The Tender Compassion of God: A Sermon for Advent 2, Year C


A couple of months ago, the great American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson published a profound reflection on fear in the New York Review of Books. She begins with a two-part, very simple thesis: “first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” Later, she writes:

Granting the perils of the world, it is potentially a very costly indulgence to fear indiscriminately, and to try to stimulate fear in others, just for the excitement of it, or because to do so channels anxiety or loneliness or prejudice or resentment into an emotion that can seem to those who indulge it like shrewdness or courage or patriotism. But no one seems to have an unkind word to say about fear these days, un-Christian as it surely is.

Though published in September, these words seem oddly quaint and old-fashioned today. They were written before Paris, before the Planned Parenthood shootings, before San Bernardino. However prevalent fear was in our society three months ago, it is overwhelming today. A Sikh woman was taken off her flight this week because other passengers feared the breast pump she was carrying with her. Islamophobia runs rampant and on Black Friday, the day of the Planned Parenthood shootings, the number of firearms sold broke all previous records. Our presidential candidates are fanning the flames of fear and xenophobia and are benefiting from the fears of the voting public.

This leads to absurdities. On Friday, Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, the institution his notorious father founded, asked his student body in a public address to purchase weapons and apply for concealed carry permits. He is quoted to have said, “I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in.” That this would be said by the president of what is likely the largest Christian university in the nation, probably the world, is a sad symbol of what America has become in the second decade of the twenty-first century, and also, even more sadly, of what Christianity has devolved into. As Garry Wills pointed out in a brilliant essay in the wake of the shootings at Newtown three years ago, as Americans, we worship guns and we sacrifice ourselves and our children to Moloch.

We do that, in large part because fear is all-pervasive. It’s not just terrorism, however. Some years back, I remember preaching a sermon at the church I was then serving in Greenville, SC. For some reason, I can’t find the text, but my memory puts it in Advent. There had just been several incidents of random shots fired onto I-85 from pedestrian overpasses, in fact quite near the church. A newspaper reporter interviewed commuters about the shots. One man was quoted to say that he said a prayer every time he left his house because of his fear of what might happen to him in the outside world. That was so memorable to me because I couldn’t imagine having that sort of worldview—mind you it’s not that I don’t think prayer is a good thing, but because of the underlying sense of the evil and danger that lurks just outside of the safety of one’s home. That was over ten years ago, and I would guess that fear is even more pervasive, more present, for many in our society.

It may be that fear is an appropriate way to approach this season. As the world darkens around us, as hate and violence seem to surround us, the nights grow longer and the light of the sun dims with the approach of the winter solstice. For all the joy that our season of Advent and Christmas proclaim, the real world promises sadness and danger.

Nevertheless, in this very world, this dark and gloomy place, we go forward with the rituals of the season. In the darkness of night and gloom of day, we light the candles of Advent; we listen again to the promises of salvation proclaimed by prophets long ago. Our faith may falter; our hope wane, but the good news of the coming of Jesus Christ can continue to make a difference, in our lives and in the world.

We can hear the hope in our texts today, especially in the canticle we said together a few minutes ago, the Song of Zechariah. It is a song that looks back to Israel’s salvation history, reciting the mighty acts that God performed on behalf of God’s chosen people. It looks forward to a future when once again God has intervened to make things right. As Luke tells the larger story of the birth of Jesus, he sets it in an even larger story, the story of Israel’s salvation. We see that clearly both in this song and in the story of Zechariah, which we do not hear today. You may recall some of it.

Zechariah is an elderly priest. He and his wife Elizabeth are childless. One day, it is his turn, perhaps the only time in his life, to enter the sanctuary and offer incense. While performing his duties, an angel appears to him. Zechariah is terrified, but the angel, as always, says to him, “Be not afraid. You and your wife Elizabeth will have a son.”

Zechariah points out to the angel that he is old and his wife is barren, that a child is impossible. Gabriel strikes him mute and indeed, Elizabeth becomes pregnant. Zechariah remains speechless for the length of the pregnancy. One can imagine that during that time, he has the opportunity to figure out what he might say when his voice is restored to him. After the birth of the child, and after Zechariah writes the name “John” on a tablet when asked to name him, his voice is restored, and he praises God.

This song is what comes out of his mouth. As Luke puts it, Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel…”

This canticle is appointed for morning and evening prayer so it is very familiar to me. We read in the translation provided in the Book of Common Prayer which differs slightly from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible that we ordinarily use in worship. There’s a phrase in it, near the end, as Zechariah moves from praising God for God’s action in history, and begins to speak of the present and future: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.”

It’s an image I love because of its simplicity and tentativeness. We think of God’s power and might. Even in this season of Advent which is as much about Christ’s second coming in power and majesty as it is about Christ’s first coming in the incarnation, we tend to focus on God’s promises to make things right, to undo the evil in the world in one fell swoop. But the image of God’s tender compassion coming as the dawn breaks is a very different thing. Dawn comes like the light of advent candles shining in the darkness. The first signs of the sun are subtle, barely detectable. It’s only later that it becomes clear that the light we see is the rising sun. Dawn breaks, one might say, tenderly.

And so too, perhaps, God’s compassion or mercy. We may live in despair of the dark, terror-filled world in which we live. We may despair that injustice and oppression reign, that violence holds sway not only in distant parts of the world, but here in our country, in our city, in the hearts of people overwhelmed by fear. But the dawn from on high leads to a new day, a new world. In those faint signs of light, we can also begin to detect God’s tender compassion. It can take away our fear and heal our violent hearts. Through us, God’s tender compassion brings light and hope to a dark and hurting world.




Why priests? Ask Garry Wills, but don’t ask a priest

Randall Balmer’s review (BTW, he’s an Episcopal priest):

Central to the priestly claims to authority, Wills says, was the importance of the sacraments, especially celebration of the eucharist, which could be performed, the church declared, only by priests. “The most striking thing about priests, in the later history of Christianity,” the author writes, “is their supposed ability to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

This exclusivity, according to Wills, derives from Thomas Aquinas rather than Jesus. The Thomistic view of the eucharist understands the Mass as re-enacting the sacrifice of Christ, from which all other graces devolve to the believer. The church, following Aquinas, vested the power of transubstantiation — the bread and wine of holy communion actually becomes the body and blood of Christ — in the priesthood. With that magical power, the priesthood increasingly set itself apart from the laity.

Kevin Madigan’s review in The New Republic (he’s not a priest, he’s a historian of Christianity):

Although the Catholic Church has for centuries maintained the opposite position, it is simply false—from an historical perspective—to assert that Jesus instituted the priesthood. Not only was Jesus not a member of the priestly class; it is simply anachronistic to say that any of Jesus’ apostles were imagined in priestly terms, either by Jesus or the apostles themselves.

I remember many years ago when I was lecturing on organization in early Christianity at the School of Theology at Sewanee, and said something like “presbyteroi–whatever that means” and 23 first-year students shouted back at me “priest”–to which I replied, “tell that to Calvin.”

I doubt I’ll read Wills’ book, but my guess is, he’s probably right on. The understanding of priesthood in the western church is directly related to the elevation of the understanding of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. As Ballmer points out, Luther offered a powerful critique of that view from early in his career, one that continues to challenge our understanding of priesthood and the sacraments. It’s part of the reason why he was so opposed to an understanding of the mass that involved sacrifice. For Anglicans, that we’ve retained the language of the sacrifice helps to explain why we continue to lift up the office of the priest, but we might well ask whether there are downsides to it.

Some links on Newtown

I’ve gathered here some of what I consider to be the most important and thoughtful things I’ve read this week. If you’re still struggling to make sense of it all (and who isn’t) I hope you will find one or more of them helpful.

My friend and colleague Andy Jones points to Episcopal Bishop of Washington Marianne Edgar Budde’s Christmas letter in which she calls for Christians to lead efforts for gun control. The NYTimes has an article about the efforts of religious leaders. Dean Gary Hall of the National Cathedral is taking leadership in this effort. He preached a powerful sermon on Sunday on Newtown.

The article mentions a call for a moment of prayer at 9:30 AM tomorrow and asks churches to ring their bells 28 times. If I can get to Grace tomorrow morning, I’ll do it.

Some other thoughtful reflections on Newtown:

  • From Ian Douglas, Bishop of Connecticut
  • From Stephen Prothero: “Six Things I Don’t Want to Hear after the Sandy Hook Massacre”
  • From Rachel Held Evans (on Advent, Christmas, and Sandy Hook): “God Can’t Be Kept Out”

Katherine Newman offers a fascinating sociological analysis of the roots of school shooting rampages:

There has been only one example of a rampage school shooting in an urban setting since 1970. All the others have taken place in rural towns miles from places like New York or Chicago, or in suburbs in the Western states.

What is it about these towns where no one locks their doors that generates these deadly outbursts? We argued the very thing most Americans celebrate about small-town life—close-knit neighbors, friendly families, adults engaged in the schools and churches—become sources of stultifying depression for marginal boys. We interviewed kids who were attending the same high school as their grandparents, in communities where very few left town for college, preferring to stay home and attend the local community college or state institution. For most people, this is a sign of social solidarity. For Michael Carneal, the shooter in a 1997 attack at Heath High School (outside Paducah), that solidarity felt like a life sentence of exclusion.

Theological reflection in the same vein from Marilyn McCord Adams:

Those of us who have experienced rage or fear, would probably do well not to be confident about what we would have done in Nazi Germany. Maybe we should not overestimate our own mental health or degree of spiritual integration. Still, I venture to say, most of us could not have done what Adam Lanza did on Friday: shot little children, school teachers and staff in cold blood.

For that very reason, we need to heed Jesus’ warning that “otherizing” is spiritually dangerous. Otherizing undermines sympathy, pronounces the perpetrator “beyond the pale,” definitely not one of us. We could not have shot children and school workers in cold blood, because we identify with them: they are us, their children could be our children, their town could be our town. But it is counting killers as not one of us, that tempts us to acquiesce in state-sponsored cruelty, torture, and executions. Who knows? Perceived alienation may have prompted Judas to betray Jesus, permitted Adam Lanza to “otherize” the children and adults he was shooting at the school. Our instinct to “otherize” should make us shudder with the realization that we are more like traitors and socio-paths than we would like to admit.

Jesus’ injunction to love enemies is a hedge against otherization. My point is not that parents and citizens of Newtown, Connecticut should forgive the killer, today, tomorrow, next month, or next year. That would be another “quick fix.” Grief and trauma have their seasons. I would not say any of these things to them. I am speaking to us, who the dubious luxury of standing back and assessing, to remind that otherizing is part of, sometimes lies close to the roots of our problem. links to “Portraits of gun owners in their homes.”

The photos seem to prove Garry Wills’ point in his powerful essay “Our Moloch.” He begins with some lines from Paradise Lost:

First Moloch, horrid king, besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,
Though for the noise of Drums and Timbrels loud
Their children’s cries unheard, that pass’d through fire
To his grim idol. (Paradise Lost 1.392-96)

And then comments:

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Its power to do good is matched by its incapacity to do anything wrong. It cannot kill. Thwarting the god is what kills. If it seems to kill, that is only because the god’s bottomless appetite for death has not been adequately fed. The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.