This should come as a surprise to no one, but I really like liturgy. In fact, the Anglican tradition’s rich, sensual liturgical life is what beckoned me into the peculiar and frequently bewildering relationship that eventually brought me here to SSJE. That is, the peculiar and bewildering relationship with Jesus Christ.
And so it should also not surprise anyone that this morning’s reading from Isaiah has from time to time arrested me—particularly as I have almost always encountered it within the context of Christian liturgical action—that is, corporate worship.
It is easy to get lost these days, and in many ways all of us are lost. We are lost in fear, worry, concern, and anxiety. We are lost in sorry, sadness, and anger. We are afraid of the future and worried about the present. We are concerned about those we love, and anxious about ourselves.
All of these are normal and natural feelings, and I do not for a minute want to suggest that there is something wrong with you because you feel one or other, or all, or more of these things. Finding ourselves still in the midst of a pandemic after more than two years, watching the news from Buffalo, and Uvalde, and seeing our leaders incapable of doing anything that looks remotely like gun reform legislation is enough to make anyone’s stomach clench in knots in grief, pain, anger, and sadness. Seeing the images from Ukraine or the effects of the climate emergency overwhelm us with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
All of us no doubt, are actually sadder, angrier, and feel more helpless than we often care to admit. I know I do. That is the reality of life at the moment and the disorientation of this season is profound.
Today’s Gospel is in many ways Matthew’s ‘annunciation.’ When we speak of the annunciation we think of course of the Gospel of Luke and his account of the angel appearing to Mary. But for Matthew the angel appears to Joseph – in a dream. “Joseph, take Mary as your wife. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus. And he did as the angel commanded him.” But he did a lot more than this. This remarkable man became a true father to Jesus.
And this is enormously important because as Jesus ‘grew in wisdom and in years’ he slowly came to understand God as Father. In the Old Covenant God was ‘Lord’, ‘Creator’, ‘Governor’. But for Jesus God was above all ‘Father’. And he came to understand his mission as opening the way for us to have the sort of relationship with God which is nearest to that of a father and a son. But for Jesus to have come to understand and use this analogy he must have had a wonderfully good and close relationship with Joseph.
I think though that pastorally, this poses a problem. The word ‘father’ arouses feelings which in everyone’s life are necessarily colored by personal experience. Martin Luther for example had a father who would beat him for the smallest offence. He once told a friend that whenever he said the Lord’s Prayer he would think of his own father, who was hard, unyielding and relentless. ‘I cannot help but think of God that way.’
Psalm 136:1-3, 10-15
If asked the question, “How would you describe God’s character?” how would you respond? Of course, none of us can really answer that question in its fullness. Even with a careful apophasis—that is, an approach to speaking of God in terms of what God is not—we nonetheless remain confronted with the reality that our language about God can only ever attempt to point toward God’s character. It would be a bit like asking the character in a novel to describe the author of that novel. Anything the character might say is limited to the very materials the author has disposed for that character—none of which is actually the author.
Yet today’s readings remind us that there is indeed one way of describing God that very nearly rises beyond our usual linguistic limitations. From God’s “night of vigil” to bring Israel out of Egypt in Exodus, to the incessant refrain of Psalm 136 (“for his mercy endures forever”), to Jesus’ work of blessing even in the midst of his rejection in the sight of the Pharisees, the biblical authors never fail to describe God’s character and self-understanding in terms of love.
Martyrs of the 20th and 21st Centuries
1 Peter 4:12-19
As recently as 2015, the extremist group ISIS produced a video to terrify the world. Dressed and hooded in black, the militants marched a group of 21 Coptic Christians dressed in orange, prison-style jumpsuits along a beach in Libya. The horrifying scene concluded with the cruel beheading of all 21 Christians. It shocked and horrified the world to see such a brazen act of violence not only perpetrated but promulgated to a global audience. One of the men was from either Ghana or Chad, the other 20 who had been kidnapped were poor immigrants from rural Egypt who were willing to risk the instability of Libya to escape the poverty and religious persecution of their homeland.
Such are the martyrs we remember today. It was a gruesome event and without the anesthetizing gloss of centuries it stands out like a raw wound on the Body of Christ in our own time. We remember these martyrs and others of the recent century. 3 million Armenian Christians martyred in genocide during the first world war. A million Orthodox killed by the Soviet regime in the 1920’s and 30’s. Countless other hidden martyrs vanish in parts of the world to which the western media is indifferent or blocked. Among groups who track the numbers of Christian martyrs in the world there seems to be agreement that there have been more Christians killed for their faith in the second millennium of Christianity than the first. These horrors are not history, they are news.
Why remember such horrors? The memory is fresh, it almost seems unnecessary. Remembering in order to prevent horrors of martyrdom hardly seems to be working either. Remembering so as to seek out a violent death like theirs would be pathological.
My first encounter with a true mountain range occurred at age sixteen. These mountains were the Austrian Alps, so it was quite the introduction. The summer moon was full, and their peaks were crowned with gleaming snow. Tears of pure wonder streamed down my face. God’s power was written in such large figures and I was so small, but in that smallness I felt significant. I fell to my knees.
My presence in that Austrian valley on that summer night was a wonder in itself. Months before, my high school chamber choir director had announced plans for the choir to go on tour to Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic. The price of the trip was unaffordable for me; paying my school tuition already entailed sacrifice for my parents. I took this news in stride, though as the school year progressed, it became clear that I was the only student in the thirty-member choir who would not be going, and my sense of belonging felt fragile. One morning, a telegram (of all things!) arrived at our front door with a cryptic, unsigned message. Someone wanted to pay my way, on the condition that they remain anonymous. The courier awaited my reply. I accepted humbly and gratefully… but the identity of this benevolent stranger continued to puzzle me for weeks. I suspected anyone and everyone. Everything took on the quality of a gift: a gift I did not earn and no longer took for granted. I had been honored by the generosity of a king in disguise.
All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’
Scripture reminds us that now, as ever, we human beings continually struggle to know and to bear God to the world in the midst of whatever circumstances we may find ourselves. This was clearly the case for Job before his divine inquisition, but I suspect it is true for almost every human being we meet in scripture, from Abraham to Mary and beyond. It is certainly true for me, and I’ll venture a guess that from time to time it might be for you, too.
There is a litany of possible reasons for this trans-human struggle to know and relate to the profundity of the divine nature, but of significance (at least for me) have been the kinds of images and pictures we use for God. Intellectually I understand that these images are all utterly contingent, incomplete, mere shadows of the reality to which I ought to fix my gaze. Yet deep in the hiddenness of my heart I very easily become attached to these images and pictures—many of which often turn out (upon closer inspection) to be reflections of my own private desires and ambitions. Images of a god who will protect me from disaster, from pain, from disappointment, from failure. A god who conforms to my designs.
You may recall that one of my favourite Collects is the one for the Second Sunday after Christmas: O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity….
I return frequently to this prayer, both as a prayer to pray, but also as something to ponder. I find the image of wonderfully creating and more wonderfully restoring our human nature to be a place of rich contemplation, just as my imagination is captured by the image of sharing the divine life. It is this latter phrase that arrests my attention this morning.
We know from Scripture that God is a God of many characteristics. Among the things we can say about God, is that God is a God of revelation. God makes himself known. God is also a God who creates, who teaches, heals, forgives, and restores. Each of these is a revelation of God, and so when we participate in them, with the eyes and hearts of faith we can discover something more about God, especially as God has been revealed to us in the person of Jesus, and in that way share in God’s divine nature, and participate in the very life of God.
But there is another act of Divine self-revelation that we don’t speak of very often. Just as we can discover something about God in acts of creation and creativity, so too can we share in the divine life through acts of rest. God is a God who creates, and God is a God who rests.
I must confess that the gospel we meet this morning is not an easy one. There is good news for us here, but it is not a simple news. It is a news that will fortify us, but to my fallen palette it tastes a bit like bile going down.
In 1937, just over 80 years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer published his now classic text, The Cost of Discipleship (or, in the original German, simply, Nachfolge). His text opens with a harsh admonition, “Billige Gnade ist der Todfeinde unsere Kirche”—“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.” Bonhoeffer wrote these words to a church assailed by the claims of a dangerous ideology. An ideology that sought an illusory national purity. An ideology that marked one group as “fully human” while deporting, enslaving, and exterminating those groups deemed “less than human.” In the blink of an eye, the Nazi Party had leveraged itself into a fascist dictatorship. His church, Bonhoeffer worried, was at risk of missing the costly call of God, preferring instead billige Gnade, cheap grace that justified not sinners but sin itself.
Bonhoeffer found himself attempting to minister to communities who struggled to sense the cost of their allegiance to Jesus Christ—afraid to undertake the sacred labor of seeking Christ ready and waiting in their neighbors, enemies, and scapegoats. To preach the Gospel became an act of treason against a society that sought to deform and devalue the “teure Gnade,” the “costly grace” that comes with following Jesus Christ—the life-giving grace that only comes from the vulnerability of the cross. Costly grace, Bonhoeffer knew, calls the church always beyond the narrow horizons of its own self-interest. Costly grace, Bonhoeffer knew, makes no room for a spirituality that would simply treat God as a means to an end—even if that end is peace.
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
Today in the calendar of the church we celebrate the solemn feast known as Christ the King. Normally positioned on the last Sunday after Pentecost before the start of the season of Advent, we pray these words: Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule. This prayer seems appropriate seeing that our popular culture reflects a renewed interest in all things ‘royal.’ Not only have we watched with fascination two royal weddings in recent years (the most recent of which our own presiding bishop Michael Curry gained notoriety as a preacher on the world stage), but shows like ‘Downton Abbey,’ ‘The Crown,’ and the newly released Netflix production ‘The King,’ based loosely on William Shakespeare’s Henriad, have captured our imaginations as to what aristocracy and royalty look like. If you have not seen “The King,” I will not spoil it for you, but I dare say it will not disappoint, containing drama, adventure, action (including a portrayal of the famous Battle of Agincourt), as well as an eyebrow-raising twist at the very end that will leave you wondering what might happen next in the life of this young king who endeavors to save the realm from the chaos he inherited from his recently deceased, war-hungry father Henry the Fourth.
Images of royalty reflect, I think, the high ideal of order, unity, and goodness that we all desire and hope for in our lives, especially amidst so much that is chaotic, scattered, and untrue in our world. This monastery church certainly draws on the human imagination of what the heavenly realm might look like. The Revelation to John from the canon of scripture contains probably the most vivid descriptions of heaven and where we connect to what is referenced in our Collect: They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.’ [i] The Rose Window at the back of the church, what stained glass artisan Dr. Charles Connick called “a playground for the afternoon sun,” represents a vision of God’s heavenly realm. The central medallion shows the Blessed Virgin Mary being crowned as the Queen of Heaven by her son, Christ the King;[ii] and I will come back to that.