Easter means…

a sermon, based on Acts 7.55-60 and John 14.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday of Easter, May 14, 2017

Continuing our Easter season celebration at length and contemplation at depth of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, today, I offer one word: home. Easter means finding and knowing, going and being home.

Stephen, before stoned to death, beheld a vision of “Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” His dying testimony anticipated our creedal affirmation that Jesus “came down from heaven…became incarnate…was crucified…suffered death…was buried…rose again…ascended into heaven…seated at the right hand of (God).”[1]

Martyrdom of St. Stephen (c. 1560), Giorgio Vasari

Easter means that Jesus found his way back home.

Now, if Easter is all and only about Jesus, then we have little reason to celebrate. Blessedly, there’s more! Jesus declares that finding home is about us. On the night before he died, Jesus bid his disciples be not troubled by his departure, promising that he would welcome them into God’s infinitely roomy house. So also testifies our creed: “(Jesus) will come again in glory…and his kingdom will have no end.”

Easter means that we go home to God.

Where is this home? Stephen “gazed into heaven.” Presuming a first century cosmology of a spherical earth suspended in space at the center of a series of concentric heavens, Stephen looked up. Yet I think God’s “many dwelling places” is not a description of celestial space or heavenly architecture. The question, therefore, is not where, but rather what is home? As we’re talking about the realm of God, indeed, God’s being and nature, “many dwelling places” is a symbol of the infinite capaciousness of God’s Love.

Easter means we always are at home in God, Who, as Love, allows nothing to keep us apart, not even we ourselves.

George Herbert[2] understood this. In his enchanting poem, Love Bade Me Welcome,[3] he writes of God who, as Love, unconditionally bids him come…

Yet he, aware of his mortality and iniquity, resists…

Love perceiving his hesitancy, draws closer; swift to erase any distance, to ease any dis-ease between them…

Herbert, desiring to be a worthy guest, honestly confesses that he is not…

Love replies in future tense, “you shall be”; for Herbert’s sense of his present unworthiness does not, cannot prevent Love from loving…

Herbert, perhaps disbelieving for joy, counters with specificity, naming his chiefest sins, unkindness and thanklessness; his guilt so great that he dares not look at God…

Love draws closer still, taking Herbert’s hand, smiling, speaking Self-referentially that the Creator of the eye best can decide whose eyes shall see God…

Herbert presses the point, declaring his shame in misusing the gift of sight; begging to be given what he deserves: the punishment of banishment from God’s presence…

Ah, says Love, shame, Herbert’s and ours, already has been embraced and embodied in Jesus; God, our Lover, living with us as we live and die, being in us for all time and beyond time…

Herbert, persuaded, agrees to come to table as Love’s servant…

Ah, no, says Love, it alway is I who serves…

Herbert, all of his protests overcome, finally accepts Love’s welcome; sitting with Love, supping, partaking of Love.

Easter means we become Who we receive: Love.

In our Anglican ethos, scripture, tradition, and reason proclaim God’s existence. Yet it is my life’s experience that proves God’s Love. Herbert’s experience is my experience! I have known moments of painful glory when unconditional love welcomed me. When others (and I’m not talking about people who didn’t and don’t know me, but rather people who knew and know me well, very well; knowing things about me that I despise and wouldn’t want them or anyone to know!) embraced me without regard or reserve, overcoming every obstacle of my sense of my unworthiness, calling me to accept, to love myself just as I am. Though never a constant state (indeed, what is?), I have known moments of being so loved that I love.

In my pastoral ministry, listening to, loving others, I also know that everyone has not had moments of this pained glory when, in spite of their poor self-esteem, indeed, in some cases, self-loathing, the love of others bade them welcome. I have grieved with those who, in their experiences of judgment and rejection, largely only know pain and no glory.

Easter means finding and knowing, going and being home. Easter means we are called to rise in new life here on earth, being and becoming, and giving what we have received that all will know God’s Love.

If Easter ain’t about that, then Easter ain’t about anything!

 

Illustration: Martyrdom of St. Stephen (c. 1560), Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574)

Footnotes:

[1] From the Nicene Creed. The full text:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

[2] George Herbert, Portrait by Robert White (1674), National Portrait Gallery George Herbert (1593-1633), Welsh-born Anglican priest, orator, and poet (Portrait by Robert White, 1674, National Portrait Gallery)

 

[3] Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,

Guiltie of dust and sinne.

But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:

Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,

I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?

My deare, then I will serve.

You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.

 

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

An Opening Word

It would be more accurate to employ the title: Of my life in the still-Christian South Carolina

As I believe that no two people ever mean precisely the same thing when using the same words,[1] I favor self-definition.

To wit…

By my life, always speaking only for myself, my observations are my own.

By South Carolina, I write of my experience in the 8th state of the Union; and, specifically in the mid-to-upstate region where I live and move and have my being.

By still-Christian, I do not mean that no other region nationally or globally bears a Christian character, whether understood by its past or current existential ethos. Nor do I mean to infer that Christianity is the only philosophical/theological-ethical framework.

Speaking in broad historical terms, I do think that the Enlightenment period’s elevation of human reason to an exalted state of influence and the developing concept of the self, over time, has led to a greater reliance on individual authority and accountability and a lesser confidence in overarching principles of belief and behavior.

Concerning these “overarching principles”, as a Christian, I think of the existence of God as revealed in Jesus Christ as embedded in scripture and embodied in two millennia and counting of tradition, and, yes, as viewed through the lens of human reason (though guided by the Holy Spirit) and as refracted through the prism of human experience.

As these things I continue to behold, in manifold forms and in myriad ways, in the active, daily consciousness of the lives and labors of the folk of South Carolina, in posts to come under Of life in the still-Christian South, I will share what I observe.

 

Footnote:

[1] To put this another way, I believe that given our individual experiences and observations, histories and memories, perspectives and opinions, no matter how similar, whenever two people seek to communicate, there always is difference between what is said and what is meant, what is intended and what is understood; thus, the constant individual necessity of defining one’s terms.

musing about mystery in Advent, continued…

Mystery. Whether about God or Jesus, nature or life, or me – not a riddle to be resolved by reason, but a reality beyond my completest understanding. The more I know, the more I know I don’t know. Nevertheless, I hear mystery’s constant call to me, “Come.” As Advent beckons me to answer, “Yes,” I ask myself: What does that “yes” look like?

In the human encounter with mystery, a common desire, I think, I feel is light. I have an image in mind. I’m peering into the mouth of a long, serpentine, seemingly endless corridor. Though, for whatever reasons, I must enter, I have a choice. I can forge on with only my native eyesight, by which, at best, I, with every step, can see only a foot or two ahead or, with the aid of a trusty flashlight in hand, I can follow its bright beam. Facing mystery, yes, please, let there be light!

In Advent, the church addresses this desire, on each of the four Sundays igniting an additional candle, symbolizing, as Christmas nears, drawing closer to the coming of Jesus, the embodiment of that ineffable mystery of God in flesh and the Light of the world. Light.

As I muse, being always a questioner and, perhaps, too, a contrarian, I also think of darkness.

I came across a poem, Sweet Darkness, by anthropologist and naturalist, philosopher and poet David Whyte that afforded me some insight (pun intended!). Whyte speaks to me, for me of moments when I can’t see. When more looking yields no better recognition. When more thinking reaches no deeper comprehension. When more words spoken in conversation or argument achieve no greater understanding. When sense and nonsense, clarity and confusion appear as one. Moments when I come to that agonizing realization that nothing I can do brings me closer to truth. Yet, there, in the dark, if I would but embrace it, accept it, I can be and I am called and comforted, known and loved. There, in the limitless darkness, I see more than I could have imagined or would dare to have believed.

To walk into darkness, hoping to see light. This, I believe (though confessing my always desire to have light in all ways), is what my “yes” in response to mystery’s call looks like.

And, now, typical of my usually biblically-based contemplation, I ask myself: What figure, what character portrays, models for me this willingness to enter the dark hoping, praying to see light?

More to come…

musing about mystery in Advent

As one possessed of (by?) a musical soul, as oft happens, I awoke with a tune sounding in my mind. This morning: Adoro te devote. For a moment, remaining in restful, silent repose, I mouthed the now long familiar words:

Humbly I adore thee, Verity unseen, Who thy glory hidest ‘neath these shadows mean; Lo, to thee surrendered, my whole heart is bowed. Tranced as it beholds thee, shrined within the cloud.

This 13th century meditation attributed to Thomas Aquinas expresses profoundest love for Jesus Christ – particularly as revealed in the bread and wine (“these shadows mean”) of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper – the One truly adored who “hidest ‘neath”, shrouded “within the cloud” of ineffable mystery.

Aquinas’ words give fair voice to my longing, my love – shared universally, I think, by all, religious and not – for connection to something greater. And whenever I ponder of the verity, the truth of God or Jesus, nature or life itself, there is mystery.

Mystery. Not a riddle to be resolved by reason, so to say if only I knew more, I’d figure it out. But a reality (really, reality itself) beyond my comprehension’s fullest grasp. Hence, the more I know – as knowledge, like the ever-expanding universe, is boundless, always waiting to be revealed and, indeed, always in the making – the more I know I don’t know.

Yet mystery, it seems to me, is always calling, “Come.” This poses an immediate dilemma. The nature of mystery is mysterious; so unresponsive to my desire, at times, my demand for answers (especially frustrating for one who is incurably curious!).

But no matter how much I question, no matter how near I draw to mystery, I inevitably encounter uncertainty. Most of time, that’s OK. I readily acknowledge ambiguity, at least, in the abstract (I oft say, “If there’s one thing about which I’m certain, it’s ambiguity!”). However, it’s quite another thing to be uncertain in the concrete situations of my life, at those unavoidable intersections of circumstance and decision, crisis and action when my choices, however sincerely, thoughtfully made, can prove disastrously wrong. In such moments, I yearn for the comfort, the confidence of knowing.

Confessing this, I recognize the danger of running too far in the other direction, away from mystery. Whenever I do that, almost invariably I end up equating faith with certainty and, worse, with an absolutism that inhibits inquiry and hungers for (and will be satiated only by) clear, firm answers.

I am a Christian. It is Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas, in turn, the annual Christian celebration of the greatest mystery, the grandest incomprehensibility of all: God taking human flesh to dwell in earthly time and space.

On this morning, as clearly as I heard the ancient chant Adoro te devote, and, once again, mystery’s call, “Come,” so Advent beckons me to answer always, “Yes!” to the quest of mystery. So, as an inveterate questioner, I ask myself: What does that “yes” look like?

Hmmm, I have to think more about that. More to come…