Sermon for 2nd Sunday before Lent, Year B - Mucknell Abbey
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Sermon for 2nd Sunday before Lent, Year B

The Community here at Mucknell is, as with any group, made up of diverse individuals with varying opinions on just about everything! As such, sermons posted on our website represent the ideas of the preachers who wrote and delivered them, not necessarily those of the entire Community.

Sunday 4th February, 2024

From Quaker Advices & Queries #12:

Let us reach for the meaning deep within vocal ministry, recognising that even if it’s not God’s word for ourselves, it may be so for others.

Amen. 

——————————————————————–

Well. What a combination of readings.

First, the speech from that extraordinary personification of Wisdom, the woman whose voice has been heard from the beginning, before there was anything, before there was even ‘before’….

And then Paul’s description to the Colossians of the Jesus who ‘is, before all things’, who is ‘the beginning’, who is visible and invisible, ‘the image of the invisible God’ in whom ‘all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’…

And then the beginning of John’s gospel, and those repeated refrains of Word and God; life and light and dark; then world and Word and flesh…

These texts make me feel giddy, quite frankly. They take me to the limits of my imagination, and then push me over the edge into some unknown place where anything is possible.

Which sounds a bit fanciful but really…Word made flesh? The invisible God is in our midst, unseen? Absence as presence? That which was empty is now full, and then empties again into the void?

The divine Word made flesh sets up for me some sort of parallel way of thinking about what happens when human words are made flesh, what notions of human power and possibility then come into view.

St Benedict is very keen on restraint of speech, of being mindful with words, of guarding the tongue which – as the psalms remind us in one of a variety of memorable images – can be sharp as swords. In a roundabout etymological way ‘sword’ and ‘swear’ are related – to make a promise can also mean to use cutting words that wound and damage…

We want to ‘eat our words’ when we’ve spoken out of turn or unkindly…

Ezekiel hears a command to eat the scroll of words of lamentation and it tastes sweet as honey…

The school playground rhyme of ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’– well, that’s wishful thinking rather than truth, surely? Words brought out of our human hearts and made flesh are powerful, for better and/or worse.

And what about the words that aren’t spoken? The community goes into a week of silent retreat tonight: what will happen to the unspoken words, where do they go? Perhaps we’ll knit or think or write or sketch or listen to the unspoken words, add them to the humming pool of a ‘universal harmonic’ of unspoken sound that Rowan Williams describes when speaking about the monastic tradition of the desert.

Our friends the Benedictine sisters at West Malling speak of one of their roles and responsibilities as ‘adding to the world’s reservoir of silence’.

Here’s something that American poet Wendell Berry has to say about words and silence:

Accept what comes from silence.

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come

out of the silence, like prayers

prayed back to the one who prays,

make words that do not disturb

the silence from which they came.           

But what happens when the divine Word is made flesh? Is this where the image of the invisible God and the fullness of God meet? What is this fullness of God anyway? As an adjective it’s clear enough, describing something that holds ‘all its limits will allow’ as the OED has it. As a verb, ‘to full’ is to cleanse and thicken – sheep’s wool, in particular, so an appropriate image for the Good Shepherd. As a noun, fullness means ‘all that is contained in the world’.

To be filled, a thing – a person or world or a clay jar – needs first be a void. The master potter Edmund de Waal writes of making ceramics as a way to hold the void, making an object that guards a space.

Perhaps this is what Wisdom is, a void. ‘Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths, I was brought forth…’ In some mysterious way does Wisdom morph into Jesus, or he into her, if indeed ‘All things came into being through him’?

And if Jesus is, indeed, the image of the invisible God, the notion of indivisibility starts to make perfect sense. ‘…in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…’

The divine Word is all things. There’s that push over the edge of imagination into endless possibility again…

The image of the invisible God invites us to seek and find Christ in the stranger, that of God in everyone. A chaplain friend tells this story. In the trauma unit in Western Australia’s state hospital is a room where two high-needs patients were separated by a curtain. One had just woken up from surgery having been flown in from a remote indigenous community after a car crash and she was visiting him. Behind the curtain a man, strong as an ox on the effects of something, was being restrained by several staff and was abusing them at full volume and in language that made even her ears burn. She talked briefly with the car crash man – it was hard to chat over the noise from behind the curtain – and then wished him well, hoped he’d be able to rest in spite of the disturbance. From his broken body he said‘Oh I don’t mind, I feel sorry for him. I’ve been there, I know what it’s like, he’s just lost and angry. He’ll wake up one day and realise he’s being an idiot…’

He felt compassion where she felt embarrassment and irritation. He saw Christ in the stranger and she saw only the stranger. It’s an effect a bit like dominos, that ability to see the image of the invisible God. Car crash man saw God in the shouty man; my friend saw God in him and now looks at all people differently – looks for the fullness not the void. Her story reminds and encourages me, too, to look for that of God in everyone. Words made flesh.

So. We’re moving towards the breaking of the bread. Visible and invisible. Presence, absence and fullness. Word and flesh. These things also intrigued Rubem Alves, Brazilian priest, grandparent of liberation theology, poet and philosopher. In his extraordinary book ‘The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet’ he suggests that ‘The Eucharist….It is not the presence which performs the miracle. The miracle is performed by the power of the absence. The invisible God is with us.’

The psalmist says: O taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8)

The psalmist says: Open your mouth wide and I will fill it. (Ps 81:10b)

Amen.

Amen.

Virginia

Image: Gloria in excelsis deo!, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54912 [retrieved February 10, 2024]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mariya_umama_wethemba_monastery/2646933603/