The Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it".
I have an old, old friend, also a priest, Sarah. We were ordained as young women and had our children during the same years. She had been unmarried for quite a long time when she began a new relationship with a man who was kind, smart, handsome, who liked to run marathons like she did and who had been widowed. Sarah was full of hopefulness and insuppressible joy.
On Christmas Day she was opening gifts with her two daughters, and spotted the wrapped box from her new friend. She unwrapped it, took off the top, and pulled from the box a long string of heavy, smooth, lustrous pearls.
Without a moment’s hesitation her younger daughter raced to the laptop, googled the brand and entered the specifics. When the cost popped up on the screen, she exclaimed, “He really likes you, Mom!”
What is of the greatest value? What is worth living for? Where is our treasure?
I am very, very honored to be here today in this historic place among this most lively congregation on the feast of Lancelot Andrewes, scripture scholar, translator, lover of words, preacher, priest of great devotion. We live in a culture that doesn’t care much about history – just ask the history professors who teach undergraduates - but the church holds its saints in memory, and regularly gives thanks to God for their lives.
At Christ Chapel at Seminary of the Southwest where I am dean and president, we we celebrate Lancelot Andrewes, but he takes a bit more explaining. Here at Southwark Cathedral, he seems practically a familiar companion, with his tomb so close at hand.
How vast a gulf separates us from Lancelot Andrewes!
He would be as out of place in the world and even in the church today, as I would be attempting to preach at the court of St. James in 1609.
We see social life very differently and politics. The church is not any longer the air we breathe. Today a person can write in the blank where it asks your religion, simply the word, “None.”
Pundits describe the decline of the church and predict the demise of the book. For many Christianity is synonymous with intolerance and violence.
But across that great divide of time and culture, Lancelot Andrewes’ faith is our faith. The gospel that he preached still comes into our world as good news, refreshing water, nourishing bread, and healing balm when we gather, when we read the scriptures, when we break bread together on our knees.
The gospel critiques our culture, so confused, so noisy, so hasty. It worships wealth, yet can not recognize treasure. In it we are bombarded by messages, but cannot hear.
We are moving so fast, and cannot stop to see.
In Christ Jesus we are given another way to be, to interpret the world, to live with one another, we are invited to imagine anew.
Even though it is Ordinary Time, we will begin at Christmas, where Sarah and her daughters began. Lancelot Andrewes got to preach at Christmas every year, and those sermons are some of his best known. And no matter what the text, his theme was this: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He preached the incarnation.
God came into human life and consecrated it. Made it holy. Made us holy. The incarnation is the essence, the jewel in the crown. It means our dying and our living is holy.
Can you comprehend that? A churchgoer? A None?
Who can comprehend it? It is too wonderful for us!
We have Christmas every day. Maybe we need a Christmas preaching every day. Certainly, the world does.
God coming into the world in Christ means that our childhood, our old age, our heartbreak, our mistakes and disappointments are not to be transcended, and our exultation, our satisfactions, our children, work, are not to be escaped; cancer, frailty, loss and grief, not to be denied, but all to be lived fully, the very abode of God.
The incarnation means that our bodies, our flesh is of infinite value, because God came in it. The human body is precious, a divine dwelling, not to debase or disfigure, nor to preserve it perfect, slim, unwrinkled for ever, but something to give thanks for, to love.
Not something to discard without dignity. In New York City every human fragment, every remnant from the destroyed Towers, was gathered by other human beings and treated with honor.
Our lives, our flesh, and our language. The Incarnation makes Words to Shine. One of the gospel of John’s name for Christ is “Word.”
Words are not just a means to an end, but with Christian imagination, heard, spoken, read and written, they are a vehicle of grace.
Jesus used words concrete. He spoke to them in minerals, salt, mustard, pearls. God coming in flesh means matter matters.
American theologian and poet, Amos Niven Wilder writes:
If orthodoxy is concerned for the doctrine of God’s incarnation in the flesh and in our daily life, where is the end result more powerfully evident, than in the home-spun parables.
Lancelot Andrewes’ preaching employed words: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, English. He used them to move hearts and convict wills, and he discovered in their sound and shape glimmering luminous divinity.
In this time of elusive faith, when so much language is mistrusted, I have found that poets can awaken our imagination, as we stumble upon parables in the midst of ordinary time.
They share the sacramental imagination of Lancelot Andrewes.
Poets slow down. They notice. They look upon the world with patience and love. They can teach us to see.