Read Sermons Author: The Very Rev. Dr. Christoph Keller, III

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Religion and Change

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.

A Funeral Homily for Candice Earley Nolan

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.

Thirty Minutes before Sunrise

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.

Water to Wine

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;

Rosa Mundi

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.

More powerful than John

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.

All that is and ever was or will be

November 25, 2018

Grace to you and peace from him who is, and who was, and who is to come.

That salutation is from John, in the book of Revelation. The one who is, and was, and is to come is God; God, to John, means Christ, in whom God lived within the universe of his own making. We call God’s life on earth the Incarnation. “The Incarnation,” Thomas Aquinas says, “is the exaltation of human nature and the consummation of the universe.”[i]

The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.

That pronouncement was Carl Sagan’s opening line in Cosmos, his famous 1980 book and public television miniseries. His student Neil DeGrasse Tyson repeated it in his recent update of the series. Cosmos, word for word, replaces God, suggesting science replaces faith in God. “Scientism,” we call that.

Modern science began in 1543 when Copernicus gave evidence the earth is not the center of the universe. On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was the title of his study. In 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, followed twelve years later by The Descent of Man.

Approaching the hundredth anniversary of Darwin’s second book, Jacques Monod, a founder of molecular biology and winner of the Nobel Prize, published Chance and Necessity, “a philosophy,” he said, “for a universe without causality.” According to Monod, “the ancient covenant is in pieces; man, at last, knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged by chance.”[ii]

That isn’t true. Man does not know that; nor does woman. Scientism plays a pair of fours like they were aces.

In John, the Gospel, Jesus says to Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not from this world.” Pilate had challenged him: “Are you the king?” That would put Jesus and Pilate in the same arena, competitors like Sagan did with God and cosmos. Jesus rejects the false equivalence. “My kingdom is not from here,” he says. “So you are a king,” replies Pilate, missing the point. Like Sagan, Pilate sees only to the limit of his own expertise, in his case politics, where one king and one king only is the rule. Jesus indicates that with respect to him, to God, this rule does not apply.

After publication of The Origin of Species, an English bishop named Charles Gore gathered a group to think and write about questions Darwin’s science had raised for Christian faith.[iii] One of the group, J.R. Illingworth, wrote an essay titled  “The Incarnation and Development.” It begins: “The last few years have witnessed the gradual acceptance by Christian thinkers of the . . .  the theory of evolution. History has repeated itself, and another of the '‘oppositions of science [so-called] have “proved upon inquiry to be no opposition at all.”[iv]

[i]Lux Mundi, 186

[ii] Jacque Monod, (1972), p. 167, quoted in Southgate, p. 154.

[iv]Lux Mundi, 181.

Three Widows

November 12, 2018

Three widows are featured in our readings, including the woman in the story of the widow’s mite, as we used to call it. The “mite” was her tiny gift of all she had into the treasury, which Jesus counted higher than the big donations of the wealthy.

Our other two widows, Naomi and Ruth, are also poor. Theirs is a beautiful short Bible story with a harsh start and happy end. Naomi had been married to Elimilech, with whom she had two sons. Elimilech died. In Israel, the rain stopped, crops failed and there was famine. Looking for food, Naomi led her sons to the land of Moab. They settled there and the sons grew up to marry Orpah and Ruth, gentile women of that country. Then both sons died. Now there were three widows in one family with no children, no money, and no work. These were dire straits. Generously, Naomi urged her daughters-in-law to return to the safety of their own parents’ homes. Tearfully, Orpah said goodbye, but Ruth wouldn’t leave Naomi. “Where you go, I will go,” she vowed. “Your people shall be my people and your God my God.” Like the widow with her mite, Ruth offered all she had. Ruth’s great-grandson David would be king.

I still have the Bible this cathedral gave me as an ordination gift in 1982: New Oxford Annotated, expanded edition, Revised Standard Version. It is handsome, black leather bound, but also scholarly and full of expert notes. The notes to Ruth date the story’s composition. Like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it was written centuries after the events it describes occurred. By then, after David, Israel was divided and had been conquered several times, culminating in 587 when Jerusalem was sacked, the temple destroyed and the Jews were exiled to Babylon. In 538, Babylon was overthrown by Cyrus, King of Persia, who let the Jews go home and rebuild their city and temple. In scripture, the books of Isaiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah tell that story of return. Ruth was written at about the same time as Ezra and Nehemiah.

Now I quote the experts in my old ordination Bible.

Israel after the Exile developed tendencies in two opposite directions: on the one hand a major tendency to draw within herself and emphasize the exclusiveness of her election as God’s chosen people, and on the other hand a broad and liberal one which sought to make of her “a blessing in the midst of the earth (Isaiah 19:24), a ‘light to the nations.’ (Isaiah 49:6) Among the noblest monuments to the latter tendency are the books of Jonah and Ruth.

So the Bible embodies a debate: Should we be like this, or like that, to be faithful? 

If we follow Thomas Aquinas, and here I do, this was not a conflict between good and evil, but between two variants of good. According to Aquinas, “whatever is of value, and can satisfy desire, is good.” [i] That is a definition of good without judgment. It would include things we would judge as bad, but Aquinas would say that, even with bad things, if we want them it is because there is something good in them to attract us. In the Book of Ruth, the Bible shows the goodness in Ruth, a foreign immigrant. In Ezra and Nehemiah, it lays the accent on Israel’s unique vocation.

[i] Timothy McDermott, ed. and trans, St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae, A Concise Translation (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1989), 168.

Heritage Sunday

October 28, 2018

Today is “Heritage Sunday,” a day to celebrate the lives and ministry of:

Seven parishioners who have been members of Trinity for seventy-five years or more: Martha Campbell, Lawson Deloney, Pete Maris, Ed Penick, Jr., Frances Mitchell Ross, J.D. Simpson, and Belle Spatz; and of:

Eight parishioners who have enriched our lives on earth for 90 years or more: Ted Bailey, Kathryn Bost, Joanne Cooner, Mary Fine, Adolphine George, Catherine Hepinstall, Bill Pumphrey, and Nell Stephens; and of:

Three parishioners who done both ninety years of life and seventy-five years of ministry at Trinity: Marguerite Gamble, Gordon Wittenberg, and Betty Terry; and of:

One organist and choirmaster, Charles Rigsby, long and well loved here and throughout the church in Arkansas.

Trinity’s heritage began with our founding on October 19, 1884, by Bishop Pierce. That start (a birthday of sorts) brings to mind something Karl Barth said about people. On the day we are born we have a present and a future, with no past. Thereafter, our past gets longer and our future shorter by the day. Barth wasn’t counting heaven, which is on a different clock. On our clock, Trinity has 134 years of past, which is a nice length—and, we pray, a much longer future.

One of our honorees, Betty Terry, owns a past reaching back to the 1920s. A week ago last Wednesday, October 17, her birthday, Betty’s great-granddaughter and namesake was born—Madeline Elizabeth Borné -Williams—whose future stretches forward to the 22nd century, easily. In the heritage of Trinity Cathedral, that is a powerful one-two punch.

One woman who would have been honored today, Jane Wilson, was buried from here on Monday. In Jane’s funeral, our heritage of faith wrapped her death in transcendent, hopeful beauty.

Heritage is treasure.

Consider Charlie Rigsby, at the organ. In Charlie at the age of 27, Dean Higgins saw energy and talent and hired him on the spot, bringing a musical life to this Cathedral the likes of which is seldom heard, not only but especially with children. The musical and spiritual seeds Charlie planted in lives going back to forty years ago continue to flower here, even as new seeds are being sown by Victoria, who is one of Charlie’s many protégés.

Heritage can be baggage too, of course. Our southern heritage is a glaring example. We southern states were on the wrong side in the Civil War, and again in the struggle after that for civil rights for black folk. From that bad history, we can’t hide. Shelby Foote, in a low moment in the sixties, said he was ashamed to be southerner—when for most of his life the South had been “the one thing [he] really ever loved.” “Good Lord,” he swore, “when I think what we could have been, the heritage we perverted!” Then he began to list things he long had loved about the south: “the misspent courage, the hardcore independence. The way a rich man always had to call a poor man “Mister.”[i]And that brings us back to treasure. As for me, even with the baggage, I would rather be from here than anywhere. I am speaking now both of the South and Trinity Cathedral.

[i]Letters, 125.