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: Sin

What are you looking for?

lamb

A Sermon Preached on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 15, 2017

By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Rector of Christ Church, Cooperstown, New York

Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7; I Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

What are you looking for?

That’s the question Jesus puts to those disciples of John the Baptist who follow him in this morning’s Gospel.

What are you looking for?

It’s a reasonable question to put to a churchful of people on a chilly January morning. No one comes to church by accident. Did you know that? You may think you’re here because your mother made you come, or because you simply show up out of habit week after week. But no one comes by accident. Whether we recognize it or not, we have all been brought here–assembled here–for a purpose. We are all here to seek, to search, and to find.

What are you looking for?

It’s a question that can, ultimately, be put to all humankind. For the truth is, we are creatures made to seek and search; to yearn and hope; to quest and to find. We are men and women made to look for something–for Someone.

What are you looking for?

The cosmos itself poses the question. This world of beauty and complexity and pleasure and delight urges us on: “Keep looking!” All the good things of this life have been given to us as gifts–as love letters from the Giver. The glories of our earth–glories given to us to explore and enjoy–are meant to spur us in our quest; to whet our appetite for their Source. We are meant to be looking. We are meant to find.

But something has gone wrong. The long story of the human race is the story of our turning away from our ultimate Destination and settling for the signposts pointing the way to him. It is the story of our turning away from the Creator to find satisfaction with his creatures.

That is, perhaps, the simplest definition of Sin. Not sins, plural: the many individual “things we ought not to have done” that you and I do each day–or the many good things we fail to do. Those are sins, plural. But Sin, singular, is the sour source of them all. It is the rejection of God for the things God has made. It is the attempt to end our seeking too soon. It is the vain effort to sate our hunger for the eternal with the temporal and the corruptible.

And corruptible they are. The good things of earth cease to be good when we make them ends unto themselves. The delights of this life become dust and ashes in our embrace when we hold onto them alone. The pleasures of existence become pain and suffering and shame when we seek them with all our heart.

What are you looking for in those corners of your life of which you are ashamed and afraid? What are you looking for in your endless seeking after wealth and worthiness? What are you looking for in your quest for status and significance? What are you looking for in your web searches and your eating habits? What are you looking for in your self-medicating and self-loathing? What are you looking for?

John knew. John the Baptist knew what he was looking for. He knew because he had been readied. He knew because he had been given the sign. He knew because he was a prophet fulfilling the work of a prophet. He knew because the Lord had told him, “The One on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”

John was looking for the Lamb of God: the Creator become flesh for the sake of his lost creation. John was looking for one who would take away the Sin, singular, of the world: who would submerge the people of God in the Spirit of God so that their hearts would never again settle for anything but God. John was looking for the Anointed one who would save his people, and all people.

And when John saw Jesus he declared to his disciples: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

What are you looking for? It is here in his embrace. What are you looking for? It is found in his gift of himself. What are you looking for? He holds it out to you in his Word and his Sacraments, as he stokes and sates the hunger of his people, calling us to go beyond the gifts to continue seeking after the Giver.

“What are you looking for?” Christ Jesus asks it of you, today, as he asked it of those disciples of John long ago. And as he invited them, he invites you too. Stretching out his arms of love on the hard wood of the Cross, the Source and Summit of all our longing bids us, “Come and see.” AMEN.

 

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“Thou hast raised our human nature…”

A Sermon Preached on the Feast of the Ascension, May 5, 2016

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

Texts: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

May I speak in the Name of Christ Jesus: crucified, risen, and ascended on high to reign. Amen.

Jesus was born. Jesus was crucified. Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus ascended into heaven.

If we approach the Nicene Creed with the question, “What did Jesus do?”, that is what we will find for our answer. The Creed tells us nothing of the teaching of Jesus, nothing of the healings of Jesus, nothing of the preaching of Jesus, nothing of the praying of Jesus, nothing of the miracles of Jesus. The Creed tells us, simply, that he was born, that he died, that he rose from the grave, and that he ascended.

Of those four events–birth, death, resurrection, ascension–it is an undeniable fact that the last one receives the least attention. As wonderful as it is to worship with you all tonight, we must admit that the crowds on Christmas Eve were slightly larger.

And yet from the perspective of our forefathers in the faith–those folks who composed the Nicene Creed–this day, Ascension Day, is on par with Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Regardless of the fact that most people–even most Christians–don’t realize it, the Church ranks this day as a principal feast–one of the chief celebrations in the liturgical year.

Why? What’s so important about the ascension of Jesus? Why does it matter? What does it mean?

Perhaps we should begin by saying clearly what the ascension is not. The ascension is not about Jesus shooting up into the sky like a bottle rocket. A surprising number of people seem to have this dismissive, slightly embarrassed understanding of the ascension. That may be due to the tradition, in artwork, of depicting just the ascended Jesus’ feet disappearing into the clouds. Our own lovely ascension window gives us a good example of that.

The trouble with this view of the ascension is that it seems to rest on an outdated understanding of the universe. It sort of pictures the cosmos like a house with a first floor, a second floor, and a basement. If earth is the first floor, then hell is the basement below us and heaven is the second floor over our heads.

But this day is not about Jesus climbing the stairs to the great master bedroom suite in the sky. This isn’t about him flying away up over our heads. Rather, when our Creeds say that “he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” we mean that Jesus has gone into the nearer presence of God. Jesus who came from the bosom of the Father now returns to the bosom of the Father.

Heaven, in this view, doesn’t just mean “up in the sky.” Heaven means that place where God’s power, God’s presence, and God’s purposes are experienced without corruption or interruption. “For now we see in a mirror dimly; then we shall see face to face. Now we know only in part: then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known.”

Jesus returns to the nearer presence of God. The Son who was never separated from his Father–even in that moment on the Cross when he felt forsaken by his Father–now goes to take his seat at the right hand of his Father. The ascension is the completion of the work that he came to do.

The Creed tells us that it was “for us and for our salvation” that God the Son came down from heaven, and “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Just as he was born for us and for our salvation, and he died for us and for our salvation, and he rose for us and for our salvation, now he ascends for us and for our salvation.

The ascension is the completion of this great work. And it may well be the most astonishing and most glorious part of this great work. For when Jesus ascends, he does not do so empty-handed. When Jesus returns to the Father, he takes something with him. When Jesus goes to sit at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, he carries back with him a prize.

That prize, beloved, is you and I. When Jesus ascends to the Father, he does so in the same incarnate body that was born, and died, and was raised from the dead. When Jesus ascends, he lifts human nature into the very life of God. When Jesus ascends, he raises our humanity, not simply to the same place of innocence and purity lost to us in the fall. When Jesus ascends, he exalts our nature to heights beyond what we could have asked or imagined. Jesus lifts us to God.

It is a hand like my hand that pushes upon the gates of heaven. They are feet like your feet that now tread the paths of angels. Lips like these lips now plead mercy for sinners. Eyes like these eyes now behold the face of God.

That is the greater glory of this day. And that glory should give us pause. That glory, frankly, should terrify us. For as soon as I consider that Jesus has lifted human nature into the life of God, I realize with trembling just how thoroughly unworthy my nature is.

I recall each time that this hand has been used to grasp and clench and claim for my own selfish ends. I remember each time that these feet have carried me away from the suffering of others. I hear in my memory every bitter word and foul curse that has been uttered by these lips. I see again every unworthy image that has darkened these eyes.

Knowing the sorry state of my own human nature–and seeing written across the front page of every newspaper, every facebook page, every family history, and every national narrative the sorry state of all human nature–I shrink from the thought that that our incarnate Lord should have lifted us to God.

But in my dismal despair, I lift my eyes again to the feet of Jesus disappearing into the clouds in our ascension window–and I see there the prints of the nails! I recall the words of Jesus spoken in our Gospel lesson tonight. I hear again the assurance “that the Messiah [was] to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” I remember that the ascended body of Jesus still bears in his hands and feet and side and head the wounds that have made us whole. I realize once more that the Christ who has lifted our nature on high has also borne my sin and your sin in his body upon the Cross, and that he has broken the power of death forever, and that he has not left us comfortless, but has clothed his Church with power from on high!

When I glimpse again, in this holy feast, the ascension of the crucified and risen body of Jesus, I know that my great high priest–a high priest who has suffered with me and for me–now stands on my behalf in the nearer presence of our holy God.

And where he is, so we also shall be. “For this Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same was as you saw him go into heaven.” In Christ’s ascension, we see the sure and certain promise of our own. AMEN.

Tetelestai!

Annunciation-Crucifixion

(Saint John the Baptists, Annunciation, Crucifixion, Saint Catherine of Alexandria,               Francesc Comes, circa 1400)

A Sermon Preached on Good Friday, March 25, 2016

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

Texts: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 10:1-25; John 18:1-19:42

May I speak in the Name of Christ Crucified. Amen.

“It is finished.”

Those are the dying words of Jesus.

“It is finished.”

Those words are the key to understanding the meaning of this day.

“It is finished.”

Those words make absolutely no sense in the context of the story we have just heard.

Of course, if all Jesus meant was, “This is done with,” or “This is over,” then we might think that “It is finished” makes perfect sense. And after everything Jesus has been through, who could blame him if what he meant by “It is finished,” was really, “I’ve had enough,” or “I can’t take any more,” or even, “I give up”? Any of those might make sense to us.

But that’s not what Jesus said.

When Christ declares, “It is finished,” he isn’t saying anything like, “This is done with,” or “I give up.” The phrase “It is finished” in the English of our Bibles translates a single word from the original Greek of John’s Gospel: Tetelestai. That word doesn’t carry with it any hint of giving up or quitting or throwing in the towel.

Rather, when Jesus says, “Tetelestai,” and bows his head and gives up his spirit, what he is really saying from the Cross is “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. It is completed.”

Tetelestai!“​

Jesus isn’t saying, “I give up.” Jesus is saying, “I have done it.”1

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.”

Those are the last words of an innocent man who refused the violent rescue-attempt proposed by his friends in the garden; refused to answer the false accusations brought against him; refused to plead his case before the governor who could release him; refused to accept the offer of crude anesthetics meant to dull his pain; and refused to come down from the Cross with divine power and might to answer the cruel jeers of the spiteful crowd.

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.” Those are the dying words of a broken man whose body has been whipped and scourged; whose clothes have been stripped away and gambled off; whose friends have deserted him; whose mother stands weeping for him; whose epitaph, nailed above him while he’s still alive, is a mocking political joke: “This is the King of the Jews!”

“It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.” This is the last utterance of a faithful man who came to earth that others might have life, and have it more abundantly; of a man who healed the sick and raised the dead; of a man who fed the multitude with a few loaves and a couple of fish; of a man who opened the eyes of the blind and who shut the mouths of the learned; of a man who called God his Father, and tax collectors and sinful women and stupid fishermen his friends; a man who, before this death of agony, asked God to glorify his name, and who heard the voice of God declare in reply, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

Here, hanging upon the Cross of shame, this man declares with his dying breath, “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. I have done it.”

It doesn’t make any sense. Crucifixion was meant to be an utterly meaningless death. The whole point is that it was pointless. The cross was a tool used for erasing the record of a person’s existence. It was a way, not simply to kill a man, but to wipe him from the rolls of the human race.

How can this death be a fulfillment of anything? How can this death accomplish anything? How can this death be anything but an absolute, unmitigated, irredeemable failure?

Unless, of course, dying a death like this is precisely what Jesus came to do.

“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring and prolong his days.”

“And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

“See, God, I have come to do your will.”

What if the crucifixion were not a hateful, horrible interruption of Christ’s life and ministry? What if the crucifixion were his very reason for being born, and the full completion of his three years’ work?

There’s something special about this Good Friday. Something happens this year that will not happen again until the year 2157. Today is March 25. We are exactly nine months from Christmas Day. Were it not Good Friday, the Church would celebrate this day as the Feast of the Annunciation: the moment of the Incarnation.

This is the day when the Angel Gabriel brought word to a lowly Jewish peasant girl that she would become the mother of the Messiah. This is the day when the Word of God took on flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary his mother. This is the day when God came among us as one of us–and this is the day that he died.

This rare coming together of Good Friday and the Annunciation happens only a few times or so every century. It happened during the lifetime of the poet and priest John Donne. Reflecting on this convergence in 1608, Donne wrote that “This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown / Death and conception in mankind is one.”2

“Death and conception in mankind is one.” From the moment we begin to exist, we are vulnerable to death. This is the sad truth of the human condition. No matter how wise we make ourselves; no matter how wealthy we become; no matter how advanced our technological achievements or vast our information networks; no matter how high we build our walls to keep the enemies out or how deep we dig our vaults to hide away our treasures, we cannot escape death.

That’s the terrible message we read in the silent spread of terrorist networks through the free democracies of the world. That’s the toxic background to the fear-mongering and scapegoating that increasingly characterize our nation’s political life. That’s the source of the brokenness we find in our corrupted institutions and our ineffective systems and our ruined relationships and our endless empty consuming.

And it’s the condition we find at work in our own lives. To be human is to be caught up into the swirling dance of Death and Sin. It is to be dominated by powers beyond our control. It is to be scourged by the whip of our own weaknesses, and to be mocked with the taunts we hurled at others. To be human is to find ourselves hanging upon the Cross of our own hatreds–pierced by the nails of our own pride–stabbed by the spear of our own selfishness. To be human is to wear the thorny crown of our own control–the bloody crown that shows our rejection of God’s will in our lives and our slavery to our own desires and appetites. “Death and conception in mankind is one.”

This day cruelly confronts us with that dark truth.

But in Christ’s declaration of “Tetelestai!”, this day also dares to declare to us another, better truth. For what this “some times and seldom” overlap announces is that the God of all creation has come to pursue us–and he would not stop with simply taking on our nature. His intention was to become fully, completely human, and because “Death and conception in mankind is one”, today we remember that he has pursued us even unto death!

Christ’s purpose was not simply to become a perfect human being aloof and separate from the sins and sorrows and sufferings of our race. But what he begins at the Annunciation when he takes on flesh like ours, he completes in the Crucifixion when he suffers a death like ours.

For the death of agony that Jesus endures on the Cross means that no human agony is now beyond his reach. The death of shame that Christ completes this day means that no shame can now separate us from him. The accursed, ugly, horrible death he died means that God himself has absorbed our curse; God himself has exchanged our ugliness; God himself has faced the horror of death and made it his own.

“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

For what was ours by nature, God took upon himself by grace. What we have deserved for our deeds, Christ has assumed out of his love. What was for us only dissolution and disaster, Jesus has made an achievement and the occasion of our reunion with God. What to us could only be the penalty for disobedience, Christ has redeemed by his perfect obedience.

“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”

And let us, this Good Friday, fix our eyes upon the rough wood of the Cross and say, in unison with our crucified, living Lord, “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. Christ has done it!”

AMEN.

1-I realize that “I have done it,” is not an accurate translation of tetelestai. However, I maintain that it is a theologically and homiletically appropriate rendering.

2-Upon the Annunciation and the Passion Falling upon One Day. 1608

“I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior!”

ChristCrucifiedontheTreeofLife_Lawrence_OP
(“Christ on the Tree of Life”, mosaic by Edward Burne-Jones, 1894.)

It was my great privilege to preach yesterday at the Church of St. Michael and St. George in St. Louis, Missouri. How delightful to be with that wonderful congregation on such a meaningful day! The Rev’d Andrew Archie and his clergy colleagues, the Rev’d Blake Sawicky and the Rev’d Ezgi Saribay, extended me such warm hospitality on a snowy Ash Wednesday. The staff and parishioners were so kind in their welcome. The music, conducted by Dr. Rob Lehmann, was sublime. 

A Sermon Preached on Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston

Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

“I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.”

Those words were written by an 18th-century sailor, slave-ship captain, Christian convert, Church of England priest, and hymn-writer named John Newton, most famous for penning the lyrics of “Amazing Grace.” Nearing the end of his long life, with his health broken and his eyesight grown dim, Newton told a friend, “My memory is nearly gone, but still I remember two things: that I am a great sinner–and that Christ is a great saviour!”

Standing before you as a guest preacher this Ash Wednesday, I take Newton’s words both for my introduction to you and for the starting place of my sermon. I am tremendously grateful to the rector for inviting me to preach today. But I am also keenly aware of the fact that I don’t know you, and that you don’t know me–or at least, you don’t know me apart from whatever Father Sawicky might have told you about me, in which case I am tremendously grateful you didn’t stay away from church today.

Seeing, then, that we are strangers to one another, I have resolved to stick to what I can know–what I do know: “That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great savior!”

For you see, that announcement–that declaration–is really what this day is all about. On this day, the Church exhorts her members both corporately and individually to “lament our sins and acknowledge our wretchedness.” On this day, we are called to claim with one voice John Newton’s self-summary–we are invited, each of us and all of us, to say, “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.”

And that is what makes this day so difficult. To confess our sins–to own up to the fact that we’ve done wrong–isn’t necessarily hard for us. We do it every Sunday at the Holy Eucharist, and daily at Morning and Evening Prayer. We know we are guilty of faults and offenses–that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, against God and against our neighbors. We know we have gone wrong, both by our actions and by our inaction–by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We know we have sins to confess.

But Ash Wednesday goes deeper. On this day, we do not simply confess our sins–we confess that we are sinners. On this day, we do not merely own up to those times and places when we have broken God’s commandments–we own up to the fact that, at all times and in all places, we are broken creatures. On this day, we do not just cry out for forgiveness, asking that we may be set again on the narrow path–rather on this day, we cry out for salvation, acknowledging that apart from God’s grace we are lost no matter the path we tread; admitting that without the breath of God’s Spirit we are dead in our sins and trespasses; declaring that, until the Great Physician comes with balm for our hurting souls, “there is no health in us.”

This day dares to confront us, not simply the undeniable truth that we sometimes commit sins, but rather with the profoundly uncomfortable truth that we are sinners: that our hearts are hardened against the loving-kindness of God–that our wills have turned in on themselves to seek only our own drives and delights–that our very nature is fundamentally disordered by the problem of disobedience and the fact of Sin.

That’s why, when we come forward for the imposition of ashes today, we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Those words carry us back to the very root of the problem. They are the words spoken by God to Adam after he and Eve have broken the commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. By choosing to disobey the Lord’s only law, human beings lose their only true freedom. They become slaves to their own needs and appetites–their own devices  and desires. They have no power of themselves to help themselves. And so God tells the dust-creatures who were made in his own image that that image will now be marred by mortality: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Now don’t for a minute get hung up on the historicity of that story, and worry about how a snake could talk or where the Garden of Eden might be located on a map. That story isn’t meant to explain things that happened long, long ago. That story is meant to explain things that happen now–each and every day–around us, and within us.

Why is it that we fall back again and again into behaviors we know are not good for us, for our souls or bodies, and are not good for our relationships with others? Why is it that I eat too much and drink too much, even though I know that temporary indulgence only leads to pain and unhappiness? Why is it that you tell lies even though you know they only serve to make your life more complicated and more difficult? Why is it that we continually look on other people as objects or obstacles or as the means to our own personal ends, even though we know that that leads only to the exploitation and degradation of God’s image in our fellow creatures?

“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Today we hear again God’s words to Adam and we realize that they apply to each of us as well. The powers of Sin and Death are inextricably linked. The fact of our mortality and the problem of our continual disobedience are both wrapped up in the reality of our sinfulness. The ashes upon my head will declare what I cannot hide or deny–that I am indeed a great sinner.

But, dear people of God, that is not all that those ashes will declare. For mark the shape in which those ashes will be applied to each forehead in just a few moments. They may look like nothing more than a smudge. But feel the way that the priest’s thumb moves across your brow. If the ashes on my face carry with them the terrible reminder that I am a great sinner, they also carry with them the glorious announcement that Christ is a great savior!

For the ashes upon our heads will be imposed in the shape of a cross. The symbol of our sinfulness shows forth the sign of Jesus’ victory. The reminder of our mortality and brokenness also tells out the great Good News that God has not abandoned us or forsaken us.

 For God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The Cross is the everlasting declaration of God’s love and mercy for the lost and the broken. The Cross is the eternal announcement of God’s power and promise held out to the sinful and the stained. The Cross is the undoing of the curse, the defeat of death by death, the conquest of sin by bearing the cost of sin, the destruction of disobedience by means of Christ’s ultimate obedience.

And so the next forty days are not, for us, days of grief and gloom–of dismal drudgery and disfigured faces–of weeping and wailing for our sins. For in this holy season of Lent, we carry our own crosses gladly as we follow the footsteps of Jesus. In the weeks to come, we ready our hearts to hear again the story of what God has done for the sake of people such as we are–for sinners like me and like you. As we approach once more the contemplation of those mighty acts by which God has won for us life and salvation, we go joyfully to Jerusalem, to see sin silenced by the One who would not open his mouth; to see death vanquished by the One who humbled himself even unto death upon the Cross; to see the gracious gift of everlasting life flowing from the open-door of the empty tomb.

So let us, then, make a right beginning of holy Lent. Let us own the announcement of this Ash Wednesday. Let us, each and all, boldly, joyfully, gratefully, humbly declare, “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.” AMEN.

From Dogs to Daughters and Sons

A Sermon Preached on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 6, 2015

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

Texts: Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37


“Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

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

The anguish of the parent is palpable.  It is made more poignant and more unbearable by the seeming indifference that meets each cry for help.  But that should come as no surprise.  Between sufferer and potential helper lie centuries of distrust and dislike.  The old familiar slurs and ugly names are known and used by members of both groups of people. Race, religion, notions of respectability and good order—all of these divide the one pleading for a child’s life from those who cannot or will not be bothered to get involved.  And of course, as the tragedy deepens, so too do the ancient animosities. Perhaps the old hatred will glow hot again.  Perhaps the cycle of suspicion and contempt will begin anew, and the rift separating the individuals and the chasm dividing their cultures will grow wider still.

The suffering parent I have in mind is not the mother from this morning’s Gospel lesson.  It is Abdullah Kurdi, the Syrian father whose anguish has now been felt the world over.  Newspapers and websites around the globe this week carried the devastating photo of Mr Kurdi’s three-year-old son Aylan lying dead on a Turkish beach.  Four members of the Kurdi family fell into the Aegean Sea as they attempted to travel from Turkey to Greece, ultimately hoping to reach Canada.  Only Mr Kurdi survived, losing his wife and two young sons beneath the surging waves.

The Kurdi family’s heart-breaking tragedy has brought international attention to the refugee crisis engulfing the Middle East and Europe.  Millions of refugees fleeing civil war and the onslaught of ISIS in Syria have been looking to the West for safety and assistance.  Desperate to escape the violence and upheaval of their homeland they risk everything, paying exorbitant sums to illegal human traffickers and chancing the most dangerous routes and modes of transportation—poorly ventilated trucks (like the one recently found filled with dead bodies in Austria), and leaky, overloaded boats (like those that capsize each day in the Mediterranean Sea).  And they grow increasingly impatient, wondering why the West will not do more to aid them in their hour of need.

Meanwhile, the nations of Europe are struggling to find an appropriate response to the deluge.  As efforts to help grow and widen, so too does fear and suspicion of the newcomers—people who look different, who speak different languages, who hold a different faith. Among many, there is a passionate to desire to help; to do something, anything, to alleviate the suffering of the refugees. But many others are afraid, suspicious, and even disdainful of the outsiders. Action vies with inaction. Compassion struggles against contempt. And among the lowly and the least, the death toll continues to rise.

And of course all of this is merely the latest telling of an old, old story.  Division and suspicion; distrust and separation; indifference toward suffering; inaction in the face of another’s pain: these are the shameful hues that stain the long chronicles of human civilization.  All around the world and all through the centuries the story remains the same: as one of our collects puts it, “the peoples of the earth [are] divided and enslaved by sin.”

Entrenched, mutually reinforced division is one of the bitterest and clearest signs of brokenness in our world.  There is division among nations, division among races, division among religions, division among the branches of the Christian Church, division and strife in our own communities, and workplaces—in our homes and in our hearts.  We are people separated from those different from us. We are people suspicious of those nearest to us. We are people very often alienated from our own truest desires and best intentions.  Beloved, the strife and division we see in our world and in our lives is for us an inescapable reminder of that perennially unpopular doctrine of the Fall—the teaching of the Church that something has gone horribly, hatefully wrong in this beautiful, broken world.

All of which brings us back to our strange and disturbing Gospel lesson this morning.  Preachers quake before this passage, and for good reason.  Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophoenician woman seems cruel, harsh—perhaps even racist.  To the anguished mother kneeling at his feet, begging for help, the Lord of love looks down and says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Impossible though it may seem, there is Good News in these words.  For in these hard, strange words today, Christ Jesus faces head on the brokenness and fallenness made manifest in human division—in the strife between individuals and nations, between peoples and cultures.  He speaks to the Gentile mother in a way typical in those days for Jews speaking to Gentiles—and for Gentiles speaking to Jews. And in so doing, he reveals in one unsettling moment both the problem that he has come to address and the means by which he will address it.

For it is precisely because we are separated and divided without and within that God came to dwell among us.  It is precisely because we regard others with suspicion and throw up walls of separation that God has taken on our flesh. It is precisely because we are broken and fallen that God became a human being in the person of Jesus our Lord.

And in tackling the great problem, Christ chose to step down into the problem with us. He was not born some kind of “generic human”, without a home, a history, a family, or a nation.  Rather, God chose to become fully human: to be born among a particular people at a particular time in a particular place.

So it was that Jesus of Nazareth was born an Israelite.  So it was that the everlasting Son of the Father chose to become also a Son of Abraham.  So it was that the Second Person of the Trinity consented to a Jewish baptism of repentance in the Jordan River.  He did not hold himself aloof from human suffering and human brokenness, but rather desired to stand in the midst of that fulsome flood, to plunge beneath those fearsome waves, and to embark on a ministry that would take away that suffering and brokenness forever.

Thus in Jesus’ upsetting words—the words of a real man, from a real nation, at a real point in the history of fallen humanity—we glimpse the offensive fullness of the Incarnation: that God really did become a human being, and really does stand in solidarity with broken, suffering, divided humanity.

But this story reveals more to us still. For in the faith of the Syrophoenician woman, we see the greater truth that God’s purpose in the Incarnation was not merely to sit with us in the muck and mire of our lives. It is to lift us up. If Jesus speaks in a way that emphasizes our divisions and upholds the special character of the Jewish people, then the Gentile mother, speaking out of the divine gift of faith, recalls his purpose and his mission for all humankind.

“Yes, Lord… but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

She does not deny the ancient, entrenched difference between his people and hers.  But she affirms what his people had too often forgotten: that their election, their special setting apart as God’s chosen nation, is not intended to perpetuate division and separation, but is, instead, God’s means of blessing all peoples and of bringing together the whole world.  She affirms what Jesus himself recognizes in his response to her and in his subsequent actions towards the Gentile deaf mute man: that while he came first to God’s covenant people of Israel, nevertheless he has come to do something that will convict and reconcile all the nations of the earth.

For as it was promised in Isaiah, our God has come. Our God has come with vengeance and terrible recompense for the sins of our self-imposed divisions. Our God has come with judgment and implacable wrath against the petty judgments and the wretched barriers by which we divide nation from nation, people from people. Our God has come and his ears are deaf to the subtle arguments of those who would deny the basic humanity of certain undesirables. Our God has come and his tongue refuses to join in the shrill cries of those who would demonize and dehumanize on the basis of color or nation or language. Our God has come, and he has chosen to become the triumphant victim of our divisions and oppressions.

For in the broken body of Jesus our Lord, God has overcome the brokenness that separates nations and that mars each human life. By the mighty weakness of his Cross, God has battered down the wall of hostility separating Jew from Gentile, slave from free, rich from poor, black from white, male from female—the wall that separated human beings from their God.

Beloved, the children’s food has indeed been thrown to the dogs. The holy things of God have indeed been placed at the disposal of the unholy. For on the Cross, God has given himself to people like you and me—people lost in their shallow hatreds and foolish fears; people squabbling over their silly prejudices and empty pretensions—God has given himself to dogs like us.

And he does it again now. For God’s gift of himself will soon be set before a people unworthy to gather up the crumbs from under his table.  The fount of righteousness now pours out his grace upon the unrighteous.  The feast will shortly be set for those who cannot pay for it, or earn it, or claim it as their own, but who can only receive it as mercy and grace.

Here at this altar, the Most Worthy rushes to lift up the unworthy.  Here the All Holy hastens to help the unholy.  Here the Master of the feast stoops to lift the lazy and the latecomers; the unwashed and the unwelcome; the servants and the slaves to sit at his table.

Here the mangy dogs become daughters and sons.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.