11 August 2013

‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend’

‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return … so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks’ (Luke 12: 35-36) ... Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 11 August 2013,

The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity,

Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin,

11 a.m., Morning Prayer


Isaiah 1: 1, 10-20; Psalm 50: 1-8, 23-24; Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16; Luke 12: 32-40.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Have you ever been burgled?

It is a frightening and a traumatic experience for anyone who has suffered it.

It is one thing to come home from a day’s work, or from a holiday, to find your house has been broken into. It is another to wake up and realise that as you were sleeping a thief has broken into your home, and is downstairs or in the next room.

It happened to us once, in another house we were living in.

It was in the days before mobile ’phones and cordless ’phones. I had been working late the night before and came downstairs to answer a mid-morning call.

Unknown to me, the thieves were in the next room, having already gone through our kitchen. They were in there, having made themselves something to drink, had cut the lead to the video recorder, and were squatting on the floor, armed with the kitchen devil straight from the cutlery drawer, sorting through our other possessions.

They must have remained very quiet. Instead of stealing our goods, they stole out the back door before I ever put the ’phone down or realised what had happened.

It is a frightening experience, and it made us extra vigilant: extra bolts and locks, rethinking the alarm system, and so on. The police knew who the “likely suspects” were, but, you know, they can never guarantee that you are never going to be broken into again … and again.

It is an experience that was also a reminder of our own vulnerability, and a reminder that what I own and possess is not really mine, and not mine for very long. Finding the kitchen devil on the floor was also a sharp reminder that even my life is not mine for very long.

And so, the image of Christ we come across at the end of this morning’s Gospel reading, of a thief coming unexpectedly to break into my house, may not be a very comforting one for those of us brought up with the image of “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild.”

And yet it is an image that has echoes in the poetry of some of the great mystical writers in Anglican history. It reminds me, for example, of the words of John Donne (Holy Sonnets XIV):

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

It is the passionate language of love, of passionate love. But then, of course, Christ demands our passion, our commitment, our love.

Christ’s call to us this morning, the demands Christ is making on us this morning, are not just addressed to the Disciples.

Jesus is speaking to the disciples in particular, and teaching them about the kingdom (Luke 12: 1). But as he is speaking to them, someone in the crowd – like a heckler – interrupts and asks a question (see Luke 12: 13).

The inner circle of the Disciples must have felt they were being broken into by those on the rims, those in the crowd of outsiders, the crowd or multitude following Jesus but who were not among the Disciples.

So Christ’s demands are made not just of some inner circle, for some elite group within the Church, for those who are seen as pious and holy.

This is a demand he makes also to those on the margins, for the sake of those on the margins, makes on the whole Church for the sake of those on the margins.

We are to be ever vigilant that we do not keep those on the margins on the outside for too long. They may appear like thieves trying to break in. But when we welcome in those on the outside who we see as thieves, we may find we are welcoming Christ himself.

And in welcoming Christ himself, into our inner sanctum, we are making it a sign of the Kingdom. The Church needs to be place not where we feel secure, but where the outsider feels welcome, where they can feast and taste what the Kingdom of God is like.

What is this Kingdom like?

Where is it?

When shall we find it?

In this Gospel reading, Jesus tells the multitude – the multitude who are gathered just like the 5,000 who were gathered earlier on the hillside and fed with the multiplication of five loaves and two fish (Luke 9: 10-17) – Jesus tells them that the kingdom is already given.

My favoured translation of the Bible, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), says “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12: 32), present tense. But the original Greek says “your Father was well pleased with you (or, took pleasure) to freely give the Kingdom to you” … ὅτι εὐδόκησεν ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν δοῦναι ὑμῖντὴν βασιλείαν.

God wanted to do something good for the “little flock” (verse 32), and so freely gave them the kingdom – the reign of God – in which tables are open, status is upended, and all people are treated with dignity. In God’s Kingdom – on earth as it is in heaven – there is no scarcity, there are no class or gender barriers, there are no ‘insiders’ and no ‘outsiders’.

Jesus compares that Kingdom of God with a wedding banquet.

When we go to a wedding, we have no control over what happens. In the first case, we have, thankfully, no control over who is getting married to whom. But, secondly, weddings break down all our petty snobberies and all our status-seeking.

Whatever we think of the choice of bride or groom, we have no say at all in who is going to be a new brother-in-law, a new mother-in-law, and even into the future, who is going to be a new cousin to our children’s children.

It’s enough to make you laugh.

Sarah laughed when she was told about her future family (see Genesis 18: 12). There is a hint of that story in our Epistle reading this morning, when the writer reminds us of the faith of Abraham and Sarah (see Hebrews 11: 11, 13-16).

Once again, verse 11 is badly translated in the NRSV, for the Greek actually tells us that it is Sarah’s unexpected faith, even in her poverty and in her marginalisation, that brings unexpected and over-abundant blessings.*

In the Genesis story, it is actually only Abraham who says he was a stranger and a foreigner. But here both Abraham and Sarah are credited with the faith that underpins this realisation (see Hebrews 11: 13).

God’s promise of the Kingdom multiplies beyond all our expectations, even beyond the expectations of modern Bible translators.

We cannot control this. Those who come into the banquet may appear to us like thieves and burglars, brazenly breaking into our own family home, into our own family.

But we may find that the thief is actually Christ trying to break into our hearts to let us know that the kingdom is already here.

The word for master here is actually κύριος (kyrios), Lord, the word used in the Greek Old Testament for the Lord God by Jews who found the use of the name of God offensive and blasphemous. But using the word master for κύριος hides away God’s work, confusing the Lord, the “Son of Man” (ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, ho yios tou anthropou), with the “master of the house,” the householder (οἰκοδεσπότης, oikodespótēs).

The Hospitality of Abraham ... a modern interpretation of Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity, on the walls of the breakfast room in the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Think of how the word κύριος (kyrios), Lord, was used by Abraham as he addressed the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah at the Oak of Mamre. The strangers become angels, and the angels come to represent the Triune God.

Had Abraham treated his visitors as thieves, where would we be today? Instead he sets a banquet before the Three, and finds not once but three times that he has an encounter with the living Lord (Genesis 18: 3, 13, 14), the Triune God, an encounter that leads Abraham and Sarah to a faith that ushers in the promises of the Kingdom.

The Lord who arrives for the banquet and stands knocking at the door (Luke 12: 36) in this morning’s Gospel reading is the same Christ who says: “Behold, I am standing at the door knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come into you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3: 20).

He comes in ways we do not expect, and at “the unexpected hour,” the time we “think nothing of” (ἧ ὥρᾳ οὐ δοκεῖτε, he hora ou dokeite, Luke 12: 40) – “an hour that seems like nothing.” He does not bother trying to tear down our puny defences. He sneaks around them instead.

Welcome to the banquet.

Welcome to the kingdom.

Allow the stranger among you, and the stranger within you, to open that door and discover that Christ is not a thief trying to steal what you have, but is the Lord who is trying to batter our hearts and tear down our old barriers so that we can all feast together at the new banquet:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

A footnote:

* The original Greek for Hebrews 11: 11 says:

Πίστει καὶ αὐτὴ Σάρρα στεῖραδύναμιν εἰς καταβολὴν σπέρματος ἔλαβεν καὶ παρὰ καιρὸν ἡλικίας, ἐπεὶ πιστὸνἡγήσατο τὸν ἐπαγγειλάμενον:

The NRSV translates this:

By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old – and Sarah herself was barren – because he considered him faithful who had promised.

But it would be more accurate to translate this is as:

By faith also, Sarah herself, a barren woman, received the ability to establish a posterity beyond normal age, since she was considered the faithful one who had promised.


O God,
you declare your almighty power
most chiefly in showing mercy and pity:
Mercifully grant to us such a measure of your grace,
that we, running the way of your commandments,
may receive your gracious promises,
and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached in Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin, at Morning Prayer on Sunday 11 August 2013.

Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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