Sunday, August 19, 2012
Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6.51-58
+ Every so often people will ask me two questions, invariably. First, as a poet, people often ask me who or what my influences are. Second, because most everyone who knows me knows I LOVE films, they ask me what film is currently on my top ten list. To the second question (the second question will lead us back to the first question—trust me), I usually have to reword it. If a film has made it to the top of my top ten list, then that means it is the film that is currently obsessing me. And that film that obsesses me the most often changes. The past few films that have obsessed me have been films like Punch-Drunk Love or No Country for Old Men or Rosemary’ Baby.
But the film that has been at the top of my top ten list recently has been a film that is like nothing else I have ever seen. And it is a film that affected me in ways that I wasn’t expecting the first time I saw it. This film is True Grit, directed by the Cohen Brothers.
Now, I know you might be surprised. The last film you would think Father Jamie would like is a Western. Ah…but True Grit is different than a Western. If you’re thinking True Grit is like that John Wayne movie, you’re far off the target on this one. This film was different. Yes, it takes place in the West. Yes, it could qualify as a Western. But it’s much, much more.
When I first saw this film, not long after my father died, I found myself sitting in the theatre after heaving with tears. I mean, I was bawling like a baby. It was that powerful for me.
I’m not going to go into detail about the film itself. You need to see it, if you haven’t already. But, the movie is filled with theological underpinning. And the issue that permeates the film the most is the issue of grace, if you look closely for it.
As I said, I’m not going to say much about the film. I want each of you to see it and to tell me what you got from it. But, I will say this. The one aspect of the film that caught completely off-guard was the one I least expected. And it was the final piece of music. I should refine that. It was the final Hymn.
The film closes with a heart-rending rendition of the popular hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” And when that hymn started playing at the end of the film, I felt as though I had been grabbed by the shoulders and shaken. It was, to say the least, powerful. Of course, for me personally, it was difficult, because “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” was one of my father’s favorite hymns.
Hymns are something else—I don’t think I need to tell anyone here this morning that fact. And here’s where that first question I mentioned at the beginning gets answered.
What are my poetic influences?
I once took issue with Pastor Mark Strobel when he made an observation about my poems. He said to me one day, “You know, all those Lutheran hymns you grew up with were your first poetic influences.”
“Oh no they weren’t,” I protested.
But, you know, as much as I hate to admit it, he was very right. Those hymns I grew up listening to were my first and certainly my longest lasting influences.
The American poet Elizabeth Bishop, who was brought up being heavily influenced by the Baptist and Presbyterian hymns of her childhood, once claimed that hymns were her first influence as well. In fact, she once said, “I am full of hymns.” Which is a strange comment from a woman who consistently claimed to be non-religious. But I have noticed that with a lot of people who are non-religious—who are agnostic or atheist. Oftentimes, they love sacred music and hymns.
Now, for me, I find that surprising. I guess, I have always taken to heart that old adage that, I believe, Martin Luther once used: “Those who sing hymns, pray twice.” Or something like that. And I think it’s true.
In our Epistle reading for today, we find St. Paul telling us to avoid drunkenness and debauchery (he’s always going off about such things!) . Rather, he writes, “be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalm and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts…”
For me, at this point in my life as a priest and as an Episcopalian, everything we do on Sunday morning in our liturgy is all bound up together. The hymns we sing are as essential to me—and I hope to all of us—in worship and liturgy as the reading of Scripture and sharing in the Holy Eucharist. It all leads our minds upward and God-ward. It truly is a kind of “second prayer.”
And on those mornings when we sing one particular hymn, like today, here at St. Stephen’s, when we sing “Praise to the Lord,” or on other Sundays when we sing “Jerusalem, my happy home” or “Jesus Christ is risen today,” I feel like the whole worship services has come together like puzzle pieces. I don’t know if I can articulate in any clear way how hymns simply everything fit together in our Mass.
I think one of the best Anglican summaries of how it all works was written by Charles Price and Louis Weil in their classic book on Anglican liturgy, Liturgy for Living:
“‘The whole service consecrates,’ is a customary expression among us. No one part of the Eucharistic prayer, no one part of the Eucharistic liturgy, is considered more effective or more sacred than another. When the Christian community meets to do the whole eucharistic action in obedience to the risen Lord, he comes. He gives himself to us, again and again. It is part of the mystery of time.”
For me, that Eucharistic action extends to our singing of hymns. I’m sure James—and hopefully most of us this morning—would agree. Oftentimes as we sing this sacred poetry and the words speak deep in our hearts, we find it is like prayer.
Jesus is present in a specially clear and distinct way, in much the same way we experience Jesus speaking to us in Scripture or feeding us with his Body and Blood in Holy Communion. And like the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, we don’t want to push the issue too far. As Price and Weil add, a statement which summarizes perfectly the Anglican stance on Anglican Eucharistic theology:
“To say anything more than this in the name of the church would, we believe, transgress Anglican restraint.”
And Anglican restraint means everything for me.
This time in which we gather together here in this church is a sacred time. The Christ that we celebrate in song and scripture and whose very Presence in the Bread and Wine is what sustains us and feeds us and binds us together. In this service all the elements come together. When we sing, when we share the food of the Eucharist together, divisions are broken down. Old wrongs are made right. Whatever problems we might have with each other out there have vanished when we are caught up in the words of this music we sing. And those differences vanish at this altar at which we share this meal and partake, in a very real way, of Christ.
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
What we eat here at this altar is the living Bread of heaven that has come down to us. And in this bread and in this wine we have found life. How do we truly celebrate that miracle? We do it in song. We do it by singing out our joy and saying with poetry and music what we ourselves are not able to say by ourselves.
What we do here in this service is not some private devotion. It is a liturgy in which we use all our senses to worship God. We have music. We hear the words of scripture. We stand. We kneel. We cross ourselves. We eat. We drink. We hear music and bells. And on Wednesdays, we get to even use the sense of smell in the incense we offer to God. We use all the senses and gifts God has given us to send up our worship and to share what we have been given.
This Mass is about us as a whole. What we do here, we do together. We come together, we celebrate, we listen, we affirm, we consent, we sing, we eat, we drink, we offer up ourselves. We come forward of to feed and then we go out, fed, to feed. We might not be able to define perfectly what happens here. But we do know that the holy is happening in our midst. The sacred is happening here when we gather together. God is present here—in the music, in the scriptures, in this bread and wine.
So let us take part in this living Presence that comes to us in a very basic and beautifully vital way—in food and drink, in music, in the very words of the Word. But let’s not let this sacredness be something we confine to this building. Let us embody this sacredness in our very lives. Let us carry this sacredness with us as we leave this building and go out into the world.
Just as we embody the Body and Blood of Jesus, as we speak his Word to the world, so let us also sing his music by our very lives. Let that music that touches us and affects us and shakes us at our cores be the music we take with us into the world that we can also share with others. This is what means to embody God’s Presence in our very lives.
So, let us be that living Presence to others. And let us together share this living presence with all those whom we are called to serve.