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: Paul

“Welcome” and the Word of God

This is the first sermon I preached in my new position as Canon for Adult Christian Formation at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina.

My family and I have enjoyed such a warm and gracious welcome at Trinity, and I am excited and energized for the work that God has given me to do!

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 29, 2014

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

Texts: Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

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

“Welcome” is the watchword in our Gospel passage this morning, and I am very glad for it. “Welcome” has been the watchword of the week for me and my family as we continue to settle into our new home here in South Carolina. We have been embraced by the Trinity community–embraced by our new friends and neighbors in Columbia–embraced by new colleagues and partners on staff here at the Cathedral.

We have even been welcomed by the climate here in Columbia. Now summer here is a little different from summer in Connecticut, that’s true. But as a native Floridian, I will say that nothing makes me feel more at home than the unmistakable embrace of humidity as I step out my front door. With that warm blanket wrapped about us, I feel as though nature itself were adding to the wonderful welcome we have received.

So for the innumerable ways we have been so kindly welcomed my family and I thank you, and we give thanks and glory to the God who has called us to worship and learn and serve him together with you in this place.

With the welcome my family and I have received very gratefully in mind, I’d like to talk this morning about the welcome and embrace we hear described in our Scripture today. I do not mean the welcome you might expect. We have heard about welcome and embrace from our Gospel lesson, and our first instinct is to read those words of Jesus as either an exhortation or a commendation–either a command for us to be more welcoming or a congratulatory comment on the ways in which we have been welcoming already. In other words, the danger we face is that we will read this passage as if it were all about us. (To tell the truth, that is a danger we face whenever we open the Bible, but that’s another sermon for another day.)

But on this day, God rescues us from the constant threat of our self-centered interpretations by the power of his Living Word informing and interpreting itself. In order that we might understand aright the welcome and embrace our Lord Jesus describes in the Gospel, we find the Apostle Paul rushing to our aid through his mighty Epistle to the Romans.

You see, this morning Paul tells us of a very different welcome than the one we hear about in the Gospel. Paul tells us that the human race has been held in a very different kind of embrace than the one Jesus describes.

It is the embrace we speak of whenever we baptize a new Christian and ask that person to renounce “all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.” It is the embrace we see at work in the world around us, the embrace “which corrupts and destroys the creatures of God.” It is the embrace that we have known within us—the tight embrace of our own interests, our own needs, our own selves against all others—the self-embrace that turns inward and cannot focus on the hopes and fears and joys and sorrows of other people.

What Paul dares to declare to the faithful gathered in Rome in the first century and to the faithful gathered in Columbia in the twenty-first century is that we human beings have embraced–and have been embraced by–powers and principalities that oppose the will of God in our lives and in our world.

Paul himself uses the disquieting language of being “slaves to sin,” but we must not let that unsettling image distract us from his meaning. What he means is that the tight embrace in which we are held is one we cannot break—one we cannot escape by ourselves. For Paul, we are men and women held in the iron embrace of Sin; we are people bound in fear of the final welcome of Death.

“But thanks be to God,” the story does not end there. “But thanks be to God,” we have been caught up into a different embrace. “But thanks be to God,” we have not been left worrying and waiting for Death’s dread welcome. “But thanks be to God,” says Paul, “that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of the teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”

In these verses, the great Good News of what God has done rushes to greet us. “Thanks be to God,” you and I have been wrapped in a new embrace. “Thanks be to God,” you and I have been granted a new welcome. “Thanks be to God,” says Paul, you and I have received mercy instead of condemnation; you and I are being sanctified instead of being censured; you and I have been brought from the false freedom of following our own devices and desires, and have come instead into the true liberty of God’s faithful service.

Beloved, this is the context for Jesus’ words about welcome this morning. This is the context for all our own work and witness of welcoming today. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” says Jesus, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Though we are people who, by nature, were found clapped and bound in a strong and terrible embrace—”Thanks be to God,” now Christ has embraced us! Though we once knew only the mocking welcome of the powers and principalities of this world—”Thanks be to God,” now Christ has welcomed us! Though we once faced only rejection from a holy God—”Thanks be to God,” now by his grace this same God has received us into his very household, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.

In the person of Jesus our Brother, God has rushed to our aid. In the work of Jesus our Savior, God has stooped to lift us up. In the Resurrection of Jesus our Lord, God has welcomed us as saints and citizens of his Kingdom—God has claimed us as sons and daughters and fellow-heirs with Christ—God whom we could not find our own has come to find us.

That is the welcome we have received. That is the embrace we are now called to extend. For God now sends us forth with the announcement of what he has done. He sends us to proclaim to all the world the promise of perfect freedom found in his service. We welcome others not because we are good and righteous and holy and perfect ourselves, but because the good and righteous and holy and perfect God has first welcomed us. We embrace those whom God give us not because we have all the answers or can heal all their wounds, but because our Lord Jesus Christ stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the Cross that he might draw all the world into his saving embrace.

As I begin my ministry among you with joy and thanksgiving, my prayer is that God will grant us grace so to live in his welcome that we might welcome all those whom he draws near. My prayer is that God will grant us strength so to proclaim in word and deed the freedom Christ has won for us that our lives would lead others to the saving embrace of his Cross. My prayer is that God will grant us courage, through all the changes and chances of this life, to rest in his free gift to us, which is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

“Thanks be to God.” AMEN.

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“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.

St Paul, Dr Donne, and “Relatable Preaching”

Preachers get a lot of pressure to be “relatable.” “Folks have to be able to hear your message,” is a common refrain. By that, people usually mean you need to be approachable in style, relevant in allusions and illustrations, and sensitive to your context. Practically speaking, the idea is that if you open with a joke, tell a good story, and put people at ease, then they’ll be better inclined to hear what you have to say about Scripture.

(Of course, some folks may not mean this at all when they talk about “relatable preaching”, and I hope they will correct my error. I offer the preceding summary of “relatable preaching” because I have heard many people define the phrase in that way, and also because that’s how I myself once used it, and thought about it, and strove for it—though I wonder whether the good people at St Paul’s Church in Wallingford, Connecticut, who endured my earliest sermons, would believe that I was actually trying to be relatable…)

The basic principle is sound, and obvious. It would do no good for a preacher to stand up in a pulpit and preach in a language totally foreign to his congregation—what Article XXIV calls “a tongue not understanded of the people.” Neither should a preacher throw up unnecessary barriers for the comprehension of her listeners through the choice of arcane or obscure topics, stylistic affectations, or ponderous diction. Overwrought prose and overreaching concepts are both equally unhelpful.

But if the principle is solid, the practice of “relatable preaching” is often disastrous. In the name of being relatable, I have heard preachers disembowel their sermons—gutting anything that might make a potential listener feel uncomfortable, or confused, or bad about him or herself. In the name of being relatable, I have seen preachers and worship leaders reduced to pandering, preening showmen, trying too hard to be contemporary and hip. In the absolute worst cases, I have seen the desire to be heard (with its attendant distractions and gimmicks) completely overwhelm the message that needs to be heard.

The whole problem springs from a paradox at the very heart of the preacher’s practice and purpose: preachers must speak in a way that can be understood—but we come bearing News too great ever to be understood in its fullness, at least on this side of the eschaton. Our business is to point people to a brightness too great to behold; to tune the hearts of our congregation to a music too high for humankind; “to scrute the inscrutable, and to eff the ineffable,” as I once heard someone rather sillily say it.

Remembering that crucial (!) paradox, I have become convinced that the preacher’s primary focus can never be the vain effort to relate. Instead, he or she must seek simply to proclaim.

Paul’s description of his preaching in I Corinthians 1 and 2 profoundly shapes my thinking on these matters. To a community yearning for eloquence, words of wisdom, and entertaining speech—the “relatable preaching” of an earlier age—Paul says bluntly: “[Christ sent me] to proclaim the Gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (I Corinthians 1:17). 

The Cross is not relatable. It’s not meant to make perfect sense. In fact, “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Cor 1:18). Paul didn’t come to Corinth trying to speak in a way “that could be heard.” He didn’t want to be “relatable.” He came with an announcement—a proclamation. He knew it would get him into trouble. He knew it would earn the ire of some, the contempt of others, and the derisive laughter of many more.

And that was the point. Paul’s message came like a thunderbolt to the places he preached. He could not control or corral the reactions of his hearers. His task was instead to be faithful in proclaiming, and then to trust that the Holy Spirit would be active in the hearts of his listeners. And so in I Corinthians 2:4-5, he writes “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”

All of these thoughts on preaching and proclamation came to me again a few nights ago as I was reading a sermon by John Donne. (I recently received a copy of Volume III of the new Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne. Volume III is the first to be printed in this edition, and it includes all the sermons that Donne preached before the court of King Charles I. It’s wonderful reading, and makes me very excited for the publication of additional volumes—more than twelve are planned!)

On April 1, 1627, Donne preached before Charles at the Palace of Whitehall. His text was Mark 4:24, “Take heed what you hear.” William Laud had just been appointed Dean of the Chapel Royal in September 1626, and a renewed emphasis on ritual and liturgy threatened to dethrone preaching from its central place in reformed English worship. Within that context, Donne’s sermon was a bold, extended defense of the work and witness of preaching. (The sermon was highly controversial at the time, and apparently even resulted in Donne being investigated by Laud. Nothing ultimately came of that investigation. I am indebted to David Colclough’s fine “Introduction” to Volume III for this background information.)

The whole sermon is excellent, but two passages stood out to me in connection with the topic of “relatable preaching.” The first is about God’s decision to proclaim and announce himself through the ministry of preachers:

And for Publication of himselfe here, by the way, [God] hath constituted a Church, in a Visibility, in an eminency, as a City upon a hill; And in this Church, his Ordinance is Ordinance indeed; his Ordinance of preaching batters the soule, and by that breach, the Spirit enters; His Ministers are an Earth-quake, and shake an earthly soule; They are the sonnes of thunder and scatter a cloudy conscience; They are as the fall of waters and carry with them whole Congregations; 3000 at a Sermon, 5000 at a Sermon, a whole City, such a City as Niniveh at a Sermon; and they are as the roaring of a Lion, where the lion of the tribe of Juda, cries down the Lion that seekes whom he may devour; that is, Orthodoxall and fundamentall truths, are established against clamorous and vociferant innovations. Therefore what Christ tels us in the darke, he bids us speake in the light; and what he saies in our eare, he bids us preach on the house top.

Donne’s confidence in the power and importance of preaching (and preachers) is extraordinary. Consider the wonderful pun on “Ordinance.” In a basic sense, Donne refers to God’s command to the preacher to preach. But he also uses a secondary meaning of the word “ordinance” (shortened in later years to “ordnance”), meaning “cannon” or “weapon.” Preaching carried out according to God’s command (ordinance) is in fact God’s artillery (ordnance) against the rebellious defenses of the soul. The preacher’s bombardment opens a breach in the wall, and through that breach the Spirit enters. (The image evokes Donne’s famous poem “Batter my heart, three person’d God.”)

For Donne, preachers are earthquakes, thunderstorms, floods, and roaring lions. To preach is to become a force of nature: a tool in the Lord’s hand. The question here is not “Am I relatable?” but “Am I faithful?”: faithful to the ordinance—the command—of God; faithful to the message of Christ, for “what Christ tels us in the darke, he bids us speake in the light; and what he saies in our eare, he bids us preach on the house top.”

And faithfulness to that command, that message, matters infinitely more than concerns about reception. We can, as God gives us grace, proclaim the message he has implanted in our hearts. We can never, by any power within ourselves, control the way people respond to our message.

Donne himself makes this point brilliantly just a little later in the same sermon. Arguing against “Corner Divinity”—preaching or teaching specially suited to certain tastes and not proclaimed boldly to all—Donne declares,

So the Apostles proceeded; when they came in their peregrination, to a new State, to a new Court, to Rome it selfe, they did not enquire, how stands the Emperour affected to Christ, and to the preaching of his Gospel; Is there not a Sister, or a Wife that might be wrought upon to further the preaching of Christ? Are there not some persons, great in power and place, that might be content to hold a party together, by admitting the preaching of Christ? This was not their way; They only considered who sent them; Christ Jesus: And what they brought; salvation to every soul that embraced Christ Jesus. That they preached; and still begunne with a Vae si non; Never tell us of displeasure, or disgrace, or detriment, or death, for preaching of Christ. For woe be unto us, if we preach him not.

I love the sarcasm in this passage! The image of Paul or Peter scuttling into town and doing some reconnaissance, trying to determine whether the Emperor might be open to a little preaching…or whether there might be a sympathetic female in the household who could grease the wheels for them. Donne plays upon and encourages the misogyny of his age through his mention of “a Sister, or a Wife.” We can imagine derisive chuckles rising from his congregation at the notion that the disciples would use a woman as an inroad into imperial favor. (Never mind the very real influence that women did indeed wield at court.)

But notice how Donne then immediately turns to confront and skewer the pretensions of his own audience. There in the Chapel Royal, he dismisses the influence of “some persons, great in power and place, that might be content to hold a party together, by admitting the preaching of Christ.” He tells the assembled courtiers—and the king himself—that the apostolic preaching was never meant to be a mere cog in a vast political machine: a means of currying and keeping favor. The proclamation of Christ is not a useful tool for princes and politicians. God is no respecter of persons, seeking out the influential and the important to accomplish his purposes. Neither do his commissioned messengers tailor their message to the ulterior motives of their hearers.

Instead, they proclaim. “[The Apostles] only considered who sent them; Christ Jesus: And what they brought; salvation to every soul that embraced Christ Jesus. That they preached; and still begunne with a Vae si non; Never tell us of displeasure, or disgrace, or detriment, or death, for preaching of Christ. For woe be unto us, if we preach him not.”

That is our call, and that is our only hope.

So preach, preacher. Preach, not in anxiety whether you may be understood, but in confidence that you have been obedient. Preach, not in worry about whether your message has been received, but in wonder at the words you have been given to say: the announcement that you—even you!—have been given to make. Preach, not that you may be relatable to women and men, but that God may relate himself, convey himself, give himself to your hearers. This he has done already, in the person of Jesus our Lord. This he does still, by the power of his Word at work in you. This he shall do, when at last the Day dawns, and the shadows depart, and we see not in a mirror dimly, but face to face; when we know not in part, but in full, even as we have been fully known.

In expectation of that coming Day, preach!