Category Archives: Sermons

The Taste For Heaven

The Third Sunday after Easter, Year C
The Sunday following the Boston Marathon Bombing
Revelation 7:9-17
April 21, 2013
The Church of the Holy Spirit, Massachusetts
The Rev. Adam S. Linton 

This last Monday afternoon, at about ten minutes before three, once again we were swept up in horrible, unimaginable violence.  That violence and its aftermath are hard to bear—and hard to bear spiritually, in particular.  We feel overwhelmed—with dismay, with fear, with anger, with deep questioning.  In the midst of the terrible happenings, we also have a humbled gratitude for those who stepped forward into spheres of great danger, to tend to the wounded, to comfort the dying, to be present with the bereaved, to secure our safety—and work toward the administration of justice.

We’re here, together, this morning, drawn by the Spirit; asking questions, and taking hold of such threads of hope as are given to us.  And maybe that’s what matters most of all today.  Yesterday, I was asked—in short order—about capital punishment, pacifism, and the universality of forgiveness.  Well, I probably won’t have very good answers.  We’re all struggling, aren’t we?

Before going on, though, maybe I need to offer a brief comment about forgiveness.  It is, indeed, the unbroken proclamation of the church that God’s forgiveness is sufficient to deal with every manner of sin, even the most terrible.  But we take hold of God’s forgiveness, we connect with its wonderful reality, through repentance and faith.  However, if we are outraged at the very notion that we need to be forgiven, if we thereby hold the Giver in contempt and refuse the Gift—we still have a major problem.  Forgiveness is Grace, not magic.

Long before last Monday, I had planned to preach on the passage from Revelation that we just heard.  Of course, I had no idea then how strangely apt its language might be for us today.

We’ll launch in, now, with a quick reminder that the whole book of Revelation is highly symbolic.  It’s extended poetry—and we can’t take hold of what the Spirit means to give to us in this strange book unless we can apprehend it with poetic diction.  It’s a highly repetitive book—with flashbacks and flashforwards; increasing in intensity, the scene shifting back and forward between Heaven and Earth.  It’s filled with extravagant imagery, resonating with many biblical allusions, many of which we now barely “get.”  But as all this poetry sweeps over us and seeps into us, perhaps we will “hear what the Spirit is saying.”  May it be so.

What’s the message?  In one word:  “God.”

It’s about God.  From first to last; Alpha and Omega.  It’s about the real God who is infinitely more than an extension of ourselves; a God who is irreducibly “other.”  This is the God who can be intimidating—whom we would often rather avoid when things don’t feel quite so high-stakes, but nevertheless—at deepest down level—the God we know we need at crunch time.

More than this:  that great, irreducibly “other” God cares—from his very heart of love and mercy—about us.

Yet a difficult honesty has to admit that much of the time it doesn’t feel as though this is so.  In the world where you and I live, often (maybe more often than not) God can feel distant and disconnected.  We wonder “where are you?”  In his time, Jesus wondered that too, didn’t he?

Emily Dickinson is one of the English language’s greatest poets.  She was not a conventional believer, that’s for sure, but she certainly conveyed human experience powerfully—especially our struggle with faith.  One of her poems came to mind for me in this last week.   I’d like to share it with you:

Apparently with no surprise,
To any happy flower,
The frost beheads it at its play,
In accidental power.
The blond assassin passes on.
The sun proceeds unmoved,
To measure off another day,
For an approving God.

Yes.  It sometimes feels that way, doesn’t it?   And yet, with all due respect to Dickinson, the Poetry of the Spirit given to us in the book of Revelation sets forth an even greater reality; more than our eyes can now perceive and more than our present can possibly hold.

To be sure, this doesn’t “make it all better” right away.  It doesn’t immediately answer all the questions.  But as we keep putting one foot in front of the other in this broken world of ours, and with these broken hearts, this strange utterance of the Spirit recasts all things.  “Behold, I make all things new.”

Throughout the book of Revelation—and centrally in today’s text—we find the theme of worship.  For God’s People, it is worship which connects our present, still-broken earthly reality with the heavenly.  Now, we ought to be clear about what worship is and what it isn’t.  It is not as though the Almighty God is of such terribly weak ego strength that he has to be flattered constantly to build up his sense of self!  No, God doesn’t need our worship.  It is we who need to worship—in order to be attuned to reality.  We aren’t speaking, here, of mere ritual, in itself, but, rather—as God’s People, the adoration, the delight, the obedience and full response of our life to our holy and worship-worthy God.

We must never buy into the notion that this is some sort of corporate indulgence on the part of the Church; a diversion from our other, “really important” business.  That may be how the world would like to see it.  We must not.  Rather, the worship of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is always our first duty and our culminating joy as God’s People.  Everything else we do flows out from it—and leads back to it in turn.  This is what connects us, here and now, to heaven.  This is what attunes us to reality.

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’  11And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped.”  (7:9-11)

In most popular thinking about the world to come, we focus on the question:  Who “gets” to go to Heaven?  This ignores the deeper—perhaps much more critical—issue of whether we would like it very much if we were there!  Imagine “Heaven” as a great, eternal, cosmic celebration.  But suppose, for the sake of illustration, that we really didn’t like being around the others who were invited, suppose we found the activities unpleasant, and—finally—didn’t care much for the Host, the One around whom it all was gathered.  There’s nowhere “else” to go, and it’s never going to end.  We might have a rather different word than “Heaven” for that experience, mightn’t we?

Something to think about.

So how do we get to the “there” about which we’ve been speaking—and recognize it as a blessing?  How do we get to the intersection of eternal joy?  That’s the question which the seer of Revelation poses, himself.  Who are those summoned to this adoration and saving delight?

“ ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’  14I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’  Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ ” (7:13-14)

We know a little more—maybe a good deal more—about “ordeal” this last week; both the outwardly traumatic, and also the quiet sufferings of the heart, with which our life is now bound up.

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.”  

This isn’t only just for the future (although it is certainly future in significant part).  These words also testify to a present reality:  sharing in the victory of God; born into the delight of God, even here and now—when we don’t have answers to questions we so desperately seek.  And we get to this reality, both present and future—through the Sacrifice of Jesus.  It is through the Self-emptying of God Incarnate, in the Blood of the Lamb, that we are born into the reality of worship and adoration.  It is through the Christ’s redemptive Sacrifice on the Cross that we are able to stand before the eternal throne.

So, while we are involved—with the totality of our being—worship is not our separate human project.  It is based, at the root of it, on who God is and what God does.

That’s where we begin—always.  And where does a life of worship lead?  It leads to God.  Alpha and Omega.  Worship leads us back to the  provision which God gives—to the care in which God holds us:  more than our eyes can now see, and more than our present can now hold.  Ultimately (even though we must wait for a time), a life of worship leads us to the redemption of all suffering.

From first to last, it’s about God.  Only because of this do we matter, in turn.  If it weren’t about God, if we were just slogging it out in a universe of happenstance, then we would pass away into insignificance.  But because of the real God, we matter.  Yes, God is at work—with nothing less than cosmic redemption.  God is concerned for the character and quality of human community.  But we matter.  You and I matter.  Personally.  We are infinitely more than mere raw material for some collective utopia.  Our joys, our aspirations, our failures, the burdens of our hearts—we matter.

We hear in the text:  “God will wipe away every tear.”  I thought of Psalm 56, too, which speaks to the same theme:

O God, “you put my tears in your bottle.  Are they not in your record?”  (56:8)

Yes.  God cares for the great and the global.  But God cares about you, too, right now as you sit in the pew—and to eternity.  And there’s no burden too insignificant—or too big—for the Wonderful Mercy.  So even if we will need to learn to walk in the dark for a while, we carry the light of God implanted by the Spirit in our hearts.

The habituation of worship in our lives takes commitment and spiritual discipline.  In a world with plenty of distractions this doesn’t just happen.   C. S. Lewis wrote, “If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the  only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally,”  (The Problem of Pain, “Divine Goodness”)  That’s not stinginess but reality.  Yet, once again—Praise be!  It is God himself who gives us the desire and capacity for worship.  It is God, through Jesus the Son, in the power of the Spirit, who leads us as we acquire “the taste for Heaven” ever more perfectly—then to share it ever more abundantly.   This is the hope of God’s People:

“The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd.  He will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”  (7:17)  

And so, in the midst of all things; even today—especially today:

“Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!  Amen.”  (7:12)

Taking Our Life In Our Hands

1 Corinthians 11:23-32 
Maundy Thursday, April 5, 2012
The Church of the Holy Spirit, Orleans, Massachusetts
The Rev. Adam S. Linton

O Cherished Night, two nights from the Dawn!

Dearest Lord Christ, if uncomprehending we must remain, grant to us, at least, an undistracted love and awe.

Tonight, we commemorate the Last Supper, which Jesus shares with his disciples before he goes forth to his death. We are celebrating the institution of the Eucharist; indispensably central to our life as Christ’s People. It’s dear, especially, to our hearts as Christians of the Episcopal tradition. Characteristically, we are perhaps better at intuiting the importance of this night than articulating it. That’s not so bad: after all, it’s really beyond all possible articulation. But we hear; ponder and receive.

“The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ ” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)

These words never grow old. I’ve been a priest for over thirty years. I’ve presided at Eucharist thousands of times. In all the years, through ups and downs, attention and distraction, the self-attesting power of these words has always been evident: A narrative central to our purpose and mission.

If we combine the record of Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians with the Gospel texts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke we have the full formula that we know.

“TAKE, EAT! DRINK FROM IT, ALL OF YOU!” (Matthew 26:26,27)

Those are commands—not suggestions. Not, “feel free to sample, if you take a notion.” Commands; expressed in their own way in John’s Gospel, too: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53)

Renewed attention to these words has reawakened us to the Lordly Command—and our following call, as the Church, to share. “The Gifts of God for the People of God.” We have been reawakened to the awareness that the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is not a “top-off” to some humanly achieved “state of grace.” The Eucharist is food for the journey: divinely established means to the divinely appointed end.

The Divine Commands, “Take, eat! Drink from it, all of you,” are uttered to the unworthy, undeserving, and unprepared. God pays for what God orders. “The Gifts of God for the People of God.” But there’s a lot going on in these words, too, that we may likely pass by, all too quickly.

While we ought to be truly grateful for much needed reawakenings, I wonder, sometimes, if there might be another unhelpful spiritual reduction going on in our thinking these days. What I mean is this: the reduction of the Sacrament to a hospitality ritual—a corporately self-serving proclamation of how very nice we are. (Unlike, of course, those others.)

But the Sacrament won’t be so reduced. The Proclamation is not about us. The Eucharist is a risky business. After all, we’re taking our life in our hands.

Immediately following Paul’s setting forth of the Words of Institution Paul has a mindful challenge to offer. This follow-up unfortunately now often gets dropped from the Maundy Thursday Epistle lection. We’ve included it, even though it feels a bit disquieting.

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29)

Well, that certainly puts us in a tough spot! Is this just a bit of alien piety beyond which we’ve thankfully moved? I think not. More ancient devotion thought a lot about it—and really did much more than just think. It prayed and worked with the challenge. And there’s more in it for us today than we may be inclined to admit.

There’s a section in our current Book of Common Prayer, something of an antique holdover from the old Books. For a number of reasons, it no longer has much of a workable place in most Episcopal worship services today. However, I’m convinced that it still is valuable, at least from time to time, in our own personal reflections. It’s called “An Exhortation,” and it’s found on page three hundred sixteen. Don’t worry, I won’t be reading it all the way to the end. Not quite. I invite you to open up a Prayer Book now, and take a look. The red volume in the pew racks. Page three hundred sixteen.

Whether it feels congenial or not, I’d invite us to be present with it; pray with it—breathe with it, as I say, and see what it may have to say to us. It’ll be OK. We can take the time. It’s Holy Week, after all.

Beloved in the Lord: Our Savior Christ, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood as a sign and pledge of his love, for the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of his death, and for a spiritual sharing in his risen life. For in these holy Mysteries we are made one with Christ, and Christ with us; we are made one body in him, and members one of another.

Having in mind, therefore, his great love for us, and in obedience to his command, his Church renders to Almighty God our heavenly Father never ending thanks for the creation of the world, for his continual providence over us, for his love for all mankind, and for the redemption of the world by our Savior Christ, who took upon himself our flesh, and humbled himself even to death on the cross, that he might make us the children of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, and exalt us to everlasting life.

But if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup.

For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord.

Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven. And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food.

We may well wonder: Where’s the Good News in this? Are we caught between a rock and a hard place? It sounds so “judgmental.”

It is!

However, the words of First Corinthians—and their pastoral expansion in the Exhortation—are not meant to be a barrier to participation, but an invitation to faithful mindfulness.

In spite of all our best and necessary efforts, when we draw near to this Table we are coming to judgment. But if we come in faith, we do so eagerly. Because we are speaking of the Saving Judgment which God in Christ has undertaken on our behalf!

As we heard,

“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26)

That’s where this cherished night leads—and must lead. There’s no fast-forwarding, no skipping over the tracks to the short-circuited “happy ending.” If we try to do so, we miss the point. It would be like cutting, over and over again, to the last five minutes of the grand symphony—its glorious culmination that can only be understood in the context of all the music that went before.

It won’t do to evade the empty, difficult starkness that will soon be upon us. Soon, yet very soon.

If we want to get to the “there” that we love, we have to go the way that Jesus goes. And because of where Jesus is going—where Jesus went—we can now live in the “impossible place,” and there find a renewal we could never have before imagined.

“The light is with you for a little longer.” (John 12:35) It will be dark soon. That’s where the Light is going. Shortly after the episode in this evening’s Gospel passage, which powerfully sets forth Christ’s loving Servanthood, in fact almost immediately after, we hear perhaps the most poignant words in all the Gospels. “And it was night.” (John 13:30) That’s where Light will now take its place: our place, in the night.

So, Jesus is about to go forth to what the shared Bread and Cup mean—what they contain; what they communicate.

“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

And that is the Good News! No merely human hospitality ritual; no mere expression of genial cheer.

The Eucharist is a hospitality ritual, of course—not ours, but the costly hospitality of God Incarnate, who will die in our place, that He might give us His life. Costly love: Christ’s Life for ours; Christ’s Life in ours. There’s no other way to get there.

We can trust this Lord; Jesus knows what he’s doing. So, here’s the Word to all of us; to you, to me, to all who belong to Christ. This is the word from the Table of the Lord: Draw near in repentance and faith! Come forward to your Saving Judgment and new birth! Put down the old, tired self-protective scripts. (No one believes them anymore, not even you!)

TAKE, EAT! DRINK FROM IT, ALL OF YOU!

TAKE HOLD, AND LIVE!

TAKE YOUR LIFE IN YOUR HANDS!

There’s a story about Dwight L. Moody, the noted—in fact, notably extravagant—nineteenth century American evangelist. I don’t know if it’s fully factual, or not. Perhaps it is an apocryphal story, after all. I like it nonetheless.

Moody is credited with the establishment of the “Altar Call,” a characteristic feature of modern revivalism. We may have seen an Altar Call, at least in broadcast form, from one of the old Billy Graham Crusades. The sermon would end with an appeal to turn to Christ. And the people in the stadium would then be invited to get up from their seats, come down, and gather before the pulpit in prayer; all this as an expression of their new (or renewed) commitment in faith as Christians. Well, Dwight Moody is said to have been inspired for the idea, in the first place, by seeing people go forward to receive the Eucharist at a service of Holy Communion at Saint James Episcopal Church, Chicago!

There’s something to that.

All who will draw near to this Table; those who have been coming here for decades, and those for whom—perhaps—this night is a first visit, are being summoned to the grace and wonder of ongoing conversion.

In this life, when we come to the Altar, we will always be “sinners coming home.”

Sharing in the Eucharist of Christ is, indeed, an assurance, comfort, consolation, delight, and joy—a blessing beyond and beneath all our possible expression. But, once again, there are unhelpful reductions good to avoid. Like all the greatest gifts, the gift of Holy Communion is sometimes hard to receive. Rightly so. We can’t reduce it to some feel-good tonic. (How could that be?) Nor can we turn it into a merely individual project. (It’s Communion, after all.)

More risky business. Jesus will be doing things that we can’t fully anticipate. (Maybe it’s better for us that way.) There are parts of all of us that would much rather remain contentedly unaware. Waking up has its burdens! One thing that we can be sure that Jesus will do is to lead us out of our habitual insistence on seeing the problems of our life, over and over again, simply as the product of the bad “other people.” We do this globally, in society, and—most certainly—we do it at the personal level. Jesus is going to lead us to confront our own stuff. But never again will we have to try to do so on our own. By Grace, we will know peace. Also by Grace, we will undertake the challenging interior journey. The renewal of the world starts in the depths of human hearts. Once again, no shortcuts!

In Eucharist, Jesus gives us His very life. The blessings and burdens of receiving are so closely bound together that it’s sometimes hard to tell which is which. I’m reminded of words from the concluding chapter of C. S. Lewis’ well-known classic, The Screwtape Letters, speaking of the redeemed souls who come to the heart of Heaven: “Pains [they] may have to encounter, but they embrace those pains. They would not barter them for any earthly pleasure.”

So, what about suffering—our own and that of others? No easy answers. But in Eucharistic Life we are given to know that even our terrible nights and all our cups of dismay are held in the Night and the Cup of the Lord Jesus.

Because of Christ’s sweaty Agony in the garden—and all that will follow—never again will we have to be owned by our fear, come what may. We may not understand what’s going on, but now we may learn to let go of the old gripping panic.

Nothing that has happened to us, nothing that can happen to us, will be beneath the reach of our Lord’s saving intention—or outside the realm of his saving competence. Nothing. We don’t have to have it all figured out. Take hold, and live. Before the gracious Death of Christ, which this Sacrament proclaims: “Behold what you are; become what you receive.”

In our personal lives and in the history of the Church, we are blessed with many wonderful examples of what this looks like when it is lived out. “So great a cloud of witnesses,” (Hebrews 12:1) united at this Table.

In recent days I’ve found myself thinking, once again, of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the midst of the nightmare of the Nazi regime, this young German theologian offered a costly witness to Christ. He had many opportunities to play it safe. He didn’t. In the Spring of 1943 he was arrested. Early in 1945, he was taken from Buchenwald concentration camp to Schoenberg Prison. On Sunday, April 8, 1945, just as he concluded a service in a school building, two men came in with the chilling summons, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, come with us.” He said to another prisoner, “This is the end; for me, the beginning of life.” He was hanged the next day, April 9, at Flossenburg Prison.

In the closing days of 1944, in the midst of his exterior imprisonment, he wrote a prayer to Christ. Like much of what he wrote during that time, it has a radiance and peace that can only come from above. Bonhoeffer was very much a realist. He surely knew where things would likely go. Nevertheless, his prayer seems a fitting conclusion to all that we are now considering. I’d like to share it with you now.

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,

And confidently waiting come what may,

We know that God is with us night and morning,

And never fails to greet us each new day.

Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,

Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;

Oh, give our frightened souls the sure salvation

For which, O Lord, You taught us to prepare.

And when this cup You give is filled to brimming

With bitter suffering, hard to understand,

We take it thankfully and without trembling,

Out of so good and so beloved a hand.

Yet when again in this same world You give us

The joy we had, the brightness of Your Sun,

We shall remember all the days we lived through,

And our whole life shall then be Yours alone.

Amen—and amen.

What We’re About

December 11, 2011                                                                                                            
The Rev. Adam S. Linton

This morning’s sermon will be a little different.  For some time I’ve been planning on addressing our congregation on how we will navigate our way through the present election cycle.  What I mean by this is our spiritual navigation as a community of faith in a time of great social division.  Such divisions aren’t merely “out there.”  We carry them within us and among us.  So this will not be an entirely easy enterprise.  It will require mindfulness; deliberate spiritual practice.  Most of all, it will require remembering Who it is to whom we belong—Who it is that makes what we are at the Church of the Holy Spirit.

It is this vivid remembrance that must frame our engagement with the questions:  Who are we, in this place?  What are we about?

American politics have always been rough and tumble; vigorously contested.  However, the current level of polarization seems especially troubling, doesn’t it?  It’s just assumed, now, that people of different perspective are not just wrong, but ill-intentioned.  And, of course, in a context where “truth” is equated with “winning,” the notion that the other side has any insight worth considering is often simply put out of civic consciousness.

People tend to associate with those of similar perspectives and interests.  Like gather with like.  So we frequently don’t even encounter uncaricatured difference.  We hear the caricatures constantly:  What Democrats really want is the revolutionary overthrow of our entire social system.  What makes Republicans really happy is polluted waters and children going to bed hungry.  In our increasingly segregated political environment it’s much easier to maintain such dismissive absurdities.

Institutional Christianity now increasingly shares in the general political segregation of society at large.  Different churches seem to be readily identifiable as characteristically right or left, liberal or conservative.  This doesn’t mean that all their members agree with the viewpoint that happens to be in corporate ascendancy.  But the feelings and the sense of belonging of those out of step with the privileged majority viewpoint are very different, aren’t they?

Yes, of course, “all are welcome; all are equal.”  But the different brands of church-talk all have their way of making it very clear that some are “more equal” than others!  (George Orwell, Animal Farm)  Some “get it” (wink, wink), some don’t.  Some are members of the enlightenment squad, some aren’t.

The end result, I believe, is that religion (of whatever stripe) all-too-often leaves people in worse shape to participate in the political process.  Religions (even those that pride themselves in being non-dogmatic) all-too-often add dogmatism and self-righteousness to polarization.  Now folks have even more reason not to listen to one another, less and less capacity for political doubt, more and more confidence that their preferred social sensibilities may safely be equated with the will of God.

So, it’s no wonder that the churches end up helping folks to march in lock step with the standard “total package deal” political options.  And God help the poor soul who tries to maintain a position or two out of step with the team!

Most of us feel some form of substantial frustration with the state of things in the United States Congress.  Congress, however, is simply the mirror of who we are—and who we are becoming.

Self-righteous romanticisms focus on fixing the bad other people (whatever percentage these might be).  And if we can’t fix the others, at least we have to win big enough to neutralize all opposition.  Such thinking just produces that many more “ignorant armies clash[ing] by night.”  (“Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold)   The really “big win” never comes.  (And we can be reasonably sure that whatever our definition, it won’t come this November!)  In the end we’re still stuck with one another—forever enduring the presence of those whom we try to keep at as great a distance as we can.

I don’t know about you, but that looks to me like a pretty good picture of Hell.

What a world.  “Who will rescue us from this body of death?”  (Romans 7:24-25)

The Good News is that God has already done the rescuing; God has already established his perfect and eternal Kingdom.  “Thanks be, through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

So now—in response:  Our engagement with the need for change in this world—the desperate need for real, beneficial change—always flows out of gratitude.  Most specifically including gratitude for “the others,” who may be lying low and keeping quiet right in our own midst.  The ones who define the needed changes differently.  Real gratitude for “the others,” not patronizingly endured—but cherished.  People from whom we even might have a thing or two to learn.

Surprise!  This just might be how God in Christ is filling in the picture of Heaven.  Right here; right now.

On our part, this requires some space giving.  This is why I am scrupulously and deliberately reticent about public identification of my own politics—even indirectly.  Have been so for over thirty years of ministry.  And this is not because I don’t think the Gospel addresses practical human circumstances!  Not because I personally believe that politics are unimportant.  Not because I never weigh-in—in God’s Name—on an issue of social challenge.  Sometimes I do.  Sometimes I must.

The key words are precisely “in God’s Name.”  I do not serve on my own time.  Not from any sense of personal privilege, but from what I must see as the unlikely call of God and God’s Church, it is my station to stand in this place, utter the Proclamation of the Spirit, and say to you, “Thus says the Lord.”

That should send any preacher into the place of fear and trembling.  Lord, have mercy.  Not to speak on my own behalf—although that’s always the temptation.  With an awareness of my own unworthiness and insufficiency that would be soul crushing were it not for God’s grace:  In the service of Christ—who alone gives me the power to do so, I too am constrained to say, “I must be about my Father’s business.”  (Luke 2:49 KJV)

The Word of God for the People of God.  Nothing less and nothing else.  That’s the utterly outrageous thing that must be going on in the act of Christian preaching.  And, Oh yes, I know, I know:  “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.”  (2 Corinthians 4:7 KJV)

So, as our country gears up for a difficult election cycle, here at the Church of the Holy Spirit, may we well remember who it is that we also must be about.

I’m not saying that in our own lives we are to hold back from the civic process.  Be involved; engage your best convictions.  Vote; I certainly plan to, myself.  Go for it.

So go for it.  Our system depends on informed participation.  I’m so grateful for that.  And there’s nothing necessarily wrong in working with those with whom we share political convictions.  But let’s be mindful—and loving.  Remember this:  Even our own best reasoned social viewpoints can’t capture all the truth.  Every possible earthly view will have some mixture of insight and blindness.  We might have something to learn from those we distain or dismiss.  Most of all, we have a greater ultimate loyalty that forms all that we are and do.  We have a hope greater than any party, any political perspective, or any candidate can achieve.  Psalm 146 speaks in the typical Hebrew hyperbole that’s meant to shake us up:

Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them.

When they breathe their last, they return to earth, and in that day their thoughts perish.

Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in the Lord their God;

The Lord shall reign for ever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.

Hallelujah!  (Psalm 146:2-4,9 BCP)

For our greater loyalty there can be no substitute.  So let’s be careful—very careful, indeed—about crowning even our best intentioned causes with the crown of Heaven.  Whatever they have going for them, neither the Occupy Movement nor the Tea Party rate being cast in the role of “Team Jesus.”  And whatever they may have going for them, No; neither Michael Moore nor Glenn Beck are prophets.

So what about “Team Jesus”?  Look around.  Look around at one another.  Look around, friends; specifically in our diversity:  Like gathered with unlike, in the power of Christ.  May that kind of diversity only grow more and more, right here in this place.  As we gather in the name and purpose of Jesus Christ, as we carry out the Great Commission he has given us, we’re modeling a different way of being—and a different way of being together.  And just maybe, this is where and how Heaven might be starting to break through.  Not yet another impermeable earthly partisanship, so very sure it’s got everything figured out.  The world has plenty of those.

We’re talking about an unmet need that the world can’t meet from even its best resources:  The power of God to save, heal, and renew.  Of course, we work together as the Church, in many ways—but we can trust that Christly Power in the Spirit to work among us in ways far beyond our own ideological management.  Sometimes it may not be clear to us how it all fits together.  That’s O.K.  God is God—and we’re not.

It’s a grand adventure.  Of course, we don’t claim that we’ve got exclusive franchise—or that we’ve got it quite yet in perfect form.  More “treasure in earthen vessels.”  But the treasure is real—and it’s too good not to share, this season and always.

And that, dear ones, is what we are about.

“Even so, come Lord Jesus!”  (Revelation 22:20 KJV)

He Was Up By Break Of Day

Year A, Easter Sunday Morning: John
20:1-18 April 24, 2011
The Rev. Adam S. Linton

“Can there be any day but this, though many suns to shine endeavor?”

We gather on this day of days to celebrate the Resurrection. On this greatest of feasts, we celebrate not the mere persistence of memory—our human memory of Jesus. We don’t gather to celebrate all sorts of remarkable ideas that we might have about Jesus. No, we’re not here because of our ideas or memories, but because Jesus himself has been raised from death. He is risen!

So, what we celebrate today is not an extension of our own selves, not an extension of our stuff, whatever that might be. On the day of the resurrection, we encounter a sacred, awesome otherness that breaks into our lives and makes everything different. Often in contemporary spirituality, we have a problem with the concept. Our tendency is to make of all things mere extensions of ourselves—the whole universe just more of what we are. We create for ourselves a universe in which there is no radical otherness.

That reduced universe may be more predictable. It may be less risky, but ultimately, it’s lonely. Into the captivity of our separateness, the Risen One breaks through. Now we celebrate, not just our ideas about Jesus, not just our memories of him, though these have their place. We celebrate today his own living “risen-ness.”

We need to recognize that in the resurrection, Jesus himself is changed—and because Jesus is changed, so are we. The resurrection is not merely a resuscitation of what had been before, either for Jesus or for us. Today’s gospel reading, especially the last portion of today’s gospel reading underscores this.

We heard the encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ—whom, at first, she has some trouble recognizing. Now, there’s a feature of the text that I think calls for extra attention.

The translation that we use is a good one. In this case, it’s much better than the King James Version (although the King James Bible has many strengths and many beauties that I wouldn’t want to disparage). But because that old version is still so much in our cultural memory, I wanted to talk about it.

After Mary finally recognizes Jesus, the King James Bible has Jesus saying to Mary, “Touch me not,” as though Mary just puts out her hand (maybe only a finger), touches his arm, and Jesus says, “None of that.” It’s an unfortunate translation, and it misses the point of what’s going on.

What Jesus says to Mary after that moment of stunned recognition is more like, “Don’t hold on to me,” or “Don’t keep clinging to me.” What’s going on here? Mary has gone to the tomb heartbroken in loss, and beyond and beneath all expectation, Jesus is risen. Of course, any who have lived with death’s terrible losses can see it. Mary embraces Jesus in a grip that won’t let go: “I’ve got you back, and I’m going to hold on tight.” Who of us couldn’t know of that experience?

If we switch for a moment to the resurrection account in Matthew, there’s a clue that supports this.

In Matthew’s gospel—it’s the women, plural: “Suddenly, Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings,’ and they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.”

So, turning back to today’s account, we can see it: In a joy beyond words, Mary Magdalene grips Jesus in a fierce embrace and says, “I’ve got you back, and I’m never letting go,” What Jesus is saying in what follows is essentially this: “Dear one, dear one; I know. But the life I am now living, and the work I am now entering into; it’s not just the same, and things can’t be just like they were before.”

Jesus goes on to say, “I have not yet ascended to the Father, but go to my brothers and say to them I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Yes, Jesus has defeated death. Jesus has come forth from the tomb. But what’s going on in the resurrection is not merely a resuscitation of his prior life.

So in the resurrection life that Jesus gives us, even now, we are not talking about merely reinforcing our most pious impulses and our most worthy endeavors.

Yes, the resurrection life is meant to touch every dimension of who and what we are. It’s to spread out and embrace the whole world it all its particulars. But it’s not merely confined to this world, and it won’t be defined or limited by it. Jesus is leading us to places, not only here and now, but also beyond that we can’t possibly imagine. The resurrection life cannot be reduced to—or simply equated with—even the best of our agendas.

As we ponder this, the words of today’s Second Lesson, from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, are so very important. We heard,

“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” So Jesus is changed, and so are we.

In the cross and in the resurrection, we are told that we have already died, contrary to what seems to be the simple facts of our existence. We have died, and our real life, the life that energizes us now, but also leads beyond the frontiers of our mortality, our real life is hid in Christ. So we’re to be good seekers of that which is now hidden.

Our life is held now in trust. Jesus is the trustee. This means that our present existence is rather more complicated than the one we had before. Our prior life may have been more predictable.

It was less risky because it was predictable. But we are now born into an adventure that we can’t describe. We are initiated into an aliveness beyond all previous imagining. Be prepared for surprises! We’re travelling in undiscovered territory.

I’ll conclude with George Herbert, the last three stanzas of his poem “Easter.” As we hear it, we’re reminded of the priority of God. As we hear it, we’re reminded that in spite of our best and most devout and pious efforts, in all that we do, even in this holy gathering, the Spirit of the risen Christ has gone before. Even if we get up early, the Lord has already beaten us to the punch. That’s the sort of thing the Lord does.

So, here are the last three stanzas of Herbert’s poem “Easter.”

I got me flowers to straw thy way;

I got me boughs off many a tree:

But thou wast up by break of day,

And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sun arising in the East,

Though he give light, and th’ East perfume;

If they should offer to contest

With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,

Though many suns to shine endeavour?

We count three hundred, but we miss:

There is but one, and that one ever.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Seeing What’s There

Year A, Fourth Sunday in Lent: John 9:1-41
April 3, 2011
The Rev. Adam S. Linton

In all of Holy Scripture, there’s nothing else quite like the Gospel of John. Yes, of course, in some broad senses it has similarities with the first three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. It’s a narrative of the life and ministry of Jesus culminating in the story of his cross and his resurrection. Nevertheless, there’s really nothing quite like the Gospel of John in all the rest of the Bible.

The whole Bible (even the parts that we might count as insignificant or experience as off-putting) bears to us the council of God. None of it is dispensable. However, in the impossible circumstance of being asked to take only one of the books of the Bible with me to a desert island, I would with all the appropriate reluctance say, “The Gospel of John.”

John’s Gospel is filled with paradox and seeming contradiction. We’re thrown off balance, and we’re lead to different ways of looking at things.

I invite us, sometime during this Lent, to read all of John’s Gospel straight through. It would take a morning or an afternoon or evening, but well worth doing. As we look at the whole sweep of John’s gospel, much of its first half is taken up with a series of seven signs, revealing to us incrementally more and more of who and what Jesus is and what God is doing in him. The seven signs are followed by Palm Sunday and John’s extended narrative of the Passion. The portion for today gives us the story of the second to last of the signs: the healing of the man born blind.

Elsewhere in this same Gospel, Jesus says, “I came not to judge the world.” But just a few moments ago, in today’s passage, we heard Jesus say, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see and those who do see may become blind.” Well, which is it? “I came not to judge the world” or “I came into this world for judgment”?

This sort of paradox is very characteristic of John’s Gospel. In its paradoxical space, the idea of judgment is being redefined. We hear the word “judgment”—and we usually think about courts of criminal justice. Judicial sentence and punishment. But in John’s Gospel, judgment is the revelation of things as they are. Not so much juridical sentence passed down, but the shining of the Light. When the Light comes on, we see what’s there.

So judgment in John’s gospel is the revelation of things as they really are. At the personal, corporate, and planetary levels, this is a difficult thing to see. We try to avoid doing so.

Today we hear the whole ninth chapter of John. In many ways it’s the pivot of the whole Gospel: The revelatory showdown between the man born blind and the temple authorities.

This episode invites us to ponder what spiritual sight is and what spiritual blindness is. In this intersection of judgment—in which we are involved—we are also being given profound, deepest down renewal. Quite a scene. On one side, we have the temple authorities, the men—and they are men—of influence, of power, of advantage. They’re the ones in control; the ones who are used to telling everybody how it is and how it has to be. Quintessential big shots. Over against them, by himself until Jesus returns to the scene, we have someone from beyond the edge: a blind beggar of no standing, somebody who doesn’t count. This nobody says, “Well, in answer to all your questions: I don’t know whether he’s a sinner or not. Here’s the one thing I do know. I was blind. Now I see.” In that “one thing,” the man born blind is knowing more than the rest of his antagonists all put together.

This is what I know. I was blind. Now I see.

This pivotal episode challenges our egoistic replacement for real sight—the replacement “vision” that we keep replaying before our minds’ eyes: the old image loops arising out of our protective fears and super-assurances. Flashing over and over, in captivity. This is the terrible crisis. This is itself, in the sense of John’s Gospel, judgment. Already self-pronounced, without our knowing it.

There was a movie of a few years ago, not a great movie, but still pretty good, I thought: The Sixth Sense. I’m sure some of us here saw it. It’s a psychological thriller. A young boy named Malcolm is bearing with a terrifying ability—and at long last as the story unfolds, he reveals what this ability is:

“I see dead people. They don’t know they’re dead. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see.”

Now that’s a pretty powerful description of spiritual blindness, isn’t it?

But the place of crises is where the renewal begins.

Seeing with a new vision, seeing beyond the capacities of our fear and our “super-assurance.” It seems so far beyond us. It’s like being born again, isn’t it? Once again, we come to one of the great themes of John’s gospel. Being born again. Not something that we wring out of our tired capacities. It’s a gift from above, from God.

On our part, we often first sense it in knowing we have need. (That knowledge is a major gift, in itself.) And we can be good seekers—persistent seekers—of all that will follow: Knowing that Christ has much to show us; knowing that the very capacity of sight comes from the Giver of Vision.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, we come before you. We ask that you set us free from the captivities of our fears. Break apart the prison of our super-assurances. Release us from the illusions of self-sufficiency and self-righteousness. Help us, so that we may seek what you would reveal, so often in ways we don’t expect. You speak light at the beginning of creation. You speak light into our hearts. It is you who are the Light. Give us your Light, dear Lord, so that we may see. Amen.

Breathe On Us, Breath Of God

Year A, Second Sunday in Lent:  John 3:1-17                                                                            March 20, 2011                                                                                                                             The Rev. Adam S. Linton

“What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.”

“The wind blows where it chooses.”  This is one of my favorite phrases in all of Holy Scripture.

Our appreciation of it is made even more vivid when we recall that in the original Greek of John’s Gospel, the word for “spirit” and the word for “wind” are the very same.  The spirit blows where it chooses.  The wind blows where it wills.  Helpful for us to remember:  Last I heard, it was not possible to have a franchise on God.  It is not for us to predict or manipulate or control the ways of the Spirit.  It blows in ways we couldn’t possibly imagine.  But we have to admit to ourselves that as we see it, as we perceive it, the ways of the Spirit can often seem rather hit or miss.

Why do some seem to be touched by the Spirit’s working, and some not?  At different times, we can be either caught up in the wind—or passed by.  The same scripture verse that once resonated with power and energy later can leave us wondering, “What does this have to do with me?”

Pondering the wind/spirit connection, I thought of tornados, oddly enough.  A tornado is the most violent manifestation of wind’s force on the planet.  But if we look at the narrow path of a tornado’s destruction, there’s a great mystery to it.  One house, right in the middle of the path of destruction, reduced to splinters.  Another one, maybe two houses away, virtually untouched.

How come, at least as we see it, the Spirit touches some and not others?  How come that we ourselves feel both connection and alienation?  More mystery.  But we’re called to keep attentive, to keep moving forward (plodding along if we have to); through all the times when the Spirit is obvious and even when, to our perception, it’s not.

Today in the sermon, I’m going to invite us to focus on John 3:16, perhaps the single best known verse in the Bible.  In many motel or hotel rooms one can open up the drawer of the bedside table, and find one of those Gideon bibles.  At the very beginning of a Gideon bible, John 3:16 is printed out there in many different languages.  Sometimes when Lori and I are travelling I’ll open up the Gideon bible just in honor of those who worked to put it there, and I’ll look over John 3:16.

There are Christians from some traditions that will unroll a great big banner at a sports stadium, and on it one can see:

J N Period Three Colon Sixteen

For better or worse, we Episcopalians aren’t usually quite so exuberant, but it’s still a verse that’s close to our hearts.  I’m going to invite us to look at it closely today.  But to do that, first we have to back up two verses, to John 3:14.

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

John 3:14 references what has to be on of the oddest passages in all the bible, from Numbers, chapter 21.  The people of Israel, after they’d been set free from their captivity in Egypt and after they’d received the law at Mount Sinai, have some work to do.  Forty years worth—before they enter the Promised Land.  It often doesn’t go so well.  They’re in one of their characteristic periods of grumbling and complaint.  So there’s some retribution coming.  The text of Numbers says that poisonous serpents enter the camp and afflict the people of Israel in a deadly way.  What Moses does—at God’s direction—is to cast a bronze sculpture of a serpent, put it on a pole, and lift it up.  The people of look at it, and they’re healed.

What’s going on here?  A bit of idolatry that got past the warning system?  Maybe an ancient  example of homeopathic medicine?  Well, we’re not going to be able to sort it out today, except to note that it’s the background to John 3:14, and also that this very odd passage in Numbers was seen by earliest Christian writers as a prefiguring image of the Cross.  Jesus is lifted up on the Cross in his sacrificial death.  And those who in faith look to him there, lifted up for us, are healed.

Now, after that detour, let’s take a look at John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”

Let’s take a look at it, piece by piece.

“God”

That’s where we begin.  In our theological language, we would do well to make God the subject of more sentences than we do, and God is certainly the subject of this sentence.

What do we mean when we say the word “God”?  That’s a very practical problem.  We have to admit that sometimes even the most cherished vocabulary of faith gets compromised.  It has to be cleansed and sorted out and reengaged.  What do we mean when we say the word God?  The one who made us—the source of our being.  The one who is closer to us than our own hearts.  The one who is our life, our health, our peace, ultimate beauty and goodness and truth.  The one before whom we always give ultimate account.  God.

“For God so loved.”

Greek has a few more words for love than we do in English.  In English, the word “love” carries a lot of freight:  from “I love that green bean casserole,” all the way to “I love you,” said to our life partner.  We also have to acknowledge that much of what goes on in the name of “love” in this broken human life of ours can be possessive, manipulative—very proprietary.  God’s love is not like that.  God doesn’t have to ask, “What’s in it for me?”  God’s love is perfectly other directed.  God loves us not because we have something that we can help God out with; not because we’ve made a deal—but because Love loves.

“For God so loved the world.”

This world, the one you and I live in.  Messed up—hurting and hurtful and broken.  Including us.

I want to pause for a bit before we go on.  “For God so loved the world.”  How do we understand a God who “loves the world” in the aftermath of earthquakes and tsunamis?  How do we think about a world which God “loves” in the ongoing cycle of strife and war and bloodshed?

Well, we’re certainly not going to get it tacked down.  We have to acknowledge the reality of suffering:  questions that we can’t answer and have no business trying to answer.  Sometimes things are terrible.  We acknowledge that honestly, but also affirm in mystery and paradox that God does love this world as we are.  Although God has great intentions for us that we can barely begin to comprehend, God doesn’t merely love us as raw material.  God loves us here and now—with all the brokenness and the joys, the consolations and the sufferings that we bring with us this morning, right where we are.  And that’s true for the whole creation.

“For God so loved the world that he gave.”

Gave.  The word just slips past our lips, and in spite of all the license that seems so characteristic of our human life, we forget the concept of grace.  God gives.  God gives utterly in generosity.  It’s not a deal that we have to match ourselves up to.  We’re never going to merit it.  God gives what God gives purely out of generosity to the unworthy and the undeserving, and yes, that means he’s talking about us.  What does God give?

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

Jesus, the eternal word made flesh.  Jesus fully one of us, but not only one of us.  Jesus, the Great Teacher, indeed, but much more than only a teacher.  In this Jesus, we meet the eternal God made flesh.

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone.”

Everyone.  Once again, over against all notions of spiritual franchise, when we hear the word “everyone,” I think we’re invited to ask ourselves the question, “What part of ‘everyone’ do we not yet understand?”

“So that everyone who believes in him.”

Belief in the deepest Christian sense is not to be reduced to “I give my intellectual assent to this series of facts.”  Belief in the biblical sense means to cherish and to trust.  We’re going to walk with this Jesus whom we cherish—that we get to know as not only trustworthy, but ultimate trustworthiness.  And specifically, going back to that odd citation two verses before:  We believe, we trust, we cherish the Christ who was lifted up on the cross, whose death—in ways we can’t possibly perfectly understand—is God’s perfect provision for us and for our salvation.

“So that everyone who believes in him may not perish.”

The world we now see is a perishing world.  But there’s much more to reality than what we now can perceive.  What we see is not what we get, thanks be.  God has more in store.  And what God has in store is broader and deeper and higher than we can possibly imagine.

“So that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”

Eternal life.  Yes of course, that means life bigger than this present life.  It means life beyond the threshold of mortality.  Of course, it means that.  But it doesn’t mean the good stuff is always after, away—and never here.  The eternal life that Jesus is talking about, the eternal life that Jesus is giving, is bigger than the present life.  It flows beyond the present life—but it starts here and now.  Here and now—through the wonderful gift of God in Christ, we enter the eternal kind of life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”

Now the ways of the Spirit—the Breath—of God, can often seem to us to be “hit or miss.”  We hear the words of John 3:16.  Maybe we feel touched; maybe not.  Maybe we’re excited by them, maybe not.  Whatever it is, we keep going forward, step by step, paying attention.

Lent is a season meant to foster our attentiveness.  And if we feel—if we fear—that we’re one of those that the Spirit has missed, we need to be patient with ourselves and with that same Spirit.  Our sense of lack could be, itself, a very good sign.  Because the quiet Breath of God—often so quiet, so incremental, so barely noticeable; that quiet Spirit is more powerful than the most violent storm on earth.

“Breathe on us, Breath of God.”  Amen.

But We See Jesus

Year B, Proper 22: Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 (Mark 10:2-16)
October 4, 2009
Father Adam S. Linton
Note: This was Father Adam’s inaugural sermon as Rector of Church of the Holy Spirit.

The anonymous letter to the Hebrews is an enigmatic piece of writing. We’re not even sure that it’s really a letter, as such. Some have thought that it might be a very early Christian sermon. Frankly, much of it now seems rather arcane; its imagery distant. But its central message is enduringly relevant, speaking very directly to our hearts and our condition. We’ll be hearing portions from Hebrews as Sunday’s Second Lesson for the better part of the next two months. Today, we begin with the beginning:

“Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by a Son.”

So Jesus Christ is what God has to say to us: God’s primal, fulfilling, and final Word. The content of this speaking is who God is—in glorious perfection as creator, redeemer, savior. This speaking also addresses who we are: persons on a great journey, beginning with creation. Our journey also includes deliverance from sin’s captivity. Yet we’re still travelling with a long way to go, with so much in store. And this is a pilgrimage now very much bound up with suffering.

The key message of the letter to the Hebrews is that on this journey, we are not travelling alone. Jesus is the meeting place; the meeting place of who God is and who we are—and who we are becoming. More than this, Jesus, the Son, has travelled our path—on our terms—as our brother, and we as his sisters and brothers. So he shares our suffering and has shared our death. Through this, he becomes the pioneer (we might say, the trailblazer) of our salvation. We are not travelling this journey of ours alone, and now “by him and with him and in him,” it’s a journey with a purpose.

As we proceed on the way, our text invites us to ponder this present in-between reality of ours. Sometimes we sprint. Much more often, we trudge along with a few pauses now and then to catch our breath, and sometimes as well a questionable detour or two. God can handle all of it. More than this, God in Christ Jesus is with us through all of it.

It doesn’t matter if our recognition of God is imperfect or sometimes even minimal. It doesn’t matter so much, either, if we question from time to time whether God is indeed present with us at all. Unlike us, God isn’t too troubled by not getting due credit—and I believe it often pleases God to work anonymously. God’s presence, God’s grace, God’s purpose; these are greater than all our stuff. That’s what—that’s who we meet in God’s Son, Jesus.

Now to heighten our focus a bit more specifically, I’d like to ponder the curious phrase in our text, “But we do see Jesus.” This is an assurance after the candid recognition of all that we do not presently see while we’re on the way—all the “not yet” of God’s good purpose for us. Experience leads us to acknowledge that in this present life we see plenty of things distinctly counter to our hopes for the “not yet.” The author of Hebrews says in response, “Nevertheless, we do see Jesus.”

This is a curious phrase, because by every evident, present recognition of ours, we don’t see him. By every usual perception, Jesus is now gone. Even this morning’s passage references the mystery of Christ’s Ascension:

“When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high.”

Christ is risen. Christ lives. But somehow in ways that human language, even human sacred language, can barely begin to indicate, Christ’s present life has been translated out of the sphere of our present perception.

As with all metaphors, thinking of heaven as “up there” has its limits. Don’t get me wrong. I delight in metaphor. There’s no other way we humans apprehend anything (in science as well as poetry). Nevertheless, we have to be very careful, I think, with a too exclusive reliance on “up” or “upwards” to indicate heaven. I don’t think that “up, up, and away” is an adequate description of Jesus’ relationship to us. The heavenly reality can just as well be indicated in metaphors of deep within, or close alongside—just out of sight.

But how does this help us take hold of our text’s assurance that we do see Jesus? We’re talking about a different kind of perception; a Spirit-given, Spirit-enabled perception—manifested to us in unexpected forms. How do we see in this way? How do we encounter the unexpected company for whom we’ve been awaiting all along?

First of all, it’s a gift. A gift, not an achievement. Grace is a keyword—maybe the keyword—in our spiritual vocabulary; and “by the grace of God” is the indispensable concept. This vision is a gift to be received, never a conjuring up. As grace is really grace and God is really God, so grace can mercifully exploit the slightest fissures to penetrate our best and most hardened defenses. Thanks be. More than this, I believe that divine grace can create its own fissures to get past our well fortified layers of delusional security. The concept of grace is so important, because in the end, if things ultimately depended on our own good sense, we’d all be in big trouble.

Of course, it is also a healthy, practical, spiritually productive thing to hold ourselves—to grow—so to be better receivers of the gift. At least provisionally, we can either impede or welcome the unexpected vision of Christ. What impedes? What clouds over our spiritual sight? Habitual irritation, pervasive anxiety, indulging in the pursuit of control. All those sorts of strategies through which we seek to manage and protect our existence.

And what might serve to welcome the sight of Jesus? A well-spoken saying comes to mind. “Let go, and let God.” There’s a powerful liberation in store for us when we realize that we no longer have to try to carry out God’s job description. “Let go, and let God.”

Welcoming the vision of Christ means, then, a willingness to receive, a willingness to be led, recovering the capacity for surprise, embracing the reality and freedom of not having to have things all figured out, bearing with (and even learning to delight in) paradox. We’re speaking here of a spiritual adventuresomeness; getting past our resistance to launching out into the risky depths. Above all, we’re speaking of the growing capacity of seeing what we did not expect to see.

But we do see Jesus. Notice the present tense. Here and now on this side of the great divide between the “already” and the “not yet.” Maybe this is a vision given through our everyday seeing of one another. Those dear to us, those who warm our hearts, but also those who frustrate us, those who get in the way of what we think we want and need. This vision is given in the sight of both those who comfort us and also those who stretch us far beyond our comfort zones.

It goes without saying that the frustrating and the uncomfortable people are very often those who need the help we are in a position to give. Sometimes, that’s a simple and as difficult as really paying attention.

“ ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you?’…‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’ ”

Now to take this yet another step, still to be named—though we name it with all due caution. Occasionally, we are given brief, partial, and paradoxical glimpses of Jesus even in our own poor selves. And lest we be swamped, utterly swamped by this, we remember again that such a vision is no desperate conjuring on our own part, no strained forcing out of our tired eyes.

Remember grace. Remember the giver. Through all our growth and all our evasions, through progress and interruptions, grace will lead us home. Surely now, we see dimly. By grace, then we will see face to face. We will come to see fully even as we had been fully seen. As it is put in one of my favorite Christmas hymns, “Once in Royal David’s City,”

“And our eyes at last shall see him through his own redeeming love…

…he leads his children on to the place where he has gone.”

Meanwhile, our Lord incrementally accustoms our perception to greater measures of his light. That incrementalness can be a challenge for us—but we need to bear with what we often deem to be God’s inefficiency. All or nothing thinking is both unrealistic and colossally unhelpful, and we are usually being called to greater measures of patience: patience with one another, with ourselves, and with God, too.

It has been mentioned that I have a particular love of poetry, and so I do. One of my favorites is Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Nineteenth Century English poet who was also a Jesuit priest. There’s a particular poem of his that speaks to me on this occasion, and I’d like to share it with you now. As we are carried in its rich imagery, I hope that its aptness will become evident.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;

Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—

Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

May God bless us—in our common service; in our new fellowship which we celebrate today. Together, in purposeful, joy-filled, and generous Mercy, may both perceive and participate in the Godly Play of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.