Sermon and Worship Service Archive
- Morning Prayer
Advent: Honesty and Tenderness
Listen to Morning Prayer
A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent,
December 6, 2020, at Trinity Church, Boston,
by the Rt. Reverend Alan M. Gates, Bishop of Massachusetts
Advent Honesty and Tenderness
John the Baptist does not hang on my Christmas tree. He does not appear on seasonal greeting cards. He is not the stuff of charming ceramic figurines.
John arises as a sort of liturgical roadblock on our Advent path to Bethlehem. There he is, clothed in camel’s hair. Chomping on locusts. Living on the fringes. I think of him in the manner in which I have often seen him depicted in art works, doing something most of us were taught is very rude – pointing his finger at people.
This morning’s reading from Mark’s has the slightly kinder, gentler version of John than the one in the parallel passage in Matthew and Luke. Mark omits John’s warm greeting of certain baptismal candidates: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
John’s accusing finger points to the chaos of his day and ours: the noise of false piety; the unexamined entitlement; the distortion of legalistic righteousness; the absence justice for the oppressed. With brutal honesty John points at all of this, and he calls for repentance.
Saint Nicholas hangs on my Christmas tree.
Nicholas is the special guest star of today’s service. On the church calendar December 6 commemorates Nicholas of Myra. It takes back seat to the Second Sunday of Advent. But today’s the day – the Feast of St. Nicholas, 4th-century bishop of Myra.
You have probably heard the tale of the poor man, a widowed father of three daughters. On two separate occasions, the family’s dire poverty is alleviated when, as night falls, a bag of gold coins comes flying through the window to provide for food and warmth. On a third occasion, the father waits in secret by the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of his benefactor. But the generous provider remains anonymous, for this time the bag of coins comes not through the window, but down the chimney.
With that detail, of course, we recognize the benefactor. “Down the chimney” come his gifts. The story is one of many legends of Saint Nicholas. According to the hagiography, when he was born “he was put in a basin to be washed, but, to the astonishment of the nurses, he stood up in the basin, and remained for two hours in an ecstasy, his hands clasped, and his eyes raised to heaven.”[i] It is also said that, even as an infant he fasted on Fridays, refusing all day to nurse at his mother’s breast![ii]
It’s easy enough to see how the pious legends, notably the tale of the gold coins gifted to impoverished little girls, evolved into the persona of St. Nick, and eventually, Santa Claus. And thus it is that the image of St. Nicholas, in one form or another, appears on tree decorations, nesting dolls, Christmas cards, and more.
Alongside the pious legends is what little history we know. Nicholas was, as I’ve said, a 4th-century Bishop of Myra, an ancient city in what is now southern Turkey. We know that he suffered torture and imprisonment under the Emperor Diocletian. Later, when the church was organizing itself, Nicholas was evidently present for the Council of Nicaea, helping shape the Nicene Creed which we recite so often. And that’s the context for a very different story about St. Nick which you might not have heard.
At Nicaea the Arian heresy was debated. Some partisans of Arius had set his teachings to music and were singing their heretical little ditty, presumably to make their points more easily remembered. According to the tale,
the bishops, on hearing the song, raised their hands in horror, and … wishing to express their disgust at blasphemous words, kept their ears fast closed, and their eyes fast shut. [At] this point [in a] sudden outbreak of fury, Nicholas, bishop of Myra, [dealt] a blow with all his force at Arius’s jaw.[iii]
Saint Nick is prime among the saints as a personification of benevolence. Good-hearted, generous, patron saint of children in need and sailors in distress. Yet evidently Nicholas, like John the Baptist, also had his intolerant side, a fierce demand for honesty as he saw it.
Now, I understand that this pulpit has lately been a location for the homiletic mining of 20th-century pop music. And I ask: Why should the Bishop be left out of this fun? (Why, indeed!) Here, then, are lyrics from the songwriter I consider the bard of my generation, Paul Simon. The song is “Tenderness,” from the 1973 album “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.”[iv]
What can I do
What can I do
Much of what you say is true
I know you see through me
But there's no tenderness
Beneath your honesty
You are telling me the truth, says the poet. You are seeing me as I am. Yet how can I hear that truth if there is no tenderness beneath your honesty?
Right and wrong
Right and wrong
Never helped us get along
You say you care for me
But there's no tenderness
Beneath your honesty
You’ve got a good handle on right and wrong, says the poet. You know the facts, and you say it’s a fact that you love me. But there’s no “us” in that, and there’s no feeling to that fact when there’s no tenderness beneath your honesty.
I think Paul Simon’s on to something here, my friends. What is honesty without tenderness? And what is tenderness without honesty? It’s the power of the two together which points us down the Advent road. Honesty and tenderness form the divine dialectic the end of which is Love.
As for John the Baptist, his honesty was evident. He spoke the truth to the people. But his hair shirt and locust breath did not bring the crowds to the river by virtue of truth alone. They came also by virtue of tenderness, however subtle. “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,” says the gospel, “I am sending my messenger ahead, … the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” [Mk 1:2-3] And there wasn’t a devout Jew of the day who did not know the passage to which that excerpt referred. They knew Isaiah’s promise – you heard it this morning:
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, … [that] every valley shall be lifted up, … and the rough places plain, … [and God] will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom….” [Is 40:1-11 passim]
Isaiah is chock full of prophetic utterances warning of gloom and anguish (8:22); of the boots of trampling warriors and garments rolled in blood (9:5); of judgement and destruction. But Isaiah it is also who gives us the wolf lying down with the lamb (11:6); the eyes of the blind being opened (29:18); and the desert breaking into blossom (35:1).
John points an honest and challenging finger at the people, no question: “Repent!” But John also points back to Isaiah: “Comfort, comfort ye my people;” and John points ahead to the coming Messiah, the embodiment of salvation, restoration, and love. The goal of the prophets is that the people avoid the harsh consequences of disobedience which the prophets have described. The very goal of the repentance which John preaches is reconciliation and renewed wholeness. There is tenderness beneath his honesty.
And as for Saint Nicholas, what if the only thing he’d ever been known for was an upper cut to the jaw of the heretic Arius? Well then, I expect his name would be lost to the footnotes of church history. Rather, a legacy of compassion and generosity are what Nicholas left – whatever the specifics of that compassion were. Nicholas is remembered with gold coins, and not brass knuckles. Evidently, despite his Nicene doctrinal honesty, tenderness got the better of him.
Here, my friends, is a key to John the Baptist, to Saint Nicholas, to the prophet Isaiah, to the season of Advent, to surviving the coronavirus pandemic together, to our relations with one another, and doubtless more: the inextricable dependence between honesty and tenderness; the need to make real our tenderness with honesty; the need to temper our honesty with tenderness. For tenderness without honesty risks false reassurance, fake smiles, and cheap grace; while honesty without tenderness risks harsh judgmentalism, lost motivation, and despondent hopelessness.
We need plenty of honesty in our lives and in our world. We need to be honest about this pandemic. We need to be honest about the destructive normalization of falsehood in our nation. We need to be honest about the legacy of racism and the reality of white supremacy in which we dwell. We need to be honest about the grief all around us, about the fatigue taking hold of us, about the anxiety causing us to be short with one another. But we need, surely, to couch that honesty at every moment with tenderness – not in order to cover it up or water it down, but in order to channel that honesty towards hope.
You don’t have to lie to me (sings Paul Simon)
No you don’t have to lie to me
Just give me some tenderness
Beneath your honesty.
John the Baptist sugar-coated nothing. But beneath his honesty lay the deep tenderness of that to which he pointed – the comfort promised by Isaiah, and the strength of the Holy Spirit to be bestowed by Christ. The harsh warnings and challenges of Advent point to the deep hope of the Incarnation. John’s father, Zechariah, had predicted precisely this:
You, my child, … will go before the Lord to prepare his way … In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. [Luke 1:76-79]
With John in our hearts, and Nicholas on our trees, in the midst of our own darkness and shadow of death, we call out to God and wait. Like the desperate but hopeful father in ancient Myra, we sit and wait by the window – not for bags of gold, perhaps, but for that message of honesty and tenderness, for the dawn from on high to break upon us, for that miracle of strength and provision that comes to us by the grace of God.
Watch and wait in Advent, dear friends.
Wait with repentance for the mistakes of your life.
Wait with endurance in the hardships of your life.
Wait with honesty about the challenges of your life.
Wait with tenderness towards the companions in your life.
Wait with hope for the Savior of your life.