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: life

The Devil is in the Details

leonart_bramer_circumcision_christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Marley was dead: to begin with.”

Since taking up my duties as Rector of Christ Church in Cooperstown, New York, I am sorry that I have not found much time to update my blog. I hope very much that that will change in the New Year. But even so, on this Fifth Day of Christmas, I wanted to share my sermon from Christmas Eve.

God bless you in this holy season and in the year to come!

cole-angel-shepherds

(“The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds”, by Thomas Cole, 1833-34. The sudden in-breaking of the Angel Gabriel into a dark, dead scene perfectly expresses the unexpected arrival of life into our world and our hearts.)

A Sermon Preached on Christmas Eve, 2016

By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Rector, Christ Church, Cooperstown, NY

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

“Marley was dead: to begin with.” That’s how Charles Dickens opens his well-loved story A Christmas Carol. “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Most folks probably know the story these days through a movie or television adaptation. I must confess a certain fondness for “A Muppet Christmas Carol”, though that is probably not considered the most faithful interpretation.

But whatever version you may know and love, they all begin with that same odd, unsettling, downright creepy opening line. “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Who starts a Christmas story by talking about death?! It’s crazy!

But Dickens does it for one very important reason. He tells the reader, “Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” If we were not quite certain that Marley was dead to begin with, his appearance in the tale would not astound or surprise us.

And by beginning in the way he does, Dickens accomplishes more than merely weirding out his readers—though he does do that. By beginning with death, Dickens makes sure that the eventual arrival of life astonishes and delights us all the more. By beginning with death, Scrooge’s transformation from a miserly old grump—or, as Dickens calls him, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, covetous old sinner”—into a warm-hearted, generous, loving friend, can be seen for what it really is: a journey out of death into life.

So why am I telling you all about the beginning of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol at this late hour on Christmas Eve when you could just as easily be home right now, sitting next to the fire with some high-octane eggnog, watching your favorite movie version—or, even better, reading the original book? Well, it’s because the story we tell tonight in Church bears a striking and significant resemblance to Dickens’s classic tale. There are no bah humbugs, no ghosts of past, present, or future, and no huge turkeys. But just like A Christmas Carol, the Christmas story we hear tonight begins with Death.

Maybe you didn’t notice it. I’ll admit, it’s not very obvious. If all you know about this story is what you just heard read from Luke’s Gospel, you might even think I’m extremely confused to claim that there’s anything about death in it at all. I mean, aren’t we here to celebrate a birth?

But did you hear in our First Reading what the Prophet Isaiah said many centuries before the birth of Christ? “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” Now we tend to focus on the light, and that’s good. But what was that darkness? Who were those people dwelling in a land of shadows?

Or were you listening when Isaiah talked about “the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders”? Before we can understand the freedom he’s celebrating, we have to ask: What was that burden? Who put that bar there?

Or did you wonder why, in the midst of all that beautiful stuff about light and freedom and the child who is called “wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace,” there was that one odd and ugly line about “the boots of all the tramping warriors, and all the garments rolled in blood,” being “burned as fuel for the fire”?

Or did you hear the hint of a warning in St Paul’s Letter to Titus, when he writes about God who “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people”? Did you consider what the iniquity from which we are being redeemed is? Did you ask why we need to be purified in the first place?

Or even in St Luke’s great story about the birth of Jesus, did you listen when the Angel told the Shepherds just who this child was? “For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior…” Why did the Shepherds need a Savior in the first place? Why do any of us need a Savior? What are we being saved from?

“Marley was dead: to begin with,” said Charles Dickens. “The world was dead: to begin with,” says the Bible.

The Good News of Christmas begins in the same strange, unsettling, even creepy way that Dickens’s classic story begins. It begins with death. Not just the death of some old money-lender named Marley. But the Death that looms over all people— the Death that looms over all creation. The Christmas Gospel, the Christmas message, begins with this announcement: “We were dead, to begin with.”

Perhaps that seems to you a preposterous and unbelievable claim. But consider what we’ve seen of the power of death this year, and this holiday season. Terrorist attacks in Christmas markets, a never-ending crisis in Syria, violence and crime in our own cities, and in our towns, and even in our villages. Consider what we know of the problems of addiction throughout this nation and even in this community. Consider the death of civility that we all witnessed in the election cycle just concluded.

When we are not able to quiet our fears of the future or satisfy our own longing for security, we feel the power of Death. When we cannot buy enough or own enough or give enough away to protect ourselves from the changes and chances of life, we feel the power of Death. When we finally face the awful fact that our lives are not our own, and we see that we have been walking in darkness and dwelling in a land of deep darkness, we see that we have been living under the reign and power of Death.

That hard truth must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the wonderful Good News we have heard this night.

For tonight, the Angel of the Lord speaks again to each of us, just as he spoke to the shepherds twenty centuries ago. He speaks to ears like ours, that have grown deaf with straining for a word of hope. He appears to eyes like ours, that have grown dim with watching for our redemption. He calls to hearts like ours, that are heavy with all the hatred and bitterness and tragedy and violence we find in our world. He brightens minds like ours, that cannot figure a way out of all our troubles: the troubles we have caused for ourselves and the troubles thrust upon us unfairly and unexpectedly and without a way out.

To us the Angel Gabriel speaks, and says,

“Fear not. For though you were dead in your sins and trespasses; dead in the things that took you far from God and that broke your bonds with other people; dead in your words and in your deeds; dead in your waking and in your sleeping; dead in your hardness of heart and your brokenness of will—Though you were dead, fear not. God has acted. For unto you is born this day a Savior. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The trappings of violence will all be rolled up and destroyed. The threat of judgment has been averted. The promise of the prophets has come true. Not just to save you from the final threat of ultimate death, whenever it may come, but to raise you from the gloom of living death to true life right now—to set you free from the burdens of your oppressors, and to break the bar of tyranny laid across your shoulders by your own drives and desires and appetites and anxieties. Fear not. For unto you is born this day a savior which is Christ the Lord.”

We were dead to begin with, but through the Birth of this Holy Child, life has broken into our world.

We were dead to begin with, but God in Christ Jesus has come to make us alive again.

We were dead to begin with, but the life and death, and resurrection of the child born in Bethlehem has shattered the power of death and risen us to life.

O come, all ye faithful! Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Hark, the herald angels sing: “Glory to the newborn king!” For we who once were dead have now been made alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. AMEN.

“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.