How did a sprawling, violent creation, 15 billion years in the making, and within it life emerging out of natural selection through random mutation leaving for the devil the hindmost, make space for goodness?
In a world in which a suicidal pilot takes with him 148 innocent victims. In which religious adherents to ancient eschatologies leave video games in Minneapolis for firearms in Syria. In which bigotry through race and orientation fill the internet and the pages of newspapers. In which measures of personal and material success become around the globe themselves the measures of meaning itself. In which drugged or drugging young adults shoot point blank our faithful policewomen and men. In which a healthy young man places a home-made bomb directly behind 8 year old boy and detonates it in our very neighborhood. In which a war of all against all, a world in which homo homini lupus, man is a wolf to man appears to be the default reality all around us, especially the cyber reality all around us. In such a world, whence benevolence? Where does good come from?
‘Love is benevolence or good will to others…the disposition which one has who desires and delights in the good of another’. The disposition one has who desires and delights in the good of another…So, Jonathan Edwards, 1745.
Bene…good. Volo…will. Good will. The will to know, do, be…good. Whence?
I wonder in such a world if I have any right to ascend a fine pulpit and speak about God and about 20 minutes, and extol the grace of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the promise of heaven, the power and durability of love? Where is true benevolence in the teeth of such and lasting evil, all around us? How do we prove to be honest about evil and still celebrate good? How do we preach and live a dual realism, of cross and resurrection?
It makes me wonder.
And then, something happens, to nudge us forward. Tuesday I was passing by the TV—I wish I had made notes—and I heard something like this:
“You are going to give your kidney to a woman who needs a kidney, but you are giving it to someone you don’t even know? Why are you giving your kidney to someone you don’t even know?”
“Well, I tell my kids they should be good to other people. I try and tell
them that. Do good to others. But then, I think, how can I tell them that if I don’t do that myself? How can I teach them right from wrong if I don’t do that myself? So I decided to give the kidney to someone who needs it.”
From tradition. From inheritance. Benevolence comes from traditions that honor and cradle the good.
All three of the New Testament accounts of resurrection, those of Peter and Paul and Mary, so attest. Think carefully, for just a moment, about these witnesses. In John, Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener, her brilliant witness forever clothed in ignorance. In Corinthians, Paul recounts what he has heard and said, and ruefully, mournfully confesses that he is not ‘fit to be called an apostle, because he persecuted the church’. In Mark, in the long week past as recorded in Mark, Peter, later the rock on which the church is built, is himself shamefully remembered, in the firelight, as the one who denied, who forsook, who failed.
And the cocked crowed, again, and again, and again… The rooster sounding out and sounding forth the birth, the creation of a new day and carrying in song the honest recollection of the prior night.
Let us look closely, particularly, at Paul this year. What he gives he has received, and what he preaches he has been told, by others. His account is utterly different from Mark’s: didactic not narrative, theological not spiritual, male not female witnesses, appearance not disappearance, presence not absence. Yet his confidence in resurrection, which is the basis for his obedience of faith, is every bit as strong as the story of the empty tomb in Mark. There are many ways of keeping faith. There are many ways of teaching faith. There are many ways of preaching resurrection. All of them, somehow, cause us to consider the possibility that resurrection is more real than our experience, that resurrection questions us, not the other way around.
It is not only the physical agony and social disgrace of Jesus on the cross at the heart of our traditions today and everyday, but also, and more so, if one may say so, the soul wrenching agony and personal disgrace of Peter and Paul and Mary, in cowardice and false zeal and ignorance, which is at the bedrock heart of Easter. In the blinding brilliance of cross and resurrection, the tradition sturdily and starkly records, our humanity is naked. Such pain.
Maybe that is part of why we avoid going to church. We know about cowardice, and about falsehood, and about ignorance, and we know about it from our own actions, our own prejudices and our own mistakes. They are grievous to recall, as our religious traditions, especially at Easter, force us to do.
Richard III was reburied last week after 500 years. His spine is still crooked, his skull still crushed, and his cruelty still recalled. He was buried out of an Anglican church. Of course he was. Where else would you be able, with honesty, to take him, before burial, but to a cathedral, where the traditions, sturdy and stark, can bear it. The seaside? Stonehenge? The white cliffs of Dover? The lake district? Not enough sand. Not dark enough, stark enough, with bark enough…
In our traditions, Peter found a way forward, through betrayal, Paul found a way forward, through violence, Mary found a way forward through blind sight. And we can, too. And I can, too. And you can, too.
Tradition does not give life, but tradition does give a way to life, in the Risen One, the Living One, the Sovereign One. Tradition is not life. Music, Scripture, Sermon, Communion are not grace. They are the silver and china, but not the meat and milk. They are means, not ends. The end? Love. And love, ‘Love is benevolence or good will to others…the disposition which one has who desires and delights in the good of another’.
In fact, what little lasting goodness there may be around us at this late date, rises up come Easter out of our traditions. Where does good come from?, Huey Long in Robert Penn Warren’s ALL THE KING’S MEN is asked. From bad. Good comes out of bad.
Our traditions, at their best, at their truest, and at their toughest, tell a painful story. Benevolence comes out of the pain of failure, out of the cross. It comes out of what we see in our own souls, when we are most honest, most vulnerable, and most naked.
That is why ministry is so connected to self-disclosure.
We minimize our traditions at our peril. A great university without its history, its traditions, its considered past, its chapel, say, is no longer a great university. And a great education, summa cum laude, out of earshot of the same, is no longer great.
Whence benevolence? Tradition. Tradition empowers benevolence.
And from church. From relationships. You could say community. Or fellowship. Or society. Or even culture. But people would miss the point. Pau’s word here is church.
Benevolence, good will to others, appears, against significant odds, including our own carelessness and wan, glib neglect, in church.
Here is a place where a birth can be celebrated with proper joy, shared happiness, and musical grace. Here is place where children and young adults can grow up without having to be instantly perfect or prematurely finished. Church is for the unfinished. (Like you. And me.) Here is a place where meaning, belonging, empowerment, community, the things that make human life human as opposed to measured, or productive, or efficient, can thrive. Here is a place where older people can remember and share memory and be remembered and given help. Here is a place where death can be faced with dignity, with honor, with grace and with kindness.
The Jesus of Calvary was so born, and did so grow, and was so loved, and did so die.
Starlings swirl together in ‘murmurration’. They swirl together by the hundreds in spirals, cone shaped and lovely. It is a form of protection. A predator has no easy target against that spiral, that communal form, and that shared meaning, that hereditary empowerment, that protective belonging. You are worth more than many starlings.
Our friend Dean Ray Hart, in his great book UNFINISHED MAN AND THE IMAGINATION, teaches us about the hermeneutical spiral, the beautiful movement of spiraling interpretation in the quest for meaning, and belonging and empowerment, and truth.
I believe in the resurrection of the body, asserts the creed. That is a reference to the Body of Christ, that is, the church. I am not smart enough, strong enough, or sensible enough to get along without the church—fellowship, community, congregation, society, culture, others.
Students need the love known and shared in the church. Sunday by Sunday and term by term. In prayer. In music. In fellowship. In teaching. In gathering. In example.
My father died nearly five years ago. On his desk there was book, whose theme was benevolence, of a piercing sort. He had many books, taught here at BU by Allan Knight Chalmers to read a book a day. The book, short and little known, carried the argument that one should experiment with the attempt to give oneself over to the projects of others, including those people whom we detest, but whose work we may value. Where will find a book like that? In Silicon valley? In the heart of autocracy? In the heights of academia? Where will you find the steady measured argument that encourages you to desire and delight in the good of others, including those whose very presence makes you sick? You might find a hint of it in the body of the crucified, or in the musty library of a deceased preacher.
I think of the great hearted people whom we have served with over the years, and their benevolence. Their teachers and families empowered their benevolence. Their communities, families, and marriages embodied their benevolence. Their own spiritual journeys provided examples of benevolence. Some teaching out of the distant past. Some formation out church, community, of true loving relationship. Some experience of trustworthy people.
After one huge gift to a church, my wife Jan said, I don’t know how I would think about giving that huge amount of money, or how I would feel, or how I would decide or how I would do it. As you would have, I replied, Isn’t that great! Just think, you won’t ever have to worry about that! You won’t have to face that anxiety! You married me! I have spared you all that and so much more!
But actually, we do all have inheritance and community and experience for our benevolence to use. Maybe not a kidney. Maybe not a fortune. But something. Beginning, it may be, with our most precious possession. Our time.
Our mentor J Louis Martyn preached at the funeral of Paul Minear, his fellow NT scholar, some few years ago. He remembered a visit to Boston from Rudolph Bultmann, and Minear’s respectful response:
“There is between us, Mr. Bultmann, much in common.
And, as is always the case, what we have in common
makes plain the major difference between us.
You have as one of your chief concerns
to demythologize the New Testament,
while I have as one of my chief concerns
that the New Testament demythologize us.”
The church tries at Easter to say a benevolent, true word. It is not we who question the resurrection, but the resurrection that questions us.
Whence benevolence? Church. The church embodies benevolence.
And from experience. From life. A couple of weeks ago I heard this sentence: ‘Love is benevolence or good will to others…the disposition which one has who desires and delights in the good of another’. I preached it, quoting J Edwards. But, by ricochet, I also heard it. In my own experience. You will not find benevolence apart from benevolence. You will not experience benevolence apart from benevolent people.
Here is the weight of Paul’s letter. In the names, the people, his predecessors. And in the verb, OPHTHEY, ‘appeared’. Mark this. Resurrection happens inside this world not outside this world. The absence of the empty tomb and the presence of the Living Appearance both, by Paul anyway, happen here. Paul’s argument is to his context, his community, wherein there is difference, disagreement and doubt. We are not the first, come Easter, to know these masters of disillusionment.
Paul sings Resurrection in Life!
A few years ago a neighboring minister, highly effective in his work, came to say that he had gone through several cycles of goals in pastoral work and preaching, but that now he was not going to set any more of his own, and not going to try to achieve any more of his own. He said: I decided I would go and work on someone else’s. He asked if there was anything he could do for me. I must say that although I did respond, to this day I have not fully responded. It sort of took my breath away…
I have written enough books. Let me help you with yours. I have built enough companies. Let me help you with yours. I have earned enough degrees. Let me help you with yours. I have had enough jobs. Let me help you find yours. I have had enough successes. Let me help you achieve yours. I am not fully there yet, not fully benevolent yet, I guess. It is a different kind of thought, and life. But I can sure feel the power of it, especially in receipt. Can’t you? So Dietrich Bonhoeffer simply said of Jesus: A Man for others.
Think of someone who has desired, truly desired, and delighted in, genuinely delighted in, your good. Whoever, and wherever, and however–thence benevolence. Conjure a moment when you truly desired and delighted in the good of another. At a little league game. At a concert. At a wedding. At a graduation. In lovemaking. At a retirement dinner. In a prayer. ‘Love is benevolence or good will to others…the disposition which one has who desires and delights in the good of another’.
Benevolence is our path for life following death.
Now deceased—that move across the little comma, the light punctuation separating the independent clause of life from the dependent clause of death—a Colgate and BU grad, then minister in Oriskany Falls, Russell Clark, offered condolence and asked his friend how she somehow survived her husband’s sudden death. She said: Nothing has ever been so hard. But as you know I have chickens to feed. When the sun comes up, they get up. They call to me. And I get up. I might want to stay in bed, but they need to be fed. Their life is really mine, or mine theirs. Don’t take this the wrong way, Rev. I love my traditions and my church. But it was the clucking of those hens that got me through. The clucking of those hens meant more to me than all the hymns of Easter.
Whence benevolence? Experience. Experience exemplifies benevolence.
Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is the marrow of tradition, as the cock crows. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is the very body of the church, as the starlings swirl. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is the lived experience of love, as the chickens cluck. Whence benevolence? You need hunt no farther. ‘Love is benevolence or good will to others…the disposition which one has who desires and delights in the good of another’.
Now make a life with that disposition.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.
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