Thursday, September 21, 2017

Mikkelmas


Propers: St Michael and All Angels (Mikkelmas), A.D. 2017 A

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Fairy tales—to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton—do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that the dragons can be beaten.

I will not attempt to convince you that angels and demons exist. You already know that they exist. Indeed, one has to work quite hard to convince oneself otherwise. We have always known that we, as a species, are not alone. Deep down in our heart of hearts, in our collective unconscious, abides the persistent conviction that the world we can see is only the surface, the tip of the iceberg, and that we are surrounded at all times by a vast and spiritual ocean of Powers and Principalities that we cannot perceive, let alone understand.

There have always been dragons. We find them in all of the oldest stories we have. They are spirits of chaos, of disorder, discordant notes within the greater harmony of Creation. We associate them always with the frenzy of the sea and the storm, waters of chaos, waters of destruction. And there have always been heavenly heroes—demigods, supermen—who have stood up to the dragons and slain them, wrenching order out from chaos: Thor and World-Serpent, Sigurd and Fafnir; Michael and the Dragon!

For you see, we too have such a story, the Christian version of the myth—which is to say, the true version.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

This, according to St Augustine, is the Bible’s account of the creation of the angels, beings of pure light—which is not to say physical light, as though they were made up of photons, but spiritual light: the light of knowledge, the light of wisdom.  Angels are beings of pure mind, unencumbered by physical form or bodies of any sort. They are made up purely of the thoughts of God—sub-minds spun off like so many galaxies from the hub of His infinite Word. And like us, they were made purely out of love, purely out of grace, simply for the sheer joy of creating and sharing in the grand adventure that is existence.

They came about in infinite variety, some small and humble of thought, others so vast in understanding and brobdingnagian in power that they dwelt immediately in the ineffable Light of God’s own direct presence. These latter we call the Seraphim, or “Fiery Ones”—the dragons, that is, of God.

And the greatest of them all, the grandest and most glorious, mightiest in power, broadest in understanding, was Lucifer, the Light-Bearer, the highest being in all of Creation—a little too high, perhaps, because something happened to him. Something twisted him, some wicked thought that set him in disharmony against the greater symphony of God.

We don’t know what it was, exactly. Pride of some sort. Revelation implies that the angels were given a glimpse of the future: of the fashioning and falling of Man; and of the Creator’s plan to redeem the world by entering into His own Creation, as the old hymn has it, “through the guts of a girl.” And something about this offended Lucifer, for it is indeed quite shocking. Perhaps it was some deeper demand for punishment, for justice as he saw it. Perhaps he thought the whole business of the Incarnation beneath the dignity of the Creator of All Worlds. Or perhaps it was jealousy plain and simple—that Lucifer wanted to be vessel through which the Almighty would enter the world; Lucifer wanted to be the Theotokos, the Mother of God.

Whatever it was, in his pride and his wrath, the great Dragon misused the freedom granted to him by God’s love, and rebelled against the benevolent designs of his Creator—an act of highest treason. No longer would the Light-Bearer and his angels sit idly by while the Creator debased Himself with human sin. The Dragon knew better than God, he thought, knew enough now to judge right and wrong for himself! And so he raged, raged against the permissive Providence of a merciful God. And war broke out in Heaven.

A war of pure thought, of pure mind, unlike anything we can imagine here below.

But it proved a civil war, as the rebellion was not unanimous. A voice arose amidst the heavenly throng: the voice not of some great Seraph or Stronghold, but the voice of an Archangel, from the lower of the choirs. A small voice yet strong—for it did not rely on its own powers. “Who is like God?” demanded this smaller, braver being. “Who can ever be like God?”

And the cry was taken up in chorus—“Who is like God? Who is like God?”—until the firmament of the heavens was shaken by the clarity of its perfection. And so it was the reflected Light of God’s own Truth, rather than the innate powers of the angels themselves, that cast the Dragon down from Heaven and smote his ruin upon the earth. The angels had had their rebellion, and the faithful emerged from it like steel tempered from the forge.

And at their head stood that lesser angel, whose cry became his name: for in Hebrew, mī kāʼēl means “Who is like God?”—the Archangel Michael, Prince now of the Heavenly Host, Guardian of Guardians, and the faithful power upon whom God calls to defend the righteous and lay the wicked low. This, then, is the original story of the Hero and the Dragon.

So what, then, brothers and sisters, shall we take away from this most ancient and epic of tales? First, I suppose, that our instincts are true: we are not alone in this universe. We are surrounded by a Creation far higher and deeper than any presented before our eyes. The cosmos is filled with powers far older, far greater, and far wiser than we. And not all of them are kind. Evil is out there. It hungers, it hunts.

But the powers of darkness pale in comparison to the Light which bore them forth. Evil has no substance in and of itself; it is simply the wreckage of what was once made good. Demons are but broken angels who hide now away from the Light. Even Lucifer, the Light-Bearer, has withered away to Satan, the Adversary. His glories are long forgotten, and his position as the highest in all of Creation has been given over to a Lady far worthier than he. It is through her, upon a winter’s night heralded by angels, that God has come to earth to save us all.

Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that the dragons can be beaten.

St Michael, Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the snares and wickedness of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray. And do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all wicked spirits that prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. For who is like unto God?

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


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Death and Joy


Pastor’s Epistle—October, A.D. 2017 A

Death and joy. These are what October hails.

Leaves erupt in one last riot of color before they wither and fall. The evening air grows steadily sharper, heralding a harshness just over the horizon. The wind begins to bite. The sweet scents of decay and woodsmoke linger on the breeze. We know that winter is coming, but not yet. First comes the feast before the fast; first comes the magic of autumn.

The eerie promise of death and joy is the inheritance of every Christian. We are urged to “remember, mortal, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return,” to make the most of our short time upon this earth. But we are also given assurance that because Jesus has preceded us into the grave, conquering sin and death and hell, we have nothing more to fear. The baptized have already died the death that matters, for whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. Our spirits shall continue on while our bones rest, body and soul awaiting reunion when the world is renewed at the last.

The dead, after all, live. They are all alive to God in Christ. Because of this, the Church on earth celebrates “the Communion of the Saints,” who join us invisibly at the heavenly feast whenever we share together in the Lord’s Supper. Death is no barrier at all to the promises of Christ. Halloween, remember, is a Christian holiday, no matter what the History Channel might say.

On the evening of Wednesday, November 1st, St Peter’s will be celebrating vespers for the Day of the Dead. We shall gather in the graveyard, weather permitting (and in the sanctuary if it does not), to sing and pray and light candles in remembrance of all those who have gone before us through the valley of the shadow of death. Most importantly, we will remember the promise that these bones shall rise again, at the trumpet, on the Last Day. “I am the Resurrection, and the Life,” Jesus said. “Whosoever believeth in Me, even though he die, shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.”

We will also be celebrating the Hallowmas—All Saints Sunday—on November 5th. It is traditional for us to remember at the Altar those dearly departed in the preceding year, whose souls we entrust to God and whose bodies we have returned to the earth. Any funerals held at St Peter’s (or presided over by St Peter’s pastor) will be automatically included in the Prayers of the Church. Additional remembrances are welcome; simply leave a note with our parish office.

Death and joy are not exclusive. We can celebrate even as we mourn; we can trust in the promise of Christ even as we grieve. This notion has seeped into the secular culture around us, which is why Halloween has been so enthusiastically embraced in the last century. But that to which we truly look forward is the promise of new life in the midst of winter’s sterile severity: the Christchild born in the darkest time of the year. It is to the birth of our Savior that we begin to journey now, even as we celebrate angels and saints and feasts of thanksgiving along the way.

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


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Harvest


Propers: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 25), A.D. 2017 A

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Parenthood has beaten nearly all the kindness out of me.

When we had one child, it was an easy and a pleasant thing to be kind. I would see something that reminded me of our son, some opportunity that he would enjoy, and we would do that for him. We would take him to the restaurant or the movie or the park. We would read to him his favorite book, time and again. We would buy him the toy. We would do so purely out of kindness, purely out of love.

But with three children, this has proven well-nigh impossible. We can no longer be casually kind, because any action, any gesture, any purchase made for the one is met with howls of protest from the other two who think themselves unjustly snubbed. Thus every kindness must be calculated, must be equitably distributed, and since they don’t all like the same things, a great storm of niggling and haggling accompanies even the slightest appearance of favoritism.

We can no longer just do something nice. We can no longer bend the rules for the one, whether it be out of simple kindness for our child whom we love, or out of a concern for specific and mitigating circumstances. No. From now on, whatever we do for any given one, we must do for all, without exception. And so we see how mercy is so often murdered by our uncompromising demands for fairness, for justice, for equity. We can never be happy for our neighbor because we’re too busy demanding more for ourselves. I want what’s fair for me.

And yet—when we are traveling across the county to visit family—when we drive the length and breadth of Minnesota to gather for Thanksgiving or other events at Grandma and Grandpa’s—I marvel at the hundreds and hundreds of miles of rich, abundant harvest, rising and falling like the sea, stretched far out to the horizon. And I think to myself, “Thank God not everything is justice. Thank God not everything is fair. For the mercies of God are superabundant, and without that ocean of unmerited forgiveness, all would surely be lost.”

See, most of humanity throughout most of history have been farmers. The agricultural revolution, brought about by the twin blessings of bread and beer, transformed our species. It tied us to the land, producing in abundance, allowing for specialization and trade and the birth of civilization. And we have gone from strength to strength, domesticating new crops, discovering and devising new methods of husbandry, from crop rotation through irrigation to genetic engineering. And now, for the first time in history, a tiny percentage of the population—some 2% in the United States—can produce more than enough food to feed the entire world.

So much food, in fact, that most of it goes to waste, for want of a way to share it and ship it.

I look out on those farmers’ fields, hundreds of thousands of acres stretching on beyond my comprehension, and I marvel at how the sweat of their brows and the work of their hands provides every single meal I have ever eaten or ever will. They produce in ridiculous superabundance so that the rest of us may become teachers or pastors or soldiers or secretaries or anything else. And I am humbled by that.

Our entire civilization rests upon the work of farmers, who do their jobs so insanely well that the great crisis of our society today is not hunger—but obesity. And let me tell you, if you have grown up not knowing hunger, not even in times of famine or drought, disaster or war, then you are amongst the most privileged of human beings in all of recorded history. And that’s not fair. That’s grace.

Now, the human desire for justice, for fairness, is surely good and right and true, in and of itself. But in our fallen state, living amongst the ruins of this broken world, our desire for justice has become disordered. We fall into the trap of thinking that justice must mean fairness, whether of opportunity or of outcome, and we attempt to enforce this by any means necessary: “I want what you have! Give it to me!” You get a toy, I get a toy. And so throughout the twentieth century, murderous regimes have gleefully churned through scores of millions of their own citizens all in pursuit of an ideal of justice that has been twisted into a demon of unflinching equality. Justice murders mercy.

But God has a very different conception of justice—the right conception. In a rightly ordered world, God provides for all superabundantly. To quote the Catechism:

God has given to me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property—along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. And all this is done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all!

Every good thing in this world is a gift. Every heartbeat, every breath, is pure kindness, pure mercy. We haven’t earned any of it. We don’t deserve to be here. Yet here we are—with our problems, yes, with our brokenness and our struggles. But the very fact that we exist proves that we are loved, for every moment that we are is a moment poured out for us by the great I am. It is all of it mercy, all of it love.

And justice, in the eyes of God, is nothing more than to share in this abundance, to pass along the infinite mercies showered out upon us, so that we are filled to bursting with the love of God, and we then open ourselves that this same love might be poured out upon all the world around us!

Justice, for God, is not some abstract ideal, some chart or graph or list of laws. It cannot be measured by income or tax bracket or the Gini coefficient. Justice, for God, is always personal, always human, always one-to-one. For justice is none other than the sharing of His mercies—allowing ourselves to be conduits for God’s love rather than blockages along the way.

That’s the whole point of the Book of Jonah, which we read this morning. God wants to show mercy; God wants to grant forgiveness; God wants to pour out His lovingkindness upon even the most wicked of men. It is Jonah who wants vengeance, which he mistakes for justice; Jonah who would watch the Assyrians burn, even if it meant his own death! He demands equality of punishment even unto the grave.

Moreover, this is the point of the Parable of the Workers, who are each of them given a full daily wage, everything they need, from a vineyard owner who never had to hire them in the first place. The harvest is his gift to them. And when the workers who labored throughout the day see that they are paid no more nor less than those who arrived only in the final hour—they demand justice! They demand fairness! They demand more.

And Jesus says to His disciples, though sideways through the parable: “Can I not do what I will with mine own? Or are you jealous because I am good?”

We are a broken people, my brothers and sisters, living within a broken world. From where we stand, we often make the mistake of thinking mercy and justice to be opposed to one another, with mercy unfair and justice unkind. But this world that God has made good does not operate on such false dichotomies. The harvest provided by our Lord is superabundant; we need not squabble over scraps. The ocean of God’s mercy is poured out upon us, fruitful and ripe, stretching out beyond the horizon.

And justice is nothing more than letting that mercy flow.

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


Thursday, September 14, 2017

The White Rider


A Homily for Closing Worship
for the General Retreat of the Society of the Holy Trinity

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

When St Peter was sentenced to death—to which he went willingly, having chosen not to flee Rome following a vision of the Christ—he made the bizarre request that he be crucified upside-down. And when asked why he would choose to exit this world in such peculiar fashion, he replied:

“Your whole world is upside-down. The Cross sets it right.”

It is the Cross, brothers and sisters, that allows us to see the world as it truly is, to see the deep reality beneath the appearance of things. Such is the primary concern, to my reading, of the Book of Revelation, which describes both events contemporary to John, and the timeless majesty of the Divine Liturgy, not as we see them but as God sees them—with the heavens torn asunder and the Almighty Lord descending to earth upon the Altar, beneath which the bones of the martyrs cry out.

It is from Revelation that we are given the image of Christ as Conquest, the White Rider, who in place of a weapon strapped to His thigh has instead the inscription, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords!” while the true sword proceeds from His mouth, striking down the nations. Rome is conquered, we see, not through fire and steel, but by the Word of God on the lips of the Church. To our eyes, humble men are preaching and dying in her streets: beheaded, as Paul; crucified, as Peter. But through the Cross—through the eyes of God—we see the reality that it is Christ, through the blood of these martyrs, who lays the nations low. Even as we are murdered, we conquer.

It is through the Cross we see the terrible irony of the legionaries at the Crucifixion, crowning Him with thorns, draping Him in purple, paying homage to Christ as King. They thought it was all in mockery. But we see the truth. This is His glory. This is His coronation. Even as we strike Him, spit in His face.

These are trying times for clergy, my brothers and sisters. As the Church in the East drowns in an ecumenism of blood, we find ourselves drowning in a sea of ennui. Faith in the West has become antiquated, passé. Who has time, after all, to ponder the deep and abiding questions of God, the world, and the destiny of Man, when there’s so much neat stuff to buy on Amazon?

We find our flocks distracted, hypnotized, by ephemeral diversions selected from a menu of infinite choice, chasing exhaustive solutions to manufactured desires. For indeed, a consumerist society is by nature an atheist society, as transcendent goods are crowded out of the soul by all the shiny new proximate goods all around us.

And so entire generations have arisen with no anchor, no bulwark, no story or narrative, no connection at all to the past—and so no desire for a future. Our civilization cannot even bother to raise children, let alone raise them in the faith.

And all the while this is going on, there is this constant pressure, from within and without, for the Church to conform, to get with the times, to abandon tradition and dogma and come enjoy the narcotic bliss of the slow death of the Western world.

“Your whole world is upside-down. The Cross sets it right.”

How do you suppose Christ sees our situation? What do you suppose is the reality beneath all these crooked manifestations?

All across the world, brothers and sisters, the Church is on the march, thriving in all the places we barely dared to hope she could thrive: in China, in Iran, in the former Soviet Union; even in mass conversions amongst those Muslim refugees of whom everyone seems so terrified. Christianity, and indeed the Lutheran Confessions, are going gangbusters in Africa, Madagascar, even old imperial Russia. Everywhere, it seems, but here. Everywhere but the West.

And so let me tell you what I see. I see the congregation of a Society of 300 faithful men and women (the same as Gideon had! the same as Leonidas!), gathered out of every nation, tribe, and tongue—Canadians, English and Scots, Vikings and Slavs and Americans of every stripe, some of whom were here long before Columbus—all of us, drowned in Christ’s own death already died for us, and raised up in Christ’s own eternal life, already begun; gathered here for fellowship and formation, raptured up in the Divine Liturgy together with all the saints of everywhere and every when; nourished from eternity by the Bread of Heaven and Cup of Salvation that bind us as one into the Body of Christ!

I see immortals! Men and women implanted with the undying flame of the Holy Spirit coursing as fire through our veins! We are the few, we are the chosen, selected and empowered by the King of Kings to go, and to proclaim His liberation to a world enslaved by acedia, desperate for something, anything, that is Good and True and Beautiful, a world ravenously hungry for the only food which can satisfy the infinite longings of the sundered human heart: Jesus Christ our Lord!

What a time to be a Christian! What a time to be a priest! Saints of old would have sawn off their legs to have the mission, the opportunity, entrusted here and now to you and to me! Save the world! Save the West! Be the faithful in a faithless time! Rise, rise to the battle we have been called to fight! For the victory is already won for us in Christ Jesus and Him Crucified!

Oh, my Society! We find ourselves surrounded by opposition and inundated with need—which means that we have the enemy exactly where we want him. Hell hasn’t got a prayer. And as the White Rider prepares to lead our charge in glorious array, He calls upon this army of faith:

“Pick up your cross, and follow Me.”

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


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Limits of Forgiveness


Propers: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 24), A.D. 2017 A

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant speaks to us in terms that we can understand: debt.

A great king seeks to settle accounts with his servants, his bondsmen, one of whom owes him some 10,000 talents. Now, this is a ludicrous sum. A talent, in today’s money, would be somewhere in the neighborhood of one and a quarter million dollars. And this guy owes 10,000 of them. We’re talking billions.

And so the king rightly seeks to punish him, and to recoup the loss. So he orders that the servant be sold into someone else’s servitude, along with his family, and that all his property and possessions—which one would assume to be extensive—be liquidated to pay off the debt. The servant, who is either an inveterate embezzler or criminally incompetent, throws himself on the mercy of the court. “Have patience with me,” he cries, “and I will pay you everything that I owe!”

And the king, out of pity, releases the servant and forgives him the debt. Note that the king does not simply give the servant more time to repay it, as requested. Rather, he forgives the entire amount, purely out of mercy, purely out of grace. Such a magnanimous lord! Foolishly so, some might say.

And then the servant, forgiven his billions, goes out into the wide world and happens across a fellow servant who owes him 100 denarii. Now, a denarius is a laborer’s daily wage. So this second servant owes three months’ minimum wage to the fellow who was just forgiven a dozen billion dollars. “Pay what you owe!” says the first to the second, and his fellow bondsman quotes back to him his own words: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you!” But the wicked servant has no pity on the poor debtor, and has him thrown into prison until the full amount is repaid.

Of course, news of this rapidly gets back to the king, who is doubly outraged by the injustice and public shame of it all. “You wicked slave!” he roars. “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me, and you could not have mercy on your fellow slave as I had mercy on you?” And in anger, the king throws the wicked servant into prison, to be tortured, until he can pay back 10,000 talents in full. For by your standard of measure, so shall it be measured unto you.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant uses hyperbole—billions and billions!—to illustrate the magnanimity, the ridiculous superabundance, of God’s mercy toward us. We owe an unpayable debt, the lovelessness we have shown toward God and our neighbor, yet we are forgiven ten thousand million times over, purely out of mercy, purely out of love.

Justice and mercy both demand of us, then, that we pass this love on, that we let it flow out from us into all the world around us. I mean, what sort of sick, twisted Wall Street mogul, having just been forgiven twelve and a half billion dollars, then goes out and assaults a poor, vulnerable man to extract from him a few thousand? If that’s the world you want, Jesus says, then that’s the world you will be given. And woe unto you, when you receive what you demand.

So, how often are we to forgive a member of the Church? As many as seven times? Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times! We are to forgive as we have been forgiven, without reckoning, without limit, without end. Forgive us our sins, Lord, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Which is all well and good, I suppose, when we’re talking about money. But what about when we’re speaking of something a bit more painful? What about when someone has been the victim of an assault? What if the victimizer, the perpetrator, the abuser, has shown neither remorse nor repentance, and might not even be known? What happens then—when we are still raw—and we are told we must forgive?

I cannot help but think back to several years ago, in Pennsylvania, when a madman went on a rampage at an Amish elementary school. The parents of those children, that very night, went to the parents of the killer, and publicly forgave them. It was an astonishingly powerful witness to the Christian faith, humbling to all who watched. I certainly don’t think I would have been able to do it, if it were my child at that school.

But then—the madman’s parents weren’t the killers, were they? They were just as shocked and mournful and wracked by grief as the Amish themselves. Perhaps even more so. They cried out for that forgiveness. They needed the grace of God.

It is an agonizing thing to demand that a victim, still suffering, forgive an unrepentant assailant. And this is not a hypothetical situation. A few years ago, a woman named Maria Mayo wrote a book called The Limits of Forgiveness, after her experience of being assaulted and hospitalized by a home invader. Her attacker was never identified, and remains anonymous to this day. And while she was yet in her hospital bed, well-meaning Christians kept telling her that she would never be whole, never be healed, until she forgave her attacker. This she called the “cruel torture” of unconditional forgiveness.

Our modern notions of therapeutic forgiveness are not biblical. We have a hard time seeing this, because we always think in terms of the individual, while the Bible always speaks in terms of the community, the family, the people of God. Nowhere does the Bible say that it’s on you, the victim, to forgive an unrepentant attacker. Forgiveness in the Bible is always tied to reconciliation, to the community. And that necessitates repentance.

A far more biblical model of forgiveness may be found in the Truth and Reconciliation Committees in South Africa and other nations healing from horrific wounds. There the guilty confess their crimes—they speak the truth, openly and publicly, admit to the wrong—and then they are forgiven. Then they are readmitted to the greater community of the nation. And the people can now go forward together.

I’m not saying that God wishes us to be vengeful, or to hold a grudge. But there is no true mercy without justice, and no true justice without mercy. Any sin can be forgiven. Any rift can be healed. But you cannot forgive one who seeks no reconciliation, no repentance, no continued life together.

Because that’s what forgiveness is! Forgiveness means living in community together. It doesn’t mean that we forget the wrong has occurred, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we pretend it never happened. What it means is that we will go forward from this point together. We are given the gift of new life—but it has to be shared.

Forgiveness, dear Christians, is a mercy. It requires humility and selflessness and grace. We would find it impossible had God in Christ Jesus not first forgiven us. But precisely because forgiveness is a mercy, it cannot be cruel. It cannot put disproportionate pressure on the victim. It must speak the truth.

Confess the sin, repent, and beg forgiveness. All else is psychobabble.

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


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Let It Burn


A Wedding Homily

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

We often get love backward. Marriage—thank God—sets us right.

See, as a people, we tend to treat love as though it were oil or gold, something rare and mysterious, hidden out there in the world somewhere, that we have to hunt down, dig up, and hoard. It’s for us, you see, a precious rarity that we have to suck out of others in order to be happy. “How, oh, how,” we ask, “can we ever find true love?” Such is the picture we gather from advertisements, Hollywood, and society at large.

But this is exactly backward. Love isn’t like diamonds or gold. It’s not something you take from the world and keep for your own. Love is something you give. And only by giving does it grow and spread, filling all the world around it, like a virus, like a fire.

And that’s why marriage sets us right. Marriage shows us what true love is. It’s not a sentiment. It’s not a passion. Love is not the same as feeling in love. Love is a choice, an act of will, the promise to put the good of another before our own. To love is to give of oneself for our beloved—and that hurts. Love hurts. But that’s perhaps the best thing about it. That’s how you know it’s real.

Laurine and John, gathered here this afternoon before the altar of our God, you are Christ’s witnesses to the world. Your love for one another, and the covenant you here profess, proclaim to us all that marriage is sacramental and sacrificial. It is sacramental because the love shared between husband and wife is a physical reminder of the love that God has for His people, that Christ has for His Church. It is a covenant, that I will be yours and you will be mine, come what may! It is the promise that here at last is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone, the missing half of me who makes me human, makes me whole.

And it is sacrificial because from this moment on, you do not live for yourselves, but you live for one another. John, you are called to love and protect and care for Laurine, placing her needs before your own. Laurine, you are called to love and protect and care for John, placing his needs before your own. And that’s hard. It takes a great deal of humility and patience and forgiveness, every day. True love is flossing beside the same person for the next 50 years. True love is admitting that the more you love someone, the more you want to kill them.

But to live this way—to live wholly for another, and for the family you will raise together—is to become so much more than you ever were before, so much more than you ever dreamed you could become. Together, you will be stronger and wiser and live more fully and more selflessly than you ever could have apart. You will force each other to grow, constantly, every day. You will be more than John and Laurine. You will be a home.

See, a lot of people think that love will keep their marriage together. They think the passion of youth will burn brightly through all the years of work and boredom and compromise. It won’t. But if you do it right—and I very much believe that you will—your marriage will hold your love together. You will each give of yourselves. You will each put the other first in your heart. And the flame of your love will grow. It will mature like a fine wine.

In a world constantly striving to distract us with entertainments and commodities and ephemeral diversions, this is what’s real. This is what’s true. This love, this marriage. It is the North Star that guides us home. It is the refreshing breath of reality amidst all that is flimsy and fake.

And someday, decades from now, when you are old and grey, and your children are grown and have children of their own, and you think that you know your spouse better than they know themselves—you will still surprise each other. You will still grow together. And you will look out on the things you’ve done, the people you’ve loved, the community of which you’ve been a part, and you will realize, “We did that. The love we shared did that. The life we’ve lived did that. And the legacy of our love will echo down through the generations long after we are gone.”

Today is the day that everything changes. Today is the day that you lay down your individual lives and pick up your new life together. Today is the beginning of it all. Your love is a holy fire. Let it go, and let it burn.

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


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Immortal


Propers: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 23), A.D. 2017 A

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

What would you do with forever? What would you do if you would never die?

See the world, maybe. Go to all the places you’ve always dreamed of seeing. Read all the books you could never have fit into a single lifetime. Learn a language—learn a thousand languages! Climb Everest! Build a city, build a world! Or maybe you would just rest beneath the shade of a maple tree, and watch the clouds billow and twist across the sky, trace the sun and the moon in their courses, never once worrying about things you ought to be doing, never once afraid of wasting your time.

All of which sounds rather lovely to me. But soon enough, you would’ve seen the world, read the books, learned the tongues of every clan and race and tribe. You would’ve experienced all that the universe has to offer—ten thousand-thousand lifetimes of men!—yet still you would be left wanting. Still one day you would find yourself asking, “Is this everything? Is this all?”

See, we were built to be immortal. But not immortal as we imagine it in this world, in this life. We were built to be one with God, to live in perfect harmony with our Creator and all of his Creation. We were made to love and be loved by God. And so we are born with a craving, with a hole in our hearts, that God alone can satisfy, for God alone is infinite and eternal. And no amount of time, no number of experiences however great, can ever replace that, can ever fill that hole. We hunger for the infinite. Nothing else will do. We were meant to live with God, and we were meant to live forever.

And so to this day, the passage of time surprises us. The coming of death frightens us. It doesn’t frighten any other creature, at least not in the same way. Sure, we all avoid pain and predators, but no dog sits out on the lawn and thinks, “What am I going to do with my life? What is my purpose in the time allotted to me? How will I be remembered after I die?” No, when it’s the dog’s time, he just lies down and passes in peace.

Not so for us. We’re always surprised by how old the reflection in the mirror has grown. We live our lives ever with the endpoint of life in mind. Death becomes real for us the first time we lose someone we love. For me that was first grade. If we were built to exist, and then one day simply to cease existing, then time and death would not shock us. That would be like a fish surprised by water. But we are built for more than this. We are built to live forever, to live beyond the grave.

Every culture in history has known this. And the Resurrection of Jesus affirms this.

So what will we do with forever? As we have seen, an eternity without God is hell. You don’t need to imagine devils or pitchforks; just living forever without God would be torture, would be boredom, would be an infinite hunger that could never be assuaged. No wonder the Buddhists talk about hungry ghosts.

But an eternity with God is bliss. And I don’t mean bliss like sitting on a cloud with harp in hand for a few billion years. I mean the only way that a finite creature can know and love and interact with an infinite Creator is if we are forever learning, forever growing, forever flourishing, world without end! Always becoming more than we were yesterday, for eternity! God is the inexhaustible source of life, of Goodness and Truth and Beauty, who has no endpoint, who will never be boring, who will bring us to a fullness that is never full and to an eternal liberation that is beyond all time and all reckoning.

And that’s what God wants for everyone, and for all that He has made. He promised us as much through the prophet Ezekiel this morning: “I have no pleasure in death,” sayeth the Lord, “but that the wicked turn from their ways and live!” Turn back to God, He begs us. Turn back to what is real! Turn back to the One who has made each and every one of us for his own, to love and be loved without limit and without end. Turn to your Father who created you, to your Redeemer who died for you, to the Spirit who raises each and every mother’s son from the loamy earth of the grave!

See, every human being you will ever meet—no matter how rich or poor, how wicked or sick—every single one of us has an eternal destiny. We are becoming, every day, what we will be forever: either a creature of ceaseless glory and bliss and life and joy; or a fallen, broken thing of insatiable emptiness and hunger. Now we know it is the will of God that not even one of his children be lost; and that Christ himself, God in the flesh, descended into hell to liberate the spirits imprisoned by their own disobedience and damnation. And so it is the right of every Christian to hope and pray that in the end all might be saved.

But in the meantime, we are to live and conduct ourselves in the sure knowledge that every human being is an immortal—is a god or a goddess, in the small “g” sense of the word. You have never met an ordinary person! Every one of us has an infinite destiny, and you or I have no idea what sort of pure and glorious creature any one of us might one day become. We are each an infinite potentiality, a seed of immortality sown within the earth.

The elderly and forgotten in the nursing home; the child, neglected and ignored; the person saddled with disorders or diseases all throughout her life; every one of them will rise at the last, purified and whole and unleashed upon the world! Then we shall see them as God sees them, as they were meant to be all along: creatures fitted for Heaven.

And so, when we read this morning’s Gospel—about how to deal systematically with a Christian who has wronged us in the Church—we cannot reduce this Word of God to a plan for congregational conflict resolution. It’s not a checklist. It is a reminder that even in the nitty-gritty of daily life together, even amidst silly disagreements and vile spats, we are dealing with immortals. We are living side-by-side with people who will not only live forever but who will grow and shine and create forever. We possess an infinite destiny; we possess the Image of God.

“And if the offender refuses to listen even to the Church,” sayeth the Lord, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This, in the Gospel recorded by Matthew, the tax collector. This, in the Gospel proclaimed to the Gentiles, like us.

So let us be humbled, brothers and sisters, by our enemies, by our families and our neighbors, by humanity as a whole. They may drive us crazy; we are all too human. But they are also sons and daughters of God Most High. And someday we shall all inherit our crowns.

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