Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity, Evening Prayeradmin | 21 August 2016
Fr. David Curry preached this sermon at Old St. Edward’s, Clementsport, at the 95th annual anniversary service in the 219th year of the building.
How readest thou?
It is Jesus’ question and one which sets up the scene for the very familiar parable of the Good Samaritan. It is the Gospel reading at Holy Communion on this day, the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity. How we read the Scriptures goes to the heart of what it means to be the confessing church in a post-Christian age. For Anglicans, classically speaking, the Collect, Epistle and Gospel for each Sunday provide the critical matrix through which to think about the readings in the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer which in turn shape our actions.
The 17th century poet and priest, George Herbert, for example, made it his goal and practice to teach about how and what we read and why. “The Texts for all his future Sermons”, his biographer, Izaak Walton, tells us, “were constantly taken out of the Gospel for the day; and he did as constantly declare why the Church did appoint that portion of Scripture to be that day read: And in what manner the Collect for every Sunday does refer to the Gospel, or to the Epistle then read to them”, explaining all the things which belong to our liturgy. Why? “That they might pray with understanding” and that it would be shown “that the whole service of the Church, was a reasonable, and therefore an acceptable Sacrifice to God”.
My deep thanks to Fr. Gordon Neish for the privilege and honour of preaching here at Old St. Edward’s, a place redolent with so many memories and associations that belong to the history of the Anglican diocese and, indeed, to the wider witness of the Church in Canada. I would like to dedicate my brief and, no doubt, poor remarks to the memory of Nellie Neish, one who attended so well to Jesus’ question and whose life was itself a parable of the parable of the Good Samaritan in terms of her care and compassion for so many.
The evening prayer lessons speak profoundly to the significance of this holy ecclesiastical place and its purpose. Ezra talks about the Lord moving Cyrus, the King of Persia, a non-Israelite, to be sure, to issue a proclamation directing the rebuilding of the house of the Lord at Jerusalem. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, speaks about the foolishness of God being greater than the wisdom of men; his power and strength being greater than ours. Such is the divine wisdom that belongs to the real purpose and meaning of our churches.
The very idea of rebuilding the church of God might seem to be utter foolishness in our contemporary world and yet it is the constant task that belongs to the very meaning of the church as the place of our abiding in the Trinity, our abiding in the Word and Will of God revealed for thought and life in the Scriptures. It may seem that we sit in the ruins – our churches derelict and empty. It may seem that the struggle is simply to maintain the buildings, at least until we like them “shake off this mortal coil”. Yet the real ruin is our neglect of the purpose of the holy places. The real ruin is in us.
The idea of ruin can lead to despair, of course. But it can equally lead to renewal and rebuilding such as we see in The Book of Ezra. Re-building is about building again by returning to the purpose and meaning of our lives in faith. It means thinking seriously about Jesus’ question, “how do you read?” He means, “how do you understand the Scriptures?” And by the Scriptures, he has in mind the Jewish or Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament, and in the context more specifically, he means the Law or the Torah. Yet as the Gospel makes clear, our reading has to do with the inescapable connection between the love of God and the love of neighbour.
The parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us in the strongest possible way of the ethic of compassion which belongs to the being of the Church. Yet that compassion is grounded in the passion of Christ and cannot be understood apart from it. Compassion is about the deep love of God for our humanity as arising out of the love that is God himself, “love divine all loves excelling”, all loves perfecting. That love is what we see most powerfully and yet most painfully on the Cross in the crucified Christ. “There is no path to God”, says Bonaventure, “except through the burning love of the Crucified”, his love for us and that love in us. This is, Paul says, “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles”, yet, as he insists, “to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”.
For “the foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men”. This is how we are to read the Law and, by extension, the whole of the Scriptures. We are to read so as to grow and understand better the greater mystery of God, a mystery which always challenges the limited ways of our humanity and world. God can never be made accountable to us; the mystery of Christ and his Church is about our life in him. We preach Christ crucified which is to say that the world and our worldly ways are not the real measure. After all, “my ways are not your ways”, as Isaiah reminds us. That must serve as a constant check upon all our affirmations and claims about God at that same time as providing the foundation of revelation and of our being with God. Our unknowing becomes the true basis of all our knowing.
We are to act out of what we have heard and read in the Scriptures. Here we are at Old St. Edward’s, one of the few churches that remain in Nova Scotia promoted and built by the founding Bishop of this Diocese, Bishop Charles Inglis, in this case in conjunction with the ‘Pennsylvanian Deutsche’. He was also the founder and benefactor of a School and a College. Here you are engaged in the constant programme of rebuilding upon the foundation of Christ crucified. What is read is to be lived in you, in lives of charity and compassion, lives which bear witness to the foolishness and weakness of God which far exceeds all that claims to wisdom and power in our world and day.
That charity and compassion is about our life in Christ in whom the love of God and man meet and have their fullest meaning. This is our reading and this is our witness and life. How do you read Christ? How do you understand his life in you? Our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving is our worship of God in Christ and that becomes our life. It belongs to the foolish yet greater wisdom and power of God that he uses us, all our weaknesses and pretensions notwithstanding, to reveal his will for our humanity. What stands in the way is only ourselves, our souls in ruins, our hearts in despair. It is as if we have forgotten how to read what God has given us to read, as if we have forgotten the love of God which moves our love for one another. To read Christ is to understand the unity of God and Man in the whole of the Scriptures. Without that unity, the Scriptures are nothing more than “a heap of broken images”, to use T.S. Eliot’s potent phrase. Such is the church in ruins.
We live in the ruins of the revolutions, the revolts against spiritual and intellectual life which paradoxically can only be understood through what is rejected. Alfred Döblin, returning to Berlin after an uncomfortable exile in America during World War II, found a Europe unwilling to hear what he had to say. What he had to say speaks to us. “You have to sit in the ruins for a long time and let them affect you, and feel the pain and the judgement.” We are the children of experience who have to confront the meaninglessness, the nihilism or willful nothingness, that we have chosen. Only so might we learn. It may be, as Döblin discovered, that we don’t want to hear and see. As he puts it, “you haven’t heard it. And if you heard it with your ears you didn’t comprehend it, and you’ll never comprehend it because you don’t want to.” It is a feature of contemporary culture, Alberto Manguel, observes, namely, “the readers unwillingness to hear.” Or the readers unwillingness to read, we might say. But here, in what you are doing is the counter to such willful despair. Here, where the Word is proclaimed and the Sacraments celebrated, is the vision of Christ which is the transformation of our humanity.
It is found in the radical meaning of worship signaled in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the Patristic reading of this parable, Christ is the good Samaritan who sees our wounded and broken humanity, robbed by sin and lying half-dead on the roadside between the earthly city, Jericho, and the heavenly city, Jerusalem. “And when he saw him he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, … and took care of him.” Notice the sequence, how the seeing leads to the doing. What happens is the rebuilding in love of our broken humanity. Such is the divine wisdom and power revealed in Christ. Such is the truth of our churches. It means taking God seriously and discovering the real truth of our humanity in lives of worship and sacrifice, alive to the care and compassion of Christ in us and with us. Instead of despair there is delight, a rebuilding in love out of the ruins of despair. It all turns on how you read.
How readest thou?
Fr. David Curry
Trinity XIII, August 21st, 2016
Old St. Edward’s, Clementsport – 219th Anniversary Year
95th Anniversary Service held on the Third Sunday in August