An Ordinary, Corrupt Human Life

Homily for Sunday, December 9, 2018
Advent 2C
Malachi 3:1–4

“The Lord of hosts… is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap… he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.”

Santa-christmas-card-vintageThis past week my wife received a Christmas card on the cover of which was a stick-figure girl, crayon in hand, who has just written a letter to Santa:

Dear Santa,
I am writing to tell you that I have been naughty,
and it was worth it!
You fat, old, judgmental bastard.

While it is true that the book of the prophet Malachi, from which we heard this morning, is about holiness—as we just heard:

The Lord of hosts… will purify the descendants of Levi… until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.

…  [While it is true that the book of the prophet Malachi is about holiness,] Malachi shows there is a lot more to “holiness” than whether we have been “naughty or nice.”  And I want to get back to Malachi and holiness, but first—in addition to my wife’s Christmas card—I want to share a quote from Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the AffairThe End of the Affair is set in the Second World War during the Blitz.  Morris Bendix, a writer, is having an affair with Sarah Miles, the wife of a civil servant.  The two have just made love and he has gone downstairs when a bomb explodes, damaging the house.  Sarah runs down to see Morris’ hands sticking out from under a fallen door and presumes him dead.  She runs back upstairs and prays, “Make him live!  I love him so much.  Make him live, and I will give him up.”  Morris survives more or less unscathed, but Sarah—rather like Jephthah—has made her vow.  Now Sarah had not been much of one for belief in God, and her dilemma is now acute: “God” saved Morris—perhaps even in answer to her prayer?—and for that Sarah is grateful.  But at the same time Sarah wants none of it; she would love to forget about God, disregard her vow, and have Morris back as her lover.  In her pangs of conscience and her doubts about God, Sarah delivers what is perhaps her best line: “What I want is an ordinary, corrupt human life.”

The desire to live an “ordinary, corrupt human life” is the setting for the book of the prophet Malachi.  The Hebrews had recently returned from exile, had recently re-built the Temple and recently re-established its rhythms of daily worship and sacrifice.  And Malachi—perhaps himself a priest, but at least a supporter of Temple ritual— was dismayed to see what he perceived to be corruption among the clergy and people.  To the people, Malachi writes:

You have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them (3:7)…  You have wearied me with your words (2:17)…  You are robbing me… in your tithes and offerings (3:8)…  “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when… evildoers will be stubble,” says the Lord of hosts (3:18).

And to the priests, Malachi says:

“You have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble… you have corrupted the covenant of Levi (2:8)…  If you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name… then I will… curse your blessings…  I will rebuke your offspring… spread dung on your faces… and I will put you out of my presence” (2:1–2).

All the people want is “an ordinary, corrupt human life.”

MalachiFrom what we can tell in his book, Malachi had high hopes for the Temple and the restoration.  Perhaps Malachi had imagined the Temple mount shrouded in smoke from daily sacrifice “as in the days of old.”  It sounds like he had hoped for a well-ordered city, with well-ordered families centered around the worship of God. Malachi probably wanted Jerusalem to be prosperous and respected, the envy of nations all around.  It sounds like Malachi had imagined a city that, if the people and priests worshipped rightly, God would protect and would be safe.  Malachi had hopes to “make Jerusalem great again,” as it were, and the priests and people were spoiling that vision.  Malachi must have felt disappointed.  And angry.  And wanting to point fingers and to lay blame.  And probably fearful and resentful.  To be sure, he probably did feel love for God; he probably was filled with hope for this world; he probably did possess a genuine desire for the health of God’s people, who seemed—despite Malachi’s best efforts—to want only and nothing more: “an ordinary, corrupt human life.”

_____________________

The season of Advent invites us to get in touch with what is inside us.  Maybe like Sarah to own our desire for “an ordinary, corrupt human life;” to own that we, too, have struggles with God; to own that sometimes we, too, think “it’s worth it!”  And maybe, like Malachi must have, Advent invites us to consider: What are our hopes?  What are our ideals?  Who is the person we hope (or had hoped) to become?  And then to get in touch with disappointment, or anger, or resentment; or love, or hope, or acceptance—whatever we might feel in response to Jesus’ invitation to enter more fully into our lives.  These desires, feelings and hopes are all stepping stones on the journey to holiness.

ArboretumWhich is much bigger than whether we’ve been “naughty or nice.” Holiness has to do with getting in touch with desire, with unfolding and growing and becoming the person God created us to be.  Holiness has to do with allowing God in and letting go and discovering what may be down the stairs and behind our hearts’ “door.”  Holiness has to do with discovering that we are alive!  Holiness has to do with love and yearning and hope.  Holiness often involves a rhythm of wanting God and then not wanting God.  Holiness can involve wanting everything back the way it was before (“as in the days of old”) while at the same time allowing ourselves to be drawn into something new.  Holiness frequently involves disappointment, and fear and anger.  Holiness has to do with movement, which is often in tension with our desire to stay put.  And when we live into this tension—wanting to live an “ordinary, corrupt human life” while at the same time hearing Jesus’ call to follow—we can rest assured that we are on the way, that God is forming something new within and wanting to bring it forth into the world.

I am going to leave us with a quote from Pope Francis, excerpted from his recent exhortation to holiness, “Rejoice and Be Glad.”  It speaks of holiness and allowing in and letting go, of unfolding and becoming, of working past fear; it speaks of tension, and—that most clear mark of an increase in holiness—the capacity of being surprised:

Do not be afraid of holiness… Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God.  Do not be afraid to be guided by the Holy Spirit.  Holiness does not make [us] less human…  It will take away none of [our] energy, vitality or joy.  On the contrary, [we] will become what the Father had in mind when he created [us], and [we] will be faithful to [our] deepest [selves]…  Happiness is a paradox.  We experience it most when we accept the mysterious logic that is not of this world, [which is the logic of] the cross…  God asks everything of us, yet [God] also gives everything to us.  [God] does not want to enter our lives to cripple or diminish them, but to bring them to fulfilment… Let us ask the Lord for the grace not to hesitate when the Spirit calls us to take a step forward…  In every situation, may the Holy Spirit cause us to contemplate [life] in the light of the risen Jesus.  In this way, [we] will not stand still, but constantly welcome the Lord’s surprises.  (Gaudete et Exsultate, 32, 34, 174,175, 139)

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A Window into the Life of God

Homily for Sunday, December 2, 2018
Advent 1C
I Thessalonians 3:9–13

British beehiveIn World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting—a nearly 700-page tome (about bees and beekeeping)—Eva Crane describes how through the ages humans, out of curiosity, have attempted to see into a hive.  Aristotle tried cutting a window into his hive, but the bees obscured it with propolis, a sticky resin made from buds and sap.  Pliny describes hives fitted with a semi-transparent stone that was probably mica, (and he charmingly opined, from what he could see, that bees in the hive do three things: some build, others polish, and still others make dinner).  In 1653 the Rev. William Mewe built an octagonal hive on different levels, each fitted with a small window sealed by a hinged shutter.  In 1655 the diarist John Evelyn described a transparent apiary belonging to one Dr. Wilkins of Oxford, complete with dials, little statues and vanes, though it is likely that Evelyn’s imagination got ahead of himself, as large sheets of glass were not produced in England for another few decades.  When they were, the so-called “observation hive” allowed humans to see, in a single comb bound on either side with a pane of glass, the queen in her chamber, her attendants gathered round, workers coming and going, or storing pollen, or making wax or building comb. Continue reading

Lord of our lives

Homily for Sunday, November 25, 2018
Revelation 1:4b–8
Last Sunday After Pentecost—Christ the King Sunday

Soldiers_in_trenchThis past Veterans’ Day WBUR aired a special called “Exploring the Poetry of War.”  Host Deborah Becker and guests Robert Pinsky, a poet on faculty at BU, and Brian Turner, who wrote poetry about his Army service in Iraq, discussed things like: what should be considered essential literature about war, like the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, or You Know When the Men Are Gone, by Army wife Siobhan Fallon.  They shared with each other their favorite war poems, like Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est,” or “Facing It,” by Yusef Komunyakaa.  They talked about the senselessness of war.  And they talked, too, about how it is that beautiful words could possibly go together with horrific violence.  At one point Becker asked Turner: “Why did you use poetry to describe what happens on the battlefield?”  Turner replied: Continue reading

All Things Are Possible

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
November 11, 2018
Proper 27B: The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 17:8–16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24–28
Mark 12:38–44

My Friends:

Tallulah_Bankhead_1941Every time I hear this morning’s beloved Gospel narrative—commonly referred to in the tradition as “The Widow’s Mite”—I am reminded of a story, perhaps apocryphal, told about the late, great actress Tallulah Bankhead, who really was a devoted Anglican, albeit with a wicked and ironic sense of humor.  Apparently, Ms. Bankhead had just attended a high Anglican liturgy in an English cathedral, at which an Anglican bishop, all bedecked in his episcopal finery, presided.  The liturgy included the use of incense burning in a golden thurible on a long chain.  Anglican lore has it that, at the conclusion of the service, Ms Bankhead approached the bishop and, in that legendary, deep gravelly voice, said to him, “Your Grace, I love your drag, but your purse is on fire.” Continue reading

For All the Saints

Homily for Sunday, November 4, 2018
All Saints’

OrdoCalendarIt is easy to forget, when we are here on Sundays, that the Church’s calendar is quite busy during the week.  And when I say that the Church’s calendar is busy during the week, I don’t mean our mid-week meetings or Wednesday evening services, or all the activity with the Food Pantry and Birthday Wishes.  When I say that the Church’s calendar is quite busy during the week, I mean that the Church’s liturgical “Kalendar” is filled with the commemorations of saints.  For example, this week Tuesday is the feast day of William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the war.  Wednesday is the feast day of Willibrord, an 8th century missionary and the first Archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands.  Saturday is the feast day of Leo the Great, a fifth century Pope best known for his concise statement of Christ being two Natures in one Person.  And—if you really get into it—you can go online and google “Episcopal saints calendar” and explore those saints whose commemorations have been proposed but who yet await official approval.  On that list are all of the above commemorations plus… Lili_uokalaniThursday is the commemoration of St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, a Carmelite nun and mystic from the turn of the last century, and Friday is of Louise DeKoven Brown, an early 20th century American philanthropist, social reformer and suffragist.  Save for tomorrow, every day this week is the feast day of a saint; indeed, of the 30 days in November, 25 are saints’ days.  (November has some great saints: Lili’uokalani, the Last Monarch of Hawaii; St. Herman of Alaska, a Russian Orthodox monk and missionary to Alaska; the writer C.S. Lewis, and also Sojourner Truth.)  These and other saints give witness to the many ways in which the Spirit manifests the life of Christ in the Church’s members. Continue reading

Consecration Sunday

Sermon given by the Rev. Skip Windsor
Pentecost XXIII
Mark 10:46–52
October 28, 2018

Come Holy Spirit, come. Come as the wind and cleanse. Come as the fire and burn. Convert and consecrate our lives to our great good and your great glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Skip WindsorIt is a pleasure to be with you this morning and I would like to thank your rector, Todd, for the invitation to be your preacher today on this your Consecration Sunday.

This Sunday comes in the midst of stewardship season recalling for me the words of a clergy colleague who started his stewardship sermon to the congregation with some good news and some bad news.  The good news is that they had all the money they needed to operate the church.  The bad news was it was in their pockets! Continue reading

The Freedom of Giving

Homily for Sunday, October 21, 2018
Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost
Mark 10:35–45

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Shrine_with_Mark_the_Evangelist,_Strallegg

Mark the Evangelist, Parish of Stralleg, Austria

Of course they did!  Of course the disciples in the Mark’s Gospel would ask Jesus to do for them whatever they asked of him!  Even after ten chapters, the disciples in Mark still don’t get it.  I love that Mark includes this honest, unflattering story about two of Jesus’ ostensibly “best” disciples.  Matthew likewise includes this story, but he cleans it up; in Matthew, James’ and John’s mother ask Jesus the favor (thus not besmirching the future saints’ reputations).  Image-conscious Luke—ever the one to tidy up and make things look “nice” (the White House press secretary of the New Testament)—does away with the story altogether.  But Mark—blunt, honest Mark—includes it: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Continue reading