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The Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Fr. David Curry

Christ Church, Windsor, July 4 AD 2004

"We…groan within ourselves"


No. This is not about Canadian whine – spelt with an “h”!  The Epistle for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity is more familiar than many because of its being read in the Burial Office.  It speaks of suffering and of glory, things present and things to come, it may seem.  And yet, there is also the realization that in and through the sufferings of this present time something of the glory that shall be hereafter is also known and even participated in, albeit through our groans.


What are our groans?  In the context of this lesson, the conclusion is inescapable.  They are our prayers, the deep, heartfelt yearnings of our souls that far outrace the explicit thoughts of our minds.  And yet, without a commitment to the articulation of the yearnings of our hearts and the stirrings of the thoughts in our minds, we remain in the uncertainty and the folly of ourselves, subject to a host of arbitrary and incoherent moods and fancies; in short, the tyranny of a subjectivity disengaged from reality.  Increasingly, it seems, our lives are but some celluloid or cyberborg fantasy.  We live in the fiction of ourselves, however badly contrived.  And the competition is not for excellence but for the crassest form of mediocrity with which we can most comfortably identify.  Everybody is a Canadian/American idol wannabe these days, it seems!  Is that really what our celebration of rational and political freedoms amounts too?  Lord, have mercy!


The note of suffering and groaning confronts the tendencies of our age and culture directly.  Neither are welcome concepts to a culture hell-bent in its own immediate pleasures which are at once pain for themselves and for others; in short, splendid (or not so splendid) illusions.  But do we have the capacity to see that, at least in ourselves?  Or are we not much more quick to point out and proclaim such deficiencies in others?  In other words, “pull[ing] out the mote”, the insignificant speck that is in another’s eye while being blind to “the beam”, the great log, that is in our own eye!  Hypocrisy!  Yes.  That is where we must begin.


The Gospel for today complements the Epistle and in a way that illumines an interesting feature of the relationship between the Epistle and the Gospel in the Trinity season.  The Gospel functions as the illustration of the Epistle, giving us a powerful image of hypocrisy in the proverbial parable of “the blind leading the blind”.   And what is that parable largely about?  Simply the mercy of God which is greater than the folly of our judgments and assumptions.


The Gospel has been known as the “mercy gospel” and rightly so.  But notice that mercy only appears and has any weight or force after the treatment of justice or judgment.  In other words, “mercy”, as Shakespeare has Portia (albeit in disguise) say in the Merchant of Venice, “seasons justice”, that is to say, perfects and completes it.  Mercy cannot be understood apart from justice.  But that requires the realization on our part of our own incompleteness, the realization of the limits of our judgments.  That is the humility required of us without which we remain mired in the tyranny of ourselves without even recognizing that there is something wrong with the picture and that the picture is us!


The mercy lies in the awareness of the limitations of our own judgments.  That is not the same thing as the passive acceptance of everything else, as if we were meant to surrender our critical faculties, our thinking and our thoughts.  No.  That is not the point.  Rather what is needed is the commitment to the hard, hard task of thinking, the hard, hard task of making the right distinctions and seeing how things co-inhere in a unity and a whole.  It means accepting our own incompleteness at the same time as holding ourselves accountable to what has been worked through and thought by those who, in Wycliffe’s wonderful phrase, “have gone before us with the mind of Christ” and those who have traveled “the seas of logoi”, not mere words, but understanding.


“Judge not”, says the Gospel.  Indeed.  But everyday and every moment of everyday we are engaged in making judgments, decisions, deciding this thing rather than that, and so on.  What is meant of course is the very sage advice about not being judgmental – a question of attitude which is quite distinct from the objectivity and seriousness of thought.  Therein lies the rub, though, for our world and day, for our church and culture.  We lack the confidence in reason to be able to think the integrity of the images of Scripture.  We lack the confidence in reason to think the logic of Christianity itself.  And such things are our betrayals of Christ and his body the Church.  And yet not to know or understand certain things really only impels the necessity to learn and find out.


What is the real tragedy in the current controversy over sexual identity in the Anglican Communion?  Simply this, the utter inability on the part of conservatives and liberals alike to distinguish clearly, on the one hand, between the truth and dignity of marriage, so unambiguously taught and laid out in The Book of Common Prayer, for instance, and, on the other hand, the idea of the blessing of friendships as a form of Christian charity and commitment altogether distinct from marriage.  The failure is the failure to think theologically.  We are left to the un-mercies of a poor and impoverished sociology and the ravages of the politics of advocacy.


Then what is the mercy?  Well you might ask!  The mercy is in Christ’s awareness of our hypocrisy and in his desire to have us become aware of the false and the true about ourselves.  Only so is he Saviour.  And only by demanding that we make the necessary distinctions of thought, that we make the effort to distinguish as clearly and as rightly as possible between things great and small, especially in matters of essential faith, can we begin to enter more fully into his mercy.  It will mean more suffering and more groaning.


The greater mercy is that our sufferings and our groanings are joined to the suffering and the glory of Christ whose first word on the cross is “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”, and whose last word on the cross is “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”.  In Christ, the very Word and Son of the Father, we find the means to embrace the suffering and to share in the glory, “the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father”, the glory which is somehow present in the sufferings and the struggles of our lives, if at least we are open to the mercy of Christ and endeavour to realize that mercy in our lives, in our actions towards others, and especially those whose lives, in some sense, are in our hands.


Here is the strange and wonderful paradox.  Hypocrisy becomes the vehicle of our awakening to the mercy and the forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ, who gave his life for us all.


The Gospel story of the blind leading the blind has its further illustration in a wonderful depiction of the story by the 16th century Flemish painter, Pieter Brueghel the Elder.  Not only are a troupe of blind beggars in the process of falling headfirst into a ditch while being led by their fearless and blind leader who could not see even if he wanted since his cap is actually pulled down over his eyes, for “eyes have they and see not”, Brueghel seems to be suggesting, but there, in the centre of this 1568 painting, is an image of the Church, the place where God’s Word is proclaimed and his Sacraments celebrated, the place where we think and participate sacramentally in the mercy of the life of God opened out to us in this world.  In him suffering takes on a whole new meaning; it is tinged with glory and gathers us into glory, the glory of Christ.  But we have our backs to it!  We choose not to see.  We cannot see because we will not see and think what we have been given to see and think.


The painting, like the parable, would awaken us to our hypocrisy even in the face of the mercy which restores and redeems us, if only we will make the effort to enter knowingly and lovingly into the mystery of God’s love for us. Such is the mercy to which even our groans reach out and are embraced and gathered in.


“We…groan within ourselves”