Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Jesus' Baptism, Liturgical Language

A (lightly modified) excerpt from my Sent folder (head nod to Alan Jacobs): 

 In light of my sermon this Sunday, I'm looking at Orthodox liturgy for Epiphany (from The Festal Menaion translated by Kallistos Ware and Mother Mary) and its reflections on Jesus' baptism. Fascinating stuff:

"Make ready, O river Jordan: for behold, Christ our God draws near to be baptized by John, that He may crush with His divinity the invisible heads of the dragons in thy waters."

I have no idea what that really means -- the footnoted reference to Ps. 73:13 proves less than illuminating** -- but it's pretty cool. I sense a Marvel adaptation.

But anyway, in the Preface there's this explanation of the language of their translation, which fits what Martin Thornton says about liturgical language (perspicacious but elevated is the ideal, which, he says, makes Elizabethan English perhaps the perfect liturgical form):

So far as the general style of our translation is concerned, after much experimenting we decided to take as our model the language of the Authorized Version... This, we realize, is a controversial decision. Many of our readers will probably feel that, if the liturgical texts are to come alive for people today, they must be rendered in a more contemporary idiom. To this it must be answered that the Greek used in the canons and hymns that are here translated was never a 'contemporary' or 'spoken' language. The Byzantine hymnographers wrote in a liturgical style that was consciously 'artificial', even though it was never intentionally obscure or unintelligible. As we see it, the language of the Authorized Version is best adapted to convey the spirit of the original liturgical Greek.... For three centuries and more the Authorized Version, and along with it the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, have provided the words with which English-speaking peoples throughout the world have addressed God; and these two books have become a part not only of our literary but of our spiritual inheritance...

Fr. Mark

**Turns out the reference is to Ps. 74:14-15 (in the 1928 Psalter; in the ESV it's 74:13-14): "Thou didst divide the sea through thy power; thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters. Thou smotest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat for the people of the wilderness."

Double cool.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Advent IV Sermon: On Heaven

Today I preached for Advent IV -- on heaven, heavenly citizenship, and the bodily resurrection:
This heavenly citizenship — which is ours through membership in Christ’s Body, the Church — makes us a “peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9, KJV). Every rival loyalty must be submitted to the surpassing reality of our incorporation into Christ (Gal. 3:28-29; 1 Cor. 12:13). But this relativizing of other loyalties does not mean their diminishment — quite the opposite! 
We love Jesus not by loving others less but precisely through loving them rightly. Saints Paul and Peter make it abundantly and repeatedly clear that loving your spouse, your children, and your parents, so far from being in conflict with heavenly citizenship, are in the fact the very ways in which we love Jesus. Romans 13 and 1 Peter 3 affirm that part of being a good Christian is being a good earthly citizen. These other loyalties are relativized not by being diminished but by being brought into right relation with our ultimate identity as members of the Church. 
Problems arise not when our love for family or country becomes too great but when our love is disordered. And in this fallen world, these other entities — family, country — can and inevitably will at times demand that they be your primary loyalty, that all things be made subject to them rather than to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Read (or listen to) the whole thing.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Four Last Things

For Advent this year, the clergy at All Saints are following the medieval tradition of preaching on the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven).

I. Death
I have already posted about Fr. Sean's beautiful sermon on death.

II. Judgment
Fr. Dan's sermon on Judgment is also compelling and worth your time. Some excerpts:
What is our end? Our end is simply wonderful and magnificent: to live in the presence of God forever and ever, world without end; to participate in the very life of God as his adopted children through the holy waters of Baptism; to become fully human; to learn and to grow in God's presence without ceasing forever and ever and ever and ever. 
For all divine judgment is rooted in this very first declaration of God: that his creation is very good. 
God’s judgment of Adam was really ultimately his divine means of grace and salvation for the human race.”
Listen to the whole thing!

III. Hell
And last week, Fr. Gene preached on "Lewis' conception of Hell as a mercy of God," ultimately concluding with the right combination of eschatological hope and epistemological humility:
There may come a time—and I believe Hell exists within the temporal creation—when all those in hell repent and accept the forgiveness freely offered by the Lord Jesus. However, the Church has not been vouchsafed with the revelation that this must come to pass. The possibility exists that the damned will cling to their rebellion forever, no matter how foolish or how horrible it seems. I do believe that it is acceptable to hope for and pray that all come to the beatific vision.
Read the whole thing.

IV. Heaven
I'll finish with a sermon on Heaven tomorrow.

As my rector wrote, “Now all the pressure is on you to top off the Advent series with an all encompassing, yet specifically attentively and responsibly executed sermon on the four last things while also gently pulling back the veil and exhibiting before our yearning eyes all that the Ancient of Days has prepared for those who love him!”

No pressure.

Advent Reflections on the Blessed Virgin Mary

Below is an excerpt from our family's Advent letter this year. Andrea and I wrote it together.

“…Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” - Luke 1:42

As parents we have found much to contemplate in the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus — in particular, her humble embrace of God’s calling and her diligent attentiveness to the work of the Holy Spirit. The angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary signaled the transformation of the world, but for Mary this also implied other, perhaps unwelcome implications — she surely knew she would endure humiliating rumors about Jesus’ paternity. And Mary’s last appearance in the Gospels is to stand at the foot of the cross and watch her son die (Jn. 19:26-27). Wouldn’t most of us take Gabriel’s proclamation as a death sentence? It meant the end of whatever expectations Mary might have had for her life. Yet she accepts her calling as God’s humble servant and embraces her cousin Elizabeth’s proclamation: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb!” (Lk. 1:42). Mary sees her place in the divine plan: “For, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Lk. 1:48b).

Because she knows her true blessedness, she has eyes to see the Spirit at work in her life. Twice St. Luke tells us that Mary “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (2:19, 51). She treasures her experiences not merely for what they are in themselves but also for what they foreshadow: she sees what God is doing and joyfully anticipates what he will do.

To love and obey God is rarely convenient. It can be easy to see only the inconvenience. It sometimes looks as though there’s no divine plan at all — just a godless world going off the rails. Yet we know and we trust that God is at work in our lives through the Holy Spirit. We know, too, that with the advent of Jesus, God has inaugurated his kingdom. We look forward to the final restoration of all things. This is what Advent is about: remembering what God has already begun in Jesus and living in the light of the world to come.

Blessings this Advent.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

A Sermon on Death

For Advent this year, the clergy at All Saints are following the medieval tradition of preaching on the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven). I'll finish with a sermon on Heaven on December 23rd.

Fr. Sean started us off with a beautiful reflection on death this past Sunday:
If we read these two [temple] visits as parables of our own lives, then we are faced with two different responses to the advent of our death. We can be like Simeon, who prepares his life through prayer so that when Jesus comes to him, he recognizes who Jesus is and may die peacefully. Or, we can be fooled by the promises of the world like the masses of the people who can name Jesus, but do not recognize his true mission. Then, our temple is filled with thieves and liars, and we are no longer in communion with God. Jesus Christ is coming, awake your souls and prepare. Prepare your life in the knowledge of your coming death.
The whole thing is worth your time.

Monday, September 17, 2018

"The way of all flesh had crossed paths with the Word made flesh."

Fr. Glenn's sermon yesterday on the widow of Nain was beautiful and powerful. It is worth your time.

Luke makes a point of telling us that this death involved an only-begotten son. The mother was a widow who was now childless. She had no family left and she had become an “orphaned parent.” This passage bristles with emotion. Many people in the town shared in the widow’s grief as they gathered around her in mourning. Such mourning was seen as an act of love by one’s neighbors. This is the sad scene that greeted Jesus as he enters the little village. 
...what is absent from this account is the ever present, ever critical, Pharisee. But for the original audience, his touching of the bier was probably enough to bring back the contrast between Jesus’ love for people and the self-righteousness of those who had nothing to offer but the Law. The righteousness of God is not attained in its pursuit, holiness does not glory in itself — but rather as we follow Jesus in his love for others, the righteousness of God overcomes us.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Collect for Easter Even

GRANT, O Lord, that as we are baptized into the death of thy blessed Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, so by continual mortifying our corrupt affections we may be buried with him; and that through the grave, and gate of death, we may pass to our joyful resurrection; for his merits, who died, and was buried, and rose again for us, the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Friday, March 30, 2018

"Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps."

[I am preaching this brief homily today, Good Friday, on the Second Lesson for Evening Prayer.]

“Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.”

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The crucifixion of our Lord on Good Friday frees us from sin and death. When we are “baptized into his death,” as St. Paul says (Romans 6:3), we are transformed in our very being. His death accomplishes our regeneration, but it also provides an example for us to follow when we suffer unjustly in our own lives. In our second lesson today, St. Peter pulls together both effects of the cross: we are transferred from death to life, and we are given an example to follow.

The latter half of our text is explicitly directed to slaves—more specifically, household servants—but there are textual indications that St. Peter intended his advice to apply to all Christians as servants in the household of God. St. Peter calls upon these slaves—who, in context, seem to have pagan masters—to endure unjust suffering patiently, a teaching that was no doubt hard to swallow. But for St. Peter, patiently enduring is not about abstract morality but is, rather, part and parcel of a Christian’s obligation to imitate Jesus. Our text dramatically shifts from the mundane, grim particulars of the Christian slave's daily life to the transcendent reality of Christ's suffering. Why is the Christian slave—and, by implication, every Christian—called to endure unjust suffering? “Because,” St. Peter writes, “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.” As St. Augustine comments, “Christ taught you to suffer, and he did so by suffering himself.”

In the last few verses of our text, St. Peter draws heavily from the famous “suffering servant” passage of Isaiah 52-53, which is our first lesson today. As God’s suffering servant, Jesus “did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth.” Despite this, he in “his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree.” Note the tangible fleshiness of Jesus' sacrificial suffering—the cross is not simply an abstract spiritual battle between good and evil. It is physical, bodily torture. The language of “the tree” draws us back to the Old Testament. We learn in Deuteronomy that a man hanged on a tree for a crime “is cursed by God” (Deut. 21:21-23). The innocent sufferer Jesus is killed like a common criminal under a divine curse.

This profound theological reality undergirds St. Peter’s difficult instruction for day-to-day life. The household servants to whom he writes may be suffering unjustly, but they are, in a larger sense, not innocent of sin. The implication is clear: if he who was in the fullest sense innocent responded in this way, you who are not ought also so to do. “When he was reviled, [he] reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously.” Amidst the reviling of persecutors, Jesus' gaze was ever heavenward. This too should be our response to suffering.

At the end of our text, St. Peter points out that Jesus’ death is more than just a good example for us to follow—because his death is what transforms us. Unlike the suffering of saints and martyrs, Jesus’ death is what actually enables us to follow his example. Christ died “that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness.” In this particular passage, St. Peter is less concerned with the eternal status of our salvation than he is with the earthly practicalities of right living before God. As one translation puts it, Jesus “bore our wrongdoings” so that “we, having abandoned wrongdoing, might live for doing what is right” (Elliott, Anchor Bible, 523).

Christ’s suffering on Good Friday gives us an example to follow—and it empowers us to follow him. 

 As the beautiful Collect for the Monday before Easter puts it,

“ALMIGHTY God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified; Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

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"Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest"

[I preached this short homily last year on the First Lesson for Morning Prayer on Good Friday--the difficult story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22.]

“And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering.”

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This story is rich with layers of meaning and symbol. Abraham provides us with a model of great faith. As one commenter notes, his faithful response has enabled many to accept the “incomprehensible, unendurable and contradictory and to reflect upon it” (Clemens Thoma). In this story we also find a prefiguration of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb, sacrificed for us on Good Friday. And as the writer of Hebrews notes, Isaac is figuratively brought back from the dead—a foreshadowing of Easter Sunday. On Good Friday our primary focus will rightly be on the sacrificial suffering of Jesus and on our own penitential and sorrowful response. But in light of this passage I would like to reflect briefly on one other symbolic layer of the story—Abraham as the father sacrificing his “only son.”

At first glance, the description of Isaac seems an error—Abraham had in fact two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. In the translation of Hebrew scholar Robert Alter, God tells Abraham, “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac.”

Alter comments, “The Hebrew syntactic chain [the order of the words] is exquisitely forged to carry a dramatic burden, and the sundry attempts of English translators from the King James Version to the present to rearrange it are misguided.” Alter then quotes from a medieval rabbi’s imaginative rendering of the scene: God says, ‘ “Your son.” [Abraham] said to Him, “I have two sons.” [God] said to him, “Your only one.” [Abraham] said, “This one is an only one to his mother and this one is an only one to his mother.” He said to him, “Whom you love.” He said to him, “I love both of them.” He said to him, “Isaac.” ’

Your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac. These brief phrases reveal the unbearable weight of “God’s terrible imperative” to sacrifice his beloved son, the child of the promise.

God’s incomprehensible demand reminds me of the parable of the wicked tenants from Mark 12. In that parable, a distant landlord sends a servant to collect rent from tenants who instead beat the poor man. Jesus says, “And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ ” Guess what: they don’t. I remember reading that not too long ago and immediately thinking, “What a very stupid landlord!” Of course, a moment’s reflection reveals that the landlord symbolizes God our Father who sent his Son into the world to be killed. So too does Abraham in our story prefigure the Father who will not withhold his Son.

What are we to make of this God, our Father?

Romans 8 gives us an answer. “What shall we then say to these things?… He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? … Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

As we consider the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, as we reflect on our sins for which he suffered and on our own terrible need for this Savior, let us also reflect upon the immeasurable love of the Father.

“He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things.”

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Friday, March 23, 2018

Sermon for Lent V

I preached for Lent V this past Sunday.
...while Jesus’ life story discloses God’s relation to creation, that relation is only understood by first grasping what went before. Our Lord’s narrative recapitulates Israel’s narrative. First, Jesus relives Israel’s wilderness wandering, and he reverses Adam’s failure by defeating the Tempter. Next, Jesus reveals his superiority to Moses by miraculously feeding the multitude. The Old Testament lesson for Morning Prayer this past Thursday recounted Pharaoh’s attempt to execute all male Hebrew babies—which foreshadows Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus by murdering all male babies around Bethlehem. But before Herod could lay hand on Jesus, the Holy Family took flight to Egypt, which reminds us of Israel’s sojourn there. 
This week’s gospel reading culminates in a startling claim: “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). “I AM,” of course, refers to the Hebrew YHWH, the sacred name of the Lord God, who first bestowed upon himself that title in Exodus 3—tomorrow morning’s Old Testament lesson. 
These are the echoes of the Old Testament in just a few of our Lenten readings.... I’d urge all of you to revisit the felt-board stories of Sunday School. Be attentive to the Old Testament lessons in Morning and Evening Prayer. Because knowing Jesus means knowing his story, and his story is the story of Israel.

Read the rest here.