A Sermon by Greg Ledbetter preached on September 16, 2007
Year C/Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Texts : Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; Luke 15:1-10
In the coming week, summer will—sob with me now—officially come to an end. The seasonal dying and falling of nature is pressing upon us. But in these last days of summer, I wish to remember once more the poetry of the season … the way summer stirs us with its luxurious warmth and, for many of us, times of stillness and rest.
It is in summer that I am most likely to carry with me a collection of poetry … creative rhymes and rhythms of words that can send me just the way a warm summer evening or a fresh summer morning can send me. And of all the poems that summer inspires me to recall, there is one that stands out. Likely you are familiar it. And though I am not particularly inclined to turn to “religious poetry”, per se, this poem catches my spirit where it is … it speaks well for my heart’s turning in the season of the longest day:
GLORY be to God for dappled things,
For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow,
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls, finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced, fold, fallow and plough,
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange,
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;
“Glory be to God for dappled things …”
Many of you will know these words to be those of the English Victorian priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. For many people, this may be the only poem of Hopkins’ that they know. And of the man himself: almost nothing. But reading the poem, one could guess that Hopkins was one of these English poet/priests who loved nothing more than a walk in the gentle countryside of England … strolling amongst the blooming heather … lolling by a stream watching the trout flit in and out of the shadows of the overhanging bank … lying on his back watching the endless variations of clouds and sky. A gentle, sunny, nature-loving soul.
I have to admit that until recently, that’s what I thought I knew about Gerard Manley Hopkins. Yet somewhere in the back of my mind, I carried one other snippet of Hopkins’ verse. And this summer, for some reason, the snippet kept rising in my consciousness and I wondered to myself at the odd dissonance it created with the poem with which I was more familiar. The snippet goes like this:
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me?
Wow … what happened to “Glory be to God for dappled things …”? Clearly, as one might guess upon further reflection about any human soul, there was more to know about Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Thou art indeed just, Lord” is the title of the poem that is probably more representative of the inner life of this poet/priest than is “Pied Beauty”, the first poem I read.
Thou art indeed just, Lord
JUSTUS quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum;
verumtamen justa loquar ad te:
Quare via impiorum properatur? etc.
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners' ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build--but not I build; no, but strain,
Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
“Send my roots rain” … surely this is the cry of both drought stressed trees and other plants as well as lives and spirits who have gone too long without a sip at the fountain … without a cooling drench in the waters. Hopkins looks and sees all about him in late 19th century England … the conscience-less rich bleeding the poor of their very lifeblood … and he notes other poets and writers whose daily lives are like a wasteland of excess, churning out poetry and plays and novels while his own creative spark grows dim. Even nature, when he immerses himself in it, with its bounteous growth and vitality, seems to mock his gifts which seem to be drying up, which seem to lack the animating spark.
Looking back, it is clear that Gerard Manley Hopkins suffered from a crisis of faith—both his faith in his own creative abilities and his faith in the God he served so faithfully as a Jesuit priest. Others see also in Hopkins a clear indication of a bi-polar personality … manic-depression as it used to be known.
It is infinitely harder to look into the personality of the psalmist—particularly since the “psalmist” is, in fact, many “psalmists”, the sacred singers, composers and poets of Israel’s early worship. But clearly the composer of Psalm 14, which we sang together this morning, struggled with reconciling the seeming predominance of human cruelty and injustice coupled together with a flat rejection of the reality of God. And the backdrop of the psalmist’s cry is a profound faith that God can change all this, that God can set things aright … but that currently, God remains barricaded in heaven while all around the “wicked thrive and prosper.” “Why?” is the psalmist’s incessant cry.
In the soul struggling poetry of Hopkins and in the lament of the Psalmist, there is a certain bewilderment of the soul … a certain “lost-ness”. Certainly in Hopkins’ poetry there seems a great self-awareness of this “lost-ness”, this separation from the source of things. It is that same self-awareness of that disconnect and that great inner need that drove all of the wrong kinds of people to crowd around Jesus and drink up his every word. Water of life for the drought-weary soul.
And what was the message of Jesus? Hell-fire and damnation? Sinners in the hands of an angry God? Apparently not. Obviously not. Jesus spoke of a loving God who wished nothing more than to bridge the great divide between every human heart and God’s own being. Jesus spoke of GRACE. And he spoke of “repentance”, which is not to lacerate yourself until bleeding to death you are finally worthy of entering into the presence, but is simply and literally a “turning” and a “returning” … simply reorienting yourself until you stand in the presence of that great divine Grace upon which they had unwittingly turned their backs. “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling to you and to me …. Come home.” If you were an oft spit upon tax collector … if you were the town whore given the evil eye by “respectable people” every moment of every day … would not the gentle invitation to come into the non-judging presence of the one who has always loved you not cause you to draw near to its earthly source? To Jesus?
“I have come,” Jesus said, “not heal those who are ‘well’, but those who are ‘sick’.”
The religious authorities watch the impure and the unwashed throng to Jesus and it galls them. Just the presence of that many ritually impure souls in one place was enough to give them a collective case of the willys. It would be like Jerry Falwell (may he rest in, um, peace) it would be like Jerry Falwell at a NOW convention or me at a Southern Baptist Convention. While the crowds of the impure bothered the religious authorities, what really galled them was that it didn’t seem to faze Jesus at all. Not only did he not seem bothered by their presence, Jesus seemed to absolutely relish it.
There was no place more intimate and more sacred in Jewish culture than around the table. Perhaps more than even the temple itself, it was the table and the fellowship that happened around the table that was the heart of Judaism. And the leading complaint of the bystanding religious authorities is “this fellow welcomes sinners … and EATS with them!”
Do you remember my dear Vermont parishioner, Frances? Cigarette smoking in the church kitchen Frances? After she quit smoking, she became even more “peppery”, if that was possible. She loved to talk about her friends in town who were almost proud that they would not, under any circumstances, ever darken the doorway of the church. And in Frances’ mind, their reasoning was all the same: “Cause as everyone knows, the church is full of hypocrites!” At which Frances would always utter her famous comeback, “Yeah, well there’s always room for one more!!” And then she would cackle loudly. What she lacked in originality, she made up for with a certain crusty humor.
Hypocrites … literally, “actors” … or meaning more popularly “two-faced” … Jesus saved some of his harshest words for those who dwelt in the world with two faces. Their outer face was all loud, blaring piety for all the world to see … and fear. But their inner face was empty, tomb-like, devoid of light and love and grace. And the world may see your “outer face”, but we will always act out of our inner face … our inner space. It is why almost any who relish their religious “authority” will often have the appearance of acting on God’s behalf, but out of their tomb-like interior, act against the very God, the very grace they purport to represent. Jesus said to them: “‘Woe … to you … for you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them.”
It’s a bit like the way some of our more enlightened fundamentalist friends treat their gay and lesbian neighbors and children and fellow church members. They now will allow that some people are born gay, that is their un-chosen orientation, but they remind them that to act on that which is central to who they are is, yet, a grievous sin.
Because the religious authorities grumble that “this fellow welcomes sinners … and EATS with them!”, Jesus tells two stories. Painfully simple stories. Listening to Jesus, it seems that things of “highest heaven” are best told in the mundane details of earthly existence. A story of the pasture and a story of the household. A lost sheep and a lost coin. And the “actor” in the stories is the shepherd in the pasture and the woman in the household … the shepherd who will not accept that any of his charges should be lost and forgotten, and a keeper of a household who will not allow that anything of great value be left, abandoned behind without a complete and thorough search. Each actor in Jesus’ story is determined that the search will ONLY end when that which has been lost has been restored to its rightful place. The search will NEVER end until the search has been successful.
This seems to be at the heart of God as Jesus reveals God. God is the restless searcher who will not rest until all are found. And the really painful contrast in the stories is with the grumblers, God’s earthly representatives, who seem to have given up the search before it even started. And as I reread these oh-so-familiar texts for the umpteenth time, I begin to wonder if it is not the religious authorities who are, in fact, the sheep most lost and the coin most lost.
The problem with the Pharisees and the scribes, the grumbling religious authorities, is that they don’t recognize their own “lostness” … they will not consider that they are among the “lost” whom Jesus has come to save, the lost for whom God is also searching. It is psychologically easier to project one’s own barrenness, one’s own brokenness, one’s irredeemability on another, than to shine that bright light on the dry and empty spaces within. Gerard Manley Hopkins coined a word: “Inscape”. In part, inscape is our inner landscape … it is the human interior. Reading Manley’s inscape writ large in his poetry, you sense that he knew his brokenness, his barrenness—not that he was all broken and barren within. But witnessing the response of harshly judging religious authorities of any age and any stripe, you get the sad feeling that these are lost sheep who simply cannot face their own empty selves. They haven’t the courage to allow God into their “inscape” … their inner landscape.
In the last month, a rather stunning event occurred. A new book was released that has pretty much turned on our collective ears what we thought we knew about Mother Teresa, the merciful angel of Calcutta. The book is entitled: “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light”. It is a collection of notes and letters, written over a period of 66 years between Mother Teresa and her confessors and superiors. Teresa had requested that these letters be destroyed, but have been preserved by the church against her wishes. It remains to be seen whether this was the right or the wrong choice, but there’s no mystery as to why Mother Teresa made this request.
The letters tell with great bleakness and sadness that, for the final fifty years of her life, Teresa felt no presence of God or Jesus whatsoever. This is not in the least to say that she “lost her faith” or “lost faith”, it is to say that all of the ordinary means by which God’s Spirit had been made known to her in the first half of her life failed utterly to reveal God to her in her final fifty years.
Two things, at least, are remarkable in all of this. One is that Mother Teresa never gave up on her faith, never flagged in her observance of mass and the eucharist or times of corporate and solitary prayer. The other is that her extraordinary ministry of mercy steadily grew and grew throughout this entire time of barrenness. It was as though she had completely taken on Jesus’ own sense of forsakenness on behalf of those that all the world had forsaken. It is almost exactly as Paul wrote in Second Corinthians when he spoke of “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies”.
Near the end of John’s gospel, just following the so-called “doubting Thomas” episode, Jesus says to his disciples—and that’s all of us, including Mother Teresa and Gerard Manley Hopkins and you and me: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Have we the courage to face whatever dry emptiness there may be within, no matter what shows on the outside? And can we believe that God is the restless searcher who will not rest until all are found? That the heart of all that IS will not stop looking until YOU and I have been found? And having been found –and therefore found within ourselves the amazing grace that comes from having once been lost, but now found—can we project upon the world around us, tirelessly and without ceasing the inner grace and healing acceptance that God has given to us?
And perhaps we’ll never be the great inventive poet that Gerard Manley Hopkins was, but perhaps we’ll be able to affirm with him that:
THE world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
[from God's Grandeur]
Ah, summer is ending and fall is upon us, but fear not: the Spirit of God broods over us all with bright wings. And at God’s ever-expanding table of Grace, there’s always room for one more. Glory be to God. Amen.