Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany

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

Liturgical scholars will tell you that every Sunday of the church year is like a little Easter, an observance of the Resurrection regardless of the season in which it falls. This is true, though some Sundays are more “Easter-y” than others in practice. Today, the Sunday next before Lent, seems particularly so. We will share a celebratory meal together. You might notice that the hymns include as many “alleluias” as possible, since that word is verboten during the season of Lent. I don’t know if you’re like me in how you prepare for the changing church season at home, but in my weekly grocery shopping this week I made certain to get a goodly amount of meat, chocolate, and coca cola, all things that will not reappear in our kitchen between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. So, this “shrovetide”, as it’s traditionally called, is like a little Easter before entering the long season of self-denial into which we’re all about to enter.

A few years ago on this Sunday I introduced you to a term which I’d like to remind you of this year. The word is prolepsis. It’s from a Greek root pro-lambanein which means anticipation, and it means the breaking-in of a reality before it has been accomplished in the time-line as we perceive it.

Prolepsis is not simple foreshadowing. Most of us know what foreshadowing is. It is a literary device that hints at what is to come. Prolepsis, though, is not about merely hinting at the future, not simply suggesting what is about to take place. It is rather when the future in some more substantive sense breaks into the present, is made manifest outside the normal flow of time as we perceive it.

As Christians we live proleptically; we allow the sure and certain future of the Kingdom of God to break in to the present. We cannot fully perceive the Kingdom of God, it hasn’t been fully accomplished in our time-line, and yet the Kingdom of the world to come is made real and present at the altar. From our human perspective, the dead have not yet been raised to enjoy eternal life with God, but from the perspective of God, who functions outside of time as much as within it, the faithful departed are already in His presence. It can get confusing, but it will suffice to say that the mystery of redemption is beyond our capability to perceive because our minds simply cannot function without positing the passage of time. More about that in a minute.

This morning’s Gospel reading is an example of prolepsis. What happened on the Mount of Transfiguration was in fact an incursion of the future into the present. Specifically, the reality of the Resurrection was not just foreshadowed, but made really present in Christ’s miraculous mountaintop transformation.

Let’s take a closer look at the text. The scene occurs a week after Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ (our translation says “six days later”, though ancient people reckoned time inclusively, which is a bit confusing to us, but just understand that the Transfiguration happens a week after Peter’s Confession). This is significant. God created the world in seven days and as Christians we believe that in some sense He recreated it, He changed everything, on one day: the day of Resurrection. Throughout Christian history in fact, and especially in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Easter has been referred to as “the eighth day”. The Gospel writers were likely trying to make the connection between the Transfiguration and the Resurrection clear simply by making a point to say that is happened a week later.

When on the mountain top, Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white. Mark’s account of the story is even more descriptive than the other Gospels, which is surprising given what we learned last week about Mark’s usual practice of removing details to get the story out quickly: “[Jeseus’] garments became glistening,” he wrote, “intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” Even somebody whose whole livelihood was to bleach clothes, a fuller, couldn’t have got any clothes this white. This should stir up in our minds the men at the tomb on the day of Resurrection, whose clothes are described by all of the Gospel writers as being extraordinarily white.

Likewise, we learn in the other accounts that at the Transfiguration “the appearance of [Jesus’] face changed.” This is what “transfiguration” literally means, to change appearance. Compare this with all of those accounts of the Resurrection, where Jesus is not recognized. Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize Jesus until he called her by name; the disciples on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize him until he broke bread with them; the apostles didn’t recognize him until he said “peace be with you.”

All of this is to suggest that though Christ was still on his way to Calvary, though he had not yet even died, he and his disciples experienced a foretaste of the Resurrection that day on the mountain. God wasn’t simply foreshadowing what was going to happen after Jesus’ death; rather, God let a little bit of the future, a little bit of the greatest event in history, impinge upon the present of Jesus and his disciples. Jesus had a “little resurrection” that day which was intimately connected to the resurrection as it was to take place several days later. Perhaps it was to give hope to the apostles. Perhaps it was to give Jesus himself the strength to suffer the agonies of the Cross, knowing that the transforming power of the Resurrection would ultimately triumph.

In any event, we have something to learn from this. We still live in a world beset by sin and suffering. We still live in a world where death is a reality. We still need forty days of Lent—that ever looming church season which commences Wednesday—to remind us.

But we can nonetheless experience hints of the Resurrection and the Kingdom of God among these things that are passing away. We acknowledge the “not yet” nature of the Resurrection and the Kingdom. We still have a shift in verbs in the Creed. “We believe in one God” and so forth, while we “look for”, or prosdokō- “await”, the Resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. They are still future events, but we Christians are proleptic people. We look for the Resurrection of the dead, but we also experience it in the here-and-now. We experience it in Baptism. We look for the life of the world to come, but we also experience it in the here-and-now. We experience it in the Eucharist, a foretaste of the eternal feast.

We should be open to experiencing the risen life, but we must also live in the real world, and we can hold these two truths together. Like Peter, we might want to build huts for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah; we may want to remain in the joy we experience in the risen life made so real and present in the Sacraments and in our lives as Christians, but like Jesus and like the disciples, we’ll eventually have to go back down the mountain. We shall all have to go back out into the world to love and serve the Lord, and humbly walk the way of the Cross. The mountain-top experiences are fleeting, but like Jesus and the disciples they give us strength. They give us the strength to do God’s work in a broken world, to live lives of sacrifice, knowing that some day we will experience the risen life, the life of the Kingdom, uninterrupted and in perpetuity. May we hold on to that blessed hope, and thus be strengthened to live in love and do God’s work with even more resolve.

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

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

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

This week we continue our slow, yearlong liturgical journey through the remarkably fast-paced Gospel according to Mark. It may be said without too much overstatement that Mark is like a Hemmingway novella to John’s Tolstoy. The author of Mark didn’t have time for John’s high-flown theological discourse, Matthew’s apologetics, or Luke’s beautiful storytelling. There’s a striking immediacy to Mark. Indeed, the word “immediately” was historically frequently deleted in our English translation of Mark, as it shows up so frequently in the Greek as to make the English virtually unreadable at points.

This immediacy is evident in today’s Gospel reading, which actually comprises three separate narratives in the course of ten verses. While some scholars try to explain this fact about Mark on its writer’s lack of sources or authorial ability, I think there’s something much more intentional at work. I think Mark’s fast-paced style is, at least in part, meant to highlight the immediacy, the urgency, of the Good News itself. We see this not only in the style but in the substance of the book. Jesus called the first apostles immediately, and immediately they forsook their nets in order to serve their Lord. What I find most astonishing about today’s gospel reading is that as soon as Simon’s mother-in-law is healed, she jumps out of bed and begins to serve Jesus and the apostles.

When do we begin to attend to the work of God? The voice of the Gospel is singular: the answer is “now.” It is often tempting to delay following God’s will in our lives. “I’ll do what charity demands when life is a bit less hectic.” “I’ll get really involved in the life of the church as soon as I sort out everything at home.” “God’s calling me to serve, but I’ll do that as soon as I become the exemplar of moral rectitude.” These sorts of attitudes are natural and often quite reasonable. We sometimes feel that we must be totally together to undertake any kind of ministry. But God meets us where we are–busy, confused, sinful creatures that we are. We needn’t be so loath to serve God in these times, due to our perceptions of our own unworthiness.

Some of the greatest champions of our faith heard God’s call to serve when they were leading lives that were anything but exemplary. From David in the Old Testament to Paul in the New, when he met Christ and was converted on the road to Damascus was, as Acts says “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Yet, Acts tells us “immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying ‘He is the Son of God.’” This is not meant to suggest that personal behavior doesn’t matter; quite to the contrary, Christ is constantly calling us to repentance and amendment of life. Once we do this, though, it does no good to dwell on our former trespasses when there’s work to be done. Paul repented, but he didn’t spend time bemoaning his former sins. He began serving immediately.

One of my favorite stories along these lines is that of St. Ambrose, who also followed God’s call despite his own apparent unworthiness. In the fourth century, Christendom was racked by heresy, schism, and general unrest. Milan, Ambrose’s hometown, was one of the battlefronts, as it were, of the dispute amongst Christians. In A.D. 374 Auxentius, then bishop of Milan, died. Upon convocation of all the Christians of Milan, then the means of electing a new bishop, the masses mysteriously and univocally began shouting “Ambrose for bishop!” This was particularly odd as Ambrose wasn’t even a priest–he was a Roman official and a relatively new convert to CHristianity. Ambrose made known his misgivings, but the people continued to call for his election and, as Ambrose soon realized, the Holy Spirit continued to call him as well. Ambrose was ordained a deacon and a priest and consecrated bishop in the span of a week and began with much prayer and self-sacrifice to mend a Church which was torn by strife. He didn’t dwell on his inexperience and fear. He began serving immediately.

None of this is meant to suggest that the work of God should be undertaken haphazardly. In this week’s gospel reading we see Jesus himself stopping and taking time to reevaluate the situation. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” We too must realize that the process of discernment, of figuring out to what God is calling us, must be undertaken carefully. Sometimes God’s will is not readily apparent, and we must, like our Lord, retreat to our own wilderness and listen for His still small voice. Sometimes we must take some much needed time to rest and recreate in order to undertake the work of God and to execute it more effectively. And we must take time to determine if what we are already doing is really God’s work on God’s terms, or if we’re actually doing our own work on our own terms.

The important distinction here is between preparation and procrastination. The distinction between them is sometimes a bit blurry and sometimes we can convince ourselves that we are doing the former when it’s really the latter. How easy it would have been for Simon’s mother-in-law to linger in bed a bit longer! How easily she could have justified it to herself! “I’ll rest up just a half an hour longer,” she might have said, “and afterward, I’ll surely be ten times more efficient ministering to this man who just healed me.” This is much like my own internal monologue every morning at about 5 o’clock, by the way. But Simon’s mother-in-law knew to what she was being called, and she knew that she was being called to it then and there.

This is awfully daunting stuff. God is calling each and every one of us to something all the time, and each of us is obliged to respond. It’s daunting, but it’s also reassuring. We are never so far out of God’s will that He stops calling us back. On our own road to Damascus, which is this earthly pilgrimage, we like Paul are being summoned by God to be continually converted, to die every moment to ourselves and the cares of this world and to be reborn to the concerns of the Kingdom of God and to the work God has given us to do. And though none of us is a David or a Paul or an Ambrose, we may each of us, like Simon’s mother-in-law, be a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord. Than this there is no greater joy save heaven itself.

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

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

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

More than occasionally I meet somebody who doesn’t know too much about the Episcopal Church, and almost inevitably I’m asked about rules. The questions are largely what one might expect. Evangelical types tend to ask if we’re permitted to drink, dance, and gamble. Roman Catholics tend to ask questions like can our priests can marry.

I, for one, am grateful that, despite the fact that we do have moral obligations, the Gospel is not about rules but about Grace. The larger culture, as evidenced by those sorts of questions I just mentioned, seems to associate religion with rules, but that’s not the primary message, the primary message being that we are all sinners and we’re all saved. Even so, I think we must take into consideration Paul’s words to the Corinthians in today’s epistle before we go too far with this freedom we have in the Gospel.

Paul was writing, as he often did, in response to a disturbance in the local church, and in the passage we heard a moment ago, he was writing specifically about a controversy regarding food sacrificed to idols. What Paul ultimately says is that there’s no inherent harm in eating such food, since there’s not really any god behind the idol. The problem arises when others, who are less knowledgeable in the faith see it, and it becomes a crisis of conscience for them.

But, since most of us won’t be offered food sacrificed to an idol anytime soon, how does this effect us? I think the lesson is larger than the particulars Paul faced.

Some years ago a friend of mine told a story about going into a movie theater to watch what was a rather edgy film, and another cinema-goer (a stranger) horrified enough to see somebody in a clerical collar watching this particular movie (I don’t recall what it was) that she acosted him about being there. It seemed not to occur to my friend’s interlocutor that she was there to watch precisely the same film he was. Now, yesterday, Annie and I went to see a movie which turned out to be rather explicit; I was grateful that I wasn’t wearing my collar, lest I have a similar experience to my friend, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

Now, we are all representatives of Christ’s Church, as we are all members of the Body. It is not the sole responsibility of the clergy to serve as examples, so replace the priest in the story I just told with yourself. You see, our actions are seen by others, and they can cause others to question their own consciences. This can be a very good thing, as we should all strive to determine what that inner voice tells us is right and wrong. But it can also be confusing. Even when we know we’re not doing anything wrong, it can cause others to stumble, and St. Paul says, “Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Now, don’t take all of this to mean that we must always be walking on eggshells, as it were, fearing that somebody might be offended by our actions. Don’t take all of this to mean that anything we do which might possibly cause offense must be done covertly. “If you’re doing something you need to hide, you shouldn’t be doing it at all” is probably a good rule of thumb.

The point is that we need to be sensitive to others’ sense of propriety, even if we don’t agree with it. We need to “take care” as Paul put it. We ought not to rub our freedom in others’ faces. We ought not to go out of our way to scandalize our brothers and sisters whose consciences might be weak.

A little bit of charity in this regard may well be reciprocated, but even if it isn’t, it is nonetheless our obligation to be a wholesome example and to respect those whose sense of wholesomeness is more rigid than our own. The key in this regard is charity, and that should be our driving principle no matter what the particular circumstance.

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