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Imitating the Redemptive Servanthood of Jesus

This is the December 2, 2022, ordination sermon by the Rev. Canon Dr. Christopher Brown

 

Dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error. 
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre- 
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

So writes T.S. Eliot.  Like our five ordinands this morning, Eliot was a convert to Anglicanism.  He attended All Saints, Margaret Street, a well-known Anglo-Catholic parish in London; he would have been totally at home in this service. At Eliot’s conversion, his unflinching gaze at the dispirited modernism of post-World War I Europe gave way to immersion in the eloquent Christ-centered devotion of the English Divines of the 17th century. From then on, his embrace of Christianity lay behind everything he did. And not the least, his final work, a series of four poems, entitled “The Four Quartets.” The fragment you just heard comes from the fourth of these poems, “Little Gidding.”

Each of the quartets focuses on one of the four classical elements, Earth, Air, Water and Fire.  In “Little Gidding,” Elliot invokes fire, a “flame of incandescent terror.” It was 1942. German bombs had rained down fire upon England, rendering its urban neighborhoods a smoking ruble.  Fire is a biblical image of judgement – as when Isaiah speaks of the place of divine wrath “where worm shall not die and their fire shall not be quenched.” (Isaiah 66:24)

But fire is also an image of the cleansing power and presence of the Holy Spirit – as when tongues of fire rested on the disciples at Pentecost. So Eliot says “Dove descending breaks the air,” invoking the Spirit descending at the baptism of Jesus.  In “Little Gidding,” Eliot speaks of both aspects of fire at the same time – the incandescent terror of judgement and the descending dove of the spirit, “The only hope, or else despair, lies in the choice of pyre or pyre - to be redeemed from fire by fire.” We choose between judgment or the outpouring of God’s Spirit, that in the end we are to be redeemed from one by the other, delivered from the fire of judgement by the cleansing fire of the Holy Spirit.

We are here today, as this liturgy of ordination, to witness as the “dove descending breaks the air, with a flame of incandescent terror.” (Terror because every genuine encounter with the raw power and presence of God in the Spirit is a thing of terror as well as joy and rapture.) This takes place as the bishop lays his hands on the heads of each of our ordinands and calls the Holy Spirit upon them to equip them for ministry in God’s Church.

 We are here to witness – to give our assent (we are not mere passive spectators) – to what Paul speaks of when he urges Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:6-7)

For God to call us into his service in this way is no small thing. This morning, the Lord says to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5) Jeremiah seems a bit undone by all this. For him, the call be God’s prophet is a “flame of incandescent terror” – it is more than he can manage. “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” (v.6)

We all have our stories. Thirty-six years and sixth months ago, almost to the day, on June 1, 1985, Bishop John Coburn ordained fourteen of us as deacons at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston, just down the hill from the golden dome of the Massachusetts Statehouse. As the bishop took his hands off my head and I received my Bible and took my place with the other ordinands, I burst into tears – and I am not a crying sort of person.  Quite involuntarily a voice in my head said, “how could God do this? me of all people?” I still feel that way sometimes – I will glance at myself in the mirror and see this guy in a black suit and white collar and thinning rumpled hair, and I think, “is that really me?” There is something slightly absurd about God’s call of any of us. But the thing that I have come to learn is what Paul says in the Epistle this morning, “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.” (2 Corinthians 4:5)

And so Jeremiah says, “the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’” (Jeremiah 1:7) What has carried me these thirty-six years – and I know the same is true of Bishop Sumner, and Canon Victor Austin (who was in my seminary class) and many other priests of our generation, is the Word that God has put in our mouths.  It is not about us, so much as the one to whom we witness - as absurd as our own calling still may seem. The same will be true for the five white-robed young (and medium-young) men in the front row.

To go back to T.S. Eliot: each of his four quartets is named after particular place.  Little Gidding is a spot in the English countryside. There is an aging stone manor, on the grounds of which is a small medieval church dedicated to St. John. In 1620, a man name Nicholas Ferrar bought the property.  He and his relatives had invested in the Virginia Company, which ultimately collapsed and cost them the family fortune. The Ferrars seem to have been shaken by the futility and precariousness of the pursuit of wealth and power, and they retired to Little Gidding to devote themselves to the life of prayer. In 1626 Nicholas was ordained as a deacon by Bishop William Laud (not yet Archbishop of Canterbury). He never was called to go on to be ordained to the priesthood. Under his leadership, the family transformed the old rambling property into a religious community centered on regular recitation of the psalms and the prayer book services of Morning and Evening Prayer. Puritan detractors called the Little Gidding community a “Protestant Nunnery,” but it wasn’t a monastery or religious order. It was a residential fellowship centered on an ordered pattern of prayer.  Ever since, Little Gidding has been an icon of the Anglican spiritual life in practice.  And at least for us, Nicholas Ferrar, whose feast day we observe today, was the most significant deacon in the history of the Church between Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century and today.

Today we ordain Dave, Cody, Matt, Michael and Daniel – as “dove descending breaks the air, with a flame of incandescent terror” and makes them deacons within the three-fold apostolic order of ministry. Only Dave – like Nicholas Ferrar – will remain a deacon. Six months from now, Bishop Sumner will ordain the others to the priesthood.  But that does not make this ordination any less important for them than for Dave.

The other day, a priest in the diocese told me that all too many priests she has known look on their intervening time as deacons as a sort of ecclesiastical purgatory. This, I agreed, is unfortunate. More and more, I have become convinced how crucial it is that every priest begin as a deacon, and retain their diaconal identity even after ordination to the priesthood.

In the Gospel this morning, the disciples get into a discussion about which of them is the greatest. You can imagine how exasperated Jesus must be to witness this display of ego and unfettered careerism.  He says, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-26) In the original Greek, the phrase “one who serves” – is “ho diakonon.” A deaconos, that is a “deacon,” is a servant, and the verb diakoneo, means “to serve.”

Jesus goes on to say “I am with you as one who serves” – o diakonos. It would have been helpful if Jesus explained what that service was supposed to look like, since he is the model that they – and we –are to follow. But we can take our cue from the context. It is the Last Supper; the next day Jesus will offer himself up for the sins of the world – an act which is, in Eliot’s phrase, the “one discharge from sin and error.” The other Gospels place our story (or perhaps one like it) earlier on the road to Jerusalem. After Jesus has said “the greatest among you must be your servant,” he goes on, “for even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Again, not only is Jesus the servant; what that looks like is his death on the cross, by which, as Eliot says, we are “redeemed from fire by fire” – from the fire of judgement, and by the cleansing fire of the Spirit.

God calls us to imitate the humility and self-offering of Jesus. Without the continuing servanthood of a deacon, the exercise of spiritual authority – of a priest over a parish, or bishop over a diocese – degenerates into the unpleasant spectacle of the disciples arguing over who was the greatest. Unless we remain deacons, or servants, we end up “lording it over others, like the Kings of the gentles,” and discredit the Gospel before God and the world. To strive not to be served but serve is not just to become kind, considerate, compassionate and just; in our service, our diakonia, we become living sermons in space and time. Our service is the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his saving death as a ransom for many – through which all are “redeemed from fire by fire.”

 

 

 

 

The Universe as God?

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”

So said Joseph Campbell, an English professor from Sarah Lawrence College, and author of a celebrated book about comparative mythology entitled, “Hero with a Thousand Faces.”  Shortly before he died in 1987, he gave a series of interviews with PBS personality, Bill Moyers, which were aired as the “Power of Myth,” and which gave wide exposure to his ideas. (George Lucas credited Campbell as one of the principal influences behind his “Star Wars” saga.)

Campbell derived his key notion of “bliss” from the Sanskrit word, ananda, which is the bliss of absolute being or God-consciousness.  Campbell says that if we are to pursue such bliss then the “universe” will respond by opening doors and offering new possibilities – as if the universe were something personal, active, and purposeful. 

This personal, even anthropomorphic, way of speaking about the universe was not so common in the seventies and eighties when Joseph Campbell came into prominence. Today people frequently speak this way about of the universe.

“The universe has judged you. You asked it for a prize, and it [the universe] told you no.” These are the words of Gamora, the green alien in the 2018 Marvel blockbuster film, “Avengers: Infinity War.”  Gamora is speaking like any number of people today who want to affirm a vaguely conceived spiritual foundation to our lives, and invoke the whole of everything – the universe – in the same way others are more likely to speak directly of God.

This way of talking about the universe is all over the internet. Aglowlifestyle.com describes itself as “a small but impactful spirituality website that aims to help people live a life they love by cultivating their spiritual lives.”  One posting asks, “Does the universe care about us?” and goes on to say, “it cares about us because we are a part of it. It’s not external to us; it’s within us, and it connects everything. It’s the ‘god’ that is within all of us.” 

The writer identifies the universe with a divine inner self within each of us (like the Hindu, atman). At same time, the universe comes across as an overarching personal divinity who is said to “care about us.” In fact, the universe even seems to have a purpose for us in the same way that Christians and Jews speak about God, “Yes, the universe does have a plan for you. It has a plan for you, everyone on this planet, and the entire human race. There is not one person that the universe does not care about.”

We might be inclined to think of this as a harmless way of substituting the word “universe” for “God” in a secular culture in which people are no longer comfortable talking about “God” – when in fact, we are still talking about the same thing. And certainly, to speak of the universe as a sort of stand-in for God has a conveniently non-sectarian aspect to it.  But it rests on a profound misconception. We simply cannot equate the universe with God. This identification is completely inadequate to designate what we mean – and who we mean – by “God.”

God Reveals Himself in Nature

In the Epistle to the Romans the apostle Paul writes, “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made,” (Romans 1:20).  Paul asserts that the natural order, “the universe,” reveals God’s “eternal power and divine nature” In the same way, the psalm proclaims, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1)

Paul makes a similar point in Acts 14, when he tells the citizens of Lystra to “turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them...he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons.” (Acts 14: 15, 17) Paul says that the creation is a “witness” to the living God. And who cannot pass through the beauty of the Adirondacks that lie at the center of Diocese of Albany and not take note of that witness?

Hence, we can say that it is possible to see God in the physical universe. But that is very different from saying that God IS the universe. The scriptures stress that in discerning the “glory of God” in the natural creation, we perceive a sort of watermark, an indicator, of the God who made the creation. Like the labels on our shirts that say “Made in China,” these signs of glory point away from the creation to its source. Psalm 19 says that great expanse of the sky is God’s “handiwork.” In so far as God is the great artisan, like any craftsman or artist, he pours something of himself into this workmanship.  But the thing that is made is distinct from its maker.

Over the course of time, human beings have shown a curious tendency to blur the distinction between creation and the creator, between the universe and the God spoke it into being. When Paul in Romans speaks of how God’s “eternal power and divine nature” may be “clearly perceived in the things that have been made” this is basis for his indictment of paganism and idolatry.  Yes, the creator is discernable in creation.  But as result, says Paul, “they are without excuse,” because human beings all too often fail to acknowledge the holiness of God - his essential quality of being set apart or distinct from the world.  Instead, they confuse the creation with the creator. Says Paul “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator,” (Romans 1:21-22).

Paganism Old and New

In his great work, The City of God, Augustine describes at length the intricacies of Roman paganism. Ploughing the opening sections of the book, one finds oneself thinking, “when is the good bishop going to get around actually to talking about Christianity?” But in fact, Augustine is engaged in a powerful social critique of his own age, which, in some ways, mirrors our own. Drawing on the exposition of myth and religion by the Roman writer, Varro, Augustine shows that the problem of polytheism is not merely that the Romans worship “cleverly devised myths” (2 Peter 1:16), honoring as gods what are not gods at all. Ultimately what lay behind Roman paganism was that same confusion of the creation with creator that Paul speaks about.  Roman pagans, says Augustine,

“…believed that religious worship should be offered to the order of nature which [in reality] is organized under the rule and government of the one true God. But such worship is due only to that God; and thus these Romans were, in the words of the Apostle, ‘serving the created order, instead of the Creator, who is blessed for all eternity”

Augustine recognized that the more sophisticated Romans were not truly polytheists, but saw the multiplicity of gods - Mars, Mercury, Juno, Saturn, and so on - as manifestations of one God, Jupiter the king of the Gods, who in turn subsumed in himself the entire creation. “If Jupiter is to be a god and, above all, if he is to be the king of gods, we are bound to identify him with the world, so that he may reign over the other gods who are, according to this theory, parts of himself.”

As king of the gods who are “parts of himself” Jupiter is identified with the world itself.  In this sophistical Roman paganism, says Augustine, “God is the Soul of the World, or as the Greeks say, the cosmos, and this world itself is God,” and again, “God is the Soul of the World, and the world itself is God.” It is usual among the pagans, says Augustine, “to attribute the whole universe to Jupiter; hence the poet says, ‘The whole universe is filled with Jupiter,’” (oddly similar and yet so different from Psalm 19:1 quoted above).

Nothing New Under the Sun

It is evident that ancient Roman religion was far more subtle than most Christians realize. This is why it tenaciously maintained the loyalty of the Roman educated classes, much as eastern mysticism and the new paganism appeal to many educated people in our own society, who are attracted by many of the same underlying ideas.

As Solomon said, “there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) We see here that the modern predilection to speak of universe in the way people traditionally have spoken of God mirrors almost exactly the sophisticated paganism that was prevalent in the early Christian centuries. At its core is that same ancient error of confusing the creation with the creator. For as Augustine insisted, “The true religion distinguishes Creator from creature.”

This leads Augustine to make an almost credal confession – and one in which we can whole-heartedly share:

“We worship God, not the sky and the earth, which are the two elements of which this world consists; we do not worship a soul, or souls, diffused through all living beings; we worship God, who made the sky and the earth and everything that exists in them, who made every soul, the souls which simply exists in some manner, without sensibility or reason, and sentient souls as well, and those endowed with intelligence.”

 

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This blog is written by the Rev. Dr. Christopher Brown, the Canon to the Ordinary for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.