Unlocking Holiness

Homily for Sunday, March 11, 2018
Lent 4B
Numbers 21:4–9

key-2312481_960_720Origen of Alexandria, writing in the 3rd century, compared the Scriptures to a mansion in which the key to open the door to one room often lay in another.  So, for example, the key to open the door to the letter to the Ephesians might be in the book of Genesis.  Or the key to open the book of the prophet Amos might be somewhere in Paul’s letter to Romans, and so forth.

One of the keys to understanding today’s reading from Numbers lies in the book of the prophet Ezra.  In Ezra, Ezra describes how, when the exiles came back from Babylon to Jerusalem and built the second Temple, many of the men were discovered to have married foreign wives, and Ezra wanted racial purity.   [See Ezra 9:2: “For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands.”]  While concerns about idolatry abound throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, a ban against marrying foreigners appears only once other than in Ezra, in Deuteronomy 7, where—from my reading—the concern yet remains, not racial purity, but idolatry.  (Moses didn’t want foreign spouses turning hearts to foreign gods.)  Ezra’s concern with racial purity, and his subsequent order that the men send away their foreign wives along with their children(!) is unprecedented in the Hebrew Scriptures, which as a whole is concerned, not with purity, but with holiness.

Ezra helps to unlock the door to today’s passage in Numbers because, though Ezra is concerned with purity, Numbers by contrast is concerned with holiness.  While “purity” might be an admirable quality in gemstones or in metallurgy or in pharmaceuticals, purity is unrealistic in people.  If we search our hearts, we know well our capacities for both the good and the bad—we are not pure.  Macarius the Great, in one of his homilies in the 5th century, perhaps puts it best about these complex hearts of ours.  Our hearts, Macarius says, are like a castle.  They

contain an unfathomable depth. In them are reception rooms and bedchambers, doors and porches, and many offices and passages.  In them are rooms filled with righteousness as well as rooms filled with unrighteousness.  In them is life, and in them is death.  In them is that which is good; in them is that which is evil. [Homily 15.32]

Numbers is concerned not with purity but holiness.  If purity is unrealistic for human beings, holiness is something to which we are called.

Some differences between purity and holiness…

  • If purity is about what we can do, holiness is about what God does in us.
  • If purity is about actions, holiness is more about relationship
  • If purity is about trying harder, holiness is a graceful accepting of limitations.
  • If purity is about getting it right, holiness is about being forgiven.
  • If purity is about perfection, holiness is about courage

In short, holiness is our capacity, not so much to not sin—we all sin—but holiness is our capacity to accept God’s mercy and forgiveness when we do sin.  An accepting which is not always easy to do.

forgivenessThe book of Numbers—including today’s lesson—is filled with examples of holiness.  Not purity, but holiness, which is “our capacity, not so much to not sin, but to accept God’s mercy and forgiveness when we do.”  By my count, seven times in Numbers the people rebelled against God—including today’s lesson—and seven times the Lord forgave them.  The people are by no means pure; they’re quite dysfunctional, actually.   But bit by bit, as they accept God’s mercy and forgiveness, the people become holy.  If in Numbers the people are a “chosen race,” it is not because they are racially pure; if the people are a “chosen race” it is because they are the ones whom God has chosen to call to account; it is because they are the ones able to accept God’s forgiveness.

We might think it is easy to accept forgiveness, but accepting forgiveness takes courage.  Accepting forgiveness means not merely admitting that we did something wrong—deep-down, we know we do wrong; admitting wrong is not what is difficult.  Accepting forgiveness is difficult because accepting forgiveness means entering more deeply into relationship.  And that—entering more deeply into relationship— is what takes courage!  Accepting forgiveness means peeling away yet another layer of the carapace with which we so often surround ourselves (the masks), and this peeling leave us more open, more vulnerable, for relationship.

It is just this rhythm, of asking forgiveness and of God forgiving, that we see in Numbers.  God forgives the people again and again—seven times!  Which is Bible-speak for “fully and completely and always.”   The people in Numbers—like us—are anything but pure.  But they—and we—are called to holiness.

The image of the Prodigal Son returning to the welcoming embrace of the Father is one of Pope Francis’ favorite images, and he uses it regularly to talk about God’s love for us.  In the context of the Prodigal, Pope Francis writes the following:

God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew.

forgiveness_2.jpgI hope that, as we move through Lent and draw nearer to Holy Week, we can dare to be like the Prodigal.  I hope that we might recognize our need for God.  I hope we might turn and take steps to return to God.  I hope we might not be afraid—and that we might not tire—in asking God’s mercy.  For though we might think that God tires of forgiving us, “God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.”   When we have messed up, when we turn to God, God always gives the opportunity to start anew.  God gives us the chance to grow, not in purity, but in holiness.  Which is about being fallen and forgiven.  Which is not about trying harder but about letting God in.  And which is what our hearts, deep down, really want.


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. Continue reading

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