One of the most memorable family Christmas presents when I was growing up was that marvel of home entertainment called ‘the VCR.’ After heeding some advice from the clerk at the store about this new technology and strange words like “Beta” and “VHS” my parents purchased a video membership and our first VCR. This machine included cutting edge technology like a remote control that had a long wire that stretched a few feet and plugged into the front so you wouldn’t have to get up from your seat to fast forward or rewind. And on that Christmas Eve in the mid-1980’s by the light of the Christmas tree and a bowl full of popcorn we all sat down and watched the first of about 6 movies we had rented.
Recently I was reminded of the story of John Newton, the 18th century London-born seaman who authored the extremely-popular Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Newton was captain of a ship that plied in the slave trade, but in 1748 he underwent a dramatic conversion. His conversion took place at sea, in the midst of a raging storm, when he cried to the Lord for mercy and the ship was delivered. As he reflected on what had happened, Newton began to believe that God had addressed him through the storm and that grace had been at work in him. Not long after, he penned the words to the well-known hymn, “Amazing Grace,” in which he acknowledged that God’s grace had rescued him when he was lost, and given him sight when he was blind. Following his conversion, Newton left the slave trade, became an Anglican minister, and advocated for the abolition of slavery. Continue reading
I won’t ask for a show of hands this morning, but I’m wondering how many of us know a person or a family who is living below the poverty line. The U.S. Census Bureau defines that as a single person who makes less than $11,491 per year, or a family of four that earns less than $23,018 annually. In 2010, the Census Bureau tells us, over 15% of the people in the United States were below the poverty line (15.3%). The percentage for children was even higher: 21.6% of children living in the United States in 2010 were living below the poverty line – that’s one in every five children in one of the wealthiest nations on earth. If you know a person or persons who live with this kind of poverty, I’d like you to picture them and keep them in mind for the next few minutes.
There are times when the path to which God calls us leads us into trouble or difficulty. Being faithful to that path, being obedient to that call, can prove to be very costly. We have only to recall Christ’s agony in Gethsemane to know that this was true for Jesus, and he assures us that it will also be true for many of those who choose to embrace and follow him on the Way. Continue reading
I have always loved the poetry of George Herbert. When I was eighteen I was given a copy of The Metaphysical Poets, a Penguin paperback, with its fine introduction by the eminent scholar Dame Helen Gardner. I still have the book, well thumbed and rather worse for wear, but a testimony to those faithful companions, Herbert, Donne, Marvell, and Vaughan, who have traveled with me over the years.
But it is to my fellow Welshman, George Herbert, that I return again and again. I well remember turning the pages of that book and there, on page 121, I saw “Easter Wings.” You can’t miss it because of its shape. It actually looks like what the poet is trying to describe. In the early editions, the lines were printed vertically, to represent the shape of wings on the page. To get this effect, try turning this page ninety degrees, half close your eyes, and there are two birds flying upward with outstretched wings!
poem, adopted from the ancient Greeks, in which the shape mirrors the theme: and what more glorious theme than Easter! Each of the two stanzas represents first a dying or a falling, and then a rising pattern, which is the theme of the Easter story. The top half of each stanza focuses on the problem caused by human sin, and the bottom half reflects the hope made possible by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
With Thee O let me rise,
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day Thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne;
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine,
And feel this day Thy victorie;
For, if I imp my wing on Thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
Helen Gardner wrote that “the quintessence or soul of a metaphysical poem is the vivid imagining of a moment of experience.” I wonder what “moment of experience” caused Herbert to write this personal and moving prayer to God. Herbert lived for three years as rector of the tiny village of Bemerton, just across the water meadows from Salisbury cathedral, the cathedral where I was ordained. I like to imagine him walking out one crisp Easter morning, summoned by the bells of the cathedral, raising his eyes to that great spire reaching into the heavens, and seeing countless birds swooping and gliding and soaring in delight. With his heart filled with joy, it seems that in this poem he too longs to rise up like those birds, and take flight with the risen Christ.
The first stanza speaks of how we were created by God and given every good thing: “Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store.” But through the fall of man all these good things were lost and decayed, “‘Till he became Most poore.” The lines of the stanza mirror this loss by “decaying” in length.
But there is hope, and in the rising part of the stanza, Herbert writes lyrically of his desire to rise with Christ: “With Thee O let me rise, As larks, harmoniously, and sing this day Thy victories.” In the last line, the alliteration of “Then shall the fall further the flight in me” expresses the paradox that if humankind had not fallen, then we would never have had the wonderful gift of the coming of Christ to redeem us. This paradox is often called the felix culpa or the “happy fault,” words which are traditionally sung at the Exsultet on Easter morning, printed on page 13 of this Cowley.
The second stanza is even more personal and autobiographical. He remembers with sorrow and shame some of his earlier life, perhaps something of what he describes so painfully in his poem “Affliction.” It was an experience which meant, “That I became Most thinne.”
But all is redeemed in the glorious rising part of this second stanza. He prays that his earlier suffering may help him fly even higher, because of the “victorie” of Christ over sin and death at Easter. “For if I imp my wing on Thine, Affliction shall advance the flight in me.” To “imp” is a technical term taken from falconry, meaning to graft feathers onto a damaged wing to restore a bird’s power of flight. Herbert is asking that his damaged wing be repaired by grafting it onto Christ’s, and that together they may rise and soar up to eternal life. There is such a sense of soaring joy here, and perhaps Herbert had in mind the passage from Isaiah 40: “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
This is a poem which has delighted me for many years, with its joyful and exuberant celebration of Easter, and I shall always be grateful for the companionship of George Herbert, parish priest, poet, and in the words of his fellow writer Henry Vaughan, “a most glorious saint and seer.
This cope I’m wearing today has great sentimental value: it was hand crafted as an ordination gift from my parents. As it happens, the process leading up to my ordination was rather harrowing, so this festal garment is a reminder that, in the end, things work out. Ultimately. As Julian of Norwich put it, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be very well”. At least ultimately.
Today Jesus gives Peter and James and John a preview of “ultimately”. A few days earlier he had told them that the Son of Man was to undergo great sufferings, rejection, death, and, after three days, be raised from the dead. The vision of transfiguration on the mountain was a kind of preview of resurrection. Perhaps because he knew the experience would be so harrowing he wanted the disciples to see for themselves how it was going to turn out in the end. All would be well—at least on the other side of the cross. Continue reading
Sometimes the fear is personal: Am I wealthy enough, attractive enough, successful enough, clever enough, good enough? Do others admire me, approve of me, speak well of me? Will my project succeed? Will my marriage last? Will my finances hold out? Will my children flourish? Will my health continue?
Sometimes the fear is communal or even global: Will the world withstand this economic crisis? Will global warming lead to environmental disaster? Will nuclear weapons destroy us? Will our craving for wealth and power undo us? Will our cities ever be safe? Will war continue to claim our young men and women? Will China surpass us? Will Al Queda attack us? Will Iran and North Korea be contained? Will peace ever come to the Middle East?
Have you heard the news? The papers are full of it. They’ve been full of it every day in 2010. And it’s mostly been bad news. The terrible sufferings in Haiti after the January earthquake, and then the hurricane: the homelessness, the cholera. And the seemingly endless cycle of violence, of suicide bombings – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine. The plight of the Palestinian people and all who face injustice in the Holy Land. The frightening escalations of war-like rhetoric, and threat of a nuclear attack in Korea. And then this year, the appalling financial crisis , with so many suffering anxiety and loss – the loss of jobs, the loss of homes through mortgage foreclosure. And then anxiety about our nation which seems so polarized between blue and red states, between wealthy and poor. More and more bad news.
Such a diet of bad news, day after day, can profoundly affect the way that we see our own lives. We can look back over 2010 and pick out the bad news – for ourselves, our families, our work, our homes.
Genesis 28: 10 – 22
Psalm 63: 1 – 8
John 1: 43 – 51
Several years ago I had the privilege of spending some days on Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province. It was my first, but I hope not my last visit there. I was there to lead the clergy retreat for the Diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island during the week and then to preach on the Sunday in Summerside, on the south shore of the Island. Between the retreat and the preaching engagement I had a couple of days to see a little bit of the Island. It was an odd experience for someone who had grown up on the wide open expanses of the Saskatchewan prairie and then lived for a number of years in Ontario where it takes several days to drive from one end of Ontario to the other, to be able to drive from one end the province to the other and still be back at my hotel in time for an early supper, my book and bed.
If you know anything about Prince Edward Island, you’ll know that it is famous for three things: the redness of its soil, potatoes and Anne of Green Gables.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us!
Were you in the chapel on Tuesday, June 29 – our last Eucharist in the chapel before the renovations? If so, you will have heard our brother James’ sermon in which he gave us that unusual but accurate translation of the opening words of John’s Gospel. “And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” John is reminding us of the story of the Exodus when God accompanied the children of Israel as they journeyed through the wilderness toward the Promised Land. God dwelt among them in a tent – the tent of meeting – at the edge of the camp.
This sermon is available only in audio format.
Of all the days in Holy Week, this is the one which I find most poignant. On another significant occasion we have been told in John’s Gospel that Jesus’ “time has not yet come”. He was not yet ready. We were not yet ready. The world was not yet ready. God was not yet ready. But today, today all this is changed. Gathered there in the Upper Room with his disciples, Jesus declares “now!” “Now the Son of man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.”
So what has changed? Why now? Why not before, or some other time, or even some other place? Why here? What now? This difference is that “it was night”; three of the coldest, loneliest words in Scripture …“it was night.” It was into the darkness and under the cloak of darkness that Judas went to do his deed of betrayal.
Is. 49-1-7/Ps. 71:1-14/1 Cor. 1:18-31/John 12:20-36
As Holy Week gets underway we have the sensation that something large, something very large, has been set in motion. And that there’s no stopping it. Even though we know how it all turns out—sort of—there’s a sense of both largeness and inevitability. So there’s nothing to do but to go with it. Nothing to do but to allow ourselves to be swept up in this enormous wave–again.
How large is the largeness of Holy Week? We just heard in this passage from John that when he is lifted up he will draw all people to himself. “All people” is pretty large. But a variation in some of the ancient texts suggests something even larger. When I am lifted up I will draw all things, everything, the whole shebang, to myself. An exponential leap from all people to all things, the whole creation, the whole cosmos. What happens in Holy Week and Easter gathers up the entire cosmos in its energies.
We may remember the end of the Gospel of Mark where after his resurrection Jesus tells the disciples to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation”. Not just to every human being, but to the whole creation. We may recall Romans 8 where Paul says that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now”, and that creation itself will be “set free from the bondage of decay”. And that the creation itself will “obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
It’s hard to know exactly what Paul had in mind, but his understanding of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is cosmic in scope. Something that pertains to the whole cosmos is happening in the death and resurrection of Christ: animal, vegetable and mineral; earth, air, fire and water. From the depths of inner worlds to the furthest reaches of outer space. “Behold, I am making all things new”—not just all people, but all things, he says. Whether we quite comprehend this or not, the scope is breathtaking.
Yet the high drama, the cosmic drama of this week is experienced in very intimate things. A son and a father share an agonized conversation in a garden. Friends share supper for the last time. A foot is washed, then another. Clothing is removed to shame a victim. Flesh is pierced—the piercing of flesh is a terribly intimate thing. A mother anguishes as she awaits the last breath of a first born son. All terribly intimate moments.
Yet, all the while as these very intimate things take place, the cosmos, the planets and solar systems and galaxies swirl on their way. Its always like this, of course. Galaxies swirl even as we have our own agonized conversations, even as we share suppers for the last time, even as our own flesh, our own souls are pierced. And its all of a piece.
When he was lifted up he drew all people, all things to himself. All things, from the most distant fires of the cosmos to the most intimate embers of the soul. A fundamental unity, the very ground of our being, has drawn it all to himself. Having accomplished that, now your agony in the garden is my agony in the garden; and our agony in the garden is his agony in the garden. Now that which pierces you pierces me; and that which pierces us pierces him. Now your resurrection is mine and mine is yours and his new life is ours.
But its best not to jump ahead. For the moment, better to be swept up in this great wave and let him take us where he will.
One of the most famous of the actors who portrayed Christ was Anton Lang. One day, following one of the performances, a tourist and his wife went back stage to meet the actors. After taking Lang’s picture, the man noticed the great cross that the actor had carried during the performance. He said to his wife, “Here, take the camera and I’ll lift the cross on my shoulder, and then snap my picture.” Before Lang could say anything the tourist had stooped down to lift the prop to his shoulder. He couldn’t budge it. The cross was made with solid oak beams. In amazement the man turned to Lang and said, “I thought it would be hollow and light. Why do you carry a cross which is so terribly heavy?” The actor replied, “Sir, if I did not feel the weight of his cross, I could not play his part.”
I had a bright, shiny sermon prepared for today about the wedding at Cana in Galilee, and about how in that story Jesus’ presence transformed everything so that everything and everyone in the story seemed to shimmer in the radiance of God’s glory. And then I saw the horrifying photographs of Haiti. Death, destruction, suffering and devastation.
In my prayers, I reflected on that other day which I always find so challenging.
August 6th, the day when we celebrate in church the Transfiguration of Christ, when on the holy mountain Christ’s face was irradiated with divine glory, is also the day when we remember the disfiguration of the people of Hiroshima, whose faces were irradiated with deadly heat and radiation.
We who are Christians, we who know and worship a God whom we call Love, we need to try to make sense of what has happened in Haiti. We may not be able to completely understand, but we need in some way to make sense of it for ourselves. I heard a Haitian woman yesterday as she held up her hands say, “One minute I try to hold on to my faith. The next I say, ‘God, why us?’” Continue reading
Jeremiah 31: 7-14; Psalm 84: 1-8; Ephesians 1: 3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2: 13-15, 19-23
I have been reading Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, the story of a young Burundian Tutsi who fled for his life to the United States after great suffering and months of running and hiding during the genocidal holocaust that swept through Burundi and neighboring Rwanda fifteen years ago. Throughout the long months of massacre in which he lost members of his family, friends and neighbors, Deo Gratias, for that is his name, lived in the forest a hunted man, constantly on the run, starving and sick, until a friend and former classmate at medical school (and, ironically, a Hutu, the ethnic group responsible for the slaughter), saved his life by helping him get a visa and a plane ticket to the United States. Deo arrived in America virtually penniless, and without a job or the ability to speak English. He barely survived. Then a series of miraculous encounters involving a former nun, a lawyer, a childless couple and Dr. Paul Farmer turned his life around and enabled him to get a degree from Columbia, finish medical school, and embark on a project to build a free clinic in a remote area of Burundi that would not only minister to the sick but also bring peace and reconciliation to the warring ethnic factions of that region. Experiencing years of such abject tragedy could easily have embittered him, but instead it had the opposite effect. This is an amazing story of one man’s determination to work wonders against all odds, and how his personal dedication and sense of mission have inspired others and liberated them from fear and violence.
I came to this story of the Holy Family’s flight into exile in Egypt with the modern story of Deo’s escape to the United States fresh in my mind and remembered the many millions who have had to undergo similar traumatic moves to flee evil and death. Continue reading
Micah 5: 2-4; Psalm 80: 1-7; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1: 39-49
Consider the stars of this Sunday’s Gospel drama. One is an adolescent girl, probably no more than thirteen or fourteen, a member of a religious culture that taught her to look for the coming of the Messiah, the one who would liberate her people. But she never assumed she would be the instrument for his entry into the world, or that through her young body God would be formed in human flesh. Nor did she ever imagine that she would be invited to cooperate with God in this magnificent event, or to act without knowing the consequences of her cooperation. To do so meant breaking all the rules of the Jewish religious code, of bringing scandal on her family, and putting her life on the line because she lived in a society that stoned to death unwed mothers. Consider her cousin Elizabeth, a childless woman long past her childbearing years, an object of pity and scorn in her community where sons were one’s “eternal life.” And yet in old age and against biological possibility, God answered her prayer for a son and she gave birth to the last of the biblical prophets. Not just a son, that would have been marvelous in itself, but someone set apart by God to play a leading role in the salvation drama, to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Continue reading
Jacob was a rather shrewd scoundrel. His latest coup was to trick his father. Jacob knew it was the father’s prerogative and power to bestow a blessing upon his eldest son, such a blessing, highly significant and irrevocable. By means of deception, Jacob himself co-opts the blessing intended for his brother, Esau. Jacob receives the blessing, but it comes at a near-crippling cost because he does not have the stature to carry the blessing.
A couple of weeks ago, as part of our Eastertide preaching series, I spoke in this chapel about what it means to believe. I wanted to challenge the popular understanding that believing means holding a certain set of statements or claims to be true – statements, for example, about God or Jesus or the Bible or salvation. When we speak of believing in this way, Christianity becomes a matter of the head, rather than of the heart. The true meaning of faith has to do with living in a life-giving, life-transforming relationship with the One we have come to know as God – a relationship characterized by love and fidelity and trust. It is not a matter of assenting to certain statements or claims about God, but of living in union with God and allowing God’s life to flow in us, and through us to others.