Bread for the Journey

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
12 August 2018, Eleventh Sunday after Trinity.

Today’s collect describes a pathway of obedience to partake in the treasures of heaven. The language here points us in the direction that obedience as a Christian discipline is not only through a specific set of choices, but rather a journey that we walk in grace and mercy toward holiness. It is not to say that there are not particular choices we make to inform that journey, but we are to remember that running in the way of God’s commands is an ongoing work.

Wilderness journeys, I realise, are very often an exercise in obedience. Elijah’s own journey in today’s reading helps us bring to life Paul’s commands in Ephesians concerning the new life of Christ. In putting these texts together we arrive at an interesting juxtaposition, of a God who makes a way for us, who provides bread for the journey and yet still challenging us to this new life.

What happened in today’s reading? Why does Elijah flee to the desert shortly after a dramatic victory against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel? Standing alone as the Lord’s prophet, Elijah called down God’s fire onto the altar prompting a massive conversion of the people before defeating an army of pagan prophets. This should be a season of victory and celebration.

The story indicates that a messenger delivers a death threat from the wicked Jezebel, and Elijah just seems to lose it. This isn’t to say a death threat is no reason for fear, but Elijah is a prophet, tasked by God to speak truth to power. Isn’t angering “the power” part of that job description? Given recent victories, why is he brought to such desperation so as to collapse under a tree having lost all hope for both his own future and the future of his people?

Elijah perhaps has fled to the wilderness because in this death threat he has realised that no matter how many altars are consumed in fire, how many false prophets are defeated, how many children are raised to life, how much flour and oil is supplied to starving widows or how long the drought continues, the people of God will continue to turn away again and again.

Elijah’s wilderness is the wilderness of hopelessness.

What does this mean for us? Even in this season of our victory, we too can be overcome with hopelessness. We find just enough shade, lie down and admit secretly to God that he should just end it all. That it’s enough now.

Before, we could handle the wilderness because it was a season of expectation. Like Advent or Lent. We were waiting for God, and as difficult as the wanderings might be, we could see some prophetic light at the end of the tunnel. Some hope of redemption. A promise in the desert. In the pillar of fire.

Now, though, we have been through Advent and Lent, Easter and Pentecost. The dead have been raised, the lame leap, the blind see and we ourselves have been filled with the power of God to go out in obedience, and give God’s hope to the rest of the world. To show the people walking in darkness that a light has dawned. The wilderness was to be a distant memory as we obediently marched forward in truth and righteousness.

But then, we see the war. Some get death threats. Some get death. Abusive leaders molest the innocent. Abusive systems destroy hope. Racists march openly in the streets. Parents must bury their children. People seek freedom from the prison of their own minds. Elections create violence, not peace. We turn away again and again from the Lord.

And suddenly, the plight of Elijah does not feel so distant.

The desolation of hopeless that Elijah experiences alone in the wilderness is not some ancient metaphor, it is our own news cycle. Our own experience. Many interpret this story through the lens of burnout in ministry, but I see it simply as a burnout in the brokenness of humanity when we thought it was supposed to get better.

Elijah thinks he is the good guy in a story when the good guy doesn’t matter.

God’s immediate response, however, to an Elijah who seeks the end of his life is to send him food and drink, the very substance to maintain our life. Jezebel had sent Elijah a messenger bearing death. Now, in the face of death in the wilderness, God sends Elijah a messenger bearing life:

“Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.”

Elijah takes and eats the food.

The rest of the chapter then describes Elijah’s journey to Mount Horeb. After forty days and forty nights on the sustenance of this meal Elijah ascends this holy mountain, and God asks him, what are you doing here?

It almost seems that Elijah has arrived at this mystical experience, uninvited.

God never takes note of Elijah’s existential, wilderness crisis. Elijah tries to justify his work and explain his plight, and God seems to ignore the struggle. If anything, this experience could be taken as a rebuke. God takes Elijah instead to the mouth of the cave and parades his power before him. But God is not in the great wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the still, small voice.

Elijah had grown accustomed to large, dramatic demonstrations of power from the Almighty. Of course God could change the weather. Of course God could raise the dead. Of course God could bring down heavenly fire. But God can also speak in the still, small voice. In the wilderness, he had said to Elijah, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.”

Maybe this is a stretch, but I don’t think Elijah was supposed to go to the holy mountain. I think when the angel of the Lord gave Elijah food and water, and said, “the journey is too great for you,” I don’t think it was the journey to Mount Horeb. I think it was the journey of his prophetic ministry. God wasn’t calling Elijah up to the top of the mountain for a mystical experience, he was calling Elijah back into the world, and he knew it was too much to bear.

Of course it is too great for us. We can read the news stories. We know all too well the brokenness and the sadness and the desperation of a people who are lost and found and then lost again. God doesn’t pave over the pain of death.

When the world is crumbling around us, and all our dreams of justice and redemption collapse into the sands of the desert, God is there to give us bread.

“Take and eat,” said Jesus softly.

God knows the journey is too great for us. This is why the wilderness of our desperation is also an exercise in obedience. God doesn’t need us to stand on the mountaintop and explain how much we have been doing for the cause, how we are the only one still fighting for goodness and fleeing for our life.

God gives us the food we need and pushes us down the mountain with a plan. “Go, return on your way . . .” he says, this is what we are going to do. If we are the prophets of God’s redemption, our way out of the wilderness is obedience to his journey.

Paul gives us an idea of what this means. Ephesians calls forth the obedience to bring us out of the wilderness. Feeding on the bread of life, the new life in Christ is simply this: speak truth with your neighbour, be angry without sin, let the thief do honest work, our speaking should impart grace, do not grieve the Spirit who has sealed us for redemption, put aside bitterness, be kind, forgive, imitate God, walk in love.

We can call down all the fire we want, we can even raise the dead. Christ could do these things. But if we are not prepared to eat the bread of life, and listen for that still, small voice teaching us obedience in this new way of life, even all our jealousy for the Lord does not garner a response atop his holy mountain.

This is why we end each service with such a commission:

“Go now in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

Amen.

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Touching God

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
1 July 2018, Fifth Sunday after Trinity.

From today’s Old Testament reading from the Book of Wisdom:

“God did not make death and he does not delight in the death of the living.”

“God made man in the image of his own eternity.”

The profound realities expressed in today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom form for us the lens through which we are able to understand Mark’s gospel as read during this season after Pentecost. It is in this season when we are living and learning to be within the divine. As we study the God that walks amongst men, we delve deeply into the life of Christ, to let the stories and lessons of the Gospels mould our actions and our very being.

We read these stories together and out loud again and again because there is something for us in them, as individuals on a spiritual journey and as a Church bearing God’s redemption in the world. In today’s gathering prayer, the collect, we ask for the Spirit of God in our vocation and ministry, to serve in holiness and truth. How does our worship today further this call?

In the first part of the story we meet Jesus after he has crossed to the other side of the sea when he encounters a desperate father begging for the healing of his daughter. He is asked to “come lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” We know from other Gospel stories that Jesus does not need to touch in order to heal. In the story of the centurion’s servant recounted by Matthew and Luke, Jesus simply proclaims healing from a distance. We know that Jesus can simply speak and the impossible happens, but this time, Jesus seems to be emphasising something else.

After the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years reaches out in faith to touch Jesus for healing he continues on to the house where the girl has since already died. With just a few disciples, Jesus goes into the room, reaches out and touches the girl to not only heal her, but bring her back from death itself.

Many interpretations of this story focus on the faith of the woman and the synagogue ruler. The story becomes an important lesson on the power of faith and belief in Christ to make the impossible happen. While there is certainly a lot of wisdom to be gained in such a reading, what really fascinated me in working through the story this week was Mark’s unique emphasis on the physical, not just the spiritual. The physical act of touch is key in both accounts.

Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” Because it mattered in a real way.

We have in these stories two very physical manifestations of grace: a human reaching out to touch the divine in the hope of redemption, and the divine reaching out to touch humanity to bring us back from the grave.

In our culture we are quite happy to draw exclusively spiritual, helpful lessons from these stories. But as a reasoned, sophisticated culture we get uncomfortable when things transcend the spiritual to become physical.

Our faith requires us to break down the barriers between body and spirit, and when we imply that the things we do, the things we touch and see and taste can have just as profound spiritual implications as the things we think, people become uncomfortable. Spirit belongs only to the mind, we say.

This is why incarnation has always made humanity uncomfortable. At its very core incarnation says spiritual things are not only spiritual, and physical things are not only physical. If God can become man, then the rules and barriers we believe to govern the world might not apply how we once thought.

Most visibly, this is evidenced by Christ’s healing power. But it is not just the healing itself that is so beautiful, it is not just the result that should give us pause and get us excited. It is the process. The manner in which these two healings take place emphasise to us thousands of years later, the power of the incarnation to move us both in body and spirit.

A woman, cast out from society, dirty to the enlightened and unfit for religion, this unclean, bleeding woman could now touch God.

And God asked, “Who touched me?”

The woman reaches out, not in pursuit of knowledge or relationship or power, but in desperation for the healing that would lead to acceptance, and in response, God asks to know the woman. He asks a question of identity. It’s not for curiosity that Jesus asks the question, God is responding to physical touch with the touch of his spirit. He is breaking down the walls. He is touching where it matters, in all domains of our existence.

Examples of God’s power was nothing new to the Jewish people. The Old Testament is filled with such stories, but now, the God who for generations had been identifying himself as the “I am who I am” is now asking his people on the street, who are you?

But this story isn’t complete without an incarnational reading of both healings. Not only are we able to reach out and touch God in a crowd, but the Creator of the Universe can take his creation by the hand and say, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” The God who spoke us into existence arrives to speak life from death.

From the prophetic Book of Wisdom: “The generative forces of the world are wholesome, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal.”

Many early church fathers expressed this idea summarised by Clement of Alexandria, “The Word of God became a man so that you might learn from a man how to become a god.” In this worldview, the role of the Christian is to bear God. With the descent of the Holy Spirit we are given the divine breath that enables us also to heal the sick, raise the dead and bring the touch of life.

Incarnation and theosis. God becoming man. Man becoming god. The icons of the Church represent this transformational reality of how the incarnation is to bear itself in our lives. My favourite icon of the Virgin Mary is the one most often painted above the altar of an Eastern Orthodox Church. It is present there as a prophetic fulfilment of the Old Testament’s mercy seat in the temple.

A seat that was once empty is now filled by the God-bearing woman, the Theotokos. It is an image and a reminder for all of us that stands in testament to who we also are in Christ. Like Mary, we are now the God-bearers, bringing the light, touch and healing power of the divine into the everyday.

In our own lives today, when are we that woman reaching out to the divine for healing and identity? When are we the Christ reaching out to conquer death? The incarnation means that through our physical lives, our physical touch we both receive and give the healing of spirit and body.

Our vocation, then, in the body of the Church is to touch the world. Not just as a spiritual lesson, but as a physical reality into which we are called to live. As those who bear God. The hands of those who have reached out to touch the divine, and who have been touched by God incarnate, are now called to serve in holiness and truth to the glory of God’s name. We can touch in healing. We can touch in love. We can touch in all the ways that God has touched us.

We do not always live out this vocation, as individuals or as a Church, and more often than not we may identify with the woman pushed around in the crowd, uncertain of our place alongside the God who walks the streets. But may we never forget that God is always asking the crowd, who touched me. Even when we are so far as to be lost in death, we hear the voice of the Christ coming down to us, his Bride, taking our hand and saying, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

Amen.

Springtime of Forgiveness

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
14 & 18 February 2018. Ash Wednesday & First Sunday of Lent.

Rend your hearts and not your clothing. These are the words read from the prophet Joel in the Church at the beginning of Lent earlier this week, Ash Wednesday. Written to the people of ancient Israel, this prophetic call to repentance still today presents for us an interesting meditation, a realisation and recognition of all that is tightly bound up with this season: ash and fasting, repentance and the echoes of judgment.

These are deep themes to contemplate. And at first glance they could seem quite dark, depressing even. The passage we read from Joel is less than cheery. And this is unfortunately often the reputation the church has gathered in today’s world. I read an article in the New York Times presenting the conundrum of having to have Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day on the same day. Could Christians really celebrate both?

We are regarded often not as a people of celebration, but as a people obsessed with ourselves: our eternal destination, our piety, our focus on death and ash. Our rending of clothing, as Joel describes.

Lent, however, should be for us by contrast our opportunity as a community and as a Church to challenge that notion projected onto us by the world. We mark ourselves with ash today, not because we are obsessed with our mortality and our death. This is not a mark of morbidity or depression. It is not an indicator of only sadness.

This week we enter into a new day, a new season, a calling back to the very beginning. We use ash on Ash Wednesday because Lent brings us back to the very beginning. The beginning of creation. The beginning of yes, our sin, but also our journey toward redemption, our capacity for forgiveness.

At the beginning of this season, the Eastern Orthodox Church sings: “The lenten spring shines forth, the flower of repentance! Let us cleanse ourselves from all evil, crying out to the Giver of Light: ‘Glory to You, O Lover of man!”

Lent, as a word, means springtime. It is an ancient term for that time of year when winter first begins to give way. We may not yet feel this reality in the Alps, but already, our darkest days have passed. The sun lingers in the sky just a bit longer even if we still feel the cold breath of winter wrapped about us.

The season of Lent is one of repentance. Ash is a symbol of that repentance. However, this does not mean it is a season of darkness. True humility does not need the shadow. True repentance does not dwell in the night. To come face to face with our humanity, with the ashes upon our brow is an entirely different sort of sadness, a bright sadness. In recognising our sin and need for repentance we glimpse the Eternal. In the fresh start of repentance we find renewal.

Yes, at the moment our church feels quite dark, and as this season progresses and we continue to remember Christ’s Passion, it is fair to say that this is indeed a somber time of year. But just as the flower of Lent pushes up from the dust and ash of the earth, so we rise together with it in the great hope of what this season brings, and where we are going.

Rend your hearts and not your clothing. We return to these words of Joel. Repentance and forgiveness is a movement of the heart. Our steps toward these spiritual realities must be worked out in our souls, not just our actions or religious piety. In this passage God was upset with a people who did what they needed on the outside to “get” God’s forgiveness, but in reality their hearts were still hardened both against him and one other. This isn’t true repentance. It is not truly turning around and examining ourselves for who we are.

This Lent, for all of us, should be a starting point. It is the springtime of our spiritual lives, in which we look forward with anticipation and joy to the victory of a God who could not be held down by the same ash that marks our forehead. Christ is the God whose flower bloomed through the dirt of our humanity, giving us too the chance to push through the winter frost into spring.

This journey through Lent looks different for each of us. For some, it may be learning to meet God for the very first time, and yet for others the whole idea of any God at all may still be a distant and silly concept. That’s okay. This is where we start. Maybe, however, the thought of a God isn’t the stumbling block, maybe it’s your own heart. Your own fears and lingering hatred toward someone who has wronged you. That’s okay. This is where we start. Maybe for whatever reason your heart really does need to be broken and put together again: from a past pain or a present battle. That’s okay. This is where we start.

In silene. In prayer. In forgiveness.

No matter where we come from, Lent begins with this forgiveness. In the Orthodox Church they don’t have Ash Wednesday, rather, the Sunday on which Lent begins is known as “Forgiveness Sunday” because it is on this day that everyone in the church is expected to both extend and receive forgiveness. The church actually creates space and time, an official ritual, by which those gathered go around to give and receive this forgiveness. This rending of the heart. In this way then, one can only enter into the effort of Lent by responding to the most very basic of all Christian realities: forgive one another as you have been forgiven.

So no matter where you think you are in your life, however close or however far from God, we all begin in the same way. In forgiveness. We have all contributed in someway to the brokenness of this world, and so we are given the chance to also heal it. Let forgiveness be your first act of penance in the season of Lent. Don’t worry about the chocolate, the sweets, the food or whatever else we may feel compelled to give up. Where we truly begin is in the rending of our hearts, because when we really do that: when we break ourselves open in search of forgiveness, then the path will become clear to us.

As we walk along this path of fasting, of penance, I always feel compelled to issue a reminder: no matter what type of fast we have taken on, each Sunday is a day of feasting. A day in which we break our fasts and celebrate the blooming of that spring flower, the resurrection of our Christ. It reminds us that any of these rituals are designed not to rend our clothing, but our hearts. Because notice, even in this feasting, even in our celebration of resurrection, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, of Eucharist, we always begin in the same way as we begin each Lent. We seek forgiveness. For ourselves. For our neighbour.

For the which we have done and for that which we have left undone.

This should be the pattern of our life. In our fasting and in our feasting. In our going out and our coming in. As we search for God and as we run from Him. All the pains and all the joys of our present life should begin with the same spiritual discipline: forgive one another as you have been forgiven.

In our prayers throughout this season we will often repeat the ancient, beautiful and simple prayer of the Church, “Lord have mercy.” In our minds, it is easy for this prayer to be the stopping of something negative: Lord, don’t crush us. Lord, let us off the hook. And while we do ask for mercy, the prayer is larger than this judicial meaning. The term “mercy” as drawn from the Hebrew and interpreted in the Church can be translated in other ways: steadfast love, tenderness, loving kindness, or very simply, love. In this way the prayer becomes an affirmation of God’s identity, of his goodness to us. A prayer that God be himself to us. To be merciful, not as an antonym of justice, but as an expression of his goodness, kindness, generosity and love.

Lent is the time of year when we fling open the shutters of our soul, when we set forth on the journey to real life. When we break forth through the earth like the flower. To the land of the living. And in this journey toward the great light of the Paschal feast, we cry: “Lord have mercy, Lord be to us as you are, Lord act to us as you do, Lord we want you to be with us and to do with us as you yourself are and actually do” (Thomas Hopko, The Lenten Spring). What great hope we have in us when this is our cry. Begin your Lenten journey, then, where you are, and may God bless it and keep it, and may it bring the deep, beautiful joy of springtime.

Amen.

The Offering of Peace

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
Sunday, 21 January 2018. Third Sunday of Epiphany

Bread and wine and blessing and feasting. These are themes of today’s passages, wound together and then spun out as a thread through all of human history. Epiphany, it is the liturgical season in which I like to say, God breaks the rules.

It is the season when the doors of salvation are thrown wide open, and we are invited to eat and to drink at the table of the Lord. It is the season when God reveals himself to those who were unclean. It is the season when we realise that God is much larger than we would have ever dared to imagine. No wonder Epiphany is also when we celebrate the week of Christian Unity. If the God of the Jews invited gentiles to the birth of his Messiah, then who are we to draw new boundaries of purity and acceptance?

In the Orthodox tradition, Epiphany is referred to jointly as Theophany, the term describing when a god appears to man. Most poignantly and first in emphasis, this title is used to describe our celebration of Christ’s baptism. But each of our readings today are rife with this same imagery of theophany: realities of appearance and revelation.

In Genesis, this is the first time we hear the word “priest” used in Scripture. It is to describe the mysterious King of Salem, the Priest of God Most Heigh, Melchizedek. In a time when gods and pagans were running all over the fertile crescent of humanity’s birth, Melchizedek stands apart as being from something different.

It is often remarked that Melchizedek has no lineage, and the writer of Hebrews famously explains why this is relevant to our season of Epiphany, of God breaking in and beginning something new. In Judaism, the role of the priests was given to a specific lineage, the House of Levi. The Levites were the priests. They mediated between God and man. They made the sacrifices and atoned for the sins of the people. This was the requirement. It was a requirement of blood and lineage, a tight fence based on specific criteria of inheritance and genealogy.

This lineage was ordained by God, approved by God and codified by God throughout the law of the Old Testament. There is no question that this is how it was supposed to be. This way of working had the stamp of God, the identity of the Jewish people and the backing of tradition that had seen their culture through many generations of tribulation. The levitical priesthood was an anchor in how Israel experienced God.

And yet, long before Levi, a different sort of priest was already present, doing God’s work. Melchizedek blessed Abram. Standing on the bank of the flow of history, outside and beyond the context of how Israel came to know God, the first priest of the Lord Most High celebrated what looks to be the Eucharist.

This is the order of the priesthood of Meclhizedek, to which Christ was ordained, to which we as believers are ordained. The liturgy and prayers of Ordination actually do make this link explicit. Despite all of Israel’s history and structure and lineage, this message of Christian salvation breaks the rules. It is God’s descent into our very being, throwing open the doors of grace and saying, do you remember the bread and wine? Do you remember that ancient order? I am completing it now.

It does make me wonder, did we miss it? Did Israel and the collective history of humanity miss it? Melchizedek was this character we describe as having no lineage, as a strange blip in the flowing history of the Old Testament, as an icon of Christ’s priesthood. But, what if this is truly and really what God was offering from the beginning? A bloodless sacrifice from the King of Peace? From Abram’s calling, immediately after his first battle, God appeared to say, stop, there is another way.

Abram gave a tenth of everything, a sign of respect and homage. But what if his response should have been to give up everything in the revelation of Melchizedek’s priesthood? What if this is what God was asking from the beginning? Because we know now in Christ, when we are offered the bread and the wine of the Lord, the cost is nothing less than everything. Our response is to give it all up. Our very selves.

Praise and thanksgiving. Bread and wine and blessing. Before all the conquering, before all the bloodshed, before the enslavement and the bondage and the desert wandering. Before the betrayal of kings and Babylon and the fiery furnace. Before all the vicious stories of the Old Testament stories, the priest of God appeared to Abram and offered simple bread and wine. The basic elements of sustenance and joy.

He offered peace.

But in Christ now, we are going back there. To the bread and the wine. To the King of Peace. To Melchizedek. Epiphany is God entering history and introducing a new order, a new priesthood, but one that echoes back through the history of his people, back to Abram’s first encounter with the priest of the God Most High. In this way God sidesteps the structures that he himself established, flipping everything on its head so that he is able to reign not just as the God of Israel, but as God of all.

Epiphany is our invitation into the story. Into the feasting. Christ’s first miracle as we read about in John makes this clear. It is another echo of the ancient priesthood revealed to us in Epiphany, a rearrangement of reality that pushes us into deeper spiritual truths that have sat just beneath the surface for so long.

Throughout the Gospels most of Christ’s miracles are, dare I say, practical. They help people in a real and dirty, on-the-ground way. He heals leapers. He makes the blind see. The crippled walk. People are fed. This is the power we feel we are to imitate.

So by comparison, this first miracle is an interesting introduction. Water into wine. Hardly a miracle of healing and help to the poor and destitute. It almost feels quite literally like a party trick. It’s the type of miracle I would perform if suddenly given god-like power: look, watch what I can do. Free booze for everyone!

But what did Jesus do? It’s profound. He took the large wash basins used for Jewish purification rituals, and turned their water into wine. He sidestepped the established order of things, he took that which had been used for ritual cleansing of the old order and turned it into a medium of feasting and celebration for the new. We aren’t told if this was scandalous or not, but wine filled wash basins are a mark of God’s new thing.

The icons of Christ’s Nativity and Christ’s Theophany illustrate visually for us the beautiful reality of the Epiphany season. In the Nativity icon, Christ is born into a dark cave with a hooked mountain, a desert Matterhorn, out of which this cave is hollowed. The cave images hell; it images mortality and the darkness of man into which Christ has become incarnate.

However, in the very next icon of the year, for the Feast of Theophany, that same mountain has been split in half. One can see both halves on either side of the icon, and through the image flows the water of the Jordan River. Christ stands in its midst being baptised by John and through the broken space of the mountain the dove of the Holy Spirit descends upon him.

This imagery of Epiphany is quite literally the breaking entrance of God into our world. The darkness of human hell is replaced with the flowing waters of the Jordan. The bloody priesthood of Levi is replaced with the bloodless priesthood of Melchizedek. The jars of purification are transformed into the fountain of feasting. Bread and wine, symbols of sustenance and joy become the very meal of our faith.

Epiphany signals to us not so much that God is breaking the rules, but that God is entering the world and the rules are shattering in the presence of His new reality. And we are only getting started, the year of our liturgical celebration is still young. Mountains will continue to shatter. Curtains will tear down the middle and death itself will be broken into by God.

We live now in the manifestation and the anticipation of that great marriage supper of the Lamb, where it all comes together. The Orthodox actually view the Book of Revelation to be an image and indeed a prophetic representation of Church worship.

The final thread of today’s Lectionary, which we did not read aloud, is taken from the book of Revelation. It is the image of the marriage supper of the Lamb. This image is the great culmination of God’s revelation, God’s Epiphany. God has broken into human history to heal and recreate and love. The spiritual realities have been revealed and we stand in the order of Melchizedek, offering bread and wine as the Bride of Christ in the name of the God Most High.

In this Epiphany, I leave with you the words of St John Chrysostom in his great sermon of Pascha: “All of you, feast sumptuously; let no one go hungry away! All of you, enjoy the feast of faith! All of you, receive the riches of His loving-kindness! Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal Kingdom has been revealed!”

Amen.

The Crossroad of Christ the King

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
Sunday, 19 November 2018. Feast of Christ the King.

The Feast of Christ the King was established in 1925 by Pope Pious XI in the Catholic Church and later adopted by the Anglicans and other protestant groups. While it may be a late addition to our western liturgical calendar, it is still both a helpful and powerful holiday.

It is an important time to mark because we arrive this evening, the final Sunday of our liturgical year, to something of a crossroads, a meeting point of beginnings and of endings. Of judgment and nativity. Of resurrection and advent. Of being found and being lost. The Feast of Christ the King brings us face to face with a specific incarnational reality that shapes both where we have come from this year, and how we can prepare ourselves for the next one we are about to enter.

In celebrating this feast, Christ becomes not simply a personal saviour. We are called to recognise him this day as the enthroned ruler of all reality. Our faith becomes much more than pious thoughts, a single prayer, collection of beliefs or hope that we will end up on the right side of the afterlife. No, our faith is to be perceived within the context of a Kingdom that has arrived. Of a ruler that has taken his throne. All of the Gospel’s discussions and parables of what it means to find and enter the kingdom of heaven are suddenly and frighteningly in focus and relevant.

Throughout this season of Ordinary Time we have been following the Gospel according to St. Matthew, examining how Christ’s teachings continually forced his followers, and critics, to rethink the typical way of things. Through this establishment of Christ’s “kingdom thinking”, the Jewish leaders have been working to trap him in a political or religious misstep. But through their attempts, Christ continually both escapes their trap and provides sharp critique as to who are the truly righteous in God’s coming kingdom.

This discourse is concluded in Matthew with the dramatic story of the sheep and the goats, the final judgment. God is enthroned as judge, and all of humanity is divided up as either sheep or goats based on a certain criteria that come as an unexpected surprise down both sides of the judgmental division. It is a difficult story to hear. It feels uncomfortable, strange, and has less of a pithy and simple lesson as some previous parables. This, I believe, has caused us to pacify the story with ideas that we feel work better for us in today’s modern and enlightened society.

The easy way to approach this story in our world today is as a mighty call to social justice. That we as good Christian’s who claim Christ’s love will be out on the front lines: feeding the poor, taking care of those less fortunate than us. Serving in tangible ways that can improve the lives of our neighbours. It sounds, and is, a noble call. This is not at all untrue or un-Christian.

But in our present society, I fear this is perhaps an almost easy escape. From what could have at one time been a powerful and deeply reflective passage may today almost seem to be an easy tick box. From soup kitchens to automatic, monthly donations to the very structure of our governmental institutions, we have well embraced as a society what it means to care for the poor. Collectively, we are not perfect, but neither are we all that bad at the task.

This is the danger. A division of sheep from goats followed by a simple listing of ways to help people provide for us something concrete and measurable that we can feel capable of working toward. It seems we could almost tackle the issue head-on in some type of committee meeting. “Let’s just harness the grassroots power of social media and improve our understanding of big data. With the right people, in a few election cycles, we could reduce the poverty rate by 23.7% in urban areas when mean income sits below one standard deviation of the norm.”

Loving the poor, check.

Feeding the hungry, check.

As good as these things may be, and as much as we are in fact called to do and be such things, this alone is not what it means to celebrate Christ’s enthronement as King. The Christ we have encountered in Matthew this season is not a Messiah who is content with people who are capable of checking a few boxes, even if it does do some real good. The Jewish leaders had already perfected this strategy.

To pressure ourselves with such a limited reading of this passage could even do more damage. A few years ago there was a book going around in some circles entitled, “When Helping Hurts” and it worked to demonstrate that a lot of the classic ways Christians seek to minister to the poor, can in the end do more harm than good. From short term mission trips in the third world to other one-off charity events, the dangers of helping without any real knowledge or understanding of complex sociological and psychological situations can actually work to perpetuate cycles of poverty, or even cause us to view others as projects rather than people. We walk away, then, with an inflated sense of self gratification and a long list of ticked faith boxes.

What, then, do we have to do to understand the implications of this story in a way that does not make it so easy for us to feel we have done our duty, safely counted amongst the sheep of heaven? If we recast this story in the context of today’s Feast Day, recognising Christ’s enthronement in the world and in our lives, I believe we can make some progress toward understanding this startling and surprising story in a much fuller context.

Christ’s words of judgment, “As you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me,” is not simply a cute parallel to demonstrate that Christ cares about other people. This story and Christ’s words are a unique and practical application of God’s incarnation.

Christ is uniquely present in this story. Yes, he is the enthroned judge, but his is also the afflicted: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. This is not just another parable of humans trying to figure out how to access the kingdom; God himself is present here.

While we may celebrate the more magnanimous and glorious names of Christ, it is precisely by becoming incarnate as a human, by taking on the identity of all these broken and painful conditions that Jesus redeems and becomes humanity’s Saviour through each and every point. Through his discussion on this passage and interpretation of St Augustine’s writings, the late Orthodox priest Thomas Hopko describes Christ’s brokenness and redemption of each condition.

Hungry in the desert of temptation, Christ becomes the bread of life.

Thirsty on the cross, Christ becomes the fountain of living water.

Estranged and rejected by his people without place to lay his head, Christ brings all home to the heavenly house of the Father.

Naked in the manger and on the cross, Christ clothes all with himself in the pure robes of salvation.

Wounded, bruised and beaten, Christ becomes the great physician and healer.

Imprisoned as a criminal and forsaken by his disciples, Christ proclaims freedom to the captives and forgiveness to the sinner.

In this way the significance of caring for the poor is not just because it is right and good from a moral point of view but because Christ has in reality become all of these things. Christ is the hungry. Christ is the thirsty. Christ is the stranger. Christ is the naked. Christ is the sick. Christ is the imprisoned.

The proper recognition of Christ’s incarnation is critical in our understanding of the final judgement, because through the Eucharist we partake of this incarnation. When we partake of Christ in the Eucharist, it is in this spirit that we sacramentally identify with him in all the ways that he identified and became like us. We feed on him in our heart by faith and with thanksgiving.

In fact, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote an exhortation entitled, “Sacramentum Caritatis” meaning the Sacrament of Charity. In this he writes,

“In the Eucharist Jesus also makes us witnesses of God’s compassion toward all our brothers and sisters. The eucharistic mystery thus gives rise to a service of charity towards neighbour, which consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, affecting even my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ.”

He then continues,

“Our communities, when they celebrate the Eucharist, must become ever more conscious that the sacrifice of Christ is for all, and that the Eucharist thus compels all who believe in him to become ‘bread that is broken’ for others, and to work for the building of a more just and fraternal world. Keeping in mind the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, we need to realise that Christ continues today to exhort his disciples to become personally engaged: ‘You yourselves, give them something to eat.’ Each of us truly called, together with Jesus, to be bread broken for the life of the world.”

Central to our salvation is not just that we care for the poor and broken, but that we identify with them; that we see Christ in them. That we love them in the truest and deepest sense of the word. And the poor, hungry, thirsty and naked, these are not just the others down the street. Some group in a distant country. They are part of us. They are with us and around us. This also is why our charity is not just a simple tick box, a donation.

How often are the “strangers” that other Christian group with whom we would rather not associate? How often are the hungry those who sit alongside us in Church? This image of the last judgment is about how we relate to every, singlehuman. No matter where, how or what condition we find them. As the story makes clear, it does not even matter whether we know it or not. Both the sheep and the goats each ask, “Lord, when did we see you?”

The point Christ makes with his body and his blood is that we are to see him in everyone.

Our celebration then of Christ’s enthronement this day is the ultimate realisation of the story. When Christ is seated on his throne, we are judged by his very presence because he is the very presence of the least of these. It is Christ’s enthronement as King that allows us to actually feed the hungry and welcome the stranger, because we do so in the name of one who has been them. Who has been us. This is how we enter the kingdom, how we truly celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. How we pray for the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

And so we stand at the crossroad of this great and final feast. The beginning and the ending of our liturgical year. On one side we see Christ enthroned and the final judgment of his presence in our lives. We see Christ in the prisoner, and we see the prisoner in us.

But on the other side of the crossroad, down toward the valley, we see the work that lies ahead. We see with the prophetic words of Ezekiel, in the distance a shepherd who is seeking out his flock. The shepherd who seeks out those in need of rescue on the day of clouds and thick darkness.

We see with clarity now. We are the sheep. We realise on this day of enthronement, with both roads open before us, that we are the hungry, thirsty, naked and lost. The shepherd who is seeking us, we realise, will become these things for us, just as we will become them for the whole world.

The Shepherd becomes the lamb of God for his sheep.

As we stand at the crossroads, at the judgment, at the entrance to a new year let us call to mind all those times we have not ministered to our Christ. When we have ignored him in our neighbour. When we have refused communion with him as the stranger, even as he seeks us.

“And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravens, and in all the inhabited places of the country. . . I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.”

We stand today at the crossroads of two great prayers, the cry of Advent, “Come quickly Lord Jesus” and the great exclamation of our enthroned King, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.”

Amen.

Holy Things are for the Holy

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland.
Sunday, 29 October 2017. Last Sunday after Trinity.

(Readings: Leviticus: 19:1-2,15-18, Matthew 22:34-46)

“Holy things are for the Holy.”

“One is Holy. One is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the Glory of God the Father. Amen.”

In the celebration of the Eucharist these are known as the words of elevation, the call and response between the priest and the people when the body and blood of Christ are lifted up in preparation for our sharing of grace between all God’s kingdom in the central meal and celebration of the Church.

It is a powerful and sacred moment.

This acclimation of “holy things are for the holy” surfaced immediately in my mind as I read the Leviticus reading assigned for today, the last Sunday in our season of Trinity. On reflection, I was struck by the tension that seems to exist between the priest and the people in this moment. The way the gathered respond to the priest’s declaration sounds almost contradictory. “One is Holy, One is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the Glory of God the Father. Amen.” In this exchange the priest has held up the gifts, called out holiness and the people’s words almost seem to say, “that’s not us.”

God alone is holy. After such a response, it almost feels as if we shouldn’t partake at all.

We say God is holy, but where does that leave us at the table?

As we deal today with the commandments, with what it means to be holy, our readings help us explore and unpack this tension how we find it today as a central piece of our Christian liturgy, and our lives. It is not a new struggle, we see quite clearly even ancient Israel struggled in this thinking to grasp that which is holy.

This passage of Leviticus has been dubbed, for good reason, the “holiness code” because it is in these passages where God provides command after command to his people, concluding each one by saying, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”

In browsing through this section of sometimes sensical, frequently well-meaning, occasionally progressive, continuously strange and disturbingly barbaric code of laws one thing is underlined again and again. “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” The levitical code of holiness begins to seem less and less about any given law or individual code, but rather about how the people of Israel relate to their God. Holiness becomes not so much the trophy to be obtained as it is the mechanism through which the Jewish people cement their identity as God’s chosen.

The goal is not simply and only to be good. The goal is to become like God.

The Hebrew word for holy throughout this code means to be set apart, to be of God and therefore free of human impurity and imperfection. What God is reinforcing again and again to his covenant people is that in every action, every meal, in all the natural rhythms and cycles of life, every thought of being is to be bound up as a prophetic confession that Yahweh has chosen Israel from among the nations. And by declaring God over everything, it all becomes sacred. It all becomes holy.

In all coming and in all going, in lying down and rising up, in being and in growing, the holiness of God shall be wrapped about his people. God has defined and claimed all reality in terms of himself and in terms of his holiness. The laws are there to expand rather than restrict Israel’s identity.

It is no surprise then, that the “Golden Rule” comes from this code of holiness. The now convenient trope of “love your neighbour as yourself” is simply the summary, the conclusion as it were, to a long series of verses and commands that define in detail how Israel should treat their neighbour. Loving one’s neighbour is not just a parting thought, it is not just one law in a list of many. It is the relationship that binds all the other laws together. It is an expression of God himself. The God who establishes a covenant relationship with his creation is a God who loves the other. The Golden Rule is central therefore to Israel’s understanding of covenant relationship, as it should be for us.

It is within this framework of Jewish identity and covenant that help us understand Christ’s words in response to yet another question directed his way: which is the greatest commandment?

Any other answer would have led Jesus into yet another trap, a drawn out theological debate over the myriad of hair-splitting responses involved in what it took in Jewish tradition to discern the proper interpretation of the various laws. Jesus, however, went straight to the heart.

In his answer he called out the two central laws of identity: this is who you are to be.

Love God. Love people.

These are the greatest commandments, not because they are simple to blamelessly live out, but because they provide the bedrock for everything else. As it is seen throughout Leviticus, these commandments are the glue. This is the wellspring of religious identity. We follow a God whose revealed creative arc is defined by these two relational realities.

While Christ’s clear answer in the first section of our Gospel reading helps draw these commands into the narrative of his redemptive work, it is the following section that works toward solving the tension I felt when trying to discern between the commandments and God’s holiness.

Jesus now asks them a question. “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” The Jewish leaders give the expected answer, the Son of David. This was the Jewish equivalent of asking American history students to name the first president of the United States. Basic. Jesus then , however, points out the seeming paradox in calling the Messiah both son and lord of David. How can that be, he wants to know. By asking this seemingly unanswerable question to the Pharisees, Christ inserts himself directly and personally into the paradox they can’t answer.

All their questions have been about law, about commandments and about traditions. While Jesus affirms the commandments, he more importantly reframes the discussion and asks a question that should sit at the core of all Jewish law: identity.

Who are you, O Israel? Step away from the hair-splitting, step away from the trap-setting and law-keeping. Ask the real question that God created all the other questions to answer: who are you?

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

This is the Shemah. It is the first commandment and the most important Jewish prayer. Christ uses the commandments to redeem Jewish and human identity. You are not a people in servitude to the Romans, you are not living up to the law, but you are the chosen people of God.

The same reality is true for us in Christ. Christ fulfils the law because his response to the “code of holiness” is a reaffirmation and redemption of identity. From the very beginning, in all of his commandments, this is what God has been saying again and again to the people of Israel.

As I said earlier: every action, every meal and every thought of our being is called to be a prophetic confession that Yahweh has chosen us from among the nations. The image bearers of God have been invited to share his holiness. “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”

So, how do we respond to the tension, to the paradox of a Christ who both affirms the law and himself as the Messiah? We eat and we drink. We eat and drink as a holy people.

“Holy things are for the Holy.”

Unfortunately, I think a lot of Christian history has fallen into the same trap as ancient Israel. We are offered God’s gifts, and for one reason or another, one constraint or another, we respond, “No thank you. That’s not us. We are not prepared. We are not good enough. You go ahead without us.”

Sometimes we do this with the Eucharist itself, sometimes we do this in our hearts. We reject the identity of holiness and instead insist that the proper covenantal response is our fulfilment of law.

This is why that call and response in the Eucharistic liturgy is so critical. It does not call us to shame. It calls us to redemption. The response is a powerful and clear declaration of our identity: “One is Holy. One is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the Glory of God the Father. Amen.”

Yes. Let it be so. We are not made good. We are made like God.

A pastor of the Lutheran Church in the United States founded a parish in Brooklyn where the worship service takes place as a liturgical dinner. People arrive, help prepare food together, process in with hymns, hear a sermon and celebrate Eucharist all in the context of a full meal. This pastor, however, says these words of elevation used to bother her a little bit. She was worried it sounded prissy, divisive in some way, as if all the people gathered inside were somehow supposed to be better than anyone else outside the temple. Then, she says, she learned the Old English word for holy, hālig.

And what does it mean? Whole.

“Whole things for whole people.”

Church, we are given wholeness that we may embrace, and like Christ, fulfil, the two greatest commands in the Kingdom of God. Loving God. Loving People.

One is Holy. One is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the Glory of God the Father.

Amen.

A Meditation on Epiphany

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland on Sunday 22 January 2017.
Third Sunday after Epiphany
(Reading
s: Isaiah 9:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23)

If Advent is the season of coming, of expectant hope and waiting, then it seems one could call Epiphany the season of arrival. Not arrival in the sense of an ending, but arrival in the sense of an opening. The first act after the prologue.

We have heard the story of a people in a desert longing for a redeemer. We have questioned and worked our way through the ancient prophecies. We have celebrated Christ’s incarnation and dwelt on its implications for Mary and Joseph, for us today and for all of humanity. We have sung and prayed to “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and we have finally arrived now to Epiphany, this season of joy. A season to celebrate the long-expected who has begun to work the unexpected.

Epiphany. It is often tradition that we remember and meditate on the arrival of the magi, Christ’s baptism and his first miracle. In their own way, each of these events speak of an arrival. Those stories may span decades in the pages of Scripture, but they signal to us that the first act has begun, the story is afoot and that we had best keep up, because already things are already not how we would have expected them to be.

The reading in Matthew echoes Isaiah’s prophecy telling us that the people there who have dwelt in darkness, ravaged by the invasions of the Assyrians from the north would receive specially the blessings of the Messiah. And so Jesus went to this region to begin his ministry. Matthew makes special note, “Galilee of the Gentiles”, a hint to us that already Jesus has a vision grander than that of the only the Jewish people.

By beginning his ministry in Galilee, an area home to many gentiles, we see the realities of what Epiphany means playing out in the life of Jesus. Here in the first chapters of his ministry, Jesus is already taking powerful action to communicate the unexpected.

That faith in the Messiah, hope in the redemption of that which has been broken, is not hope for only a single people. Redemption does not belong to only the Jewish people, it is a joy to be anticipated and lived-out for all.

In the tradition I grew up, the deep truths of this season were often passed over. I find it a shame that we often forget to make room in our hearts for Epiphany. We celebrate this season as a reminder that God is big enough for us all. Certainly, let us not forget the importance of the story’s prologue as proclaimed by Advent and Christmas, but we cannot stop asking ourselves, how will God show up in the unexpected? God’s bigness is not a questions we must put to Him, but a question we must put to ourselves. It is us, rather than he, who places limitations on our expectations. This season, more than almost any other, sets the stage for a theme that will continue to echo throughout the entire Gospel narrative.

From the beginning, we see this theme of epiphany. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus called-out to his first disciples: Peter, Andrew, James and John. It is not clear to us what inspired these men to drop their fishing and follow Jesus, but I have to believe that much of what they saw and understood at that time is also what we see in our own learning to follow Christ. They were willing to embark upon the unexpected. Regardless of why they put down those nets, they could not have known what would follow. They stepped out in faith. Their acceptance of Jesus’ call was less their moment of salvation as it was the first of many actions, that like the disciples, we must continue to take in faith, actions that will bring us greater depth and understanding to our knowledge of Epiphany.

In this same way, it is also appropriate then that this is the week set aside for Christian Unity. The prayers throughout this week should also be for us a constant reminder that this journey of faith is larger than our own conceptions of it. It is easy for us to get buried in our own traditions and liturgies, our own way of doing things that either feel or have become “right” in ways that are defined more by our own comfort than by the Gospel. Epiphany begs us to see things differently. Remember the wise men, those foreigners who came from the east. Even before Christ grew up and could begin his ministry, God was making it clear that new pathways of his grace and favour would be opened to the world. It was not Mary or Joseph or even the shepherds that brought forth those outsiders, it was He who set the stars in motion.

God is opening his doors to the outsiders, he is healing the broken, he is making the old new, as has always been his business. And how beautiful it is when this work takes place within his Church. May it only continue and flourish.

Pray, then, that those who could not break bread together may do so once more. Pray that in the breaking of bread our brokenness may be mended. Pray that in the pouring out of wine we may pour ourselves out for our brothers and sisters.

This is Paul’s admonition in his letter to the Corinthians. Why is there division? Why has the person who baptized you become more important than the Name into which you were baptized? I think sometimes we can distance ourselves from this letter because our problems feel so different. They feel so big and important in comparison to these ancient and petty arguments.nBut what has changed?

When the creeds of our denominations become more important than the name of Christ, we fall into the same trap and the cross of Christ loses its power in our lives.

We need unity same as the Corinthians, and Epiphany helps us see that larger picture. If gentiles were welcome to the manger, how much more should the Church welcome one another to our shared table, the same wellspring of faith, hope and love and the same cross that is the power of God to us who are being saved?

Epiphanies are not planned. How do we organize in advance something defined as a “moment of sudden and great realization”. I would encourage us all this week to meditate on those ways in which God is speaking to us differently than in those ways we would normally expect. Where and how is he working to bring us together: as a church, as a country, as a world and as a race? Epiphany as a season of the liturgical year is certainly planned in advance, but we should not let it be something we only commemorate. Let us live into and practice arriving to the realities of this Gospel theme, so that we too may become fishers of men baptized in the name of Christ.

Amen.