Michaelmas Term, 2016
30th October 2016. Vittorio Montemaggi
Readings – Habakkuk, 1:1-4; 2:1-4. Luke 19:1-10
Today’s sermon, like the rest of the sermons this term, is on the subject of Grace. It is wonderful to be here to speak of this, and I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity, both in itself, and in the way it resonates with two other recent opportunities I had to be in this Chapel reflecting on Grace. A few months ago, my wife and I held a service here with friends and family to offer prayer and thanksgiving for our marriage. The main musical accompaniment to the service was the hymn, Amazing Grace, which we chose especially for its opening words:
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Then, only a couple of weeks ago, I was here again, together with a number of Robinson Fellows and other distinguished colleagues from the Universities of Cambridge and of Notre Dame, for a colloquium precisely on the subject of Grace. Our gathering, which took the form not just of academic conversation, but also of poetry, music, and theatre, reminded us just how difficult it is to speak of Grace, but also just how wonderfully we can be made aware of it by coming together in communal exploration.
It is, indeed, notoriously difficult to speak of Grace. It might in fact be more accurate to say it is impossible. For how can we speak of that which – by definition – does not belong to us, is given to us, gratuitously, mysteriously, beyond our merit and understanding? How can we speak of the divine mystery by which we are made and constantly made-new – the love which brings us into being out of nothing, and by which our lives, disfigured by sin, are transfigured into union with God?
By the same token, however, one could say that Grace is thereby also the easiest thing to speak. No matter what we speak of, there would simply be no speaking if not for Grace. Our words, as expressions of life, are expressions of Grace – they speak the mysterious and unmerited gift of existence.
This is perhaps particularly true of prayer – like our own, together, this evening, here in Robinson Chapel. For what is prayer if not the conscious recognition, as language, of our being held into being by God, gratuitously, in our praise, in our joy, in our doubts, in our sufferings, in our community? Prayer is human life that articulates itself as gratuitous expression of relationship with that by which we gratuitously have life.
Not all prayer, however, is verbal. Other forms of human communication can indeed constitute prayer and thus be expressions of Grace, in the sense just outlined. Take architecture, for instance: the way human beings communicate their understanding of their existence by consciously shaping the space in which they live and come together. Look around yourselves. We have the possibility, here at Robinson, of coming together in prayer in a Chapel that can itself be seen as prayer, a conscious articulation, through its definition of space, of our relationship with the mystery in which all space is grounded.
Last time I had the privilege of offering a sermon here in this extraordinary space, a few years ago, was on Trinity Sunday, and in my sermon I tried to reflect on how the very nature of the space we are in could invite us into deeper contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity. Today, I would like to take the space we are in as starting point for reflecting on how our readings this evening invite us to think about Grace.
That the space we are in was designed to get us to think about Grace, is clearly indicated by its main doors. Inscribed on the warmth of their wood are cool, metal ripples, meant to denote the waters of Baptism – our life made new by Grace. To touch that metal, to open those doors, to walk through them, or even simply to walk by them, is to be offered the opportunity of refreshing our awareness of life renewed by divine love.
But it was not this obvious reference to Grace in the architecture of our Chapel that came to mind when reading our readings for today. What came to mind was the stark juxtaposition, the extraordinary conjunction, of brick and stained glass. In particular, what came to mind was the contrast – but also the profound connection – between the solidity of the brick and the fragility of the stained glass, with its lush foliage. The experience of inhabiting this space is powerfully defined by each of these. The brick of the Chapel – especially as it is integrated in the structure of the College as a whole – communicates protection, safety, fortified assuredness; something by which we might receive strength in our doubts and anxieties. The stained glass of the Chapel – especially as it looks out and indeed in its shape reaches out towards the rest of the College – communicates possibility, growth, spiritual confidence; the rich foliage depicted in it is something by which we can thus be nourishingly challenged to recognize that there is always more beauty in the world than we can at any given moment perceive.
Habakkuk speaks of a rampart. Luke speaks of a tree. Our two readings this evening present to us a contrast that the space in which we are reflecting on them can help us appreciate. Habakkuk, the prophet, is beset by injustice, sees worldly disintegration around him, anxiously complains to God, and anxiously waits for God to respond. He tells us he will station himself on the rampart, and wait there for God to speak. When God does speak, he tells him to be prepared for the vision he will have, and to be confident that it will come; even if it might appear delayed, it will arrive just when it has to arrive. “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay”.
Habakkuk is distressed by the condition of his world, and he is confident that the Lord will offer guidance. He also knows himself to be a possible point of contact between the two. As prophet, he is part of the world’s fortification against injustice. He is watchful, and waits on the rampart for God’s guidance to manifest itself.
It is not difficult in this Chapel to imagine ramparts. And our world, like Habakkuk’s, is also beset by injustice. In response to this, we might do well to follow the prophet’s example, calling to God from the solidity of a space such as the one we are in, which can itself give strength to our anxieties. We do not know exactly when or how God will answer our call, but we can be confident – however much we might be unable to understand this – that the call will be answered at the appropriate time, and in the appropriate way.
In response to the world’s injustice, we have the responsibility to be open to Grace, and to have the humility and indeed the openness not to think we can fully understand the way it operates. In that lack of understanding, we can indeed continue to gain strength and mutual support by coming together in prayer, especially as encouraged to do so by a space such as the one in which we are coming together in prayer this evening.
Luke tells the story of Zaccheus. Zaccheus is no prophet. He is a rich, chief tax collector – who hears Jesus is in town, and wants to see who he is. Given his short stature (with which I must confess I identify), Zaccheus is unable to see through the crowd, so he climbs up a tree. When Jesus arrives, he sees and calls Zaccheus, telling him he will be staying with him. Zaccheus joyfully accepts and vows to offer his riches to those in need and to those he has wronged.Others in the crowd are appalled by this, because of Zaccheus’ morally dubious reputation, but the story ends with the important reminder that “the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost”.
The text does not specify exactly why Zaccheus wants to see who Jesus is: it simply says he wants to see him. But then, when Jesus arrives, it is not in fact Zaccheus who sees Jesus, but Jesus who sees Zaccheus, and calls him, and chooses him as his host, thereby granting him salvation.
With the foliage of its stained glass, it is not difficult in this Chapel to imagine trees. And our life, like that of Zaccheus, is often characterized by strong but undefined desire. We know we want something, and we want it fervently, but we are not sure exactly what it is that we want. Very often, like Zaccheus, we place our desire too firmly on earthly things or riches that cannot fulfil it. In response to this, we might do well to try and follow Zaccheus’ example, from the fragility of a space such as the one we are in, and spontaneously reach out to God, even if we are not able really to understand that that is actually what we are doing.
In response to our inner, most intimate, and often most undefined yearnings, we have the responsibility to be open to Grace, and to have the humility and indeed the openness to recognize that ultimately it is not we who can seek Grace out. It can only be the other way round.
The first time I had the privilege of offering a sermon in this extraordinary Chapel, it was part of a series on humour and laughter. What I did on that occasion was reflect on the art of Italian comedian Roberto Benigni. So I was intrigued to see, in preparing the present sermon, that Benigni himself had recently spoken of the story of Zaccheus. He did so as part of a panel discussion at the Vatican on Pope Francis’ book The Name of God Is Mercy. His emphasis was on the joyfully comic nature of the story, the salvifically ironic disproportion between Zaccheus’ actions and Jesus’ response. This short, rich, and self-centered man climbs up a tree simply because he wants to see who Jesus is, and in return is offered nothing less than salvation.Whether on any given day we feel more like Habakkuk or more like Zaccheus, we always have a responsibility to be open to Grace. Whether in response to the world’s injustice, or as expression of our innermost yearnings, we have a responsibility to be receptive to how we might be called by God. We also have a responsibility not to presume to know exactly what that might look like. In a space such as the one we are praying in together this evening, however, we have the blessing of being reminded, that this unknowing is already in itself Grace: the unmerited gift of being open to that which, beyond our understanding, will be offered us for our salvation.
So, whether we prefer climbing ramparts or tress, whether we feel more comfortable in the assuredness of fortification or the spontaneity of vegetation, let us gratefully be open to how Grace will continue to seek us out, in this space and beyond, so as to change us for the better.