Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sermon August 7, 2016

“The drenching light and coolness were like a spring morning, early morning a minute or two before sunrise.” … “For a moment, there was silence under the cedar trees … ” It’s amazing but never surprises me to read there are cedar trees in heaven, at least the outskirts where it’s always an early spring morning, and where new arrivals are met by an acquaintance, colleague, friend or loved one from the old time. 

2308, heaven to me, my old family homestead was, in my earliest memories, ringed with cedar trees. On the west side my father cut one cedar down as too close to the house, and over the years hurricanes took some. My best cedar was a torn and mutilated, storm-ravaged old monstrosity down within a few feet of StAndrewsBay, that I called “My Laughing Place” - - my refuge from life and the world in heaviest moments. It was liminal space, one of those places where the line between time and eternity, the gap between heaven and earth, is so thin that angels come and go and God is near, the Holy Spirit always there, present for me, as I stood under, leaning against that old cedar tree. 

“Now faith is substance, the assurance of things hoped for,” asserts the Hebrews reading, “evidence, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is not certainty, because if you know, if you can see it, you don’t need faith and hope, it’s already there; and so our lesson this morning, from Hebrews, is about Faith. 

I pray your faith has a laughing place, a place and space to encounter God. Perhaps your “thin space” is this room right here, and I will tell you that this is liminal for me, as in my growing up years was immersion in Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and with those who shared in my life, the love and Being and presence of God in faith and liturgy.

Of course, if you are hoping for something, that means you believe in the at least possible existence of who- or whatever it is you expect will make it so: as our Collect for Purity, “ … cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,” and sometimes aspersion, sprinkling holy water, to recall baptism, washes us ritually clean as we present ourselves to God in worship, cleansed in water and word by faith.

In C.S. Lewis’ story The Great Divorce (I’ve told this here before, but it’s my favorite so you might as well get used to hearing it because I’m not done yet) in The Great Divorce a pompous English bishop who was sent to Hell for self-centered, obdurate apostasy, has taken the overnight bus from Hell up to Heaven. The bus arrives with the dawn of a beautiful day in paradise, and the bishop’s ghost is met by a Solid Spirit whose name is Dick, a friend and colleague he had known during life on earth. The bishop has not changed, which is why he went to Hell in the first place, and he is pompous, arrogant and certitudinous as ever as he exudes, “My dear boy, I’m delighted to see you.” 

There is a long conversation through which Dick tries fervently but with hopeless frustration to persuade the bishop to stay on in Heaven instead of going back to Hell. Near the end, exasperated, Dick says, “I am telling you to repent and believe.”

“But my dear boy,” says the bishop’s ghost,” I believe already. Our orthodoxies may differ, but you have completely misjudged me if you do not realize that my religion is a very real and a very precious thing to me.”

“We know nothing of religion here,” says Dick, “we know nothing of speculation (or faith, or hope, because all is fulfilled). Come and see. I will bring you to Eternal Fact, the Father of all other fact-hood." Come with me.

“I should object very strongly to describing God as a ‘fact,’ says the episcopal ghost. “The Supreme Value would be a better description.”

Astonished, Dick asks, “Do you not even believe that He exists?”

“Exists?” says the ghost, “My dear boy, what does existence mean? God for me is something purely spiritual. The spirit of sweetness and light and tolerance and -er - service, Dick, service.” 

He goes on, “Bless my soul, I’d almost forgot, of course I can’t stay, of course I can’t go with you,” as he remembers that next Friday he is to present to a little Theological Society in Hell, a paper he has written on how much better Christianity would have been if Jesus, instead of foolishly, impetuously sacrificing himself at such a young age, had been more patient, and grown to maturity, and reached his full stature; and that this idea makes one feel what a disaster Calvary was, a tragic waste, and deepens the significance of the Crucifixion, so much promise cut short. 

As Dick, the Solid Spirit, turns away in sad discouragement, the “bishop” says, “Oh, must you go? Well, so must I. Goodbye, my dear boy, it has been a great pleasure, stimulating and provocative, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye” and heads back to the bus for the return trip to Hell, humming “City of God, how broad and far.”

Especially C.S. Lewis, but also Tolkien, and Harry Golden, and Harry Potter, and other stories have charmed and blessed me, I have been so encouraged in life by their writings. They, along with the children and love-soaked walls of Holy Nativity Episcopal School in my time there, and even still when I slip in for a walk down the halls, have given my faith - - thin places to feel the presence of the Creator. 

Another Lewis tale has been as real to me -  

The grand finale, the concluding story in The Chronicles of Narnia, is book number seven, The Last Battle. In the final setting, all the characters in all the Narnia stories meet in Asland’s Land, where life on earth is done and Jesus is King. Everyone is there but Susan, one of the four original Pevensie children. Susan was along in the beginning, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and again with High King Peter, and Queen Lucy and King Edmund in Prince Caspian: the Return to Narnia. But of everyone we have loved in the stories, Susan is not there at the end. She is missed, her absence grieved; but it was her own choice and decision: like the pompous bishop of that other story, Susan grew too sophisticated and worldly to believe in the stories and the Hope they offer; and so Susan no longer is. Whereas the bishop’s ghost blithely went to Hell in the ignorance of a fool who knows not and knows not he knows not, Susan Pevensie, once a Queen of Narnia, grew too sophisticated to believe in stories; and by her own choice has simply faded into oblivion.   

Like Susan Pevensie and the bishop’s ghost, I too am nobody’s fool. I love the stories, including the Nativity, and ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, and the Easter Bunny and the empty tomb of the Resurrection. I love to read and tell the stories and sing the songs, but I’m no freshman, I am a sophomore in life, a wise fool. To keep myself mindful of who and what I am, and the eternal danger in which I stand, I style myself “Doubting Thomas Too.”

I’ll conclude this morning by reminding myself, and testifying foolishly, embarrassingly, self-consciously once again, that — I AM, the Great I AM, spoke to me personally in my human years: in a liminal moment, “I AM speaking to you, Tom Weller.” I was there. I heard it. Do I really believe that? Was it God? I don’t know. I do not know. God stands within the shadow, did God really speak to me? Can I explain it any other way? United Methodist bishop, author, professor, and theologian William H. Willimon once wrote (rather mystically I felt at the time) that if you cannot explain it any other way, it probably was not God. But I can explain it a dozen other ways. I choose to believe.

Faith is — “hypostasis” is the Greek word in Hebrews — hypostasis, the substance, the assurance — not of certainty, but of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. A Voice, the Word of God, is my evidence. Not “proof” in a worldly sense, and surely not for you, because you were not there and did not hear. And it’s not your story. It’s my story, part of my story, Doubting Thomas, skeptic, knowing nothing, certain of nothing, but with hypostasis, substance, the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, it’s my choice, and I choose to believe. 

That’s my story: how about your story? You have your own story to seek and be found, to choose, and to believe or not. Will you come with me?

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Quotations from C.S. Lewis, "The Great Divorce." Mostly from chapter 5, the Ghost in Gaiters

"City of God ..." is not in The Hymnal 1982. Tune is "Richmond" Hark! the glad sound! the Savior comes

Sermon Sunday, August 7, 2016, Holy Nativity Episcopal Church, Panama City, Florida. The Rev. Tom Weller. Proper 14C. Text: Hebrews Chapter 11. TW+

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