are the feet we wash (symbolically this night and metaphorically throughout our live); that’s the Lord we worship. Common.

That’s the other thing about wheat and grapes. The sustenance they give is borne of violence. The wheat grows magnificently high, but then it’s struck down with a scythe, that gleaming symbol of inescapable death. It survives the threshing floor, spared the infernal fate of the chaff, only to to face the mortar and pestle, to be ground until unrecognizable as wheat, until its former glory, its proud striving toward the sun, is but a faint memory.

Likewise, the grape- that splendid symbol of connection, of sharing that which is needful for life through the vine, finds its siblings plucked, feels the mutual love draining away, as the picker approaches. Will it be found worthy? And then, cruel irony, its worthiness once established leads to the greater indignity. It is crushed under foot until, like the wheat, its very being is diminished. It is no longer a grape but a part of the bloody mash.

Bread and wine, though common, hold in themselves the power to give life, but only through death. Flesh and blood, though nothing special, made out of carbon and oxygen and hydrogen, common elements, have somehow combined in such a way to produce beings with reason and skill, with the ability to love someone else, to live for someone else, to die for someone else.

We embark this night on a journey through the three holiest days of the year. As we proceed on the way to Calvary and beyond, I ask that you contemplate how our God is the God of the ordinary, the mundane- that the most important events in history can be made present, truly and mystically, through the common stuff of life- bread, wine, flesh, blood. Contemplate the great paradox of the fact that for God to be God – the kind of God who is all-powerful and faithful and worthy of our devotion – God became an ordinary human being, with all the limitations that keep us from approaching divinity. Consider how a Savior who can miraculously give himself to us in the form of bread and wine can transform us, our hearts and minds and bodies, to share with us a radically new kind of life.

I often think a lot about poetry during Holy Week, and tomorrow I’ll share with you a poem which helped me contemplate the crucifixion. There’s another poem which helped me consider the great moment of this night and I would like to close by sharing it with you. It’s an early poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins, while he was still an undergraduate at Oxford. Its epigraph is from a pretty terrible story about starvation and cannibalism in Second Kings, but he uses it as a jumping-off-point for a meditation on what we contemplate tonight. The poem is titled “Barnfloor and Winepress”.

And he said, If the Lord do not help thee, whence shall I help thee? out of the barnfloor, or out of the winepress?
2 Kings VI: 27

Thou that on sin’s wages starvest,
Behold we have the joy in harvest:
For us was gather’d the first fruits,
For us was lifted from the roots,
Sheaved in cruel bands, bruised sore,
Scourged upon the threshing-floor;
Where the upper mill-stone roof’d His head,
At morn we found the heavenly Bread,
And, on a thousand altars laid,
Christ our Sacrifice is made!

Thou whose dry plot for moisture gapes,
We shout with them that tread the grapes:
For us the Vine was fenced with thorn,
Five ways the precious branches torn;
Terrible fruit was on the tree
In the acre of Gethsemane;
For us by Calvary’s distress
The wine was racked from the press;
Now in our altar-vessels stored
Is the sweet Vintage of our Lord.

In Joseph’s garden they threw by
The riv’n Vine, leafless, lifeless, dry:
On Easter morn the Tree was forth,
In forty days reach’d heaven from earth;
Soon the whole world is overspread;
Ye weary, come into the shade.

The field where He has planted us
Shall shake her fruit as Libanus,
When He has sheaved us in His sheaf,
When He has made us bear his leaf. –
We scarcely call that banquet food,
But even our Saviour’s and our blood,
We are so grafted on His wood.

Sermon for 5 Lent 2018

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

“Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchiz’edek.” Thus, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews describes Jesus’ priesthood, but what on earth does it mean?

We don’t get much help from the 110th Psalm which the author references, one of only two places in the Old Testament where Melchiz’edek is mentioned. Here’s an exerpt:

The Lord has sworn and he will not recant:*
“You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”
The Lord who is at your right hand will smite kings in the day of his wrath;*
he will rule over the nations.
He will heap high the corpses;*
he will smash heads over the wide earth.

I don’t know about you, but this seems a rather strange, disturbing way of understanding Jesus’ place in salvation history. Certainly, the kingship of the Father overturning temporal rulers and the Kingdom of God taking precedence over earthly nations is central to Christian eschatology, but the bit about heaping up corpses and smashing heads seems contrary to the New Covenant, which is, at its heart, all about love.

I think a better way of understanding what the author of Hebrews means is to look back to the fourteenth chapter of Genesis. After a losing battle with Chederlao’mer, the King of Elam, Abram’s nephew Lot had been captured. Abram led a force of Hebrews to rout the king and take back his kinsman. After succeeding in battle, this strange figure comes to Abram and his victorious army:

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, “Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand.” And he gave him tithes of all.

After this, Melchiz’edek disappears from Hebrew Scripture, the only exception being in the psalm already mentioned.
Even with so little information, we can glean a few things from this brief passage. Firstly, Melchiz’edek was not a Jew, but seemed nonetheless committed to the God of Israel. Secondly, he received tithes from Abraham, suggesting his superiority to even the father of God’s chosen people. Thirdly, he is the first figure in scripture to be called a priest (the Hebrew word kohen) a title normally reserved to priests in the temple in Jerusalem. And finally, he brings forth elements which would become sacerdotal for both Jews and Christians- namely bread and wine.

We can employ here what is called the typological meaning of scripture. The idea (employed from very early on in Christian biblical interpretation and even within the New Testament) is that certain things in the Old Testament, particularly obscure things, can be understood as foreshadowing things in the New Testament. So, last week we heard in the Old Testament this strange story about Moses holding up a bronze snake in the wilderness that the ill could gaze upon and be healed, and then in the Gospel Jesus explained that this was a type–a foreshadowing–of his own death on the cross.

Likewise, while at first obscure, the author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus makes sense of the meaning of Melchiz’edek. Just as Melchiz’edek was not a Hebrew, Jesus (while a Jew himself) instituted a Covenant open to Gentiles. Just as Melchiz’edek was of higher stature than Abraham, so is Jesus the final consummation of the Law and the Prophets. Just as Melchiz’edek was the first priest, Jesus would become the first and Great High Priest of the New Covenant. Just as Melchiz’edek offered bread and wine, so did Jesus offer his Body and Blood for our sins and give it to us in the appearance of bread and wine.

In some ways, Melchiz’edek was the priest par excellence of the Old Covenant (despite arriving generations before the establishment of that Covenant) and Jesus is the priest par excellence of the New Covenant. While the priests in the temple obediently offered their sacrifices, they were in some sense a shadow of the perfect and more universal sacrifice of Melchiz’edek. While the priests of the New Covenant (mostly goofy chaps like me) obediently offer the sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood at the Altar week-in and week-out, these sacrifices are dependent on the one perfect sacrifice of Jesus.

As we draw closer to those great three days when we recreate the tremendous sacrifice and glorious triumph of our God, let us remember what a Great High Priest we have: how the perfect sacrifice for our sins and the great freedom we’ve been given, is ultimately dependent not on our piety, not on how we struggle to attend to the sacred mysteries at the altar and the font, but how it is all an objective gift of our only mediator and advocate–the one priest through which priesthood is given to His Body and Spouse, the Church.

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