Archive for August, 2003

Working before God

Sunday, August 31st, 2003
Song of Songs 2:8-13

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Three calendars schedule a university church. Because of the university we are governed by the academic calendar, and this is the first Sunday of the 2003-04 academic year. Welcome to our students returning from summer work, and especially to our new students and their families. Welcome to faculty returning from summer studies, and to the administrators and staff of the university, as well as to our regular congregational members, who are here to begin a new year. Welcome also to our virtual congregation of radio listeners: feel free to sing along in any key you like!

The second calendar of a university church is the national one, and today is the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. America honors those who labor for a living by giving all of them recognition and most of them an extra day off this holiday. Boston University honors labor differently, because this weekend is a frenetic time of incoming and orientation. Labor Day at the university signifies that the life of inquiry is work, as any one at the university will tell those of you who are new.

The third calendar of the university church is the Christian liturgical calendar that divides the year into seasons and festivals highlighting the important emphases of the Christian religion. Today is the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, which is the longest season in the whole liturgical calendar. In the old Methodist calendar this season was called “Kingdomtide” and it signified—you guessed it—the work of Christians in God’s kingdom.

Does work itself have any specifically religious significance? Obviously work has a personal economic dimension—we have to make a living. Work has a social economic dimension—our community needs wealth to support fundamental social structures. Work has many cultural dimensions—accomplishments in the arts, music, literature, education, communication, the law, medicine, politics, engineering, adventure and countless other careers that make for a rich civilization and that can be disciplined in the university. Has work a religious dimension over and above all these?

Religion is the human project of living before God or, to put it more neutrally, living in ultimate perspective. The religiously important work we have is to construct lives individually and together that have worth in ultimate perspective. By “ultimate perspective” I mean our lives considered absolutely, without conditions or excuses. Of course some of us are born poor, others rich, some from powerful countries, others from oppressed ones; some of us saunter through life as if on a safe track and others are waylaid by tragedies, illness, and sudden closures of opportunities. Some of us are surrounded by loving people and others are alone. In ultimate perspective, we are what we make of the conditions within which we live, whatever they might be. In ultimate perspective we are what we have accomplished at the end of our days, with no more chances to do better next time. In ultimate perspective, God is our judge, not our parents, neighbors, critics, or children, however important those judges are in proximate perspective.

So what is this God whose perspective is ultimate? The baseline answer is that God is the Creator. Fundamental to the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, as well as the Qu’ran and many of the religions of India, this claim has close analogies in many forms of Buddhism and the religions of China. The ultimate perspective on life is the ultimate condition or source for the very existence of life itself. To live in ultimate perspective is to be called to gratitude for life itself, what the great American theologian, Jonathan Edwards, called “consent to being in general.” We should be grateful for lives in which we have opportunities to become serious people, to work together to build communities of worth, to mature into playing important social roles in families, professions, neighborhoods, and perhaps even history. We should be grateful to that wild Creator who made the universe with an ancient Big Bang, whose cosmic gasses have clumped briefly to constitute stars and planets, whose Earth through eons of evolution grew into a habitat for beings with sentience and intelligence. We should thank God for a cosmos in which we today have a part, with the struggles of history and civilization that set the contexts for our life’s work. We should thank God that every bit of this cosmic creation, from the fiery gasses of the Big Bang to the conditions for organic life on Earth to the fragile arts of civilized life, is inherited in our own personal constitution. In each of us run the power and history of divine creation, sweeping us along like a mighty river.

Although God’s creative power is infinite and ours is finite, like God we can make something out of the conditions of our lives that has worth in ultimate perspective. This likeness in creativity is part of what it means for people to be in the image of God, and children of God. What we create in our lives is the work we do before God individually and together, and we should be grateful for the chance to have such worth.

In our text from the Epistle of James we are told to be doers, not hearers only. Too many people are passive riders on life. They listen to talk about opportunity and responsibility, and might talk a good line themselves. And yet they do nothing. James says to take hold of God’s gift of life, which he calls the living word, and make something of it. The text from Mark is one of several in which Jesus criticizes hypocrites, especially religious hypocrites. These are people who talk piously and observe the religious rules but who do not really make anything that expresses divine creativity. As Jesus said, it’s not what goes into you but what comes out that counts.

Just to make something of life is not enough, therefore. Among the conditions for our life-making are real obligations, and differences between good and evil. . We need to make lives that are good, given our resources. In making our lives, for instance, we need professions to which our talents are suited. Not every such profession is a good one, however; the happy embezzler, grateful to God for rich fools, does not make a good life. We can be deeply committed to our family and yet if that commitment is abusive it is a wicked contribution to the family. We can be fully engaged in building our community, and grateful to God for the opportunity, and yet if our contribution sows disharmony, or diminishes the opportunities of others, or leads to hate and destruction, that community-building is evil. The fact that our lives are consciously lived in gratitude to God does not mean automatically that they are as worthwhile as they should be, given our circumstances and obligations.

Therefore part of living in ultimate perspective, of living before God, is to live in divine judgment. Divine judgment is a deep mystery, but it is akin to moral and aesthetic judgment. What we make of ourselves individually and together is subject to judgment according to its worth. The topic of divine judgment is the source of wonderful imagination in Christianity and most other religions, and I don’t know how you imagine it. Some people think of God as a bearded man on a heavenly throne passing judgment on newly dead souls, casting some into hell and rewarding others with heaven. Other traditional images are more like a divine courtroom with Satan as prosecuting attorney and Jesus as defense attorney. In popular humor, people imagine St. Peter at the Pearly Gates with a register-book of good and bad deeds, admitting some and consigning the rest to the fiery pit. (These days, of course, Peter would have a vast computer with an infinite FilePro program.)

Wha
tever your imagination of divine judgment, know that ultimate judgment is God’s to make, not ours. We have the humbler task of preparing ourselves for judgment in ultimate perspective with the best lights we have. No magic rule-book, not even the Bible, can tell you how best to make your life in its particular details. Although a liberal education is a great help for living into a wisdom that prepares your life for judgment, it provides neither a blueprint nor the courage to act rightly. In the long run the decisions to make your life in ultimate perspective belong to you and you alone.

Think twice about that and you will see an infinite loneliness in God the creator. Loneliness is a condition for creating that comes from accepting responsibility. We should not worry if we are sometimes lonely. We should worry if we are never lonely, for that would mean we are not creating.

Work has yet another dark side, I regret to tell you. No life is perfect. In fact just about every aspect of the life for which you have responsibility is morally ambiguous. Study to get good grades and you neglect your friends. Be successful in a job and you discover that you’ve diminished the chances of someone you respect. No institution of employment or study fails to have its corruptions and social costs. Every community structure is hurtful to someone. Our best intentions are never pure and sometimes have disastrous consequences. The most we can hope for is to maximize the good and minimize the evil in the lives we build, according to our best lights. What we present to God in ultimate perspective is a vast life of compromises, mixtures of good and evil, blessings and curses. No wonder, then, that so many people hide behind the talk and avoid the deed, fill their lives with empty praise of God while resigning themselves to hypocritical self-serving!

But now here is the gospel, the good news: The source of our ambiguous conditions of life, from which at best we can build optimally compromised lives, is that wild Creator to whom we are grateful for our very being. No matter how bad things are, God comes to us, as Solomon sang, like a beautiful lover leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills, saying “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” No matter how badly we have compromised our lives, no matter whether we have been hypocritical, no matter how we have avoided life, God’s creativity beckons us back to work. Do we owe a debt for failed life, for wickedness, for flight from life? The central story of Christianity says that God came to us in Jesus and cancelled that debt. We are free to live again. Even though we will never have unambiguous circumstances, we will always have our share of divine creativity.

“Creativity,” of course, is the metaphysical word for love on a divine scale. God’s cosmic act of love is the creation of the cosmos. God’s love for us is that part of creative love that manifests itself in our circumstances. Our acts of love toward one another are how we direct that creativity in building our lives. Our receiving of God’s love is how we accept the world God has created, with ambiguity, suffering and death. Our love for God is how we exercise the creativity given us, especially in loving others. Of course there is more to divine love and our love for God than this, but creativity is at the heart of it all.

So the take-home message is that the religious dimension of our labor is to build our lives with all the energy and wisdom we can muster, for this is who we are in ultimate perspective. Be prepared for the ambiguities and tragedies of our best efforts, but do not hang back. Be grateful to God for this world of joys and sorrows, and work to understand God’s love and creativity in all of it, even the worst of it. Know that we are not saved by our work, by what we make: we are saved by God’s wild creative love. But know also that what is saved is what we make of ourselves in our capacity as small icons of God. So work is important. Know finally that we cannot make of ourselves anything so bad that God cannot save it. We often cannot save our mistakes; God has no such limitation. None of us is a mistake in ultimate perspective.

Now I invite you to join this community of Christian inquirers seeking wisdom about the things I’ve barely glossed here. Who is this wild Creator of a world of joy and sorrow? Who is this Jesus that he can free us from the bondage of our moral failings and our flight from life? What are our moral obligations anyway? What is our historical place that gives us the conditions of our lives? What patterns of Christian life and thought rightly relate us to the ultimate perspective? How do Christian answers to these questions differ from those of other religions and the secular world? By what Spirit can we engage our own places before God in ultimate perspective? I invite you into this Christian congregation of inquiry and bid you welcome.

Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville