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.



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!”


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.”


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.


A Meditation on Epiphany

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland on Sunday 22 January 2017.
Third Sunday after Epiphany
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.


Becoming Belief

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland on Sunday 10 July 2016.

(Readings: Deuteronomy 30:9-14 & Colossians 1:1-14)

“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.”

In processing this Sunday’s readings set forth in the Lectionary I am struck by the nature of the commands issued to God’s people found in both passages. We hear strong reminders about about bearing fruit, increasing in the knowledge of God, keeping the commandments, as well as the blessings that will follow.

In conjunction with these readings, I was also particularly struck by the collect set forth in the Episcopal Church. They pray this week that we may “know and understand what things [we] ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.”

In the reformed protestent tradition in which I grew up, these passages and this language of what we “ought to do” can cause some strife. In many circles people grow wary of what they perceive to be requirements in our faith, and it can even create something of an unwritten desire to separate our theology from our practical lives.

The theology sometimes goes that God’s grace and redemptive power is sufficient to “save us” and assure our place in the afterlife, but the practical implications of this theology cautions us against feeling the need to “work” for this grace. Once we are freely given forgiveness, our job simply becomes to tell others about it as well. This is certainly right and true, but any further attachments can and do trigger debates about what we perceive to be the tensions between law-and-gospel or faith-and-works.

Belief requires no action, we say.

Belief is the Apostle’s Creed. Belief is the Sinner’s Prayer. Belief is the cognizant and active mental processes of agreeing with a statement or a creed. If belief need be more than these intellectual affirmations, we become frightened because suddenly we can no longer control it. Belief becomes dangerous.

Such a stance causes us to find this “ought to do” language frightening. We are afraid to couple Jesus with something else. But conversely, I have discovered a lack of this language in our daily lives to be the most frightening. It is not a matter of coupling Christ with some other power, but rather a matter of us opening ourselves to daily ask, what now? What ought we to do? What is our reaction to what we have been given?

Belief is so much more. Belief is dangerous. Belief is loving the outcasts. Belief is enacting change. Belief is giving hope. Belief is confession. Belief is a willingness to be weak. Belief is not being afraid of joy. Belief is breaking bread. Belief is messy.

Jesus always coupled belief with tangible realities. He asked and answered, what ought we to do? Although we did not read it, in today’s Gospel a lawyer asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked him to quote the Law, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. And when the man asked, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus gave us that famed parable of the Good Samaritan.

Belief must translate into practical and powerful kingdom-oriented living.

This is part of what I believe the author of Deuteronomy is trying to get across. The Law has just been given, all the do-and-do-nots, all the requirements, and he is asking now, what are you going to do with this? How is it going to affect your life? He emphasizes the point, this is not something you have to sail across the sea to find. The truth of it is already in your heart and in your mind. Go now and live it out.

This whole conversation of the law is a foreshadowing to what the New Testament authors find in Christ. There are echoes of the Deuteronomy passage in Colossians: you have heard and understood the Truth, what now are you going to do with it?

At the end of the Colossians passage Paul writes, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” This does not mark the end of something, it marks the beginning. In this great welcoming to the kingdom, we are invited to join Christ. We are invited to ask, what is next? How do we advance this kingdom, not just by telling others about it, but by embodying it? By becoming it?

In this broken, broken world, comfortable belief and creeds and assurances of an afterlife are simply not enough. We have been given the power to bring healing and hope, and if we are not asking ourselves at every corner of our daily lives how we can be that hope and healing, then we have missed something important. It is not a matter misunderstanding Jesus’ forgiveness and free gift and attaching to it certain additional requirements; it is a matter of being Jesus’ forgiveness and free gift to others.

Our story, our song in the Christian life should and must be framed by the practical realities of asking the question, what ought we to do, because we are the lens through with others are empowered to find faith and belief.

It is not a matter of separating work and faith, or law and gospel, and figuring out to which we are accountable, but rather it is the much more freeing matter of taking on Christ’s identity in our own lives, to live and breath and become the Truth that has been written on our hears and on our minds. It is the continued asking, what is next?

So how now can we embody our belief? How can we live out that which we affirm in the creeds and in the prayers to craft it into the tangible blessings of others? Not to justify ourselves, not to add to the Gospel, or to give contribution to our salvation, but rather to reflect and imagine and help create a world in which Christ’s Kingdom is lived out through us? High ideals. But in prayer let us reflect together on what it means to bear and harvest fruit in this new kingdom.

I leave you with the rest of today’s collect, “O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”


Declaring the Joy of Confession

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland. Sunday 6 March 2016

This Sunday is sometimes given the name Laetare Sunday, meaning “Rejoicing Sunday.”

Here, we have arrived to the mid-point of Lent. As a Church we look back to the somber reminder of our human mortality a few weeks previous manifested in the ashen mark, “remember that dust you are and to dust you will return.” But we also look forward to the arrival of Palm Sunday and Passion Week when our collective cries of, “Hosannah” and then “Crucify Him”, are mingled together like water and wine. In the middle of this season, we know where we have come from and we know where we are going.

So why, four weeks into this lenten journey, does a “rejoicing” Sunday appear on our doorstep?

This would not, on first glance, appear to be a season of rejoicing. This isn’t how it works, many would want to say. Lent is a somber time. It is a time of penance, of fasting. It is an opportunity to confess and recognize the depravity of a misdirected humanity. It is here with ashes on our head that we confess our sins to a big and angry God so as not to be smashed on judgement day. We need to escape hell; we need to go to heaven, and our faithful penance helps the cause.

This is too often Lent’s reputation. To non-believers it would appear the perfect example as to why humanity has evolved beyond a religion for the weak, and even to many believers, Lent is a mark of stale tradition and a voiceless, shackled religion that has no authority in our modern age.

Laetare Sunday, however, flips this caricature on it’s head. Here, in the middle of Lent, we are reminded that the fundamental joy of the Gospel cannot be escaped. To preach the Gospel is to preach joy. To preach confession is to preach forgiveness. To preach fasting is to preach feasting. To preach Lent is to preach rejoicing.

Lent asks us to put on a certain veil, much how a church’s crosses and icons are veiled during the upcoming Passion Week. But this shrouding does not take away from the reality in which we live. If anything, even more attention is called to its true nature. The somber shroud of Lent “veils” the Gospel’s joy for a time, but doing so only serves to magnify it. The deep joy cannot be covered completely, and at every, single turn Lent proclaims this joy, and Laetare Sunday is simply the recognition of this present reality.

The scripture readings for today echo this stance. They demonstrate for us the inherent joy in God’s redemption plan, and how even when this mission appears shrouded, God is at work in the dirty business of a broken humanity. In the profound and powerful pattern of confession and forgiveness, God empowers his people, in joy, to declare that forgiveness to one another.

This is the crux of our lessons today: a God-breathed joy that brings forgiveness and redemption carried forward in the work of his people. Yes, there is quite often tension between the old life and the new. But it is through these tensions that we are given the opportunity to step more and more fully into God’s redemptive work.

Let me repeat the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians (II Corinthians 5:16-21), “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting us to the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”

This message is a far cry from how one may view a religious confession, and I’m not trying to make a depressing straw-man of the Lenten season, but if we walk through this time focusing on the confessions and the ashes, dwelling on the veil itself rather than the glory behind it, we miss the underlying joy that is born through a season of honest confession. I titled this message, “Declaring the Joy of Confession.” And here, Paul is doing precisely that; he is calling God’s people to a magnificent, beautiful reconciliation. The reconciled become co-laborers in the great story of redemption. We are given the ministry, and then given the authority to declare reconciliation to others, to bring them also into the story.

At the end of our prayers of confession in a typical service, the priest normally stands and declares forgiveness over the congregation. This is not out of a mystical, priestly magic. The priest simply speaks aloud a declaration given in power through Christ to all believers. It is an invitation.

We can expand on the joy of this declaration seen in Paul’s letter more practically in our next reading, the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32). I have to say, it’s an intimidating task to be given scripture lessons that include this story. This has become a beloved classic of world culture. Countless sermons, books, paintings, and every other expressive medium have been inspired at one time or another to this parable; it is that powerful. That resonant with the human story.

We all know the story, and having just read it again, we are given the opportunity to dwell on how such a simple story is so densely packed with the beauty of confession, forgiveness, and redemption. But what really struck me in reading the parable again this week, viewing it now through “Lent-tinted” glasses, was the very end.

Just as the Father runs outside to the prodigal son, he comes outside also to his faithful son; he goes out and meets the faithful where he is: in his anger, in his frustration, in his feeling of rejection. For many, I think this is also Lent. We are invited to be honest and angry with God. In the midst of confession and penance we are given the freedom to question and doubt and react to the pain of brokenness that is all around us, even if that pain and suffering finds it source in our own selfish desires. God comes outside to us and He listens.

But then, when the Father speaks in response, you can just hear the joy brimming over, “Son, you don’t understand. You are with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours —but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. The brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!”

We aren’t told how the story ends, but I have to believe the son comes back inside. We don’t hear the faithful son’s confession; we don’t witness the confrontation of pain against joy, but I have to believe it happens. Just as Paul’s words invite us to participate in reconciliation, so the Father invites the faithful son to be part of the redemption process. He is saying in effect, “Come back inside. You have co-laboured with me in the fields, but co-labour with me now in the redemption of your brother. Let us both declare the joy of his confession. Let us share in it and celebrate!”

This celebration of the Prodigal Son also exemplifies for us another inescapable theme of the Lenten journey, and one that is tied quite closely to our readings this week: food and feasting.

In the Joshua reading (Joshua 5:9-12), God ends his regular manna delivery to the people of Israel. But far from being a “reigning-in” of the Lord’s favour, it is a powerful extension of his grace. For years He has fed the people from his hand. Food has literally appeared for them in the morning dew reminding Israel that in the same way the sun rises, the Lord provides. The two became inseparable. So how does God in ending the manna fit into our Lenten journey? How does it help us declare the joy to be found in this season of confession?

Because in this way, the Lord has invited his people to co-labour with him. He has promised this land for generations, he has delivered it, and now he invites his beloved to feast on its bounty. Each Sunday throughout Lent we break our fasting in order that we too may feast on God’s grace.

God’s end-goal was never manna. Manna was itself the forty years of fasting. It is the complete dependence on God for sustenance, for life and food. But by growing and eating the produce of the promised land, God declares over Israel that they are to labour with him. This isn’t because God has grown lazy of feeding and nurturing, or that he wants Israel to “make it on their own.” Far from it. God is calling Israel, as his calling us, into a life abundant where we labour to create with the Creator.

When we break our fast at the Lord’s Table, when we celebrate the Eucharist, at all times, but especially during Lent, we do three things. We look back to a God who sustains his people during their times of fasting. We look in the present to a God who hears our confession, forgives and gives us joy. And we look forward to a God who invites us to join him in the work of redemption, the work of feast-making. In the same way He forgives, we forgive. In the same way He feeds, we feed. In the same way He rejoices in creation, we rejoice to create.

The Jesus who was criticized for eating with sinners and tax collectors is the Jesus who prepares a banquet for the prodigal son, and invites the faithful son to join him in the feasting. The Jesus who was broken for humanity is the Jesus who invites us to feast on him, even in our fasting. It is this Jesus who declares over us the joy of confession, and enables us to do the same for others.

This is the message of Laetare Sunday. This is the message of Lent. We are invited into confession. We are invited to examine ourselves and to wrestle with the pain of our sin and the pain of those moments when we have ’lost all faith in humanity’. But this is not the end. As we dip our heads back down these next few weeks into the most somber season of the Church Calendar, do not forget the joy. In your fast, do not forget the feast. The veil of Lent is the gateway; the veil prepares our hearts to confession and to see the joy that is to come. We stand now halfway in the valley of Lent, but we look upward to the hill of the Cross, and then we look a little further.

We see there joy like the first glimmer of light before dawn. It is faint, and we know there is more pain through which we must first walk. But the light there, it is enough, and it is worth rejoicing in every, single day, because that light is the inheritance in which we now live.