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: Wisdom

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!

The Daily Office and “the Fear of the Lord”

In a few hours, I’ll leave Columbia for a week in Newport, Rhode Island. My dear friend The Rev’d Fr Blake Sawicky and I will be serving as chaplains to the 2014 Newport Course of the Royal School of Church Music in America. Blake is the Curate of S Stephen’s Church in Providence, and also serves as Chaplain to both Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design—a busy man!

I’m looking forward to a wonderful week of beautiful liturgies and phenomenal music. I’m excited to share teaching duties with Blake, whose knowledge of and passion for the worshipping life of the Church is singular. I’m eager to get to know the other talented members of the course staff.

But most of all, I can’t wait to live the rhythms of daily prayer in company with a great group of choristers, adult singers, and other musicians. We will pray Morning Prayer and Compline each day, in addition to singing two choral Evensongs (on Wednesday and Friday) and a choral Eucharist (on Sunday). This means that all of the good music and thorough training of a very full week will be anchored and oriented by the solid framework of Anglican prayer. What a gift to the participants, and what a privilege to be taking part in it all!

Below is a little blurb I wrote for the inside cover of our Morning Prayer bulletins. The theme of the course this year is “Wisdom,” and my goal was to show how the Daily Offices are the best means the Church has devised for becoming wise—for growing in the knowledge and fear of the Lord.

“But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?”

Those questions were posed many thousands of years ago in the Book of Job. In that same book (in that same chapter, even) they find an answer:

“Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.”

“Fear” is not a word we usually associate with God. But the first thing to realize is that “the fear of the Lord” does not mean the feeling we get from “ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night.” Rather “the fear of the Lord” means reverence and awe: the humble recognition of who God is, coupled with joy and wonder in all his mighty works.

And when we see it that way, we find that our Daily Offices are all about wisdom. At Morning Prayer, Evensong, and Compline, we grow in “the fear of the Lord.” We learn who God is through reading or chanting Psalms and hearing Holy Scripture. We praise him in canticles. We proclaim God’s self-revelation in Jesus our Lord by the words of the Apostles’ Creed. And all this, in turn, leads us to prayers of repentance and petition and thanksgiving—of joy and wonder, of awe and reverence.

So welcome, you who hold this little book in your hand, to the place where wisdom shall be found. Welcome to the place of understanding. As we sing and read and pray and enjoy fellowship together this week, may we find ourselves growing in the love and fear of the Lord. By God’s grace, may we depart from evil and walk before him in holiness and righteousness all our days. “Behold…that is wisdom.”