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"

Tag: Christ

“Marley was dead: to begin with.”

Since taking up my duties as Rector of Christ Church in Cooperstown, New York, I am sorry that I have not found much time to update my blog. I hope very much that that will change in the New Year. But even so, on this Fifth Day of Christmas, I wanted to share my sermon from Christmas Eve.

God bless you in this holy season and in the year to come!

cole-angel-shepherds

(“The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds”, by Thomas Cole, 1833-34. The sudden in-breaking of the Angel Gabriel into a dark, dead scene perfectly expresses the unexpected arrival of life into our world and our hearts.)

A Sermon Preached on Christmas Eve, 2016

By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Rector, Christ Church, Cooperstown, NY

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

“Marley was dead: to begin with.” That’s how Charles Dickens opens his well-loved story A Christmas Carol. “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Most folks probably know the story these days through a movie or television adaptation. I must confess a certain fondness for “A Muppet Christmas Carol”, though that is probably not considered the most faithful interpretation.

But whatever version you may know and love, they all begin with that same odd, unsettling, downright creepy opening line. “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Who starts a Christmas story by talking about death?! It’s crazy!

But Dickens does it for one very important reason. He tells the reader, “Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” If we were not quite certain that Marley was dead to begin with, his appearance in the tale would not astound or surprise us.

And by beginning in the way he does, Dickens accomplishes more than merely weirding out his readers—though he does do that. By beginning with death, Dickens makes sure that the eventual arrival of life astonishes and delights us all the more. By beginning with death, Scrooge’s transformation from a miserly old grump—or, as Dickens calls him, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, covetous old sinner”—into a warm-hearted, generous, loving friend, can be seen for what it really is: a journey out of death into life.

So why am I telling you all about the beginning of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol at this late hour on Christmas Eve when you could just as easily be home right now, sitting next to the fire with some high-octane eggnog, watching your favorite movie version—or, even better, reading the original book? Well, it’s because the story we tell tonight in Church bears a striking and significant resemblance to Dickens’s classic tale. There are no bah humbugs, no ghosts of past, present, or future, and no huge turkeys. But just like A Christmas Carol, the Christmas story we hear tonight begins with Death.

Maybe you didn’t notice it. I’ll admit, it’s not very obvious. If all you know about this story is what you just heard read from Luke’s Gospel, you might even think I’m extremely confused to claim that there’s anything about death in it at all. I mean, aren’t we here to celebrate a birth?

But did you hear in our First Reading what the Prophet Isaiah said many centuries before the birth of Christ? “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” Now we tend to focus on the light, and that’s good. But what was that darkness? Who were those people dwelling in a land of shadows?

Or were you listening when Isaiah talked about “the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders”? Before we can understand the freedom he’s celebrating, we have to ask: What was that burden? Who put that bar there?

Or did you wonder why, in the midst of all that beautiful stuff about light and freedom and the child who is called “wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace,” there was that one odd and ugly line about “the boots of all the tramping warriors, and all the garments rolled in blood,” being “burned as fuel for the fire”?

Or did you hear the hint of a warning in St Paul’s Letter to Titus, when he writes about God who “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people”? Did you consider what the iniquity from which we are being redeemed is? Did you ask why we need to be purified in the first place?

Or even in St Luke’s great story about the birth of Jesus, did you listen when the Angel told the Shepherds just who this child was? “For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior…” Why did the Shepherds need a Savior in the first place? Why do any of us need a Savior? What are we being saved from?

“Marley was dead: to begin with,” said Charles Dickens. “The world was dead: to begin with,” says the Bible.

The Good News of Christmas begins in the same strange, unsettling, even creepy way that Dickens’s classic story begins. It begins with death. Not just the death of some old money-lender named Marley. But the Death that looms over all people— the Death that looms over all creation. The Christmas Gospel, the Christmas message, begins with this announcement: “We were dead, to begin with.”

Perhaps that seems to you a preposterous and unbelievable claim. But consider what we’ve seen of the power of death this year, and this holiday season. Terrorist attacks in Christmas markets, a never-ending crisis in Syria, violence and crime in our own cities, and in our towns, and even in our villages. Consider what we know of the problems of addiction throughout this nation and even in this community. Consider the death of civility that we all witnessed in the election cycle just concluded.

When we are not able to quiet our fears of the future or satisfy our own longing for security, we feel the power of Death. When we cannot buy enough or own enough or give enough away to protect ourselves from the changes and chances of life, we feel the power of Death. When we finally face the awful fact that our lives are not our own, and we see that we have been walking in darkness and dwelling in a land of deep darkness, we see that we have been living under the reign and power of Death.

That hard truth must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the wonderful Good News we have heard this night.

For tonight, the Angel of the Lord speaks again to each of us, just as he spoke to the shepherds twenty centuries ago. He speaks to ears like ours, that have grown deaf with straining for a word of hope. He appears to eyes like ours, that have grown dim with watching for our redemption. He calls to hearts like ours, that are heavy with all the hatred and bitterness and tragedy and violence we find in our world. He brightens minds like ours, that cannot figure a way out of all our troubles: the troubles we have caused for ourselves and the troubles thrust upon us unfairly and unexpectedly and without a way out.

To us the Angel Gabriel speaks, and says,

“Fear not. For though you were dead in your sins and trespasses; dead in the things that took you far from God and that broke your bonds with other people; dead in your words and in your deeds; dead in your waking and in your sleeping; dead in your hardness of heart and your brokenness of will—Though you were dead, fear not. God has acted. For unto you is born this day a Savior. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The trappings of violence will all be rolled up and destroyed. The threat of judgment has been averted. The promise of the prophets has come true. Not just to save you from the final threat of ultimate death, whenever it may come, but to raise you from the gloom of living death to true life right now—to set you free from the burdens of your oppressors, and to break the bar of tyranny laid across your shoulders by your own drives and desires and appetites and anxieties. Fear not. For unto you is born this day a savior which is Christ the Lord.”

We were dead to begin with, but through the Birth of this Holy Child, life has broken into our world.

We were dead to begin with, but God in Christ Jesus has come to make us alive again.

We were dead to begin with, but the life and death, and resurrection of the child born in Bethlehem has shattered the power of death and risen us to life.

O come, all ye faithful! Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Hark, the herald angels sing: “Glory to the newborn king!” For we who once were dead have now been made alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. AMEN.

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Independence and Obedience

At my wife’s instigation, I have recently been reading a book on parenting. It offers some very interesting reflections on the inverse relationship between command and compliance: namely, the lived truth that the less I bark at my children the more likely they are to do what I ask. In any case, it put me in mind of this old sermon, preached three years ago on the Fifth Sunday in Lent.

A Sermon Preached on the 5th Sunday in Lent, March 25, 2012

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

Texts: Hebrews 5:5-10; John 3:14-21

“Although he was a son,

Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered,

and having been made perfect,

he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When was the last time that you enjoyed the charming, exhilarating, life-affirming experience of passing through security at an airport? Think back to it now, for a moment. Savor the memory.

A few months ago, I attended the priestly ordination of one of my best friends from seminary. He is the curate of the cathedral out in Denver, so air travel was a necessity. The flights, both there and back, went fine. Denver is a relatively easy trip, I was glad to learn. But that whole business of getting through security was about as frustrating and infuriating as you can imagine. I was shunted from line to line, ordered to take off my belt and shoes by one surly worker, and then scolded for not having done those tasks fast enough by another surly worker. The other passengers around me were similarly miserable, similarly powerless. We all bristled at the sharp, unfriendly instructions, the rude orders, the bossy, impatient commands. But bristle was about all we could do. Confronted with the absolute authority of the Transportation Security Administration, all we could do was obey.

What I noticed about myself in those few minutes (and in the end, it really was only a few minutes) was the re-emergence of an emotion and an accompanying phrase that I had not known for many years. Slowly coming through the line, receiving commands and orders from every side, I found myself muttering under my breath that classic expression of childish independence and frustration: “You’re not the boss of me!”

“You’re not the boss of me,” I thought, looking grumpily at the TSA workers in their bright blue shirts with their latex-gloved hands. “You’re not the boss of me,” I murmured as I read the imperious, uncompromising signs declaring “These items not permitted on board,” and “Your bag must be this size to carry on.” “You’re not the boss of me,” I growled to the surrounding symbols of authority—in a voice only I could hear. “You’re not the boss of me.”

Now in that actual moment, that phrase and that feeling were more than childish: they were obviously, demonstrably false. In that airport security line, those TSA workers really were the boss of me. If I hoped to get where I was going—if I wanted to get on my plane—then I had no choice but to listen to them, and to follow their orders. And yet something deep down within me resented and resisted the plain, practical necessity of obedience.

I have come to believe that I am not alone in that resistance, that resentment. It seems to me that we all, as individuals and as a culture, resist and reject the concept of obedience. Turn on a television, log onto the internet, and you will find myriad preachers of a Gospel of no-rules, no-limits, and perfect personal freedom. The myths that we imbibe each day—the myths that we breathe in every time we encounter an advertisement or listen to a political stump speech—all tell us to idolize and emulate the rule-breakers, the mavericks, the pioneers: those who took the initiative, who made their own rules, who wouldn’t be stopped or slowed-down by obeying outmoded regulations and expectations. What’s more, these myths tell us that that power—the right of self-determination and self-fulfillment—belongs to each of us as well. And we can claim our power if only we buy the right products or vote for the right party. Be a bold, independent innovator, the myths whisper. Don’t follow the crowd, don’t listen to the rules. Don’t obey.

We know those myths are powerful, because advertisers wouldn’t use them if they weren’t. They are powerful and effective because they tap into a deep resistance—a deep suspicion we all share of any command to obey. But where does that suspicion come from? Why do we resist obedience? Why is it that, when we are asked to obey, some iteration of “You’re not the boss of me,” rises so naturally, so readily, to our lips? This morning, I’d like to suggest that the reason we resist obedience is twofold.

First, the call to obedience shatters a lie that we all cherish: the great lie of our own self-sufficiency, our own independence. Obedience, whether it’s the obedience required in the line at airport security, or the obedience required by the Ten Commandments, breaks down the illusion, the utter falsehood, that we are in control of our lives. The very idea of obedience forces us to recognize that we are not, in fact, the masters of our own destinies, or at least not in the way that we thought. Obedience reminds us that there is someone, somewhere, more important and powerful than we are. Just as I stood, powerless but defiant in the airport security line, so all humankind stands, shutting our eyes and clenching our fists against a great and terrible truth: our lives are not our own.

And this dreadful realization leads us to another, even more terrible question: If we are not our own, then whose are we? The answer, though we resist it, is plain to us. It is written in the pain, the violence, the suffering of our lives and the life of this world. It weighs down our hearts and darkens our brows. It shatters our dreams and hems our opportunities. It makes real the frailties of our bodies and makes false the fantasies of our souls. It binds us with an unbreakable chain, and forces us to walk the same long, winding line—not through security, but to the grave—trod by every generation before us.

For the truth, beloved, is that we are not free and independent. The truth is that we are, by our very nature, slaves. We are bondservants of sin and death. And because the call to obedience—any call to obedience—leads us to face the horrible reality of our own limitations—because the command to obey makes plain the unbearable truth of our slavery to great and terrible powers outside of ourselves—something deep within us turns away in disgust, rises up in rebellion, and urges us to reject the command and to resist the call. We hate obedience, for it reminds us of a truth we wish to forget.

But the good and gracious news this morning—and there is good and gracious news this morning—is that God himself has intervened on our behalf. God himself has entered our story. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus has become our obedience. We hear this morning the Gospel, the Good News, that when our disobedience—our resistance to obedience, our refusal to recognize our own powerlessness, and helplessness, and need for God in our lives—when all this had taken us far from God, God came to us! When rebellion deep within us made us slaves to Sin and Death, God, incarnate in the flesh of our Lord Jesus, accomplished what we could not hope to accomplish. God, at work in the sacrifice of the Cross, achieved what we could not begin to achieve. God, in his vast, unending, incomprehensible Love, acted when we were powerless to act.

My friends, this morning we hear news of deliverance declared to an unruly, disobedient people: Christ has become our obedience! This is what grace means, this is what the Gospel is all about: what Christ has accomplished, we now share, though we did not merit it, though we could not earn it, though we may not always remember it, or believe it, or live it. Christ has won for us the gift of obedience.

This is what Lent is all about. God does not call us, through suffering and self-denial, to free ourselves from our bondage. Instead, this is a time when God calls us to live into the freedom that he was won for us. He calls us to train ourselves, to discipline our bodies and souls and minds that we who were born to disobedience and death may begin to live into the obedience and life that Christ has won. Having been justified, having been made righteous before God through Christ, having been made new creatures by water and the Holy Spirit, having been set free from the tyranny of our sins: God now calls us to the joyful freedom of his obedience.

This is the challenging paradox we hear in the Gospel lesson this morning. We go from obedience to obedience. We pass through the slavery of Death and so become sons and daughter of life. The startling, scandalous Good News is that if we die with Christ, we will live with him. This is the process by which we leave behind the old, dirty, dingy, worn-out, threadbare clothes of our former lives, and begin to put on the clean, shining garment of righteousness that has been washed in the blood of Jesus—the garment that God himself places upon our shoulders.

God’s call to obedience is not like our slavery under Sin and Death. God’s call is not a command from a tyrant on high. It is, rather, the gentle invitation of a patient parent. It is the soothing voice of a loving father, encouraging us to relax our white-knuckled grip on a few broken down old toys, so that he may put into our open hands the good things we really need. To obey God is to give up a power we never had. It is not our undoing, but our unclenching. Make no mistake: Christ’s call to death is real. To obey God does indeed mean a death. But it means the death of a lie. It means participation in the death of Christ, so that we may, at last, begin truly to live.

So the next time you stand in the security line at the airport, I hope you will be grateful for that horrible, wonderful reminder that your life is not your own. Then say a brief, thankful prayer to the One whose you are, the One who holds your life in his good and gracious hands, the One who calls you now and always into his obedient service—the One “whose service is perfect freedom.”

Amen.

“A great and mighty wonder…”

On this Fourth Day of Christmas—the Feast of the Holy Innocents—I’ve been re-reading and thinking about the two poems I posted a few days ago: John Betjeman’s “Christmas” (posted when I got home from Midnight Mass at about 1:30 on Christmas morning) and Robert Southwell’s “The Nativity of Christ” (posted once the shreds of wrapping paper had settled and the necessary toy-assembling was done on Christmas day). They are two of my favorite Christmas poems. Though very different in style, content, and context, they approach the Incarnation from the same perspective. Betjeman and Southwell both look upon the Birth of Christ as “a great and mighty wonder,” as the carol puts it—a surprising, paradoxical, unexpected thing that, in spite of all appearances, has earth-shaking significance.

I love the way that Betjeman begins with (and never really leaves) “the sweet and silly Christmas things.” The first five stanzas of the poem are entirely devoted to the stuff of a secular Christmas: cheerful pubs, bright bunting in the town hall, shops “strung with silver bells and flowers.” Even the decorating of the village church in the second stanza is really just a part of general Christmas merriment (rather than some special expression of spiritual devotion). It’s all done “So that the villagers can say / ‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.”

And all of this is good. Betjeman surveys these things fondly, with just a hint of longing and a hint of irony. The sentimental, slightly soggy stuff of Christmas isn’t bad. Families coming together (even “girls in slacks…and oafish louts”) and the excitement of children and the tinsel-trappings of the season: these are all good things.

But they are not the Good Thing. Whenever I read this poem, I imagine someone at a warm, cheerful holiday party. Standing with a glass of eggnog in his hand, he’s just finished a light and friendly conversation with an amiable acquaintance. Now he is, perhaps only for a brief moment, alone in the midst of a party overflowing with all “the sweet and silly Christmas things” cherished by our culture. Suddenly, in the sixth stanza, a question rises in his brain: “And is it true?”

What occasions that question? Maybe my imaginary partygoer glimpses a creche hidden under the Christmas tree. Maybe there’s a card on the mantle with some beautiful depiction of Mary and Joseph and the baby on it. In the third line of the sixth stanza, Betjeman himself connects the question with a “stained-glass window’s hue.” Perhaps the poem’s speaker has just escaped a brightly decorated street of shops by dropping into an empty church. Whatever the source or inspiration, in the sixth stanza the question of the Incarnation suddenly breaks into the poem.

And that is precisely how it must be. My post in response to the Rev’d John Ohmer’s thoughts on Advent is predicated on an understanding of Christmas as something abrupt and unexpected. The Feast of the Nativity—the Church’s celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation—can never be simply an extension of the good things of “the holiday season” as the secular world keeps it. Christ’s birth cuts at an angle to all the things of this earth: all of our bad things, and all of our good things—all of our sad things, and all of our happy things. Christmas interrupts us, just as surely as a wondering thought can steal upon a person at a party, or an unexpected encounter with a piece of art (a stained-glass window, a painting, a statue, or a great work of music) can raise unanticipated questions in the soul.

“And is it true?” Betjeman’s question, with a touch of modern embarrassment and slight skepticism, does not grow out of the ordinary stuff of Christmas. Rather, it engages with astonishing news: news that changes everything. Betjeman begins with all the good things this world affords, which really are abundant at Christmastime. But he ends by turning from them to the pearl of great price—the treasure hidden in the field—the “Baby in an ox’s stall”—and realizes that nothing else “can with this single truth compare.” 

Southwell, on the other hand, begins in the stable. With the great Biblical word of announcement—Behold!—Southwell dives right into the paradox of Christ’s birth: “The bird that built the nest is hatched therein.” What a delightful summary of John 1.10: “He was in the world, and the world was made by him.” The entirety of the first stanza is given over to the wonderful impossibility of the Incarnation: the Word of God—“the old of years”, “Eternal life”, “the mirth of heaven”, “might”, and “force”—lies newborn in a manger—“dumb”, weeping, “feeble”, creeping.

But what is the point of all this paradox? It is astonishing, but why does it matter? Southwell tackles that question in the second stanza with a series of imperatives: “O dying souls! behold your living spring! / O dazzled eyes! behold your sun of grace!” Southwell’s list of paradoxes in the first stanza speaks directly to our “dying souls”, “dazzled eyes”, “dull ears”, and “heavy hearts” in the second.

And the greatest paradox of all, the paradox behind all of Southwell’s clever paradoxes, is that the gift of the Incarnate Christ—a gift that reveals God in a new and surprising way—transforms not God, but us. God is not lessened or changed by the Nativity of Christ. But by “assumption of the Manhood by God,” humankind is renewed and restored. Receiving God’s gift to us makes us what we were always intended to be: God’s gift to himself.

Southwell’s final stanza surveys the cosmos from the edge of the manger. He tells the story of Genesis 3 in just one line: “Man alter’d was by sin from man to beast.” So we stand: reduced, diminished, unmanned (in a different sense from the usual use of that word). And how does God address our alteration and loss? By coming down to meet us in our deepest depths: “Beast’s food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh; / Now God is flesh, and lies in manger press’d, / As hay the brutest sinner to refresh.” If men and women have, by the Fall, been made beasts, then God’s solution to this dilemma is to become the food of beasts: literally to lie in the feeding trough of cattle.

“Oh happy field wherein this fodder grew, / Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew!”