The Good Thing

Reflections for Holy Cross Day, September 14, 2017

 

I want to tell you the story of two Rhodes Scholars. One is named William Jefferson Clinton. He went to Georgetown University on scholarship, Oxford on the Rhodes Scholarship, and Yale Law School. He served as the 40th and 42nd Governor of Arkansas and before that was Arkansas’ Attorney General. He married Hillary Rodham Clinton, also a grad of Yale Law School and US Senator from New York, Secretary of State, and Democratic candidate for President. In 1992, Clinton became President of the United States and in 1996 the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to be elected to a second term. Whatever one thinks of his personal life, he was an effective leader of a powerful country; he left office with the highest end-of-office approval rating since WWII. Fame and fortune, a life that served and influenced a country and in fact the world. Not bad for a kid from the hicks, son of a traveling salesman who abandoned his family soon after his son’s birth.

The other Rhodes Scholar has no name, and I cannot tell you his history, because I do not know it. After he won the Rhodes and got his degree from Oxford he became a priest, and went to serve a poor inner-city church. He served that parish for 40 years. When after many years he ran into my father again, they talked about what they’d been doing with their lives. “I guess, for a Rhodes Scholar, I’m a bit of a failure” the inner-city priest said. One small poor church all my life. On the contrary, my father said. In the eyes of the world, it is true; against the Bill Clintons, his life does not compare. He has no fame or beauty that we should admire him; certainly not a Wikipedia page. But he is the one who is living Jesus’ words.

If any want to come after me, to walk with me and be my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Matt 16:24).

Peter, first among Jesus’ disciples, doesn’t like this one bit. God forbid, Lord! he says, as Jesus tells them for the first time that he is walking towards the cross. God forbid. This shall certainly never happen to you!

What is at issue here is not just the death of Jesus. It is Peter’s whole future, his hopes…and his hopes are hopes of glory. Remember, Peter has just named Jesus “The Christ.” “You are the Messiah,” Peter has said just 4 verses before, “The Son of the living God.” And Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah…You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” “Blessed are you Peter. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

Peter has seen the future, and it looks like a throne. Peter is the friend of the man who will be king…and such a king as never there was. Peter is the friend of the man who will be king in Jerusalem, where the kings of Judah are crowned. It is to Jerusalem the magi came asking “Where is the one born king of the Jews? For we have come to do him homage.” King of the Jews in Jerusalem. And it is to Jerusalem they are heading, right now. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom,” Jesus has said to Peter (Matt 16:19). Peter has seen the future and it looks like a throne, and he is the king’s right-hand man.

And then Jesus says, “We are going to Jerusalem, and the plan is that I am going to suffer a great deal at the hands of the people who matter, and then I am going to be killed” (Matt 16:21).

WHAT???

Oh—and there’s more. It is not going to be a noble death. No battle scars on my chest. It’s going to be whip-marks on my back, and a slave’s cross. He had no form or beauty that we should admire him. No one who is anyone will want to have anything to do with this Jesus called the Christ.

Not even Peter, as it turns out. “I don’t know the man,” Peter will say, as Jesus is on his way to the cross.

Peter loves Jesus. But he denies Jesus’ cross. And this, Jesus says, you cannot do. If you love me, you must follow me. You must take up your cross too. Because Jesus IS his cross.

Matthew tells the story of Peter with great sympathy. When the cock crows the third time, when Peter has yet again denied the Lord he loves in face of the cross, Peter goes out and weeps, and he weeps, Matthew alone tells us, “bitterly.”

Matthew tells the story of Peter with sympathy, because he knows that Peter is like us. We want to love Jesus—more than anything we want to love him. But to love Jesus is to love his cross. And this is a hard thing to do. We are right there with Peter, naming Jesus as the Christ. We are right there with Peter, looking forward to a throne. It is Bill Clinton we admire, and all the stars of Hollywood. We call them “stars” after all! We would agree with the Rhodes Scholar whose name is unknown. His life doesn’t amount to much, in that poor and struggling parish. Better to be a bishop, at least. Certainly that is what most bishops think.

We are people of such privilege, and we believe that privilege and a name, fortune and fame, are a good thing. We hope for a throne. And this is simply human.

But this is not what Jesus says. And note: Jesus doesn’t just say, “No, Peter, you’re wrong.” To Peter who says “God forbid!” to the cross, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!”  Satan. To refuse the cross that is Christ’s, to prefer the life that seeks a throne—this is not just neutral. It is demonic. These good things of the world, powers and privileges, presidencies and episcopacies, wealth, relative or absolute and the endless pursuit of pleasures it makes possible…these are not just neutral. Where there is no cross there is no Christ, and in the pursuit of our privileges and pleasures we are lost to God.

“Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within [our] crozzled hearts” (Cormac McCarthy, The Road [New York: Vintage, 2006], 273).”

The sound of the cherubim lost to our ears.

Cormac McCarthy sees in our self-absorption, the interminable seeking of our own pleasure and profit, the death of the world. “Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel” (The Road, 273). And he is right.

Or he would be right…except for the cross. There is a cross that rises, even over the dying world, the world that is living itself to death, the world without God. For there is a God, and he is a God who hears our cry. He is the God who hears the cry of his people even when they know not why they are crying, even when they know not the name of their God. There is a God even when we deny him and prefer our thrones to his cross. There is a God and he is our God always, even when we are not his.

“I have seen the misery of my people. I have heard their cry. And I have come down to deliver them” (Exod 3:7-8).

This is God’s word to Moses from the burning bush in the time of Israel’s bondage. This is God’s word to us from the cross of Christ, in a world, in a church in flames. “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” God says. “This is my name forever.” I am with you, even when you are not with me. The cross is the sign of our turning away, how far we will go in turning away, turning from God to ourselves and our own fortune. Nail to the cross the one who tells us our pursuit of our own privilege is demonic. Nail him to the cross. The cross is the sign of how far we will go in our desire for a throne. It is darkness at noon, over the world.

And it is also the sun. It is the Son, rising in, rising over the darkened noon, holding God’s faithfulness in his hands. The cross is God with us when we are not with him, suffering the destruction we have worked, lifting us out of our darkness into a new life with him.

It is a life that has the shape of the cross. It is the only way, in a world in the grip of sin, drowning in its own debris. If we would love God, if we would try to speak God’s love in this world as it is, the cross is the only way. It is the necessary shape of our lives. The priest with no name in that inner-city parish, spending all his life, his great gifts, his Rhodes scholarship and Oxford degree, pouring out his life with and for these few poor people: here the cross rises. Here the Son rises, Jesus shining in these unsung lives.

For all of us, this is a word of hope. The cross—wherever it meets you (and if you are living your life right it will meet you)—the cross is the good thing. Never forget that. The cross is the good thing.

So lift it up! Stand up for Jesus. Lift up your cross, and sing.

 

Art:

Marc Chagall: Exodus

Marc Chagall: Moses with the Burning Bush

 

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Abraham and Isaac

Genesis 22:1-19. Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

https://www.wikiart.org/en/marc-chagall/the-sacrifice-of-isaac-1966

Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.

Who is this God?

This is not the God we think we know—the God of “gentle Jesus meek and mild/bless and keep this little child.”

This is a God ancient and untamed, who is not conformed to our expectations. This is a God who is other. This is a story to remind us (in the first place) that God is God.

And this is useful, because we are constantly tempted to make God in our own image. We want God to be nice, and we think we know what nice is.

Indeed, we’re in the process of re-writing the Bible so that God will be nice. I am often amused to note, as I read Morning Prayer, that parts of the Bible readings for the day have been bracketed out—often in the psalms. All the imprecations are gone: “May their table be a snare!” “May his children wander about and beg!” “May his memory be cut off from the earth/ For he did not remember to show kindness/ but pursued the poor and needy and the brokenhearted to their death.” All that is gone, bracketed out—along with many passages from other OT narratives and several from Paul—because surely this is not who God is. Surely God is not this God of vengeance; surely God is nice, and knowable, and looks like us when we’re dressed up and on our best behaviour.

Genesis 22 throws a spanner in that idea.

After this God tested Abe, and he said, “Take your son whom you love and offer him as a burnt offering to God.”

This is not a God of our designing, and the discomfort we feel at this story reminds us of that. This God is sovereign and infinitely free; it is he who has made us, and not we him.

I have just come down from two days at the family cottage on Georgian Bay. In the city we are constantly surrounded by the works of our own hands. But there on the island in the midst of the crashing waters of the Bay I am suddenly face to face with the works of God’s hands. And standing under that vast sky on a point of bare rock looking out upon an endless horizon it is awe that I chiefly feel.

I hear the voice of Job’s God.

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place?…Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades/or loose the cords of Orion?”

The glory of God, Paul says in Romans—God’s eternal power and divine nature—can be clearly seen through the things he has made. It is glory that we have to do with in God, and it will not be contained.

This is the God of revelation, not of our own designing.

And that means two things. It means God cannot be circumscribed. God is other, and we don’t get to bracket out what we don’t understand. The glory of the God who reveals himself to us is (as Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it) the glory of a sovereign and infinite freedom.

But this God is precisely the God of revelation. He speaks to us. Out of the whirlwind God SPEAKS to Job. “Gird up your loins like a man,” God says to Job. “I will question you and you shall declare to me.” The God of Orion and the Pleiades speaks to Job. It is remarkable. And today God speaks to Abraham. In his sovereignty and infinite freedom he chooses this man. And he says, “Abraham! Take your son.”

And so Abraham does.

What is the other side of God’s glory, the majesty and freedom out of which he speaks to us? It is perhaps our willing listening. Obedience, it might be called.

“Here I am,” Abe says.

And he takes his son and the donkey and the wood for the fire and he walks to Mt. Moriah. Can you imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind? The biblical narrative does not tell us—at least explicitly. The story keeps a great silence just on this point, the very thing we want to know: what Abraham is thinking at this Word of God, surely (it must seem to Abraham) an impossible word. What anguish must he feel! Job’s anguish, the great “Why.” Why, Lord? What about your promises? What about the good life I have lived? What about my love for this son you have given me? The biblical narrative gives us none of this. It gives us only what Abraham does.

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey ad took two of his young men with him and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.

Abraham does what God asks of him. This is not to say there is no anguish. Abraham’s love for his son is heard every step of the way. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.”

My son. Child of the promise, child of my heart. My son. So the two of them walked on together. The father and his only son.

It is just in the narrative’s silence that we hear the great trial of faith that is going on. How is it possible to keep walking toward that mountain, to look up – on the third day – and see it there?

It is a journey of faith. And what matters on this journey, in the life lived before God’s word, is not Abraham’s inner dialogue. It is just two things.

It is God’s sovereign Word: “Abraham!”—this word that out of an infinite glory, out of an infinite freedom, speaks our name.

And it is Abraham’s “Here I am.”

Abraham follows. He goes where God sends him, and the question that hangs over the narrative, the question that hangs over his heart, the great silent “Why, Lord?” he never once utters. He says only, “God will provide.”

Abraham’s faith is this: to hear the Word of God—“Abraham”—that utterly surprising word, our name, from the mouth of the immortal, invisible, God only wise; to hear this Word of God, his own name, and to say “Here I am.”

Abraham follows in the way God asks him to go, though surely he cannot see God’s purpose. He follows though this way seems to contradict the purpose he believes he knows, the promises God has made to him (I will make of you a great nation. Your offspring shall be as many as the sands of the sea).

Abraham follows in the way God asks him to go.

And in the course of Abraham’s following—this “here I am” that is faith, that is listening, that is the encounter with the sovereign and infinitely free God that faith makes possible—in the course of Abraham’s following, God reveals himself, his purpose, to Abraham again. Once again God calls Abraham’s name. Abraham! Abraham!

And Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in a thicket by its horns, and offered it up instead of a burnt offering in place of his son Isaac. So Abraham called that place “the Lord will Provide.”

Abraham follows God’s word, and in his obedience and in his faith he leads us to the place where God’s will is known. For Christians this ram points straight to Jesus Christ. It is the will of God precisely to provide a lamb for the sacrifice, to allow his Son, his only Son, whom he loves, to take the place of Abraham’s son, of all the dear sons who in the justice of God otherwise deserve to die.

This is the Word of God: the Lord himself will provide.

We all stand in the place of Isaac, and it is God’s glory to call us to the place of sacrifice, every Sunday at every Eucharist to the place of worship, where we find his son offered up in our place, where we find Christ and a cross.

Abraham walks to Mt Moriah in obedience and in anguish. He walks with the wood on his son’s back. And on the third day he finds in the very place of death the grace of God. He finds the everlasting arms.

This is who God is. But this God can only be known by listening to him. All our own words will not do it. All our own words—however hard we try to be nice—will only obscure God’s word. They will only lead us away.

True Grit: the movie is just out on Netflicks. In it Mattie, “Little Sis” thinks she knows about justice, even the justice of God. Little Sis herself is going to provide it. So she sets out into the wild west with a couple gunslingers, and her will is done. Only–justice in her hands turns out not to be quite what she thought it would be. Justice in her hands breeds corpses and the snake-pit. “Nothing is free,” she says in a voice-over at the beginning of the movie, as she sets out toward vengeance; “nothing is free…except the grace of God.”

Towards the movie’s end, in the wake of her justice, she and her cowboy are racing for their lives across the scrub and the night sky is as vast as the desert and the stars touch the earth. There is a glory that is bigger than her will, a glory known in the things God has made, and her life and all the lives of this earth and the justice of them—this is not in her hands.

When the horse can go no further the cowboy carries her through the desert under the vast and silent sky in his arms. And at the end of the road there is a song. It’s an old gospel song: The Everlasting Arms.

The eternal God is your dwelling-place, and underneath are the Everlasting Arms (Deut 33:27).

Little Sis’s justice leads to the place of death. And there she discovers the vastness of the desert sky and underneath, the Everlasting Arms. The Eternal God is our dwelling place. We say it at every funeral. Abraham said it with every step towards Mount Moriah. This is the glory of the Lord. The eternal God is our dwelling place—even in the desert, even at the place of death—the eternal God is our dwelling place and underneath are the everlasting arms.

There is nothing free in this world but the grace of God.

Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Ecce Homo: Good Friday 2017

Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple cloak. And Pilate said to them, “Here is the man.”

 On the Sunday of this Holy Week, Palm Sunday—as we waved palms and celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as its king—Christians in Egypt were dying. On the Monday of this Holy Week, Fr. Boules George, their priest, said this:

“A message to those who kill us: we thank you; we love you; and we pray for you.”

“We thank you—though you will not believe it—because you have made it possible for us to die like Jesus.”

“We love you—though you will not understand it—because this is what Jesus has asked us to do.”

“We pray for you, so that you may know this Jesus, so that you may know this love, too.”

He said it simply and without anger or bitterness. We thank you, because you have made it possible for us to die like Jesus.

What is this death, that makes of death this victory?

Ecce homo: here is the man. Here is the man like us. This death is, first, Jesus with us.

Here in the thorns that pierce his brow, here is the suffering of the world. Here is the harm that we do, the work of our hands, and that harm that we suffer at the hands of others. For there is, indeed, much harm. Small and great, more often small than great—ordinary; that is the harrowing thing—the wrong that we do shadowing our ordinary days.

The people around Jesus are a study in ordinary harm.

Caiaphas, the politically astute. “It is better,” he says, “for one man to die than for the whole people to be destroyed.” Better, Caiaphas thinks, to serve up to the Romans one innocent man and nip any charges of insubordination in the bud, than to risk Roman vengeance on a patriotic mob. Jesus an expedient sacrifice, in the interests of maintaining the peace—the peace with Rome that serves Caiaphas, high priest by permission of Rome, so well.

Pilate: “Look,” he says. “I am bringing this man out to you so that you may know that I find no case against him.” Pilate knows that Jesus does not deserve to die. But Pilate is afraid: afraid of the people, afraid of God, caught between these two fears; afraid to take the course he is increasingly sure is right. And maybe, too, he just doesn’t care that much. So he becomes the first post-modern man. “What is truth,” after all? Life is hardly black and white; there are so many shades of grey. Do not ask me to take a stand for the truth. Especially do not ask me to take a stand for this truth, for this man whom everyone has turned against, at whom everyone jeers…for this truth that might cost me my position. “If you release this man,” the people say, “you are no friend of Caesar.” And so Pilate hands Jesus over to them to be crucified.

Expediency, cowardice, self-interest. These are the leaders of the people.

Then there are Jesus’ friends. Judas, who betrays him for money. And Peter, who loves Jesus and honours him and is afraid. “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” the slave-girl asks. “Not me,” Peter says. Not me. I do not know the man. Ouk eimi: I am not he, Peter says; exactly the opposite of what Jesus has said just minutes before. “Whom do you seek?” Jesus says to the mob with their weapons. “Jesus of Nazareth,” they say. And Jesus says, “Ego eimi.” “I am he.” “I am not he,” Peter says. Ouk eimi. Not me.

What is truth? Pilate says. This is truth, this crucified man and the people who crucify him, on what is for Pilate just another day. Here is truth about the world in these people like other people, who love and are afraid, who choose self-interest and fail to speak up; these people like us, who see the face of the Son of God, and turn away.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God. For our hearts are walled against Thee.

There is a painting in Venice by Tintoretto. 

Ecce homo, Pilate says in crimson robes, gesturing out into the room. Ecce homo: here is the man. There is Jesus beside him, thorns round his head and blood in his eyes. And not once, in Tintorettos’ great Passion series, not once does Pilate look Jesus in the eye. We are the people who see the face of God in his Son Jesus Christ, and turn away.

We turn away…because to look at Jesus is to see what is true. It is to see the harm that we do. It is to see the stripes on his back and hear the people’s cry. Here is the man, Pilate says, gesturing out into the room. Crucify him, is all our cry.

What is this death? It is the death we choose, a darkness that rises over the world. It is the lies we tell and the fear that chokes us and the violence we do and that is done to us. It is our refusal to look the Son of God in the eye.

This death is our turning away; our hearts, our world, alone and lonely. My God,  my God, the dying man says, why have you forsaken me? And from the 6th hour, darkness came over the whole earth.

 And this is the judgement, John says, that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. Caiaphas and Pilate, Judas and Peter. You and I. This death is ours. It is where we are. And people loved the darkness.

This death is ours.

And: it is Jesus’ death too.  For God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son.

 This death is Jesus’ death, and so it is God with us, this truth too.

In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. Through him all things were made… In him was life, and the life was the light of the world. And the light shines in the darkness…. From the beginning of creation to this day, the light shines in the darkness.

In the darkness, here on this day, in this darkness the light shines. And the darkness did not overcome it. For Jesus who is our light is with us, even here.

God with us, God with our sorrowing and selfish hearts, precisely here. And this is the judgement. That God is with us, in Christ, in this heart of our darkness, not to condemn but to save.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for You

As yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend.

 You shine and seek to mend. The death of Jesus is this cross that shines, this love that seeks to mend.

For the death of Jesus, his cross, is not just suffering, this darkness, the harm that we do. It is suffering love. “For Jesus shares himself out,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict, says. Jesus shares himself out: this is my body, given for you. This is what the Last Supper means. This is what our every Eucharist means. It is the meaning of the cross. “[Jesus] shares himself out as the one who has been split up and torn apart,” for our sake on the cross torn apart, now the body and the blood. Jesus shares himself out in the torn body and the blood. From his torn side flows water and blood, water in our desert, life for a thirsting world. This death of Jesus is his great act of self-giving love.

What is this death that makes of death a victory? It is God with us, and his Word is love. Love for our self-seeking, truth in the face of hatred; forgiveness for our fear.

Light in our darkness, this death, taking our hatred and lifting it up to God and giving it back to us as love. We love you, the Coptic priest said. We love you. We love you as Jesus has loved us. We love you with the love that takes this death, the terrible harm that we do to each other, and suffers it, and gives it back to this world as love.

This is my body given for you: “in these words Jesus transforms death,” Ratzinger says,  “into…the act of self-sharing love; into the act of adoration, which is offered to God and from God is made available to [humanity].” We pray for you, the Coptic priest says: in this prayer their deaths offered to God, their act of self-sharing love.

We pray for you. And we thank you.

Because you have given to us to die this death, the death that Jesus died. This death that shines with the grace of God, that shines with the constancy of God, this death that shines and seeks to mend.

Light in our darkness, this death of the Christ.

Jesus rises, in Tintoretto’s fnal passion painting, crucified over the ordinary day. And from his thorn-crowned head blazes such a light.

We thank you, for you have given us to die a death like his.

What is this death? It is truth in the pierced hands of God. “In this death, the destruction of love, which is what death means in itself, becomes the means of establishing it.” This death is love’s enduring constancy.

Jesus our Lord, we thank you.

Amen.

Christ the King

Nov 20, 2016

The Feast of the Reign of Christ. Christ the King: this is the final moment of the Christian year: everything, the birth and the death and the resurrection, the ministry of healing and teaching and the outpouring to the Spirit; the birth of the church; everything leads up to this day. Crown him with many crowns! we sing. Jesus reigning over all creation. Redeem the time; our own lives redeemed. This is the end toward which the year and our whole life as Christians moves.

It is an end we badly need. The news has been full this week of footage from Aleppo. The whole East section of the city is nothing but rubble, and yesterday the last hospital in the city was bombed. Where now to care for the wounded?

The city is being destroyed by rebels and the leaders of the nations. Is it Russia or Syria who is bombing? No one seems to know. The city is being destroyed and the people are scattered. How many million refugees now from Syria alone?

Jeremiah knew about this time.

“Woe to the shepherds,” he cries as Babylon looms on Israel’s horizon. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, says the Lord” (Jer 23:1). Jeremiah was talking about the siege of Jerusalem and its eventual destruction. The great city of David was, like Aleppo, reduced to rubble, and the temple, the place of God’s presence among the nations, the beacon of God’s presence among the nations, was burned, and the people were carried away from their homes into a long exile.

A voice is heard in Ramah, Jeremiah says;

Weeping and loud lamentation.

Rachel weeping for her children

And she will not be comforted,

For they are no more. (Jer 31:15)

 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, says the Lord.

There is a fracturing that runs deep in the history of the world, nation rising against nation and people divided against themselves; children lost and the noblest works of human hands—Solomon’s great temple in 587 BC; ancient Palmyra just a year or so ago—destroyed. In our own time Aleppo, and in our own place, here in Toronto, in our own diocese, the fracturing of the Anglican church.

Jeremiah finds the problem in the failure of the shepherds, because their task is precisely to shepherd: to keep the people close to their God. But in Jeremiah’s time the shepherds are running scared, and they turn to the pagan nations around them, trusting in the power of the secular state rather than in the power of the unseen God. Behind the destruction and the scattering there is a failure to walk with God, and the failure is often quite concrete. The leaders are politicians rather than people of prayer.

And this too, like the fracturing that haunts the world, is a temptation that runs deep. The two are connected. If we are beleaguered and threatened, if our churches are bleeding people, let us turn, we say, to the nation around us. Let us seek our strength in its wisdom; let us follow the mind of a majority that does not know God, and find in their ways our salvation.

Woe to the shepherds, Jeremiah says, who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.

This way lies only disintegration. It is not here that we will find our help.

Our help, as the psalmist knows, is in God, the Lord of heaven and earth. It is not in the world that does not know God. We are here in the midst of the world for the sake of the world, to stand in its midst as a beacon, a people lit and shining and healed by prayer.

We are the people who proclaim Christ’s reign. Yet we act as if Christ’s reign is not true, as if it were not the culmination of everything we do in the worship of the church, the end toward which all our worship leads.

When we ask, “Where is God in this,” in this fracturing that haunts our world and our church, it is a good idea to remember that we choose often to act as if there were no God.

This day, this Feast of Christ the King, stands here at the culmination of the Christian year to call us back. Remember that it is God who is our shepherd. Remember that we are first of all people of prayer. We are the people who turn to God first of all, and last.

Christ the King is our wake-up call, and it is one we badly need.

But it is also—because after all this is God we are talking about, God who is not only judge but also always shepherd—this day is also our sign of hope.

For Christ rises over the world as King on this day, and his throne has the shape of the cross. Luke sees the hope this day offers, and he offers it to us with characteristic grace.

And when they came to the place called the Skull they crucified him there with two criminals—two wrongdoers, the Greek says—one on his right hand and one on his left (Luke 23:33).

This, the inscription read over his head, This is the King of the Jews.

To the bystanders, to the leaders of the people and the Roman soldiers, it is a joke. Here is the King of the Jews, dying between two criminals on a cross. Some king.

But for Jesus, this is the whole point.

It is on the cross that he is with us. It is the criminals, the wrong-doers, those who have wandered far from God; it is the wrongdoers he cares about. It is precisely when we are at the place of the skull that God is with us.

And when by our turning away from him we bring on ourselves our own destruction, then he is with us to save.

This is what God’s power looks like. It looks like faithfulness, the faithfulness that endures, the love that pours itself out – even to death – for the people who are dying. God is the shepherd who does not destroy and scatter, but gives his very life to save.

Do you not fear God? The second criminal says. We are paying the just penalty for what we have done, but his man has done nothing wrong.

This man has done nothing wrong, and he is standing with us, he is suffering with us, in the place of the cost of the wrong we have done. In the place of our scattering. In the place of our dying. He is suffering with us to save.

This is the love that gives itself, not just to be there with us in the place of disintegration, but to restore. To bring us back. It is not solidarity we are talking about, but salvation. It is Christ the King with whom we have to do.

Jesus, remember me, the wrongdoer says, when you come into your kingdom.

And Jesus, dying there beside him, says, Today. Today you will be with me in Paradise.

For today is the day the kingdom dawns. This is the day of Christ’s reign, this day when he dies between two thieves on a cross. This is the place of his reign, here between the thieves at the place of the Skull.

O love, how deep, how broad, how high.

Luke knows that Christ is king. And he knows that his throne is a cross, because this is where God is with us. To the world it is foolishness. But to us who are being saved, Christ the power and the wisdom of God.

Christ the king. The sun and the moon rise under his lifted arms, his arms lifted on the cross. He holds the whole world in his hands, and the serpent is crushed under his crucified feet: Christ the image of the unseen God, first-born of creation, first-born from the dead (Col 1:15, 18). Here is the power, all the saving power of God. Here in Christ crucified, dying between two thieves on the cross.

So in this time, so in all times of scattering and division, Aleppo’s destruction and the fracturing of the Anglican church, he calls us to turn to him. We come at the end of the Christian year to the Christ: Jesus Christ, rising over time and all things on the cross. Christ with us in our failure and in our great need, Christ holding the sun and the moon in his arms. This day he asks us to be with him.

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom. Let this be the prayer of our hearts, at the first moment of every day and at the last. Let this be our hope and our guide. Just this: Jesus. Christ our King. Let us turn to him.

Art: Crucifixion of Christ, by Bartolomeo Passerotti.

Thanksgiving

(Maple Saplings, October. Painting by Tom Thomson, 1915)

It is a beautiful Canadian Thanksgiving weekend. On Friday as I walked to the church the sun was a blessing on my face and the children were playing in the park and there was that golden light in the trees that is the peculiar beauty of the fall. Nature has conspired with the civic holiday to lift up our heLuke 17:11-19)arts, to make us feel that our Thanksgiving is joined with a greater song: and in this it is pointing to something true.

It is something that the story of the 10 lepers helps us unpack (Luke 17:11-19). What is Thanksgiving about? Certainly it has to do with turkey and family and friends; the acknowledgement that in these things our lives are blessed. Under this, however, lies something more, something beyond our own celebrations and embracing them, something embracing those who have no celebration, a larger story of a world that is beautiful and a world that is lost, and Jesus who comes to save. It is a leper who shows us what thanksgiving is.

When Jesus meets the lepers he is, Luke tells us, on his way to Jerusalem. In fact we already know that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s been on his way to Jerusalem since chapter 9, and this is chapter 17. So Luke’s reminder here is pointed, and we will come back to Jerusalem in a minute. Ten lepers meet Jesus as he walks toward Jerusalem and they stand far off and cry, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

They stand far off because they are lepers, after all, and they are commanded to keep away lest they bring uncleanness upon the people. “They shall live alone,” Leviticus 13 says; “their dwelling shall be outside the camp.”

This is the state of things in their lives when the lepers cry out to Jesus. They are sick and they are alone; they are cast out from they people. They are the ones who are named unclean. Like the scapegoat, cast out of the city with the whole people’s sin on its head, the lepers bear in their bodies the burden of an uncleanness that is, however, not limited to them alone.

This last is a difficult thing to admit.

I still remember a “newspaper article” we read in 7th grade about the people of a primitive place called Latipsoh and how they treated their sick and dying. Like the lepers of ancient Israel, the sick and dying of Latipsoh were cast out, segregated from the healthy in large institutions populated entirely by the sick and dying. We 7th graders were incensed at this unfeeling treatment—and then our teacher revealed the punch line. Read Latipsoh backwards. What does it spell?

It was not a fair treatment of hospitals, where in my experience nurses and doctors work long hours with untold patience and kindness to care for people who are suffering. But the point about our society stands: we too remove the old and sick and dying from our sight. We wish to cast out the uncleanness from the camp, to assure ourselves that is belongs to someone else. But it cannot be done. Every one of us is going to die. This is in part simply a fact of life. But it is also a theological statement. In the midst of life, the BCP funeral service says, we are in death. The BCP is talking to us, and it is talking not just about the physical reality of death but about the darkness of this life. Rwanda, Aleppo; the harm that we do; the recalcitrance or misery that sits from time to time like a raven over our hearts. In the midst of life we are in death. I used to find the BCP’s words morbid, like my friend who collected 19th -century mourning rings. But here’s the thing. It is true. And if our life is to be true, it has to take account not only of the beauty of the world on this Thanksgiving weekend, but of its heartbreak too. What is the life that is true, that shows us how to walk in the joy of a perfect fall day at the beginning of Thanksgiving past the newspaper box from which Aleppo stares out at us in ruins? How shall we sing the Lord’s song in the beautiful and haunted land?

In its own history, Israel comes to see that the leper is an image for the people as a whole. When the people of Israel sit by the waters of Babylon mourning their own devastation, the destruction of the temple and the casting out from the holy city of the holy people of God, they finds in the leper the image for exiled Jerusalem.

Away! Unclean!” people shouted at them;

                        “Away! Away! Do not touch!”

            So they became fugitives and wanderers;

                        It was said among the nations,

                        “They shall stay here no longer” (Lam 4:15)

Now in Luke’s Gospel it is precisely the lepers who come to Jesus. Ten of them, the quorum for a synagogue of Israel. The lepers stand far off, and from their exile they make their cry:

Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.

Jesus, Master. This is the beginning of the song.

For Jesus our Master is on his way to Jerusalem, and in this lies the hope that runs under all things. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and there he will die. He will die as a criminal dies, with a thief on either side of him. He will die outside the city with those who are cast out. He will die on a cross, like the lepers as one unclean.

The lepers who are healed on the road to Jerusalem are signs, promises, anticipations of the great act of healing that is to come. In Jerusalem it will happen. Thief, leper, outcast, every dying woman and man, on the cross Jesus is with all of these. Jesus is for all of these; he is the one who dies the deaths that we die. It is the cross that is our hope. There it is, sign of all the uncleanness that casts out, now the sign of healing.

The lepers are healed on the road to Jerusalem because that is who Jesus is. The knowledge of his love is the joy that runs under all things. Here is the source of all thanksgiving, all our song’s fresh spring.  For the joy of the sun on a lovely fall day and the trees and the children playing, the joy of turkey and family and friends, these good blessings of our lives are not made null by the suffering and the sin that is true at the very same time. Jesus stands between. His arms stretched out across the ruined places to draw the outcast in. It is the leper Jesus touches with the mercy of God to write God’s love on his skin. To write God’s love, the will of God to heal, on all the heart’s lost places.

Nine of the lepers find in their healing, in their own skin, the blessing itself. That is enough for them—and it is indeed a great deal—and they go on their way.

One of them hears a greater song. One of them finds the blessing in Jesus, and in a whole world set right.

(Ten Lepers, painting by Bill Hoover. http://billhooverart.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Stir-3.jpg)

It is not just the beauty of the day that we sing, on a Thanksgiving weekend; not just the turkey and the family and the friends. We sing Jesus the Master and his healing cross, the blessing at the heart of all things. There is a song that thrums in the world’s very bones, and the trees of the fall blaze with its joy. Thanksgiving is more than a weekend. It is the word creation sings. For we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power and the wisdom of God. Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus our Lord: it is the word that makes an agèd man more than a paltry thing.

And it is the action at the root of our lives. Eucharisteō: I give thanks. This is what the word Eucharist means. Each week we turn to Jesus with the leper and give thanks, each week at this altar we lift our voices; with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we lift our voices and sing. Thanksgiving is the act, the truth, at the centre of our lives, not just this weekend but always. Our celebrations with the family around the table this weekend are pointers to a larger joy. For Christ has died and Christ is risen, and even our hearts are brought in.

How can we keep from singing?

Reflections for the Great Vigil of Easter

This holy night is radiant with our good news. Out of the darkness, now this light.

I love the way the light dawns in the Great Vigil of Easter: from nothing—absolute nothing, the utter darkness of the grave—a new fire.

This is the truth about this day; this is what we celebrate and proclaim in Holy Week and at Easter.

We have been taken down to nothing: the blackness of the grave. That is where we find ourselves in the aftermath of the cross. On that cross our ‘No’ writ large, ‘no’ to God’s grace, ‘no’ to God’s healing, so many ways of turning away from our God, from our good, from our life. So many ways of dying to the light, and all of them come to a head on Good Friday, in Christ dying, on the cross.

There is our light and our life—if we only knew it—the immeasurable love and life of God nailed by our own hands to the cross. And there was darkness over the whole earth…. All things on Good Friday reach their nadir, their absolute zero. The good world God has made disintegrates into darkness again.

In this darkness we come here tonight as the women came while it was still dark to the tomb. We come in the utter emptiness that is the world without God.

And here on this holy night, out of the darkness of the death at our hands of the Son of God—suddenly a new fire, the light of Christ.

When we light that new fire, when the Paschal candle burns, down the dark aisle of the church, we announce the world’s new birth.

It starts as a promise, a few candles in a great darkness, the words of all the prophets from the birth of the world to Zephaniah, telling in the darkness God’s faithfulness and God’s power, the promise through years of the world’s wandering again and again into the valley of the shadow of death, the promise again and again of life.

From God’s first word in creation—let there be light!—through the Red Sea, into the place of dry bones and beyond it to Zephaniah’s hope, the promise is heard. God is for us. Even in our darkness God is for us. Who then will be against us?

The promise sounds in the scriptures down through the ages and then it sounds in Jesus the Christ.

It sounds in his birth and in his life, his word of mercy and truth; his hands that touch and heal; his feet that walk the world to proclaim the time of God’s redemption. The promise sounds in Christ’s life and it sounds finally in his death.

Here, it turns out, here beyond all expectation in the darkness of the tomb, God is with us finally, here in this last darkness, to save.

Out of the darkness the new light springs.

Alleluia! Christ is risen. And the darkness forever is changed. No longer the end; no longer the place only of tears; even the tomb by the power of God, by His unfathomable love, the place now of life.

And the light shines in the darkness—

Word of God here with us

Word of God spoken in the beginning now spoken again: let there be light. Kaine ktisis, Paul says, new creation.

And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

So we ring our bells and sing, this night, sing for the coming of the light.

Alleluia, Christ is risen.

Here in our midst God’s promise, our true light.

 

 

Image:

Taize cross and candle, courtesy of https://www.stjohnthedivine.bc.ca/file/taize-candle-8493584444a3affe9c0akjpg

Lent V: On Dying

Jesus said to Judas, “Let her be. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:8).

It is, it seems to me, fitting that the recent statement from the Government of Canada on Doctor-Assisted Suicide (or “MAID” as it is being called: Medical Assistance in Dying, to cover nurses and other health-care providers as well) has been released during Lent, as we are on our way toward Jesus’ dying. For dying—Jesus’ dying—stands at the heart of our faith. Nor is it just any dying. It is death on the cross. It is dying in great suffering; suffering and death together. Always, over all we do and say and pray this Lent—over all we do and say and pray in all of our lives—the cross rises, Jesus’ suffering death. And we claim it as our good news.

This is the mystery at the heart of our faith. Jesus’ dying, his suffering death, is Good Friday, our good news.

That suffering death may be good news is very hard to hear. Every instinct cries out against it, because death ends a life that we know to be precious and suffering lays a pall over it. If life and health are good—and they are; our life is from the beginning God’s good gift and God desires us to flourish—then suffering and death are bad. That is why the current euthanasia movement has so much traction. It offers an escape from suffering and if it cannot offer an escape from death, it can at least offer control over it. Death be not proud, we wish to say. We will not let suffering and death get the better of us. And so, in an irony that no one seems to see, we rush to die.

Jesus, however, offers a better way. In his life and in his dying Jesus raises a giant question-mark against all programs of euthanasia, however well-meaning, all programs that encourage us to kill ourselves and each other, and offers a different way. It is a way that is rooted in love. For Jesus, too, knows the agony that death is, in the world. He knows the pain of suffering and he grieves to see it; he reaches out to the blind man and the leper and the woman who is bleeding to take their suffering away. Jesus weeps at Lazarus’ tomb. Jesus knows about the agony of dying and he walks with us there. He is walking with us there today, in John’s Gospel, on this fifth Sunday of Lent (John 12:1-8).

Jesus is in Bethany at the home of his friends, Mary and Martha and Lazarus. His friends are having a dinner party. Martha was serving, and Lazarus was there—Lazarus whom, John adds laconically, Jesus raised from the dead. Mary takes a jar of myrrh, precious and very costly, and pours it all over Jesus’ feet. She anoints his feet with oil and then she dries them with her hair.

And the house was filled, John tells us, with the scent of the myrrh. This is a moment of beauty: Mary’s hair soft on Jesus’ feet, the air rich with myrrh; the beauty of the world poured out in love from a heart that is full.

For Lazarus is at the feast. Lazarus, Mary’s brother, whom she loves: he is at the feast, eating with Jesus, and in the very last chapter he was in the tomb. This is John 12. In John 11, Lazarus died. He was very sick; his sisters begged Jesus to come, and Jesus said, “This sickness is not for death but for the glory of God. It is so that the Son of Man may be glorified in him.” It must have seemed an incomprehensible thing to say; heartless even, when Lazarus lay dying and Jesus could have healed him. “Lord,” Mary would say later, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But Jesus was not there and Lazarus died, and his sisters laid him in the tomb. And at his tomb, Jesus wept. “See how he loved him!” those who saw it said.

And this is the point. Jesus loved Lazarus, and so he wept for his death. He wept with all those who grieved for Lazarus. Jesus wept for love of his friends, and for sorrow at their dying.  For we were not made to suffer and die. We were made to live, to live in joy in the garden, in the midst of the beauty of the earth. And God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good. Death is an offense against God’s good creation.

But it is our offense. It goes back to the beginning, and the garden, and our desire not to walk with God. “You shall not die,” the serpent said to the woman, “but you shall be as gods.” No longer walking with God of an evening in the garden, but walking as gods ourselves, walking by ourselves, in our own way. The turn to the individual: it goes back a long way, Genesis suggests.

And it is the defining mark of our time.  To walk without God, I by myself in lonely splendor; to walk without God into a future that finally holds death. This is what we choose, in the sovereignty of the individual. And even in death we turn to ourselves, seeking sovereignty. If I must die, I will do it myself. I will choose the time and the place: help me, we say to each other, to kill myself. In this world I am at the centre of all that is…and so in this world my death is the end.

We are bound by our dying like Lazarus in his grave-clothes. There is no way out.

And it is here that Jesus meets us. Jesus weeps at our solitude, and at our dying. He stands with us at the mouth of the tomb and says, “Lazarus, come out.”

And the dead man came out; his feet and hands bound with burial cloths and his eyes wrapped with a linen band. And Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

 Lazarus lives at Jesus’ word; Lazarus lives whom Jesus loved, and the world sees in the Son of Man the glory of God.

Is it any wonder that Mary’s heart overflows? My brother who was dead is alive again; he who was lost is found. Because of the love of Jesus he is alive again, because Jesus comes to him; because Jesus stands with him in the face of the tomb.

Mary anoints Jesus as king, this one in whom death is defeated, and she dries his feet with her hair for love of him.

It is love that has the victory here: the love of Jesus that weeps for his friend and stands with him even at the tomb; Jesus’ love, and Mary’s love in return. Love is stronger than death.

This is the great promise brought to birth on this day, in Lazarus who lives again and myrrh-bearing Mary. Love is stronger than death. This is the real truth about the world, the truth in which Mary joys, for which she spends and is spent: so much money, this precious oil, poured out all over Jesus’ feet. It is the truth that Judas does not know.

Love is stronger than death, in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is the truth at the end of the world, and it changes everything. It is death’s redemption, the reason we can die, the reason we can suffer, and not be afraid.

Because Jesus is there with us. For love of us he is with us at the tomb and his love calls us out.

To this also Mary witnesses, when she pours the myrrh over Jesus’ feet. The glory of the Lord, his power over all the powers of death, over all that would harm and destroy on his holy mountain; the glory of the Lord is known in his dying.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus says to Judas, who is appalled at the profligacy of Mary’s love. Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. The love that reaches out to Lazarus in his tomb leads straight to the cross. Lazarus alive again points toward Jesus’ death. So that we might not die but live: Jesus’ love has the shape of the cross. Mary pours out her heart to the one who loves her even unto death.

This is the shape of the world, this love and this cross. Christ at the heart of all things—never we alone. Christ with us always, even and especially in our dying; dying now with hope; dying whose end now is life.

It is a world made beautiful again by love even where it is most terrible, even in suffering death. It is a life made by love cross-shaped.

It is in Christ the shape of our lives.

That I may know Christ, Paul says, and the power of his resurrection and the sharing in his sufferings, by becoming like him in his death (Phil 4:10): this is Paul’s hope and his greatest desire. Why would Paul embrace suffering? Because this is to embrace Christ. We are never closer to Jesus than when we are suffering and dying.

When we live a life that looks like the cross of Christ, we live Christ’s love.

When we live a life that looks like the cross of Christ, we pour out our love at his feet as Mary poured out myrrh.

And so our dying is redeemed.

For it is in Christ no longer a sign of terror and solitude and the power of sin. It is a sign of Christ’s love and God’s great grace. Behold, I am doing a new thing, says the Lord (Isa 43:19).

This last moment of our lives may now be a last tribute from our hearts to Christ.

We will die with him as he has died for us.

We will die in him as he lives in us.

We will die in love, in Christ’s love lifted up,

now finally forever into the life of God.

Art:

Mary Anointing Jesus’ Feet: modern illustration artist unknown

The Raising of Lazarus: Rembrandt van Rijn