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.




Marilynne Robinson on Religion, Society, and History in The Nation

In the 150th Anniversary edition of The Nation, there’s a brief interview with Marilynne Robnson, author of Gilead, Home, and Lila:

We have lived through a period when we can see religion used very harmfully in society, which is of course not unusual in human history, either. Perhaps it’s typical, because history is kind of a mess. The thing that I think it is important to remember is that every question is always real. People can’t be passively religious. They have to be critical of what is being presented to them as religion. They can’t be passively liberal. They have to think about the consequences of what they are assuming to be liberal values. Human existence is so complex and so volatile that there is never any fixed solution. There is never any fixed understanding. Everything requires moral scrutiny over again, always.


It’s all about grace: Marilynne Robinson’s Lila

Early reviews and essays are coming out.

Leslie Jamison in The Atlantic:

Robinson’s grace is all the things we don’t have names for: the immortal souls we may or may not have, a doll with rag limbs loved to tatters. It’s sweet wild berries eaten in a field after a man baptizes the woman he will someday marry. Grace is money for a boy who may have killed his father; it’s one wife restoring the roses on the grave of another. Grace here isn’t a refutation of loss but a way of granting sorrow and joy their respective deeds of title. It offers itself to the doomed and the blessed among us, which is to say all of us. “Pity us, yes, but we are brave,” Lila realizes, “and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself in us.”

Ron Charles writes in The Washington Post:

In a way that few novelists have attempted and at which fewer have succeeded, Robinson writes about Christian ministers and faith and even theology, and yet her books demand no orthodoxy except a willingness to think deeply about the inscrutable problem of being. Her characters anticipate the glory beyond, but they also know the valley of the shadow of death (and they can name that Psalm, too).

Michelle Orange in The Book Forum:

Robinson’s genius is for making indistinguishable the highest ends of faith and fiction, evoking in her characters and her readers the paradox by which an individual, enlarged by the grace of God, or art, acquires selfhood in acquiring a sense of the world beyond the self—the sublime apprehension that other people exist.

Which is to say that Robinson’s animating theme—grace—is also central to her genius. Described as “a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials,” grace is evidenced in both the particular and the abstract: as laughter, a beloved face or voice, or as “playing catch in a hot street . . . leaping after a high throw and that wonderful collaboration of the whole body with itself”; but also in forgetting “all the tedious particulars,” in feeling the presence of a “mortal and immortal being.” “A character is really the sense of a character,” Robinson has written, and hers suggest, above the particulars, how the mysteries of grace persist in human beings, those wanting creatures who move Ames with their incandescence, the presence “shaped around ‘I’ like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else.”

Wyatt Mason offers a compelling profile of Robinson in the New York Times Magazine

On My Reading List: Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal

Marilynne Robinson’s review in The New York Times Book Review:

It is the religious sensibility reflected in this journal that makes it as eloquent on the subject of creativity as it is on the subject of prayer. O’Connor’s awareness of her gifts gives her a special kind of interest in them. Having concluded one early entry by asking the Lord to help her “with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing,” she begins the next entry: “Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story — just like the typewriter was mine.”

Casey N. Cep writes about it for The New Yorker:

The journal reflects a single year in the life of a believer—it includes just under fifty pages of prayers from a lifetime filled with them. It is the attempt of a young writer to reconcile her worldly ambitions with her heavenly understanding. The task she set for herself, to invigorate her dulling faith, was accomplished by the deliberate, contemplative practice of praying in her own words. By refashioning the prayers she inherited and practiced every day at Mass, O’Connor was able to find new language for belief.

Paul Harvey explores it as well:

Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journals provide a beautiful glimpse into a vulnerable soul open to the rigor of life, confident that God would use trials to shape and press her into something more. Those prayers were answered through O’Connor’s life of fighting disease and practicing her craft of writing. Her strong irony did not lead her to doubt that God was with her.

The model of Flannery O’Connor challenges the prevailing ideas of modern life and challenges us to personally assess how we reconcile our own beliefs with our scholarship and use of irony. O’Connor wielded irony as an effective weapon in her writings. Her prayer journals demonstrate her ability to harness the power of irony without allowing it to define her soul. Such an approach today would be threatening to the culture of cheap irony that surrounds us.

James Parker also reflects on her use of irony and her life of prayer:

Where the Word was operational, for O’Connor, it was always disruptive: in its presence, one’s head was supposed to explode. Her short stories, especially, reengineered the Joycean epiphany, the quiet moment of transcendence, as a kind of blunt-force baptismal intervention: her characters are KO’d, dismantled, with a violence that would be absurdist, if the universe were absurd. But the universe is not absurd. “There is an interaction between man and God which to disregard is an act of insolence,” wrote the rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, her contemporary, in The Prophets. “Isolation is a fairy tale.” The upended moment, the breaking-in or breaking-through of a vagrant, unbiddable reality: this is the grace of God and the sign of his love.

Today in Marilynne Robinson links

Did you know she was a “narrative Calvinist“?

An interview with her from The Atlantic. It’s all worth reading, but perhaps given other recent blog entries, this exchange is especially interesting:

How has it been for you being a profoundly religious person who’s spent much of your life in the mostly secular university setting?

I’m a great admirer of secularism. At its best, I think it’s one of the best things that we have. I don’t believe in insinuating religion into conversation. I don’t believe in excluding it from conversation. I enjoy the fact that people’s innermost thoughts are their own. I think actually that writers tend unusually to have a religious aspect to their thinking, whether or not they’re formally religious in any way. I never feel isolated in this.

At the same time, it’s an inappropriate use of a classroom to exclude the possibility of religious thought, or to insinuate it. But any human situation is imperfect. People are on one side or the other. I think people who choose a religiously oriented education can get an excellent education of that kind. I like being in a larger environment. I’m already interested in what interests me almost to the point of obsession, and I don’t feel the need to be in a setting that reinforces it.

The idea that there are huge spaces in which everyone feels equally at home, and that everyone can choose within the vast ways of responding to religion or anything else, is excellent. It’s much too precious, should never be ridiculed or minimized.

A review, also from The Atlantic, of her oeuvre.

An audio interview with her, from The Guardian. Gilead is the featured book in The Guardian Book Club. Here’s her writing about it for that audience.

And finally, Andrew Delbanco’s review of When I was a child I read books, from last month’s New York Times.

Marilynne Robinson’s When I was a child, I read books

Her new book of essays is out.

One of the essays is here (Guernica)

We should drop the pretense that we know what we don’t know, about our origins and about our present state. Specifically, we should cease and desist from reductionist, in effect invidious, characterizations of humankind.

I would like to propose a solution of sorts, ancient and authoritative but for all that very sporadically attended to. What if we were to say that human beings are created in the image of God? It will certainly be objected that we have no secure definitions of major terms. How much do we know about God, after all? How are we to understand this word “created”? In what sense can we be said to share or participate in the divine image, since the Abrahamic traditions are generally of one mind in forbidding the thought that the being of God is resolvable to an image of any kind?

But it is on just these grounds that this conception would rescue us from the problems that come with our tendency to create definitions of human nature that are small and closed. It would allow us to acknowledge the fact, manifest in culture and history, that we are both terrible and very wonderful. Since the movement of human history has been toward a knowledge and competence that our ancestors could not have imagined, an open definition like this one would protect us from the error of assuming that we know our limits, for good or for harm. Calvin understood our status as images of God to have reference to our brilliance. He said, truly and as one who must have known from his own experience, that we are brilliant even in our dreams. There is much that is miraculous in a human being, whether that word “miraculous” is used strictly or loosely. And to acknowledge this fact would enhance the joy of individual experience and enhance as well the respect with which we regard other people, those statistically almost-impossible fellow travelers on our profoundly unlikely planet. There is no strictly secular language that can translate religious awe, and the usual response to this fact among those who reject religion is that awe is misdirected, an effect of ignorance or superstition or the power of suggestion and association. Still, to say that the universe is extremely large, and that the forces that eventuate in star clusters and galaxies are very formidable indeed, seems deficient—qualitatively and aesthetically inadequate to its subject.

Another essay from the collection “Reclaiming a Sense of the SacredChronicle is particularly thought-provoking and moving.


When I write fiction, I suppose my attempt is to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire—a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense. These things do happen simultaneously, after all. None of them is active by itself, and none of them is determinative, because there is that mysterious thing the cognitive scientists call self-awareness, the human ability to consider and appraise one’s own thoughts. I suspect this self-awareness is what people used to call the soul.

Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word “soul,” and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit. In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost, having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes “soul” would do nicely.

Another excerpt is here (Commonweal)

Reviews are here:

A comparison of her and Terence Malick (Tree of Life)

Truthfulness, Dignity, and Aesthetic Quality: Marilynne Robinson on the possibilities of Christianity

Marilynne Robinson, the author of the beautiful novels Gilead and Home, recently visited Duke University where she gave a reading and was interviewed by Jason Byassee. In the course of that interview, she said

What people need in this culture is truthfulness, dignity and aesthetic quality. Not everything in the world, but many things are depleting exactly those aspects of life now.

The churches are in a position to give people what they urgently need and give them something that is only consistent with their dignity as human beings.

This intrigues me because of what she suggests about what the churches might offer humans “truthfulness and dignity” and the importance of beauty. One of the great challenges facing us as individuals and as a civilization is the extent to which everything in our world tends towards our diminishment–the reduction of human desire to consumption, of human community to immediate self-satisfaction, and of human fulfillment to wealth accumulation.

There’s a sense in which our encounter with beauty, whether that be the beauty of nature, of art or architecture, of literature or music, invites us to self-transcendence. It’s what I see when I watch a wanderer off the street encounter the interior of Grace Church, or chat with a visitor after our choral Eucharist. It’s also something of what Grace has offered in the midst of the political turmoil over the last year.

The entire interview is here. And her reading of parallel passages from Gilead and Home available as a podcast.

Robinson has also published a rambling essay in the most recent issue of The Nation. In this piece she reflects on developments in the culture of the West in the wake of financial turmoil by playing the present off against the cultural conflict of the Cold War.

She writes:

I have always identified the United States with its best institutions and traditions, its best thought, believing, and having seen, that they could act as a corrective to the less admirable aspects of the culture. I have profoundly enjoyed the wealth of experience that has been offered to me, and I hope I have made some use of it. Yet it seems to me, on the darkest nights, and sometimes in the clear light of day, that we are losing the ethos that has sustained what is most to be valued in our civilization. This may sound alarmist. But it is true, to paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt, that fear is very much to be feared, not least because it is a potent stimulant. Nothing is so effective at foregrounding self-interest. Yet fear is the motive behind most self-inflicted harm. Western society at its best expresses the serene sort of courage that allows us to grant one another real safety, real autonomy, the means to think and act as judgment and conscience dictate. It assumes that this great mutual courtesy will bear its best fruit if we respect, educate, inform and trust one another. This is the ethos that is at risk as the civil institutions in which it is realized increasingly come under attack by the real and imagined urgencies of the moment. We were centuries in building these courtesies. Without them “Western civilization” would be an empty phrase.