Today the sermon was preached without script; worship was held in the Parish Hall as the Church was 43degrees! In the fun intimacy of the temporary setting it just seemed right not to preach from a lectern… with script. So, no audio. A (!) text is below that sort of resembles what was preached.
This is very important to me – that it is part of the divine being’s heart to be involved with the “mess” of our lives and to create from the mess something beautiful, diverse and productive. This is very important to me… that the Holy Spirit is invoked to “brood” over us and impart beauty and power. We see it in Genesis 1 (creation), Acts 19 (the theologically messed-up Ephesian dozen) and Mark 1 (John Baptist and Jesus’ baptism).
Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport, RI; Sunday January 7th 2018 The Reverend Alan Neale;
“The Brevity of Mess”
As did our illustrious Rector last week, so I begin today’s sermon with these words, “In the beginning…”. Anne Marie was quoting John 1:1, the famous prologue of John whereas I quote from today’s first reading… Genesis 1:1.
If ever you have chanced to listen to me, you would have heard countless times on a myriad of occasions phrases like “primal truth… primal images…primal stories”, it’s where I become most (forgive me) “Jung at heart.”
I resolutely believe that what we read in the opening chapters of Genesis presents us with a road-map of our deepest, psychic and (here we go) primal being.
This morning I speak of one area only but it has enormous ramifications – CHAOS! Or more colloquially, MESS.
There are many who reading these opening verses of Genesis discern in them what is called a doctrine of “creatio ex nihilo” (creation from nothing). But the verses are patient of another reading altogether different and I believe all the more exciting and relevant. This alternative reading argues, and remember these are primal myths portraying primal truths, that God creates a stunning universe out of chaos or mess… described as “without form or void” (which, by the way, was once used to describe many a sermon but I digress).
Here we see God not as some child who having made a mistake in art or math, screws the paper up and begins anew; no, here we see God as the one who dives into chaos, who plunges into mess, and from that very mess creates and devises something almost unimaginable but nevertheless real.
This is God, this is an insight into the deepest divine psyche… to quote the enormous visual aid behind me… semper eadem… always the same.
So St. Paul comes to Ephesus in our second reading (Acts 19) and discovers a mélange, a hodgepodge, a mishmash of theological truth and Christian experience. The Ephesian dozen are engaged in a totally chaotic pattern of Christian initiation. What does Paul do? Well, like his Divine Master, he begins where they are… chaos and mess, dives into the maelstrom and behold… something of beauty and power emerges. Baptized… check yes, filled with the Spirit… check yes, speaking in tongues… check yes… and then he leaves.
Move onto the Gospel (Mark 1)… surely there cannot be a more quintessential embodiment of chaos and mess than John Baptist. Before ever he opens his mouth, his vesture and diet disturb the orderliness of sterile and predictable religiosity. The chaos continues as this wild-man is designated to baptize Jesus, and this prompts John Baptist (Matthew 3:14) to declare, “I should not baptize you, you should baptize me.” But in this chaos, this mess the Holy Spirit hovers (as in Genesis, as in Acts 19) and creates something incredibly beautiful and powerful.
I wonder how you, I view this past 2017. Maybe you remember this royal quotation from November 24th 1992? “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis.” Words spoken by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.
Forget 2017, how have these early days of January been for you? “Snowbomb/snowmaggedon”, unexpected and serious illness, resolutions already fraying at the edges of the will. Father Humphrey (Rector of St. John’s on the Point) writes this in his weekly parish letter: “. As usual the website for Popular Science makes all things clear, as well as being very prim and proper in an Emily Post sort of way, declaring, “The phrase [‘bomb cyclone’] doesn’t refer to the storm itself. (The storm’s name is Grayson and you will refer to him as such.)” Humankind it seems cannot bear too much mess…
Genesis 1 permits us, no… urges us, to identify chaos/mess for what it is but then to remember with gratitude that God excels in dealing with mess. It is the perturbed and troubled soul that is the fertile ground for diverse, productive spiritual life that has about it the aroma, the sense of eternity. Rampant orderliness and constant conformity can readily be found in a graveyard but who in their right mind wishes for that as a solution to chaos and mess? A permanent solution for a temporary problem.
I quote again from the huge visual aid behind me… “honi soit qui mal y pense” – may he be shamed who thinks badly of it. We should feel some shame when we allow chaos and mess to have the last word, to pare from us remaining shreds of hope. We should feel some shame as people of God when we dismiss ourselves or others as hopeless, beyond help.
I resolve, and I ask you to join me, I resolve that in this coming year… oh, let’s be honest… in this coming day, week, month I will not allow chaos and mess to have the last word. Of course there are times when we have known, or will know, experiences that propel us to live in a world that has no shape, no content but that mess (“without form or void”) is the very stuff which, in the economy of God’s handiwork, can be created into something with purpose, with content…
To the chaos at the beginning, to the chaos at the baptism… the voice of the Lord (extolled in Psalm 29) thundered words of affirmation… this is good, this is my beloved. Please take time to hear this voice… day by day by day.
Thanks be to God. Amen