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The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
Last Message for My Son
“You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter).
On September 9, 2001 full of hope I stood in the pulpit for my first sermon at our new church. I was about to preach about falling in love. But in the silence after the prayer, and before I could say a word, our then two year old son sitting in the back pew called out in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. “Daddy!” In that unscripted moment I said back, “I love you too Micah.”
Since then I have been blessed to speak about Jesus to our children in sermons almost every Sunday of their lives. Over these years I have always remained grateful for this amazing gift. In a world where God is such a problem for so many people I get to speak about what I love most. This happens in a setting that is unhindered and undeterred by the norms or discomfort of secular society.
During that time I have preached some terrible sermons (I don’t know why but some of my worst have been about films). I have preached many not-yet-finished sermons that I didn’t really understand until a few days later. But there have also been those magical moments with gracious people sitting in the congregation like you are today. They looked interested and encouraged something to come out of me that can only be described as a gift from somewhere else.
So many times God has been with us in the sense of Ellen’s preaching prayer when she says, “Between the words that are spoken and the words that are heard may the God’s spirit be present.”
Today is my last chance, my last sermon with him as a child under our roof. In a week he turns eighteen and leaves for college. I have to let him go into the company of other preachers, to learn from other teachers.
It is so hard to know what to say. How do you prepare someone for the ugliness and cruelty of the world? How do you alert your child to the extraordinary holiness that also arises out of our daily experience? What is the wisdom that he will need in the future?
I suppose that it begins with a picture of what it means to be human. Ray Hart wrote a book called Unfinished Man and the Imagination. The implication of the title is that through the power of imagination we are constantly being finished by our connections with each other and God.
We are creatures primarily directed by our unconscious life, by the mysterious strivings, longings and fears that we rarely can even name. The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes that we are ninety percent chimp. By this he means that we are extraordinarily selfish primates, looking out for ourselves first but immersed in “relentless competition of groups with other groups.” Haidt says that we are also ten percent honeybee. In the sense that we, “long to be part of something larger and nobler than ourselves.” I believe that there is more than this however.
This Thursday in the Cathedral lunchroom Mark Stanger talked about two competing Christian views of our situation. On the one hand there is the idea that the world is a minefield of evil, full of dangers. We have to avoid being trapped and damaged, ruined so badly that we loose ourselves. This picture focuses on the cruelty of the world and the unkindness that we recognize in our own hearts.
In a way we are in the impossible situation of being frenemies with God (that is, friend – enemies like Aaron Burr). Karl Barth (1886-1968) argues that creation does not come first as if it were separate from redemption. Our alienation from God is no further away from us than our creation. In every moment we depend for our existence on the same God that we reject through our thoughts and actions.
Barth writes, “To be sinners means that we have come to a place where our existence is absolutely inconceivable because at this place it can be only a plunge into nothing, where our existence can be understood only as an event of inconceivable kindness….” Another way to express this would be to say that sin cuts off the branch that we are sitting on.
For many years I have been working on a chapter in a book called The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century Christian Thought. It finally arrived in the mail last week. I wrote about changing views of nature. My story begins with the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). In his later philosophy Kant explored the idea that we do not experience the world as it actually is (the noumena) but only as our senses and brain reconstruct it (the phenomena).
Kant also cared deeply about the freedom of human actions. For him what we know about God is ultimately based on morality, on our experience of the social world. By the end of the nineteenth century most Christians in most places concerned themselves almost entirely with the social world. I feel this especially when other kinds of Christians talk about what they believe. This picture of faith as relief from sin has an enormous power.
But as Mark Stanger says our tradition also offers another view of the human condition. In his words this picture of the world is “miraculous.” With a mysterious smile he quoted the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1884-1889). “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out like shook foil… For all this, nature is never spent / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…/ Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, a feast dedicated to this second kind of faith. In my experience Anglicans care about sin and redemption but our hymns, art, culture, history and the spirit that animates us keep us from thinking that this is the only thing.
On Thursday night at evensong we sang Hymn 46. It conveys this sensibility. The second verse goes like this, “Now all the heavenly splendor breaks forth in starlight tender from myriad worlds unknown; and we, this marvel seeing, forget our selfish being for joy of beauty not our own.” You might have known this, “joy of beauty not our own.”
I imagine the disciples did long after his death in recalling the joy of being with Jesus. Jesus goes to a mountaintop to pray with his friends Peter, James and John. As he prays his image (eidos) changes and his clothes flash with the whiteness of lightning. Then the great prophets Moses and Elijah speak to him. Strangely Jesus’ friends feel weighed down by sleep but manage to stay awake. When Jesus, Moses and Elijah are done talking Peter says that he wants to build dwellings for them. Suddenly clouds cover them, the disciples are terrified and a voice declares Jesus to be God’s son (Lk. 9).
I want to point out one striking thing about the story. Although this may have been one of the most important moments of their lives, the disciples almost missed it by being asleep.
This week after yoga Sadvi Bhagawati Saraswati and I were on a panel together being interviewed. The first question was for her and it went like this. “Why are you a spiritual leader in India when it would have been so much easier for you to stay here and be an Episcopalian minister?”
Sadvi told the story of how she woke up. She grew up in the U.S. attended Stanford as an undergraduate and was a twenty-five year old psychology doctoral student when on a lark she decided to go to India. There she had an experience of God that changed her life. She did not choose this. She felt compelled. She said it was as if she had been walking along a beach picking up seashells when all of a sudden she came upon someone offering her diamonds instead. It was obvious to her that she should throw away all the seashells so that she could carry the jewels.
Every day you too are being offered diamonds. But too often we just sleep through it. Instead of waking up to transfiguration we are obsessed with how our bodies look, our accomplishments, how others perceive us. We are haunted by regrets about the past. We refuse to live in the present because of our dreams of the future.
This week I listened to a Dear Sugars Podcast about the struggles of teenagers. One twenty-year-old girl had been captain of her high school cross-country team, valedictorian, totally in control of her grades and weight. Everyone always commented about how beautiful she was. By the time she reached college she realized that she had an eating disorder. What struck me most about the broadcast was how much she and the hosts, and all of us, care so much about what people thought of us in high school.
What will it take for us to wake up out of this dreamlike existence, for us to stop trying to always win other people’s approval through our accomplishments and our appearance (from trying to win over even God)? How can we wake up to see the moments of transfiguration happening all around us? The Apostle Paul writes to his friends, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead and Christ will shine upon you” (Eph. 5).
Something like this happened to me this weekend. My son and I went surfing at Bolinas for one last time before he leaves for college. On a perfectly still, impossibly temperate summer day we passed along the edge of the mirror-like lagoon and I felt an intense surge of emotion. Later we traded perfect glassy waves, just the two of us, resting only to watch the pelicans glide past. Above the rim of hills the sky, with distant high clouds and closer mists, seemed infinitely beautiful and mysterious.
In that moment it seemed like God said, “as far as you can see from Pedro Point in San Mateo County to Duxbury Reef, this is the world given for you.”
The last sermon is done and I can hardly believe that this season of our life is over. What I want for my son is the same thing I want for all of us. In terms of the first picture of faith, I pray that we are forces of compassion, justice and goodness, that through kindness our lives will build God’s kingdom. But I also pray for the second religious vision. I pray that we will recognize that the “world is charged with the grandeur of God.” I pray we will seek and discover “the joy of beauty not our own.
 Ray L. Hart, Unfinished Man and the Imagination (NY: Herder & Herder, 1968).
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (NY: Pantheon, 2012) 220.
 “To be sinners, as we are shown to be in the revelation of Jesus Christ, means that we have separated ourselves from the One without whom we would not be even in this separation and yet, separated from whom, we cannot be in any true or proper sense. To be sinners means that we have come to a place where our existence is absolutely inconceivable because at this place it can be only a plunge into nothing, where our existence can be understood only as an event of inconceivable kindness, or it cannot be understood at all.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part One Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 444.
 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1965).
 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993).
 Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems, 3rd Edition (Oxford University Press, 1948) 70.
 Hymn 46 from The 1980 Hymnal. Words Paul Gerhard, translated by Robert Seymour Bridges and others, Music, “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen, melody attributed to Heinrich Isaac (1450?-1517); harmony Johann Sebastian Bach.
 Tuesday 1 August 2017.
 The second element in the story that seems odd to me is Peter’s offer to make three dwellings (called skēnas in Greek). This is the same word that John uses in his prologue when he talks about the Word dwelling among us. Matthew writes that Peter did not know what he was saying. And yet I have a sense for why he did. I think that this refers to our longing to hold on to these moments of transfiguration. We want to stay on the mountain, to remain in that moment of unity with God forever. We can be so overcome by the beauty of holiness that we do not trust that God will give us this experience again.
Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.
When I say Alleluia, Christ is risen,
you say, The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.
This time, when I say
Alleluia, Christ is risen,
you say, Christ is rising in me right now, Alleluia.
Alleluia, Christ is risen;
Christ is rising in me right now, Alleluia.
There you are. That is what all this is about. That is what the Easter meaning is. Christ is rising in me right now. Christ is rising in you, right now. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not an event, it is a process that is as active and dynamic right now as it was on the day we hear about in the gospel. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an ongoing, eternal process that enlightens our existence and gives meaning to the reality of the struggle between good and evil that you and I are part of. It is a process that depends upon light and dark, upon life and death, upon righteousness and sin, on success and failure, on power and emptiness, on good and evil. The resurrection of Jesus creates the center point on which paradox becomes an indicator of divine presence, on which paradox becomes the way of salvation. We sing in full voice, “Earth thy footstool, heaven thy throne,” and that is true. We sing the canticle, “the one who is mighty has magnified me,” and that is true, too.
The gospel writers have given us such a gift in telling us, in every one of these resurrection encounters, that some of the witnesses did not believe, that some were afraid, that some were terrified, that some were unable to recognize Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus is not an “aha” moment. It is, instead, the offer of a new reality into which we must move, and our movements will be fitful and uncertain. The resurrection of Jesus is an invitation to discover that in the unrecognizable one, that in the one we hear about but never see, there is such a deep blessing offered that in accepting it we will simultaneously die and rise to life beyond the broken imaginations we have been taught to settle for. The resurrection of Jesus invites us into a confrontation and conflict with all we have been taught to trust, because a truer and deeper reality is the only place where we will find our true worth, our abiding joy.
Let me bring you from the sublime to the commonplace, for we have to begin with an understanding of the resurrection as a reality that fits into everyday life. Think of all the resurrection appearance stories. Today we have the story of a group of friends fishing through the night. There are stories of Jesus asking a woman who is weeping what is troubling her. The disciples are told to return to Galilee, the district of jobs and marriages and aging parents and needy children. There is an evening meal, in which the new reality becomes clear just as the friends begin to pass the bread. There are breakfast encounters, and encounters in the midst of traveling along a road on the way to the next stop on a business trip.
All the resurrection encounters are set in the midst of mundane, everyday life events. We have been taught to see them, perhaps, through the wondrous awe depicted by Titian and Caravaggio and Giotto, but the descriptions in the words of the gospels are simple, straightforward and free of drama. In the barely receding darkness of an early morning, Jesus has built a small fire on which to cook some fish. The campfire is a flickering beacon in the dimness of dawn. There is a request to get some of the freshly caught fish; there is an invitation to eat, and then an invitation to take a walk together. In this simple encounter we see Peter drawn out from life encaged by guilty remorse for having denied Jesus in the high priest’s courtyard, set free through a reaffirmation of love that will enable him to become the great leader of the Jesus movement.
In these simple encounters there is a personal confrontation which, if we can accept how intimately aware it is, creates transformation and new life. In the garden Jesus speaks to the weeping woman, “Mary.” In the upper room Jesus speaks to the ashamed disciple, “Place your finger in my wounds; place your hand into my side.” In a walk along the beach Jesus speaks to his close friend, “Simon Peter, do you love me?” letting his friend exclaim with a sob, “Lord, you know I love you.” In the midst of a caravan trek across the desert Jesus calls an enemy by name, “Saul, Saul why do you hate me?”
The resurrection of Jesus, in a rather remarkable way, requires some level of participation from each one of us as individuals in order to be true. The resurrection does not reveal some lofty standard toward which we must strive, but it is about bringing life into the midst of death, about bringing holiness into the midst of the common, about bringing righteousness into the midst of sin. Not only does Jesus of Nazareth enter into the fullness of suffering and the death of the tomb, but the risen Christ enters into the sorrow of Mary, the grief of Thomas, the shame of Peter and the animosity of Paul.
It is this gritty, human, broken reality that is where the life giving power of God’s intervention takes hold. It is in the midst of what is lost and enslaved that the liberating gift of redemption brings new possibility and genuine freedom.
It is in the most honest assessment of who you and I are as individuals, that the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes transformative and even world changing. We as unique and entirely distinct individuals must each wrestle the reality of our own stories into some kind of relationship with the story of Jesus Christ so that we are able to see the unique and life defining truth that we hold onto as individuals. Only when we are able to appreciate that the resurrection gives the fullness of life to who each of us is as individuals, in whom the divine truth is expressed in us and in our unique voices, can the power of Christ be released and the fullness of life be received. Alleluia, Christ is risen. Christ is rising in me right now, Alleluia.
Your unique story — in which the brokenness and wounds, in which the triumphs and failures, in which the doubt and skepticism are embraced as part of your own beauty, as part of the image of God in you – is the true page on which the gospel of Jesus Christ is written.
Carl Jung, near the end of his life, began to assert that it will be the willingness on the part of enough individuals to enter into the deep and demanding effort to bring forth the truth of who we are that is the only thing that can save us from the abandonment of the spirit and the loss of beauty in the world. The over-reliance on interpreting everything through analysis, through assumptions that see everything as cause and effect will create an aridity of feeling and a failure of compassion. Only the deep work of integrating the great stories and the great symbols into the fullness of our unique selves will enable the beauty of the image of God to be seen in the midst of human endeavor too easily limited by shallow assessments of value and profit and measured success.
We can only do this work by feeding on Christ. There is the image of that feeding in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. There is feeding in the stories and teachings of Christ in the scripture. There is the feeding that we do in prayer and conversation with others. We feed on Christ to bring the fullness of his being into our deepest imagination, so that it can connect with our self-examination, our self-imagination. We feed on Christ in order that what is full of death within can be buried with Christ in his death, only to rise with him into that new life which can never be lost.
Alleluia, Christ is risen.
Christ is rising in me right now, Alleluia.
Text and PDF for this sermon are not available.
Text and PDF for this sermon are not available.