That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

A Sermon for Newtown

This past Saturday, the bells of Christ Church Greenwich tolled with church bells across Connecticut to mark the one-year anniversary of the heinous shooting of twenty schoolchildren and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on December 14, 2012.

It was my duty to preach at the 11:00 service on Sunday, December 16, 2012. That happened to be the Sunday when the St Cecilia Choir of Girls were singing Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols as part of the liturgy, an annual tradition in the parish. The sermon I wrote was intended to be heard in conjunction with some of those carols, and I have included the most salient texts at the bottom of this post.

Re-reading this sermon today, there is much that I would change and much that I would add. In particular, I wish that I had said something about the great Advent message of judgment. Few events manifest our need for the righteous judgment of God more plainly and bitterly than the senseless murder of schoolchildren. Advent is the season that reminds us—that promises us—that the same God who came as a baby in Bethlehem will come again to judge the living and the dead; that he will bring to completion his triumph wrought on the Cross over Sin and Death; that he will at last drive out everything in our world and everything in ourselves that stands contrary to his good and gracious will.

All these things, I wish I had said. But in remembrance of that terrible day, and with prayers for all who died, all who mourn, and all who still bear physical and emotional wounds, I offer this sermon unedited, as it was delivered:

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 16, 2012

by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich

Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18; A Ceremony of Carols (selected texts below)

May I speak in the name of the Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Words fail us at times like these. As we gather this morning, this Third Sunday of Advent, there are no words that can do justice to the sorrow, and pain, and confusion, and anger in so many hearts today.

My soul is heavy, my heart breaks, when I think of the suffering of the people of Newtown. My soul is heavy, my heart breaks, when I think of the children of that community, both those whose young lives were cut short on Friday, and those who now must carry emotional and psychological wounds for as long as they live. My soul is heavy, my heart breaks, when I think of the families so cruelly robbed of their little ones, and the children and family members deprived of six brave educators. My soul is heavy, my heart breaks, when I think of the perpetrator of this hateful crime, and of his murdered mother. In all of this my soul is heavy, my heart breaks, my words fail. In the days and weeks to come, we will try to make sense of the senseless, to fathom the unfathomable. I suspect that whatever answers we find will lead only to more fearful questions, and that much we may wish to know will remain forever unexplained.

And yet now, in our grief and perplexity, in this time when our words fail, we gather for worship. We gather to hear and experience the annual singing of the Ceremony of Carols. In this time when our words fail, we gather to hear some of our own children sing ancient words in praise of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem.

What use is our singing this day? What do we find as we listen to these old carols? We do not find answers. We do not hear explanations. Rather, in this service today, we meet the One who sits in silence with us when our words fail. In the carols of this service today, we meet the One who came to share the vulnerability and fragility of our lives. In our service today, we meet the silent Word of God; the wordless Lord of heaven and earth, weeping in a stable, weeping with and for us. In these songs today, we do not find answers. Instead, we are found by the God who sits with us in the dust of our sorrow, and anger, and broken-hearted bewilderment. We are embraced by the God who, by the might of his own vulnerability, by the wealth of his own poverty, by the strength of his great helplessness, confronts and conquers the evil of this world, and the evil in our hearts.

This morning as we weep for the suffering children of Newtown, we hear the weeping of God who was born a helpless child in Bethlehem, who suffered for us on the Cross of Calvary, and who suffers with us still. This day as we sit in fear and weakness and silent sorrow, we hear the words of promise spoken by the prophet, the words fulfilled in Jesus: “Jerusalem, fear thou not. Zion, let not thine hands be slack. The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing.” This rejoicing, this salvation, does not come in spite of our sorrow, but in the midst of it. This promise of exaltation, this hope of renewed strength, does not ask us to lift up our eyes and strain for a glimpse of a distant God in heaven. It calls us, instead, to lower them in sorrow, to cast them down under the weight of our grief, and to find God here, in the depths of our pain, in the midst of our suffering, in the lowliness of our human flesh, saving us by the power of his powerlessness.

That is our hope. That is the beginning of our consolation. That is the unending promise of this holy season of Advent, of the coming of Emmanuel, “God-with-us.” And so on this Third Sunday of Advent, we look more eagerly than ever for the final fulfillment of that promise. We wait. We sit in the place where our words fail. We weep. And we hear the God of heaven and earth weeping with us.

AMEN.

Selection of texts from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols:

There is No Rose

There is no rose of such vertu as is the rose that bare Jesu. Alleluia, Alleluia.

For in this rose conteinèd was Heaven and earth in litel space. Res Miranda, Res Miranda.

By that rose we may well see there be one God in persons three, Pares forma, Pares forma.

The aungels sungen the shepherds to: Gloria in excelsis Deo. Gaudeamus, Gaudeamus.

Leave we all this werldly mirth, and follow we this joyful birth. Transeamus, Transeamus.

That Yongë Child

That yongë child when it gan weep,

With song she lulled him asleep

Her song is hoarse and nought thereto:

And leaveth the first, then doth he wrong.

The nightingale sang also:

Whoso attendeth to her song

That was so sweet a melody

It passéd alle minstrely.

This Little Babe

This little Babe so few days old is come to rifle Satan’s fold.

All hell doth at his presence quake, though he himself for cold do shake:

For in this weak unarmèd wise the gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field, His naked breast stands for a shield;

His battering shot are babish cries, His arrows looks of weeping eyes;

His martial ensigns Cold and Need, and feeble Flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitchèd in a stall, His bulwark but a broken wall; 

The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes, of shepherds he his muster makes;

And thus, as sure his foe to wound, the angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight, stick to the tents that he hath pight;

Within his crib is surest ward, this little Babe will be thy guard;

If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly boy.

In Freezing Winter Night

Behold, a silly tender babe in freezing winter night,

In homely manger trembling lies; alas, a piteous sight!

The inns are full, no man will yield this little pilgrim bed.

But forced is he with silly beast, in crib to shroud his head.

This stable is a Prince’s court, this crib his chair of State;

The beast are parcel of his pomp, this wooden dish his plate.

The persons in that poor attire his royal liveries wear;

With joy approach O Christian wight, do homage to thy King; 

The Prince himself is come from Heav’n; this pomp is prized there.

And highly praise his humble pomp, wich he from Heav’n doth bring.

“When in our music God is glorified…”

With all the excellent music already sung this Advent and still to come in Christmastide, I share this out-of-season sermon in thanksgiving for the discipline and commitment of our many devoted musicians here at Christ Church Greenwich. Soli Deo gloria!

A Sermon Preached on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 8, 2013

Texts: Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

On this, the last Sunday before the official start of our program year, I’d like to take some time to talk about Church music. Now it may seem odd to you that I would choose to talk about music the week before our choirs return from their summer break. But this timing is not accidental. Our parish is blessed with a very long and rich tradition of excellent music offered by talented musicians. For generations, our choirs have been a source of pride, a well of inspiration and devotion, and indeed a resource for church growth: I know that many of you in the congregation today first entered the life of Christ Church Greenwich through the Music Department.

And yet that same long tradition can become for us a crutch. If we are not careful, we can allow the strength of our choirs to become an excuse for half-hearted singing from the congregation. If we think too often or too readily of the music program as something separate from the life of the parish, we may well forget that music is something that we do together. Our well-trained choristers do not stand here week after week, great feast after great feast, offering concerts. Rather, our fine choirs are leaders, inviting the whole congregation to join together in the praise of Almighty God.

This is true for great anthems and beautiful service music, when the choir sings and we are invited to be active listeners, lending the wings of our prayers to the ascending songs of our singers. But the deep unity that music can achieve among us is most perfectly manifested in the work of congregational singing. The singing of hymns in praise of God is one of the great privileges and gifts of the whole Church. When we stand and sing together, all barriers fall to the ground. When we stand and sing together, we are no longer clergy and lay people, no longer choir and congregation, no longer member and visitor, no longer insider and outsider, but we become one people, one Church, one Body, with our hearts and minds fixed on the one Lord.

That unity extends far beyond the walls of this building. The hymns and music we sing together as one congregation lift us up, and bid us join in the great unending hymn of praise that echoes through eternity in the nearer presence of our God. When we stand together before the Lord’s Table today, think of the invitation—think of the unity through time and space—that we share when we “join our voices with angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven.” Music invites us to take our place in that assembly, as the Church still walking its earthly pilgrimage unites with the Church Triumphant before the throne of God.

But more than this—more than this work of inviting and uniting the whole people of God—Church music is actually part of what creates the people of God. The music that we hear and sing in worship has tremendous power to form us as Christians. The great hymns of the faith and the great anthems of the choral repertoire are among the most effective and profound teaching tools available to us as we seek to communicate and comprehend the Good News.

A few weeks ago at Choir Camp, I heard one of our choristers say that she gets most of her religion from the music she sings in our choirs. As a preacher, I was dismayed. But as her priest and pastor, I was delighted. So often, music can be the key that unlocks the difficult places of our hearts and the doubting passages of our minds. A moving tune can unclench our tightly shut souls and let the freeing words of the Gospel sink deep down into us.

And not the freeing words only. The passage we have heard this morning from St Luke’s Gospel is surely among the most difficult and unsettling in all of Scripture. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” I have read many commentaries on this passage, and they can do but little to soften the explosive force of Jesus’ demand for absolute devotion, absolute commitment.

And yet, through the power of great music, you and I have this very day sung our affirmation—our acceptance—of Jesus’ words. The hymn that accompanied our opening procession included these lines in the fourth verse:

Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also.
The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever! 1

That verse expresses the whole substance of Jesus’ difficult teaching this morning. That verse calls us to acknowledge the complete and utter claim that God makes on our lives. That verse calls us to recognize that no relationship, no matter how intimate, must draw us from the call of Christ. That verse invites us to realize that no possession, no wealth, no treasure, however hard-won or precious, can approach the surpassing value of knowing Jesus our Lord.

Beloved, that verse reminds us that the cost of following Jesus may be great. It may even come at the price of our lives. Indeed, that was precisely the price paid by many of the early Protestants for whom Martin Luther wrote “A mighty fortress is our God.” But those who had sung these words—those who had sung any of the great hymns that gave life and power to the Reformation message—died in the sure and certain knowledge that God’s truth abides forever. They faced the flood of mortal ills from within the never-failing bulwark of God’s sovereign promise. They counted the cost, took up their crosses, and passed from death into life with the praises of God on their lips.

But for all this, the last point I wish to make this morning is that music is unnecessary. That may seem to contradict much of what I have just said, but let me explain what I mean. For all that music adds and accomplishes, it is perfectly possible to worship without hymns and anthems. We do not need instruments, whether organs, pianos, guitars, or anything else, to offer praise to God. More importantly, God does not need our praises. God stands far above our poor power to add or detract. He does not need us to remind him that he is great. God does not need us to recall to his mind the mighty acts by which he wrought for us life and salvation. Music is unnecessary.

And yet this morning, through the quiet grace of the lectionary, we have known the power and potential of unnecessary things. Today, we have heard almost the entirety of Paul’s shortest letter, the Epistle to Philemon. It is brief, to the point, and a masterful display of rhetorical power. And it is also unnecessary.

You see, a runaway slave named Onesimus met the Apostle Paul while Paul was under house arrest. Through the Apostle’s teaching and influence, Onesimus became a Christian. The name Onesimus means “useful.” It was a common name for slaves in the ancient world, and we can gather from the letter that Onesimus was indeed a useful companion for Paul during his imprisonment.

That might’ve been the end of the story. A useful former slave becomes a companion of Paul, and helps him in a difficult time. But Paul takes an additional, unnecessary step in his relationship with Onesimus. The reason we even know about this useful slave is that Paul wrote the letter we have just heard to Philemon: a fellow Christian, and Onesimus’s erstwhile owner.

Paul already had Onesimus’s companionship and assistance. There was no reason to send him back to Colossae to reconcile with Philemon, his former master. No reason, except that Paul wanted to go beyond what was necessary to what was good, holy, grace-filled for all. Paul writes to Philemon, “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” Paul wants Philemon to do something great, and difficult, and unnecessary. He wants the slave- owning Christian to receive his runaway slave back as a brother. Paul wants to make Philemon, not a victim of lost-property, but a participant in the salvation of a soul and the work of the Gospel.

Brothers and sisters, when I say that music is unnecessary, I mean that it is unnecessary like Paul’s Epistle to Philemon. Music carries us out of the realm of bare- minimums and bottom-line thinking, and lifts us up into what is good, and holy, and gracious. Music invites us to become participants in what God has accomplished. Our songs in worship are a loud “Amen!” to God’s great hymn of redemption. The text is his, as is the tune. But our deaf hears have been opened to hear it, and our dumb tongues have been loosened to join in that great song. True, God does not need our praises. And yet, he relishes them. God does not demand our hymns. And yet, he accepts them. In our music, God receives an offering that he does not require, but that he delights in all the same.

And in making that offering, we are changed. As we tune our hearts to sing God’s grace, we become alive to his promises and power. As we seek to offer the very best of ourselves through music—as we present the fullness of who and what we are—we become imitators of God, who gave of his fullness for our salvation in the person of Jesus our Lord. In thanksgiving for that precious gift, and in the joy that is ours through the Holy Spirit, may we raise our voices to the praise of God the Father. In the singing of our choirs and in the songs that we offer together, may we always rejoice to find ourselves united as God’s people, transformed as the Body of Christ, and lifted up into the abundant life of the Holy Trinity, to whom be glory now, and forevermore.

AMEN.

1 Verse 4, “A mighty fortress is our God,” Hymn 688, The Hymnal 1982. Words and melody by Martin Luther.

God is Coming!

A Sermon Preached on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2013

by The Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, CT

Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Well who invited that guy? It happens every year. Just as we’re starting to get into the holiday spirit—just as we’re trimming our trees and decking our halls and actually enjoying those Christmas carols that have been playing since Halloween…John the Baptist shows up.

Every Advent, he comes and sounds a deeply discordant note against the cheerful din of our cultural Christmas. A wild-eyed prophet clad in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, shouting about Wrath! Judgment! Repentance! And John’s description of the coming Christ is no better. I defy you to find a Christmas card that depicts the Lord Jesus with his winnowing fork in his hand, approaching his threshing-floor, ready to separate the wheat from the chaff.

But this morning we have, it would seem, an alternative. If John’s proclamation chafes against our expectations for the holiday season, perhaps we can simply turn to the passage from the Prophet Isaiah, instead. As John the Baptist rants and raves against the people who have come out to him in the wilderness, Isaiah sketches a vision of a beautiful time of peace and gentleness: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together…and a little child shall lead them.”

Now that’s something we could stick on a greeting card! I’m sure many of you are familiar with the famous painting inspired by this scene: “The Peaceable Kingdom,” by the American Quaker Edward Hicks. It is a beautiful example of folk-art from the early days of the American Republic. Exotic animals—lions, tigers, and bears, all rather fancifully rendered, as well as the more mundane oxen and sheep—lounge about, keeping company with chubby, adult-faced babies. It’s a warm and fuzzy scene, perfectly matched with our holiday celebrations. It’s the stuff we want this time of year. Peace on earth, goodwill to all people. “And a little child shall lead them…”

Of course, Isaiah was not speaking literally. He’s using richly metaphorical language to describe the Kingdom of God as a time of peace, a time when even the natural order will be filled with gentleness and harmony. But what happens, beloved, when we look up from that beautiful vision and look out at the world around us?

Could it be that the reason Isaiah’s vision is so beautiful, so captivating, is because we know, deep down, just how far it is from the world we live in? I hesitate even to ask you to imagine what the so-called “Peaceable Kingdom” would look like in real life. Young children and baby animals lying down with vicious predators, playing with poisonous snakes, leading lions along with lambs? In the world that you and I inhabit, that would be a scene of unspeakable horror.

In the world as we know it, nature has two sides. On the one hand, the natural world declares God’s grace and bounty, God’s creative might, God’s generous sustenance. But on the other hand, nature is brutal. Nature is red in tooth and claw. Nature’s ruling law is “survival of the fittest.” Nature’s power to maim and destroy and kill matches its capacity to inspire.

Barely a month ago, we were faced with a steady stream of blood-chilling stories and images from the Philippines, where we know that at least five thousand people were killed by Typhoon Haiyan—and where some sources estimate that the final death toll will be as high as ten thousand. The thousands more who lost homes and livelihoods and loved ones surely do not look on the natural world as a “Peaceable Kingdom.”

Or consider the power, not of natural devastation but of human depravity. The death of Nelson Mandela this week has brought forth a flood of news stories recounting his eventful life. It is a paradoxical tribute to the father of modern South Africa, that his death should inspire a detailed retelling of the darkest days of Apartheid. Furthermore, as tributes to Mandela rise around the world, so too do the stories of people inspired by his example but not yet gratified by his triumph: men and women who are still oppressed, still marginalized, still silenced, still murdered by the governments ostensibly charged with their protection. Those stories—coming in tandem this Saturday with the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting—remind us of how very far the human race is from the time when “they will neither hurt nor destroy on all my holy mountain.”

Or consider at last, my brothers and sisters, the state of your own heart this December. How authentic is the joy and peace you promise in your greeting cards? How satisfied are you with the gifts that you bustle from mall to mall and store to store to buy, and wrap, and ship? The lights shine in the windows, and on our parish Christmas tree; how brightly do they shine in you?

We yearn in our depths for the vision of Isaiah. But each year, each season, each day, and each hour brings new reason to doubt our hoped-for “Peaceable Kingdom.” Looking out upon the raw power of nature, the unfathomable cruelty of humanity, the deep darkness that threatens to claim our very hearts—how can we dare to hope for the day when “the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea”?

Hear now, once again, the words of John the Baptist: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

Dear people of God, there can be no fulfillment of the vision of Isaiah—no “Peaceable Kingdom”—without the startling announcement of John the Baptist: God is coming. That is the Good News of this season. And it is news that we resist, because, as John the Baptist fearlessly reminds us, God’s coming is in wrath.

It is in wrath because the God of justice is coming to a world marred by injustice. It is in wrath because the God of holiness is coming to a world stained by sin. It is in wrath because the God of righteousness is coming to a world warped by wickedness. It is in wrath because the God of faithfulness is coming to a faithless, faltering, fallen humanity. It is in wrath because the God of life is coming to a world held captive by Death. God is coming, and his coming is in wrath.

But hear now the great Good News this Advent: the God who is coming to judge this world is the very God who came into this world as a helpless child. The God who is coming to set this cosmos to rights is the very God who has already known and felt the wrongs of this creation in human form, in a human life. The God who is coming with a purifying wrath to drive out every evil from our world and every evil from our hearts— behold! That God has, himself, borne that wrath with his own flesh and blood. Isaiah’s promise and John’s pronouncement meet on the Cross of Christ. God’s wrath and our great need are both satisfied in the Body of Jesus, God’s Son.

God is coming, beloved, and he is coming not as a stranger but as our friend. God is coming, and our eyes shall see him—not in confusion, not in fear, not in sorrow, not in hate—but in joy, in gratitude, in triumph, in love. God is coming, and on his hands and feet, and in his side, and on his brow, he bears the signs of his victory over the sin and disobedience and darkness of this world—and the sin and disobedience and darkness of my life, and your life. God is coming, and though his body carries still the marks of this world’s redemption and the wrath our race called forth, it is a resurrected body, free forever from Death’s dominion.

God is coming, and he will bring to fulfillment the work he accomplished on Calvary’s tree. God is coming, and he will complete the work he began at my baptism, and yours. God is coming, and he will consummate the work that he carries out even now in the life of his Church. God is coming, and behold: he shall make all things new!