Sermon for Advent 2 Evensong 2019

+ May the words my mouth and the meditation of my heart be alway acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

It is a fortunate quirk of the lessons appointed for this evening that the two canticles from St. Luke’s Gospel–invariably a part of Evensong throughout the year–flank, as it were, the story of the nativity of St. John the Baptist from the same Gospel. It is a fluke of our lectionary, but it mirrors nicely the very intentional order imposed on the narrative by St. Luke himself.

The annunciation of the Baptist’s birth to Zechariah is followed by the contrasting Annunciation of the Savior’s birth to the Blessed Virgin and our Lady’s “Magnificat,” her song of praise, in response to the same. Then follows John’s presentation in the Temple (tonight’s New Testament lesson) and afterward–and again in contrast to it–Our Lord’s own presentation and Simeon’s joyful response to the same in the words of the “Nunc Dimittis.”

We see in this ordering not just a product of your priest’s pedantry but the progression of the promise which Advent holds before us. Struck dumb, Zechariah cannot respond to the Angel’s message; the time is not yet full. Our Lady can respond, and she proclaims the promise of a temporal reördering for the children of Abrhaham, a reversal of worldly fortune for a socially and economically and religiously oppressed people. Then Zechariah, his lips finally loosed, proclaims an even greater boon for the children of Israel: “The Lord God… hath visited and redeemed his people.” Finally, Simeon, whom we are told had been “waiting for the consolation of Israel,” goes even further when he encounters the Christ Child. He is now prepared to conclude his earthly pilgrimage because he has seen salvation dawn not only for Israel, but “before the face of all people, to be a light to lighten [even] the Gentiles.”

Thus we see a progression both from temporal to eternal concerns and from a tribal to a universal scope across the first two chapters of Luke and across tonight’s liturgy. But, as the medievals were smart enough to understand even if we modern people seem to have lost the ability, there is a surplus of meaning in holy scripture, and I believe there is also a spiritual and mystagogical reality inherent in this progression.

This progression from worldly concerns to eternal concerns, and from a provincial worldview to a universal worldview, is the trajectory of both the season of Advent and of the Christian spiritual life. In terms of the former, we are invited during this season to look ever forward, not just to Christ’s nativity in Bethlehem, but to Christ’s return at the end of time. We are asked to accept as a gift the fact that the Christ Child can be born again in our hearts, but even more importantly that the Son of Man can and will establish his eternal Kingdom for all people.

In terms of our spiritual progress, what we call sanctification in the West and what the Eastern Fathers of the church termed theosis (literally “making divine”) proceeds, I think, along the same trajectory. We may begin by believing (whether explicitly or implicitly) that God is mainly the fellow who gives goodies to us and to our families and close friends, but that view cannot hold if we are to grow in faith, nor will that view weather much experience with life on life’s terms. Rather, we must move from these concerns to a recognition that God’s promise is an answer to eternal concerns- life after death, yes, but also meaning and purpose in this life which transcends the concerns of health and wealth and security and touches upon the existential question: Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is the meaning of life? The answer necessarily turns us outward, to focus on the welfare of those outside ourselves and those whom we consider ours to embrace the whole human family as coheirs of the promise of the kingdom which is coming. It reminds us that whatever changes and chances we may experience in this life, the God who is sovereign will establish a reign of peace and justice for us and for all who call upon him.

This is the reality which the season of Advent calls us to consider. I don’t need to rehearse again my perennial hand-wringing dirge about Christmas creep, what Dean McGowan of Yale Divinity in an essay published last week bemoaned as the reality of Christians seeking to observe Advent finding themselves in occupied territory. It will suffice, I hope, to say that this season of penitential expectation calls us each year not only to consider how we might prepare to greet Christ’s first Advent in the Incarnation, but also his second Advent, his return on which day he promises to set all things to rights and to show grace and mercy to the one who, through turning (even at the last) from sin to the righteousness that comes only from faith, may greet his appearing. This is the season in which we take as our refrain that old prayer with which I now conclude:

Purify our consciences, O God, by the daily visitation, that our Lord Jesus Christ, when he cometh, may find a mansion made ready even for himself, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 1 2019

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

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

How far from reality those words still seem. I sometimes joke about how out-of-date my pop culture references might seem to today’s young people even though I’m still pretty young. More shocking, though, is how people just a few years younger than me can’t really claim to remember a time when our nation has not been at war.

So how does the vision of the prophet become a reality? I’ve said from this pulpit that we don’t have the luxury of saying that we can just wait until God comes and fixes everything, but that is, sadly, the stance of many Christian sects. We heard that strange reading from Matthew’s Gospel a few minutes ago, in which some are taken and some are left. Several Christians believe that Jesus was speaking of something called “the rapture”, wherein the righteous are spared the calamities of the end-times and the wicked are left behind. This belief was invented by some fundamentalists doing some very bad biblical interpretation during in the nineteenth century. We can have that conversation at some point but it would take longer than you’d want to stay in your pews. Suffice it to say, that in this morning’s Gospel reading, the one’s taken away are Christians who would be persecuted under the Roman Empire and other anti-Christian powers (as they still are in some parts of the world), rather than being whisked away to heaven to avoid the final judgment. The idea of a “rapture” as the fundamentalists would call it (like you might read about in the Left Behind books) is, as far as I’m concerned – and in this I agree with the vast majority of serious biblical scholars – way off the mark.

So, with regard to the difficulties which beset our nation and our world, we’re not off the hook. We don’t get to just wait until Jesus comes back and raptures us up and lets the sinners hash it out. We are called to be a people of peace here and now. We’re called to help the usher in the reality of the Kingdom so beautifully envisioned by Isaiah.

What I can say to you is that peacemaking begins at home. There are plenty of swords and spears which need to be re-purposed in our homes and in our community for the sake of the kingdom. None of us has much he or she can do with regard to international affairs beyond the ballot box and making a few charitable or political contributions. Nonetheless, we’ve got plenty we can do here. We can redirect the energy we spend hating those with whom we disagree to loving them in tangible ways. We can beat the sword of malicious gossip into the plowshare of raising awareness with regard to the needs in our community. We can beat the spear of domestic strife into the pruning hook of self-sacrificing, unconditional filial love. We can take the money we spend for creature comforts and spend it on supporting those who don’t have enough for a meal or a winter coat.

Where can you redirect your own bellicose energies to serve as a peacemaker? I can only speak for myself, and so I shall, I hope not uncomfortably confessionally. I spend too much energy being angry with people I think are petulant and meddlesome when I could be using that energy to love them. I spend time and energy grousing and being depressed about things I don’t like that I could use to make those same things better. I discount people I too quickly put into categories that I can easily dismiss, when I could try to actually approach each individual with whom I come into contact as a unique child of God and find some common ground with him or her. Those are my misplaced priorities. Those are my sins. But I think each of us has some place in our lives where we can allow God to transform war-making into peacemaking. All of us have swords and spears in our souls which can be beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks if only we let God work in us.

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

Sermon for Christ the King 2019

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

Even we Americans, who treasure the ideals of democracy, tend to have a fascination with royalty. 30 million Americans watched the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle last year, and I have a feeling it wasn’t because our own, American presiding bishop was the preacher (though that is the reason I watched it). Whatever internet algorithms determine the news I’d be interested in pushed a number of notifications to me with stories about the Duke of York, Prince Andrew, stepping back from royal duties because of his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. I was not particularly interested in this news, but I suspect enough Americans follow the royal family that it’s coverage in American media is unsurprising.

Why do we find royalty so charming—even appealing—in a land founded on the apparent contradiction between modernity and monarchy? Perhaps the perceived ineffectualness of our democratic system, with its nastiness and partisanship which have been all the more striking in recent years, makes us secretly long for something less subject to the passing though passionate sentiments of voters and politicians. Perhaps the appeal of tradition and an admittedly rose-tinted, romantic misperception of “the good old days”, which in truth weren’t all that good, can make us long for that which connects us to that mythic past. Perhaps it’s the aesthetic appeal of lords and ladies in their finery and sovereigns in their courts and all the rest of it.

Or, perhaps it’s because we know we’re not really selfless enough to govern ourselves. Let’s take the conversation away from the commonwealth for a moment and consider the individual. It takes a saint to govern his own appetites and petty desires, to look to the good of another rather than his own. Now magnify that individual flaw and what one sees is a commonwealth of basically sinful, selfish people paying lip-service to the merits of interdependence and mutual responsibility. Unless you’re Ayn Rand or Gordon Gekko, you can see how this is not tenable.

The problem is, absolutism of a certain kind is no better than a democracy fraught with controversy. You can have a good King Edward the Confessor or a bad King Edward II. You can have a righteous King Josiah or a wicked King Ahab. Human frailty, our penchant for greed and the pursuit of power, is a constant whatever form a nation’s constitution takes.

The problem is that the authority which rulers wield, whether that ruler’s title is King or President, is ultimately human authority. In the end our sinful nature forces us to muddle through, governing ourselves knowing that we’ll never do so perfectly.

And in the midst of this reality we celebrate today the Feast of Christ the King. You see, the only authority free from the failings of human rulers, be they kings or presidents, is the authority of God Himself as we have known Him in Christ Jesus.

But this authority takes a remarkably strange, counter-intuitive form. You don’t see in this morning’s Gospel the pomp and ceremony of a royal wedding. You don’t see lords and ladies in their finery and sovereigns in their courts and all the rest of it. Rather, we see our King reigning from the tree, from the Cross which was the implement of his own execution. You don’t see a glorious bejeweled crown on our sovereign’s head, but a battered wooden sign: “This is the king of the Jews.” You don’t see visiting dignitaries in the court approaching the king’s throne, but a criminal being hanged, pleading for mercy.

In this image of apparent utter despondency is the hope of the nations. We plead to our earthly rulers to bring us peace, but Paul tells us that the King of Creation makes peace “by the blood of his cross.” We look to the leaders of the nations to bring us prosperity, but the Prophet Jeremiah tells us there “will [rise] up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

This is not to say that we ought not expect much from our leaders, but it is to say that there is room in the Kingdom of God for only one King, and his sovereign right was claimed neither by royal lineage nor by popular election, but by suffering and death. We can wish for sound government, we should pray for it, but our deepest hope for justice and peace cannot be found in the hands of earthly kings and earthly kingdoms, in nation-states or legislatures or even democratic ideals. Peace and justice in their fullest realizations can only be found in the Kingdom which is not yet come, but which is near.

We are, as Christians, dual citizens, (citizens both of our earthly nation-state and of the Kingdom of Heaven) but our first allegiance is to that Kingdom and its sovereign. Let us pray that that Kingdom will come swiftly, that our King will return to save his people, and that his rule might be acknowledged by all people. This is our hope, and it shall not be in vain.

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