A sermon preached at Christ Church Greenwich on Sunday, June 3, 2018
(Proper 4, Year B)
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Recently, I was caught up in a fascinating Twitter debate. The burning issue concerned the subject of order . To be more specific, it was about the correct order in which to assemble the ingredients for a cup of tea. Now, bearing in mind that the participants in this discussion were mainly British, the debaters fell into two broadly opposing camps: the first camp contended that milk should go into the cup before adding freshly-brewed tea; the second (clearly less-discerning) camp argued the opposing case, namely that milk should be added only once the tea had already been poured out. As you might imagine, this debate quickly heated up, even before the tea itself had a chance to become cold.
Order , it seems, is important, especially perhaps when making a cup of tea.
This is also true for other areas of life. If you have never seen the YouTube clip of British comedian Eric Morecambe playing the Grieg piano concerto, conducted by André Previn, you should look it up. After several false starts, the deadpan Morecambe, wearing trademark heavy spectacles, makes his grand entrance, a cacophony of garbled notes over an oom-pah, oom-pah bass.
André Previn stops the performance. You’re playing all the wrong notes, he says, angrily.
Eric’s reply? I’m playing all the right notes…just not necessarily in the right order.
Earlier in our worship this morning, we prayed the Collect of the Day. Here’s how it begins:
O God, your never-failing providence sets in order all things both in heaven and earth: Put away from us, we entreat you, all hurtful things, and give us those things which are profitable for us…
What does it mean to set things in order …? Turning to this morning’s Gospel, taken from the end of the second chapter of Mark, we are given a clue. Here we encounter the Pharisees, that group of strictly religious Jews who were totally obsessed with order. I must confess I have some sympathy with them. Anyone who has seen the inside of my refrigerator or ever looked at a choir schedule knows how my mind works. I just can’t help it. However, the Pharisees go way further in their obsession for order, seeing it not as a means to an end, but rather as an end in itself. More specifically, in this passage, keeping order through strict observance of the Sabbath becomes the twisted vehicle by which they plan the bringing of capital charges against Jesus.
Mark skillfully sets the scene:
Again [Jesus] entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.
I mean, how much more mean-spirited can you get? And what a marvelous image: the Pharisees, lying in wait, consumed with bitter jealousy, motivated by fear. Into their sights steps Jesus, and a hapless guy with a withered hand. It almost feels like they planted him there. And talk about trying to set Jesus up for failure!
Interestingly, I looked up the Greek translation of the phrase that they might accuse him, and guess what? The Greek word Mark uses is ‘katēgoreō’, which is from where we get our English word categorize. Clearly, this kind of order, of categorization, of accusation, should carry a Government Health Warning. It can, and, in the case of Jesus, soon will, lead to death.
Going back to the story then, how do we solve such a conundrum? Is it legal to heal on the Sabbath, or not? How does God’s order differ from ours?
Is one needed to reveal the other?
In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
This gives us a clue to what we see happening in this scene. Stretch out your hand, Jesus commands the paralyzed man. The healing, when it comes, is instantaneous, accomplished with a Sabbath-compliant command and a simple obedient gesture.
Later in this service, we will recognize our four graduating choir seniors. It’s a rite of passage, a recognition of the years of selfless dedication and submission to rhythm and routine. Together they have spent countless hours in rehearsals, services, and concerts. They have been united by the compact between singer and choir, in which the individual is subsumed so that something greater might be revealed. Bonds of community are formed, which, together with the music they produce, become outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. Together, these seniors have grown and participated in an activity which has the power to proclaim God’s love through music, word and action; and we have been the beneficiaries.
You’ll understand what I mean when you listen to Philip Moore’s setting of Come, my way, my truth my life. This piece was written by Philip in honor of our graduating seniors. You’ll be able to hear it for yourselves shortly. Philip was unusually excited about the piece, when he first played it to me two weeks ago. He told me it’s written using only major chords. When I asked why, he replied it’s always good to set yourself a challenge.
It’s always good to set yourself a challenge.
As you’ll hear, by restricting himself to specifically major chords, Philip creates music that is achingly beautiful. He sets a seemingly simple melody afloat over gently shifting harmony, breathing fresh life into George Herbert’s poetry. Text and music combine in perfect symbiosis, and both speak eloquently of the profound connection between order and freedom, rule and creativity.
Now we know that one is indeed needed to reveal the other.
Adhering to a musical scheme, following a complicated choir schedule, or perhaps saying the daily office: these are all ways of ordering that require a kind of faithfulness and submission. Often, these things don’t feel particularly comfortable or rewarding. But they can provide us with the kind of structure that is prerequisite to greater things. Jesus shows us that this can serve as a means to an end, and not, as the Pharisees would so mistakenly have it, as an end in itself. Indeed, sometimes structured order can allow space – liminal space – into which the Holy Spirit of God can tumble, renewing and creating.
I see concrete examples of the Holy Spirit at work at Christ Church Greenwich. Since today is the last Sunday of the choir program year, it’s also perhaps a good time to take stock, to look back at the past year and to discern evidence of the hand of God at work. When we do this, we soon realize that this instructive exercise has revealed the emergence of the green shoots of growth everywhere. And, of course, this is not something that we have accomplished ourselves through our own effort; it is rather the fruit of our corporate faithfulness to a shared life of liturgy, community, prayer, and service.
Looking ahead, as the congregation of Christ Church continues to engage in so many ways, giving of time, talents, and treasure, I’m sure that remarkable things will continue to happen. Reaching beyond our doors, we will continue the faithful work of visiting the sick and housebound. Others will continue the important work of searching for a new rector. Others still will continue to produce liturgy with care and diligence. Some will prepare the church in other ways, like committee work, counting, or cleaning. Further afield, our choirs will set off on a tour to England where they will sing at the cathedrals of Winchester, and St Paul’s, lifting their voices and the hearts of others to God through musical worship.
Whatever our role, this will be a busy and active summer, a chance for us all to remain faithful to Christ Church, to attend regularly, and to invite others to share the good news that is to be found here.
Our final hymn today is one of the most well-loved in our Hymnal. The text of Come thou fount of every blessing was written by Robert Robinson, an English Methodist preacher who converted to Christianity in the 1750s. The American folk tune Nettleton to which it is set was new to me upon moving to the United States, but is fine enough to be used extensively by composer Charles Ives, appearing in a string quartet, a piano quintet, and a song.
In his text, Robinson uses the metaphorical idea of tuning the heart:
Come, thou fount of every blessing, Tune my heart to sing Thy grace.
Tuning the heart – what an amazing notion, the idea that our hearts can be tuned in the way that a piano or organ can, in order to sing the praises of God.
And that’s all it takes: hearts in tune; minds open. Faithfulness to each other as members of a journeying community, and trust in God.
As our seniors move on to the next stage in their lives, and as we embark upon a new chapter here at Christ Church, may we also learn to tune our hearts to sing the praises of God, whose divine order transcends more than we can ask or imagine .