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: Resurrection

“Marley was dead: to begin with.”

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

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

cole-angel-shepherds

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

A Sermon Preached on Christmas Eve, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To us the Angel Gabriel speaks, and says,

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

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

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

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

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

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“Follow me!”

 

Peter and Paul

(The St Peter and St Paul windows of Trinity Cathedral face each other from the ends of the north and south transepts. The low-quality photos are my own.)

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016

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

Texts: Acts 9:1-20; John 21:1-19

May I speak in the Name of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen. Amen.

Do you have what it takes to be a disciple? Do you know what it means to be a follower of the Risen Jesus?

Our passages from the Acts of the Apostles and from John’s Gospel today introduce us to two of the greatest disciples of all time: Simon, Son of John, and Saul of Tarsus. We know them better as St Peter and St Paul–the two men God chose especially for the work of establishing, tending, and spreading his Church. We know them from their profound letters, which make up the bulk of the New Testament. We know them from the stories of their powerful words and deeds. We know them from their stained glass portraits here in the Cathedral. And we know them from the long shadow they still cast over Christian life.

Surely Peter and Paul show us the measure of discipleship. Surely their witness and example show us what it takes to follow Jesus. And surely, this should leave us shaking in our pews!

Does a disciple have to have the courage and conviction of Peter: boldly preaching the Good News, performing deeds of power and healing in Jesus’ name, and faithfully tending the flock of Christ until he is crucified—upside down?!

Does a disciple have to have the eloquence and the tenacity of Paul: tirelessly spreading the Gospel everywhere he went, facing hostile crowds and skeptical hearers around the Mediterranean world, braving all the disasters and indignities of first-century travel, and finally going up to Rome itself to proclaim the lordship of Jesus in the courts of the Emperor?

If all this is what it takes to be a disciple—if the trials and triumphs of Peter and Paul provide the template for the Christian life—well then I wouldn’t blame you if you headed for the doors right now. (Please don’t do that.)

But before we let the legacy of Peter and Paul scare us off, I want to call us back to the specific stories we have heard today. I want to look at these two men, not in light of what we know they will become or of what we remember about them from Church history. But I want to look at them just as we find them today, at the beginning of their lives as disciples of the Risen Jesus, and to consider what their stories can teach us about the life of discipleship.

It is not a promising beginning. On the one hand we have Simon Peter, the most eager,  the most outspoken, and the most assertive of Jesus’ inner circle of followers throughout the course of his earthly ministry. Simon is always rushing ahead, making promises we know he can’t keep, offering explanations we know he doesn’t fully understand. Simon is a loudmouth, full of bluster and bravado and false confidence. And Simon is the one who, as Jesus approaches his passion and death, denies ever knowing his Lord just in order to save his own skin.

Our Gospel today tells us that Simon Peter remained the leader of Jesus’ followers event after the Resurrection. In the midst of their joyful confusion and happy bewilderment at meeting their Risen Lord, Simon led them back up to Galilee to return to the life they knew before they ever met Jesus. So it is that this morning we find the disciples right back where they started: fishing all night on the Sea of Galilee in their little, leaky boats, with nothing to show for their work but their empty nets.

On the other hand, we have Saul of Tarsus: the most zealous, the most feared, and the most hate-filled of the persecutors of the early Church. We meet Saul for the very first time as he looks on approvingly at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Elsewhere in the Acts of the Apostles we’re told of Saul’s single-minded mission to destroy the Church of God. This morning, we hear that “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” received official sanction for his effort to search out early followers of the Way—women and men who walked in the way of the Risen Christ—and to bring them bound to Jerusalem.

So there we have them: Simon, the rudderless, thoughtless, faithless fisherman; and Saul, the ruthless, pitiless, vicious religious fanatic.

What on earth can these stories teach us about being a follower of the Risen Christ? How in the world do these miserable men become the great disciples we’ve heard about?

When we look at Simon and Saul at the beginning of their ministries, we find that what binds together their lives and stories is one thing–and one thing only: The Call of God. What makes these two men disciples–in spite of their faults and failures, in spite of their hatreds and their hurts–is the Call of the Risen Jesus.

It’s easiest to see in Saul’s case because his transformation is so sudden and stark. Traveling along the Damascus road, doggedly pursuing his goal of total destruction for the Church, the zealous young Pharisee meets the Risen Jesus in a blinding flash of light.

Imagine his bafflement and confusion; imagine his wonder and his fear. Everything Saul knows about himself and his world, everything in which Saul takes pride and to which he has devoted his life, is overthrown in an instant. Darkness descends upon him. Three days Saul spends in blindness and in prayer, fasting from food or drink. And when, on the third day, Ananias comes to him at the Lord’s command and lays his hands upon him, and the scales fall from Saul’s eyes, we see the fruit of his encounter–we see the power of God’s Call. Saul the Pharisee is baptized, and begins to preach the name of Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus. A disciple is born.

But notice that the change in Saul has not been accomplished by Saul’s own decision or choice. The change in Saul has not been accomplished by his days spent in fasting and prayer. The change in Saul has not even been accomplished by the ministry of faithful Ananias.

Saul has been changed by the Call of the Risen Christ. Saul has been transformed because the Lord has chosen him for an instrument “to bring [his] name before Gentiles, and kings, and before the people of Israel.” The unexpected, unasked for Call of God is the root and source of Saul’s discipleship.

And that Call is the root and source of Simon Peter’s discipleship as well. Imagine Simon’s shame and dejection as he remembers denying that he ever knew his Lord. Imagine his confusion and even his fear as he hears word of the Resurrection and remembers the teaching of Jesus: that “He who denies me before others, him I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” Imagine his anxiety and his excitement as he realizes that the man walking along the shore of Galilee is Jesus, and he throws himself into the water, swimming with all his might to meet him. Imagine his anticipation and trepidation as he watches Jesus eat his breakfast by the lakeshore, marveling that this is not a vision, or an apparition, or even a resuscitation, but that the same Jesus who was crucified is now risen to new life.

And imagine, all through this difficult, wonderful morning, how Simon Peter’s dread and joy must’ve grown in equal measure. For after breakfast, Jesus asks him the question that he feared and hoped for: “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?”

Three times that question comes. Three time it pains Simon Peter to hear it and to answer it. And yet that question works backwards into his soul, undoing the damage of his three-time denial of Christ. And once the memory of his own shame, his own failed expectations, his own self-centered following of Jesus has been conquered by the presence of the Risen Lord, the Call comes also to Simon Peter: “Follow me.” A new disciple of Jesus—a disciple of the Resurrected Jesus—is born.

But note again that this call doesn’t come to Simon through his own decision or choice. The change in Simon is not accomplished as a result of his three years of discipleship during Christ’s earthly ministry. The change in Simon is not accomplished as a result of his eager swimming to Jesus. The change in Simon is not even accomplished by his faithful answer “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” to the painful questions posed by Jesus.

Simon Peter is changed by the Call of the Risen Christ. The Call of God transforms the baffled, bumbling fisherman into the bold, courageous shepherd of God’s flock.

By that Call, Simon the fisherman now truly becomes Peter, the rock on whom Christ’s Church is built. By that Call, Saul the Pharisee becomes Paul the Apostle–the bearer of the message; the one who is sent to proclaim the name of Jesus to the whole world.

Brothers and sisters, I asked at the outset of this sermon, “Do you have what it takes to be a disciple?” See now that a disciple is not measured by his own deeds or disasters! A disciple is not measured by her own faithfulness or failures! The life of discipleship comes from the Call of the Master. To be a disciple is to hear the Call of the One who can and does accomplish what he promises: the One who raises the dead to life, and who calls into existence the things that are not.

And the startling message of our Scripture readings today is that that Call to discipleship can come to anyone, anywhere. The Call came to a fanatic overcome with hatred, consumed by his bitter intention to bind and judge the servants of God, and he became Paul. The Call came to a faithless fisherman, a man of lowly estate who slunk back to his boats in confusion and shame, and he became Peter. The Call came to every kind of unworthy, unlikely, unwelcome and unwanted person in the ancient world, transforming them by its power and giving them grace to become the disciples of Jesus, the mothers and fathers of the Church.

And the Call comes still. The Call has come  even to the poor sinners who stand and minister to this congregation in this place. The Call comes to us, your priests, right in the midst of all our faults and foibles, our intemperance and our incompetence, our silly pride and our stubborn pretension.

And, by our ministry and through the wondrous working of the Holy Spirit of God, the Call comes to you. The Call of discipleship comes to you, that you may be followers of the Risen Jesus. The Call of discipleship comes to you, that you may be empowered to proclaim the Good News of Christ in your every word and deed. The Call of discipleship comes to you, that you may speak the Name of the Lord before the nations, before rulers and authorities, and before the whole chosen people of God.

The Call of discipleship comes to you: God himself calls to you, dear people, and speaks again those simple, wonderful, costly words: “Follow me.” And it is that Call, and nothing else, that makes you a disciple.

Won’t your rise up out of your blindness and heed that Call? Won’t you swim to shore from those fishing boats—those same old worn and weary fishing boats of routine and habit and inertia and comfort—and fall at the feet of the Risen Lord?

Beloved people of God, hear today the Call of Jesus. Become true disciples of Christ, not through your work and witness, not because of your choice or decision, but by the power of his eternal Call.

Follow him, and learn the power of that Call to claim you, to change you, to use you to his purpose, and to carry you, perhaps, even to places where you do not wish to go.

AMEN.

Death be not proud!

“Danse Macabre” by Bernt Notke, c. late 15th Century. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

A Sermon Preached on the Sunday after All Saints’ Day, November 3, 2013

By The Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Texts: Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

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

Welcome to the revolution. Perhaps when you pulled into the parking lot this morning and parked in your usual spot, you did not realize that you had arrived at a meeting of dangerous radicals. Perhaps when you stepped inside the church and settled into your usual seat in your usual pew, you did not know that what you were coming here for was a protest, a demonstration, an act of outrageous defiance against oppression and tyranny. Perhaps you were not aware that each day, each week, year-in and year-out, from the highest Holy Days to the lowest low Sundays, what we gather here for is a resistance movement—a radical society—a grand conspiracy—with news that can topple the mightiest powers that hold sway over this world. Friends, I say it again: Welcome to the revolution.

Now perhaps some of you are feeling a little uncomfortable by this point. Some of you may be asking yourselves, “When did that nice young curate get so political?” Some of you may be wondering whether there’s still time to reduce your capital campaign pledge…

But before you do anything rash, let me first explain what I’m talking about. Today is the Sunday after All Saints’ Day. Today we celebrate the Feast that took place last Friday, and in so doing we engage in a stunning act of defiance. You see, on All Saints’ Sunday we remember and give thanks for all of God’s servants down through the ages. But we do more than remember the saints this day. Today we rejoice in them as fellow companions and present realities in the life of the Church. All Saints’ Day is not a holiday of history—a time to look back through two millennia of the Christian faith in order to choose heroes and tell stories of people long dead. Rather, on this day we remember that God has “knit together [his] elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of [his] Son Christ our Lord.”

Consider what those words mean. Today we profess that we who are still in our earthly pilgrimage—we who walk as yet by faith and not by sight—nevertheless are one—one communion, one fellowship, one body—with those who have gone before us. The Church recognizes no barriers of geography or chronology–of space or time. We are one with all baptized people around the world today, and we are one with all baptized people down through the centuries, even though they have died. And this claim, this profession, this assertion, is what makes this day revolutionary, for it requires us to defy an oppressor and a tyrant.

And yet the oppressor we repudiate today is not a political one, though he is often wrapped up and mingled in the practice of politics. But no: this All Saints’ Sunday we defy a ruler before whom the President of the United States, the Queen of England, and the Secretary General of the United Nations all stand subject.

The tyrant we reject this day is not an economic power, though greed and wealth have long been known to serve him. But no: this All Saints’ Sunday we renounce a creditor to whom the CEO of General Electric, the Chairman of Microsoft, and the President of the New York Stock Exchange must all pay their final debt.

No, beloved, the enemy against whom we gather today stands over and above all manifestations of human power and authority. He is the power behind all other powers. He is the last and inescapable equalizer of humankind. He is the one uniting reality of human life, because he reveals himself clearly and undeniably in the end of human life. For the great and terrible foe whom we this day defy is Death itself. That is the meaning of this All Saints’ Sunday. That is the force of our protest. That is the revolution of which we are part. Today, we stand defiant in the very face of Death.

And if we are to grasp the full force of our rebellion this day, we must begin with a sober acknowledgement of Death’s power. We must give Death his due—for his horrors confront us everywhere we turn.

The front-page of The New York Times this morning1 tells of a TSA agent murdered in the line of duty, and a Taliban leader “taken out” for the security of the world. These headlines are notable because they are not unusual. Dear people, Death’s reach is global, his activity is unceasing, and he is happy to ally himself with the disturbed and the deranged as readily as with the calculating and the just.

On the radio yesterday2 I heard a heart-wrenching story about a twenty-three year old woman waiting to hear the results of a test that would determine whether she has Huntington’s Disease—a hereditary condition similar to Parkinson’s, except that symptoms typically begin in one’s late-thirties, progress rapidly, and are always, eventually, fatal. The young woman was accompanied to the appointment by her twenty-one-year-old sister, who already knows that she has the gene that will lead to the disease. They talked bravely, casually, with a sort of gallows-humor about how they hoped their siblings would care for them when their very bodies began to rebel against them and their minds began to deteriorate. After all, they had watched it all happen to their own mother. Now, in their early twenties, these two women know that the same fate awaits them. Dear people, Death’s power is personal, and he is a subtle, patient enemy: hiding in our genes and family histories as much as in our choices, or in the changes and chances of this life.

Or consider the e-mail announcement that I received this week, inviting me to an interfaith service of remembrance on the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown. That terrible day—and the too-many terrible days just like it that have shocked our nation and the world—reminds us, dear people, that Death’s approach is random, and his movement capricious.

Beloved, this is the enemy whom we defy this day, and we must not doubt for a moment that his reach is universal, his grip is personal, and his power is terrible.

And yet defy him we do. For in keeping All Saints’ Day we claim that untold generations of Christians whom we love but see no longer have not, in fact, been conquered by Death. Today we dare to say that the tyrant’s power is broken and the oppressor’s reign is overthrown. Today we declare our freedom from the fear of Death itself. Today, we stand with the seventeenth-century priest and poet John Donne, who wrote these mocking, defiant words:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

But how can Donne speak so confidently? How can we dare to join in this celebration today, and joyfully declare that the saints whom Death thinks he “dost overthrow / die not”? What gives us the courage to keep this Feast and to sneer at watchful, waiting Death: “nor yet canst thou kill me”? What gives us the strength to shake our fists in the grim face of Death?

Today, dear friends, we dare to defy the great power that rules this world because we know that a greater Power has broken into this world. In our reading from Ephesians, we heard these words: “…with the eyes of your heart enlightened, may you know what is the hope to which [God] has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe…” These are words of promise, words of hope, words of encouragement. But, Christians, they are also words of defiance, words of upheaval, words of revolution!

For how can we know the extent of God’s power that is at work in us? Because “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion…” Brothers and sisters, here is our glory and our sure confidence. Here is the source of our strength this day—the source of our rejoicing in the company of all the saints. Here is the root of John Donne’s confidence, and may it be established deep within your heart also.

Today we topple Death, our mighty and dreadful enemy, with two little words: Jesus lives! Today we stand and shout our words of defiance in the Apostles’ Creed when we say that, “Yes, Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate—Yes, he was crucified—Yes, he died—Yes, he was buried…but on the third day, on the third day, on the third day he rose again!” Where, O Death, is thy victory? Where, O Grave, is thy sting? Jesus lives!

And the promise of our Scripture and celebration today is that in him, his saints too shall rise. This is no vague “spiritual” promise—no sentimental assurance that “our loved ones live on forever in our memories and our hearts.” No! This is a battle cry. This is a declaration of independence. This is an act of defiance, of strength. For in the resurrection of Jesus, we see that Death’s power is broken. In the resurrection of Jesus, we find that Death’s reign is ended. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, you and I need not fear the grave, nor cower before Death’s forces at work in our world. For we are become joint heirs with the One who has conquered—brothers and sisters with the saints in light—and we live now for the praise of his eternal glory.

And so, beloved, welcome to the revolution. Upheld by the prayers of the saints, “compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.”4

Let us this day, with John Donne and with all the saints of every age who share in Christ’s eternal victory, look defiantly on the grim, proud face of Death and ask,

…why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die.5

AMEN.

the-resurrection(1).jpg!Blog

“The Resurrection” by Piero della Francesca, c.1460

The New York Times. November 3, 2013. Accessed electronically.

“What Are You Doing for the Test of Your Life?” in “509: It Says So Right Here.” This American Life. Chicago Public Media. October 25, 2013. Radio.

“Holy Sonnet X.” The Complete English Poems of John Donne. Everyman’s Library: New York, 1991.

Hebrews 12:1-2a

“Holy Sonnet X.”

“Have you anything here to eat?”

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2015

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

Texts: I John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

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

We tend to draw a sharp distinction between material things and spiritual things, don’t we? It’s the dividing line between Church stuff and world stuff, between prayer and work, between a daily quiet time—those few minutes given over wholly to spiritual reflection and study—and all the other business we have to attend to—the busy-ness involved in earning a living, keeping a home, and caring for ourselves and our families.

The distinction between physical and spiritual is surely very present in the minds of those members of the Daughters of the Holy Cross who have been studying the Biblical duo Mary and Martha this year. Perhaps you remember the story from St Luke’s Gospel of Jesus in the shared home of these two sisters. Martha bustles about, trying to get dinner on the table. She attends to the physical, material, temporal things of this life, in all of their urgency and importance. Mary, on the other hand, sits at the feet of Jesus and listens. Her focus is on the spiritual and the eternal–the deep yearning for God in the heart of human beings. The difference between them is sharp and clear…and, it would seem, irreconcilable.

The way we read the Mary and Martha story is just one expression of our tendency—our drive—to look upon things physical and things spiritual as two great opposed realities. They stand like paired mountain-peaks: distinct and unbridgeable. We recognize that both are interesting and desirable. We see that both claim our attention and our commitment. And so our lives, it would seem, are lived out in the valley below those peaks. Sometimes we find ourselves climbing the rugged, ever-growing mass of physical stuff and stability: the things that the world around us tells us we need to have to be happy. Sometimes we find ourselves drawn to the airy heights of spiritual practices and spiritual purposes: the things that preachers and gurus tell us we need to do to be holy. But whatever we do, we always find ourselves moving—always vacillating between the two peaks, always pulled between the spiritual and the physical, always without a resting place, always without a lasting home.

Perhaps you expect me now to turn to Scripture to find a way out of this dilemma. But look again to today’s readings. What hope do they bring us as we sit and listen from our dwelling place in that deep valley between materiality and spirituality? The First Epistle of St John thunders down at us from the heights of Mount Spiritual: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” John’s soaring, beautiful words call us to glimpse the spiritual reality of our identity—the fact that we are daughters and sons of God—shining through our physical exteriors. This seems so clearly to settle the question in favor of the spiritual.

But then, from the mighty slopes of Physicality booms the story from St Luke’s Gospel this morning, where all is heavy with materiality. As the disciples cower from what they think is a spirit—a ghost—Jesus gives them abundant physical evidence that he is no specter, no spiritual reality only, but that he is also a risen physical body. “Look at my hands and my feet…touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And as if his appeal to his physical body isn’t enough, Jesus takes things one step further: he asks them for something to eat. The Risen Jesus engages in the basic physical activity necessary to fuel our basic physical bodies. As John makes the powerful case for spirituality, so Luke strikes back hard for the material and the physical. And we are left stuck fast in our valley—pulled between the two great poles of our present reality—unable to rest in our rushing back and forth.

That is, until, we turn again to consider the promise hidden in our Epistle reading this morning. To be sure, John speaks only vaguely of our yet unrealized spiritual nature. But “what we do know is this: when he is revealed we shall be like him, for we will see him as he is.” When Jesus is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

Inclined though we may be to read John as the high-minded spokesman for all things spiritual, we must pay careful attention to what he says here. For in this moment, John pushes all of our hope, all of our yearning, all of our anxiety, all of our fretting, all of our vacillating between the spiritual and the physical onto Jesus. And what do we find in his presence? What can we see by the light of his glory and grace?

In the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, we see a God who is Spirit, and who must be worshiped in spirit and truth, taking on our human flesh in all its physical frailty and material need. In the ministry of Jesus the Messiah, we see feeble, fainting, fallen human bodies become the canvases on which are displayed the spiritual power and purposes of God. In the death of Jesus the Savior, we see a human body and a human soul bearing the fullness of human pain both physical and spiritual–and we simultaneously see the divine Son of God reconciling in his own sacrificial flesh this physical creation with the spiritual justice of its Great Creator.

And in the Resurrection of Jesus our Lord, we see at last the hand of God undoing the false dichotomy and the fake distinction between body and soul—between the material and the spiritual—between God and humankind. For to look upon the Risen Jesus is to see God’s purpose for human beings finally restored. To look upon the Risen Jesus is to see the realization of God’s intention when he first formed us in his own image: when he shaped Adam out of the dust of the earth—out of the stuff of Creation, out of the heavy, messy, physical material of this world—and breathed into human nostrils the breath of the Holy Spirit. To look upon the Risen Jesus is to see that, at last, there is no great war, no dividing line, no irreconcilable division between the spiritual and the material: for God has taken our physical nature to himself. And in the Resurrection he has not discarded it, but he has rather redeemed and sanctified it.

To look upon the Risen Jesus is to see, beloved, that there is no “Mount Spiritual” and “Mount Physical”, distinct and incompatible. There is, at last, only “the mountain of the Lord’s house”, “beautiful and lofty over all the earth, the hill of Zion, the very center of the world and the city of our great King.”

This reconciling promise is made manifest to us in the gift of sacraments in the life of Christ’s Church. For in this holy place–this physical building consecrated by the prayers of the saints and the presence of God–material things become for us the means of spiritual life. Unremarkable words spoken from this pulpit become, by God’s grace, the Word of life and salvation. Ordinary water poured into that font washes our souls from sin and ushers us into new birth. Plain bread and wine taken, and broken and eaten at that altar in remembrance of Christ’s life, and death, and resurrection become for us the Body and Blood of Our Lord—the Bread of Heaven, the Cup of Salvation. All of these gifts and more have been entrusted to the Church—a flawed and fallen human institution nevertheless filled with the indwelling Spirit of God.

And this reconciliation of physical and spiritual—this sanctification of material things for the good of both bodies and souls—does not stop at the doors of this building. It flows from here with the force of a mighty river with Good News for all people, and indeed all creation. For as the Risen Jesus commissioned his disciples in this morning’s Gospel, so too he commissions us today: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Christ’s Name to all nations.” To be reconciled is to become a reconciler. To learn in the sacraments that God has overcome the false division between the physical and the spiritual is to become a teacher of that extraordinary truth. It is to become a messenger of the Good News that these bodies and this world matter in God’s sight. It is to remember that the whole of God’s good creation rejoices at this announcement.

It is to embrace the promise we have heard this morning. “When he is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Come and see him as he is–as he reveals himself–in the gift of the sacrament upon this altar. Come and be made like him through his transforming presence in this place. Come and be filled with the risen life of Christ the Lord. And then go forth to announce to all nations–to all creation–the power of his resurrection. AMEN.

The Resurrection was BODILY

Each week in Eastertide, at Trinity Cathedral’s 4:00 p.m. Sunday evensong, my colleague the Rev’d Canon Emily Hylden and I will be preaching a series of brief homilies exploring different aspects of the Resurrection. The series began yesterday evening with the affirmation that “The Resurrection was BODILY.” I will continue to post my own future sermons in this series, and will also link to Emily’s sermons over on her blog (assuming she posts them!).

A Sermon Preached at Evensong on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 12, 2015

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

Hymns at Evensong: Hymn 412, “Earth and all stars”; Hymn 196 “Look there! the Christ, our Brother”

May I speak in the Name of Christ Jesus Crucified and Risen. Amen.

Evensongs in Eastertide will include a series a brief homilies on the Resurrection. In discussing the central, glorious mystery of our faith–the axis upon which the Church turns, and the astonishing fact around which our lives as Christians are oriented–it seems appropriate to focus first on the most practical, physical, down-to-earth details. So it is that we begin our series this afternoon with the affirmation that the Resurrection was bodilyThe person Jesus of Nazareth really and truly died. The person Jesus of Nazareth really and truly rose.

This may seem so obvious that it should hardly be worth stating. But the fact is that, from the very earliest times right down through the present day, the earthiness–the physicality–of the Resurrection has caused scandal. It has been a stumbling block (which is actually the root meaning of that word “scandal”). It has been downplayed and held at a distance. It has even been denied. Because the Resurrection is so earth-shaking–so profoundly difficult to wrap our minds around–there has always been a desire to spiritualize it, to push it into the misty realm of metaphor and metaphysics, to make it something light and airy–dealing with minds and souls, perhaps, but surely not with the heavy, clunky business of bodies.

And so today there are some people who say that the Resurrection wasn’t a real, physical event, but instead was just a new hope born in the minds of the disciples. Some people say that the Resurrection wasn’t about Jesus bursting from the tomb, but was in fact about his followers rising out of their post-crucifixion depression. Some people say that the Resurrection wasn’t anything to do with the body of Jesus, but rather was about the spirit of Jesus, the essence of Jesus, the undying immortal teaching of Jesus living on in his Church.

This tendency to spiritualize may well be encouraged by the fact that Jesus’ resurrected body was, indeed, different. All four Gospels agree that the risen body of Jesus is a transformed body. It can enter houses when the doors and windows are locked fast. It can appear and disappear in ways that normal human bodies cannot. It can even befuddle close friends and followers, preventing them from recognizing just who it is they are walking with, talking with, and sitting down to table with.

And yet, even while affirming the strange truth that Christ’s resurrected body is a transformed body, the four evangelists are also at pains to demonstrate that Christ’s resurrected body is a real body. It is a body that eats broiled fish and takes and breaks bread. It is a body that breathes real breath and bears real wounds. It is a body that can touch and be touched.

In light of this witness, we face a two-fold challenge. We must resist the urge to spiritualize, to transcendentalize, to explain away or apologize for the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. In the words of John Updike, “Let us not mock God with metaphor.” But the wonder of the empty tomb calls us beyond negatives–beyond things we ought not to say. The Resurrection also calls us to speak positively–to affirm what it is that God does by raising Jesus from the grave.

Scripture also calls us to affirm that what God accomplishes in the Resurrection is not merely the recovery of the old creation, but is instead the beginning of a new creation. When we affirm that Christ’s Resurrection was bodily, we say something about the created order–about this physical world of atoms and molecules, of “earth and all stars…[of] hail, wind, and rain…[of] daughter[s] and son[s]…[and even of those] loud boiling test-tubes”–through all of which seethes and breathes the very life of God. We say something about ourselves–about these bodies beautiful and broken, these bodies strong and weak, these bodies old and young, these bodies vital and vitiated–these bodies that live and these bodies that die.

For to affirm that the Risen Jesus was raised a new, a transformed body is to affirm our faith that the God who formed Adam from the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of his own Spirit will not abandon any part of us to ultimate destruction. It is to affirm God’s purpose, God’s intention, God’s power to “preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” It is to affirm our gift and call, as Christian women and men, to meet the needs of the bodies around us, even as we meet the needs of the souls: to feed hungry stomachs even as we heal wounded hearts–to clean cracked feet, even as we bandage broken spirits. It is to affirm that Christ our brother, about whom we will shortly sing with overflowing joy, is our brother indeed: he has known every sorrow that wrings the human breast–he has felt every pang that our bodies can endure–he has carried all that we are and all that we have to his cross of shame, and he is now gloriously risen in the fullness of his humanity, and ours.

And it is to affirm one thing more. If Christ is raised, then we have hope at the end of our lives and at the hour of our death. St Paul the Apostle, who vigorously opposed any attempt to turn the Resurrection into a mere metaphor, says this in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain…And if Christ be not raised…ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.”

The faith fails, says Paul, if Christ has not really and truly been raised. But from this grim prospect, Paul continues in triumph: “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam in all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

In the bodily Resurrection of Jesus our Lord, beloved, we find hope for our frail and feeble bodies. For this mortal must put on immortality. This corruptible must put on incorruption. My body, your body, this human body, even though it dies, yet shall it live. “For now is Christ risen from the Dead.” AMEN.