The Center Will Hold – Colossians 1:15-23

 

Poetry paints pictures with words. Poems express thoughts and feelings, intuitions and experiences in ways that descriptive prose cannot do.

The language of poetry is the language of the indicative mood. Poetry does not declare itself to us; poetry does not instruct us to do this or that; poetry indicates. It points toward reality, and asks us to look and say if that is how it is.

On the hill behind our house, we have poison ivy. In the late spring I pulled it out. A month later it was back. I have been spraying it carefully with a mixture of vinegar and salt. Other plants wilt under this mixture in a matter of days, it will burn the skin. But the poison ivy is unblemished. That is my description.

 

Here is the poem of a good friend and former teacher:  

 

You have to admire,

The poison ivy,

The way it shines,

The way it climbs–

Refuses to die!

 

And that is how it is! Poetry paints a picture with words, and the poet asks us a simple question: is that how it is?

Poetry paints a picture with words, rhythms, and rhymes — and the poet asks: is that how it is?

In your pew or chair in front of you is a book of poetry set to music:  we call it a hymnal. It is the poetry of the church, gathered from around the world, and set to song.

There have been several fine poets of the church in the last century. One of them I happen to know; he just retired from a chair in homiletics and liturgics at Yale Divinity. Thomas Troeger is a brilliant light, with a full shock of grey wavy hair, a crooked bowtie and warm smile.

His scholarship is superb, but his poetry is timeless. One of his poems paints a picture of doubting Thomas. There have been thousands of sermons on doubting Thomas. None have conjured the faithful skeptic quite as well as this:

 

“These things did Thomas count as real:

The warmth of blood, the chill of steel,

The grain of wood, the heft of stone,

The last frail twitch of flesh and bone.

 

The vision of his skeptic mind

Was keen enough to make him blind

To any unexpected act

Too large for his small world of fact.

 

His reasoned certainties denied

That one could live when one had died,

Until his fingers read like Braille

The marking of the spear and nail.

 

May we, O God, by grace believe

And thus the risen Christ receive,

Whose raw, imprinted palms reached out

And beckoned Thomas from his doubt.”

 

The poet paints with rhyme, and rhythm, and word. He conjures images, which summon thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears. The poet ask, “Is that how it is?”

He invites us to believe.

We have before us in Colossians a poem from the early church. Perhaps it too was set to song. Like a preacher who quotes a hymn, the preacher Paul is quoting a poem of the early Christians. Perhaps it was known to all. As familiar as “Amazing Grace”; tripped off the tongue like “Jesus Loves Me.”

The poem paints a picture with words:

 

The Son is the image of the invisible God,

       the one who is first over all creation,

 

Who is this man Jesus Christ? The poet points to the God we cannot see. Christ is the picture of God. Christ is not a sketch of God; not a grainy photograph of God. Christ is not an old cell-phone photograph of God. Christ is a 16 megapixel, super-high resolution image of the invisible God.

Ralph Martin writes, Christ is the “projection of God on the canvas of our humanity and the embodiment of the divine in the world of men and women.” Is that how it is?

 

Because all things were created by him:

       both in the heavens and on the earth,

       the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.

           Whether they are thrones or powers,

           or rulers or authorities,

       all things were created through him and for him.

What in this world belongs to Christ? Does all of it belong to him? Or only part of it? Are there universes far flung that are not his? Are there powers at work that do answer to him? Are there nations that will not finally answer to Christ?

Are there politicians or dictators, who do not answer to him? Are there laws and institutions exempt from his rule?

Are there fields of human inquiry, or subjects of human concern, where Christ is not relevant? Are there areas of life that can be bracketed off from Christ’s Lordship? Are there wounds in your life that are removed from Christ’s Saviorship?.

The poet declares, “All things were created through him and for him.” All things.

The poet beckons, invites us to faith.

The great Reformed preacher and politician Abraham Kuyper thundered, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!

 

The poet writes, “All things.”

 

Is that how it is?

 

In the mind of the ancients, they saw a great throne. Like the throne of the Roman Emperor, who ruled over all the known world. In their faith-filled imagination, they placed Christ on that throne. Like the icon on your bulletin. The surrounded him with the four evangelists, placed the sun at his head, and lifted his hand in blessing. They called this icon Christ in Majesty.

The picture asks: Is that how it is? Is Christ Lord over all things?

The image beckons us to faith.  

The poet continues:

 

       and all things are held together in him.

 

Held together. Christ holds the world together. Like the glue that holds together a piece of furniture. The tenon into the mortise, held there by the glue. One part connected to the other, it would separate without the glue. The forces of nature and time would pull it apart, except the glue holds it together. Modern wood glue is an amazing feat; the glue becomes part of the organic structure of the wood, holding pieces together at a cellular level.

Is that how it is? Does Christ hold all things together? The things that time and the forces of nature would pull apart?

“All things are held together in him.” The poet beckons us to faith. In a world that appears to be coming apart at the seams. “All things are held together in him.” The poet call us to faith, when our personal lives that we have worked so clumsily to stitch together begin to come part like frayed fabric. “All things are held together in him.”

Not all poems beckon us to such hope. There is another poem worth mentioning the morning. Though it paints another picture altogether, far more grim, much more bleak. Nick Tabor of the Paris Review has called it the most pillaged poem in English literature. You probably never read it in high school, perhaps not in college — but you have surely heard its lines. “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats.

Yeats wrote his poem in 1919. The world seemed to have been torn apart into shreds. World War 1, optimistically called the War to End All Wars, had just ended leaving destruction in its wake. The Russian Revolution was changing the face of Eastern Europe; Yeats’ native Ireland was in political turmoil.

If you were a fan of the series Downton Abbey, you know this time period. In the seasons of Downton Abbey after World War I, one line was uttered over and over by every character in nearly every scene. Things are changing. The world is changing. We are not the only generation to be rocked by global turmoil.

Yeats looked on this change with a bleak gaze. The loss of traditional social and family structures; the loss of religious faith; the loss of a collective sense of identity and purpose in society. The feeling that the old rules no longer applied, and there was nothing to replace them.

He penned these immortal words:

 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

 

Several years ago, Caitlin and I went on a vacation to Tucson, AZ and visited the Arizona Desert Museum. That day they had an exhibit with a falconer demonstrating how a person hunts with a falcon. He released the falcon, the bird soared in what Yates calls a widening gyre — a widening spiral — up and up and up, higher and higher until we could barely see the falcon. Then the falconer placed a bit of food on his arm, and the falcon returned to eat it.

Yeats paints a picture with words. The falcon has soared so far, in a spiral wide, it cannot no longer see or hear the falconer. It cannot come home. It is lost. Yeats asks: Is that how it is? Is that how the world is? He beckons us to a grim belief.

 

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

 

This Saturday, our family is going to Topsail Beach for a week’s vacation in the sand and surf. We go with Caitlin’s parents and brothers. The adult to child ratio is very high, which makes it easy on everyone. We do virtually nothing but play on the beach. It is the highlight of our year.

We will take buckets and forms to make sand castles. Fill the form with sand, pour some water over it so that the sand holds together, and then place it on the beach. But it never holds together for long. It’s there for a few minutes, maybe a few hours. But the forces of time and nature pull it apart. There is no glue to hold it together.

The poet writes, “Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.” He is asking us a question. Is that how it is? Is it all made of sand?

The world around us is changing rapidly. Institutions are inert, cultural fabric has frayed, traditions have decayed. It seems there is nothing to replace them. David Lose writes:

 

Once we were optimistic that through, “the enlightened application of reason, humanity might eradicate disease and suffering, establish a basis for just and moral behavior, foster personal and social liberation, and subdue nature for the good of all people.

 

At the dawn of the twenty-first century — awash in the blood ideological and nationalistic conflict, beset by pandemic viruses, and standing at the brink of ecological disaster — such confidence has been all but sentenced to the gallows.”

 

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

 

Is that how it is?

 

One poet speaks to us of hope, one speaks of despair. Both ask, “Is that how it is?”

Both poets beckon us to believe the picture they paint is true. They put the question before us and ask us to answer.

Paul paints the man from Nazareth and sets him in a cosmic frame; he paints a picture that says he is the eternal center. The falcon cannot fly beyond his voice; even anarchy is under his sovereign authority. There is no power, no force, no person, no problem, outside the scope of his eternal love. All things hold together in him. Paul beckons us to believe and hope.

Yet there is truth in Yeats’ poem. “The best lack all conviction. The worst are full of passionate intensity.” The world is changing, it shakes and shifts. We are thrown off-balance.  Many of us despair. Which voice will we believe?

I will not believe that Yeats has it right. In the long arc of eternity, I will not believe Yeats has it right.

He pens “the center cannot hold,” and asks is that how it is? I must answer Yeats no — ultimately that is not how it is! For the center was never intellect or reason; the center was never tradition or culture; the center was never the institutions of a time or a nation. The center was always Jesus Christ. He was Lord at the beginning, will be Lord at the end, even now he is Lord.

 

“All things hold together in him.” By faith, I believe that is how it is.

 

Julian of Norwich lay dying on her sickbed, and she has visions and dreams of God. She wrestled over the sin, the pain that is caused by the world’s brokenness and by our sin, she grieved it.

 

In her thirteenth vision, she saw the person of Jesus say to her,

“All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

 

She wrote later: “these words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved.”

 

All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. The words of a poet. They beckon us to faith. The center will hold. All shall be well.

 

The Quakers set those words to song, and the tune that goes like this:

 

(Singing “All shall be well, all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”)

 

Did you hear that last chord? Did you realize that the last chord doesn’t resolve? There is no finality in it; it leaves you hanging, needing to continue on.

 

It asks you to keep singing it and singing it. Even when all is shifting like sand beneath your feet. It beckons you to keep singing. And believe.  

 

Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.

First Presbyterian Church

Asheville, North Carolina

July 17, 2016

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