Sermon: V Epiphany (b)

Patrick Allen on February 7, 2012


February 5, 2012
Epiphany V (b)
Fr. Dow Sanderson

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My wife and my son Noah are the artists in the family, both in training and in temperament.   When it comes to visual art... I, on the other hand,  am a Philistine.  I don't know much about Manet or Monet...and I have just the vaguest awareness of terms like impressionism and postimpressionism. So, as a critic, I am entirely without credentials.

But like all of you, I can tell the difference between things that appear to me to be beautiful... and things which appear to me to be ugly.

Like you, I am capable of standing in awe in the face of something truly beautiful and magnificent....  But I am not at all smitten by so-called art which is little more than a splatter on canvas which may or may not have been occasioned by a violent sneeze... or a spark plug painted red and dangled from a wire.

There is a particularly startling paragraph on modern art by the G.K Chesterton Scholar Dale Alquist.  I think a might have included part of it in an Easter sermon some years back... but this is what he says that I find so compelling:

The problem is this:  We worship the "new" instead of the eternal.  And when we worship the new, we are always changing our allegiances, because there will always be something "newer".  The notion that every generation proves the last generation worthless, and is in its turn proved worthless by the next an ever-lasting vision of worthlessness.

And this phenomenon is not just limited to painting and sculpture, is it?  How many of you, if you were to be shown photographs, or could actually stand in front of 100 churches, built in every epoch of Christian History, could instantly pick out the ones built from 1962 to 1969?  We could all do it... because those would be the hideous ones!

When I was in elementary school, I used to climb the big wisteria vines that wrapped around a huge oak tree .  I would sit quietly and look across the street at St. Paul's Episcopal Church.  It was a lovely little carpenter Gothic Structure that could have been plopped down in any little Dickensian village. But when the Formosan Termites put an end to its days, the structure that replaced it was fashioned in such a way that it nearly perfectly resembled a Pizza Hut! (at least on the exterior).

In a 1962 essay entitled "Architectural Seriousness" a gentleman by the name of Lance Wright outlined three marks of "Modern" architecture:

The sense of the provisional, the sense of economy, and the sense of the continuing nature of space...

...or to put it in plain English: impermanence, cheapness, and emptiness. (from an article on the "Chrystal Cathedral", Matthew Alderman, The Living Church).

Now with all that as a background, let me tell you about a dream I had just two weeks ago.  It was on a Sunday night... and I had just returned from our Vestry Retreat at Kanuga.  And let me tell you, we have a phenomenal vestry.  They are all Renaissance men and women.  They are all as good at their avocation as their vocation.  Why, I have seen it with my own eyes that they can do things like perform delicate surgery by day, and play a mean lead guitar by night. They are engineers and entrepreneurs and educators.  They have had amazing experiences all over the world... and I stand in awe and amazement of the gifts that each of them brings.

... and at the retreat, they ALL had  these amazing gadgets.  And I don't just mean the young ones... I phones and I pads and laptops with all the latest bells and whistles.

And as for me... well, I had lots of books and paper and a nice little pen.  I turned my ten year old cell phone off when I got there because it doesn't get a signal up on the mountain... And apart from being a telephone, it doesn't "do" anything else.  It is not that I am anti-technology.  I like gadgets too.  Its just that I always use the version of a thing that I have until it breaks. When the little pop up on the computer screen tells me that updates are available, it is an annoyance, because I already know how to USE the old version and am happy to NOT be updated, thank you very much.

Well this technology gap came to a "aha" moment during our orientation session.  I had just passed out the very attractive nicely bound Vestry Handbooks that Kim and I had put together, and I was going over the "security procedures" for vestry person of the day. As I was doing so, Nate Harris raised his hand and kindly asked, Father, could you e-mail me this as a word document?  Yes, I said, but why would you want another one when I have given you one in this very attractive fifty page book?

Because, said he,  I can download it into my smart phone, and when I am walking around step-by-step, it will be handily available.

...Smart phone indeed.  And because my phone rides the short bus, that never would have occurred to me.

So anyway... all these smart people with their impressive gifts, gadgets and goodness were much on my mind as I lay my head on the pillow that Sunday night, two weeks ago...

And I began to dream... And I could tell right away that it was going to be one of those "anxiety dreams" And every priest will tell you, his anxiety dreams always have two features.... The processional hymn is starting...AND... he cannot find his vestments... or he gets hopelessly tangled in them trying to get them put on properly.

Sure enough, the Procession began, just as normally.  Fr. Patrick was the celebrant, and he and the Sacred Ministers, in perfect holiness, waited for me to step in front of them.  But I only had on an alb...which Fr. Fleming always referred to as liturgical underwear... no cincture, no stole... and as I looked down, to my horror, I was barefoot.  I didn't look like a priest, but like a hippy on his way to Haight-Ashbury.  Never mind, Clara had started the hymn, and there was nothing to do but step in line...

As we got half-way up the aisle, I noticed that the scene had changed.  Between the High Altar and the Procession, three stood a new- Free Standing Altar.  It was made of stained glass, but of a decidedly modern and kind of "glow-in the dark" style. It was huge, and blocked the view of everything that was behind it.

With great indignation I stopped and demanded of Patrick, Where did this thing come from and who put it here without my permission. He responded with perfect innocence, Gene Geraty bought it, and Marrietta said it was OK.  And that, his facial expression seemed to say, is all you need to know about it.

As we rounded the monstrosity of Stained Glass, I saw that my worst terror was yet to come, for on the other side was... are you ready for this...a Food Court.  It was as big as Mall of America, and it was buzzing with activity.  The whole procession stopped, the music stopped, and it seemed as if this place of commerce was the very point of the Procession!  In fear and amazement, I alone explored the outer limits of this food court, while everyone else had a frolicking good time... and as I got to the back wall, I peeped around... and sure enough, there it was, dark and unused and totally eclipsed, was the High Altar of Church of the Holy Communion.  I shrieked a loud, "No"!...   And then I woke up... And immediately praised God that it was all... in fact... just a dream.

I must say, I was glad to be awakened just at that moment...but I do have one regret.  I wish that I could have dreamed just a moment more... so I could have more thoroughly examined that Food Court, to see if perhaps Fr. Dan were seated at a table... and whether Fr. Patrick had any chanting role in this liturgy, and what that might have sounded like!  But that, I suppose, will have to come in another dream...

Well, by know, you are surely wondering what the point of all this is, and however it might tie together. 

St. Paul tells us in this morning's epistle, I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means... save some.

 In this, he is charging us to have a passion for the lost.  He is exhorting us to follow his example, and to place such a value... such a premium... on the Gospel of Christ Jesus that we value it above all things.  And because we do cherish it in such a way, that we be willing to put aside everything, no matter what it might be,  either an idol in our own path, or an impediment to bringing another person to a saving knowledge of the Lord. And if we are flexible in that way, we can also be all things to all people, in order that by all means we might save some.

For brothers and sisters, the world we live in today is just like the world in the time of Jesus and of St. Paul... it is hungry.

As Simon Peter says to Jesus in today's Gospel, Everyone is searching for you.

And guess what, they still are.  The problem is, the hungry don't know Jesus... They just know that they have a hugh place in their hearts where is love ought to be.

The problem is that Christians, rather than feeding the hungry with Jesus, have asked instead, Why don't you tell me what you like, and I shall see if I can get that for you?

And the result of that is not just in art and architecture...but also in much contemporary theology and church politics and ecclesiastical policy....

"Ugly" things are typified by:

Impermanance...cheapness... emptiness.

 Is that our product?  I think not.

For we preach Christ Crucified.  The Power of God... and the Wisdom of God.

And if we shall always ask, not "What is popular?"... "What are the latest Fads?  But rather, What is True? ...then we shall never be led astray.

For when we introduce a seeker to Truth, we introduce him to Jesus Himself...

When seekers knock on our door, it is not our job to present them with a "food court" of endless possibilities, for we have the audacity to say to the seeker, We have found what you seek!  Come and See!

And within that context, we can be all things to all people...

...In the beauty of holiness...

...In a Church characterized by Permanence.... Richness.... And the Fullness of Grace.