GOD IS EVERYWHERE
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
Lections: Rev 12:1-17; Luke 1: 68-79
The sheer number of representations by artists over the centuries of the Madonna and Child testify to the central importance of this image in our collective consciousness. We see the child looking up at the face of his mother, the child snuggling into her bosom, the child with his arms around her neck, the mother and child facing forward, the child with his arms uplifted, the child making the blessing sign with his right hand, the child held on his mother’s left side, the child on her right side, and the child centered at the heart of his mother. Different traditions evolved for depicting the myriad and beautiful aspects of the relationship between the Mother of God and the Christ Child. Not as familiar, however, are the traditional images of the Son holding the soul of his Mother at her Dormition. These show the mirror image of the Madonna and Child; the Son standing behind her death bed, where all the Apostles have gathered, holding the small figure of the mother, seated on his left arm. The figure of the mother in this icon represents the soul.
On the first Sunday of the month, our worship is focused on the Communion Table, where we celebrate Lord’s Supper. Today we ask the question that Solomon asks, in the Song of Songs, and Alphonsus Liguori frames for us, in his little writing, How to Converse with God: what shall we do to our soul in the day God speaks to her? God has claimed us as His; will we not listen for his coming? Our souls leap with joy in God’s presence, especially at the words of institution, in the liturgy. This is why John Wesley described the Lord’s Supper as “the grand channel whereby the grace of his Spirit was conveyed to the souls of all the children of God.”[i]
I want to acknowledge up front that I received help with this sermon from Donald Foster, one of the oldest members of our congregation, when I visited him on Thursday in Barre. We read the 12th chapter of John’s Book of Revelation aloud, but beforehand, I said I wanted Donald to tell me what he thought it was about. His first thought was “God’s power.” And then he spoke about God’s listening to the prayers of the faithful. This is exactly the same progress of thought we find in Liguori’s booklet: “God wishes to be feared as a mighty and terrible Lord by those who despise his grace,” Liguori writes, “but on the other hand, He wishes to be treated like a most affectionate friend to those who love Him. Hence, He desires that we speak to Him often with familiarity and without any restriction.”
Alphonus Liguori (1696 – 1787) and John Wesley (1703 – 1791) lived at the same time but in very different places. Liguori, who was Italian, became a Catholic bishop. He, like Wesley, made an effort “not to lose a single moment of time.” Both men were practical and well-learned. Wesley can fairly be described as “eclectic.” His influences ranged widely, and included Eastern Orthodox fathers, medieval Catholic mystics, Lutheran pietists, English Puritans, and the sacramentalism of the Church of England. The Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer “shaped and informed him.” For most of the church year, Wesley received communion weekly. He organized Methodists, who followed his “way of salvation,” into societies maintained outside clerical supervision, but he and his followers remained members of the established church. Methodists were urged to commune “frequently” in their parish, “and the Wesleys themselves led organized groups of Methodist communicants to St. Paul’s or St. Luke’s in London or to the Temple or St. James’s in Bristol.”[ii]
Wesley thought that a life of grace shaped by the life and death of Jesus Christ was characterized by simplicity and holiness.[iii] “The duty of every Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper “as often as he can” follows from the Lord’s plain command, “Do this in remembrance of me.”[iv] The Wesleyan Methodist movement was structured around small accountability groups, to “guard against laxity or levity” by practicing the original and pristine holiness of primitive Christianity.[v] These small groups, called societies, classes, and bands were incorporated into the fabric of a discipline aimed at creating an environment for conversion experience and the attainment of Christian perfection. Wesley edited and printed guides to Christian living, hymnals and cheap print books, for members’ use, and encouraged larger, community gatherings, called love feasts and camp meetings, led by itinerant and local lay preachers. Members of Methodist societies were expected to actively engage in “works of benevolence and holy charity.”
The conditions of 18th century England and 19th century America were very different, and the Methodism that developed in America was changed from its English origins. American Methodism grew rapidly throughout the 19th century. Beginning as an almost invisible presence during the Revolutionary War, Methodism had already become by the 1820’s the largest denomination in the country. One historian has calculated that “by the 1850s the Methodists had constructed almost as many churches as there were Post Offices in the United States and employed almost as many ministers as there were postal workers.”[vi] “On any given Sunday, about one out of every five Americans would be sitting in a Methodist church.”[vii] Methodism continued to add to its numbers after the civil war and into the twentieth century. Freed from the constraints of the established Anglican Church, Methodism proved extremely adept at adapting to American culture, with its values of “progress, refinement, liberty of conscience, and personal responsibility.”
As Methodism spread, its language, ritual, experience, and energy changed. The boundaries between church and state became blurry; Southern Methodists, for instance, “set aside Methodist teaching” on slavery; Wesley had called slavery evil, “the vilest that ever saw the sun,” and slave trade, “the sum of all villainies.”[viii] A gap widened between Wesley’s revolutionary Methodist theology, based on New Birth, holy living and holy dying, and the Methodist message that Americans heard. Over time, this gap continued to widen, and it has now become a challenge to recognize what remains distinctive about our tradition.
Wesley was insistent that we obey the commandments of Jesus and respond to God’s call to become perfect in this life. In answering this universal call to holiness, “all men and women can and should aspire to love God with their whole heart, mind, and soul and to love their neighbors as themselves.”[ix] Wesley realized the difficulty of this, and he understood frequent communion to be the most effective means of ensuring progress. Wesley wrote, “The grace of God given herein confirms to us the pardon of our sins, by enabling us to leave them. As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our souls: This gives strength to perform our duty, and leads us on to perfection. If therefore we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey God, then we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lord’s Supper.”[x]
Everyone is called to holiness.[xi] On Thursday, Donald Foster explained that when he reads, he sees pictures, and he puts these pictures together, as words are put together in sentences, and sentences in paragraphs. He outlined the pictures he sees in the vision John records in Chapter 12: Jesus in heaven, his coming to earth with his kingdom to replace all the kingdoms of earth, the faithful being saved, and evil being destroyed” by God’s sovereign might.” Donald’s pictorial understanding renders the essence of John’s narration.
In closing, I would like to draw attention to one additional element of John’s vision: “the great sign” of “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” The woman represents the church-as-mother, “and there is never an end to her labor to deliver us to the life of the Spirit.” In a 2007 interview, now Pope Francis discussed what the Jesuit theologian De Lubac calls “spiritual worldliness.”[xii] De Lubac writes, “the most subversive temptation, the one that is ever and insidiously reborn when all the rest are overcome, and even strengthened by those victories, is what [has been]called the temptation to “worldliness of the mind … the practical relinquishing of other-worldliness, so that moral and even spiritual standards should be based, not on the glory of the Lord, but on what is the profit of man; an entirely anthropocentric outlook would be exactly what we mean by worldliness.”[xiii] The “great sign” of a woman is a vision of the continuing acts of Mary, who remained on earth after her Son’s ascension, laboring to deliver his church from worldliness, and us to holiness.
The God who is in heaven is also present in “the humble soul that loves Him,” and especially in his church, in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. The church is everywhere the congregation of God’s people on earth; and we have seen how Mary, the Mother of God, who is also Church as Mother, delivers us to the Spirit of life, here, even now, in our local assembly. When we leave the church today, we take God with us. This is why we can talk with our souls to God; he abides in us, and we in him. This is why we can grow in Christian perfection, and why we can say, God is everywhere. God has given himself to us; God is with us. Let us be consoled by His divine consolations, “O taste and see that the Lord is sweet.” Amen.
[i] Sermon 26: Upon Out Lord’s Sermon On the Mount VI
[ii] Frank Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England, 84; cited here: https://wesleyanleadership.com/2013/10/15/a-wesleyan-practice-of-holy-communion/
[iii] Ryan Nicholas Danker
[iv] Sermon 101: The Duty of Constant Communion
[v] David Hempton
[vi] ibid, quoting Mark Noll, 77
[vii] Stephen E. Woodworth, Manifest Destinies: America’s Westward Expansion and the Road to the Civil War, 48
[ix] Escriva’s message for Opus Dei, in Coverdale, Uncommon Faith, 58
[x] Sermon 101
[xi] 2nd Vatican Council.
[xiii] Henri du Lubac, The Splendour of the Church, 377