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The following is a sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Riverdale on the morning of Sunday, September 30th. Today we celebrated the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. The readings were: Gen. 28:10-17; Psalm 103; Rev. 12:7-12; John 1:47-51.

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I speak to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

As I was perusing the internet this week I noticed that a good deal of controversy was once again stirring up surrounding a soon to open Andreas Serrano exhibit at a New York gallery. The controversy is thanks primarily to Serrano’s piece entitled, Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in the artists’ own urine. The light in the image makes it appear to glow. It is, to be sure, an evocative image, one which draws all sorts of attention wherever it goes. Last year when it was on display in France a group of angry protesters armed with hammers attacked and damaged the photograph. This past week politicians in the US called on President Obama to “stand up for America’s values and beliefs and denounce the ‘Piss Christ’”. And there is, of course, a planned protest set for Thursday when the exhibit opens in New York. Andrew Hudgins captured the image nicely, I think, in his poem, Andreas Serrano [warning, vivid imagery]:

If we did not know it was cow’s blood and urine,
if we did not know that Serrano had for weeks
hoarded his urine in a plastic vat,
if we did not know the cross was gimcrack plastic,
we would assume it was too beautiful.
We would assume it was the resurrection,
glory, Christ transformed to light by light
because the blood and urine burn like a halo,
and light, as always, light makes it beautiful.

We are born between the urine and the feces,
Augustine says, and so was Christ, if there was a Christ,
skidding into this world as we do
on a tide of blood and urine. Blood, feces, urine—
what the fallen world is made of, and what we make.
He peed, shat, wept, bled—
bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross and the blood and urine smeared his legs
and he ascended bodily unto heaven,
and on the third day he rose into glory, which
is what we see here, the Piss Christ in glowing blood:
the whole irreducible point of the faith,
God thrown in human waste, submerged and shining.

We have grown used to beauty without horror.

We have grown used to useless beauty.

God thrown in human waste, submerged and shining.

Jacob, he was a schemer and trickster. All his life he was trying to get one up on his older twin, Esau. The story as it’s recorded in the Bible even includes a particular detail from their birth: Jacob came out holding on to his brother’s heel. Even in the womb Jacob was trying to trip up Esau. Well, this habit stuck around with Jacob. Eventually, he tricked Esau out of his birthright, and out of his father’s blessing. However, as they got older the tables turned to the point where Esau tried to kill Jacob, prompting Jacob to leave, in a hurry. We see this story unfold in Genesis 25-28. Our Old Testament reading from this morning picks up as Jacob is fleeing. There is Jacob, running away with nothing but the clothing on his back and he has a dream one night as he slept. He saw a ladder set up on the earth which stretched up into heaven and the angels of God were going up and down on it. In fact, the Lord himself stood beside Jacob and promised him that he would bring him back to his land in peace and prosperity.

It is this passage that Jesus seems to be alluding to in our gospel reading this morning when he says to Nathanael and the other disciples that they will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. This is a bit of a strange picture isn’t it? It’s hard to know what exactly Nathanael and the others might have made of it, or what Jesus might have meant by it. Yet, it’s obviously important within John’s account of the gospel as it concludes the first chapter. In order to get a better understanding of what Jesus may have meant let’s take a closer look at the story of Jacob’s dream.

The point about Jacob’s dream of a ladder that connected heaven and earth was that it showed that God himself was there with Jacob, that God was there in that place where Jacob was. Indeed, in the verses immediately following our reading from this morning Jacob calls the place where he had this dream Bethel, which means “House of God”. Later in the story after Jacob had come back to the land, and much later when his descendants had been established, Bethel became an important location for Israel as one of the places where they worshipped. As one New Testament scholar points out, “The tradition of Jacob’s dream, of the angels going up and down on the ladder, would then be connected with the belief that when you worshipped God in his house, God was really present, with his angels coming and going to link heaven and earth,” (N.T. Wright).

This is probably a clue for us to better understand what Jesus might have meant. A good portion of John’s gospel account has to do with the way in which Jesus fulfilled the promises made about the Temple and even goes far beyond these promises, presenting a new way in which the living God will be present with his people. John has already pointed us in this direction in the first few lines of the gospel. When John says that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (14) the word translated “lived” literally means to “tabernacle” or to “pitch one’s tent”. The thought of a tent in which God dwelt would send Jewish minds, the minds of Nathanael and the others, back to the tabernacle in the wilderness that Israel would erect and tear down during their time in Exile. Then of course they would think of the Temple in Jerusalem where God promised to dwell. Thus, what Jesus seems to be saying in verse 51 is, in effect, what you will see from now on is the reality towards which Jacob’s ladder, and the Temple itself, was pointing. “If you follow me,” says Jesus, “you’ll be seeing what it looks like when heaven and earth are open to one another.” When you’re with Jesus, it’s as though you’re in the house of God, angels coming and going, and God’s very own presence there beside you. Indeed, Jesus is the place where heaven and earth meet.

We have grown used to beauty without horror.

“You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” John’s gospel differs slightly from the other gospel accounts with regards to the glory (?) or beauty of the Son of Man. Where is it that we see the glory of the Son of Man most fully expressed? In Matthew, Mark, and Luke we hear sayings about seeing the future coming of the Son of Man, when the heavens will be shaken and he will be accompanied by angels (Mk 13:25-27; 14:62; Mt 16:27-28; 24:29-31). John takes this and adapts it to refer more to Jesus’ earthly mission. In John, the angels no longer accompany the Son of Man at his final coming, but are to be seen as ascending and descending upon him from the very start of his mission. In John’s perspective, the glory of the Son of Man does not await the end of history but is related particularly to his death as his hour of glory: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” (12:23). For John, it is on the cross where the Son of Man is most fully glorified:

bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross and the blood and urine smeared his legs…

God is hard to see, hidden in the blood stained flesh of a crucified Messiah. Could you really blame those who rejected him then, humble as he was? Could you really blame those who could not see in this figure on the cross the very Son of God, naked as he was? And yet, there were some who saw, some who believed. To be sure, those who saw were first seen. “Where did you get to know me?” asked Nathanael. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” And so Nathanael believed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” indeed. Yet he did not know where this would lead. How could they have known it would lead to agony outside the city walls, failed revolutionary, nailed to a tree? And yet he believed and followed, and yet they believed and followed. They thought they had seen and found, faith. But they had been seen and been found, grace.

Here is where we get down to the nitty gritty of faith. Faith does not always see clearly. Faith is not always rewarded immediately. Life for the followers of Jesus, is faith seeking understanding. Faith comes prior to understanding. Whereas the modern mindset is, “I’ll have faith once I understand.” But who can understand? Who can ascend to heaven but the one who has come down from heaven? Who can discern the glory of God hidden in the weakness of Christ? Who are we to think that we could gather and weigh the evidence, come to a reasonable understanding, and find God for ourselves? No! We cannot find God, for he is hidden. Hidden in suffering. Hidden in the agony and stench of death. But God has found us, and he has come to us, and he has set up his dwelling and made his home among us. God is with us, Immanuel. And this God who in Christ Jesus is with us calls us to follow him. May we trust him. May we respond in faith to this gift, an participate in the glory of the resurrected Christ. And may we continue to respond in faith all along the way, despite the fact that we may not see clearly just yet, despite the fact that we may not totally understand just yet. May we respond in faith, and follow Christ, for along the way we will see “greater things than these” as the living Jesus opens our eyes to discern his presence among us in ways we could have never discerned on our own. And may we be bold, filled as we are with a holy curiosity, and invite others to come and see the glory of the risen and living Jesus shining through our life. Amen.

We in the West sentimentalize a whole lot of things. Marriage is one of those things.

As I drove to Kingston from Toronto yesterday morning I listened to a Q&A with Stanley Hauerwas that I had downloaded. In it he cuts to the chase about marriage. The paragraph below is a summary of the part of his argument I think is relevant to this post:

Christians today do not know how to think about marriage in a serious way. Singleness is the first way of life for Christians so those who are called to marriage bear the burden of proof, which is why you have to be examined, because we have to know if you are ready to keep a promise you made when you didn’t know what you were doing. Who could ever know what they were doing when they promised life-long monogamous fidelity? That’s crazy. So we’re going to hold you to it because we saw you make that promise. People don’t know how to think about marriage in a serious way. People think they fall in love and get married, how stupid. Marriage names the life-long commitment that people by being faithful to one another can look back over their years together and call it love. Because love is the non-violent apprehension of the “other” as other, and the great temptation in marriage is always to make the one you marry fit who you thought they were when you said I love you. And that’s the reason why marriage becomes such a hellhole of togetherness.

Preach it, brother Stanley.

There’s this idea that floats around and gets into our heads, that we find the “right person”, we fall in love, we get married, and we live happily ever after. This, I contend, is utter bullshit.

Who is this mythical “right person”? Presumably, they are someone who “fits” with us, someone we are “compatible” with (don’t get me started on compatibility!). In other words, the right person is someone who we can plug into our lives without having to change much about who we are. Someone who accepts us as we are without complaint, and who can serve to prop us up. How self-centered!

You will never find the “right person”, for they do not exist. He/she is a mythical creature much like Big Foot or Santa (sorry, kids). It turns out, that this mythical beast is actually the cause of a great deal of havoc and pain. We think we find them, so we marry them. Then it inevitably turns out that this person is not who we thought they were. So, we try to make them be the one we thought they were when we married them and things proceed to deteriorate.

My favourite piece of (usually unsolicited!) advice to give to newly weds or those considering marriage is this: you’ll always marry the wrong person. It’s just better to realize this and seriously think about it early in a marriage. Otherwise, when shit hits the fan you’ll be tempted to think you’ve simply fallen “out of love” with the person, or that this isn’t the right person for you (duh, read the title of this blog post). And when this is the case, once you’ve fallen out of love or figured out that it was the wrong person all along it becomes a hell of a lot easier to quit. Note the statement in bold above, from Hauerwas: Marriage names the life-long commitment that people by being faithful to one another can look back over their years together and call it love.

Love isn’t something one falls in and out of. Love is total commitment to a person that is other than yourself. Love is what you see when you look back over this life-long commitment of faithfulness to your spouse.

Five years ago today, Christina and I were wed. Let me tell you, looking back over those five years I’m beginning to see a lot of love.

 

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Here is a post I wrote two years ago on our anniversary – Marriage as sacrament (or, how marriage is saving me)?: http://wp.me/p1vZo-bF

“Where could such a living creature come from if not from you, O Lord? Can it be that any man has skill to fabricate himself? Or can there be some channel by which we derive our life and our very existence from some other source than you? Surely we can only derive them from our Maker, from you, Lord, to whom living and being are not different things, since infinite life and infinite being are one and the same. For you are infinite and never change. In you ‘today’ never comes to an end: and yet our ‘today’ does come to an end in you, because time, as well as everything else, exists in you. If it did not, it would have no means of passing. And since your years never come to an end, for you they are simply ‘today’. The countless days of our lives and of our forefathers’ lives have passed by within your ‘today’. From it they have received their due measure of duration and their very existence. And so it will be with all the other days which are still to come. But you yourself are eternally the same. In your ‘today’ you will make all that is to exist tomorrow and thereafter, and in your ‘today’ you have made all that existed yesterday and for ever before.

Need it concern me if some people cannot understand this? Let them ask what it means, and be glad to ask: but they may content themselves with the question alone. For it is better for them to find you and leave the question unanswered than to find the answer without finding you.”

Saint Augustine, Confessions I.6.