Sunday, March 18, 2018


Being with you today floods my heart with so many memories.
Back in the 70s, my wife Linda and I
         were legal aid lawyers in Greeley,
         but we spent every free moment in Boulder.
Partly it was the combined olfactory effect in Greeley
         of Montfort’s feedlot, the rendering plant,
         and the sugar beet factory.
But it wasn’t just the smell.
We were Buddhists back then and spent a lot of time
         meditating over at the Shambhala Center.

In the 80s, we were Idaho Episcopalians.
We spent one Holy Week visiting with the Fisherfolk Community
         down in Woodland Park.
We worshipped here on that trip
         and your good rector, Jim McKeown, offered us sage advice
about ordination.

Today we are back, older, maybe not wiser, but humbler.
When I think of who I was back then,
it really has been quite a conversion.
I was converted to a faith firmly rooted
in Jeremiah’s covenant theology
summarized in today’s lesson.

In Jeremiah, God promises us salvation through a new covenant.
Salvation means -- as the Catechism says --
         reconciling us to God and each other in Christ.
Those relationships heal us.
They make us whole.
Covenant relationships are where life gets worth living.

When God wants to draw us to himself,
         God always – always – does that as a group project.
God forms a covenant establishing a relationship
among a group of people with himself in the middle of it.
All our Hebrew Scripture lessons this Lent
         have been about covenant faith.

Lent 1, we heard how God made a covenant with all humanity
         when he set a rainbow in the sky.
Lent 2, God made a special covenant with Abraham
         to form a holy nation.
Lent 3, through Moses, God set out the terms of the covenant,
         how he would be their God and they would honor God
         by treating each other justly and caring for the alien in the land.
Lent 4, the people rebelled, refusing to treat each other justly.

Today, in Jeremiah, God promises to form a new covenant with us
written not in stone but in our hearts.  
God will make us his people by showing us mercy
         and call us to show mercy to one another.
I will put my law within them, says the Lord,
         I will write it on their hearts and they will be my people.

That’s what Jesus does in the Eucharist.
This is my blood of the New Covenant shed for you.
Jesus unites us in the mercy covenant sealed with his blood.
Jesus changes our relationship with God,
and that changes our relationship with each other.
We are one people, worshiping one God
because we are all under the one mercy.
2nd Peter says, Once you were not a people
         but now you are God’s people.
         Once you had not received mercy
         but now you have received mercy.

 When I was here 40 years ago,
         I was a very spiritual young man.
I took my spirituality seriously, and was just a tad smug about it.
I was a bit more enlightened than thou.
The object of my practice was a detached serenity
         so I could float above the soap operatic mess of ordinary life.

I was a bit like a young African named Augustine
when he was that age.
He was out-serening everyone he knew
         back in the 4th Century.
He was a Platonic spiritual Christian
         for whom serenity was the name of the game.
He formed a little commune at Lake Como, Switzerland
         where he and his fellow seekers
         could avoid the stench of the city,
gaze at the beauty of nature,       
         and think lofty thoughts.

But a death in the family compelled him
         to come back home to Algeria
         to run the family farm.
 The Church there in Algeria was having a hard time
         and was desperate for priests.
Augustine was almost as desperate not to be a priest.
He knew that priests spend more time
         with people than with God.
Not what he was after.
But they insisted so he grudgingly consented.
Then they made him a bishop and he wept.

For the rest of his long life,
         Augustine served a beleaguered diocese
         while civilization crumbled.
He died with the barbarians besieging his city.
Repeatedly he defended the Church from critics and secessionists
         who condemned us for our human frailties.
He had to defend the very human frailty
he had once kept a mile away from.  
Out of that life he wrote the theology
         which became the foundation for Western religious thought
         for centuries to come.

Along the way something shifted in Augustine.
Instead of seeking his own spiritual elevation,
         trying to get himself in some sort of serene zone,
         his attention turned to his fellow Christians
and all fellow Romans.

He served them faithfully, even though
they could be wrong-headed, obtuse, and incorrigible.
That was hard because their faults were a mirror
         of Augustine’s own weaknesses.
But he kept attending to them until
         he saw God in their midst.
He saw God loving and forgiving them
         Notwithstanding their faults.
He saw that loving God of mercy,
and fell in love with him.

After that, serenity as no longer his top life goal.
He had discovered that love is the center of Reality itself.
He discovered that God is love and he loved with God back.
He wrote passionate prayers to God, like this one:
How late I came to love thee O Beauty
         so ancient and so new. . ..
You were within but I was outside seeking you. . ..
You were always with me but I was not with you. . ..

In the frustrating messiness of human interaction,
         Augustine came to life, vulnerable, passionate life,
         wise and holy life.
Did he make mistakes? Of course, human mistakes.
He still needed mercy.

We all need mercy.
We need God’s mercy.
We need each other’s mercy.
That’s what the new covenant is about.
God writes the new covenant in our hearts
         with the costly mercy of Christ’s own blood.

You have probably guessed why I love Augustine.
These 40 years have been my descent to the earth.
 I am no longer a mystic who grudgingly practices Christianity.
I am a Christian whose contemplative prayer, such as it is, serves
the pedestrian purpose of helping me share the mercy.
Christianity brought me to the earth
And I’m glad of it.
Robert Frost said,
         Earth’s the right place for love.
         I can’t think where it’s likely to go better.

The point, brothers and sisters, is simple.
We need each other.
No one can become whole alone.
No one can become herself alone.
We need each other.

That’s why we’re here.

Sunday, March 4, 2018


In English, our parable does not convey
         the force of life and death
                  at work in the original Greek.
Our English keeps going on about property.
The Son says “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”
The Father divides his “property.”
The son squanderes his “property”.

But in Greek, the son asks for the father’s “being.”
The father divides his “life” between his sons.
The younger son then squanders his “being.”

This isn’t about money or property.
The money is a symbol of life.
The son wants his life cut loose from his father’s life.
So, like King Lear, the old man hands over his own livelihood.
The son takes the money and runs.
Having no more need of his impoverished father,
         the prodigal son abandons him.

The son’s selfishness sets this plot in motion.
But it is not guilt that makes the young man come home.
It’s what happens next.
He squanders his being.
We can get distracted by the part about dissolute living.
It doesn’t matter whether he spent his life
         carousing in a casino or climbing the corporate ladder.
What matters is that he has squandered his life,
         his resources, his energy, and his time
                  on things that are not real and do not last.
Cut off by his own selfishness, he is now spiritually
         and existentially dead.

When did he notice that his heart no longer beat?
When did he realize that he could no longer hear birds sing?
Not until the famine hit.
Not until the useless things he had spent his life on ran out.
This is no spiritual awakening
         – only a drunk noticing that the bottle is empty.

That’s when he contrived his next manipulative scheme.
He would go home to his father with crocodile tears,
         and say the kind of rubbish the old man liked to hear,
         “Father I have sinned . . . .”
         and at least the old fool would give him a decent job.

I am concerned that we may not be able to relate
         to the prodigal son because
                  we do not experience ourselves as sinners.
We have ways to fortify our consciences against guilt.
So let’s leave the prodigal son at this point
         and turn our attention to the whiskey priest
                  in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.
Grahame Greene tears down those fortifications of conscience.
He tells the story of the whiskey priest, a bad priest,
         a drunk who sells the sacraments,
         fathers a child by one of his church members,
         is a coward, a liar, and thief.

It is 1920’s Mexico when the church was banned,
         so the priest is in hiding.
He gets arrested for possession of brandy,
         and spends the night in jail,   
         sure the police will recognize him
                  and execute him in the morning.

In the hot, crowded jail cell with a throng of criminals, he notices:
         “This place was very like the world: overcrowded with lust
          and crime and unhappy love. It stank to heaven. . . . but it was
          possible to find peace there. . . . He was
         moved by an irrational affection for the inhabitants of this prison.
         A phrase came to him. “God so loved the world.”

The next morning he sees the wanted poster
         with the picture of himself as a young priest.
He no longer resembles the picture, and he thinks,
         “It is not very like me now.
          What an unbearable creature he must have been
                  in those days – and yet in those days
                  he had been comparatively innocent . . . .
         Then in his innocence he had felt no love for anyone;”

Later the whiskey priest recalls the innocent time
         when his conscience was easy.
And he thinks,
         “God might forgive cowardice and passion,
          but was it possible to forgive the habit of piety?”

What does this have to do with us?
I fear many of us, myself included,
         have cultivated the habit of piety.
It is not the same piety our grandparents practiced.
Their generation had fairly attainable moral standards.
Their code limited violence, theft,
         and some forms of sexual indulgence.
We have dropped a few of their “Thou shalt not’s”
         and have added a few new “Thou shalt nots.”

Our moral code allows us to say words in public
         that would have made our grandparents blush.
But there are countless things they said unabashedly
         that would get us socially ostracized.
We are about as moralistic as our grandparents
         – not much more, not much less.

We construct a neatly doable moral code,
         stick to it close enough, and feel at ease.
But, all the while, we seek our own will instead of God’s.
We come nowhere near loving God with all our hearts,
         nowhere near loving our neighbor as ourselves.

We anesthetize our consciences
         with our politically correct habits of piety,
         while our souls wither from failure to love deeply
         and we squander our lives on things that do not endure.
“Why do you spend your money on that which is not bread,
                  and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
                                    Isaiah Chapter 55

It was not guilt but poverty that sent the prodigal son home.
It was discovering that his life had been squandered it.
It was like the Kris Kristofferson’s song lyrics,
         “Lord help me Jesus. I’ve wasted it.”
I’ve felt that. I’ve sensed the waste of my life
         despite my habits of piety.
Maybe you have too or maybe you will someday.

So the son went home with a confession
         written on his cuff sleeve.
It was a new habit of piety, this confession.
He was hoping to get a job.

But his plot was foiled by grace. Jesus says,
         “(W)hile he was still far off his father saw him
                  and was filled with compassion.
         He ran out and put his arms around him and kissed him.”

The son did not need to confess to be forgiven.
He had been forgiven all along, loved all along.
The meaning and value of his life was there all along.
He just hadn’t been there to experience it.
He was so shocked by his welcome
         that he began to stammer the confession,
         without any ulterior motive from his heart,
         “Father, I have sinned . . . I am no longer worthy
                  to be called your son.”

But he never got the chance to ask for the job.
His Father interrupted him,
         and shouted to the servants,
         “Quickly bring a robe – the best one – and put it on him . . .
                  let us eat and celebrate,
                  for this son of mine was dead and is alive again . . . .
         And they began to celebrate.”

The Father didn’t need any confession.
Though the Father’s love did make the son need to confess.
The Father wasn’t thinking about the sin of selfish living,
         but the consequences of spiritual death.
His son had been dead. But now he was alive.
So let he could not do anything but celebrate.

If our consciences were sufficiently alive and sentient,
         we might feel contrition and repent.
That happens.
Eventually, enough selfishness, enough neglect,
         enough failed attempts at self-deception,
                  break through and we feel contrition.

But usually what we feel is the emptiness of a life
         lived too much for too small a version of ourselves.
Usually we recognize that the idol of our egos has clay feet,
         that we have polished our resumes too much
                  and loved life too little.
Usually we feel the emptiness.

If we are not too fatally sophisticated, we say something like,
         “Lord help me Jesus, I’ve wasted it.”

Then while we are still far off,
         our Father sees us and is filled with compassion.

We take a few faltering steps toward him
         and he comes running toward us,
                  enfolds us in the arms of grace
                  and infuses our hearts with life
         so deep, so wide, so rich, so strong,
                  the only word we have for it is “eternal.”
Then we and all creation celebrate.