The Best Meal in the World

Sermon preached at Christ Church
Greenwich, Connecticut
June 23, 2019 / Second Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 8:26-39


I’d like you to think for a minute about a time when you went out for lunch or dinner and had a great meal. Where were you? What did you eat? How was it cooked? Whom were you with? What made it great?

I will confess that one of the best meals that I have ever had consisted of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. What made it great was that as a 13-year old I had carried this precious meal up the side of a mountain, and I unwrapped it surrounded by the glories of creation, under a clear sky and warm sun, and I ate it at the top of the world. Nothing ever tasted so good.

Research suggests that up to 50% of diners’ perception of the quality of the food that they are served in restaurants is affected by the surroundings: the lighting, the décor, the solicitousness of the staff, and all the other intangibles of the dining experience. Strictly speaking, a restaurant could make the greatest Dover sole or filet of beef in the history of the world, but if presented by a surly staff on poor china and under harsh lighting, not only would a Michelin star be withheld, but – more importantly – it wouldn’t taste as good as worse food in more sophisticated surroundings. This is why restaurants spend so much on interior design, from the most down-home barbecue pit to a palace of haute cuisine.

What this tells us is that the disposition of the person who easts a meal matters a great deal.

This past Thursday was the feast of Corpus Christi, when since the 13th century the Western church has set aside a particular day to meditate on the memorial that Christ has commanded us to make in the sacrament of his body and blood. The history of Christianity is littered with conflict over the exact mechanics of what happens at the altar, what happens to the bread and the wine when consecrated. The great body of the ignorant – both Christian and pagan alike – are shockingly well versed in the terms of those debates, probably since transubstantiation is a funny word that tends to stick in the mind. But I fear that too much attention to the bread and wine themselves has tended to obscure the purpose of what we do on Sundays, and that misplaced attention leaves us high and dry concerning whether and why any of this even matters.

Those of you who have been well catechized will know the technical definition of a sacrament: it is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The sacrament of Holy Communion – of the bread and the wine – is not an end unto itself, nor does it work mechanistically, like a spiritual protein bar, something you can shove into your mouth whilst running to catch the train.

Communion is a means by which we encounter the living Christ, and like a person sitting down to any meal, the attention with which the meal is eaten matters a great deal, whether that meal is in all simplicity (like the 8 am service) or slightly more elaborate (like the 10 am). The disposition of the diner is important. The shape of the Sunday morning service is an aid to the correct disposition: we are put in mind of God’s saving deeds in Scripture; we say our prayers; we – importantly! – confess our trespasses against God and our neighbor; having confessed, we are able to share the peace of Christ with our neighbors. Having done these things, we may come to the altar rail, devoutly kneeling.

Some years ago, while flipping through the Prayer Book during a particularly long and boring sermon, I came across a lovely prayer, which I had never heard before. For those of you flipping through the Prayer Book during this sermon, it is on page 834. Here is what it says:

O Lord Jesus Christ, who in a wonderful Sacrament hast left unto us a memorial of thy passion: Grant us, we beseech thee, so to venerate the sacred mysteries of thy Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of thy redemption…

That prayer tells us everything about what Communion is, what its purpose is, and why it is not just a token of membership in a club called the church. For those who come to this altar in faith, the sacrament forms part of the means by which we may be spiritually renewed, and our lives changed for the better.

St Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”[1] That is what we are doing here. It is only by this renewal in Christ that we may hope to find the transformation we seek, the transformation that we hope to bring to the world by means of – as Paul also writes – “the fragrance that comes from knowing Christ.”[2]

In this morning’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke, we hear what it looks like when a person is transformed by an encounter with the living God. The Gerasene demoniac is healed by Jesus, and the demons that had possessed him are shown to be viciously suicidal when entered into a herd of pigs. After the man’s ordeal is over, he is sitting at Our Lord’s feet, and some people come out to see him. Do you remember what their response was? They were afraid. Of course they were. An encounter with a person saved by Christ is unsettling and unnerving. I remember as a college sophomore being paired for a class project with probably the prettiest girl in the class. Meeting in one of the coffee shops to coordinate our work, we were chatting amiably, and I – in all of my smug worldly wisdom – made a flippant comment about evangelical Christians.

“I’m an evangelical Christian,” she said plainly. She wasn’t upset or offended. She didn’t tell me off. It was unnerving, and it is still unnerving, because she was no Bible thumper; she was composed and kind and her utter unflappability unmasked my knowing condescension as so much hot air. She had the daily assurance of the living presence of the risen Christ, and next to that, all the rest of it was just noise. The joke’s really on me, though. She’s now a lawyer in Washington, and I’m up in this pulpit, preaching, an evangelical Christian in the most literal way.

When we come to this Holy Table, with a bit of fear and trembling but really with devotion and kindness and humility in our hearts, God opens the path by which Christ may drive out the demons of conceit and self-absorption and make room for charity and mercy, thus remaking our lives, and through our lives, remaking the world. It may be an unsettling experience for us, and for those around us, “declaring how much God has done for you,” but it has the power to send demons scampering to their destruction.

Let us pray that, through our worthy reception of the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood this day, we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of his redemption, and show forth his glory in our lives, now and always.

AMEN.


[1] Rom 12:2
[2] 2 Cor 2:14

Excuse me, but do you speak English?

Sermon preached at Christ Church
Greenwich, Connecticut
June 9, 2019 / Whitsunday

Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17, 25-27


Have you ever been traveling in a foreign country, and – having fumbled with phrasebooks and struggled your way through simple requests – a perfect stranger approaches you and says, with perfect clarity, “Excuse me, but do you speak English?” It is a beautiful sentence, and an instant relief.

I remember being on the streets of Rome, which, with my very limited Italian, I had been navigating in a basically mute capacity, when a couple approached me and said, “Excuse me, but do you speak English?” They were attractive, and American, and since this was before cheap international data plans, they were also hopeful that together we could decode their map. Standing together, we became an island of good humor and the Protestant work ethic, allies and friends in a foreign land.

This is the experience of Pentecost.

We hear in the great story of the day that the apostles were together in one place, when they were filled by the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, “as the Spirit gave them ability.” There are certain varieties of Protestants who are perhaps overly optimistic in their reading of this story, and who fancy that they themselves are “speaking in tongues,” when what they are doing is really speaking gibberish. That is not what it means to “speak in tongues.” Those within earshot of the apostles that day were “amazed and astonished,” because each one heard them speaking in his own language. The apostles spoke in tongues that others could understand, telling of “God’s deeds of power.” It was by the operation of the Holy Spirit not only that some were empowered to speak, but also that others were empowered to hear.

Perhaps I should pause, and say something about the Holy Spirit, since we seldom really hear or talk about the Holy Spirit, and I think that the very word “spirit” tends to obfuscate our thinking.

The Holy Spirit is the very substance of God, working in the world in all times and in all places. Our Lord says to his disciples, as we heard this morning, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”[1] And that is just what happens as the disciples are gathered together, and tongues of fire appear among them. We might remember that at the very beginning of the book of Genesis, the story of creation is articulated in this way: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”[2] The movement of the presence of God in creation is anterior to light itself, and the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, is the power of God to make things happen.

When infants and converts to the faith are baptized in the Episcopal Church, they are marked with the sign of the cross, and the minister tells them: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Just as Christ promised the Holy Spirit to his disciples, so too are we promised that God the Holy Spirit will be with us as baptized members of the Christian family.

A few years ago, the essayist Nicole Cliffe wrote a piece about how she was roused out of her happy atheism: one day, all alone in a room of her house, she heard herself say out loud, “Be with me.” She found it embarrassing, and she brushed it off. That was the preamble. Some days later, she writes,

I was surfing the Internet and came across John Ortberg’s… obituary for philosopher Dallas Willard. John’s daughters are dear friends, and I have always had a wonderful relationship with their parents, who struck me as sweetly deluded in their… faith, so I clicked on the article.

Somebody once asked Dallas if he believed in total depravity.

“I believe in sufficient depravity,” he responded immediately.

What’s that?

“I believe that every human being is sufficiently depraved that when we get to heaven, no one will be able to say, ‘I merited this.’ ”

A few minutes into reading the piece, I burst into tears.[3]

Why did she burst into tears? Because she heard a story that had never made sense to her before, a story of the overwhelming love of God made known in the person of Jesus Christ. Because the Holy Spirit was with her, and opened her ears to the Good News of the risen Christ, to the reality that her value was not finally dependent on her bank account, or her résumé, but on the love of God, poured out on the Cross. It was as if a stranger had walked up to her in a foreign country, a place where she didn’t speak the language, and asked, “Excuse me, but do you speak English?” She had the experience of Pentecost, and like those who heard the apostles, she was amazed and astonished and perplexed. Given her crying, she could have been mistaken for being drunk on white wine. But she was a woman changed by the Holy Spirit.

St Paul writes that, “no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.”[4] That’s why we wear red on Pentecost, because of the tongues of fire that alighted on the disciples, and why Pentecost is considered the birthday of the church. Pentecost marks the day when the disciples began to spread the word, and when people were able to hear the story and be amazed. Their lives were changed, and they were empowered to share the love of God in ways that changed the lives of their friends and neighbors as well. I wonder how the Holy Spirit is at work in your life.

If you have come through the doors of the church today, if a single thing in this sermon, or this service, has made sense, that is not primarily a reflection of the skill of the preacher. It is in the power of the Holy Spirit to open our ears to the Gospel, to enable us to hear the Good News, each of us in our own language, this day and forever.

AMEN.


[1] John 14:25
[2] Gen 1:1-2
[3] Nicole Cliffe, “How God Messed Up My Happy Atheist Life,” Christianity Today, May 20, 2016, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/june/nicole-cliffe-how-god-messed-up-my-happy-atheist-life.html
[4] 1 Cor 12:3

The Spirituality of Attention

Homily preached at Evensong at Christ Church
Greenwich, Connecticut
May 12, 2019 / Fourth Sunday of Easter
Craig Walter Casey Memorial

Wisdom 1:1-15
1 Peter 5:1-11

The Anglican evening service, for which we have all gathered here tonight, in some ways sits anomalously in the life of this town and even this parish. It is a truism, and I assume that it is as boring for you to hear from the pulpit as it is for me to say it, that we are a preoccupied people. But the fragmented quality of our attention encouraged by constant digital communication and its implements is not just an annoyance: it presents a spiritual danger. Having divided us, evil may chip away at our attention. Saying, “I don’t have time to care about that right now,” can often be the first step down the road to perdition, whether for ourselves or for the neighbors whom we are called to love as ourselves.

Most religious celebrations tend to unintentionally recapitulate the busyness of daily life. They gather us around a table of some sort. They hand us a book, or a plate, or speak a word and demand a response. They want to ‘touch’ us. Evensong is a liturgical expression of Christ’s saying Nolle me tangere – “Do not touch me. I have not yet ascended to my Father.”[1] And there is a purpose to that.

Evensong is the name given in 1549 to the service we commonly call Evening Prayer. The service was adapted after the Reformation from the monastic hours of Vespers and Compline, designed to be simple and compact enough to be said by the faithful, alone or in groups, at home or in church, every day. It does not require the presence of a priest. It is – in its quiet way – a wondrous phenomenon, perfectly suited to its purpose. Even the word ‘Evensong’ is poetic, and it seems to chime in perfect harmony with the seasons of the year: Autumn’s melancholy, early evening light; the merry crackle of Winter frost; Spring’s awakening, or the lazy, protracted sun strained through the warmed windows of a Summer afternoon.[2] On a day like this, the warmth of the light and the music fortifies us against the cold and damp outside the walls of this church.

In our choral service this evening, the choir sings those parts of the service, which – if we were saying Evensong alone or in the company of others – we would read together: the selection from the Psalter, Magnificat, Nunc dimittis, and the responses.

There has been a long debate since the beginning of Christianity about the role of music in worship. Even St. Augustine, who famously said that “He who sings, prays twice,” was concerned with the power of music’s beauty to distract the listener from the worship of God.

But in our case this evening, the music is not chiefly decorative. Because the choir sings settings of the regular prayers and canticles, and chants the psalms, music comes to reinforce the words, well known to the faithful: O God, make speed to save us; My soul doth magnify the Lord; Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace. Music can highlight particular aspects of familiar texts in ways that are unexpected and which draw the listener into a deeper appreciation of well-known phrases.

As for the idea that listening is necessarily passive, attendance at this service helps us all develop something that may be called the “spirituality of attention.” Attention is active engagement with what is at hand, and it is opposed to unconsciousness – the condition of mindless action – which is at the root of all our inhumanity. Think of the things that have unconsciousness at their root: from basic rudeness to littering to heinous crimes of passion. So when the choir sings on our behalf, we are called to listen, to be attentive the words, and “our experience of listening will be one of participation, and our experience of participation will be one of prayer.”[3]

It is often thought that the purpose of the Christian life is to do certain things, and there is a reason for this, even beyond our nervous tics to be active all the time. When we hear verses of scripture that say things like, “by their fruits ye shall know them,” the imperative to do certain things and not do other things seems paramount.[4] When we confess our sins in the words of the Prayer Book, we come clean that “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

But the Christian life is not merely a list of to-dos and not­-to-dos. The Christian life is about the cultivation of character.

In our second lesson this evening, we heard St Peter’s words of caution to his brothers and sisters in Christ: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist, steadfast in the faith.” In the translation we heard this evening, that verse begins, “be disciplined.” That discipline begins in prayer, begins in attention to our surroundings, to the present moment, to ourselves, and to God himself. That is what we do here this evening. It’s not just an aesthetic experience, though we do our best to make it beautiful. This service is part of the school of prayer which is the church, whose end is training us to be sober and vigilant, to give us the training to face the challenges of our lives with fortitude, prudence, temperance, and justice. If you think of the people whom you have admired in your lives, I bet their they were distinguished by their strength of character. This is what it means, as our first lesson began, to “love righteousness… [to] think of the Lord in goodness and [to] seek him with sincerity of heart.”

This service is sung tonight in memory of Craig Walter Casey, who as a clergyman was affiliated with this parish and its Choir of Men and Boys for more than a dozen years. Fr Casey well knew the power of Evensong to focus the attention of the faithful – even the attention of the choirboys who will find the rhythms of Evening Prayer in their bones long after their voices have changed and they have graduated to the back row. It is why the Casey Memorial Fund enables boys of the choir specifically to participate in the choir’s periodic tours to England, where their work consists not in concerts and applause, but in the daily singing of Evensong.

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist, steadfast in the faith.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN.


[1] John 20:17
[2] Stephen Hough, “‘Do not touch me’: the wisdom of Anglican thresholds,” The Telegraph, January 25, 2012, http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/stephenhough/100059899/do-not-touch-me-the-wisdom-of-anglican-threshholds/.
[3] Stephen Cherry, liner notes to “Choral Evensong Live from King’s College, Cambridge,” EMI Classics, 1992.
[4] Matthew 7:20

Sedes Corporis et Sanguinis Christi

Homily preached at Christ Church
Greenwich, Connecticut
May 8, 2019 / Commemoration of Dame Julian of Norwich
Altar Guild Rededication Service

Hebrews 10:19-24
John 4:23-26

A couple of years ago, the Bishop of Texas came to visit Yale Divinity School. In a talk he gave to the Episcopal students there, he remarked – with all the fervor of a prophet – that the future of the church was one that would reach beyond the four walls of the church building on Sunday mornings. It wouldn’t be enough, he said, to evangelize the neighborhood with our zeal for Christ and to be known by our works of mercy and charity; to survive, the church of the future would need to sever its crippling and sentimental attachment to the Sunday morning regime of liturgy and coffee hour, a regime most evident, said the bishop, in the ministrations of the altar guild.

I think the good bishop was surprised by the strength and vehemence with which altar guilds were defended by members of the student body, including those whom this preacher found the most unlikable, and under heavy assault, the bishop relented and was forced to admit that he himself likes churches and altar guilds.

But there is a tendency in contemporary church life to poo-poo the buildings, vestments, and vessels of the church, to imagine that chalices and linens are outmoded and antiquated, and that the contents of the sacristy somehow stand between the church and its own future. Our neighbors who worship down at the Hyatt cheerfully sneer at Christ Church’s maintenance of its historic campus, but without a lot of understanding of why it is that church buildings are actually important, and why worshipping in a temple devoted to bland, mass-produced, pseudo-luxury represents no more than a tinhorn faith for a tinhorn culture.

Jeremy Taylor, one of the 17th-century Anglican divines, gives a good summation of why it is that we set apart church buildings for their particular purpose. He says something about why those buildings have altars as their focal points, as indeed churches have had for most of Christian history. He writes:

The Altar or Holy Table is sedes Corporis et Sanguinis Christi. S. Chrysost: hom: 21. in 2 Cor: et alibi.  And if the Altars, and the Arke and the Temple in the Law of Nature and Moses were Holy, because they were God’s Memorialls, as I shewed above, then by the same reason shall the Altar be uper agion, highly Holy, because it is Christ’s Memoriall. ….. Wee doe believe that Christ is there really present in the Sacrament, there is the body and bloud of Christ, which are, ‘verely, and indeed’ taken and received by the faithfull, saith our Church in her Catechisme. Now if places became holy at the presence of an Angel, as it did it with Joshua’s case to whom the captain of the Lords Host appeared, and in Jacobs case at Bethel, and in all the old Law, for God always appeared by Angels, shall not the Christian Altar be most holy where is present the blessed Body and blood of the Son of God?[1]

We hear Taylor’s use of the phrase “really present in the Sacrament,” which is the classic Anglican response to the question of what is going on at the Altar when the Eucharist is celebrated. Christ is present in the bread and the wine, for those who worthily receive the sacrament. The work of the Altar Guild is to care for the altar itself – for the sedes Corporis et Sanguinis Christi – as well as for its dressings and accoutrements. It is a sacred work.

As Bishop Henry Codman Potter of New York once remarked, “The best deserves the best,” and that is why we use sterling, and linen, and silk. We might recall that in the Gospel of John, Christ’s passion is preceded by Mary’s anointing him lavishly, with pure nard; and it ends with Joseph and Nicodemus, laying his body in the tomb, having wrapped it in linen and anointed it with “about a hundred pounds” of myrrh and aloes.[2]

It is perhaps not incidental that we should gather here to rededicate ourselves to the ministry of the Altar Guild on the day on which the church commemorates Dame Julian of Norwich. Lady Julian was an anchoress, which means a religious recluse (from a Greek root meaning “to retire” to “a place”). She died in the first quarter of the 15th century, and was for decades sought out by Christians from across England and continental Europe.

She became a recluse at Norwich soon after her recovery from a nearly fatal illness, living in a small dwelling attached to the Church of St Julian. Even in her lifetime, she was famed as a mystic and spiritual counselor and was frequently visited by clergymen and lay persons, including the famous mystic Margery Kempe. Kempe writes of Lady Julian: “This anchoress was expert in knowledge of our Lord and could give good counsel. I spent much time with her talking of the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[3]

The life of the church, which is anchored for us in the church’s liturgy with the altar at its center, is not an incidental construction. Lady Julian did not live in a cabin in the woods; she lived in a dwelling attached to a parish church, the place where the people of Norwich came to “worship the Father in spirit and truth,” as we hear Jesus say in this morning’s Gospel lesson. Lady Julian met them there, at the door of the Lord’s house, as a guide for those who would grow in the “knowledge and love of God and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Other than moments of revelation – which are few and far between – God makes himself known to us in the word of Scripture (and hopefully in its homiletical exposition), and in the Word made flesh, Jesus his Son, whom we know through Scripture and through our encounter with him, week in and week out, at the altar. The work to which we rededicate ourselves today, the care of that altar, is a holy work, and it is meet and right and a good and joyful thing that there should be in this place a guild set apart to perform it.

May God speed you in that work, this day and always.

AMEN.


[1] Jeremy Taylor, “On the Reverence Due to the Altar,” in The Whole Works of the Right Rev. Jeremy Taylor, D.D.…, vol. V, ed. Reginald Heber and Charles Page Eden (London : Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1847-1856), 330.
[2] John 19:39
[3] Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 1991 edn, 220.

Ad majorem Dei gloriam

Sermon preached at Christ Church
Greenwich, Connecticut
April 15, 2019 / Monday in Holy Week

John 12:1-11 

Most of you will know by now that the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, one of the pinnacles of Western civilization, caught fire this afternoon. Arson is not suspected, just a terrible accident, during restoration work on the cathedral’s roof. If you are hoping for good news about the building, I’m sorry to say that I have little. The spire [flèche] has collapsed, and the roof has been destroyed. Although the fire is contained, the Paris fire department expects the building to be a stone shell, at best. Happily, much of the art and many of the relics and other treasures were carried to safety, but the building is faring much less well.

This is not the first go-round with devastation that Notre Dame has experienced. Victor Hugo’s novel, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was published in France under the more direct title, Notre Dame de Paris, was inspired by the dilapidated condition of the cathedral, which was half-ruined inside and battered without, and the popularity of the book led to a national restoration campaign for the cathedral. That is probably not much comfort today.

I must say that I am a great lover of church buildings, and that I always have been. I remember, as a child, gazing in wonderment around Europe at the soaring churches in almost every city. They resembled in a vague way the church buildings one knew at home, insofar as the windows had pointy tops, but they were of a different scale and ethos altogether. Notre Dame and its European cousins were built ad majorem Dei gloriam, to the greater glory of God, and an encounter with such buildings definitively produces an encounter with the majesty of God himself, whether we call the focus of that encounter “God” or “the sublime” or some other form or psychological transcendence.[1] They are places within which the mind of man is confronted by something at the limits of his imagination, and that is a place in which he can meet God on something close to God’s own terms.

You might imagine, correctly, that I have visited hundreds of churches over the years. But when Hannah and I most recently visited Notre Dame, in March of last year, we two were among many thousands of visitors that day, just ordinary pilgrims, and the building was literally awesome. Awe-inspiring. Utterly magnificent. Even as worldly and jaded a person as your preacher could not do otherwise but look up and marvel.

We live in a moment that tends to disassociate these forms of transcendence, these ways of experiencing the majesty and glory of God, from the work of the church. Perhaps it is more correct to say that we are in a moment in which religious professionals, and people who take themselves to be religious professionals, tend to be dismissive of church buildings. One of the things I’m least looking forward to about the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire – other than the massively trite and uninformed 24-hour news commentary – is the debate amongst church people over what the French government ought to do now. What should one do with a devastated church building, even a monument of world significance? Couldn’t that money be better spent on social programs? Let me rephrase the debate:

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair… But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

The evangelist is very clear about Judas’ motives, by the way: “He said [what he said] not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” We might remember Jesus’ sharp rebuke to Judas Iscariot in this scene. When Jesus tells him that the poor will always be with them, he is not telling him, “don’t worry about the poor.” Quite the opposite. He is drawing the attention of Judas and everyone in earshot to the unvarying Old Testament commandment of their duties to care for the poor. He is also drawing their attention to Judas’ hypocrisy, laying bare the way he gussies up his cravenness and self-dealing in the costume of charity.

When Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” it is worth remembering that those duties to the poor – duties shared by Judas and the disciples and all of us – are not ends in themselves. They are not absolute on their own terms: they are a subsidiary of our commitment and our need, as Jesus said, to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” He continues: “This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” The second commandment is important only inasmuch as it reflects our wholehearted love of God, and the two are not coextensive.

What we find in tonight’s Gospel lesson is that God is not finally reducible to a kind of social worker, or a sort of fairy Godmother, or a buddy, who’s there when we’re kind of bummed out, ready to cheer us up and help us get back on track. The god who is the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ is experienced and glorified by ordinary men and women in a limitless number of ways. Art, architecture, music, and literature go hand in hand with ordinary community life and service to our neighbors. In fact, they glorify each other. Pot luck is a dreary business without Bach and Milton and the cathedral of Notre Dame.

Everything we have been given – everything in the world around us – is excess to requirements. It is gratuitous that the leaves in the fall are beautiful, even as they decay. It is gratuitous that music should be pleasing as well as mathematically coherent. It all glorifies God, and it tells us something about who God is. Creative. Extravagant. And most especially so in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

St Paul writes, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”[2] As we make our way faithfully through this Holy Week, we are well to remember the enormity of what has been accomplished on the Cross. Christ’s victory over Sin and Death – for our sake – is no small matter, and not something that can be properly appreciated without fear and trembling before the God who is at the limits of our imagination. May our lives be devoted to glorifying that God, even as we mourn the ashes of one of the world’s great houses of prayer, built to his everlasting glory.

Ad majorem Dei gloriam.

AMEN.


[1] See Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
[2] Rom 6:5

St Patrick’s Breastplate

Sermon preached at Evensong at Christ Church
Greenwich, Connecticut
March 17, 2019 / St Patrick’s Day

Isaiah 8:19-9:2
Luke 6:20-31


Most of what most of we know about St Patrick has a lot to do with drinking pints of green Guinness, or the dying green of the Chicago River, and – if you’re like me – St Patrick’s Day has a lot to do with trying desperately not to ride Metro-North home in the evening on St Patrick’s Day itself.

The first St Patrick’s Day Parade in New York – and its associated revelry, we may assume – was held in 1766 by Irishmen in a military unit recruited to serve in the American colonies. After the War of 1812, local Irish fraternal and beneficial societies took over from the military unit as parade sponsor, and the parade has endured to this day.

But who was St Patrick? What do we know about him? Well, we know that he was the patron saint of Ireland, thus the annual celebration.

But Patrick was born in Roman Britain around the year 370, somewhere in northern England or southern Scotland. Calpurnius, his father, was a deacon, his grandfather Potitus was a priest, indicating that clerical celibacy is of rather more recent vintage in the Roman Church.

Patrick, however, was not an active believer. According to his autobiography, in his youth, he was captured by a group of Irish pirates and taken across the Irish Sea. Here is what he wrote:

“I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our deserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought down on us the fury of his being and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth, where I, in my smallness, am now to be found among foreigners. And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.”[1]

The fact that Patrick would go on to become the Apostle to the Irish was a secondary effect of his biography. He could not go back to Ireland and be a missionary and minister to the people of Ireland until he had come to an active faith in Christ himself.

This autobiography of Patrick’s he called his Confession. That might make your ears perk up and think of a more famous “confession,” which is St Augustine’s Confession, which is a tale of his rowdy youth. And much like Patrick, Augustine turns to the Lord, and his life is changed.

Now, Patrick doesn’t have a rowdy youth story. His Confession doesn’t have tales of the kind of things that happen on St Patrick’s Day. He has a more ordinary story, actually; he has a story of a kind of dull nonbelief. He was just living his life.

Those of you were here at the 8 o’clock or 11 o’clock services this morning will have heard me quote William Temple, who was archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 until 1944. Temple famously said that, “The great aim of all true religion is to transfer the centre of interest and concern from self to God.”[2] The Greek term for this is called metanoia, and it means a 180 degree turn, literally to turn right around and transfer the center of attention from ourselves to God.

It is ironic that St Patrick’s Day, which is often a day of celebration and revelry, comes often during Lent, a period we associate with asceticism, with self-denial. There’s nothing at all wrong with celebrating St Patrick’s ministry to the Irish. This is why we heard from Isaiah in our first lesson this evening that “the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”[3]: Patrick brought to Ireland the light of the Gospel, which he himself had come to know.

But we remember St Patrick not only for his mission, but also for the model of his life. The Lord opened his mind, as Patrick said, “awareness of [his] unbelief, in order that, even so late, [he] might remember [his] transgressions and turn with all [his] heart” – metanoia – “to the Lord [his] God, who had regard for [his] insignificance and pitied [his] youth and ignorance.”

That was Patrick’s moment of metanoia, of transference of the center of his concern from himself to God, and I wonder what yours might be. We are about to sing a hymn whose spirit sums up St Patrick’s love of God, and how his life was turned around by opening his heart to the Gospel message. As we sing it tonight, may our lives be turned as well to the Lord’s service, this day and every day.

Praise to the Lord of [our] salvation,
salvation is of Christ the Lord
.[4]

AMEN.


[1] Confession of Saint Patrick, 1-2
[2] William Temple, Nature, Man and God (London: Macmillan, 1935), 457.
[3] Isaiah 9:2
[4] att. Patrick (372-466); tr. Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-95)

Spiritual Gifts

Sermon preached at Christ Church
Greenwich, Connecticut
January 20, 2019 / Second Sunday after the Epiphany

1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.

It was a long time ago that Paul wrote those words. But “there is nothing new under the sun,” as another famous passage of Scripture tells us, and here in 2019, I do not want you, my brothers and sisters, to be uninformed.[1] Because we know that – even here and even now – idols that cannot speak are still present to lead each and every one of us astray.

William Wordsworth rather famously wrote a poem on this topic, which begins thus:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon![2]

Paul tells us how to know when we encounter an idol, something that would cause us to “lay waste our powers”: no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed,” he writes, and that distinction covers more than just the militant atheist or casual agnostic. The Name of Jesus is cursed by anything that draws our attention and our loyalty away from the love of God and toward small and selfish ends, toward getting and spending, using the “gifts God gave us” chiefly for our own private thrills or personal aggrandizement – a “sordid boon.”

When I was a child, my parents would often ask during one of their dinner parties if I would play something on the piano. My answer was NO. I’m not a circus act. I would always gladly play a recital, and I would be glad for anyone to hear me play on such an occasion, which was of course – to my mind – the only correct venue and hour for performance.

In this morning’s second lesson, we hear the same sort of thing from Jesus, don’t we?

When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

“I’m not a circus act.”

What happens next, it seems to me, is that that Mary somewhat forces Jesus’ hand. She doesn’t cajole him or reason with him. Instead, she says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you,” putting the ball squarely into Jesus’ court. What was he going to say? Nothing? “Go away”?

Instead, and perhaps even with a godly frown toward his mother, he sends the servants to fill the jars with water, and we all know what happens next. The water is changed into wine.

The Prayer Book’s marriage service reminds us that this is the “first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee,” and the symbolism here is not incidental. The water jars used by Jesus were intended for the Jewish ritual of purification, part of the Old Testament’s ceremonial and devotional regime. But Jesus repurposes the jars, and in transforming the water, the glory of Christ is manifested for all those with eyes to see. The wine – and good wine at that! – is a clear sign that in Jesus, something new was happening, that the old order in religion was being superseded by a new order, that as the Evangelist writes in the first chapter, “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”[3]

In his letter, Paul lists the classic spiritual gifts of the New Testament: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophesy, discernment, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. Some of these surely seem esoteric – particularly the gifts concerning miracles and tongues – although I will say that even as hard-headed a Protestant as your preacher has known individuals with the gift of tongues.

The others however, are not esoteric in the least. Wisdom. Knowledge. Faith. Discernment.

I wonder which of those gifts you have been given. Paul is very clear: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit.” No one is left out.

These gifts are not – in the end – for our own private enjoyment. Every gift of the Spirit is given, as Paul tells, us “for the common good,” and therefore must be exercised for the sake of that common good. This is not to say that it is not a joyful thing, for example, to play the piano alone in one’s own room: take it from me… it can be a delight. But we have all seen the ways in which treating gifts as private goods can corrupt those gifts, making them the stuff of petty rivalries or individual conceit.

I remember, on one particular occasion, being at the house of family friends, and my mother took me aside and asked me whether I would play something for our hosts, on their piano. NO, I said. I’m not a circus act.

“Now you listen to me,” my mother said. “It would mean a lot to Ted, to hear that silent piano of his brought to life. Could you give him that?” I had to conclude that I could, and so I grudgingly went to the piano.

For the Christian – Christian literally means, “little Christ” – the exercise of his or her gifts for the good of the church and the world is a sign of the coming of Christ, a sign that the dour logic of getting and spending is not the final word in our humanity. In exercising your gifts – whatever they may be – you are making a difference in the world, even if you are doing what may seem to be a small thing, for only a single person.

The human being’s reflection of the “image and likeness of God”[4] is not seen finally in the disposition of our bodies, but in the development of our character. With God’s help, the human being learns to be merciful as the Father is merciful, to exercise his or her gifts in the Lord’s service and in his most holy Name. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit,” Paul writes, and it is by that same confession that we can be sure our gifts are being used toward the purposes for which they have been intended, for “all such good works as [God] hast prepared for us to walk in.”

In my case, the spiritual gift was not playing the piano. The spiritual gift was the willingness to be generous, to swallow my pride and play something for the delight of the group, and that of our host, who loved music and seldom heard any played in his own house. That was wisdom, and faith, and even healing, and it took no more than playing a short piece I already knew how to play.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

AMEN.


[1] Ecclesiastes 1:9
[2] William Wordsworth, “The world is too much with us,” in William Wordsworth: The Major Works, ed. Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 270.
[3] John 1:17
[4] Genesis 1:26