A sermon preached at All Saints’ Church, on the 5th Sunday of Lent, 2019.
“Thus saith the LORD, which maketh a way in the sea, and a path in the mighty waters… Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it?” God is talking here about the renewal of the whole earth through the death and resurrection of Christ.
When I was an undergraduate at Sewanee, I took a class on Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of the Canterbury Tales. My professor, Dr. Robert Benson, was a learned and genteel Catholic from Louisiana, with a fondness for tweed jackets and duck hunting. He would sometimes pause during his lectures and stare out of the classroom window, across the quad at the ivy growing on the sandstone buttresses of All Satins Chapel, and he would sigh wistfully, as though he were watching the sad yet inexplicably beautiful death of a beloved relative. One day he was lecturing on the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the protagonist of which is a rooster named Chaunticleer. As though to confirm some private suspicion about the barbarism of contemporary culture, he suddenly asked for a show of hands from the students present who had actually seen a real, live rooster on a real, live farm. Out of twenty-five or thirty students, five or six of us raised our hands. Dr. Benson sighed and continued his lecture.
Scientific method and technological advancement are a boon and a blessing in many ways, yet they can also serve to insulate us from God’s most basic language: the language of the physical creation. Think about all the typologies and tropes of the natural world used by Biblical writers: heat and cold, hills and mountains and trees, rain and dew and fire and wind and snow and stars and sheep and lions and roosters and oceans and rivers and fish – and the list could go on and on.
My point is that we modern people tend to insulate ourselves from elemental realities created by God, and used by God to reveal his own character. The divine realities signified by these biblical tropes are more distant to our consciousness because of our modern tendency to seal ourselves off from the natural processes of life and death that constitute existence on earth. We don’t seem to like looking at them, feeling them, smelling them – they offend us, they make our lives uncomfortable and inconvenient. But by insulating ourselves from them, we can put ourselves in danger of forgetting the very character of the God we claim to believe and to worship…. by sealing ourselves off from the realities he has ordained to reveal himself. And we can be in real moral danger when we begin to take the terms of our technological advancement to be normative – when we begin to regard the ethical limits on the pattern of human life to be set only by the limits of science, technology, and human ingenuity. The danger is that God’s wisdom and omnipotence begin to be displaced in our consciousness by human power and ingenuity.
When roughly 80% of the population of the US live in urban areas, with light pollution and industrial haze, is it possible to know what it means for our Lord to be the rising of the Morning Star? When agriculture is increasingly controlled by massive corporations, and accomplished by automated processes, can we know what it means to separate the wheat from the chaff? Do we even know where our Grape Nuts come from? (I don’t mean Publix.) Do we know, in an age of composite board and prefabrication and polyethylene, what it really means for the stone that the builders rejected to have become the head of the corner? How many US citizens today, indeed, have ever seen a mother hen gathering her brood? Can we feel the God-ordained blessing and heritage of children in an age where the act of sex can be technologically divorced from the very possibility of procreation? In such a context, can we understand ourselves as the children of the eternal Father, begotten by the union of God and man in the flesh of Jesus Christ, and born in the blood and water flowing out of the side of our crucified Lord? In an age of light emitting diodes and halogen lamps, do we know what it is for the virgins to be trimming their wicks? Does our society even know what virginity is? Can we understand what it means to go up to Mount Zion, or to carry our crosses up the hill of Calvary when the only mountain-climbing we ever do is in an air-conditioned Subaru? Can we listen with Elijah for the voice of God in the whirlwind in an age of facetime and podcasts? Can we taste the water or the wine or the milk or the honey in our iced-non-fat-cinimon-mocha-no-whip-soy-milk-frappaccinos? Do we feel the fear of Moses or Jonah or Noah or Saint Paul when we look at the ocean? Would we use their words to describe the sea – words like “deep” and “dark” and “chaos” –when, if we’re lucky enough to venture out on the sea at all, its on a Princess Cruise Ship with wifi and 24-hour buffet meals?
I’m not against technology. I’m not trying to foist a utopian agrarianism on you. I own a late-model iphone. Kate and I are looking forward to going to Highlands later this year and doing some mountain climbing in an air-conditioned Subaru. I’ve been vaccinated against Measles and Mumps and Diphtheria. When I get a headache I take ibuprofen. Moreover, I’m not in the habit of preaching sermons that are all questions and no answers. There’s too much of that in the Episcopal Church, and I think it’s a way for priests to avoid the controversies that are probably inevitable when you see yourself under a solemn obligation to proclaim the Gospel and to teach the apostolic faith. But I worry that both as a culture and as individuals, we place more and more confidence in human ingenuity; I worry that we will manage not only to insulate ourselves from that which is deadly or toilsome in the created order, but that we will effectively insulate ourselves from the Creator God who reveals himself through them – that we will forget – or worse, that we will reject -- the teachings of Scripture, because we no longer speak the language of creation in which they are written. I worry that increasingly we find in the teachings of Scripture and the Church to be spoken in a foreign accent that menaces our comfort – that we sit in a kind of ethnocentric judgment on the rhythms of God’s speech and are only capable of finding in them things that are obscure or patriarchal or outmoded or undemocratic, or objectionable in some other way. We are in danger of becoming Gnostics, of thinking that salvation is all about something as insipid as a compassionate frame of mind. But anyone who has been in war, or faced a terminal disease, or faced the untimely death of someone deeply loved – anyone who has been through something like that, something REAL, can tell you that frames of mind cannot save you. They certainly can’t give life to the dead.
When I was in high school I became a vegetarian. When people asked me why, I condescendingly cited Leo Tolstoy, who was an apologist for Vegetarianism. But I didn’t really do it out of any deep conviction – I mainly did it to be cool and controversial, to be a fly in the ointment of what I saw as the un-cool and unreflective traditionalism of those around me. But as I got older and began to appropriate for myself the faith I inherited from my parents and grandparents, I gave up Vegetarianism. As I came to believe for myself the truths of the faith, I saw that God couldn’t care less whether I was a vegetarian. I saw that what he wanted for me and for all mankind was that we should share his love for what he made, and rule it responsibly, out of obedience and by way of sharing in his own work. He wanted me to see the world and its creatures with his eyes, and to say with him: behold, it is good. This meant I could eat meat. For me, it also meant that I should face the created facts and implications of my share in ruling creation, and I did feel a little honest sorrow for the animals that are killed to nourish me – so I became a hunter, in earnest. Not because I enjoyed killing animals, but rather the opposite. If I was to nourish myself with the flesh of God’s creatures, I felt I should face the consequences in a tangible way. The pleasure of hunting, for me, is the mixed smell of leather and horses and pine trees, or the muddy husks left behind the peanut harvest, or the sun rising over flooded timber, or to watch the dogs find and point a covey, or the moment of authentic shock, renewed in my body every time the birds flush, or the breathless instinct and infinitesimal calculation that raises the gun to my shoulder and picks out a single bird from the panicked dance – or just as often, fails to. Once I sat in a treeline in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of northern New Mexico, watching and hoping that a bull elk in the valley would feed up my way. He never did. But as the sun set, a bobcat emerged from the trees opposite me, about 400 yards away, and walked straight toward me, to within about ten yards, as I was sitting still, camouflaged against the trees. Finally the big cat figured something wasn’t right and bounded off, after we had sat staring at each other for what seemed like an eternity.
For me, the unmitigated pleasure of hunting ends with such things. The rest is mitigated. With the trigger pulled, the sublime interplay of senses and instinct are thunderously interrupted – the clear air thickens with the smell of burnt cordite and – if I’m lucky – one of God’s creature’s is dead. I do not enjoy dressing birds and feeling the warm, sticky blood run down my fingers. And I feel a very sincere contrition when, as sometimes happens through carelessness or an overestimation of my marksmanship, I have to face the varied consequences of a wounded, suffering animal.
But I think that while the process of taking life clashes with my deep-seated sense of compassion, it is somehow meet and right tangibly to engage the necessity of blood being shed to sustain my life. And I believe that this side of Paradise, this engagement is something God wants from us: to feel the pain and the blood and the sorrow that is necessary to nourish us in a world corrupted by the lie that human flourishing and human ingenuity share a single limit. And whenever mankind starts to feel confidence in himself and his ability to sanitize and sustain his own life, there is an earthquake, or a war, or a hurricane, and the reality of our ignorance and impotence reemerges to stare us in the face. As my father-in-law likes to say, the ants win, in the end.
Likewise, every time I begin to feel the misplaced confidence in my ability to self-sanctify, I find myself on the business end of a low-cut blouse or a careless remark or a third helping of spaghetti, and I re-discover just how profound is this slavery to my passions and appetites.
So what does God want from us? Does he want us to throw away our iphones and ibuprofen and return to nature? I don’t think so – or at least not necessarily. But he does want us to see the depths of the natural and moral evil that surround us, the ways that we have corrupted the world he made to be our home, and to realize the correlative depth of our powerlessness in the face of it. He wants us to see and fear the moral chaos and darkness that he has sacramentally written into the very depths of the sea. He wants us to face the fact that because of our sin, the world is broken, and that we have backed ourselves into a moral and even a biological corner, from which we can only escape momentarily through the shedding of innocent blood: and he has sacramentally written this reality into the bloody business of old testament sacrifice, when the priests of the temple would slaughter and burn thousands of animals in a day. And in a lesser way, God has written it into the natural rhythms of the hunt.
God wants us to face these facts – to face their physical as well as their spiritual reality – and he wants us prayerfully to cry out to him for mercy, because he knows that he is the only one who can save us. God wants us to find, as Isaiah says, the pathway he has made through the mighty waters of our world’s darkness and chaos, a pathway back to the safe harbor of God’s own compassion.
And this pathway is the sacramental life of the Body of Christ. When we walk it with penitent hearts, when we approach the elements and the narrative he has set aside for our healing and deliverance with true contrition, we will find there the victory he has wrought on the cross over the world’s brokenness and death. We will be able to see THROUGH the fact that maybe I never felt loved by my father, or that I find myself assailed again and again by the same disordered lust – we will be able to see the marks of Christ’s victory in the shedding of innocent blood, or the helplessness and fear attendant on a diagnosis of cancer, or in the psychological scars of addiction or sexual abuse. And if we live and die in the grace of this holy narrative, we will find, at the end of it all, the resurrection to life eternal. God has promised, and he will not go back on his word: but its up to us to believe his promise, and to take him up on his offer in humility and penitence.
“Thus saith the LORD, which maketh a way in the sea, and a path in the mighty waters… Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it?”