27 March 2012

Yoder Prize Submission -- "Love Together: A moral-theological reflection"

VTS Dean and President Ian Markham wrote in his commentary today that "The Ronnie A. Yoder Scholarship was established ... as an invitation for VTS seminarians to reflect on the significance and centrality of love as the center for Christian theology, life, preaching, and practice, which can be a theme that unites the major world religions."

I am the very grateful recipient of the Yoder Prize this year, and I thought I'd post my submission here in case there is some interest in reading it. I'd like to thank my wonderful fiancée, Kristin Saylor, who teaches me more about love every day, and my parents, Joanne and Chris Oliver, for setting such a sterling example of "love that can last." Thanks also to Tim Sedgwick for much instruction (in class and by example) about how to write virtue ethics (and much more besides) and to Judge Yoder for his generous support of this scholarship.

08 March 2012

Sermon on Glory and Mercy, 2 Lent

Between field ed, the VTS chapel, and class, I have preached seven times in the last six weeks. That's all in six weeks' work for the average parish priest, but this seminarian is definitely ready for the break ahead. In the meantime, here's my final effort, from Sunday's readings (and collect!).

Many, many thanks to David Schlafer, who talked through it with me on Thursday and basically gave me all the good ideas.

PDF | Audio | Text:

“O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy …”1 So begins the collect for this, the second Sunday in Lent. It’s characteristic of our liturgical tradition that such a profound insight into the Christian faith and life—and indeed into the divine life—be relegated to the role of dependent clause in one of our common prayers. But perhaps that’s the charm and power of sticking our best theology in as asides in the sacred syntax, because it allows us to be surprised in the Spirit when we do stumble across them. That’s what happened to me this week when I read those words: “O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy.”

I was surprised because glory and mercy are two words we use a lot in church but seldom use together. Let’s spend a few minutes thinking about what they might mean. When I hear the former word, I think immediately of something like “fame and glory,” the glory of renown, of being thought of highly by others, of possessing admirable and perhaps enviable fortunes. Plenty of God’s servants possess this kind of glory in our Judeo-Christian tradition, especially the great kings David and Solomon. Of course, the biblical witness also speaks to the spiritual danger that accompanies such glory: the temptation to forget that we can possess it only partially. We learn, sometimes the hard way, that whatever glory we may come into should ultimately be ascribed to God, the source of all good gifts. The kings of Israel lost touch with that important truth, to their own detriment and, we are told, to their nation’s.

So there’s a second, related sense of glory for us to consider then: God’s own glory, to which Solomon’s temple and our modern-day cathedrals and basilicas are meant merely to point. Indeed, the image of God being worshiped for all eternity in the heavenly temple by choirs of angels and the communion of saints is the ultimate expression of this idea. We need “sounding trumpets’ melodies”2 to wrap our hearts around this idea of glory, plus the best poetry we can muster. My fallback association, perhaps somewhat modest by St. Paul’s standards, is Calvin Hampton’s shimmering setting of Canticle 18, a text that reads, in part:

Splendor and honor and kingly power

are yours by right, O Lord our God, …

And so, to [you] who sit[] upon the throne, …

Be worship and praise, dominion and splendor,

for ever and for evermore.

Another song of God’s glory is the well-known hymn by Walter Chalmers Smith:

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,

in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,

most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,

almighty, victorious, thy great Name we praise.

Hopefully one of these associations puts a glorious melody in your head. If not, rumor has it there’s a music lover or two in this parish, and perhaps they can help you out with another possibility. But they might hesitate if you asked for their help today, wouldn’t they? These aren’t exactly Lenten melodies we’re talking about. Surely this notion of glory is the stuff of Easter and Ascension. In our current season of examination and repentance, we’re not too likely to sing anything triumphantly, jubilantly, or—here’s my favorite, from a poem by Edward Taylor—“seraphic-wise.” It somehow wouldn’t feel quite right, all that glory. Not right now.

Mercy, on the other hand, is never far from our thoughts this time of year. We heard of it in Genesis and Romans this morning. Though Sarah’s womb was barren and Abraham’s body “already good as dead,”3 these two great ancestors nevertheless “hop[ed] against hope”4 for the mercy of God’s deliverance. And God, in turn, promises them bounty beyond their wildest dreams. Part of Paul’s point in our reading from Romans is that Abraham and Sarah’s story is our story too. By God’s mercy, we Christians too claim an inheritance in God’s promises of covenant loyalty. Of each of us, then, can it be said, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”5

Of course, the mercy we receive from our Lord is wider by far than just this sense of deliverance from need and despair. Probably the aspect of God’s mercy that is most with us in this season is mercy as regards our guilt from “dust and sin.”6 And more often than not, we reflect on our state in a minor key, and the emotional tone of our reflection is the humility of a “troubled spirit” and a “broken and contrite heart.”7

In that vein, I’m grateful again for the musical witness of Calvin Hampton in a different composition. He re-set a profound meditation on God’s mercy with a dignity of melody and tempo that better matches the emotional character of Lent than the more well-known tune it replaces:

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea;

there’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.

There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good;

there is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in his blood.

If you know it, you know it’s an almost haunting tune, insistent but understated. And indeed, mercy as the gospels understand it is a very humble thing, seemingly disconnected from the grandeur and the splendor and the trumpets. Quietness and trust are the name of the game in this forty-day celebration of God’s loving mercy. Perhaps most of all, the saying that springs unbidden to my mind on the subject of mercy is from the calling of Matthew. The disciples are taking some flack for Jesus’s habit of associating with tax collectors and other riff-raff, but Jesus overhears them and says this: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’’’8

Go and learn what this means. It’s an odd thing, really, telling them to go when the best place for them to learn the lesson would seem to be that very meal, with those very sinners, from the very man who said, “Blessed are the merciful.” But maybe his telling them to go has a different meaning. That’s the sense I get from our gospel reading today, on this day when we celebrate the God whose glory it is always to have mercy. The story comes from the great pivot point of Mark’s gospel. Immediately before our passage from today, we hear Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah. And so the curtain falls on Mark’s Act I, because finally even the thick-skulled disciples get it. When the curtain comes up today, we first hear this: “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”9

It is simply not in Jesus’s vocation to hang around reveling in the glory of messiahship. Once the disciples understand that he is the Christ, he strikes out toward Jerusalem on his final journey, his great errand of mercy. In case we don’t get the point, Mark says practically the same thing again in the next chapter in the story of the transfiguration. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings.”10 No, Jesus says, it is not yet time for me to reign in glory. Or, if you prefer, from today’s lesson: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”11

You can’t understand glory until you understand mercy. That’s what Jesus says to us again and again and again. And so he tells us to “go and learn what this means,” just like he went and showed us for himself. I love trumpets and temples and the transfiguration, but I am also convinced that the glory of the Almighty and Everliving God cannot exist apart from the humility of the ever-merciful one who became obedient to the point of helplessness and death.12 And so at the heart of Mark’s gospel lies the paradoxical truth that is at the heart of our faith and the heart of our God: blessed are the merciful, exalted are the humble, worthy is the lamb. We can’t understand glory until we understand mercy because there is no greater glory than to have mercy. This Lent, as we follow Jesus on the road to complete his glorious act of mercy, may we listen to his charge: “Go, and learn what this means.”

1Book of Common Prayer, 166.

2Edward Taylor, “Meditation Twenty,” Sacramental Meditations. See also the stunning Gerald Finzi choral setting.

3Romans 4:19.

4Romans 4:18.

51 Peter 2:10.

6George Herbert, “Love,” The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250–1900.

7Psalm 51:18.

8Matthew 9:12–13.

9Mark 8:31.

10Mark 9:5.

11Mark 8:33.

12See Philippians 2:6–8.