14th after Pentecost Church of Scotland, Auditoire de Calvin, Geneva, Switzerland Páraic Réamonn, August 25 2013

The whole of our faith is the belief that God loves us; I mean there isn’t anything else… God, for the Christian, is the lover who accepts us absolutely and unconditionally, quite regardless of whether we are nice or nasty… God loves us anyway, so that we are liberated enough to risk being vulnerable to others – liberated enough to risk loving and being loved by others, liberated enough to know that we belong to each other because we belong to God.

Herbert McCabe

Talk: Sometimes a hymn surprises Among the classic hymn-writers in our hymnary (CH4), my favourite is William Cowper. Here’s why. Other classic writers – John Newton (with whom Cowper co-authored the Olney Hymns), Isaac Watts, John and Charles Wesley – ask us to sing the faith in which we believe. Their hymns, as Donald Davie puts it, are written from the pulpit. But Cowper sits in the pew, where most of us sit, and tells us honestly how it is for him.1 The poet of the 18th-century evangelical revival, Cowper writes his hymns deliberately in the plain style. He also writes with the disconcerting honesty of one who suffered from acute depression and every ten years or so was driven to the brink of suicide. Of the seven hymns by Cowper in the Revised Church Hymnary of 1928, only two survive into CH4; let me say a word about them and also about the hymn on our insert. Verses two to four of Sometimes a light surprises are a powerful assertion of evangelical assurance. God is constant and unchanging. Come what may, God will bear us through. While I trust in God, I cannot but rejoice. Newton, Watts or either of the Wesleys could easily write these verses. But not, I think, the verse that Cowper sticks in front of them. “Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings.” One can sing this hymn many times without noticing that the important word is the first. Sometimes. Not always, perhaps not even very often. Sunday after Sunday, the consoling and uplifting words we are asked to sing may strike us dully and inertly. It’s only sometimes that a light surprises, that they do what they’re supposed to do, that they transport us out of the realm of the ordinary and the everyday into the realm of the divine. No congregation in its right mind would make Cowper its publicity officer. But ask yourself if Cowper’s experience of worship is not in some measure also yours. It is the same with hymn 552 in our hymnary: “Oh, for a closer walk with God”. This is not an easy piety but an earnest prayer. In theory, evangelicals were supposed never to lose the blissful assurance that God loved them personally and had chosen them from before the dawn of time. But it
Donald Davie, “Introduction”, The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, Oxford: OUP, 1981. See also: “William Cowper” in John Barkley ed., Handbook to the Church Hymnary, Third Edition, Oxford: OUP, 1979; or at greater length in James Moffatt ed., Handbook to the Church Hymnary, Revised Edition, OUP, 1927; Online: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Cowper, http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/biographies/insanity-andspiritual-songs-in-the-soul-of-a-saint, http://www.studylight.org/enc/bri/view.cgi?n=34757.
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– this man at the age of 32 bought laudanum to use as a poison. Beneath the spreading heavens No creature but is fed. they are dulled by familiarity. It is the Lord who rises With healing on His wings: When comforts are declining.2 didn’t work out like that for Cowper. and besides. I cannot but rejoice. Ezekiel fell on his face. could his walk be close with God. he couldn’t feel it. but much of the time. then which of us cannot? Sometimes a light surprises Sometimes a light surprises The Christian while he sings. return… Cowper believed. But the same man who wrote: Judge not the Lord by feeble sense but trust him for his grace. ‘E’en let th’unknown tomorrow Bring with it what it may! It can bring with it nothing But he will bear us thro’. and he wrestles with this tension between faith and experience.’ William Cowper. placed a penknife at his heart. And then there’s hymn 158: “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform. In holy contemplation We sweetly then pursue The theme of God's salvation. took a cab to throw himself in the Thames only to find the water-level inconveniently low. Isaiah said his lips were tainted. and all but succeeded in hanging himself with a garter. And He who feeds the ravens Will give His children bread.” We sing these words cheerfully and even carelessly. That is why I love William Cowper. calm and serene his frame. behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face. Set free from present sorrow We cheerfully can say. Though vine nor fig-tree neither Their wonted fruit should bear. His praise shall tune my voice For while in him confiding. Nor flocks nor herds be there. can believe unhesitatingly in the love of God. If this man. Yet God the same abiding. Who gives the lilies clothing Will clothe His people too. only if the Holy Spirit flooded his heart with grace. He grants the soul again A season of clear shining To cheer it after rain. And find it ever new. we usually don’t know their context. And Jeremiah says he’s too young… This isn’t just appropriate humility… It’s a matter of the sheer size . whose life was so tormented and troubled. Where is the blessedness I knew when first I saw the Lord? Return. Tho’ all the fields should wither. O holy Dove. 1731-1800 Readings Jeremiah 1.4-10 “Moses said he wasn’t a speaker. with a sure and certain faith. Only if God once again broke into his life.

Frederick Nietzsche. Gustav Mahler went to see it. Like a good Presbyterian.” Hebrews 12. I understood that the greatest and most painful revelation had just been made to me.org/wiki/Parsifal 4 Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “They would have to sing better songs for me to believe in their Saviour: his disciples would have to look more redeemed!” . The next year.wikipedia.3 of the task. http://en. in which he wrote 182 lines about being chased by a relentless God.” he wrote to a friend. Jesus opens the box and sets the Spirit free.4 But do we? Try a simple test: look at your neighbour to your right or left. and that I would carry it unspoiled for the rest of my life. before the angels. And just like us. ruthlessly determined to save him in spite of himself: 2 3 NT Wright. It means standing trembling before the living God. 2000.”2 Luke 13. “I can hardly describe my present state to you. at the Bayreuth festival. shows him how silly he is. whether we realize it or not. Richard Wagner.” Max Reger put it more simply: “When I first heard Parsifal at Bayreuth… I cried for two weeks and then became a musician.18-29 “Hebrews offers both context and hope: our life is conducted. Parsifal. Unless one has been overwhelmed by the size of this task. Better still. completely spellbound. assured that the work we do belongs to that future unshakable realm. archangels and all the company of heaven. London: SPCK. It’s easy to put her in a box: she’s a cripple. in order to establish a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Jesus tells him not to be silly – or rather. and the one we serve has committed himself to ‘shaking’ heaven and earth once more. The Hound of Heaven. staged his last and some say greatest opera. one hasn’t been paying attention. the president of the synagogue wants everything to be done decently and in good order. The president puts God in a box.”3 Why is it that we do not come out of church more often with that sort of feeling? That great 19th-century sceptic. she should be set free. the bicentenary of whose birth we celebrate this year. Francis Thompson wrote a famous 19th-century poem. who hated Parsifal and wrote a whole book denouncing Wagner. in order to stand boldly before the world.10-17 The woman is bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. 98f. said that Christians ought to look more redeemed. Twelve Months of Sunday: Reflections on Bible Readings. But Jesus thinks outside the box: she is a daughter of Abraham – by implication (and just like us) a child of God. look in a mirror. Sermon: Good news? In 1882. “When I came out of the Festspielhaus. We go to our Christian tasks surrounded by invisible witnesses. Year C. like being asked to climb the north face of the Eiger in bare feet.

Standing ovations are not to be expected. We must no longer be children. nor can we lift up our eyes to Christ. And of course. Henri Nouwen says somewhere that it is almost impossible to preach on the parable of the good Samaritan. He wondered. for the Bible tells me so” is a fine hymn to sing when we are six. “How can 5 6 Nicholson & Lee. why else would we call him good? But the Jews of first-century Palestine to whom Jesus told this story did not say.5 But we are remarkably adept at not hearing the patter of canine feet behind us. and under running laughter. that’s what priests and Levites do. We may be bent over for eighteen years and quite unable to stand up straight. but not so fine when we are sixteen or sixty. “Jesus loves me! This I know. A third and related reason may be that we have some growing up to do. they may even have been offended. . down the arches of the years. The letter to the church in Ephesus sets before us a challenge to Christian maturity: We must grow up in every way into Christ.bartleby. “Of course”. It may not even have been Henri Nouwen. Metaphorically. let alone shock. they were shocked. The lawyer who stood up to test him may well have stomped off in a huff. not feeling the hot breath on our necks. as many of us do. eds. to see in his face the beauty of God’s will. I fled Him. it’s like an MK telling a story in the Knesset about a Jewish settler who is picked up bleeding from the roadside and taken to hospital by a member of Hamas. We may be so turned in on ourselves and our own preoccupations and trivial pursuits that we cannot lift up our eyes to the hills. They were surprised. But perhaps we haven’t done that. and only God can find it for us. Then there may be a second reason: the gospel has been so dulled by familiarity for us that we cannot hear it as good news. down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind. But here are three: try them on for size. tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine. not glimpsing God’s white incisors as we glance over our shoulders. and in the mist of tears I hid from Him.html From the opening hymn (CH4 246): “Great God of every shining constellation” 7 I’ve lost the reference. Don’t hold your breath. In contemporary terms. Marcus Borg is a New Testament scholar who grew up Lutheran in North Dakota in the 1940s. he drifted away from Christian faith.7 Of course. I fled Him.6 We have locked ourselves in a prison of our own making and thrown away the key. because we know the story so well it has lost all power to surprise us. 1917: http://www. the Samaritan stops to help. down the nights and down the days. In his teenage years. The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse. or the stars that wheel in splendour through the midnight sky. until we stand as tall as Christ stands. Why is this? There can be as many reasons as we are individuals.4 I FLED Him. we may be like the woman in our Gospel story. the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side.com/236/239.

to a living relationship to what the Bible and the church point us towards. It gathers to a greatness.org/poem/173660 10 Meeeting Jesus Again. from time to time Borg found himself seized by radical amazement. “How do we know there’s a God anyway?” His childhood understanding of Christianity collapsed. And at the same time.13 Marcus J Borg. Gerald Manley Hopkins: The world is charged with the grandeur of God. the reason why there is anything at all rather than nothing. Borg has written other books with similar titles: The God We Never Knew. but they do capture nicely the challenge we all face: to move from second-hand faith to first-hand faith. 1995. like shining from shook foil. and a faith suitable for people who in other respects are all grown up.10 When Borg was 50. 12 Ibid. or at any rate – let’s not get carried away here – mostly grown up.11 Since then. and with the invitation came a readymade title – Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. we may all have met Jesus before. 14f. In his thirties. He became a “closet agnostic”. Rediscovering a Life of Faith. and in that frame of mind went off to seminary. and this brought him back to his childhood faith but also forward to a more mature understanding of what faith means. These aren’t the only books we can read.” 8 . 11 Ibid. to finding a God. that God is immanent in all things. 5-8. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. Putting Away Childish Things.. they aren’t even in my view the best books we can read. and a Jesus. we would not need to demand belief in the authority of that book in such stiff-necked fashion.12 To gloss Frederick Nietzsche again: If the glad message of our Bible were written in our faces..9 These thirtysomething experiences were for Borg an aha! moment. God is the author of all things. that God was the source and presence in which we live and move and have our being. that God transcends all this. It will flame out. you would not need to demand belief in the authority of that book in such stiff-necked fashion. or what the church says. like the ooze of oil Crushed. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Christian Faith.5 God be up in heaven and at the same time everywhere?” He asked. times in which he saw the earth as filled with the glory of God. As he explains in the book of the same name. but nothing replaced it. God is not part of our universe. Allow me to stick in here a few lines from one of the greatest Victorian poets. that God was the ground of our being and of all being.8 Go figure. To picture God as part of the furniture of the universe is to reduce God to an idol. but meeting Jesus again and as adults can be like meeting someone new. someone who didn’t know what to make of it all. HarperSanFrancisco.poetryfoundation. to move from thinking that the Christian life is about believing what the Bible says. He realized that God was larger than his childhood apprehension or his teenage puzzles. he was asked by the United Church of Christ – one of our sister churches – to give a series of lectures in California on Jesus. 9 “God’s Grandeur”: http://www. 13 Miscellaneous Maxims and Opinions: “If that glad message of your Bible were written in your faces. He grew to like it very much. 87f. vii.

London: Continuum. straightening us out and helping us to see clearly. 2007. a light shining in our darkness that longs to bring us home. Hear then the good news: We are not alone. 132. in a gesture of love.6 And this brings me to Pope Francis. however hard we find it to accept that. a compassion beyond our wildest imaginings that accepts us just as we are.org/blogs/all-things-catholic/one-word-describe-pope-francis-papacy-date. 39.16 And because of that. 15 Meeting Jesus Again. and giving us fresh confidence in one another. that on the eve of his crucifixion.” That same day – and here is the link to Nietzsche – he said that Christians should go out from worship anointed with the oil of gladness and looking as if they have heard good news. even feet with tattoos. The new pope is no radical. but he has shown that like Francis his namesake he understands something of the compassion of God.org/article/pope-washes-feet-young-detainees-ritual. 14 . white. domination by generosity. building community. who included Muslims and Orthodox Christians. Then. in life and in death – not to ourselves but to our faithful saviour Jesus Christ.14 Last Holy Thursday.va/news_services/liturgy/libretti/2013/20130328-messa-crismale-libretto. http://ncronline. A video from the Vatican shows the 76-year-old pope kneeling on a stone floor as he poured water over the feet of a dozen young people. The boxed sentences at the beginning of this pdf come from the same chapter. aged 14 to 21: black. 34f. female. adopted at the 23rd general council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in 1997 in. but running to reclaim us as God’s created and greatly loved children. he washed and kissed the feet of two young women at the Casal del Marmo juvenile detention centre in Rome.vatican. “This is a symbol. open the Declaration of Debrecen. he bent over and kissed it. “It is a sign. and security by freedom. after drying each foot with a cotton towel. Go out into the world and cry for two weeks – and then become a Christian. casting out fear. not denying for a moment that we are wayward daughters and prodigal sons. 34. 16 These sentences. 33. There is a power at work in our world that longs to set us free. Hear the good news.” he said. We belong – body and soul. replacing bullying by kindness. Washing your feet means I am at your service. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. 17 Herbert McCabe. righting all that is wrong. He told the young offenders. we belong to each other. So let me not take any chances. See: http://bigstory. taken from Calvin’s Institutes and the Heidelberg Catechism. http://www. God is at work in our broken world. righting all that is wrong.ap.17 God is at work in our broken lives. well.. male.15 We are not our own. Debrecen. hierarchy by partnership. competition by friendship.pdf. “Doubt is not Unbelief” in Faith and Reason.

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