The apostle Paul would like the citizens of the greatest empire on earth to understand that freedom is not necessarily what they might think it to be, and that the pleasures of independence pale in comparison to complete obedience to the will of our Creator, in whose image and by whose will we were made. If only our desires and whims could be realigned with God’s, we would be complete. Only when our free will is united with God’s loving will for us are we truly free to be complete and perfect humans.
We catch glimpses of what that could be like, in moments of abandoned love, without self-regard and pure; in moments of communion with the rest of God’s good creation.
Paul was the Roman citizen, and the Pharisee, with civil and religious privilege. And he would give it all up for the freedom to follow God’s will instead of his own. He knew, from his experience of Christ and of the world, that no political system, even the lauded Pax Romana, can bring peace to our souls; that Caesar will not save his citizens; that we are citizens of another kingdom, the reign and realm of God.
We know the ideals to which we aspire. They are hardwired into us, since we are made in the image of God, and created for the love of God.
The love of God. The love of neighbour – every neighbour. Equality of respect and dignity for all, we hold these truths to be self-evident: this is how we would like to live.
But Paul knows that it is not so easy, since sin seems to have us cornered. Independence becomes individualism. Self-governance turns too easily to selfishness.
Independence does not mean that each man is an island. The Triune God upon whom we are modelled is a model of interconnectedness, of the unity of community. Independence from sin gives us the opportunity to explore our true interdependence, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ; following the dance of the Holy Trinity.
Individualism is not independence: this pandemic has illustrated that. None of us will be free from it unless we prioritize the health and welfare of the bodies around us to our own preferences and perceptions of freedom.
Washing hands, keeping our distance to preserve the precious breath that the Holy Spirit has placed in all of us, wearing masks, whether we like it or not, are acts of love, and it is love that, in the end, will set us free.
We know from our faith that freedom from tyranny means the freedom not to tyrannize.
Freedom from fear means the freedom not to frighten.
Freedom from oppression offers the freedom not to oppress.
We know from our history that freedom from discrimination only works if we claim the freedom to undo, unravel, repent and repair the damage that has already been done.
Freedom from the debt of sin extends the opportunity not to add to another person’s burdens. Remember Jesus’ parables? Forgiveness is always to be passed on; freedom from owing one’s neighbour does not free one from being a neighbour.
Freedom from sin means the submission of our free will to the will of the life-giving, loving, liberating God who created us for good.
In this sense, Jesus was the freest, most independent man who ever lived. Free from sin, free from all that the devil tempted him with in the wilderness; free from selfishness. Independent of ambition; he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey, while Pilate processed with pomp and ceremony from the other side. He was independent of the powers and principalities that tried to shape his life, shorten his reach; he told them clearly, “I lay down my life for the sheep… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10:15b,18)
He lived a life so perfectly aligned with the pattern that God had used for it, the pattern of unselfish, ungrasping, life-giving love that he proved himself finally free even from death, independent even of the powers of the grave.
It is in him, in his life, in his Gospel that we find our holiday, our celebration, our Sabbath rest. While we strive, with Paul, to do here and now what is right and good and promotes the life, liberty, and happiness of all around us, It is in God alone, with God’s help alone, with the love of God together that we find, at last, a more perfect union.
How many times did you hear that verse growing up? How many pamphlets and leaflets have you read it in?
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
We have a language problem here. We have a serious, spiritual issue with the way in which we hear this verse. There’s a chasm between Paul’s original rhetoric and our understanding. It’s not just the way in which the good news of God’s grace has been turned into a threat, although most of the pamphlets I’ve thrown away over the years try to evangelize by the wages of death instead of the promise of life. That’s a problem, but so too is the fact that this verse is the culmination of a chapter of a letter from Paul to the Romans which uses slavery to describe our salvation; a chapter that uses the word “slave,” whether to sin or to God, eight times in the last eight verses.
Now, we might say, Paul was just using the language and social structure of his day to illustrate a point in a way that would be familiar to his readers. But I’m not willing to let Paul off the hook that easily. Jesus Christ, whom Paul proclaims, lived and died, rose and ascended to save sinners, thanks be to God; but along the way, and not by-the-by, he said that he had come to bring good news to the poor, freedom to the captive and to the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). There are no slaves in the kingdom of heaven.
But here’s another problem: we do not hear the word “slave” in the same language as Paul wrote it. We don’t even hear it in the same way as one another. Because of our place in the world, we cannot help but hear the language of slavery in Black and White. Whomever we claim as our ancestors, we cannot hear the word, “slave,” without our history colouring it in.
I can’t speak for others, but I can tell you that is a particular, spiritual problem for people who look like me.
I read a book on Thursday afternoon (I mean, I sat down and read the whole thing in an afternoon) called Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US. Lenny Duncan, a Lutheran minister of Word and Sacrament writes,
Church, the cross was raised high by slaveholders… (Duncan, 44)
He writes to me, a White woman in the American church of today,
… it’s not just my freedom you are risking …, but also your own. You are just as trapped by the effects of chattel slavery and the broken cycles it has set in motion in our nation and church. ( Duncan, 48)
Why is this language gap a problem, even, or especially, for White people? Because it’s not just my freedom that is at risk, but my relationship with God in Christ, which is my salvation. Because when I hear the terms of salvation in Black and White, master and slave, I am tempted to see myself on one side or the other, and I am tempted to imagine God right alongside me.
But there are no slaves in the kingdom of heaven. There are no slave masters in the kingdom of God.
We need a radical reordering of our language, our thoughts, our prayers. Paul’s rhetoric will not do. God is not a slave master; God is not on the side of the slave holders. Jesus, God Incarnate, was a vagrant preacher, a poor man of an oppressed and occupied race and nation, who was arrested on trumped-up charges, beaten, and killed by the authorities for being too … [you know the word I want to say]; for being too much.
We need to remake our image of God to remember that at the heart of the Gospel, at the crux of the story of salvation, we do not find power, mastery, wealth, or political prowess. We find instead a man, a person, thumbing his nose at all of that and at the devil who tempted him with it.
That is the nature, the colour of God.
God so loved the world, that the lesson God wanted it to learn was not one of power, or wealth, or conquest, but the simple, defiant lesson of love. Love God, love your neighbour, love your enemy, just love.
I know, you were expecting an uplifting sermon about being back together in the church. But forgive me: what if our language about that needs updating, too?
I love you all, and I miss you as much as we all miss the old days of February, but I’m afraid that the way forward might not be somehow to push back toward the routines and rituals in which we had become comfortable. What if we are not going back to February any more than we are returning to the 1950s and cigarettes at coffee hour, as one of my colleagues pointed out; any more than to the 1850s and the era of legalized slavery? What if God is calling us into a new creation?
Please understand, I do not in any way believe that God inflicts a deadly and debilitating virus on millions of people so that a few can have an epiphany, a spiritual awakening. But what if we were to use and treat this season of unusual worship and unaccustomed challenges not as an interruption to the work of the church, but as an intervention, a call to awaken and with renewed vigour pursue the will of God, the love of neighbour, the restoration of creation?
We will not find the kingdom of heaven in the past; perhaps we can look for it in the present.
We will not find the kingdom of heaven in the past, but we do find it in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension, the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord, whose advice was to offer kindness, hospitality, humility, good news to the poor and release to the captive and the oppressed; whose life is eternal; and who promised his most bewildered disciples, “I am with you always [and everywhere], to the end of the age.”
Lenny Duncan, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US (Fortress Press, 2019)
“Who, who,” I cry with the owl, lonely on the rooftop;
”Who will hear me, and who will answer?”
Flying dark with the bats, I send out prayers,
trying to locate God by their echoes.
I am as far from Sunday as may be,
as far from rest.
A still, small voice might whisper,
“Peace, now, for I have answered the owl
and satisfied the winged thing.“
“I am beyond your dreams,
yet even when you wake I will be near.
Though I neither slumber, nor sleep,
yet in me you will find your ease.
I am all that in the night,
you cannot see.”
First published at the Episcopal Café
I am like an owl of the wilderness,
like a little owl of the waste places
I lie awake;
I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
A sermon for June 14, 2020. The readings are for the Second Sunday after Pentecost in Year A, Proper 6. Jesus sends out his disciples to cast out demons and heal the sick of the house of Israel.
We are at peace with God, writes Paul, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who proved God’s love for us by living and dying for the sake of us. (Romans 5:1-8) We are at peace with God not through our own merits, for we were still sinners when Jesus died, and we are sinners today. We are at peace with God because God is peace, and it is God who extends peace to us.
But we are not always at peace with one another, because we are sinners; because we fall short, over and over, of the perfect love that Jesus lived out for us.
Jesus gives his disciples power over unclean spirits, disease, and sickness. (Matthew 9:35-10:23) He sends them out to preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the countryside. He warns them not to try to monetize the gospel – this is a gift that they have received, not something they own and can sell.
He tells them to practice on their own people first.
Jesus tells them, these conversations will not always go well. They will not always result in conversion. They will not always be peaceful. They will not be universally enlightening. They are necessary, for the kingdom of God is at hand, and it is high time, Jesus says, for the demons, the unclean spirits, the powers that oppose the goodness of God to be cast out and cast down.
Do you remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, that Jesus references? Not the unbiblical story that has been told as a slur against beautiful and loving people over the intervening centuries, but the actual, scriptural story that Jesus knew? The original story, just to be clear, had nothing to do with people’s sex lives, but everything to do with whether they loved God, and their neighbours as themselves.
The story (in Genesis 18-19) goes that God received some sort of report of the sinfulness of the city of Sodom. People there had no respect for God nor for the image of God within one another. They were positively abusive. And this is where Lot, the nephew of Abraham, had chosen to set up home with his family.
God said, “I’m going to obliterate the place.” Abraham said, “But what if there are good people there?” God said, “For the sake of fifty, I will hold my fire.” Abraham, knowing that his nephew’s family was in the city, negotiated God down to ten. For the sake of ten righteous people, God would withhold judgement from the entire city. No pressure.
Unfortunately, when the angels went to test the people’s hospitality and humanity to visitors, they found it severely lacking, to say the least. Lot and his family took them in, but even there Lot’s willingness to put his daughters’ lives on the line reads as ethically complicated at best. And there were still only four of them, not ten. In the end, the angels led the family out of the city ahead of its destruction, and still, they too were sinners, and they proved it in the stories yet to come.
The wrath of God is stirred up when people are prepared to behave abusively to one another, to give up their humanity to defile and deface the humanity of another. The wrath of God, the story warns, will fall like fire upon racism, and white supremacy. It falls like sulphur smoking out discrimination, the abuse of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning folks. The wrath of God falls heavily upon brutality and violence, especially the abuses of the powerful, especially abuse of the most vulnerable and of those most in need of hospitality and humanity. The wrath of God will one day fall on wickedness. But even sinners are saved from the fire by the patience and forbearance of a faithful God.
We are at peace with God because God extends peace to us, even sinners such as we are. But that doesn’t remove our responsibility to live as those who know the love of God. If anything it increases it.
We are called, we are compelled, we are commanded by Jesus to cast out unclean spirits. And let’s be abundantly clear, anything that diminishes the dignity and the fullness of a person’s humanity is unclean and ungodly. Homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, xenophobia – these are unclean spirits, and they live among us. Sexism is an unclean spirit. White supremacy is an unclean spirit. Racism is an unclean, unholy, inhuman, unChristian spirit. And when those spirits dance together, God help us. God help us.
Go, Jesus tells his disciples, tells us, and cast out unclean spirits, defeat demons, starting close to home, with your own house, with your own heart, with your own family.
Don’t expect all of these conversations to go peaceably, nor all of them to lead to conversion. And don’t expect to be able to cast out demons by demonizing others. Take care that you keep your own humanity intact, that you keep your love for your enemies as strong as you are able, that you pray in any case even for those who persecute you, even if your prayers sound like protest, because it is God’s will to bring you to peace, and hatred will not let your heart rest there. “Be angry,” as Paul has written, and as Minister Taneika Hill quoted at our Faith in the City rally this past week; “Be angry, but do not sin,” and he adds, “do not make room for the devil.” (Ephesians 4:26-27) An unclean spirit cannot drive out an unclean spirit. Only God’s love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit can do that.
But don’t expect all of the difficult conversations that you dread to end badly, either. Conversion is possible. With God all things are possible. God knows, if someone, if more people than I deserve, had not taken the time and the love to educate me in some of the errors of my ways – only some, because I have plenty more errors in me; God knows, I am a sinner – God knows that if the righteous anger of a demon-defeating disciple was not visited upon me from time to time, I would be sitting in the dust and ashes of Sodom and Gomorrah, wondering what the hell just happened.
Conversion is possible. I was going to tell you the story of my first boyfriend, and how my parents reacted, privately, after they met him for the first time, and realized that he was not White, but I don’t have the time left today. Suffice to say that after much gnashing of teeth and several years later, my mother brought up his name to me in conversation, to make her confession, to express her repentance, not to me, but with me to the memory of him. With God, all things are possible.
Go first to your own people, your own house, your own heart, Jesus instructs his disciples, and use my unflinching, uncompromising, indiscriminate, inescapable love to heal them. Then your peace will return to you.
The kingdom of God is at hand, and it is time, Jesus says, for the demons, the unclean spirits, the powers that oppose the goodness of God to be cast out and cast down.
Then, “The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’” (Exodus 19:8)
As today’s Collect prays,
Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, 230)
Image: Albrecht Dürer / Public domain (deatil) via wikimedia commons
Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. (2 Corinthians 13:11-12
It’s often said that context is everything. I don’t believe that anything is that absolute except God – only God is everything – but it is true that the context in which Paul wrote and the very different context in which we read his words today make a lot of difference to how we hear him.
Take, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” There will be no greeting of one another with kisses, holy or otherwise, hugs, or even handshakes for a long time to come, and Paul would agree that it is right to refrain from such things as would harm the most vulnerable in our community, as he writes elsewhere to the same church of Corinth,
Take care that your liberty does not become a stumbling block to your neighbour. (1 Corinthian 8:9, paraphrased)
And there’s the rub. What is a Christian church to do when “agree with one another, live in peace,” runs up against, “Take care that your liberty does not become a stumbling block to others.” I want to be careful here to acknowledge that I’m taking this verse out of context, too. Paul was concerned for Christians taking their first steps in faith, those who might need some extra support. But what if those others whom we shouldn’t cause to stumble include also the vulnerable in health, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the attacked? What if it includes not only the weak, but those who are powerful, but put upon; not only the uncertain, but those who are faithful, but crucified?
What if my liberty, my peace, come at the cost of my brother’s life?
That is the context in which we read Paul’s letter today: one in which the realities of racism in this country’s very structure have once more been laid bare. On this Wear Orange weekend, when we lament and mourn the scourge of gun violence, we find that we are suddenly protesting all sorts of violence, and we are recognizing at last, or again, or with every breath that racism is a form of violence. From the disparities in health outcomes from birth to last breath, to police brutality, discriminatory justice, to the slights on the street, and even sometimes in so-called polite conversation, my liberty, my health, my status, my benefit of the doubt, my privilege has become a stumbling block to others.
So how can I preach, “Listen to my appeal, agree with one another [which always means, agree with me], live in peace,” in a context such as this, while Jeremiah prophesies?
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14)
In the beginning, when God began to create, the world was formless and void, desolate and empty, except for the raging, chaotic, deep waters on the other side of nothing. And God called forth out of the chaos a new creation: first light and darkness, night and day, the moon and the sun. But even God did not quell the chaos all at once. Instead, God saw how it could be shaped into something new and good – at least that’s one interpretation of the story.
And it took time, and a succession of steps, because God is not hasty. God didn’t want to lay a mere veneer of created order over the chaos, but truly to transform it into something good, something very good.
This is not an argument for ignoring the urgency of our moment. It doesn’t argue for allowing chaos to breed violence rather than the creation of a new life. But it does argue for paying attention to what is being called out of the chaos, what new thing could make something truly good come out of it, rather than papering over the mess and hoping the glue holds, rather than seeking to diminish the grief of our people by saying, “Peace, now; peace,” where there is no peace.
I am not great at this work, I have to admit. I have a deep need to be liked and to be recognized for doing the right thing. That ego is an obstacle to digging into my misunderstandings and lack of awareness of the experience of my siblings, sisters, and brothers of all stripes; and if I will not dig deep, how can I have compassion with them? Not for them, but with them.
But Christ calls me to repentance. If I am to call myself a Christian, I have to do the work.
The risk of discovering where I have been wrong, where I have allowed the assumptions of society to blind me to injustice, where I have participated in the polite slights of everyday conversation and diminished the dignity of another human being – that risk is real, and uncomfortable. It is easier to dress the wound, paper over the cracks, say “let us just agree and be at peace.” But that is not repentance, and that will not bring about the new creation, the kingdom, some say the kin-dom, of God.
And really, what is the discomfort of my conscience compared to the death of a man like George Floyd, or a woman like Breonna Taylor, or a child like Tamir Rice? What are my tears compared to the burning of tear gas, or the bitterness of a mother’s grief?
In the beginning, the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit swept, hovered, brooded over the deep waters of chaos. The Revd Dr Wilda C. Gafney puts it this way in Womanist Midrash:
She, the Spirit of God, She-who-is-also-God, at the dawn of creation fluttered over the nest of her creation at the same time as He, the more familiar expression of divinity, created all. (Gafney, 20)
Outside my window at home just now there is a nest. It’s a little hard to see what’s happening in there, but from the comings and goings, I suspect that there are eggs. It will take a couple of weeks for any new life to hatch out of them. It will take a couple weeks more before any young fledglings are ready for their first flight out. In the meantime, their parents brood and flutter in and out, tending to the new creation that is almost ready to break out.
So the Spirit of God hovers over us, watching us struggle to grow against the edges of our shells, almost ready to break out into some new understanding, some new way of living, almost ready to fly…
Keep the faith, dear ones; be strong in faith. Greet one another with a holy kiss. Love your neighbour. Love the image of God within them. And the God of love and peace will be with you, fluttering and brooding over you, until the end of the present age, into the new creation, and beyond.
Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Westminster John Know Press, 2017)
Earlier in this pandemic situation, some clergy people of a charismatic persuasion wondered aloud online, “What if our first return to the church building is on Pentecost?”
Well, we know now. Nothing will look like we had imagined or expected. And yet we are here, in body or in spirit, celebrating the symbols of our faith: broken bread for a broken body; wine for spilt blood; candles for fire; prayer for our universal language.
Come, Holy Spirit.
While the disciples were all gathered together in one place, including Jesus’ mother and his brothers, the eleven and about a hundred others, they prayed, and sang, and broke bread. They kept the faith, they kept the memory of Jesus alive, they kept one another.
When the Holy Spirit erupted among them, anointing them with fire and driving them before her with a great wind, they emerged among the people to great confusion.
“Who are these?” the people asked. “Where have they come from? What are they saying, and why am I hearing them, and never mind, they must be drunk.”
How quickly the crowd turned from Hosanna to Crucify; from hearing the miracle of the Holy Spirit poured out upon God’s chosen ones to proclaim salvation to writing them off as a drunken mob.
But those who remained to listen learned something that day about the nature of God’s mercy, and the love of God that would go even to the Cross for us; love that would suffer in solidarity with the oppressed, the undermined, the unjustly executed, the betrayed.
The people who were prepared to listen to Peter and the others were cut to the heart when they heard of the injustice they had been complicit in visiting upon Jesus. They asked, “What then should we do?” Peter told them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation. Repent: repent, and be baptized. Then you may receive the Holy Spirit.”
I was on the periphery of yesterday’s demonstration in downtown Cleveland, of the loud and peaceable march from the Free Stamp to the Justice Center early in the afternoon, before some other things happened, a part and yet apart. As the crowd surged past, I headed for higher ground with my mask and my breath and my social distance. I prayed the chants (selectively) as they marched by, but one woman called out, “Come down here! Come down here!” I didn’t realize until later that I knew her. I stayed where I was, praying. Perhaps, on a Pentecost like this one, a preacher like me shouldn’t be trying to speak in tongues. Perhaps, instead, she should be listening.
Later, other things happened. You know, the Bible describes different kinds of fire. There is the pillar of fire that led an enslaved people out of Egypt and protected them on the way to the Promised Land. Then there are the dumpster fires of Gehenna, where the worm never sleeps. We recognize the fire of the Holy Spirit which rests upon the disciples but does not burn them. It is a refiner’s fire, not a forest fire. It doesn’t even scorch the foliage of the shrub out of which God speaks to Moses.
But don’t let the smoke obscure the truth that is poured out upon all of God’s children. Black Lives Matter. Racism kills. Even this pandemic discriminates, stealing the breath of more Black, Indigenous, and other people of color than that of Whites. And just in the past week, George Floyd was killed Monday in Minneapolis, and it is only by sheer luck that Christian Cooper walked away unharmed from Central Park after a white woman called on the police to punish the Black man for holding her accountable for her dog.
While Jesus was crucified for failure to cooperate with the authorities.
You know, when the Gospel says that “as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified,” it doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit was absent until ten days after the Ascension. We even saw her descend like a dove at Jesus’ own baptism. But just as Jesus is the source of living water, and his followers can only dispense that living water themselves once they have received it, once they have drunk of it – think, perhaps, of the instruction that any baptized person can themselves perform baptism, in an emergency – so it is that we as Christians come to recognize the work and power of the Holy Spirit in the light of Christ’s Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension; the promise of his return with power and great glory, to judge the living and the dead.
We cannot recognize the powerful wind of the Holy Spirit if we will not bear witness to the breath crushed out of the neck of the crucified man. We will not hear the Holy Spirit in our own language until we hear the resurrected Christ call our name, although we mistook him at first for someone else, for the gardener (he matched the description). We will not feel the fire of the Holy Spirit until we come with fear and trembling to accept the judgment of Christ the King, and his mercy. His justice is unassailable, and in the last days, the prophet says, it will fall upon all flesh, with portents of fire and smoky mist, swept in on the breath of the Holy Spirit; a new vision of the kingdom of God drawn near: the vision of a new creation, not of destruction but of new life. Not of vengeance but of justice. Not of murder but of mercy.
“Then all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved,” Peter promised, and thank God for that.
And so yes, this is a Pentecost like no other. Yet the Holy Spirit still shows up to do her work, breathing life to those in the dust, renewing the face of creation. May we know her by her gentle fire, and by her urgent provocation to prophesy what we know: that Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
How will the rushing wind feel to one
whose neck is pressed into the dust?
Will we hear the Spirit speak
through tongues of fire?
Would you inhale Jesus’s unfiltered breath,
recently stolen by a suffocating death,
reeking of righteousness and resurrection,
the Judge of nations, unmasked?
More than 100,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the US.
Nearly 360,000 people have died from the disease worldwide. Close to 6 million cases have been confirmed overall.
George Floyd died after saying, “I can’t breathe,” as a police officer knelt on his neck in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.
Thanks to the Revd Canon Percy Grant for the image of Jesus’ tomb-breath.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
An arpeggio rising beyond our ear, they
who strum and straddle the lines
between heaven and the earth, the angels incorporeal, they
think us foolish to strain after touch, sight, sounds,
the echo in our marrow of a descending chord
that sits in the solar plexus skewering us to the pew.
You will find him, they say, as you saw him leave,
wounded and glorious, witnessed by others and told to you
as though in a dream, fixed and risen barely beyond translation
A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, still under stay-at-home orders.
Since Peter’s letter invites us to remember the story of Noah, let’s imagine ourselves into the Ark, and out of the Ark, emerging to see the first rainbow. Can you imagine what it would be like to see that accident of light for the very first time, blazed across the sky? Can you imagine, having come through a storm that devastated everything familiar, that ended life as you knew it, and deposited you on a mountainside to build a new life out of the debris of the old creation; can you imagine then seeing in the sky something so beautiful, so terrifying, so bright, so inexplicable (if you were Noah)? Would you run towards it, seeking God where it seemed to touch the earth, or would you fall on your face in fear, uncertain what this new sign, this new promise, this new covenant might mean?
Some of you know that the clergy of this diocese met earlier this week with our Presiding Bishop by Zoom. One of the crossbeams of his message to us was that, as much as we hear the phrase, and use it, we are not seeking a new normal on the other side of this pandemic, whatever that might look like and however long it might take. Instead, we, as Christians, Bishop Curry said, are always looking for, always embodying God’s new creation.
Noah wasn’t looking anew for the old world, on the Ark or after the Flood. That ship had sailed.
Paul wasn’t seeking a new normal for his life after the road to Damascus; he preached the new creation of a life in Christ, with Christ, the new life of resurrection.
Jesus was not looking for a new normal when he returned from waking the dead after his resurrection. Nothing was normal. His own disciples both saw him and didn’t recognize him, believed although some doubted, were afraid and full of joy, promised to love him, and feed his lambs, and still sheltered in place, behind locked doors.
I have said a couple of times that one of the best, most serendipitous things I did before our quarantine, not seeing this situation coming, was to adopt our two kittens from the Euclid Pet Pals. They have been a godsend to our lockdown days. Of course, they think they run the Ark.
Last week I had to bring the kittens back to Euclid for their little operations to make sure they couldn’t grow more kittens. Pet owners are advised to keep their patients quiet and calm for a period of convalescence after surgery; try that with a pair of prime young cats. One of the sisters healed beautifully, but I had to bring the other back this week for fresh stitches and a bit of remedial care because she simply will not follow her treatment plan. Even after this latest set of warning signs, she insists on picking at her stitches and has now been rewarded with a cone of shame, for her own protection. Because she wouldn’t follow the rules for recovery the first time around, her healing will take more than twice as long than it should have. And it’s true, and unfair, that her sister broke all the same rules she did and is perfectly healthy; one person’s luck is not a scientific study in what we can get away with.
We all want to reassemble our common life in Christ, to celebrate the Sacraments and to worship together, to see the faces of those whom we love and for whom we pray daily, to work out our salvation together with fear and trembling.
But what if we prepare for that reconstruction not by working out how to work around or set aside the sacrifices that public health and our common good requires of us at this time, but by imagining a whole new creation; not by trying to retrofit the future onto the patterns of normality to which we had become accustomed, but by entering freely into the creative imagination of God?
As Paul has preached,
“The God who made the world and everything in it, the One who rules over heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is God served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since it is God who gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”
It is true, I am convinced, that God meets us in our buildings, our upturned Arks; in our rites and rituals, in our calendars and feast days, since we are bound by space and time; that God graces us through the Sacraments. This is true; and/but we do not contain God that way, and if God’s grace is uncontained by our construction of normality, then it follows that we, made in God’s image and inspired by God’s Spirit and led by Christ’s example, may also find ourselves called to be not entirely normal. We are a new creation.
New creation is hard work. While Bishop Curry was preaching it, I could almost see it, almost taste it, because he is that good and persuasive a preacher; but even God rested after six days. Creation, finding a new way forward, is exhausting. It’s so tempting to fall back anew into an old normal instead.
But “God waited patiently in the days of Noah,” the first letter of Peter tells us. God is patient as we work out with fear and trembling the path of the Cross set before us, knowing its dangers, knowing, too, that it leads toward life.
When Noah began to build the Ark, its dimensions were beyond his capacity to grasp. As he saw it come together, he must have thought, “This is not normal.”
As the storm hit, and its intensity hit home, and as it showed no signs of letting up, the world must have thought, “This is not normal.”
As the Ark drifted on the surface of creation for months, by biblical account, not for forty days, but forty days followed by one hundred and fifty days followed by a season of gradual abatement of the waters first from the uninhabitable mountain tops and only slowly to a level where a man and his family and somewhere between two and fourteen of every kind of animal in the world might have room to disembark – as life on the Ark stretched from month to month, its inhabitants must have found some sort of routine, some rhythm, some method of accounting for the days and their demands, but God knows, it cannot have felt anything like normal. And what followed, after the tide ebbed, after they all emerged, after Noah built an altar and made his sacrifice to God; what followed was a new creation, the sign of the rainbow in the sky.
There were survivors of the old days, the old ways. Olive trees still grew, doves and ravens still flew, Noah still knew how to make an altar and offer sacrifice. And when God responded, with a whole new creation blazed across his vision, across the sky, did Noah fall on his face, or hide his eyes, or did he look with wonder toward that infinite and creative space between the arc and the earth, filling it with his imaginations of what other new and wonderful things God might have in store for him, and his family, and somewhere between two and fourteen of every living creature on the earth?
Featured image: Noah’s Dankgebet, by Domenico Morelli, Public Domain (detail) via wikimedia commons
If I were preaching this morning, I might want to say something about living stones.
(I was not preaching this morning; our Senior Warden offered a strong word of grace and encouragement. Nevertheless:)
When Jesus entered Jerusalem and the people sang and chanted and waved branches and coats and created a holy cacophony, some asked Jesus to ask the crowd to tone it down.
“If these were silent,” he said, “the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:40)
Have you ever wandered through an old graveyard, reading the tombstones, wondering about the stories that they tell? Most give little away. Many speak names, dates, perhaps a close relationship or two. My mother’s stone has the fragment of a poem I wrote for her funeral, but when she was dying she chose a different epitaph. One day, when I visited, she was repeating the same phrase over and over, in her absent murmur: “well loved. Well loved.” She was well loved.
Stones have little space for ambiguity or nuance. They are hard-nosed, they get straight to the point. They do not give up extra flourishes easily. “Well loved” is the kind of distillation of a life they can support. Names, dates, and one salient detail to sum up the measure of a man, or a mother.
When Peter’s letter wrote that we should become living stones, chosen and precious, it might have had in mind (it might not) the kind of exercise that asks, “What will be on your tombstone?” An examination of our cornerstone values, our foundational tenets, and whether or not not they are reflected in the facades of our lives; whether they would be recognized and rendered by those who will choose the word or phrase by which we will be recognized and remembered, that our stones will speak for us.
“Well loved,” my mother said. I suppose that I would like to be remembered for having loved well, but the truth is that always I have relied on the love and mercy, the forbearance and forgiveness of others, which is why the Gospel holds such appeal for me: if all else fails, the churchyard will bear witness that God had mercy on my mortality; that by God’s grace, the first and last word the stones shout is of love.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. …
…Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2: 4-5,10)
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