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

“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.

“Christ, when for us you were baptized…”

the-baptism-of-christ

(“The Baptism of Christ” by Giotto, c. 1305)

A Sermon Preached on the First Sunday after the Epiphany:

The Baptism of Our Lord

January 10, 2016

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

Texts: Isaiah 40:21-31; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire.”

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

Forget everything you think you know about baptism. Set aside the mental image of beautiful babies swaddled in heirloom lace smiling, or screaming, or looking up with shock and alarm as a priest pours a little water over their heads. Put away the sight of smartly-dressed parents and godparents bravely attempting to juggle Prayer Books, lit candles, wet infants, and bored older siblings, all while trying to answer strange questions about Satan and the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God. Forget everything you think you know about baptism.

For today we commemorate the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. And if we are to understand what this day means and why it matters, we must banish from our brains everything we usually associate with the word “baptism.”

I say this not because our normal associations and images of baptism are bad or wrong. The baptisms that it has been my privilege to perform are among my greatest joys in ministry, and the many meaningful traditions woven into those celebrations are good and holy. But the fact of the matter is that we will utterly and completely miss the point of the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John if we weigh down that event with any of our customary associations; any of our accumulated images; any of our cultural expectations for a baptism.

For as we go today in heart and mind to the banks of the river Jordan, we find a scene very different indeed from an ordinary baptismal Sunday at Trinity Cathedral. St Luke carries us to a time and place that is tense, dangerous, dusty, and dirty. As we hear again the preaching of John the Baptist, we find ourselves in the midst of a crowd fraught with expectation—with hopes, and with fears. What we find today when Jesus goes out to be baptized is a tangled mess of politics and theology—a thicket of national expectation and longed-for personal transformation.

So I say once again, let us forget everything we think we know about baptism. And then let us wade, deeper and deeper, into the muddy waters of the Jordan.

What we notice first of all is the rampant speculation that suffuses this scene. “The people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.”

Why? Why this eager expectation? Why this wondering about John’s identity and purpose? The practice of baptism—of ritually washing away sins—was not something that ordinarily associated with the Messiah. There’s nothing uniquely Messianic about baptism.

But by baptizing the penitent sinners who came out to meet him, John was doing something that the people expected the Messiah to do. For the Messiah, God’s anointed servant, was to be the one who would purify the nation of Israel—the one who would turn the hearts of the people back to their God—the one who would renew and restore God’s covenant with his chosen.

And to many people, it seemed that this was precisely what John was doing. Because he was calling the people to repentance—because he was openly castigating the spiritual and political leaders of the time—because he was plunging his followers into the waters of the Jordan as a symbolic way of washing away their sins, people assumed that John himself was God’s instrument for the restoration of the nation of Israel. And so, ruled and ridden by their expectations, they willingly readjusted their hopes and reinterpreted God’s promises to fit the facts in front of them.

“Perhaps this business of baptism was what God had promised all along!” they mused. “Perhaps all God meant had been a symbolic restoration for Israel: a spiritual cleansing.” Perhaps some of the crowd listening to John recalled the passage from Isaiah we heard this morning: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,” and said, as they watched John plunging people into the river, “Maybe this is what we’ve been waiting for and longing for and looking for.”

After all, Jewish rituals often called for a washing. Surely John’s baptism was the greatest of washings! Jewish tradition told the story of the people crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. Surely John’s baptism was a new crossing over, a new arrival into the Promised Land! Jewish hope and longing was fixed on a coming savior—One on whom God’s favor would rest, One who would set their nation free from the bonds of foreign oppression and from the exploitation of their own corrupted leaders. Surely John’s baptism marked him as the man! Surely this must be what God meant when he promised a Messiah!

John wastes no time demolishing all their faulty speculations.

“I baptize you with water: but One who is more powerful than I is coming.” You see, in their eager expectation, the people were willing to settle for the opening act. In their desperation for deliverance, the crowd was ready to accept something that was merely preparatory. In their consuming certainty that the time was fulfilled, and that the Messiah had come at last, the nation was busy shrinking down God’s intentions to fit within the scope of what they could see and understand.

But John, the faithful forerunner of the Lord, will not allow the expectation of the people to turn him from the fulfillment of his true mission. “One who is more powerful than I is coming…and he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John’s great work simply lays the foundation on which the ministry of Jesus will rise. Neither John the Baptist nor the God he serves will settle for the silly speculations of a shortsighted people.

For God’s purpose is not less than what the people had been expecting, but infinitely greater. God’s plans do not require a downsizing from real-world, practical deliverance to mere spiritual cleansing. On the contrary, God has something greater planned than what any of the people dared to ask or imagine.

Jesus’ ministry will not be concerned with the restoration of the visible, political nation of Israel. But instead Jesus’ ministry will create a new nation, a new chosen people. Jesus’ baptism will not be a ritual washing with water to restore some notion of religious purity. But instead, Jesus’ baptism is a soaking—an immersion—in the Spirit of the Living God, the power of the Living God, the will of the Living God. Jesus’ anointing as the Messiah, the holy deliverer of Israel, will not be inferred from his deeds or interpreted out of his preaching or conferred by the acclamation of the crowds. But instead, Jesus’ anointing comes from the Holy Spirit himself, and his identity as the great deliverer of God’s chosen people—and indeed of all people—is confirmed by the voice of God the Father: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

When Jesus comes to John to be baptized, this is the work that he inaugurates. When the Holy Spirit descends upon him in bodily form as a dove, this is the work that he seals and strengthens Jesus to do. When the Father rends the heavens and speaks his words of blessing and love on the Son, the fullness of divinity embraces the fullness of humanity, and a new union between earth and heaven is begun.

And that is where we come back into this story. For when we baptize here at this font, it is not with the baptism of John. That was an outward baptism—a sign and a symbol only. But the baptism with which we baptize—the baptism with which, by God’s grace, we have been baptized—is an inward baptism. It is a baptism with the Holy Spirit, and indeed with fire.

The baptism with which we are baptized carries, through water and the Spirit, the whole ministry of Christ. The baptism with which we are baptized is a baptism, a plunging, into the life, and death, and resurrection of Jesus. The baptism with which we are baptized is a forge, and in that forge we are remade. The baptism with which we are baptized is a furnace, and in that furnace we are cleansed forever.

When we come to the font for baptism, whatever our outward age, inwardly we are infants. We come helpless, to receive what we could never earn; to be immersed in depths we could never reach; to die a death we could never face; to rise to a new life we cannot imagine. In baptism, God reveals a plan and a purpose—for each of us and for all of us—that exceeds our grandest expectations and surpasses our wildest hopes. For in baptism, we are made members of the Body of our Risen Lord. In Baptism, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever.

I said at the beginning of this sermon that today we must set aside every image and expectation we have of baptism. That is not entirely accurate. What we must do, in fact, is to allow this day to work backwards into every baptism we have ever seen, and forwards into every baptism we will see. We must allow this day to work back into our own baptisms.

This day, this celebration of the Baptism of Christ, calls us to glimpse in every baptism the unseen work of the Holy Spirit. This day calls us to give thanks that in baptism we follow the footsteps of our Lord. This day calls us to remember that in baptism we have died with Christ. This day calls us to rejoice that in baptism we have been raised with Christ. This day, at last, calls us to hear again those words spoken to Christ, and to know that by God’s grace they are spoken to each of us as well: “You are my son; my daughter; my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

AMEN.

“One who is more powerful than I is coming…”

Rembrandt_-_Preaching_of_Saint_John_the_Baptist_-_Gemäldegalerie_Berlin

(“The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist”, Rembrandt, 1634/45)

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2015

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

Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

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

Well what do you think of John the Baptist’s “good news”? That’s what St Luke the Evangelist calls the strange, disturbing passage we’ve heard this morning.

At the end of John’s tirade, Luke tells us, “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”

I’ll ask again: what do you think of John’s “good news”?

His words are harsh words—words of judgment, words of condemnation, words of wrath. He calls his listeners snakes, counts them no better than scattered stones, compares them to unfruitful trees, and commands them to change their lives, utterly and completely, no matter who they are or what they do for a living.

Most startling of all, John warns that his whole ministry—his ranting and his raving and his baptizing out in the wilderness—is merely preparation for someone else who is coming: and from John’s description offered here, that someone else seems, if possible, even more unsettling and terrifying than John himself.

And all of this is called “good news” by Luke the Gospel-writer.

How can that be? How can this difficult, troubling Gospel passage actually contain a joyful, life-giving Gospel message—an announcement that is truly Good News?

If we would find the Good News in our passage this morning we must begin where John begins: with the possibility of repentance. The key to understanding this passage lies hidden within the very concept that causes us to squirm. For if John’s call to repentance is what makes us fear him and want to turn away from him, John’s call to repentance is also an announcement of great Good News.

The possibility of repentance is always Good News, if only we can hear it. For wrapped up in the summons to repent is both an acknowledgement that things have gone wrong and an opportunity to set them right again. The exhortation to repent is always a word of both justice and mercy—both the stern warning that the path we are pursuing will lead to destruction, and the loving invitation to turn around, to turn back, to turn again and escape the fate we have made for ourselves with our words and deeds.

The call to repentance is hard news, because it confronts us with the justice of a God who cannot abide evil. But the call to repentance is also Good News, because it comforts us with the love of a God “who desireth not the death of [sinners], but rather that [we] may turn from [our] wickedness and live.”

Repentance was John’s mission and message. He proclaimed to the people who came out to him and the wilderness—and by all accounts a great many did come out to him in the wilderness—the possibility of change: of living in a new and better way.

When the crowds—crowds including hated tax-collectors and cruel soldiers—came to him in fear and trembling, knowing that they had made messes of their lives and yet desperate to set things to rights, John could actually give them something to do.

“Live lives of humble generosity!” John said. “Don’t take advantage of your power and position!” John said. “Dwell content with what you have been given!” John said.

In John’s call to repentance, we hear a message of hope; an announcement that things can be different; a promise that people need not live forever in the weary wickedness of their old, warped ways. In John’s call to repentance we hear the beginning of Good News.

But it is only just the beginning of Good News.

For if John brings the assurance that change is possible, he also forces us to ask, plainly and honestly, whether change has occurred. What happens when we set the possibility of transformation alongside the record of our human reality—either our individual realities or the reality of our world? What happens when we widen our focus from looking merely at the invitation to live better, fuller, more faithful lives, and turn to see how and when and whether that invitation has been accepted?

If repentance is possible, then why haven’t we done it?

For you and I know that we are called to share of our goods and resources with which God has blessed us. Why then do we guard so fiercely our material wealth and the security it brings us?

You and I know that we are called to sacrifice our own advantages—our own power and privilege—for the sake of lifting up the lowly and the least. Why then do we cling so tightly to our positions and pretensions?

You and I know that we are called to live lives of contentment and satisfaction. Why then do we grasp so greedily and strive so relentlessly and work unendingly and worry unceasingly after the things we do not have but for which we lust and crave?

Over all these things, John the Baptist has spoken a word of judgment this morning. Have you heeded his warning? I confess that I often ignore it.

John has set before us the mercy and patience of a God who waits for us to return to him. Have you seized that opportunity? I fail to each day.

John has called us to repentance. Have you borne fruits worthy of that call? Beloved, in the light of this morning’s passage I look with shame on the bare branches of my heart and find myself tempted to despair.

For if the possibility of repentance is all that John the Baptist has to proclaim, then indeed our initial suspicions were right: there is no Good News here at all.

But John himself does not end his message with merely a call to repent. The possibility of repentance is not all that John has to proclaim.

For while John’s mission and ministry was all about repentance, repentance was never an end in itself.

Yes, he proclaimed the Good News of God’s justice and mercy. But he did so in preparation for a new and more startling expression of that justice—for a new and better working out of that mercy.

“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Someone is coming, says John, who can do more than symbolically wash away the sins that cling to us so closely. Someone is coming, says John, who has the power to wash us and purge us and cleanse us within. Someone is coming, says John, who can remake us and renew us by the outpouring of his Holy Spirit.

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Terrifying as this sounds, beloved, this is the best news we hear this morning!

John does not leave his hearers—John does not leave us!—scrambling and struggling for a repentance that we can never fully achieve. But John announced then and John announces now that God himself is coming to complete the work that we cannot even begin without God’s help.

God is coming to effect the transformation we know we need but cannot possibly accomplish on our own.

God is coming, and he will sift us as wheat is sifted: breaking away that which is useless and worthless from each individual grain, and preserving for his use that which he has given for his good purposes.

For the full extent of John’s Good News this morning—the full extent of the Good News for all time, dear people—is that the God who cannot abide our sin has come himself to bear the penalty of our sin. The God who calls us to repent is working in us to bring about the fruits of repentance. The God who made each of us for a purpose is coming to fulfill that purpose in each of us and all of us.

“Our hope and expectation,

O Jesus, now appear!

Arise, thou Sun so longed for,

above this darkened sphere!

With hearts and hands uplifted,

we plead, O Lord, to see

the day of earth’s redemption,

and ever be with thee!”1

AMEN.

1-Verse 3 of “Rejoice! rejoice, believers”, Hymn 68, The Hymnal 1982

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.”

“Son of David, have mercy on me!”

William_Blake_-_Christ_Giving_Sight_to_Bartimaeus_-_Google_Art_Project

Ordinarily I eschew a storytelling approach in preaching. I have heard it used in incredibly effective ways by incredibly effective storytellers. But because I do not count myself an effective storyteller (and because I feel strongly that too many preachers today waste too much time retelling the Gospel story and don’t ever actually get around to preaching the Gospel) I don’t tend to use a storytelling style.

This old sermon is an exception to that rule. I find the story of Bartimaeus unusually rich and compelling. In an effort to develop its personal, theological, and political depths, I chose to open this sermon with an extended retelling of the story. As becomes clear in the end (I hope!), the extremely close focus with which the sermon begins ultimately makes possible a homiletical engagement with a much wider context.

A Sermon Preached on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 28, 2012

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

Text: Mark 10:46-52

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

Bartimaeus rose early that day. As the morning’s warmth found him wrapped in his cloak, huddled in whatever corner or alleyway served as his bed, Bartimaeus rose, and hurried through the well-known streets of Jericho. Though the bright light of daybreak meant little to his blind eyes, he had to rise early. Alone in the world, Bartimaeus had to claim his spot—had to stake out his place to beg—right beside the busy road that leads up from Jericho to Jerusalem. All the people passing between those two cities would see his cloak spread by the roadside, ready to receive their alms. It was a spot worth getting up early for. And on this day, there was even more reason to get to his spot early.

Bartimaeus couldn’t read a calendar, but he knew the times and the seasons. He could tell, as the traffic passing his special spot steadily increased, that the Feast of the Passover was coming. Bartimaeus knew that the pious pilgrims heading past his spot on their way up to the Temple would be extra generous. Each day, that crowd grew larger. Each day, the faithful thronged the road on their way to Jerusalem, joyfully preparing to remember and give thanks for God’s deliverance.

For soon, at Passover, they would remember the way that God brought their ancestors up out of the land of Egypt, freeing them from the house of bondage. They would remember the way that God delivered the children of Israel on the shores of the Red Sea, saving them from the chariots of pharaoh and setting their feet on dry ground. They would remember the way that God led them into the Promised Land, casting out the nations, and knocking down the very walls of the ancient city of Jericho before the face of Joshua and his army. All of these mighty acts of deliverance they would remember at the festival in Jerusalem.

They would remember. They would give thanks. And they would ask God to do it again.

For the children of Israel were once more a captive, conquered people, oppressed this time not as slaves in distant Egypt, but by the Roman Empire in their own homeland. And so at Passover, as they celebrated God’s deliverance in days gone by, they would pray and plead to see deliverance for their nation in their own time as well.

Blind Bartimaeus would not join them on their pilgrimage. And yet sitting by the roadside, all alone amidst the crowds of pilgrims, he too hoped for deliverance. Sitting by the roadside, unseeing and unseen, he too longed to glimpse the power and faithfulness of God in his own life. Sitting at his spot by the roadside, unable to join the rituals of remembrance, still Bartimaeus prayed for redemption.

And this Passover, this year, some of the talk he heard by the roadside raised in him a faint glimmer of hope. As the pious passed him by on their way to Jerusalem, Bartimaeus heard mention of a new prophet who had arisen in Galilee. Jesus of Nazareth, they called him. Bartimaeus heard talk about lepers healed, and demons cast out. One man told excitedly about the time he’d gone out into the wilderness with Jesus as part of a huge crowd. Even though there wasn’t any food around, somehow they were all fed with bread and fish—and there were leftovers! Most amazing of all, Bartimaeus even heard someone whisper a rumor that Jesus had raised a little girl from the dead.

The voices in the crowd were filled with hope. Folks thought that all the amazing things that Jesus had done were signs that he was God’s Messiah: that he had come to deliver their people once again, just like at the first Passover long ago. Sitting by himself, Bartimaeus didn’t think much about the politics. But he couldn’t help but wonder what Jesus might do for a poor, blind, beggar.

And then—just as the first Passover pilgrims of the day came past his spot; just as Bartimaeus sat thinking about what he’d heard, and about the old stories of God’s faithfulness, and his own deep longing for deliverance from blindness—Jesus came.

Bartimaeus could hear the excitement running through the crowd. Here was Jesus, the rumored Messiah, making his way up to Jerusalem for the Passover! And here sat Bartimaeus, his beggar’s cloak before him, hoping, yearning, praying for deliverance!

Before he even knew what was happening, before he even knew what he was doing, Bartimaeus lifted up his voice, and he cried out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

The people around him were shocked and offended. “Be silent,” they said. “How dare you interrupt the Teacher. Can’t you see what’s going on? Can’t you see that now, at this Passover, in this time, in this place, we will see God’s deliverance again?” The wise and discerning in the crowd knew that it was no coincidence that Jesus was going up to Jerusalem at Passover. They were certain that redemption for Israel was at hand. And they weren’t about to let a blind beggar interrupt the progress of God’s great plan.

But above their orders, in spite of their offense, Bartimaeus cried out louder still. “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped, and stood still, and said “Call him here.”

The hoped-for Messiah stopped in his journey up to Jerusalem, where he would do something unhoped-for, and unimaginable. The savior of God’s people silenced the eager crowd so that he could talk to the broken, outcast beggar. The Lord of all time halted the great drama of history in its very tracks so that he could speak with someone of no significance or importance whatsoever.

And in that moment on the dusty road outside of Jericho, the grace of God shines out suddenly and brilliantly like a ray of light striking a prism. In the instant when Jesus responds to Bartimaeus’s cry, we see the power and purposes of God revealed to be vast as the cosmos and as intimate as each individual broken heart.

For the truth is that the crowds of people who expected something great that Passover were right. Jesus was indeed going up to Jerusalem to deliver God’s people once again—to free God’s chosen from the power of slavery and oppression. And yet the mighty tyrant he came to confront was not the distant Roman emperor but the painfully present power of Sin—the oppressive, ubiquitous authority of Death. Jesus went up to Jerusalem not simply to commemorate the freedom that God had won for the children of Israel long ago, but to win a new freedom for all people, of all times, in all nations. That’s the cosmic power of the grace of God.

But blind Bartimaeus who looked to Jesus for deliverance was right, too. The Good News of what God has done, is doing, and will do in Christ is not just for all people: it is for every person. That’s what Bartimaeus, the beggar, saw. That’s what Bartimaeus points us to today. The message of the Gospel, the promise of redemption and deliverance, the Good News for all the world, all the cosmos: it is also Good News for each of us.

For wherever we sit begging; wherever we spread our ragged cloak to ask alms from an indifferent world; wherever we wait alone and abused and ignored, Jesus stops for us. He calls us to himself. He reaches out his nail-printed hands to touch our blind eyes. He bids us go from our old life, our old ways, our old spot. He heals us, makes us whole, calls us to follow.

Don’t let the grandeur of this Gospel pass you by. Don’t let the voices of the crowd, or the voices in your head, quiet you. Cry out to Jesus! Ask him to take away your blindness. Ask him to open your eyes, that you may glimpse his face. Ask him to let you see again, that you may follow him on the way to Jerusalem.

AMEN.