On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment, and I imagine that it felt like the furthest thing from the very first sabbath which their rest was intended to recall. According to the commandment their rest was meant to imitate that first sabbath when the heavens and the earth were finished in all their multitude, and God rested from all the work done in creation. These days had felt more like destruction. For the women who had followed Jesus to Jerusalem, through the raving crowds and shouts of murder, to the cross and to the tomb, these days felt more like the unraveling of every good thing God had given them. For which, they needed rest, all the same, if not more. There was, I imagine, a certain peace to this rest, a certain comfort in finally being finished. The seams had threatened to unravel for so long, they had been exposed by glowering stares at the margins of the public squares where he had preached, they were tugged at each time his disturbing actions flew in the face of convention. Some of the women begged him not to make such a spectacle of his arrival in the holy city, and then there he was, hoisted three feet in the air, a wanted man in plain sight of all, the crowd ecstatic, their cries staked along a thin line between praise and rage. There had been no time for rest in these days among the kingdom of anxiety. Now, all that was finished. His body, once electric with the promise of abundant life, now lay still in a cavern of the earth, and eyes that had pierced anyone who dared return their searching gaze were shut. Likewise, the women rested in the grave stillness of that moment, and their bodies began the gradual unclenching of all the knots these days had bound within them.
This rest comes for us, too, who have followed Jesus on the way to the cross and tomb in our own time. The story of Christ’s passion can be exhausting. It’s telling can unfold like a mine-field of post-traumatic triggers. I, personally, cannot hear of Jesus being taunted, beaten and mocked by Herod’s soldiers without some pretty explicit flashbacks to my years as a slightly effeminate, out gay teen in North Carolina. When we get to that part of the story my body shivers and I weep at the thought of anyone having to endure such familiar degradation and contempt, let alone the love and Lord of my life. I wonder if you’ve had similar reactions to this story, also. Are there parts of it that trigger tears and memories? Are there parts that make you tremble? Perhaps you’re not the crying type, perhaps you feel the twinge of conviction in some other way, a resistance, a tightening in the gut, maybe a wave of nausea. Where does it come for you? Is it in the courtyard, beside Peter as he denies knowing the very one who brought him to new life? Is it with the women who are told that they would be better off barren in this world than with the children they have reared and loved? Is it when we stand together as a congregation, and shout “Crucify him!” every bit as complicit in his death as anyone was two thousand years ago?
Where does the pain and shame of your life rise to meet and fill this story?
That is the place where God holds you now.
In the passion of her Christ our Creator entered in to every bloody, broken thing that we have made out of this world. She has borne the taunts and kicks within us, she has stood toe to toe with our denial. At the cross, the compassion of God is made complete, for there God’s own self has entered even into death with us, that even in the bitter darkness of the grave we should not be parted from God’s persistent company.
God first rested from the magnificent birth of all creation, Christ’s companions rested from the the labors of a gruesome death and hasty burial. Our own rest now comes buried in the knowledge of a God who shares the pain of our failed and fragile human life completely. Our own rest comes amidst the re-creation of this world in an image of solidarity with the criminal, the accused, the beaten and the mocked. In the days to come we will relive this story again in new ways. We will listen to members of our community speak of how our common life rises to fill it even now. Pay attention to the places where it touches you. Rest in this story, let it seep into your bones. Let it loosen up the knotty places which the kingdom of this world has bound within you. The time will come within this rest when the body begins to stir again, and eyes open to behold the dawn.
Martha’s fingers often smelled of garlic at day’s end, and in the hours when sleep would not come she held them near her face and reflected on the time that had passed: the aching place in her back where she held weight above two feet flat on cold clay pavement, the way her torso curved to prop the dish up to her right hand, the way men’s faces looked around the table when they had tasted something good. Sometimes there were notes of lemon, too, sometimes the scent of olive oil or yeast, yet garlic was the base beneath them all. On this night, however, she could detect none of those familiar things. Even from her bed the overwhelming smell of spikenard was inescapable. The whole house bloomed with it, like a dessert flower spread wide open to the moon. Neighbors, passing by the darkened windows which the fragrance wafted from, might have thought that a marriage bed had been prepared within if they had not known better. The household pulsed with this perfume from the points where it had been applied, just like points at the wrist, or at the neck behind the ears: it rose from the slick still wet on the floor where his feet had been, but even more than this, it rose from Mary’s hair. She turns in the night, her eyes wholly given in to sleep, and her cheek sets itself softly into bands of hair that still smell like him. The dirt of long roads traveled, sun, skin, lake water and wood, with spikenard as the base beneath them all. In the days to come she will pass between stalls at market with the scent trailing just behind, raising eyes and nostrils as she goes. Hungry men will forget the taunting smell of roast meats momentarily in her wake, distracted by the thoughts of lavender boughs and bedrooms that will follow her everywhere.
Devotion has a way of lingering upon a human soul in love. We recognize it in the dazed eyes of love-struck teenagers or in the glow about a gardener well-satisfied with his day of labor. Devotion can make us strange with a peculiar commitment. It possess us with a single-minded focus and fills us with encyclopedic knowledge of some things mostly undervalued by others. Devotees, for their part, often seem queer to normal eyes: attending Comic Cons, standing for hours in the rain for tickets to a show, pouring over forgotten manuscripts, slaving for hours to perfect a recipe or for years to write a dissertation. For all the singleness of mind and body which we sharpen with these vows, the heart also longs to be so committed. The heart longs to sink into the steady rocking of a single phrase: “You are good, you are good, you are good.” The heart longs to behold the object of her praise as she softly sings to it. A thousand other objects may distract from and divide this task, responsibilities and commitments to the systems of this world that weigh us down with their requests and deplete our resources. They are like a circle of disciples standing round wringing hands fearful of the consequences suggested by their master’s aim. From among them the heart steps forth and kneels. She pours her life out in praise and grows fragrant with it’s offering while the others blush, sneer, or turn their heads. In this same fashion, God breaks through the nervous circle of our doubts and fears and anger and sadness and shame to kneel at the cradle of our infant souls, to clasp her feet and hands and head close to the bosom of the body that gave her breath, whispering to her ears: “You are good, you are loved, you are mine.”
God’s own person has been made strange with the knowledge of us. In devoted singleness of heart, the Spirit of the Deep comes to search our souls, to inhabit our own feelings and desires, to cry our tears and bleed our blood. Peculiar signs to mark a God so mighty. In our own devotion, we may grow more peculiar still. We may learn the names of those passed over by the world, and then we may learn their lives. We may develop a singular focus upon those who seem unlovable because the existence of this condition totally contradicts the truth which we believe. We may even sell our riches and give the money to the poor, that we may be closer still to the object of our heart’s desire. In such a release as this, in such an expensive pouring out, even the taunting stench of death may be forgotten in the fragrance of God’s wide-embracing love. The whole body hums with well-worn melodies of joyful praise. The world notes a lightness in our step and brows rise at the suggestion of something so profoundly good walking in the midst of us. They will inquire of the spirit in whose wake we linger, love-struck and glowing, and we will tell them of a house that blooms with fragrant offerings, and of the love waiting for us there.
“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”
This is Advent, a time when we face the darkness of the world and ask for light.
This is wilderness, a place untamed and raw and totally cut off, where we wait, and cry to God for help.
“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”
Every third Sunday in Advent when I hear, in this prayer, of God stirring up his power/ I think of bare feet walking across a creek bed, the sediment swirling up in murky clouds through clear living water with each step; or, I think of spices at the bottom of a large pot full of broth that must be conjured with a wooden spoon for the flavor to spread. The biblical language is not so gentle, however. It comes from Psalm 80 a psalm often read in Advent for its 16th verse, which begs for God’s right hand man to come among us with the power of God’s strength. The psalm is plea for God to break his silence and make himself known amidst the total decimation of his people. “Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh stir up your strength and come to help us!” the psalmist cries. It is one of our great, scriptural traditions to demand this kind of attention from God when the whole world seems to have gone wrong. You have hidden your face for too long, O Lord. You told us we were a chosen people and here we are, left for dead, trampled on by enemies, scorched by the heat of this world’s glaring cruelty. Where are you, God? Why do you not act? Stir up your power, arouse your wrath and, like a sleeping lion stirred to wake by the clamor of injustice, pounce upon the wicked in our midst.
“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”
It seems at times that it would take great might just to reach us here. The prophet Zephaniah looks at his people, tormented by corruption, lawlessness and murder, and imagines that it would take a warrior to bring triumph and rejoicing back into their midst. It would take a God who came singing, flinging prisoners upon his shoulder, swooping up the scattered ones to bring them home, trampling down every enemy he meets along the way.
Likewise, the Baptist John looks at his people, bewildered in their search for answers, and imagines fire. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees,” he says, and he speaks of One to come who will separate the evil from the good with a winnowing fork, to incinerate the evil once and for all.
“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”
It seems at times that it would take great might just to reach us here. Beneath the din of unceasing news reports, behind dull eyes that have seen so much senseless violence. It seems that it would take a mighty arm to straighten all the crooked paths that have led us to this hell. It seems that it would take the power to move mountains just to find us in the place where we are cowering, beneath the stockpiles and the sadness and the speechless gasps. It would take a mighty god who could reach down through the madness we have made and pluck us up and hold us safe and protect us from any evil that may come. It seems that it would take a mighty God to save us from ourselves.
And yet the tool of our God’s strength is not the ax that John imagined. Neither is it a winnowing fork, nor is it a fire. The tool of our God’s strength is in the cross where he suffered in the same way that we suffer still today: senselessly. The might of our God is born in the feed-trough of a manger, tender and defenseless as an infant child, dependent on a mother’s human hands for care.
This is the power that we ask for, still. This is the great might that we pray will come. To stop pretending that the world as we have made it is OK. To let down our defenses and acknowledge the real horror in our midst, side by side with a real God who loves us through it. To love, knowing that our love can bring us pain, can leave us out in the world beyond ourselves and our ability to protect and guard. To shed tears for those we do not know, to hold the ones we do even tighter still, to lift a voice in outrage, to lay one’s life down for one’s friends. To dream of a world where disaster is no more, especially when the idea of it seems crazy, and work to give that dream flesh and breath to sing with. This power belongs to God. This is the power Christ comes to baptize with: a world shimmering with such exquisite light that our hearts break each time evil threatens it, and weep when death still seems to carry it away.
If you are angry because you are fed up with the thousands of innocent children and adults who are killed and maimed by guns and violence in this and every country, every year, then let your anger burn for justice until God’s just and peaceful world is come. If you grieve because the loss is more than you can hold alone, then let God’s consolation fill your heart. And if you rejoice because the goodness of God’s world shines brighter now for all the darkness that surrounds it, then lift your voices high and sing.
Now is the time. This is the place. God is with us.
“Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
The final line from our Ephesians reading this morning was a favorite Offertory sentence of my priest in Greensboro, North Carolina, and he recited it every Sunday morning after the Peace had been exchanged and the announcements had been made before we prepared to break bread together at the altar. It did what an Offertory sentence is supposed to do in the liturgy, it refocused our attention towards the Lord’s table after all the hustle and bustle of our prayers and glad exchanges and comments on the life of our community were through. He also habitually followed this sentence by asking our pianist for the number of the Offertory hymn, so in my mind this line of scripture is not only always spoken in his voice but always with the added dialogue between priest and musician, “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. What’s the hymn, Joan?” After hearing it enough times, this line burned itself onto my heart. This was in the early days of my return to church from a very long time away from it, and this verse haunted me on long, ambling Sunday afternoon strolls around the city after mass, my mind full of urgent questions about how, exactly, I was supposed to go about loving all the unlovable people around me. “Walk in love,” I heard, passing by the man who slept beneath the bridge, “walk in love” past the garbage bins behind the grocery store full of perfectly edible produce with slight imperfections, “walk in love” alone, keeping all my thoughts close to my chest, unsure of how to even begin broaching the subject of my newfound savior in Christ Jesus within the mostly secular world where I worked and played.
“Walk in love as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Not a perfect sacrifice, as it is described elsewhere in the Epistles, though its perfection is presumed, but a fragrant one. I found this phrasing captivating and evocative. “What, exactly, is supposed to smell good about the cross of Christ?” I wondered. Is it the smell of lilies at the altar freshly opened on an Easter morning, or perhaps the lamb roasting in the oven? Well, actually, yes, in part, it is. In the most primitive, Biblical- even pre-Biblical sense of the term, sacrifices were supposed to smell good. Sacrifice simply meant the animal you killed for God. It was usually the fattest, choicest piece of an animal roasting on the open coals, the smoke of its fat rising to an invisible God somewhere past the sky. I was reminded of this one Autumn morning as I walked outside the doors of St. Mary the Virgin in New York City after Mass and passed onto West 46th St because I moved from one kind of smoke to another as I went. If you’re any kind of ecclesiastical tourist, you might know the parish I’m talking about by its nickname, “Smoky Mary’s”, so called for its profuse employment of incense during services, which, I’ve been told, is stored in the back by the barrel-full. Outside on 46th St, however, the smoke was of a different kind. One of Manhattan’s many street fairs was well underway, and the usual assortment of food carts were out en masse, their flat, black griddles sizzling hot with beef shanks and whole chickens whose flesh erupted into white, aromatic smoke upon contact. Our worship used to smell something like this, I thought. The alluring smell of something tasty rising up to heaven, drawing anyone with a nose to follow in, curious to see what’s cooking.
In the Torah, animal sacrifices were prescribed to cover a multitude of offenses, and for general thanksgiving as well. If you were truly sorry about something and didn’t want to get kicked out of the clan for it, you took a perfect, valuable specimen of livestock from your herd, that is- you took it out from the midst of your very own livelihood, and you gave it to the priests of the Holy Tent to carve and burn for God appropriately. If you didn’t have an animal you took a bird and if you didn’t have a bird you took some grain. It was symbolic. It was something that stood in for your very own self. It had to be symbolic. God didn’t need to eat a bull or a goat or even a handful of grain for that matter. God did not desire those things, he desired the people themselves. He desired a people who made his name known to all the world by walking in the ways of his justice and truth. And when, as it would inevitably happen time after time after time that the people fell short of that ultimate goal of total surrender to God’s way of justice, they would make sacrifice upon the altar of hot coals before his tent in reparation. They would make sacrifice regularly, in fact, to cover for any misgivings they had missed. They would make sacrifice because of how grateful they were for the blessings of their households, and for the harvest. They would make sacrifice to remember that everything they had belonged to God and came from God and was going back to God in the end. In one of the great anthropomorphisms of the Torah, God is revealed as delighting in the very smell of these sacrifices offered before him as the smoke rose heavenward. But the prophets tell us that what he loved even more than this was when his people acted with God’s justice and God’s loving kindness in the world around them. Hosea says that God delights in mercy and knowledge of God even more. “I desire mercy more than sacrifice,” God says to Hosea, “and the knowledge of my ways more than burnt offerings.” Similar, Psalm 51 calls out that, “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
“Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” When the authors of these Christian letters speak of Christ as sacrifice, they are pointing to this altar by a tent in the wilderness, they are pointing to a life of mercy for all who desire turning from their selfish ways to God, they are pointing to a heart that was broken by the cruelty of this world. They are pointing to the way that Jesus gave himself over to the life of God, not in a symbolic way only, but utterly, entirely. What is more, they are pointing to the way he was given over entirely to God for our sake, that all with eyes to see and ears to hear might know what God is like, that we might experience and taste and touch the very goodness of God’s way in the flesh, by the physical realities of our fingers and our mouths and our beating hearts. When a human soul is given up entirely to God, it does not take an alluring fragrance to signal its desirability to those about it. It is, in its own regard, effusive. More than a flower calling bees in Spring, more than the perfume of a lover long-since gone, the soul given up to God fills a room and calls down to our deepest yearning for what is good in this world. It is apparent , as the letter to the Ephesians says, every time that we are able to tell the truth to one another in loving-kindness, every time anger rises within us and we are brave enough to let it pass without adding to its rage, every time we forgive the one who has made mistakes in our direction and failed to live up to the radiant justice that God has given us up to making. It is, in other words, our own sacrifice to make, as well as Christ’s. Not always on a cross of wood, but often in the crucible of true friendship, honest speech, and the always ever difficult forgiveness offered up to those who hurt us.
“Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” It isn’t easy, being members of one another, being open and honest enough with one another to act as a single body does, its nerves intimately connected, immediately communicating the next move that needs to happen. But it is good, and it is what God desires. It is what makes our Church a living sacrifice to God, a witness to the life of truth and reconciliation that is possible among us. And it is ours to claim as soon as we pass from the doors of this place on this day into a world that desperately needs to taste and touch that goodness, too. Walk around in it, move about in the effusive goodness God has given us this day, a banquet of unending love springing new from every step you make in God’s creation, and share it with the people you pass by. Your sacrifice of love will be Christ’s own, reaching out to those around you, and it will fill the air of any room you both shall enter. Amen.
Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.
Have you loved and lost? Have you poured yourself into a project that failed? Have you cherished a dream or a vision all the way from its inception on a lonely beach or across a cup of coffee through the perfect plan to bring it to the world only to be shot down enough times that you just start keeping all of it to yourself until it withers up inside and dies? Has your love been unrequited, have you been faced with someone you would give up everything for, only to learn that they simply do not want it anymore? Have you saved up all your money for the best corsage that you can find only to have your date to the 5th grade end-of-year dance throw it in the garbage can because it was too gaudy and big for her dress- not that I’m speaking directly from personal experience on that one… Have you loved and lost?
Have you lost yourself in love? Have you picked up a book that made the world around you vanish? Have you worked so hard that time stood still? Have you made a friend so good that you cease to mind the stares you get when your laughter is too loud? Have you felt that your own heart is out walking in the world without you, getting off the bus, scuffing her knees, and standing up for herself when you so desperately want to be there standing out in front of her instead? Have you collapsed into arms that could crush you if they ever disappeared? Have you run until your legs give way, and lain out in the grass beneath the clear blue sky, so happy with your time that you could die right there and not mind? Have you lost yourself in love?
Jesus said, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life,” and his words lie somewhere half between a cold hard fact and a mystery. The reality that was plain to see on the surface of these words, the reason why they ended up in every Gospel in some form or another had something to do with how true they rang: if you had a stake to gain in your own personal affairs of the world, you probably weren’t going to follow Jesus. People who followed Jesus always lost it all. There was no going home to the family and kids after a day of preaching in the Galilean countryside, there was only ever leaving. Witnessing to Jesus in the free time of your forty hour work week did not get you a good job at a cardinal parish or even a reputation you could build your name on in the county, witnessing to Jesus got you killed. It got you huddled in the back room of your house with a lamp and loaf of bread and a whole mass of strangers from the lowest walks of life telling stories of the one who saved them from nearly slipping to the grave. Those who hate their life in this world will not be bothered by appearances, will not try hoarding some small bit to save for themselves after the needy have departed, will not even try exalting themselves to some place of power and authority for the sake of speaking up for all the little ones they left behind, they will simply give and give and give until the life they have been given is all gone, and in exchange, the kingdom of heaven will be opened to them even here upon the earth. In exchange, they will see the real world come alive, in exchange miracles will happen. The scrap of bread will turn to baskets and the stranger they had thought they might avoid in the street will tell them everything that they have ever done. Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life, those who banish the thought of ever making it by the standards of this world will be born again into the one that Jesus comes to make among us, and if you are anything like me, you will be terrified at the prospect of it, and scoff at the thought of ever becoming so miserable for the Word.
“Those who love their life, lose it,” and I am almost certain that I will. I love too many different things in this world. I love having drinks on the patio of some cheap 8th Avenue bar with my friends when the weather changes and all the neighborhood has come out to play. I love the thought of having some nice job that will afford me a good house for my family that I can come home to when I leave the outside world behind at the end of the day. I love the abundance of my own private life enough that I am willing to look the other way and shut the door when it appears that some stranger might ask too much of me, lest I risk losing the whole thing. I love prosciutto and melons and Bordeaux and weekends at the coast and, in the words of the Rufus Wainwright song, “cigarettes and chocolate milk… everything it seems I like’s a little bit stronger, a little bit thicker, a little bit harmful for me.” But that seems to be the tragic twist. Love holds the risk of harm whether we love just the right things or all the wrongs ones. One way or another love takes us outside ourselves where the dangerous world is waiting. We cannot get out of bed in the morning without the love of something, and we cannot love without the risk that the object of our longing will betray us in the end, by disappointment, by untimely death, by all the thousand failures of the flesh. Those who love, lose- you do not have to look further than the family of Trayvon Martin to see that it is true, you do not have to look any further than Trayvon himself, who now no longer has the chance to love any of the terrible things this life has to offer because of the terrible and murderous sin that shot him down. In other words, you do not have to look any further than the cross.
God, it seems, has been in love for quite some time with a very harmful thing, namely: us. God cannot send a holy thing among us without us trampling it underfoot. God cannot come into our midst without rejection, without being forced outside the margins of our life, without being bound and spit upon and nailed upon a tree. God loses all in sharing our humanity; God loses God’s own self in the Son forsaken. And yet God persists in loving dangerously. Because the kingdom of God, when it is trampled underfoot, when it is hidden far away, when it is buried underground, only ever rises back again a hundred fold. One blessed child of God shot down for no good reason but the blind fear and hatred of his killer raises a whole army of outcry at its injustice because God is in the heart of the wounded and the dead and God will not be silenced in the wretchedness of our sin, God for us and God in us does not stay empty, broken or dead but raises us to the living we are made for.
Jesus said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” and I think I may know what he is talking about. I think I may have passed enough hungry people by while clutching to the single grain that I possess until I can safely enjoy it by myself in my own room. I think that I have laid awake enough nights wondering how I am going to secure my own abundant granary until the next one may be safely filled. I think I know that it is Jesus calling from the margins I have made, inviting me in new ways every day to step a little closer to the edge. “Just let go,” he says, niggling at the fingers of my clenching fists, “give yourself away, even if only for this moment, if only for this single day and you will find that your true life springs back from every grave you are afraid of; the grain that falls will come again, milled into the bread of life this world and you are starving for.”
The world, it seems, with all its ugly sin, is still worth losing yourself in, it is still worth loving for as many times as that love may be the end of you. The good news is that for as many times as that love ends for the sake of another, it will begin again a hundred times in something new. Our life in God has as much freedom as Christ does bursting from the tomb, and all that we possess in God will come again as many times as we can give it all away. Love, then, and lose. Lose yourself in love. God will be there losing everything beside you when you do.
“God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his eternity, but through the devil’s envy death came into the world, and all who belong to his company experience it.” I am sad to say that I am absolutely convicted by the reading from the Wisdom of Solomon this morning. I have reasoned like the ungodly saying, “Come, let us lie in wait for the righteous man, for he is inconvenient to us…” If you had the good fortune of taking a class with Professor Elizabeth Koenig while she was here, you may have read some Rene Girard or James Alison, who both talk about mimetic desire. Mimesis simply means imitation, and mimetic desire speaks specifically of that feeling we have for someone we imitate in the process of becoming ourselves, a feeling that can be alternately colored by profound devotion and jealous contempt. In the simplest therms you might think of a pair of brothers. The younger brother looks up to his older brother and sees the skill he has developed, he can see the love he garners from their parents and the comparative freedom he has. They might be building leggo towers one day, and the younger brother tries his best to make his leggo tower just like his older brother did, just as big, because its just so good, but his little fingers can’t manage to make one quite the same, and in a fit he smashes his older brother’s tower to the floor. In terms of the Gospel, mimetic desire is one understanding of the violence we perpetrate against our Christ. We are faced with the Son of God and we want his goodness so much for ourselves, we want to be beloved as he is, we want to be righteous as he is, and on our best days we love him so much that we want to be taken in to his very body, and on our worst we could simply kill him.
It’s no secret that my own leggo tower right now is a job in the Episcopal Church. I will confess to you that I have suffered a demon a envy this semester as I’ve sat alone in my room late at night and thought about the job search process we’re in right now. It’s not even about those of you who have already found them, and really most of us aren’t even applying for the same ones, and I’m even pretty sure that I’m going to end up right where I need to be in the end… but it is about a deep suspicion that I harbor when all the lights are off that I’m simply not good enough for this work. I envy some of you the security that I so desperately want for myself, that I know I’ll probably get a taste of at some point but simply can’t imagine right now. I envy some the call to be wanted, to be desired by a congregation, and I probably envy it for all the wrong reasons. The most terrible thing about this envy when it comes is that it poisons the very thought of some of the most beloved folk I’ve come to know. I confess this to you because I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way, nor do I think I am the first and will likely not be the last. What I can witness too, however, is that when I see you face-to-face, you all make it so easy for the whole thing to slip away. When we gather together in this place, or in the Refectory or pass by on the Close, your goodness in the Lord is so radiant that any thought of envy disappears. You make it so easy to see the One Body of us that remains to go out into this world for good. You remind me of how much good we share together, and the lines I’d like to draw between us in my solitude come falling down. It is a testament to the abundance of Christ who makes room here in our midst when we gather in his name.
In the risen body of our Lord we are invited to behold the hands and feet and side that we have pierced, and in his body of the Church upon the earth we are invited to behold the deep wounds we leave, wounds at times from envy at the dazzling brightness we manifest to one another in God. The good news is that for as many times as we turn to repent of the sin that enslaves us and turn to God for help, we will be forgiven. The good news is that God is making even now a new body of us here in the image of his Son raised up from the grave, and the devil cannot do a thing to stop him.
Good morning, its good to see you. I bring you greetings from the St. David’s family in New York City, Kerlin, Jordan and Aiden send their regards and are doing well, and we’re all enjoying a bit of spring break right now. It has been a pleasure to be able to follow along with your Lenten journey here with the blog and facebook posts, and I’ve been thinking about some of the questions you have considered together thus far. What do you hear God saying? What is our mission? What proclamations will possess you on the other side of the desert, and where is God suffering in the midst of our own suffering. The question I’d like to add into the mix today concerns God’s foolishness. Where have you been foolish for the message of God? Where have your words failed to explain why you are here, or what have you stopped yourself from saying out loud for fear that it simply wouldn’t make sense to anyone who hears you? “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.”
There are two things that make me wince in our scripture readings this morning. The first is this idea in Paul that proclaiming the message of the cross may be foolishness to those who hear it. It just so happens that I spend a great deal of my time trying very hard to not sound foolish, especially when it comes to church. I’m getting a degree in not sounding foolish about God right now, actually. Paul’s attitude here seems to be “you either get it or you don’t, and at the end of the day there’s just no use explaining.” Now, words have certainly failed me before. I know well the particular stare of a colleague, friend, or partner who is looking at me in the midst of some perfectly rational argument of mine as if it were springing from a hole in my head. “I don’t think you’re hearing me,” is a favorite response of mine in times like these, which is a polite way of saying, “I’ve explained this to you in three different ways already and still somehow you do not understand that I am right.” Paul certainly wasn’t making things easy for himself. He was in love with a savior whose chief power was in giving it all away, a Messiah who had not only come already but had been humiliated in the process, and most Greeks and Jews simply weren’t buying it. For anyone who has spent any time wondering how in the world you’re going to begin telling another human soul about the startling revelations God has unveiled somewhere deep down in your own, the rejection is difficult to watch. “Very well then,” Paul says, “if it is foolishness, at least it is God’s foolishness, and in the end, no words will suffice to convince you of its truth, the faith to understand our message will come from within you by God’s salvation only.” The sentiment is a poetic stroke in favor of human intuition that transcends the confines of logic and language, and at the same time, it is an easy way out of the conversation.
The second thing that makes me wince this morning is a likely candidate, the unruly Messiah himself. I cannot hear the story of Jesus “cleansing” the Temple without being reminded of my teaching days. When I was finally put in charge of my own classroom I spent a good week before school started getting everything ready, arranging all the best books in a tidy display, organizing the supplies by kind and size. My classroom was pristine, a physical, actual display of what I thought teaching should look like. Then of course, the students came in. In particular, one student came in whose learning had been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, and this was a first for me. Within 5 minutes he had pushed over every book, taken out every supply, and flipped over every box that he could get his hands on. My world was turned upside down, literally. And this happened every day. It took the full school year for his mother and his therapists to work with me to develop the kind of adaptive response this student really needed, which was not the classroom I had planned at all. In the end, this was a clarifying experience; this student was showing me what was really important for my teaching. Is this what Jesus is doing in the Temple? Does Jesus come into the religious structures we’ve worked so hard at developing to start trashing the whole thing? The teacher in me is still wincing. It was the Passover, religious Jews were coming from all over to make the appropriate sacrifice in Jerusalem; they were purchasing animals in the Temple square to avoid having to lug them along on the journey there, and depending on where they were from, they had to exchange their currency to do so. They were being observant and reasonable, and Jesus throws a wrench in the whole thing. And for what? What remains in our vision of faith when the materials are stripped away? Which tables is Jesus flipping over in our tidy life together?
So this is where God has me this morning. Stuck between a very strong desire to not sound like a fool when I’m talking about what matters most and a Savior who seems determined to unsettle every bit of logic I’ve carefully prepared to make sure that doesn’t happen. It is not an unfamiliar place for me to be stuck in. In New York, the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests get me there every time. The responses they garner are the epitome of Paul’s “you either get it or you don’t” attitude. Folk who walk by either seem to leave convicted and inspired that someone out there is finally giving voice to an outrage they have harbored silently for a while now, or they roll their eyes and ask what the meaning of any of this could possibly be. I feel absolutely convicted by the outrage, the message, and the street theatre, and yet I have a real resistance to writing down what I actually believe with permanent marker in 15 words or less and literally standing behind it for all the world to see. I prefer more ambiguity than that, I prefer a via media, I’d prefer the other side to know that I can relate to where they’re coming from and that maybe we could have a conversation about it. I’d prefer that someone not pass me by and think that I am wrong without leaving me a chance to prove myself to them. Of course, the result of all these preferences is often that I avoid saying anything at all, and the potential conversation escapes the possibility of even happening.
The good news this morning is that we follow one who would appear in no way to be so hesitant. Christ is moving forward into a kingdom of God’s peace on this earth that would radically shake the tidy structures we have prepared to their foundation. We know what it looks like. Widows, orphans, poor folk of every stripe and nation, every human soul who has been trod under the injustice of this world lifted up and welcomed in to the feast prepared for all at the foundation of the world. So where is the tension for you? When does your voice tremble because you know you have to say something that might not come out with just the right words attached to it? Where has Christ kicked over a table set up in the temple of your best made plans? If you aren’t sure, try this: begin a sentence by saying, “I know this sounds crazy, but…” and then finish it with something about God. If we are willing to sound foolish for the sake of saying it out loud, we may be surprised to find the risk we take in speaking is precisely the place where the conversation begins. The good news is that we do not have to worry about being right, only honest, and God, speaking in the hearts of those who truly hear will take care of the rest. In the end, it may not be about whether someone else is really hearing us at all, but about whether they hear the Christ who speaks through and among us when we are willing to lend our voices to the truth he most wants to say. And as a rule, if what comes out sounds like it belongs in permanent marker scrawled out on a piece of cardboard, we’re likely headed one step in the right direction. Here’s hoping for the courage to speak all the foolhardy words we’re most afraid to say, and strong faith where the logic of this world begins to fail.
I hear that some of you have been watching Downton Abbey. For a while, I was trying to avoid it, myself. I told my friends that I didn’t need to watch another period drama about landed English aristocracy and their downstairs servants, but, in the end, I didn’t account for one massive gravitational pull that would prove futile to resist, namely Dame Maggie Smith and her one-liners. At some point last semester I found myself watching the whole first season back-to-back when I should have been writing term papers instead. If you haven’t seen it- it’s pretty easy to know what you’ve missed. It’s the same old story, a wealthy family and their estate, questions of inheritance, upstairs-downstairs intrigue, and a whole far-off universe of strange customs and social prejudices from another age. But in the second season, their whole world gets turned upside down. War strikes, and in order to help the overtaxed local hospital, Downton Abbey becomes a convalescent home for injured soldiers. All the hundred tidy routines of daily life are rearranged as the great halls fill with cots and limping men, and part of what becomes so fascinating to watch is how the characters react to the massive change they face in the overhaul. There are tiny conversions that take place. There are old norms and expectations which must be released. By the end of last week’s episode, even Maggie Smith’s character is advocating for one of the house’s former footmen injured in the trenches. The appeal of the drama is in watching the tightly wound human soul come undone in the face of crisis, not for tragic ends, but as a hopeful rise to the occasion of finding so much great need gathered at their very doors.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, a whole city gathers at the door of Simon Peter’s house, because that is where the healing may be found. It is easy to imagine that their world was also turned upside down by the occasion. Just hours before, Simon’s mother-in-law had been alone and sick in bed with fever, but at the simple touch of Jesus she is restored, and not only that but preparing her whole household to receive the masses which will follow. This house is not a convalescent home, but a trauma center. The wounded come from all across the city, and not only the injured only, but those with demons, too. A demon here is distinguished as being separate from mere illness, it is a condition that bewilders comprehension, a malady so severe it seems to possess a will of its own. In modern terms, we might think of the man screaming to himself on the subway platform, or a child who throws herself convulsing down the aisle of the grocery store. We might see conditions such as these now and know that with the right medications and the right social services and attention, these tortured human souls might be brought again into the realm of human wholeness in community. For Andrew, Simon, his mother-in-law and others of their time, there was no such comprehension or professional expertise, there were only the open doors of a house that was filling quickly with men, women and children such as these, banging on the countertops, knocking over tables, foaming, raving; all until they came into the presence of Jesus where suddenly, simply, they were whole again. In the time of Jesus, illness, possession, and sin were all closely bound, they were all symptoms of the broken world that longed for the reign of God to come, and in the presence of Jesus they were all put back together again. This was the living presence of the kingdom of heaven, it healed the brokenhearted and bound up their wounds, and in it the demons found no place to speak. In the silence these souls became themselves again, children of the living God.
A demon, of course, is not always so easy to recognize. In the Greek, they are “daimonia”, which simply means a kind of lesser god. Those souls who are under the power of these lesser gods are “daimonizomenous” or possessed by evil spirits, little devils, servants of the Evil One. Our scripture personifies evil with many names. “Diabolos” or one who separates and scatters, the Adversary, the Tempter, the Slanderer, all ways of describing activity that lures the creation out and away from the will of its Creator, activity that disfigures the image of God, that drags his Holy Word through the dirt, and renders all, at times, unrecognizable. The Evil One has a kingdom just as God does, and sadly it is likely to be the more familiar of the two. It is the Kingdom of this world we have made, the one where some go to bed hungry because others cannot find it in their heart to share, the world where many die because a few cannot bear to part with what they are sure they alone must possess. It is the easiest of any kingdom to serve, because it requires as little as our own complicity, and serves as grand an interest as our own self-preservation. Just as the prophets and disciples are always speaking of their desire to be servants of God’s Kingdom, the Evil One has servants, too: spirits of fear that seize our best intentions and whisper doubts about whether or not we really have enough, spirits of malice that breed suspicion of our neighbors, or spirits of pride that would exalt us above them: lesser gods of greed, worldly power and prestige, gluttony and hard-heartedness. If they do not throw us down the aisle of a grocery store or cause us to shout in public places, it may simply be because we have gotten used to them by now. It may simply be that we have let our minor maladies move in and make themselves at home in us, because the exorcising of some part of us that serves the evil kingdom would be too messy, and the convalescence take too long.
One of my favorite works of art in the Metropolitan Museum is a portrait of St. Anthony within a larger triptych that also contains St. Jerome and St. John the Baptist. In his part, Anthony is seated on a stone with his prayer book and rosary in hand, looking off to his right, while at his left side a little cadre of demons stand ready with a casual battery of weapons and menacing stares. St. Anthony was famed for having been in the company of hundreds of demons for much of his life. In the triptych, one of the demons has a pierced, bird-like nose, and is reaching up with a frail arm about to snatch St. Anthony’s prayer book out from under him. If I were still a children’s art teacher I know just what project I would pair with the painting: If you had to draw the part of you that doesn’t want to do your homework, what would it look like? If you had to draw the part of you that wants to hit your older brother sometimes, how many eyes would he have? What kind of arms?
In our modern day, we have grown accustomed to approaching the problems of our inner life with a little more integration than this, our problems are inside us only, they are our own and not to be excused as the condition of some separate exterior willfulness that we have no dominion over. The wisdom of St. Anthony and other dessert fathers sees things differently. They personified these maladies as demons that live among and between us. In one sense, the first step of personification is simply giving a name to the will for evil that acts within us. We may find this kind of naming helpful in determining what it is exactly in ourselves that Christ comes to save us from. For the first dessert monastics to live in community, the naming was essential. They were learning how to live with one another in what were essentially convalescent homes for those souls who had acknowledged that they were on a long, arduous journey of healing in Christ. Living in a community with all their maladies spread messily on the table required that they find a way to speak about the work they did not want to do and the other brothers they wanted very much to hit. One dessert father, Evagrius Ponticus, wrote of it this way: “Charity” he said “has the role of showing itself to every image of God no matter how hard the demons ply their arts to defile them.” The brothers charged themselves with the task of loving as God loves, the biggest part of which involved seeing as God sees: past the nasty bruises and behaviors which the demonic wrought within them right down the very image of God which lay hidden underneath.
This kind of charitable vision, this kind of unwarranted mercy, is precisely what brought a whole city to the doors of Simon Peter’s home, and it is the only thing which will bring anyone crowding to our own doors now. It is the godly love of Jesus which his first followers found so clearly in his presence, and preserved so faithfully in their stories of his life among them on the earth. It is the presence which we have known in this place, in Word and Sacrament, in which everything that ails may fall away and leave us only as one in the body of the Lord. “Everyone is searching for you,” they said. We know that everyone is searching still. We are surrounded by a searching hunger for this kind of wholeness. Our streets are crowded with souls dispossessed of this kind of vision and community, with souls who may not even know what they are looking for. How will they know that they may find it here? How will they know that Jesus has set up shop within our worship for nothing less than the restoration of our brand new life together? How, unless we go forth from this place honest in the wounds which have been healed here, bearing marks of our continued convalescence in the Lord to one another and the world? Where are the cots? Where are the injured, the mad women and men raving for a chance to be whole in the gaze of the beloved once again? Let us bring them in to this house, and God may yet turn our own world upside down.
Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice.
“Rejoice always,” St. Paul reminds us in the scriptures, “pray without ceasing, and in all things give thanks”; today we remember to rejoice. We mark the midway point in our Advent journey towards the Nativity of our Lord by remembering in the midst of our spiritual preparation, that it is God’s joy we prepare ourselves for. If you took the distance traveled between Memory and Hope during Advent, and strung it like a violin, Joy would be the bow for God to pull across it. If Memory were to fashion its Hope into a bell, Joy would be the tongue to make it sing. And it is true that God’s victory is great enough to ring that bell until the end of time. Always is, of course, a lot of the time; and there is an irony in marking a time specifically, to remember that we should be rejoicing, all the time. But such is the case when midway on our journey of faith our lives are also often marked by sorrow. We have a tradition in scripture and our lives of worship of singing songs of praise even when they seem to be unmerited by outward circumstances. Rejoice, always, the scripture says, and today we remember to rejoice.
I cannot hear St. Paul’s reminder to rejoice always and give thanks in all things without thinking of the women I used to teach preschool with. In those days, my colleagues were mostly middle-aged women from Pentecostal and non-denominational traditions; and they spent more time rejoicing in the Lord than anyone else I had ever met. These women gave thanks for everything. They could be in the midst of the greatest personal trials, families swamped with medical bills, cuts in hours and pay, burdened by the labor of continuing ed most of them were taking, and yet their mouths were always praising God- always speaking joyfully of the gifts God had bestowed upon them, and always expectant of the greater joys which their greater labors promised them. Their hope in a God who would restore all things and make all things new in his coming again was manifest in constant thanksgiving for the minor joys which bore the signs of joy to come. I never quite got the hang of this. Joyful was typically the last thing I felt in the middle of the school day. I just didn’t have time for it. From the first family to arrive in the classroom the day was a mad rush all the way through projects and story times and playgrounds right up until lunch and nap time at the edge of which some twenty five sets of feet moved in different directions with half-eaten plates of spaghetti for the trash with twenty-five cranky faces teetering on the verge of an afternoon meltdown, twenty-five sets of arms hauling cots twice their size to twenty-five different corners of the classroom. It felt, every time, as if the whole day might fall apart right there. Yet within minutes of this chaos, the lights of the classroom would be off, and nearly all twenty-five pairs of eyes would be shut in much needed rest; my teaching assistant would take out a magazine at the table to read, and I would take my lunch-break. Most days this involved walking to my car in the parking lot, closing the door, and putting my forehead on the steering wheel. But on the days when I had enough energy to pull the prayer book down from the dashboard, I would open it to the noonday office and read the words of the psalm we hear this morning. “Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed* will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”
We find this psalm in the set of prayers designated for the middle of the day as a holdover from the Rule of St. Benedict. Benedict had his monks recite the entire psalter through once a week, and during the middle of the day he assigned the Psalms of Ascent, psalms from the middle of the end of the psalter, pilgrim psalms. Their made them among the easiest psalms to memorize and the easiest to recite during the middle of the work day, where the brothers might be in the midst of some field of their labor. Their density, the potency of their language and vision, made these psalms perfect for conveying whole themes of the faith in a swift moment of time, a function itself a holdover from their original use as psalms for the pilgrims journey on the way to the Jerusalem temple. Psalm 126 reminds the faithful of the rejoicing they may expect at the end of all their labors. I, for one, was much more prone to anxiety. But my colleagues in teaching reminded me by their daily witness that fear was not to rule the day for us. Our experience was rooted in the victory of God, and our hope was in its ultimate fulfillment. For them, the minor joys of any ordinary work day were strung together in the fuller goodness of God, a fragrant garland for the righteous where nothing was ordinary, no good thing was present without the touch of God.
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion* then were we like those who dream, Then was our mouth filled with laughter* and our tongue with shouts of joy.” The psalmist remembers the joy of Israel’s past mid-way through a journey where the fruits of such a victory have yet to ripen again. The Lord had indeed begun to restore Jerusalem from destruction, the captives had been returned from their exile and the Temple rebuilt. It is easy to imagine the rush of excitement which the signs of such a restoration brought on, the vivid hope of a return to the glory of former days. Yet something was still missing. Jerusalem was far from being the center of the known world, indeed her restoration was dependent on the tenuous support of a much more powerful nation; and the Presence of the Lord had yet to dwell in the Temple as it had in the days of old. Fortune had been restored to Zion, yet this fortune was like a first gentle rain over what long had been the desert of exile. Israel still longed for the rushing river which they had known of God’s favor in the past. Fortune had been restored, and yet the psalmist also prays, “Restore our fortunes Oh Lord, like the watercourses of the south.”
This psalm stands in-between the memory of promise and the hope of fulfillment, yet it is not a lament for what has not yet come; it is a song of joy for what is. This is a psalm about ranan. Ranan is a primitive Hebrew root word for a ringing shout and cry. Ranan is about movement, the shaking of the voice and the trembling of the body. Ranan might refer to being overcome by something, or a great torrent in the sea, or even the tremulous sound made by pole or mast when a great wind passes by. Placed in the human voice and body, it is an inarticulate outcry. Sometimes this crying can be a wail of entreaty or supplication. But it just as easily means a proclamation of joy and praise. In this psalm we read it as rejoicing, rejoicing that fills the mouth over with laughter, rejoicing that shakes the body to its core, rejoicing so evident that everyone who sees it stops to marvel at the blessing of the Lord poured out. What is more, this psalm connects the rejoicing associated with God’s people in Zion with the rejoicing of God’s people in their daily life. The psalm begins in the Temple and ends on the farm because for God’s people, there are no ordinary joys, all are a gift from the Lord of Hosts; and the joy of a harvest reaped from the years long labor is both a source of blessing for the present, and a token of the joy to come.
We sing these hymns of joy today in the midst of our own labor with God. We reach back in the collective memory of our church and sacraments to the rejoicing of our earliest days when we first knew that the Lord had come into the world of our flesh to claim it as his own. We are a people who were formed by rejoicing at the greatness of the Lord’s activity among us. A follower of Jesus was identifiable by their rejoicing in things once cast down being made new. We remember the rejoicing of his mother Mary when she first conceived by God’s Holy Spirit, the rejoicing which she shook her sister Elizabeth by the shoulders with, the rejoicing with which she praised God for his favor of the poor and and lowly and hungry of the world. And we remember the promise of Christ for a return of God’s victory in creation made anew again by the fullness of his presence.
For God’s people, midway on the journey of faith, there are no ordinary joys; because we gather in the worship of our soul’s truest delight, the font of every blessing, the one store of all good gifts and all true rejoicing. All good things come from God, from the smallest joys to bloom among the ashes of our daily lives to our greatest victories, from the quiet joy of walks beneath the bare winter branches of our streets, to the raucous laughter of our closest friends, to the long-awaited harvests of our life’s labor. Some joys catch us by surprise and some are eagerly anticipated, but all seem just past the reach of our manipulation, all are gifts, and all will be gathered by our Lord as a garland of righteousness for God’s rejoicing people. The occasions we find for joy are the reality of God seeping through into our Earthly life, currents springing up from the places in our lives where the veil is thinnest between this world and the life eternal. We do well to stoop down close to them when they come, and take a full measure of their blessing, that our bodies may tremble and our voices sing with joy at the nearness of the Lord.
In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Andrew believed. Andrew confessed. Andrew was a man on a mission from the Lord, an intimate evangelist burning with the good news that God had come near. He worked several street corners in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, and one of those corners was right next to the bus stop that I waited at each afternoon when my teaching day was done. I watched Andrew, out of the corner of my eye, as he shifted from soul to soul, passing in-between the passers-by with bible tracks sticking up from his back-pocket and a wide-embracing grin that he would flash two seconds before asking the man or woman in his path, “Sir, ma’am, have you been saved?” Most of them had been, of course, being in the heart of the Christian South, and the polite Christians would tip their hat and smile and maybe even thank him before scooting anxiously along to the rest of their business. Some of the men and women that Andrew called after had no interest in being saved, especially if the saving had anything to with a man of Andrew’s obviously diminished stature, and some of them were rude. But every once in a while, some troubled soul would cross Andrew’s path, some soul for whom the saving likely seemed to be one of the best and last options on the shelf, and I would watch, from the corner of my eye, as someone new bowed her head with Andrew’s hand upon her shoulder to welcome Jesus Christ into her heart. Every once in a while I would see there, in the periphery, a tear fall and a spark light up inside some human soul from the embers Andrew tended in his own, the smoldering drive he carried to get out of bed each morning and go out fishing souls for Jesus. I bristled every time I saw it happen. I’d mutter something under my breath about cheap grace or having been saved 2,000 years ago and stick my nose in a book so he wouldn’t make the mistake of trying to save me next, but secretly, I was burning too. I envied him his clarity, his urgency and verve. I wanted desperately to be as certain of my faith as he seemed to be, and to give it all away with such abandon.
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says. The tiny church I belonged to at the time fished in subtler ways than Andrew employed. We fancied ourselves above confronting strangers on the street and posted hip fliers about the newest weeknight bible study instead. We hosted a gallery and a potluck and a preschool. We wrote editorials in the local paper and dressed up in funny clothes to march the sidewalks once a year chanting funny things pretending it was normal, waiting to see who might notice. We cast our nets off to the side of our tiny operation and waited for the passers-by to be caught up in the midst of a holy curiosity. And every once in a while, it happened. Every once in a while some troubled soul came across our open door to find communion waiting there, and we watched from the corner of our pews as he stumbled through the kneeling and responses and the hymns enough times to start looking much like we did in the same. Every once in a while we saw there in our periphery a spark light up in some human soul that resembled what we’d tended in our own. We thanked God secretly in our hearts that we were ever there at all to catch him, and our ranks would increase a single member more. In the end, we were about as good at fishing souls as Andrew was. One soul won over at a time, one for every once in a while. If either Andrew or our little church had been fishing for our livelihood, we would have each starved to death a long, long time ago.
Evangelism does not happen in an empty room, as much as we seem determined at times to clear one out in our habits and routines. God does not write her holy Word upon a blank and static slate, but upon the particularities of the human flesh and blood which she knit together in the womb. Evangelism without particularity, a message told without the peculiarities and flaws of its tellers, is as good as dead upon the water it would seek to reach beneath. It was a lack of context that made me bristle at the great effort Andrew made. He used the same words that I did to talk about faith, but neither of us was very certain what the other one was actually saying. We, of course, run no less risk of being just as static and empty and blank in the invitations we extend for our God. We keep the sacraments that God has found us with and feeds us in, but we struggle at times not to keep the lives that God enters there as a specially-coded secret to ourselves. It is easy for us to become so used to the worship which we offer that we cease to notice whether God is doing anything else besides. The teeming crowds still swarm to Jesus, they are still caught up in his healing when it comes, they still gather every time his wisdom is cast wide across the world, but they often do so now somewhere else without us.
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says to a group of men who fish for a living. It makes sense for him to ask Andrew and Peter and James and John to fish for people because fishing was their daily bread, Jesus was speaking to them in the particularity of their vocation, their life and food. It might even make sense for Jesus to ask Brad Jones or John Kellogg to fish for people, because he probably knows that they’d jump at the chance to fish anywhere, even all the way to Central Park in the middle of someone else’s wedding. But the Lord Jesus knows that the last fish I caught was a meager little thing on a dock in Punta Gorda, Florida with my grandpa at the age of five. I turned my nose up at the smell and the only fishing I’ve done since then has been on internet dating sites. I was never a fisherman. I was a preschool teacher. I was a professional cut and paster, I played with dress-up and sock puppets for a living. I spent my days breaking up fights and cleaning puke off other people’s children and I spent my nights going to the gym and out to bars with my friends. I sometimes wish I was still there. Not only because I actually thought I knew what I was doing then, but because somewhere between the macaroni art and the Tuesday night spin class and the poor choices and the wealth of friendship the Lord Jesus Christ rushed my heart at full force and claimed the whole thing as his own. “Follow me,” he said, “and I will make you cut and paste and bike and drink and break up fights and clean up puke for God! Follow me,” he says now, “and I will infuse your whole life with my grace, I will make all things holy, I will take the tasks which are most familiar to you and use them for breaking out a kingdom of peace and justice for all God’s children on the earth. Not upon a clean and blank and static slate but on the very flesh and blood already made by God, the very things already close to our touch and taste and sight and heart, the very life you’re living even now, transformed.”
“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” I have heard more than one mention from this pulpit about the lives we left behind, and I have teared up on more than one occasion at the thought of sacrifices made for the sake of coming here to follow some kind of call: friends lost, security forfeited, bridges burned. But I am interested, this evening, less in the things which you had to leave behind to follow Jesus, and more in the parts of you made and claimed by God that you refuse to let go of. In the Gospel stories, Saint Andrew is always bringing folk along to meet the Lord that found him, he brings his brother Simon Peter along, he brings Greeks along, he brings a boy along to Jesus carrying a meager catch of two fish and some loaves, and when we pray in thanksgiving for his life and witness we ask that we too might bring those near to us into his gracious presence. But we do not stop there. We bring whole lives touched by God to the evangelistic task before us. It can be so easy, in this of all places, to forget ourselves. It can be so easy to wipe our slate clean in the name of formation, in the effort to be made again within the shape of our tradition, easy to forget the whole lives that God has redeemed for her holy work, easy to pretend that we are anything other than whole histories of hurt and joy transfigured in the Lord each time we eat his flesh and serve his need in the world. And if we forget the life that God has saved in us, if we pretend to be something we are not, we risk nothing less than rendering the invitation we extend on God’s behalf as static as we become at times behind these iron gates.
This is not to be your fate.
I know this for a fact, because I know you, and because you have taken me along to see Jesus more times than I have time to name. You are a trumpeter, a diva, a producer, and a therapist for God. You are a discerning financier, a centering chaplain, and a raucous hostess for the kingdom of heaven. An optometrist’s assistant for the vision of faith, a sous-chef of holy food and drink, a fisherfolk of people for the Lord. Your lives are teeming with God’s bounteous catch, and that abundance may break and broaden the doors of any church you try to enter with it, because Jesus will not stop using your whole life to spread the good news of his saving presence. You are a man, a woman, a child on a mission from the Lord, evangelists every one, burning with the good news that God has come near, and comes even closer still. You will go forth from this place burning with Jesus in your heart and at your side in everything you do, and together you will set this world on fire.