Sermon: March 24 2016 (Maundy Thursday)

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Do this in remembrance of me, he says. But, why? Why this business with the bread and the wine, the eating and the drinking?

The obvious answer, often given, and true enough, is that eating and drinking are central to life. We need food to survive, and “This is my body” is the denouement of “One does not live by bread alone”. In the Eucharist, instituted on this night so many nights ago, we feed on God who sustains us. The symbolism is as plain as the wafer itself.

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We also need each other, and at his table, Christ brings us all together in himself, we who are so many. (Pardon, for a moment, an excursion into autobiographical indulgence.) My first time in an Anglican Church, it was an 8am BCP service, and terribly unfamiliar, both the liturgy and the people. There weren’t many of us, a half a dozen at most. I was the youngest by about a half a century, and stood out like…a Malaysian Chinese lapsed Pentecostal in a choir stall of respectable, White, anglo-Catholic women in their Sunday best. We had nothing in common, they and I, and yet there we were, standing and bowing and kneeling together, crossing ourselves together, me mimicking them, feeling less lost and more found with each moment and movement. And then we were at the altar rail together, the faithful ladies of All Saints’ Anglican Church, Dunedin and my uncertain self at the end, and I watched them close their eyes and open their lips, and then and there I knew that they were home, and so was I, so exposed and vulnerable did they—did we—allow ourselves to be: eyes closed, mouths agape, looking like fools. Like fools, half-expecting the wine to taste of silver or blood, and yet struck, surprised, by the strong, sweet headiness of the liquor when the chalice is finally presented. The Eucharist is not like a shared meal, so much as the other way around: all the best meals are, like the Eucharist, occasions for creating families ex nihilo.

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The body of Christ, the priest said to me, and I believed her, as if I’ve believed it all my life. It is a crazy thing, though, by any measure of crazy things. It is exactly as crazy as God becoming a human being: born wet and wailing as all babies are, and then battered and broken and murdered, a political criminal on trumped up charges, like too many young men and women still are. The body of Christ, this flimsy piece of bread.

Priests are not, I think, meant to have favourite parts of the Eucharistic liturgy, but I must confess that I do, though favourite is probably the wrong word. It’s that moment, during the Agnus Dei, when we take the consecrated host in our hands, and snap it in half. There is, of course, no sense in which we are in that moment breaking or re-breaking the physical body of Jesus: and yet, of course, this is, in our hands, the body of Christ, broken for the sake of the whole world.

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Do this in remembrance of me, he says, to us for whom his body is broken and his blood is spilt. He says it to us, who in our feckless faithlessness fail to keep watch, who betray him and deny him and abandon him in the darkness, our bellies still full of the bread and wine, immortal food from his own hand. 

There is a caricature of Christianity—Catholicism in particular—in which Christians are, on one hand, steeped in guilt, and on the other, cheaply exculpated by bits of liturgical technology. It has always seemed to me that, in some ways, we have the opposite problem: for so many of us, our moral senses are dulled against the gross injustices in the world, and our feelings of responsibility or obligation are likewise diminished, desensitised by the enormity of the problems, perhaps, or just as part of the detached cynicism that, for whatever reason, seems to characterise our age. The Church has penitential seasons, and in a callous world, this is no bad thing. And as for liturgical technology: as you will be told by any cleric at St Mary Magdalen’s, we go to confession not to be forgiven, but because we already are. And to repeat an old theological cliché, forgiveness is free, but far from cheap.

When Jesus washes his disciples feet, it is, as we know, a sign of love. The son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. But there is something else going on. Jesus washing the feet of his disciples should remind us of the time when his own feet were washed. The fragrance filled the house when Mary of Bethany poured the perfume on his feet, and wiped them with her hair: let her alone, Jesus says to Judas who criticises her for wastefulness, let her keep it for the day of my burial. Mary’s act too is one of love, but for Jesus, it is also a preparation for death. To have our feet washed is, likewise and like our baptism, a dying to ourselves, for the sake of the world.

So it is also with the bread and the wine, in which we are ourselves offered as a living sacrifice, bound up in that—as the old words have it—one full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, who is Jesus Christ, our Lord. In breaking bread together, we pledge ourselves to be broken for one another and for the world; in sharing wine together, we drink from the bitter cup of Christ’s own suffering. Just as his resurrection life is ours, so too is his earthly life and ministry, even his wounds, even unto death. Make no mistake: there is nothing cheap in our receiving that free and gracious gift that is our Lord’s body and blood.

Why do it then? There can, I think, be no justification, except the rejection of the economic logic of balancing costs and benefits, and the certainty that there is truth to be found in these symbols, even if they are truths that bring tears of anguish before they bring tears of joy.

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Do this in remembrance of me, he says, in remembrance of him, to whom we belong forever, even though we stumble and fall from the weight of our own egos and insecurities, even though we are cowards and traitors, even though we abandon love for safety. And for certain we will do all these things, and more: stumble, fall, cower, betray, abandon. Not because we are, as they like to say, “only human”, but precisely because we are insufficiently so. And so it is that Christ, who is the very meaning of humanity, calls us to join him at table, to sup with him at this banquet first prepared this very night so many nights ago, world without end. Do this in remembrance of me, he says. Why? Because it is here—where we who are many eat and drink together; where our notions of power and glory are subverted by the Word made flesh, made bread, broken; where we are ourselves broken, spilt, and consumed—(it is here) that we discover what it means to be truly human. Do this in remembrance of me, he says, and I don’t think we need to be told twice.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: February 17 2016

Reading

Luke 4:1-13

On Friday this week just past, I went to watch Spotlight, a film about the team of investigative journalists who revealed the Roman Catholic cover up of the sexual and spiritual abuse that was allowed to go on for decades. Lest we are tempted to think that it is only the Roman Church that is guilty here, let me assure you that the Anglican Communion has its own share in this obscenity.

Leaving the cinema, my clerical collar around my neck, all I could think was that the whole edifice—the Church, her clergy and her committees; her schools, for Christ’s sake—the whole thing should come crumbling down.

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Power. That’s the Devil’s gimmick. The power to turn stone to bread. The power over all the kingdoms of the world. The power to cheat death. It could be anything, really. The power to be adored by vulnerable young people. The power to cajole or coerce others to do terrible, terrible things. The power to avert eyes from the skeletons in our closets. The power to avert our own eyes from injustice and abuse.

I fear, we have not done very well, really. We have succumbed to temptation in the most embarrassingly basic, textbook, way. The trappings of being a venerable institution with impressive international resources; they have, it seems safe to say, had a devilish effect on us.

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It is not as though I have a solution up my sleeve.

Leaving the Church has never been an option: to whom shall we go? His are the words of eternal life. Besides, while our moral outrage surely comes from our common humanity, our faith does give us a particular perspective on and against the abuse of power. From the Hebrew prophecies that railed against the oppression of the poor to the passion narratives of Christ who died a political criminal falsely accused, our most sacred stories reveal a deep concern for how power is understood and used and abused. They compel us toward the same concern; or they should, if we still want to think of them as our stories.

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I don’t generally have what people think of as “religious experiences”. But there are a few things I am privileged enough to get to do that transport me somewhere else.

One of those things is a moment during the Eucharist: during the Agnus Dei—Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world—the priest performs the fraction, breaks the consecrated host. Granted that there is no physical sense in which Jesus is being snapped in half, the symbolic power of that action is beyond my capacity to articulate it. The Eucharist is about the Incarnation, which is about Power itself becoming a little baby boy; it is about the Passion, which is about that boy growing up to be broken and murdered by human hands and instruments. Every time I snap the host in half, I am struck by the glorious ludicrousness of the whole thing: God becomes mortal, and dies at the hands of cowards.

I have, as I have said, no solution to propose, to fix the Church. All I know is that this thing we do week on week, it’s the opposite of what we allow to happen around us all the time, whether out of malice or apathy. I hope, however, that it is at least an effective reminder to us of the life we have signed up for: a life in which we have already died in baptism, and risen with Christ whose power is nothing other than self-giving love. To receive the Eucharist is to sign up to this notion of power. Make no mistake, it is no light matter to share in Christ’s cup. Let us be warned.

Sermon: Good Friday 2015 (April 3 2015)

Good Friday

Death is an outrage. We try and reassure ourselves with assertions that it is just a natural part of life, but this is nonsense. Death is nothing less than the end and destruction and absence of a life, not a proper part of it. And so what if it is natural? Lots of things are natural, and they are no less awful for being so. Death is an outrage, and so are feeble-minded attempts to deny or sugar-coat the stark and awful fact that, one day, we will all die, and—worse still—chances are that some of the people we love most will die before we do, but the world will just carry on until the universe itself eventually peters out into the cold stagnation of maximum entropy. It is almost enough to make a person wish the world away, to curse the God who gives and takes away, as if the giving were some kind of cruel joke.

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I do not pretend to know how his mother felt about this whole sordid business, but this I do know: that parents should never have to survive their children. They so frequently do—it is a story tragically often told: the story of young death by disease or desperation or deprivation or destructive violence—but it shouldn’t be so. It is a story often told, too often told. 40 out of every 1,000 babies born die before they turn one; suicide is among the top three causes of death among adolescents in most Western democracies; and nobody really knows how many thousands of young men and women perish in areas of armed conflict every year. And so, always and everywhere, mothers and fathers weep and gnash their teeth, and ask why?

There is, theological casuistry aside, no why, no good reason for the kinds of suffering that go on and keep going on. It is almost enough to make a person wish the world away.

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There is no good reason for the kinds of suffering her son went through. There are causes, to be sure, and political historians and psychologists can and do tell about how it came to pass that in such a time and place, a would-be messiah was abandoned by his own people, scared and insecure, and executed by imperial forces, a political criminal on trumped up charges. But to think that there are reasons, that it somehow makes sense for a young man to be mocked and beaten and hung up and killed even for the sake and salvation of the whole world is to commit to a perverse economic logic in which means justify ends. The answer to the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” must be, if we have souls left to save, that there is no answer. It is a damned thing, what happened to him. It is a damned thing, what happens in the world everywhere and every day, to the innocent and the guilty alike, at the fickle mercy or cruelty or indifference of physics and politics and personal human action and apathy, yours and mine, in our own ways whispering, “Crucify! Crucify!”.

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Who knows what solace she took from believing, if indeed she believed, that her boy was in a better place now? Who knows what solace anybody takes from talk of heaven? Who knows what comfort is provided by our pious assertion that her son, who is gone, is yet strangely present when we gather to break bread and eat in his name? But this conviction is what we have, is what we have been given. The Christian faith and gospel provide no quick solutions to grief and loss and death. Instead, our affirmation is that he who conquered death by dying himself is himself living and present in our sharing of the symbols of sustenance that are our sources of salvation. We have no conjuring tricks up our sleeves, no pastoral platitudes to offer. What we do have are these mysteries: the sacrament of the broken body that calls us to die to the sorts of sinful desires that perpetuate the suffering of others, and instead to share life with others, which—as we remember this and every Good Friday—is the only way to conquer death.