That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Tag: Mortality

Tossed, but not sunk.

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A Sermon for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 15, 2015

By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

Texts: Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Fluctuat nec mergitur. Tossed, but not sunk.

Since the fourteenth century, those words have been the motto of the city of Paris. We now pray with and for the people of that city that those ancient words may be proven true once again in these dark days. Paris has been tossed: by God’s grace, may she not sink. France is reeling: with God’s support, may she not fall. The earth itself seems to totter and teeter and shake on its very axis. We ask, with the Psalmist, that God would repair the cracks in it, and make firm our footing once again. Tossed, but not sunk. May it indeed be so.

In light of all that has happened in the last days, it is hard for us to face the strange, troubling words of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark this morning. But then, it is not only the last days that make these words difficult. The last weeks, the last months, and the last years all make it hard for us to hear the words of Jesus today. We have had enough of wars and rumors of wars. We have had enough of buildings thrown down suddenly and violently. We have had enough of evil men misleading multitudes and bending them to carry out deeds of destruction and depravity. And if, by God’s mercy, our community has not known earthquakes and famines, nevertheless we have surely had more than enough of rain and flooding.

We have known disaster in our midst, and we have heard of disaster far away. We have cowered before the destructive power of nature poured out upon us, and we have wept over the destructive power of human beings demonstrated among us. Jesus’ difficult words today are hard for us to hear because we are people who have been wearied and wounded in body and soul by precisely those things about which Jesus speaks.

And that is precisely why we must listen to Jesus today. We must attend to the words of Our Lord this morning, not in spite of our familiarity with devastation and disaster but because of our familiarity with devastation and disaster. We must listen, because as he speaks to his disciples in our passage this morning, Jesus speaks also to us.

And he speaks first of human impermanence. As his disciples wander through the courts of the Temple in Jerusalem, marveling at the mighty works of human builders, Jesus bluntly tells them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left her upon another, but all will be thrown down.” His friends regard with reverent awe the accomplishments of humankind. Jesus reminds them of the grim truth that nothing of who we are or what we have done will endure unendingly. We are tossed, and eventually, late or soon, we all sink beneath the waves of mortality.

The reality of our impermanence–of our own frailty, our own temporality, our own impotence to resist the steady march of time and the whirligig of life’s changes and chances–is a truth we usually seek to avoid or deny. Indeed, that fact is what gives terrorism its power. A terrorist act–even a terrorist act far away–cruelly throws back into our faces the fact that so much of life lies beyond our control. It is the impermanence of human life that terrorizes us. The news of innocent people harmed by random, indiscriminate cruelty is an unwelcome, unwanted reminder that none of us can know what tomorrow will bring; none of us can plan for all that the future may hold; none of us lasts forever.

The reminder of human impermanence was as uncomfortable for the first disciples of Jesus as it is for us today. And so they shift tactics. They respond to Jesus’ words with a plea for certainty: “Tell us, when will this be? And what will be the sign that these things are to be accomplished?” Having been forced to remember that neither human beings nor human buildings can be trusted for lasting confidence, the disciples change their focus and decide to seek after human knowledge.

“If only we could know,” they plead with Jesus, “If only you could tell us which world events and which natural disasters are signs of some deeper plan and purpose…then we could be ready; we could be prepared; we could be certain. If only we knew what is going to happen, we could be tossed, but not sunk.”

Jesus flatly refuses to offer a clear answer to their question. In fact, the reply he gives is a warning to his friends against anyone who claims to have a clear answer to their question. “Beware that no one leads you astray!” The hunger for certainty, the need to know, the desperate effort to find something–anything–that is lasting in a world that is passing away leads women and men to trust and to believe terrible deceivers: ISIS propagandists, political extremists, false prophets and more.

“Many will come in my name and say ‘I am he!'” Many will claim special knowledge. Many will offer false assurance. Many will attempt to make sense of the senseless brokenness of this world with easy answers and clever solutions. “And they will lead many astray.”

Jesus warns his disciples that, if human works are not a sure foundation and a mighty bulwark against uncertainty, then neither is human wisdom. Explanations are cheap. They do not last. They cannot give meaning to our tempest-tossed life in this world. They can never keep us from sinking.

What then? Having reminded his followers of the fact of human impermanence and warned them of the inadequacy of human wisdom, what hope can Jesus offer to his beleaguered, fearful friends?

“Do not be alarmed.” It is a tiny glimmer of light in deep darkness: but oh how fervently and brightly it shines!

“Do not be alarmed,” says Jesus, “as you face the varying vicissitudes of life.” “Do not be alarmed,” says Jesus, “when you hear of wars and rumors of wars.” “Do not be alarmed,” says Jesus, “when all around you seems bleak and hopeless and utterly senseless.” “Do not be alarmed. You will be tossed. But you will never be sunk.”

These words would be worse than meaningless if they came from the mouth of a merely human teacher. This comfort would be no comfort at all if it came from the kind of casual commentator or crooked meaning-maker about whom Jesus has just warned us. These words would be empty, if they were established only on the basis of human wisdom and human achievement.

But the words of Jesus are never empty. The words of Jesus are never cold comfort. The words of Jesus are never like the platitudes and the mumblings of the would-be prophets and prognosticators–those who would attempt to explain away the inexplicable.

For the words of Jesus echo with all the power that first spoke the cosmos into being. The words of Jesus ring with all the love that first called Abraham up out of Ur of the Chaldees. The words of Jesus resound with all the authority that delivered the Law to Moses on Sinai’s height. The words of Jesus reverberate with all the warnings and all the comfort of all the prophets ever sent to the people of Israel.

The words of Jesus are the words of God himself, and they are words of divine power, divine love, divine, authority, divine warning, and divine comfort. When Jesus tells his disciples–when Jesus tells us–“Do not be alarmed,” his words are not founded on human impermanence and imperfection, but on God’s unchanging providence; on God’s unfailing care; on God’s unending love.

His assurance is not that we will be protected from all evil, but rather that we will be held by unshakeable arms through every evil. His pledge is not that we will be preserved from all hurt and harm, but rather that no hurt or harm can ever separate us from him. His promise is not that our lives will be easy, and peaceful, and calm, but rather that in whatever difficulty, or violence, or deep-seated dis-ease we must face in this world, God himself will be our fortress, our foundation, and our rock. And “he who has promised is faithful.”

We will be tossed, but never sunk, beloved, because our feet stand upon the solid ground at the foot of the Cross. We will be tossed, but never sunk, brothers and sisters, because we have been plunged together into the waters of baptism. We will be tossed, but never sunk, dear people, because we have been washed thoroughly in the blood of the lamb. We will be tossed, but never sunk, Christians, because while in this world we will have troubles and trials and tribulations and tragedies, yet we can take heart: for the One we follow has overcome this world–and behold, he is making all things new!

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.

Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib’d alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing, ling’ring look behind?

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.

For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,

Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
“Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.

“There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

“Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Mutt’ring his wayward fancies he would rove,
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or craz’d with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.

“One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill,
Along the heath and near his fav’rite tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

“The next with dirges due in sad array
Slow thro’ the church-way path we saw him borne.
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay,
Grav’d on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”

THE EPITAPH

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown. 
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth, 
And Melancholy mark’d him for her own. 

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere, 
Heav’n did a recompense as largely send: 
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear, 
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend. 

No farther seek his merits to disclose, 
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode, 
(There they alike in trembling hope repose) 
The bosom of his Father and his God.