2012 Sermon by Larry Wood
Larry Wood delivered a sermon on November 4, 2012 at First Presbyterian Church Harbor Springs as part of our Festival. Below is the text of that sermon, reproduced by kind permission.
A Fellow of Infinite Jest
C.S. Lewis once said that his favorite sound was laughter.
He was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford,
where he was expected to produce dry-as-dust academic tomes
on Medieval and Renaissance literature.
And he did write scholarly books.
But we know him today, and love him today,
because he liked to laugh with his friends over a glass of sherry
and put that same convivial spirit into his writing.
A longtime bachelor, he lived with his brother
in a modest country home on eight wooded acres.
During the Second World War, they took in refugee children,
just like the children in his Narnia books.
A private staircase led to his room on the second floor, next to his study,
where almost all his classic books were written.
Altogether, a cozy place that rang with joy –
never more so than when, late in life, Jack Lewis finally married
a woman named Joy.
Things weren’t always easy, however.
He had taken on his housekeeper when her son, Jack’s best friend,
was killed in war;
Jack’s brother was alcoholic;
and Joy herself battled cancer.
Death had long been Jack’s close companion.
Somehow that only strengthened his Christian faith.
The Screwtape Letters, which hundreds of people all over town are reading,
is a comedy about devils who are trying to ruin an ordinary man,
and are failing miserably.
Screwtape hates laughter; it offends “the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell,”i
for laughter, after all, is a form of joy.
And joy may be one of God’s greatest gifts.
When the man slips through their diabolical fingers,
Screwtape gets so angry that he turns into a large centipede.
Christ doesn’t even have to show up, to get the last laugh.
This little novel has no footnotes, no academic airs,
and it gets its points across in 140 devastating pages.
Most books are very mortal; they come and go in a few weeks.
This one has enjoyed a long life.
Among those who loved The Screwtape Letters
was a large, shaggy, overeducated man-child
in Bloomington, Illinois, named David Foster Wallace.
One of the most admired writers of his generation,
he had won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant”
on the publication of his long comic novel Infinite Jest.
Infinite, indeed; it goes on for almost eleven hundred pages,
with still more jokes crammed into end notes.
Here is The Screwtape Letters, which Wallace called his favorite novel; drop
this is Infinite Jest. the books
A doorstop of a book, it weighed most heavily on him –
for he never could quite follow it up.
Wallace’s home in Bloomington was the opposite of Lewis’.
He painted his study entirely black.
A glass of sherry would not have been a good idea,
for he needed to stop drinking.
Wallace found the order and sustenance that he really needed in church,
and he forever talked about religion
to literary interviewers who wanted to change the subject.
Fiction, he said, was “a conversation between me and God.”
Speaking at commencement for Kenyon College, he said,
“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”ii
That, in a nutshell, is the message of Screwtape.
Young readers seemed to worship him;
he found himself beloved by a generation for being serious and funny,
but didn’t think himself worthy
as he struggled with the next novel.
He was much more concerned –
bedeviled, if you will – by nagging doubts.
Would his books live?
The most influential storyteller of all time published nothing.
Even a slender book seems huge compared to his stories,
which he told in just a few words.
Humor was a big part of his effect.
He had a knack for turning situations inside-out and springing surprises,
like making heroes out of a dishonest steward, a wayward son,
and a foreigner from another religion.
People marveled at his teachings, but couldn’t get over his ordinary background.
How could he say he came from heaven?
They knew his parents, they knew where he’d been raised.
It wasn’t enough to explain that we all come from heaven.
This is the way they go after every artist:
you’re a fraud, a nobody, from nowhere special.
Jesus stood up to that and said something extraordinary:
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I have said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” John 6:35-42
“I am the Bread of Life,” he said.
He said this, knowing that he did not have long to live.
He believed that he would live, and that we could, too –
even though he knew that we all are heading toward mortal ends,
at the rate of sixty minutes an hour.
The Bread of Life…
meaning the bread of haste, baked quickly at the Passover,
and manna in the wilderness, gathered from the hand of God.
The Jews recalled those mighty miracles with bread used in religious ceremonies,
not really expecting that miracles could happen in their own day.
Jesus said that he was that bread.
This man, the son of Joseph and Mary, said that.
You know that bread represents a paradox, don’t you?
It is life in death –
grain has been sacrificed so that you can live.
The world is shot through with such paradoxes.
Consider how Halloween and All Saints fall together on the calendar,
just as laughter and grief lie side-by-side.
Laughter and grief are in the graveyard scene in Hamlet –
as Hamlet finds the skull of a court jester
who carried him when he was a boy:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it….Where be your gibes now? Your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning?iii
“Surely the strangest comic relief ever written,” said C.S. Lewis.iv
And yet, he observed, the whole play really is about
dealing with the fear of death –
which is why it is so profound.
We jest at the infinite, and it jests back at us,
reminding us that we are finite.
How we deal with death is what really marks whether we successful in life.
That is our art –
that is the most creative and dramatic thing about us.
Some good people really struggle with the challenge.
A one-time philosophy major,
David Foster Wallace was fascinated by ethical issues,
such as whether one should boil lobster.
He could be provocative on those topics, and very funny.
When it came to himself, though, he was much more serious.
He brooded about whether his books would last,
and became badly lost,
even though he continued to write – a lot.
He just could never approach his early success.
Unable to finish his next novel,
he took a break to write instead a book on infinity.
Mathematicians had gone mad trying to explain it.
Wallace himself was bipolar, and struggled terribly with depression all his life.
The more he contemplated the infinite,
the more Screwtape, or the screwed-up tapes in his head, took hold.
To the shock and dismay of all his friends,
Wallace took his own life at the age of forty-six.
Jack Lewis had a different perspective.
He married his wife Joy
knowing that she was very ill with cancer.
He brought her to his home
and set her up in rooms at the back of the house,
looking on the woods and the pond.
For a time, cancer gave them a miraculous reprieve.
They pulled out Jack’s boat and punted on the pond,
they went for drives and walks as she was able.
Then it came back with a vengeance.
Jack took communion at the nearby Anglican Church
as he had done ever since 1931.
It was the most important thing he came for each week.
The death of Christ brought life for him.
And when Joy could no longer get out,
he asked for communion to be brought regularly to their home.
Joy…her name now suggested what he was losing.
When she died, his convictions were scattered on the wind.
The journal he kept, later called A Grief Observed,
is his shortest book, and his most personal.
He didn’t publish it under his own name.
It has helped millions to cope with their own grief
and find their way gradually back to faith.
His influence on popular culture has been astonishing:
children’s books, novels for adults, stage plays, films,
even dramas about his own life,
which he would have found incredible, considering how quietly he lived.
This portly, sedate, scholarly man has had a great influence
not just as a writer, but as a person of faith.
And this brings us to Jesus,
the bravest artist of all.
More than most of us, he was conscious that he would die,
and that shaped how he lived.
He fashioned some of the most important words the world has ever known,
but he did not rely on words to do his most important work.
By all accounts, he loved this world –
his friends, even strangers –
this son of Joseph and Mary, Nazareth and Capernaum,
blessed with close companions.
He loved this world –
and as he approached the end, he felt real fear, real grief.
How could it have been otherwise,
when he looked on Golgotha, the place of the skull?
Even so, he knew where he was going,
because he knew what he was and where he had come from.
Three days later came the greatest laugh, the greatest joy
the world has ever known.
Jesus is a fellow of infinite jest.
In the words of his apostle,
“Where, Death, is thy victory? Where, Death, is thy sting?”
He lives, and continues to give us joy:
“This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”
Whether or not you believe in anyone like Screwtape,
chances are that you, too, are bedeviled by doubts
about what you have done,
what your life has meant.
These questions can weigh on us heavily.
The art of life is to find our joy –
the perspective that comes from knowing that we are children of God
who came from heaven
and have been privileged to enjoy this world.
By the grace of God,
a little laugh, just one little laugh,
is enough to put us right.