In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning. It’s really good to be back up here after a bit of a hiatus. My son Clive was born in late May and so it’s been awhile since I’ve preached.
But here I am with stuff to say!
It always feels a bit redundant to mention the importance of attending mass every week from the pulpit, because the people who are present to hear the sermon are literally in the act of attending mass! Who exactly am I supposed to be talking to? So there is a risk of indulging in a collective exercise of self-congratulation -- isn’t great to discover that we’re the special ones already doing it right?
It’s a valid concern, but not one that holds up for very long. None of us have been permanently inducted into the elite club of faithful observance, after all. Each Sunday demands a brand new act of the will, in pursuit of communion with God through fellowship with the Body of Christ, and each Sunday brings with it a brand new set of assaults on the will. Whatever the situation in which you found yourself this morning before coming to church -- whether it was an uninterrupted discipline that brings you here again for the first time or a sudden interruption of suffering that brings you here for reasons you’re not entirely sure of -- God bless you, for you are now in a place of blessing.
This idea of faithful discipline, of repetition and regular participation in the life of this parish, is also especially apt for reflection during the summer months. The pace here at Emmanuel slows down as we enter the calmer waters of Ordinary Time. And just like a ship at sea when the course is straight and clear, what commands our attention is really little more than the forward advance itself. We know that we’re heading in the right direction and that is what we’re doing.
Consider the brief passage from our epistle today that I began with. It speaks of God’s revelation to us of the mystery of his will and of a plan for the fullness of time. Were we to contemplate these verses, say, during Advent or at the very cusp of Holy Week, they would take on a much more dramatic character. In either case, an Event -- capital E -- is on the horizon; the mystery of God’s will is the mystery of the Incarnation or the mystery of the Passion of our Lord. The fullness of time concentrates itself into these singular events with such pressure that all things are at risk of shattering. And we take the plunge into the drama ourselves.
But what about Ordinary Time? What does the fullness of time look like when time seems wide open and relatively uneventful? Our epistle today speaks of God’s plan to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. And I want to say that this season, precisely because of its relative calm, provides us with the space to really discern how all things are truly being gathered up. If the monumental events of the life of Christ that we commemorate throughout the Church Year are the icons of that gathering up, the lenses through which we perceive, then Ordinary Time is what we’re looking at through those lenses. It consists of the course of history itself.
The late F.P. Harton, an early twentieth-century priest who wrote the definitive Anglican text on the spiritual life (and which is available in the Keck Library just out there), states quite simply that “as the soul advances, the essential difference between the spiritual life on earth and in heaven diminishes.” You can hear echoes of both our epistle today as well as the Lord’s Prayer.
“To gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
“Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
This is really what it’s all about. Christians are the people who are concerned with resolving the gap between heaven and earth. We’re on a project to diminish the difference. This is no utopian fantasy, to be clear. All of our grand pet theories about what the most heavenly order on earth would look like are themselves ultimately earthly. That’s not to say that they’re not worth anything, and there are perfectly valid and compelling reasons to improve our society towards justice. But any pretenses we have about inaugurating heaven on earth upon our own efforts and imaginations alone are just that, pretenses, and they betray our fundamental hubris. Nor, on the other hand, is our hope that all things in heaven and earth become gathered up in Christ a warrant for some other-worldly flight of escapism. Because an escape into some purely “spiritual” or “religious” plane that hovers in pristine contempt above the world and its complexity and failure increases the distance between heaven and earth. It keeps them separate and intensifies the difference between them. So neither utopianism nor escapism are involved in our hope of heaven.
Our souls are advancing, nevertheless. Our spiritual lives on earth and in heaven are ever becoming one in the same. But how does this happen exactly? I spent a good deal of my life as a Christian assuming that the spiritual life was like a parallel track alongside my normal life that I had to keep jumping on, back and forth. Not only was this rather exhausting, but it begged the question as to what the spiritual track was supposed to consist of since all I had to work with was the stuff from my normal life. It turns out that we can’t just pretend to be angels every now and then. We are always embodied, always bound up with the earth. So one of the most significant epiphanies of my life was when I realized that they weren’t two separate tracks. Every Sunday that I went to mass and partook of the Body and Blood of Christ, I was doing one thing instead of another. I only had one life, one track, and that moment of communion was an irreplaceable event within it. The same goes for every good work I was compelled by grace to perform: it was one discreet act instead of another, gradually but irrevocably pointing my life in a certain direction. The difference between my life in heaven and on earth became ever slightly more diminished.
Evelyn Underhill, another great Anglican, says that:
...the total life of the Body is a real, indeed a personal life, transcending and enfolding that of its separate members and essential to their growth. But the quality of this total life must depend on the extent in which each unit is open towards God, and responsive to His secret action. Thus the corporate worship in which this life is offered to God must be for each member a vital interest, which kills a mere self-interested spirituality.
Do you see it all coming together? Heaven is not to be severed from earth. My spiritual life is not to be severed from my normal life. My spiritual life is not to be severed from your spiritual life. All things are to be gathered up in Christ. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The season that we’re in right now, this Ordinary Time, represents the entirety of our life on earth. Lean into whatever this immediate season is setting before you, because that is the only life in which you are living. You came here this morning and thus you have enhanced not only your own soul but also that of the total life of the Body of Christ. Keep it up. Pray the Offices this week and ask me or one of the clergy if you don’t know what that means. And speaking of prayer, we’re about to have our Summer Book read of a book literally titled… Prayer. Prayer is the definitive way to diminish the difference between heaven and earth. It makes you a different kind of creature; it makes you a pilgrim, which makes you more at home. Perform works of mercy. Those help too. And most importantly, come back next Sunday to be nourished and pardoned by the Sacrament of the altar. It will be here, and heaven will be waiting for you. Amen.