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.