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: humanity

The Devil is in the Details

leonart_bramer_circumcision_christ

(“The Circumcision of Christ”, by Leonaert Bramer, 1631.)

A Sermon Preached on the Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, January 1, 2017

By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Rector of Christ Church, Cooperstown, New York

Texts: Exodus 34:1-8 ; Philippians 2:9-13 ; Luke 2:15-21

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

There’s nothing worse than the day after Christmas. Even if you’re not a kid anymore–and many of you haven’t been kids for a long time–December 26th is a day of deflation and disappointment. After all the build-up, all the excitement, all the anticipation that finally culminates in the glory of Christmas Day, you wake up the next morning and find that everything is dull and ordinary again. The candlelight services are over, the glorious concerts have been sung, the gifts have all been given and unwrapped, and now we’re back to normal life. The holy and extraordinary yields to the mundane and the everyday.

Indeed, it might even be worse for grown-ups. We’ve been through it all often enough before to know that the change back to dreary normalcy is inevitable. It’s this way every year. And that sure and certain knowledge even starts to invade our sense of the holy and the extraordinary. We find it harder and harder to enter into the mystery, knowing that it’s only a matter of time before the little niggling things intrude on us again–and even make us doubt whether anything special ever happened in the first place. Sure, the church looks lovely when we all kneel by candlelight and sing “Silent Night,” but Christmas dinner still has to be prepared. The details still have to be attended to and, as we say, “The Devil is in the details.”

Thus deflated and disappointed and facing again the demands of the ordinary do we gather on this New Year’s Day. Our carols and Christmas decorations tell us it’s still Christmastide, as indeed it is for a full Twelve Days. But if we’re honest, we know it doesn’t really feel like it. We have already passed from the holy and extraordinary to the mundane and the everyday.

And that’s precisely what this day is for. Today is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. It sounds rather grand when we put it like that. But it isn’t. This is an extraordinarily ordinary feast.

Didn’t you hear the drudgery in our Gospel passage this morning? The shepherds who have heard something wonderful–these shepherds to whom the Angel of the Lord appeared, around whom the glory of the Lord shone, who stood “sore afraid” while “peace on earth and goodwill towards men” were proclaimed to them–go and see the glorious sight. They worship at the manger with the Child’s mother and father. They proclaim the Good News about the boy to everyone they meet.

And then…they went back to their sheep! “The shepherds returned, praising and glorifying God for all that they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” They returned. After everything they’d experienced that night, they went back to the smelly old sheep on the hillside. And there in the dreariness of the everyday they continued to praise and glorify the God who had called them out of their work-a-day dullness–and who brought them back in safety to it.

Or what about the end of our Gospel passage–the scene that gives this day its title? “When the eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus.” For us, the scene is fraught with wonder and beauty and grace. The name of Jesus is holy and sacred beyond measure. Were you impressed by all that? Don’t be.

While a circumcision may have been a remarkable event in the life of an individual family, it is actually a routine and ordinary thing. (Though I suppose one oughtn’t to say that to the one actually being circumcised.) It’s a great event focused on the plain and ordinary details of life. Circumcision brought Jesus–and every baby boy born into a Jewish household–into the 613 commandments of the Law of Moses. And what were those commandments for? Yes, they guided a faithful Jewish man through the great questions and challenges of his existence. But much more, they shaped and sustained the faithful Jew in the normal living of his daily life. The commandments weren’t simply for the extraordinary and the holy. They found their fullest expression in the everyday and the mundane–the profane, even, when we consider how many of the commandments in the Law of Moses dealt with daily activities and functions not usually discussed in polite society.

And even the name of Jesus is downright ordinary! While it has existed in many forms and variations, it is simply a version of the name “Joshua.” It was borne by several figures in the Bible. It was a normal Jewish name of that time and place. I can assure you that there were at least three other Jesuses in the little Hebrew school in Nazareth in 10 A.D. It was a common, everyday name for a common, everyday boy.

All of this is what makes this day extraordinarily ordinary. And it’s why this feast is such an important part of our Christmas celebration. Already in these glorious Twelve Days, we’ve contemplated the wonder of the Incarnation: the astonishing love made clear when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And today we see just how thoroughly he dwelt among us. We see just how far he was willing to go to be with us. He accepted a lowly name in a lowly family. He submitted himself to the Law in his waking and in his sleeping and in his normal life. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us–in all of our boring insignificance, our unremarkable normality, our everyday grind.

The Devil is in the details. And because of Christ Jesus’ conception, and birth, and circumcision, and naming, God is in the details now, too.

That’s not normal! The God we human beings expect is the God Moses met on Mount Sinai. He’s the God who threatens anyone or anything who comes near the mountain. He’s the God whose face cannot be seen, lest the one who sees it perish. He’s the God whose Name is too holy to be spoken. He’s the God who gives his Law in power and majesty and awe. He’s not supposed to become subject to that Law, in a frail human body like mine! He’s not supposed to bear a common name that can be called to come for supper, just like yours! He’s not supposed to be present in ugly, ordinary details of lives like ours.

And yet this day tells us that, in Jesus, our God is present in the ugly, ordinary details of lives like ours. In Jesus, our God does bear a name that can be called on in the most desperate, most pointless prayers. In Jesus, our God has taken on a body that hungers and thirsts and suffers and even dies–just like mine and yours.

How changed is our everyday life, now charged with the glory of God! How transformed and transfigured are our goings and comings, our waking and sleeping, our family life and our work life, our time on the roadways and our time in the grocery store, our loving and fighting and eating and drinking–our living and our dying. For there can be no mistake: God in Christ Jesus is there with us, in all of the ordinary things of life, calling us to new hope, new holiness, new birth.

St Paul told the Christians in Philippi, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” and if he stopped there, it would seem that he left them with little to go on in their everyday lives but drudgery and duty. But Paul did not stop there. He continues: “Work out your own salvation…because it is God who is at work in you.” The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us, and by his death and resurrection he is now not simply among us but within us. “God is at work in you.”

Beloved, we stand on the brink of a New Year filled with a few cosmic challenges and a thousand tiny frustrations–a year filled with wondrous hopes and daily disappointments. Go forth, into the thick of it, knowing that our God has claimed it all as his own. He is Lord of the heights of Sinai, and he reigns in your daily existence. He is the God who made the heavens and the earth, and he is the Christ who has descended to the deepest depths of pain and suffering. He sustains the universe by his mighty, outstretched arm–and he is at work in you, revealing even greater measures of his power and his love. 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

The Victim, the Victimizer, the Victor

A Sermon Preached on Good Friday, April 3, 2015

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

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

Behold the Man of Sorrows!

Behold the Lord of Love!

Behold Christ Crucified!

On this day, we behold the Lord Jesus on the Cross.

“To behold” means more than simply “to see.” When we behold something, we take it to ourselves, we participate in it, we share in it, we grasp it.

So what is it that we participate in on this day? What do we take and claim and grasp as we go in heart and mind to Calvary? What do we behold when we behold Christ Crucified?

We behold, first, the fullness of Jesus’ humanity. The Nicene Creed, after telling us of the eternal Son of God who is the only-begotten of the Father, goes on to say that “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” We celebrate the wonder of Christ’s incarnation—of his coming among us as one of us—at Christmas. And yet nowhere do we see Christ’s fleshly nature so clearly—nowhere do we see his identification with the human condition so completely—as on Good Friday.

It is a bitter and a cruel irony that we should behold the humanity of Jesus most clearly in his Crucifixion, because the Cross was a tool expressly intended for the awful work of dehumanization. Crucifixion was a distillation of all the clever cruelty, all the ingenious inhumanity, all the brilliant brutality that the mighty Roman Empire could muster.

For the process of crucifixion did so much more than merely kill a person.Rather, a crucified person ceased to be a person on the Cross. That is what this means of state-sanctioned murder was intended to do. The Cross was a carefully designed machine for the unmaking of a human being.

The grinding wheels of dehumanization began to turn as soon as sentence was passed. The person condemned to be crucified would be forced to carry his own cross to the place of execution. He would be stripped naked and exposed—shamed and humiliated before the face of the world—and then he would be nailed or tied to the cross and lifted aloft.

The crowds that gathered to witness the proceedings were part of the punishment, gleefully adding their taunts and mockeries, heaping scorn upon the hapless head of the pierced victim. The death itself was slow—agonizingly slow—and made the crucified man his own executioner, for it was the hanging weight of the crucified body that would, over the course of many hours (and sometimes many days) sap his strength and constrict his rib-cage, making breathing increasingly difficult, and at last impossible.

And then, after death, the dehumanizing power of crucifixion continued. Ordinarily, crucified bodies would not be removed for burial. They would be left to rot in place, exposed to the elements and the animals—denied even the dignity of a grave.

This was a punishment reserved for the very lowest of the low—a punishment for the most depraved criminals; a punishment for slaves; a punishment for nobodies. It was a punishment that expunged the record of the crucified’s existence—a punishment that removed him from the rolls of the human race.

This lowliness, this brutal unmaking, this systematic dehumanization, then, is what we behold in the Crucified Christ. We behold Jesus, whose birth was announced by an Angel to his virgin mother—Jesus, who was declared God’s anointed at his Baptism in the River Jordan—Jesus, who cast out demons, who healed the sick, who gave sight to the blind, who opened the ears of the deaf, who caused the lame to leap like a deer, and who made the tongues of the dumb to sing—Jesus who cleansed the lepers, and ate with the tax collectors and prostitutes—Jesus who preached Good News to the poor, and who raised the dead to life—Jesus who revealed to us the fullness of what a human being is and should be! This Jesus we now behold taking unto himself all the whips and scorns of human brokenness, sharing completely with the outcasts and the imperfect, the unacceptable, and the unclean—even dying their miserable death.

“He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Christ on the Cross reveals himself to be present with all those who are despised and rejected; all who are dehumanized and destroyed; all women and men of sorrows; all who are acquainted with grief.

And this identification—this complete union with the suffering of human beings—cannot be overemphasized, because it reaches with power into every human era, every human culture, and every human heart. For while the Romans may have invented and perfected the method of dehumanization called crucifixion, yet the deep drive to dehumanize did not begin or end with the servants of Caesar.

We behold that drive at work through all the long annals of our weary world. We behold the drive to dehumanize manifested in the actions of ISIS, as it continues its drive to destroy and desecrate all that does not fit within its own very narrow theology. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the actions of a troubled pilot who unmade himself and all of his passengers by crashing his plane into the Alps. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the systematic murder of one hundred fifty college students in Kenya.

We behold the drive to dehumanize closer to home in the senseless deaths of college students through hazing rituals and binge drinking. We behold the drive to dehumanize in political systems that heed the howls of plutocrats and ignore the weeping of the voiceless. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the cruel taunts of schoolyard bullies and the careless words of workplace tyrants. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the abuse of spouses and the neglect of children. We behold the drive to dehumanize exposed every day on the front page of the newspaper, and splashed across every corner of the Internet.

And we behold it, at last, hidden away in the silent brokenness of our own hearts. For who of us has not known rejection and sorrow? Who of us is not acquainted with grief? The truth, beloved, is that to be human in this world means that we will endure dehumanization.

So it is that on the Cross, we see Jesus’ humanity made plain. The crucified Christ reveals to us his abiding presence with the lowest and the least, with the suffering and the sorrowful—with us in the depths of our degradation and in the hour of our death.

And yet, Christ’s complete identification with those who are made to suffer is not the only thing that we glimpse when we look upon the crucified Lord. I have said that the Cross reveals Jesus to us in the fullness of his humanity. But the fullness of his humanity goes beyond his solidarity with the victims of dehumanization. The fullness of Jesus’ humanity revealed at the crucifixion embraces the victimizers as well.

Hear again these words from Chapter 53 of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: “But 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.” Christ suffering on the Cross reveals to us his love and care for the lowly and the sorrowful—for all the victims of sin. But what Isaiah announces today is that Christ suffering on the Cross also reveals to us his willing self-offering for the guilty and the guileful, the warped and the wicked, the erring and the evil, the delinquent and the damned—for the transgressors: all the perpetrators of sin.

But if we say that Christ offers himself on the Cross for the sake of the guilty, we must then find the courage to ask: who are they? Who are those guilty ones? Who are “the perpetrators of sin”?

When you hear Isaiah speak of “transgressors” or hear me ask about “the perpetrators of sin”, does your mind immediately conjure up the image of a certain person or group of people? Mine does. I think of the people I’ve read about in the paper or heard about on the news: the people who are obviously guilty, the people who deserve punishment, the people who have done deeply wicked things. I think of the people I know who can’t seem to get it together, who can’t seem to straighten their lives out, who can’t seem to pick themselves up. I think of folks who are different from me, folks I disagree with, folks who have hurt me or hindered me, folks I don’t like or don’t understand.

When I hear Isaiah talk about transgressors and “perpetrators of sin,” I immediately—immediately!—begin to label and to judge; to place certain people within that guilty group, all the while keeping myself and my friends safely within the ranks of the righteous.

And by that mental process, through that inner sense of judgment and self-righteousness, Behold! in an instant, I recognize the same dehumanizing drive that nailed Jesus to the Cross to be alive and active in my heart! In my silent effort to prove myself upright, I suddenly see my own power to deny and desecrate the image of God in others. As I mentally “unmake” other human beings, casting them into the rubbish pile of the rotten and the unworthy, I see my own cavernous capacity for cruelty—my own eagerness to draw boundaries, to exclude, to despise, and to reject.

“He was wounded for our transgressions.” And who were the transgressors? Who were the perpetrators? “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee.”

Beloved, Jesus on the Cross reveals to us the fullness of his humanity, and he calls us to claim with humility and repentance the fullness of our own broken humanity as well. For Christ on the Cross bears the pain of the sinned against…and he also bears the penalty due the sinner! Christ on the Cross embraces both my brokenness and my ability to break; both your pain and your power to cause pain; both our sorrows and our sins. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to see in one body all the disobedience and dehumanization of the whole human race: the sins that you and I have endured, and the sins that you and I have committed.

And at last it is to behold one thing more. For the scandalous claim of the Christian Church is that the Cross does not reveal the humanity of Jesus only—but it reveals his divinity as well.

For this, his hour of shame and degradation, of sorrow and dehumanization, is also his hour of glory. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to glimpse and know, and receive, and claim the self-giving love of Almighty God. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to behold God’s wondrous love not for the righteous, but for sinners. “[For] God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against him…He made him to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

All that we behold this day, beloved, however bitter and difficult, is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. For today this instrument of torture, this mark of our misery, this banner of our brokenness, this sign of Sin’s power, this declaration of Death’s grip, God has freely chosen and proclaimed to be the supreme announcement of his love! By the Cross of Christ, God has come to restore his tarnished image in us. By the Cross of Christ, the Good Shepherd has come to seek and to find his straying and wandering sheep. By the Cross of Christ, the King of Glory has come to claim his power and reign. By the Cross of Christ, the Creator of the world has come to renew his dead and dying creation. By the Cross of Christ, “for our atonement, while we nothing heeded, God interceded.”

I said at the beginning of this sermon that beholding means more than simply seeing. As you gaze upon the Cross today, may you indeed behold Christ Crucified. May you claim him, grasp him, cling to him. May you behold here the fullness of his humanity and yours: the revelation of the brokenness of this world and the brokenness of your own heart.

But even more, may you behold here the love of God that will not let you go. May you behold here the love that comes to seek you in the depths of your sorrow and in the darkness of your sins. On this Good Friday, may you behold—and be held by—those arms of love stretched out on the hard wood of the Cross, drawing all the world into his saving embrace.

AMEN.