The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r102.htm
s102o03 Lockleys Lent 5 6th April 2003
"No longer shall they .. say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest ... for I will forgive their iniquity ..." Jer 31.33
I've never much liked poetry. I've nothing against poets or their art, it is just that I haven't come to appreciate the richness of their thought. Much of the poetry that has been presented to me has been of the "Mary had a little lamb" sort - not entirely riveting :-) The rhyming of words at the ends of lines is far too clever for me - it lends an artificial aspect to life. It's a bit the same with musicals - they often seem artificial and *optimistic* for me. "Serious" poetry (rightly) demands one concentrate on the nuances to appreciate the totality of what the author is trying to convey - and I'm not sure I have the opportunity or the patience.
Sometimes we need to see the complete picture. So I guess I could appreciate the beauty of Tchaikovsky's music in "Swan Lake" when I heard it on a CD, but when I actually saw the recent production of the ballet, one begins to appreciate the reason behind it all and to glimpse with wonder the genius of the composer.
One of my regular reads is "Eureka Street" and I read it (almost) cover to cover and it usually has a section on poetry - that I have to confess I sometimes do not read. However in a recent issue there was a review essay by Peter Steele "The Creatures and their Words" which attracted me because he writes about talking animals. Being a "Chronicles of Narnia" and "Lord of the Rings" devotee I appreciated the subject.
But what caught my attention were these words: "It was claimed in a military assessment of a particular officer that 'the men followed him into battle out of curiosity'. This seems improbable: but it is certainly true that, above all as a writer but also as a reader, one follows an initial phrase into the action of a poem out of curiosity; people write poems in order to see how they will turn out ... Poets live in the hope that their minds will not simply fly by automatic pilot ... but will have some ... power and vivacity ..." (March 2003 p 36) And I thought how much this is like life - one doesn't have much choice about the beginning or the continuance of it. One makes choices with little idea how it will turn out, and hoping that our individual uniqueness will have some positive influence on others.
We are all on a journey, and we continue on that journey sometimes only out of curiosity for how it will turn out. I'm not here thinking primarily of that seemingly solitary preoccupation of "Christians" whether we will be "saved" or not. God, for me, is one who welcomes not excludes, so there is no need for curiosity about that matter. No, the curiosity for me is how wonderfully God will bring this about.
One of the great thinkers of our time has been C. S. Lewis and in the final of his Chronicles of Narnia, he describes in his own thinking how he sees God will bring an end to things, in terms of the many layers of an onion. The book is filled with wonder and awe at the beauty of what is and what shall be, and the continuity between the two.
And it came to me that as we live our lives we are all poets as we journey on our pilgrim way. Perhaps the rhymes are not always perfect, but modern poetry shows us that there is meaning in that which does not rhyme as much as there is meaning in that which does.
Again C. S. Lewis writes in "Dogma and the Universe" and put together in "The Business of Heaven" p 45 in a snippet entitled "We are Inveterate Poets":
"When a quantity is very great, we cease to regard it as mere quantity. Our imaginations awake. Instead of mere quantity, we now have a quality - the sublime. Unless this were so, the merely arithmetical greatness of the galaxy would be no more impressive than the figures in a telephone directory. It is thus, in a sense, from ourselves that the material universe derives its power to overawe us. To a mind which did not share our emotions, and lacked our imaginative energies, the argument from size would be sheerly meaningless. (People) look on the starry heavens with reverence: monkeys do not. The silence of the eternal spaces terrified Pascal, but it was the greatness of Pascal that enabled them to do so. When we are frightened by the greatness of the universe, we are (almost literally) frightened by our own shadows: for these light years and billions of centuries are mere arithmetic until the shadow of (the human), the poet, the maker of myth, faIls upon them. I do not say we are wrong to tremble at his shadow; it is a shadow of an image of God. But if ever the vastness of matter threatens to overcross our spirits, one must remember that it is matter spiritualized which does so. To puny (humanity), the great nebula in Andromeda owes in a sense its greatness."
Another expression of wonder at how things might turn out to be is by that other of my favourite authors, Tolkein. In a book called "Tree and Leaf" which most of which leaves me well behind, is a parable, a short story called "Leaf by Niggle". If you ever find this I can thoroughly recommend it. It is the fable of a painter and his neighbour and how they come to appreciate the gifts each can bring to the other - and how eternal life is but a continuation of this process begun in the here and now.
I think that it was Mark Knoffler of the band "Dire Straits" who once said of music, words to the effect that the shear diversity of music made him humble. And it was an interesting use of the word humble, for that humility obviously didn't make him cringe in a corner frightened by the vastness, but invited him to jump in and enjoy it all. It would seem a useful concept when we think of humility before God. Despite our (apparent) smallness we are invited to jump in and enjoy the vastness of God's mercy.
And so I would want to say that despite our text, we can say to another "Know the Lord" - know the Lord at work in yourself - not know the Lord in my terms alone - which is surely deemed no longer necessary.
And the wonder of the vastness of God's mercy permeates our Old Testament lesson just as much as the others. All people will know the Lord. No skerick of iniquity or sin will ever be remembered to stand in anyone's way. Of course it is couched in terms of the house of Israel and the house of Judah, but that is just the people whom Jeremiah addresses.
The lesson from Hebrews speaks about the Christ being "the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him ..." and this surely means those who sit down and eat with sinners like Jesus was crucified for doing.
And Jesus' words in John's gospel are no less clear. He says: "when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself". We should note that he says not all disciples, not all apostles, not all the faithful, not all Jews, not all Christians, but all people. Each and every person knows something of the Lord within their own life, and any further revelation will come as no surprise but as an added bonus - unless of course we are like St Paul who was hell-bent on persecuting those who saw God differently from himself.
And the words about forgiving their iniquity come back to me as Jesus sat down and ate with sinners. In his life Jesus, by his actions confronted the religious people, because he included people other than themselves - the sinners. But Jesus didn't go around telling people they were sinners but he would condescend to accept their offerings and how grateful they ought to be that he did so! The people Jesus sat down and ate with were pronounced sinners by the religious authorities, not Jesus. Jesus didn't care one iota, he just accepted people as they were. So again we find the paradigm that religious people - for all their theology about sacrifices that take away sin - actually just label people (and of course this means *other* people, not themselves) as sinners. "Sinners" is the derogatory term for everyone who didn't agree with them, live up to their standards, or cow tow to their authority ...
So if we replace the word "sinners" as we are surely invited to do in terms of the word of the Lord from Jeremiah, with "others" - then whatever we perceive ourselves to be, we can be sure that Jesus also sits down and eats with others as well as with us. The risen Jesus sits down and eats with labor, liberal, democrats, greens, communists, monarchists, republicans, members of the military and pacifists ... The risen Jesus sits down and eats with people of all faiths, races and languages ... The risen Jesus sits down and eats with Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Uniting Church, Salvation Army, Churches of Christ, Baptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic as well as Anglican.
I got to this point in the preparation of my sermon and it happened that before resuming it, I chanced to see the beginning of a report on a current affairs program on the television about an anti war protest by high school students in Sydney which had got "out of hand". The presenter described it as "disgraceful" - or something like that. And this set me thinking ... I am not pro-war, but one has to make some assessment of what our courageous coalition (in Iraq) are fighting and dying for, if it is not society to accept rather than repress people. I don't want to suggest that the students in Australia did not overstep the mark - but it has to be admitted that they displayed some courage of their convictions, even if some of us might have thought their convictions and actions were wrong. They may well be considered to be reckless in what they did, yet how many veterans of the world wars now consider some of their actions in the past similarly - and I don't want to be thought to be criticising current or returned service personnel in the least.
It seems to me to be significant that those people from Iraq who seem able to comment freely, support the war, whereas those people from Iraq who don't feel able to speak freely, oppose it. However I am not laying my life on the line like our military or (to a lesser extent) the students in our streets.
And it seemed an odd coincidence that at about the same time a film based on the life of the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly is about to premiere. The question: was he a hero or an outlaw? is still debated.
There is a beauty and a poetry in every persons' life, young or old, and this is a sure sign of the presence of the Lord. I am beginning to see something of the beauty and the poetry in my own life - a sceptical old engineer :-) - so if that's possible for me - it's possible for anyone.
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