Friday, February 03, 2017

On Blessing: Beatitudes, Knowledge, and Power

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek…" (Matt 5:3-5)

(Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune)

I don’t know really what these words mean. It’s OK, neither do you.

I mean that fairly seriously, if not completely. Being technicians of knowledge as those of us involved in theological education tend to be, we are always trying to work out what things mean, and how to use them. What’s the point of hearing the word if it doesn’t preach, or if you don’t know what to do about it, or if it doesn’t at least helps us to be right about things? Well - sometimes not knowing what it means or what to do about it or what is right might be more the point than we want to accept.

Blessing is not available for manipulation. The Beatitudes are not a manual for right living, or (sorry) for social activism; they are not anybody’s technique for anything. You can’t read them and then say “this means I have to do x or y” and then imagine you have got it.

Micah’s impassioned plea in the first lesson is one of our favorite social justice snippets, and risks becoming too familiar to actually be heard; it also concerns the difference between thinking of religion as technology, and as transformation. “With what shall I come before the Lord?” - what is the right answer, what do I need to know, shall I do this, shall I do that? The suggestions are technical, ranging from the obvious to the extreme. The famous answer is of course practical - “do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God" (6:8) but actually deeply counterintuitive too; it is not, as so often assumed or argued, the substitution of ethics for religion; it is the substitution of transformation for technology.

The Beatitudes are also not a division of humanity according to who is right. There are things around us that certainly demand discernment of what is right and support for what is right, and condemnation of what is wrong, but this is not that, not quite. There is a great spiritual risk for us at present, an obvious one, that we fail to respond to evil and normalize it as the temperature of wrongdoing rises as for that proverbial frog in the warming pot.

Yet in fact the greater spiritual risk for us, aside from ignoring injustice itself, may be far less obvious; namely that we will be right all the time as we oppose what is wrong, and that being right risks becoming a protection for us, a defense not only, or not so much, against wrong but against whatever transformation we are being called to in the present. But we are not called to be right, we are called to be transformed.

No, we don’t know what this means. But we know it when we see it.

In a big week or two of images, my favorite was the two dads with kids on ther shoulders at O’Hare airport, a little boy in kippah, a little girl in hijab, with their signs affirming love and opposing hate. I don’t care so much that they were right (they were right), as that they were there, and not so much that they were there but that they met, and were blessed hungering and thirsting for righteousness.

This is the difference between religious technology and blessing. Blessing is mysterious and transformative. A beatitude speaks it into being, but cannot define it so we could grasp and use it.

Blessing isn't about what other people are or do; it’s not about what you know; it’s about who you are. Blessing means that, like Paul’s loving dig at the opinionated Corinthians (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31), that it is grace that gets us here rather than knowledge or power as usually conceived. Blessing hints at the fact that the structure of reality is the one shown by a cross and a resurrection, and where our notions of power and knowledge get reversed.

So no, I don’t know what these beatitudes means, but I know I need this blessing. And so do you.

[From a sermon given at the Berkeley Divinity School Community Eucharist, Marquand Chapel, Feb 1 2017; proper for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany]

Friday, January 06, 2017

Twelfth Night: The Manger and the Cross

S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna
[Sermon on the Eve of the Epiphany at the Chapel of the Cross, Chapel Hill, NC, with the Renewal of Ministry including the Installation of Elizabeth Marie Melchionna ('06) as Rector.]

Merry Christmas! I hope Christmas has been good for you, all twelve days, and here we are on Twelfth Night, the Eve of the Epiphany - so for the last time, Merry Christmas, and for the first, Happy Epiphany. This is a time between times, a hinge time as it were, and not just in our Church year but in our civil year as it starts and not least in the life of this parish as you welcome a new Rector.

W. H. Auden’s poem Christmas Oratorio includes a word picture of this time of transition:

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes --
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week --
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully --
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. …
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off.

Auden evokes a familiar wistfulness and fatigue as the feast winds down; but at the end of that passage a more sobering note, that “unpleasant whiff of apprehension," is struck.

If there is always some moment of pause as Christmas draws to a close, this particular year we are starting together, and that you will face as a parish community with your new Rector, is not shaping up to be an easy one. The earth itself shakes under our unwieldy footsteps, and even climate witnesses to our arrogance or at least our lack of foresight. Acts of terror around the world, that add perversity to violence by being committed in the name of faith, seem to be worsening. Closer to home, many are wondering what standards or ethics will be shaping both executive and legislative leadership for this country this year and beyond, and how fragile our diversity may prove to be when voices of exclusion are given oxygen by political climate change.

Let’s put it this way - if we had to organize Christmas here next year, we might find ourselves in trouble. Shepherds are low-paid service workers, and might well be undocumented - we will have to hope that they haven’t been deported by then. The Magi, our Epiphany companions, are of rather higher status but are foreigners and their visa applications will have been thrown into doubt by our new policy of hiring only Americans; for that matter they actually come from Iran, so all deals involving Gold are off, even if Frankincense and Myrrh might slip through.

You may or may not see the signs of the times in quite these terms, and bless you in either case. But each year brings realities that map onto the universal truths of human need and brokenness, and speak of the need for hope in troubled times. For this the child came once and was manifest to the nations; now again we must seek his presence and make him known.

So for now Christmas goes, but Epiphany comes - this time when what Christmas had begun "how silently, how silently” now grows, and in this crescendo our holiday fatigue gives way to Gospel glory. For while Christmas began with a word that God spoke privately by an angel to a fearful woman, and continued as a rumor in the obscure fields and back alleys of Bethlehem, beyond the probing eye of kings and away from the curiosity of crowds, the time has now come for what was once told in whispers, or shared among unlikely poor folk lacking in influence, to be manifest to the world.

What is manifest is however no simple thing. There are still tidings of comfort and joy, but they come in a form none of us would have chosen, if those were the only criteria. That “whiff of apprehension” of which Auden spoke concerns the fact that the one born in poverty and under occupation will not only live among us with love we have not otherwise known and can barely imagine, but that the consequence of this will be that "Good Friday...cannot, after all, now Be very far off.” The wood of the manger will become the wood of the Cross. Or as the Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe put it, "if you don’t love, you’re dead; and if you do, they’ll kill you."

Another poet, T. S. Eliot, pondered this strange connection in another famous Epiphany poem, Journey of the Magi, where one of the wandering sages reminisces:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

And this, we insist, is good news to proclaim, and the true way for our own journey; that this God-with-us is manifest not only to mysterious travelers, not just at his baptism, not just at his Transfiguration, but in his abandonment and his desolation and his death.

These are not things we seek, or should seek. But these mean that his presence and his love is manifest, not only in our moments of feasting and festivity, but in our deepest needs and in the hardest places: in Aleppo and in Istanbul, in our toughest neighborhoods, and on both sides of any walls, conceptual or literal, that are built to separate what and whom he would hold together. For in manifesting the triumph of God’s life over death, he allows hope to be manifest to our eyes even in these places, and calls us to them, like the Magi, to bring our gifts and worship him there, there, there - and here. You cannot worship him at the manger if you will not worship him in these crosses that the world continues to manifest.

And in this Renewal of Ministry tonight at this Chapel of the Cross, what is manifest in the world of him is unquestionably what you all this evening, along with Elizabeth Marie your Rector, are affirming your willingness to seek, to embody, to proclaim, privately and publicly, in workplace and home and public square, as well as in Church.

Your ministry here - yours Elizabeth Marie, and all of yours sisters and brothers - is needed, not just because we have religious urges, or because we enjoy dignified worship, or because it’s good to have a moral compass in life, or helpful to have a community, even if those things are all true. We need your ministry here for the same reason we needed the Word to become flesh and to reveal his glory - to manifest the profound, the unimaginable depths of the love of God for a world which is broken. You may at certain times overestimate your powers, or occasionally lose your appetite for all this - but the one who has called you is faithful and loving beyond our imaginings; come, let us do him homage.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


Vaux Passional (c.1500).
National Library of Wales
[Sermon preached at Christ Church, New Haven, Advent 4, December 18 2016]

The streets and the airwaves alike are now full of the virtues and themes of the season: comfort and joy, warmth and goodness, peace and love, death and judgement, death and hell. Oh wait…

Some of you may recall that in fact it was traditional to preach the “Four Last things” - death, judgement, heaven, and hell - on the four Sundays of Advent, which means we would indeed be up the last, and worst, and above all least “Christmassy” of all theological topics imaginable. But what was the last time you heard a sermon about Hell in The Episcopal Church? Strap yourselves in.

Peter Carey’s 1981 novel Bliss is the story of a man named Harry Joy, who seems to have a happy life. Harry has a loving spouse and two dutiful children, and a thriving advertising business that keeps them prosperous. Then Harry dies. Or at least he has a near-death experience - a massive heart attack while mowing the lawn leaves his consciousness floating above his body, watching as a hastily-summoned doctor first thumps his chest, and then attaches wires. Before the shock drags him back, Harry, we are told, “recognized the worlds of pleasures and worlds of pain, bliss and punishment, Heaven and Hell.” (Bliss, 12).

On revival from clinical death, Harry finds the shape of life is familiar, but its character is not. His wife and his business partner are having an affair. His daughter is a terrorist prostituting herself, and his son is a drug dealer. His advertising agency is promoting companies that pump out carcinogens. One thing only is possible, he believes; when he died, Harry had gone to Hell.

In fact, the reader can tell if he cannot, that Harry Joy simply discovered things that had always been the case; hell was already there, but had not been visible to him.

It is clearer in scripture that heaven actually does lie close at hand, something we experience now and not just in God’s future or as our ultimate destiny; Jesus says, for instance, that “the kingdom of God in in your midst” (Luke 17:21) or that “whoever believes in [him] has eternal life” (see John 5:24 etc.) But this may be as true of hell as of heaven. Hell, after all, is the realm of sin and death. When our lives are lived according to their logic, whether by our own choices or those of others, we are already in hell.

It may be that we need to understand, as Harry Joy came to understand, that what we may take for heaven - or at least for normality - actually is hell; that we need to be released from a bondage to the power of death so profound that we cannot even see how much we and the world need deliverance from it.

Hell is not a popular idea for Christians of a particular stripe - perhaps that means many of us - whose steadfast belief in a God of love seems to preclude the awful horrors dreamed up in Dante or even just in the Revelation to John - lakes of fire and demonic tortures and such.

There are problems with such imaginings indeed, but the world we now live in has horrors just as repellent. Hell has already planted its standard on the earth just as heaven has: ask the people of Aleppo these recent months, or those who sat through the trial of Dylan Roof this past week, or those who experienced the bombings in Cairo or Istanbul last week; and hell reigns much closer to home as well, in every act of violence and terror, every inaction driven by contempt and indifference. For hell among us is not just the spectacular, but includes the banal also.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury once said in an interview “My concept of hell, I suppose, is being stuck with myself for ever and with no way out. Whether anybody ever gets to that point I have no idea. But that it’s possible to be stuck with my selfish little ego for all eternity, that’s what I would regard as hell.” This more personal view is not dissonant with the hellish realities of war and politics; for violence and terror are the expression of that selfish ego, its infliction of itself writ large in the rejection of charity and justice. And while Bishop Rowan rightly expresses caution about what population if any hell has, the hellish realities we can see provide dread witness to what God may allow us to choose for ourselves, now and in eternity.

Today we do begin to glance across the wearying territory of Advent expectation to the land of Christmas promise fulfilled, in these familiar and hopeful readings of God with us, Immanuel, a wondrous child. Yet these are not unambiguous tidings of comfort and joy. Isaiah’s promise of a child - perhaps originally a new Judean prince, whose birth would offer reassurance of God’s faithfulness to the embattled house of David - is made in a time of warfare between Jerusalem and its near neighbors, and is a sign of judgement as well as of hope: "before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

Christians have long read Isaiah as speaking not only of whatever event relevant to seventh century BCE politics, but of Jesus and to his coming. The promise of the child is a sign of God’s faithfulness, but also of necessity a sign of deliverance from the power of evil - from hell.

We do not need this child’s coming to add atmosphere to the holiday season, or because there is still a space on life's tree for one more ornament. We need the child because we live in hell - in the power of sin and death - and he promises to deliver us. In coming to earth, in his life, death and resurrection, he will not only “refuse the evil and choose the good” but face the power of hell, storm its stronghold, and free from its prison those who know they need God’s victory.

He calls us to come out of hell - out from our false heavens, our illusions of security and self-satisfaction. Hell’s power is false and its days are numbered. A child is coming, Immanuel, God with us. And if God is with us, who can be against us?