Tuesday, December 24, 2013

This Strange Intrusion

Sermon preached on St. Thomas' Day, December 21, 2013, at a Eucharist giving thanks for fifty year anniversary of the ordination to the priesthood of The Rev. Peter W. Peters.  Habakkuk 2:1-4, John 20:24-29

            It is as if back in the dim recesses of liturgical history where mere mortals fear to tread, someone decided that Christmas needed not to be so happy.  So this person
The Very Rev. Michael Hopkins, The Rev. Dr. Peter Peters, The Rev. Canon Julie Cicora
surrounded the great feast of the Babe of Bethlehem with doubt, martyrdom, exile, and the murder of innocent children.  Merry Christmas!
            St. Thomas’ Day is a strange intrusion into our last preparations for Christmas.  But, of course, we should immediately recognize the work of God here.  This strange intrusion has God’s fingerprints all over it.  And the birth we are about to celebrate, as sweet as it is, is it not the feast of the strangest intruder of all?
            In a well-known and dare I say well-loved passage, the prophet Habakkuk speaks for God:  “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.  For there is still a vision for the appointed time…”  The prophet is somewhat cagey about just what this vision is.  He rails against injustice.  “The very stones will cry out from the wall…” against it, he says.  At length he ridicules idolatry.  “Alas for you who say to the wood, ‘Wake up!’”
            At the end of chapter two Habakkuk gives us all that he is going to give.
But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silent before him!
            That the vision may need to be an urging for us to shut up and listen is itself a strange intrusion.  We are all about words.  Words, words, words, and these days in our prayers it seems the wordier the better.  Yet the vision is that our first impulse is to become silence.  Good luck with that, and I do not mean just our hero for the evening, Peter.  It is a message for all of us, this preacher included.
But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silent before him!
            Of all people—since he wrote a lot of words—John Calvin seemed to know this.  He at least knows there is a limit to intelligence and the words it produces.  He once wrote, “There is no worse screen to block out the Spirit than our own intelligence.”[1]  I certainly do not think that is an anti-intellectual remark, but our intelligence, Calvin is saying, always needs to be checked before God.  We must learn to listen as eloquently as we speak.
            Perhaps this was Thomas’ problem.  Poor old Thomas and the label “doubter” he carries about.  It should not be lost on us that his doubt leads to faith.  Doubt is not the same thing as rejection, it is more akin to curiosity.  It is one step on a journey.  It can be, of course, and often is, participating in the idolatry of our own intelligence.  In the midst of it we need, like Thomas got, a strange intrusion that strikes us “dumb” (pun intended), again like Thomas, who blurts out a few words but then is smart enough—or perhaps dumb enough—to keep quiet.
            It is, perhaps, easy to rib our friend and colleague Peter for a reliance on intelligence and words.  And I think he would be the first to tell you (although I guess I actually am) that one of the gifts of 50 years of priesthood has been that words are not always the best response, especially if you want grace to get in the door.
            And Peter is about grace.  It is his theological heart, as it was Calvin’s, and, in the end, Thomas’.  Grace may just be the word we use for the act of strange intrusion God makes into our lives, offered freely to us by Jesus and sealed forever by the Holy Spirit.  Grace is, indeed a strange thing, and an intrusive thing, when, in a world of competition and status and the idolatry of the self-made person, unmerited and unearned love arrives at our feet as a gift.  When the simple words, “You are loved,” are spoken, and our impulse is to say, “but…”  And the finger of grace appears at God’s lips and delivers Habakkuk’s vision, “The Lord is in his holy temple.  Just be quiet.”  Any protest you or anybody else wants to make about your unworthiness disappears into the silence, until the vision actually does become plain.
            Peter you have shared this vision with us, and for that we are grateful, to God and to you.  And we are grateful that we have been able to share it with you.  You know well one of the great realities of priesthood, that we who are ordained need our doubt encouraged into faith as much as anyone.  The significant impact between us has been mutual and the strange intruder has been in the midst of it all the time.
            I know that talk of the special grace of ordination is pushing your low church convictions just a bit, but, hey, you asked me to preach, and I have never pretended to have anything other than a catholic heart.  But the special grace of ordination is not about the faculty to bless or consecrate or the authority to preside and absolve, the special grace of ordination is much stranger and intrusive than that.  I have never found a better description of it than in, of all places, the novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.  The old woman is reflecting on color, the pain of it and the glory of it, and she eventually lands on the mystery of the prism and the rainbow of color it mysteriously produces.  And she says this most extraordinary thing.
The deeds and sufferings of light make colors.  By the time sunlight reaches us, it is beautiful old news.  We get tanned, healed, fed by the sun’s own long spent ricochet history.[2]
            We are privileged to be stewards of this “beautiful old news” which is the mercy, grace and freely given love of Jesus, that strange intrusion into our lives that call us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly, and, yes, sometimes stand silently, with God.  It is a life fraught with perplexity, peril and pain, and it is tempting nearly every day to doubt its reality or simply wish it away.  But it is the long spent ricochet history of “justice and peace for all people” and “the dignity of every human being” that we cannot let go of because it will not let go of us.
            Thank you, Peter, for being our fellow traveler with this strange intruder.

[1] I found this quote on the Internet, but have been unable to trace its exact origin.
[2] Allan Gurganus, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989), p. 274.

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