Friday, May 31, 2019

Teaching American History, Trusting Jesus

This is a "final reflections" email I sent to all my students after the conclusion of the semester. I know at least three (out of 65) actually read it, so I'll call that a teaching victory.


This is the time of year I reflect on my teaching and think about, you know, the stuff I wish I'd done differently. So I'm gonna do that, and you're gonna read it. (Just kidding. You can go ahead and click that little trash can icon up there if you'd like.)

My major concerns always have to do with whether I've really upheld goodness, truth, and beauty for you to pursue. I'm not sure.

And part of the problem is that I simultaneously believe three things that are at least in tension with each other and may in fact be mutually exclusive:
  1. The "American experiment in self-government" is rooted in some fundamentally good, true, and beautiful insights that are worth preserving and upholding.
  2. Slavery and other forms of exploitation are inextricably interwoven into American history, such that it is hard to argue that there is any part of American history that hasn't been in some way affected.
  3. And then a third, sort of out-there one: the Western liberal (using the term broadly) Enlightenment-based ideal of a value-neutral, religious-commitment-free space (on which the American experiment is based) is a lie. There are no religiously neutral spaces; the secular state is not a neutral arbiter of religion but is itself a combatant (and a dominantly successful one) in religious conflict. (See the attached argument from William Cavanaugh--come for the invigorating take on the falsely named "Wars of Religion"; stick around for the part where he compares American government to a mafia protection racket.)
My overriding conviction always is that the Church -- which, as St. Paul repeatedly says, is the Body of Christ -- is the one community that should "relativize" all others. That is, all other loves find their rightful place and expression as they are brought into relation with Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus, all loves inevitably become disordered, distorted, and destructive. Anything you pursue to give your lives meaning, purpose, and happiness apart from Jesus will eventually crumble into ash.

So your duty as Americans is indeed to love your country, just as you should love your family and friends. The problem is never -- could never be -- too much love. But it can be disordered love. Or it can be hatred or selfishness falsely masked as love. (That's why "love is love" can only mean something if you know what "love" actually is...) So your overriding duty is to find what loving America looks like when it's brought into relation with the fundamental commandment to love Jesus.

And I should say that bringing things into relation with Jesus is not a matter of hard things becoming easy. The whole "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" line is true, so long as we remember that that "wonderful plan" might look quite a bit different than the wonderful plan we have for our own lives. Ten of the twelve disciples were martyred, after all.

The Christian life is cross-shaped. Jesus invites you into a real death to self, but it's through that dying to self that you find life -- and that, actually, you find yourself. The Collect for the Monday of Holy Week puts it well:


And that's the promise. You will suffer in this life, one way or another. Walking in the way of the cross means uniting your sufferings to Christ, who will never leave you nor forsake you (Heb. 13:5), so that when you suffer, you do so with hope and even, dare I say, joy (1 Thes. 4:13-18).

Fr. Perkins

Friday, April 19, 2019

Christ reigns from the tree

[I'll be preaching this brief homily for Morning Prayer this Good Friday in about twenty minutes.]

“Jesus, therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them, Whom seek ye? They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus saith unto them, I am he.”


This morning’s second lesson is packed with Old Testament allusions. We begin with Jesus crossing “over the brook Cedron.” This is the same river that King David crossed when he fled from his son Absalom’s rebellion in 2 Samuel (15:23). In fact the word translated as “brook” is a specific word for a river that only flowed during winter (the rainy season in Israel), and it’s precisely the same term used in the Greek translation of the account of David’s flight. In that Old Testament story, meanwhile, David’s close advisor Ahithophel betrays him and then eventually hangs himself — one of only two characters in the Bible to do so, the other being Judas Iscariot.

 The account of David’s flight is poignant: “David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, with his head covered and walking barefoot; and all the people who were with him covered their heads and went up, weeping as they went” (2 Sam. 15:30, NRSV). Likewise, our Lord enters into the Garden of Gethsemane, which was an olive grove (Whitacre 425), where, the other Gospels tell us, he endured great agony as he anticipated his impending death (Luke 22:44; Matthew 26:38; Mark 14:34). It is there that he asked his disciples to pray one hour with him, there that they all failed. And it is that grievous hour in that garden that some of you even now reenact as you seek to enter into the suffering of our Lord in some small way.

John refers to this place of watching simply as “a garden.” He gives the same name to “the place where [Jesus] was crucified” and buried (19:41). Mary of Bethany will even mistake him for the gardener (20:15) — as indeed he is, the New Adam whose death reverses the curse wrought by the first gardener’s fall (1 Cor 15:22; Rom 5:14-18).

This morning’s first lesson provides us with another Old Testament foreshadowing of Christ. The Isaac who is nearly sacrificed and metaphorically brought back from the dead becomes the Christ, who truly dies and then becomes the “firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:18). Indeed, Jesus acts as both Abraham and Isaac, for he willingly offers himself up in obedience to God.

The account of David’s flight from Absalom arouses pity because in it David has become so pitiful — a sad, broken-down old man who must be roused to his own defense by his allies. And Absalom’s rebellion is implicitly presented as the consequence of David’s own sordid history of lust, murder, and parental neglect.

Evening Prayer today will emphasize that Jesus, by contrast, is an innocent sufferer whose suffering expunges the guilt of others. But as our reading from John makes clear, Jesus is not a passive or helpless victim.

Having eluded his opponents’ previous attempts to apprehend him before the appointed hour, Jesus now dictates when, where, and how he will be taken. His enemies come in full military force, but it is Jesus and not they who control the scene. He comes forth and interrogates them: “Whom seek ye?”

They answer “Jesus of Nazareth.” He responds, “I am he.” That last word, “he,” is grammatically implied but unstated in the Greek, so what Jesus has actually said is simply, “I AM.” This declaration of the divine name literally knocks the armed band clean over. They are, it seems, so rattled that Jesus has to prompt them again to say who they’re looking for, and they dumbly repeat the same name. Jesus then orders them — it is an imperative — to let his disciples go. Here and throughout his interactions with Pilate, the superficial powers of this world are belittled and diminished in the presence of true omnipotence.

Good Friday is tragic. Jesus’ death is the result of sin, and as Fr. Glenn recently reminded us, sin is no happy fault. It is grievous. The grim spectacle of our Lord upon the cross should fill us with deep sorrow for our sins which placed him there. And yet, throughout St. John’s Gospel, the cross is Christ’s glorification. The great Anglican theologian E. L. Mascall writes that in his obedience, Christ’s “divine dignity is not diminished but manifested; when he stands before Pilate, it is he, not Pilate, that is the judge; when he is nailed to the Cross, he is reigning from the tree.” As we grieve, therefore, let us also worship and adore our king, for whom the cross is at once torment and triumph.

“Jesus saith unto them, I am he.”


Thursday, February 7, 2019

On Politics and Disgust Sensitivity

Another (modified) excerpt from my Sent folder.

After having read the whole article (on alignment between political positions and "disgust sensitivity"), I do think that Alan Jacobs' point -- that liberalism is taken as the "baseline," and conservatism as the weird outlier that needs explanation -- seems evident from start to finish.

The article would read differently if the starting point was, "How come people with lower disgust sensitivity and less developed taste buds have a 'liberal ethos'?"

McAuliffe acknowledges the dual ways of reading the data towards the end:
If you’re liberal, you may be thinking, So this explains some of the other side’s nativism and hostility to immigration. But it’s just as easy to flip the science on its head and conclude, as conservatives might, that the left is composed of clueless naïfs whose rosy-eyed optimism about human nature—and obliviousness to various dangers—will only lead to trouble.
But the whole article nevertheless suggests a particular read on the data -- which you can see when, a couple paragraphs after that, she emphasizes the fundamental irrationality (or perhaps "sub-rational" operation) of disgust.

And, interestingly enough, it dovetails with a (conservative, anti-abortion) piece I recently revisited that was arguing for the (limited) moral value of gut-level disgust -- that we shouldn't just dismiss our revulsion but consider whether it might have some real meaning.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Sermon for Epiphany II

Last week I preached the sermon for Epiphany II on the beginning of St. Mark's Gospel, climaxing with Jesus' baptism by John. The baptism introduces us to Jesus in Mark, and in this way sets the tone for his entire ministry.
The Eastern Fathers reflect at length upon Christ’s baptism as a potent symbol of the Incarnation in all its paradoxical majesty and mystery. An Orthodox hymn for Epiphany notes that in Jesus’s baptism we see “The River of Joy… baptized in the stream” (The Festal Menaion, 295). The One through whom all water was made and in which all things subsist is himself submerged in muddy Jordan. How can this be?... 
Christ’s baptism is a particular act of humility. St. Matthew’s Gospel dwells on the inversion of Jesus being baptized by John. “I have need to be baptized of thee,” John protests, “and comest thou to me?” (Matt. 3:14). St. Mark’s compact account draws attention not so much to the incongruity between John and Jesus but rather to the startling nature of John’s baptism. John preached “the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins,” and it is this baptism to which Jesus submits, despite having no sins to remit. Thus, in his first act in Mark’s Gospel, Christ explicitly identifies himself with sinners. Later Jesus will describe his impending Passion as “the cup that I drink” and “the baptism with which I am baptized” (Mark 10:38-39, ESV). From the outset, he expresses a freely chosen solidarity with sinners, and this identification of the Sinless Christ with sinful humanity comes to its awful and glorious climax on the cross.
Christ's baptism also inaugurates sacramental baptism, and so it reveals not only who Christ is -- but also who we are:
...we should never forget that, in being baptized into Christ’s death, we are also, as St. Paul tells us, “risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12). We share in his death and in his resurrection, and we indeed partake of his divine life (2 Pet. 1:4). 
At every baptism, the heavens are rent, the Spirit descends, and the voice of God speaks: 
“Thou art my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.”
You can read (or hear) the whole thing.

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.