Sermon for Lent 2 2018

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

Some of you know that my favorite patriotic hymn by far (and, I think, one of the most moving American songs ever composed) is the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I really wish it were in our hymnal! It’s one of those songs that I sing to myself all the time.

I have, however, noticed in listening to more recent recordings of this wonderful hymn, a slight change which I cannot affirm. The final verse of the hymn (in case you don’t know it by heart) goes like this:

In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea
With a glory in His bosom
That transfigures you and me
As He died to make men holy
Let us die to make men free
While God is marching on.

Now, these recent recordings I’ve heard change it to the following:

As He died to make men holy
Let us live to make men free
While God is marching on.

Now, I understand why the change was made. The song was originally sung by Union soldiers marching toward possible death in their effort to save the Republic and free men, women, and children from the bondage of slavery. Most of us are not literally doing this now. Even so, are we not called even today to lay down our lives, to die for the sake of our friends. “Greater love,” our Lord said, “has no one than this.”

If there is one dead horse I continue to flog from this pulpit, it is that we live in a death denying culture. I talked about it again on Ash Wednesday, so I will spare you on this occasion from another recitation of all the ways in which we run away from death and pretend it’s not real. Instead, let’s look at Saint Peter in this morning’s Gospel. He suffered from this modern sort of death denial, even in an age in which death and decay were far more “in your face”, as it were, than in our contemporary, rather sterile Western World. Peter rebuked Jesus for sharing the hard, but by this point rather obvious fact that he was going to die.

After rebuking Peter, Jesus gives it straight to his disciples and to us:

If any would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. We sometimes refer to our gouty toe or unpleasant relative or some other minor inconvenience as “our cross to bear”. That’s not what Jesus is saying. Our cross is the sacrifice of our lives to Christ and His Gospel. It means, quite literally, the courage and conviction to die in the service of the Gospel.

Since I began the sermon by bemoaning a redaction in a beloved cultural text, let me praise another redaction (which, with at least some of my nerdy cohort, might be extremely controversial). It’s in The Lord of the Rings. Just before the battle at Pellenor Fields in both the book and film version of The Return of the King, King Th­éoden addresses the Rohirrim:

Arise, arise, Riders of Th­éoden!
Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!
Spear shall be shaken, shield shall be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!

In the book, Th­éoden ends his speech by shouting “Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!” In the film, though, he shouts one word ­ “Death!” ­ and the Riders all start shouting, “Death! Death! Death!”

Now this change I like, because it makes explicit precisely what the King and his troops are willing to experience in order for good to triumph over evil. They are willing to die, and indeed King Th­éoden does.

Now, the reality is few of us if any will be called upon to die for our convictions. For most of us, the Cross will be a less literal, but nonetheless difficult death: a death to self-interest; a rejection of the modern idols of safety and security and success. If we’re not willing to experience that little death, we’ll certainly not be willing to literally die for the Gospel. But I want to suggest something far more radical and far more disquieting.

It is far too easy to equivocate while in the pulpit, far too easy to focus on comfort rather than challenge, but this, I firmly believe, is central to the Gospel. We must be literally willing to die for Christ and the Gospel if we are to follow Jesus’ mandate. We must be ready to shout “Death!” not as a sign of despair but as a sign of hope. That few of us will have to make that ultimate sacrifice is beside the point. Last week, I mentioned that an oft-overlooked Christian virtue is courage. Do we have the courage to follow our Lord to Calvary? If things were different, if we still lived in an Empire hellbent on hunting Christians down and feeding them to lions, would we stand up for Jesus in that final hour?

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

Sermon for Lent 1 2018

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

There are few things about my job I enjoy more than officiating at Baptisms, whether it’s at a public service of the church or on a Saturday afternoon with just parents and godparents and close friends and family. It is always such a joyful thing to welcome another Christian into the household of God.

I do wonder sometimes, though, if we miss an important aspect of Baptism and the Christian life by the way we do Baptisms. I don’t mean that we miss the theological or personal importance. I’ve always been pleasantly surprised that parents and godparents tend already to know that it’s more than just “getting the baby done”, that something beautiful and quite literally miraculous occurs in the Sacrament and that they’re making important, life-altering promises on behalf of the baptizand.

The element I think we miss, though, is the danger of Baptism. It’s joyful, yes. It’s beautiful, yes. But scripture also tells us that there is a degree of danger and destabilization that accompanies the Sacrament.

In today’s epistle, Saint Peter tells us that Baptism is prefigured by the story of Noah’s ark. Now, I’ve always been surprised that we tend to think of this as a children’s story. It’s filled with death and destruction. That great religious symbol, water, is a complex symbol, because water has the power both to sustain and destroy. We need it to live, but (as we are reminded far too often) it can level whole cities. Water can be very dangerous, indeed.

Anyway, for Noah and the survivors, the flood is concomitantly the means of destruction and of creation. Noah and his family are spared, but they must begin all over again. They must, with God’s help, recreate a world where once one stood. God’s promise in this morning’s reading from Genesis is gracious, but it comes at great cost.

Then consider this morning’s Gospel. As soon as Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit whisks him away to the wilderness, where he is tempted by Satan. Mark’s account is (in keeping with his style of writing) much briefer than the other Evangelists’ accounts of the forty days in the wilderness. Since we’re not reading Matthew or Luke this year, I’ll spare you my reflections on the nature of Satan’s temptation until next year. What is unique about Mark’s account, and easily missed, is one bit of information we don’t get anywhere else. “And he was with the wild beasts.”

This is not an insignificant detail, as Mark was not prone to include anything in his brief, fast-paced Gospel unless it were important. It seems to me that what we have here is an added element of danger. If being tempted by Satan were the most spiritually hazardous thing one could think of, being surrounded by wild animals would be about the most physically dangerous thing one could think of.

The point in all of this is that the Christian life is a dangerous one. Baptism washes from us the stain of original sin; it makes us new creatures and raises us up with Christ; it makes us part of the Body. But Baptism also breaks down the life of the old, fallen world–a life with which we fallen people are so comfortable–and establishes a new order which seems to us less stable. It commits us to living a kind of life which is uncomfortable and unpopular, as the virtues of Christianity often set us at odds with the vicious world in which we live. While in this age and in this country we’ll not be crucified for our commitment, as were the earliest Christians, we will (if we’re carrying out our baptismal promises fully), at best be seen as odd ducks, and at worst be ostracized both by the forces of secularism and by those who claim Christianity but don’t live by its precepts of mercy and love and forgiveness and justice.

We have an opportunity this Lent to recommit ourselves to the virtues which make our lives odd and dangerous. We have an opportunity to nurture and practice that great Christian virtue of courage- courage to live as a people set apart, with convictions and commitments that the world does not value. We have an opportunity to rediscover that great paradox of Christianity- that the Way of the Cross, a life which commits us to pain and suffering and rejection, is indeed the way of life and peace.

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

Sermon for Last Epiphany 2018

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

I want to introduce you to a technical term this morning that is used in rhetoric, but has a special meaning in theology. Your word for the day is prolepsis. It’s from a Greek root pro-lambanein which means anticipation. In rhetoric it means the anticipation of an argument before it’s made, but in theology 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. Since Valentine’s Day is coming up, here’s an example from Romeo and Juliet. In the famous balcony scene, after Juliet expresses fear for Romeo’s safety, Romeo replies “life were better ended by their hate/ Than death prorogued wanting of thy love.” This is a foreshadowing of what will actually take place, as (spoiler alert) Romeo dies at the end of the play.

That’s foreshadowing, but prolepsis is something different. The future is not merely hinted at, not merely suggested, but rather it breaks in to the present. 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 God’s 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. When on the mountain top, Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white. “His garments became glistening,” Mark 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 the Resurrection, whose clothes are described by all of the Gospel writers as being extraordinarily white.

Likewise, we learn from Luke’s account 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. The Father 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 human history in fact, 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, too. 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 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 to use the original language of the Creed “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.

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 shall 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.