Sermon for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Concord, NH, on the Occasion of their Bicentennial Celebration
By The Right Reverend A. Robert Hirschfeld, 10th Bishop, Episcopal Church of New Hampshire
delivered January 8, 2017
“And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehendeth it not.”
So, the newspaper reports that we can’t help talking about fires around here. That may be so. The fire I want to talk about this evening is the fire of God's love that kindled the hearts of the several souls who decided to build a church in the Anglican tradition in Concord. More than that, I want to talk about the fire of God that couldn't be contained within the boundaries of heaven itself. It is the fire of love that burns so wildly and urgently that it came down from heaven and took the form of a human being in Jesus.
As we celebrate the beginning of this parish community, I can't help but first talk about the very beginning, the beginning of creation. The prayer for this Sunday speaks of how God wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature. And, granted us grace to share the divine life of the One who shared our humanity: Jesus Christ our Savior.
The early church spoke of the relationship between God and Humankind as a fire intermingling with its medium. In a fourth century Christmas-Epiphany sermon, Basil the Great, the bishop of Caesarea, spoke of the mystery of God becoming human and shedding light into the world using fire and an analogy:
How, then will you say, did the light come everywhere, through one sole person? In what manner is the Godhead in the flesh? Like fire and iron: not by moving about, but by spreading itself. The fire, indeed, does thrust itself toward the iron, but remaining where it is, it distributes its own power to it. In doing so, the fire is in no way diminished, but it completely fills the iron, into which it spreads.
In other words, we are to see ourselves on fire, our own bodies, minds, souls, utterly consumed by a God who choses to be ablaze in our lives, but who also promises never to incinerate us. Because the papers say we can’t help but talk about a fire, let us always keep in mind that wonderful showing up of God who calls Moses to free the people of Israel from their oppression by Pharaoh. Remember the burning bush by which the God of all history, the one who stated his name as “I who am, who was, and who will be,” burns wildly when being revealed to us, but is not destroyed. Thus it is to be with us.
This is the image of our life in Christ, in a God who is indeed suffering, is crucified, and yet who lives. That same God lived and inspired the first men and women who founded a church first named for one is famous for doubting, and then was reformed into a church named for one who is famous for his preaching to the religious and ethnic outsiders: St. Paul. They were aflame with love for God’s mission, for over 200 years, and yet this congregation was never incinerated.
I’ve been thinking of the second law of thermodynamics in the light of the today’s gospel, the construction, and the continual reconstruction, renewal, and re-creation of St. Paul’s. I’ve consulted with some physicists, and this is what they tell me the law says in terms a scientific layperson like me can understand.
Things fall apart. Indeed, everything falls apart. Energy, when converted into motion or work, eventually expends.
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, in a recent column in the Wall Street Journal wrote:
The Second Law deepens that discovery: Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses [churches] burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail. Matter doesn’t spontaneously arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things don’t jump onto our plates to become our food. What needs to be explained is not poverty but wealth.
In summary: poverty, social decline, the disintegration of values in our political and social spheres…all can be seen as analogies, parallels, of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It’s worth noting, by the way, that the Second Law was postulated, as it happens 200 years ago, just as Messrs. Albert Cady, Hill, Greenleaf and their colleagues chose to organize themselves as church and to worship according to the order, not the disorder, of the Book of Common Prayer. Presumably, they found, like I do, that one’s soul is strengthened and equipped better to confront the entropy of life when one reads the daily office, is nourished by the sacraments together, and seeks to build a commonwealth of good under the benevolent auspices of a God who gives and forgives,
Here’s what saves us from being a collection of Debbie Downers or Bob Bummers: “In the beginning is the Word. And the light that enlightens everyone has come into the world.”
You and I, empowered by the Holy Spirit, are being continually remade, rebuilt, re-inspired, re-ignited, reconverted, re-born again, to our original Godly glow. Though the original founders of St. Thomas Chapel encountered some kind of failure in their beginning, and though St. Paul’s has encountered episodes that might have led to its undoing, including fires, conflicts both within and outside its walls, not to mention a civil war, World Wars, and national political upheavals that would have shaken its confidence, the Second Law doesn’t really apply to us.
We are not a closed system. The power of God’s love continually infuses new energy, new vision, new confidence, indeed new joy and delight in our worship of God and each other. It’s not that we have to generate the power and energy to come here every day to offer our prayers for the world and our prayers of thanksgiving. Rather, God is praying us, continually drawing us into God’s eternal and infinitely life-giving presence.
God is heating the cold iron of our hearts, aglow with God’s loving, justice seeking, peacemaking Spirit, so that the world may see the Incarnate Christ, God’s very presence, in our bodies, in our actions, in our thoughts and words, in the hands that reach out in service to those in need and to find reconciliation, even with those who have hurt us or seek to cause harm.
Otherwise, we’d be nothing but burned out, unforgiving, grumpy and tired. Instead, God calls us to into a warm strengthening fellowship without which life can indeed be as Thomas Hobbes describing in the 17th century “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Here, we partakers of the Jesus movement, indeed people of all descriptions of belief and unbelief, have found the peace that surpasseth understanding, and therein the power, the fire, to bring light to this fallen world where for many life is very dark indeed.
My wood stove…the embers burn…even after several days of what looks like cold and ash, there is still light within the pile. So I take a piece of kindling, blow on it, watch the kindling ignite, then a dry log or a piece of birch bark, and behold, the thing is set ablaze again. All from a small, wafer-sized ember.
So it is with us. Our embers seem totally extinguished, from exhaustion, despair, frustration. Sometimes, driving around Concord or the highways and byways of New Hampshire, seeing very hostile stickers from the left or from the right, I can fall into despair at what the cover of Time magazine referred to as the Divided States of America.
But then I come to a church like St. Paul’s. To see the light pass through the faces of these persons on these reconstructed windows, essentially the light of Christ enlightens them all, faces that cannot be separated from the light that fills them. So, let us welcome the light, the fire of Jesus’ love for you and for this broken world. Let us welcome it. And, may it burn continually in our lives, which we offer in God’s service to the world.