Sermon – December 31, 2017

Rev. John M. Hayes

The distinctive mark of Christianity is its vocation to authentic personhood. The spiritual path is not to become someone else, but rather to come to true personhood, to become one’s self, the true self that God intended and that sin has distorted and obscured. The Holy One who is the Source of all deigned to become embodied in the person of Jesus. He is the embodiment of God, the compassionate human face of God who sees and knows us from all eternity. Only persons are known as persons to persons. Only God can call us to personhood as one who is fully and truly embodied as person. Only God can show us what it means to be human. The truth is that humans can come to personhood only in relationship to others and to God.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him and without him no one thing came into being.” John 1:1-3[1]

Ev Arche An Ho Logos: The English does not convey the poetry, the dense multivalent resonances of meaning John’s hearers would have heard. Arche- beginning is not just some logicaly necessary point in time – but it is the dynamic source and ground that all is in. Logos is not just ‘word’ as we use ‘word’ to name nouns, verbs, and a computer program– but the that which gives form to the inchoate, chthonic depths of God’s very Being longing for expression and form, longing from all eternity to be known and loved by humankind.

Word/Logos is the bearer of the person. Word carries the meaning and feeling of one person into the mind and heart of the other. These opening lines meant to resonate with the opening lines of Genesis, express the profound reality that creation is intimately relational. These words adumbrate the doctrine of the Trinity three centuries later, formulating the distinctively Christian conviction that ultimate reality is profoundly personal. The Christian God is not the “Absolute” or the “One” of other faiths, nor the “unmoved prime mover” of the philosophers, but a community of self-emptying love.

The Word is intimate with God, bears God’s very person, identified with and yet distinguishable from God. The word is creative for it is only in intimate relationship that we become real. It is only in God’s expression of Godself in Word that creation comes to be. There is no secular realm outside of God’s relational reality, no space to be carved out that escapes God’s loving gaze and presence. All real being is in God’s relational orbit. Our opening to God is always in and through our created being.

“What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. “ John 1: 4-5

God’s creation through the Word is the creation of life. Creation is not a once-off distant event, nearly forgotten by a watchmaker Deist God. It is a continuing process unfolding in all of creation, but most especially in the depths of the human psyche especially created in God’s image. Life has come into being in the Word, in the Christ. Life has its origin in the Word, in Christ, not only at the beginning of creation but now and always. The essence of life is the intricate and utter independence of all that lives. There is no reality outside the great chain of being that is life. This truth gives lie to the world’s story that real maturity is autonomy and self-sufficiency, taking one’s life in one’s own hands and shaping one’s own destiny. And there is for the Christian no life divorced from the nexus of relationship of the beloved community, and to seek life outside of Christ is futile. To seek life outside of Christ is essentially idolatry and the path to sin and spiritual death.

To have life in the Word, in Christ, is to have light. To have life is to thrive within relationship with and in Christ and all his creation, and with this life comes the means of sight and understanding of what can be seen and known.

In our spiritual lives, the light of Christ is the Holy Spirit illuminating the realities of our life so that we see them clearly in the light of God’s day. The “light that shines in the darkness” also shines in the darkness of the human heart to bring to awareness all the vestiges of darkness that lurk therein and obscure the light: the petty vanities, jealousies, the subtle inclinations to violence, the idolatries that still have not given way to the light of conversion.

Darkness can only ultimately yield to light. By the Holy Spirit we know in our hearts that only in light is there life. Darkness is merely the privation of light and has of itself no real existence. Only with light is there life. Light makes life possible and sustains it; without light all vegetation would die and the whole chain of life would collapse and perish. Christian spirituality acknowledges as first principle the utter contingency of our personal being, our utter ontological non-necessity and absolute dependence on God. It also acknowledges that the world is ultimately comprehendible, that even when it seems absurd, it is ultimately revealed to be in some way rational. All that is created has reason at its heart even when that is entirely concealed. The seemingly tragic “throwness” of every concrete human life has within it the seeds of transfiguration by the Holy Spirit. At bottom all things are ultimately purposeful. This ontological trust extends especially to the opaque mystery that we are to ourselves that we are to others, and others to us.

12, Jesus heals the man born blind whose fate was assumed to be punishment for his sin or the sin of his parents. Jesus said then “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When Jesus heals him, light comes into the man’s eyes and the realities that always lay before him concealed are now seen clearly and he will have to address them.

“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him.” John 1:10-11.

The world cannot come to recognize and know Christ on its own resources. That recognition can only come by the light given by the Holy Spirit. John’s gospel fills out this role of the Holy Spirit later in the narrative. Even those whom one would most expect to have the ability to recognize fail to recognize, see and know Christ. This was true in Jesus’ time; very few Jews realized the fulfillment of God’s promise in Jesus, because Jesus did not fulfill their all-too-human expectations of a Messiah. It is not less true that “his own people” today fail to recognize Christ in the world in the myriad ways that Christ is abundantly present to those who are willing to see and know him, and who are not blinded by their own willful and wishful rigidity. We, as the Jews of old, prefer a Christ who reinforces our sense of being in control and being “right”, who does not demand the vulnerability of costly obedience and self-emptying love of others. We prefer not to see the suffering Christ in the abundant suffering of God’s poor and afflicted, because that demands a response that is costly and painful. Many who claim to be “his own” look away from the obscenities of structural injustice, pre-emptive war, and destructive, exploitive economics, and prefer the private religion of comfort and nostalgia.

“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” John 1: 12-13

To those who willingly suffer the death of their egoic selves, surrendering themselves to the reality of Christ within and without, paradoxically are reborn in a new identity as children of God. This transfiguration of those who receive Christ and believe in his name live in a new relational reality. Bound not to limiting tribal ties of blood and unbound from the urgent demands of the willful egoic self, they live their true and more real identity in Christ. This transcendence of ordinary self reveals the true humanity of the Christian.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14.

These may be the most impossibly astounding words in all of Scriptures, filling the Christian’s heart with joy even as it implodes all our fixed categories of who God is and what humanity can expect of God. That God in Jesus Christ, the very real, en-fleshed embodiment of God’s Word, should come to share our nature and live as a human being in space and time, as a particular and specific person in human history, changes everything. Jesus now becomes the new temple that place on earth where God dwells with God’s people, where the Holy touches our reality. The new temple is not a place, but a person, the incarnation of the Son of God, beloved of the Father from before all ages. This is the great mystery, the scandal of the incarnation: that God comes to us as the most vulnerable of all, a baby born to poor wandering parents in a cave on a cold night, that the Holy One comes to us in space and time as person, come to bring us to our right minds and hearts, come to bring us home.

Sermon – December 24, 2017

Rev. John M. Hayes

I heard the bells on Xmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men
And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

That old song was written in a terrible time, three horrific years into the American civil war by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, whose own young son was brought home from battle with a destroyed body and a deranged mind.

We also are living in a dark time and there are few signs of hope on the horizon. The edges of the predictable and predicted ecological crisis are now all too familiar to peoples in the Caribbean and the American southern coastlands. Fires rage in the hills of Southern California as we speak, and starving polar bears wander in confusion and wonder where all the ice has gone?

Did I mention that nuclear war is hanging in the wings? Our conflict with North Korea continues to heat up, as provocations are exchanged.

Can there be anyone left who doubts that our political system is broken? Our country is hopelessly divided and alienated across party lines. The year concludes with our esteemed president signing into law a tax bill that effects a loot of our treasury and makes our economy even more outrageously unjust. Some are just beginning to see that our democracy is becoming an oligarchy.

Here in our fair city we had more homicides than ever before and no sign that the root causes of violence will be addressed. Prisons are now a privatized growth industry, while our Secretary of Education, the former queen of Amway, proceeds to dismantle public education. It is becoming nakedly clear that the powers of this world believe in disposable communities and disposable people. And hasn’t that always been true?

Here is our little community of St. Luke’s there has been much heartbreak and loss this year. And God knows every family has its share of private conflict, loss and pain. And no person is completely at peace. In the depths of every human heart there rages anger, hurt, envy, and the vestiges of old trauma, loss and grief.

Peace on earth, good will to men, really? Tell me when is that going to happen exactly. Isn’t there every reason to be cynical about Christmas?

We might well think: what difference did this birth some 2,000 years ago make? What’s with all the fol-der-al? Face reality: we are in a bigger mess than ever before. If God supposedly did something in the distant past it clearly made no real difference.

Wait. Maybe we have it all wrong. Maybe we have to turn the story upside down to get it.

See the image of the child born to poor parents, throwaway people in a backwater, throwaway place, and angels greeting shepherds, men with no status or security, announcing the breaking in of God’s kingdom into this sorry, sorry world.

See this is not a story of the distant past but of God’s future, of God’s dream for humanity, God’s promise of humanity’s future.

Jesus is not a figure from the past. Jesus is the very newest thing. Jesus comes to us now – from God’s future. Jesus comes to us now as the completely new human. Jesus comes to us now from God’s future as the completely non-violent one, who refuses all power-over, all the scapegoating, and all plotting, scheming and grasping that make this world a seemingly hopeless mess.

Jesus’ only power is truth and the self-emptying love that is God’s very nature. Jesus comes now as the human face of the Holy One that loves sorry humankind when there is every reason to despair, and loves humankind extravagantly, senselessly and faithfully. God does not give up on us. Jesus comes to us now to lead us into the future God dreams for humanity – a future of God’s kingdom realized where finally peace, love and truth govern human life and humankind becomes at last truly and authentically human.

As much as God comes to meet us in Jesus, God also dwells in the depths of the human psyche impelling us to recognize and see God’s coming.

The Gospel proclaims that to see Jesus is to see God, and to know Jesus is to know God. This seeing and knowing are of course not ordinary seeing and knowing, but that which comes with intuition and imagination formed by the Holy Spirit’s most often unseen and unknown movements in the depths of the human psyche, opening our spiritual sight to God’s presence and our mind to true and deepened knowledge of God. Seeing and knowing God in Jesus makes us more the true and authentic person we are meant to be.

The God of human invention is the projection of human power fantasies. It has been said that God created humans in God’s image and they are forever attempting to return the favor. Jesus is the corrective to that dead end, being the antithesis of human expectation, the human of God’s future whose power is only the power of truth, vulnerability and love.

This Jesus encounters us in Scripture, in the Eucharist, and in the beloved community and in those who he loved most in this world, the throwaway folks, the poor and disenfranchised, the sick, the imprisoned, the powerless and vulnerable.

This encounter with Christ demands a change, a re-orientation of our life. Christ calls us to a life of discipleship, to commitment to following the Gospel way, to attentively and obediently discerning his will in our lives so that we live not for ourselves but for others, and so that we find our own particular way to heal our sad and broken world. This is the way we realize our true humanity. We are meant for nothing less.

The priest and prophet Daniel Berrigan wrote these words in another dark and greatly troubled time:

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Christmas in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world, born some 2000 years ago this night, but also born now this very moment in every human heart that makes room to receive him.

Sermon – November 19, 2017

Rev. John M. Hayes
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25: 14-30.

Jesus’ parables are not heart-warming tales with a good morale. If we stay on the surface of this one, we are given a picture of a vengeful petty God intent on making things even harder for poor people: “For to all those who have more will be given, and they will have an abundance, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Sounds pretty much like the Republican tax plan.

What kind of “master” gives out his favors so unevenly and when he returns deals so severely and punitively with the servant who was – after all – given just one talent?

What is more perplexing is that in the very next passage of this chapter, Jesus tells us that loving other humans in need is loving God and that we will be judged on just how much we have loved others in concrete ways: “ I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.”

How do we make sense of this? What is Jesus up to saying seemingly opposite things in the same breath?

Think what money is and what it symbolizes. A coin, or dollar bill, or a talent for that matter, have no value in itself. Just paper or a bit of metal. Money is given as payment for work and can be exchanged for goods and services that we need. Money symbolizes energy, life-force, libido. We are called to live as God made us to live, with passion and daring, fearlessly trusting that God is with us and for us. What is given to us is meant to be lived into life generously and with gratitude. We are not meant to be fearfully turned back on ourselves.

God knows who we are and what we are capable of.

Psalm 139:

O Lord you have searched me and you known me; you know when I sit down and when I rise up, you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word I son my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limit of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say “Surely the darkness shall cover me and the light around me become as night, even the darkness is not dark to you and the night is as bright as the day fro darkness is as light to you.

This gives us the key to understanding the meaning of this parable.

Just as God knows us inside and out, God looks into the human heart of each and takes our measure. God knows us far better than we can ever, will ever, know ourselves. God’s penetrating gaze melts all pretense, posturing, self-aggrandizing illusion.

God does not love us generically or deal with each of us as if we were identical parts on an assembly line. Because only God knows each of us precisely as we really are, only God truly loves us all the way down.

Like the master in Jesus’s parable, God knows just what we servants imagine God to be. The way we imagine God determines how we approach life, how we live our lives and how we treat our brothers and sisters.

God knows the degree to which we know God as God reveals Godself in the infinite myriad ways God comes to us. Are we seeing? Are we listening? Are we opening to the movements of God’s spirit within us constantly awakening us to the reality of God’s constant presence and perpetual self-emptying extravagant love for us?

Indeed do we let our consciousness of God, and our image of God, be informed by regular reading of scripture and prayer. Or do we live with a puny image of God likely based on memory of the darker sides of our all too human parents?

Do we rather construct a God in our own projected self-image: small, miserly, grasping, ruled by fear, tortured by doubt, punitive and vindictive. This was the essence of the wicked, lazy servant’s failure: he created God in his own image and therefore experienced neither the freedom nor the reality of God’s love. It was a failure of relationship. Invited to the banquet he turns away.

Two servants knew their master as a good and generous lord, who genuinely loved them, and who encourages them to go have a go of life, to take hold of their given talents and see what they can make of them. They knew something of their master’s true nature and they trusted what they saw and heard. They knew and trusted the master’s mercy and love.

The master gave to each servant a task and an amount “according to his ability”. The word in Greek is dynamis – ability, capacity, the power to do something. Each of us has unique power and abilities. God’s trust in each of us – and the personal call and particular task each is given – is a partaking in God’s life and mission to humanity.

The wicked lazy servant damns himself by hanging back. He withdraws from reality and lives in the world of his limited imagining and he is fearfully seeking security that is no security, safety that is no safety. He does not live in God’s world, the only real world there can be, but in a private paranoid hell of his own imagining.

God knows what each of us is made of, where we came from, and what we are capable of. God knows our limitations. God knows our wounds. God knows our history, personal and collective. What is expected of us is totally proportionate to who we are.

Notice that when God comes to settle accounts there is no expectation that they all will have yielded the same. Yet both faithful servants enter into the same joy of their master, they come into the kingdom, the wedding feast. Oh happy day of God’s coming! Each of us comes to this table and receives the same bread of heaven and cup of salvation, a taste of what God has in store for us and that joy is without end and without limit.

Each of us has been given different talents and has been thrown into a life we did not select and did not choose. The mystery of life that we will never understand: we are all given to, but not equally, and we are to trust that our future is God’s future and that ultimately God’s justice will rule. Our ideas of what is fair seldom match God’s hidden vision and wisdom. We all have different paths to walk in this life and some are much harder and steeper than others, but we are walking in the same direction. We are meant to walk each other home.

Five years ago we returned home and were looking for a church community. Martha McGill pointed us in this direction: “I don’t think God is done with St. Luke’s yet.” It seemed then that we were going to do great things together. And there were many disappointments and setbacks. A series of promising partners in mission to help refit the clergy house went away one by one, until one fatal February the polar vortex finished off the heating and plumbing. Despite those disappointments, we had the fantasy that here at least we had this rare thing, a church where black and white folks, well-off and much less well-off, made a community of caring devoted to the mission of making St. Luke’s a place of hospitality and support in this community. To lose this fantasy also is beyond sad, but a necessary loss. God calls us to live in reality as it is, and not in our fantasy of reality. I want to hope that God is not done with St. Luke’s, and that the hard work of reconciliation might begin again. I believe that is what God expects of us and that God wants nothing less for us.

Sermon – October 29, 2017

Feast of St. Luke (October 22, 2017)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess

Readings: Sir. 38:1-4, 6-10, 12-14; Ps. 147; 2 Tim. 4:5-13; Lk. 4:14-21

At the end of his second letter to Timothy, Paul reports that all of his friends and supporters have deserted him. Demas has left for Thessalonica; another man named Crescens has departed for Galatia, and Titus is now in Dalmatia (4:10). Earlier in the letter, Paul tells us “all who are in Asia have turned away from me” (1:15). Things have gotten bad. Add to this the fact that Paul is probably writing from a prison in Rome, with more than a faint awareness that the end is drawing near. As he says, “the time of my departure has come” (4:6).

It’s a bleak picture, but there is one person who has remained with Paul to the end. “Only Luke is with me,” Paul reports (4:11). When everyone has vanished, when envy has turned would-be allies into enemies, when the new-fangled Jesus movement is suddenly no longer so fashionable, when the iron grip of earthly power is about to squeeze out what little air is left, Luke remains. Luke abides. “Only Luke is with me.” They are just five words, but they are among the most poignant of the New Testament. They suggest that Luke, our namesake, the saint whose feast we observe today, was different. While the disciples couldn’t stay awake one hour with Christ in Gethsemane, while Peter denied Jesus three times, while the churches that Paul planted in Corinth and Galatia disagreed and divided, and while even Barnabas, Paul’s fellow pioneer in the Gentile mission, went his separate way, Luke remained faithful.

So what made him different? Who is this Luke that we call ourselves by? The only other reference Paul makes to Luke comes in Colossians, where he calls him the “beloved physician” (4:14). That tells us something about how he made a living, but it still leaves a lot out. For more, we have to turn to the Acts of the Apostles, one of the two New Testament books that Luke authored. Luke does not mention himself in the narrative, but we do occasionally catch him switching from the third-person narrator voice to a more intimate, first-person plural voice. In Chapter 16, for example, Paul sees a vision of a man who invites him to go Macedonia. It is at this point that Luke drops the third-person voice and says, “we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia” (16:10). This same “we” travels to Philippi, where we can deduce Luke remains for some seven years before later rejoining Paul in a Greek city called Troas. Putting the pieces together, Luke would have been associated with Paul for about ten years, from around 50 to 60AD, following him to Rome, where he kept Paul company during his imprisonment and until his death.

From this backstory, one of the most interesting things we learn about Luke is that he was among the first Gentile converts to the faith. Luke is not just the only Gentile author of a Gospel, he is the only Gentile author of any New Testament book. Perhaps owing to his outsider status, Luke saw things differently. In his writings, he often focuses on the people who escape the attention of others. Often these are Gentiles like himself. Luke is the only Gospel writer to include the parable of the Good Samaritan, the most striking example of how Jesus redefines belonging and unsettles our assumptions about who counts as our neighbor. It is also Luke’s Jesus who reminds his audience of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian (4:25-27), two Gentile recipients of the favor of Old Testament prophets.

Women also feature prominently in Luke’s Gospel. It is Luke who provides the account of the Visitation between Mary and Elizabeth, as well as Mary’s famous Magnificat, with its soaring vision of social reversal, wherein the proud are scattered in the thoughts of their hearts, the powerful are brought down from their thrones, the lowly are lifted up, and the hungry are filled with good things (1:51-53).

The theme of social reversal echoes throughout Luke’s Gospel. It is there in today’s Gospel reading from Chapter 4, where Jesus stands up in a synagogue in Nazareth and declares the year of the Lord’s favor, bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (4:18-19). Luke’s listeners would have recognized this as the ancient practice of Jubilee, which entailed the emancipation of indentured slaves, the return of lost landholdings, and the forgiveness of debts, nullifying social injustices and bringing society back into just equilibrium. For Luke, the kingdom of God was a this-worldly reality, something dawning now, with real implications for how individuals treated one another. Thus in his version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says not, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but “Blessed are the poor,” for “theirs is the kingdom of God.” He does not say that marginalized members of society will be blessed in the future, but, “Blessed are you who are hungry now… blessed are you who weep now” (6:21). They will have a reward in heaven, but even now they are touched by the new reality that Christ brings. Pointedly, Luke also includes a series of woes for the rich and those who are full and laughing. Things are about to change for them as well, whether they are prepared to acknowledge it or not. In view of these commitments, it is not entirely surprising to discover that Luke’s Gospel is the one where we find the parable of the Prodigal Son. With its emphasis upon unconditional forgiveness and re-integration of the least deserving, it crystallizes the overall message of Luke’s Gospel: the kingdom is at hand, lives are in the process of being transformed, and the signs of this transformation are all around us.

Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, reads like a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, continuing many of these same themes. Midway through the book, Paul’s opponents say in exasperation: “These people… have been turning the world upside down” (17:6). Even those who oppose the movement see what is at hand. For Luke, the signs of this new reality are many. Some are famously radical, such as the sharing of possessions. As Luke reports, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all” (2:44-45). But not all of them are so radical. Some are deceptively simple. One is the breaking of bread: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (2:46). Another entails new forms of communication and the overcoming of longstanding barriers to mutual understanding. Repeatedly, the presence of the Spirit is found where historically divided groups find themselves mixing: Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor. No sooner are the apostles sure of the direction of this new movement then it veers off course, into another strange direction. Many of the leaders thought it was a movement for one people only, but now they find themselves surrounded by outsiders like Luke. Their community has expanded. New faces can be seen, new voices can be heard. Many thought the faith was measured in external obedience to the law, and now they find that the faith claims their innermost desires and motivations as well. Some of the new Gentile upstarts think they can leave behind their Jewish brethren, but Paul reminds them that Jesus came to fulfill the law, not abolish it. The covenant is not replaced, but opened. The vision is not one community superseding the other, but historically divided communities sharing life together. Luke should know: he is one of the Gentiles now included in the covenant, a man whose faith has made him a descendant of Abraham and heir of the promise. The gospel promise, the sign of the spirit, the reality of the kingdom, is life together.

If we need further evidence, look no further than Luke’s unlikely friendship with Paul. Here for all the world to see is a different possibility: friendship that breaks down the dividing wall of hostility. Jew and Gentile, former Pharisee and Greek, bound together in common purpose, to the very end. “Only Luke is with me.” The words sound a little different knowing who Luke is, an outsider who not only joins Paul in friendship, but also proves his staying power. A friendship across barriers is not merely possible, but can endure, even amidst developments that seem to reverse everything the kingdom stands for.

Indeed, at the end of Paul’s life, people have begun to give up on this kingdom. The Roman Empire is crushing its followers one by one. The poor remain poor. The powerful remain powerful. And yet exactly at the point when things grow the grimmest, Paul sees the evidence of this kingdom in his friend. His friend, the one most different from him, is the one who makes the kingdom real for him. Luke shouldn’t be here. He should be where Demas, Barnabas, and everyone else has gone. But he hasn’t. He has stayed. He has abided. He has remained faithful to his friend, and in remaining faithful to his friend, he has remained faithful to the world as he now knows it, and faithful to the God who graciously makes its possible. Luke teaches us this: keeping faith in the kingdom means keeping company with those who belong to the kingdom, living out those new relationships that make up the kingdom. Keeping faith means keeping company. It means remaining friends. Paul’s friendship with Luke is part of what allows him to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).

As we gather today to celebrate the 170th anniversary of the founding of our community, we find ourselves coming back to something very basic and true. Like Paul at the end of his life, we live at a time when we see very few signs of Christ’s kingdom. The poor remain poor. The captives remain captive. For many of us, the kingdom is something to long for, something we will experience in the future age. Yet when we read of Luke’s simple but profound capacity to stay the course and keep company with his friend to the end, we are reminded of the ordinary fabric with which the kingdom is woven. That fabric is you and me, and the thread is friendship, friendship across boundaries, friendship that shouldn’t be possible but is because Christ has opened a new kind of community where Samaritans become neighbors to Jews, where Gentiles befriend former Pharisees, where the abandoned and imprisoned are remembered, and where absence is filled with presence. Presence. That is what Paul most wanted, and that is the one thing Luke could give him. It is the hardest thing to find and the easiest thing to give. All that it requires is that we see that it is ours to give, that each of us can give it.

That is what each of us gives in being a part of this community. That is the high calling of any community that gathers under Luke’s name: to be a people that abides, a community that keeps faith in God’s kingdom by keeping faith in the friendships God makes possible when we give each other the gift of our presence. “Only Luke was with me.” May the same continue to be said of us. Amen.

Sermon October 1, 2017

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 1, 2017
Ezeckiel 18:1-4,25-32; Phillipians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
Rev. John Hayes

We miss the point of scripture if we think it speaks about some ancient far distant debacle. We miss much of the meaning of the scriptures when we do not have the context.

What is not readily apparent in the reading from the prophet Ezekiel is that his words are spoken to the Jews now living in exile in Babylon. They had forgotten how to live according to God’s way. War came and the city and temple were destroyed and all the people with talent and resources carted off to Babylon. They are longing for home and now wondering whom to blame for their plight. They want to blame it on their parent’s sins. See they want to believe they are merely victims of bad fate they did not create.

God tells them to knock off the kvetching already, and wise up. This idea you have that you are suffering for your parents’ misdeeds is way off base. Nice try. You brought exile on yourself. Sin has consequences.

We misread things if we think of God sitting up above on his throne, crankily and arbitrarily meeting out punishments for those who break his law. God’s law merely points the way of human flourishing. When we sin – and we all sin – when we give into temptation to lie, steal, cheat even in small, subtle, but corrupting ways – our lives do not work and we live in exile. Exile from our true selves, exile from each other, and ultimately exile from God. We look to blame our environment, our relationship, our upbringing – someone, anyone, but ourselves.

God wants to shatter that misperception. God tells us to look no further than the mirror. We freely choose exile over relationship and integrity that are our true calling.

As a people and a nation we sin – we neglect the widow, the orphan, the impoverished –our economic and legal justice become a laughable tragic pretense – we worship false gods of security, wealth, military might, racial superiority – we greedily foolishly plunder the resources of this good earth – and our collective life show every sign of deterioration. We also now live in an exile of our own creation, exile from our true home. And now we are ruled by foreign, wicked powers of state and corporate greed that make a mockery of our true national values. And we would like to have someone else to blame.

As God says: “O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?”

Exile is a terrible fate. To be far from home, defenseless and lost, at the mercy of others. The exile of sin is made all the more terrible by the realization that we freely chose our fate.

For home is not really a place. Home in essence is relationship. When we sin – personally or collectively – we are not in right relationship with ourselves and our true nature, and ultimately we exile ourselves from God our only true home. When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God – he speaks of our ultimate home in relationship with God and each other when God’s law is obeyed and human life truly flourishes.

More than five hundred years after the return from exile in Babylon, after Jerusalem and its temple rebuilt more splendidly than ever, many Jews still felt that they were very much in exile and were expectedly longing for the restoration of their true home. To the alarm of the chief priests and elders, many were coming to believe that Jesus might be the Messiah to usher in that new age of peace and freedom.

It is important to know that the piece of Matthew’s gospel read comes immediately after the entry to the city on Palm Sunday and the cleansing of the temple of money changers. So the chief priests and elders are not asking an idle philosophical question of Jesus, when they want to know “by what authority are you doing these things”. This Jesus has come to Jerusalem with renown as a man of God, one who heals the sick and afflicted, who casts out demons, who even the week before raised Lazarus from the dead. Who does such deeds? This Jesus is clearly intent on overturning the established religious order, the status quo that the chief priests and elders had so much invested in – position, security, power and wealth.

They try to give Jesus enough rope to hang himself with their question. They hope to catch him exposing himself as a fake or better blaspheming by claiming to be the Messiah. But Jesus like a good astute rabbi, answers their question with another, one that puts them in an impotent bind. They can only answer, “I don’t know”. If you can’t answer my question, we don’t have to worry about yours.

Then Jesus tells the parable of two sons – one who was initially reluctant but then was obedient, and the other who offers compliance readily, but then betrays the promise. He asks them, “Which did the will of the father?”

The chief priests and elders fall right into his rhetorical trap and answer that of course, only the first son was really obedient. Then Jesus lowers the boom, shatters their pretensions and self-delusion: Jesus tells them they actually are just like the disobedient second son and headed for catastrophe. Repentant sinners – the tax collectors and prostitutes – are like the first son and will enter God’s kingdom. They faced themselves honestly and returned to right relationship to God and amended their ways.

Everyone sins and needs forgiveness. Echoing the words of Ezekiel, Jesus makes it clear that those who sin and repent, those who turn homewards and make their lives right with God, will live and flourish. God’s forgiveness and mercy are bottomless, but we can only access it with sorrowful and truthful recognition of our sin. Those who repent will be saved and those who in their spiritual pride or self-sufficient complacency think they have no need of repentance condemn themselves to exile from all that is good, from their true home.

Bonheoffer told us that when we complain about having tepid faith we should examine where we are failing in obedience. Faith means immersion in the truth about our existence, the truth of our sinfulness, and the truth of our need of God. But more than that faith means immersion in relationship with the living God who knows us and loves us from all eternity and wants us to come to our full humanity.

What does that full humanity look like?

The only fully human being is Jesus. And when we come to our full humanity we will – as Paul has it – let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus. We could just as well translate “mind” as “heart”. Knowing and loving are of a piece. To know God is to love God; to love God is to love God. To know and love God is to know how far from God we have allowed ourselves to fall and to know our sin and to have heart felt remorse for our sin, and to long for release from our self-imposed exile to our only true home. When we turn from sin and open ourselves to God’s new life in the Holy Spirit our lives are broken open, transformed, and restored.

Each of us in his or her own unique idiom, in his or her own unique life circumstances, is called by God to repentance, to put on the mind and heart of Christ, and to show forth the self-emptying love of Christ, broken and given for the life of this broken, wicked world, lost in exile.

Perhaps that is our only hope of ending the tragic exile and beginning our journey home.

May it be so.

Sermon – August 27, 2017

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16
August 27, 2017

(Matthew 16:18-19)
Rev. Jane Mayrer

Tell us, O Lord, what we need to hear, and show us what we need to do, to be followers of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today we hear what is commonly referred to as “the confession of Peter” as told by the author of the Gospel of Matthew. Peter’s recognition and acknowledgement that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God, was a pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry. All four of the Gospels – in one way or another – depict Peter as the first disciple to come to this realization about Jesus’ identity. But only the Gospel of Matthew expands upon what this means for Peter. Jesus says to him, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

These couple of verses have born a heavy weight of scholarly inspection over the centuries. Some question whether Jesus even said this, since no other Gospel writer includes these words in their account. These scholars think that Matthew added this bit to support his particular community of Christians and to bolster Peter’s authority. And even those who assume Jesus did say this to Peter, are not sure what Jesus meant. There seems to be general agreement that “keys of the kingdom of heaven” refer to Peter’s authority as a leader of the community. There also is agreement that the term “bind” means to forbid, and the term “loose” means to permit. But as to what action is forbidden or permitted, “question has arisen” – as the footnote to the NRSV somewhat understates.

I have always felt a certain discomfort with these two verses from Matthew’s Gospel, I suppose because – as I understand it – they are the foundation upon which the institutional church is based. Peter, as leader of the church in Rome, was the first Pope, and the church established in Rome became the one true, holy, and apostolic church, with the power to forbid and permit, to declare sin and to forgive sin. That’s a lot of power for an institution run by humans to have.

One problem is, what happens when the church – the institution – itself is sinful: when it engages in sin, condones sin, is silent about sin, is complicit in sin. Consider the Roman Catholic Church and its long history with sexual abuse of children, and others, by priests. Clergy, acting as spiritual leaders of the church, engaged in sinful acts. They were forgiven by other spiritual leaders, quietly moved from one location to another location, and allowed to continue to engage in the same sinful acts. The institutional church first refused even to acknowledge the allegations of victims, then covered up and silenced those allegations.

Well, as my favorite theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor observed in her book, Speaking of Sin, we like to single out wrongdoers, because that frees those of us who have not been caught for anything to enjoy a bracing sense of innocence. But, as another wise person has observed, none of us are innocent. When we point a finger at someone else, three fingers are pointing at us. So, before we become too comfortable, or judgmental, let us look at our own Episcopal Church and its accommodation of sin – the sin of slavery.

And slavery is a sin. The evil of slavery is obvious from even the sparsest description, such as we have in today’s reading from Exodus. The purpose of slavery is to exert power and control over a group of people. “A new king arose over Egypt … who said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies.’ Therefore, they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor.” The mechanism of slavery is to so demean the enslaved that they are deprived of their humanity. “The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.” The result of slavery is that humans, deprived of their humanity, become expendable. “Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

It’s hard to understand, now, how any Christian church in the pre-Civil War United States could read this account of slavery without being compelled to condemn and repudiate slavery. Some, in fact, did. But others were silent. And in the south, it was not slavery, but slave rebellion against a master that was regarded as sin.

In Maryland, it seems that the issue for the Episcopal Church was not whether to free slaves, since the economic welfare and social status of the church was deeply embedded in slavery, but rather whether to evangelize them and make them Christians. Mary Klein and Kingsley Smith note in their research on the history of racism in the Diocese of Maryland, that Episcopal clergy were expected to convert slaves, but “were frustrated in their efforts to catechize slaves because many masters feared the consequences of education, and some thought that once a slave was baptized, he or she would have to be freed.” The first American census, in 1790, showed that the overwhelming majority of clergy and lay delegates to the Convention of the Diocese of Maryland owned slaves, including Thomas John Claggett, the first Bishop of Maryland and the first bishop consecrated on American soil.

Thanks be to God, the Episcopal Church has finally owned up to our shameful past. In 2006 General Convention adopted a resolution explicitly acknowledging and regretting “the Episcopal Church’s support of the inhuman system of chattel slavery and Bible abuse that was used to justify a sin that dehumanized a people created in the image of God.” The following year, the Diocese of Maryland went beyond expressing regret and apologized “for the Anglican Church in Colonial Maryland and of the Episcopal Church in the state of Maryland for their role in the slavery of African Americans and in the subsequent racial injustice.” [This was by resolution adopted by Diocesan Convention in 2007.]

Since that time, our Diocese has been engaged in researching our Episcopal history of slavery and its legacies of segregation and racism. I mentioned the paper written by Mary Kline and Kingsley Smith pertaining to the Diocese’s history. Parishes are also delving into their own histories of involvement with, and complicity in, slavery. This effort is supported by the Research and Pilgrimage Working Group of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Three years ago, in 2014, the first Trail of Souls Truth and Reconciliation pilgrimage was held to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Maryland in 1864. Sites visited on that pilgrimage included Clover Hill, where the Diocesan offices are located, which was built with slave labor; All Hallows’ Church in Davidsonville, where the first African slave was baptized in 1699; All Saints’ Church, Sunderland, which was built by enslaved people, and where proceeds from the sale of a slave girl were used to purchase a silver chalice; Grace Episcopal Church, Silver Spring, which has a burial ground for Confederate Soldiers; and the slave cemetery at Claggett.

The second Trail of Souls pilgrimage will be held this November, on November 4th. St. Luke’s will be one of the pilgrimage sites, along with Old St. Paul’s, Emmanuel Church, and Memorial Church in Bolton Hill – all white parishes founded before slavery was abolished in 1864. So that St. Luke’s can participate as a pilgrimage site, I have been researching our own records to learn about this church’s experience of, and relationship with, slavery. Some of this history has already been written about and is referred to on our website. Some is contained in the church history written in 1947, when St. Luke’s celebrated its 100th anniversary. Some I found reading the earliest Vestry minutes. Some is extracted from information recorded in the first church registry. Here is what I have discovered.

St. Luke’s was incorporated as a church in the Diocese of Maryland on St. Luke’s Day, in October,1847. At the time, it was worshiping in a small building located at the corner of Hollins Street and what is now Arlington Street. In 1851, the land upon which our church now sits was donated to St. Luke’s, for the purpose of constructing a church building, by John Glenn and his wife, who were members of Old St. Paul’s. John Glenn was a judge on the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. He, and his family, owned a vast amount of real estate west and south of the City of Baltimore (some of that property became Glen Burnie). They also owned slaves. John Glenn himself owned a slave farm, Hilton, near Catonsville.

The first stained glass window just around the corner there is dedicated to the memory of Ann Jane Steuart, the wife of George H. Steuart. George Steuart was born into a family of slave owners. They were strong supporters of the institution of slavery. The family’s town residence was a substantial estate and mansion located in West Baltimore, called Maryland Square, just a few blocks west of here. George inherited both the family property- land and human – and the family’s attitudes.

George Steuart was an influential member of St. Luke’s Church, instrumental in its founding, both financially and personally. He was elected to the first Vestry in 1847, and re-elected thereafter until 1862. Minutes of the annual meeting of the congregation, held on April 21, 1862, at which members of the Vestry were elected, state, “The Rector alluded to the obligations which the Congregation were under to the Steuart family, especially to the late Mrs. Steuart, for their active effort, and the liberal contributions in the foundation and support of the church, and expressed the desire that the family should be represented in the meetings of the Vestry with more regularity than the state of health of General Steuart for some years past had permitted. He therefore suggested that the name of his son, Thomas E. Steuart, Esq., should be substituted for his.”

More than illness was involved in General Steuart’s absence. George Steuart was a supporter of the Confederacy. His oldest son (also George H. Steuart) had resigned from the United States Army and joined the Confederacy. Both George Sr. and George Jr. had made strenuous efforts to persuade Marylanders to succeed from the Union, and to use the state militia to prevent the occupation of the State by Union soldiers. But those efforts failed. Union officers occupied Baltimore in May 1861, and soon began arresting Confederate sympathizers. General Steuart fled to Charlottesville, Virginia. Maryland Square, the family mansion, was seized by the U.S. army and used to house troops. An army hospital was built on the grounds to care for Federal wounded. Meanwhile, Gen. Steuart, aged 71, was deemed too old for active service in the Confederate army. However, he spent much of his time following the army and was present at, or near to, a number of battles, including Gettysburg. Son George Jr. fought with the Confederacy until the end, and surrendered with Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Another son, William James, died from wounds received fighting for the Confederacy in the Battle for the Wilderness. The Vestry minutes tersely note condolence to Gen. Steuart upon the death of his son.

I suspect that the membership of St. Luke’s at this time reflected the general population of Baltimore – a combination of white slaveowners and those who did not own slaves, of white Union supporters and supporters of the Confederacy. The church records also show the presence and participation of African Americans, both free and enslaved, again reflecting the African American community in Baltimore.

The first baptism of an African American recorded in the St. Luke’s registry is that of Martha Ellen, child of Hezekiah and Hillary Primus, born August 26, 1846 and baptized June 26, 1847. The first death of an African American recorded in the St. Luke’s registry is also Martha Ellen. She died at ten months of age, and was buried on July 7, 1847, in a private burial ground belonging to the Stephenson’s. And that is all we know about her or her parents. What can we infer from this slim information? Can we infer that Hezekiah and Hillary Primus were slaves owned by the Stephenson family? Or that they were free African Americans who worked for the Stephensons? Some of the African Americans whose names are entered in the parish registry are identified as “servant of” someone, or “former servant” of someone. Mr. and Mrs. Primus are not so identified.

Also from the parish registry: Clara Butler, born in May, 1842, daughter of Isa and Angela Butler, was baptized March 11, 1860. Her sponsor is listed as Mr. D. Orleans. She was confirmed April 21, 1861, and here she is identified as the servant of D. Orleans. She was married to Richard Troupe at St. Luke’s Church at 6:30 p.m. on November 4, 1862, “Rev. Rankin and the Congregation present.” Who was this woman? The notation that she was married in the church with the Congregation present stands out as unusual. But what to make of? I don’t know.

The most explicit indication of African American ownership that I’ve located in the parish registry relates to Eliza Butler, who was baptized on May 20, 1861. Her parents are not named. Mr. and Mrs. Oliver are listed as her sponsors. A note says that Dr. Oliver is her owner.

The Rector of St. Luke’s, the Rev. Charles W. Rankin, took his obligation to minister to the African American communicants of his congregation seriously. In 1855, he organized a “servants’ class’ for their instruction. This grew into a “colored Sunday School that met at the church “three times every Lord’s Day, and had an enrollment of one hundred twenty scholars.” [I’m quoting from the church history written in 1947.] According to the church’s parochial report for 1864, the Sunday School continued to grow and at the beginning of the Civil War almost 300 persons were enrolled.

The diverse membership of St. Luke’s, both African American and white, raises the question of how they worshiped. This leads to what I think of as the enigma of the gallery on the west wall of the nave, below the rose window. The original design of the church specifically did not include a gallery. For financial reasons, the structure was built in two phases. The first phase of construction was completed in in 1853, and the congregation moved into the building from its location on Hollins Street. When, in 1857, the church was ready to proceed with the second phase of construction, a different architect was hired. This man, John W. Priest of New York City, proposed significant alterations to the original design of the church, including the placement of a “light gallery” across the west wall. The advantage would be threefold: it would relieve the blankness of the wall, it would provide space for a vestibule underneath that would allow for a double set of doors and help alleviate loss of heat in the winter, and it would “afford accommodation for colored persons,” the common practice in those days. Mr. Priest’s plans were approved, enlargement of the space proceeded, and the Rev. Rankin reported progress to the Vestry. When he reported that the gallery had been built, he noted that now “the blankness” of the west wall was relieved and there was now a vestibule. He did not say a word about accommodation for the “colored” worshipers of St. Luke’s. Why, I wonder?

One inference is that Rev. Rankin simply did not think it worthy of mention. But, where had the African American communicants of St. Luke’s been worshiping when there was no gallery? Certainly, they had not been sitting among the white congregation, and probably they had not been sitting at the back of the church, either. Having the African American communicants worship with the white communicants following the completion of a gallery would have been a significant change in the way things were done at St. Luke’s something that would have occasioned mention. My guess is that the African American congregants worshiped at one of the several services held on Sunday afternoon, and that the church did not see any reason to change this practice after a gallery was built.

I’ve gone on at some length here, and I apologize for that. To me, it seems that St. Luke’s was no different from the other Episcopal churches in Maryland that accepted, accommodated, and benefited from the sin of slavery without talking about it. But I want you to hear our church’s history, so that you can draw your own conclusions.

And this brings us back to where we started. What kind of community was Jesus envisioning when he said that his church would be built on a rock with the authority to bind and loose on earth as in heaven? I think that Barbara Brown Taylor gets it right. The church is a community that reminds us of who we are and what we are created for. Taylor says: “The church exists so that God has a place to point people toward a purpose as big as their capacities and to help them identify all they ways they flee from that high call. The church exists so that so that people have a community in which they may confess their sin … as well as a community that will support them to turn back again. The church exists so that people have a place where they may repent of their fear, their hardness of heart, their isolation and loss of vision, and where – having repented – they may be restored to fullness of life.”

And that is precisely what we here at St. Lukes, along with other churches in the Diocese of Maryland, are seeking as we honestly face up to and own the place of slavery in our past, confess it, repent it, and seek to make restitution for the wrong done. Our country’s history of slavery is the root from which the racial hatred now being expressed so openly and violently is rooted. White people must openly acknowledge and accept this. The church, confronting that evil honestly and fearlessly, offers another way, a way that leads to forgiveness, restoration, wholeness – a way of salvation.

Amen.

Sermon – September 3, 2017

Homily: Matthew 16:22-28, Exodus 3:1-5, Romans 12:9-21

Thursday afternoons I’m on grandpa duty with Fiona and Maja.

Hanging out with four and six year olds can really open these old jaded eyes to see things as they see them. They ask lots of questions about the things they see. Difficult questions!

We were down in Mt Vernon with some time to kill before their dad would fetch them. This crusty old homeless man who hit me up for some money would be a rare sight out in leafy Ellicott City. “Why did you give him money? Why don’t they have a house? How come somebody doesn’t bring him home with them?”

Hard questions I did my best to answer, but really I would rather to dodge this invitation to initiate my granddaughters to the cruelty of the world. And seeing the nearby Walters Gallery’s open doors, I thought maybe I’ll distract them with a little cultural exposure.

Out of the summer glare into the cool marble vestibule, we are first greeted by two large naked and amply endowed Greek gods. Fiona and Maja thought this was uproarious good fun and it took some work to settle them down. I herded them down the nearest passage into what turned out to be section of medieval art.

“What’s that? Why is he nailed up like that? Why would they do that to him?” Here was a 18’ painting of Jesus crucified writhing in agony and gore. So much for my attempt to distract and amuse and dodge difficult questions!

The dark side of humanity is so numbingly pervasive we stop really seeing it. We become cynical and hardened, accepting the injustice and cruelties of the status quo as “reality”.

We have heard this passage from Matthew’s gospel so many times we scarcely take in just how jarringly shocking are Jesus’ words: “deny self and take up a cross”, “lose your life to save it”. Imagine how shocking is a young child’s glance at a picture of a crucifixion. How can they bear the excruciating pain and cruelty of it all? Jesus’ listeners knew well what crucifixion entailed and it was no tame metaphor for accepting life’s troubles patiently; Rome made sure that subject peoples had frequent reminders of what was in store for those who challenge their brutal power.

So Jesus intimates to his disciples that he knows well his fate. Jesus stares without blinking into the heart of human darkness. Peter protests.

Can we blame him? We don’t want to know and see that maelstrom of human cruelty that will condemn the innocent Jesus, not just then and there, but again and again and again down through the centuries. With tediously predictable cruelty the wheels of history grind down and grind up the powerless, the scapegoat, the outcast – in every age, in every place.

Little Fiona and Maja can’t understand that we are content to let some people sleep on the streets. Their innocence challenges are unthinking disavowal or habitual looking the other way. How would we explain to them the terrifying ugliness of recent events in Charlottesville?

Peter wants Jesus to avoid the fate he predicts. He wants Jesus to want what Peter wants and what we all want: power, recognition, prestige and the security that he imagines comes with it. Who wants to be powerless and vulnerable? But scripture tells us over and over that God is with the vulnerable and powerless. Jesus tells us that our only hope is to desire God alone and God’s purposes for humanity.

We all shrink from knowing and seeing clearly this very evident human reality. We are all like Peter, and Jesus’s rebuke is sharp and clear. “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block! You are setting your mind not on the things of God, but the things of humans.” We don’t’ get it, and everything depends on our getting it. We sorely need an upgrade on our consciousness. We need to see things as God sees them. Indeed as Jesus reminds us – we would do well to see things as young children do.

Today we hear of Moses tending his sheep in Midian – Moses doing his own thing, far away from all that unpleasantness in Egypt, far away from his own people, forgetting their enslavement and their oppression, not knowing, not seeing their terrible suffering.

Almost a distraction in his peripheral vision he sees a strange sight, a bush burning and not burning. That’s curious?!?

Moses hardly expects to encounter the living God in that bush.

But God is there and God makes it clear that he is God and a God who is very much aligned with humanity and history. This is not a metaphysical god, but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is the God who hears the cries of powerless enslaved people being ground down. The flaming heart of God is joined to his suffering people.

And God has a big job for our reluctant recalcitrant friend Moses, work Moses would rather not do, a job he would much prefer to pass up. Like most of us most of the time, Moses would prefer to stay with his sheep, and stay fat, dumb and happy in our illusory routines. That’s not God’s way. God wants our eyes, minds and hearts open, alive and responsive to the painful realities of this broken world. Human suffering is God’s suffering and must truly be our own.

There are times when we gets a glimpse of what humanity can be, what human beings were meant to be, and in God’s good time will be.

All week TV’s glared with images of terrible flooding in Texas, thousands of poor people stranded in attics and rooftops seeking refuge from rising waters. But also witness the other side of our flawed humanity. Contrasted with the ugly tribalism of Charlottesville, there is the unselfconscious generosity, the self-emptying heroism of ordinary decent people coming to help their fellow humans in terrible circumstances. Thousands of people arriving with boats and trucks to help rescue stranded folks, ordinary people of modest means taking time off, and sacrificing freely their resources to help other humans in trouble, and making no distinction of race or ethnicity or creed or class. That is taking up the cross –loving as God loves, embracing the poor and dispossessed because ultimately we are all in the same boat, and we are all brothers and sisters and children of the same God.

Echoing the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, St. Paul says, “rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Bless those who persecute you… rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

The great paradox is that the more human we become the more like God we become.

Theologian Walter Wink wrote: “And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN… It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness – which is to say, we are capable of becoming human. (Walter Wink, Just Jesus, My Struggle to be Human, p.102)

May it be so. Amen.

Sermon – August 13, 2017

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (August 13, 2017)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess
Readings: Gen. 37:1-4. 12-28; Ps. 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Rom. 10:5-15; Matt. 14:22-33

This past week, and especially over the last twenty-four hours, my thoughts have frequently returned to a conversation that President Obama shared with the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson near the end of his final term in office. The conversation took place in Des Moines, Iowa and was later published in the New York Review of Books.[1] It seemed like a radical idea then: the leader of the free world taking time out of his busy schedule to sit down with a celebrated author to reflect on race, democracy, and the state of our republic. It seems even more radical now. Both President Obama and Robinson were astutely aware that sometimes having such conversations is one of the most important things we can do, especially in the face of the challenges that presently confront us.

Obama had been a fan of Robinson’s novels, especially her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Gilead. But what had recently caught his eye was a new essay she had written. It was called, “Fear.” In it, she writes: “There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”[2]

For Robinson, the signs of America’s fearfulness are not hard to find. They are there in our gun culture, our anxieties about terrorism, our fear of immigrants, our race relations, our obsessions about our declining stature in the world, and the pervasive conviction that our safety at home is only as secure as the next military venture abroad. Obama picks up the point: “[T]here’s been that strain in our democracy and in American politics for a long time… I think the argument right now would be that because people are feeling the stresses of globalization and rapid change, and we went through one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, and the political system seems gridlocked, that people may be particularly receptive to that brand of politics.” Robinson underscores the perils of this resurgent outlook: “I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people… But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seems as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with.” This is when people stop talking and start shouting.

In her essay, Robinson admits, “There are always real dangers in the world, sufficient to their day.” For many in our country, fear is a real, warranted, and everyday experience. But legitimate fear and fearfulness are two different things. “Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere. It is clear enough, to an objective observer at least, with whom one would choose to share a crisis, whose judgment be trusted when sound judgment is most needed.” “Granting the perils of the world,” she continues, “it is potentially a very costly indulgence to fear indiscriminately, and to try to stimulate fear in others, just for the excitement of it, or because to do so channels anxiety or loneliness or prejudice or resentment into an emotion that can seem to those who indulge it like shrewdness or courage or patriotism.”

This brings Obama and Robinson to the second part of her thesis: fear is not a Christian habit of mind. Christians, Robinson points out, pray, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” “Christ,” she affirms, “is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved… As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls.” Yet both Obama and Robinson pause over the fact that it is often Christians who are the ones losing their souls, the ones most prone to fear a loss of their material condition, and thus the ones most prone to stoke a fear of the other who might take it away from them. Obama asks Robinson, “How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy, and our civil discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?” Robinson responds, “Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk… I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves, and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously.” “Christianity,” she concludes, “is profoundly counterintuitive—‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.”

This morning’s Gospel passage does not hide the fact that Christian disciples are prone to fear, and it has something to say about the particular kind of fear to which they are especially vulnerable. Jesus has just finished feeding the five thousand when he sends the disciples on a boat across the Sea of Galilee; meanwhile, he retreats to pray on a nearby mountain (14:23). In the evening, a storm comes and tosses the boat about the waves. Strikingly, the passage says nothing about fear at this point. If the disciples are not fearful, they should be. It is a fierce storm and their lives are endangered. Yet it is only in the early morning, when a mysterious apparition appears on the water that the disciples become “terrified,” mistaking Jesus for a ghost (14:26). Notice the difference between real and indiscriminate fear. What they should fear they don’t, and what they do fear they shouldn’t. Their fear is based upon a profound, and tragic, misapprehension. Here is the one they have been journeying with the entire time, the fulfillment of their every desire, yet they don’t recognize him. Worse, they take him for something to be feared, something shunned, rejected, turned away from. They fear what they most desperately need.

This, of course, is not the only time that the disciples mistake the identity of Jesus. On the road to Emmaus, the disciples walk with Jesus discussing all the details of the crucifixion and resurrection, completely unaware that the one with whom they are walking is Jesus himself (Lk. 24:13-35). They think Jesus doesn’t want to be bothered with children, and they are firmly rebuked (Matt. 19:13-14); they think he shouldn’t suffer, and Jesus declares, “Get behind me, Satan” (16:21-23). Jesus says that in the last judgment, when the righteous come to the throne of his glory, he will say, “Depart from me… for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (25:42-43). The surprise of the Gospel is that Jesus is constantly appearing in the guise of the stranger, upending our expectations, throwing out our assumptions, calling us, pushing us, compelling us beyond the boundaries that we have set for ourselves, into new relationships, new constellations, new possibilities. That is the good news of the Gospel: that what is strange and what initially might seem off-putting or even worthy of fear is in fact what we most want, what we most need, the basis of redemption, the continuation of our perfection.

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (14:27). Those are Jesus’ words of assurance to his fearful disciples in the boat. There is nothing to be afraid of here. On the contrary, he is saying, “I’m here to help you through the storm. I’m here to help calm the wind. Step out of your indiscriminate fear and walk with me.” In this story, it is always the miracle of walking on water that gets our attention, but for me, the real miracle here is that for a moment, Peter actually overcomes his fear. It may only be for a moment, but there he is, not perhaps ready to walk with Jesus, but at least ready to sink for him. And I sometimes wonder if that is all Jesus wants from us: not to walk on water, but to get over our fear of sinking, though sink we may and sink we will. Indeed, maybe getting ourselves wet is what we need; deep down, maybe that is what we really want. It is what Jesus wants for us, and he does not want us to be afraid of it.

In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul quotes from Isaiah, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame” (10:11, quoting Isa. 28:16). That is the promise of those who are willing to risk everything they have to encounter Jesus wherever he will lead them, in whatever guise he assumes. In him, there is no distinction between Jew or Greek (10:12). Those familiar boundaries, those bearings that limit our interactions with one another, are no longer the map or compass for our feet. Jesus is leading us into wonderfully new alliances and partnerships, possibilities that we would have dreamed of like Joseph if we had not the fear of his brothers. Paul says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (10:13, echoing Joel 2:32), and that is what Peter does in his fear: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (14:28). And Jesus says, “Come.” Just stepping out of the boat, venturing the possibility that what we indiscriminately fear may be what we need, is what discipleship with Jesus is all about.

We are no doubt living through a storm. It feels like the wind is against us. There is a real risk that in these uncertain times we might lose our souls. God knows we have lost them before. I think the loss of one’s soul is something worth fearing. And so I think we should be very alarmed by what we are seeing in this country, by what transpired yesterday in Charlottesville, and what is happening in many other cities and towns. This is a storm worth fearing. But in the midst of this storm, we must also look out into the stormy waves and try to recognize and hear the call of Jesus, considering how Jesus may be calling us to weigh our fears, to examine our habits of thought, to re-assess our identities and privileges, and discern among our fears which may in fact be gifts, invitations to step into new waters, to step outside the existing limits we have set for ourselves.

This is a season in which we have the opportunity to re-assess the legacy of the past, and the particular the damage that racism has done in our country. It is a season in which we have the opportunity to revisit the meaning of historical events and figures, and challenge old myths that have survived too long. For white Christians such as myself, it is a time to confess and repent for our continued complicity in systems of oppression. It is a time for prophetic outrage, for denouncing resurgent forms of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hate. As Christians, we have the opportunity to challenge the very fear of addressing these issues, asking these questions, and saying these things. We have the opportunity to model what frank and honest conversations can look like, and in doing so, we have the opportunity to model the sound judgment and peace that Jesus brings to each of us as the author of our salvation, the one calling us from the deep into new identities, into a new memory of the past, a new experience of the present, and a new dream for the future. Let us not fear that call. Let us help each other embrace it. Amen.

  1. The conversation took place on September 14, 2015. It was published in two parts in The New York Review of Books, Nov. 5 and 19.
  2. Marilynne Robinson, “Fear,” published in The Givenness of Things (New York: Farrar, Straus andGiroux, 2015), 124-140.

Sermon – July 16, 2017

Homily
Sunday, July 15, 2017
John M Hayes

Homily: Isaiah 55:10-13,Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9,18-23 (Parable of Sower and Seed)

We’ve heard Jesus’ parables many, many times. They are comforting and familiar, maybe sometimes numbingly so. We might nod with recognition, oh yes this one again. But if we do, we are only hearing the parable at the surface level. If we try to penetrate its meaning, we find ourselves coming to the limits of our ordinary understanding and we find our reassuring familiarity crumbles. This is what the parable intends, to break open our ordinary way of seeing and break through to a new consciousness.

When in our ordinary mind we hear this parable of the sower and the seed, we set to thinking that we want to be the fertile good soil. We might want to do a little weeding of sin, a little more attention to prayer, but we can certainly be good soil with a little effort. Our ego mind so quickly thinks in terms of control and self-improvement.

No one wants to be shallow and rocky soil, or choked with thorny weeds, and unable to sustain life. Shallow, rocky soil cannot hold water and it cannot yield to the seed’s germination. The thorny weeds are the world, the flesh and the devil, the forces of evil that overtake our lives and crowd out life and wisdom. No one certainly wants to be the hard path that everyone walks all over and even the birds take advantage of.

The truth is that all of us are all of these simultaneously all the time. As surely as we have parts of ourselves that manage to be good soil, there are places in us that are hard and resistant to the seed of God’s word, defeating the work of God’s spirit within. There are unconverted parts of ourselves attached to our secret or not-so-secret idolatries.

The point of the story isn’t that we need to shape up and become nothing but good soil. That would be fine if it was possible, but we all know better. As much as we struggle with ourselves, we all know sin has a hold on us and the good we want to do we do not do. That’s the fallen human condition.

Don’t be discouraged. This is the parable of the sower and the seed. Its not about us. This is not the parable of the dirt.

Out of God’s bottomless seed bag of extravagant senseless love, the seed just keeps coming at us. It will keep coming for all eternity. God is never stingy with his seed. God showers us with seed, all of us, all the way down, the good, the bad and the ugly parts of us. God doesn’t go away in disgust. God doesn’t keep his seed for just the worthy.

The seed is God’s word that germinates, breaks open and takes root and flowers. The word of God is God’s own self, the seed of Christ sown in the human heart. As Isaiah has it: “…so shall my word be that does out from my mouth, it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose”.

God works on us from the outside and the inside.

There are parts of us that can receive the seed. Good soil we might remember is not inert dead stuff, but very much teeming with invisible microorganisms and bacteria that break down what is dead and decayed and transforms it into soil that receives seed and bears new life. We cannot make ourselves into good soil, but God can.

The Spirit of God works within us in just that way. Breaking down what is dead, breaking down what is hard and resistant, making fertile what was wasteland. In the reading from Romans we hear: “for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death…He who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit that dwells in you”.

We should note that the abundance of the seed and the extravagance of the sower are matched by what God can accomplish in the human heart. Jesus says, ‘as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty”. If the seed is God’s word, indeed God’s very person, then what grows from that seed is God’s very life, God’s life for the life of this broken wicked world that God loves and tirelessly redeems.

May we all bear God’s seed in our hearts and God’s life for the world.

Sermon – July 9, 2017

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (July 9, 2017)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess

Readings: Zech 9:9-12; Ps. 145:8-15; Rom. 7:15-25a; Matt. 11:16-19, 25-30

In the climactic scene of his Confessions, the fourth century bishop and theologian St. Augustine finds himself alone in a garden. It’s not a mountaintop, but it may as well be, as it has taken him a long, arduous journey to get here. As a child, he resisted the entreaties of his devout mother, and spent much of his youth carousing with friends and enjoying various forbidden pleasures. His brilliance won him early academic fame, yet the philosophical fads of the time failed to satisfy his restless mind. It was the unlikely combination of eloquence and wisdom that he found in the great bishop of Milan, Ambrose, that prompted Augustine to reconsider Christianity, and he came to the conclusion that it offered the most compelling worldview, providing answers to his deepest questions about the origins of the universe and the nature of evil. But he still could not bring himself to make the decisive move. He could not will himself to believe.

Things come to a head in the garden. What is stopping him from crossing over? The conflict is not so much in his head as in his heart. He feels torn between the new desire welling up within him for the life of faith, and all the old desires that he could once indulge without thought but are now rapidly fading from view. Augustine is badgered by voices: “Do you imagine you will be able to live without these things?” (8.11.26). The problem, as Augustine comes to articulate it, is located in his will. It’s not the familiar tension between mind and body, where the body refuses to obey the mind’s commands; no, his body stands at attention, prepared to receive its orders. The problem is that he is caught between two wills, one leaping forward towards a new future, the other dragged from behind by the past, and he stands in the middle of them, paralyzed, unable to move, unable to mediate between them, unable to believe.

Augustine discovers that willing something and being able to do it are two different things. The distinction is subtle, but something confirmed by a variety of everyday experiences. Think of the time you wanted to move your leg but couldn’t because it was in a cast; when you wanted to see what was stirring in the corner of the room but couldn’t because the electricity had gone out; or when you wanted to drive home but couldn’t because your car was out of gas. In each of these situations there is some limiting factor that prevents you from doing what you want to do. Often times what prevents us from doing what we want lies outside ourselves; in some cases, it might be a weather condition or in other cases, a person or some societal injustice deprives us of the freedom to do what we want. In the garden, Augustine is wrestling with another kind of constraint, one that is not external, but internal, imposed not from without, but from within, a product of many years of acting in particular ways. He is wrestling with the force of sin, which manifests itself in the form of habit. What may have started as an experiment has become a way of life, a set of patterns that not only constrains his body, but also his desires. Now as he feels a new desire stirring within himself, he finds that he cannot act upon it, but immediately feels his old habits pushing up against, resisting, and negating it. It is one will against another, and given the internal resistance, he is unable to will one thing singly and wholeheartedly. He’s torn between the will to believe and the will not to believe. Here the difference between willing something and being able to do it is felt in the will itself. The thing standing between him and belief is himself.

The scene reads like an extended commentary on this morning’s epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Note how Paul draws attention to the same basic distinction between willing and being able to do what we will: “I can will what is right,” he writes, “but I cannot do it” (7:18). Paul, the convert to the Jesus movement, is further along than Augustine in the garden. He is struggling not so much with the will to believe, but the will to do right in the course of one’s faith journey. It’s a struggle that may resonate more deeply with many of us here, and one no less intense than Augustine’s. Somewhere between willing what is right and actually doing it, there is a gap, a breakdown. Like Augustine, Paul is not struggling with external constraints, although he could easily point to religious persecution as a hindrance to belief. For him, the relevant constraints are within. He says that while his “inmost self” (7:22) delights in the law of the Lord, there is also the “sin that dwells within [him]” (7:17), which operates like a law of necessity, pulling him in a direction he does not want to go. So antithetical is this impulse to the desire he feels for God, he says he does not even feel like the agent of his sins. As he puts it, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me” (7:20). It is like the external Paul, whom we know through his actions, is a different person from the internal Paul, whom we know through his will. One follows the law of sin, the other the law of God; one constrains his members, making his body feel like a prison, the other stirs a desire for what is right, making him feel free.

While some of their language is different, both Augustine and Paul land in basically the same place: they are unable to do what they will. Some may leave these accounts feeling skeptical: if we don’t do what we will, then we never willed it to begin with, right? As it says, “You shall know them by their fruits.” Maybe the will is an invention of our minds, designed to excuse our actual behavior through an appeal to an inner realm where things allegedly stand different. None of us enjoy hearing from the person who has offended us, “I didn’t really mean it.” Sometimes willing and doing are the same.

But sometimes they are not. The last thing Augustine and Paul are trying to do is excuse their behavior. Their behavior is precisely what disturbs them, and they are trying to get to the bottom of it. In pointing to the possibility of a gap between what we want and what we do, they are showing us something of the depths of the human being and how complex we really are. Whitman was right: we contain multitudes. We will not one thing, but multiple things, all the time. We experience various and conflicting loves, impulses, appetites, and passions. We feel pushed in one direction, and then another, and then another. That is who we are. Yet if this were not enough to handle, we complicate things by denying this is the case. We deny that it’s a struggle to do what’s right. We tell each other that all is fine inside. Worse, we try to convince ourselves of the same thing.

What’s striking about Paul and Augustine is how honest they are about the fact that they are so internally divided. They may exhibit other pathologies, but denial is not one of them. Paul comes right out and says it: “I do not understand my own actions!” (7:14). Augustine puts it no less emphatically: “Within the house of my spirit the violent conflict raged on” (8.8.19). As intense as this struggle is, it’s easy to forget that to get to the point of feeling and acknowledging such a struggle is itself a sign of enormous spiritual growth. Note that Augustine only experiences the intensity of the internal struggle near the end of his book, at the conclusion of his journey. He has gone most of his life unburdened by his sins and unwilling to change; it’s only after considerable intellectual growth and exposure to compelling models of moral excellence that he begins to find new desires stirring within. Paul, too, did not have any second thoughts when he was persecuting the church; it’s only after his conversion that he begins to feel the internal tension.

On this point, ethicists like to speak of the difference between two kinds of vice: one they call intemperance and the other incontinence. Intemperance is when the passions overwhelm us to the point that we experience no opposition or reflection. We are simply unconscious slaves to sin, asleep at the wheel. For those suffering from the vice of incontinence, the problem is slightly different. They know the good and actually want it, but they feel held back by the weight of past decisions. While they cannot overcome the temptation to sin and eventually yield, they at least have a conscience. Paul and Augustine are both narrating different forms of incontinence. It’s not where they want to be. But that they have gotten past intemperance is saying something. They are conscious. They are awake. They are no longer in denial. That’s further than a lot of people get.

Still, experiencing this internal struggle is no fun, and it stands in marked contrast to what Jesus says in this morning’s Gospel lesson. “Come to me, all of you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Rest is the exact thing Augustine and Paul do not have, but it is what Jesus promises. How can this be? Jesus does not say that belief will be free of any challenge. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” he says (11:29). Jesus is clear that it is a yoke that his disciples are being asked to harness. Elsewhere he frames it even stronger terms, challenging his disciples to take up their cross and follow him (see Matt. 10:38). The gate, as we know, is narrow and the road hard that leads to life (7:14). But Jesus goes on to say, “my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (11:30). Therein lies the paradox of faith: it is yoke, but an easy one, a burden, yet a light one.

Paul and Augustine have made dramatically clear in what the yoke and burden consists: brutal honesty about how things really stand with us, the pathos of unfulfilled longing, the impotence of willing but not being able to do. As the first part of the Gospel reading shows us, Jesus’ message is a yoke and a burden to sinners, as he criticizes the present generation for not responding to his call for repentance. “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn” (11:17). Jesus says “woe” to those who do not hear the message of judgment and repentance. So he brings a yoke. The law he fulfills and holds before us is a burden. We are constantly reminded of how far we fall short of it. But this very awareness of sin also has the strange quality of a liberation. “If it had not been for the law,” Paul says, “I would not know sin” (Rom. 7:7). We can now face reality. We can now tell the truth about ourselves. We can stop telling myths about ourselves. We can put a stop to the denial. It’s an opportunity to step into the light, and if at first the light feels unbearable, by it we will shortly begin to see.

If facing the truth about ourselves entails struggle, it is not a struggle we bear alone. Jesus chooses his images carefully. The image of the yoke is one of his most carefully chosen. A yoke is a harness shared by two oxen that multiplies their power to the extent that it lessens the burden each bears. Jesus gives us his yoke, and he bears it beside us, making an unbearable load light. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul asks. He knows the answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (24-25). Jesus is carrying the load beside us, tilling the ground of our sin, laying the seed of our redemption, preparing the harvest of our perfection.

The real wonder is the discovery that God has been doing this long before we become aware of it. I hate to spoil things, but in that climatic scene that I mentioned from the Confessions, Augustine does finally convert. The details are the stuff of legend. Just as Augustine is at his wit’s end, literally pulling out his hair because he cannot overcome his divided will, a mysterious vision of Lady Continence appears, the beauty of which causes him to weep uncontrollably. He then hears something even more mysterious, the voice of a young child singing, “Pick it up and read, pick it up and read” (8.12.29). Augustine picks up his Bible and opens to Romans, where it says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of your desires” (13:14). Instantly, he is converted.

Most commentators take the child’s voice to be a symbol for grace: when we reach the end of our capacities, God takes over, lifting the obstacles that constrain our will, and freeing us to love Him with singleness and purity of heart. Yet the Confessions is not about a dramatic conversion story. It is the story of how Augustine becomes aware of God’s presence throughout the whole of his life. The real drama comes in the operation of Augustine’s memory, in the joy that accompanies the discovery of God’s intimate movement at every point of his life: his birth, his education, his promiscuous adolescence, his loves, his losses, his philosophical searching, and yes, all those wrenching, internal struggles. “You were ever present to me,” Augustine writes, “mercifully angry, sprinkling very bitter disappointments over all my unlawful pleasures, so that I might seek a pleasure free from all disappointment” (2.3.4). Later, reflecting upon a decisive encounter, he puts it this way, “Unknowingly I was led by you to him, so that through him I might be led, knowingly, to you” (5.13.24). What was so unbearable as he went through it is revealed as fantastically light and joyous when he discovers that God was present through all of it. Even the darkest moments take on infinite value when, through the work of memory, God waits to meet us there.

The memory of sin, whether in the form of habit or shame, is what holds most of us back, preventing us from walking into the new life that Christ offers us. What if sin itself, the struggle we feel within ourselves between willing the good and actually doing it—what if that very struggle was revealed as a manifestation of grace? As a sign that we have already been touched, that God is already more intimately present to us than our own inmost self (3.6.11)? What if our every remembered heartache were an entry point through which we were able to know and experience God, and what if every present struggle was already an experience of the God whose yoke is easy and burden light? What if sin was not an end but a beginning?

“Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee,” says Augustine. And God says to us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Amen.