A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent at the Church of the Epiphany, inspired by John Donne. Our little recording of the hymn is on YouTube.
I fell in love with John Donne when I was nearly a teenager. He had been dead several centuries by then, but no matter. His words were timeless. We sang a poem of his this morning, A Hymn to God the Father.[i]
Before he was chaplain to the king and the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, Donne had a past. He went into law first rather than the church, and he was known around London for his womanizing rather than his piety. He went to be a soldier for a time. When he fell in love finally and married, when he became a parent, and a bereaved father, and was widowed, he began to think on different themes than he had in his earlier, more licentious life.[ii] He contemplated his mortality, and that of those whom he loved, and perhaps it was through them that he found God.
Before he was ordained, Donne wondered whether it was such a good idea, given his past, and his well-published sins. Yet the faith that he had found was in a God whose forgiveness outstripped any error that Donne had made, and he was persuaded to share his discovery, his uncovering of that grace, that love, not only through his poetry but from the pulpit.
Today’s hymn describes in a tightly compressed form that journey of the body and spirit from reprobate to repentant and grateful sinner.
In the final verse, Donne writes, “I have a sin of fear that when I’ve spun my last thread, I shall perish on the shore.”[iii]
He identifies his fear of being left behind by God as a sin – Donne knows the stories of the lost sheep and the persistent shepherd. He knows Jesus’ promise to the bandit on the cross beside him, that he would see paradise soon. Like the worried father in another gospel story, Donne’s prayer is, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!” (Mark 9:24, KJV).
“The cross,” writes Paul, “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
The blessing of the bandit, the welcome into paradise of the sinner, the profligate and promiscuous forgiveness that God hands out is an outrage to our fallen sense of injustice, our punitive sense of fair play. Yet it is, too, our only hope, knowing, as we do all too well, our own pasts, presents, and even some of our future sins. As Donne once preached, “I know nothing, if I know not Christ crucified, And I know not that, if I know not how to apply him to my selfe.”[iv]
But this Christ is not a hope only for the future, or for that other shore. He is a very present help in times of trouble, and he helps us to turn the tables on our sin of fear and embrace grace.
Sin is often defined as anything that separates us from the love of God. Identifying his fear of rejection, of condemnation, his fear of hell as a sin, Donne recognized that it threatened to keep him from the full embrace of that foolish and fond grace that Christ had mediated to him.
Fear of our own condemnation is what leads us so often to condemn others. Fear of missing out makes us grasping and fetters our generosity of spirit. We covet what is our neighbour’s instead of making sure that they have enough to get by. Fear of rejection leads us to scapegoat, separate, scorn those whom Christ would welcome from the cross into paradise. Fear makes thieves of our prayers. We seek to secure to ourselves the blessings that God would share with the whole of creation.
We can repent even of this fear; not because it would keep us from heaven, but because here and now, God calls us to love our neighbours, to keep the commandments not as a duty but for the joy of embracing God’s will.
Again, I borrow from Donne, who prayed,
Forgive me O Lord, O Lord in the merits of thy Christ and my Jesus, thine Anointed, and my Saviour; Forgive me my sinnes, all my sinnes, and I will put Christ to no more cost, nor thee to more trouble … I ask but an application, not an extention of that Benediction, Blessed are they whose sinnes are forgiven; Let me be but so blessed, and I shall envy no mans Blessednesse.[v]
When we turn the tables, doing justice, promoting and provoking mercy, zealously and foolishly following Jesus, even when all seems lost and to lead only to the cross; when we embrace the grace of God not for ourselves but for its own sake – because it is beautiful, because it is gracious, because it is foolish, because it is hopeful – then we will find our sin of fear, and our fear of sin, wiped clean.
Donne’s conversion didn’t only save his eternal life. It changed his life in the here and now, or at least in the there and then. Acting on his understanding of God’s grace, he amended his own life and reached out to others in prayer and compassion, preaching redemption, knowing well his own foolishness, and trusting instead in the wisdom, the love, the inexhaustible goodness of God, writing out his prayers and living them with his body:
“Lord, I believe: help thou mine unbelief.”
And having done that, thou hast done; I fear no more.
[i] John Donne, A Hymn to God the Father/Wilt Thou Forgive That Sin, Where I Begun,https://hymnary.org/text/wilt_thou_forgive_that_sin_where_i_begun/fulltexts
[ii] For more biographical details, see Richard Schmidt, Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), 47-51
[iii] Donne, op. cit.
[iv] John Donne, Sermons on the Psalms and Gospels with a Selection of Prayers and Meditations, edited by Evelyn M. Simpson (University of California Press, 1963), 53
[v] Ibid., 242-243