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: Death

“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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Tetelestai!

Annunciation-Crucifixion

(Saint John the Baptists, Annunciation, Crucifixion, Saint Catherine of Alexandria,               Francesc Comes, circa 1400)

A Sermon Preached on Good Friday, March 25, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 10:1-25; John 18:1-19:42

May I speak in the Name of Christ Crucified. Amen.

“It is finished.”

Those are the dying words of Jesus.

“It is finished.”

Those words are the key to understanding the meaning of this day.

“It is finished.”

Those words make absolutely no sense in the context of the story we have just heard.

Of course, if all Jesus meant was, “This is done with,” or “This is over,” then we might think that “It is finished” makes perfect sense. And after everything Jesus has been through, who could blame him if what he meant by “It is finished,” was really, “I’ve had enough,” or “I can’t take any more,” or even, “I give up”? Any of those might make sense to us.

But that’s not what Jesus said.

When Christ declares, “It is finished,” he isn’t saying anything like, “This is done with,” or “I give up.” The phrase “It is finished” in the English of our Bibles translates a single word from the original Greek of John’s Gospel: Tetelestai. That word doesn’t carry with it any hint of giving up or quitting or throwing in the towel.

Rather, when Jesus says, “Tetelestai,” and bows his head and gives up his spirit, what he is really saying from the Cross is “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. It is completed.”

Tetelestai!“​

Jesus isn’t saying, “I give up.” Jesus is saying, “I have done it.”1

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.”

Those are the last words of an innocent man who refused the violent rescue-attempt proposed by his friends in the garden; refused to answer the false accusations brought against him; refused to plead his case before the governor who could release him; refused to accept the offer of crude anesthetics meant to dull his pain; and refused to come down from the Cross with divine power and might to answer the cruel jeers of the spiteful crowd.

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.” Those are the dying words of a broken man whose body has been whipped and scourged; whose clothes have been stripped away and gambled off; whose friends have deserted him; whose mother stands weeping for him; whose epitaph, nailed above him while he’s still alive, is a mocking political joke: “This is the King of the Jews!”

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.” This is the last utterance of a faithful man who came to earth that others might have life, and have it more abundantly; of a man who healed the sick and raised the dead; of a man who fed the multitude with a few loaves and a couple of fish; of a man who opened the eyes of the blind and who shut the mouths of the learned; of a man who called God his Father, and tax collectors and sinful women and stupid fishermen his friends; a man who, before this death of agony, asked God to glorify his name, and who heard the voice of God declare in reply, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

Here, hanging upon the Cross of shame, this man declares with his dying breath, “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.”

It doesn’t make any sense. Crucifixion was meant to be an utterly meaningless death. The whole point is that it was pointless. The cross was a tool used for erasing the record of a person’s existence. It was a way, not simply to kill a man, but to wipe him from the rolls of the human race.

How can this death be a fulfillment of anything? How can this death accomplish anything? How can this death be anything but an absolute, unmitigated, irredeemable failure?

Unless, of course, dying a death like this is precisely what Jesus came to do.

“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring and prolong his days.”

“And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

“See, God, I have come to do your will.”

What if the crucifixion were not a hateful, horrible interruption of Christ’s life and ministry? What if the crucifixion were his very reason for being born, and the full completion of his three years’ work?

There’s something special about this Good Friday. Something happens this year that will not happen again until the year 2157. Today is March 25. We are exactly nine months from Christmas Day. Were it not Good Friday, the Church would celebrate this day as the Feast of the Annunciation: the moment of the Incarnation.

This is the day when the Angel Gabriel brought word to a lowly Jewish peasant girl that she would become the mother of the Messiah. This is the day when the Word of God took on flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary his mother. This is the day when God came among us as one of us–and this is the day that he died.

This rare coming together of Good Friday and the Annunciation happens only a few times or so every century. It happened during the lifetime of the poet and priest John Donne. Reflecting on this convergence in 1608, Donne wrote that “This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown / Death and conception in mankind is one.”2

“Death and conception in mankind is one.” From the moment we begin to exist, we are vulnerable to death. This is the sad truth of the human condition. No matter how wise we make ourselves; no matter how wealthy we become; no matter how advanced our technological achievements or vast our information networks; no matter how high we build our walls to keep the enemies out or how deep we dig our vaults to hide away our treasures, we cannot escape death.

That’s the terrible message we read in the silent spread of terrorist networks through the free democracies of the world. That’s the toxic background to the fear-mongering and scapegoating that increasingly characterize our nation’s political life. That’s the source of the brokenness we find in our corrupted institutions and our ineffective systems and our ruined relationships and our endless empty consuming.

And it’s the condition we find at work in our own lives. To be human is to be caught up into the swirling dance of Death and Sin. It is to be dominated by powers beyond our control. It is to be scourged by the whip of our own weaknesses, and to be mocked with the taunts we hurled at others. To be human is to find ourselves hanging upon the Cross of our own hatreds–pierced by the nails of our own pride–stabbed by the spear of our own selfishness. To be human is to wear the thorny crown of our own control–the bloody crown that shows our rejection of God’s will in our lives and our slavery to our own desires and appetites. “Death and conception in mankind is one.”

This day cruelly confronts us with that dark truth.

But in Christ’s declaration of “Tetelestai!”, this day also dares to declare to us another, better truth. For what this “some times and seldom” overlap announces is that the God of all creation has come to pursue us–and he would not stop with simply taking on our nature. His intention was to become fully, completely human, and because “Death and conception in mankind is one”, today we remember that he has pursued us even unto death!

Christ’s purpose was not simply to become a perfect human being aloof and separate from the sins and sorrows and sufferings of our race. But what he begins at the Annunciation when he takes on flesh like ours, he completes in the Crucifixion when he suffers a death like ours.

For the death of agony that Jesus endures on the Cross means that no human agony is now beyond his reach. The death of shame that Christ completes this day means that no shame can now separate us from him. The accursed, ugly, horrible death he died means that God himself has absorbed our curse; God himself has exchanged our ugliness; God himself has faced the horror of death and made it his own.

“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

For what was ours by nature, God took upon himself by grace. What we have deserved for our deeds, Christ has assumed out of his love. What was for us only dissolution and disaster, Jesus has made an achievement and the occasion of our reunion with God. What to us could only be the penalty for disobedience, Christ has redeemed by his perfect obedience.

“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”

And let us, this Good Friday, fix our eyes upon the rough wood of the Cross and say, in unison with our crucified, living Lord, “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. Christ has done it!”

AMEN.

1-I realize that “I have done it,” is not an accurate translation of tetelestai. However, I maintain that it is a theologically and homiletically appropriate rendering.

2-Upon the Annunciation and the Passion Falling upon One Day. 1608

“I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior!”

ChristCrucifiedontheTreeofLife_Lawrence_OP
(“Christ on the Tree of Life”, mosaic by Edward Burne-Jones, 1894.)

It was my great privilege to preach yesterday at the Church of St. Michael and St. George in St. Louis, Missouri. How delightful to be with that wonderful congregation on such a meaningful day! The Rev’d Andrew Archie and his clergy colleagues, the Rev’d Blake Sawicky and the Rev’d Ezgi Saribay, extended me such warm hospitality on a snowy Ash Wednesday. The staff and parishioners were so kind in their welcome. The music, conducted by Dr. Rob Lehmann, was sublime. 

A Sermon Preached on Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston

Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

“I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.”

Those words were written by an 18th-century sailor, slave-ship captain, Christian convert, Church of England priest, and hymn-writer named John Newton, most famous for penning the lyrics of “Amazing Grace.” Nearing the end of his long life, with his health broken and his eyesight grown dim, Newton told a friend, “My memory is nearly gone, but still I remember two things: that I am a great sinner–and that Christ is a great saviour!”

Standing before you as a guest preacher this Ash Wednesday, I take Newton’s words both for my introduction to you and for the starting place of my sermon. I am tremendously grateful to the rector for inviting me to preach today. But I am also keenly aware of the fact that I don’t know you, and that you don’t know me–or at least, you don’t know me apart from whatever Father Sawicky might have told you about me, in which case I am tremendously grateful you didn’t stay away from church today.

Seeing, then, that we are strangers to one another, I have resolved to stick to what I can know–what I do know: “That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great savior!”

For you see, that announcement–that declaration–is really what this day is all about. On this day, the Church exhorts her members both corporately and individually to “lament our sins and acknowledge our wretchedness.” On this day, we are called to claim with one voice John Newton’s self-summary–we are invited, each of us and all of us, to say, “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.”

And that is what makes this day so difficult. To confess our sins–to own up to the fact that we’ve done wrong–isn’t necessarily hard for us. We do it every Sunday at the Holy Eucharist, and daily at Morning and Evening Prayer. We know we are guilty of faults and offenses–that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, against God and against our neighbors. We know we have gone wrong, both by our actions and by our inaction–by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We know we have sins to confess.

But Ash Wednesday goes deeper. On this day, we do not simply confess our sins–we confess that we are sinners. On this day, we do not merely own up to those times and places when we have broken God’s commandments–we own up to the fact that, at all times and in all places, we are broken creatures. On this day, we do not just cry out for forgiveness, asking that we may be set again on the narrow path–rather on this day, we cry out for salvation, acknowledging that apart from God’s grace we are lost no matter the path we tread; admitting that without the breath of God’s Spirit we are dead in our sins and trespasses; declaring that, until the Great Physician comes with balm for our hurting souls, “there is no health in us.”

This day dares to confront us, not simply the undeniable truth that we sometimes commit sins, but rather with the profoundly uncomfortable truth that we are sinners: that our hearts are hardened against the loving-kindness of God–that our wills have turned in on themselves to seek only our own drives and delights–that our very nature is fundamentally disordered by the problem of disobedience and the fact of Sin.

That’s why, when we come forward for the imposition of ashes today, we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Those words carry us back to the very root of the problem. They are the words spoken by God to Adam after he and Eve have broken the commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. By choosing to disobey the Lord’s only law, human beings lose their only true freedom. They become slaves to their own needs and appetites–their own devices  and desires. They have no power of themselves to help themselves. And so God tells the dust-creatures who were made in his own image that that image will now be marred by mortality: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Now don’t for a minute get hung up on the historicity of that story, and worry about how a snake could talk or where the Garden of Eden might be located on a map. That story isn’t meant to explain things that happened long, long ago. That story is meant to explain things that happen now–each and every day–around us, and within us.

Why is it that we fall back again and again into behaviors we know are not good for us, for our souls or bodies, and are not good for our relationships with others? Why is it that I eat too much and drink too much, even though I know that temporary indulgence only leads to pain and unhappiness? Why is it that you tell lies even though you know they only serve to make your life more complicated and more difficult? Why is it that we continually look on other people as objects or obstacles or as the means to our own personal ends, even though we know that that leads only to the exploitation and degradation of God’s image in our fellow creatures?

“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Today we hear again God’s words to Adam and we realize that they apply to each of us as well. The powers of Sin and Death are inextricably linked. The fact of our mortality and the problem of our continual disobedience are both wrapped up in the reality of our sinfulness. The ashes upon my head will declare what I cannot hide or deny–that I am indeed a great sinner.

But, dear people of God, that is not all that those ashes will declare. For mark the shape in which those ashes will be applied to each forehead in just a few moments. They may look like nothing more than a smudge. But feel the way that the priest’s thumb moves across your brow. If the ashes on my face carry with them the terrible reminder that I am a great sinner, they also carry with them the glorious announcement that Christ is a great savior!

For the ashes upon our heads will be imposed in the shape of a cross. The symbol of our sinfulness shows forth the sign of Jesus’ victory. The reminder of our mortality and brokenness also tells out the great Good News that God has not abandoned us or forsaken us.

 For God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The Cross is the everlasting declaration of God’s love and mercy for the lost and the broken. The Cross is the eternal announcement of God’s power and promise held out to the sinful and the stained. The Cross is the undoing of the curse, the defeat of death by death, the conquest of sin by bearing the cost of sin, the destruction of disobedience by means of Christ’s ultimate obedience.

And so the next forty days are not, for us, days of grief and gloom–of dismal drudgery and disfigured faces–of weeping and wailing for our sins. For in this holy season of Lent, we carry our own crosses gladly as we follow the footsteps of Jesus. In the weeks to come, we ready our hearts to hear again the story of what God has done for the sake of people such as we are–for sinners like me and like you. As we approach once more the contemplation of those mighty acts by which God has won for us life and salvation, we go joyfully to Jerusalem, to see sin silenced by the One who would not open his mouth; to see death vanquished by the One who humbled himself even unto death upon the Cross; to see the gracious gift of everlasting life flowing from the open-door of the empty tomb.

So let us, then, make a right beginning of holy Lent. Let us own the announcement of this Ash Wednesday. Let us, each and all, boldly, joyfully, gratefully, humbly declare, “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.” AMEN.

Death be not proud!

“Danse Macabre” by Bernt Notke, c. late 15th Century. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

A Sermon Preached on the Sunday after All Saints’ Day, November 3, 2013

By The Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Texts: Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

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

Welcome to the revolution. Perhaps when you pulled into the parking lot this morning and parked in your usual spot, you did not realize that you had arrived at a meeting of dangerous radicals. Perhaps when you stepped inside the church and settled into your usual seat in your usual pew, you did not know that what you were coming here for was a protest, a demonstration, an act of outrageous defiance against oppression and tyranny. Perhaps you were not aware that each day, each week, year-in and year-out, from the highest Holy Days to the lowest low Sundays, what we gather here for is a resistance movement—a radical society—a grand conspiracy—with news that can topple the mightiest powers that hold sway over this world. Friends, I say it again: Welcome to the revolution.

Now perhaps some of you are feeling a little uncomfortable by this point. Some of you may be asking yourselves, “When did that nice young curate get so political?” Some of you may be wondering whether there’s still time to reduce your capital campaign pledge…

But before you do anything rash, let me first explain what I’m talking about. Today is the Sunday after All Saints’ Day. Today we celebrate the Feast that took place last Friday, and in so doing we engage in a stunning act of defiance. You see, on All Saints’ Sunday we remember and give thanks for all of God’s servants down through the ages. But we do more than remember the saints this day. Today we rejoice in them as fellow companions and present realities in the life of the Church. All Saints’ Day is not a holiday of history—a time to look back through two millennia of the Christian faith in order to choose heroes and tell stories of people long dead. Rather, on this day we remember that God has “knit together [his] elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of [his] Son Christ our Lord.”

Consider what those words mean. Today we profess that we who are still in our earthly pilgrimage—we who walk as yet by faith and not by sight—nevertheless are one—one communion, one fellowship, one body—with those who have gone before us. The Church recognizes no barriers of geography or chronology–of space or time. We are one with all baptized people around the world today, and we are one with all baptized people down through the centuries, even though they have died. And this claim, this profession, this assertion, is what makes this day revolutionary, for it requires us to defy an oppressor and a tyrant.

And yet the oppressor we repudiate today is not a political one, though he is often wrapped up and mingled in the practice of politics. But no: this All Saints’ Sunday we defy a ruler before whom the President of the United States, the Queen of England, and the Secretary General of the United Nations all stand subject.

The tyrant we reject this day is not an economic power, though greed and wealth have long been known to serve him. But no: this All Saints’ Sunday we renounce a creditor to whom the CEO of General Electric, the Chairman of Microsoft, and the President of the New York Stock Exchange must all pay their final debt.

No, beloved, the enemy against whom we gather today stands over and above all manifestations of human power and authority. He is the power behind all other powers. He is the last and inescapable equalizer of humankind. He is the one uniting reality of human life, because he reveals himself clearly and undeniably in the end of human life. For the great and terrible foe whom we this day defy is Death itself. That is the meaning of this All Saints’ Sunday. That is the force of our protest. That is the revolution of which we are part. Today, we stand defiant in the very face of Death.

And if we are to grasp the full force of our rebellion this day, we must begin with a sober acknowledgement of Death’s power. We must give Death his due—for his horrors confront us everywhere we turn.

The front-page of The New York Times this morning1 tells of a TSA agent murdered in the line of duty, and a Taliban leader “taken out” for the security of the world. These headlines are notable because they are not unusual. Dear people, Death’s reach is global, his activity is unceasing, and he is happy to ally himself with the disturbed and the deranged as readily as with the calculating and the just.

On the radio yesterday2 I heard a heart-wrenching story about a twenty-three year old woman waiting to hear the results of a test that would determine whether she has Huntington’s Disease—a hereditary condition similar to Parkinson’s, except that symptoms typically begin in one’s late-thirties, progress rapidly, and are always, eventually, fatal. The young woman was accompanied to the appointment by her twenty-one-year-old sister, who already knows that she has the gene that will lead to the disease. They talked bravely, casually, with a sort of gallows-humor about how they hoped their siblings would care for them when their very bodies began to rebel against them and their minds began to deteriorate. After all, they had watched it all happen to their own mother. Now, in their early twenties, these two women know that the same fate awaits them. Dear people, Death’s power is personal, and he is a subtle, patient enemy: hiding in our genes and family histories as much as in our choices, or in the changes and chances of this life.

Or consider the e-mail announcement that I received this week, inviting me to an interfaith service of remembrance on the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown. That terrible day—and the too-many terrible days just like it that have shocked our nation and the world—reminds us, dear people, that Death’s approach is random, and his movement capricious.

Beloved, this is the enemy whom we defy this day, and we must not doubt for a moment that his reach is universal, his grip is personal, and his power is terrible.

And yet defy him we do. For in keeping All Saints’ Day we claim that untold generations of Christians whom we love but see no longer have not, in fact, been conquered by Death. Today we dare to say that the tyrant’s power is broken and the oppressor’s reign is overthrown. Today we declare our freedom from the fear of Death itself. Today, we stand with the seventeenth-century priest and poet John Donne, who wrote these mocking, defiant words:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

But how can Donne speak so confidently? How can we dare to join in this celebration today, and joyfully declare that the saints whom Death thinks he “dost overthrow / die not”? What gives us the courage to keep this Feast and to sneer at watchful, waiting Death: “nor yet canst thou kill me”? What gives us the strength to shake our fists in the grim face of Death?

Today, dear friends, we dare to defy the great power that rules this world because we know that a greater Power has broken into this world. In our reading from Ephesians, we heard these words: “…with the eyes of your heart enlightened, may you know what is the hope to which [God] has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe…” These are words of promise, words of hope, words of encouragement. But, Christians, they are also words of defiance, words of upheaval, words of revolution!

For how can we know the extent of God’s power that is at work in us? Because “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion…” Brothers and sisters, here is our glory and our sure confidence. Here is the source of our strength this day—the source of our rejoicing in the company of all the saints. Here is the root of John Donne’s confidence, and may it be established deep within your heart also.

Today we topple Death, our mighty and dreadful enemy, with two little words: Jesus lives! Today we stand and shout our words of defiance in the Apostles’ Creed when we say that, “Yes, Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate—Yes, he was crucified—Yes, he died—Yes, he was buried…but on the third day, on the third day, on the third day he rose again!” Where, O Death, is thy victory? Where, O Grave, is thy sting? Jesus lives!

And the promise of our Scripture and celebration today is that in him, his saints too shall rise. This is no vague “spiritual” promise—no sentimental assurance that “our loved ones live on forever in our memories and our hearts.” No! This is a battle cry. This is a declaration of independence. This is an act of defiance, of strength. For in the resurrection of Jesus, we see that Death’s power is broken. In the resurrection of Jesus, we find that Death’s reign is ended. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, you and I need not fear the grave, nor cower before Death’s forces at work in our world. For we are become joint heirs with the One who has conquered—brothers and sisters with the saints in light—and we live now for the praise of his eternal glory.

And so, beloved, welcome to the revolution. Upheld by the prayers of the saints, “compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.”4

Let us this day, with John Donne and with all the saints of every age who share in Christ’s eternal victory, look defiantly on the grim, proud face of Death and ask,

…why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die.5

AMEN.

the-resurrection(1).jpg!Blog

“The Resurrection” by Piero della Francesca, c.1460

The New York Times. November 3, 2013. Accessed electronically.

“What Are You Doing for the Test of Your Life?” in “509: It Says So Right Here.” This American Life. Chicago Public Media. October 25, 2013. Radio.

“Holy Sonnet X.” The Complete English Poems of John Donne. Everyman’s Library: New York, 1991.

Hebrews 12:1-2a

“Holy Sonnet X.”

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.