The Eigth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9a)
6 July 2008
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Stephen Harding
O God, who hast taught us to keep all thy commandments by loving thee and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to thee with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I want to begin by wishing everyone a good Fourth of July weekend. I hope that, wherever you were, you were able to celebrate and to see fireworks. My family and I were fortunate in being able to see the Macy’s fireworks spectacular over the East River. They were glorious – and loud. This year there were fireworks that were new to me: the ones that hung in the air like Japanese lanterns or sconces suspended in the sky. They hung in the misty sky at night for a long time and there was a moment to breathe, and to see and absorb that the sky had been painted with light - and then the usual explosions and bursts of color took over again.
I wondered what our son, Theo, at 18 months, would make of these fireworks – these appearing and disappearing flashes and explosions revealed in the sky: he watched for a while, smiled, said ‘fireworks’, and then was ready to sleep.
I also found myself wondering how the fireworks makers know how much powder to put in, how they get the colors to sparkle, and how they know how to get the height just right, and I’m sure that there is both a long history of physics and mathematics that go into their calculations – after all, what we know as fireworks are the civilian versions of artillery shells – even more calculations, and I’m not going there…
But this theme of knowing stayed with me as I read the lectionary selections for today, and in reading the passage of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (7:21-8:6) for this morning, I found myself wondering first, how we know the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong, and then secondly, what is the process through which we know anything at all.
‘Know thyself’ says Shakespeare (Hamlet, Act 1, scene 3)(1); the search to know oneself and God is the subject of St. Augustine’s Confessions; ‘no-one knows the Son except the Father, and no-one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’ writes St. Matthew (11:27b).
What is this verb, to know? How do we know? I remember providing my answer that I worked out in my head in my seventh grade math tests, but being marked down for not showing each step that I took to get there. My answer was clear (it may not have been correct); the steps I took to get there were less interesting – what is that process called?
We may know that the Gospel of Matthew was written during the last third of the first century and is a manual of Christian teaching(2); and that the Letter to the Romans was written between 54 and 58 CE(3) and we may know something of the time and communities for which they were written, but how, reading them, do we come to know what to do; and then, knowing what is right, how do we know when we aren’t doing it – or when we are?
It may be no surprise to you to learn that I like word games. When I can, I like working out the anagrams in the ‘Jumble’ puzzle in the newspaper. These are four ordinary words that have been ‘jumbled’ to form anagrams – the challenge is to recognize the word, write it in it’s correct spelling, and then solve a larger anagram based on letters taken from the preceding words.
There is no conscious thought that takes place that I’m aware of when I solve these anagrams. I look at the letters, rearrange them in my mind, and suddenly, the word is there, formed and whole and recognizable as a word in English. How does that process work? How do I or you look at something that appears unintelligible and make sense out of it?
[For example, how do you arrive at your solution to this problem: You are presented with a cake and told that you have to cut the cake into eight pieces. However, you can only cut the cake three times – how do you come up with the answer?]
Both the answer and how you got there are what I am trying to get to when I ask how dowe know.
Sometimes when I’m working something out, I reach a point where I’m stuck and can’t visualize the next step or the solution – the best thing I can do is to walk away from the problem and let it digest. Then, when I come back to it, the solution presents itself from a new perspective.
Logic, rational thought, the clear presentation of facts, intuition, and inspiration are all processes of knowing that may lead us to suddenly see what is hidden and make sense of it - but how do we use any or all of these to try to answer the question, ‘how do we know God?’
Looking at today’s Gospel, this verb ‘to know’ that St. Matthew uses actually means ‘to know fully’, i.e., ‘no-one fully knows the Son/knows the Son fully except the Father, and no-one fully knows the Father/knows the Father fully except the Son, and anyone to who the Son chooses to reveal him.’
Earlier in today’s text, Matthew writes ‘I thank you, Father, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.’
In both cases, the verb ‘reveal’ is (apokalupto) – to reveal, to uncover, to unveil – not demurely reveal, but to unveil the apocalypse. When Christ dies on the cross, the temple veil is ripped in two, and the Holy of Holies in the temple – the Ark of the Covenant – is revealed for all to see.
The presence of God is seen in the temple at the time of Christ’s death; ‘the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised…And the centurion said, truly, this man was God’s Son.’ (Mt 27:51-52;54c)
This is the revelation of who Jesus is – the unveiling of the Divine presence at the time of His death: Jesus is the revelation – the revealing – of God.
The fireworks – the explosions, the earth shaking, the dead being raised: All this carried by that word, ‘reveal’. With such connotations, one might expect Jesus’ next words to continue in that apocalyptic manner, requiring death, or sacrifice, or having to choose right now what it is that one is going to do –
‘Come unto me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’
We expect something else. The ‘rest’ that we hear the first time is a verb – ‘I will give you a place in which you can rest as a conscious action – perhaps one can put as much effort into actively resting as one has in working… And finally, we hear ‘For my yoke is easy (chrestos, useful, good, kind) and my burden is not heavy.’
All this from one little passage: to understand and to know that something of the nature of God is revealed – and to know that the nature of God is not what we’re expecting: that part of God’s nature is to give us a place where we can actively rest (verb); for ‘I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ (Mt.11:29b)
The revelation of Christ in this world is us- us to whom Christ has chosen to reveal Himself, and us who He has chosen for Himself. This means that God, in and through Christ, is alive in some part of us.
As St. Augustine said, this living God in us makes it possible to know God; to know ourselves to be the vehicles for God, and, in so knowing ourselves to be of God, to be able to follow God and to do what is good.
To conclude with St. Augustine’s words,
‘If you are truly the Body of Christ, it is the Sacrament of your selves upon the altar; the Sacrament of your selves that you receive. Receive who you are, and become who you receive.”(4)
The Reverend Stephen Harding
© 2008 Stephen Harding