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: The Cross

Dust Thou Art

As we come to the beginning of another Lent, I share the sermon I preached last Ash Wednesday.

A Sermon Preached on Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014

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

Texts: Genesis 3; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Matthew 6:1-6; Revelation 22:1-4

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

“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Those strange and solemn words are at the heart of this strange and solemn day. They are the words that you will hear in a more contemporary form when you come forward to receive the mark of ashes as a sign of penitence. In that moment, the dust will be physical, literal—the gritty symbol of real ashes smudged on fingers and faces—but the force of those words will connect them to our need for repentance, and our mortality. “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

But where do those strange and solemn words come from? If you look back over the readings in your bulletin, you will not find them there. The prophet Joel is not interested in ashes—in the outward signs of repentance—as he calls the people of Israel to “rend [their] hearts and not [their] garments.” Our Lord Jesus is not thinking of smudged foreheads as he urges his disciples, “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face”—indeed, he seems to challenge, if not expressly to forbid, practices such as these

No, to find the source of today’s reminder that “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” we must go back beyond today’s appointed lessons—back beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, and back beyond the prophetic pronouncements of Joel. We must go back to the beginning: to the Book of Genesis.

In Genesis, we are told of how God created the heavens and the earth. We are told of how the Spirit of God moved mightily over the face of the waters, and how, out of chaos and darkness, God brought order and light. In Genesis, we are told of God’s great goodness in calling forth the bounty and rich diversity of this earth: plants and animals, fish and birds, the beasts of the earth and the cattle of the fields and “every creeping thing that creepeth upon” the ground.

In Genesis, we are told of how God in his mercy and in his love made human beings in his image—formed out of the dust of the earth and enlivened with the breath of his Spirit. We are told of how he set them over the good earth that he had made, to tend and keep it, in order that we might rule and serve all creatures. In Genesis, we are told that God set the first humans in a garden full of good fruit growing on abundant trees.

And one more thing. In Genesis, we are told of a single command that the Lord gave to the first people—the dust creatures made in the image of God: “Of every tree in the garden, thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.”

Of course, we know what happens next. The serpent seduces. The people eat. And God comes to walk through the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day, only to find Adam and Eve hiding—ashamed of their nakedness. The relationship of trust and intimacy that the first people enjoyed with the Lord their God was broken by disobedience—by sin.

And so it is, at last, that in the Third Chapter of the Book of Genesis, we find the strange and solemn words for which we have been searching—the dread words that we will hear again in just a few moments this evening. The Lord pronounces judgment: first upon the serpent, then upon the woman, and then at last on Adam, the first man. God declares: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it thou wast taken. For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

This, then, is the source of tonight’s strange pronouncement. Here, then, is the meaning of this day’s solemn declaration. The startling and unsettling truth proclaimed in the imposition of ashes today is that you and I stand in the line of Adam. Over us is spoken the same condemnation, the same curse. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Now perhaps this is too much for you. Perhaps here you might raise an objection. Perhaps, as modern Americans in Greenwich, Connecticut in 2014, you chafe against so simple an application of so ancient a story. Talking serpents? First parents? A divine curse? Can you imagine a more preposterous explanation of human origins?

But let us be very clear this Ash Wednesday. The story you have just heard—and the curse at the heart of that story—is not meant to explain the past. The truth of this tale cannot be confirmed by an archaeological dig or a mitochondrial DNA analysis. The story of Adam and Eve is not a story about where we come from, explaining our background. Instead, this is a story about where we are, and it explains where we are headed. This is not a story about the past, but about the present and the future. For the truth is that the fruits of Eden’s loss still fall, heavy and rotten, all around us.

We see them falling in the Crimea, as the great powers of the world once again find themselves drawn into the tired, terrible dance of war. To be sure, this day we hope and pray that peace will yet prevail. But we must also acknowledge that each time nations collide and tyranny rises and blood is spilt, the fruits of Adam’s fall can be seen, and the ancient curse can be heard again in our time: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

We see those fruits falling in Mexico, where Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman now sits in federal custody. The arrest of perhaps the world’s most powerful drug lord late last month has been major news, supplanted only by the crisis in the Ukraine. Guzman rules over a multi-billion dollar cartel. His actions and activities have brought misery and pain to the streets and suburbs of America, even as he has brought violent death to the towns and cities of Mexico. Yet we must not forget that his enormous wealth is built upon the enormous American appetite for his products—cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroine—and therefore, by the enslaving power of addiction. Here, surely, around one life we see the fatal fruit fall abundantly, and hear the curse spoken to so many of the innocent and guilty alike: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

And lest we forget the purpose of this season of Lent, if we would see the truth of this day’s pronouncement—if we would see the fruit of Adam’s fall—let us look within ourselves. You and I may not be as brash as Vladimir Putin or as ruthless as “El Chapo” Guzman. But can you outrun the terrible words we hear this night? For all our advancement and enlightenment, for all our wealth and wisdom, for all our piety and our spiritual practices, who among us can claim a perfectly clean conscience, or the knowledge that we have not been disobedient?

We know what it is to exploit our fellow human beings in ways big and small. We know what it is to eat gluttonously, to drink intemperately, to look and act lustfully, to yearn enviously, to react wrathfully, to amass greedily, and to boast pridefully. And what is the price of all this? What is the cost of these actions? Is it not the same penalty paid by Adam: the loss of a relationship of intimacy and trust with the Lord our God, and with one another? For all our sophistication and satisfaction, for all our charity and our credentials, for all our goodness and our gratitude, who among us can escape death? “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

But let us make something very clear. Ash Wednesday is not, in fact, a day to sit in our sin; to wallow in the warped, worn-out weariness of our hearts; to fixate on death. Our worship this day does not end with the imposition of ashes. Our story this day does not conclude with the pronouncement of a curse.

For behold, Christian, the shape of the ashes that will soon bedeck your brow! The dust with which you are marked today is no mere smudge. Rather, the symbol of mortality applied to our foreheads this night will be made in the form of a Cross.

And that realization lifts us to the true and better meaning of this strange and solemn day. For what that sign of the Cross shows forth is that we have not been left alone in our fallenness and our mortality. What we remember this day is that the same God whose justice drove Eve out of Eden has come down from heaven to be born a son of Eve. The same God whose righteousness could not bear the disobedience of our father Adam took on our flesh—our flesh of earth and dust—to become for us a new Adam, a new creation: a new and better beginning for our race.

The sign we receive this Ash Wednesday reminds us, not only that we are dust, but that God himself has come to share in our dusty, deathward life. The purpose of this long season of Lent is not to fix our hearts on our fallenness, but to prepare us for the announcement that on the Cross of Calvary, Jesus our Lord has conquered Death and Sin forever, and in the bright light of the Resurrection he calls us to share in a new life that cannot end.

So it is that this evening (and only this evening in the whole cycle of the Church year) we come forward twice. The first time, we come forward to hear the dread reminder; to be told “Dust thou art”; to acknowledge and bewail the fact that the seeds of Adam’s fall have taken root in us and grown up and produced rank fruit in our souls.

But then, beloved, once we have been marked with the cross, and have made our confession, and have heard words of absolution, we will be called forward again. We will be called forward to hear, not a curse, but words of blessing and holy union. We will be called forward to taste, not the bitter fruit of fallenness, but a new and better fruit: the fruit of the new Jerusalem, the fruit of Christ’s Body and Blood.

Tonight, Christ Jesus invites all those who have shared in his death through baptism, and who repent of their sins, and who embark now on the holy road of Lent, to draw near in faith, and to see the fulfillment of words not from the first book—from Genesis—but from the last book—from Revelation—and to taste at this altar the fruit of the Tree of Life.

“And the angel showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the lamb. In the midst of the street of the city, and on either side of the river, there was the Tree of Life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads.”

AMEN.

Greater love hath no man…

Last November, the Rev’d Fr. Blake Sawicky invited me to preach for the Remembrance Sunday Requiem Mass at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence, Rhode Island. I had a wonderful time with the people of S. Stephen’s, and was particularly struck by their generous warmth in leading me through the dignified dance of the liturgy as it is offered in that fine parish.

A Sermon Preached at S. Stephen’s Church, Providence, Rhode Island

On Remembrance Sunday, November 10, 2013

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

Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 8:31-39; John 15:9-17

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

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.[1]

So did Wilfred Owen, soldier and poet of the First World War, begin his poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” Today, his bitter words must give us pause. For today we are gathered to keep Remembrance Sunday—we are gathered to amend the maimed rites of those who died not in the bosom of family and friends at the end of a long, full life, but suddenly—violently, amidst the noise of war and in the heat of battle, with

…no prayers nor bells,

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.[1]

The question before us, then, is: can we do it? Can we here assembled—and all of those assembled across the English-speaking world on this Sunday before November 11—by our prayers and praises fill up the measure of what was lost—of what was taken from them? Can we complete, by solemn rites this day, the hasty orisons of the battlefield dead?

Can we even grasp the scope of our task? For before all else, we must recognize that our duty this day is made more difficult by the ever-expanding reach of this day. Remembrance Day—Veterans Day—comes on November 11 each year. Tomorrow we will mark ninety-five years from the Armistice: the cease-fire, the peace that followed the Great War which was called “the war to end all wars.” But how mocking, now, does that name sound! For the war to end all wars was not the last of its line. The war to end all wars begot many sons and daughters—numberless children of violence, a vast family of suffering—who made the twentieth-century the most costly of human life in the long history of the world.

And war’s dread family thrives still: breeding, growing, spreading, killing. So it is that the ranks of the honored dead this day are not restricted to Wilfred Owen—himself killed just one week before the Armistice—and his fallen comrades of the Great War. For to their company has been added the dead of the Second World War, and the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, and the First Gulf War, and the ongoing War in Afghanistan, and the Second Gulf War, and all the other conflicts and all the other wars that have demanded of this nation and her allies the tribute of blood.

So, beloved, I ask again: what can we offer this day? What can the Church say in a world where wars do not cease, where Death’s long reign goes unchallenged, and where so many die still without passing-bells or proper prayers?

The answer, I think, is: nothing. Or at least, nothing at first. The only real response to the horror of war begins in silence. That’s why silence—a deliberate, conscious, long silence—is always an important part of Remembrance Day observances. That’s why silence is at the heart of the Act of Remembrance that we will offer together in just a few moments.

And indeed, a Remembrance Day that does not begin in silence will fall too easily to the temptation—ever-present in the capricious hearts of humankind—to make this into an “us-and-them” day: a day to celebrate “our glorious dead who fought for freedom and truth and goodness,” and to scorn, “their wicked drones who fought for oppression, and tyranny, and degradation.”

But to begin in silence is to avoid the jingoism and the blind nationalism that might bedevil this day, and to see instead the horror of war as it spreads its pall evenly over the guilty peoples of the world. For each passing year reveals more clearly the difficult truth: that heroism and horror are found always on both sides of a conflict; that my capacity to commit atrocities is matched by my enemy’s capacity to show humanity; and that the dividing line between good and evil runs not along the shifting borders of national boundaries but through the very middle of each human heart and soul.

This, at last, is what war reveals: not that we are good and they are bad, but that our common humanity is profoundly muddled, eminently corruptible, and deeply flawed. And in the silence of remembrance—as we recall the toll of war and count the cost of violence—that is a truth from which we cannot hide.

But out of that same silence, a truth greater than our brokenness rises to meet us. Out of the silence of remembering rises the assurance of a promise. While war in its horror seems strong, it shall not hold sway forever. While hate and its minions surround us, their power shall not stand unchallenged. While Death and its forces appear triumphant, they will not reign at last.

“For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many people; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

The promise we hear from the Prophet Isaiah is not rooted in the failing memories or the faltering aspirations of humankind. It is not a promise asking us to remember well enough or to try hard enough or to mourn deeply enough. Indeed, the promise of peace that comes this Remembrance Sunday is not dependent on us at all.

For the promise that rises out of our silence this morning is founded in the everlasting purposes of the Living God. We find strength this day to offer our prayers and praises—strength to commend to God our departed—strength to work for a world wherein nation shall not lift up sword against nation—because we know that these things will be accomplished not by the strength of human power nor the perfection of human might, but by the will of the Lord of Hosts.

So runs the promise. But how, dear people, can we keep faith with that promise? Where do we find our hope in a world still riven by war and hatred?

We keep the faith—we dare to hope in this promise—because that which was announced in the words of the prophets has been fulfilled in the Word made Flesh.

God’s promises have been fulfilled, not in spite of our sorrow but in the midst of it. God’s purposes have been carried out, not in spite of this world’s violence but through it. God’s assurance that “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” has been made manifest not in spite of our blind hatred but by our blind hatred.

For if you would see the price of our warring madness, look to the crucified Jesus! If you would seek for peace in this broken world, cleave to the Cross of Calvary! If you would know the depth of the greater love, hold fast to the Lord of Glory reigning from the tree. Know with fear and trembling that your sin and my sin and all the sins of our vicious race have put him there. Then hear in awe and wonder as he calls you, “Friend.”

That word of love is spoken by the God who would not hold himself apart—who did not keep himself aloof—who would not abandon us to our brokenness, but who came down into the muck and mire of this life; who came down to the bloody front lines of human pain and loss; who came down to die the death of one lonely, forgotten, abandoned, and forsaken. And just as the promise of peace rises out of the silence of our remembrance, so too does the hope of fulfillment—the hope of a new creation—rise from the borrowed tomb of God’s own Son.

Beloved, we are given no assurance that life will be easy—that this world will be kind—that the horrors of war will suddenly become sensible—that every life lost in battle will have served a greater purpose. But what we hear this Remembrance Sunday is the holy promise that nothing—neither pain nor sorrow, neither horror nor hate, neither changes nor chances, neither accidents nor indignities, neither senseless loss nor bitter disappointment, neither inglorious death nor degraded living—nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

For into the trenches of this world, Jesus has come. Onto the battle-scarred face of this earth, God has stepped. In his flesh meets the violence of the victor and the rage of the vanquished. In his body has he borne all our griefs and carried all our sorrows. By his death, we have died. In his life, we are made alive.

So let us pray that, by the tether of his Holy Spirit, he will bind us one to another, and the living to the dead. Let us pray that, by the strength of his grace, by the might of his love, we may rise from the silence of this Remembrance Sunday to commend to his faithful keeping the honored dead. And then let us join our voices with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing their unceasing hymn to the praise and glory of his Name.

AMEN.

[1] “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. New York: New Directions Books, 1965.

“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.

What’s Church for?

A Sermon Preached on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 25, 2014

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

Texts: I Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

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

“Americans lie about how much they go to church.” So read a headline in this week’s Washington Post. The New York Times was a bit more circumspect: their headline simply stated “Americans Claim to Attend Church Much More Than They Do.” But both those stories—and many others in newspapers around the country—pointed to the same study, released last week, that noted something very interesting about the way Americans talk about their church attendance. In a survey conducted through live telephone conversations and self-administered online questionnaires, researchers found that Americans significantly exaggerated their level of religious participation when talking to another person than they did when answering a survey anonymously. This tendency was consistent across social, ethnic, and denominational boundaries, and was even true for the “nones”—that growing group of the American populace who claim no religious affiliation at all.

Now we all know what Mark Twain said about lies and statistics, and I’m not at all interested in spending the morning dissecting with you the most recent results of religious research. What I am interested in, however, is asking the question, “Why?” Why would people lie to complete strangers about the frequency of their church attendance? Why would folks exaggerate the regularity of their religious participation? Why, in our age of diminished denominations and increasingly irreligious popular culture, would people fib about their Sunday morning habits?

The answer, I think, lies in the meaning we attach to going to church. Even in a society rapidly shedding the trappings of Christendom, churchgoing remains a mark of a good, upstanding, decent, moral person. Now I say this neither to flatter all of you who are here in church on a Sunday morning nor to congratulate myself for choosing a career in the Church. Rather, what I mean to say is that even in a time when so many Americans are skeptical about the purpose and value of organized religion, the idea of going to church remains one of the markers of the kind of person most of us aspire to be. Church attendance is another box to check off on our long mental list of good behavior and respectability. And who among us doesn’t want to be considered decent and respectable? Who among us doesn’t want to win the admiration of our peers, the trust of our colleagues, and the love of our families? Who among us doesn’t want to be counted  a good man or woman? So if going to church is one of the ways to “get good,” well then why not go—or at least claim to go?

That desire to be counted good is so strong and so pervasive that it colors not only our perception of going to church, but even our reading of Scripture. Our lessons this morning are, in fact, very often interpreted along the same lines of the perceived benefits of churchgoing: as exhortations to goodness; as instruction manuals for earning the love of God. The drive to be counted good leaps at the words from First Peter as the Apostle urges his hearers to “Keep [their] conscience clear,” and to rejoice when they suffer for their “good conduct in Christ.” The desire to be counted good seizes upon our passage from John’s Gospel, and leads us to read Jesus’ words as if they were the procedure for a transaction: “If you love me”—and that “if” lands on our eager-to-justify ears with all the force of a loophole or a limited-time offer—“If you love me, keep my commandments.” “If you want to prove you’re mine,” Jesus seems to say, “then follow my rules.” It’s as if we hear our Scripture today affirming what some deep whisper in our world has already taught us: “Come to church, be a good person, and God will love you.” Our drive to be thought of as good—our desire to be counted decent, moral, and upstanding by other people—is so strong that this formula has enormous appeal. And why not? For who among us doesn’t want to be counted good?

But the problem with all this way of thinking, beloved, is that it doesn’t work. After all, consider that the respondents to the church attendance study weren’t actually going to church: the desire to be counted good was strong enough to make them lie to strangers, but not strong enough to make them go on a Sunday morning. But what if they had gone? Consider what we know of the Church’s own checkered history: the pervasive sins of pride and arrogance, of uncharity and the love of this world and its trappings, that show their firm grip in every corner of the Christian world, and have caused thousands to turn away in disgust from an institution so profoundly incapable of keeping the commandments we claim. Or consider, dear people, ourselves. Here we are all assembled: the people who actually do come to church on a Sunday morning. Do we dare count ourselves better than our friends and neighbors driving by those doors on the Post Road? Do we presume to commend ourselves for our righteous behavior and our abundant generosity? Do we honestly think that whatever goodness that may accrue to us in the eyes of other people because of our churchgoing is something true and authentic and deep in our being?

Perhaps some of you can answer “yes” to those questions. I confess that I cannot. Coming to church week in and week out does not confirm me in my goodness: it convicts me in my hypocrisy. To stand in this pulpit when it is my privilege to preach to you does not inspire me with morality and authority; it fills me with trepidation and anxiety that I shall be exposed, and revealed, and shown to be what I really am: a poor sinner, whose own human desire to be counted good is constantly and continually overwhelmed by appetites and passions, by rash words and unguarded thoughts, by gloomy doubts and faithless fears. To preside at that altar as we offer our thanks to Almighty God and receive the transforming gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood at his hands does not sate and satisfy my deep hunger for goodness: it reminds me, each and every time, how far my own weak love is from the deep love that is here remembered, enacted, and shared.

But what if, all along, we have been operating under a false notion of what churchgoing is all about? What if the point of coming to church is not, in fact, to be counted good in the eyes of other people? What if the purpose of gathering on a Sunday morning were not, indeed, one ceaseless effort to earn the love of God?

Beloved, hear again the words of the Apostle Peter this morning: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” This is no exhortation to goodness—no appeal to a squeaky clean conscience. This is the announcement that Christ Jesus our Lord—the One who was counted good not simply in the eyes of fellow humans but in the eternal reckoning of God the Father—suffered and died not for the sake of the decent, and the moral, and the upstanding, and the good people of this world, but for the unrighteous: for the folks who don’t come to church each week, and the folks who do come, but who come with fear and trembling, knowing the depth of their lowliness and the gnawing power of their need: for you, and for me.

That astonishing announcement flashes out of the waters of baptism, to which we will come shortly. This little baby does not know what will soon befall him. He has not come here seeking it, and there is nothing he can do to earn it. But what we see at work at this font today is not the human drive to achieve goodness, but God’s unending purpose to draw us to himself. What we see in this font today is not the pretension of perfection but the grace of transformation; not the love of God earned but the love of God poured out abundantly, freely, prodigally, graciously.

And this is the true meaning of the love proclaimed to us by Jesus in John’s Gospel this morning. Banish from your minds and hearts any effort to turn our Lord’s words into a checklist or a condition for earning God’s favor. For what is the new commandment that he has given to us his people? We hear it in the chapter immediately preceding today’s reading: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

“As I have loved you.” This is the key. For how has he loved us? Behold, dear people, the Cross! Jesus’ new commandment and the words he speaks this morning echo down to us from the night before he suffered and died. The Cross is our measuring stick and our signpost for the love of God. The Cross is the supreme and eternal answer to the question, “How has he loved us?” The Cross is our banner and our marching orders.

And in the light of the Cross, we see that Jesus’ words to us today are not a condition for earning his love, but a description of the transforming power of his love poured out for us on Calvary. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” he says, knowing that whatever love we bear for him come from him and carries us back to him, the source and summit of all love. For not only does the Cross announce to us God’s great love for the ungodly—God’s willingness that the righteous should die to save the unrighteous—but this day we learn that in and through that love, you and I are being caught up into the very life of God: lifted by the gift of the Holy Spirit into the abiding love of the Father and the Son, for “on that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

This, at last, is what Church is for, beloved. We come, not as upstanding people confirmed in our decency, but as wandering sinners transformed by his love. We come, not that friends and neighbors may extol our goodness, but that we might sing our grateful praise of the righteous One who died for the unrighteous. We come, not because we are seeking God, or even because we have found him, but because we were sought out and found by Christ Jesus. We come, because he calls.

AMEN.

Behold the wood of the Cross, on which was hung the world’s salvation!

A Sermon Preached on Good Friday, April 18, 2014

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

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

Behold the Servant of the Lord! Behold the Man of Sorrows! Behold the Lamb of God!

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

On this day, we gather at the foot of the Cross. On this day, we behold the Lord Jesus crucified. “To behold” means more than simply “to see.” Beholding begins with an invitation; an announcement; a revelation. We behold that which has been revealed to us—that which has been given us to behold. And more: when we behold something, we take it to ourselves, we participate in it, we share in it, we grasp it. So what is it that is revealed to us on this day? What do we take and claim and grasp as we go in heart and mind to Calvary? What do we behold when we behold Christ Crucified?

We behold, first, the fullness of Jesus’ humanity. The Nicene Creed tells us that “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Nowhere do we see his fleshly nature so clearly—nowhere do we see his identification with the human condition so completely—as on his Cross. But the bitter irony of this revelation is that the Cross was a tool designed and intended for the awful work of dehumanization. In the practice of crucifixion, we behold all the ingenuity, all the creativity, all the efficiency, and all the efficacy of the mighty, sophisticated, advanced Roman empire applied to the task of destroying a human being.

That was what crucifixion was intended to do. A crucified person ceased to be a person through the process of crucifixion. He was stripped naked and exposed, shamed and humiliated before the face of the world. The crowds that gathered to witness the proceedings gleefully added their taunts and mockeries, heaping scorn upon the hapless head of the pierced victim. The death was slow—agonizingly slow—and made the crucified man his own executioner: it was the hanging weight of the crucified body that would, over the course of many hours (and sometimes many days) constrict the rib-cage, making breathing increasingly difficult, and at last impossible.

And then, after death, the power of crucifixion continued. Ordinarily, crucified bodies would not be removed for burial. They would be left to rot in place, exposed to the elements and the animals—denied even the dignity of a grave. This was a punishment reserved for the very lowest of the low—a punishment for the most degraded and depraved of criminals; a punishment for slaves; a punishment for nobodies. It was a punishment that expunged the record of the crucified’s existence—a punishment that removed him from the rolls of the human race.

All of this, then, is what we behold in the Crucified Christ. We behold Jesus, who cared all his life for the lowly and the least, sharing fully and completely in the depths of their suffering. We behold Jesus, who restored the blind to sight, and raised the lame to walk, and cleansed the lepers, and raised the dead, and preached Good News to the poor, taking unto himself all the whips and scorns of human brokenness, sharing completely with the outcasts, the imperfect, the unacceptable, and the unclean. “He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Christ on the Cross enters into the deepest suffering of the human race. He reveals himself to be present with all those who are despised and rejected; all women and men of sorrows; all who are acquainted with grief.

The significance of this identification—of this complete union with the suffering of human beings—cannot be overlooked. For while the Romans invented and perfected that method of dehumanization called crucifixion, yet the deep drive to dehumanize did not begin or end with the servants of Caesar.

We behold that drive at work all through the long annals of our weary world. We behold the drive to dehumanize this year as we remember the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide: one hundred days of terror in 1994 when perhaps as many as a million Rwandans were slaughtered by their countrymen before the gaze of a largely indifferent world. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the senseless killing of innocents caught in the crossfire of the Syrian Civil War. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the murder of three people at a Jewish Center in Kansas. We behold the drive to dehumanize in our own degraded political discourse, in a system that makes those with opposing viewpoints into evil enemies, and that seeks power and profit over the public good. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the cruel taunts of schoolyard bullies and the careless words of workplace tyrants. We behold the drive to dehumanize in the abuse of spouses and the neglect of children. We behold it on the front page of the New York TImes and we behold it in the silent brokenness of our own hearts.

The forces of dehumanization continue their dark and demonic work, and no member of our race stands beyond their reach. By his crucifixion, Jesus enters into this darkness, this suffering. All of this pain, all of this sorrow, Jesus bear in his body on the Cross. Can we grasp how great a wonder this is? Do we dare behold the glory revealed here? As one hymn puts it, “O mysterious condescending! O abandonment sublime! Very God himself is bearing all the sufferings of time!”

And yet, there is more here to behold. There are greater wonders still to be revealed. For this complete identification with those who are made to suffer is not all we behold when we look upon the crucified Lord. The Cross reveals him to us in the fullness of his humanity, and that fullness goes beyond his identification with the victims of dehumanization. It reaches even to the victimizers.

Hear again these words from Chapter 53 of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: “But 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.” What Isaiah is telling us is not simply that Christ on the Cross reveals to us God’s love and care for the lowly and the sorrowful—all the victims of sin. But Christ on the Cross also reveals to us God’s willing self-offering for the guilty and the guileful, the warped and the wicked, the erring and the evil, the delinquent and the damned—for all the perpetrators of sin.

But who are the guilty? Who are “the perpetrators of sin”? When you hear that phrase, does your mind immediately conjure up the image of a certain person or group? Mine does. I think of the people I’ve read about in the paper—the people who are obviously guilty, who deserve punishment, who have done wicked things. I think of people I know who can’t seem to get it together, who can’t seem to straighten their lives out, who can’t seem to pick themselves up. I think of folks who are different from me, folks I disagree with, folks who have hurt me or hindered me, folks I don’t like or don’t understand. When I hear that phrase “perpetrators of sin,” I immediately—immediately!—begin to label and to judge, to place some people within that guilty group, all the while numbering myself and my friends among the ranks of the righteous.

And by that mental process, through that inner sense of judgment and self-righteousness, Behold! I recognize the drive to dehumanize at work in me. I see my own power to deny and degrade the image of God in others. I see my own cavernous capacity for cruelty. I see my own willingness to draw boundaries, to exclude, to despise, and to reject. “He was wounded for our transgressions.” And who were the perpetrators? “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee.”

On the Cross, Christ bears the pain of the sinned against, and the penalty due the sinner. On the Cross, Christ embraces both our brokenness and our ability to break; our pain and our power to cause pain; our sorrow and our sin. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to see revealed—and to claim—the fullness of his humanity, and ours. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to see in one body all the pain and all the sin of the human race: both the sins that you and I have suffered, and the sins that you and I have committed.

And it is to behold one thing more. For the Cross does not reveal the humanity of Christ only: it reveals his divinity as well. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to glimpse and know, and receive, and claim the self-giving love of Almighty God. To behold Jesus on the Cross is to behold God’s love not for the righteous, but for sinners. Paul the Apostle said it in this way: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against him.” “He made him to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This is the Lord’s doing, beloved, and it is marvelous in our eyes!

This instrument of torture, this mark of our misery, this banner of our brokenness, this sign of Sin’s power, this declaration of Death’s grip, has become an announcement of the Love of God! It has become the symbol of our triumph. For by this Cross, God has come to find his lost creation. By this Cross, the Good Shepherd has come to seek his straying and wandering sheep. By this Cross, the King of Glory has come to claim his power and reign. By this Cross, the Creator of the world has come to renew his dead and dying creation. By this Cross, “for our atonement, while we nothing heeded, God interceded.”

I said at the beginning of this sermon that beholding means more than seeing. As you gaze upon this Cross today, may you indeed behold the form of Christ Crucified. May you behold here the fullness of his humanity and yours: the brokenness of this world and the brokenness of your own heart. But even more, may you behold here the love of God that will not let you go. May you behold here the love that comes to seek you, even you, in the depths of your sorrow and in the darkness of your sins. On this Good Friday, may you behold and be held by those arms of love stretched out on the hard wood of the Cross, drawing all the world to himself.

AMEN.