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: Jesus Christ

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

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Man of Sorrows

(Christ as the Man of Sorrows about 1470 Unidentified artist, Alsatian,)

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday in Lent, February 28, 2016

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

Texts: Exodus 3:1-15; Luke 13:1-9

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

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do men and women we respect suffer disaster? Why do people we love get cancer? Why do floodwaters sweep away homes and lives? Why do gunmen shoot down the innocent and unsuspecting? Why do tornadoes strike without warning? Why do swindlers defraud and cheat? Why are spouses unfaithful? Why are children ungrateful? Why do drunk drivers speed through red lights? Why do bullies batter young lives to the brink of suicide? Why does depression darken the souls of so many? Why does addiction shatter the lives of others? Why do bad things happen to good people?

Now, I’ll bet I can guess what many of you are thinking. Right now you’re shifting uncomfortably in your pews, asking yourselves, “Good grief, does that guy ever lighten up!? Are we going to have to sit through yet another solemn, serious sermon from that solemn, serious young man?”

Well if that’s what you’re thinking–and I’m sure at least a few of you are–let me take this moment to beg you just to stay with me. The Word of God speaks great good news to us today. But it chooses to speak that good news in and through the painful realities of human life. Our Scripture this morning does not flinch in the face of suffering. It does not shrink from sorrow. It does not try to dodge or deny or explain away disaster. Rather our lessons today carry us right to the heart of human suffering–both the suffering of those people who have been bruised and battered by fate and the suffering of those people who weep for them and with them. So gird up your loins, Trinity. For this morning, we will follow God’s Word into what must be the oldest and most difficult question ever uttered by human lips: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” And there in the dark depths of that question we will wait with eager longing for a glimmer of God’s light.

But first, we must have the courage to face the darkness. It’s there in each of our readings this morning. Suffering is the thread that ties together the passages we’ve heard from the Bible today.

It’s there in the bitter pain of the enslaved people of Israel. How many times must they have asked themselves, during the four hundred years of their bondage in Egypt, “Why? Why must we suffer here? Why are we oppressed by our taskmasters? Why are we condemned to misery as slaves in a strange land?”

The problem is there in the shocking deaths of eighteen people in the collapse of the Tower at Siloam. Their sorrow was sudden and startling. It did not build slowly, accruing over countless generations. Rather it struck in an instant. But still the question must have arisen, “Why? Why must we die this way? Why must we be crushed in a senseless, unforeseen disaster? Why are we doomed to disappear in an instant beneath a pile of bricks and rubble?”

And the problem is there in the brutal killings of the Galileans in the Temple. Pontius Pilate, as a pagan Roman, had no qualms about desecrating the sacred precincts in Jerusalem. Not only did he slaughter a company of Galileans for crimes unknown to us–he did it in the most sacrilegious way imaginable, mingling their human blood, with the blood of the animals they were offering to Almighty God. Though they knew that their demise had been decreed by a petty tyrant, and while they probably knew why Pilate had resolved to destroy them, nevertheless those murdered Galileans must have wondered, “Why? Why must we go down to death in such shame–such disgrace? Why is this happening to us? Why are damned to die a death of desecration?”

The pain in each situation is clear. But the reason behind that pain is downright perplexing. Why did those terrible things happen? Why do terrible things still happen? Why do bad things happen to good people?

The simplest answer, and the one most often deployed in ancient times, is to deny the question altogether. The argument goes like this: A good God rules the universe. That good God is just and holy, and he cannot abide injustice and unholiness. He punishes the evil and rewards the good, and he does so through human agents and through the natural world. Therefore, anyone who suffers must not really be good. They must have done something wrong, even if it was something secret. They must have done something to deserve the fate that they have been made to bear. Bad things don’t happen to good people–bad things happen to bad people.

That was a popular view in Jesus’ time. Truth be told, it remains a popular view today. We want the world to make sense. We want an explanation of evil that satisfies our desire for logic and clarity. Most of all, we want to find a way to shield ourselves from pain and suffering. If we can be certain that tragedy and sorrow come only as a result of God’s judgment against sin, then it follows that I can avoid tragedy and sorrow simply by refraining from sinning. If only I am good, good things will happen to me.

And yet the trouble, beloved, is that Jesus flatly denies this explanation. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you.” “Do you think that the eighteen crushed by the Tower of Siloam were worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.” Do you think that because the children of Israel languished in slavery for four hundred years, God was somehow punishing them for their transgressions? Surely not!

Suffering is not the sign of God’s wrath against certain sinners. Rather, it is the result of being a vulnerable human being in a fallen world. The truth is, we are broken, breakable creatures living in a broken, breakable world. Scripture refuses to give us the clear-cut, easy answer we long for to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Indeed, the Bible is not interested with answering that question at all. It simply throws us back, again and again, on the fact of our frailty, the truth of our transitory nature, and the reality of our wretchedness. As our collect this morning puts it, “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” In the face of our repeated, wondering, “Why?”, Scripture responds only with the undeniable reality of our brokenness.

But it does not leave us there alone. Hear again the words of God as he speaks to Moses out of the burning bush: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings…”

God knows the suffering of his people. God hears the cry of the oppressed. God sees the misery and sorrow and heartbreak of human beings. And God acts in the midst of tragedy.

“Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.”

That is the assurance Scripture gives us. Not that the bad things of this life will make sense, or that the universe will resolve itself neatly according to our desires, or that we will be able to understand and explain the problem of evil in our lives or in the lives of others. But the Word of God reminds us again and again that the God we serve will never leave us or abandon us in our suffering. The God we worship will never separate himself from us because of our sorrow. The God who calls us each by name has also come down into the muck and mire and brokenness of our condition.

For the assurance of God’s presence does not end with our passage from Exodus. But even as we hear Jesus’ stern call to repentance we are reminded that he is, himself, God’s great answer to human suffering. God’s reply to the problem of evil was not a rational argument but an invitation to relationship. God’s response to human pain and loss was to walk among us as one who felt pain and loss. God’s solution to human sin and brokenness was to be broken upon the cross.

 

 

 

 

Beloved, each and every one of us here will be made to suffer senselessly at some time in our life. It may not be under the heavy-hand of an oppressive demagogue. For you it may simply mean enduring the petty tyrannies of a workplace tyrant. It may not mean suffering the long legacy of slavery. But for you it may mean bearing a family legacy of dysfunction or addiction–of depression or alcoholism. It may not mean the sudden ending of your life in a terrible tragedy. But for you it may mean the slow unraveling of your life, or the burden of living a life that seems to have lost all meaning and purpose. It may mean a diagnosis you didn’t deserve and didn’t expect. It may mean the end of a relationship, or the beginning of financial trouble. It may be large or small, brief or lingering, life-threatening or soul-deadening. The only certainty, in the midst of life’s changes and chances, is that life in a fallen world always includes suffering.

 

 

So when tragedy comes, cling to the Cross! When sorrow surprises you, set your eyes upon the Crucified! When bad things happen, hold onto the nail-pierced feet of Jesus! When your life falls apart, fall into his outstretched arms! For the Cross of Christ is God’s great answer to the problem of evil. The Cross of Christ is God’s defiant response to our ruination. The Cross of Christ is God’s assurance that nothing we suffer will ever separate us from him.

For “who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

AMEN.

The Resurrection was BODILY

Each week in Eastertide, at Trinity Cathedral’s 4:00 p.m. Sunday evensong, my colleague the Rev’d Canon Emily Hylden and I will be preaching a series of brief homilies exploring different aspects of the Resurrection. The series began yesterday evening with the affirmation that “The Resurrection was BODILY.” I will continue to post my own future sermons in this series, and will also link to Emily’s sermons over on her blog (assuming she posts them!).

A Sermon Preached at Evensong on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 12, 2015

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

Hymns at Evensong: Hymn 412, “Earth and all stars”; Hymn 196 “Look there! the Christ, our Brother”

May I speak in the Name of Christ Jesus Crucified and Risen. Amen.

Evensongs in Eastertide will include a series a brief homilies on the Resurrection. In discussing the central, glorious mystery of our faith–the axis upon which the Church turns, and the astonishing fact around which our lives as Christians are oriented–it seems appropriate to focus first on the most practical, physical, down-to-earth details. So it is that we begin our series this afternoon with the affirmation that the Resurrection was bodilyThe person Jesus of Nazareth really and truly died. The person Jesus of Nazareth really and truly rose.

This may seem so obvious that it should hardly be worth stating. But the fact is that, from the very earliest times right down through the present day, the earthiness–the physicality–of the Resurrection has caused scandal. It has been a stumbling block (which is actually the root meaning of that word “scandal”). It has been downplayed and held at a distance. It has even been denied. Because the Resurrection is so earth-shaking–so profoundly difficult to wrap our minds around–there has always been a desire to spiritualize it, to push it into the misty realm of metaphor and metaphysics, to make it something light and airy–dealing with minds and souls, perhaps, but surely not with the heavy, clunky business of bodies.

And so today there are some people who say that the Resurrection wasn’t a real, physical event, but instead was just a new hope born in the minds of the disciples. Some people say that the Resurrection wasn’t about Jesus bursting from the tomb, but was in fact about his followers rising out of their post-crucifixion depression. Some people say that the Resurrection wasn’t anything to do with the body of Jesus, but rather was about the spirit of Jesus, the essence of Jesus, the undying immortal teaching of Jesus living on in his Church.

This tendency to spiritualize may well be encouraged by the fact that Jesus’ resurrected body was, indeed, different. All four Gospels agree that the risen body of Jesus is a transformed body. It can enter houses when the doors and windows are locked fast. It can appear and disappear in ways that normal human bodies cannot. It can even befuddle close friends and followers, preventing them from recognizing just who it is they are walking with, talking with, and sitting down to table with.

And yet, even while affirming the strange truth that Christ’s resurrected body is a transformed body, the four evangelists are also at pains to demonstrate that Christ’s resurrected body is a real body. It is a body that eats broiled fish and takes and breaks bread. It is a body that breathes real breath and bears real wounds. It is a body that can touch and be touched.

In light of this witness, we face a two-fold challenge. We must resist the urge to spiritualize, to transcendentalize, to explain away or apologize for the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. In the words of John Updike, “Let us not mock God with metaphor.” But the wonder of the empty tomb calls us beyond negatives–beyond things we ought not to say. The Resurrection also calls us to speak positively–to affirm what it is that God does by raising Jesus from the grave.

Scripture also calls us to affirm that what God accomplishes in the Resurrection is not merely the recovery of the old creation, but is instead the beginning of a new creation. When we affirm that Christ’s Resurrection was bodily, we say something about the created order–about this physical world of atoms and molecules, of “earth and all stars…[of] hail, wind, and rain…[of] daughter[s] and son[s]…[and even of those] loud boiling test-tubes”–through all of which seethes and breathes the very life of God. We say something about ourselves–about these bodies beautiful and broken, these bodies strong and weak, these bodies old and young, these bodies vital and vitiated–these bodies that live and these bodies that die.

For to affirm that the Risen Jesus was raised a new, a transformed body is to affirm our faith that the God who formed Adam from the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of his own Spirit will not abandon any part of us to ultimate destruction. It is to affirm God’s purpose, God’s intention, God’s power to “preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” It is to affirm our gift and call, as Christian women and men, to meet the needs of the bodies around us, even as we meet the needs of the souls: to feed hungry stomachs even as we heal wounded hearts–to clean cracked feet, even as we bandage broken spirits. It is to affirm that Christ our brother, about whom we will shortly sing with overflowing joy, is our brother indeed: he has known every sorrow that wrings the human breast–he has felt every pang that our bodies can endure–he has carried all that we are and all that we have to his cross of shame, and he is now gloriously risen in the fullness of his humanity, and ours.

And it is to affirm one thing more. If Christ is raised, then we have hope at the end of our lives and at the hour of our death. St Paul the Apostle, who vigorously opposed any attempt to turn the Resurrection into a mere metaphor, says this in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain…And if Christ be not raised…ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.”

The faith fails, says Paul, if Christ has not really and truly been raised. But from this grim prospect, Paul continues in triumph: “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam in all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

In the bodily Resurrection of Jesus our Lord, beloved, we find hope for our frail and feeble bodies. For this mortal must put on immortality. This corruptible must put on incorruption. My body, your body, this human body, even though it dies, yet shall it live. “For now is Christ risen from the Dead.” AMEN.

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”

A Sermon Preached at the Requiem for All Souls’ Day, November 2, 2014

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

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; I Corinthians 15:50-58; John 5:24-27

“For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”

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

Our culture is not much inclined to the contemplation of Death. Advances in science and technology—in medicine and nutrition—have given us a sense of distance from Death unimaginable to our ancestors. A stroll through the Trinity Churchyard and a glance at the many stones there marking the resting places of children lost to treatable diseases and strong young people lost to war or accidents reminds us that, barely more than a century ago, Death was a power ever-present—a danger of which to be ever mindful. Our forebears knew what it was to live under the brooding presence of Death in a way that, mercifully, we do not.

And yet for all of our progress, for all of our advancement, for all of our efforts to nullify Death’s power and limit Death’s scope, we remember tonight that while Death may seem distant to us, it has not disappeared from our horizon. If I amy be so blunt, Death is what brings us together tonight for this Requiem Mass in honor of All Souls—of All the Faithful Departed. We are, all of us, men and women touched by Death’s reach and stung by Death’s power. We know, all of us, what it is to lose someone we love and what it is to consider our own end. Tonight, in the midst of a culture that worships youth and chases after immortality, we are gathered here in solemn acknowledgment of the hard truth of Death that waits for us, all of us, behind the easy lies of our age.

I begin in this way, not in order to be morose or macabre, but to be honest. The fact of the matter is that, in spite of our many advancements and our great progress, the horror of Death confronts us still.

The pall that is cast over all the nations casts itself still over the front page of the newspaper, where daily we read stories of violence and hatred—of innocents suffering and rage run amok. This morning, I read how the death penalty is being sought for an accused cop-killer: Death begetting Death.

The reproach over all the nations and the disgrace over all peoples asserts its authority still in the unchecked march of the Ebola virus through West Africa and the rising scourge of opioid drug overdoses in American cities and towns.

The tears falling from the eyes of God’s people fall still by a thousand bedsides a thousand accidents, a thousand hopeless diagnoses and incurable cases and unexpected tragedies each day.

Beloved, Death’s grip is too strong for us to deny it. Death’s power is too great for us to pretend we cannot see it. Death’s claim is too broad for us to ignore it.

All of this we must face. All of this we must plainly and bravely acknowledge. For the truth is that it is only when we see Death aright that we can begin to see the power of this day’s announcement.

Today, as we commemorate All the Faithful Departed, we own the ways in which Death has wounded us. Today we acknowledge the ways in which Death has caused us grief. Today we confront the ways in which Death has touched our lives and the loves of those we love.

And yet on this day, we dare to name those we have loved and lost in the company of One other person who has died. Tonight, we pray that God, “the Maker and Redeemer of all believers…[will] Grant to the faithful departed the unsearchable benefits of the passion of [his] Son.” Tonight, we add one more name to the endless rolls of the dead—and this last name changes everything.

For tonight we acknowledge that God himself has come to know the pain and powerlessness, the changes and chances, the Death and darkness of our human lives. Tonight we announce that God himself has gone before us into Death’s dreadful embrace. Tonight we declare that, by the suffering and death of Jesus our Lord, Death’s power over us is cracked; Death’s reign over us is ended; Death’s judgment over us is lifted, and Christ has made us free.

In the Incarnation of Jesus our Lord, God has accepted Death’s claim over all humankind. In the crucifixion of Jesus our Lord, God has confronted Death in all its indignity and horror. In the Resurrection of Jesus our Lord, God has vanquished Death forever. “Death has been swallowed up in victory. O grave, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?”

Beloved, this realization does not transform us in an instant. We are still perishable creatures; mortal beings; breakable girls and boys. As St Paul reminds us elsewhere, we have not already attained to the Resurrection of the dead.

But tonight we find the strength to press on in hope.

For the Gospel’s promise is not that we shall be set free from suffering in this life. It is, instead, that there is no suffering, no sorrow, no pain, no darkness—no life however blighted, and no Death however horrible—that can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Good News we hear tonight is not that our lives will be free from the pain of loss—that we shall no longer be made to face the deaths of those we love, or see Death’s power at work in our world. Instead, the Good News we hear is that we can commend those we love and this whole creation in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord—that “even at the grave we [may] make our song Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

The hope that is ours this day comes not from some denial of Death’s power or any forgetting of Death’s fearfulness. But our hope comes, instead, from the declaration that God has won for us victory over the grave by the risen life of Jesus our Lord—a life lived to God; a life without end.

Let us, then, fix our hearts on that Day when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God and live. Let us look for that time when “…the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,

Let us lift our voices to say now, as “It will be said on that day: Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

AMEN.

Drugs and the Power of Darkness

“For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you and desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness; Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins.” -Colossians 1:9-14

Listening to NPR can be a dangerous—at least when there’s a very alert almost-four-year-old listening with you.

Last week, while my daughter and I were out running errands, I left the car radio tuned to our local NPR station and didn’t give much thought to what the sonorous, comfortable talk radio voices were discussing. Then suddenly from the backseat came the startling question, “Daddy, why are the children in danger?”

The reporters had been talking about the thousands of Latin American children fleeing their homelands in hopes of finding asylum in the United States. With the uncanny interest and sympathy that children show for other children, my daughter had been listening intently and with great concern to the stories of little ones making a long and dangerous journey on their own. Now she wanted more information: “Where are their mamas and papas? Why do they have to leave their home?”

Questions are big in our house these days. We’ve recently spent long suppers trying to figure out why the Wicked Witch of the West is green, and why Swiper (chief nemesis of Dora the Explorer) swipes. I can usually spin a passable answer to those questions. But this was something bigger than I’m used to getting. “Why are the children in danger?”

I’d just read a New York Times story that answered my daughter’s question in fairly graphic detail. But every element of the story was so horrifying—criminal organizations pressing elementary school-age children into their service, executing young people who try to escape their grasp, and murdering whole families in order to consolidate their terrible reign over towns and villages and whole regions—I didn’t know where to begin explaining it to her. “There are bad men who want to hurt the children, my love. Their mamas and papas want them to be safe, so they’re trying to send them to America.” (Not my best, but the most I could manage under the circumstances.)

“Why do the men want to hurt the children?” Four-year-olds are the world’s most tenacious journalists. There’s always a follow-up.

“Well…” What could I say? “Because vast and interconnected drug cartels seem to exert complete control over every aspect of life in some places”? “Because criminals made wealthy through the American appetite for narcotics have taken to recruiting and/or murdering children in order to terrorize and dominate entire communities?”

“Because the men want money from selling drugs, and they want the children to help them get the money. But the children don’t want to help the bad men, so the bad men try to hurt the children.” I was floundering.

“What are drugs?” To say that I had lost control of the situation would be a major understatement. I knew how this would play out. The follow-ups would come fast and heavy. My answers would become more desperate and less plausible. The child would recount the conversation to my wife. My wife would be…less than thrilled to hear of us discussing such a topic. Things looked grim.

I was saved by Chick-fil-A. At that very moment we drove past the restaurant’s instantly recognizable sign, and my daughter became much more interested in discussing the relative merits and demerits of individual Chick-fil-A playgrounds. (That specific location’s jungle gym had been closed on our most recent visit because, as she reminded me, “some kid threw up.” My daughter considered this excuse unacceptable.) Car conversation crisis averted!

But while I wasn’t forced to continue our dark and difficult discussion to its conclusion (whatever that might’ve been), I find myself returning again and again to its course. From an NPR report on the problem of child immigration we arrived, in only two or three questions, on the topic of drugs and addiction. And this progression was not a stretch. Each question followed the other in a reasonable way. Each terrible link was obvious, when pursued with the dogged curiosity of a young child.

We don’t often think about these issues in this way. Normally, a story or crisis dominates its own individual news cycle and then quietly recedes into the background. (Yesterday, for the first time in a startlingly long time, I heard about the still-unresolved situation of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls.) Each problem seems terrible and insoluble in its time. None seem very closely connected.

But my conversation with my daughter forced me to recognize that the drug problem is different. Where drugs are involved, we really can trace the connection between the misery of the individual addict directly up into the crises facing a family or community or town or city, and then up again into the murky but vast domain of the international narcotics industry. Out of that dark cloud precipitate intractable problems of corruption and lawlessness in Latin American countries, which trickles down into individual regions and cities and towns, which seeps into schools and families and, at last, into the lives of individual children. When we see it in this way, the connections between two major crises—the immigration crisis and the war on drugs—are obvious, even if the tales of individual human misery on either end—of a refugee child and a tormented addict—might not have appeared related at first.

To my mind, these connections and relations and progressions make the whole problem of drugs and addiction one of the most potent metaphors for (and one of the most devastating expressions of) the Biblical understanding of Sin as a power—a reign—a dominion. The passage from Colossians with which I began this post is one particularly striking example, but it’s a concept found all over Paul’s writings. We hear about “the power of darkness,” “the reign of sin,” “the dominion of death.” Sin, for Paul, is not simply a naughty thought or a careless word; a momentary indulgence or a forgotten duty; an instant of weakness or a giving into temptation—in short, Sin is not simply “sins.” Rather in Paul’s writings and throughout the New Testament, Sin—attended by its constant companion Death—is an oppressive tyrant ruling over the human race.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow, particularly for modern people and especially for Americans. We don’t want to think of ourselves as under anyone’s thumb—let alone slaves to a cosmic tyranny. We have free will, don’t we? Some people make good choices and some people make bad choices and we all have to live with the consequences of our choices.

But nothing demolishes this boot-strapping sense of self-righteousness faster than the whole messy tangle of drugs and addiction and child refugees. What we see in the current crisis is a whole host of “bad choices” (“As if a person in the throes of  addiction has a choice!” wrote Fleming Rutledge in the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death) resulting in horrible consequences for innocents thousands of miles away. Who could pretend that this is just or reasonable or fair? This is misery begetting misery. Hunger begetting violence. Greed begetting pain. My self-loathing begetting another person’s suffering.

This is Sin. Vast systems and pernicious industries perpetuating personal pain and quiet tragedies—and then those same pains and tragedies feeding the systems and industries anew. The hell-mouth envisioned by our medieval forebears may be the best visual representation of it all: a gaping maw with an insatiable appetite, never closing, always gobbling, endlessly consuming without regard for any of the categories or considerations that we use to divide the world into good people and bad.

Hell Mouth

This is what Paul is talking about in the passage from Colossians quoted above. This is what the drug problem makes so horribly, heartrendingly clear. Sin is a force, an authority: the power of darkness. Its roots go deep into every person’s soul, and its branches shed woe over all humankind. Our need as a race is not for certain troubled individuals to put an end to certain troubling behaviors or patterns. (Though to be sure we all need to do that in some corner or other of our individual lives. It’s what the Church means by “repentance.”) Rather, we each and all need to be set free from a power that stretches far beyond what we can imagine and a force that far exceeds the forces we can grapple with.

All of which is why I find such strength and hope in Paul’s announcement. “Giving thanks to the Father…who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

The Gospel message is so much more than a declaration that our sins have been forgiven (though they have!). The Gospel message is so much more than an assurance that we can begin to live a new way (though we can!). The Gospel message is so much more than a call to oppose valiantly all systems of evil and oppression (though it is that!). Over and under and beyond all these things, the Gospel message is the announcement that God has intervened decisively in this world against the powers that bind us. The Gospel message is the announcement that God has changed our citizenship—has been translated from one kingdom to another.

Against everything we fear and dread, God has smashed the great gaping jaws, and has shattered the teeth of hell. Apart from anything we could ask or imagine, God has broken all our former fealties and paid off all our limitless debts. Above what we could expect or even hope, God has claimed us as daughters and sons of his kingdom and is even now making us saints according to his will—joint-heirs with Christ Jesus our brother and our Lord.

And this changes everything. I cannot see a way out of the drug problem. I cannot figure out how to make right the lives that have been ruined by addiction. I don’t know how to comfort and shelter tens of thousands of refugees, or how to combat the power of cartels. I hardly even know how to tell my own sweet child about the grief and suffering there is in this world.

But I know that all of the towering powers and all of the potent principalities that rule in this world now cower in the shadow of the Cross. I know that by the mighty weakness of Jesus’ death, Death itself has been defeated and the reign of darkness is ended. I know that in the glorious power of Jesus’ Resurrection, we are given the promise that all things, even the hopeless things—even the things we cannot see through and cannot solve—will be made new.

In that light, may we look unflinchingly on the problems that confront us. May we see them clearly for what they are: the lingering reign of Sin and the residual power of Death. And may the Church march against them with faithful courage and bold strength, knowing that they have already been conquered.

Our solutions to the world’s great problems may be temporary. At times they will surely be imperfect or misguided. But let us work toward solutions all the same, offering them as merest signs and slightest symbols of the great solution and victory that has already been wrought upon the Cross. Let us pray constantly and in sure and certain hope for the day when at last that victory will be made complete.

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.”  -Revelation 21:1-5