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: Luke

“I choose you!”

raisingthewidowsson

(“Jesus raising the youth of Nain” from the Evangeliar Ottos III, circa 1000 A.D.)

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 5, 2016

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

Texts: Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

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

Well the great season of decision is over!

Obviously I’m not talking about the election, which promises to continue to grind away at our faith in American democracy for months to come.

No, the season of decisions and choices that I’m talking about had mostly to do with our graduating high school seniors. After years of work, months of writing applications and compiling resumes, and weeks of waiting for acceptance letters, the time to decide finally came just a few months ago.

Would it be Wofford, Clemson, or Carolina? Sewanee or Stanford? Davidson or “Dubyuhnell”? Harvard or Yale? Of course, in those last two comparisons the correct choices are BEYOND OBVIOUS. But even sure and certain knowledge didn’t lessen the difficulty of deciding!

Now those of us who are of riper years know that the decisions of whether and where to go to college are neither the last nor the most important choices that a person will make. We know well what our young people are just learning: that life is an endless succession of choices. And all of us, young and old together, know from experience the undeniable truth that in our culture, choosing is cherished.

Look at the enormous variety of shops and restaurants in Five Points, or the Vista, or at Sandhills. Consider the bright, gleaming aisles of Whole Foods, or Publix, or Bi-Lo. All the cheerful variety and frenzied advertising of American life serves to prop-up and reinforce the same basic notion: to choose is to have power. To choose is to be in control. To choose is to be free.

This common devotion to choosing and choices was on my mind this week as I reflected on today’s Scripture lessons. I want to focus our attention on two stories. The first is from St Paul’s miniature autobiography found in the first chapter of his Letter to the Galatians. The second is an episode from Jesus’ earthly ministry recorded in the seventh chapter of St Luke’s Gospel.

Both of these stories describe the transformative power of an encounter with Jesus. Both speak of the unexpected, un-hoped for ways that God can change a life, or indeed restore a life. And both of these stories are utterly devoid of any suggestion of choice.

Did you catch that?

Look again at our Gospel passage. Look at who speaks in our lesson. So often, the healing stories of Jesus seem to happen because someone makes a choice. Someone chooses to reach out to touch him. Someone’s friends pull up the roof over Jesus’ head, and lower a sick man down in front of him. Someone in the crowd cries out: “Lord, heal my son!” “Master, save my daughter!” “Teacher, let me see again!”

But in our Gospel this morning, there are no questions. There are no requests. There is no pleading in this brief passage. There are no options here–no choices given.

Jesus, coming up to a city called Nain, looks and sees the suffering of a mother who has lost her only son. Jesus looks and sees the desperation of a widow who has lost her only hope for survival. Jesus looks and see the hopelessness of a woman for whom all choices, all options, all earthly possibilities now point only to degradation, and darkness, and death.

And looking upon her, Jesus has compassion for her. “Do not weep,” he says. He doesn’t ask, “What would have you me do for you?” He doesn’t ask, “Do you wish for me to help you?” He doesn’t even ask, as he does with Mary and Martha when he raises their brother Lazarus, “Do you believe in me?” He says simply, “Do not weep,” and he reaches out to stop the funeral procession. Life Incarnate steps suddenly into the path that leads to the grave, and the son of God commands the widow’s son: “Young man, I say to you, rise!”

No questions waiting for an answer. No options to decide between. No choices at all.

Just the power of God to bring hope to the hopeless; to bring wholeness to the broken; to bring life to the dead; to make a way where all human wisdom and every human wish could find no way at all. Just the voice of Jesus saying to the dead man, “I choose you to be a sign of my power over death.” And Luke tells us that the people there present gave glory to God for what Jesus had done.

Now on the surface, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians seems to be all about choices. The Christians of Galatia were believers living in central Turkey. They were Gentiles–folks to whom Paul preached on one of his extensive missionary journeys around the Mediterranean world. From what he writes, it seems that the Galatians received his initial announcement of the Good News with joy and great excitement.

But in Paul’s absence, the Galatian Christians ran into some difficulties. Another group of teachers and preachers cam along, and the began to tweak the terms of Paul’s original message. These new teachers placed before the Galatians a stark choice: either the Gentile believers had to undergo circumcision and accept all the dictates of the Jewish law, or they could no longer claim to be followers of Jesus, the anointed savior of the Jewish people.

The Galatian Christians were distraught and confused. Must they really choose to become Jews before they could become Christians? Must they really first decide to be disciples of Moses before they can decide to be disciples of Jesus?

Paul addresses the Galatians’ difficult choice in an unexpected way. He doesn’t attack the Law of Moses. He doesn’t tear down the Jewish traditions. Instead, he tells them his own story. He writes, “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the Gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Now consider for a moment what the Apostle is saying here. Saul of Tarsus had been a zealot. Saul had been a fanatic. Saul had been a violent persecutor of the Church, and a devout follower of all the traditions of his ancestors. He knows every jot and tittle of the same Law that the Galatians are now being told to obey.

What could so thoroughly transform someone like Paul? What could make him decide to leave all that long legacy behind him? What could make him choose to begin to build up the very thing that he once tried to tear down?

Paul’s answer to that question is simple: he didn’t choose it. God chose him. God, in his providence, set Paul apart “before [he] was born, and called [him] through grace.”

The Risen Jesus, appearing before Saul on the road to Damascus, looked and saw a man made blind by his hatred. The Risen Jesus looked and saw a man puffed up by his own zeal. The Risen Jesus looked and saw a man consumed by his passions and certain in his own choice–his own decision to destroy the Church of God.

And the Risen Jesus looked and saw beneath and behind and in spite of all that, a vessel God had chosen–a tool God had set apart–for the building up of his Church. And so the Risen Jesus, looking upon Saul, claimed him, called him, chose him.

No questions waiting for Saul’s answer. No options for Saul to decide between. No choices at all.

Just the power of God to bring light into darkness; to bring holiness out of hatred; to give power where once there was only pride; to make a way when all human wisdom and every human wish sought to take another way–to choose a different, darker path. Just the voice of Jesus saying to Saul, “I choose you, to become my servant Paul–a sign of my power to change lives, and a servant of my Gospel.” And Paul tells us that when the churches of Judea heard of his transformation they gave all glory to God for what Jesus had done.

Beloved, today in Scripture we have heard a great and troubling challenge to our culture’s cherished notions of choice. Today, in spite of all the external voices calling us to consume and all the internal anxieties driving us to decide–in spite of all the false gods of commerce and culture commanding us to choose–the Word of God confronts us with a startling paradox: true freedom comes not in choosing, but in being chosen.

That’s the meaning of grace. That’s the great challenge and the great promise of our Scripture today. That’s the great challenge and the great promise of the Gospel at all times. For the Good News is that our God has not abandoned us to an endless array of choices. But he has chosen us.

In the birth of Jesus Christ, God looked upon a lost and broken creation and declared, “I choose you!” In the life and ministry of Jesus our Lord, God walked amidst hopeless, helpless, desperate humanity and announced, “I choose you!” In the death of Jesus on the Cross of Calvary, God himself was lifted high in self-giving love over a dead and dying word and proclaimed, “I choose you!” And in the shattered darkness of the empty tomb, standing over the broken gates of Hell, free forever from the bonds of Death, God himself calls a new creation into being and declares again, “I choose you!”

“I choose you!” says the Holy Spirit of God in every baptism and confirmation. “I choose you to be my own forever: washed, renewed, restored, and sealed.”

“I choose you!” says Jesus our great High Priest in every celebration of the Holy Eucharist. “I choose you to draw near with you emptiness, to draw near with your hunger, to draw near with your hands and hearts uplifted, and to receive from my fullness, to eat from my table, to be knit to me forever.”

“I choose you!” says God our Father, as we are sent back out into the world. “I choose you to be my adopted daughters and sons; my children of grace and favor; my new creation born of my own perfect will–bought with the blood of my Son, and alive by the breath of my Holy Spirit. I choose you to go into my world as restorers: to rule and serve all my creatures; to raise up the things that have been cast down; to renew the things that have grown old; to proclaim and announce that I am bringing all things to perfection by him through whom all things were made. I choose you!”

No questions. No options. No choices. Just the power of God to make men and women like you and like me into his sons and daughters. Just the voice of Jesus calling to each of us. “I choose you to be mine, forever.” And as it was long ago, so may it be today: that all who hear this word give all glory to God for what Jesus has done.

AMEN.

Advertisements

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Man of Sorrows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

AMEN.

“According to thy word…”

Last February, it was my honor to accept the invitation of the Rev’d Karl Griswold-Kuhn, my dear friend and seminary classmate, to be the guest preacher at Solemn Evensong and Benediction for the Feast of Candlemas.

St Paul’s Church, Kinderhook, New York, is a warm, faithful congregation on fire with the Gospel and committed to sharing the Good News in the Hudson Valley and beyond. My family and I have always found it a place of joy and refreshment. It was a special delight to hear Evensong sung by the talented boys of the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys from The Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, and to preach to a full church (on a Saturday night!) for this holy feast.

A Sermon Preached on the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (Candlemas), February 2, 2013, at St Paul’s Church, Kinderhook, New York

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

Texts: Malachi 3:1-5; Luke 2:22-40

“Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word…”

In the name of Almighty God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

It is an honor and a joy to be with you at St Paul’s Church as we keep the holy feast of Candlemas. Of all the great days in the sacred year of the Church, few are so rich with stirring imagery, and no others are so intimately associated with one of the great hymns of the faith.

For centuries now, the holy words of holy Simeon—“Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”—have marked the close of day for Christians around the world. Whether in the uniquely Anglican glories of choral Evensong, sung so beautifully this evening in this place, or in the contemplative offering of cloistered Compline, or in the solitary murmur of said Evening Prayer, this song—the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis—is how the Church says “good night.” And so it is fitting that we have gathered this Candlemas evening to keep this feast with its appointed rites: with the solemn blessing of candles, with hymns in praise of the light of God revealed in Christ Jesus, and with the reading of Scripture’s record of that first Nunc Dimittis.

Yet it seems to me that there is a risk for us as we keep this feast; as we remember that holy meeting of Mary, and Joseph, and the baby Jesus, with the aged Simeon in the Temple at Jerusalem. The image of the encounter itself is so dramatic, so filled with joy and hope and promise, that we might almost forget its significance. The words of Simeon’s song of praise are so well known—we have become so accustomed to giving thanks that his old eyes “have seen [God’s] salvation, which [he] has prepared before the face of all people”—that we risk letting them wash over us without hearing them. And yet if we allow the beauty of the scene, and the thankful, poetic words, and the candles, and the incense, and the choir, and the music, all dominate our focus, we are in danger of missing the best part of Simeon’s song and the great truth proclaimed in this feast. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,” sings the old man, and our hearts are gladdened by his pious hope for holy rest. But the most important words are the four that follow: “according to thy word.”

“According to thy word.”  All that we remember this night; all that we celebrate and give thanks for and rejoice in; all the great glory and wonder of Candlemas; it all comes down to that phrase: “according to thy word.” Those words are the key to understanding this feast, and indeed it might be said that they are the key to understanding and living the Christian faith.

You see, when Simeon asks to depart in peace “according to [God’s] word,” he makes an extraordinary proclamation. First, he announces that God makes promises: that God is living and active in the world. Second, and even better, Simeon’s song proclaims that the God who makes promises also keeps those promises. Those four words declare that the God whom Simeon serves, the God whom Simeon has worshipped and adored these long years, is faithful. The God who gave the Law, whose holy commandment calls Mary and Joseph to present their precious baby boy in the Temple, is true. The God whom Anna praises for the edification of all those awaiting his salvation is steadfast. The God whom Malachi prophesied “will suddenly come into his Temple” is trustworthy. The God who promised through every prophet, in every time, and by the very Law that he gave, that he would come and save his people from their sin: that God is faithful.

Tonight, we rejoice with Simeon that God keeps his promises: that he has accomplished all that has been foretold, according to his word. Indeed, he has accomplished all that has been foretold in and through his Word: the Word of God made flesh, Jesus our Lord. And with our hearts set on that promise, with our ears tingling with Simeon’s wondrous praise “according to thy word,” we begin to see this feast aright. This is a feast of the faithful God; of the God who keeps his promises; of the God who acts in this world “according to [his] word.”

And yet there is even more to celebrate in this feast. This night declares to us God’s great faithfulness, but it declares something else, too. In this feast of Candlemas, in that phrase “according to thy word,” we see that the God who is faithful is also surprising, mysterious, and sovereign. In the tenderness of this scene, in the fragility of the baby, in the decrepitude of Simeon and Anna, in the amazement of Mary and Joseph, we are reminded that God is faithful to his word—but not to our expectations.

God does not come to his Temple in power and might, in glory and majesty. But still he comes, in the weakness and vulnerability of human flesh—according to his word. Simeon does not look upon the Messiah with the eyes of a young man: vigorous, eager, ready to follow him and aid him and serve him as a disciple. But still his eyes, aged and worn out with waiting, behold the Christ—according to God’s word. Mary and Joseph do not understand all that has been promised of this child. But still they are obedient, even as they marvel at the dark and wondrous words here spoken, carrying out their place in God’s plan—according to God’s word. The God who has promised salvation to his people and who brings light to the whole world will not act according to the expectations of disciples, or Pharisees, or chief priests, or scribes. But still, as he announces Good News to the poor, as he heals the sick, as he forgives the sinful, as he drives out the demons, as he cleanses that very Temple, as he climbs the hill of Calvary, and as he dies upon the cross of shame: still, in all this, God acts—according to his word. And finally on the Day of Resurrection, on the Day of his triumph over the powers of Sin and Death, he shows himself faithful—according to his word.

Dear friends, we need the message of Candlemas. We need to hear again the proclamation that God is faithful—that God keeps his promises, that God acts according to his word. We need, as well, the reminder that God’s ways are not our ways: that his actions will not always conform to our expectations: that he is faithful—abundantly, eternally faithful—not to what we desire in our ignorance, nor deserve in our sinfulness, but to what he has promised in his holiness. Candlemas holds before us our faithful, surprising God. This feast bids us, with Simeon, to look upon him, to gaze upon him in the person of Jesus Christ, and to glimpse him at work in this world and in our souls by the power of the Holy Spirit. This night calls us to hold him in our hearts just as Simeon held him in his arms, and to follow where he leads, though the course be unexpected and the way unknown.

Beloved people of God, may our praise this night and always be of our faithful, surprising God. May the obedience of Mary and Joseph shape our lives. May the unexpected, unlikely gift of Jesus, the Word of God in human flesh, enlighten our darkened hearts. May we who have worshipped the faithful God this evening, and who have looked with the eyes of faith on the promised Savior of the world, go forth from this place with the words of Simeon on our lips: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, to be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”

AMEN.