The Physics of Scripture

Homily for Sunday February 11, 2018
Last Sunday after the Epiphany
2 Kings 2:1–12
Mark 9:2–9

Newton-Principles of Physics page 123The text on which I want to preach this morning is not one of the texts that we just heard, but it is a text very close to one of the texts we just heard.  And in just a moment I want to get to that text, but first, a bit of introduction…

Newtonian physics holds that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  For example, a rocket engine thrusts downward, and its payload is lifted upward.  The baseball is pitched toward the plate at high velocity, and a powerful hit launches it away at an even higher velocity.  We sit down on a chair, and the chair is able to hold us because it pushes up with at least as much force as that with which we sat down.  “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  The same might be said of Scripture.  For example, we know that when Moses goes up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, of course he is going to come down.  Or in the opening chapters of Genesis, we know—we just know!—that when God places Adam and then Eve in the garden, at some point God is going kick them out of the garden.  Or we know that even though the Psalmist might pass through “the valley of the shadow of death,” he is then going to “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  And we know that in today’s Gospel lesson when Jesus and the disciples go up the mountain, they are going to come down.  The Scriptures are filled with the rhythm of action and reaction: in then out, up then down, dark and light, death and resurrection.  Such is the “physics” of Scripture.

Elijah's_Fiery_Ascension_-Russian, Anon, 19th c tempera on panel_Walters_372748

Elijah’s Fiery Ascension — Anonymous Russian, 19th c., tempera on panel

Given these physics, something feels not quite right when Elijah goes up to heaven in the whirlwind.  Just up!…  The lack of descent is unsettling.  To find the descent, we need to look to the next line, in verse 13 (after today’s reading): “[Elisha] picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him…”  This is the text I want to preach on! Elisha “picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him…”

I want to preach on this text because, just as this story is about an ascent and descent, we, too, are ascending and descending.  For months in the lectionary and in the Church year we have been going up: In Advent we prepared for the coming of Jesus, and at Christmas we celebrated his birth.  Then we celebrated his Epiphany.  And over the past few weeks we heard Jesus call his first disciples, cast out his first demons and work his first miracles.  We have been climbing and climbing, recognizing more and more of Jesus’ divinity, until, in today’s gospel lesson, we reach the peak, the mountain of the Transfiguration.  For months we have been ascending and celebrating divinity, and now… we are hours away from descending.  This Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, will remind us that, even though we have been made in the image of God and have the capacity for ascent into things divine, yet we “are dust and to dust [we] shall return.”  We have gone up—celebrating Jesus’ Incarnation and Epiphany—and now we are about to go down, remembering “that we are but dust,” and that “our days are like the grass,” as Wednesday’s Psalm will tell us.

Transfiguration_RaphaelRather than being an occasion for feeling down, I see in our “dusty-ness”—as it is in the context of the “physics” of our Scriptures and the liturgical year—an occasion for hope.  I see hope in our dusty-ness because the more we are able, on the one hand, to let God draw us into the “heights,” into our capacity for God, and the more we are able, on the other, to accept the fullness of our humanity—to be grounded in our “dusty-ness”—the more alive we can become.

Much like the earth has two magnetic poles that are held in tension, and when they are in tension everything more or less runs smoothly, so do we have within us two poles that, when we live into them, we become more fully alive.  We have the capacity for God—if Gregory of Nyssa is right, we humans have been created with the capacity for infinite growth in God!—and we are human—fallen—with much to be penitent for.  Holding these two poles in tension—living into these two truths about our nature—we can become more fully alive.

magnetic polesThe meeting point of these two tensions lies in that quintessential Lenten practice: penitence.  Penitence puts us in right relationship with ourselves—helping us to accept (as does the Psalmist) that “There is no soundness in my body, because of my sin.”  And penitence puts us in right relationship with God, who “forgives all [our] sins and heals all [our] infirmities.” A rhythm of regular penitence—like the general confession we make in the Sunday liturgy, plus perhaps taking advantage of the sacrament of Reconciliation—much like stroking a piece of iron until it magnetizes, aligns our interior “poles” such that we become more fully ourselves.

It is tempting, like Peter, to want to stay on the mountain, basking only in our capacity for the divine.  But staying in one place, either in our capacity for the divine or in our humanity, is not the rhythm of the Gospels; such is not our “physics.”  We Christians go up and then down, in then out, experience dark then light, and death then resurrection.  We experience being fully alive as we both live into our capacity for God and accept that we are fallen and stand in need forgiveness.

flower-desertI hope that this Lent we might reach down and pick up the mantle that is dropped before us.  Though today we are on the mountain, beholding his glory, next week we will be with him in the wilderness, tempted by Satan.  I hope that as today we have seen our capacity for the divine, to stand with Jesus on the heights, on Wednesday and throughout Lent we might pick up the mantle of our humanity—we might accept our fallen-ness—and to take our fallen-ness to him who alone has the power to “redeem [our] life from the grave.”  As we are faithful to penitence in Lent—“penitent” in the best way, a way that is part of a rhythm, of our capacity for both the divine and the human, a rhythm that completes us—we will pass through Lent and, come Easter, experience resurrection from what may still be dead within us.

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Ingredients for Joy

Homily for Sunday, February 4, 2018
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 40:21–31

Rilke-Arturo Espinosa, oil on canvas

Rainer Maria Rilke, oil on canvas, Arturo Espinosa

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in a letter to one Ilse Erdman, said about joy and creativity that:

 

Only in joy does creation happen (happiness, on the contrary, is only a… pattern of things already existing); joy, however, is a marvelous increase… a pure addition out of nothingness….  Joy is a moment… not to be held but also not to be truly lost, since under its impact our being is changed.

Joy is creative, and in this joy is different from happiness.  Galway Kinnell, the former poet laureate of Vermont, in one of his poems (“First Song”), wrote of the “darkness and… sadness of joy.”  Joy can be complex, often containing (in a strange way) darkness and sadness.  Which is similar to what the orthodox theologian Alexander Schmeman once said, that:

The knowledge of the fallen world does not kill joy, which emanates in this world, always, constantly, as a bright sorrow. Continue reading

On Father James’ Retirement

Homily for Sunday, January 21, 2018
Third Sunday after the Epiphany

James LaMacchiaToday we celebrate Fr. LaMacchia’s “retirement.”  “Retirement” in quotes, because while James is retiring, he’s not leaving: he will yet continue here at Trinity Parish as one of our priests.

The classic clergy retirement text is Paul’s departing speech to the elders at Ephesus in the twentieth chapter of Acts.  Paul and the elders are gathered at the beach, just before Paul boards ship to Jerusalem, and Paul tells the elders that they will never see his face again.  There are tears, and Paul—in a line befitting the preaching of the Great Awakening—pronounces: “I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole Gospel of God (Acts 20:26–27).”  That’s the classic clergy retirement text.  But it doesn’t seem to work for today, somehow… Continue reading

Following God’s Call

Homily for Sunday, January 14, 2018
Second Sunday After the Epiphany
1 Samuel 3:1–20

bike-1659336_960_720Though the homily this morning isn’t about bicycles, in just a minute I want to talk about bicycles, in particular about Gregory Crichlow, the owner of the Chocolate Spokes bike shop in the Five Points neighborhood in Denver.  But I don’t want to begin there.  Rather, I’d like to begin with three works of art.  The three works are pictured in the order of service. Continue reading

Finding Joy in Sorrow

Homily for Sunday, January 7, 2018
The First Sunday After the Epiphany
Mark 1:4–11

Thoughtful Grief Sorrow Sadness Alone DeathThis morning’s homily is about joy.  Which I say from the get-go because it is also about being wounded and about sorrows and how we Christians continually tell again and again, in the scriptures and sacraments, the story of Jesus’ Passion.  So I want to be clear from the get-go that the News is ultimately good, that with Jesus, there is always the possibility of joy.

I want to begin with Christian Wiman’s beautifully-written piece, “The Limit,” (The Threepenny Review, Fall, 2001).  “The Limit” is ostensibly about Wiman’s growing up in Texas and his experience of one day going dove hunting with his friend John and John’s dad, and how John accidentally shot his dad in the face.  (He survived.)  But “The Limit” is really about wounds and sorrow and how—in the way we tell stories about our wounds and sorrows—it is possible to find healing, even joy.  Wiman says that what is important in the telling of these stories is not so much the “facts,” but what we remember and how we tell about what we remember.  Continue reading

Joy, Sorrow and Glory

Homily for Sunday, December 31, 2017
Christmas 1
John 1:1–18
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” — John 1:14

Always on the First Sunday after Christmas—always!—the lectionary swings briefly through the orbit of John before rocketing off to one of the Synoptics for the bulk of Epiphany.  I think the lectionary brings us to John not so much because by this time the Gospels’ few infancy narratives have already been read during the Masses for Christmas Day, but rather to increase the chances that our trajectory for the coming year will be at least tinged with—if not wholly consumed by—not just joy, but glory.

swift-Apus_apus_-Barcelona,_Spain-8This is a homily about that elusive thing about which John speaks in this morning’s Gospel: glory.  And—because they’re all connected—about John and Jesus and sorrow and joy.  But I don’t want to begin there.  Instead, I want to begin with swifts—the birds— in particular swifts as written about by Charles Foster, the English naturalist.  You may have heard of Foster, who by his own admission is “a gnat’s breath away from psychosis.”  Foster spent six weeks living underground to better understand what it was like to be a badger.   He got naked and shot down rapids and slithered through the grass and tried to catch fish in his teeth to learn what it might be like to be an otter (which, he says, “is like being on speed,” and not in a good way.)   To try to understand what it was like to be a deer, Foster let his toenails grow long and allowed himself to be hunted through the woods by bloodhounds. Continue reading

Finding the real Jesus

Homily for Christmas Eve, 2017

Nativity stained glass-Calvary Episcopal Church, Summit, New JerseyWhat do you need to be done with in your relationship with Jesus Christ?  Let me say that again: “What do you need to be done with in your relationship with Jesus Christ?”

And we all have a relationship with Jesus Christ!  Just as there is no such thing as a non-response to an invitation—even not responding to an invitation is a form of response—so there is no one who does not have a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Because Jesus invites all of us to draw closer; we all have a relationship with Jesus Christ!

It may seem odd on Christmas Eve to consider what we need to be done with in our relationship with Jesus Christ, a day when we celebrate beginnings and Jesus’ entering in to human life.  But perhaps Christmas is just the occasion to ask ourselves what we need to be done with in our relationship with Jesus Christ, for—if we are to take in the new life offered to us in Jesus—we first need to make room for that life. Continue reading