God's Compassion - November 24, 2019

If we think about it, we all lead different lives. Well, of course, you say, we are all different people.  But each one of us lead several different lives. Each of us leads a life as a husband or a wife, or as a father, or as a mother, as a son, as a daughter, maybe for a time as a student, maybe as a teacher, we have a job…If we think about it every one of us has lived, is living, or will live many lives.

And your presence here this morning suggests that one of those lives is as a person of faith.

As it happens today is sort of “in between day.”  We have just completed the great American Holiday of Halloween and we are in the beginning salvos of the Greatest American Holiday.  And for good measure we throw in Thanksgiving.

My mother’s solution to multiple days of celebrating was to throw them all together: my birthday, her birthday, Thanksgiving – we celebrated them all on Thanksgiving Day and that was the end of that.  I never can remember her birthday – I just know it was sometime around Thanksgiving about the same time as my birthday.

So, in a sense we shall today – we will celebrate Christ our King, the last Sunday of the current church year, a remembrance of Thanksgiving, and on a personal level I will observe the last  gasps of my 76th year.  And not least we shall share some thoughts about the One after whom we are named “Christians.”

Growing up as a kid in Texarkana, Arkansas, one of the things I looked forward to in the mail was getting the Saturday Evening Post magazine. Mostly, I suppose to be honest, I liked the cartoons.  The covers were pretty neat, too.  Many were by Norman Rockwell. One I remember especially – I don’t recall if it was by Rockwell – was of a kid about my age.  He was sitting in an old wrecked car – sitting at the wheel – imagining he was driving it, really driving it.  And this old car was in the middle of a great pasture – probably it was in Colorado or one of the Western states –and all surrounded by the glorious beauty of great mountains -and here this kid my age was more interested in “driving” an imaginary car. And there to one side was this beautiful horse waiting to be ridden watching this kid in his imaginary hot rod.

One issue had a short article by someone named C.S. Lewis.  It had an unusual title, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” This was my introduction to Lewis. It was sort of a strange article. We had heard a little about the Devil in church.  In this article a senior devil is delivering a speech to a school of junior devils. And in this school these devils are learning how to influence us – you and me – to do the “wrong” thing – to make the wrong choices.

And yet in a deeper way it was very much related to what I was hearing and learning at First Methodist, Texarkana, Arkansas.  The senior devil Screwtape counseled the younger devil Wormwood about methods and techniques to use on Wormwood’s “patient” a young Englishman – those methods usually involved working on weaknesses and vanities of the young man.  And those weaknesses and traits oddly enough were much like some of my own. And maybe the “enemy” was not so much some junior devil conjured up by Lewis rather the fellow I actually saw in the mirror each morning – I think I had begun to shave by that time.

I don’t recall exactly when I first read The Screwtape Letters.  I still have the book – along with others by Lewis – which I pick up from time to time and read,

I suspect my liking for Lewis was one of the reasons as a young man I chose to go to England on my first major trip overseas.  I saw the major sights in England. I remember one day taking a turn down a side street in London where there some buildings that had been bombed in WW II including a church that had not yet been restored.  This was in 1967.

I didn’t return to England until fifty years later as part of an Anglican Pilgrimage group from Trinity Cathedral in 2017.  The tour was very well planned and laid out to the smallest detail.  We did have one Sunday morning “off.” But we were assigned to visit a church – any church. We could visit one of the many historic churches we had visited during the week – just visit a church. We were staying at a Church of England facility in East London.   I suggested to a friend ‘Why don’t we just attend services at a nearby church – whichever one the people who lived in the neighborhood attended. Which we did. That turned out to be St. Anne’s, Limehouse, consecrated 1730. Its architect Nicolas Hawksmoor had been a protégé of Christopher Wren. I would love to bore you with pictures of this church as it turned out to be one of the most striking churches I’ve ever seen. It is not a well-kept museum church.  Today it is a church of people who happen to live in the neighborhood.  We were welcomed as guests – we were the only guests that day. During coffee after the service an older parishioner visited with me and shared a little bit of its history.

One of the things most noticeable about St. Anne’s are its striking and tall steeples. During the War – World War II – this area of the Thames was mostly shipping and docks and was heavily bombed by the Germans. Which probably doesn’t begin to suggest the horror and terror and destruction of those bombing raids again and again over London. St. Anne’s survived only because the German pilots left it alone because they used its steeples as a landmark for their bombing missions.

C. S. Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters during those times of the Blitz. And the “plot” involves the efforts of one Devil Wormwood to seduce one human – a young Englishman. He is living in London – suffering as the English people were doing in those days from the terror and destruction of the German bombing raids. And in his personal life he is undecided about whether to become a Christian or not. And that’s the story – will he or won’t he?

And then Lewis ends his story with a “happy ending” – a rather startling “happy ending” that I’ve never forgotten.

The “happy ending” occurs as the young Englishmen is in the midst of one of those terrible and horrible bombing raids.

Let Lewis describe it through the words of Screwtape to his nephew and junior devil  immediately afterword:

“You have let a soul slip through your fingers…How well I know what happened at the instant when they snatched him from you.  There was a sudden clearing of his eyes (was there not?) as he saw you for the first time, and recognized the part you had in him and knew that you had him no longer.

…. He felt at that moment as it a scab had fallen from an old sore, as if he were emerging from a hideous, shell-like fetter….

…He got through so easily! No gradual misgivings, no doctor’s sentence, no nursing home, no operating theatre, no false hopes of life, sheer, instantaneous liberation.  One moment it seemed to be all our world; the scream of bombs, the fall of houses, the stink and taste of high explosives….the next moment this was  gone, gone like a bad dream, never again to be of any account…How all his doubts became in the twinkling of an eye, ridiculous? I know what the creature was saying to itself! ‘Yes, Of course. It was always like this…. The extraction hurt more and more and then the tooth was out. The dream became a nightmare and then you woke.  You die and die and then you are beyond death. How could I ever have doubted it?’

“But when he saw them he knew that he had always known them and realized what part each one of them had played at many an hour in his life when he had supposed himself alone so that now he could say to them, one by one, not ‘Who are you?’ but ‘So it was you all the time.’ …The dim consciousness of friends about him which had haunted his solitudes from infancy was now explained; that central music in every pure experience which had always just evaded memory was now at last recovered….

“He saw not only Them; he saw Him…[and now] he is caught up into that world where pain and pleasure take on transfinite values…."

We are at the end of our church year.  We have been through a lot in the past twelve months. We have gone through some changes.  Some of us have different responsibilities – some of us are doing different things. We can look back at our successes and our failures.

We can look back at the times we were a light to those around us, to our community.

We can look back at the times when we failed to be that light. Now we know better what some of the challenges we will be facing this coming year and how we can become a better light to our community.

This is a time we would also, remember and thank God for all the blessings with which he has showered us – even, maybe in some of the challenges we have encountered. For we have made it through….

As we come to this the close of this church year let us listen again to the words of our Savior:

“One of the criminals …kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  And then looking to Jesus he said, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

“And Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”

 

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel’

He has come to his people and set them free.

He has raised up for us a mighty Savior,

Born of the house of his servant David!

 

…. In the tender compassion of our God ,

The dawn from on high shall break upon us!

Amen.

 

Richard Robertson

 

Quotes from C.S. Lewis – The Screwtape Letters – Harper One

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