Friday, January 06, 2017

Twelfth Night: The Manger and the Cross

S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna
[Sermon on the Eve of the Epiphany at the Chapel of the Cross, Chapel Hill, NC, with the Renewal of Ministry including the Installation of Elizabeth Marie Melchionna ('06) as Rector.]

Merry Christmas! I hope Christmas has been good for you, all twelve days, and here we are on Twelfth Night, the Eve of the Epiphany - so for the last time, Merry Christmas, and for the first, Happy Epiphany. This is a time between times, a hinge time as it were, and not just in our Church year but in our civil year as it starts and not least in the life of this parish as you welcome a new Rector.

W. H. Auden’s poem Christmas Oratorio includes a word picture of this time of transition:

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes --
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week --
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully --
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. …
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off.

Auden evokes a familiar wistfulness and fatigue as the feast winds down; but at the end of that passage a more sobering note, that “unpleasant whiff of apprehension," is struck.

If there is always some moment of pause as Christmas draws to a close, this particular year we are starting together, and that you will face as a parish community with your new Rector, is not shaping up to be an easy one. The earth itself shakes under our unwieldy footsteps, and even climate witnesses to our arrogance or at least our lack of foresight. Acts of terror around the world, that add perversity to violence by being committed in the name of faith, seem to be worsening. Closer to home, many are wondering what standards or ethics will be shaping both executive and legislative leadership for this country this year and beyond, and how fragile our diversity may prove to be when voices of exclusion are given oxygen by political climate change.

Let’s put it this way - if we had to organize Christmas here next year, we might find ourselves in trouble. Shepherds are low-paid service workers, and might well be undocumented - we will have to hope that they haven’t been deported by then. The Magi, our Epiphany companions, are of rather higher status but are foreigners and their visa applications will have been thrown into doubt by our new policy of hiring only Americans; for that matter they actually come from Iran, so all deals involving Gold are off, even if Frankincense and Myrrh might slip through.

You may or may not see the signs of the times in quite these terms, and bless you in either case. But each year brings realities that map onto the universal truths of human need and brokenness, and speak of the need for hope in troubled times. For this the child came once and was manifest to the nations; now again we must seek his presence and make him known.

So for now Christmas goes, but Epiphany comes - this time when what Christmas had begun "how silently, how silently” now grows, and in this crescendo our holiday fatigue gives way to Gospel glory. For while Christmas began with a word that God spoke privately by an angel to a fearful woman, and continued as a rumor in the obscure fields and back alleys of Bethlehem, beyond the probing eye of kings and away from the curiosity of crowds, the time has now come for what was once told in whispers, or shared among unlikely poor folk lacking in influence, to be manifest to the world.

What is manifest is however no simple thing. There are still tidings of comfort and joy, but they come in a form none of us would have chosen, if those were the only criteria. That “whiff of apprehension” of which Auden spoke concerns the fact that the one born in poverty and under occupation will not only live among us with love we have not otherwise known and can barely imagine, but that the consequence of this will be that "Good Friday...cannot, after all, now Be very far off.” The wood of the manger will become the wood of the Cross. Or as the Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe put it, "if you don’t love, you’re dead; and if you do, they’ll kill you."

Another poet, T. S. Eliot, pondered this strange connection in another famous Epiphany poem, Journey of the Magi, where one of the wandering sages reminisces:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

And this, we insist, is good news to proclaim, and the true way for our own journey; that this God-with-us is manifest not only to mysterious travelers, not just at his baptism, not just at his Transfiguration, but in his abandonment and his desolation and his death.

These are not things we seek, or should seek. But these mean that his presence and his love is manifest, not only in our moments of feasting and festivity, but in our deepest needs and in the hardest places: in Aleppo and in Istanbul, in our toughest neighborhoods, and on both sides of any walls, conceptual or literal, that are built to separate what and whom he would hold together. For in manifesting the triumph of God’s life over death, he allows hope to be manifest to our eyes even in these places, and calls us to them, like the Magi, to bring our gifts and worship him there, there, there - and here. You cannot worship him at the manger if you will not worship him in these crosses that the world continues to manifest.

And in this Renewal of Ministry tonight at this Chapel of the Cross, what is manifest in the world of him is unquestionably what you all this evening, along with Elizabeth Marie your Rector, are affirming your willingness to seek, to embody, to proclaim, privately and publicly, in workplace and home and public square, as well as in Church.

Your ministry here - yours Elizabeth Marie, and all of yours sisters and brothers - is needed, not just because we have religious urges, or because we enjoy dignified worship, or because it’s good to have a moral compass in life, or helpful to have a community, even if those things are all true. We need your ministry here for the same reason we needed the Word to become flesh and to reveal his glory - to manifest the profound, the unimaginable depths of the love of God for a world which is broken. You may at certain times overestimate your powers, or occasionally lose your appetite for all this - but the one who has called you is faithful and loving beyond our imaginings; come, let us do him homage.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


Vaux Passional (c.1500).
National Library of Wales
[Sermon preached at Christ Church, New Haven, Advent 4, December 18 2016]

The streets and the airwaves alike are now full of the virtues and themes of the season: comfort and joy, warmth and goodness, peace and love, death and judgement, death and hell. Oh wait…

Some of you may recall that in fact it was traditional to preach the “Four Last things” - death, judgement, heaven, and hell - on the four Sundays of Advent, which means we would indeed be up the last, and worst, and above all least “Christmassy” of all theological topics imaginable. But what was the last time you heard a sermon about Hell in The Episcopal Church? Strap yourselves in.

Peter Carey’s 1981 novel Bliss is the story of a man named Harry Joy, who seems to have a happy life. Harry has a loving spouse and two dutiful children, and a thriving advertising business that keeps them prosperous. Then Harry dies. Or at least he has a near-death experience - a massive heart attack while mowing the lawn leaves his consciousness floating above his body, watching as a hastily-summoned doctor first thumps his chest, and then attaches wires. Before the shock drags him back, Harry, we are told, “recognized the worlds of pleasures and worlds of pain, bliss and punishment, Heaven and Hell.” (Bliss, 12).

On revival from clinical death, Harry finds the shape of life is familiar, but its character is not. His wife and his business partner are having an affair. His daughter is a terrorist prostituting herself, and his son is a drug dealer. His advertising agency is promoting companies that pump out carcinogens. One thing only is possible, he believes; when he died, Harry had gone to Hell.

In fact, the reader can tell if he cannot, that Harry Joy simply discovered things that had always been the case; hell was already there, but had not been visible to him.

It is clearer in scripture that heaven actually does lie close at hand, something we experience now and not just in God’s future or as our ultimate destiny; Jesus says, for instance, that “the kingdom of God in in your midst” (Luke 17:21) or that “whoever believes in [him] has eternal life” (see John 5:24 etc.) But this may be as true of hell as of heaven. Hell, after all, is the realm of sin and death. When our lives are lived according to their logic, whether by our own choices or those of others, we are already in hell.

It may be that we need to understand, as Harry Joy came to understand, that what we may take for heaven - or at least for normality - actually is hell; that we need to be released from a bondage to the power of death so profound that we cannot even see how much we and the world need deliverance from it.

Hell is not a popular idea for Christians of a particular stripe - perhaps that means many of us - whose steadfast belief in a God of love seems to preclude the awful horrors dreamed up in Dante or even just in the Revelation to John - lakes of fire and demonic tortures and such.

There are problems with such imaginings indeed, but the world we now live in has horrors just as repellent. Hell has already planted its standard on the earth just as heaven has: ask the people of Aleppo these recent months, or those who sat through the trial of Dylan Roof this past week, or those who experienced the bombings in Cairo or Istanbul last week; and hell reigns much closer to home as well, in every act of violence and terror, every inaction driven by contempt and indifference. For hell among us is not just the spectacular, but includes the banal also.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury once said in an interview “My concept of hell, I suppose, is being stuck with myself for ever and with no way out. Whether anybody ever gets to that point I have no idea. But that it’s possible to be stuck with my selfish little ego for all eternity, that’s what I would regard as hell.” This more personal view is not dissonant with the hellish realities of war and politics; for violence and terror are the expression of that selfish ego, its infliction of itself writ large in the rejection of charity and justice. And while Bishop Rowan rightly expresses caution about what population if any hell has, the hellish realities we can see provide dread witness to what God may allow us to choose for ourselves, now and in eternity.

Today we do begin to glance across the wearying territory of Advent expectation to the land of Christmas promise fulfilled, in these familiar and hopeful readings of God with us, Immanuel, a wondrous child. Yet these are not unambiguous tidings of comfort and joy. Isaiah’s promise of a child - perhaps originally a new Judean prince, whose birth would offer reassurance of God’s faithfulness to the embattled house of David - is made in a time of warfare between Jerusalem and its near neighbors, and is a sign of judgement as well as of hope: "before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

Christians have long read Isaiah as speaking not only of whatever event relevant to seventh century BCE politics, but of Jesus and to his coming. The promise of the child is a sign of God’s faithfulness, but also of necessity a sign of deliverance from the power of evil - from hell.

We do not need this child’s coming to add atmosphere to the holiday season, or because there is still a space on life's tree for one more ornament. We need the child because we live in hell - in the power of sin and death - and he promises to deliver us. In coming to earth, in his life, death and resurrection, he will not only “refuse the evil and choose the good” but face the power of hell, storm its stronghold, and free from its prison those who know they need God’s victory.

He calls us to come out of hell - out from our false heavens, our illusions of security and self-satisfaction. Hell’s power is false and its days are numbered. A child is coming, Immanuel, God with us. And if God is with us, who can be against us?

Monday, November 14, 2016

Not One Stone Upon Another: Apocalypse, Election, and Christian Life

Model of the Jerusalem Temple (Wikipedia Commons)
"As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."

Today’s readings, close to the end of the liturgical year, may seem to have an appropriately apocalyptic feeling, evoking God’s great day of judgement, persecution and destruction, even the end of the world. Perhaps you are still reeling from recent events that seem to have conjured up such possibilities  - yes, I mean could the Cubs really have won the World Series?

Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel about events far more cataclysmic to his contemporaries than anything in recent sports or politics here - the destruction of the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. These events were to take place, along with destruction and suffering on a tremendous scale, between the time this story is set and the time the Gospel of Luke was written down, when in AD 70 Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans, its people killed or dispersed, and the Temple razed to the ground.

The Jerusalem Temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world - in Jesus’s time it was a great platform more than half a mile long and 600 feet wide. Even now, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem occupies over 35 acres. Pious Jews still gather at the so-called Wailing or Western Wall, not part of the Temple proper but a section of the retaining wall that held up the tons of earth supporting the Temple structure proper.

The stones to which Jesus refers were largely a series of walls encompassing sacred space, parapets and barriers that dictated how far each visitor could come, according to their status. Starting at the center, the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, was entered by the High Priest only once a year; beyond that was a court where only the priests as a group could go, to fulfill their sacrificial duties; outside that, another area where only male Israelites could go to pray; then a further court, where Israelite women could attend; and beyond that, a court of the Gentiles. It was this last outer space in which we might imagine Jesus overthrowing the tables of money changers, and this Gospel story being told also.

The cataclysm that would come on Jerusalem was not only about physical walls; Jesus goes on to prophesy other forms of division, and of struggle and destruction, at human as well as physical levels: "You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name…"

Perhaps this feels like what some of you have experienced in recent days, trying to understand or be understood by people close to you, but whose perspectives have been incomprehensible to you, and vice versa. 

The deep divisions in political culture reflect even more serious ones: economic inequality is getting worse, not better; racism seems as intractable as ever; things women should have been able to take for granted - shall we say since at least the 1970s, or just forever? - seem to be as elusive now as decades ago. Everyone knows something is wrong, but everyone has retreated into one of two regions of the mind, divided by a (so far) invisible wall, increasingly unable to imagine how anyone on the other side could think differently. Walls, literal or figurative, are rarely the answer.

A literal wall, at least the idea of one, has played a part in this recent campaign. Maybe, as one leader of the incoming administration put it a couple of days ago, that wall was just a “campaign device”; but whether or not it comes, it represents something problematic, and there are existing walls of a subtler kind that have to be dealt with. There have been signs this past week that some have been encouraged by the result to express negative feelings or even physical violence towards other members of the community who now feel vulnerable. Whatever our understandings of the election, can be clearer about our response to these events. 

And while we don’t yet know exactly what a new presidency will itself achieve or seek to, from hereon we pray for the president-elect, just as for every president, not because we believe in him but because we believe in prayer, and based not on whether or not he or his predecessor deserve it, but because they need it.

The breaking down of walls is not easy, and comes at some considerable cost. They may seem to protect what we hold sacred. The destruction of Jerusalem was a tragedy in every sense, yet it challenged those who contemplated the ruins to ask how God was present and active among them. And at that time, they remembered Jesus’ words - “not one stone will be left upon another."

In the Letter to the Ephesians, there is another word-picture that alludes to the destruction of the Temple and to those stones and walls that not only protected the sacred, but divided people one from another: “[Jesus Christ] has broken down the dividing wall between us…so you are no longer strangers and non-residents, but fellow-citizens with the saints and members of God’s household.” This text was referring to Jews and Gentiles as divided, but the point applies to us in so many ways now, too.

Jesus would have been a poor presidential candidate - his reflections on what was to come would have been even more confronting to his hearers than anything said or thought in recent days or months in this country - but he demands your allegiance beyond your civic or even familial ties. Christians do not constitute a particular political party or by our nature identify ourselves as a group with the secular world’s attempts to define what is right. Jesus says "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!' and, `The time is near!' Do not go after them."

God’s candidate was, however, and is, Jesus Christ. You have not chosen him, he has chosen you. And we are thus elected by God to hold office in the Church by baptism into him. In the days and years to come, as in the past, he seeks your service, your discipleship, your loyalty. We express that service here in our eucharistic celebration, but we also express it in our lives beyond these walls, and especially in our treatment of those who are behind different walls of separation: from God, from one another, from what makes for fullness of life in every way. Our membership of Jesus’ party, Jesus’ commonwealth, will be reflected in the days ahead by our willingness in home and workplace and public square to defend what and who we must, and to be prepared for the negative reactions of others in doing so. "But not a hair of your head will perish,” Jesus says. "By your endurance you will gain your souls.” 

“Not one stone will be left upon another.” Our most sacred places, literal or conceptual, may fall; but whatever comes, we will have been brought near to God and to one another in Christ Jesus.