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: Lent

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

(“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.

Independence and Obedience

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

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

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

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

“Although he was a son,

Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered,

and having been made perfect,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dust Thou Art

As we come to the beginning of another Lent, I share the sermon I preached last Ash Wednesday.

A Sermon Preached on Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014

by The Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Texts: Genesis 3; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Matthew 6:1-6; Revelation 22:1-4

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

“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Those strange and solemn words are at the heart of this strange and solemn day. They are the words that you will hear in a more contemporary form when you come forward to receive the mark of ashes as a sign of penitence. In that moment, the dust will be physical, literal—the gritty symbol of real ashes smudged on fingers and faces—but the force of those words will connect them to our need for repentance, and our mortality. “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

But where do those strange and solemn words come from? If you look back over the readings in your bulletin, you will not find them there. The prophet Joel is not interested in ashes—in the outward signs of repentance—as he calls the people of Israel to “rend [their] hearts and not [their] garments.” Our Lord Jesus is not thinking of smudged foreheads as he urges his disciples, “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face”—indeed, he seems to challenge, if not expressly to forbid, practices such as these

No, to find the source of today’s reminder that “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” we must go back beyond today’s appointed lessons—back beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, and back beyond the prophetic pronouncements of Joel. We must go back to the beginning: to the Book of Genesis.

In Genesis, we are told of how God created the heavens and the earth. We are told of how the Spirit of God moved mightily over the face of the waters, and how, out of chaos and darkness, God brought order and light. In Genesis, we are told of God’s great goodness in calling forth the bounty and rich diversity of this earth: plants and animals, fish and birds, the beasts of the earth and the cattle of the fields and “every creeping thing that creepeth upon” the ground.

In Genesis, we are told of how God in his mercy and in his love made human beings in his image—formed out of the dust of the earth and enlivened with the breath of his Spirit. We are told of how he set them over the good earth that he had made, to tend and keep it, in order that we might rule and serve all creatures. In Genesis, we are told that God set the first humans in a garden full of good fruit growing on abundant trees.

And one more thing. In Genesis, we are told of a single command that the Lord gave to the first people—the dust creatures made in the image of God: “Of every tree in the garden, thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.”

Of course, we know what happens next. The serpent seduces. The people eat. And God comes to walk through the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day, only to find Adam and Eve hiding—ashamed of their nakedness. The relationship of trust and intimacy that the first people enjoyed with the Lord their God was broken by disobedience—by sin.

And so it is, at last, that in the Third Chapter of the Book of Genesis, we find the strange and solemn words for which we have been searching—the dread words that we will hear again in just a few moments this evening. The Lord pronounces judgment: first upon the serpent, then upon the woman, and then at last on Adam, the first man. God declares: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it thou wast taken. For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

This, then, is the source of tonight’s strange pronouncement. Here, then, is the meaning of this day’s solemn declaration. The startling and unsettling truth proclaimed in the imposition of ashes today is that you and I stand in the line of Adam. Over us is spoken the same condemnation, the same curse. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Now perhaps this is too much for you. Perhaps here you might raise an objection. Perhaps, as modern Americans in Greenwich, Connecticut in 2014, you chafe against so simple an application of so ancient a story. Talking serpents? First parents? A divine curse? Can you imagine a more preposterous explanation of human origins?

But let us be very clear this Ash Wednesday. The story you have just heard—and the curse at the heart of that story—is not meant to explain the past. The truth of this tale cannot be confirmed by an archaeological dig or a mitochondrial DNA analysis. The story of Adam and Eve is not a story about where we come from, explaining our background. Instead, this is a story about where we are, and it explains where we are headed. This is not a story about the past, but about the present and the future. For the truth is that the fruits of Eden’s loss still fall, heavy and rotten, all around us.

We see them falling in the Crimea, as the great powers of the world once again find themselves drawn into the tired, terrible dance of war. To be sure, this day we hope and pray that peace will yet prevail. But we must also acknowledge that each time nations collide and tyranny rises and blood is spilt, the fruits of Adam’s fall can be seen, and the ancient curse can be heard again in our time: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

We see those fruits falling in Mexico, where Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman now sits in federal custody. The arrest of perhaps the world’s most powerful drug lord late last month has been major news, supplanted only by the crisis in the Ukraine. Guzman rules over a multi-billion dollar cartel. His actions and activities have brought misery and pain to the streets and suburbs of America, even as he has brought violent death to the towns and cities of Mexico. Yet we must not forget that his enormous wealth is built upon the enormous American appetite for his products—cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroine—and therefore, by the enslaving power of addiction. Here, surely, around one life we see the fatal fruit fall abundantly, and hear the curse spoken to so many of the innocent and guilty alike: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

And lest we forget the purpose of this season of Lent, if we would see the truth of this day’s pronouncement—if we would see the fruit of Adam’s fall—let us look within ourselves. You and I may not be as brash as Vladimir Putin or as ruthless as “El Chapo” Guzman. But can you outrun the terrible words we hear this night? For all our advancement and enlightenment, for all our wealth and wisdom, for all our piety and our spiritual practices, who among us can claim a perfectly clean conscience, or the knowledge that we have not been disobedient?

We know what it is to exploit our fellow human beings in ways big and small. We know what it is to eat gluttonously, to drink intemperately, to look and act lustfully, to yearn enviously, to react wrathfully, to amass greedily, and to boast pridefully. And what is the price of all this? What is the cost of these actions? Is it not the same penalty paid by Adam: the loss of a relationship of intimacy and trust with the Lord our God, and with one another? For all our sophistication and satisfaction, for all our charity and our credentials, for all our goodness and our gratitude, who among us can escape death? “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

But let us make something very clear. Ash Wednesday is not, in fact, a day to sit in our sin; to wallow in the warped, worn-out weariness of our hearts; to fixate on death. Our worship this day does not end with the imposition of ashes. Our story this day does not conclude with the pronouncement of a curse.

For behold, Christian, the shape of the ashes that will soon bedeck your brow! The dust with which you are marked today is no mere smudge. Rather, the symbol of mortality applied to our foreheads this night will be made in the form of a Cross.

And that realization lifts us to the true and better meaning of this strange and solemn day. For what that sign of the Cross shows forth is that we have not been left alone in our fallenness and our mortality. What we remember this day is that the same God whose justice drove Eve out of Eden has come down from heaven to be born a son of Eve. The same God whose righteousness could not bear the disobedience of our father Adam took on our flesh—our flesh of earth and dust—to become for us a new Adam, a new creation: a new and better beginning for our race.

The sign we receive this Ash Wednesday reminds us, not only that we are dust, but that God himself has come to share in our dusty, deathward life. The purpose of this long season of Lent is not to fix our hearts on our fallenness, but to prepare us for the announcement that on the Cross of Calvary, Jesus our Lord has conquered Death and Sin forever, and in the bright light of the Resurrection he calls us to share in a new life that cannot end.

So it is that this evening (and only this evening in the whole cycle of the Church year) we come forward twice. The first time, we come forward to hear the dread reminder; to be told “Dust thou art”; to acknowledge and bewail the fact that the seeds of Adam’s fall have taken root in us and grown up and produced rank fruit in our souls.

But then, beloved, once we have been marked with the cross, and have made our confession, and have heard words of absolution, we will be called forward again. We will be called forward to hear, not a curse, but words of blessing and holy union. We will be called forward to taste, not the bitter fruit of fallenness, but a new and better fruit: the fruit of the new Jerusalem, the fruit of Christ’s Body and Blood.

Tonight, Christ Jesus invites all those who have shared in his death through baptism, and who repent of their sins, and who embark now on the holy road of Lent, to draw near in faith, and to see the fulfillment of words not from the first book—from Genesis—but from the last book—from Revelation—and to taste at this altar the fruit of the Tree of Life.

“And the angel showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the lamb. In the midst of the street of the city, and on either side of the river, there was the Tree of Life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads.”


In the midst of Death, we are in Life.

A Sermon Preached on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 15, 2015

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

Texts: 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

In Memoriam

Muriel Brownlie, Robert Olesen, Richard Egbert

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

Death has been lurking around the perimeters of my life these last few weeks. By that, I don’t mean to say that my family has suffered any loss, thank God. Neither do I mean that I’ve had premonitions of my own demise, or anything like that. But rather, the last two weeks have brought word of the deaths of several old friends. They were very different people from very different parishes I have served. None were terribly young or terribly old—none especially well or especially sick. None of them were expected to die when they did–and yet, of course, their deaths, like anyone’s death, were not outside the realm of possibility. Though I hadn’t talked to any of these people recently—in one case, for several months, in other cases, for several years—nevertheless their deaths have been weighing on me. It is that horrible mixture of shock and yet no shock—of surprise, and yet also resigned expectation—that keeps pressing itself onto my mind. Death was always there, roaming the edges of their stories. It struck down my friends, and in so doing it reminded me of what I ought never to forget: that, as the Burial Office in our Prayer Book puts it, “In the midst of life, we are in death.”

That painful difficulty—that undeniable reality of Death skulking around the edges of life—is present even in our Scripture passages this morning. Did you notice the strange, almost euphemistic quality to the beginning of our Gospel lesson today? St Mark’s account of the Transfiguration begins, “Six days later,” which necessarily begs the question, “Six days later than what? What happened six days before Jesus took Peter, and James, and John, and led them up a high mountain apart?” One of the most lamentable side-effects of encountering the Sunday readings in bulletins only, and not in actual Bibles, is that events and teachings are cut off from their intended place in the larger narrative, and we are often left with dangling, unexplained phrases—phrases such as “Six days later.”

But when we consider the story of the Transfiguration in the original context Mark gives it, we find that what happened six days prior was actually an extended conversation about Death. In Chapter 8, in the verses immediately preceding the verses we’ve heard this morning, Jesus shocks his uncomprehending disciples by telling them “that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

As if these words were not difficult enough, Jesus goes on to announce both that this fate will unfold according to the plan and purpose of Almighty God, and that if they would be his true followers, his disciples must be ready to face Death as well. “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.”

This is the context, then, for the extraordinary event witnessed by Peter, and James, and John in our reading today. It is Death that encircles the story of the Transfiguration—Jesus’ prediction of his own death, and Jesus’ call to his followers to die to self that both come before; and Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem—his journey to suffering and death—that will follow hereafter. Death lurks at the perimeters of this story. Once again we find that “In the midst of life, we are in death.”

So what is the meaning of this story in this moment? Why do we read it here—now—as we stand upon the threshold of Lent? We often think of this impending season as a time to prepare for the celebration of Easter, and it is that. But the forty days of fasting and self-denial now looming before us are also a time to examine our lives in all their fallenness and fragility. The days of Lent are a time for us to remember our own mortality. As we will hear at services this coming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday: “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.” These days are a chance for us to face the inevitable fact of our own end. They are a time for us to take up our own crosses, and to die to ourselves. And they are an invitation to follow Jesus’ footsteps in the dusty pathway of Death.

Surely, it was such thoughts as these that occupied the minds of the disciples as they followed Jesus up the mountain. Surely, their minds over the course of the preceding week had been filled with thoughts of mortality—filled with the dread certainty and mystery of Death. Surely they found themselves weighed down by the sorrow they now knew they would face, and the ugly finality that they now knew must come.

And then, suddenly, Jesus was transfigured before them. Suddenly, their downcast eyes were drawn up by the vision of their friend filled with light. Suddenly, their darkened minds were brightened by the sight of their teacher talking with Elijah and with Moses. Suddenly, their heavy hearts were lifted by the affirming voice of God the Father, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.”

In that moment, they saw Jesus—the man whom they have left everything to follow—revealed to be something so much more than a prophet, a preacher, and a healer. His human body is not consumed, or discarded, but in and through his humanity shines the astonishing light of his divinity. Moses and Elijah—the personal embodiments of the treasury of Scripture, the Law and the Prophets themselves—both stand by to point to the fulfilled Promise of their own words. And as the cloud overshadows them, in that specific moment in time “six days after” Jesus’ dark words of death, the disciples suddenly find themselves caught up into the eternal light of the everlasting love of God.

Peter, and James, and John go down the mountain changed. They have not been freed from facing the trials ahead. They have not been released from the bitter necessity of suffering with their Lord. They have not even been granted the wisdom to discharge their duty perfectly, for as we know even these men will desert Jesus in his last hour.

And yet in that moment on the mountaintop, Peter and James and John see that God’s power has come down to work in and through a body like their body. In that moment on the mountaintop, they see that the mortal flesh of women and men shall be clothed with the garments of immortality. In that moment they see that Death, though persistent and ever-present in our lives will not, cannot, must not at last be triumphant in our lives.

For the truth, beloved, is that Death does lurk at the perimeters of all our stories. It meets us, expected and yet surprising, when we open the newspaper or turn on the television. It meets us, always a stranger and yet always well-known, in the sudden, tragic loss of a friend as well as in the slow, painful passing of a loved one. Death meets us at work and at home; online and on the roads; in the bright days of our triumphs and in the dark nights of our despair. Death roams the borderlands of our lives, impossible to tell when it make strike, but sure and certain that it one day will.

And yet the promise of the Transfiguration is that it is here–here in this life, here in these bodies, here in our stories–that God has chosen to reveal himself in glory. It is here, here as we walk this valley of the shadow of death, that the Mount of Transfiguration rises suddenly before us. It is here, here within the dark banality of Death’s startling inevitability that the light of life breaks upon us, radiating from the very garments of Jesus.

For the announcement of God in the person of Jesus our Lord is that in the midst of Death—Death all encroaching, Death inescapable, Death uncertain, Death inevitable—in the midst of Death, we are in Life—Life most glorious, Life unconquerable, Life unending, Life divine.

So do not fear, beloved, to climb the Mount of Transfiguration this day. Do not fear to lift your eyes from the rough, rocky ground below you to behold the light of God’s glory shining in the face of Jesus. Do not fear to follow him back down the mountain—to follow him back into the pain and sorrow and the foreboding threat of Death below. Do not fear to walk with him steadfast to Jerusalem, and to see him meet Death in the great contest. Do not fear to hear and heed his command, to take up your own Cross, to follow him.

For this creation shines now, not just with the inextinguishable light that pierced the uncomprehending darkness at the mighty Word of God; This creation shines now, not only with the brilliant light of revelation breaking forth from every page of the Law and Prophets; This creation shines now, not simply with the glory of Christ transfigured there upon the mountaintop. But this creation shines now and evermore with the light that pours from the open door of the empty tomb. This creation shines with the unending life of the Risen Jesus. This creation shines—and we, dear people, shine with it—by the bright light of Christ our Lord who died, and who lives, and who will never die again.

So let Death come, and all his awful host with him. Let Sin besiege us with all the terrors that this darkened world can muster. Let Lent come upon us and hold before us the ever-present reminder of our mortality, and the call to us to die daily. We are children of the Transfiguration light. We are Daughters and Sons of the Resurrection. “And even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”

“It’s just not fair!”

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ 

 –Matthew 20:1-16

“It’s just not fair.” That phrase rises from playgrounds and penthouses; from nursery schools and national capitals; from classrooms and boardrooms and everywhere in between. Whether spoken with a child’s sense of outrage and astonishment or with a worldly-wise, done-it-all-seen-it-all sense of sorrow and weariness, “It’s just not fair” is less a complaint and more a statement of fact common to all humankind.

But if it’s a fact common to all humankind, yet it is not common to all people all the time. The clearly culpable criminal who gets off on a technicality doesn’t stand in the courtroom and shout, “It’s not fair!” The obviously corrupt politician whose comeuppance is postponed by a national crisis doesn’t call a press conference to announce, “It’s not fair!” The schoolyard bully who slyly provokes his victim into rule-breaking retaliation doesn’t stop the punishing teacher and protest, “It’s not fair!”

No, that great expression of grievance and frustration is voiced, not by those who benefit from unfairness but by those who suffer from it. “It’s just not fair,” says the old man defrauded out of his pension by a CEO floating away from a corporation’s wreckage on a golden parachute. “It’s just not fair,” weeps the young woman victimized by sexual assault when her college community rallies to defend her accused attacker. “It’s just not fair,” cries the child who finds his world utterly overturned by his parents’ bitter divorce.

So it is in today’s story. The people who are paid a day’s wage for an hour’s work aren’t the ones who cry out “It’s not fair!” Rather, it’s those who have borne the heat of the day; those who have labored hardest; those who have worked the longest and done their time. When they see they get no more than the eleventh-hour workers, they grumble against the landowner: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us. It’s just not fair!”

We can sympathize with their frustration. We know what it is to be among the victims of unfairness. But what happens when we find we’ve drawn the lines wrong? What happens when we recognize that we are not, in fact, always victims but are sometimes—perhaps even frequently—victimizers? What happens when it turns out that we—in spite of our excellent credentials, our impeccable manners, our generous giving, and our devoted service—are the eleventh-hour workers? What if we are not actually the good guys by God’s measure, but are counted instead with the transgressors, the slips-ups, the failures and the faulty?

It is there that we find the great Good News of God’s unfairness. Not the unfairness of this warped, wicked, unjust old world, but the unfairness described in our Gospel reading: the astonishing unfairness of God’s grace. It is an unfairness rooted, not in the actions of victimizers or the wails of victims, but in God’s gift of himself to an unworthy race. It is an unfairness found, not in the exploiting strength of some and the wounded weakness of others, but in the amazing paradox of a mighty God who empties himself, and takes the form of a slave, and dies a death of shame—for us all.

In the final days of this holy season of Lent, may you be overwhelmed by the unfairness of what God in Christ has done. It may not be fair, O victimizer, but God has given you time to repent. It may not be fair, O victim, but God has given you grace to forgive. It may not be fair, O weary world, but God has drawn you to himself. So yield up your sufferings and turn from your sins. Then join the anthem that the forgiven and the free sing with grateful tears from the foot of Christ’s Cross: “It’s just not fair! Thanks be to God!”