Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church
Reverend John Zachary Flack
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Have you ever felt that God is too big? I mean, maybe you’re like me, and you’ve had a mountaintop experience. I remember when I was about Freddy’s age, and my family tried climbing to the top of Long’s Peak in Colorado. We spent a couple nights in a place called the Boulder Field, which is exactly what it claims to be, a Metlife Stadium sized field of big rocks. It’s above treeline, so when the sun goes down, there is nothing between you and the stars except atmosphere, and not much of that either. I highly recommend the experience. But sometimes you think, “OK, Creator of the stars at night, if you’re so big, why do you care about me? And anyway, the evidence that you do care about me is not so good, is it?” And, in the face of your impertinence, the vast expanse of space will maintain a dignified silence.
And maybe you and I long for that. I remember meeting a janitor at a big church in St. Louis once. He was very angry about Vatican II reforms, mostly because the cathedral brought the altar into the middle of the floor where everybody could access it. He told me he was mad at God. “I yell at the Father, but I talk to Jesus,” he said. Maybe that’s the way you feel sometimes—somewhat lost and maybe you resort to this kind of piety. Raging at the nameless face of eternity and talking to the accessible Jesus. What does God have to do with me? I’m just trying to get by. Who needs transcendence—I just need a paycheck.
T.S. Eliot, that great poet, was curious about these things. Words, of course, were the dearest thing to him, and he was constantly frustrated at how hard it was to do anything with them. He wanted to tell the truth, to name reality, but truth to him seemed too hard to name. “So here I am,” he wrote in the Four Quartets, probably his crowning work, “in the middle way, having had twenty years—twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres—Trying to learn to us words, and every attempt is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure…” In some ways, I think most of us can say 1 that about some aspect of our lives—ever new start is a new and different kind of failure. Kind of like Tetris, except the game we’re playing is life. And at the end of each failure we start again, with hope, but with the same end. All those people Jesus healed, I wonder how they reacted when they heard that he had been crucified. Did they remember him as a healer—did they change their minds about him when they heard he was given over to death? Did they think, there was another false prophet, but at least he helped me. I wonder what they thought if they heard that he was raised from the dead. Did they wonder if the eternal God had touched them, their very selves?
T. S. Eliot wrote:
There are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union.
I think that’s exactly right. In case you missed it, he’s talking about Jesus. The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation, God made flesh. The poem is an effort, doomed at the start, to give words to impossible experience of the eternal God in the particulars of life. And in the person of Jesus, the impossible union occurs: the eternal unites with the particular and the Word speaks to us. (Two Natures Doctrine).
This is a great and incomprehensible mystery, and I think poetry is the closest we can get to describing it. And I think T.S. Eliot would say that even poetry fails. The only Word we can use is the Word of God, in its infinite and eternal power, in its particular, pointed address to us in Jesus Christ. I think of all the hurting and weary-laden, all those bound up by sin, who felt, however briefly or long, the presence of the eternal in Jesus touch or words.
Luckily, or providentially, I guess you might say, God does not leave it to poetry to describe this. Like the rest of human works, our words are insufficiently pointed or infinite to describe anything of God. But God does still allow his eternity to break in to our particularity. The Word of God still resides with us. We receive this—as Eliot was wise to call it this—we receive this gift in the Sacraments, where the eternal Word of God binds itself to particular nature, to water, to bread, to wine, to touch us in our particular bodies and in the infinity of ourselves.
These are the Sacraments, gifts half-understood, bring to us the eternal God in this moments of time. And just like those who followed Jesus, no matter what wrongs we have committed, no matter what sins we bear, no matter our station in life, no matter our nearness to death, in this meal our God speaks tenderly to each of us. And because God speaks, we can finally put words to infinity—“The body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you.” Amen.