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: religion

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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“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.