This Lent in our preaching we converse with Marilynn Robinson. Each year we have chosen a voice from the Reformed tradition, a tradition different from the Methodism of Marsh Chapel, with whom to learn and grow, from whom to develop a fuller sense of discipleship, in whom to find ways to expand our circles of faithfulness. So these years we have heard also from Bonhoeffer, Barth, Ellul, Edwards, Calvin and from varieties of interpretation of the Atonement.
Robinson is a contemporary novelist and essayist, and a Calvinist, perhaps the strongest living American exponent of Calvinism. Her depiction of the Rev. John Ames, in the novels Gilead and Home, has been deeply meaningful to many of us. Her writing celebrates the privilege, terror and joy of pastoral ministry. Her writing celebrates the goodness of village life. Her writing celebrates providential grace. Her writing celebrates the power of story, of parable. Her writing celebrates the beauty of the world around us. Listen to her voice in that of the Rev. John Ames, depicting dawn in Iowa:
“I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word ‘good’ so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. There may have been a more wonderful first moment ‘when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy’, but for all I know to the contrary, they still do sing and shout, and they certainly might well. Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.”
Jesus taught in parables, stories with a point. Two today, the latter which affirms a second chance to love, the former which acknowledges random hurt. They challenge us to follow their form and tell our own parables, two today. The first challenges us not to take for granted those closest to us. That is the point of the parable: care for those closest to you. The second reminds us of the hurts hidden in each human soul. That is the point of the parable: remember that every heart has secret sorrows.
Let us care for those closest to us…
Some time ago, in a small upstate village, there lived a man and a woman. They were of middle age and middle class. In fact, they ran their own business, a “mom and pop” store. Through the village, the man was known for the attention which he showed his partner. He doted on her. He opened doors and bought flowers and made compliments. For her part, she also was devoted to her man. She stood by her man. She baked and sewed and entertained. In church, they sat in the front pew, holding hands for the Sunday observance.
The pastor in the town for years admired them, and during wedding services would quietly pray, Lord make these young people like them, devoted to each other. One night the pastor was invited to visit the home of these two lovebirds. After the usual chitchat, it became clear that something was afoot. Wringing his hands and sweating, the man awkwardly asked, at last, whether the pastor would have any qualms about performing a wedding ceremony. “Not at all,” the parson replied. “For whom?” Silence followed, the man coughed, and the woman blushed. Dimly, the pastor realized that the wedding was to be theirs. Yes, they had come to the village many years ago, had fallen in love and worked together, and then lived to together, first in aid of their business, and then as the townsfolk began to refer to them as MR and MRS, they began to relax and enjoy one another. They were very happy.
The wedding ensued, quietly performed in the parsonage living room.
Exactly one month to the day after the wedding, late at night, the parsonage phone rang. The man, panic stricken began in a rush, “It’s all over.” Our marriage doesn’t work. Please come and help us.” The pastor took the two aside to hear their confessions. “For years, you were so happy, and now, married, you are not? What has happened?” The man began, “Well, it used to be, you know, I just never knew whether she would stay. We weren’t really married. She was free to go. So every day was special. I watched what I said, and I watched what I did, and I watched her. I wanted to please her. But somehow, after that ceremony, I let down. I guess I figured she was there to stay now, so it didn’t matter. I think I took her for granted.” And he cried. The woman also reported, “It used to be that every day was an adventure. I knew he could leave at any time. Every meal might be our last. Then we actually got married and I let down. I guess I figured it didn’t matter as much now. I think I took him for granted. Pastor, what are we going to do?” After more hours of tears and talking, the pastor finally prepared to leave the home. As he left he commanded the couple to promise each other that from that moment forward, they would live as if they were not married. He said to the husband, “You are to live as if you have no wife.” So he interpreted Scripture, I Cor. 7:25.
Marilynn Robinson in two fine novels, Gilead and Home, over the past several years, has given you a sympathetic reading of determinism (fundamental or radical), which, ultimately, though cautiously, she rejects. Here is the climax of Home:
This second book places the apparently damned Jack in earshot of a young woman who has married an old preacher:
“Just stay for a minute”, she said, and Jack sat back in his chair and watched her, as they all did, because she seemed to be mustering herself. Then she looked up at him and said, ‘A person can change. Everything can change’…Jack said, very gently, ‘Why thank you, Mrs. Ames. That’s all I wanted to know’. (p 228)
There is a saying that to understand is to forgive, but that is an error…You must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding…If you forgive…you may indeed still not understand, but you will be ready to understand, and that is the posture of grace (p 45)
Luke 13, a second chance with the fig tree to love. Luke 13, a remembrance of shared, random hurt. One lesson: do not take for granted those closest to you. A second: every heart has secret sorrows.
Remember that every heart has secret sorrows…
Several decades ago, a poor boy was growing up in a small town along the Finger Lakes. His family worked hard, but had little extra, and so he would work himself on a neighboring farm. There he became friends with the farmer’s son, a boy about his own age. They became fast friends, cleaning the barn, and milking, chasing the cattle in the summer, filling the hay mow. At Christmas the farmer gave both boys trumpets. They sat down together and carved their names into the handles. Then they fell to practicing, and found the joy of music. Every night, after chores, the poor boy would cross the valley and ascend the hillside where his home lay. Then, as night fell, he would turn and face across the valley toward his friend, and slowly play a melody. Then, with the other trumpet, the friend would reply. “Day is dying in the west…” For some years this was their habit, and the farm folk and villagers in this Finger Lake region came to rely on the trumpet duet as a call to evening prayer.
Then, the farmer’s son was drafted and, in short order word came that he had died in the great world war. The poor boy was devastated. He had known little of the comfort of life, and little of friendship, and now, what he had known, was taken away. He became bitter, and his life drifted on, building itself around the heartache at the center of his soul. He grew old. One day the pastor came to call. The pastor dreaded the visit in this home, because there was so much hurt, and so little comfort. On this day he happened to ask if there was any good memory, any happy memory that the man could share. After some silence, the man replied, and told the story of the two trumpets. He told of his friendship, his love of music, his acceptance in the farmer’s home, his bitterness at the tragic loss. The pastor asked to see the trumpets, and then asked if he might borrow them.
Some weeks later, the old and bitter man was seated rocking on the porch, in the summer heat. Suddenly, a familiar tune came his way. From his left afar off he heard, “Day is dying in the west…” and then from the right “Holy Holy Holy…” It came closer… and closer… and with every verse, somehow, a bit of the faded memory came clearer. Two boys, high school age, came playing the trumpets, grateful for their use, prompted by the pastor to offer this tribute. What a precious gift a friendship is, the old one thought. How lucky I am to have known even briefly, its power. The parable interprets for us the meaning of the psalmist, Psalm 100.
Marilynn Robinson could put it this way:
Come to the table of remembrance, and of presence, and of thanksgiving.
Greet and so be greeted, here, by the Lord Jesus Christ, our Lenten Grace, of whom we sing, ‘Blessed is He whom comes in the name of the Lord.
As those who have known betrayal, in the active and the passive tenses and senses, come for mercy.
Join the angelic chorus, singing hosannas, in the highest, meaning the very height of heaven.
Make of this moment a readiness to join lasting banquet, the heavenly banquet of grace, freedom, and love.
As Christ offers Himself, come to offer yourself, to love, for God and neighbor.
Come, partake. Receive with grace the Lenten Grace.
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel