Mr. Brandon Smee
In our Ephesians reading, Paul writes: “I pray that you might have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge - so that you might be filled with all the fullness of God.” Paul’s prayer is very familiar to me. When I was in college, my pastor used it as a blessing every Sunday. Its words drew me in even as they eluded me. The breadth, length, height, and depth of what exactly? How can we know love that surpasses knowledge? That should be impossible, right? Is Paul confused, or is he onto something profound? And what does it mean to be filled with the fullness of God? Can we ourselves be filled?
I think we’re all seeking the breadth, length, height, and depth that Paul names. To say it another way, we’re trying to get away from everything that’s formless and void. In the Bible, the writer of Genesis calls the world formless and void until God speaks forth creation in all its goodness. God turns emptiness into substance. But when sin and evil obscure God’s presence among us, creation gets warped out of shape, and it forgets its nature. Formlessness and emptiness spread. We don’t have to look far to see this happening today: ecological crises, pandemics, violence, and systemic oppression. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Even in this room, there are personal struggles with debt, relationships, illness, and loss. This is not how God spoke creation to be. This is the formless and void, the emptiness at work. Paul’s prayer on the other hand turns us to a different possibility. He points us from the world of emptiness to a world that has substance. He takes us with him from the void to the fullness that has breadth, length, height, and depth.
But what really is this breadth, length, height, and depth that we’re looking for? Theologians are of diverse opinions. Augustine said it’s the Cross because it has four dimensions. John Calvin said it’s the four virtues of love, hope, patience, and humility. But even Calvin conceded that his answer was no less made-up than St. Ambrose’s proposal that it’s the four dimensions of a sphere. Imagine that! The apostle Paul praying a geometry lesson over the Church of Ephesus!
But Paul isn’t talking about geometry, or even Calvin’s virtues. He’s going much further, to the very heart of existence. The breadth and length are the unmeasurable span, the height and depth are the unsearchable distance. We’re talking about the power behind creation itself, the Word by which God speaks it, the same Word that gives form to all things. This creative force should be a mystery outside our reach. But for Paul, it isn’t far at all. With God’s help, we can comprehend it. The mystery of the creation has descended to where we are. In Christ, we take hold of it. Our Lord Jesus is all of who God is united with all of what we are. In Jesus, we behold the broad, high, and deep things of God. He makes the unknowable known.
What does it look like for Christ to make the unknowable known? In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus does something impossible with ordinary things. He takes one boy’s lunch and feeds thousands of hungry people. Some scholars have ventured scientific explanations of this event. The most incredible proposal I’ve heard is that Jesus had a massive secret storehouse of food in a cave out of sight. The disciples were clandestinely carrying baskets of food out of the secret pantry. Another proposal holds that the boy sharing his lunch reminded people that they also had food enough to share with others, so that everyone ate.
But both of these explanations take something vital out of the story - the unknowable becoming known. How does one lunch become 5000 lunches? How does that happen in real-time? I don’t know, but they ate the bread and fish. They gathered leftovers. To the emptiness of their stomachs, Jesus’ blessing brought abundance. And in the same way, Jesus brings the fullness of God to the world. He does impossible things with the ordinary, filling what’s empty. The hungry people could never have found this fullness by their own effort, but God puts it within our grasp in Christ: unknowable love made known.
Jesus is the length, breadth, height, and depth. Jesus makes known the love that is beyond knowledge. Jesus contains the fullness of God within all of what we are. This vision of Christ is what Paul is praying the Ephesians will comprehend. We may wonder what it looks like to comprehend that vision. Paul puts it simply at the end of his petition: us, filled with all the fullness of God.
There are biblical examples of people full of God. The Blessed Virgin Mary exemplifies having the fullness of God within you She bears Christ in her body. In her, we see that God gives fullness completely out of sheer love and grace, and entirely apart from our power and ability.
In the Old Testament, Deborah got the power to prophesy and delivered the people of Israel from their enemies. She did so despite the male-dominated culture against her. Full of God’s Spirit, she became a place of God’s work on earth.
And let’s not forget the writer of this letter, the Apostle Paul. He started off bent on oppressing the vulnerable to protect the purity of his nation. But, he transformed into one whose life’s work was bringing Gentiles and Jews together in Christ. The fullness of God looks like the power to turn from violence and to draw people to Our Lord.
But this fullness doesn’t just happen in the biblical past. We see it today. Every time a friend in Christ struggling with substance use experiences sobriety, we see it. When people who have suffered abuse find safety, we see it. When the traumatized find healing in the family of God, and when the poor and oppressed find supply, jubilee, and justice, we see it. The fullness of God brings the holy action of God. This is the power working within us, doing infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. In all these ways, the emptiness of the world becomes the more-than-enough of God. We are not only filled, but we receive the power to answer Jesus’ call to find the hungry something to eat. God in us begins to renew the form of the world. The Spirit of Christ makes us places where God fills creation again.
This fullness is not far from us. Even if it feels far. Today we have another meal which Christ will supply. Every sacrament makes unknowable love known, but particularly in the Eucharist, we are filled with the spiritual food and drink of new and unending life in Christ. Even if we cannot see the breadth, length, height, and depth of these elements, the bread and wine are not empty. In them, we receive the very body and blood of Christ.
God’s fullness fills us as we partake of this sacrament, as we pray, and as we do God’s sacred work. Here God brings fullness to the emptiness of our world and we see the length, breadth, height, and depth despite its current formlessness. By grace, our lives show the mystery of God just as Christ’s life does. For this, ultimately, is what it means to have the fullness of God: Christ in us. Amen.
Fourth Sunday of Pentecost
Brian J. Cowley
June 19-20, 2021
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and his mercy endures for ever” (Psalm 107:1).
Rowan Williams, the 104th archbishop of Canterbury, was sent an article from a conservative religious journal during the worst levels of Covid 19. The author urged the readers to look death in the face and not bow to measures mandated by secular imagination for our protection. The article then maintained that with faith we should not be fearful, have our eyes on eternity, and go to church. Archbishop Williams determined there was a lot wrong with this approach but indicated there was a relevant question in there to which we will return. As I read this article, I was reminded of a childhood memory.
When I was 10 years old my father purchased my first horse. A small chestnut colored mare that was 3/4 Arabian and ¼ Shetland Pony. For those who know horses realize that this was a sturdy, sure footed, very independent, and energetic animal. Unfortunately, the first day I rode this horse, my step grandmother had to rev the engine of her car to make it through the mud in the pasture and startled the horse. Before I knew it, we were hurtling through the field at breakneck speed. After having passed over a marshy field of mud and water, I fell off on the old train track that though devoid of rails and railroad ties, was hard dry ground. As I picked myself up off the ground with a bloodied nose my dad finally arrived with the horse in tow. He then explained to me that I needed to get back on then and there or I would likely not get on again. I trusted my father and got on. To his credit, he did not relinquish the animal to my control. My father was right, it was easier to get back on afterwards and I spent many an hour riding through the beautiful Rockies on horseback and/or chasing my grandfather’s cattle. It wasn’t all paradise. Since my first fall I have fallen from a horse twice and I have jumped from one on two occasions. If you are wondering “who in their right mind jumps from a moving horse?” see me after. This idea of facing fear with faith is a powerful one. We even heard examples of it in the readings today.
We heard Paul tell the Saints at Corinth that they have commended themselves to God by facing afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger. Paul does not ask the people of Corinth to face these calamities without fear only. He exhorted them to face these afflictions with great endurance. He also used words like: purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, power of God, and righteousness.
In the Gospel (Mark 4:35-41) we heard Christ tell his disciples that they lacked faith after showing great fear when a storm came upon them as they crossed Sea of Galilee threatening to sink their boat. As Christ called for peace on the waters, he did not ask the disciples why they feared. He asked them why they were afraid.
So back to the journal article that calls for church attendance in the middle of a pandemic in the face of death where we had been advised to shelter, wear masks, and socially isolate by the political and health care leaders of our society. As a professor of psychology, I regularly teach a Lifespan development course that I refer to a my “womb to tomb” class. Each semester I stand before my students and tell them that they can count on two things, being born and dying. They always look uncomfortable and there is always one who says, “you have to pay taxes”. I always respond that they do not have to pay taxes, but by being born they will die. Our western culture is uncomfortable with death. We fear death. We do not like to talk about it, we try to make it a clinical experience, we buy products, and engage in behaviors to make us look young. Archbishop Williams said of this topic: “…denying death ends up denying birth”.
The pandemic creates fear for a lot of reasons, but death is one of the primary fears. We have behaviors and rites that help us with someone’s passing, but the pandemic has prevented many to sit with their loved ones during their affliction, covid 19 related or not. It has also impacted funeral participation and attendance. This has added to the pressure concerning our fear of death.
Archbishop Williams points out that an oft used strategy we use in our fear of death is to lie to ourselves. We think we can protect ourselves from harm and avoid death by denying its existence or engage in acts of heroism focused on feeding our own egos. When taking this path we come to believe we can change the whole world. Archbishop Williams recommends wherever we are in our journey that we strive to make a difference within our reach and recognize the existence will go on as it will. So clearly, the Pandemic around the world is completely out of our control. We must let that go and focus on what we can do in the face of this angst-ridden event.
Archbishop Williams called the pandemic our journey in the “valley of this current shadow”. He then endeavors to examine what has been communicated to our culture and turn it back to the gospel so that our community and theology can be better informed. Of the Covid 19 Pandemic he said:
“Willfully risking the health of others to demonstrate my courage or my faith doesn't only increase their danger of death. It also increases the risk of that wider range of traumas and losses we noted earlier--the pain of bereavement in abnormal circumstances, the bewildering disruptions of our life in society, the strain on those working in public utilities and healthcare (whom we have suddenly discovered to be heroic in ways not demanded of most of us), and much more.”
Archbishop Williams is suggesting that that within our realm of control is to become aware of others and their welfare. This can help with our fear of things we can’t control and is a sound gospel principle.
Now, I can imagine some our surprised by the sermon topic today. Afterall, archbishop Williams wrote this article in August 2020 at the height of U.S. and British losses to Covid 19. I can hear some saying, “but the pandemic is almost over”. It certainly appears that way as we start to return to pre-pandemic patterns. We are meeting in church, going to restaurants, to public events, etc. Just Friday night I sang the national anthem with members of The Heartland Men’s Chorus at Kaufman
Stadium to a live audience. I do want to be clear, this is not a call to start wearing masks again or calling you all back to quarantine. We will continue to adjust to this pandemic for some time. I also believe it is important to realize that we are still under the “shadow” that Williams talked about. Infections still occur in the U.S. and in certain parts of the world people are experiencing the devastation we were suffering last Summer. Many of us and our neighbors have lost loved ones and have been unable to grieve together in ways to bring comfort. Healthcare workers are still recovering from the onslaught we have just experienced. I believe it is important to take this final quote by archbishop Williams to heart:
“A summons to faith, courage and energy in the face of death isn't a call to heroics for the ego. It is an invitation to attend, to be absorbed in value, depth and beauty not our own. It is to recognise the gentle insistent pressure of a shared reality which tells us to make room for one another.”
As we continue to adjust to the fears and post traumas of the Covid 19 Pandemic we must do as archbishop Williams urges “make room for one another”. We must also remember that as Jesus faced his death, he supped with his disciples, he washed their feet, and as he acknowledge his betrayal he called on them to love others as he loved them (John 13) and so must we.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (5th
Ed.) (2018). New York: Oxford University Press.
Williams, R. (2020, August 21). Into the valley of shadows: The pandemic has forced us to confront the issue of mortality: how do we think about death, and what does it mean for how we live? New Statesman, 149(5534), 34.
First Sunday after Christmas
December 29, 2019
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
A Christmas Sermon by St. Leo the Great (d. 461)
Our Saviour, dearly-beloved, is born today: let us be glad. For there is no proper place for sadness when we are keeping the birthday of Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness. There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord, the Destroyer of sin and death, finds no one free of blame so does He come to free us all. Let the saint exult in that he draws near to victory. Let the sinner be glad in that he is invited to pardon. Let the Gentile take courage in that he is called to life.
For the Son of God in the fulness of time, as the good and gracious Will of God determined, has taken for Himself human nature, thereby to reconcile us to our Creator: in order that the inventor of death, that is, the devil, might be conquered by means of that very nature which he had conquered. And in this conflict, which the Lord has undertaken for us, the fight is fought on great and wondrous principles of fairness; for the Almighty Lord engages the battle with His savage foe, not in His own majesty, but in our humility, opposing him with the same form and the same nature with which He shares our mortality, though He is free from all sin. For truly foreign to His Holy Nativity is that guilt and shame and sin which otherwise stains our human conception and birth.
Nothing therefore of the lust of the flesh has passed into His spotless and peerless Nativity; nothing of the law of sin has entered. A royal Virgin of the stem of David is chosen, to be impregnated with the sacred Seed of the Word, and to conceive the Divinely-human Offspring -in her ears first, in heart and mind, and also in body. And lest, in her ignorance of the heavenly counsel, she should tremble at such a great and mighty wonder, she learns from converse with the angel that what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.
Nor does St. Mary believe it a loss of honour that she thus becomes the Mother of God. For why should she be in despair over the novelty of such conception, to whom the power of the most High has promised to effect it. Her faith is also confirmed by the demonstration of an earlier miracle, that barren Elizabeth has received unexpected fertility (in conceiving St. John the Baptist): so there may be no doubt, that He who has given conception to the barren, has also given it even to the Virgin.
Therefore the Word of God, Who is God Himself, the very Son of God, Who was “in the beginning with God,” through Whom “all things were made,” and “without” Whom “was nothing made,” with the purpose of delivering us from eternal death, became human. Lowering Himself to assume our humility, yet without decreasing in His own majesty, He remained Who and What He was, while He also assumed what He was not. So did He unite within Himself the true form of a slave to that form in which He is equal to God the Father, and He joined both natures together in such a way that the lower should not be swallowed up in its exaltation nor the higher impaired by its new association.
Thus, without destroying His Divinity, nor shattering our humanity (which He took for His own), these came together in one Person: majesty took on humility, strength weakness, eternity mortality.
And for the paying of the debt belonging to our sinful human condition, His impervious nature was united with our perishable nature; the one true God became truly human in the Person of our one Lord, the Son of God born of Mary; so that, as suited the needs of our case, one and the same Mediator between God and humans, the human Christ Jesus, could both die in our stead and raise us with Himself.
Rightly, therefore, did the birth of our Salvation impart no corruption to the Virgin’s purity, because the bearing of the Truth was the keeping of honour. Such then, beloved, was the Nativity that was fitting to the Power of God and the Wisdom of God, even Christ, whereby He might be one with us in humanity and surpass us in Godhead. For unless He were true God, He would not bring us a remedy: but unless He were truly human, He would not have been our Saviour.
Therefore the exulting angels’ song when the Lord was born is this, “Glory to God in the Highest,” and their message, “peace on earth to those of good will.” For they see that the heavenly Jerusalem is being built up out of all the nations of the world. And over that indescribable work of the Divine love, how ought we rejoice, when the joy of the lofty angels is so great?
Let us, therefore, dearly beloved, give thanks to God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit; Who “for His great mercy, wherewith He has loved us,” has had pity on us: and “when we were dead in our sins, He has quickened us together in Christ,” that we might be in Him a new creation and live a new life in Christ, in righteousness and purity before Him. Let us strip off the old self with its practices: and having obtained a share in the birth of Christ, let us renounce the works of the flesh.
Dear Christian, acknowledge your dignity in Christ, and, becoming a partner in His Divine nature, refuse to go back to vile baseness of your old, degenerate conduct. Remember the Head and the Body of which you are a member. Recall that you were rescued from the power of darkness and brought into God’s light and kingdom. By the Mystery of Holy Baptism, you were made the temple of the Holy Spirit: do not put such a guest to flight by continuing in sin, whereby you would subject yourself once more to the devil’s power:
Because your ransom money is the very Blood of Christ; because He shall judge you in truth, Who ransomed you in mercy; Who with the Father and the Holy Spirit reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!