A Dreadful Tale: Text of a Sermon preached at St Stephen’s, Exeter on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2019

Gen 22.1-24; John 13.31-37 .

Our first reading this morning—about Abraham and his son Isaac—is surely one of the most dreadful stories ever told. I grant that as a family group Israel’s patriarchs and matriarchs do in any case seem to have been dysfunctional with a capital “D”, and a good many of the stories about them are pretty awful. It’s surely something of a tribute to ancient Israel’s modesty and good humour that she went on telling these tales about her founding family at all, unembroidered and un-cleaned-up as they are! No “father-I-cannot-tell-a-lie” nonsense here!

Abraham and Isaac–Armand-Durand from Rembrandt

Even so, the story we heard this morning surely stands out. We’re told how Abraham is on the verge of killing his son with a meat cleaver[1] because God has told him to. No doubt, autres temps, autres mœurs. The fact remains, we live in a society where such an Abraham would be locked up, and the God who demanded his son’s death would be regarded as the product of a diseased mind. And I’m glad we do. All three Abrahamic faith communities—that’s to say we, and our Jewish and Muslim friends—have handed this story on in our different ways, and over the centuries all of us have evidently been troubled by the obvious moral difficulties that it raises. Rabbis, church fathers, and imams have at various times and in various ways sought to deal with or explain it—and none, perhaps, with entirely satisfactory results. That tricky tale is, however, what the church gives us to look at this morning, so let’s do it.

An ancient rabbinic suggestion is that God never really intended that Abraham would kill Isaac at all. God simply tested him to see how serious he was about his faith. No one I know of has stated this view better than Walter Brueggemann.

God tests to identify his people, to discern who is serious about faith and to know in whose lives he will be fully God… Faith is nothing other than trust in the power of the resurrection against every deathly circumstance. Abraham knows beyond understanding that God will find a way to bring life even in this scenario of death. That is the faith of Abraham.[2]

That is powerfully said, and apropos situations in which such faith has throughout history triumphantly manifested itself—the faith that sustained men and women in concentration camps, for example, or indeed the faith of Our Lord himself on the cross—it expresses an important truth.

The problem with it in the present context, however, is that Abraham is not in a concentration camp or on the cross. He is a powerful man, patriarch in a patriarchal society, responsible for the wellbeing of his household. Are we then to understand that he, the man in the position of power, is actually being called to create the very “scenario of death” into which God is then supposed to bring life? And how would he or anyone else distinguish such a call from the Satanic invitation to “trust” God’s promise by leaping from the pinnacle of the Temple, relying on the scripture that says, “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone”?—to which the only truly faithful response was evidently Our Lord’s, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:11-12). The problem with this view, in short, is that for all the importance of what it asserts, apropos the story of Abraham and Isaac it leaves too many questions unanswered, nor does it really address their situation.

A suggestion for understanding the story along completely different lines is to suggest that “fear”—“Now I know that you fear God!”—isn’t at all what God really wanted from Abraham at that moment. This view argues that in the entire story of Abraham, his proneness to fear has actually been his weakness. It was fear that led to those embarrassing episodes where he lied to Pharaoh and then to Abimelech about Sarah (Gen. 12 and 20). Although in the matter of Hagar and Ishmael the narrator somewhat lets Abraham off the hook by telling of God’s word to him (“let it not seem evil in your eyes… the slave girl’s son, too, I will make a great nation” [20:12]) it is nonetheless fear of domestic strife rather than care to act justly that prompts Abraham in the first place even to consider casting out the slave girl and her son (who is, of course, his son too)—thereby exposing both to almost certain death. (It certainly isn’t because of anything Abraham does that Hagar and the child don’t die! Parallels in the biblical narrative between the narratives of Hagar and Ishmael on the one hand and Abraham and Isaac on the other have, of course, often been noted—down to the very words of the angel to each.[3] Arguably, God puts Abraham through precisely what Abraham himself put Hagar through: and surely that, too, is something to consider?)

Abraham expels Hagar and Ishamel–Guercino

Following on from all this, the suggestion is then that what God really wanted and even hoped for from Abraham following the command to kill Isaac was what Abraham had already shown himself capable of in other circumstances, namely an argument—an argument such as he’d offered earlier when God was about to wipe out Sodom (Gen 18:16-32): “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked!”—argument such as Moses offered when God was about to wipe out Israel (Exod. 32.9-14) or the Syrophoenician woman offered when Jesus seemed reluctant to heal her daughter (Mark 7.25-30). To put it another way, St John says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God.” Perhaps God wanted Abraham to do a little thinking and testing.

Of all the attempts I’ve seen to get God off a moral hook, I confess this is the one I like best. My problem with it is that it doesn’t seem to square all that well with the narrative as we have it in Scripture: more precisely, with what the angel says to Abraham at the end about how his faithfulness will be rewarded, where it really does sound as though God is pleased with the way in which Abraham has acted (22.15-18).[4]

In view of all this uncertainty, it’s perhaps not surprizing that in the years leading up to the beginnings of Christianity some seem to have decided that the most interesting character in the story, the one you could best focus on and regard as its hero, was not actually Abraham at all, but the boy Isaac. It was, after all, Isaac’s life that was on the line, not Abraham’s.

Hence the title of the episode in much rabbinic treatment is “The Binding of Isaac”, reflecting this focus. The Targums—rabbinic translations of the Bible that add little bits of explanation and exegesis as they go along—emphasize how Isaac is willing to surrender his life if that is God’s will, and how the angels in heaven look on in wonder and admiration. Targum Neofiti has the angels say that from now on, whenever Israel sins and God is angry with his people, God will remember the righteousness of Isaac, and for Isaac’s sake will forgive them.[5]

What is perhaps especially interesting for us as Christians is that this way of understanding the story of Abraham and Isaac seems to have influenced the way the New Testament talks about Our Lord.

Think of St Mark’s gospel, and the word that the heavenly voice says to Jesus at his baptism, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1:11). In Mark’s Greek (given only the change of person required grammatically) those are exactly the words with which, in the Greek Bible, God charges Abraham to offer his son in sacrifice! The implication is surely that Jesus is God’s “Isaac”, who for the sake of the world will be willing to be bound upon the altar of the cross.

Again, remember in the Genesis account when they are on their way up the mountain Isaac asks his father, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham answers, “God will see to a lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” And of course the ram with its horns caught in the thicket is the obvious fulfilment of that promise. But then St John’s gospel suggests a deeper and fuller fulfilment. John the Baptist points to Jesus and says, “Here is God’s lamb, which takes away the sins of the world!”—words, of course, that we continue to echo at the Eucharist when the bread is broken. “Lamb of God,” we say, “you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us… Have mercy on us… Grant us peace.” Jesus, again, is God’s Isaac, willing to be sacrificed for his people.

 And this, of course, brings us to Jesus’ word to us in this morning’s gospel passage. On the eve of his passion and death, immediately after Judas has gone out to betray him, Our Lord says, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him”—which seems an odd way to speak of the fact that you’re being betrayed. He goes on to say, “God will also glorify [the Son of Man] in himself and will glorify him at once”—which seems, again, an odd way to describe the fact that you’re about to be crucified. But perhaps it is not so odd if it is Isaac who is here the model. Isaac’s glory was that he was willing to die for God’s people if that was what was necessary, and that is Jesus’ glory too. 

So it was that at the end of the first Christian century Clement of Rome, writing to the Corinthians, would remind them how, “Isaac in confident knowledge of the future was gladly led as a sacrifice” (1 Clem. XXXI.3).[6]

We may still, of course, have a further question. We may wonder why at all, in the middle of Easter, when we’re celebrating Our Lord’s victory over death, the church has chosen for us our readings that actually turn us back to his death.

I’d say there are two reasons.

First, because by doing this we remind ourselves that Jesus did not, so to speak, “win” only by rising from the dead. Just as Isaac was triumphant in his willingness to give his life if that was what God required, so when Jesus was “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8)—indeed, when he was gracious to Judas who was about to betray him, when he was gracious to disciples who would flee as soon as he was arrested, when he continued praying for his enemies as he was being nailed to the cross, when he died commending himself into the hands of his heavenly Father—even in and especially in those moments, Jesus was already victor! That is why he says of his crucifixion, “Now is the Son of man glorified.” That is why his dying word in this gospel will be the triumphant, “Tetelestai! It is accomplished!” That is why in Mark’s gospel the pagan centurion, who has watched him die, cries out, “Truly this man was son of God!” (John 19.30; Mark 15.39).

Secondly, our turning back in the Easter season to Our Lord’s words at the Last Supper reminds us of something about ourselves and our own calling: namely, that our faith in Jesus, Easter faith, is not merely a conviction that certain things happened once upon a time two thousand or so years ago in a tomb in Palestine. It is faith that the living Christ has power to change my life now! For even as Our Lord speaks to us in the gospel of his love wherein he is, like Isaac, faithful even unto death, he at once goes on to say that we ourselves are capable of something that actually echoes that love: “I give you a new commandment,” he says. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

“But Lord,” we cry, “to love as you love? We can’t possibly manage that!”

“But why not try?” he says. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

And of course that’s true.

Why does anyone come to Christ or join the church? Is it because of our clever arguments or theology? Let me be clear—I love clever arguments and theology! But are they the reason why people join the church? I don’t think so. People join because they glimpse occasionally in some Christian or Christians a quality that draws them, a quality that we all desire, the quality that for want of a better word, in all its different forms and manifestations, we call “love”—linked to all the things that belong to love like compassion, kindness, good nature, a sense of humour, patience.

And by the same token I’d say people are put off the church by all that they see in us that is the opposite of love—pomposity, self-righteousness, coldness, nastiness towards each other.[7]

So—God help us!—in Jesus’ name let us try for love, even as Jesus has loved us. Amen.


[1] Despite the more decorous “knife” of the NRSV and other translations (not to mention the elegant implement given him by Rembrandt), what we have here in the Hebrew (הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת) is not the usual biblical word for “knife”, and there is a case to be made for the suggestion that it is a term used for the butcher’s knife or cleaver: see e.g. Robert Alter, Genesis (New York and London: Norton, 1996) 105.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982) 193

[3] E.g. Alter, Genesis, 106

[4] That these particular verses are perhaps a secondary addition to the narrative is beside the point. Our question as interpreters and preachers is how we are to understand the narrative as it stands in Holy Scripture now, not as it may have been at some earlier stage in its transmission. In any case 22.15-22 is certainly not an inappropriate addition, and there is no clear reason for supposing that the reviser, if there was one, understood the story other than as the original narrators intended it to be understood it: cf. Brueggemann, Genesis 185.

[5] E.g. 4 Macc. 13:12, 16::20; Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities 32:2-3; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1:132: see further James L. Kugel, Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible As It Was at the Start of the Common Era (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard, 1998) 304-305.

[6] Kirsopp Lake, transl. in The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (London: Heinemann/Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1912) 60-61.

[7] “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” goes a well-known and in my view rather dreary hymn written in the 1960s, presumably following Tertullian’s famous description of pagan reaction to Christians: “‘Vide,’ inquiunt, ‘ut invicem se diligent!’”—“Look,” they say, “how they love one another!” (Apologia 39.7). My own view is that Tertullian and the hymn-writer alike were indulging in wishful thinking. Alas, my own experience has been that non-Christians are as likely to be disgusted by our treatment of each other as they are to be attracted by the love that we claim to live by, and I see not the slightest reason to believe things were any better in Tertullian’s day.

Thoughts on the Unspeakable. Text of a sermon written for St Olave’s Church Exeter, for the 3rd Sunday of Lent

For the Psalm 63:1-9; for the Gospel, Luke 13.1-9

 

On television this week I watched an interview with a man who was at the mosque in Christchurch when the shootings happened. He spoke about it hesitatingly for a few minutes and finally stopped, saying in effect, “I just have no words for what happened. I can’t talk about it.” Who wouldn’t sympathize? There are some things so awful, so appalling and outrageous to our every decent instinct that it is almost impossible to talk of them rationally or reasonably. We naturally call them “unspeakable”.

But does that mean we just let such things pass? That we have no questions? Surely not! Muslims, Christians, Jews—we all believe in the God of Abraham. We believe that God cares for what God has made, that God is Merciful and Compassionate. Why then does God allow these things to happen? Those fifty people in the mosque at Christchurch had come together to pray to the God of Abraham. What was God up to, that God didn’t protect such people? How do we explain such events?

One move is to say that such people were sinful, and therefore God, who is righteous, has punished them. That might seem to most of us a little hard to sustain when one of those killed at Christchurch was only three years old, but I am well aware of some who would offer such an argument. It’s the same argument as is offered in the Old Testament to Job. Job is a good man who suffers terribly. His friends comfort him by telling him he must have committed some serious sin and what he needs to do is repent and then God will make everything right. But Job is adamant. He’s done the best he can to be a decent human being and he doesn’t see why he should be treated like this. “Let God come and face me and let’s have it out,” he says, or words to that effect.

Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge. (Job 23.6-7)

The odd thing is, God enters the story at the end of the book and God says that Job is right. God doesn’t run the world like an angry boss who clobbers you if you step out of line. Job’s friends are wrong.

All of which brings us to the gospel passage that was set for today—the passage we just heard from St Luke. Jesus and those round him are talking about two local disasters that have disturbed and distressed people. One is evidently a result of human cruelty—the Roman governor has ruthlessly suppressed and killed a group of Galilean worshippers. For some reason they’ve been regarded as a threat to imperial security and so, as we hear the story, the governor has “mingled their blood with their sacrifices”. The other is a more or less accidental disaster—a building in Jerusalem called the tower of Siloam has collapsed and killed eighteen people. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. How are such awful things to be explained? Apparently there are those around Jesus who use the same argument as Job’s friends: “Ah, they must have been terrible sinners for God to punish them like that!”

If so, then Our Lord utterly rejects that idea.

“Do you really think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” he says. “No, I tell you… Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you really think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you!”

“But,” he adds, “I’ll tell you this: if you don’t stop thinking like that, one day you’re going to find yourselves in the same situation they’re in!”[1]

What then? Does our Lord have some better “explanation”? Actually, he doesn’t. Or at least if he does he doesn’t tell us about it. Instead, he tells us a rather strange little story about a fig tree. This tree is barren—which is to say, it’s useless. It cumbers the earth, uses up resources and produces nothing.

“Yank it out and burn it,” the landowner says, reasonably enough.

But—

“Wait!” says the gardener. “Let it alone for one more year!”

Nor is that all, for the gardener himself will put some effort and resources of his own into this—“Let it alone… until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

And there the little story ends. No certainty is offered, no promises, only a modest hope and a plea for patience.

So how are we to explain such tragedies as those we are speaking about? Well, perhaps we need to learn from the man on television who said of the Christchurch shootings, “I can’t talk about it.” Or from what we’re told of Job’s friends, who did fine so long as they didn’t say anything, but really screwed up when they started to talk. But perhaps above all we need to learn from our Lord, who offered no explanation, but only a plea for patience. The truth is, we cannot “explain” the Christchurch shootings—or Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the Holocaust, or any of the other hideous atrocities that litter human history—and especially we cannot “explain” them if by “explain” we mean, “show how they were good things really”. They weren’t.

Why do we seek God at all? Is it because God “explains” things? I doubt it. I think we seek God because we want God. We long for ultimate love, for faithfulness at the heart of the universe. We seek God because, as the psalmist put it this morning,[2] we are thirsty for God:

My flesh also faints for you

as in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.

(Ps. 63:1-2)

The Song of Songs has it right. We seek God (and incidentally, God seeks us) as lovers. And what is the quality of love? Paul said it simply enough—“love is patient”.[3] Which brings us back to our gospel passage and the odd little story that Jesus told. If God is our lover, and we love God, then we must do what lovers always have to do, and be patient with each other. We all know—God knows, and I certainly know it!—that God has to be patient with us, with me. How about us in return exercising some patience with God?

That doesn’t mean trying to pretend that there are no problems or questions—questions such as the Psalmist asks again and again, “Why?” “Why do the wicked prosper?” questions such as Our Lord himself asks as he hangs on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But it does mean being willing to live with those questions. It means being willing to address them to God, frankly expressing our fear, our disappointment and our anger, just as the psalmist and our Lord do. One of the great mistakes we can make in prayer is to suppose that we always must be polite, however badly we feel. That is a sure way to end any relationship. Whatever we have to offer, however awful, God is presumably big enough to take it.

Being patient also, of course, means what it says: it means being patient, hanging in there! One of the most powerful moments in C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters[4] is when Screwtape, writing of course from the devil’s point of view, says “our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do [God’s] will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

Margot Fonteyn–“If one could explain it, one would not have needed to dance it.”

So what of explanations? There’s a story I love about the great ballerina Margot Fonteyn. After she’d completed a particular dance she was asked to explain it. She looked at her questioner with that peculiarly devastating scorn that only a stunningly beautiful woman can inflict without even intending to, and replied, “If one could explain it, one would not have needed to dance it.” That first Good Friday, at the end of Our Lord’s journey to Jerusalem, Jesus died. He was the best person who ever lived, and he was crucified. What then? God did not explain the cross. What God did do was raise him from the dead. And this too, I suppose, was a kind of dance:

They cut me down

And I leapt up high,

I am the life

That’ll never, never die.[5]

There is so much around us that we do not understand, and God does not explain that, either. What God does do is give us a promise through his Son: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:54). In light of that promise we shall in a few moments approach this altar. In light of that promise we dare now to place our trust in God, in words that the church has taught us:

We believe in One God…

 

[1] I take Luke’s μετανοῆτε, normally translated “repent”, in its more basic sense of “to change one’s mind or purpose” (see LS μετανοέω), and I think that NRSV “as they did… just as they did” (ὁμοίως… ὡσαύτως) are the key words here. The point is, the view that “if they’re suffering, they must have sinned very badly” works well for us until we start to suffer ourselves, as sooner or later, in some measure, we all do. Thus categorizing other people’s suffering leaves us feeling safe, for it says that they are different from us (they were great sinners!) and were therefore vulnerable. Our own suffering reminds us, however, that we are like them after all, with the same hopes and the same fears. Apropos the two disasters to which St Luke’s narrative refers, we have no record of them in any extant work from the time other than his, but there is nothing intrinsically unlikely or improbable about either. The slaughter of Galilean worshipers fits well enough with the character of Pilate as presented by Josephus (e.g. Ant. 18.3.2; Jewish War 2.9.4), and I am told that ruins still exist from a collapsed tower on the south eastern wall of ancient Jerusalem, dating from about this period.

[2] In its choice of Psalm the Church of England here follows the Revised Common Lectionary. The Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church appoint Ps. 103 or part of Ps. 103.

[3] For the view of the Song of Songs here reflected, see Ellen Davies, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Songs of Songs (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2000) 231-38, which I find very persuasive; also Robert B. Jenson, Song of Songs, Interpretation (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2005).

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1942). There have, of course, been many editions since.

[5] Sydney Carter, “Lord of the Dance” (1963).

Thoughts on a Perfect World. Text of a Sermon preached at St Olave’s, Exeter, on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany 2019

The Proper: for the OT Genesis 2:5-9,15-25

I’d like to spend a few minutes reflecting with you this morning on the passage from the Old Testament that we heard a few minutes ago.

St Olave’s Church, Exeter

It’s part of a collection of stories at the beginning of the Bible—the first eleven chapters of Genesis, to be precise—that scholars often refer to as “the Primeval History”. Most people have heard of these stories and have some idea what they’re about, even if they’ve never read them in the Bible—the Seven Days of Creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the murder of Cain, Noah’s ark and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. What we heard this morning was the first part of one of those stories—the story of Adam and Eve.

Speaking of these stories generally, if I were asked to name some of the Prince of Darkness’s major achievements over the last two or three hundred years, I’d certainly include among them his solid success in distracting us from actually listening to them: persuading us instead to indulge ourselves in fatuous arguments about whether they are blown to pieces historically by Darwinian theories of natural selection, or whether they blow Darwin to pieces—questions that a moment’s intelligent consideration will tell us were surely about as remote from the concerns of those who first told them as was differential calculus from the concerns of my dog Hoover at supper time.

And that’s a shame, for these are marvellous stories. George Steiner says, “No stupid literature, art or music lasts.” If Steiner is right (and he is) then these stories that have gone on being told for four or so thousand years, give or take a century or so, must be very good indeed. What is it about them that makes them so good? That great west-countryman Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, “The strongest argument for Christianity is that it fits the human heart”—and I’d say that’s true of these stories. They are good because they fit the human heart.

So what of this morning’s story, or rather part of a story? Let me here come clean and admit that at first I was rather annoyed with the lectionary for only giving us part. I don’t like cliffhangers. I like stories to be finished. But then as I came to think about it, I decided that perhaps the lectionary rather does us a favour. It obliges us to look at the earlier part of the story of Adam and Eve apart from the sad tale of the serpent and their taking the apple and their fall from grace. Which means, in effect, that it obliges us to look at the storyteller’s vision of a world without wickedness, a world as God would like it to be. When one thinks about it, it was rather brave of our storytellers even to offer such a vision, since they presumably had no more experience of such a world than we have. Still, they did offer it, and here it is.

So what is such a world like? In the words of Louis Armstrong’s famous old song, “it’s a wonderful world”—an exciting, colourful world, full of amazing plants, amazing creatures and exciting things to do. Unlike other ancient stories of creation that have survived from the Ancient Near East, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, wherein the gods treat humanity pretty much as playthings, in this story God cares for humankind and talks to us, carefully setting us in the midst of this glorious world and actually giving us a role to play in it: to care for it and even, as the Hebrew hints more clearly than our English translations, in some sense to “serve” it (לְעָבְדָהּ). All the possibilities of this wonderful world are, moreover, ours for the enjoying. “Of every tree of the garden,” God says, “you may eat freely”. No asceticism here!

There is just one limitation, and it applies to “the tree of the knowledge of good evil”. We are not to eat of that. Why? What’s so special about that one? I confess I’ve always had some sympathy with Crowley’s objection to the whole thing in Good Omens:

“If you sit down and think about it sensibly, you come up with some very funny ideas. Like: why make people inquisitive, and then put some forbidden fruit where they can see it with a bit neon finger flashing on and off saying THIS IS IT!?”

“I don’t remember any neon.”

“Metaphorically, I mean.” (Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens [London: Corgi, 2019])

But there again, to be quite fair, this is perhaps not what the story-teller wanted us to think about. To begin with, we need perhaps to ask another rather obvious question, namely, what is meant by “good and evil”? People have argued about this for centuries, indeed, millennia. Of all the suggestions I’ve seen, I find most convincing the suggestion that the expression “good and evil” is an example of what grammarians and rhetoricians call “merismus”—a type of synecdoche whereby we speak of two extremes in order to mean the whole: as when we say “high and low” to mean “everywhere” or “from stem to stern” to mean “everywhere on a ship”. So “knowledge of good and evil” simply means “knowledge of everything”. The Greek oral poet Homer strikingly uses precisely this figure of speech when he has Odysseus’ son Telemachus say, “Already I think through all things and know them, the good and the evil” (ἤδη γὰρ νοέω καὶ οἶδα ἕκαστα, / ἐσθλά τε καὶ τὰ χέρηα) (Od. 20:309-10).

But who really knows everything? One would imagine, only God![1] So the command given to humankind here is actually quite straightforward: “You may eat of all the trees of the garden: which is to say, every possibility that your humanity offers you is yours. But do not attempt to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: which is to say, do not attempt to be more than human, do not try to be God: for that will kill you.[2] This is not, of course, a prohibition in any negative sense. It is no more or less than the kind of warning that every careful parent or good friend will offer: hot coffee can scald, fire can burn, nettles can sting: so be careful! You aren’t yet ready to deal with these things! [3]

But there is more. God also says, “It is not good for humankind to be alone.” According to the Christian revelation, even God, the One God, within the depths of the Divine Being enjoys relationship, the fellowship of the Triune God. As for the beasts, I remember being mildly surprised, but then immediately convinced, on reading some years ago in a book about dogs words to the effect that, “we love our dogs, and in their degree they do love us: but let’s not forget that they do also enjoy the company of other dogs!” Of course they do! And so it is with humankind. Adam has fellowship with God. And he has fellowship with the beasts. He even gets to name them! But even so, something else is needed: or as Genesis puts it, “there was not found for him a helper (עֵזֶר) to be alongside him (כְּנֶגְדּוֹ).”  What then is needed? Well, of course, what is needed is another human being! There follows the wonderful little story of Adam’s sleep and the rib and Adam’s awakening and seeing the woman and his ecstatic cry—

She at last

is bone of my bone,

and flesh of my flesh!

Surely the first love lyric![4]

Let us be careful here to avoid two errors. First, let us avoid the suggestion I have sometimes heard that the creation of woman as the storyteller describes it makes her somehow inferior. Because she is created out of Adam (the argument goes) she is less than he, a mere appendage. On the contrary, one might just as well stand the thing on its head and argue precisely the opposite: just as Adam is created out of the dust, as its jewel and in some sense sovereign over it, so the woman in being created out of Adam is his jewel and in some sense his sovereign. Second, let us not misinterpret the description of the woman as Adam’s “helper” (עֵזֶר). “Helper” does mean “helper”. It does not therefore mean “inferior”. Indeed, the LORD God Almighty is at times described as Israel’s “helper”! (e.g. Ps. 33.20, 70.5) The word “helper” tells us what someone does. It does not tell us anything about their rank in any alleged pecking order, nor does it even imply that a pecking order exists.

But then, the mere fact that we have even referred to ideas such as these—superiority and inferiority, hierarchy and subordination, power and weakness—that shows that our mindset is already in the fallen world of the second part of our narrative, the fallen world of human disobedience. For it is there that we encounter such things as these, and they are presented very clearly as the fruits of our disobedience. In the perfect world of the former part of our narrative, relationship between the two human beings is simply about what the New Testament calls “fellowship” or “communion” (κοινωνία). It is above all about the wonder of not being alone. This wonder is nowhere more beautifully described than in the words with which the 1662 Book of Common Prayer spoke of marriage, though they are words which may surely be applied to all true friendship and fellowship: for certainly they too are honourable estates,

ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.[5]

It is the assertion of this estate that brings the narrative that we heard this morning to its triumphant conclusion: “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (2:25). This is God’s the last and greatest gift to us: that we shall be with another person to whom we may be completely open and who will be completely open to us, a person to whom we may say, “I love you” and receive the response, “I love you, too.”

What are we to say to all this? We are we to say of Eden? The Genesis storyteller presents it to us as a glory that we have lost. Between Eden and ourselves an angel now stands with a fiery sword, and there is no going back. We may call this “myth” or “metaphor” if we choose, but we shall be very foolish if we think we have thereby given ourselves reason to dismiss it. Metaphor is how the human mind works at its most profound and creative, and the scribes of ancient Israel who wrote these stories down knew what they were talking about. They knew the human heart, and they describe life in the world as we know it, where there is much that is beautiful, but our joys are never complete or permanent; where again and again we seek to be as gods with each other, and where death is always the last enemy. As St Paul said, “In Adam, all die” (1 Cor. 15:22). We cannot go back. There is nothing to do but go forward, remembering that Paul also said it was God’s will “to have mercy on all” (Rom 11.32).

St Olave’s Church, Exeter

Mercy on all… but there is a cost to that, and a hint of that cost stands even at the end of this story. When the man and the woman had made their claim to godhead and were ashamed and could not cover their shame adequately, God (the storyteller says quietly) “made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them” (Gen. 3.21). I say that the storyteller says this “quietly”, because it really is just slipped in: a single verse! If our attention had wandered for an instant we might have missed it. But it is there, and it brings into the story something that has hitherto had no place in the storyteller’s world: something so dreadful that even now it is not named. For there to be “garments of skins” something had first to die: and that death has availed to cover Adam and Eve’s shame. Here is a hint indeed for those who see at the centre of the Bible story another death, wherein God in Christ crucified binds Himself to us all to cover our shame. We are united with Christ’s death in our baptism in order that we may be united with Him in his resurrection (cf. Romans 6:3-4, Colossians 2:12-13). In that union is a promise that we shall finally be able, not to go back to Eden, but to go forward to that way of being “as God” for which we are indeed destined—to be “partakers of the divine nature”, as 2 Peter puts it. In that union is a promise that our fellowship with God and with each other will be made whole and we shall find ourselves, in C. S. Lewis’ words, “as we ought to be — between the angels who are our elder brothers and the beasts who are our jesters, servants and play-fellows.”[6]   In that hope we come to God’s altar and pray with all the saints, “Amen. Come Lord Jesus!”

[1] So it will turn out in the second part of the story that the serpent’s temptation to humanity will be precisely this: that “you shall be as God (כֵּאלֹהִים), knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5).

[2] Robert Alter points out that the form that this takes at Genesis 2:17 is the form used elsewhere in the Scriptures for a death sentence, and renders it “doomed to die” (Genesis: Translation and Commentary [New York and London: Norton, 1996] 8).

[3] Interestingly enough, in the passage from the Odyssey that I cited above, Telemachus qualifies his claim by adding, “I am no longer a child [πάρος δ’ ἔτι νήπιος ἦα]”, and this would certainly fit with the idea that the problem with humanity’s claiming divine knowledge at this point is that we aren’t yet ready for it. That is why it will kill us. Other passages of Scripture (e.g. 2 Peter 1:4) seem to imply that at some point it is indeed our human destiny to be mature enough for such knowledge.

[4] The perfect commentary on this is still the Priestly assertion at Genesis 1:27:

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

As Robert Jenson says, “according to the priestly wisdom of Genesis 1, only when we are created in these two forms is ‘the man,’ ha-adam, created at all. We are human only as male or female, and just so we are human only as both together; the Bible knows no gender-neutral humanity” (“Male and Female He Created Them” [2005]).

[5] 1662 Book of Common Prayer, Solemnization of Matrimony.

[6] C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (London: The Bodley Head, 1945) Ch. 13.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Text of a sermon preached in St Stephen’s, Exeter for Candlemas 2019

Proper: Mal 3.1-5; Ps 24; Luke 2:22-40

Good morning.

St Stephen’s, Exeter

I’m sure I’ve preached here in St Stephen’s at least once before today. But it was a very long time ago–perhaps thirty years!–and I confess I have absolutely no idea what the sermon was about. The only thing I do feel sure about is that I had a lot more hair then than I do now, and I dare say I was a lot thinner. Anyway, here I am again, and I’m very grateful to the Rector for inviting me to preach and for the chance to be in this beautiful place to worship with you all once more.

I’d like to spend a few minutes reflecting with you on the story we just heard from St Luke’s gospel—the story of what we call “the Presentation of Christ in the Temple”.

Luke begins with Mary and Joseph, pious servants of God who act in obedience to God’s law. The Evangelist is a little vague and even perhaps somewhat confused about the details, but the general implication of what he’s saying is clear enough. Mary and Joseph bring the child Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to God because they are faithful Jews.

With that established, with the background sketched in, Luke then takes a fresh tack.

Kai idou!” he says – “And behold!” – or as our NRSV rather boringly renders it, “now.”

Now what?

Well, actually it’s not a “what,” it’s a he – and his name is Simeon. And the first thing we learn about Simeon is that he’s definitely a good chap. Like Mary and Joseph he too is a faithful servant of God – he is “just and devout,” and what’s more he’s waiting – waiting for something not for himself but for God’s people. He waits “for the consolation of Israel,” in other words, for God to fulfil God’s promises. What’s more even than that, “the Holy Spirit is upon him” – a sure sign that his waiting won’t be for nothing. Indeed, through that same Spirit he has received a promise: “that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.”

What happens? “In the Spirit” Luke tells us – and it’s his third mention of the Spirit within a few lines, so we can see how anxious he is that we shall see what’s happening as alive with the very breath of God, throbbing with the divine power! – “In the Spirit,” Simeon “came into the Temple.” And there, in an outer court, he meets the couple as they bring in the child Jesus, “to do for him according to the Law.”

Maybe that’s worth a pause. What is Luke saying? This is a moment, he’s saying, that’s filled with God’s Spirit. But what would we have actually seen if we’d been lookers-on that day? An old man meeting a man and a woman and a baby—indeed, a man and a girl and a baby, for given marriage customs at the time, Mary will have been fifteen at most. In other words, if we’d merely been lookers-on, we’d have seen nothing very remarkable. A perfectly ordinary scene! But if the gospel’s telling us the truth, that’s where God’s Spirit was at work, bringing about the salvation of the world.

One of our problems, I suspect, is that we expect the Spirit always to work with pizzazz—something spectacular—tongues of fire, whatever. I dare say that happens occasionally. But if our faith is true we are surrounded by the work of God’s Spirit in ordinary things, for every breath we draw in our ordinary lives is a part of that work.

The angels keep their ancient places–

Turn but a stone and start a wing!

‘Tis ye, ’tis your estrangèd faces,

That miss the many-splendored thing.[1]

An eight year old suddenly notices exquisite patterns in the snowflakes that are falling about her.

“Look! Look!” she says.

“Oh for heavens’ sake!” we say, in a hurry to get the office or whatever, “It’s only snow!”

We’re right—it is only snow. But it is none the less awe inspiring, if we allow ourselves to think about it, that there aren’t two snowflakes alike, and every single one of them is exquisite.

Again–how silly, we say, that people so often get excited and go all gooey over things as ordinary as babies—or even kittens or puppies!

On the contrary, says God’s Wisdom, perhaps it is foolish NOT to go all gooey when you are faced with the miracle and beauty of new birth, which according to Genesis is God’s promised sign of blessing from the very beginning (Gen. 1:28)!

Just because God works the same miracle again and again, does that mean it’s not a miracle?

Hans Holbein the Elder–the Presentation of Christ in the
Temple

Back to our story: an old man Simeon meets a couple with their baby, and the old man is indeed about to get very excited about a baby! It’s one of the most beautiful scenes in all Scripture, and it’s a pity that in rendering it our English versions somewhat let us down – and have done since Wycliffe. For Luke doesn’t say that Simeon “took” the child, as our translations have it, but that he “received” him – edexato – implying Mary and Joseph’s permission, and even perhaps (assuming that Mary is carrying the baby, as would be natural) her invitation. Quite often stained-glass windows and paintings will portray Mary handing the child into Simeon’s arms, and it’s an instance of artists perceiving something in the text that translators seem to have missed or at least ignored.

What Luke implies is that Mary initiates the action, and Simeon responds. Sometimes we talk of Mary as if she was just passive, meek and mild in a weak sense, allowing things to happen to her. She isn’t—at least, not as Luke tells the story. She is strong. At the Annunciation she argues with the angel when it seems to her the angel is talking nonsense, and obliges Gabriel to explain himself. Pregnant herself, discovering that her cousin Elizabeth is pregnant, she sets off on a trip to the hill country to visit her. At the time of Our Lord’s birth, she says nothing, but, Luke tells us, she “treasures” all the words that are said and “ponders them in her heart”(2.19). And now it seems she perceives in the old man Simeon someone who matters and she hands the child to him.

Simeon, then, receives the child “into his arms,” and so the Spirit’s promise to him that he should see the Lord’s Messiah is fulfilled – and more than fulfilled! For Simeon not only sees him, he touches him, holds him, embraces him; and given that Jesus comes to Simeon in the weakness of babyhood, for this moment Simeon actually carries him, as the stronger carries the weaker. Simeon has waited faithfully upon God, and the reward of his faithfulness is that for just a moment he becomes what Mary herself is, theotokos—God bearer!

So it’s fitting that in that moment of joy Luke places on Simeon’s lips the third of the great prophetic hymns that mark the opening chapters of his gospel – the other two being, of course, Zechariah’s Benedictus and Our Lady’s Magnificat. All three hymns speak of the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

Simeon’s hymn is briefer than either of the others. It’s an old man’s conversation with God. I dare say that’s why I particularly like it. It’s the word of one on the threshold of death. Yet like the others it is confident, joyful, and full of hope.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,

According to thy Word,

For mine eyes have seen thy Salvation…

“Salvation” – sōtērion – a word that means, “deliverance from what oppresses”—whether it’s physical or spiritual, sickness or sin or death. Luke loves to use this word and its cognates to speak of God’s work but perhaps nowhere does he make clearer than he does here that Jesus is that work. Simeon has seen the Lord’s Messiah, as he was promised; he has seen Jesus, as Mary has placed the baby in his arms; and therefore he has seen God’s salvation. And it’s something universal,

In the sight of all peoples,

A light for revelation to the nations,

And the glory of thy people Israel.

So that means that from now on everything is going to be fine, does it?

Actually, it doesn’t.

Simeon says that in Jesus he has seen God’s salvation. That, however, is not all that he has to say. Even as he blesses the little family, in that very moment, he also utters an aside that’s directed to Mary alone – Luke is very specific about that – and this aside is a much darker word that stands in tension with what has gone before.

Behold, this child is set for the fall and the rise of many in Israel,

And for a sign of contradiction –

And a sword will pierce your own soul also –

So that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.

It’s a darker word, but it’s surely also a necessary word. In and through the light of God’s revelation in Jesus, Simeon and the holy family (and we too) may indeed see salvation. But that doesn’t mean that they or we are removed from the world’s sorrows.[2] A life of love in a world that is often hostile to love will mean suffering for Jesus. And Mary his mother will share in his suffering.

As we hear that, those of us soaked in Christian tradition naturally think of Mary standing weeping at the cross: stabat mater dolorosa, iuxta crucem lacrimosa. But of course it’s St John in his gospel who gives us our basis for that tradition, not Luke. The striking thing with Luke is that after his stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood, he will never actually mention Mary again until after the resurrection, when suddenly, in the Book of Acts, he will tell us that she is in the upper room, praying, in company with the eleven and the faithful women and the other disciples. Other people will have played active roles in Jesus’ story – people like Mary of Bethany, Mary of Magdala, Peter, and John – but of Mary we’ll have heard nothing. And yet at that point she’ll again be mentioned – mentioned, indeed, rather casually, in the middle of the list, as if her presence with the others was not something surprising, but rather something we ought to be taking for granted (Acts 1:14).

The point, in a storyteller as accomplished as Luke, is surely clear enough. Mary, who manifested trust and obedience at the Annunciation, has continued to trust and obey, even though she was not centre-stage and therefore has been ignored. Quietly and without fuss she has endured the promised sword thrust into her soul. In her earlier trust and obedience she bore the Word of God in her own flesh. In that same trust and obedience she has endured seeing her son humiliated and executed as a blasphemer. So then she will be present and partake when the Spirit is given to the church and tongues of fire will come to rest on each (Acts 2.3, cf. 2.17). That is Mary’s story, as Luke tells it.

Luke likes to pair men and women,[3] and he does so in this morning’s gospel. Simeon doesn’t have the stage to himself. On comes Anna, an elderly woman who’s also a prophet and a worshiper of God. In some ways she balances Simeon, but Luke’s far too good a story-teller to have her merely repeat or reinforce what Simeon has done: so although he presents the two figures in a way that’s somewhat symmetrical, he also gives them different functions.

Simeon has pointed to the gospel story in its entirety; he’s spoken of what’s to come, and of its effects. Anna acts with a narrower focus, but therefore a more precise one. Luke says of her that she “praised” God – at least, that’s what our English versions have her do – though the expression Luke uses, anthōmologeito, says rather more than that. It’s good Old Testament Greek, and it implies publicly confessing or acknowledging something. So we need to note that Anna “openly and publicly praised” the Lord, and spoke “of him” to all in that place who were looking for “redemption” – the “redemption of Jerusalem,” which of course means by extension, “all of God’s people, Israel.”[4]

So, whereas Simeon’s words were quiet, addressed almost in confidence to the holy family, Anna’s are public, broadcast to everyone and at large. And whereas Simeon’s word touched on the whole story, Anna’s word redirects us the central point. It’s not that nothing else matters. There’s a great deal that matters, and some of it matters very much, especially in our dealing with each other. But when it comes to the bottom line, when it comes to our hope for true and lasting deliverance, for “redemption,” then there’s only one place to go and only One who can do it, as the Psalmist knew, for “the earth is the Lord’s” (Ps. 24.1).

Lift up your heads, O gates;

be lifted up, you everlasting doors;

and the King of glory shall come in.

“Who is this King of glory?”

“The Lord of hosts,

he is the King of glory.”

Malachi says, “The Lord, whom you seek, will come suddenly into his temple.”

Well, says Anna, here He is!

A late seventeenth or early eighteenth century Painter’s Manual speaks of Anna standing next to Joseph, and in her hand a tablet with the inscription, “This child has created heaven and earth.”[5] I dare say Luke himself was hardly quite there, but his narrative was certainly moving in that direction.[6]

Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to God. I don’t doubt the Evangelist wants us to understand that that’s what they truly thought they were doing, and in some sense what they were doing. Yet Simeon and Anna’s words make clear that in a deeper sense they weren’t presenting Jesus to God at all: it was Jesus who was presenting them. And so it will always be.

On the altar in a moment we will in some sense “present” Christ to God, recalling his incarnation, death and resurrection. Yet in a deeper sense, and as our Collect reminds us, we do not present Christ at all. Christ presents us, and we come to His table only as those who know they are hand in hand with Christ. How else should we dare approach the living God? “Look,” we pray in one of our most beautiful Eucharistic hymns,

Look Father, look on his anointed face,

And only look on us as found in him.

Look not on our misusings of thy grace,

Our prayer so lanquid and our faith so dim,

For lo, between our sins and their reward,

We set the passion of thy Son our Lord.

So now, in fellowship with the saints before us, as we prepare to come to this altar, let us stand and confess that hope:

We believe in One God…  

[1] From The Kingdom of God, Francis Thompson (1859-1907).

[2] The image of falling and rising reminds us – and Luke surely intends it to remind us – of Isaiah 8, where the prophet and his children are set for “signs and portents” in Israel, at which some will stumble and others gain new strength.

[3] In addition to the present instance, see, e.g., Mary and Zechariah in the birth narratives; the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian (4:26-27); the “woman who was a sinner” and Simon the Pharisee (7:36-50); the disciples and the women who “minister” to Jesus and them “out of their substance” (8.1-3); and the parables of the lost sheep and the ten coins (15:4-10).

[4] Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary 1.106. Some versions, notably some readings of the Vulgate, read “Israel” here. At the time of the disastrous second revolt against Rome (A.D. 132-35), documents were actually dated to years from “the redemption of Israel” and “the redemption of Jerusalem” – in other words, Luke’s expression clearly reflects real Jewish aspirations of the period (see Fitzmyer, Luke 1.432).

[5] “Saint Simeon the receiver of God holds the infant Christ in his arms, who gives him his blessing. The Virgin on the other side of the altar stretches out her arms to the child, and behind her Joseph carries two doves in his robe; near him the prophetess Anna points out Christ and holds a scroll with these words: ‘This child has created heaven and earth’” (Dionysius of Fourna, Painter’s Manual, trans. Paul Hetherington [Torrance, California: Oakwood, 1996 [London: Sagittarius, 1974] 32). Dionysius lived from c1670 to sometime after 1744.

[6] Despite Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah 445, I am not entirely convinced that Mal. 3.1 was actually in Luke’s mind as he composed his version of what he probably received as a Jewish-Christian oral tradition (cf. Bovon, Luke 98). But that the church has made and continues to make such a connection can hardly be denied, as paintings such as Ambrosio Lorenzetti’s Presentation in the Temple (1342: now in the Uffizi), not to mention our own lectionaries, make clear (see Common Worship, readings for The Presentation of Christ in the Temple). The church did not make this connection without reason.

Good Shepherds, Bad Shepherds and Dividing Walls

Proper 11 Year B. For the OT, Jeremiah 23:1-6; for the Psalm, Ps. 23; for the NT, Ephesians 2:11-22; for the Gospel, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The destruction of Jerusalem

For our first reading this morning we have a little group of oracles from the Book of the prophet Jeremiah. They were composed, I dare say, about two and a half thousand years ago, but they surely still speak to us in this year of grace 2018. The first of them looks back to the kings who had led and misled Judaea up until the disasters of her defeat by the Babylonians in 587 BC, the destruction of Jerusalem and the carrying of her people into exile:

Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.

A dreadful warning for the false shepherds! But that doesn’t mean God has forgotten his people, or given up on them. The final oracle that we heard is by contrast a message of hope: God promises a true shepherd:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch… And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

Our Jewish friends generally see in that passage a promise of the Messiah who is still to come. We Christians believe the Messianic promise is fulfilled in Our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who, as we heard in today’s gospel, perceived God’s people as being “like sheep without a shepherd”, and in John’s gospel is declared to be “the good shepherd” of all who will come to him. But while we endorse and rejoice in that, it is evident that the coming of the Messiah is not the only thing that our text this morning asks us to have in mind. Between its dramatic opening witness against the shepherds who misled Israel and the final Messianic promise there is another oracle about which I have so far said nothing. According to this oracle, God says that at some time in the future,

I myself will gather the remnant of my flock… 4I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed… says the Lord.

Here, clearly, we aren’t talking about the Messiah. We are talking about various rulers who will arise in the course of Israel’s history. “Don’t worry,” says the prophet, “the bad shepherds may have been greedy and self-interested and made a mess of things, but there will be good people after them, who will do their duty by you. I will see to that.”

This is surely something that many of us need to hear and remember in our distress over the present rule and governance of this nation. A republican political commentator whom I heard yesterday said, “It sometimes seems hard for me to credit, but it is less than two years since we had a president with whose policies I often disagreed, but who never gave me the slightest reason to question his fitness to lead us. We can have such leaders again.” The republican commentator was right.

Let us be candid. This nation has in its short history committed graver sins than it is committing at present, and got itself into worse messes than the mess it is in now. Let us not forget the long history of slavery, longer in this country than in any other western nation, nor the ethnic cleansing of the Native American population (dear God, we of all people should not forget that, for the Trail of Tears passes through our domain!), nor that dreadful Civil War in which 620,000 Americans killed each other.

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887)

And yet the United States survived those dreadful things, so as to be at other times and in other places genuinely a beacon of hope to the world, so as almost to live up to the words of the American poet Emma Lazarus, now engraved on the pedestal at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me.[i]

A friend says to me, “At present, when we’re putting children into cages at our border, those words sound to me like a sick joke.” At present, yes, but so perhaps to those who first heard them did the promise of better shepherds in the oracle of Jeremiah sound like a sick joke. The United States has had leaders of all parties who sought to live up to Emma Lazarus’s ideal. It can have such leaders again. We for our part must simply continue to do what ancient Israel had to do, what all honourable men and women everywhere always have to do, that is, our duty: to trust that God remains faithful even when we are unfaithful, and to continue doing our best to make our nation what we believe it ought to be—as President Abraham Lincoln put it, “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”[ii]

So much for our reading from the Old Testament! Let’s turn now to the passage appointed for our epistle, which comes from the middle of St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (and yes, that’s right: despite current critical fashion, it remains in my view far more likely that St Paul was the author of Ephesians than that he wasn’t[iii]). But never mind all that! Let us turn to the text itself.

HM Queen Elizabeth II: The Orb and Sceptre

One of the minor amusements of being an Englishman in America is that from time to time I find myself being treated as an expert on the British Royal family and the Crown—subjects on which I have in fact no expertise whatever. I do, however, occasionally get asked a question I can answer—and one such question is this: what was the significance of the long, decorated rod, and the golden ball, that the Queen was given at her coronation? (One might, I suppose, quibble with the word “given”–after the ceremony was over, the rod and the golden ball went back to the Tower of London, where they are kept together with the crown; but at any rate she got to hold them for a bit!)

“Ah,” I say, “that’s easy.” The “rod”—in this case properly called “the sceptre”—is a symbol of power at least as old as the Bible: it represents power to govern, power to protect. We even heard it in our psalm this morning, when David spoke of the Lord as his shepherd, and the Lord’s “rod” or sceptre that defends him so that he fears no evil even when he is walking “through the valley of shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4). The “ball”—properly called “the orb”—represents the world in which such power is exercised. But if you look closely you will see that there is something rather special about the orb that was presented to the Queen: it has a cross at the top of it. And in the liturgy for the coronation service the Queen was told, “When you see this orb set under the cross, remember that the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ our redeemer.

Precisely.

And that is exactly the point that Paul makes in the opening part of his Letter to the Ephesians, which begins with a glorious vision of the whole created universe in God and in Christ, of ourselves and all things in the midst of what Père Teilhard de Chardin taught us to call le milieu divin—“the divine milieu”— a cosmos in which we find ourselves moving in often bewildering succession through chaos and order, grief and joy, hope and fear, life and death, but always, we believe, toward a goal, a destiny, a fulfilment, which is “to sum up all things”—and Paul very clearly, here as elsewhere, does not say “all Christians” or “all believers” or even “all people”, but quite unambiguously, “all things: τὰ πάντα”—“to sum up all things in Christ, the things in heaven and on earth” (1:10).

Not for Paul the fatuities of human argument—can non-believers be saved? Or, do dogs and cats have souls?—but the constancy of a single fact: the faithfulness of God to the entire creation, faithfulness made manifest in Jesus Christ, risen and ascended and now at God’s right hand,

far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. (1:20-21a)

Thus the apostle has his eyes fixed on the heavens, the cosmos, the universe, and every creature in it, every man, every woman, every beast, every leaf and blade of grass, all—destined for glory!

But then Paul turns his gaze back to earth, back to the people he is addressing, back to any who will listen, back to us if we will be among them, and speaks to us directly. “And you,” he says: and what we heard read this morning is a part of this direct address. “Remember,” he says,

that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’

—and surely here Paul, the former Shammaite Pharisee (as I believe he was), knew exactly what he was talking about! And he follows it with what is surely a recollection of the very assumptions with which he was brought up—“remember,” he says,

that you were at that time separate from [God’s] Messiah, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

There is surely no barrier we can think of, no division we know about, deeper or more profound than that which, for a Shammaite Pharisee, existed at that time between a member of God’s people and a gentile. Let us be clear: that passionate adherence to the Law and circumcision which was so much more a mark of God’s people after the exile than it was before—that is, after they were scattered among the nations, after a situation had arisen in which they might so easily have lost their identity as they could never have done while they were still a sovereign people in their own land—that very passionate adherence to the Law was in some respects precisely so that they might retain their separateness, their distinction as a holy people, a people chosen by God for God’s own possession.

That was how Paul was educated, that was what he once believed, that is what he still remembers. Yet for him—and, he believes, for all who will accept it—everything has now changed. I think I sense him smiling as he dictates—using the very phrase he used in Romans to contrast works of the Law with grace—“νυνὶ δὲ: but now!”

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace. In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall of partition, that is, the hostility between us.

“Good fences make good neighbours” we say, and think we are being wise. But if so, it is the wisdom of the world. Oh, perhaps there is a little genuine wisdom in it, while we are still strangers, learning to know one another. But made into an absolute, it is merely one more example of what G. K. Chesterton described as “all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men”[iv]: a convenient excuse to ignore the other, to exclude the other, and then if we will to persecute and oppress the other, on no other ground than that the other is different from us.

Almost the first thing that God says about humanity is that “it is not good for a human being to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). God creates us for fellowship, the divine possibility of union in distinction, the very thing that God’s own Self enjoys in God’s infinite triune perfection. What follows? I think we may safely say that it follows that in the long run God does not like walls, at least not when they are intended to divide.

Paul continues. “God,” he says,

has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace…

Of course Paul is not saying that God has abolished Israel’s Law in any absolute sense. In this very letter he does not hesitate to quote that Law more than once (4:7, 25, 26, 5:31, 6:2). He is merely using a little hyperbole to make a point that he makes in another way in the Letter to the Romans—that God’s salvation is “apart from the Law, although the Law and the prophets bear witness to it.” It is with regard to the Law’s functioning in the way that we noted earlier—as a “dividing wall of partition”, as adhered to in order to maintain separateness and distinction—it is in that respect and that respect only that the Law is “abolished”. And again—let us be clear—this is not an attack on the Jewish faith. Alas, any religious tradition can be used in this way: as a wall of partition. Even the doctrine of justification by grace alone can be and sometimes is used as a club with which beat others over the head, a way in which to say, “I believe this and therefore I am different from and better than you.” From which point it is only another step or so to say, “Therefore I am more truly human than you.” But we did not learn such exclusiveness from Christ. Quite the contrary. As Paul points out, “Christ came and proclaimed, ‘Peace to you’, ‘Shalom aleichem’”—that wonderful greeting, often no doubt a thoughtless commonplace in both Hebrew and Arabic, and yet so rich when we think of the meaning it can bear! Christ came

to proclaim, “’Shalom aleichem’, “Peace to you” who were far off, and ‘Shalom’ to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

That is the truth of the gospel, available for all who will have it. “Through Christ we all have access in one Spirit to the Father.” As Wesley said, “’Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me.” And it is with “the eyes of our hearts enlightened” (Eph. 1:18) by this truth that we are called to look at the world and ourselves.

As many of you know, I am going to England at the end of the month and expect to be there for a year. Which means that I do not know when I shall next preach a Sunday sermon to you: perhaps never! Life is full of uncertainties, and I am not exactly young. Certainly when I am away from the United States what I shall miss most will be my dear friends in Sewanee. But still, as I have long had to remind myself apropos those who are dear to me in England, so at least for the coming year I must remind myself apropos you who are dear to me in America: as the orb of the coronation says, “the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ our redeemer”. Which means that whether we are near to each other as the world counts miles or far, still, through Christ we all of us, as Paul says, “have access in one Spirit to the Father.” That is a bond greater than any bond of geography, culture, political allegiance or nation, and it is a bond that no earthly power, and not even the power of death, can break. It is surely enough.

And now let us confess our faith, as the church has taught us…

 

[i] The American poet Emma Lazarus wrote her sonnet, “The New Colossus” in 1883. She wrote it to sell at an auction to raise money to build the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty was to be placed in New York Harbour. The statue itself was a gift from the people of France, but American contributors paid for the pedestal. Lines from the sonnet beginning with “Bring me your poor” were later chosen to be inscribed on a bronze plaque that was placed on the platform in 1903. The lines were set to music by Irving Berlin for the musical “Miss Liberty” (1949), based on the story of the sculpting of the statue.

[ii] Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address” Saturday, March 4, 1865

[iii] As I have pointed out elsewhere, none of the arguments against Pauline authorship is watertight or even particularly strong. Certainly they are not strong enough to merit the current general academic conviction of the existence of an otherwise unknown theological genius who created this magnificent letter (and possibly also Colossians), but left no other record of their existence. The matter was well stated by F. F. Bruce: “If the Epistle to the Ephesians was not written directly by Paul, but by one of his disciples in Paul’s name, then its author was the greatest Paulinist of all time—a disciple who assimilated his master’s thought more thoroughly than anyone else ever did. The man [or woman] who could write Ephesians must have been the apostle’s equal, if not his superior, in mental stature and spiritual insight. For Ephesians is a distinctive work with its own unity of theme… It was no mean judge of literary excellence, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who described Ephesians as ‘the divinest composition of man’ (Table Talk). Not only is it the quintessence of Paulinism, it carries Paul’s teaching forward to a more advanced stage of revelation and application than that represented by the earlier epistles. The author, if he was not Paul himself, has carried the apostle’s thinking to its logical conclusion, beyond the point where the apostle stopped, and has placed the coping-stone on the massive structure of Paul’s teaching. Of such a second Paul early Christian history has no knowledge.” (The Epistle to the Ephesians [London: Pickering and Inglis, 1961] 11-12). Precisely.

[iv] G. K. Chesterton, “Oh God of earth and altar” (in The English Hymnal [London: Oxford University Press, 1906]). For the text online see https://hymnary.org/text/o_god_of_earth_and_altar.

 

God’s Plumb Line: text of a sermon preached by Sister Hannah C.S.M. in All Saints’ Church, Franklin, North Carolina on Sunday 15th July

Proper 10B. For the Old Testament: Amos 7:7-15

“Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people” (Amos 7:8b)

Growing up in North Carolina, I’ve been accustomed to such phrases as “being plumb tired” or “plumb crazy” (in case you were wondering, that’s not a good thing!) or, if someone was good at their job, they would be doing  “plumb job.” But, to be honest, I had to check with my former Old Testament professor Rebecca Wright about the origins of a “plumb line” that we heard about from the first lesson from Amos this morning. Not a phrase I grew up with! She said that “a plumb line is a weight tied to the end of a string – a simple piece of technology that anyone can use. It makes immediate visual sense if you hold a plumb line against a wall. Everyone can see whether or not the wall is straight or ‘plumb’ – another name for straight.” She thinks this powerful metaphor was used in this Amos passage to say, “the judgment on Israel will be that obvious, that non-ambiguous” as when you use a plumb line. [1]

Just to bring us up to speed with what’s going on in this Amos passage: King Jeroboam’s sin was idolatry. Even Amaziah the priest admitted that the temple was the king’s sanctuary rather than the sanctuary of God. Its function was supposed to be a location where people came to worship God but instead it was all about King Jeroboam – his power, his praise and his prestige. And Amos says it’s judgment time against this king. It can be easy for us to think of God as being cruel when God enacts judgment but perhaps sometimes judgment is needed to prevent further harm. God knows that living a life solely focused on yourself isn’t really living, and perhaps this judgment was to halt the rippling effects the kingdom was facing from having a self-centred ruler. We must remember that with God’s judgement there is always grace in it as well.

But, all of this being a good lesson about the evils of selfishness and self-destruction, what about us? Where do we, the hearers, fit in?

One of the tools we use each day at the convent is the practice of Lectio Divina. That phrase translates into “Divine Reading.” It involves a prayerful reading of a passage of scripture. Although this is an ancient Benedictine Christian practice that we use since we are a Benedictine Order, it originates from the reverence the Jewish people of faith have towards scripture. The first step is just to listen to a passage of scripture as it is read out loud. One of the guiding Benedictine values is to listen: as in the Rule of St Benedict, where Benedict tells his monks to “listen with the ear of their heart” to God in every moment of life. I have to confess my love for the original James Bond movies. I think of Q, the techy guy who gave Bond all the cool gadgets, and I remember distinctly how he would begin each lecture on the new devices with the exactly same phrase to Bond, “Now, PAY ATTENTION!” Because of course Bond would get distracted! And so do we when it comes to focusing on God, focusing on scripture, and focusing on prayer.

After the passage has been read once out loud, then you try to identify a specific phrase or word that speaks to you and meditate on it. For me in this passage the phrase was “plumb line”, so I sat with that for a few minutes. The third step in Lectio is to pray. You talk to God about that word you’ve been thinking about. And the final step is contemplation – a word that can sound intimidating – but means simply to be still in the presence of God without words. It’s as if you are sitting with someone you are really close to – whether spouse, family member, or close friend – and you know each other so well that words aren’t necessary. It’s like that, but it’s with God.[2] This process of Lectio can be done by yourself or in a group Bible study or in a retreat and can be beneficial for wrestling through difficult passages as a group to see what God is saying to each person.

Now, let’s pay attention! Back to Amos! I kept thinking about that plumb line and remembering that its purpose was to see how other things line up and measure up to it. And I thought about what measurements society uses to determine our worth – in other words, what are people trying to measure up to in the world? I’m sure you can guess them. Money, wealth, status – career, job, success – how happy your marriage, family, and kids are – your looks, weight, health – basically, just look at the cover of any popular magazine to see what things they have to measure your worth.

But what happens if your relationships aren’t perfect? What if you just lost your job? Or got bad news from the doctor? What if those measurements of your worth and value stop hanging down like a line and instead are clinging tightly around you, those lines wrapped like cords around and around us until we feel that we can’t breathe? What then?

So first, you DO breathe! I had a priest I knew that started all of her sermons with three deep breaths. It’s not a bad thing to remember to do when we feel stressed! And I think as Christians, when we feel wound up in the plumb lines of society, it’s important to remember the only plumb line that matters – how we measure up to God. You see those other lines are all self-focused, but when we strive to follow God and what God wants, we become other-focused—focused on striving to do God’s will and serve others.

But what happens when we forget our purpose and can’t remember what God wants of us? Well, if you will turn with me to page 292 in the Book of Common Prayer we can all be reminded of what we promised God we would strive to “line up to” when we were baptized. Most people, when they think of vows, think of marriage vows or religious vows, but all baptized Christians made baptismal vows that we renew each Easter. So let us look together at what we vowed to God we would do.

· Renounce evil

· Believe in the Trinity

· Continue the fellowship of the church

· Resist evil; and not IF but WHEN we fall short, repent – we won’t let those mistakes hang onto us

· Proclaim by word and example the Good News

· Seek and serve Christ in ALL persons

· Strive for justice and peace among ALL people and respect the dignity of every human being

And let’s not forget that each response is not “Yes Lord, I will do it, I am going to reach it, I can achieve it!” but rather “I will, with God’s help” – it’s a humble statement, knowing we NEED God for any of this to happen. In our daily prayer as we seek to listen to God in ourselves, in creation, in others, and in all aspects of life, we can say, “Lord, I want to follow you, help me see you, I need your help,” and lean not on our own understanding.

Perhaps God wants us to stop living just for ourselves because God has something bigger and better planned for our lives that goes beyond ourselves? Perhaps we can’t even imagine what can happen once we give the brokenness of ourselves and our lives to God? Perhaps those shattered pieces, once illuminated with the light of God’s grace, will form a kaleidoscope of beauty that reflects the image of God in us?

May our lives echo the words of the prophets as we become that voice in the wilderness that aligns our whole selves to make straight the paths of our lives for God, so that the purposes of God may be fulfilled in our lives and light the paths of others. AMEN.

 

[1] Email correspondence with the Reverend Dr Rebecca Abts Wright on 7th July 2018.

[2] Fr. Luke Dysinger O.S.B., “Accepting the Embrace of God: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina”: online at http://www.saintjohnsabbey.org/monastic-life/abbey-spirituality1/lectio-divina/accepting-embrace-god-ancient-art-lectio-divina/

 

Proverbs and the Playfulness of God

Hebrew Scroll of the
Book of Proverbs

The Book of Proverbs is surely the most down-to-earth book in the Bible. It’s full of what one might call glorified common-sense on just the kind of subject that over two thousand years later people still want their children to get right, even if they didn’t get them right themselves—what sort of friends to choose, how important is money, how to behave in company, what’s the proper way to treat your elders, when to speak up and when to shut up, and so on.

But beyond that, in the midst of all this common sense, there is a recurring refrain, almost one might say a golden thread, running through it all. And this golden thread declares (so to speak, and mixing one’s metaphors horribly) that when all is said and done, useful and important though common sense may be, it is not finally common sense that is the beginning and foundation of wisdom but the fear of God (1.7, 2.5, 2.6, 9.10, 15.33, 21.30). And beyond even that, once, in chapter 8, this refrain itself blossoms into a passage of extraordinarily powerful theological imagination, wherein the Divine Wisdom herself, personified, calls to those who will hear her and speaks of her part in the creation of the world.

Let us file by certain title things that must be said. This is Israel’s Scripture not pagan mythology, so Wisdom is not a goddess and she is not a rival to the LORD. She is, indeed, the LORD’s creation. That granted, there is much about her that speaks of a special closeness with God. She was, she tells us, with God in the beginning, for God created her beyond and before all things (8:22-29). Not only that, but “then,” she says, at the creation of everything else,

I was beside him as his darling;[i]
and I was daily his delight,
playing before him always,
playing in his inhabited earth
and my delights were with humankind. (8:30-31)

In other words, the sage and poet of Proverbs, having used powerful poetic imagination to speak of the Divine Wisdom’s part in creation, now goes on to suggest that in and through that Divine Wisdom God has chosen from the beginning of creation to have a relationship with us His creatures, that is all about delight, and is even playful. This Divine Wisdom, God’s first creation, was, in the words of Gerhard von Rad, “playing in the world like a child; like a ‘favourite’, she was the delight of God and, even from the very beginning, she was turned toward humankind in cheerful and playful disposition.”[ii]

Michelangelo Creation in the Sistine Chapel: detail

This is something that (as I have occasionally noticed with other theological truths) artists and poets have sometimes perceived and portrayed more easily and accurately than theologians. In C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe I recall the scene where Lucy and Susan play with Aslan, the Christ figure in Narnia, and He with themindeed, they romp together, in pure fun and delight. Or, more subtly, we might point, as does Ellen Davis, to Michelangelo’s vision of Genesis and creation in the Sistine Chapel. We generally pay a lot of attention to the image of the hands, and the spark of life passing from God to Adam, and that is indeed a stunning image. But in some respects even more striking is the young woman on God’s left. She is definitely feminine, and beautiful: but beautiful in a special way. She is small, perky and alert. She looks as though she’d be fun to be with, and God has His arm protectively around her. Some have suggested that she is a portrait of Eve, but if so, as Davis points out, she is not at all like Eve as Michelangelo portrays her elsewhere (generally big and brawny). Davis doesn’t at all think she is Eve, and neither do I. I’m quite sure Michelangelo means us to see her as God’s darling, God’s favourite, the firstborn of all Creation, the Divine Wisdom.[iii]

This image of Divine Wisdom in the act of creation playing joyfully and even, we might even say (given the language) frivolously and dizzily before God is an important theological statement, and especially so for theologians and priests and religious people like myself, who are inclined to take ourselves and everything else rather seriously. This image reminds us that the creation is God’s free act. It is not something God has to do, it is God’s delight. But it surely goes further even than that. It implies that there is, and there is intended to be, something playful, frivolous, even slightly dizzy in God’s fundamental relationship with creation—a striking amplification of what God means by the declaration in Genesis that what has been made is “very good” (1.31)! It as if God were to have said, as we might say after any particularly delightful and joyful experience, “that was great!” or even “you were wonderful!” Which in turn may remind us that at least one book of the Bible, the Song of Songs, as interpreted in both rabbinic and patristic traditions, presents God’s relationship with God’s people as a happy love affair in which each side says to the other with delight, “I love you!” and the reply is, “I love you, too!”[iv]

There are, of course, elements of this playful element elsewhere in Scripture. Think what we are saying when we recite Psalm 104:

There go the ships,

and there is that Leviathan,

which you made for the sport of it. (Ps 104:27)

Throughout ancient tradition, including biblical tradition, Leviathan, the Canaanite monster, is a figure of terror, certainly no use to humanity, rather, a threat: but here the psalmist suggests that God created it for fun![v]  Which leads me on to think of all those other beasts that God celebrates in Job 39 to 41—none of them, apart from the warhorse, is of the slightest apparent use to humanity, and many of them are evidently very dangerous. What they have in common, however, including the warhorse, is that they are all, in their different ways, spectacular. Apparently, as Amy Dillard puts it, “the creator loves pizzazz.”[vi] And pizzazz, of course, is fun. Pizzazz means play!

And that is surely a part of what our Lord is saying when he reminds us that “whoever will not receive the Kingdom of God as a child, shall by no means enter it!” (Mark 10:15). What, after all, are children definitely better at than adults? Playing, of course—until we train it out of them, and insist that they pay attention to what we call “the real world”. Proverbs and Our Lord suggest that on the contrary, the really real world is something that can only be attended to in freedom, in the joy of play. When one thinks about it joy, real joy, always has an element of fun in it.

A lovely illustration of this is, I believe, offered by the book of Job, especially at its conclusion. Job has been a good man throughout, and he has discovered (as many have) that bad things happen to good people, including him. He has complained to God, and has received a revelation which, while justifying his action in complaining, has also led him to “recant” or “dissolve” the complaint itself (42.6).[vii]  (I think the word we would use would be “withdraw”). At the end of the story, all Job’s good things are restored, and far more. But things do not go on entirely as before, for Job himself has changed. The old Job, before the catastrophe, was very serious, and very pious. He even offered sacrifices for his sons just in case they had sinned! (1.5). The new Job has as many children as the old —seven sons and three daughters—something which in itself surely shows a generous measure of faith and hope, since he is living in a universe in which, as he now knows, even piety cannot protect him or his family. Surprisingly, we are told his daughters’ names, although we are not told the names of his sons. His daughters are all named after cosmetics: Dove, Cinnamon, and Eye-Shadow. What is more, they are to inherit equally with Job’s sons—something contrary to Israelite law, according to which daughters could only inherit if there were no sons (Num. 27:1-8). Why? We are offered no explanation, beyond the fact that the daughters are gorgeous: “in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters” (42:15). What shall we say to this frivolous ending to a book whose overall content cannot at all be described as frivolous? We might be struck by an increasing sense of justice in this man who was treated with horrible injustice. And that might explain the girls’ inheritances. But it hardly explains the frivolity of their names. The only explanation I can see is that Job’s experience has taught him how to have fun—how to play.

There is no joy without fun. And surely our seriousness, which leads us to try imagining joy without fun is one reason why most of our pictures of heaven are boring. God forbid we should joke with God or play with God! God forbid that in heaven we should play! Fortunately for us (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) the devil Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters has it right: God is

a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a façade. Or only like foam on the seashore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are ‘pleasures for evermore’. Ugh![viii]

Freedom and delight, the essence of play, belong together for God and for us. God’s playfulness with us inevitably means divine closeness to us, even intimacy with us, for how can anyone, even God, play with someone from whom one is distant? There is therefore, I would argue, a clear line to be drawn from Proverbs’ awareness of the playfulness of the Divine Wisdom to Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I’m going to end this little note with a story.

Once upon a time there was  a man called George. In the fullness of time, George died. When he arrived in the after life, the first thing that happened was that his dog Gracie, whom he’d loved very much and who’d died some years earlier, came bounding up to him, tail wagging. That was a joyful reunion!

“I suppose,” George said to Gracie after a bit, “we ought to look for Heaven, and see if they’ll let me in.”

Gracie wagged her tail.

So they set off down the road.

After a bit, they saw off at the side of the road a great glittering city, all golden walls and jewelled gates, with wonderful organ music coming from it.

“That must be heaven,” George said. “Let’s try our luck!”

They got there and banged on the gate, and after a while it was opened by a tall and dignified person in a magnificent robe.

“Is this heaven, and can we can come in?” the man asked.

“This is indeed heaven, the Celestial City,” the dignified person in the magnificent robe said. “And you are welcome to enter. But you cannot bring that dog. Dogs are messy and untidy.”

“Well, yes, but—“

“NO DOGS!” the dignified person said firmly. “And especially not a mongrel like that. It’s not even a proper breed. Come again when you’ve got rid of it.”

Which said, the dignified person closed the gate.

George looked at Gracie. “Well Gracie, I suppose that means that heaven is not for us.”

Gracie wagged her tail, and the two of them set off again, away from the great golden city.

After a while, the sunshine began to get hot, and George could see that Gracie was getting thirsty. So he was pleased to notice a cottage by the road—an old cottage that looked as if it could do with a lick of paint, though it was clean and tidy and there was a nice garden with roses. An old man wearing a battered sports coat with leather patches on the sleeves was sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair, reading.

They went up to him.

“I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but my dog Gracie is getting a bit thirsty with walking, and I wondered whether perhaps she could have a drink of water?”

The old man looked up. His eyes twinkled and he smiled cheerfully.

“Of course she can!” he said, laying aside his book. “Look, there’s a full water bowl over there in the shade. Let Gracie drink as much as she likes. There’s plenty more. And take a seat yourself.” He pointed to the other rocking chair. “Would you like some lemonade? I’m going to have some.”

“I would actually. Thank you very much.” For of course Gracie wasn’t the only one who was getting thirsty.

“So,” said the old man when they were all nicely settled with their drinks, “where are you two staying?”

“Well, I don’t know,” George said. “You see, I was hoping we might be accepted into Heaven, but we just tried at the Celestial City, and they won’t take dogs.”

The old man looked puzzled. “Where exactly have you been? Where is this city?”

“Just over there,”—he pointed the way that they’d come – “all golden towers and organ music.”

“Oh, that!” The old man laughed. “Did they say that was Heaven? Dear Lord, they are such awful liars! No, no, this is heaven. A bit scruffy and down-at-heel for some tastes, I fear, but dogs and all other pets welcome! Not to mention repentant sinners!“

“So what’s that other place?”

“The other place? Where they won’t take pets?” The old man sighed, and for the briefest minute the twinkle went out of his eyes.

“That place,” he said finally, “is hell.”

The rabbis said that God created the beasts to be our jesters and playfellows, and though I don’t think this is the only reason God created them—the beasts have their own mystery, and it is surely a great piece of human arrogance to suppose that we are the only creatures in the universe that God cares about or is interested in—still, these are roles that some beasts seem content to play for us, and I am sure God meant it so.

Our jesters and playfellows…

Jesters help us to laugh—sometimes at their jokes and antics, but very often, if they are good jesters, at ourselves.

Playfellows teach us to play, which Johan Huizinga has taught us is the foundation of all human civilization and civilized behaviour,[ix] and the Bible tells us is necessary if we are to know God.

My final word this morning is then this: beware of any group where they don’t like pets and disapprove of play and laughter. They will certainly turn out to have other bad habits.

[i] The NRSV rendering of the Hebrew as “master workman” (connecting it with Akkadian unmanu = craftsman) though it has ancient support (i.e. the LXX) seems ill to fit the context, which rather emphasizes playfulness and delight. Hence I prefer Aquila’s choice to point the Hebrew as āmūn (= pet, nursling, or darling), which he rendered in Greek by τιθηνουμενη (= ward, or darling): see Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972) 152-57. Bernard U. Schipper, while admitting that the decision is difficult, disagrees, preferring to understand amun “as a qal infinitive absolute of the verb אמן (‘to be firm, constant’) and here used in an adverbial sense and to be translated as ‘constantly.'” His reason for this is that “if אָמוֹן is translated as ‘constantly, continually’ it stands in parallel with     the temporal markers ‘day by day’ and ‘at all times’ in the second half of the verse” (Proverbs 1-15, Stephen Germany, transl. [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2019] 313). This is, of course, true as far as it goes. It fails, however, to convince me, since it appears ignore a much more striking contextual parallel that appears when אָמוֹן is translated “darling”: namely, the context’s emphasis on “delight” and “play” (8.30-31).

[ii] von Rad, Wisdom in Israel 157.

[iii] See C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (London: Geoffrey Bless, 1950) 133 (there have been many editions since, on both sides of the Atlantic); Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Songs of Songs (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2000) 67-69.

[iv] Some will regard this theological view of the Song of Songs as dated or contrary to modern scholarly investigation. There is no necessary contradiction: see Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Songs of Songs 231-38; cf. also Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., The Song of Songs (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990) esp. 103-105 and Robert W. Jenson’s brief but profound introduction to his commentary in Jenson, Song of Songs (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox 2005) 1-15.

[v] I here cite the Episcopal BCP 1979 Psalter rather than the more staid “to sport in it” of the NRSV. While the Hebrew is in itself somewhat ambiguous, so that the NRSV rendering is not impossible, God’s ironic question to Job, “will you sport with him [i.e. Leviathan] as with a bird?” (Job 40.29), surely leaves very little doubt as to what is intended by the similar expression here in the psalm (cf. Mitchel Dahood S.J, Psalms III [New York: Doubleday] 45; similarly Walter Brueggeman, The Message of the Psalms [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984] 32; Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs 68).

[vi] Amy Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper and Row, 1974) 137.

[vii] Pace the NRSV, but following NAB and JPS, this is probably the correct interpretation of Job 42:6. See Rabbi Dr Victor E. Reichert, Job (Hindhead, Surrey: Socino, 1946) 220; Marvin H. Pope, Job (New York: Doubleday, 1965) 348; E. Dhorme, A Commentary on the Book of Job, Harold Knight, transl. (London: Nelson, 1967 [1926]) 646-47.

[viii] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1942) Letter XXII: there have been many editions since 1942, published in both Great Britain and the United States.

[ix] I refer of course to Johan Huizinga’s remarkable book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (London: Palladin, 1970): but again, there are numerous editions.

Thoughts about Pentecost for 2018

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:1-4a)

I was still thinking about the image of love as fire, which the Presiding Bishop built on so powerfully yesterday in his sermon before Prince Harry and Meghan. And I dare say it was because I was thinking of that that I was struck, as I looked at the proper for today, by St Luke’s use of the image of fire as he describes the apostles’ and the holy women’s experience of the Holy Spirit that first Pentecost.

In one way, of course, Luke was simply doing what the Bible had always done. Again and again in the Scriptures, where they speak of God’s presence in grace, redemptive power and glory—for example in the stories of Abraham, Moses, and Elijah—again and again they use the image of fire.

Think for a minute of that most remarkable of stories, Moses at the Burning Bush! (Exod. 3:1-10) Or, to be more precise, the story of Moses at the Bush that Burns but is not Burnt Up. It’s remarkable in several ways. For one thing, it tells us what Moses was thinking. Only very rarely do stories in the Bible tell us what anyone thought. As a rule they tell us what people said and what they did. As for what they thought, we have to decide that for ourselves. But the story of Moses at the Bush is an exception. Even then, the writer doesn’t actually say, “Moses thought”. The writer says, “Moses said”—but it’s clearly Moses thinking aloud, for there’s no one else there.

Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not consumed.’

Did I say there was no one else there? Well, of course there was someone else there, but it was evidently a surprise, even to Moses. God was there.

“Put off your shoes Moses, for you are standing on holy ground.”

God calls to Moses out of the bush. Again, let’s be more precise: as God often does to those who turn aside to take a closer look at something, God reveals God’s self to Moses, calling to him from the very thing to which he has chosen to pay attention. And indeed, it turns out in this revelation that God also has seen something, and God, too, has turned aside

“ Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.”

And so to Moses in this moment is revealed the Name of God and God’s gracious good will to have mercy on God’s people.

We Christians, of course, believe also in a second and even greater revelation—that wherein the Word became flesh by way of blessed Mary, she whom we call theotokos, “God bearer”—or as our more homely English idiom has it, “Mother of God.” Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century speaks of her too, witness as she is to the grace of God turning aside and coming down to God’s people—she too is a burning bush—like the first, burning but not burnt up.

And that is one of the abiding truths of God’s breath, God’s dynamic, God’s life in us—for those things are all elements of what “the Holy Spirit” is. The abiding truth is that if only we are willing to be open to God’s breath, God’s life, it takes hold of us as it took hold of Jesus’ followers that first Pentecost. It takes hold of us “in tongues as of flame”—so that we too are on fire but not burnt up. For the effect of God’s fire is never to destroy us if we open ourselves to it, but rather to enable us to be ever more truly ourselves, the individuals God actually created us to be.

Does this really have anything to do with the Presiding Bishop’s sermon to their Royal Highnesses yesterday, or was what I experienced a mere co-incidence of words without serious implication? Of course it has everything to do with it! For Bishop Michael was quoting from the Song of Songs:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame. (8:6)

—the Song of Songs, which is—as the Old Testament scholar Ellen Davies reminds us in her wonderful little book Getting Involved with God—which is the only place in the Bible where there is a dialogue of love: the only place in this entire literature of the relationship between God and God’s people where we hear “one partner say, ‘I love you,’ and the other answer right back, ‘Yes, yes; I love you too.’”[1] And yet, if our faith is true, then coming to this mutual love—we for God and God for us, and on that basis we for others and others for us—is entirely what our life is really meant to be about.

Love means ecstasy—that is, standing outside of ourselves. And that may be costly and painful. Indeed, it often is.

Loves means intimacy—intimacy with God, intimacy with each other, intimacy with the whole creation. And that means being vulnerable: vulnerable to another. And that too can be painful, and often is.

And yet that ecstasy and that intimacy are the qualities of life for which we were made. The rest—even all those wonderful gifts and talents and clevernesses on which we pride ourselves so much—even the good things—they are transient. As Ecclesiastes and St Paul remind us, they will vanish away.

“הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל,” says Ecclesiastes (Eccl. 1:2). “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” is how we usually translate it—the only problem being that “vanity”, at least as we normally use the word, is not really a very good translation of the Hebrew הָבֶל—which literally means “vapour”. For what the preacher is saying is not that everything is “vain” or “vanity”, but that all things, even good things, are transitory, ephemeral. Only love, together with the faith and hope that invariably accompany love, will actually last. Love alone is the true fire that the Spirit, the breath, the life of God, will light in us and it will not destroy us. Love alone “is as strong as death, its passion unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame” (Song of Songs 8:6). Love alone is the fire that will burn in us and yet not burn us up.

In one sense we do not need to pray for this gift, for God offers it to us all the time: that is the message of Pentecost. Rather, let us ask God for grace that we may open our stubborn and cowardly hearts to it: for that is always the problem.

And now let us confess our faith…

[1] Ellen F. Davis, “The One Whom My Soul Loves” in Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Lanham, Maryland and Plymouth, UK: Cowley, 2001).

Easter 6, Year B: Text of a Sermon preached at the Convent of Saint Mary in Sewanee, 2018.

For the Gospel: John 15:7-17

Our gospel passage this morning comes from Our Lord’s discourses at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. It follows directly on from what we heard last week, Our Lord’s parable in which he spoke of himself as the true vine, and his disciples as the branches. As the branch cannot flourish apart from the vine, he said, so we, his disciples, cannot flourish without him.

Jesus now continues, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you”—he speaks, I believe, of our communion with him through prayer: if the words of Jesus, that is, the things he says and the things he does—if these abide in us, then, he says, “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). This will happen because if Jesus’ words and deeds are in our hearts and minds, then our petitions will be echoes of His words and deeds. As He speaks, so we will speak. Our prayers will be fragments of his teaching, transformed into supplications, and so will necessarily be heard, as He is heard. Let us be clear what this means: our Lord’s promise of the absolute fulfillment of our prayers is inseparably linked to our personal fellowship with Him. “Ask for whatever you wish,” he says, emphasizing the freedom of our choice given the union of our wills with that of Christ, “and it will be done for you.” So Saint Augustine of Hippo said, “Dilige, et quod vis fac”—“Love, and do what you like” (Homilies on First John 7.8). Precisely. Because if we abide in Jesus’ fellowship, then what we like will be what God likes. And even if there is something we would dearly prefer that cannot be—as Our Lord himself would have preferred not to endure the agony of the  cross and prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” but it could not be—even then the final movement and basis of our prayer will be, as was his, “nevertheless, not what I will but what you will”(Mark 14:36). This is something to which we bear witness every time we pray His prayer, as we shall pray it in a few minutes, putting our hand into the hand of God and being so bold as to say, “Our Father… thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

Our Lord continues: ”My Father is glorified by this”—that is, by your abiding in me and the consequent fulfillment of your prayers—in order that “you bear much fruit” (in the fruitfulness of the vine lies the joy of the husbandman) and so “become my disciples” (15:8). We may well ask, “Are we not disciples already?” And of course we are! But we mustn’t forget that the Hebrew and Greek words for “disciple” mean “learner”, “student,” or “pupil”—and so by definition a true disciple is someone who is in a process of “becoming”, always growing and learning, always being transformed into Christ’s image, as Saint Paul has it, “from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). That is our calling now, in this life, and it will be our calling even in the life to come, even in the resurrection life—to ascend, as He did, to the Father.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (15:9) Christ’s love is the atmosphere in which we must seek to live: not something sought in a moment of crisis, but breathed in, day by day, hour by hour. All else, whether good or ill, is, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, “הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים”—“vanity of vanities” as it is usually translated—which is actually somewhat misleading. For the word הֲבֵל—“mist”, “vapour” or “breath”—is used metaphorically in Qoheleth’s Hebrew, as its equivalents often are in English, to refer not so much what we normally regard as “vain”—that is, useless, or empty—but rather to what is ephemeral, fragile, passing away. Ecclesiastes is not saying that nothing is of any value, but rather that everything in this life—even good things, even things that God has given us for our joy, everything is transitory. And of course we know that is true. It is true of the universe itself, and it is certainly true for us. We all strive to do things—for good or evil, for ourselves or for others, in generosity or in selfishness—but whatever we do, life passes. Carpe diem! we say, following Horace: “Seize the day!” But there will certainly come for all of us a day that we cannot seize, a day when we cannot finish what we have started, a day when we must entrust even what we hold most precious to the mercy of God. What then is our hope? “Abide in my love,” says Our Lord.

And so we come finally to his promise: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:10). Love ensures obedience, obedience ensures love. That is something that even our as yet imperfect human loves can show us. When we are, as we say, “in love,” then to please the beloved is not a burden but our desire and delight. If that is true—and it is—of our merely human loves, how much more is it true of the One who IS Love, and the source of all love! No wonder our Lord concludes, “I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (15:11). May God give us grace to seek that joy, as the saints have sought it throughout history, and there perhaps find that although all things in this life are transitory and fragile, passing away like a breath, yet there, in God’s joy, all things, having come from God, find also their permanence and their fulfillment.

In that thought we may dare perhaps hope that Gustav Mahler was right:

O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube:

‘Es geht dir nichts verloren![2]

‘O believe, my heart, O believe:

‘Nothing to you is lost!’

And that, in a sense, is the Easter message.

Amen.

[1] For rich commentary on this text, and indeed on Ecclesiastes—which she describes as “the most diffident book of the Bible”—see Ellen E. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2000) 166-69.

[2] Gustav Mahler, “Auferstehung” Symphony no. 2, no. 5.

 

Jesus the Good Shepherd: Thoughts for the Fourth Sunday of Easter. The text of a sermon preached at the Convent of St Mary, Sewanee.

ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλὸς

Why, when we are in the middle of the Great Fifty Days of Easter – why in the midst of all of the wonderful stories of Christ the Risen One which we have heard over the last few weeks – why, suddenly, this morning, does the church call upon us to listen to our Lord’s words wherein the Fourth Evangelist has him speak of himself as “the good shepherd” – or, as we more accurately might translate the evangelist’s Greek – “the beautiful” or “the noble shepherd”?   Why now?

First, I think it is precisely because we are in the midst of these wonderful stories of the Risen One that the church believes we need also to remind ourselves just who the Risen One is. After all, the mere fact of someone coming back from the dead might not in itself have been especially good news. He might have been a vengeful Odysseus coming back to his house to take vengeance on those who have betrayed him, as the disciples surely had done, and as we too have all done, in our own way! Or this might have been a demonic rising from the dead, the birth of a vampire, in which case perhaps Mary Magdalen and the others might need to send for Buffy!

Yes, it might have been. But it wasn’t.

This Risen One is our noble shepherd who has loved us unto death. This Risen One is the noble shepherd who, even though the male disciples were all traitors and failures, still calls them his brothers.

God, the LORD, is the shepherd of God’s people. We have long known that – David sang of it centuries ago, as the psalm we hear in the Proper for the 4th Sunday of Easter reminds us. So now we hear that Jesus, too, is the shepherd of God’s people, and since, as he points out, there is only “one shepherd,” we know who Jesus must be! But wait! As the TV commercials often say: there is more! What a very extraordinary shepherd and what a very extraordinary shepherding this is! Shepherds indeed take care of their sheep: but it is, after all, for the shepherd’s own benefit. Shepherds take care if the sheep so that they may profit from them. But this shepherd takes care of the sheep for their sake, so that they may dwell in his house for ever! However caring shepherds may be, in the end, we know, many of the lambs will die for them, so that the shepherd may earn a living, and we may have our roast lamb for dinner. But this shepherd dies for the sheep!

Again, I think that we are reminded today of Christ the Noble Shepherd in order that we may keep in mind what it the resurrection is actually about, what it actually means. If I may be forgiven for saying so, I sometimes feel that some of my dear Roman Catholic friends and my dear Evangelical friends, in their anxiety to defend the reality of the empty tomb, of the one who ate and drank with his disciples after he had risen from the dead – in their anxiety to defend the reality of all that, for which I applaud them – are nonetheless sometimes in danger of seeming to talk about the resurrection as if it were simply a historical event whose mere historicity is to be defended, as one might defend the historicity of the battle of Waterloo or Julius Caesar’s first invasion of Britain, and then go on to speak, perhaps, of its results or its importance. But a theology that is truly Catholic and Evangelical must surely make clear that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just like that. Yes, the appearances to Mary Magdalen and the other disciples, the empty tomb, the eating and drinking together – yes, these are real events in the past, and they are important events for us to remember and celebrate. But they are important precisely because the resurrection of Jesus himself, if he is what we say he is and that resurrection was what we say it was, is not merely an event in the past and can never be merely that. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is also a factor of the present. As the Lord of the Dance song has it – a song that I was taught to sing when I was quite little – “they knocked me down, but I leapt up high, for I am the life that can never, never die!” Exactly! The resurrection and the risen one are important precisely because the Risen Christ is not just the One who rose but also the Living One who enters my life and confronts me now!

There is, of course, one little problem, and it was there from the beginning. You will remember how, even with the first resurrection experiences, even with the disciples who had lived and worked with him, at first, they generally have some difficulty recognizing him. Even those who have been closest to him, even Mary of Magdala, who at first took him for the gardener. Invariably Jesus has to call them by a well known name, to break bread as he always done, to open the scriptures to them as only he could – in a word, invariably he has to act in some way by which they suddenly do recognize him for who he is, and identify him as Jesus, the same Jesus who lived and died for them.

We too have this problem. When Christ comes to us, we, too, do not always recognize him. And that, of course, is where the church comes in. That, if you like, is what the church is for. We might even define the church as that organization which is competent to enable us to see and recognize the Risen Christ for ourselves.

How does the church do that?

Basically, by its witness: by reminding us of the story and telling us the story in such a way that when the risen Christ enters our lives, as he surely does for each one of us, when we experience him in grace and glory and goodness, or perhaps, in pain and suffering, then nonetheless we may recognize Him with whom we have to do, and identify him. That is why, at the end of mass, we pray for grace to be faithful witnesses to Christ our Lord – so that we in our turn may do the work of the church, and enable others to see the Risen One, and likewise distinguish Him from all the many counterfeits that offer themselves to us in life. In addition the church has, of course, certain covenanted acts – most notably the Mass, wherein Christ himself, the crucified and risen one, has promised to be present to us when do them: and thereby we may regularly seek his presence, to be strengthened and fed by it and also, of course to be enabled by it and to have our eyes opened by it, so that we may recognize Him when he meets us elsewhere in the world, outside of the boundaries of the covenanted sacraments or even the church. And to what end? The end is and was, of course, always joy! Joy in heaven, and joy on earth – that joy which our Lord tells us there us among the angels over one sinner that repents.   The purpose of it all is the unfolding and enabling of that unity with the shepherd and with each other for which we were actually created – that unity with the shepherd and each other that in our folly we have so often and so easily thrown away. As our Lord tells us, “other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

When we all participate together in that general resurrection, in the life of the one flock with the beautiful shepherd, then will be the final fulfillment of Calvary – and not just of our Lord’s Calvary, but of all the millions of other calvaries that litter our history, right down to the latest violent death in Iraq or Syria – or, come to that, in a school in this country. Then and there, by God’s grace, all will find meaning and glory, just as the wounds of Christ are glorified in his resurrection. And then and there, I think, our real life will begin, our real life, for which everything before will be seen as preparation – never wasted, of course: indeed, precious and glorified – but still only preparation, a prologue, a tuning up of the orchestra for the great symphony of eternal life, the true drama of heaven, which will then begin.