Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey A. Hanson at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, March 31, 2019, the Fourth Sunday in Lent

At the center of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s most famous book on ethics is a memorable portrait of a guy that he thinks is the perfect man. This fellow that Aristotle describes is brave, self-controlled, noble, rich, generous with his friends, openly scornful of his enemies—his deeds are few but impressive. So detailed is Aristotle’s description of this ideal man that he even says of him that he has a deep voice and his way of walking is measured and unhurried.

When teaching this portrait of Aristotle’s perfect person to students, they often find this last detail a little puzzling. Why would Aristotle’s ideal man be known for measured and unhurried walking? Why would that matter?

To explain this I would simply say, “Well, did you ever see a grown man running to catch a bus?” “Wait… Stop… Wait for me…” No. No, that will not do.

No, Aristotle’s perfect man never rushes because he is grave and dignified, and running pell-mell is undignified.

Something else I try to get students to understand is that Aristotle’s vision of the perfect person is in many ways quite unlike the Christian ideal. We see this difference plainly in today’s Gospel reading because the very center of the story of the so-called prodigal son is a totally undignified act.

This most familiar of our Lord’s parables is unique to Luke, and it’s very much worth our careful study and particularly so on this Sunday, Rose Sunday, when we mark a crucial shift in the season of Lent.

We know the setup: The younger of two sons asks his father for his share of the inheritance. This is an impertinent—even insulting—request. Normally in ancient Near Eastern cultures a man’s inheritance is only endowed on his heirs when he is dead. And even when he is alive he still retains his right over its expenditure.

But the younger son doesn’t respect these norms and abandons his family and his homeland, a virtually unthinkable act of desertion.

Because he has cut all ties with family he ends up helpless and alone when he is in need. Having squandered everything he took from his father and being exposed to famine in desperation he works the most degrading possible job for an observant Jew: pigs are unclean, and yet there he is so close to starvation that he is envious of these filthy creatures’ slop. This is what we nowadays call hitting rock bottom. The younger son has nothing, and he has no one to help him.

So he decides—in a word—to repent. “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”’

This is what repentance looks like to our Lord’s audience. He is speaking in chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel to the Pharisees and the scribes. And as far as they are concerned, this is the perfect way to end this story.

Because the younger son’s gesture of repentance is exactly what the Pharisees would approve of. Repentance according to the religious authorities of the day requires us, as the younger son does, to “come to ourselves” and realize that our situation needs fixing. Repentance means confessing that we are not worthy and offering to make restitution.

And this offer to be one of his father’s hired servants is one that a sober, dignified ancient Near Eastern paterfamilias would be tempted to take quite seriously. Maybe the boy has learned his lesson. If he goes to work here in the household then he can earn back some trust. If he sticks it out as a hired servant for a while then his father will know that he really is sorry. And the money he makes can pay back the father for all the wealth he squandered. From the son’s perspective, repentance is a smart move.

And from the father’s perspective accepting that repentance makes good sense too. It restores the father’s honor. It allows him to recover from his son’s insult. It is a dignified solution to an embarrassing family problem.

But the father is not that dignified. What is he? According to verse 20, he is compassionate. And that compassion drives him to drop all dignity. He is not measured and unhurried. He runs. He runs to his child, he runs for compassion, he runs with joy, and he flings his arms around his son’s neck and kisses him.

God is not waiting around for us to show up shame-faced looking for a handout. God doesn’t want us to work off our debt or earn our way back into his good graces.

The Father sees us coming while we are still far off. How does he do that when we are still far off? Because he’s looking for us. He’s actively looking and longing for us, and when he sees us he comes running to welcome us home.

And yes, it’s important that we come to God in repentance, but notice that in the story the younger son doesn’t even get to finish his carefully rehearsed speech. There is no question of becoming a hired servant because repentance cannot earn back relationship with God, that relationship that we have so foolishly spurned.

Relationship with God can only be restored as a free gift from our heavenly Father, one he is eager to give.

This story marks a shift in Lent, as I said. This Sunday, Rose Sunday, is when we shift our attention from our individual repentance, our fasting and self-denial, to a shared anticipation of the coming Great Feast of Easter.

There are two proper prefaces for Lent; the first you have already heard on this season’s past Sundays—it focuses on the temptation of our Lord, how he was tested as we are and yet did not sin.

Today the celebrant will say a different proper preface; this one calls us to prepare with joy for the Paschal Feast.

And the familiar story of the younger son and his compassionate father ends with a feast. The feast is in celebration of nothing less than the younger son’s passage from death to life. And in the same way our Easter feast is in celebration of our Lord’s rising from death to life, which in turn causes us to celebrate our baptism into Christ’s death and rising to new life in him.

This is the good news that awaits us. But not everyone is happy about it. The older son, not without some reason even, is upset that there is a feast at all. He has been at work in the field all day, and nobody has brought him the news. Awkward… He declines to rush with the same joy as his father. He even refuses to his father’s face and in front of the guests to go in to the house, an insult almost as grave as the younger brother’s. He puts the worst possible construction on his younger brother’s activities while away from home, complains that he has never been treated as well by his father, pleads not for his family but for his friends, and generally fails to see the truth that his father reassuringly speaks to him: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive.”

Intriguingly this parable ends in suspense: What will the older brother do? Will he join the feast as well? Or will he remain sulking outside?

Our Lord I believe leaves the choice to those who are listening to him. We are hearing him, and we have a choice to make. And who else is his audience, besides us I mean? As I said it is the Pharisees and the scribes; they have a choice to make too. We know this because Luke tells us so at the very opening of chapter 15. And what are the Pharisees and scribes doing? They are not just listening to Jesus; they are murmuring against Jesus.

They are complaining and sulking and in a totally dignified manner I am sure holding themselves aloft and refusing to join in what Jesus is doing because as Luke tells us “the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to Jesus.” Sinners. I’m sure they found that outrageous. A crowd of sinners gathered together to hear the words of Jesus was probably really undignified. And because the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to him the Pharisees said of Jesus, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

That’s right. So he did. And so he still does. And he tells us this story to show us why. This parable shows us what God’s attitude toward sinners really is: God sees sinners far off and runs to them. He wraps his arms around them and kisses them. And he invites them to a celebratory feast.

The Great Feast of Easter is coming soon. What a shame it would be for us to miss out for any reason. What a shame to be stopped by embarrassment at our past mistakes; to hold on to our stubborn pride; to cling to our sham dignity, and refuse to go in to the house and join in. Sinners of all kinds are invited. Those who are more like the younger brother and those who are more like the older brother. God wants both of them to come into the house.

God does not greet our repentance grudgingly, with cold indifference; God is longing for you to come home; God is eager to receive you with joy no matter how low you have sunk. If we will have it, then all that is God’s is ours too.

So don’t hold back now. It is fitting that we should make merry and be glad.


Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Jay C. James at the Church of the Advent, March 17, 2019, the Second Sunday in Lent

But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.  

If you could live anywhere, where would it be?  It’s a question we have thought about at different periods in our lives.  What are the factors you consider when choosing where to live? Do you prefer urban, suburban or rural settings?  Maybe you would choose to live where you feel most connected; near family or friends, or like one of us here at The Advent, near our spiritual home.  

In a spiritual sense for Christians it is heaven.  That is where God made us to be.  That is where God calls all faithful Christians to be.  I find that even those who are agnostic about belief in God, and I have met some self-proclaimed atheists, who have shared that they experience some sense of a  longing for a place where peace of heart and mind exist. There is something in us that just longs for a home. Saint Paul is crystal clear in his letter to the Philippians about where the Christian’s true desire and longing should be: “…our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.”  

When I think of places I want to live and the body politic that would suit me, I always think that it would be nice to live, not in just a state, but in a commonwealth.  Four constituent parts of our republic purposely choose in their constitutions to conduct their political affairs as commonwealths: our own Massachusetts along with Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Virginia.  “Commonwealth” has the ring of existing for the common good. ‘common’-the public and ‘wealth’ -that used to mean ‘one’s well-being’. to be wealthy meant sound, healthy, and good, not how much money one had amassed.  So commonwealth is concerned with the public’s well-being. I like that. It has more of a spiritual grounding to it than belonging to the more secular-sounding “state”. There is more of an emphasis on the goodness or common good of all.  

This commonwealth, this citizenship for Christians has us as members of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven.  Establishing that kingdom is the reason Jesus is determined to get to Jerusalem as we see in today’s Gospel. Jesus is teaching how pressing it is to get into the kingdom and be saved. How earnest one’s determination ought to be to get into the kingdom and that it will be surprising who become members or citizens of the  Kingdom.

I think this necessity of membership and the prominent place of the Kingdom of God is emphasized by Saint Luke.  We just need to look at what Saint Luke writes just before and just after today’s description of entering by the narrow door and Jesus’ message to Herod and Jerusalem.    Just before, we have Jesus calling all offenders to repent before they perish, then he purposely heals a woman on the Sabbath as if to say this is what happens in the Kingdom of God.  (We are made well.) And then he describes life in the Kingdom as growing like a mustard seed and that the Kingdom grows like leaven in a loaf. Then immediately after our three scenes today, Jesus again, right in face of the lawyers and Pharisees, heals again on the Sabbath, and then has two parables of banquets, one at a marriage and one where everyone is invited.   We ought to get the point that the Kingdom of God is the place we should want to live. It is the place Jesus wants to build by getting to Jerusalem and finishing his work.

So how do we get there and who else is there?  When asked “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”  Jesus never answers the question. Jesus’ answer is not numerical, but attitudinal.  Ours is not to know the number making it into the Kingdom, ours is to strive to get to the Kingdom.  This by no means is intended to suggest that any work or effort of our own will get us in. It is only by faith through grace that gets us in.  Our part, according to Jesus, is to “strive” to enter in by the narrow door. Striving in this sense means opening ourselves to an attitude of heart and mind that will prepare us to receive that grace.  Our efforts will not supply the grace. Striving is derived from the Greek agonizomai from where we get the English word agony.  The word originally described those who strain and struggle especially during an athletic contest or during exercise.  It’s an easy connection between that kind of strain and stress to get to agony. We should do whatever we can to be part of the Kingdom.  

In our Lenten disciplines we are attempting the same striving.  Our efforts may not be agonizing in the contemporary sense of the word, but our efforts are aids and helpful exercises to incline our hearts and minds to God.  He supplies the grace to heal us and draw us closer to him. So if you are keeping the communal Lenten discipline drawn up for The Advent, or if you have created your own Lenten disciplines, keep them up.  It is difficult. It is a strain and you are doing the right thing and, by God’s grace, entering and living in the Kingdom of God.

Not only are we to strive for the Kingdom and go through its narrow door, but there will be some surprises when we survey the land and find out who else is there.  Remember Jesus is teaching an almost entirely Jewish audience and tells them that they may be some of the ones who will not get in.

The ones who do not get in will see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob there with all the prophets but the late ones will be thrust out.  Then “men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the Kingdom of God. There will be some surprises about who is in and who is out.  The important part is to make sure the effort is made to get in and the time to start is now.

Being close to Jesus will not count.  Proximity to Jesus will not be enough.  A person may know something about Jesus or talk about him a lot, or may do lots of things that look like something Jesus would do.  None of these actions warrant any merit in the mind of God or help determine entrance into the Kingdom. Remember, the householder shut the door and said, “I do not know where you come from.”  The people plead, “We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.” This is not good enough. The householder will still declare, “I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!”  Physical proximity will not do it. The listener must be open to Jesus’ teaching and hear it in his heart. Again, the attitude must be one of openness to letting the words form a new person and the longing for the Kingdom must be strenuously pursued.

Jesus loves us so much and it shows openly in his determination to get to Jerusalem and his lament over Jerusalem.  Jesus is going to Jerusalem to perform the greatest acts of love the world has ever known or will ever know. Nothing will stop him from fully establishing the Kingdom of God here in the world by his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension; not the questioning crowds, not the Pharisees, not Herod, no one.  He shows this love and compassion for Jerusalem itself. He truly wants to care even for all those who reject him and he describes how he would care for them even as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.

To live in the place we are given to live in the Kingdom let Jesus be the narrow door.  He has given us himself as the way to be greeted by the host at the heavenly banquet. And when he welcomes us it will be in a place where there is comfort, joy, and eternal bliss.  Where would you like to live? That sounds like the perfect place.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Jeffrey A. Hanson at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, March 10, 2019, the First Sunday in Lent

Today’s collect uses the name “Satan” to refer to that great enemy of humanity. That is a Biblical name, but it’s a name that Saint Luke never uses. Luke uses exactly one word for the enemy that our Lord confronts and defeats in today’s Gospel reading. That name is the devil. So what does this name mean? In Greek “diabolos,” from which we get our word “devil,” literally means to set apart or break asunder, to divide. In a more extended sense it means to slander or lie. So how do we get the meaning of the devil as a slanderer from setting apart or breaking asunder? What does the devil separate such that he is a liar? The answer I think is clear: The devil is a liar of a particular sort. His lies consist in separating a fake from the truth and passing it off as the real thing. The devil is a counterfeiter, and a counterfeit is always ever so close to the real thing.

That is what makes temptation by the devil so tricky. The devil’s lies are never outright or obvious, but cunning and indirect. This is why the devil says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” “If you are the Son of God, thrown yourself down from here.” Notice the devil does not say, “You’re not the Son of God,” because an outright denial of the truth is easy to detect and to reject. His attack is more careful; he seeks to insinuate and to sow doubt.

Everything the devil says in this episode is an empty promise. This is how diabolical temptation works. It makes us doubtful and restless and desirous of something we think we need and pretends to be able to put our doubts to rest and give us what we really want, but this is a cheap illusion.

Every one of the devil’s temptations faced by Christ is a total fraud.

“You must be hungry, if you’re really the Son of God then why not just use your power to turn this stone to bread? Then you can eat and be happy. I have authority over the whole world. It can be yours, all you have to do is worship me, and then all that authority and glory will be yours. If you’re really the Son of God then you can throw yourself down and God will save you; he won’t let you die. He will keep you safe, and then you’ll know for sure that he loves you.”

Empty promises allure with what we might call nowadays the prospect of instant gratification. And isn’t that the hallmark of our culture? Our fallen world provokes us to doubt and restless desire, and we are told that our doubt and anxiety have a solution, but the fallen world has caused these doubts and anxieties in the first place, and the fallen world’s material solutions make us worse, not better.

Instant gratification is fundamentally opposed to the truth. This is the subtle lure that truly deserves to be called diabolical; this is the peeling away of illusion from truth.

But Jesus already knows the truth.

There can be no question that he is the Son of God. There is no “if” here, but that “if” is exactly how the devil tries to divide us from the truth we already know.

Jesus knows, and we know, that he is the Son of God because of what Luke said at the very beginning of chapter 4. Jesus “returned from the Jordan” Luke says and made his way into the desert. What happened at the Jordan? Jesus was baptized, and when he was baptized, God the Father himself said, “Thou art my beloved Son.”

This is the truth—from God’s own word.

And this truth exposes the counterfeit lies of the devil for what they are.

And this is how Jesus defeats the devil. By the truth of who he is and what he is here to do for us and for our salvation.

“Command this stone to become bread.” No. Jesus will not use his power to feed himself. Instead he will feed others, first five thousand, then his disciples and friends at the Last Supper, then at Emmaus, and finally he will feed the very life of the world with his own body: here, and on thousands of altars around the world.

“If you, then, will worship, me, all this authority and glory shall be yours.” Again no. Jesus will not claim political power over the world. He will instead found a counter community, the kingdom of God, which is not of this world and exists to rebuke and hold to account every worldly power. In Luke’s Gospel people who hear Jesus preaching about the kingdom of God are amazed because Jesus teaches they say “with authority.” He casts out demons “by his authority,” and so the truth is he doesn’t need the authority and glory that the devil falsely promises; he already has all authority and all glory, and he will use it proclaim and promote the new reign of God over all the world.

“Throw yourself down. God’s angels will bear you up.” For the last time no. In the end Jesus will not presume upon his Father to save him from harm. Instead he will willingly go to his death on the cross.

Of course he could do any of the things the devil asks. He could turn a stone to bread or claim power over the world or even command an army of angels to save him from harm.

But he won’t. And that’s why he defeats the devil and his lies.

So what can we take away from our Lord’s experience of temptation and his victory over the devil?

At this time of year especially there are a few things for us to consider. First, about the nature of fasting. Jesus goes into the desert to fast, and he assumes his disciples will fast too. Jesus never says to his followers “if you fast,” he always says, “when you fast.” He assumes we will fast, and the church summons us to do so now, in Lent, for 40 days, as he did.

Some commentators say that the devil attacks Jesus when he is hungry and thus weak and vulnerable. I disagree. I think he is strong. He has fasted for forty days, and so of course he is hungry as anyone would be. Our Lord is fully human as well as fully divine, and rarely is his humanity more conspicuously on display, but his fasting makes him not weak but strong, and fasting strengthens us too.

Because the empty promise is always the easy one, right? That’s why we like instant gratification. The devil entices us by making us think we can have something now on the cheap that is actually already ours but only ours with suffering and difficulty. Fasting steels us against this tawdry deception. “Have another slice, it won’t do you any harm. Grub for a little extra money, you earned it. Can’t hurt to have another look at Instagram, something might have changed in the last two minutes. Go ahead, it will make you happy.”

Why do we deny ourselves things like this? Because when we deny ourselves we are better able to resist this cheap seduction for what it is. When we fast we realize we don’t need to gratify our material desires. We need to satisfy our spiritual longing.

And that satisfaction can be had with the help of deep immersion in the word of God. Every word Jesus speaks against the devil in this encounter, every word, is from Scripture. His side of the conversation is all quotes. The Scripture is Jesus’s primary defense against the devil’s lies, even when the devil himself quotes Scripture. What this means is that Jesus does not defeat the devil just by superior knowledge of the Bible but by willingness to abide by its teachings.

And that is why along with fasting the church asks us in Lent to spend more time in the Word of God. We must know and be ready to obey the Word of God as incarnate in Christ Jesus and to do that we must know and be ready to obey the Word of God given to us in the Scripture. As our Lord’s own example proves, when temptation comes, there is no better defense.

Finally, let me say a word of encouragement as we go through our Lenten journey together. Jesus is actually not alone in the desert, and neither are we. Look again at the beginning of Luke 4. Jesus has just been baptized, and there he was revealed to be the Son of God, and he was anointed with the power of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit goes with him into the desert.

Any time you feel that you are faltering in your Lenten discipline, or feeling tempted in any way, remind yourself of this truth. Open yourself to the Holy Spirit working through fasting and study of Scripture to strengthen you, to make you holier, and more able to resist the lies that besiege us in a culture of instant gratification.

We are in our Lenten journey together as a parish. We are not alone in this sense either. Rely on one another for strength. So let’s remind ourselves of the truths we already know. We do not live by bread alone. We are not interested in worldly power. And we dare not presume that God will keep us from every suffering or setback.

But we are not alone in our suffering and difficulty. The truth is that Jesus is in fact the Son of God. And his Holy Spirit remains with us, even in the desert.  Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Daphne B. Noyes at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, March 3, 2019, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany

I consider myself to be an amateur historian of sorts. I delight in perusing journals, wills, letters, and other ephemera, and in wandering through antique shops, libraries, museums. This immersion in other times, other places, other lives frequently leads to me to ponder, “What do we remember, and why?”

I bring this curiosity about remembering to the story we hear in today’s Gospel. I imagine Peter and James and John with Jesus, who perhaps has stepped aside to pray, when suddenly two other figures appear. Miraculously, Peter, James and John immediately recognize the pair as Moses and Elijah. How did they know? Was it some kind of spiritual memory that made this recognition possible? And what, in turn, moved Peter so quickly to propose an unlikely spontaneous construction project of three booths?

I suspect that the idea was sparked by a desire to honor the three: Moses, giver of the law; Elijah, miracle worker and prophet; and Jesus, rightly identified by Peter as “The Messiah of God.” And in honoring, to embed the memory of this encounter firmly in their own personal histories. To remember.

In this sense, to honor is to remember; to remember is to honor.

That sounds simple, but you know it’s not. Not all memories are good. Not all acts deserve to be honored, in the sense of esteemed.

As citizens, we have memorials and holidays set apart for remembering: think of the statue depicting a larger-than-life George Washington on his horse in Boston Public Garden, or the statue of Mary Dyer, hanged on Boston Common in 1660 for her religious beliefs. Consider the festivities of the Fourth of July, when the bells in our tower ring out loudly; or the controversies surrounding the observance of Columbus Day.

As Christians, we are immersed in memories both pleasant — incarnation, resurrection, and redemption — and unpleasant — injustice, cruelty, and betrayal. We remember and honor these events throughout the liturgical year, repeatedly cycling from Christmas joy to Good Friday sorrow to Easter joy.

In scripture, in prayer, in liturgy, we are instructed, time and again, to remember. Likewise we implore God to remember.

Consider the last words of fallen humanity to a dying Christ: “Remember me, O Lord…”

And among the last words of a condemned Christ to his friends and followers — to them and to us — “Do this in remembrance of me.”

We open Lent’s long purple season with the mandate to remember that we are but dust, and with our subsequent cry to God: “Remember not, Lord Christ, our offenses nor the offenses of our forebears…”

Every eucharistic liturgy is permeated with the need and necessity of remembering. Pay close attention today and you will hear again and again “remember.”

Every eucharistic liturgy is directed toward transformation — both a foreshadowing and memory of the transfiguration of Jesus. In transformation, we are shaped; our form is changed, re-membered as “very members incorporate in the mystical body” of Jesus Christ.

In transfiguration, Jesus is revealed in his divinity: we will not, we cannot, witness the resurrection; but the transfiguration grants humans a revelation: the divine vision of Christ’s true nature. The transfiguration shines the blinding light of God’s glory into the darkest corners of our lives.

These words about transfiguration from Michael Ramsey may be especially meaningful to us in a time of transition: “Transfiguration is to accept the situation as it is, and to carry it into some larger context which makes some sense of it and gives the power to grapple with it. That larger context is Jesus crucified and risen, and we are called, again and again, to be lifting human situations into that context and finding in that context new and exciting things begin to happen to the situations, and to us who are confronting them.”

Here at the Church of the Advent, we’ve got a lot of remembering, a lot of honoring, to do, on both a micro and a macro scale.

December 1, 2019, marks the 175th anniversary of this parish. It is our daunting and delightful task to remember the parish’s past — and to remember ourselves into the future God has prepared for us. In delving into the past, there will undoubtedly be some surprises — for example, photographs that a reveal a freestanding altar — right here — or that document a performance of liturgical dance — right here.

Revisiting the period referred to as “The Troubles” that took place a full generation ago can help us to remember that in the fullness of time, eternal truths survive no matter what we may or may not do. There are people here who can recall some of these things, and others to whom they will be news. There will be many opportunities where we come together to jointly and severally remember events large and small in the life of the parish, to honor this milestone. If the past holds surprises, we can only imagine what the future might bring, as we imagine ourselves into the future.

Right after Peter suggests building three shelters, a cloud comes and overshadows them; and they are afraid as they enter the cloud. To be shrouded in fog or cloud on a mountainside is disorienting, even frightening; it’s easy to lose sight of the way ahead. But God’s darkness is brighter than even our brightest light.

After the experience of seeing Moses and Elijah with Jesus, James, Peter and John keep silent and tell no one of any of the things they had seen. But our task now is to share with each other, with the world, the heavy joy of faith. In our isolation, to listen for the voice that calls us, “Follow me.” To hear in the deepest chambers of our churning hearts the voice of God pointing us ever closer to the incarnate, crucified, risen Christ: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”


Ramsey quote: Retreat Address given to the Oratory of the Good Shepherd. From Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, compiled by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams. London: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Sermon Preached by Eric Fialho at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, February 17, 2019, the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

“A Godly Vulnerability: The Irony of Emptiness”

There is an adage that says, “There are no atheists in the trenches.”  This phrase appeared during World War I, and came to represent the idea that the unbelieving heart comes to pray when it is in peril.  That the resistant mind which asserts that the divine is impossible can allow for the divine to become possible when danger is near, or when death is at one’s heels.

We do not necessarily need a battlefield to bring the unbelieving heart into acknowledging the always persisting hand of God at work in the world.  It can be through any jolt which this life affords us, any jolt which brings the unbelieving heart out of its own way and into the way of the Lord.  Choosing to come to the Lord for the resistant heart happens through a sort of emptiness.  

It happens through a deep acknowledgment within one’s striving heart to reach up to the heavens and say, I need you God.  To reach up to the heavens and say I need not the things of this world.   I need not the fullness this world can give me for it has been shallow, and it has been false.   The only portion I need Lord is from you.   It is through this sort of emptiness that the empty is filled, and the empty is made blessed.  It is through our own poverty of spirit that we come into the realm of the almighty more clearly.   We are able to find blessedness through our emptiness.  Whether this emptiness has always been a part of us, or is foisted upon us due to circumstances which collide with us, in the trenches or otherwise.

Jesus speaks of this emptiness, this emptying of self, often in the Gospels.  In many ways it is a persistent companion, this notion of the need to be empty in order to be filled by the Divine. 

A scene opens to us in Luke in which a teacher is amidst his students, his hearers. Jesus is depicted here as teacher, as a teacher who out of the abundance of his heart sets about proclaiming truth to those who come to hear him, and to be healed by him.

On a level plain he spoke to them, maybe even seated among them. He taught of the “great reversal” the seemingly impossible truth that through emptiness, through the profundity of one’s lacking one can be able to know what real fullness is.  Through one’s poverty, through our supposed worldly insufficiencies we are made sufficient by God.

In that level place on that day when the Teacher taught he spoke of this— He spoke about the irony of emptiness.  How through it we are made satisfied.  That in spite of our lacking we are blessed. 

Here before us in this text is a clearly drawn line which Luke sets up for his hearers.

On one side are blessings, on the other side are the curses. Blessings and curses. Beatitudes and woes.  Luke sees fit to emphasize here in his sixth chapter the fullness which can only come from emptiness, or perhaps, from out of the depths of our willingness to be vulnerable for God. To be vulnerable to the blessings God bestows upon humankind when they are willing to be empty of self, I mean to truly be empty.

Emptiness takes many forms.

The poor… hungry…weeping, hated, excluded, reviled, spurned for loving God.

Fullness takes many forms.

The rich. The physically full. The laughing. The false prophets.

And what of the rich? Jesus says that the rich have received their consolation. He warms his hearers to not be consoled by the world or by one’s wealth.  Jesus is warning us to not allow for worldly riches fill us, to stay away from trusting in the riches we store up. For when we allow our wealth, our worldly fullness to dictate our happiness, or our contentedness, we can be lost in our own false truth, a truth which leads only to a shallow place, and not the wide expansive place where God lay.

How can the inconsolable, those who think they have everything, be consoled by God? How can a full vessel be filled?  It cannot.

Yes, God’s love can be imparted to all who wish to come to Him, but it is in that very act of wanting to come to the Lord, through that posture which acknowledges the vastness of God, and the finiteness of ourselves, in which an emptying occurs. Whether one discerns it or not it is an emptying of self. An emptying of a love of riches, and of feeling full by the world. It is a turning from the shallows to the wide expansive place of God.

Luke is also showcasing the idea that God has a special love for the outcast and for the last in this world.  Does God indeed have a special love, or show preferential love for the poor?  I ask this question knowing that it is an unanswerable question, and yet I ask it knowing full well that within us, I think we know the answer.

So, who are the empty? To be empty is often to be vulnerable, to be exposed, to maybe be on the periphery.

To be empty for some may mean needing special attention, or care, or assistance in this life. Being empty may mean always falling short. Being empty may mean always feeling as if you can never get a break in this life. Being empty may mean feeling that hopes are dashed.

When we are empty though we are blessed.  That is where the irony lay. When by our own freewill even we choose to be empty, to throw off the things of this world which construct false and shallow truths around us God is pleased. 

Jesus tells us that it is the poor who will inherit. That it is the poor, the empty, the marginalized, the sinners, those on the periphery who will inherit the Kingdom of God! This troubles me, as I am a person who is comfortable, a person who has things, stuff, and a person who has never gone hungry or been particularly marginalized. Yet, I still see this text as one which inspires a great hope. It reminds me that the first shall be last, that the first will not be forgotten necessarily, but that they, in the workings of God’s mind miss the mark just a bit more than the poor do. It reminds me that the poor know just a bit more about God.

And so, who are they who walk this earth who know God? Who are the ones who walk this earth full of the love of God? Who are the ones who know what the kingdom is? Who are the ones who know what true rejoicing means? Or what true reward means?

It is them that dwell in the trenches. They who are emptied of the distracting cares of this world, and are setting their eyes on the heavenly things. They who strive not for ambition but for satisfaction.   It is them who while all seems to be amiss they are able to lift up their eyes and cry Holy, Holy, Holy.