Read Sermons Author: The Rev. Dr. Stuart Hoke

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Sermon - August 26, 2018

August 26, 2018

This morning in our lectionary reading from the Hebrew Scripture, we read from a historical document—the First book of the Kings—a book said to be a holy history of a holy people, history recounted from a spiritual vantage point with a theological agenda to promote.  Our particular pericope this morning involves the great King Solomon, son of David and Bathsheba, ruler of the United Kingdom, and exemplary of Israel’s leadership at the height of her worldly greatness—that being 10 centuries before the birth of Jesus.

          Throughout the ages, sacred history has revered and celebrated King Solomon—most especially for an asset of character that we call wisdom, a God-given ability to discern the Spirit’s movement, a blessing of insight and perspicacity—and then for his application of that holy gift in building a temple for the worship of God right at the heart of Israel’s life.  Wise King Solomon knew that the God of the Universe (whose breadth and depth never ever could be contained in an earthly vessel or quartered by human hands) must nevertheless have a name, an address, and a visible, audible, feelable, touchable, sensible, and BEAUTIFUL presence in a particular place in ordinary time and recognizable space if flesh and blood human beings like ourselves are ever to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”  [Psalm 34:8] 

          So Solomon constructs this lavish temple; he adorns it with worldly greatness and inspirited beauty; and from its description it apparently was as awe-inspiring in its architecture and fabric as is Trinity Cathedral on Spring Street in Little Rock—the point being those beautiful buildings are very very important to us, and should never be taken for granted or thought to be excessive.  Within the heart of this magnificent Temple, Solomon ensconces the Ark of the Covenant, the holiest of holy for God’s chosen, the sacred law that binds God and God’s people in a relationship.  Solomon pleads with God to listen to the prayers of those who come to the temple to venerate the Law, and he even delineates for God the kinds of prayers that will undoubtedly travel from human lips to the divine ear:

Most especially prayers uttered —

          by those seeking help in times of need…

          by those In the clutch of transgression, begging for forgiveness…

          by those in crisis because of great famine or withering drought

          by those in despair when a loss is pronounced and failure colors the day…

          by those living through seasons when a loss is pronounced and failure and colors the day. 

          even by those who are foreigners and aliens who come as curiosity-seekers hoping they might find the One who is said to live here. 

Listen to a portion of Solomon’s grandiloquent prayer, prayed—I suggest—with energy and passion:

And Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the congregation of Israel, and spread forth his hands toward heaven:

“O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like thee, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to thy servants who walk before thee with all their heart.  But will you, O God, dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!  Yet have regard to the prayer of thy servant and to his supplication, O Lord my God…. And hearken thou to the supplication of thy people Israel, when they pray toward this place; yea, hear thou in heaven those who gather together in thy dwelling place; and when thou hearest, forgive…in the sense of “give for.”

          The construction of the great Temple in Jerusalem and its use in Israel’s history has become—in my estimation—an archetype, a blueprint, a prime example of sacred structure ever since.  The 20th-century psychologist Carl Jung focused on archetype as an original model or type after which other similar things are patterned. In Jungian psychology, an archetype is an inherited pattern of thought or symbolic image that is derived from the past and stays active and alive in the unconscious of the human soul.  An archetype is often activated when a crisis occurs, when the soul needs a sign from high above or deep within in order to take the next step of the journey.  I have seen this reality lived out, and I want to share a portion of what I witnessed in this regard.  Keep that in mind as I shift my homiletical gears.

          On the eleventh day of September 2001—one of the several days in history that has seared the hearts and scarred the minds of anyone who was alive at that time—the unthinkable occurred, the unimaginable happened.  Terrorists attacked our country; destroyed our sense of impenetrability; wrecked our notions of security; and caused many deaths and massive destruction.  The legacy of that horror is still present today with the evil it unleashed across the globe.  I happen to have been an eyewitness to the events of the day at the site of the World Trade Center in New York City, a mere 150 yards from the Church where I worked. Another Trinity Church that lies at the heart of another great city; another Christian community bound within the name of the Trinity that exists for a world of good just as we do here.  Next month on September 16th and 23rd, I plan to share details of the day with you in the Dean’s Forum on Sunday morning, and reflect on those gut-wrenching and life-changing events from a spiritual perspective…as well as the outpouring of redemptive love that began to occur within seconds of the attack…how God redeems time, repurchases time, and is forever and a day bringing good out of evil, light out of darkness, joy out of suffering, and life out of death.  Today—just a small piece of it as it corresponds to our reading this morning from the Hebrew Scripture.

          Early morning on a workday after getting out of the number 9 subway train at the corner of Rector and Greenwich Streets in lower Manhattan, a friend from work greeted me with the news that a small plane had veered off course and had hit the upper stories of the World Trade Center’s South Tower.  We scurried two blocks down the street to join the enormous crowd which had gathered to gooseneck the “accident,”  While standing there, a second plane, a massive 737 jetliner, flew right over our heads at a speed of 586 mph, rammed the building’s second tower a 1000 feet above us, and caused an explosion so massive that it sent all of New York’s financial district on a run for their lives.  I ran a short distance into the office building of Trinity Church where my office was located on the 24th floor.  The Rector, Dan Matthew whom many of you know, caught me in the lobby of the building, and in no uncertain terms told me to get myself to the church which lay across the street and to do something with the crowd of people who were pouring into the building.

          The organist-choirmaster, Owen Burdick, and I did as Fr Matthews directed…and there for the next 45 minutes—until that horrible moment when the first tower imploded and fell to the ground—Owen and I carried out an extemporaneous service of prayers, readings from Scripture, and hymns from the hymnal for this rag-tag collection of anyone and everyone who had entered that great monument of a church [and one that-looks-like-a-church] seeking the very thing the Church offers in abundance when she is at her best:  safety, security, serenity, solace, sanctuary, succor—in a word SALVATION—at the very instant in time when the sky had fallen on our heads and the rug had been pulled out from beneath us.  You can see how the archetype “temple” or “church” was triggered, and how the people responded.

          And what a group we were—so diverse, so colorful, so emotionally shredded that we gave new meaning to the word eclectic.  Heterogeneous, broad, diverse…Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Zoroastrians, agnostics, atheists, Episcopalians — a disparate assembly if ever there was one gathered under one roof, most of them on their knees, all utterly dependent at least for a moment upon the grace of God.  I think of James Joyce’s definition of the Catholic Church as he defines it in his book Finnegan’s Wake:  “Here comes everybody” and indeed everybody came.  Of course, they came.  They were frightened out of their wits, scared beyond their imaginings, and there stood a church with an open door.  The unconscious holds the original pattern, and it’s activated in all its glory when the time is ripe.  Of all the buildings on Wall Street that one could have chosen for a reprieve from the disaster, the Church became the place to go for so many of the scattered.  Furthermore, this church was an Episcopal Church—with that familiar sign of ours out front that said, “the Episcopal Church welcomes you”.  Hospitality is our middle name! — that being the creation of a warm and open space for all strangers of any stripe to come in, sit down, and “be still and know that God is God” [Psalm 46:10].

          On that morning of abject terror, we did just as Solomon imagined we would doing when human condition is at a point of imploring divine assistance.  We prayed to God for deliverance.  We asked for forgiveness.  We sang in praise; we listened to Word, and we embraced a peculiar kind of peace that so often occurs in the beauty of holiness, and—I would add—in the holiness of beauty.  In that church, as in all churches, the Sacred and other-worldly Word of God often intersects the mundane and quite pedestrian lives of those who hear it.  How many times have you noticed a word from the liturgy, or heard a phrase from a sermon, or spotted a visual message from a sliver of stained glass that spoke with directness and urgency to just the issue you were dealing?  Quick blips that contain just the very thing we need to hear, just when we need to hear it.  The synchronicity in a house of worship can be uncanny at times.  It’s as if God hears our prayers, and makes a response in ways that are tailor-made to whatever it is that happens to be going on within us.  The Sacrament of the Present Moment as Christian mystics once deemed it.

          Picture this.  Here was that most eclectic group of worshippers gathered together in an old Neo-gothic church house, right at the edge of unimaginable destruction,  The sky had darkened outside to the point of blackness; sirens roared everywhere the ear could hear; fear was at such a pitch that only assurance from above, not some mawkish nosegay of re-assurance, only assurance of divine origin could help.  I was scrambling through the hymnal looking for songs of devotion and praise that we could all sing.  Remembering the wartime movie “Mrs. Miniver” with Greer Garson, I recalled images of a church in England that had been bombed and partially destroyed, and the white-haired vicar climbs into the pulpit and directs the congregation to stand and sing “O God our Help in Ages past.”  So I did it.  I used to know the names and number of every hymn in the hymnal, so without pause, I said let us stand and sing number 680, and those battle-torn, rag-tags sang their hearts out. 

In that context of the darkening sky, flickering electricity, fear ascending, and death impending, we sang the first verse of that stately Anglican hymn, and an utterly amazing spiritual awakening occurred. 


          The Congregation gasped audibly when Word intersected with Event.  Our shelter from the stormy blast indeed.  OMG, we’re here.  We’ve entered our eternal home, no matter what is to befall us in the minutes and hours ahead.  Do you know that sound we often make when a connection like that is realized?  It’s Ahhhh, Ohhhhh.   “The spirit working within us in Sighs and groans way too deep for words” as St Paul describes it.  Where in this world would you ever experience such a thing if not for a temple dedicated to the glory of God and housing God’s holy presence?  A Church to wit.  A name and an address in each community where the divine has agreed—thanks in part to Solomon’s prayerful negotiation—to be present.  A place where song, sacrament, sermon, the sacred word all conspire to rocket you and me to a 4th dimension.

          Coincidence—if there be such a thing—happened again moments later as events worsened outside the church’s doors.  When the ash from the burning wreckage began to be sucked into the building thanks to a new HVAC system, I turned to the 8th chapter of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans to read those amazing words of consolation that we use in our tradition almost invariably at funerals.  In a moment of exaltation, Paul writes: “For I am absolutely convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  I read these words as if they were addressed to me personally, with such energy, such purpose.  I read them as if I really and truly believed what they were saying.  I did and I do, and I cannot begin to describe how much these words mean to me even today.

           Again that sound went up, and this time much louder than before—Ahhaaaa, Ohhh, those sighs and groans too deep for words.  A Co-incidence…or perhaps a better word would be God-incidence.  Oh I have much to say on these matters, and I will be saying it, and I want you to hear it, and everyone you know.  It’s so important as we gird our loins, gear our minds, and temper our hearts to deal with the vagaries and vicissitudes of life in the 21st century.  If death or destruction happens to come our way, we absolutely must know that redemption is occurring simultaneously.  That’s the very nature of our loving God who is doing for us what we could never do for ourselves.

          But for now, as we near the anniversary of 9/11, as we continue this week and month and year to trudge through the dispiriting and often demoralizing experiences of seeing the world, this nation and THE CHURCH go through a period of upheaval—and perhaps cleansing—and as we wonder at times if the sky IS falling and if the rug IS being pulled out from under us, I’d stay let’s stay close to the church!  And I say that from good experience.  Go to the temple, and go often.  Hear the Word.  Receive the Sacrament, and do so regularly.  Say your prayers.  And Sing your witness.   It’s the only place on earth where the reality of redemption is given to us in technicolor.  Where serendipities and consolations are commonplace, where grace is unmerited and grace-full events are often perceived almost as ordinary, where hospitality and beauty are our middle names, and all of it occurring among such an eclectic collection of “everybody come”.

          Glory to the Holy and Undivided Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit whose redemptive hand is forever and a day bringing Good out of Evil, Life out of Death, Joy out of suffering, and Light out of Darkness. 

King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”  

So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.

What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.

Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.

When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”

If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”

“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.

Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”

For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:

Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?

Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.

SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’

For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.”  Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.

In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me.  (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”

For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”

Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.

Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.

By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.

We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.

We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.