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January 1, 2004 (German Vespers for New Year’s Day)

LCH offered “German Vespers” on New Year’s Day 2004. This is an English translation of the sermon given by Assisting Pastor Fritz Fritschel in German.

Lessons and Prayer of the Day

Revelation 19:11-16 and Luke 4:16-21

Lord, Triune God, you have sustained us and all Christendom today with your holy Word and Sacrament. We pray that these gifts may lead and strengthen us in the new year, so that your Name will be exalted, your kingdom established, and your will be done. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sermon

Assisting Pastor Fritz Frischel

Something is going on. Something more than we know—or can say. This seems true in regard to the depth and mystery of life: from the tiny electron to the awesome interconnectedness that we experience in our own bodies between blood, muscles, nerves, memory, and our many organs. What strange and unexpected cantatas we sing within our own physical organs.

Something is going on. More than I can understand or can say. Everything is in process. Our immediate experience feels the pull of tomorrow, the weight of yesterday, and the challenge and opportunity of January 1st. This is more than we can comprehend. Yet we struggle to move forward with appetites and desires longing to be satisfied. I do no mean just the physical appetites of body and material goods, but the thirst for meaning in life. We thirst for it like the deer at the brook. And we try to express it.

Alfred North Whitehead once said “expression is the one fundamental sacrament.” To give utterance to that which is more than we can say—what a task! We need poetry. The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, writes after asking why we must be human:
Because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.
              . . . Ah, but what can we take along
into that other realm? Not the art of looking,
which is learned so slowly, and nothing that happened here. Nothing.
The sufferings, then. And, above all, the heaviness,
and the long experience of love,—just what is wholly
unsayable. But later, among the stars,
what good is it—they are better as they are: unsayable.
For when the traveler returns from the mountain­slopes into the valley,
he brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead
some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue
gentian. Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—
at most: column, tower.... But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing.

Expression is the one fundamental sacrament.

After such alluring poetry it may be useful to remind ourselves that Alfred North Whitehead also remarked: “God is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty and goodness.” These words of Whitehead are not mere fluff. The comment comes at the end of some of the most careful and elegant thinking in the history of Western philosophy. For me these words include the suggestion of an essential feature of Whitehead’s understanding about God, namely that God as poet of the world is the source of novelty.

Or have you thought we humans are the source of novelty? Do we arrange for the possibilities of the future? Can we even account for the fact or hope that there is a future?

In the indeterminate, unresolved spectrum of possibilities that we know as the future, God envisage images of truth, beauty and goodness that reach far beyond our own expressions of them today.

I accept Whitehead’s analysis. I believe the source of novelty lies beyond us.

We struggle individually and collectively to achieve a sense of harmony, peace, adventure and truth. But what guides in such a struggle? Or better, what calls us into the future? Who calls us?

Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek poet and novelist, once put it this way:

Blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath—a great Cry—which we call God. Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant waters, but the Cry leaped up within it and violently shook its roots: “Away, let go of the earth, walk!” Had the tree been able to think and judge, it would have cried, “I don’t want to. What are you urging me to do! You are demanding the impossible!” But the Cry, without pity, kept shaking its roots and shouting, “Away, let go of the earth, walk!”
It shouted in this way for thousands of eons; and lo! As a result of desire and struggle, life escaped the motionless tree and was liberated.
Animals appeared—worms—making themselves at home in water and mud. “We’re just fine here,” they said. “We have peace and security; we’re not budging.”
But the terrible Cry hammered itself pitilessly into their loins. “Leave the mud, stand up, stand up, give birth to your betters!”
“We don’t want to! We can’t.”
“You can’t, but I can. Stand up!”
And lo! After thousands of eons, human emerged trembling on still unsolid legs.
The human being is a centaur; his equine hoofs are planted in the ground, but his body from breast to head is worked on and tormented by the merciless Cry. He has been fighting again for thousands of eons, to draw himself, like a sword, out of his human scabbard. Man calls in despair, “Where can I go? I have reached the pinnacle, beyond is the abyss!” And the Cry answers, “I am beyond. Stand up!”

The Cry is not just a figment of our imagination. To hear the Cry is to hear a melody of the future, of what might be. It is not a product of our wishes. It is there to be discerned if we will be attentive. To hear the Cry is to recognize in ourselves the inertia that opposes it. But the Cry is not primarily judge, it is our ground of hope.

Past trends do not need to continue. People can transcend their own resistance and inertia. Where we least expect it at times, a vision of peace moves tired hearts to try again, a movement of non-violence emerges out of an explosive situation.

It is not the case that the future has been mapped out for us. But all the possible routes are there. If there is any sense in talking of God as being omniscient, it is not in the sense God knows what will occur in 2004, but that God envisages the possibilities of the new year. For the future is filled with possibilities, and only that. We need to put flesh on what is now only possible. As the “poet of the world, with tender patieince leding it by his vision of truth, beauty and goodness,” God lures us with feelings of what might be.

Can you feel the pull towards new appreciative awareness, new insight, new habits and relationships in the following lines:

Sweet spring is your
time is my time is our
time for springtime is lovetime
and viva sweet love.

e.e. cummings

Or

You darkness whence I came,
I love you more than the light
which marks the world’s seam
by her gleaming for some orbit,
apart from which
no one knows who she is.

Rainer Maria Rilke

These poetic images, suggestive of divine presence ranging from light to dark, draw us into contemplative awareness of the world—and our place in it.

The poet of the world approaches us with multiple, subtle, strong, weak, bright, dark, dazzling, and dim visions of what might be. With tender patience we are invited to build, sculpt, paint, express a future that is satisfying—that is a world worthy of our current best understanding of truth, beauty, and goodness, knowing that we will still not yet have arrived.

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