April 14, 2019
The gospel is music. It opens loud with a joyous aria: the birth of God.
Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, being found in human form.
St. Paul said that: Philippians, chapter 2, verse 6.
From its exhilarating beginning, the score rises, falls, and rises between two themes: passion/resurrection. Passion is the solemn underscore, and today through Friday it fills the room with mournful cello, pounding drums, discordant cymbals. But even today and all through the week, just at the border of our range of hearing, a single, tight violin string holds the resurrection note: faint but taught, thrilling. A nightmare unfolds from the garden, through the courts, into the streets, out of the city and up the hill, and all through the tumult, that glorious note does not relent.
Next Sunday that note will open like a flower and fill the room with resurrection brass and timpani. But still, today’s events will insist on being heard – a soft, low, cello passion chord that gives the resurrection music bottom.
In the dance of these opposing themes – over-score and underscore, passion/resurrection – we hear the gospel, and in the gospel, we are shown the meaning of our lives. In that meaning, we are saved. We are saved that we might play music, sing it, live it.
The last time I preached I quoted this from Karl Barth:
In the Gospels, everything runs to meet the passion story, yet… everything in he passion story runs to meet the resurrection story, and … nothing can be understood except from these two, or better, from the turning point between [them].[i]
Our own lives, in all their parts, move to meet the resurrection through the passion. The way of the cross, we call this, which is the way of eternal life. On that way, we endure our nights in the Garden of Gethsemane. The thing we were afraid of happens. We call the doctors or police. They can’t help us this time. There is nothing left to do but follow Jesus to the garden, drop to our knees and pray his prayer. “Father, if it be thy will, take away this cup.” Sometimes God does and sometimes not.
I think of my mother as a newlywed lying still for a solid week under doctor’s orders. “It’s polio. Do not move. In seven days we’ll know if you will walk again.” “Father, if it be thy will, remove this cup.” That time, God did remove the cup. In seven days, she walked.
[i] Karl Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik, Volume 1, part 2, page 56.
April 06, 2019
The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’
That is St. Paul, from his first letter to the Corinthians. Scholars estimate that letter to have been written “in the late winter or early spring,” 55 A.D. The last supper Paul describes had taken place twenty-two years earlier, at that same time of year. When a story is written down while people remain alive who had witnessed the original event, we say it is written in “living memory.” That can stretch to more than eighty years. Most if not all of the New Testament was written within living memory of Jesus.
Concerning Phyllis, I am going to start with a story some of you have heard, of something that happened, involving her, not quite a quarter century ago—still easily in living memory. I wrote it. I remember it, and I am still here. So is one of the two principal participants, the other being Phyllis. The story begins at a celebration of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is how the last supper lives in sacred memory, which it will do forever.
One Sunday morning at St. Margaret’s church, Janie McDonald arrived early to prepare the flowers on the altar. I use the term altar loosely; St. Margaret’s was meeting at that time at Cinema City, Breckenridge Village, where our altar consisted of a standard folding table suspended on a board raised on packing crates, covered by a bedspread. Janie stood by while the altar crew put the thing together.
Janie, unbeknownst to anyone, was in a grim state. She was upset, pained, frightened. The date was October 22, 1995. Janie had dreaded that date for years.
This has to do with Janie and her father. Janie and her father shared a birthday – September 22. How delightful it had been for Janie’s father to receive a baby daughter for his birthday. Growing up, how much fun it had been for her to share that birthday with her Daddy. The birthday was emblematic: they were close in every way. They looked alike and seemed to feel and think alike. All their friends in Stuttgart knew Janie for her Daddy’s girl.
On October 22, 1968, Janie’s father committed suicide. Their ages at the time were symbiotic: Daughter was 14, father 41.
March 31, 2019
Even if I waste my life, I am welcome home.
As bible readers know, not all of Jesus's stories end like the Prodigal Son. Elsewhere in Luke, a stern householder turns back a crowd of latecomers who’d wasted first and second chances. Please sir let us in, they beg. “I tell you, I do not know you,” he says as he locks the door. Last Sunday in church we heard Jesus comment on the deaths of some people in a building collapse. Do you think they were worse sinners than you?” he asked. “No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish just like they did.” “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” Jesus warns another crowd, “when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of God and you yourselves thrown out.”
March 17, 2019
You have heard me mention Karl Barth from time to time, the Babe Ruth of modern theologians. Today I’m going to tell you his theory of religion, which is comforting to me in times of controversy about change. I have our friends the Methodists in mind.
February 24, 2019
Last week I preached at the funeral of Candice Earley Nolan, wife to my cousin Bob. As an actress, Candi played leading roles on Broadway and soap fans remember her as Donna on “All My Children.” I hope you won’t mind my making Candi’s funeral homily my sermon for today. It fits today’s Epistle, where Paul emphatically affirms the power of God to raise the dead. Candi was as nice a person as you could hope to meet.
February 10, 2019
Mid-January I went duck hunting with my cousins, my son, and some friends—three hunts in two days with six or seven guns each time, over rice and in flooded timber. We saw some ducks, and worked a few, but no one ever fired a shot. It was a bad season from Missouri south: too warm for too long up north and way too wet down here.
January 20, 2019
Inside, in church, today is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. Outside across America, this is a weekend for honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Inside, we listen to Isaiah: For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest until her vindication shines out like the dawn. Outside, we listen to King, who for his people’s sake would not keep silent, and for his country’s sake was restless to the end. Inside, we reckon with Israel, the ancient people who struggled with their high call. Outside, it's our turn to do the same.
Tolstoy said happy families are alike and unhappy ones are different. That is probably about half-right. Though ancient Israel and modern America are worlds apart, our pain in one respect is similar to theirs. It is the anxiety of having fallen short of a high call, of disappointing something, someone, that we hold dear.
America’s call rings out from the sacred text of the American experiment. The Declaration of Independence says why the new country would be exceptional among nations: race, language, and geography don’t define us, nor unite us. Love of freedom, with acceptance of the truth that all are equal, does.
That was Abraham Lincoln’s take on American uniqueness. The Constitution was the how of the American experiment, the Declaration gives the why. Immigrants from anywhere and emancipated slaves could hear in the Declaration principles that rise above ancestry and nationality. As Lincoln put it in 1858:
“When they look back through that old Declaration of Independence. . . They find that those old men say ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men . . . and they have a right to claim it as though they were . . . flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.[i]
That quote was from Allen Guelzo’s book Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. It was “the promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” as Dr. King unforgettably declared underneath the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. “We have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he said, holding America’s feet to the heat of its founding flame.
When I think about what makes King’s prophetic message so importantly distinctive, two qualities stand out. First, was his devoted belief in the inherent value of what he called human “personality,” by which he meant what Thomas Aquinas meant by soul. People add up to something more than the sum of our separate parts. Second, was King’s conviction that black and white folks need each other to rise to our potential.
[i] Allen Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Kindle edition, loc. 2664)
January 06, 2019
Forty years ago this spring, my life’s direction veered towards a vocation in the priesthood. By that September I was enrolled in seminary, a postulant for Holy Orders. A year from now, next January 4, I turn sixty-five. The following day, the twelfth day of Christmas, is a Sunday. On that Monday, I will retire.
We had a funeral here two days after Christmas. For the service I chose a reading I had never used at a funeral before, from Lamentations, chapter 3.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
December 25, 2018
Lo how a rose e'er blooming
This Christmas I have roses on my mind. Rosie was born four weeks ago Thursday—our first grandchild. Rosie is short for Rosamund, from the Latin Rosa Mundi, “Rose of the World,” whose birth we celebrate tonight.
Lo how a rose e'er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung
Of Jesse’s lineage coming
As seers of old have sung.
In our house, the day prior to Rosie’s birth felt to me a little bit like Christmas Eve: calm, quiet, expectant. Modern obstetrics being what they are, we knew tomorrow was the day. Over at Rosie’s parent's house, the atmosphere was busier and on the father’s side more nervous. Rosie’s father’s name is Christoph which like his daughter’s echoes Christmas. Christoph means “Christ-bearer.”
Christoph’s birth might not have happened. Somehow, Julie and I managed to get married without first discussing children: would we have them or would we not. On our wedding day, right here, on my side of the aisle, the complacent assumption was that we would of course. I would found out that the new Mrs. Keller harbored reservations. The reasons why are none of your beeswax—but they were weighty. Constitutionally, in marriage, a decision to have a child requires a unanimous vote, so my wife’s uncertainty was also mine. Now I imagined two distinctly different futures: through the door to the left was life with children; through the door to the right was life without.
Living with uncertainty on big questions takes a little faith, and I had some—about average faith, I figured, for a young man who had been raised in church by faithful parents. In college, I realized I had above average faith compared to peers from other backgrounds.
On this matter of children, my faith was neither neutral nor dependent on a certain outcome. My hope was specific: the passage to the left was what I prayed for. But through either door, faith, hope, and love abide. I believed that. I had been taught it here. As the years went by, no children in sight, life was good at home.
One day, walking by Julie sitting in an armchair working yarn and needles under lamplight, I asked, just making conversation, what she was crocheting. It was none of my beeswax, she let me know, not looking up, but I peeked and saw it was a little teddy bear. The door on the left cracked open. Through the door and down the road our family would add Christoph, Mary Olive, Laura, John, and, on November 27, Rosamund.
December 09, 2018
The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
He will baptize you with God.
Who is speaking? John the Baptist, who “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee,” received the word of God and went out to tell the world about it, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” we are told.
How powerful was he? Plenty. John was a prophet, and prophets have been thought to speak for God. “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” Amos chapter three, the seventh verse. Prophets see or hear what God is doing, it is said. They fascinate us that way.
I have an odd little book by a respected Catholic theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar. (Imagine trying to make it through first grade with that name.) The book title is A First Glance at Adrienne Von Speyr. Dr. Adrienne Von Speyr was a physician or whom Father Von Balthasar had served as spiritual director and confessor, through the course of many years
Here is how the book begins.
“This book is an eyewitness account… It is not intended as publicity or propaganda, but rather as a source of objective information. I cannot prevent anyone from questioning the veracity of my statements. There will be people with a personal interest in finding them to be false, for whom ‘nothing can be which ought not to be.’ There will be many others who will at once attempt to ‘illuminate’ the entire matter through the methods of depth psychology and so make it supposedly understandable or who will dismiss it all as completely ‘out of date’ and therefore neither interesting nor credible. Finally, there will be those who will be very annoyed about a charism[i] – should it prove to be a charism – which does not conform to the conventional trends in Christianity today. To all these persons I must say in advance that (in the sense of 1 Cor 4:1f) their opposition does not trouble me, for, when I state the facts known to me… I am simply doing what I must do…”[ii]
Well, that’s got my attention. What sort of doubtful, annoying, or otherwise objectionable information is Von Balthasar preparing his readers to encounter? Here goes:
[i] Charism means “divine gift.”
[ii] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, A First Glance at Adrienne Von Speyr (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1968), 11.