Will Fitzgerald

Sermon preached at the Church of the Sojourners, October 15, 2006

The Child of Grace at the Infinite Café

Infinity is weird.

At the Water Street Café, there’s usually a line. The coffee’s good, so it’s usually worth the wait. Recently, the line was pretty long. I started to get a little cranky. I guess one of the baristas noticed, and asked me if I’d every tried their Infinite Espresso Bar. She took me to that room with the comfy couches, and there was a door that I hadn’t seen before. It had one of those sideways eights on it. The elevators leave every ten minutes said, looking at her watch. It’ll just be a minute.

I went through the door, and came into a lobby with an infinite number of people in it, with an infinite number of elevators, one person per elevator. I walked up to the first elevator and approached the person waiting. I said, “I assume the elevators hold more than one person.” “No,” he said, “but don’t worry-I’ll just move down one.” Before I had a chance to thank him, he’d asked the person at elevator two to move elevator three; that person asked the person at elevator three to move to elevator four, and so on. Because there were an infinite number, when the elevator doors opened, there was one elevator per person.

The button panel was interesting. It had buttons that said “1,” “2,” “3” and “∞”. I pressed “∞”. Either the elevator was infinitely fast or the espresso service wasn’t on the top floor of an infinitely tall building. I couldn’t really tell, except that when I got off the elevator just a moment later, I felt a bit heavier than usual. “Welcome to the Infinity Café,” said one of the waitstaff-there seemed to be an infinite number of them. She could tell it was my first time there, so she explained how things worked. “Every ten minutes the elevator arrives, and an infinite number of guests arrive. They can choose either the barstools on the east side, or the west side. Of course, we have an infinite number of each. Most person prefer the east side in the morning, so it’s easy to fit the 1000 or so people who want to sit on the west side. We just ask the first 1000 or so people on the west side to move down that many seats, and every one fits in.”

“That still leaves an infinite number of people who want to sit on the east side. So we ask the person in seat one to move to seat two; the person in seat two to sit in seat four; the person in seat three to seat six, four to eight, five to ten, and so on. So that leaves seats 1,3, 5, 7 and so on free for the new arrivals. So there’s room for everyone. I sat down and ordered an espresso and a piece of their infinite pecan roll. It’s their specialty, that and their infinite cinnamon bun. Every person gets his or her own numbered slice, and you have to choose either the pecan roll or the cinnamon bun. That way, there’s always an infinite amount left for the next set of customers. Then I noticed that most people seemed to duck out without paying. I asked my wait-person about that. She said only about one in a thousand bothered to pay, but it didn’t really matter-even with just one in a thousand people paying, the café still grossed an infinite amount of money, which covered their infinite expenses along with an infinite amount left over for profit. She told me not to bother tipping her, since she was part of the profit-sharing plan, and was therefore infinitely rich. I tipped her anyway, of course; which, I guess left me a little poorer, but her no richer.

Infinity is weird. [1]

The Child Grace reads Job

Infinity is frightening.

Most of us are familiar with the story of Job. He was a good man, a content man-a wealthy man with a loving wife, with children whom he loved, and who loved him, and-marvelous to say-loved each other as well. But as the result of a diabolical dare, God allows Satan to take away Job’s wealth, his children and and, in the end, God allows his health, afflicting him with “loathsome sores…from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.” And Job was left to sit among the ashes of his destroyed life. Most of the book of Job is taken up with Job’s friends explaining to Job that is was his fault, really, and Job replying, that, no, really, it wasn’t. And so to today’s passage: Job 23:1-17.

Then Job answered and said: Today also my complaint is bitter; 
my hand is heavy on account of my groaning.

Job’s pain is unrelenting. He is so weak that even his groaning leaves him almost too weak to raise a hand. He certainly isn’t pretending the pain isn’t real. He complains, kvetches, protests. Verses 3-7:

Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
    that I might come even to his seat! 
I would lay my case before him
    and fill my mouth with arguments. 
I would know what he would answer me
    and understand what he would say to me. 
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
    No; he would pay attention to me. 
There an upright man could argue with him,
    and I would be acquitted forever by my judge.

Job wishes he could find God, found out where God lives, go to God’s house and lay his case before God, and see how God reacts. If God has a wonderful plan for my life, Job seems to say, If God has a wonderful plan for my life, I just don’t see it. Perhaps I could make this seeming reasonable request of God-What is going on?

But God has gone missing:

Verses 8,9:

Behold, I go forward, but he is not there,
    and backward, but I do not perceive him; 
on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him;
    he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him.

Still, Job knows God is watching; knows where Job is, and that Job has been a right proper sojourner:

Verses 10,11:

But he knows the way that I take;
    when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold. 
My foot has held fast to his steps;
    I have kept his way and have not turned aside. 
I have not departed from the commandment of his lips;
    I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my portion of food.

But then things get scary:

Verses 13-14:

But he is unchangeable, and who can turn him back?
    What he desires, that he does. 
For he will complete what he appoints for me,
    and many such things are in his mind.

God will do what God decides to do. God will do whatever God decides to do with Job. And this scares him deeply:

Verses 15-17:

Therefore I am terrified at his presence;
    when I consider, I am in dread of him. 
God has made my heart faint;
    the Almighty has terrified me; 
yet I am not silenced because of the darkness,
    nor because thick darkness covers my face.

Job won’t be silent, but he’s terrified. “I am terrified at God’s presence, when I consider, I am in dread; God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.” Frail, sick, limited Job ponders the infinite God, a God infinite in power, and infinite in ability to choose, and it frightens him.

Infinity is frightening.

The Child of God reflects on our deepest needs

Our needs are deep.

Sick. Blind. Wounded. Sore. Thirsty. Poisoned. Weak. Helpless. Tired. Bad. Stained. Under attack. Slaves and prisoners. Law-breakers. Lost. In the dark. Fools. Debtors. Separated. Orphaned. In error. Small, worm-like. Asleep. Sad. Cold-hearted.

Our needs are deep.

The Child of God faces the infinite abyss

Our needs are deep.

This is what Blaise Pascal said (Pensees 6:425):

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

And yet, after such a great number of years, no one without faith has reached the point to which all continually look. All complain, princes and subjects, noblemen and commoners, old and young, strong and weak, learned and ignorant, healthy and sick, of all countries, all times, all ages, and all conditions.

A trial so long, so continuous, and so uniform, should certainly convince us of our inability to reach the good by our own efforts. But example teaches us little. No resemblance is ever so perfect that there is not some slight difference; and hence we expect that our hope will not be deceived on this occasion as before. And thus, while the present never satisfies us, experience dupes us and, from misfortune to misfortune, leads us to death, their eternal crown.

What is it, then, that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself. He only is our true good, and since we have forsaken him, it is a strange thing that there is nothing in nature which has not been serviceable in taking His place; the stars, the heavens, earth, the elements, plants, cabbages, leeks, animals, insects, calves, serpents, fever, pestilence, war, famine, vices, adultery, incest. And since man has lost the true good, everything can appear equally good to him, even his own destruction, though so opposed to God, to reason, and to the whole course of nature.

Our need, says Pascal, is infinite.

The Tale of the Troubled Aardvark

From rec.humor.funny By Tom Annau.

Once upon a time, there was an aardvark whose only pleasure in life was driving from his suburban bungalow to his job at a large brokerage house in his brand new 4x4. He hated his manipulative boss, his conniving and unethical co-workers, his greedy wife, and his sniveling, spoiled children. One day, the aardvark reflected on the meaning of his life and his career and on the unchecked, catastrophic decline of his nation, its pathetic excuse for leadership, and the complete ineffectiveness of any personal effort he could make to change the status quo. Overcome by a wave of utter depression and self-doubt, he decided to take the only course of action that would bring him greater comfort and happiness: he drove to the mall and bought imported consumer electronics goods.

Moral: Invest in foreign consumer electronics manufacturers.

The Child of Grace contemplates Heaven

This book is The Sacred Harp. It contains about six hundred tunes; almost 90 of the texts mention heaven. Many others use images of heaven: “I’m bound for the Promised Land,” “We’ll land on Canaan’s shore,” “There is a land of pure delight where saints immortal reign,” “When I can read my title clear to mansions in the skies,” “The year of jubilee is come,” “On Jordan’s stormy bank I stand, and cast a wishful eye to Canaan’s fair and happy land, where my possessions lie,” “I’m on my journey home to the new Jerusalem,” “Sweet rivers of redeeming love lie just before my eye.” It’s actually pretty rare to find more than two or three songs in a row that don’t mention heaven.

I’m a practical man. I’m a bona-fide scientist; I have it right here on my business card. I care deeply about this world; about social injustice, about creating community and the values of the kingdom here and now, and not just in somewhere in the sky, by and by. I deeply appreciate, for example, the Church of the Sojourners, your life together, and you have begun to renew in me a hunger for this kind of community. But we’re all well aware of our limits. Some of us suffer from depression, from anger, from both self-aggrandizement and a negative self-image; we are not freed from the lure of consumer electronics; we don’t take good enough care of what is entrusted to us-and these are just a few of my failures; you could name your own. Trying to live this life well, and actually doing so, are two very different things.

One of the things I’ve come to remember as I’ve been singing shape note music is that heaven is-heaven is real, heaven is a place, a place of joy, of fulfillment, of completion. This new realization gives me joy now as I face difficulties and trials. One text that has become especially dear to me ever since Carolyn Deacy taught it to me is what we Sacred Harp singers know as “The Child of Grace, 77 on the top”. The text is by Charles Wesley. The first verse goes:

How happy’s ev’ry child of grace,
Who feels his sins forgiv’n;
This world, he cries, is not my place;
I seek a place in heav’n.
A country far from mortal sight,
Yet, oh! by faith I see
The land of rest, the saints’ delight,
A heav’n prepared for me.

Can you feel how this “child of grace” feels? Both this great sense of relief that God has forgiven him, and this great sense of alienation from this world and an anticipation of the next? He can see it-far beyond our current ability to see, but he can see it, “a land of rest, the saints’ delight,” heaven itself, being prepared just for this child of grace.

The second verse:

Oh, what a blessed hope is ours
While here on earth we stay,
We more than taste the heav’nly pow’rs
And antedate that day.
We feel the resurrection near,
Our life in Christ concealed,
And with His glorious presence here
Our earthen vessels filled.

And look, there are benefits now. First, we have “a blessed hope,” that all these good things will come to pass. We can feel, we can see, we can taste the goodness that is to come as we “antedate,” or anticipate, that day. The resurrection power that raised Christ-we feel it. These jars of clay we call our bodies-filled with Christ’s “glorious presence.”

By the way, Bess tells me that every sermon should “say a gud word for Jesus,” and let me say it here plainly: It is through Jesus that the hope became a reality, through his life and death and resurrection.

Personally, I feel like a child of grace the most under either of two conditions: first, when I’m together with my brothers and sisters as we are gathered now, and second, when I’m singing. And so I’ve asked a few friends from the Berkeley Sacred Harp group to sing “The Child of Grace” with me for you. We’re even going to throw in an extra verse from Wesley’s original text, because it mentions sojourning and fits my theme this morning.

[sing Child of Grace]

Extra verse:

A stranger in the world below,
I calmly sojourn here;
Nor can its happiness or woe
Provoke my hope or fear:
Its evils in a moment end,
Its joys as soon are past;
But O! the bliss to which I tend
Eternally shall last.

The Child of Grace and Infinite Heaven

Heaven is infinite.

Job looked at his trouble and the infinitely powerful God and was left in terror. Pascal looked at the human heart, and saw an infinite abyss that only God could fill. The infinite God saw the human condition and acted, sending Jesus for our sake and our salvation. We know in part. But here’s the thing: listen. Heaven is a reality, and the true land to which we sojourn. And our time there is: infinite. Here’s a simple, mathematical fact: a line that trends upwards for an infinite amount of time will reach infinity. I have been a Christian for about 35 years, and the progress I see is discouragingly small: a little less anger, a little less depression, a little more joy, a little more love. But 35 years is literally nothing compared to infinity of time. As Wesley put it: “But O the bliss to which I tend eternally shall last.”

And here’s an important part of this: how I feel about it doesn’t really matter. Whether I feel the hope we sang about isn’t as important as the fact of it: our life, “concealed in Christ” and filed with “his glorious presence” will extend to infinite Sabbath rest, infinite joy, infinite goodness.

Well-being. Clarity of vision. Whole. Pain-free. Sated. Pure. Strong. Powerful. Bursting with Energy. Holy. Clean. Free from attack. Free people. Law-keepers. Found. In the light. Wise. Rich. Connected. In families. In the truth. Large, Angelic. Awake. Happy. Alive. Loving. Hearts bursting with song. Heaven is infinite.

1. Based on ideas from The Infinite Hotel, by Mark Pilgrim.