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: Love

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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“I am there among them.”

A Sermon Preached on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 7, 2014

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

Texts: Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

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

Our lectionary today puts before us two passages of Scripture that address one of the most difficult tasks of human life: dealing with other people.

St Paul, as he approaches the end of his Epistle to the Romans, spends a few chapters offering advice about how members of the Church should interact with the wider world. He urges the Christians in Rome to live in peace with their pagan neighbors, to obey the local authorities, and to respect the powers that be. “Owe no one anything except to love one another,” says Paul, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law.”

Likewise Jesus, as he prepares to begin his long, final journey to Jerusalem, takes time to give his disciples instructions about what to do in case of controversy between brothers and sisters in the Church. “If another member of the Church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” he begins. From that intimate, personal starting point, Jesus gives increasingly public and community-based directions for doggedly pursuing a path of reconciliation.

What could be more purely practical than the passages we have heard this morning? Here we have, from the great Apostle to the Gentiles and from our Lord himself, two texts tailor-made for leading us through the thorny thicket of personal relationships. Paul’s words read like a checklist—Jesus’ words like an instruction manual. They seem to take one of the greatest challenges of life and break it down into something manageable, straightforward—even easy.

Until, that is, we turn to read the record of our own lives in the light of these passages. I don’t know about you, brothers and sisters, but these verse make me quake. “Owe no one anything but to love,” says Paul. Why then is my love so fickle and my heart so faithless? “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” says Jesus. Why then are my efforts at reconciliation so half-hearted and my drive to forgive so anemic?

When I lay them upon my own life, these apparently practical verses suddenly begin to read less like instructions and more like indictments. The command seems so simple. The injunction is so straightforward. And yet history—either the two-thousand years of Church history, or the two hundred years of Trinity’s history, or even the passing years of our own personal histories—show how seldom these words are heeded.

And yet what if the meaning of these passages were to be found in something other than their practical purpose? What if, in order to read Paul’s advice and Jesus’ instructions aright, it is necessary first to set aside our self-centered fretting and our gloomy guilt? What if the words of Scripture that we’ve heard this morning are not simply speaking to us but are, in the first place, speaking about God?

Our first clue comes in the middle of the passage from Romans. After exhorting the Roman Christians to love, Paul suddenly tells them “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” Paul’s instructions about love—about the fulfilling of God’s law—are rooted not in mere morality, but in eschatology: not in the blind striving to be good people, but in the watchful expectation of Christ’s imminent return.

This is a critical distinction. Paul founds his instructions not in who the Romans are or in what they can do, but in who God is and what he has done already—and is doing still. Paul is not placing before the Romans an impossible goal or urging them to struggle after an unreachable dream. Rather, he is inviting the Romans to become what they already are in Christ.

“The night is far gone, the day is near.” The Roman Christians cannot, by their loving behavior, speed along the coming of Christ any more than you or I can rush the sunrise by sheer force of will. But what Paul wants for them is that they should live consistent with a reality that God has already wrought, and that he is bringing to light according to his own gracious time. God desires it for them—God commands it of them—because God is accomplishing it in them.

“Owe no one anything, but to love one another,” says Paul, because the God of love is at work in and throughthe Roman Christian community. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh,” urges Paul, because the new life of grace has wrapped itself about his companions like a garment. Even now, in the midst of their failures and imperfections, the call comes to dwell within the life of the Lord who will come to drive out their darkness and make whole their brokenness. And not only is that Lord coming: behold, he is already present in their midst.

For this is the astonishing promise we hear at the end of this morning’s Gospel lesson: in the person of Jesus Christ, God continually dwells in the midst of his people. “Where two or three are gathered in my Name, I am there among them.” This abiding presence is both the rationale behind and the starting point for Jesus’ instructions to his Church in the midst of conflict.

For conflict must needs come. The Church is made up of fallen, broken men and women—people like you and like me, brothers and sisters. We fight. We argue. We gossip. We hurt one another, and we cherish the hurts dealt us by others. This is true of any human community, and in this regard the Church is no different from any gathering of people at any time or place.

But what Jesus reminds his followers today is that the Church is indeed unlike any other human organization in the history of the world. For while it is composed of hapless sinners and halo-less saints, it is a community called and formed by the very will of Almighty God. And what’s more, that same will dwells with and acts through the Church. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

How startling—how offensive—the pronouncement that the works of this assembly will echo through eternity! How fearful—how outrageous—to announce that the Lord of heaven and earth dwells here with us in our midst. But that is precisely the point of the passages we have heard today. Our Scripture this morning is given not simply that we may know what God expects of us, but so that we may see again what God has done for us.

For the same One who calls his Church to seek out and pursue the wayward and the lost member is the very One who came himself to enlighten the Gentiles and to eat with tax collectors and sinners. The same One who calls his people to fulfill the Law through love is the very One who fulfilled the Law through his own person, and who revealed perfect love in the laying down of his life on Calvary. The same One who calls this world out of the darkness and destruction is the very One who has destroyed Death and conquered Sin in the bright light of his Resurrection.

So it is that these passages today are, at last, not our condemnation but our consolation. For in our worship today, the God who sought us while we were yet his enemies comes to seek us again. In our learning and fellowship today, the God who revealed himself to us when our darkened eyes could not behold his shows his glory once more in the life of his people. At this altar this morning, the God who loved us and rushed to hold us while we were yet unlovable comes to embrace us now in the fullness of our humanity in the gifts of bread and wine. Through our Scripture this morning, the God who came to dwell among us and to reveal his glory in our flesh proclaims that he is present here in this congregation and whenever two or three are gathered in his Name.

In this knowledge and confidence, beloved, let us indeed owe no one anything but to love—for God has first loved us. In this sure and certain hope, dear people, let us risk forgiveness and reconciliation—because in Christ Jesus we have been forgiven, and are being reconciled to God the Father.

Thanks be to God. AMEN.

In memoriam: Fred Boston 1941-2014

A Sermon Preached at the Liturgy of the Burial of the Dead for Fred Boston, August 23, 2014.

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; I Corinthians 15:20-26, 35-38, 42-44, 53-58; John 10:11-16

“In the midst of life, we are in death; Of whom may we seek for succor, but of thee, O Lord?”

Those ancient words from the Burial Service have been running through my mind all week. In the midst of life, we are in Death. We here assembled know the truth of those words. Fred Boston was in the midst of life when he was taken from us. In this, we can take comfort—even joy. Grandpa would not have had it any other way. Not for him the hospital bed or the hospice ward. No long decline or slow diminishing. No disease—apart from the ordinary ills that must afflict a person who loved a good meal and a cold beer. No slow descent into darkness, but in the midst of life Grandpa has gone. In the midst of work he loved. In the midst of motorcycle rides and helicopter flights. In the midst of silly emails and truly ridiculous puns. In the midst of life, Fred left us. For that, we can give thanks. For the gift of his passing, and the gift of his whole life shared with us, we rejoice this day.

But at the same time, we must not deny the pain of this day. In the midst of life, we are in Death, and it hurts. We who have been left must now grapple with the rising tide of grief. We must learn what life is without a husband and a brother—a father and a grandfather and a great-grandfather. Without our friend. I say all this not to be morose or depressing, but so that we may have the grace to let grief’s current carry us for a time. Honest mourning and open sorrow will not negate our thanksgiving for Fred’s life. Indeed, the depth of our gratitude for who he was and for who he will always be to us requires that we acknowledge our sorrow. In the midst of life we are in death—and it hurts us.

That pain is important. It points us to what we have lost: to the love that Fred bore for us and the love that we bear for him still. That love must be our starting point this day. My grandfather was not a man who spoke of his faith or his beliefs. Rather, he showed what was important to him through the quiet signs of his love. He showed it in long road trips to visit his far-flung family. He showed it in teaching his grandson to jump in puddles. He showed it in buying his great-granddaughters ice cream cones—always to share with him, of course. He showed it in four identical Christmas presents each year for his four sons, always wrapped appropriately in the newspaper funny pages. He showed it in countless ways over the fifty-five years of his marriage to my grandmother, Janet. The little deeds of love composed the contents of his creed.

And today, I am grateful for his relative silence regarding religious things, because that silence allows the readings we have heard to speak to us in their fullness. For today, the Word of God addresses us in our grief. Today, the Scriptures speak to us in our sorrow. Today our readings tell us of a God who does not forget us in our time of mourning. They tell us of a Lord who does not leave us to Death and darkness. They tell us of a Love that will not let us go.

“On this mountain, the Lord of Hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines; of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” All of this talk of feasting certainly fits for Grandpa’s service, though I suppose we might switch out the well-aged wines for free-flowing Bud Lite. But did you hear the promise from the Prophet Isaiah in the midst of that portrait of God’s overflowing love? “And God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is over all nations. He will swallow up Death forever.”

In the midst of life we are in Death, but today the Word announces to us that we will not dwell in that dark shadow forever. For God has acted on behalf of people in mourning and grief—for people such as we are. “Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.”

And to accomplish this work—to fulfill that promise—God himself has come to us. In the person of Jesus our Lord, God’s everlasting purposes have been fulfilled. In the life of Jesus our Lord, God himself shares in our life—in our times of feasting and fasting, in our joys and in our sorrows, in our loves and in our losses. In the death of Jesus our Lord, God himself shares in our death. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. God joins us in all the terror and all the tragedy of Death. God comes to us in our mourning. God dwells with us in the darkness. And in the Resurrection of Jesus our Lord, God himself conquers Death for our sake.

“Since by man came death, by man has come also the Resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive…Where, O death, is thy victory? Where, O grave, is thy sting?” In the midst of life, we are in Death—but today we affirm that Death’s reign has been broken. In the midst of life, we are in Death—but today we announce that God’s light shines even in the darkest places. In the midst of life, we are in Death—but today we hear the assurance that the Lord our God has come to us; the Lord our Brother has died for us; the Lord our Life is risen for us; and the Lord our King has triumphed for us. “And he must reign until he puts all enemies under his feet. And the last enemy to be destroyed is Death.”

Beloved, in this defiant hope, we commend our brother Fred to the keeping of the God who made him and who has called him to himself. In sure and certain expectation of that day when Death will be no more, neither sorrow nor crying, but life everlasting, we commend him to the Lord. In the midst of life—in the midst of our lives—may we ever carry the memory and the mission of Fred’s love for us, pointing us on to the Love of God made manifest in Jesus, and leading us to that time when God will indeed be all in all.

AMEN.

“Less of a theory, and more of a love affair.”

A Sermon for the Friday, June 13, 2014 gathering of Men on Fire at Christ Church Greenwich.

Text: Romans 5:1-11

As some of you may know, my life is a bit hectic at the present moment. That may or may not constitute an understatement. But the general chaos of the time was not exactly conducive to settling on a text and topic for our gathering today, and I found myself coming down to the wire without much of an idea of what I would say to you. So as I cast about in my mind what manner of sermon I should deliver this morning, I mined every possible resource for inspiration. Things got so dire that I eventually turned to that last refuge of the stumped preacher: the ecclesiastical calendar of the Episcopal Church. Truly, a sign of desperation. But I thought that maybe, just maybe, there might be some worthy saint or interesting figure being commemorated today, and perhaps that person’s life or writings could provide the spark I needed.

As it happens, Providence intervened. Imagine my surprise and delight when I learned that today is the feast of G.K. Chesterton. Now it should be mentioned that, as a convert from Unitarianism to Anglicanism, and then from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, Chesterton himself would probably feel more surprise than delight at being included in the calendar of the Episcopal Church. But nevertheless, I knew that I could depend on him for a jolt. He was a man who had an opinion and an insight about everything. His many books remain in print nearly eighty years after his death, and if you have never read anything of his, I encourage you to drop into the Christ Church Bookstore where several of Chesterton’s classic works can be found. Surely, I thought, in the enormous output of this enormous man (and he really was an enormous man—once, during World War I, a woman asked him why he was not “out at the Front,” and he replied, “Madam, if you go round to the side, you will see that I am.”) I would find some inspiration.

So it is that I happened upon the quip I have taken for my title today. The full quotation is, “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” “Less of a theory and more of a love affair.” I want to take some time exploring that idea with you this morning, especially in light of our wonderful reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

From the beginning, it helps to remember that Chesterton lived in a time when much of religion had become pretty purely theoretical. His were those great days of modern triumph straddling the turn of the twentieth century. Advances in science and technology had rendered the world more comprehensible, and more easily mastered. Progress in human affairs and civic life made hope for real change—real improvement in the lives of the poor, and the oppressed, and indeed all of humankind—seem possible. Breakthroughs in Biblical scholarship and new theological outlooks were making the world of religion more rational, more sensible, and less mystical. Old prejudices and superstitions were giving ground to new ideas and new possibilities. Especially in the days before the Great War, it was a time of optimism, of progress, of hope, and indeed of theories.

Consistent with the ethos of the era, talk of God—with all of its attendant theories and theologies—had become more important for many people than faith in God. Chesterton himself described in his autobiography the experience of giving a lecture to a village Ethical Society somewhere in provincial England. “The truth of the matter is,” he wrote “that these particular people never did believe or disbelieve in anything. They liked to go and hear stimulating lectures; and they had a vague preference, almost impossible to reduce to any definable thesis, for those lecturers who were supposed to be in some way heterodox or unconventional.” Surely we in Greenwich, Connecticut, can see the appeal in all this. Stimulating conversation, intellectual rigor and depth, all without the entanglements of commitment. To sample the buffet, but never to be bound to one dish. To weigh the merits and demerits of the theory without ever leaving one’s armchair.

But it was that in this context and to people such as these that Chesterton stood against the prevailing spirit of his age and issued the ultimate challenge: “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” From the safety of speculation and the comfort of cogitation—from the distance of dissection and the sterility of abstraction—Chesterton dared to summon his readers to all the risk, all the messiness, all the deadly danger and all the fearful uncertainty of love.

For love, real love, requires us to open ourselves to the full reality and possibility of another. Love requires us to leave behind our neat and tidy theories, to set aside our precious hypotheses, and to step into the experiment ourselves.

Perhaps for some of you here gathered, Chesterton’s challenge comes as a bracing and an unexpected clarion call. Perhaps for some of you, your religion has become something of a theory: something to think about, and talk about, and learn about, but not to live. Perhaps for some of you, your religion has always been a theory: always a dry movement of the mind and never a profound passion of the soul. In that case, my prayer this morning is that these words may strike like a lightning bolt through all the thick clouds of speculation and theory—of complacency and contentment. May this indeed be the day when thought about God gives way to faith—to trust—in God. May this be the day when theories give way to love.

But perhaps there are others of you for whom Chesterton’s words are nothing new. Whether you’ve heard them or not, perhaps some of you have been living into their sentiment for years. Perhaps there are some of you who resolved long ago to let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair. Perhaps there are some of you more closely attuned to the spirit of our own time.

After all, in the religious world today, theories and theologies are largely out. Experience is in. Ours is an era hungry for authentic faith—for authentic experience of God. Research shows that people of my generation and younger, though remarkably suspicious of denominations and doctrinal commitments, are at the same time remarkably open to spirituality and the experience of the divine. Women and men of faith today are readily and eagerly trading in the stuffy business of theories and thinking about God for the passionate, consuming quest to find, to know, and to love God. Religious people are slowly shedding our illusions of progress and our pretensions of perfection, and are beginning to live spiritual lives that are more practical, more incarnate, more profoundly authentic.

Even the Church—that crusty, cranky old institution—has begun to own up to some of her past faults and to embrace a new mentality focused not merely on “right thinking,” but also on “right doing.” The Church today has set herself to abandon the tired truisms of religious theory, and is instead embarking wholeheartedly on an effort to initiate a new love affair with God. Surely this is what our religion is meant to be? Surely we are now witnessing the triumph of the love affair over the theory? Surely, we have reached what might be dubbed the Chestertonian ideal?

Alas, beloved, on this Friday the 13th, the united voices of G.K. Chesterton and Paul the Apostle answer our hopeful questions with a resounding “No!” For in Scripture today, we find that the love affair of which Chesterton wrote is not the ceaseless human striving for the favor of some distant deity. Today we learn that our task is not—and can never be—to woo and win the affection of a coy, retiring God. Today, we have been given a vision of the love affair that our religion is and must be, and we find that the contemporary Church is no nearer to it with our emergences and our authenticities than the Church of ages past was with its theories and theologies.

For today, in Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, we have been given a glimpse of a faith that is neither theory, nor quest—neither thoughtful musing, nor mystical seeking—neither pondering, nor practice, nor anything else that we can do or try or achieve for ourselves.

Hear again the chief words of our passage this morning: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” This is the profound passion at the root of our religion! Here is the consuming quest at the heart of our faith! The love affair to which Chesterton calls us—the love affair which Paul describes to us—is not a love affair we launch. Rather, what we find today is that we have been called into a love affair begun by the Lord of heaven and earth. This is the love affair that cuts through all our theories and thinking. This is the love affair we could never initiate through our own practices and patterns. For what Paul describes to us today is a love affair initiated and accomplished by God. As Scripture puts it elsewhere, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us.”

This is a great and mighty wonder, but there is a greater wonder still to behold. For what Paul makes so clear today is that the love affair into which our God draws us is not a love affair that begins with our perfection or even with our efforts to perfect ourselves. Rather, it is a love affair that begins in the absolute depths of our need. As Paul jokingly notes, “Rarely will one die for a righteous person—though for a good person someone might actually dare to die.” How rare, how unlikely it is, says Paul, for someone to risk his or her life for even a good and decent person. Even that, though it would make sense, would be remarkable. “But God proves his love for us” (“God commendeth his love for us,” as the King James Version puts it) in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

The startling truth at the center of this love affair, then, is that God began it when we were unlovely. God did not wait for us to theorize our way to perfection, and he did not wait for us to find new and better ways to seek him. For the truth, dear people of God, is that towering over and above all of our affections and our flirtations; over all of our seeking and our striving; over all of our earning and our yearning is the Cross of Christ Jesus.

The Cross is the announcement, the startling declaration, of a love that can never be earned or outdone—of a love that can never even be matched, but that can only be received and returned. The Cross is the great sign of God’s utter devotion to the unworthy; of God’s absolute care for the careless, of God’s complete concern for the indifferent, of God’s supreme love for the unlovable. Standing beneath the Cross, all of our religious theories crumble to dust. Kneeling before the Cross, all of our spiritual sentiments dissipate into the ether. Lifting our eyes and our hearts to behold the Cross, we see beyond our tired speculations and our too-eager efforts, and we glimpse instead the breathtaking grace of God rushing to meet us in our weakness.

And so, beloved, let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair, because you have been caught up into the great love story of the cosmos. Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair because the measure of your religion is not the poor service you render nor the faithless faults you fear, but rather the loving care of the God who became a servant for your sake—of the Lord who bore our faults when we were lost and fallen. Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair because you have been called “beloved” by Love himself. Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair, because God’s love has been poured into your heart through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair, because you have been embraced by those arms of love which were stretched out upon the hard wood of the Cross.

God grant that we may live and die in the grip of the Love that will never let us go. God grant that we may abide forever in the great love affair of God.

AMEN.

What’s Church for?

A Sermon Preached on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 25, 2014

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

Texts: I Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

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

“Americans lie about how much they go to church.” So read a headline in this week’s Washington Post. The New York Times was a bit more circumspect: their headline simply stated “Americans Claim to Attend Church Much More Than They Do.” But both those stories—and many others in newspapers around the country—pointed to the same study, released last week, that noted something very interesting about the way Americans talk about their church attendance. In a survey conducted through live telephone conversations and self-administered online questionnaires, researchers found that Americans significantly exaggerated their level of religious participation when talking to another person than they did when answering a survey anonymously. This tendency was consistent across social, ethnic, and denominational boundaries, and was even true for the “nones”—that growing group of the American populace who claim no religious affiliation at all.

Now we all know what Mark Twain said about lies and statistics, and I’m not at all interested in spending the morning dissecting with you the most recent results of religious research. What I am interested in, however, is asking the question, “Why?” Why would people lie to complete strangers about the frequency of their church attendance? Why would folks exaggerate the regularity of their religious participation? Why, in our age of diminished denominations and increasingly irreligious popular culture, would people fib about their Sunday morning habits?

The answer, I think, lies in the meaning we attach to going to church. Even in a society rapidly shedding the trappings of Christendom, churchgoing remains a mark of a good, upstanding, decent, moral person. Now I say this neither to flatter all of you who are here in church on a Sunday morning nor to congratulate myself for choosing a career in the Church. Rather, what I mean to say is that even in a time when so many Americans are skeptical about the purpose and value of organized religion, the idea of going to church remains one of the markers of the kind of person most of us aspire to be. Church attendance is another box to check off on our long mental list of good behavior and respectability. And who among us doesn’t want to be considered decent and respectable? Who among us doesn’t want to win the admiration of our peers, the trust of our colleagues, and the love of our families? Who among us doesn’t want to be counted  a good man or woman? So if going to church is one of the ways to “get good,” well then why not go—or at least claim to go?

That desire to be counted good is so strong and so pervasive that it colors not only our perception of going to church, but even our reading of Scripture. Our lessons this morning are, in fact, very often interpreted along the same lines of the perceived benefits of churchgoing: as exhortations to goodness; as instruction manuals for earning the love of God. The drive to be counted good leaps at the words from First Peter as the Apostle urges his hearers to “Keep [their] conscience clear,” and to rejoice when they suffer for their “good conduct in Christ.” The desire to be counted good seizes upon our passage from John’s Gospel, and leads us to read Jesus’ words as if they were the procedure for a transaction: “If you love me”—and that “if” lands on our eager-to-justify ears with all the force of a loophole or a limited-time offer—“If you love me, keep my commandments.” “If you want to prove you’re mine,” Jesus seems to say, “then follow my rules.” It’s as if we hear our Scripture today affirming what some deep whisper in our world has already taught us: “Come to church, be a good person, and God will love you.” Our drive to be thought of as good—our desire to be counted decent, moral, and upstanding by other people—is so strong that this formula has enormous appeal. And why not? For who among us doesn’t want to be counted good?

But the problem with all this way of thinking, beloved, is that it doesn’t work. After all, consider that the respondents to the church attendance study weren’t actually going to church: the desire to be counted good was strong enough to make them lie to strangers, but not strong enough to make them go on a Sunday morning. But what if they had gone? Consider what we know of the Church’s own checkered history: the pervasive sins of pride and arrogance, of uncharity and the love of this world and its trappings, that show their firm grip in every corner of the Christian world, and have caused thousands to turn away in disgust from an institution so profoundly incapable of keeping the commandments we claim. Or consider, dear people, ourselves. Here we are all assembled: the people who actually do come to church on a Sunday morning. Do we dare count ourselves better than our friends and neighbors driving by those doors on the Post Road? Do we presume to commend ourselves for our righteous behavior and our abundant generosity? Do we honestly think that whatever goodness that may accrue to us in the eyes of other people because of our churchgoing is something true and authentic and deep in our being?

Perhaps some of you can answer “yes” to those questions. I confess that I cannot. Coming to church week in and week out does not confirm me in my goodness: it convicts me in my hypocrisy. To stand in this pulpit when it is my privilege to preach to you does not inspire me with morality and authority; it fills me with trepidation and anxiety that I shall be exposed, and revealed, and shown to be what I really am: a poor sinner, whose own human desire to be counted good is constantly and continually overwhelmed by appetites and passions, by rash words and unguarded thoughts, by gloomy doubts and faithless fears. To preside at that altar as we offer our thanks to Almighty God and receive the transforming gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood at his hands does not sate and satisfy my deep hunger for goodness: it reminds me, each and every time, how far my own weak love is from the deep love that is here remembered, enacted, and shared.

But what if, all along, we have been operating under a false notion of what churchgoing is all about? What if the point of coming to church is not, in fact, to be counted good in the eyes of other people? What if the purpose of gathering on a Sunday morning were not, indeed, one ceaseless effort to earn the love of God?

Beloved, hear again the words of the Apostle Peter this morning: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” This is no exhortation to goodness—no appeal to a squeaky clean conscience. This is the announcement that Christ Jesus our Lord—the One who was counted good not simply in the eyes of fellow humans but in the eternal reckoning of God the Father—suffered and died not for the sake of the decent, and the moral, and the upstanding, and the good people of this world, but for the unrighteous: for the folks who don’t come to church each week, and the folks who do come, but who come with fear and trembling, knowing the depth of their lowliness and the gnawing power of their need: for you, and for me.

That astonishing announcement flashes out of the waters of baptism, to which we will come shortly. This little baby does not know what will soon befall him. He has not come here seeking it, and there is nothing he can do to earn it. But what we see at work at this font today is not the human drive to achieve goodness, but God’s unending purpose to draw us to himself. What we see in this font today is not the pretension of perfection but the grace of transformation; not the love of God earned but the love of God poured out abundantly, freely, prodigally, graciously.

And this is the true meaning of the love proclaimed to us by Jesus in John’s Gospel this morning. Banish from your minds and hearts any effort to turn our Lord’s words into a checklist or a condition for earning God’s favor. For what is the new commandment that he has given to us his people? We hear it in the chapter immediately preceding today’s reading: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

“As I have loved you.” This is the key. For how has he loved us? Behold, dear people, the Cross! Jesus’ new commandment and the words he speaks this morning echo down to us from the night before he suffered and died. The Cross is our measuring stick and our signpost for the love of God. The Cross is the supreme and eternal answer to the question, “How has he loved us?” The Cross is our banner and our marching orders.

And in the light of the Cross, we see that Jesus’ words to us today are not a condition for earning his love, but a description of the transforming power of his love poured out for us on Calvary. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” he says, knowing that whatever love we bear for him come from him and carries us back to him, the source and summit of all love. For not only does the Cross announce to us God’s great love for the ungodly—God’s willingness that the righteous should die to save the unrighteous—but this day we learn that in and through that love, you and I are being caught up into the very life of God: lifted by the gift of the Holy Spirit into the abiding love of the Father and the Son, for “on that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

This, at last, is what Church is for, beloved. We come, not as upstanding people confirmed in our decency, but as wandering sinners transformed by his love. We come, not that friends and neighbors may extol our goodness, but that we might sing our grateful praise of the righteous One who died for the unrighteous. We come, not because we are seeking God, or even because we have found him, but because we were sought out and found by Christ Jesus. We come, because he calls.

AMEN.