Pulpit: Proclaiming the story

Here’s today’s sermon. Sorry, no audio today.

It is fitting that the sermon on the pulpit should come on the day we remember the little monk from Assisi who, in response to a divine voice, “rebuilt God’s church,” which was by then wracked and wrecked with corruption and condescension. It is fitting for two reasons. I’d like to talk about both those reasons this morning.

What is the one thing you know for sure St. Francis said about preaching? “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” There are two things wrong with that statement. The most egregious one is that St. Francis never said it. The closest he comes is in chapter 12 of his rule when he advises the brothers that their preaching should agree with their actions. And of course, who could argue with that? No, Francis founded a preaching order. An order all about words. Indeed, he was a bit of a preaching fanatic—preaching as he did to the birds. For him, the Gospel was Good News for the whole creation, and every living thing needed to know the Good News of the Savior.

So, here’s the first reason for a sermon on preaching on St. Francis’ Day: Francis was a preacher! An eccentric, intense preacher at that. And if we want to get a sense of the power that lies in the Word proclaimed, there are few better places to look than accounts of Francis’s own life. It is fitting on a preacher’s day that we should talk about the task of preaching.

For today, on St. Francis’s Day, our gaze moves from space—the story itself, to font—where we enter it, to lectern—where we listen to it, to today, the pulpit, where the story is proclaimed. The Word of God in Holy Scripture, once heard, calls forth a response from God’s people. It calls forth proclamation. And the place where that proclamation is made public is right here, in the pulpit.

At the lectern, we listened to the word of God. We listened to what the prophets and the apostles said. At the pulpit we listen to the sermon. We listen to what the Church must say on the basis of what it has heard.

And that, I think, is where we can begin to think about the sermon. The sermon is a response. It is elicited speech. It is speech compelled by the address of the word of God.

“An obligation is laid on me!” wrote St. Paul to his conflict ridden community in Corinth. “And woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” Paul had been addressed by the word of God. In a manner far more immediate, but no less real, than we are addressed every week. And Paul’s response: the proclamation of what I have heard is not an option. It is an obligation. A necessity. I cannot not preach. The prophet Jeremiah expressed a similar drive when he wrote “God’s word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” The response called forth by the word of God, because the God who calls it, cannot be suppressed. It is an erupting and disrupting word.

It is an erupting and disrupting word because it is the place where God’s Word is made present to God’s people. The sermon is the site where God’s word should so touch the lives of God’s people that the transformation begun at our baptisms and continued as we listen to Holy Scripture read, is deepened further. If God’s Word is present, then God is present, and if God is present, it cannot be anything but an erupting and disrupting presence. I cannot but change us if and as we attend to it.

That, it seems to me, should fill us with excitement, anticipation, and maybe even fear.

For the preacher, the notion that the Spirit of God has, in the Word of God, not only called forth this response, but also will enliven this response such that it bears fit witness to that word is, or should be terrifying.

The preacher, to borrow a phrase of John Stott’s, is a man or woman placed between two worlds to act as a bridge, if you will. And that, if the preacher takes her responsibility seriously, is an exciting and frightening place to be. O Lord may my words be fit witness to and vessels of your Word. That simple prayer is one I pray every week in my study, every morning in the pulpit. And now you know why.

Here, in the sermon, is where God’s erupting, disrupting word addresses God’s people. And that lays an obligation on the preacher.

If the pulpit is the place where God’s Word heard becomes God’s word proclaimed, this also lays an obligation on the listeners. Namely, to listen for that Word. Preachers are human. Not only are we human, but we are also sinners. There are all kinds of ways in which my words will, because of my own weaknesses, fail to be fit vehicles for the Word. And the temptation for listeners is to be distracted by the failures and foibles of the preacher, the weaknesses of his or her words, and so miss the erupting, disrupting Word.

So even as I pray that my words will be fit witnesses and vessels, I have a prayer for you, too. Here it is: “Somewhere in there, God is going to speak. God is going to speak to me. May I so listen as to leave changed.”

Now, some of you might remember that at the beginning of the sermon today, I said there were two reasons to find St. Francis’s Day a fitting one for reflecting on the task of preaching.  I haven’t forgotten the second reason. There is a second reason. We’ve hinted at that second reason already. Francis was a preacher. His brothers in the Order of the Friars Minor were preachers. Francis was not opposed to the use of words, as he is sometimes presented.

He was deeply concerned that words and actions should conform to the one simple message of the Gospel, lest lifestyle empty sermons of their power. When Francis first approached Pope Innocent III for permission to start a new order, the Pope was at first reluctant to grant permission because Francis’s rule—the principles by which he and his brothers would live—was too harsh. He advised Francis to relax them—even just a little—and assured him that permission would be given once an easier rule was produced. Francis was perplexed. All we are doing, he is reported to have said, is trying to live the life of our Lord as presented in the Gospels. And if we relax our rule, we say this life is impossible. And if we say this life is impossible, then we say the Gospel is impossible. Faced with such an argument, Pope Innocent relented and gave permission for the founding of the order that became known as the Franciscans. Francis and his brothers would live as they preached and preach as they lived so that they could offer one integrated witness to the one Gospel of the one Lord Jesus.

What does that have to do with us? Well, this morning it reminds us that while preaching is a task given shape by the pulpit, it doesn’t stop at the pulpit. While I am vocationally a preacher, I am not the only preacher in this room. There are, by my estimation, about ninety more preachers here, too. And our pulpit is wherever the Lord takes us, under brother Sun and sister Moon.

All of us gathered around lectern and pulpit today will encounter the Word of God. Indeed the Word of God will mediate the Spirit of God. We will meet with God. The fire that burns but does not consume will, if we let it, be shut up in our bones as surely as it was in the prophet Jeremiah. And as we are sent forth at our service’s conclusion, that word will spill out.

The way we live Monday through Saturday is as much a part of the proclamation called forth from the Church by the Word as the words of the preacher on any given Sunday. Perhaps even moreso. That much the misquotation of St. Francis gets absolutely right. Wherever you go, whatever you do, preach the Gospel! It really is good news. And not just good news for me or for you or for us. It is Good News which shall be for all people as the angel said to the dumbstruck shepherds on Christmas night.

So it is that the life of St. Francis presents us with a twofold challenge here. There is, first, the obvious challenge of living lives of Christian integrity. I ran across a facebook meme last week that was so good, I had to share it. Some of you have already seen it. But here it is again. “The Chruch is not full of hyporcrites: there’s room for you, too.” There is a deep truth here—all of us at some time or other, or if we’re more honest, at many times and others, fall short of the glory of God. There are times when our lives fail to match our words and times when they fail spectacularly. But here remember the words of Francis: if the solution to the charge of hypocrisy is to stop trying, to stop growing in holiness, to stop pursuing the path of discipleship, then we are saying the Gospel is impossible. And if that’s what we’re saying, then maybe it really is time to just close the doors.

Keep pursuing lives of Christian integrity in which work and word agree. And remember the promise you made in your baptismal covenant, when you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.

Here’s the second challenge St. Francis the preacher leaves with us. Word and work belong together, not just for preachers or clergy or exceptionally devout. Word and work belong together for all whom the Lord has claimed as his own in the waters of baptism. By insisting on the harmony of our words and our works, St Francis reminds us that “living a good life” or if you want to make it sound extra spiritual, “incarnating the Gospel,” without the words to give a rationale for that life is a mute and finally inadequate witness. It is incomplete. The two—life and language—come together and each sounds out the other.

Does this mean you are all preachers in the technical sense? All ready to give a sermon on a Sunday morning? No. But you are all—we are all—called to be witness to the Gospel. To proclaim it. And proclamation necessarily—not exclusively—but necessarily involves words. The call of Peter in his first letter, “Always be ready to give an account for the hope that is within you,” was not a call given to postulants or ordinands or clergy or to exceptionally devout lay people. It was and is a call that lies on all of us.

All of us are called, in the measure of the graces given to us, to be preachers. What is given liturgical shape by the pulpit is not to remain at the pulpit but to spill over into the whole world. So, everywhere you go, preach the Gospel! And to be true to St. Francis, let me add, “when the time calls for it, use words.”

 

The Lectern: Listening to the Story

Audio for today’s sermon is here: Lectern: Listening to the Story

We’ve heard an outline of the story of the Gospel—the story of God’s creative and redeeming love. We’ve heard how we enter into that story through the waters of baptism. The site at which the Spirit of God unites us to Christ, brings us to new birth, and adopts us into the Family of God.

But what then? On the one hand, the redeeming love of God, who is the Holy Spirit, is poured into our hearts. The Spirit is the free gift given regardless of our social status, how long we’ve been working, or seeking after it, as we heard in our Gospel lesson last week. On the other hand, that redeeming love that is the Holy Spirit seems to take time to do its work, which is to transform us into the people God intended us from all eternity to be, to so unite us to Christ that Christ himself begins to live in and through us, and so take his love to the world.

That brings us to the last three sermons in this series: Lectern, Pulpit, and Altar, those places where we “consume” the story. Now that metaphor might make sense when we’re talking about the altar, where we do literally consume bread and wine. But the notion of the story being consumed is not so far- fetched. We run into it in the Bible itself. It is the controlling metaphor for the call of God to Ezekiel to become a prophet: “[The Lord] said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” Eating the book or the scroll also appears in the New Testament book of Revelation, “I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, ‘Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.’” What does it mean to eat the scroll? To consume the story?

Today, we come to the lectern, and I want to begin by telling you perhaps the biggest reason that led to my being confirmed in the Anglican Church in 2001. Here it is. We read Scripture. Vast amounts of it. We read Scripture in the context of worship. We listen to an Old Testament Lesson, we sing, chant or otherwise pray a Psalm together. We listen to a New Testament lesson. And then the climax: we listen to a Gospel lesson, to the words of Jesus, or an event narrated from his life. When I first started attending the parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Shincliffe, Co. Durham, it wasn’t for the beauty of the liturgy (though, for a struggling country parish, it was lovely), nor was it for the quality of the preaching (though both the vicar and his honorary offered good homilies every week). It was because they read Scripture together. Large chunks of it. It was the Bible, read in the context of worship that captured me. And well, here I am.

The point, of course, is not me. The point rather, is this: it is integral to our Anglican tradition that we orient a large part of our Sunday liturgy around consuming the story simply through listening.

Not only do we worship in this way, but we also we thank God for the opportunity to do so. Do you remember the Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent in the old Book of Common Prayer? “BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.” We make a point of “eating the book,” or “listening to the story,” every Sunday (and at other times). For this is one way in which the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift given in baptism, does his enlivening, renewing, sanctifying work. It is one way in which the Holy Spirit makes us holy—in which the Spirit both makes us like Christ, and calls us to our true selves.

So, when the reader or lector comes to the lectern, we expect to hear from God. We believe that God speaks. That in itself is a radical belief. God speaks. And yet it is found throughout the Bible. Unlike the gods of the Ancient Near East, who formed the universe out of the dead bodies of their enemies, the God of Israel had merely to speak the word to form the world. And God said, and the spaces were created—Light and Darkness, Sky and Sea, Earth and Vegetation. And God said, and the spaces were filled—Sun and Moon, birds and fish, animals and human beings. God spoke to Noah, God called Abraham, God made a pact with Jacob and his children, God declared God’s name to Moses, God spoke to the prophets a message of reformation and renewal that was sometimes heeded and sometimes not. The entire plot of the Old Testament, one could say, is driven by divine speech.

The New Testament—built as it is on the old—takes God’s speech for granted. One gospel writer even takes divine speech as the primary way to understand the incarnation: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The coming of Christ in the Gospel of John is the pre-eminent example of divine speech. Jesus Christ is the speech of God lived out in human history. Jesus Christ is God’s Word with skin on.

Thus far, have the examples suggested that God speaks? Not really. They have suggested that God has spoken—at times past. So we must say a little more. When we gather to listen to the story, to eat the book, we do not say simply that God has spoken, but that the same God continues to speak. So it is what we respond to each lection with the declaration, “The Word of the Lord; Thanks be to God.” So it is that when the Gospel is read, we receive it as though it is coming from the lips of Christ himself: “Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ; Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” The Word that was uttered in times past, that took on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, continues to be a Word addressed to today. And when the lector reads we listen. Not for foibles or fumbles over perplexing places or puzzling people.  But for the very voice of God.

We gather around the lectern to listen, to consume the book, to hear the story because, we believe, the Scriptures are not merely the records of God’s past speech, but because they are also the site where the same God continues to speak. We believe that God speaks. Present tense.

We believe, further, that God’s speech has a purpose. We don’t just listen to the story, we eat the book. We take it in. We absorb it even as our bodies absorb the food we eat. We open ourselves up to it. This speech has a purpose. And that purpose is to transform us, to keep on transforming us, by drawing us into the story. The transforming speech of God is another way of speaking about how the creative and redeeming love of God seeps, slowly but ever-so-surely into our bones as we gather to worship. It transforms us in two ways.

God’s speech transforms us because it discloses God to us. It brings us into an encounter with the holy One, from which we cannot leave except changed. Think of the great theophanies—appearances of God—in the Old Testament. Here are just three examples: at the burning bush, Moses is transformed from a disgraced prince, a stammering shepherd into the God’s appointed leader to bring God’s people to the Land of Promise. In the Temple, Isaiah has a vision of God enthroned, and his mouth is touched by a live coal—he is commissioned to speak God’s Word as a prophet. God speaks to a boy, and says before you were conceived I knew you and called you to carry my words, and when that boy hears those words he is transformed into the prophet Jeremiah. People called by the God who speaks into an encounter. They are transformed by that encounter. Why? Because they met with God, and when one meets with God, one is transformed.

So, yes, God’s speech changes us because it discloses God to us. It brings us into God’s presence. And, at the very same time, it changes us because it transforms us more fully into ourselves. The grace we receive in baptism does not obliterate us, it calls us to ourselves. As that grace is continually received through hearing the word of God in faith, we are not obliterated by our encounter with the Holy One, but rather we become more fully ourselves. Moses is transformed by his encounter with God, but he is transformed into himself. The one who would draw Israel out of Egypt. He is transformed—and this is deliberate in the text of Exodus—so that he can bear the name his mother gave him. He is transformed into Moses. The one who draws out. Isaiah and Jeremiah—called to be prophets. Not transformed so as to be completely other people, but transformed so as to become what God knew them to be from all eternity. More fully themselves, and therefore, fit to bear the words of God to God’s people.

Well, this brings us back to us, and some concluding questions. When the lector comes to the lectern, do you expect to hear from God? Do you expect an encounter? Do you hunger and thirst for a word from the Holy One, a word that will transform you? What might change in you if you did?

This story with a cosmic scope, this story with a cross-shape is one that is told and re-told every week. And as it is, we—you and me, the community of the baptized—are drawn further up and further in to it. Some of you might have noticed the allusion to C. S. Lewis just there. Here’s an explicit quote, also from the Narnia chronicles. Peter, Lucy and Edmund have discovered that they were called into Narnia at the moment their train crashed. They have discovered, in short, that they are dead. “But for them,” concludes Lewis, “it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Here’s the good news. The Gospel that is embedded in our Lectern: unlike the Pevensie children, you don’t have to wait to be dead to recognize that you’re a part of the Great Story! Because God speaks. God draws us into the story and pours the story into us. God reveals himself; God reveals ourselves; and so slowly transforms us until we are fit to behold God forever.

 

Sermon: The Font–Entering the Christian Story

This morning’s audio is here: The Font–Entering the Christian Story

 

Over the last two Sundays we were introduced, or re-introduced to a story with a Cosmic Scope and a Cross-Shape. It is the story of a God who, out of sheer desire to love another, created the universe. The creation story in Genesis chapter 1 delights in affirming the beauty and order of each stage of creation as God builds a Temple, creates women and men to be priests in that Temple, and then rests. Which is to say, takes up residence in that Temple.

It is also the story of God’s refusal to let that Temple be torn down. It is the story of a creating love that is also a redeeming love. A love that takes up the priesthood of all humanity in one great high priest, and completes it. That priesthood, we said, took the form of self-emptying love that was fully displayed on the cross, where the priest himself became a victim. His is a power that looks like weakness, a victory that looks like loss, wisdom that resembles foolishness, a love that has been rejected. But appearances can be deceiving. The love that was embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, the God who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, did in fact declare the cross to be a victory by walking out of his grave, showing himself to the twelve, and ascending to the right hand of God the Father. To take his rightful place as the King and Priest of God’s creation. It is in the Easter-list of resurrection that St. Paul could see that , as he wrote in our NT lesson last week, “The Cross is the wisdom and power of God.”

What a wonderful story! Creation is the object of God’s love, a love so passionate that it will stoop to the gates of hell, to the threshold of “unbeing” to restore it. But it’s still a story outside of us. It is about something that happens to us, and to the world around us.

What if it’s also a story that happens in us? A story that works itself out in the actual lives of women and men in the present? What if it leaves room for improvised chapters, weaving our life-stories into its grand one, and filling them with even greater meaning all the while? What if it’s a story that, if we let it narrate us, doesn’t overwrite us but invites us to become more fully ourselves? OK. Those last two questions were for the English professors. What if the Christian story has the power to draw us into it? To make us a part of it? To become not just a story, but a lived reality in this world? Those are the questions that will drive us for the remainder of our series.

For now, let’s begin with this one: where do we enter? Where do we become a part of the story? And that place is the font. Now, fonts can be found in various places within a church—under a baptism window (as our smaller font is sometimes found), or in the midst of the nave symbolizing the welcome of the newly baptized into the family of God, or even up at the front for the simple reason so that no one has an obstructed view. There is no one right place for a font. Still, many churches from ancient times have placed their fonts right at the entrance to the nave. And that’s where our old marble font is. Now I must confess, I don’t know if our font is there for symbolic reasons or just because it is incredibly heavy and the movers didn’t want to take it elsewhere. But I am glad it is at the entrance to the nave. Because it reminds us by its placement there that baptism is about beginnings.

Have you ever noticed the place of water in the great story that we have been telling? Wherever things begin, water seems to be there. In the beginning, when the earth was formless and empty, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. When the hearts of men and women were turned entirely to evil, the Spirit of God withdrew the restraints and allowed the waters to cover creation again so that God could renew, rebegin, creation after the Flood. When the LORD laid bare his mighty arm to rescue his people from slavery in Egypt, the waters of the Red Sea parted so that Israel could pass through on dry land. Those same waters closed on the Egyptian army so that Israel could begin their journey to the land of Promise freed from Egypt’s domination forever. When the people came to the threshold of the promised land, the waters of the Jordan river parted in front of the priests carrying the Ark of God so that the people could begin to move in to the land.

Centuries later, the Lord Jesus stood waist deep in the same river arguing with his cousin John about who should baptize whom. Finally, it was decided that the waters should in fact receive him who knew no sin in order to fulfill all righteousness. This baptism began the mission that we spoke of last week. The mission that was the victory of God over God’s enemies, God’s judgment on sin, God’s cleansing sacrifice that cleans all of us inside and out.

Water, water, everywhere. And everywhere a new beginning

And when we come to the font, the echoes of all those stories surround us. They are all events in the great story of the Gospel, the story that we learn through song and scripture, symbol and sight.

Here at the font, our individual stories are taken up into the great story and they are begun again. Here at the font Christ’s story becomes ours and ours becomes Christ’s. Here, our destinies are intertwined with his. Here’s how St. Paul puts it:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

There are three points here I want to make.

First, at the font, my story is taken up, by the Spirit, into the cosmic, cross-shaped story that is the story of Jesus Christ. The story of God’s love enacted in this world. The Spirit that hovered over the waters at creation, that parted the Red Sea and the Jordan River, that descended upon the man Jesus of Nazareth to begin his mission as Messiah, that same Spirit hovers over the waters of baptism, ready again to do his re-creating and rescuing work. Here is where the Spirit unites us to Jesus Christ. So it is that we pray over the waters, these words:

“Now sanctify this water by the power of your Holy Spirit, that whose who are cleansed from sin and born again, may continue forever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.”

Do you see the intersecting images in that prayer? Here is where we are cleansed from sin. Our sin—that which has torn us away from God’s loving embrace, that which enslaves us, and to which we are willingly enthralled, that is washed away. Here is where we are born again—born of water and the Spirit as Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3—here is where the prisonhouse of sin whose sacrament is death is broken.

Why? Why are we cleansed from sin and born again? So that we may continue forever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior. So that, in other words, we might be united to him. So that his density might become ours and ours might be united to him.

At the font, my story is taken up, by the Spirit into the cosmic, cross-shaped story that is the story of Jesus Christ. My story, if you like, is begun again. Re-told in a new and better way.

Here’s the second point.

At the font, where my sins are washed away, where I am born again, where I am united with Christ, where his destiny becomes mine, where my story is caught up into the great story of the Gospel, I am not obliterated. I become more fully myself. I become the me God intends me to be. “The glory of God is the human being fully alive,” said the great second century theologian and bishop, Irenaeus. And at the font we are made fully alive.

That is a point that seems so lost sometimes when people think about Christian faith. The New Testament language of being born again, or becoming a new creation, or putting on the new person, as Paul describes it elsewhere, is sometimes presented in such a way that it’s heard as “you won’t be you anymore.” But that is not what the language of new birth and new creation mean.

They mean, instead, a putting of creation back on the rails. Where sin had derailed God’s good creation, had frustrated its purpose and prevented it from fulfilling its destiny as God’s temple, God sent his Son to be the one faithful priest who, by giving himself fully and completely for the healing of that world, would right everything. Would get things back on course. And baptism is the spot where we are incorporated into that once-for-all act of making right. We are made right. We become the people God intended us to be when he thought of us before we were made. The destiny God intended for us—a destiny once frustrated by sin—has by Christ been opened to us again. And that destiny to take our place as God’s image, God’s Viceroy, God’s priests in a new creation. Our story begins again, to be sure, and it begins as our true story.

Which brings me to my third point.

Baptism marks the beginning of that union with Christ, that transformation in which I become more fully myself, more fully the creature God intends, more fully alive.

So at every baptism we—all of us, the newly baptized and the long-time baptized–renew our baptismal covenant. Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship? Will your persevere in resisting evil? Will you proclaim the good news? Will you serve Christ in all persons? Will you strive for justice?

It would be great wouldn’t it if, as soon as the waters hit our heads, it was once and done, and all the work God needed to do in us was accomplished.

But that is not how God works. God works in us, all the while keeping us, us. Working at one point here, another there, as the calendar pages pass. It is good, John Calvin once said, if today is better than yesterday. So it is that the story into which we are drawn in our baptisms is one we need to hear over and over and over again. One we need to take into ourselves regularly. So that the promises made by the Spirit of God to us at the font have the time they need to mature, to come true.

Baptism is the place where the adventure begins. Where the cosmic story of cross-shaped love becomes mine in order that I might, even as I listen to it and take it into myself, become me, to the glory of God.

 

Sermon: A Cross-Shaped Church

Today’s sermon is here: A Cross-Shaped Church

Last week, we began to look around. We let our gaze take in the shape of our church. There’s the nave: the overturned boat inside which the faithful gather on their journey away from the chaos of sin and death and to God’s new creation. The chancel: the place that is separated, that is cut off, that symbolically expresses the place where we’re headed in our little ship. And there’s the transept: the aisle that both links the nave and chancel together and at the same time cuts across to keep them apart.

When the three sections merge in our minds, two shapes are encountered. First, there’s a human shape. There’s a head, shoulders and arms, and a body that together remind us of the cosmic scope of the Christian story. Christianity tells a story about humanity’s place in the world, and the about the God who has placed us here and why. Christians tell a story about the beauty, the wonder, and the power of creative love: the love of God from which the cosmos has come and to which it will return. The love of God that has made each of us a little lower than the angels and filled with dignity.

We noticed another shape, too, though. And this one is considerably darker. Nave transept and chancel also combine to form a cross. The familiar symbol for the faith as a whole and for its founder, the Lord Jesus. What does the cross-shape tell us about the God who is creative love? What does it tell us about the one who, in his own human body, became the person in whom God’s creative love was shown to be a strong and saving love? What does it tell us about the people who claim this story as their own? Those are the questions I would have us reflect on today.

That sounds fairly straight forward, but in fact this reflection is quite hard. Not simply because that’s a lot to fit into 17 minutes (yes, I do time my sermons), but because of our very familiarity of the cross as the symbolic expression of Christian faith. It might be wise for us to remember that it was not always so. In the first centuries of Christian faith, the horrible death of its founder was scandalous—to Jewish and Gentile people alike, whether they were his followers or not. For everyone, the cross was a symbol of the Roman power to take life, not of God’s power to give it. If we were to look for the cross, in fact, we would be hard-pressed find one in the first three centuries of Christian art. Today, after 1700 years of cultural acceptance, the cross is no longer simply a church decoration, it can be found everywhere. And in its omnipresence, it has been emptied of meaning.

If we are going to reflect together on the questions I just mentioned, and do it honestly and authentically; if we are going to wrestle with this hard part of the Christian story, then we need first to recover the scandal that the cross brought upon the first Christians. So let’s try a thought experiment. Suppose behind me on the reredos, or atop the crucifer’s staff, or large and gaze filling, as over the belltower chapel, you were to see a hangman’s noose. How would you respond? Viscerally? Negatively? Certainly you would! I would. Now, keeping that visceral negative lurch in mind, hear these words: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Christ, and him crucified.” (So wrote Paul to that educated, urban, and urbane group of Christians in the city of Corinth, reminding them of the horrific source of their saving hope).

In Corinth, as throughout the ancient world, the cross and its message scandalized Jews and Gentiles both. But early Christians could not excise the cross from their imaginations. It was part and parcel of the faith because it expressed something that actually happened. The one whom they confessed as Lord even over Caesar had been murdered on a Roman Cross. And indeed, they proclaimed, that death, that single event, was the site where the rift between human beings and God was bridged, where God’s enemies were defeated, and creation set right. The cross is thus both an offense, and the bedrock of the good news. Once we lay hold of both ends, the horror and the hope, we will be ready to reflect on the questions that come with a cross-shaped church.

What does the cross tell us about the God who is creative love?

It tells us that this God exercises his power in a way that looks awfully like weakness. The God of the Christian story is creator of all. “Baruch atah Adonai elohaynu melech ha olam,” if you’ve ever been to a synagogue or a Jewish wedding or funeral or bar mitzvah, you’ve heard those words. Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the universe. The Christian story cannot deny that any more than it can deny its own Jewish roots. Look at our scriptures—the Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible; the books of the New Testament with only two exceptions were written by Jews. But the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus, does not exercise power the way we expect a king to do so. God exercises power by refusing to act as his enemies do. God exercises power by submitting to their judgment. God exercises power by going to the cross. God exercises power by giving up his human life.

And that is offensive. At least, it has been to many, many people. Not least, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. This story, he said, valorizes weakness and dresses up the base in a false nobility. But of course, the offense is much older than that, isn’t it? What did Peter say when Jesus told the disciples that his way to glory was the way of the cross? “Surely not, Lord! This must never happen to you.” It’s offensive because it looks for all the world like a failure, like the worst of all disappointments.

Except. Except the creative love that is God, that was incarnate in the man Jesus, cannot stay dead. “I have power to lay [my life] down,” says Jesus in the Gospel of John, “and I have power to take it up again,” (John 10:18). The powers are free to do their worst. And Jesus on the cross submits, and yet refuses their word as the last word. He does not fight the enemy on the enemy’s own terms—with an army of angels visiting vengeance on the hordes of hell. He takes all his enemy can throw at him and swallows it in the divine mercy. And in the resurrection, the victory of mercy is announced. The last word is life. That is good news!

What does the cross tell us about the one who, in his own human body, showed God’s creative love to be a strong and saving love?

It tells us that the One who is both God and man knows what it is to suffer. There is a sense, of course, in which every instance of human suffering is unique. Tolstoy expressed it well in Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So it is with suffering. Every human being suffers; but each suffers uniquely. And yet, the God of creative love is not remote from such suffering, for in the grand refusal to abandon the objects of his affection, in the grand entrance into our space and time as one of us, he took on all that it meant to be human. He knows human suffering not in some remote way unique to being divine, but because as Jesus of Nazareth, God suffered as a man. So it is that, as the medieval imagination grasped during the plague epidemics that swept across the continent, this was one who knew what it was to suffer, and in some way suffered with them, even still, taking their suffering into his own being and offering it as a prayer for release to his Father.

It tells us, moreover, of the depth of his embrace of the human condition. If he has suffered even to the point of death, then he has left no depth unplumbed. He has taken all of it and made it his own. Whatever has not been assumed, said St. Gregory Nazianzus, has not been healed. What he meant was, the saving work of Christ depended upon his becoming human, his drawing of human nature—all humanity—into God by himself becoming a human being. If any realm of human experience, any space of human action, any piece of human being has not been been embraced by God the Son, then we are not saved. The humbling of Christ unto death, even death on a cross, is the Christian story’s way of saying, there is no remainder. He has embraced it all. And because he has, we are saved. That is good news.

What does the cross tell us about the people who claim this story as their own?

It tells us that we cannot save ourselves. That the fabric that once united God and creation, God and human creatures, has been so badly torn that it cannot be mended from our end. That all our attempts to mend it will finally fail. It makes plain the reality of sin. We’ve run into that word, sin, a couple of times. And perhaps we need to pause here to talk a bit more about it. The great Anglican preacher Fleming Rutledge tells of meeting a parishioner having just come from a Catholic funeral for a teenager tragically killed in a car accident. “They prayed,” said the parishioner shaking with rage, “that she be forgiven her sins. This fourteen year old child. Her sins!”

Rutledge goes on to wonder why her parishioner’s imagination had so atrophied that she could not think of a teenager as a sinner. Perhaps it was because she was—like all of us—inclined to think of sin as a list of actions we shouldn’t do. Most fourteen year olds certainly haven’t got too long a list and whatever is on there can be excused because of youth, foolishness, and lack of life-learned wisdom. But the cross makes no allowance for age. It tells us—all of us—that sin has ripped us away from the God of creative love to such an extent that we cannot find our way back on our own. It is a sobering, even odious thought.

Except. Except that it also tells us of our value and dignity, the glory with which we were created. The glory we spoke of last week when we read Psalm 8 together. God will not leave his creation to its own self-willed destruction, and that means, that in God’s eyes we are still the objects of desire, delight, and eternal affection. God will not leave us on the wrong side of the rift. Rather than leave the rift in place and remain alone in glorious perfection, the God of creative love stepped across the abyss, entered into the mess, the suffering, the pain, the entirety of the human condition, embraced it and made it his own. “And he humbled himself,” chanted some ancient Christians, “and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” And Jesus did that so that no one would remain lost, isolated, and alone. So that no one would remain in sin’s prison. But that all would recover their true dignity as the image of God, and their true destiny as sharing as fully as a creature can in God’s creative love. That is good news!

But we’re not quite done yet. I just mentioned an early Christian hymn to Jesus that Paul preserves for us in his letter to the church in the city of Philippi. Here’s a little more of that hymn “who, though he was in the form of God, considered equality with God not something to be grasped, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave and being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

What a beautiful expression of the cruciform shape God’s love took in the incarnation, ministry and death of Jesus. But let’s look now at St. Paul’s preface to the hymn: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in the Messiah, Jesus.” This mind. The mind that refuses the rights and privileges proper to one’s station. The mind that embraces radical obedience to God, even to the point of death. This mind, says Paul to the Philippian Christians—and to us—is to be in you, too! We serve not only a cross-shaped God, who embraced all that it means to be human for us and for our salvation, but as we do so, and insofar as we do so, we become a cross-shaped people. A people with the mind of Christ.

To love God’s creation even to the point of death, betting on the hope that creative love cannot abandon creation to destruction—now, that is an awfully big adventure! And that is the adventure to which the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth have been called. We are here, in this cross-shaped space, to become just a little bit more conformed to the cross-shape that is the shape of creative love in and for a fallen world. And I’ll talk more about that next week.

 

Nave and Chancel: The Scope of the Christian Story

Audio is available here: The Scope of the Christian Story

Everybody has a story. What’s yours? All of us are shaped by events, people, places, things. All of us are “storied,” in that sense. Maybe we say, everybody is a story.

Advertisers bet on that. If it weren’t true, they’d be out of work! It used to be that products were sold to us based on what they could do—“Tide keeps your whites cleaner than clean,” or on our preferences: “Eighty percent of people preferred Pepsi over Coke in the Pepsi Challenge.”

Now, advertisers sell us stories. The products are the means by which we make those stories ours. “Give yourself a KitKat. Give yourself a break.” That’s not selling candy; that’s selling the story that you are a hard-working, industrious person who needs a break. KitKat is there to help you.

We are sold stories about what kind of people we want to be and become. We are sold the stories that make us, us. In fact, that’s our culture’s big story. The one that animates everything we do: we are who we are, or we become who we wish to become, through what we buy. We dress it up in radical individualism sometimes, “I am the captain of my fate; I am the master of my soul,” as Henley’s poem Invictus tells us. But if we peel back that liberating layer, we are more likely to see that we are, or we become, the stories the corporations push at us to make a profit.

Christianity is also a story. Sometimes we are tempted to make Christian faith a little story, like the story of KitKat. We buy KitKats because we are hard workers who need a break; we buy organic because we are socially conscious hard workers. And we add just a little Christianity because we are socially conscious hard workers who are open to the mystery of the universe.

But what if Christianity is not a little story? What if Christian faith challenges the “you become what you buy” story? What if it tells another, bigger (and ultimately better and more beautiful) story?

That’s the question that will bubble away under the sermons for the next few weeks and one I want us to come back to every so often. What if the story that we see and hear and act out every Sunday is a story that wants to consume our whole lives and transform us into entirely new and different kinds of people?

Let’s look around. Don’t attend to what’s going on as much as to where you are. Let your gaze take in as much of the space as it can. What do you see? What catches your eye? This space is designed to tell the Christian story. Often, we don’t even know it’s being told or that we are taking it in. And yet there it is. Over the next few weeks, we are going to have a look at the furnishings—the particulars—to see how they tell us different parts of the story. But this week and next, I want us to look at the space itself, to see what it tells us. Let’s look around.

Our worship space is made up of three intersecting areas. The largest space is the nave. That’s where you’re sitting. Its name comes from the Latin word, navis, or ship. St. Peter tells us in his New Testament letter, the church is the new Noah’s Ark that rescues the faithful from the chaos of sin and death and delivers them safely to God’s new creation. If you allow your eyes to follow the pillars up the wall to the ceiling, the nave kind of looks like an overturned boat doesn’t it?

The second largest space is the chancel, where I am now standing. Its name is also Latin—cancelli, which means lattice work. The chancel once separated from the nave by a lattice screen. You might remember its old English name, rood screen. Sometimes it’s called the sanctuary, or holy place, because Holy Communion takes place here.

Last, between nave and chancel, is the transept, a rectangular aisle that cuts across the church. In fact, its name—also Latin—tells you exactly what it does. “Transept” means “across the enclosure.”

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, I’m not sitting through seven weeks of Latin lessons! Don’t worry. I’m not either. But now you have a sense of shape and the names that go with the shape.

When you take in the three parts together, what do you see ?

Some of you might see a cross. Many churches, from ancient times are or cross-shaped; we’ll talk about being a cross-shaped people next week. But there’s another figure there, in the union of the chancel, the transept, and the nave. Do you see it? A head, shoulders and arms, and a torso. It’s a human being. The Christian Story is a human story.

The Christian story is a big story—a metanarrative is what some philosophers call it—about humanity’s place in the cosmos. Listen to how the Psalmist places human beings in God’s cosmos:

O Lord, our Sovereign,    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.     Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,    to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,    the moon and the stars that you have established;  what are human beings that you are mindful of them,    mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,    and crowned them with glory and honour.  You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;    you have put all things under their feet,  all sheep and oxen,    and also the beasts of the field,  the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Sovereign,    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

 

The Psalmist takes language usually restricted to kings and princes in the ancient world and applies it to every human being. God has made everything, including every human being. God has crowned every human being with dignity and honour. God has placed human beings in creation in a representative role. Our value is found not in our race, our sex, our religion, our age, our wealth, or on any other way we seek to distinguish ourselves. Our value lies in that God has created us, and in the task to which God has called us. Human beings—every single one—find their dignity not in what we can purchase, but in the fact that each of us has been created by God, to be God’s image in the world.

Every grand story—whether the story told by the Christian faith or by late modern capitalism (the two we know best) or another—answers five questions. In Psalm 8, we find Jewish and Christian answers to the first three.

Who are we? We are God’s representatives in creation.

Where did we come from? We were created and placed by God in a universe of God’s making.

Why are we here? We are here to care for all that God has made.

So it is that the Christian story begins with God’s love. God created an orderly universe and placed us in it for no other reason than God desired that it be so. God loved the universe, and us, God conceived it and us, and God brought it, and us, into being. And in love, God holds it and us in being moment to moment.

This, says Dante, is the love that moves the stars.

And as God’s representatives, this is the love that we are to model. We are to care for creation and recognize and act upon the dignity of every human being, even as God would and does. This is a story with cosmic scope and everyday ethical import. It has not only to do with God’s care for us, but our care for each other and for God’s world.

And that’s a problem.

Because, of course, all we have to do is look at the news to see that human beings don’t treat each other or God’s world with love and reverence; all we have to do is look out our windows to see that nature, while often beautiful, is just as often not. I remember the horror on my son’s face as he watched a raccoon raid a squirrel’s nest when we lived in Norway Bay. How can God be the creator of a universe in which human beings suffer at the hands of others, in which the life of some depends on the death of others?

If the Christian story can make a claim upon our hearts as offering a glimpse of what is Good and True and Beautiful, it must face squarely the fourth question: What went wrong?

The Bible is a book largely about what went wrong. The story that it tells is attuned to human suffering and sin. It is aware of predation, sickness, and death. Last year our seniors’ bible study worked through the Old Testament books of Judges and Ruth, and by the end we were tired of their sometimes horrific realism.

The New Testament contains a book that probably was once a sermon actually preached in an ancient Christian community. It’s called the Book of Hebrews. Its writer, knowing very well that things had gone off the rails, makes this comment on Psalm 8: “As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to [human beings].” This is a subdued statement that humans have failed in their calling to love as God loves. It is a brief, but real acknowledgement of evil, suffering, and death. Of all that the Bible gathers together under that little word, sin.

Something has gone wrong. Of that there can be no doubt. But is that it? No. There’s one more big question. How will things be set right?

What stops the Christian story from ending as tragedy is its firm conviction that the God who created out of sheer love will not leave what is loved to destruction. That God will set things right.

Still commenting on Psalm 8, the author of Hebrews tells us where that conviction comes from. “As it is, we do not see everything in subjection to human beings, but we do see Jesus.” The last question is answered not by a theory, but a person. Well, that gets us into next week’s sermon.

This morning there’s just one more point I want to make.

Christian faith is a story about humanity, and its place, your place, in the cosmos God has created. You can read that cosmic scope from the human shape of our building.

But the Christian story is not tidy. It is not tidy, because actual human lives are not tidy. It is complicated and complex because you are complicated and complex and so am I. It does not offer certainty. It does not offer “10 steps to a happy life.” It is a story of your cosmic place mine. A story that insists you and I begin and our end in God’s love. And that is good news.

 

Christ With Us in a World Gone Mad

Here is my latest column at ChristianWeek. I am very fortunate to be a contributor to this fine publication. If you’re not already familiar with it, take some time to look at its stories and columns. It is an important venue for Canadian Christians to express themselves and listen to each other!

BTW, if the column strikes a chord,  comment, whether there or here!

The Third Year Blues

As I come to my third anniversary at the Epiphany, I find this article quite interesting. I wonder if any others out there can resonate with it or wish to comment on their own experience. I am particularly interested to hear from pastors who made it through. . . . Was this your experience? How did you get through it? Or, how did you avoid it?