The Immediacy of Grace

Today’s post is going to be a bit meta.

Tonight, we are starting our Lenten series at Heavenly Rest.  This year, the series is called “The Immediacy of Grace: Literature and the Catholic Imagination.”  We are exploring the work of several Roman Catholic authors, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sigrid Undset, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy.  The goal of the series is to explore how these authors are shaped by their Catholic identity.

One of the most conspicuous elements of Roman Catholic practice is the central importance of the sacraments, the outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.  The most extraordinary thing about these sacraments is that the Church affirms that those who participate in them have access to the grace of God.  Anyone who participates in Holy Communion, the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) or any of the other sacraments has the opportunity to experience God’s abundant grace; it is theirs for the asking.

imagesHow does this understanding of the immediate accessibility of  grace shape the way a Catholic author looks at the world?  If one looks at the work of Flannery O’Connor, one will be struck and perhaps horrified by how brutal her depiction of the world can be.  Stories like “A Good Man is Hard to Find” chill one to the bone, and make one wonder if there is even a possibility of redemption.  I believe that part of the reason that O’Connor can present reality in such an unvarnished way is that she is shaped by the knowledge that God’s grace is available to us.  O’Connor’s wrote her stories in light of what she calls “the central Christian mystery,” that the world, “for all its horror,” has “been found by God to be worth dying for.”  To put it another way, Catholic authors try to view the world through the lens of the Cross, the ultimate source of grace that has been made known to us through the brutality of this world.

I hope that this is the perspective that has shaped and will shape this series of devotional readings (this is where the post gets meta, in case you were wondering).  Too often, we get bogged down with the drudgery of the world and forget that God’s grace is available to us in the sacraments and revealed to us  in surprising ways.  During this season of Lent, I pray that you will strive to see the world through the eyes of God: a place that is, for all its warts, worth loving to the point of death.

Wonderland

Sermon on Matthew 17:1-9 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

Though there’s nothing terribly impressive about the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, there is one thing about it that is almost impossibly romantic.  You may be wondering how there can be romance in a mass transit system; I will explain.  You see, the T, as it’s known, is comprised of five different lines, each designated by a different color: red, orange, green, silver, and blue.  On four of these lines, the names of the stops are fairly straightforward: they describe the location above drily and accurately.  On the blue line, however, the names of the stops are imbued with a romance that is unparalleled in any of the country’s other mass transit systems. From the jauntily nautical “Aquarium” to the pastoral sounding “Wood Island” to the impossibly exotic “Orient Heights,” the names of the blue line stops bring to mind images far more beguiling than the world we typically inhabit. Appropriately, the most romantic name of all is reserved for the end of the line: “Wonderland.”  The very thought of that name invites the rider of the blue line into a reverie of possibility and beauty, into a world that far exceeds our limited imagination.

Now, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Aquarium is not actually filled with giant fish, Wood Island is not a primeval forest sprouting from the middle of the sea, and Orient Heights is not filled with pagodas and rickshaws.  And while one knows intellectually that these stops could not possibly live up to the romance of their names, it is still incredibly dispiriting to discover that they are like any other place.  All of these stops are disappointingly mundane, featuring the same shops, same people, and same challenges that characterize the rest of Boston and the rest of the world.  imagesMost disappointing of all is Wonderland.  Though the name evokes images that transcend even our wildest imaginations, Wonderland is, in fact, home to a run-down amusement park and a dog track. When one emerges from the depths of Wonderland station, there is a moment of spirit crushing self-realization as one thinks, “Is that it?  Is that all it is?”  It is one of those disappointments that makes you want to go back in time and pretend you don’t know what you know, to remain on the subway car and dwell in the safety of your imagination rather than face the cold certainty of reality.

Today we celebrate the Transfiguration, the commemoration of the time Jesus took Peter and James and John up a mountain, was physically transformed in front of them, talked with Moses and Elijah, and then returned down the mountain as if nothing happened.  It’s one of the stranger moments in the gospel account, not because God’s presence is made manifest to mortals (that actually happens with some frequency in Scripture), but because it has so little to do with the rest of the story.  The Transfiguration is an event that takes place in nearly all the gospel accounts, and in none of them does it seem to be a terribly important part of the narrative.  This is strange, because these moments when God is made manifest to mortals, known as theophanies, are usually hinge points in the lives of those who have these experiences.  After Moses experiences God in the burning bush, he embraces his responsibility to lead his people out of Egypt.  After Elijah experiences God in the still small voice on the top of Mount Horeb, he sets off to find the remnant that had not bowed the knee to Baal.  After Jesus experiences God during his baptism in the Jordan, he enters the wilderness to begin forty days of fasting, prayer, and discernment.  Theophanies are typically moments of transformation, so it is strange that not much seems to change in the lives of Peter, James, John, or even Jesus after the Transfiguration.  In the very next passage, we find the disciples complaining that they are unable to cast out a demon, which is what we have come to expect from the often-clueless disciples; nothing seems to have changed.  This is made all the more confusing by the fact that the word we translate as “transfiguration” is literally “metamorphosis.”  The whole story seems to hinge on this notion of change, and yet we are told that things have quite deliberately remained the same; Jesus even tells the disciples not to say anything about what happened.  The Transfiguration is a deeply perplexing moment in the life of our Lord: Jesus is literally transformed in front of his closest disciples and yet doesn’t seem to want anyone or anything changed as a result.

Why is this?  Why would Jesus, who is so utterly focused on conversion and amendment of life, be so uninterested in the transformative effects of arguably the most dramatic moment of transformation in his life and ministry?  It might be helpful for us to consider the story from Exodus we heard this morning.  The echoes between the story of the Transfiguration and the story of Moses ascending the mountain to receive the tablets of the Law are obvious.  In both cases, people are enshrouded by cloud on a mountaintop.  In both cases, Moses figures prominently.  And in both cases, mortals encounter and experience the living God.  There is one distinction, however, that seems to be of particular significance.  In the reading from Exodus, notice how many times we hear that people had to wait.  God tells Moses to wait, Moses and Joshua tell the elders of the people to wait, Moses waited six days before he ascended the mountain, and the people of Israel waited as Moses remained on the mountaintop for forty days and forty nights.  All of this waiting serves to underscore the significance of what was happening on the mountain.  The waiting allowed Moses and the people of Israel to anticipate what was coming.  The waiting represented a time of expectancy and hope, an awareness that this encounter with God, that this moment on the mountain was going to change everything.

We can actually see Peter exhibiting this familiar sense of anticipation and expectancy in Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration.  As soon as Moses and Elijah appear, Peter seems to recognize it as a theophany, a moment when he will encounter the living God, and he makes appropriate plans: “Moses is here?  That must mean we’re doing Exodus all over again!  We may be here forty days!”  His exuberant reverie is interrupted, however, by a voice from heaven that says, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased: listen to him.”  After falling on the ground (which is the appropriate and expected response to hearing the voice of the Lord), Jesus taps Peter on the shoulder, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  I can’t help but notice that at the first opportunity the disciples have to listen to Jesus, to obey the command of the very living God, Jesus gives them the surprisingly mundane instruction to “get up.”  Immediately after that, he tells them to keep their mouths shut about the events that have transpired.  Surely Jesus could have used the opportunity to impart some timeless spiritual truth or to issue some complicated command.  After all, the disciples were probably more than ready to listen after God himself told them to do so.  Instead, Jesus uses his newly imparted authority to get the disciples off the mountain, to point them away from the theophany, to point them towards the next steps of their journey.

In many ways, it’s not at all surprising that Peter wanted to linger on the mountain.  After all, just prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus informed his disciples that he would undergo great suffering and be crucified at the hands of the authorities.  imgresJust before his Transfiguration, Jesus had just made it abundantly clear that his glory would be revealed in the agony and humiliation of the cross.  So when Peter saw Jesus’ glorious transformation on the mountaintop, perhaps he wondered if another way was possible.  Perhaps he wondered if Jesus could bypass the cross by revealing his glory surrounded by cloud and situated between the symbolic arbiters of the Law and the prophets.  It seems that Peter wanted to stay on the mountain because he was afraid of what waited for him at its base.  It seems that Peter wanted to maintain his illusions about Wonderland and ignore its cold reality.  I think that all of us can sympathize with Peter.  All of us know what it feels like to put our efforts into hiding ourselves from the frightening realities of the world.  All of us know what it feels like to spend our time worrying about risk rather than trusting in possibility.  All of us know what it feels like to live lives shaped not by hope, but fear.  But by taking hold of Peter and telling him to “get up,” Jesus tells us that the glory revealed on the mountaintop is fleeting, but the true depth of God’s glory is revealed on the cross.  By taking hold of Peter and telling him to “get up,” Jesus tells us that true transformation does not occur through cosmic special effects, but through God’s self-emptying love. By taking hold of Peter and telling him to “get up,” Jesus tells us that true theophanies occur not only on the mountaintop, but also on street corners and at homeless shelters, at rundown amusement parks and dog tracks, at places called the Skull.  By taking hold of Peter and telling him to “get up,” Jesus is telling us that we experience the way of life and peace not by dwelling in the safety of our limited imaginations, but by sacrificially risking ourselves in love for others and by refusing to be afraid of failure.

We are about to embark upon the season of Lent.  More than anything else, Lent is an opportunity for us to take those risks to which Jesus invites us as he tells us to “get up.”  It’s an opportunity for us to get out of our comfort zones, to step down from our hiding places on the mountaintop and encounter God in a new and perhaps surprising way.  It’s easy to slip into the fallacy that the season of Lent is a reset button for our New Year’s resolutions or a “spiritual Olympics” when we prove just how holy we are.  But attitudes like this miss the challenging beauty of this season.  At its best, Lent is about disturbing us in our complacency and impelling us to meet God in the unvarnished reality and brokenness of the world.  As we descend from the mountaintop and enter the holy season of penitence and renewal, I pray that all of us will have the grace to see Lent as an opportunity to embrace the hard realities of this world and experience the God who far exceeds our limited imagination.

Good News

Sermon on Luke 2:1-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

Every Christmas Eve, millions of people around the world tune in to listen to a Service of Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge, England.  HDR tonemappedFor those of us who are passionate about choral music, it’s always one of the highlights of the year, an opportunity to hear one of the world’s great choirs singing some of the classics of choral literature as well as some new compositions.  As much as I love hearing new and old favorites, however, one of my favorite moments of the service comes at its very beginning.  After the choir and congregation have sung “Once in Royal David’s City,” building from a single treble voice to a majestic wash of sound, the Dean of the Chapel intones the words of the Bidding Prayer: “Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to hear again the message of the Angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which has come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.”  I love this prayer, not only because of its beautiful language, but also because it implies that this is a story we have heard before and need to hear again, that the story of Jesus’ birth is indeed good news.

The term “good news” is used quite a bit in our culture.  There are whole websites dedicated to the sharing of good news.  For the most part, all of this “good news” is the stuff of feel-good human interest stories, the last three minutes of the 6:00 news.  A sampling of headlines makes this pretty clear: “At 82 years old, finally the ‘it’ girl on campus,” “Canadian Lottery Winner donates $40 million to charity,” “Girl donates her American Girl doll to raise money for the troops.”  You get the idea.  While I’m sure that all of these are wonderful stories of compassion and generosity, this is not the “good news” that the Angels proclaim in Luke’s gospel.  The “good news” proclaimed to the shepherds on that Middle Eastern hillside twenty centuries ago has much broader and more significant implications.

If you think about it, the gospel according to Luke presents the birth of Jesus is kind of an odd way.  You would think that the evangelist would want to focus exclusively on the baby and his family, on their joys and trials, their triumphs and hardships.  But instead, Luke begins his account of the birth of Jesus by talking about politics.  In particular, he focuses on a peculiar decree made by Caesar Augustus.  The emperor wanted to take a census of his diverse empire so the appropriate taxes could be levied.  This makes sense; this is part of the reason that our constitution mandates a decennial census.  It gets weird, however, when we hear that everyone was required to return to his hometown in order to be counted.  That’s just bizarre.  Why would you force someone return to a place he no longer lives in order to conduct a census?  If you do that, you’re not going to get an accurate count.  Scholars have wrestled with this, and some have come to the conclusion that there was no census, that it is a literary device used by the gospel to make sure that Jesus was born in Bethlehem so that the prophecy of Micah could be fulfilled.  But I wonder if Luke mentions this decree from Caesar Augustus to show us what the exercise of worldly power looks like.  The emperor used his authority to command people where to go, even when those commands didn’t make any sense.  By mentioning this decree, Luke exposes the way the world is: people are subject the whims of tyrants and forced to do their bidding.

It is within this context that the angels make their announcement.  Even as the known world is being subjected to the whims of a capricious ruler, an angel appears to a group of shepherds and says, “Do not be afraid, for behold: I am bringing good news of great joy that will be for you and all people.”  The word that we translate as “good news” or “good tidings” is euaggelion.  While both of the familiar translations are accurate, they do not capture the full scope of the Greek.  You see, euaggelion was not used for everyday good news; euaggelion was used specifically to announce the birth of a new emperor.  The angels are not simply telling us that something good has happened in Bethlehem; the angels are telling us that a new king has arrived.  Even as the rulers of the present age are forcing their will upon the world, the angels announce that a new ruler has been born and that the world is going to change.  The message of the angels is that this world can be transformed.  The message of the angels is that the days of the powers of this world are numbered.  The message of the angels is that God has come to dwell among us and has promised new life to the world.  When we hear the good news of Christmas, we are called to reevaluate our lives, reorient our priorities, and make ourselves ready for a transformed world.

Even though the angels’ announcement is ultimately a political proclamation, we must remember that today we celebrate the arrival of a very different kind of king.  While most worldly rulers are heralded by military parades and housed in magnificent palaces, the king we welcome today was heralded by a humble donkey and housed in a stable.  While most worldly rulers demonstrate their power through oppression and violence, the king we welcome today reveals his power in compassion and love.  And while most worldly rulers would do anything to stay in power and preserve their lives, the king we welcome today gave himself up for us on a Roman cross.  Today we affirm the deep logic of the Christian faith: in the Incarnation, God became one of us and demonstrated how we are meant to care for one another.  We are not meant to impose our will on others, we are not meant to presume that we know better than our neighbors, we are not meant to turn anyone away because of who they are or what they have done.  God has taken our human nature upon him; thus, we are called to welcome as a gift from God anyone who shares our humanity.  We are called to humble ourselves before the one who humbled himself as we reach out in love to the world Christ came to save.

choir-service-bigPerhaps the most dramatic moment of Lessons and Carols takes place silently and away from the eyes of the congregation.  As the organist plays the final notes of the prelude, the choir gathers in the rear of that beautiful chapel.  As they prepare to sing “Once in Royal David’s City,” sixteen young boy trebles huddle next to one another, uncertain about which one of them will sing the first verse.  It is not until the choirmaster sounds an opening pitch and points to one of them that they know who will sing an unaccompanied solo for the hundreds gathered in the chapel and the millions listening around the world (no pressure!).  It’s a powerful and dramatic moment, one that requires the boys to be ready for anything.  But more importantly, that nervous child singing about the birth of Jesus for millions upon millions of people is an icon of the Incarnation, a celebration of the fact that God shared our frail humanity and came to bring us good news.

Camelot

Sermon on Luke 23:33-43 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX on November 24, 2013.

This past week, our country relived one of the most traumatic events of the past century.  jfk convertibleAcross the country, people commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and if the coverage of the anniversary is any indication, it’s clear that the country continues to be somewhat overwhelmed by the experience.  This past week, Jackie Kennedy once again graced the cover of magazines.  There were documentaries dedicated to the Kennedys and their impact on American politics on all of the major news channels.  And the Internet was abuzz with beautiful photographs of the youthful president and his family as they gave state dinners in white tie and tails and sailed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.  We continue to be haunted by the memory of JFK’s assassination.  More than Pearl Harbor or even 9/11, it is burned into the American consciousness, and I’m led to wonder why.

On one level, the Kennedy presidency had incredible promise.  Kennedy was a stirring orator who enjoined his countrymen to ask what they could do for their country and reach for the stars.  But for all its promise, Kennedy’s presidency didn’t accomplish much.  It was Lyndon Johnson who ultimately pushed through the legislation and initiatives for which Kennedy advocated.  Though Kennedy was undoubtedly inspiring, it is hard to imagine that this was the only reason we continue to be overwhelmed by his death.  On another level, the JFK assassination and its aftermath was probably the first experience to be completely televised.  Within hours of the shots ringing across Dealey Plaza, ninety percent of the people in this country knew what had happened.  Everyone was able to watch as Walter Cronkite emotionally announced the death of the president.  Everyone was able to watch as Caroline reached under the flag to touch the hard wood of the coffin as her father lay in state in Capitol rotunda.  john jr.Everyone was able to watch as John Jr., wearing a tiny blue peacoat, saluted the caisson as it passed by bearing the body of his dead father.  While all of this explains why the Kennedy assassination is burned in our collective memory, it doesn’t explain why we continue to be haunted by it.  It seems to me that the reason the Kennedy assassination continues to overwhelm us has to do with the aura of the Kennedy White House.  Kennedy assembled this group of beautiful young optimists working hard to make the world a better place.  Kennedy and his administration had panache, they had charisma, there were moments that were downright regal.  It was no accident that Jackie referred to her husband’s White House as “Camelot,” that mythical, idyllic kingdom where the sun always shined and the grass was always green.  Fifty years ago, an assassin’s bullet tore through that idyll and forced us to deal with the reality that even the bulwarks around the kingdom of Camelot cannot withstand the brokenness of this world.  JFK’s death haunts us because it forced us to confront the fact that our world is a sinful and broken place, one where even those who embody what we think is ideal can be cut down in their prime.

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, which is one of the Church’s newer observances.  It’s only been around since 1925, when the Pope at the time declared the importance of acknowledging the reign of Christ and his kingdom.  It’s also an observance that tends to unsettle people a little.  As I was visiting with my ecumenical colleagues earlier this week, I asked whether they were observing “Christ the King” at their churches, and they all said, “No, we’re doing Thanksgiving instead.”  When I pressed them about their rationale, they all indicated somewhat vaguely that Christ the King tended to make people uncomfortable.  And I get that.  It’s always made me a little uncomfortable.  On one hand, the concept of kingship doesn’t really resonate with us much anymore.  We haven’t had a king in this country for a long time, and all of the monarchs in other countries tend to be figureheads.  Perhaps part of our discomfort with calling Jesus Christ our king is that the designation provides no frame of reference for us; we have no idea what it means to call someone king.  On other hand, kings are often tyrants, and that’s not an image we like to associate with the one we call the Good Shepherd.  We might be more comfortable with thinking about Jesus as a particularly well-liked president or prime minister, one who is in charge but answers to his people.

While these are certainly possibilities, I think the real reason for our uneasiness with calling Christ our King can be found in today’s reading from Luke’s gospel.  Today we hear a story that we generally hear during Holy Week, the culminating moments of Christ’s Passion.  We hear how he was crucified at Golgotha, how we was mocked by the crowds and derided by those who were crucified with him.  imagesIt’s a scene that is painfully familiar, one that fills us with anguish.  Yet Luke tells us that above all this tumult, above the derision and the mocking, above the pain and torture, an inscription hangs: “This is the King of the Jews.”  Luke offers this information without comment.  Unlike other accounts of Jesus’ Passion, Luke doesn’t tell us who hung the inscription, he doesn’t tell us if there was controversy about its wording; for Luke, the statement is self-evident.  What this indicates to me is that we are meant to read these words as a description of the events taking place.  Luke’s illustration of the torture and death of Jesus is captioned by this inscription that calls Jesus King: “This is the King of the Jews.  This is what Kingship looks like.”  In other words, Luke demonstrates to us that the kingship of Jesus is not revealed to us in his acts of power or the fact that he is divine; ultimately, Jesus is most fully “King” in his Passion and Death.  If we’re honest with ourselves, this is what makes us uncomfortable about calling Jesus Christ King.  Because when we do that, when we confess the kingship of Jesus, we are confronted with the same reality that the Kennedy assassination confronts us with: no one, not even God’s own Son, not even the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, not even the one we call King, is immune from the brokenness of this world.

Yet there is a distinct and vitally important difference between events like the one we commemorated this week and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  While both shake our equilibrium and force us to acknowledge our vulnerability, the passion and death of Jesus is distinct, even unique because he submitted willingly to the brokenness of this world.  He did not try to outflank his opponents, he did not try to outsmart the powers that crucified him.  Instead, he gave himself up on behalf of others, he willingly submitted to the sinful powers of this world and by doing so nullified their power.  The ultimate power that tyrants have over us is our fear of death.  By willingly going to death on the cross, Jesus Christ overcame that fear of death and thus made every tyrant, every evil and sinful force in this world powerless over us.  And not only did Jesus go willingly to the cross, he went in a spirit of love and forgiveness.  We would expect someone condemned to death unjustly to have plenty of vitriol to spare for those executing him.  We would expect him to shout over and over “You’ll see! You’ll get yours” or at least “You’ve got the wrong guy.”  But the words that Jesus utters from the cross are not words of retribution, they’re not words of protest, they’re not even words of triumph.  The only words that Jesus offers from the cross are words of love.  He forgives those who are putting him to death and he promises Paradise to a person who only a few moments before had been a selfish criminal.  At the cross and as our King, Jesus willingly submits to the sinful powers of this world and promises that the world, even with all its brokenness, can be healed.

What does this mean for us?  What does it mean to be subjects of a vulnerable king, a monarch whose power is revealed in powerlessness, a ruler whose primary weapon is love?  Ultimately, we acknowledge the kingship of Christ by refusing to fear those powers that Jesus defeated in his death and resurrection.  We are called to make it abundantly clear to this world that we are not enslaved to the power of death, that we refuse to live our lives in fear.  The fact that Christ is king means we do not have to fear pain or uncertainty or embarrassment or shame or any of the things that prevent from doing what we know to be right.  The fact that Christ is king means that we are empowered to follow Christ’s example of love for every one of our fellow human beings, no matter how they have hurt us.  The fact that Christ is king means that we do not have to fear even our own powerlessness, even our own vulnerability.  Above all, the fact that Christ is king means that love ultimately triumphs over evil and empowers us to heal this broken world.

Shadows

When I was growing up, the television network Nickelodeon had a Saturday evening line-up for pre-teens and teens called “SNICK.”  Though most of Nickelodeon’s programming included cartoons and game shows that involved many gallons of green slime, SNICK featured slightly more sophisticated fare, including a sitcom featuring an omniscient narrator called Clarissa Explains It All, a quasi soap opera about a girl who could turn into a puddle of silver goo called The Secret World of Alex Mack, and a Saturday Night Live style sketch show called All That.  I was a devotee of Nickelodeon’s Saturday night lineup, which was surprisingly high quality; many SNICK veterans have gone on to success in movies and on other television programs, including Saturday Night Live.

titleOne show in the Saturday night lineup that I refused to watch, however, was a program called Are You Afraid of the Dark?  As far as I can tell (I never actually watched a whole episode), Are You Afraid of the Dark? featured a group of teenagers who called themselves “The Midnight Society” (even though the show was on at 9:30) and met in a secret location every week.  Gathered around a campfire, one member of the group would tell a scary story, which would be depicted by actors for the television audience.  Most of the stories were adaptations of fairy tales or urban legends and probably weren’t all that scary, but the very idea of the show terrified me.  I couldn’t understand why any group of sane people would get together and try to frighten one another.  The show’s title asked whether I was afraid of the dark; my answer was an unequivocal “yes.”  I was afraid of the dark and everything that could potentially happen in the dark.

One of the services traditionally associated with the Wednesday in Holy Week is Tenebrae, which comes from the Latin word for “shadows.”  It’s one of the more unusual services of the Church, and features readings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the letter to the Hebrews, and a treatise on the Psalms written by Saint Augustine.  The most conspicuous feature of the service is the gradual extinguishing of candles and other lights in the church until only one candle remains.  As we prepare our hearts for the final days of Holy Week, the church is gradually shrouded in darkness and shadow.  This process is symbolic of the gathering darkness, the fact that forces are beginning to conspire to put Jesus to death.  Tenebrae seems to say that if ever there was a time to be afraid of the dark, it would be now.  And yet, even at the end of the service, when the entire church is covered in darkness and we are anticipating Jesus’ betrayal and death, a single candle burns.  I’m always amazed how much light that single candle casts; it illuminates the faces of those who have gathered to face the darkness and steels their resolve.  That single candle reminds us that even when we feel that all hope is lost, even as Jesus gasps for life on the cross, there is hope.  That single candle reminds us that even when our world seems to be crashing down around us, the faintest glimmer of hope can give us courage and sustain us.  Even in the despairing final days of Holy Week, there is a whisper that reminds us we can hope for new life and transformation.

Neighbor

UnknownLast week was the late Fred Rogers’ birthday.  Though he needs no introduction, Mr. Rogers was a beloved television personality who hosted a popular children’s show called Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS for more than 30 years.  Even by the standards of children’s programming on PBS, Mr. Rogers’ show seemed impossibly wholesome.  Every episode began the same way: after Mr. Rogers entered his home, singing his theme song, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”, he changed into sneakers and a zippered cardigan (all of which were hand knitted by his mother).  During the course of the show, Rogers would earnestly talk to his audience, interview live guests, take field trips to places like bakeries, and visit the “Neighborhood of Make Believe.”  Fred Rogers was so wholesome that he made Sesame Street look like Homicide:Life on the Street.

Conventional wisdom dictates that even if Mr. Rogers resonated with young children, his good-hearted message and milquetoast persona would become stale when those children reached adolescence and adulthood.  Nevertheless, Fred Rogers remains one of the most universally beloved characters in television history.  This was profoundly evident last week, as various outlets on the Internet acknowledged his birthday.  When the Internet celebrates public figures, there are almost always a few naysayers who write vitriolic and cruel things in the comment sections of the articles about that person.  Yet even as I combed through comment sections (something I generally do not like doing), I was hard-pressed to find anything negative about Mr. Rogers.  His appeal transcends even a forum where people castigate videos of generous and selfless acts, like a police officer giving boots to a homeless person.  One commenter summarized it well by saying, “Fred Rogers has tamed the Internet.”

We might wonder why Mr. Rogers is so beloved.  Some, pointing to his anachronistic approach, might claim that people are attracted to him because he seems like a product of a bygone era and represents something we wish we could still be.  The problem with this analysis is that it idealizes the past (always dangerous) and ignores the fact that most people are mocked if they act like it is still 1953.  Others might point to his genuineness: Fred Rogers behaved the same on-screen as he did off-screen.  While this is certainly a quality that will earn people’s respect, it does not necessarily lead to admiration.  After all, someone who is a jerk in public and a jerk in private could also be respected for his genuineness.  Mr. Rogers’ appeal is far simpler and far deeper: Fred Rogers believed that his primary responsibility in this life was to love others.  He went through every step of his life believing that everyone deserves to be loved, no matter who they are or where they come from or what they have done.  He didn’t do this with an agenda in mind.  His love for other people was never conditioned on a desired response or behavior.  Mr. Rogers loved without the expectation of results.

There is no question in my mind that Fred Rogers’ love for other people was shaped by his faith in the God who loved to the point of death.  As a Presbyterian minister, Mr. Rogers understood the deep logic of the atonement, the deep logic of the cross, the deep logic of the events that we commemorate this week: God loved us so much that God became a human being who was willing to suffer and die on the cross, even though he had been abandoned by those closest to him.  This love was unconditional; Jesus did not say, “Never mind” and turn back after Peter’s denial.  God loves us with a self-emptying, self-giving love that has the power to transform the world.  As we meditate on the events of Holy Week, we are called to put this love into practice, to love our fellow human beings without any expectation of reward, and to see everyone in the world, regardless of who they are, as our neighbor.

Witness

_66534685_66534683While the major story in ecclesiastical news over the past week has been the selection and installation of Pope Francis as the Bishop of Rome, Anglicans like me have been anticipating the enthronement of Justin Welby as the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The ceremony ended a few minutes ago and included some of the best that our Communion has to offer: the choir sang Britten’s glorious Te Deum in C, the gospel procession featured African dancers chanting about God’s renewing action in the world, and the congregation prayed the wonderful General Thanksgiving that refers to Jesus Christ as “the means of grace and the hope of glory.”  It was, in other words, a thoroughly Anglican experience.

At the same time, the enthronement spoke to all who call themselves Christians.  In his sermon, Archbishop Justin reminded the congregation that there continue to be people in this world who are martyred for their Christian faith.  After the service, a commentator remarked that there were more Christian martyrs in the twentieth century than there had been in all of previous Christian history.  For those of us who have any contact with the Church in places like Sudan or China, we know that being a Christian in certain parts of the world can be a risky proposition.  We also might think that the Archbishop’s mention of martyrdom is not particularly applicable to those of us who live in free societies that value religious toleration.  It’s important to remember, however, that the word “martyr” comes from the Greek for “witness” or “testimony.”  Martyrdom is not just about dying for one’s faith (though this can be an important element of it); martyrdom is about making the world aware of God’s deep love, to which the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ testify.  By highlighting the importance of martyrdom, Archbishop Justin reminded us of the importance of bearing witness to our Christian faith and testifying to what God has done in our lives and in the life of the world.

In some ways, Archbishop Justin is taking the helm of the Anglican Communion at one of the most turbulent times in its history.  The church is deeply divided over issues as diverse as episcopal authority and human sexuality.  Meanwhile, people are increasingly less likely to identify themselves as Anglicans or even Christians, as the number of people with no religious affiliation grows significantly.  For all of the pomp of the enthronement ceremony, the worldly prestige of the Archbishop of Canterbury has eroded in the face of a secularizing society.  Nevertheless, I got the sense that Archbishop Justin as a deep and abiding hope for the Church, because he understands that bearing witness to God’s great love does not require worldly power.  The Archbishop alluded to Paul’s observation that God’s power is made perfect in human weakness.  We have only to look at the example of Jesus Christ to know that this is true: God’s new creation was not inaugurated with a conquering army, but with a man who had been stripped naked, abandoned by his friends, and hung on a cross to die.  At the weakest moment in his life, Jesus Christ bore witness to God’s great love for all of humanity.  During the season of Lent, we too are called to bear witness to God’s great love out of our own vulnerability.  We begin Lent acknowledging our unworthiness and being assured of God’s forgiveness.  And we do not spend the season trying to make ourselves more worthy of God’s love; rather, we engage in disciplines to become more aware that we have received the abundance of God’s grace in spite of our weakness.  When we do this, we bear witness to a God who makes his love known to us not through worldly power, but through weakness.

Near the Cross

As I mentioned last week, the Heavenly Rest community has spent the season of Lent exploring the Passion of our Lord from a variety of different perspectives.  We studied the Passion narrative from John’s gospel, examined artistic renderings of the events surrounding the Passion, learned about the history of the Passion Chorale, and experienced the Stations of the Cross.  In other words, we engaged with the story of our Lord’s death intellectually, emotionally, and physically.  Tonight, we will gather for a culminating worship service that will bring all of these elements together as we meditate near the cross.

agnus deiMeditating on the Passion has always been an important component of the Church’s observance of Lent.  This is not surprising; the season is intended to prepare us to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s Passion and Death.  And throughout the history of the Church, Christians have developed a variety of ways to help people walk the way of the cross with Jesus.   Liturgies like the Stations of the Cross give worshipers an opportunity to reflect on how Jesus’ final hours might have felt.  Traditions like reading an account of the Passion in the weeks before Easter allow us to hear the story once again.  Composers have adapted this tradition by setting the Passion to music; some of the greatest works in music history tell the story of Jesus’ road to Calvary (tonight our choir will sing selections from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion).  And artists have created extraordinary works of art that either depict the events of the Passion or attempt to capture the themes of tragedy, suffering, and triumph implicit in the story.  There are countless ways for Christians to meditate on the death of Jesus.

This evening’s service at Heavenly Rest draws on several of these resources and is designed to allow participants to offer themselves completely to the experience of our Lord’s Passion.  The readings, music, and art were selected to provide worshipers a view into Jesus’ crucifixion and death.  It is important for us to remember, however, that we are not meant to meditate on the Passion just to think about how painful it must have been.  We are not engaging in a perverse kind of voyeurism where we listen and watch as another human being is tortured to death.  Rather, the reason we meditate on the Passion is so that we can consider how the experience might transform us.  We meditate on the Passion so that we can consider how our lives have been changed and can be changed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We meditate on the Passion so that we can be equipped to make this gospel of transformation known to the world.  Above all, we meditate on the Passion in order to remember that God has invited all of us into a new life of abundant love that he makes known to us as we stand near the cross.

Necessary

url“Martha Stewart made your uncle an omelet.”  For years, my grandmother has told this single sentence story every time Martha Stewart was mentioned.  There was never any context; the way my grandmother told the story, it sounded like Ms. Stewart was my uncle’s personal chef.  This past summer, however, I learned that the truth isn’t quite so interesting.  During the time that my aunt was working at the Shakespeare theater in Stratford, Connecticut, she was asked to plan a brunch.  Hearing glowing recommendations about an up-and-coming caterer named Martha Stewart, my aunt decided to try her out.  For her “audition,” Ms. Stewart prepared breakfast for my aunt and her husband.  And so Martha Stewart made my uncle an omelet.  While it’s not the most exciting story in the world, it is one of those fun “I knew a celebrity before she was a celebrity stories,” which are always mildly diverting.

Last night, several Heavenly Rest parishioners, my wife, and I had the pleasure of entertaining the singers of New York Polyphony, a talented ensemble that is performing at 7:30 this evening (March 5) in the nave of the Church of the Heavenly Rest.  Since we and the musicians have traveled in similar circles, my wife and I had a particularly good time finding out which acquaintances we all had in common.  At one point in the evening, we found out that the group’s baritone is a nephew of Martha Stewart.  Being a member of the clergy and having a very limited number of stories to tell, I explained to the group how Martha Stewart had made my uncle an omelet.  I could tell that my wife was rolling her eyes, and I was tempted to abandon the story when I looked at the baritone’s face.  With arched eyebrows, he asked me eagerly, “Did you say Stratford?”  Evidently, his mother (Martha Stewart’s sister) had been working at that event, and it was there that she had met her husband, this singer’s father.  Apparently, the Shakespeare company job has been the stuff of his family’s lore for thirty years.  He and I looked at each other with the same realization: if Martha Stewart hadn’t made my uncle an omelet, this singer might not have existed.

One of my favorite words in the Greek New Testament is dei, a tiny word that means everything from “must” to “behoove” to “it is necessary.”  It is not a mundane word; one wouldn’t use dei to say “I must go to the grocery store to buy bananas.”  Rather, dei always has a much deeper significance.  Last night, for instance, I discovered that for one member of New York Polyphony to exist, it was necessary (dei) for my aunt to hire a particular caterer.  And in Mark 8:31, Jesus tells his disciples that it is necessary (dei) for the Son of Man to suffer, to be rejected, to be killed, and on the third day to rise again.   New Testament writers use dei to indicate that there are no coincidences, that things happen for a reason, that there are certain events in the life of Jesus that simply had to occur.  This can sometimes be a challenging reality.  We don’t like the idea that it was necessary for Jesus to suffer.  We don’t like the idea that it was necessary for Jesus to be rejected.  We don’t like the idea that it was necessary for Jesus to die.  If none of these things had happened, however, Jesus would not have been raised on the third day.  Without the reality of the cross, there would have been no Resurrection.  During Lent, we are called to dwell in those dei moments of Jesus’ life, the moments that may make us uncomfortable, but remind us of what was necessary for our redemption.

Cost

“I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification come through the Law, then Christ died for nothing.”  Galatians 2:21

To my mind, there are no texts in the New Testament that deal with the topic of grace quite as well as Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians.  While Romans does an extraordinary job of exploring our need for God’s grace (a topic we addressed in our series on reconciliation), Galatians invites us to consider what grace requires from God.

urlPaul wrote Galatians to correct what he understood to be a serious error in the community’s approach to the Christian life.  When Paul established the church at Galatia, he preached a law-free gospel: non-Jewish gentiles were invited to become part of the Church without being circumcised and keeping to the Mosaic Law.  This was the central dispute among members of the early Church: should the followers of Jesus, who himself was a Jew, be required to become Jews themselves?  Paul’s contention was that by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, God had changed the game, and the gospel was to be spread to everyone regardless of their ethnic heritage or their adherence to the Law.

After he had left, Paul began to hear rumors about other people who had come to the Galatians telling them that Paul was wrong, that in order to be true followers of Christ, they needed to adhere to the Law.  The Galatians started to believe this, because on one level it makes sense.  After all, God established the Law through Moses so that human beings could make themselves righteous before God. On it’s face, it makes a lot more sense than this law-free stuff that Paul was talking about.  The Galatians might have assumed that Paul had thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

But for Paul, it is not the law that makes people righteous; it is God’s grace.  He writes (in Galatians 2:15), “We know that a person is justified (made righteous before God) not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”  This is how most versions of the Bible translate this verse.  In another correct translation of the same text, though, it’s clear that Paul was also writing about the faith OF Christ.  Paul was also saying that we are made righteous through the obedient faithfulness of Christ, that we have been justified by Christ’s willingness to be obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Christ was willing to be spat upon, willing to be flogged, and willing to be hung on a tree outside the city walls, all for frail and sinful human beings who have fallen short of God’s glory.  If there was any group that was less deserving of the favor of God, it was humanity.  Even the very commandment of God was powerless to prevent us from falling into Sin.  And yet, in God’s never-failing grace, God sent God’s only Son to die on our behalf, to conquer death by his death, and to open salvation to everyone in the world.

By returning to the Law, by returning to that which was powerless to make us righteous before God, the Galatians were saying that God’s grace was insufficient, that the faithful obedience of Jesus Christ wasn’t necessary, that Jesus Christ died for no purpose.  For Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection have changed the world; the Galatians simply didn’t understand the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice and the costliness of God’s grace.  This recalls a text by William W. How set to music by John Ireland: “It is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be; that God’s own Son should come from heaven, and die to save a child like me.”  This is what grace is.  This is why it is so hard to define, because it’s almost too wonderful, almost too incredible for us to imagine: that God should save undeserving humanity through the death of his Son.

And our only appropriate response to this costly grace is to be utterly grateful for the magnificent thing that God has done for us.  We are called to thank  God every day for the incredible opportunity to live, to be in relationship with our families, to experience the beauty of this world, and to be creative and productive in our daily activities.  We are called to thank God every day that not everything always goes our way, that we have the opportunity to be disappointed because we are alive.  And we are called to share with everyone we meet the incredible gift that we have received from God through our Lord Jesus Christ: this costly grace that has changed the world.