“Death and Conception As One” (March 25, 2016: Good Friday)

The following sermon was preached during the Good Friday Liturgy on March 25, 2016 at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Collect: Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 52.13-53.12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10.16-25; John 18.1-19.42

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Today is March 25, another regular day in the quickly passing civil year. Yet liturgically, it is a day on which something rare and very special occurs, having happened only five times in the last 106 years and not to occur again for another 141. What I am specifically referring to is the fact that although today’s primary purpose is to commemorate our Lord’s crucifixion and death at Calvary—known as Good Friday—this major holy day this year occurs on what normally would be the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the commemoration of the archangel Gabriel’s announcement to the Blessed Virgin Mary that “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,” Jesus Christ, God’s Incarnate Word.[1] So what we see liturgically conveyed through the occurrence of Good Friday on Annunciation Day[2] is the full circle of Christ’s appointed purpose: to be, for a time, “made lower than the angels…crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”[3] To put it more simply, through this liturgical rarity, we see through Christ’s death the purpose for His life.

John Donne, the most preeminent figure of English metaphysical poetry, wrote of this rare occurrence’s significance upon its happening 408 years ago:

This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown

Death and conception in mankind is one:

Or ‘twas in Him the same humility

That He would be a man and leave to be:

Or as creation He had made, as God,

With the last judgment but one period,

His imitating Spouse would join in one

Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:

Or as though the last of His pains, deeds, or words,

Would busy a life, she all this day affords;

This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,

And in my life retail it every day.[4]

Expressed through Donne’s poetry is a real conflict of emotions. The death of Christ reflects the purpose of His conception and His conception that of His death. In this there is joy, but also grief. The grief over our Lord’s death is inflamed by the joy of His coming, with that joy, in turn, foreshadowing the grief that is to come. But not only do we see this emotional conflict in the words of Donne, but also in those of Sacred Scripture. From Sacred Scripture, we come to understand this conflict as being very much necessary, for without the joy of the Annunciation we could not face the grief of Good Friday and without recognizing our grief that Jesus is (for the moment) dead, we cannot fully appreciate the archangel’s message of God’s gifting of Himself in the Person of Jesus. In order that we may fully appreciate the salvation that is offered to us this day by God through Christ, we need to recognize and accept the necessity of this conflict.

We encounter this emotional conflict in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him…” This, in turn, harkens back to God’s judgment upon the serpent in Genesis: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”[5] From both Isaiah and God Himself we see the conflict between the joy of Christ’s conception and the grief of His death. There is joy in the fact that despite our sin and us grieving the heart of God, God still loves and wills to save us. Salvation is coming and God, out of His great mercy, will not leave His people helpless.

The grief we face, though, is that to the One through whom our salvation will come and reconciliation with God made complete will come a violent, barbaric, and torturous death. He, Jesus, will be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon Him will be the chastisement that will bring us peace, and with His wounds we will be healed.[6] From Isaiah we hear the grim truth that in order for God’s creation to be redeemed and once again have life in Him, Jesus, whom He will send as the Redeemer, must be crushed. Through the crushing of Jesus, because He will both be from God and will be God, the atonement for sin will be made satisfactory. Through the grief of Christ’s death on the cross will come the joy of redemption and everlasting life.

It is this very emotional conflict that forms the foundation for the Annunciation. From the archangel’s message comes great joy that foreshadows the grief that we today confront. “Behold,” Gabriel says to Mary,

You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[7]

The Blessed Virgin accepts the role of theotokos, “God-bearer,” out of the joy she feels that the One who will be her restoration and that of all the peoples of the earth back to God the Father is finally coming. She remembered the prophet’s words: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”[8] “Let it be”[9] her obedience leads her to say. The fact that God willed her to be the bearer of the world’s Salvation makes her heart leap for joy

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.[10]

Not only for Mary but also for us, the Annunciation reconfirms the truth of God’s love; that He will seek after us at all costs. “Praise we the Lord this day, this day so long foretold, whose promise shone with cheering ray on waiting saints of old.”[11]

The Annunciation’s hidden sadness is, perhaps, best expressed through a late 19th century William Holman Hunt painting titled “The Shadow of Death.” In this painting, Jesus, not yet having commenced His public ministry, has just finished cutting wood in a carpentry shop and is taking a stretch break. The shadow of the young Christ’s outstretched arms fall on a wooden tool spar behind Him, creating a “shadow of death,” foreshadowing His future crucifixion. Gazing up at the shadow is Mary, shielding her eyes from the image with her right arm with the Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh in a box beside her.

Although joy is the dominant expression in the Annunciation story, surely, in the back of Mary’s mind, there was grief over what was to come to Her son. Salvation will come through no one else apart from her Son; there will be no other name under heaven given among men by which salvation will be granted.[12] But it will come at such a high cost, one that can never be repaid. Mary’s Son Jesus will be despised, rejected, acquainted with grief, and given no esteem.[13] He will be mocked, shamefully treated, and spit upon. He will be flogged; He will be killed.[14] The Virgin Mother will feel the emotional horror that any loving parent would feel in seeing their child abused to no end, yet will not be able to do anything to stop it. How strong and courageous blessed Mary is, for by joyfully accepting the vocation of being the Mother of God’s Incarnate Word, she also willingly takes on the grief that will come in seeing her Son rebuked, afflicted, and killed.

And here we are—on a day where Christ’s death and conception meet, one feast literally pointing to the other. A mother, from whom, the archangel proclaimed, would come into the world its Light and Salvation, weeps in agony over her Son’s death. Jesus, the Savior of the world, hanging dead on the cross, has done that which the archangel proclaimed to a young Jewish virgin woman three decades earlier. There is grief in this day, but there is also joy. There is grief in that our Lord is dead. Savagely He has been taken from us. The powers of darkness have crushed Him. He was despised, mocked, rejected, flogged, and killed when He did not deserve to be. For and because of us, Jesus, our Friend, our Mentor, and our Lord is gone.

But there is actual joy that can be found in this. How is that even remotely possible? Let us, again, remember the words of the archangel Gabriel: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Again: “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”   How can there be no end to Jesus’ kingdom if He is dead? Is there something else to come? Yes, there is! God said that Jesus’ kingdom would never end; it will be forever. We can take heart in this because God, time and time again, has proven Himself true and to be truthful. So with God being the crucial factor in all of this, there must be something else coming that will, in some way, keep Christ’s kingdom going. Let us then rejoice and be glad, for through Christ’s death on the cross, reconciliation with God has come.[15] Jesus’ death has ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven us back to His Father and our Father. Christ has died, but it is not the end.

For my final point, I would like to honor the Rector’s request to specifically address our young confirmands as they prepare to make their public profession of faith during our Bishop’s upcoming visit on the Third Sunday after Pentecost. My young friends, despite the fact that our Lord Jesus has just died, Christians refer to this day as good. Jesus has just experienced the most graphic form of violence, degradation, suffering, and humiliation, but it all was also good. It is good in that though it appears that the forces of darkness have won, it is actually Jesus who has won. By dying, Jesus has forever destroyed death. Death has not stopped Him, for as Saint Paul proclaims

I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time…Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.[16]

So I repeat to you my earlier statement—Christ has died, but it is not the end. He will rise in triumph and death’s power will forever be defeated. That is why it is Good Friday. By His death Jesus has destroyed death and through His rising to life again will win for us everlasting life.[17]

Anglican theologian Paul Zahl once said that you cannot get to the resurrection without first experiencing the darkness. This is what Jesus shows us through His Passion. By willingly confronting the darkness, Jesus rose victorious against it. Jesus, the Light, “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”[18] Good Friday reminds us to hold fast to Jesus in faith. No matter what darkness we may be going or will go through in this life, Jesus can and will help us through it because He Himself felt and overcame it. If Jesus can go through what He went through and come out as good as He did in the end, surely, through His mercy and help, we can confront our own darkness and get to the light. So, as the old hymn says, when the storms of life are raging, stand by Jesus. He will know your experience and walk with you as He is walking with you now in your journey of faith.

On today, March 25, 2016, we hear of glad tidings of great joy, seeing it fulfilled in a barbaric, yet majestic sight. We hear of Christ coming and see Him hanging dead. “He shall come, He is gone.”[19] The Christ who came to die will rise and never die again. Grief and death are here for the moment; weeping will only endure for the night. But joy and everlasting life are hastily approaching!

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy: Come let us adore Him. Amen.

[1] Luke 1.31

[2] According to rules stipulated in the current edition of The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, because the Solemnity of the Annunciation, a major feast of our Lord, is on a fixed day that this year occurs during Holy Week, it is to be transferred to the week following the Second Sunday of Easter. Therefore, for 2016, the Solemnity of the Annunciation will be commemorated on Monday, April 4.

[3] Hebrews 2.10

[4] John Donne, “Upon the Annunciation and the Passion Falling Upon One Day” (1608).

[5] Genesis 3.15

[6] Isaiah 53.5

[7] Luke 1.31-33

[8] Isaiah 7.14

[9] Luke 1.38

[10] Luke 1.46-48

[11] Anonymous, Hymns for the Festival and Saints’ Days of the Church of England (1846).

[12] Acts 4.12

[13] Isaiah 53.3

[14] Luke 18.32-33

[15] Romans 5.11

[16] I Corinthians 15.3-8

[17] Eucharistic Proper Preface for Easter, The Book of Common Prayer (1979).

[18] John 1.8

[19] Donne, “Upon the Annunciation and the Passion Falling Upon One Day.”

“Known and Unknown” (February 10, 2016: Ash Wednesday)

This sermon was preached on February 10, 2016, Ash Wednesday, during the Ascension Episcopal School–Sugar Mill Pond Campus 2016 Mission Trip at the Chapel of Casa Christo Redenter in Aguas Buenos, Puerto Rico.

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Readings: II Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Psalm 103.8-14; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Out of all the Priests that I have worked with, Father Andrew Mead, my mentor from my days in New York, has had the greatest impact. One of our most important conversations together occurred on an October evening while walking together to his Park Avenue apartment from Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue for a chili dinner. While we were walking, Father Mead asked, “Brandt, what do you feel God is calling you to do as a Priest?” I had it all planned out: “After graduation from seminary, I’m going to go back to Alabama, fulfill my required two years of service in [the Diocese of] Alabama, then go to graduate school, get a Ph.D. in American religious history, and teach in a seminary or college theology/religious studies department.” “That’s all well and good, Brandt,” Father Mead replied, “but what about the parish?” “I have nothing against parish ministry,” I said back, “but I fell called to be a Scholar-Priest.” “But even the great Scholar-Priests also served in parishes,” said Father Mead. “Parish ministry is important. It is important that you be on the frontlines with your fellow clergy. Don’t ever forget the frontlines.”

I mention this story because it goes right along with what Jesus is counseling us against in our readings and because for me at the time, it wasn’t about Jesus, but about me. I wanted to be one of the most well known Scholar-Priests and Anglican Church historians of my generation. I wanted notoriety and prestige. What Father Mead was telling me that October evening was that if you are going into this vocation with the mindset of becoming known, making it about yourself and not Jesus, then you have failed before you have began. Throughout that last year in New York before becoming ordained, Father Mead showed me what being a Priest of the Church really meant. It meant being with and among the people, doing the hard things, walking with the people not just during the good time but also during the hardest moments of their lives. Father Mead was a man who not only talked the talk but also walked the walk and because of his example, my priorities and perceptions of the ordained vocation changed for the better. Thanks to Father Mead, I am no longer content stationing myself solely in a lecture hall; I love parish ministry, being with all of you, and on the frontlines for Jesus.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them…” Jesus is saying to us today, Ash Wednesday. In our Gospel from Saint Matthew, Jesus is literally likening those who “look gloomy like the hypocrites” and “disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others” to actors on a stage. In other words, these people are literally putting on a show, producing fiction, make-believe and it is getting them nowhere. They think that by doing good works alone, doing the things that one is “supposed to do,” all will be well. But it won’t. All won’t be well because their hearts are not in it. They are putting their hopes upon earthly treasures, things “where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” In the end, all of the notoriety and prestige won’t mean anything and will be worthless. Their works, all for the sake of being noticed, will not save them.

Those of the way of Jesus do not worry about whether or not people notice them for their good works, not seeking to have attention drawn to them. “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Those of the way of Jesus do works of mercy, say their prayers, and seek relationship with God and others out of the simple desire to be closer to Him and experience a foretaste of God’s Kingdom. Because their works come from the genuineness of their hearts, these are the ones whom Jesus says, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” If everybody doesn’t know that you did something kind for someone else, it’s OK. If you never get recognized and rewarded for good deeds done, believe me, it’s OK. Everybody may not know, but God will know and that is all that matters. As long as God knows that your heart is in the right place, then that is all that is needed. Great will your treasure—eternal life with God—be in Heaven.

We know what Jesus says to be true because He Himself not only talked the talk but also walked the walk. “…Whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[1] [Hold up crucifix in front of congregation] Because this right here was not an act; definitely not make-believe. This right here was REAL scourging, REAL pain, REAL suffering. Jesus REALLY hung on a cross for the sake of all of us. This is how much He loves you. Through the cross, Jesus loved and served us by dying and saving us from sin, death, and eternal damnation.

As we begin today the season of Lent, we are being invited by God to draw closer to Him, putting things into the right perspective. The ashes that you will momentarily receive are not meant to show off how pious you are—that is not the point. Rather, they are meant to remind each and every one of us that this side of life is short and temporary and that all of us will return to the earth. The ashes remind us of our own human frailty and the need to depend on Jesus who is able to save, redeem, and heal us. How will you live your life? For yourself, seeking personal fame and glory, which won’t mean a thing in the end? Or for God, seeking after His righteousness, regardless of whether or not notoriety comes, which will mean everything in the end? “We are ambassadors for Christ,” Saint Paul says, “God making his appeal through us.”[2] Let us not be so consumed about ourselves but about others, just as Jesus did for us, becoming reconciled to them through the love and mercy of Almighty God.

I wish you all a blessed and holy Lent.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Matthew 20.27-28 (English Standard Version)

[2] II Corinthians 5.20 (English Standard Version)

“The Beatitudes, Anglicanism, and Christian Unity” (January 20, 2016: Wednesday after the Second Sunday after the Epiphany)

The following sermon was preached on January 20, 2016, the Wednesday after the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, at the Sugar Mill Pond Campus of Ascension Episcopal School in Youngsville, Louisiana.

Collect: “Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.”

Readings: I Corinthians 1.18-31; Matthew 5.1-12

“His disciples came to him”—Matthew 5.1[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

       Last year, during the school’s Mardi Gras break, I experienced the great opportunity of traveling to the Holy Land, to walk the very land, sail the very waters, and see some of the very things that our Lord Himself once did. For the first five days, my fellow pilgrims and I stayed in a hotel managed by a group of Roman Catholic nuns atop the Mount of the Beatitudes, the mountain that today’s Gospel mentions. In the mornings before breakfast, I stood out on the balcony of the Church of the Beatitudes, located in the center of the hotel grounds, saying my prayers and imagining today’s Gospel. I imagined the crowds being composed of people from all walks of life from every surrounding region coming to see the One whose “fame spread throughout all Syria,” whose “healing every disease and every affliction among the people” they had heard of.[2] I imagined the crowds being large, filling the mountainous space to capacity and Jesus teaching them all the ways of the Kingdom. In my imagination, what I saw was a foreshadowing of the Church, the Body of Christ brought together by God’s Word, founded by His words and actions, that will be perfected in the glory of Heaven as the assembly of all the redeemed of the earth.[3] It was a thought that gave illustration to what Jesus says to us,

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.[4]

It is in an inviting spirit of love, gentleness, and humility that Jesus delivers the Beatitudes. Through them, we are called to live lives that reflect God’s character, lives that are merciful, loving, and compassionate. They are demands through which God calls us to reflect His character to and before others, for as Saint John says, “Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”[5] They are demands which are exceedingly high: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[6]

       The reality of the situation, though, is that the Beatitudes’ demands are so high that there is no way possible that any of us can fulfill them perfectly. Only Jesus, the Giver of the Beatitudes, can do so. What we see in the Beatitudes are demands meant not to draw us away from God, but, rather, to draw us closer to Him, helping us recognize our need for God’s grace in our quest to live righteous lives: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”[7] Not only are they meant to draw us closer to God, they are also meant to draw us closer to each other, for as Jesus says, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”[8] So through the Beatitudes God issues an invitation into a holy fellowship, of which His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ is the Head, through whose death, resurrection, and ascension we have all been united and made equal one to another.

Within the Beatitudes is God’s call to us to seek after righteousness and love and seek relationship with our neighbor. Who is our neighbor? Every human person created in the image of God, which He has declared to be “very good.” But how can we love those with whom we disagree? How can we seek reconciliation with someone or a group of people that has hurt us emotionally? Last week, the Primates of the worldwide Anglican Communion—the presiding bishops and archbishops of 38 Christian churches in historic relationship with the English Archbishop of Canterbury—saw themselves faced answering similar questions. At the end of their meeting, it was announced that the majority of the Primates voted to put in place specific boundaries regarding The Episcopal Church’s involvement within the Anglican Communion for a three-year period, due to it changing the definition of marriage in its canons, an act that represented “a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of [the Anglican Communion] on the doctrine of marriage.”[9] Despite the decision of The Episcopal Church and the hurt that it has caused the majority of its sister Anglican churches, the Primates said in their collective statement,

It is our unanimous desire to walk together…We have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury…to maintain conversation among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationship, the rebuilding of mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, recognizing the extent of our commonality, and exploring our deep differences, ensuring they are held between us in the love and grace of Christ.[10]

       Despite the hurt that has been caused and felt by both sides, the most important witness to come out of all of this is the Anglican Communion Primates’ unanimous desire to walk together. They intentionally chose relationship over separation. I am one who theologically disagrees with The Episcopal Church’s decision and recognize that my opinion is in the minority. But with The Episcopal Church’s majority having expressed to me and all others who share my opinion their value and reliability “on [our] commitment to The Episcopal Church…” and that although ours is a minority voice, we “are an indispensable part of who we are as…The Episcopal Church,”[11] I have decided to take the Primates’ example by resolving to continue my walk as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ together with my fellow Episcopalians. I have intentionally chosen continued relationship with them instead of separation.

The reason the Primates did and I do this is because just like those in today’s Gospel, we all see each other as Christian disciples from all walks of life from every corner of the world, seeking after Him whose salvation can be found in no one else and only under whose Name can one be saved.[12] We recognize each other as members of the same Body, Christ’s Body, the Church, taking into account the words of Saint Paul, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”[13] Through the decision to walk together instead of apart, the Anglican Communion Primates with The Episcopal Church, and The Episcopal Church with me all recognize each other as having the same goal—seeking after Jesus, seeking to live by the standards that He gives in today’s Gospel. Though there exist significant disagreements between us about how to do so, in obedience of our Lord’s command that we all be one, we have committed ourselves to remaining and seeking after Jesus together.

In His speaking to us the Beatitudes, Jesus invites us all “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”[14] The Beatitudes are Jesus’ invitation for us to experience peace, His peace, “the peace…which surpasses all understanding.”[15] Although it is not easy and we oftentimes fall short (and thanks be to God for His merciful grace when we do), by striving to live out the Beatitudes, we experience a foretaste of the Kingdom of God on Earth and of the blessed peace that awaits us all there. Just imagine that if more people in the world took Jesus’ words more seriously, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…and…you shall love your neighbor as yourself,”[16] how much of a better place it would be.

May we, together, be more diligent in our striving to live the ways that Jesus commands, keeping in mind this prayer for unity and peace:

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace;

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console,

To be understood as to understand,

To be loved as to love;

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life. [17]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

[2] Matthew 4.23-24

[3] “I Believe In the Holy Catholic Church,” Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York, New York: Doubleday, 1994), 223.

[4] Matthew 11.28-29

[5] I John 4.21

[6] Matthew 5.48

[7] Matthew 6.12

[8] Matthew 25.40

[9] Addendum A of “Walking Together in the Service of God in the World” (http://www.primates2016.org/articles/2016/01/15/communique-primates/), Accessed January 20, 2016. At its 78th General Convention, held during the summer of 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah, The Episcopal Church passed Resolution A036, amending Canon I.18.2(b), “That both parties understand that Holy Matrimony is a physical and spiritual union of a man and a woman, entered into within the community of faith, by mutual consent of heart, mind, and will, and with intent that it be lifelong,” with Canon I.18.2, “The couple shall notify the Member of the Clergy of their intent to marry at least thirty days prior to the solemnization; Provided that if one of the parties is a member of the Congregation of the Member of the Clergy, or both parties can furnish satisfactory evidence of the need for shortening the time, this requirement can be waived by weighty cause; in which case the Member of the Clergy shall immediately report this action in writing to the Bishop.” With the General Convention’s replacement of “a physical and spiritual union of a man and a woman” with “the/both parties,” the traditional definition of marriage as was previously upheld by The Episcopal Church became changed, allowing for the solemnization of marriages of couples of the same sex. It was this action which prompted the majority of the Anglican Communion Primates to put in place the boundaries restricting for three years The Episcopal Church’s involvement within the life and work of the Communion that they did.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church, “Communion Across Boundaries” (http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2015/07/02/mind-of-the-house-of-bishops-statement-communion-across-difference/), Accessed January 19, 2016.

[12] Acts 4.12

[13] I Corinthians 12.21

[14] Ephesians 4.1-3

[15] Philippians 4.7

[16] Matthew 22.37-39

[17] “The Peace Prayer,” as read by the Honorable John A. Boehner in his resignation announcement as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and Congressman for the 8th Congressional District of Ohio on September 25, 2015.

“Accent the Consubstantiality” (Feast of Hilary of Poitiers, Bishop and Doctor, 367)

The following sermon was preached on Wednesday, January 13, 2016, the Feast of Hilary of Poitiers, at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana.  

Collect: “O Lord our God, who raised up your servant Hilary to be a champion for the catholic faith: Keep us steadfast in that true faith which we professed at our baptism, that we may rejoice in having you for our Father, and may abide in your Son, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit; who live and reign for ever and ever.  Amen.”

Readings: I John 2.18-25; Luke 12.8-12

“If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.”—I John 2.24[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Today the Church calls to our minds the memory of Hilary, who, during the midpoint of the 4th century AD, served as the Bishop of Poitiers in West Central Gaul, now present-day France. It was during this time that the Arian Controversy was making its way through certain portions of the Christian Church, polluting the minds of the faithful from the truth concerning the Person of Jesus Christ. Named for Arius, a late 3rd and early 4th century North African priest and the heresy’s progenitor, what the Arian Controversy taught was that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was not fully God and equal in substance with the Father, whereas orthodox Christianity asserts belief in Jesus as being “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made…”  The Arian Controversy is best summarized by this quote: “There was a time in the world when the Son was not.”

Hilary vigorously opposed Arianism and was referred to as “the Athanasius of the West,” a reference to the 4th century bishop of Alexandria who was Arius’s chief opponent. He was banished from his episcopal see for his refusal to condemn Athanasius in an Arian stronghold in 357, but was sent back three years later because of his constant troubling of Eastern Arians. So great was Hilary’s dedication to the orthodox Christian position that one Arian bishop became persuaded away from the heretical view because of Hilary’s strong exegetical argument against it. He died in 367 and is today regarded as one of the most important theological minds of the early Christian Church.

What is it about Arius’s theology that made Hilary, Athanasius, Nicholas of Myra, and other early Church leaders of the like so up in arms against him? For the answer, we have to think about the exact implications that arise from Arius’s particular view. If Jesus is not consubstantial with God the Father, then it means, in the words of Phillips Brooks, that “the hopes and fears of all the years”[2] which we have placed upon Him is all for naught. Because of His subordinate status to God the Father, Jesus’ crucifixion is meaningless, because nobody unequal to God can make the requisite sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin. Jesus cannot offer the gift of grace and everlasting life, because only God Himself has the power to forgive and redeem. Without His humanity, Jesus cannot be our chief Mediator and Advocate to God the Father. Without His divinity, Jesus cannot be the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for all of the world’s sin. Without Jesus being equal in status to God the Father, the penalty for our sin remains unpaid and our souls in great peril. Without His humanity and divinity, being God in human form, humbling Himself “by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,”[3] Jesus becomes just another religious figure of the past, not the Savior of the world.

But on this issue, Scripture is perfectly clear: Jesus is both God and Human, equal in substance to the Father and who, through His perfect offering of Himself, has taken away the world’s sin, forever opening the way for those who believe in Him to receive the gift of everlasting life and peace.[4] In his Gospel’s Prologue, Saint John says

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”[5]

Saint John is making an intentional connection of Jesus with God the Father, stating that not only was He at the very beginning with God, but that He was God in human flesh, come down to Earth in our time to dwell among and ransom us. Because of His divinity and equality with the Father, Jesus, the visible face of God, is both God and King who has the power to ransom, heal, restore, and forgive us and whose Kingdom will never end.

The Church’s remembrance of Hilary is a crucial reminder of the necessity of Christ being both human and divine and His coming down to Earth in the form and way by which He did. Saint John exhorts us in his first epistle, “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.” And not only does the Father and the Son both abide in us, but the Holy Ghost, the continuance of the Father and the Son’s work among us in this time and place and in all times and everywhere, beckons us to partake of the riches of grace, which brings healing, restoration, and peace to our broken and weary souls. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”[6] Because of Jesus, God in human flesh, equal in substance to the Father, there is hope; all is not lost. “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…”[7]

         What we see, yet again, through the commemoration of Hilary is the deep love of God made known to us in the Person of His Son Jesus. It was through Jesus that God Himself came down from Heaven to be with us. It was through Jesus that God personally did what needed to be done to bring us back to Himself, no longer being separated from Him. Instead of condemnation, it is through Jesus that God forgives and redeems. Through His coequal and coeternal Son, God has shown that He is the God of unconditional love.

Like Hilary, may we continue to have the faith and confidence to proclaim that which we have heard from the beginning: “Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.”

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

[2] Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (1867).

[3] Philippians 2.8

[4] John 3.16

[5] John 1.1-3

[6] Matthew 11.28

[7] I Timothy 1.15

November 27, 2015 (Ascension Episcopal School–Sugar Mill Pond Campus, Youngsville, Louisiana)

*The following homily was preached at the pre-game Eucharist for the Ascension Episcopal School Varsity Football Team on November 27, 2015.

 “David proved the victor with his sling and stone…The Philistines, when they saw that their hero was dead, turned and ran.”—I Samuel 17.50-51[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

There is an old song from days long gone that highlights the overcoming of preconceived notions and the adversities put up by others because of them. One particular verse of this song goes like this:

“They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said [that] the world was round.

They all laughed when Edison recorded sound.

They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother when they said that man could fly.

They told Marconi wireless was a phony—it’s the same old cry.

They laughed at me wanting you—said I was reaching for the moon,

But, oh, you came through—now they’ll have to change their tune.

They all said we’d never get together—they laughed at us and how,

[But] oh, ho, ho—who’s got the last laugh now.”[2]

All of the men mentioned—Christopher Columbus, Thomas Edison, Wilbur and Orville Wright, and Guglielmo Marconi (the inventor of the radio)—were men who, for their respective times, made bold scientific and aeronautical claims…and were laughed at for making them. The times may have been different, but “the same old cry” remained the same: “That’s absolutely crazy!” “There’s no way that can happen.” “It just isn’t possible.”

The doubts and put downs were meant to bring these guys back to the preconceived notion of what reality really was and what was really possible. But to the naysayers they each refused to listen, pursuing their claims, two, three, four times and more. And because of their tenacity, it was they, not the naysayers that were proven right. Because of Columbus, it is now accepted scientific fact that the world is, indeed, round; thanks to Edison, I can enjoy the sounds of my old school jazz records; thanks to the Wright Brothers, we can fly from here to New York City in, at least, 5 ½ hours, instead of driving there in 22 ½; and we can enjoy the use of wireless electronics, such as cell phones, radios, iPads, and laptop computers, all thanks to the early work of Marconi. It is these five guys that are still having the last laugh 67, 78, 84, 103, and 509 years after their respective deaths.

Each of these guys were a lot like David, the hero of the story we earlier heard from I Samuel 17. Just like Columbus, Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Marconi, David was up against what seemed to be impossible odds. David, a young boy, small in stature, accepts the challenge of defeating Goliath the Philistine, a warrior giant, said by various ancient manuscripts to have stood anywhere between 6’ 9” to 9’ 9”.[3] Based on the physical characteristics alone, Goliath and his fellow Philistines had reason to believe in a positive outcome in their favor. Goliath laughed at him, believing young David to be a fool for challenging him: “Am I a dog that you come out against me with sticks? Come on’ he said, ‘and I will give your flesh to the birds and the beasts.’” But young David does not back down: “You have come against me with sword and spear and dagger, but I have come against you in the name of the LORD of Hosts, the God of the army of Israel which you have defied. The LORD will put you into my power this day…[A]ll the world shall know that there is a God in Israel.” Goliath moves toward David; David moves in closer to Goliath. The small Hebrew boy pulls out a rock from his bag, puts it in a sling, and hurls it right at Goliath, striking him in his forehead, bringing about his demise. In the end, it is not the giant Goliath who has the last laugh, but the small and young David. This small Hebrew boy went on to become the king of all Israel and an ancestor of Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God, through whom it has become known that not only is there a God in Israel, but in all the places of the earth. David remains victorious through the Ultimate Victory of Jesus Christ.

And now, just like young David and like Columbus, Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Marconi, all of you now face a monumental task—one that many didn’t think was even possible for you all to come to. Last week after your shutout victory against Cedar Creek High School, Coach Mike [Desormeaux] told you guys that the media had predicted you to lose, that it would be THE upset of the week. Coach Mike believed in you guys and, true to his convictions, you defied the odds, going way above and beyond the predicted outcome that some Ascension outsiders had against you. Coach Mike also last week reminded you guys of how where you are heading now was only a dream three years ago. Because of your hard work and persistent determination, that dream is becoming more and more real. To those who said that it wasn’t possible, time and time again, you have been proving them wrong. Week after week, you have been beating the odds stacked against you. You have been getting closer to having that last laugh.

So if there’s a word of encouragement that I can leave you with as you head into tonight’s game, it is to go out on the field with spirits, with tenacity, with unabashed determination like David. Like David, don’t be fixated on whatever odds people may have against you, but have faith in the work that you have put into this week, knowing that you have what it takes to accomplish your desired goal. There may be people out there still saying that Ascension is crazy to think that it will advance past tonight, “There’s no way that can happen,” “It just isn’t possible.” Like David, don’t be intimidated by them; don’t let the haters get to you. Remember all that you have accomplished this year and how it has brought you to this point. If you do that, combining it with all the hard work that you put in towards coming to this point, there will be nothing stopping you.

When you’re on that field tonight, play with the same drive, determination, and faith that David had. Continue defying the odds. Leave your mark. May your work tonight bring you even closer to having that last laugh. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New English Bible, copyright © 1970 by the Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press.

[2] “They All Laughed,” music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, from Shall We Dance (1937), RKO Radio Pictures, New York, New York.

[3] The Dead Sea Scrolls text of Samuel; Titus Flavius Josephus (37-100 CE); 4th century Septuagint manuscripts; Masoretic Text.

“The Communion of Saints” (November 1, 2015: The Solemnity of All Saints–The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

“Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”—John 11.40[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

It was my mother’s mother—my Granny—who first taught me how to pray. Years ago, as far back as I can remember, every Saturday morning, Granny prepared a full breakfast—bacon, eggs, sausage, waffles, poached eggs, and apple sauce—of which she insisted that she, myself, and my mother all sit down and eat together as a family. After breakfast was prepared and the table set, we all took our seats at the dining room table, held hands, and Granny would make me lead the family in prayer:

“God is great. God is good.

Let us thank Him for our food.

By His Hands, we are fed.

Thank you Lord for our daily bread. Amen.

When I was really young, I hated that Granny made me do this, because 1) I was not, in the least bit, remotely interested in religious matters and 2) I just wanted to eat the food. But as I got older and began living my life for Christ, I began to see that there was a method to Granny’s madness. Her making me pray was instilling in me the importance of what Saint Paul once said: “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”[2] Many of the Christian values I today espouse are because of Granny, seeing them in the same way by which Saint Paul encouraged Saint Timothy: “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”[3]

Several more years passed and with them came Granny’s inability to fix those Saturday morning breakfasts that I loved eating. She had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, was suffering from dementia, and became bedridden. Granny had become a completely different person during her declining years. Then, on October 14, 2013, I received a phone call from my mother: “Brandt…I’m calling to let you know that your grandmother has passed.”  At 81 years old, my Granny peacefully passed away in her sleep and entered into her final rest in the living Christ.

On February 11, 2014—the day that would have been Granny’s 82nd birthday—grief came full throttle. On that day and during the two days following, I was not in a good place. It was the rawest I had felt in quite a long time and the farthest away I felt that God was from me. While sleeping during the early evening of February 13, 2014, I dreamt that I was sitting in the downstairs living room of my Tuscaloosa townhouse reading, when, all of a sudden, at the top of the stairs leading down into the living room, appeared Granny! I could not believe my eyes. She looked the way I remembered from the time of my first conscious memory of her face. She was wearing one of her trademark pantsuits that I oftentimes saw her wear when I was growing up. She walked down the stairs, her limbs moving with fullness of vigor, having a spring-like quality. She walked right up to me and said, in a pristine and clear tone, “How are you, baby?” The dementia was gone! She knew exactly who I was. For the first time in a long time, I did not have to reintroduce myself to her. Amazed and filled with joy, I replied, “I am OK, Granny. How are you?” “I’m doing just fine,” she said, saying it with the biggest smile that I ever saw her have. After she smiled at me, the dream ended and I woke up. I kept saying, “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!” No longer was I feeling raw. No longer did I feel God far away from me. From just one short dream, all was made well.

Today is the Solemnity of All Saints, the annual Christian liturgical feast that celebrates all the saints of God, known and unknown. In today’s Gospel—a truncation of the larger story of the bringing back to life of Lazarus of Bethany—Jesus asks this question, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” It is a question that gets to the root of what it is that we today celebrate— those who, by the grace of God, have been led by the Spirit to seek after God and follow Jesus, His only begotten Son. It is these saints—holy ones of God—that have been made “very members incorporate in the mystical body of [God’s] Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs, through hope, of [God’s] everlasting kingdom.”[4] Through the dead then resuscitated Lazarus, we see the answer to Jesus’ question made applicable to all of God’s saints, not just those deceased, but also those living.

In the portion of John 11 that precedes today’s Gospel, Jesus, having heard of His friend’s illness, intentionally waited two days before departing for Bethany, knowing that Lazarus would die. “This illness is not unto death,” Jesus says. “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.”[5] Jesus was going to use His friend’s death to intentionally bring him back to life so that all who saw would see the glory of God manifested. In His consolation of Martha, Jesus speaks one of the great pearls of faith: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” “Do you believe this?” Jesus asks. “Yes, Lord, I believe,” says Martha.

In the portion of John 11 that we heard today, after consoling Mary, the second grieving sister, Jesus asks of the whereabouts of Lazarus’s grave. Jesus is brought to it, the stone being rolled away. With the stench of death bursting from the grave, Jesus prays to the Father, thanking Him for those who will come to believe. “Lazarus, come out,” Jesus shouts. And with that that was once dead now again alive, appearing in clear sight to all around, Jesus illustrated His power over man’s most irresistible enemy—death. By bringing Lazarus back to life, Jesus foreshadowed His own death and Resurrection: “By His death He has destroyed death, and by His rising to life again He has won for us everlasting life.”[6] It is through Christ’s Resurrection in which all those who have lived and died and who do live and will die in faith have been and will be raised in glory, to the joy of everlasting life.

So what, or who, exactly is it that we celebrate on this solemn feast? Who are the saints of God? When one thinks about All Saints’ Day, they typically think of Christianity’s great heroes and heroines, those most known, but no longer living. Such heroes and heroines of faith include Blessed Mary, Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, Paul the Apostle, Patrick of Ireland, Augustine of Hippo, John Henry Newman, and many others. In these holy women and men the Christian faithful more visibly see the precepts of faith made manifest through a love for Jesus Christ lived out through a life of service. For their faithfulness to the living Christ here on Earth, in death, they have been raised to eternal life with Him in Heaven, attaining the Beatific Vision of God Almighty—the final destiny of God’s redeemed:

“For all the saints, who from their labors rest,

Who thee by faith before the world confessed,

Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.

Alleluia, alleluia!”[7]

Yet Christian sainthood is not solely limited to those that are better known. We know this to be true, for Saint Paul, throughout his epistles, makes clear that all people who abide in Christ Jesus are God’s saints. That includes those in ages past who lived faithful lives, but are not well known. That includes my Granny, your mother, your father, your grandparents, and all of our friends who we love, but see no longer. As Lazarus’s raising foretold, for God’s saints who are now at rest, they have been raised up with Christ and now sit with Him in the heavenly places.[8] “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, they have won the victory![9]

Yet Christian sainthood, as well, is not solely limited to those known and unknown no longer living. Again, Saint Paul declares that all people who abide in Christ Jesus are God’s saints. If “all” truly means all, that must mean that God’s saints not only are those known and unknown no longer living, but also those known and unknown currently living. Within our own time and throughout our own local context walk living heroes and heroines of faith: doctors, lawyers, bankers, educators, oil and gas workers, public service employees, even clergy, whose light for Christ shines bright and burns strong.

“They lived not only in ages past,

There are hundreds and thousands still.

The world is bright with the joyous saints

Who love to do Jesus’ will.

You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,

In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,

For the saints of God are just folk like me,

And I mean to be one too.”[10]

What a minute? Me? Brandt, are you actually telling me that I am a saint? Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. You are a saint, as well as I. How are we saints? When we were baptized, God adopted us as His children and made us members of His Son’s body—the Church—and inheritors of His kingdom.[11] In other words, when we were baptized, we became saints of God, members of His holy community, consecrated unto Him. Like Lazarus, by our baptism, we were raised from spiritual death to everlasting life. “Do you not know,” Saint Paul asks, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”[12] And it is into this sacred body of God’s faithful people that Horatio Mather Johnston and Amelia Marie Adams will, from this day and forever, be incorporated, themselves becoming, like us and all others before them, saints of God. With us, they will grow stronger in the riches of Christ’s grace. We pray that they, as we do for ourselves, will “strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”[13] As we seek to do, may they live their sainthood in Christ with boldness. We pray that they will, with us, “confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim His Resurrection, and share with us in His eternal priesthood.”[14]

So on this day, the Solemnity of All Saints, we give thanks for those who have heeded the call to holiness, given in to the Lord’s will, and lived their lives for Christ. That includes the great heroes and heroines of faith, known and unknown, no longer visible to us; our family members and friends who we love and who love us, but no longer see; and us, who still live, seeking to do the Lord’s will in all we do. This is the day we celebrate the Church as Christ’s ransomed, healed, restored, and resurrected Body—inclusive of all those baptized into His death and Resurrection throughout all ages—marked as His own forever. For me, I look forward to reunions—with my Granny and all others who, throughout my journey of faith, guided me in my life for Christ. But I also look forward to introductions—to my Christian heroes, such as Thomas Aquinas, John Wesley, John Henry Newman, Charles Chapman Grafton, Michael Ramsey, and several others. Although these reunions and introductions will be events filled with blessed joy, they also intimidate me because of my sin. “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man,”[15] says my soul. But the grace of God eases my intimidation, soothes my sorrow, and drives away my fear. “Come to me,” Jesus says, “all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you…you will find rest for your souls.”[16] The example of the heavenly company encourages me to strive for holiness, to live the way of Christ. “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” our Lord asks. I hear Christ’s call from deep within and feel the saints of God in Heaven cheering me on.

The Lord is glorious in His saints: O come, let us adore Him. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version Bible, Catholic Edition, copyright © 1965, 1966 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] I Thessalonians 5.16-18

[3] II Timothy 1.13-14 (New Revised Standard Version)

[4] From the Post-Communion Prayer of “The Holy Eucharist: Rite I,” The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of The Episcopal Church (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 339.

[5] John 11.4

[6] From the Proper Preface for Easter in “The Holy Eucharist: Rite II,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 379.

[7] “For All the Saints,” words by William Walsham How (1823-1897), music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

[8] Ephesians 2.6

[9] I Corinthians 15.55, 57

[10] “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God,” words by Lesbia Scott (1898-1986), music by John Henry Hopkins (1861-1945).

[11] “An Outline of the Faith Commonly Called the Catechism,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 858.

[12] Romans 6.3-4

[13] Hebrews 12.14

[14] “Holy Baptism,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 308.

[15] Luke 5.8

[16] Matthew 11.28-29

“Serious, Thoughtful, and Scriptural”

Catechesis: A Collection of Sermons for the Christian Year

By Andrew C. Mead

Foreword by Jon Meachem

Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue. Pp. 152. $13.50

Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, called by the Right Reverend Richard Grein one of the truly great parishes of the Diocese of New York, is a parish whose high liturgical sensibilities have become the epitome of the Psalmist’s imperative call: “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, let the whole earth stand in awe of him.[1] In a volume written in commemoration of its 175th anniversary, J. Robert Wright wrote that “the history of Saint Thomas…is the story of the worship that has been offered and of the service that has been rendered, as the vision of the ‘spiritual house’ that is recorded in I Peter 2.4-5 has gradually…become a reality on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-third Street.” Wright further noted, “In a way that is rather peculiar to Saint Thomas, and endorsed by its parishioners over time and today as well, the history of this parish, the ‘symphony of Saint Thomas,’ is best orchestrated and told around the rectorships of the priests who have led it…It is largely the way the parishioners today still understand themselves and the way they want to read their history.”[2]

At the time of the publication of Catechesis: A Collection of Sermons for the Christian Year, its author, Andrew Craig Mead, was a short time away from his retirement as the XII Priest and Rector of Saint Thomas Church and from 43 total years of active parish ministry. His 18-year rectorship from 1996-2014, to quote the parish’s Vestry, “transformed Saint Thomas Church by creating a real sense of parish where there is a deep warmth and inclusion that makes visitors and strangers feel welcome…” and in which he gave “all who worship at Saint Thomas a keen knowledge of how to live every aspect of their lives with Christ as their guide, as evidenced by his preaching, teaching, and life example.” Throughout the course of his tenure, Mead’s reputation as a “builder of parishes” manifested itself. His heart for sacramental ministry, grounded in the traditions of Anglo-Catholicism, and love for his people helped make Saint Thomas even stronger than it was previously, emboldening its members to live into its mission “to worship, love, and serve our Lord Jesus Christ through the Anglican tradition and our unique choral heritage.” Andrew Mead’s rectorship can be summarized by these words from Saint Paul: “…Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.[3]

Thomas Long says, “…Being a ‘preacher’ is one of the most striking and public of all ministerial roles, and, in the popular mind, anyone who would respond to a call to the ministry must surely be the sort of person who is ready and willing to preach and who earnestly covets this ‘preacher’ role” (The Witness of Preaching, Second Edition, p. 19). Jon Meachem, a former Saint Thomas Vestryman, in his Foreword, describes Andrew Mead as such a ready and willing preacher, who, from the time of his 1971 priestly ordination, displays a higher-than-average eagerness for the work of the Gospel ministry, always ready to “hop to it.”[4] But although Mead does covet his role as a preacher, as those that have heard him preach and the collected sermons attest, never has he approached the preaching task with inflated ego or want of praise. “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”[5] For Mead, the purpose is clear—it is all about Jesus!

Mead’s sermons are reflective of what has become, over the years, the Saint Thomas ethos: serious, thoughtful, and scriptural. They are serious by way of his unabashed commitment to doctrinal orthodoxy, proclaiming nothing more than the Gospel and the historic doctrines of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. Just like Saint Peter, Andrew Mead replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”[6] For Mead, it is THE ultimate truth. It is what fuels his commitment as a Word and Sacrament preacher—preaching and teaching nothing else but Christ, proclaiming Christ crucified, died, and risen, while pointing to the altar, where the Gospel’s truth is strengthened by the living Christ in the Eucharistic sacrament. Andrew Mead is not ashamed of the Gospel. Time and time again, he has made clear that it is not himself that he preaches, but the Lord Jesus Christ. Mead’s humility has made credible the seriousness with which he has approached the preaching task.

They are thoughtful in approach. They are brief (each between the range of 900-1200 words), carefully worded, and composed with the concern of the listener (or, in this case, reader) in mind. To put it another way, they are short, sweet, and to the point. Hearing these sermons would typically take up an average span of 8-10 minutes, which was extremely helpful in keeping the hearers’ mind attuned to the Gospel’s explication, guarding against the risk of major distraction. For Mead, the time set aside in the liturgy for the preaching of the Gospel is too important and the collected sermons demonstrate well his commitment of making every moment of this time count.

Finally and most importantly, they are scriptural, the focus being not on secular politics or even the Church’s current theological battles, but on the message of the cross, on Jesus Christ Himself, died, risen, and coming again—nothing more; nothing less. Within Catechesis are sermons (37 out of hundreds) of a humble priest whose love for Jesus shines bright and comes out strong, so devoted in his vocation “to instruct the people committed to [his] charge; and to teach nothing, as necessary to eternal salvation, but that which [he] shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture.”[7] They are the representation of a distinguished priestly career fixed on the truth that the one foundation of the Church is Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.

In today’s world, the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ is just as important now—perhaps more so—than it has ever been. The importance of the preacher’s commitment to this task is best conveyed through this story, told by Andrew Mead himself, from the closing page of Catechesis: “A few years ago an old friend, a distinguished priest educator, came to town to take me out to lunch. He has experienced much of the world, its glories and its sorrows. He is clear, direct, firm, and brave. I was waiting for him at our front desk. It was February. In he came, saying, ‘Hello, Andy, I have good news for you.’ He had recently retired, having completed an extraordinary career. ‘What’s the good news?’ I asked eagerly. ‘The good news,’ he said, ‘is that it is all true.’”[8]

[1] Psalm 96.9

[2] J. Robert Wright. Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue (New York, New York: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), pp. XIII—XIV

[3] Colossians 3.17

[4] Andrew C. Mead. Catechesis: A Collection of Sermons for the Christian Year (New York, New York: Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, 2014), p. vii.

[5] I Corinthians 2.2

[6] Matthew 16.15-16 (cf. Mark 8.29)

[7] “The Form and Manner of Ordering Priests,” The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church According to the Use of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David (Greenwich, Connecticut: The Seabury Press, 1928), p. 542.

[8] Mead, Catechesis, p. 152.

“Boasting In the Cross of Christ” (September 13, 2015; The Installation of Paul M. Quick as Head of Ascension Episcopal School, The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…”

Galatians 6.14[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

During the course of my final year at my previous parish in Tuscaloosa, a couple of my campus ministry students and I took a trip to see the Roman Catholic Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, located 104 miles northeast in Hanceville, Alabama in Cullman County. While walking up one of the outside porticos, we came upon a tall crucifix affixed to the wall at its end. Although I had seen many other crucifixes before, the one that we saw that day was unlike any other. Whereas a majority of crucifixes show Christ hanging on the cross with a look of agony that is restrained and somewhat romanticized, this particular crucifix exhibited Christ in an agony that was not at all restrained, totally devoid of dignity, and in which the emotion made the worst kick in the gut that I had ever felt. Our Lord’s body was completely covered in scars, so much so that it looked like there was hardly any skin left on His body. Every part of His body, from head to toe, was covered with dripping blood. There were gapping wounds and pulsing veins. Looking at this crucifix, I said to my companions, “In all the times that I’ve thought about the crucifixion, I never imagined Jesus looking like this.” “How do we know that it wasn’t worse than this?” one companion responded.

Just a few minutes earlier, right up front, we heard Saint Paul say to the Galatians, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” For us here in 2015, I doubt that we are shocked to hear such a thing, being that the cross has been the most well known and looked to symbol of Christianity since, at least, the second century AD. But for people during the years of AD 40-60, hearing Saint Paul say such a thing was more than likely quite shocking, primarily due to evoked real-time images similar to the description I just made of the representation of our Lord’s own crucifixion. In the Greco-Roman world, crucifixion was an execution method principally reserved for slaves, violent criminals, and political rebels.[2] It was capital punishment meant to degrade and show its victims as conquered enemies.

Yet in spite of the culture’s repulsion of the cross, Saint Paul says what he says, quite emphatically and with great seriousness. That is because for Saint Paul, Jesus Christ, the visible face of the invisible God, while hanging on an instrument meant to shame and convey weakness, took that same instrument and redeemed humanity back to God the Father, making it the instrument of our salvation and the sign of God’s ultimate defeat of sin and death. It was through the cross of Christ that “the ruler of this world”—Satan and his forces of evil—was driven out.[3] Saint Paul boasts in Christ’s cross because it gives him life, inspires him in his daily living, and he realizes that by it, Jesus has ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven him. The cross of Christ is the cross of victory, not defeat. All who have come to believe in Jesus through faith have been “baptized into his death…We have been buried with him by baptism into death” and “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father…we too…walk in newness of life.”[4] Because of the blood that was shed by Christ on the cross, He has spared us who walk in His light from the condemnation of sin.

So how appropriate it is that we, the Episcopal Church of the Ascension and School, gathered together to install, pray for, and give our support to our new Head of School, have as our focus this evening the cross, the symbol that unites us all together. We proclaim, “Ascension Episcopal School is committed to academic excellence in a Christian environment.” It is a mission greatly dependent on the cross, that victorious instrument from which come the governing principles of that Christian environment we seek to form our students within. The cross drives Ascension to be a place where its students, faculty, and administration are gentle, generous, truthful, and kind to one another, brave when facing adverse situations, and reevaluating the priorities of the heart. The primary avenue through which this takes place is corporate worship—the regular rhythm of daily chapel and frequent Eucharist—where the honing of such environment comes by way of an acknowledgment of God’s mercy, reflection on His Word, and regular reception of the Eucharistic sacrament. Through our focus on the cross, Ascension strives to be a school whose environment reflects the commandment that Jesus Himself has given us: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”[5] Because of the cross and what Jesus has done, Ascension is committed to forming its students to love all of their neighbors as they do themselves and have courage to go forth from Ascension and make positive differences in the power and Name of Jesus Christ.

“Now you are the body of Christ,” Saint Paul says, “and individually members of it.”[6] Although, as Saint Paul also says, “each of us was given grace according to the manner of Christ’s gift” and that “the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped…promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love,”[7] the driving force that is charged with keeping Ascension School focused on its mission of being an intentionally Christian school committed to academic excellence is the Head of School. In defining its general role and responsibilities, the National Association of Episcopal Schools states that the Head of School serves as an important spiritual leader, embracing, articulating, and advancing the school’s Episcopal identity.[8] Tonight, Paul M. Quick, our friend and brother in Christ, ceremonially takes on the role as Head of Ascension Episcopal School.

When his immediate predecessor’s resignation was announced and it was decided that Paul would assume the role of Head of School effective July 1, 2015, I noticed a general affirmation of the succession plan. Perhaps the reason why that was is due to the fact that the Rector and school board, faculty, staff, administration, and school parents saw within Paul a similar and seminal quality that was also possessed by the New Testament apostle of the same name. Just like Saint Paul, Paul Quick is not ashamed of the Gospel.[9] To be in any sort of meeting with him, either it be one-on-one, Administrative Operations and/or Administrative Support Team, all-campus continuing professional education, and so on, an incorporation of the Good News will find some way into it. That is because Paul wholeheartedly believes in the Good News. Just like Saint Paul, Paul Quick boasts in nothing greater than the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. It has given him life and inspires him to live his life daily for the Lord Jesus. Paul openly acknowledges himself as a ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven sinner, that God has done a marvelous work in his life, and that in all that he does, it is the Lord Jesus that orders his steps. Paul is a man who not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk, doing so as only in the best way he can, which has endeared him to the Church and School community as a man faithful to his word and an effective witness of the Gospel among us. It is by grace and our trust in the Holy Ghost that we are here tonight to affirm Paul, offering our prayers and support for him, and in which Paul himself enters into the office of Head of School, with all of us, together, engaging in the work of ministry.

Paul, my friend, my brother in Christ, everybody here tonight is here because they love you and they support you. There are many others who unfortunately could not be here, but love and support you just the same. I love you and support you and am glad to be a member of your team. As you prepare to ceremonially take on the responsibility of Head of School, a piece of advice that I would like to give you is this: continue to boast in nothing greater than the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Continue looking to the cross; continue looking to Jesus. By boasting in the cross, Jesus boasts in you and will walk with you during every step you take in this journey. By continuing your gaze upon Jesus, you will be a witness for Him to our students, being used as a vessel for His Good News, planting the seed to the truth that God does, indeed, love them. As Moses once said, “Be strong and bold; have no fear…because it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”[10] Know that as you prepare to enter this new chapter of your ministry, you enter with our love, sincere prayers, and support.

May our Lord Jesus Christ, by His grace, uphold you in the service he lays upon you.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.  

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] Frank S. Matera. Galatians (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1992), p. 231.

[3] John 12.31

[4] Romans 6.3-4

[5] John 13.34

[6] I Corinthians 12.27

[7] Ephesians 4.7, 16

[8] “Headship.” National Association of Episcopal Schools. National Association of Episcopal Schools, accessed on September 12, 2015.

[9] Romans 1.16

[10] Deuteronomy 31.6

“Speaking Truth to Power” (July 12, 2015: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost-Proper 10B; The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

“…Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man…”—Mark 6.20[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

In the movie The Dark Knight[2], there is a scene in which Batman interrogates the Joker regarding the whereabouts of Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent and his assistant Rachel Dawes, who, at one time, was the childhood sweetheart of Batman’s alternate identity, Bruce Wayne, but is now dating Dent. Instead of answering Batman’s question about where Dent and Dawes are, the Joker says that the reason why the mob wants Batman gone is so that things could go back to being what they were before, but that he knows that there is no going back and that he (Batman) has forever changed things.

“Why do want to kill me?” Batman asks. The Joker laughs out loud hysterically:

“I don’t want to kill you. What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, no, no. You…you complete me.”

Batman tells the Joker that he is trash, to which the Joker replies,

“Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not, even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak like me. They need you right now. But when they don’t, they’ll cast you out like a leper.”

Though dark, disturbed, and sinister in its tone, what the Joker says brings to light a crucial factor that both he and Batman share—that they are both extremely unique individuals within their local societal context. Because of their own respective uniqueness—that there are not many others like them—both Batman and the Joker are able to understand each other better than most people ever could. This particular understanding allows one the ability to really “keep it real” with the other, reminding the other of those very truths about themselves that they seek to dissemble and cloak from existence. For us, the viewers of scenes such as this, it brings to the eye the dichotomy of good and evil and the eternal struggle that exists between the two.

Today’s Gospel is quite similar. What we see is not so much the dichotomy of good and evil—although it does form the foundation for what we do see—but, rather, that of truth and power. John the Baptist and Herod[3], the two principal characters, are, like Batman and the Joker, in their own respective ways, extremely unique individuals within their local societal context. Their interaction with each other brings to the fore the battle that is oftentimes waged between truth and power—of how truth points to the reality of what and how things actually are and power seeking to keep the truth hidden, all out of inflamed ego and an insatiable desire for prestige, position, and place. In the end, John, representing truth, pointing to the Truth, winds up paying the ultimate price for “keeping it real” with Herod, who is so overcome with power and enslaved by his own insecurity. Although he thinks that after offing John his problems would have ended, Herod soon sees that the truth is still following him, yet manifested in a much bigger way.

While I think it a far stretch to call John a freak—though there are some who may think of him as being one—I do think it fair that he could be classified as being “a little strange.” “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather belt around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey.”[4] For the people of that time, seeing a scruffy-haired wilderness preacher in camel’s hair clothing eating locusts and shouting at the top of his lungs “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”[5] would, no doubt, have been a strange sight. If John were around today, hanging around the banks of the Vermilion River, he would most definitely be looked at as strange, perhaps even mentally special. But what was it about this strange wilderness preacher that attracted people to him, not feeling a sense of “stranger danger”? The answer is in his preaching: “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”[6] Like Batman, John the Baptist is an unusual character who seeks (and has been foreordained) to represent the Ultimate Good, operating outside of society’s norms to point to the world’s greatest Truth. The people may see John as being strange, but in his message they see hope, which attracts them to him, and, through his message, to God, fearing no evil from him.

Herod, on the other hand, can definitely be called a freak. We earlier heard John say to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Herodias, one of the Gospel’s two secondary characters, was, at one point, married to Herod Philip[7], the Herod of this Gospel’s half-brother. But the relationship goes deeper and gets more freakish than that. Not only was Herodias originally Herod’s sister-in-law, having first been married to his half-brother, but she was also the daughter of Aristobulus IV, a son of Herod the Great, who also was Herod’s father, which also made her his niece. Her mother, Bernice, was Herod’s father’s niece, which also made her his first cousin.[8] So when you break it all down, the Herod that we meet in today’s Gospel was married to his sister-in-law-niece-first cousin (talk about “all in the family”). He tossed aside his first wife, wooed Herodias away from his half-brother, taking her to himself as his own. It is for this that John calls out Herod, speaking the truth to power, being the beginning of his end.

But just as the Joker did not want to kill Batman, Herod does not want to kill John. Today’s Gospel says, “Herod…sent and seized John, and bound him in prison…Herodias…wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly.”[9] Perhaps the reason for Herod’s perplexity and gladness in hearing John is that, from meeting with John, Herod feels that John gets him, something that he might not have originally expected. And perhaps why Herod feels that John gets him is because the two men are just as similar as they are different. Deep down, Herod knows that John is right. Herod knows enough about truth to recognize his own falseness; John, himself, is sufficiently acquainted with temptation to desire his monarch’s liberation from it.[10] What we see in Herod is a battle between truth and power being waged within him. Using the words of Saint Paul, it is as if Herod is saying to John, “So I find…that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am!”[11] If it just were not for Herod’s insatiable thirst for power, the ending of today’s Gospel would have been completely different. For Herod, redemption would have happened and truth would have won within him, while, for John, his life more-than-likely spared.

John’s tragic end comes all for the sake of Herod maintaining his power, with sexual lust as its conduit. From the Gospel: “Herodias had a grudge against [John], and wanted to kill him…An opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod…and he vowed to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half my kingdom.’ And she went out, and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask?’ And she came in immediately with haste to [Herod], and asked, saying, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ And [Herod] was exceedingly sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her.” Herod made his choice—power and prestige over truth and redemption. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” and Herod, beholden to her charms, became “powerless” before her (pun somewhat intended).

So where in all of this is the Good News? We find the answer back at the beginning: “King Herod heard of it; for Jesus’ name had become known.” What Herod was hearing of was the mission of the Twelve, who were sent out two by two by Jesus, commissioned by Him to preach repentance to the people, cast out demons, and anoint the sick with oil and heal them.[12] What is the connection? Again, from John’s preaching: “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” The “He” of whom John speaks is Jesus. Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, has now come; Jesus, the Mighty One, full of grace and truth, is taking over. For John, who prepared the way for Jesus, who boldly told the truth in the face of power, he has become the first example of Jesus’ words to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”[13] For Herod, Jesus’ growing realm means the fading away of his—fueled by earthly power and governed by pride. With Jesus on the scene, the forces of truth have not been defeated; the forces of earthly power will not win the day.

The Good News that we are being given today is this: John the Baptist and all others who believe in goodness and truth, have stood up for goodness and truth, and stood up for the Truth, have received their vindication—everlasting life through Jesus Christ, God with us, and of His Kingdom there will be no end.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition, Copyright © 2006 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] The second movie of The Dark Knight Trilogy, based on the DC Comics character Batman, distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures between 2005-2012 and directed by Christopher Nolan.

[3] Herod Antipas (c. 20 BC-c. 39 AD), ruler of the Roman client state of Galilee and Perea from AD 6-39; member of the Herodian Dynasty that ruled over Judea from 37 BC-AD 92.

[4] Mark 1.6 (cf. Matthew 3.4)

[5] Matthew 3.2

[6] Mark 1.7-8

[7] From The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (E-J) (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1982), p. 595: “Herodias was originally married to the half brother of her father. She bore this husband a daughter named Salome. The husband-uncle is known in Mark 6.17 as Philip, and so too in some of the texts of Matthew 14:3. It is more likely, however, that his true name was Herod, and not Philip, for there was still another brother who carried the name Philip.”

[8] “Herodias,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (E-J) (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1982), p. 595

[9] Mark 6.17, 20

[10] Hall, Douglas John. “Theological Perspective on Mark 6:14-29,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16)) (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 240.

[11] Romans 7.21-24

[12] Mark 6.7-13

[13] John 11.25-26

“Parables–Invitations Into Mystery” (June 14, 2015: The Third Sunday after Pentecost–Proper 6B; The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

“The Kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how.” –Mark 4.26-27[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

This past Sunday, here at the Church of the Ascension and for the majority of Episcopalians, it was the Second Sunday after Pentecost. But for many in our Church affiliated with the Anglo-Catholic tradition, it was the Feast of Corpus Christi[2], a Western Christian solemnity commemorating Christ’s institution of and Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist, first observed on Maundy Thursday, but away from the dismal atmosphere brought on by our Lord’s forthcoming crucifixion and death on Good Friday. And while sitting in the nave of Saint Thomas Church (Fifth Avenue) in New York City during its festal observance of this day, this particular line from the appointed Psalm caught my attention: “O taste, and see, how gracious the Lord is: blessed is the man that trusteth in him.”[3] At that moment, the thought of grace as being something that can not only be felt, but also tasted and seen turned the wheels of my imagination, opening my mind to concepts of God’s grace and the Holy Eucharist never before thought of. It was an invitation that brought me into deep wonder. Yet, in the midst of my wondering, in the words of John Wesley, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that [H]e had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” As mysterious as the Eucharist is, because of the emotion of the moment, I could not help being drawn deeper into the mystery, not only feeling, but also tasting God’s grace, seeing that it is, indeed, good.

We have just heard Jesus speak two parables, together known as the Parables of the Kingdom. “…With what can we compare the kingdom of God…?” Jesus has compared it to two types of seed: a growing seed, scattered on the ground, sprouted and growing night and day, and a mustard seed, one that starts off very small, but “grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs…” But, as Jesus points out, “[we know] not how” of the Kingdom’s unlimited breadth, depth, and height. That is because the Kingdom of God is itself such a mystery so beyond our comprehension that no matter what you compare it to, it can never come close to the actual truth of what it actually is. Hence, the parables that Jesus speaks throughout the canonical Gospels are, for us, only mere glimpses into the nature of the Kingdom of God. They are offered as invitations to wonder into the greater mystery of who God is, what He is like, and of His love said to be unlike any other ever known. Although we do not know the absolute fullness of the nature of the Kingdom of God, because of Jesus and what He has done, we are continually drawn in, wanting to know more than what we had before known. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be one willing to learn, which makes the purpose of His parables become clearer—stories that are simple, yet convey a deeper meaning, only more fully gained through constant learning from and dependence on the living Christ.

I am convinced that God’s holding back of humanity from the fullness of knowledge of Himself—apart from the fact that our minds are incapable of comprehending God on such a level—has to do with relationship, in that while He is present to us, at the same time, He keeps hidden aspects of Himself by which our curiosity attracts us to Him. This is what I believe Jesus’ modus operandi to be in using parables—to give us lessons that, at their heart, reflect the truth about Himself and of the Kingdom, but their full meaning veiled in such a way that the only way to get the full meaning is to go back to Christ for the full meaning. All that we saw, heard, and experienced during the first half of the liturgical year—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday—have directed our attention to Christ and His Kingdom. Jesus’ parables help bring us closer to the heart of what it all means, which, like the growing seed, over time, through the moving of the Holy Ghost, causes us to feel Christ’s presence more within us and notice the Kingdom of God’s extension around us. The more we lean into Christ, the more He becomes part of us, thus the better our lives become. Furthermore, like the mustard seed, the more we lean into Christ, the more grafted we become into God’s Kingdom, which, in turn, over time, opens our eyes to the sight of God’s Kingdom as “the greatest of all shrubs…put[ting] forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”  Here on Earth, we sing, “Thy kingdom comes and grows for ever, till all thy people own thy sway.” Jesus says that the fullness of the Kingdom will be brought to us in God’s time. But until that time comes, as long as we do the things that Jesus has told us to do, living in His abiding presence, the seed will be planted and will bring forth its increase.[4]

What we do know for certain is that at the heart of these Kingdom parables, as well as at all the other of our Lord’s parables, is Jesus Himself. The growing seed and the mustard seed are both the Word of God, and the Word of God is Jesus. And with Jesus at the heart of these parables, we know them to be different from fables and legends, in that they all communicate the truth. As Pilate asked Jesus during His Passion, “What is truth?”[5] It is this very question that the Gospel parables guide us in figuring out. They help bring us closer to the Person of Jesus, realizing that He, in His very Self, is the Truth. The parables help awaken the realization of Jesus’ offering of grace to us, that “in Christ shall all be made alive.”[6] Yet, the pivotal key in our quest for better understanding of these parables is a willingness to surrender our own will in favor of Jesus’ will for us. “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.” Here is another way of looking at it from Saint Paul: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”[7] In order for us to know more about Jesus and for our certainty in His Word to grow and become firm, we must first and foremost be His disciples.

“…With what can we compare the kingdom of God…?” The simple fact of the matter is that we cannot, for our comparisons, no matter how big, how small, or how well presented, will ever be adequate enough to get to the very essence of what the Kingdom of God is. “For now we see in a mirror dimly,” Saint Paul says, “but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.”[8] The veiling of the fullness of God’s Kingdom is not meant by Jesus to shield us away, but rather to draw us in. By doing so, not revealing everything to us all at once, Jesus conveys His desire to be in constant relationship with us. By embracing the mystery, pulling back its many layers and committing to Jesus for the long-term, the Word becomes more meaningful to us, our relationship with Jesus becomes more precious and important, and our foretaste of the Kingdom of God becomes more real. “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”[9] Let us not resist the mystery; let us, instead, embrace it. “O taste, and see, how gracious the Lord is: blessed is the man that trusteth in him.”

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition, Copyright © 2006 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] Pope Urban IV first instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi as a Latin Rite solemnity in 1264 in his papal bull Transiturus de hoc mundo. For the Roman Catholic Church, this observance is presently known as “The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ” and, in places where it is a holy day of obligation, is observed on the Thursday immediately following Trinity Sunday or, in places where it is not a holy day of obligation, on the Sunday that follows Trinity Sunday. Within the Anglican tradition, the Feast of Corpus Christi is included in the calendar of the Church of England as “The Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion,” as well as in those of a few other Anglican Communion provinces, but not in that of The Episcopal Church. Even though it is not an official observance within The Episcopal Church, many Anglo-Catholic Episcopal parishes still observe Corpus Christi as a major holy day.

[3] Psalm 34.8 (Coverdale Psalter)

[4] “Plant the Seed,” The Living Church (http://www.livingchurch.org/plant-seed; accessed on June 13, 2015).

[5] John 18.38

[6] I Corinthians 15.23

[7] I Corinthians 1.18

[8] I Corinthians 13.12

[9] Matthew 6.10