Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Allan B. Warren III at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, December 10, 2017, the Second Sunday of Advent

John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem. (Mark 1:4-5)

Why did they go out?  Why did they go out to see this wild man, this frankly scary man in the wilderness who wore camel’s hair and a leather belt and ate only honey which he scooped up from a beehive and the pods which he gathered from a locust tree?  To go to the wilderness was a journey and the wilderness itself was a scary place.  And when they got there what did they hear, except a denunciation of them all, a proclamation of sin and a call to repentance?  Why did they do it, these crowds from Judea and Jerusalem? 

Certainly for some it was a sense of moral shortcoming and guilt, for John also proclaimed forgiveness and he baptized people into that forgiveness.  For others, or rather for all, there was a larger reason which is not always apparent when we hear the story.

John was said to be a prophet and everyone knew that there had been no acknowledged prophet in Israel and Judea for nearly two hundred years.  God spoke to his people through the prophets.  That was one way he maintained his relationship with them.  And so whether it was a message of comfort like that which we heard from Isaiah in the lesson this morning, or a message of condemnation which we heard from Amos in the lesson last week, it meant that God cared.  They were his people and he wished them to turn away from disobedience.  They were his people and he spoke to them words of comfort when there was disaster and despair. 

What then would God’s silence mean?  God’s silence?  That they were no longer God’s people?  That God had finally given up on them and abandoned them?  It certainly looked that way.  They had been conquered by the Seleucids, Greeks who defiled their holy city and seduced their young men to turn away from their customs.  And when there was a revolt and the Seleucids were overthrown, they were replaced by a Jewish regime.  But it was a corrupt regime which also ignored the ancient customs and created a false king and high priest who was a dictator.  But then came the Romans who conquered and subjugated them as the Greeks had before, and the people became divided into factions who hated each other.

God had been silent through all this, and it certainly looked – how could it not? – that he had abandoned his people.  But if a prophet arose, it was surely a sign that this was not the case.  A prophet.  God’s long silence was ended, and he spoke to them again.  A prophet.  God had not abandoned them.  They were his people, and he cared for them. 

And that is why they journeyed into the wilderness.  To see John.  A prophet, whose very presence and fiery message meant that God had not given up and abandoned them, and that God cared.

*        *        *        *        *

But let’s go a bit deeper and backtrack, if you will.  One of the things that the ancient Hebrews learned about God as they lived in Covenant with him is this: that God is Judge and judgment is his way with mankind.  Perhaps that is the Jews’ greatest discovery: that there is a moral order built into creation and that that order was established by the Creator.  They learned it at Sinai when God made the Covenant with them and revealed his Law.  And throughout their history, prophets and seers and holy men and women proclaimed this startling revelation of the divine nature: that God is judge and God exercises judgment in the world.  And, more than that, experience in that Covenant, experience of his judgment, taught the Jews an even deeper truth: that judgment is evidence of God’s love.

This is a strange idea to most people – even religious people – and sometimes it is difficult to comprehend.  For several reasons. First of all, because there persists the misleading and malicious idea that there is a real break between the teaching of the Old Testament and the teaching of the New Testament; that the God of the Old Testament is a hateful God of fury, wrath, and anger, and the God of the New Testament is the God of love.  That, my friends, is nonsense, bunk, and rubbish.  It is also a very peculiar opinion, because the people who wrote the Old Testament did not believe that.  Just read the Psalms.  Often in a single psalm, one verse speaks of God’s anger, and the very next verse speaks of God’s love and trustworthiness.  The people who wrote the New Testament did not believe that.  There are quite a few scary passages in the New Testament – even from the lips of Jesus.  It never occurred to them, even as they remembered and recorded what they understood to be the wrath and anger of God.  Perhaps they didn’t enjoy the judgment of God, but at the same time they rejoiced that God was judge.  The scope and the mode of his love may have a different emphasis, but it is the same God in both Testaments, judging and loving.

And there is another reason why people find it hard to understand the Hebrew conception of God, and of God’s judgment and his love.  It is because the mind of the popular culture which we inhabit has become so shallow and sentimental that it opposes these actions, the one to the other.  To love in reality, not an easy thing at all.  I fear, though, that to love in the popular culture has come to mean little more than “to have good feeling about another.”  It is to let another “do their own thing,” as we used to say, to be affirming, accepting, always non-judging.  For, of course, to judge is to be narrow-minded, egotistical, coercive, tramping on another’s rights or space.  So one – judgment – excludes the other – love.

But this is ridiculous, isn’t it?  For love itself often constrains us, obliges us to make judgments all the time.  When a friend is hurt or in danger, I am obliged to make a judgment on the cause and do something about it.  I don’t sit around waiting for a good feeling or trying to give one.  No.  I make a judgment.  Even so unsophisticated a thing as a negative judgment.  When a friend is hurting himself or herself, I make a judgment on what that friend is doing, even if it is “his own thing.”  Love obliges me not to be accepting and not to be affirming – and to stop my friend from “doing his own thing.”  When I love and care, I am very judging, and so, I hope, are you.  What the culture calls love – a kind of cheerful unconcern – is just indifference wearing a smile.  And that’s not you in love; and that’s not me in love .   .   .  and – thank God ! –  that’s not God in love.  To judge is part of love.  It is part of being involved with, concerned about, caring for another person.

And that – put another way – is what the ancient Hebrews discovered about God’s nature: that there is nothing passive about God.  God is not a kind of metaphysical mist.  God is person, personal, and wills to be with his creature, and He loves and he judges, and God judges because he loves.  And that is Good News.  That is really Good News.  And that is precisely why those crowds went out into the wilderness.  To see John.   A prophet.  God was no longer silent !  He sent a prophet and had not abandoned his people !  John was also a sign that God was up to something, for the word of judgment was being spoken by John and hearts were being touched.

And that is the reason that there is always an air of excitement around John the Baptist when we encounter him in the Gospels, because he was a sign, a signal of God’s renewed activity.  John’s presence and his preaching pointed to some new activity of God.

Consequently, there is also an air of something old, over, and passing away that accompanies the Baptist.  He is a man of the Old Testament who stands in the New.  There is something about him that seems almost out of place.  For now the God of Israel is up to something new.  Now the mission of God’s people, the Jews, is being focused in the mission of God’s Son.

And once again a word of judgment will be spoken.  It will be judgment on all that hurts God’s creatures: on the forces of evil and death which cripple and destroy.  It will be a judgment on all the ways God’s creatures hurt themselves: on the power of sin which maims and also destroys us.  It will be a judgment which begins in a stable and a manger and is completed on a cross and in a grave.  And the name of that judgment will be Emmanuel – “God-with-us.”  The name of that judgement  will be Jesus –“for he shall save his people from their sins.”  And God will do this, and He does this, and He did this – because He judges and his judgement is his love.

And that, dear brothers and sisters, is the Gospel, and it is very Good News.

Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Margery Kennelly at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, December 3, 2017, The First Sunday of Advent

The Rev’d Margery Kennelly is the Episcopal Chaplain at Harvard University.

What a joy it is to be with you here today on your Feast ofTitle.

I know your beautiful church – although not because I have been able to attend many of your Sunday services.

I am familiar with your church- with its closets and passages, its cats and upper stories and strange things that squeak in the night because about six years ago I prevailed on your dear father Sammy Wood and Father Warren to let me bring my confirmation class here for an overnight.

The first time was a bit raucous. We didn’t deserve to be invited back…but mercy prevailed.

We created a partnership with another Church of the Advent celebrity – the Reverend Marc Eames who was formerly a parishioner here before becoming a priest.

For these past five years we all concluded our year-long confirmation classes with an overnight here in your wonderful church whose walls are truly steeped in the fragrance of prayers. We called our overnight Awake – because – well because we knew nobody would get much sleep – but also because we believed in this idea that there is something deeply life giving in keeping watch. In praying late at night.

While our Awake overnight was not during the season of Advent, it would have been seasonally appropriate.

The intent of that retreat was to give our confirmands an opportunity to invite Jesus to come into their lives. And that of course is a very Advent theme!

The ancient prayer of the early church was Marana tha. It is an Aramaic phrase which we find in 1 Corinthians and in an early church manuscript called the Didache. It means  “Our Lord come.”

The whole heart of Advent is expressed in this text message of a prayer which is most simply understood as an expression of our deepest Longing. Longing….

What is longing?

When you think about it there are two necessary ingreients to experiencing longing:

The first is: dissatisfaction:

You can’t really experience longing if you are already satisfied.

The second is Waiting: You can’t really experience longing if you don’t have to wait.

The Season of Advent asks us to focus on two things most of us do not like to experience: Dissatisfaction and waiting.

Yikes! No wonder it is so tempting to take refuge in chocolate and revelry…during Advent.

Who wants to wait?

Who wants to be dissatisfied?

But temptation aside, the deep call of the season is to engage in that difficult state of longing…not to skip over to the happy cozy baby Jesus in the manger silent night moment followed by cookies.

 Not yet.

 It is actually important to wait in the dark space before. Actually to take in the dark space and let it frame your prayers.

But why?

I don’t have the full answer.

But here is part of it…

During Advent we are actually encountering three different Advents.

The first is the one that already happened – Jesus being born. We’re getting ready to remember that with lessons and carols – with pageants and crèches. That part involves remembering and wrapping our minds around what CS Lewis called the chief miracle that all other miracles point to the miracle of a holy beyond our understanding God becoming a baby – taking on flesh and dwelling among us.

The second Advent we prepare for is Christ’s return in glorious majesty – one day in the future… the timing of which no one- not even Jesus knows…that is an event we are supposed to long for also. More about that in a minute.

The third Advent is Jesus being born in our own heart. That of course is the only Advent over which we have any real say.

These three Advents are all strands running through the scriptures over the Advent season.

Now I don’t know about you, but for a great deal of my Episcopal life, I had no idea about the second one! I didn’t know that Advent had anything to do with Jesus returning! Christmas was about Jesus the baby. But the scriptures for Advent point forward in time as well as backward.

 Yes, they talk about the birth of Jesus, but they also talk about his eventual return in glorious majesty. That is what Jesus refers to when in our passage he talks about “concerning that day or hour no one knows.”

God’s rule on earth is not complete as we can see looking at the news or our own lives for that matter. But Jesus says that one day he will return to finish what he began.

We live during the in between time – we live after Jesus came, but before he has put all things right.

We have some instructions for how God’s rule is supposed to be – just and merciful, and as God’s people we are supposed to be unsatisfied with how things are.

So if you feel distraught and powerless and frustrated about the state of the world, you are exactly in the right place to begin Advent.

You can check that little box on your Christmas to do list:

Feel dissatisfied with how the world is…check

In Advent we are invited into longing…and longing is about dissatisfaction with the way things are.

We are supposed to want God’s justice and beauty and goodness and mercy enough that we long for God himself – For him to return in glorious majesty … as our collect says, to judge both the living and the dead.

To be honest, I can find the whole thought of Jesus actually returning as judge dreadfully nerve-wracking. I’m not proud of that fact, it’s just true.  For that reason, when I have prayed “Come Lord Jesus!”, I think from God’s point of view I must sound pretty uncertain – I might have even said subliminally, No need to rush.

But this year – well, this year is different.

For the first time, I can really pray “Come Lord Jesus.”

Perhaps that is true for you as well.

At some points in history it is easier to see how much we need a savior.

We see the political upheavals, the damage done in natural disasters, the huge numbers of people suffering and we can pray with conviction “Come Lord Jesus!” That is longing for the second Advent.

But I alluded to a third strand of preparation. That is the Advent of Jesus being born in our own heart. This is the only Advent over which we have any real say.

Jesus gives us a wonderful image to consider in our Gospel today. It is of a doorkeeper waiting for the return of the master of the house. So let’s think for a minute about the role of a doorkeeper.

The doorkeeper has several duties but the most significant one is to welcome home the resident- to open the door, to carry in any baggage, to greet with warmth. Jesus emphasizes that the doorkeeper must be ready at any time – in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows or in the morning (these were the four watches of the day). The doorkeeper must not fall asleep – the doorkeeper ought not slap a sticky note on the door saying “back in five.”

The doorkeeper’s primary duty is to wait for the return of another…in order to welcome him or her in.  It is quite a deferential role.  A good doorkeeper would not be talking on his or her cell phone while opening the door. The whole demeanor of the doorkeeper is undistracted attentiveness.

And that is a snapshot of who we are to be in Advent. We are supposed to be a doorkeeper waiting to welcome Christ himself into our heart.

How do we do that? How do we – masters of over scheduling, victims of a consumer culture bent on distraction – proud badge carriers of the I did too much club… How could we even start to approach the waiting humble posture of the doorman?

Here’s a thought. What if you let your dissatisfaction prompt your prayer of welcome?

This is about using your actual life – the one you are living now – and welcoming Christ into it.

What if you started saying/ praying at any point in the day, Welcome Lord Jesus.

It is quite simple. It is so short you can do it almost anywhere. You can welcome him into your morning commute, you can welcome him as you begin your desk work, your time writing checks to charity – that’s a dangerous one – but it will bless you. You can welcome him as you wash up dishes after dinner or you can welcome him into your sadness when you miss someone who is no longer with you, welcome Lord Jesus into this weary world… Welcome Lord Jesus into your weary self. This week try it out. Sometime this afternoon – waiting in line somewhere – just pray it silently.  “Welcome Jesus.” See what happens when you do it.

Because just as Advent holds our longing for God, it also holds God’s longing for us. Jesus says as he looks over Jerusalem – not long before he knows he is going to the cross – he says, “how much I wished to gather you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings and you were not willing.”  God longs for us…through thick and thin.

Welcome Jesus, welcome.

Sermon by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey A. Hanson at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, November 26, 2017, the Feast of Christ the King

 Recently we had a visitor here at the Church of the Advent who told me his family was used to attending a Unitarian Church. I think he could tell this would be a little different from their usual experience. But he seemed to strike a reassuring note when he said at the Unitarian church “the teachings of Jesus are respected.”

I am sure that is true. I too think Jesus’s teachings should be respected and that that is better than being disrespected.

But today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. When we acknowledge the reality of the kingship of Christ we declare a profound truth; those who call Christ a king are different from those who simply respect the teachings of Jesus.

Because a king does not teach exactly. A king gives orders.

And a king does not expect to be respected. A king expects to be obeyed.

Throughout the Bible, to worship someone is to fall at their feet and thus to place oneself at their disposal. To worship Christ as king therefore is to be ready to do what he commands. It is to make yourself available for his service.

We learn this from our Gospel reading today from Matthew 25. This memorable vignette, in which Christ foretells his eventual judgment of all nations is also the end of all his teachings in the Gospel of Matthew. This is the last thing that Jesus has to say to his disciples before his trial and death, so it bears our close attention.

Jesus, here at the very end of his teaching ministry, presents himself as the fulfillment of the eschatological promise of Ezekiel, which we also read today. As in the prophet’s vision, the king who appears at the end of time in Matthew 25 is also a shepherd and a judge.

And what is the basis of his judgment? What is the criterion by which he separates the blessed from the condemned? The entire basis of the judgment of Christ consists in who did or did not do practical, tangible acts of mercy for the least among us. At the end of time and the judgment of all nations Jesus Christ says to the righteous, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

It is just the opposite with the unrighteous: “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Here’s the incredible thing: Both groups—both the righteous and the unrighteous—are surprised. Both are shocked to learn that their acts of attention or inattention are acts done to Jesus.

Yet this identification between a deity and the deity’s followers is quite common in the ancient world. To stick only with the biblical record, think of what Jesus says to Saul on the road to Damascus. A blinding light appears, and Saul is knocked from his horse, and he hears a loud voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul of course says, “Who are you?” and the voice responds, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Saul is actually persecuting the church, the new community of those who believe in Jesus as Messiah. But Jesus himself says that to persecute the church is to persecute him, to persecute the followers of Christ is to persecute Christ himself.

If this is true, then Jesus Christ is indeed king. But he is also a hidden king.

If we saw Jesus himself all the time in his glory, if we encountered him as he is in his royal splendor, then it would be easy to acknowledge him as king and to present ourselves to him, ready for service.

But his kingdom is not of this world, which means he is in a way everywhere and at the same time nowhere in particular, and we glimpse him only underneath the auspices of our fellow men and women.

Until he comes again in glory, the king is in disguise. And because he is in disguise, both those who do him service and those who decline to do him service, are both equally surprised at the judgment of Christ to find that their simple, concrete acts of kindness are done (or not done) to Jesus himself.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Providence with my family for a short vacation. At dinner time at a restaurant near the hotel my son Tristan ordered something for himself but immediately felt sick and refused to touch his food. Rather than waste the dinner we had the waitress pack it up and started off for the hotel to put Tristan, who really felt sick, back to bed as soon as possible.

On the way out of the restaurant a homeless man with a walker tried to get my attention. “Excuse me. Excuse me sir. Sir. Sir.” Guess what I did. I ignored him. I was worried about Tristan and thought we should get him back to the hotel as soon as possible to rest. And he was really sick. But once we got him comfortable in the room I realized that there was no sense at all to my keeping the dinner he had ordered at the restaurant.

So I went back and talked to the homeless man outside. He said he was just looking for something to eat for dinner. So I gave him what we had ordered for Tristan, which he had not eaten and would do us no good at all.

I don’t tell this story to toot my own horn. Quite the opposite. Because the point of my experience was not that I managed to do something commendable in the end. The point of the story is to ask why it took me so long.

Because here at the Church of the Advent we are very good at acknowledging the kingship of Jesus Christ inside the church. When the cross passes we bow our heads, when the name of Jesus Christ is mentioned we bow our heads, when the Gospel book passes by we bow our heads, when a priest passes we bow our heads, when we pray the prayer of consecration we fall to our knees—and all that is great, and I approve of it, and I want us to do all that, because Jesus is the king of the universe, and when he is present to us we should fall to our knees and make ourselves ready to do his bidding.

But what did our king do throughout his earthly ministry? Think of what he says in Matthew 25: Feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and the imprisoned. That’s exactly what Jesus himself did when he was among us. The king of the universe sought out and served the least of his brothers and sisters. This is what he did all the time, and it’s what he commands us to do.

Our falling to our knees inside the church, before Christ the king, is meant to be practice for how we act outside the church. We practice very well falling to our knees before Christ the King in here.

But shouldn’t I just as readily fall to my knees before Christ the King out there, in front of my brother, standing in the cold on Fountain Street in Providence, Rhode Island?

The point of practicing falling on our knees before Christ the King in here is to help us be ready to fall on our knees before Christ the King out there.

If the practice in here is not helping us out there, then something has gone wrong.

To celebrate the kingship of Christ is to remind ourselves that the king has left us with orders. If he is truly our king, then those orders must be obeyed.
Feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. In a sense these are little things. They are so little that the ones who have done them don’t notice they have been done.

On the other hand, they are so little that those who have ignored them are surprised to find that they are condemned for their failure in such little things. The condemned in Matthew 25 are not epic sinners. Like us, they are not super-villains or mass murderers. But they don’t have to be to be condemned. It’s enough that we just ignore the everyday pedestrian needs before us.

This is the last Sunday of the church year. As we enter a new year, let’s think about how we can serve and obey our king. It is probably not something terribly grandiose. It may be simply to connect what we do here inside church with what you do outside church a little more closely. It may be simply to here and there where you can show a small, tangible act of consideration to a brother or sister in need.

If Jesus Christ is really our king, then we will do what he commands us to do. And we will do it not because we simply respect his teachings but because he is the king of the universe, and we are ready to obey him—not just here but everywhere and wherever we encounter the hidden king. For while he is hidden now, when his kingship is made plain to all, he will reward those who have been faithful in the little things. What we do now, whether we know it or not, we do in service to the king, we for the king’s glory, and to our eternal reward. Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr. Daniel Wade McClain at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, November 19, 2017, the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Fr. McClain is Associate Rector for Christian Formation at St. David’s Episcopal Church, Baltimore, Maryland.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
“The Peace of Wild Things,” Wendell Berry

You may hear, in this poem by the poet and scholar Wendell Berry, the resonance of Christ’s words in the sermon on the Mount, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,[a] or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

Jesus well understood the fear and despair that seem endemic to human life. We have created a collective life for ourselves, a culture that rewards those who worry, those for whom the anxiety of survival and success leads them to live guarded lives, what Berry calls taxing lives of forethought.

Such lives, as Jesus teaches, contribute nothing to our existence. Does our worry add a single hour to our lifespans?

And yet, despair and worry seem like very natural responses to danger. We often worry because we perceive that what’s near and dear to us is threatened. Ironically, however, worry threatens to undermine that which it protects.

I know as a father of four that worry comes to us so naturally. I know also that that it can branch out in aggressive ways. Worry becomes anxiety and despair, which themselves lead to a restlessness that searches for a solution, anything to relieve that anxiety. Solutions lead to planning, implementing a solution at any cost. Worry-based thinking tries to con us into making decisions and taking action often at the expense of our principles and convictions. even when our decision is to do nothing.

So too with the servant in today’s parable. In despairing about what to do with the master’s money, the servant’s worry paralyzed him to inaction.

He thought that burying his talent would keep him from harm, would bring him peace, although he seems aware that that peace was tenuous at best.

Worry and despair also led him to the worst kind of assumptions about his master. “I know that you are a harsh man, reaping where you haven’t sown.” He outright calls his master a predatory business man. The master’s response can be read one of two ways: the first would be to read the masters as saying: ok, you’re right, I am that way; so why didn’t you help to extend my predatory business concerns? Here, the master admits to being just how the anxious servant describes him. But if that description is correct, why didn’t the servant act accordingly.

A second reading would hear the master responding sarcastically to the servant’s description of him. IF you’re right about me, then shouldn’t you have acted in a way that’s consistent with how you think about me? In both cases, the servant doesn’t act wisely in accord with how he perceived the master. But what this second reading also implies is that the servant’s anxiety obscured his understanding of the master, and caused him to act foolishly.

Wendell Berry says that antidote to fear is to “dig in and make as much sense of it” as one can. The servant who buried his talent accepted a cheap solution—do nothing—in order to relieve his anxiety. He adopted a cheap caricature of his master, and he made a business decision that at the very least made little sense, all in the name of finding temporary peace.

But the peace he secured for himself was an illusion; it had little to do with the reality of his situation. Anxiety obscured his vision and excused his inaction. In this sense, Jesus tells us that aggressive worry leads us in ways that are contrary to wisdom. Wisdom would have dictated that the servant trust his master, who by the way entrusted him with wealth.

Wisdom would have also dictated that the servant do something constructive with what the master entrusted. Wisdom would have helped the servant see that peace comes from burying neither his head nor his talent in the sand. Rather, peace comes from acting on trust, acting from a truthfully understanding of the master, acting out of hope, to see that the master had hope for him. Peace comes from receiving hope as a bond of affection between the master and servant.

That said, I do not see in this story any promise that wisdom rids us of anxiety. Even had the servant trusted his master, the idea of taking a risk with his master’s wealth would have provoked anxiety.

But had the servant first accepted peace as the bond with his master, he might have seen that risk as an opportunity to live in the midst of that trust, to make mistakes and learn at the feet of the master. He might have seen such a moment as an opportunity for a distinct kind of growth, namely growth in hope and wisdom.

Paul tells us that for those with hope, there is light. Those with hope are not in the dark. They may worry, but they also faith and love and hope. And they also have a special responsibility to encourage others, to hep reinforce wisdom and hope. “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

The hope and wisdom that Christ gives us enables us to do something for the world that is so radically counterintuitive and countercultural that we probably don’t initially see the value in it. We are able to help others face their worry, not in order to get rid of it altogether, but to redeem it, to reshape it into an opportunity to grow in faith, hope and love. Most importantly, we have an opportunity to help others see and receive love.

The problem with the servant in our parable today, if I may be so bold to diagnose him, is that he let his worry separate himself from his master.

Might this parable have something to offer us? Might we use this parable to reflect on your own experience of worry? How often have I let my worry about the future separate me from the love that Jesus offers? How often have we cut ourselves off from the love that we could offer each other in the church. How often have we let despair stem the flow of love from the Church to the world, to obscure the light of hope that should be coming from the Church?

Wisdom and hope pull us together through bonds of love. Peace offers us an alternative foundation for our relationships. Peace commends risk because we trust even when we might also worry.

Jesus call us to receive encouragement, to let him redeem your anxiety. Will you trust the master even as the master trusts you with his talents? Will you encourage others in their worry? When others look at you, do they see a form of life that persuades them to trust the master?

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr. Andrew McGowan at the Church of the Advent, Thursday, November 16, 2017

Dr. McGowan is the Dean and President of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University.
This sermon was preached at the Solemn Mass concluding the conference, “Anglo-Catholicism: Uncovering Roots,” held at the Church of the Advent, November 15 – 16, 2017.

The Eucharist is a sacrifice. See, I said it. I was never really expecting to get a job in the Diocese of Sydney anyway! 
 
This confession, that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, may be as succinct a summary as any of the gift and challenge of the Catholic movement to the Anglican Communion. There are still some places where the defenders of reform will rise to take up theological arms against such a confession; elsewhere however we might fear that it is as much shrugged at, as bristled at. This may be the challenge for Anglican Catholicism as for Christianity now, that we are less the cause of outrage as an object of curiosity. It is time, perhaps, to be a bit more outrageous.
 
Why is or was sacrifice such a problem? This jubilee year of the Reformation offers or requires some account of the issue. The reformers began pastorally with the abuse of indulgences and the endowing Masses as bargaining-chips for souls in purgatory. Abuse never reveals or exhausts the true meaning of any practice or doctrine, however. As often, the Reformers accurately pointed to weeds growing in the ecclesial garden, but tugged out the wheat instead or as well; for in this regard as in others, what the reformed Church was left with often was not a restored image of its primitive self but a more stilted version of the Medieval one. The results were long and many; Bishop Manton Eastburn of this diocese doggedly refused pastoral engagement with this parish through the 1840s and 50s because the disposition of the holy table and its accouterments, including the cross still to be seen in All Saint’s Chapel here, smacked of it being an altar.
 
As recently as 1966 the Church of England abandoned the phrase “we offer this bread and this cup” in a proposed eucharistic prayer for what would become the Series 2 alternative services, after a flurry of debate. The issue here was not, or supposedly not, any Romish doctrine of repeated Calvaries, or the offering of transubstantiated elements, but simply the offering of the material things of bread and wine. To this protestant worthies objected, like their predecessors of the 16th century, because they believed in effect that eucharistic sacrifice could only be what the medieval Church had taught at its worst – a repetition of the Cross and a mitigation of the completeness of Christ’s work – and hence was theologically impertinent, or impossible. 
 
Theologically or exegetically however all the protestant objections to any actual sacrifice, whether from the 16th or the 20th Century, have started with a position like that of the Letter to the Hebrews, with its remarkable evocation of the work of Christ as a heavenly and supersessionist Day of Atonement ritual, that revealed the historical sacrifices for sin of the Israelite cultus to be at best partial, and at worst redundant. 
 
For the author of Hebrews however, sacrifice itself was not merely an intellectual trope, the expression of one idea like atonement, but a familiar if multivalent set of rituals with different forms and functions. Scripture itself witnesses to same effect, of various sacrifices, some bloody and others bloodless, some redundant and others vital. The sacrifices of the Mosaic Law were sometimes destroyed and sometimes shared, sometimes for sin and sometimes for thanksgiving, sometimes for the individual and sometimes for the nation.
 
The ancient readers of all these texts remembered the sacrifices of the Jerusalem Temple, and saw them or smelled their smoke around the ubiquitous pagan shrines of the ancient Mediterranean. Thus while Hebrews states that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (9:22), and that Christ had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins (10:12), the author – known only to God – and their first readers also knew both that not all sacrifice involved shedding of blood, and that not all sacrifice was for the forgiveness of sins.
 
So in the Letter to the Romans, Paul does, like Hebrews, read Jesus and the cross through the Day of Atonement ritual, likening Christ to the hilasterion, the mercy seat on the ark sprinkled with the blood of the victim; but Paul also, and more emphatically, likens Christ to the Passover Lamb in 1 Corinthians, offered not for expiation but as an anamnesis of God’s liberation of Israel from slavery to be celebrated again and again. Paul clearly countenances further sacrifices of at least some kind, calling the charitable gifts of the Philippians “a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God” (4:18), and urging the Romans to offer themselves as a “living sacrifice” (12:1). 
 
All these sacrifices! It is tempting to imagine John Calvin grumbling, among the Church triumphant, that Paul clearly did not read Hebrews closely enough. Paul however understood sacrifice better than Calvin did.
 
So if the authors and readers of scripture, and the ancient Christian theologians on whose work catholic faith and order depend, knew that sacrifice was not one thing, but many things, our confession that the Eucharist is a sacrifice may also be the affirmation not merely of one idea from the array of sacrificial types and shadows, that of expiation or atonement by blood, but the invocation of many ideas. What they have in common was not expiation or violence, but gift.
 
Each of the sacrifices of the Hebrew Bible, and not just the Day of Atonement, is reflected for Christians in the work of Jesus Christ. And so too each takes renewed form in our Eucharist. Atonement involved sacrifice, not as sharing but as destruction and separation; in the Eucharist we commemorate our scapegoat offered and expelled and our sins forgiven. Passover involved the solidarity of the oppressed being liberated from bondage; in the Eucharist, with and by Christ our Passover we are brought from death to life. Peace or communion offerings were brought by Israel, in which the participants gave thanks to God with feasting for blessings received; in our Eucharist we too share in thanksgiving to God in Christ. What these sacrifices have in common is not violence but gift. 
 
The most ancient Christian teaching about the Eucharist does see it as sacrifice not, or not only, because of the real presence of Christ which ensues, but because it was gift, a ritual sharing with God and one another of bread and wine themselves, with thanksgiving – as that often spoken but rarely explored word “Eucharist” itself suggests – the “pure offering” of which Malachi had spoken.
 
 The Eucharist is a “spiritual” sacrifice of course; not however in the sense that it works merely in the intangible realm of the spirit, but insofar as it is an action that takes place in the realm of the Church driven by the power of the Spirit. The Eucharist is actually a material sacrifice, and a literal sacrifice of bread and wine. So we do not offer Christ in the Eucharist, we receive him in it. Our eagerness to affirm the real presence or to connect the Eucharist with Calvary may lead us to skip over this apparently prosaic but foundational affirmation.
 
But why offer bread and wine at all, or why share them, let alone carry them around in procession, or engage in heated controversy with other good people who do not yet share the faith of the ancient Church? These elements may seem too prosaic to be more than signs quickly to be by-passed on their way to other signifieds. I suggest however that this is far from being the case. First, the fact of sacrifice as the heart of our common life makes the claim that the heart of human sociability and of relationship with God is gift. More specifically these gifts connect us with that ancient Passover sacrifice, including that of Jesus’ Last Supper. They are signs of human life and labor, as well as of human need and liberation. Offering to God bread and wine, we bring things that earth has given and human hands have made, signs of our life itself and of our thanks for life; we offer humanity itself, labor itself, and creation itself. It has always been a mark of the catholic movement to take the world into which the Word became incarnate as fundamentally serious, not as something to flee from but to embrace; and the audacity of this unlikely and very material sacrifice is thus the audacity of the incarnation.
 
So Christ in the Eucharist, as otherwise, is for us all things and not only one: he is all priests and victims, he is Adam and Abel, he is Isaac and Moses, he is Jepthah’s daughter fatefully dancing, he is Ruth and Naomi gleaning in the barley fields of Passover. Christ in the Eucharist is the fulfillment of all types, and not merely the reduction to one. In this simplest of offerings we commune with all these, and with ancient saints and pilgrims who found in bread and wine not merely the creatures themselves offered, but the Word by whom bread and wine were made, by and through whom we were made, given back to us in the body and blood of Christ. In this material offering we proclaim and commune with a God who cares about hunger and labor and climate and us, and whose character is gift, even to the point that God may seek gratuitous gifts from us.
 
This confession, of eucharistic sacrifice, may still be the most audacious thing the Church can do, other than actually celebrating the Eucharist. We know that catholicism does not subsist in ritual but in the sacraments to which ritual is servant; our future relies I think not on ritual but in the fact of faithful celebration, and in the authenticity of our confession of a catholic faith.  In our action and in our confession let us continue to make the extraordinary claim that not one thing but many things, not one story but all stories, not one group but a countless throng, are caught up together in the praise of the angels, as our sacrifice, our gift, is taken by the Angel to the altar and throne of God. 

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Allan B. Warren III at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, November 12, 2017, the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

This morning I want us to look briefly at a verse taken from the Epistle reading we just heard: Paul’s first letter to the Church at Thessalonika.  In it he addresses a problem which was of concern to members of the Church there: what should they believe about those in the Church who had died before the second coming of Christ.  This was a pressing problem and not just in Thessalonika, for many of the earliest Christians expected the second coming to happen very soon.  Next week. Perhaps even tomorrow.  When it didn’t, people wondered why and, as I mentioned, some worried about what became of people who died in the meantime.

Paul answers the question and the answer is metaphorical and uses various unusual images.  One verse, however, is quite literal.  He tells us, “And so we shall always be with the Lord.” (4:18)

That, says Paul, is what the coming of Christ is all about.  That is what heaven, paradise if you will, the afterlife, the consummation of all things and their recreation in Christ –  that is what they are all about: being with the Lord.  “And so we shall always be with the Lord.”

The words to pay attention to here are we and withWe and with.  Let’s start with with.

One of the most marvelous truths about our God is expressed by the word with.  God is not – thank heaven – a with-it God, though some might wish God so.  God is, rather, a withing God.  In the first place and fundamentally, the doctrine of the Trinity tells us that God is a community of three persons who are with one another.  With one another so much so that each person, though distinct, can be said to be in the others.  It should be no surprise, then, that from the very beginning, in Holy Scripture, we see God always acting to be with, for such action is consonant with God’s Trinitarian being.  God acts to be with creation.  God acts to be with man, humanity.  God does not stand apart.  God is never removed.  God always moves and acts and desires to be with that which he creates, with creation itself and with man. 

God was with man in creation, and when humanity fell away from God – from being with God – God acted again to be with man in a special way.  He chose a nation, a people, Israel, the Jews.  “You shall be my people, and I shall be your God” is the truth of the Old Covenant.  “To be a light to the Gentiles” – to bring those apart from God back to God – is the mission of the Jews.

These two are as well the truth of the New Covenant and the mission of the Church, for that sacred name of Israel’s highest hope, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is the reality of the Church.  Emmanuel, God-with-us, Jesus, God and man, God with man.  Jesus is the perfect expression and action of the, if I may so put it, the with-ness, the withing of God.  Jesus is our redemption and our salvation, because he is our at-one-ment, our withing with God.  Jesus is our truth, for it is the truth and the real design and destiny of humanity to be with God.  And thus, it is also the truth of the consummation of all things and of ourselves, “heaven” if you wish: “And so we shall always be with the Lord.”  Perfectly and gloriously with God.

It’s like love, you know.  Most of us have been crazy enough and lucky enough to have been in love.  And when we are in love there is no greater joy, no greater fulfillment than being with the one we love.  And there is no pain or deprivation greater than being away from the one you love.  To be with the beloved is joy and happiness, one’s true self.  To be away is pain and sadness, one’s self diminished.

To be with God is to be with the absolute beloved.  (It is no coincidence that God in parable from Jesus we heard this morning is pictured as a bridegroom.  Nor is it a coincidence that in past ages the Song of Songs was the book most commented upon in the Bible.)  God is the beloved and the lover toward which all human loves do point, and to be with God is utter and absolute joy.

*          *          *          *          *

“And so we shall always be with God.”

Enough of with.  Let’s think about we, for if the action of God is an action of with, it is also an action of we.  It is the creation of an ever larger and wider and more intense we.  “It is not good for the man to be alone,” and from that judgement comes woman, and the first human first person pronoun, we.  The we then of children and family.  The we of community.  And in the redemption: the we of the Jews, and in Jesus the we of the Church.

This morning all of us gathered here in this building, and we came from various parts of the city and thereabout.  We came as individuals, as single I’s one might say.  Now here in the Church, here at this Mass, all those I’s have been gathered together into a we.  That is God’s action:  to bring us together, to bring humanity together into a body, into a we into Jesus’ body, the Church.

That is the truth of the present – which worried the Thessalonians – and that is the truth of the future –  which also worried the Thessalonians.  But the fullness of the truth is this: that the future of God, bringing all things together, breaks into the reality of the present.  The future makes itself known and active in the present.  It is present in this Mass, and in every Mass celebrated in this Church.  God is with us in the Sacrament of the Altar.  And we – all of us – we drink from the one cup, we eat the same bread from the same table – God’s altar.  And we – no longer separate – are brothers and sisters in the present and in the future banquet of God.

Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Allan B. Warren III at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, November 5, 2017, the Solemnity of the Feast of All Saints

From St. Paul, writing to the Colossians:

“For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” (3:3)

And from St. Paul writing to the Galatians:

“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (2:20)

Outside of Easter, of course, today is, I think, the most important in the Church’s year, for today is the feast by which Christianity proves itself to be true.  All Saints’ Day.  Christianity proves itself because it makes saints, and we celebrate them today.  Christianity results in women and men whose lives have been changed, whose lives have been enriched, whose lives have been transformed into the image of their maker and their Savior.  Transformed.  And yet more than transformed, for the life of their Savior lives in them and they mystically live in Him.  “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” 

If Christianity did not make saints, there would be no point to it.  No point at all.  It would be nothing more than a dozen or so empty beliefs which look like superstition.  It might be thought to be oppressive and ignorant.  It might even be reckoned something to get rid of for the common good.  If Christianity did not make saints, all those things might well be right and proper.

But again, as I said,  today – All Saints’ Day – Christianity proves itself, for Christianity makes saints.  Those who follow Jesus, and acknowledge Him as Lord, those who receive Him mystically by water and bread and wine live by His life and who pattern their lives on His.  And their lives make known His life, His love, His strength, His courage, His peace.  They – saints – are His body.  They – saints – are His risen body in the world, and they – saints, Christians – make a difference in the life of the world, for they bring Christ, really and truly and bodily, into the life of the world.  Together with the sacraments, they are his real presence in the life of the world.  They know Christ, and they make him known.  Today – All Saints’ Day – Christianity proves itself to be true.

*   *   *   *   *

From the Gospel today, we heard this: “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn.  Blessed are the meek.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful.  Blessed are the pure in heart.  Blessed are the peacemakers.   Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  ( Mt. 5 )

There are all kinds of saints, all shapes and sizes, just as there are all kinds of people, for sanctity does not eradicate  personality; rather, it enhances it.  The life of Christ within makes persons more themselves.  What they are is magnified by the grace of Christ within. They become who they really are, who God destined them to be.

There are all kinds of saints, just as there are manifold and various gifts bestowed upon men and women by God’s Holy Spirit.  The Spirit grants what is needed to make Christ known in the world.  Wisdom, knowledge, faith, love, healing, prophecy, discernment, hope, courage, and more are gifts of the Holy Spirit to women and men who – saints – make Christ known in the world.

*     *     *     *

During the year there are various special days for special saints.  We celebrated one only a few weeks ago.  St. Francis.  He would vehement deny it to be sure, but we might well call him a hero of the Faith.  And there many other such heroes.  St. Augustine.  St. Benedict.  Mother Teresa of Calcutta in our own time.

And we need heroes in the Faith, just as we need them, I suppose, in sports.  Because they show us something exceptional, an accomplishment that amazes us, a possibility far beyond the usual limit of possibility.  We need such heroes, and we celebrate them.

But, I have to tell you that I am often cowed by heroes.  I am a bit frightened of them, because if they inspire – which they do – they also show me up for what I am.  A pretty ordinary garden-variety Christian, who “on the race that is set before me” often stumbles and falls, but, by God’s grace, gets up and keeps on going. 

Most of us, I think, are like that, and so in fact were those we look to as heroes.  They stumbled and fell and by God’s grace in Jesus got up and got going again.  And so when we celebrate them what we really celebrate is God’s grace in Jesus.  And today we celebrate that also in ourselves.  God’s grace in Jesus is why we are here and keeps us coming back.

God’s grace in Jesus has created that great cloud of witnesses who testify to the victory of the Lamb.  Some are bright lights.  Others, one might say, have a lesser luminosity, but together they form a shining cloud of grace and glory, of love and joy, and they witness to the victory of God.

Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Allan B. Warren III at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, October 15, 2017, the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

A month or so ago, I got my marching orders from the Stewardship Committee, and, being the dutiful and obedient soul that all of you know me to be, I am following their instructions to the letter.  Today my sermon will be about Stewardship, and it will be in two parts.  The first will address a few aspects of the finances of this parish.  In the second part we will think together about the implications of this morning’s Gospel for Stewardship and for the Christian’s spiritual life.

As all of you know, the Church of the Advent is fortunate enough to have a sizable endowment.  This is a boon for any institution, but for a large church with venerable buildings in an expensive city it is a blessing and – let’s face it – it is also a necessity.

The endowment has come to us over the years from a number of people.  Some have added to it during their lifetime; others have remembered us in their wills.  There have been some large sums of money and there have been many small sums.  It is very important to note, however, that they have come to us not out of the largesse of the rich and powerful, but rather out of gratitude for what the Church of the Advent has meant in various people’s lives.  They gave, they remembered the Church of the Advent, because they had received from the Church of the Advent.  They gave because they had received.  The major part of our endowment came to us some years ago from a woman who was a doctor – one of the first woman doctors in Boston – and a regular Sunday by Sunday communicant for decades.  During my time here we have received several remarkable legacies.  Nearly a half million dollars from a man who was a janitor.  A sizable sum from a woman who ran a dress shop.  And quite recently, more than three-quarters of a million dollars from a man who can only be described as odd.  Likable, lovable, but funny and odd.  And so, you see, again what has come to us has not come from the grand and glorious, the rich and the powerful, but rather from fairly inconspicuous people who had in common this one thing: their devotion to and their gratitude for the Church of the Advent.  They gave because they had received.

That’s a first point.  Here comes a second.  Without the endowment the Church of the Advent would not exist, and so we should give thanks for the generosity and the gratitude of the dead.  Income from the endowment allows us to maintain and repair the buildings.  It covers certain unvarying expenses – heat, light, cleaning, office expenses, insurance and so on – and these are expenses over which we have absolutely no control.  They must be met and they must be paid for simply to keep us open and operating.  But that’s as far as it goes – simply to keep us open and operating.  Nothing more.

Everything else depends upon the disciplined giving of those who are members of the Church of the Advent.  You have heard me say this before and you may well hear me say it again, for it cannot be overstated.  Those things which make a church, a community, a living family of believers depend on the disciplined giving of us all – our programs – our projects, teaching for children and adults, the pastoral availability of the clergy, financial aid in emergencies, various activities – like Theology on Tap, the Prayer and Care Team, our outreach like the Community Dinner and other projects to aid the poor and needy.  These things which – again – make us a church, not just a group of buildings on Beacon Hill, but a living, involved community of believers – these are made possible by the disciplined giving of that community of believers.  Your pledge to this Parish is very important.  It is, in fact, essential.  What we do and what we are is determined by what we give.

Now let’s turn to Scripture: Caesar’s tax and whether to pay it.  I’ve seen one of the coins mentioned in the Gospel this morning.  Even today authentic ones are very common in the Holy Land, and you can buy one from a reputable merchant or you can buy a fake one from a guy in the street.  They’re not very big – about twice the size of one’s thumbnail – and they weren’t worth very much – about a day’s wages for a laborer.  And so the tax about which Jesus was questioned by his opponents was not necessarily burdensome.  Most people could pay it without much of a problem.  And this means, of course, that the question put to Jesus was about much more than money.  It was about politics and it was about power, for the tax was a tax levied by the Roman oppressor.  A tax upon God’s chosen people – His nation – by their Gentile conquerors.  Some Jews saw paying the tax as an act of treason.  It was, then, partly for this group that his opponents posed the question.  If Jesus said, “God ahead. Pay up,” he was a traitor and a fraud.  But not to pay was to defy the authority of Rome, and so if Jesus declared the tax not to be lawful, he was a rebel and a danger to the prevailing order.  And so, you see, his opponents were playing both sides of the game; it was also for the Romans that his opponents posed the question.  If Jesus said, “Don’t pay” – well, the Romans knew how to deal with people who defied them.

Hypocrites indeed, these people.  Playing both sides of the game and trying to trap Jesus.  What a pitiful scene: the religious and political authorities threatened by a wandering rabbi.

But there is a bit more going on in this story from St. Matthew.  It is somewhat less obvious, so let me explain.  The tax was levied on every man, woman, child – slave or free – in the Empire.  It was called the κέντος, census, and that’s what it was – a head tax, a yearly and rather simple method of taking stock of the population.  This may sound fairly innocent and insignificant, but it’s not.  It is a method of control.  To know how many people there are and where they are is a first step in controlling them.  And so, you see, to pay the tax, the κέντος, was for a Jew not only to recognize the oppressor, but also to make possible the oppression.

One more thing.  The tax had to be paid in Roman coinage – no local currency.  That is how Jesus knew what he was going to see when his opponents showed him the coin, and what he did see was this: the head, image of Tiberius the Emperor and an inscription which declared Tiberius to be divine.  The coin, itself, was then both a blasphemy and a forbidden graven image.  Some Jews would not even touch one; they got others to pay the tax for them.  But such scruples were of no interest to Jesus’ opponents.  They just wanted to get him.  But they failed.  They lost the game.

And they brought him a coin.  And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”  They said, “Caesar’s.”  Then he said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  When they heard it, they marveled; and they left him and went away.   (Matt. 22:19-22)

There is a great deal to be said about Jesus’ very quick and brilliant reply.  I want to leave that for another time.  More apropos today is to notice that the story we heard is based upon the relationship between money and power.  In this instance, a small amount of money had wide-ranging implications for power.  The two, of course, are always related.  Sometimes they are even equivalent: money is power and power is money.  Both are necessary for life in the world.  Both are capable of bringing about great good, but they are equally capable of bringing about great evil and horror and destruction and death.

Money and power can make intelligent people foolish and stupid.  Money and power can make good people turn bad and bad people get worse.  Money and power can make us betray our families, our friends, our country, our faith.  Money and power can blind us to our station in the created world, seducing us into thinking, like that Emperor on the Roman coin, that we are god.  Money and power are necessary, but they are also extraordinarily dangerous.  Dangerous.

And that is why, good people, there must be a discipline about money and power in each of our lives.  We must keep these in control and not let them take us over.  Not let them lead us astray or blind us to reality.  And that is one of the things that stewardship and pledging is all about: not being taken over.  Living out the acknowledgement that all we are and all we have, we have received from God.  (It is not ours.  We have it in trust.)  A pledge is a disciplined – weekly, monthly, whatever – acknowledgement of that truth by returning to God a portion of what we have received from Him.  That truth can only live in us if we live it out, if we adopt it as a discipline and a commitment.

And so, here we are.  Today we begin together to think about this commitment and this discipline.  Let us pray God that we may hear this truth and that, as Jesus said, that truth may make us free.

Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Daphne B. Noyes at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, October 22, 2017, the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (with audio)

 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus once again shows himself to be a master of teaching-by-inquiring. Not for the first time, and not for the last, he answers a tricky question with…a tricky question.

He frequently uses this technique to guide people toward some truth. Perhaps he learned this from his father, who sets the stage for countless human-divine encounters with his early, original question to Adam: “Where are you?”[1]

The question posed to Jesus today is in some ways reminiscent of this query: He is being asked to declare where he stands with regard to Jewish tradition and law, which viewed the collecting and the paying of taxes to the Roman occupation with disdain. Moreover, the coin used to pay the tax—the impression of a human likeness with the words “Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus” on one side and “Pontifex Maximus” (great high priest) on the other—was certainly an idolatrous claim and a clear violation of the second commandment: “Thou shalt not make any graven image…or likeness…thou shalt not bow down to them or worship them…”[2]

Before zooming in to analyze this exchange, let’s pull back for a wider view, to get a sense of when and where it takes place. Jesus has foretold his crucifixion—three times, no less—and has just entered Jerusalem on a donkey—with the people shouting “Hosanna”—“Save now!”[3] There is all the pomp and passion of Palm Sunday.

Jesus starts things off with a bang by kicking money changers out of the temple. He goes on to heal blind and lame people, and after spending the night in Bethany, returns to the temple. It is here that the answer-a-question-with-a-question dialogue begins. The mood grows increasingly tense.

Chief priest and elders: By what authority are you doing these things?

Jesus: I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, I will tell you by whose authority I do these things.

The question is about the baptism of John, and the chief priests and elders are not able to answer it to his satisfaction. This triggers a cascade of parables, many of which we have heard over the past weeks, all punctuated with provocative questions.

A landowner sends his two sons to work in the vineyard; one says he won’t, but does; one says he will, but doesn’t. Jesus asks, “Which of the two did the will of his father?”

A landowner’s slaves and son are violently killed when they attempt to harvest his vineyard. Jesus asks, “What will the landowner do to those tenants?” [who committed the murders].

In response to the answer the chief priests and elders propose, he becomes exasperated and quotes from one of his go-to sources, the Psalter. “Have you never read in the scriptures about the stone that the builders rejected becoming the chief cornerstone?”[4] He goes on to boldly predict an overturning of the current political, social, and religious order: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

The conflict is escalating, and Jesus doesn’t do anything to calm things down with the parable of the marriage feast, which ends with one unfortunate guest being bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

By this time emotions are running pretty high on both sides.

Perhaps the Pharisees call for a time out to regroup, for they back off, and send their students — their disciples — to continue the conversation with Jesus, together with some Herodians. Although we don’t hear much about Herodians, it’s worth noting that they were a political group that supported the royal family — the successors to Herod, who had been appointed King of the Jews by the Romans.

This new group of Pharisees’ disciples and Herodians tries a new approach: flattery. “We know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth….”

After this attempt to de-escalate and perhaps make Jesus lower his guard, they spring the question that comprises the first half of the centerpiece of today’s Gospel. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”

Knowing what we know, we might wonder if this question is really about paying taxes. It’s a question with a not-so-hidden agenda: to reveal Jesus as a fraud, an imposter, a heretical teacher, thereby preserving their authority and maintaining the status quo. After all, the Pharisees follow the Torah closely, and Jesus has already shown that despite his heritage and upbringing as a Jew, he’s got a different take on Mosaic law.

They think they’ve got him. If he says, Yes, pay taxes, he’s essentially giving Rome precedence at the expense of the Jews. If he says No, don’t pay taxes, he’s setting Jewish law above Roman law. It’s a lose-lose proposition.

Now he is getting exasperated. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” This is reminiscent of his words to the tempter during his forty days in the wilderness: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”[5]

Then he responds with the second question that completes the centerpiece: “Whose image is this [on the coin], and whose title?” Whose image is on the coin?

Which brings us back to Genesis, to the very beginning. Remember —“…God created the human in his own image, in the image of God..male and female he created them.”[6]

“Whose image…?” In drawing on the familiar wisdom of the Torah— the Pharisees’ foundational Scripture—Jesus responds to the question about the legality of paying taxes, and suggests a further, deeper response.

On the one hand, he says that people of faith—I’m looking at you, Pharisees—should submit to governing authorities by paying their taxes. On the other hand, he cites God’s all encompassing, inescapable reach, a reach far beyond that of any earthly ruler—I’m looking at you, Caesar—and their tax collectors. This is undoubtedly informed by a phrase from his prayer book, the Psalter: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”[7]

Jesus responds to an either/or question with a both/and response.  The Jesuit scholar Jack Mahoney, SJ, offers these thoughts:

I do not think that Jesus ever answered any question put to him in exactly the same terms as it was posed; he always changed the subject or introduced his own agenda, moving everyone’s attention to a higher level of reflection. Forgive your neighbour seven times? No, seventy times seven. The greatest commandment? Actually, there are two. …Where do I live? Come and see. So we should not expect Jesus to answer the question here about paying tax to Caesar with a simple yes or no. In fact, he adroitly evaded answering the trick question, pointing out, ‘well, if it belongs to Caesar, give it back to Caesar’. Then he added his own reflection, ‘and give God whatever belongs to God.’

I suggest it is a mistake to think that in his reply Jesus is dividing life into two spheres, the secular and the sacred, as so many people have supposed. His argument does not separate, it accumulates… He is not saying, on the one hand respect Caesar and on the other hand respect God. What he is pointing out is that, if you respect Caesar’s property, as you should, then all the more you ought to respect God’s property. So his full answer is, ‘Well, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. And while you are at it, give everything that belongs to God back to God.’

I suspect that most of us are pretty familiar one or more versions of “rendering unto Caesar…” thanks to the watchful eye of the Internal Revenue Service and other civic mechanisms. How are we doing on the rendering unto God piece? This isn’t about stewardship—although Father Warren will be pleased to hear me say that stewardship counts! It’s more about gratitude; it’s more about love. Our liturgy is full of clues about this — a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” …“Feed on him in your heart, by faith, with thanksgiving…”

So here we are, created in God’s image and likeness, come to worship the God who created us. Lift up your hearts! We lift them unto the Lord. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God! It is meet, right, and our bounden duty…

And finally this, from one of the Eucharistic prayers: “…here we offer and present unto thee our selves, our souls and bodies…”[8]

In so doing, again and again we truly render unto God the things that are God’s. Amen.


[1] Genesis 3:9b

[2] Decalogue I, BCP p. 318

[3] An appeal for deliverance. See Psalm 118:25, BCP p. 762

[4] Psalm 118.22

[5] Deuteronomy 6:16; see Isaiah 7:12, Sirach 3.26, among others…

[6] Genesis 1:27

[7] Psalm 24:1

[8] Eucharistic Prayer I, BCP 336; see Romans 12:1

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey A. Hanson at the Church of the Advent, September 29, 2017, the Feast of St Michael and All Angels

My favorite medieval historian, the Parisian scholar Remi Brague, says that one could define the modern age, our age, as “the age without angels.” And I think there is something right about this. We don’t think or talk about angels much these days, and philosophers and theologians haven’t done so deeply for a long time.

But in the ancient world and in the long medieval period that followed it all thinkers—Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike—all thinkers were obsessed with angels. So if we are to think about angels—as the Church asks us to do today—we have to turn to older traditions of wisdom.

Tonight I will use St. Augustine as my example of this tradition. St. Augustine taught that the angels are privileged with two ways of understanding reality: The angels see and understand things as they appear to us, from our earthly perspective, which is what Augustine rather poetically calls “evening knowledge,” and the angels see and understand things as God sees them from a heavenly perspective, which is what Augustine calls “morning knowledge.”

What this suggests is that there are two ways to look at the stuff of our lives: We can look at them as they appear to us on earth—in the half-light of evening knowledge; or we can look at them as they appear to the angels in heaven—in the bright dawn of morning knowledge.

Augustine’s beautifully expressed view of the evening knowledge that belongs to us human beings and the morning knowledge that belongs to the angels can be applied to our readings tonight.

Let’s start with Genesis. In tonight’s reading the patriarch Jacob experiences a revelation: He sees an ordinary earthly place from the viewpoint of heaven. Jacob beholds a ladder planted on the earth but reaching up to heaven, and it is angels who travel up and down that path, making it plain that God is present in a sacred place. The angels introduce Jacob into the presence of the Lord, and at a special place on earth heaven is opened.

As Jacob says, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” And why would he have known it? He has been sleeping on an ordinary rock in the desert. But once he sees this ordinary place in the light of morning knowledge, like everyone in the Bible who meets an angel, “he was afraid” and declared the place where heaven opened onto earth awesome indeed.

Turning to the Gospel, Our Lord seems to refer directly to this crucial incident from the life of Jacob when he encounters Nathanael. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel Nathanael has been told by Philip that he has met the Messiah, and that the Messiah is from Nazareth. Nathanael sarcastically asks how anything good can come from Nazareth; he is shocked and takes offense at the lowliness of the very idea of the Messiah coming from a backwater like Nazareth. And perhaps he can’t help it, for it is scandalous that God should be incarnated as a human being born into low circumstances. With our limited earthly perspective, with our evening knowledge, we can’t help but be scandalized at the Word becoming flesh. Why would God come among us in this way? Who could have known it? But rather than be offended in turn, Our Lord somewhat playfully makes fun of Nathanael’s candor. “Behold,” he says, “an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile.”

Jesus says Nathanael is a straight shooter, but there is a deeper meaning to his joke. We must remember that Israel is the new name of Jacob, in whom there was a great deal of guile. Jacob was a trickster, who cheated his brother out of his inheritance not once but twice. To be a true Israelite in whom there is no guile is to be without cunning and ready to trust.

Because Nathanael is without guile, because he is not a cheat, he seems quite prepared to believe in Jesus, who says he knew Nathanael before Philip ever came to him; Jesus knew him when he was sitting under the fig tree. This somewhat minor and still rather playful display of divine power is enough to convince Nathanael: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

Jesus is still playful in his reply: You believe because of the fig tree thing? That’s nothing. “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” You, Nathanael, the one who is the true Israelite with none of the conniving of Jacob, you will see what Jacob saw.

But two crucial changes have taken place between the Old Testament and New.

We miss the first one because of our translation: In the Greek it is clear that Jesus has switched here from the second-person singular to the second-person plural. So when he says “You will see heaven opened,” he is not actually speaking only to one person but to “you all,” that is to the handful of disciples he has gathered unto himself. We can even imagine him speaking to us. You all, all of you who believe in me, will see heaven opened.

As for the second change: This will not happen in a special place, this will happen to a special person. Jesus himself is the ladder between heaven and earth, upon whom angels ascend and descend.

And this brings me to Revelation and the archangel Michael, whom we celebrate tonight.

Our strange reading from Revelation is the book’s only reference to Michael the archangel, who traditionally was regarded as the defender of Israel, the heavenly warrior who fights for the people of God.

Michael appears in Revelation in a surprising interruption. According to this chapter of John’s Revelation, war arose in heaven as a result of a conflict between Satan the dragon and a celestial woman who is about to give birth. The dragon Satan intends to swallow the child when he is born, but the child is saved and taken to his throne in heaven. At this point, Michael suddenly appears to fight against the dragon and when Michael defeats the dragon a voice in heaven declares, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come.”

So it seems that the dramatic conflict between the celestial mother and the dragon is in fact the war of Satan against the promised child Jesus and his mother the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is indeed the queen of heaven. When Jesus is taken up into heaven, his victory over Satan is secured.

In the Revelation of John, Christ is constantly presented as conqueror or victor. And Michael’s victory too is dependent upon Christ’s victory accomplished by the cross.

Why do we need an angel at all then? Why does Michael interrupt this story?

When Christ is crucified he achieves victory on earth and opens heaven to all believers. But because Jesus is on his earthly mission, he is not present in the same way in heaven. Because Jesus is active on earth, he cannot be a player in what happens in heaven. But Michael can.

I think what is happening here is that Christ’s victory on earth, accomplished by his crucifixion, is being seen by John as how it looked from heaven. The whole book of Revelation is a disclosure of things seen from the side of heaven. It is a book full of morning knowledge, written from the perspective not of a man on earth but an angel in heaven.

According to St. Augustine, the angels are given morning knowledge, the gift of seeing how things really are from the perspective of heaven. And this too is a great example of that: From our perspective, from the human view, we see a pitiful man abandoned by his friends tortured to death and hanging on a cross.

But the angels see things differently. On earth, Jesus accomplishes the final victory over the forces of evil. So Michael’s victory in heaven is a counterpart to what Christ accomplished on earth. The war in heaven is not what happens after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension. It is the same thing—seen from the other side.

Because Jesus has cast Satan down from heaven, he is himself the ladder between heaven and earth, and that means that anywhere he is, so too are the angels come down from heaven, and so too we are raised up from earth to heaven.

The same St. Augustine laments that one of the great grievances of this life is that we cannot mingle with angels as familiarly as we can with our fellow human beings. I see what he means—none of us expects to see an angel any time soon—but in a way we do mingle with angels, because in the sacrament Christ is present to us, and where Christ is the angels are too.

When we come through the doors of this church, we are in the company of angels, and we say as much in the preface to the Eucharistic prayer: “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious name.”
When we are engaged in the worship of God, we are not alone in this enterprise. We are in the company of angels, just like Jacob was briefly and just like Jesus made it possible for us to be anywhere and anytime he is present in the sacrament of his body and blood. It is here in the presence of Christ that we see heaven opened. And that is why Jacob’s words are written in gold letters above that door, right behind you: “This is none other but the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.”

For so it is. Just as there is an earthly way to view the crucifixion of our Lord, so there is an earthly way to view this building. To an earthly way of seeing, Jacob goes to sleep in the desert with his head on an ordinary rock. To an earthly way of seeing, this building where we are gathered is nothing but a pile of rocks, a lovely one certainly, but a pile of rocks nonetheless. To an earthly way of seeing, the crucifixion is the humiliating defeat of a pitiable peasant tortured to death.

But what about the way the angels see things? How do they appear in the eyes of heaven, in the light of morning knowledge? From the view of the angels, the crucifixion is the moment when Michael the archangel flings the devil out of heaven. It is the triumph of the goodness of God over the great enemy Satan. From the viewpoint of the angels, where Jacob laid his head down on the rock in the desert was no ordinary stone in the dirt but the house of God. And from the view of the angels, this place is no ordinary building, no mere pile of rocks; it is heaven on earth, the very dwelling place of Almighty God.

Amen.