Sunday, February 05, 2006

Andrew Pearson's (postulant from the Diocese of SC) excellent sermon from Wycliffe Hall Chapel this past Friday, the 3rd of Feb.

Text: Genesis 11: 1-9
Luke 13: 31-35

A couple years ago The Economist magazine ran a story that said that over four million Americans claim to have had an encounter with aliens—the extra terrestrial kind. Four million! Now, there are just over two million Anglicans in the United States. This begs the question: What are the aliens doing right that the Episcopal Church is doing wrong?

This has little bearing on what I am going to talk about this morning, but it gives you something to think about. Actually, it does have a little something to do with what we’re going to discuss over the next few minutes.

The common theme, I believe, from these two texts hits upon a sensitive area in the human psyche. Each passage addresses the issue of legacy. In some way, we all want to make a name for ourselves. We often wonder “How will I be remembered when I am gone?” Places like London and Oxford are filled with memorials commemorating lives that did something to justify a statue, an arch, or the naming of a street. I once asked my grandmother how she would like to be remembered. I asked her what she would like her epitaph to read on her tombstone. She replied: “I told you that I was sick.”

Well most of us won’t have arches built in our honour or memory or have squares named after us, but we still wonder, in the midst of the fragility and brevity of human life, how we might be remembered by others when we’re gone.

This morning’s readings help us with this dilemma in that they point to two very different ways of accomplishing a legacy. In Genesis 11 we read that the settlers of Babylon said to each other “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole world.” The Babylonians were afraid of being forgotten. They thought that they could build something so grand, so wonderful, that it would establish their name indefinitely.

Verse five says that “the Lord came down to see the city and the tower they were building.” The tower could not be seen from heaven; they were a long way away from accomplishing their goal. Humanity is incapable of accomplishing anything that God doesn’t have to stoop down to see. And the Lord speaks in verse six saying, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” This is the very important and deep theological principle of “None of us is as dumb as all of us.” God was not afraid that maybe the world would give him a run for his money, but He knows the awful truth of what terrible things would (not could, but would) happen if humanity, left to themselves, got to work. Truly, God’s confusing our language was an act of grace, not one of divine jealousy.

Of course, in an ironic twist, the people of Babel did leave a memorable legacy, but one which I am sure they would have wished away. Nobody wants to be remembered as a failed engineer or building contractor.

Luke chapter 13 paints a very different picture of legacy. Verse 34 reads “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who sent you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you are not willing.” Jesus knows that no prophet is killed outside of Jerusalem, yet he loves the place. But the very place he loves will be the stage of his own agonizing death.

You may already know that this year is the 450th anniversary of the martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer here in Oxford. Last year we commemorated the 450th anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishops Ridley and Latimer, burned to death here in Oxford as well. All three incredible men of God. (An interesting side note is that all three went to Cambridge, but were executed here in Oxford. This should not strike too much fear into the hearts of David Wenham, Geoff Maughan, Tim Vasbey-Burney, or anybody else that went to Cambridge, but I would at least sleep with one eye open.) We are all probably familiar with what Latimer said to Ridley as the flames began to rise: “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out.”

And he was right! The Gospel triumphed! These men, two of them well past retirement age, built their lives and their ministries upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If they had kept quiet and died natural deaths in retirement, we would have probably never heard of them. Maybe Cranmer, but that’s only because of the Prayer Book. But it’s not because we remember them that constitutes a legacy. It is how God used them to advance his Kingdom.

Our Scripture readings this morning tell us that legacy is a joke; it is a chasing after the wind. We can build our towers here in Babel. (Oxford is a pretty good parallel, I think.) Even in Wycliffe Hall we can get caught up in the academic rat race, forgetting why we’re here. We will read books with pithy and catchy theological quotes, remembering them, so that we might use them in a discussion so that others might think us “cutting edge” or “really intelligent.” We become consumed with the fear of what people might think of us. We feel that we need to make a name for ourselves. We want to fit in, to say the right things.

Maybe that’s not you. It might be that you spend your time thinking about being the rector of a flagship church, a bishop, or the principle of Wycliffe Hall. You want to be somebody.

But friends, our legacy is not rooted in our accomplishments, it’s not even rooted in our individual selves, it is rooted in the person and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God does not call us to build towers, in fact, he crushes them, he calls us to Jerusalem, into the very world, the very place, that despises us and would rather us be dead. It is a dangerous world. And, surely, we can spend our whole lives living in the safety of Babel. We can be remembered as the nice vicar who looked so nice and did such a nice job with the liturgy (not necessarily bad things). That’s fine, and that’s the road that most clergy in my Episcopal Church have chosen. But brothers in sisters, we here at Wycliffe need to be about the Lord’s business. Jesus cried, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who sent you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you are not willing.” We can no longer settle for mediocrity that is rooted in our own abilities, but we must storm the walls of Jerusalem armed with the Word of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, preaching Christ and him crucified, loving the very people who hate us most. That is our task.

Right before he died, while in captivity, Hugh Latimer wrote the following to an unnamed Christian friend: “The wise men of the world can find shifts to avoid the cross, and the unstable in faith can set themselves to rest with the world; but the simple servant of Christ doth look for no other but oppression in the world. And then it is their most glory, when they be under the cross of their Master Christ, which he did bear not only for our redemption but also for an example to us, that we should follow his steps in suffering, that we might be partakers of his glorious resurrection.

“Embrace Christ’s cross, and Christ shall embrace you.”

450 years ago, that could have easily been you and me being tied to the stake.

What will it be for us today? What will it be for you today? Legacy? No thanks, not for me. I have no confidence in my ability to leave a lasting legacy, but I know that the Gospel does have that power. So as for me, I’ll take Jerusalem and the cross for my task, come what may. Amen.


pzahl said...

Your opener is perfect. A pure attention grabber that is exactly right for the listener.
Roger Corman, king of the cheapies and director of "House of Usher" (1960), which ushered in the Edgar Allan Poe craze, wouldn't even put credits at the start of his movies. He wanted to startle and arrest the attention of the viewer right from the absolute start -- so no lists of actors, etc., just a lot of bright Technicolor, and memorable Gothic images, to get you interested.
Anyway, the start to your sermon is Corman-style. We need a lot more of such beginnings.
Then your point about "legacy" is hugely counter-cultural and at the same time utterly true to life. The moment one begins to think "legacy", one is standing by the Tower of Babel. And who can ever tell what one's true enduring contribution may be?
I try to talk about M.R. James in this context, the Eton provost who wrote those magnificent ghost stories of the early 20th century. Now M.R. James thought he was a scholar of ancient texts. The ghost stories he just "tossed off". But today has anybody read his notes on Syriac texts? Hundreds of thousands have read his ghost stories. And they have just been re-published last month for the ... zillionth time.
So I feel you are definitely onto something in your unmasking of the idea of "legacy".
The ending of your sermon is evangelical in the true and utterly fine sense of the word.
You have done well.
D. Vader

colton said...

Another very famous example of one being quite mistaken with regard to his own legacy is Sir Isaac Netwon, as I believe I first heard from Simeon. Apparently Newton thought his greatest contributions to the world were his theological ideas, not his discovery of the basic laws of physics.

Which of you seminarians has ever studied Newton?

John Zahl said...

Personally, I'm into Schopenhauer's "music of the spheres"! JAZ