Archive for February, 2004

Temptation in the Wilderness

Sunday, February 29th, 2004
Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

Romans 10:8b-13

Luke 4:1-13

If we had no temptations, we would not need Lent. Lent is a time to acknowledge our temptations, to do penance for having given in to them, and to steel ourselves with greater discipline to resist them. We do have temptations, we do give in to them, and we are too often too weak to resist them. So we do need Lent. The story of Jesus in the wilderness is a lesson in temptations.

The first thing to note is that Jesus was weakened by fasting for forty days. This might be an exaggeration of the actual time, because “forty” was a kind of biblical code for a long time—remember Noah’s forty days of rain, Moses’ forty days and nights on the mountain with God, and the forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert before coming to the Promised Land. Whatever the time Jesus actually spent in the wilderness, it was a long time and he was hungry and weak when Satan caught up with him.

The first temptation Satan put to Jesus, in Luke’s account, was to offer bread in return for a little cheating, namely using divine power to turn a stone to food. Many have interpreted Luke’s account to mean that Jesus had supernatural powers and could have used them, but chose not to. Of course we need bread and other necessities and are tempted to take moral shortcuts to get them. We might say that in times of truly dire necessity, a little thievery is legitimate—remember Les Miserable; we are a merciful people. Sometimes, however, we are a bit liberal with mercy toward ourselves and justify a little cheating in studies, innocent shoplifting of ideas from the internet, or vicious competitiveness so that we will get our own necessities. The habit of cheating grows from necessities to enhancements—better clothes, finer food, shortcuts at work to find leisure time. With the aid of a consumerist culture we can blur the line between necessities and luxuries so that any unsatisfied desire becomes a need whose satisfaction is necessary. Step by step we are tempted to move from cheating for self-preservation to just plain greed. We live in an Enron culture where massive cheating is taken for granted as a way of corporate life, and we are surprised when stockholders and workers are paupered by the consequences of greed. Often we don’t recognize how much we participate in such a culture until some scandal suddenly turns the lights on. Note that Jesus had nothing negative to say about bread, or even riches, per se; he said only that we do not live by them alone and, when we do, they hold us in bondage, as they did the winsome but rich young ruler who asked Jesus about eternal life. Thank God we have Lent to think these things through, repent, and do better.

Satan’s second temptation was power, which Jesus could have gained by worshipping the devil, that is, the spirit of destruction and control that was contrary to the God of creativity. If we have power, of course, we are able to get the necessities and even luxuries of life. As Faust knew, with power we can do great social good. Yet power brings more than the satisfaction of greed. Power evokes respect—glory, Satan said—and it gives control. Although there are some things we should control, the desire for control is an infinite passion. It has no natural satisfaction. Jesus declined Satan’s power and said you should worship only God. The clue, in the story, to detecting power as a temptation is that worldly power was Satan’s to give in the first place. Jesus’ response indicates that its pursuit is idolatrous. Are our fantasies about power really ways of worshipping ourselves as if we were God? Our nation has so much power now that patriotism borders on idolatry. The motivation alleged for our greed is the virtue of global capitalism in a form that benefits us before it does the developing countries. The motivation alleged for our pre-emptive wars of self-defense is panic over possible weapons of mass destruction. Yet these motivations, even coupled together and accepted as valid, seem insufficient to explain our recent national exercises of power. Is display of power for its own sake the motive? Thank God we have Lent to think these things over, to repent, and amend our ways.

The third temptation was for Jesus to jump from the Temple’s Tower to prove that he was under divine protection. He declined, saying that God should not be put to the test. We rarely have such dramatic temptations. Nevertheless many of us, perhaps all of us sometimes, conceive God to have an obligation to take care of us in worldly matters, and we become angry, or depressed, or lose our faith, when luck and nature take their mindless course. If you jump from a high place, you fall: that’s the way God made gravity. If you contract a germ you get sick: that’s the way God made life. If your loved one leaves you, your heart breaks: that’s the way God made freedom and the human heart. To expect God to work miracles setting aside the way creation works is to “test” God, to use Jesus language. Have we tested God and been disappointed so as to corrode our faith? “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” said Jesus. Thank God we have Lent to think these things over, repent, and amend our ways.

Temptation is a creeping phenomenon. Remember the old prayer of confession? “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep:” with our eyes down on the grass in front of us, intending no evil, we follow the green rather than the proper path and get lost. “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts:” well, of course, being lost from the community with its good shepherd we are left to our own devices. “We have offended against thy holy laws:” that’s what comes from too much dependence on the devices and desires of our own hearts, and suddenly we are seriously culpable for moral misdeeds. “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done:” so much for duty. “And we have done those things which we ought not to have done:” serious transgressions are our responsibility. “And there is no health in us:” we have succumbed so far into temptation, a sickness unto death, that we have no power to stop the fall. Even though we start with small, forgivable temptations, we plummet until we are bound to endless greed, power, and self-glorification, powerless to stop.

Now we can see the special temptation in the Grand Inquisitor’s conversation with Christ. In Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov the Grand Inquisitor chastises Jesus for wanting to make people free. People are weak and in bondage to sin, the Inquisitor said. They do not want freedom and responsibility: they want bread as a magic handout, they want some power to take care of them with proper pomp and glory, and they want a divine guarantee that everything will be all right. Because people are like sheep, they should be treated like sheep. Because they have in fact succumbed to the temptations, the devil is in charge, and a proper religion should go along with the Grand Inquisitor’s authoritarian ways that provide for everything: not to do so would be cruel. Jesus was not convinced. How many of us believe, or hope, that God will take care of everything? God is not the one who “takes care of everything.” That’s Satan. God makes us free.

Think back on the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Jesus had just been baptized and the text says he was “full of the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit, not chance, led him in the wilderness. It was an act of God that he be tempted. One of the ironies about Satan here and in other biblical passages is that, although he is a trouble-maker and a genuinely evil spirit, he is also the witting or unwitting
agent of God. To be tempted is part of the created life that we have. If we were not tempted, we would not be alive in a human way. Temptations are tests to prepare us for serious work, as Jesus was about to undertake.

Please do not mishear me on this point. I do not mean to say, nor does the Bible, that we should seek out temptations as a kind of spiritual discipline. That is a sure road to disaster. Only someone already besotted by the sin of pride would deliberately seek out temptations so as to exercise the ability to put them aside. Jesus, in his famous prayer, says “Lead us not into temptations and deliver us from evil.” Let us escape as many temptations as we can: more than enough will confront us anyway, for they are part of life.

Life for us all tempts us to panic about possessing things. Even when possessions are necessities of life, they should not define life for us. Jesus was very hungry, but he did not need bread: he was deliberately fasting. Precisely because hunger and desire are natural, they will tempt us to give them misplaced importance. Our very freedom to live before God as responsible in ultimate perspective requires that we face, and face down, such temptations.

Life as such leads us to seek power, for how else can we carry out responsibilities? Yet the acquisition of power is so seductive that we can pursue it beyond measure—never enough power! We honor and glorify our little power supplies, and soon we are worshipping not God but ourselves. Actually, it is not ourselves that we worship: people who succumb to the need for power, paradoxically, are internally weak and need the power to give themselves substance and identity. Rather, we worship the sources of power: as Satan said, Jesus could have all power and authority to do good if only he would worship Satan who had the power and authority to give. Like most people seduced by Satan, we think we do it for ourselves when in fact we are serving a hidden master. Because the hidden master is the promise of power without regard for direction and measure, it is a chaos of blind forces, an unleashing of mindless spirits. If seduction by possessions leads to a panic of desire, seduction by power leads a pandemonium of powers beyond our control.

Life as such presents endless occasions to test God’s goodness, and to demand it. A deep paradox lies in the fact that because every bit of life comes from God, our gratitude for life itself should be infinite. At the same time with life come also the dangers, shortcomings, sufferings, and death that are as much a part as the beauty, love, opportunities, health, and new beginnings. If our idea of God is small, we expect God to run the world as our ideal parents would, with constant provision for every need and defense against every threat. Should our parents give us a stone instead of bread, we would say they don’t love us. To think that way is to test God. If our idea of God is as immense as Jesus’, however, we know that the grace of creation is enough, even with its dangers, pains, and death. The immense God’s love is proved in the Christ who teaches us to embrace the suffering and death in life as the way properly to embrace the divine immensity. Although we cannot help being tempted to test God with a demand for proof of love, we can nevertheless follow Jesus in setting that temptation aside. Maturity means that we take responsibility for engaging life as it comes, not as we wish God would make it.

I have two final points. First, when Jesus met Satan in the wilderness, he knew something was up. For us, temptations come more subtly, like greener grass to grazing sheep; and then before we know it we are enslaved to greed and power, and angry with the God who we think has not done enough for us lately. Be careful.

Second, although Jesus’ fasting might have made him hungry and weak in a physical sense, it made him strong in a spiritual sense, strong enough to withstand the temptation to become the kind of false messiah his people, his friends, and the Grand Inquisitor wanted. Although our Lenten fasting is a pale imitation of Jesus’ wilderness discipline, it is a strong help as we engage the life of temptation in order to love the God who gives it. May Lent be a proper wilderness for us all.

I pray then for a wilderness of life to expose our civilized cover-ups. Let us be as sheep without a shepherd who have to be alert to their own strayings: then we can give ourselves to a Shepherd who demands that we be free. I pray for a wilderness in which the devices and desires of our own hearts become fully known to us: then we can be free to bring them to perfection. I pray for a wilderness where God’s right is starkly before us: then, like Jesus, we can will the right or the fall with our own free souls. I pray for a wilderness where no sophistications becloud our doing what we ought and not doing what we ought not: then we can present ourselves to the One who calls us as disciples ready for instruction. I pray for a wilderness in which our sickness unto death is revealed and healed in fasting and penance: then we can give our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength to the One who leads us through death to resurrection. Church, we have entered into the Lenten Season as into a wilderness. May our temptations be seen as clearly as Jesus saw Satan and our responses be as faithful as Jesus’ own resolution. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Transfiguration

Sunday, February 22nd, 2004
Exodus 34:29-35

Psalm 99

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Luke 9:28-43

Moses, more than any other figure in the Hebrew Bible, was familiar with God. Others had their encounters with God, received a divine word or had visions, but only Moses made a habit of it. The tradition is that after his great meeting with God on Sinai, when God delivered the law of the covenant, Moses was so transfigured that his face shone in an uncanny way, and that this happened at his many subsequent meetings with God. He took to wearing a veil when he was with ordinary people because they were frightened of his transfigured radiance.

Paul’s interpretation of this in his second letter to the Corinthians, that we read, is extraordinarily problematic. His point there is that God’s Mosaic covenant with Israel is only temporary, and is replaced by the new covenant in Jesus Christ. Moses wears the veil, according to Paul, not to cover his own radiance, but to keep the Israelites from seeing the end of their own special covenant. Then Paul switches the metaphor to say that the veil covers the minds of the Jews even in his day so that, with hardened hearts, they do not understand Moses. With Jesus Christ, however, the veil is taken away and God’s glory can be seen as in a mirror. The Holy Spirit is God taking away the veil so that people step by step can be transformed or transfigured into the glory of the Lord.

This is one of those horrendous passages responsible for the canker of anti-Semitism that has infected Christianity, erupting in the horror of the Holocaust in the last century. Paul in this text says that the Mosaic covenant with the Jews is annulled by the new covenant in Jesus Christ, and that the Jews are blinded as by a veil, because of the hardness of their hearts, and do not see this. Christians very early concluded from this that the Jews were evil for not becoming Christians. The tradition that the Jews in their evil blindness killed Christ and should be punished for that has led to great wickedness. Martin Luther, for instance, bought this line of thinking, and so does Mel Gibson if you believe the previews of his Passion film to be released this week. Traces of this anti-Semitism are found in the Gospels, especially John, which were written after Paul’s time.

Paul was not consistent on this point, fortunately. In other writings, for instance the letter to the Romans, he does not say so plainly that Christianity supercedes Judaism—“supersessionism” is the name of the doctrine that Judaism is annulled with the advent of Christianity. Instead, Paul’s general Christology is something like this. In the Mosaic covenant God promised the people of Israel that they would be a nation of priests with access to God’s presence if they were clean and holy. The sacrifice rituals of the Mosaic covenant prescribed how to atone for sin and become clean, and worthy once again to approach God. In Christ, according to Paul, those promises were extended to the Gentiles. The sacrifice of Jesus did for all Gentiles what the Mosaic sacrifices did for the Israelites. The Jews had their law and Jesus extended to the Gentiles its power of making people worthy to approach God. Most Christian theologians now say that Christianity does not supercede Judaism but that both are equal, with Christianity serving the Gentiles. Biblical scholars have also made clear that it was the Romans, not the Jews, who crucified Jesus, and for political reasons, not for reasons of religious conflict. I concur in both of these points.

In our 2 Corinthians text, however, Paul contrasts the law of the Mosaic covenant, which is ineffectual he says, with the transfiguring Spirit that comes from God with the new covenant. This is a very dangerous thing for Christians to believe about Jews and themselves, and we have to look into the matter of transfiguration and the veil more deeply.

The story of Jesus’ transfiguration in Luke has parallels in Matthew and Mark, though not in John. According to all three, Jesus climbs a high mountain to pray with Peter, James, and John. The disciples are “weighed down with sleep,” so it probably is a night-time prayer vigil. But they don’t succumb to sleep. As if through a veil of sleepiness they see Jesus transfigured to shine like Moses, and joined by Moses himself and Elijah. This is clear, post-Pauline, evidence of the solidarity of Jesus and his Way with the recipient of Israel’s covenant, Moses, and its chief enforcer, Elijah. The disciples hear Jesus, Moses, and Elijah discussing Jesus’ immanent death in Jerusalem, although they do not understand it any better this time than when Jesus had told them about it before. (The other gospel accounts do not mention the topic of the conversation.) Suddenly the disciples come fully awake and Peter feels—what shall I say–a Methodist need to do something, so he proposes building three small huts or shrine buildings for the transfigured trio. No one takes him up on that. As Moses and Elijah move off, a terrifying holy cloud settles over them, another kind of veil, and God’s voice comes out of the cloud to say, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” They stay on the mountain all night and go down the next day.

One obvious function of this story recounted in three of the gospels is to equate Jesus with Israel’s heroes, Moses and Elijah, as all having divine blessing. The title “Son of God” probably did not have the metaphysical meaning in Luke’s gospel that it did for Paul who believed that Jesus was literally a divine being from heaven. Luke’s genealogy for Jesus, for instance, traces him back to “Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.” God’s power and work passes to the human beings he creates, and Jesus, like Moses and Elijah, was transfigured with extraordinary divine power. When Jesus and his disciples went back down the mountain next morning, Jesus boldly cured an epileptic victim that his disciples had not been able to help. He explained their failure as lack of faith, but it was a particular kind of faith that had unusual power: when Jesus healed, he felt power going out of him.

Now we can return to Paul’s 2 Corinthians text, setting aside its anti-Semitism, and attend to its basic point, namely, that Christians act with great boldness because they are being transformed, or transfigured, by the Holy Spirit. Listen to Paul’s triumphant words: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” Though not with the suddenness and completeness of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, we are proceeding, degree by degree, to be transfigured into the image of God’s glory that we see in the mirror. The image, of course, is Christ Jesus.

Having worked our way through this briar-patch of biblical texts, what does transfiguration mean for us? I suspect it does not mean an unusually shiny face. When my mother had a shiny face, she dashed off to powder her nose. The shine on Moses, Elijah, and Jesus was the way the people saw God’s power in them.

How do we embody God’s power in a transfigured way? One obvious way, according to our texts, is by helping people as Jesus helped the epileptic man. The point of that story, however, is not just the healing. Jesus was bold in healing where the disciples had been timid. How do we become bold in doing God’s work?

Paul said, we become bold by degrees through the working of the Holy Spirit. That’s a good thing, because most of us are far more timid even than Jesus’
unsuccessful disciples. Most of us wouldn’t dare to try to heal an epileptic. Of course, we now know a lot more about disease and do not put epilepsy or any other of the sicknesses that plague people down to possession by spirits. Without testing our boldness at all we can contribute to churches and hospitals, and to the United Way, to help cure the sick.

Many of the ills of our society, such as the blight of poverty, oppression of the weak, alienation of the marginalized, superstitious bigotry, the worship of greed, and the flattery of the powerful who bring death and destruction to weak nations that offend them, are conditions about which we can do something. In Jesus’ time it was not believed possible to change basic social structures and habits. Jesus took slavery and poverty to be permanent conditions and merely suggested mercy and charity as ways to ameliorate their worst effects. We now know that significant structural and habitual elements of society can be changed to bring about a more just state. Without testing our boldness we can simply vote the right way and be helpful.

Of great spiritual concern are the corrosive attitudes that corrupt even religion. When I was a small child, Jews were almost unknown in my part of town and were held in superstitious contempt. After World War II many Jews came into our community, and because we knew them, and because we had seen the murderous effects of anti-Semitism, we came to imagine them as like ourselves. When I went to high school, the schools in St. Louis were segregated because people could not imagine white and black people living and working together; Brown versus Board of Education changed all that my sophomore year and after many years we now can hardly imagine a racially exclusive school. When I was married it was unimaginable and illegal in many states for people of different races to marry, although four years later that was changed and now mixed-race couples are unexceptional. Now many people are all astir at the prospect of gay marriages because they cannot imagine them, having images only of heterosexual marriages. But with the thousands of gay weddings being performed in San Francisco these days, and the subsequent publicity, images of gay married couples are becoming commonplace. In time, not a long time, the current stir will seem foolish and the rules against gay marriage will seem as arbitrary and unfair as those against miscegenation and common schooling of the races. Without daring to test our boldness, we can wait for that to happen. It is possible to survive and do good as timid people.

Nevertheless, it is not possible to be a Christian for long and still be timid. Of course you are accepted in any condition of despair, depression, self-hate, or timidity. Just get on board the train when it slows by Sinner’s Grove. You can fall off as many times as you want, and always get back on whenever you want. But so long as you are on that Christian train, by degrees the Spirit will make you daring. Are you timid because you are sick of body or mind, and weak? The Spirit will bring you into a healing community in the company of those who will make you strong. Are you timid because you are poor, marginalized, oppressed, the victim of bigotry, a bigot yourself, greedy, power-mad? The Spirit will show you the riches of God’s creation in which every person is at the center, free, proud, and forgiven. Are you timid because you feel deprived of rights and dis-empowered? The Spirit will show you the power that is yours in Christ, that dwarfs all others and gives hope despite failure and frustration.

In the Christian community the Spirit shows us Jesus to make us bold in the face of disease, bold in the struggle against poverty, oppression, alienation, superstition, bigotry, greed, and power-madness, bold in the face of attitudes that corrode our religion and culture. Though often complicated, we usually can discern moral direction, and can become bolder. When our efforts are defeated, the Spirit shows us Jesus on the cross and we get bolder. When defeats threaten our lives and loves, the Spirit shows us Jesus rising in triumph and our boldness becomes holy. When we are shocked at the loneliness of life, the Spirit shows us Jesus with the Church and we are surrounded by witnesses. When we despair at the state of our souls, the Spirit shows us ourselves embraced by Jesus and we are transfigured to be bold to act decisively, bold to speak truthfully, bold to think freely, bold to sing heartily, bold to forgive, bold in mercy, bold in confession, bold in praise, bold in joy, bold in peace, bold in kindness, bold in faith, bold in hope, bold in love, and bold to pray: Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

What to Trust

Sunday, February 15th, 2004
Jeremiah 17:5-10

Psalm 62

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Luke 6:17:26

Few occasions exist in which it is a comfort to read Jeremiah. He was the ultimate complainer, though he had good company with most of the other prophets. He gave his name to the fire-and-brimstone sermons of early American history that we call “Jeremiads.” Nevertheless, today Jeremiah brings a word of comfort. For we live in a time of great wild forces over which we have little control, and we need something to trust. Once upon a time people could trust their families to keep them safe and economically supplied. For most of us, that is no more. In some poor countries such as Rwanda, even having a family sets you up to lose in clan warfare. Americans put great trust in education as an institution that trains and increases the power that individuals and communities might have. Yet in most American cities, including ours, the educational institutions are so unequal that the rich get farther ahead and so many of the poor just drop off the charts. Americans have trusted the federal government to support the poor during times of economic hardship, to protect the environment from destruction by greedy exploitation, to protect us from the ravages of war, especially unnecessary war, and to protect our honor among nations, yet on all these fronts things are getting worse fast. Americans have trusted themselves individually, with a fierce pioneering independence and yet, as Jeremiah said, the human heart is perverse. In sum, Jeremiah said, “cursed are those who trust in mere mortals.”

Jeremiah’s solution, of course, is that we should trust in God. Psalm 62 says: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.” Surely it is good Christian piety, Jewish and Muslim piety too for that matter, to trust only in God, knowing that human institutions and individuals are not trustworthy. Yet when we back away from the piety of this sentiment, the picture is not clear. Two items of unclarity are mixed together: how do we imagine the God in whom we should trust, and just what trust is about.

I use the verb “imagine” advisedly, because we think of such things as the God in whom we trust in terms of images. The Bible and the Christian traditions have many images of God. Last week I spoke about Isaiah’s vision of God as a huge man set on a kingly throne the hem of whose robe filled the Temple, a very anthropomorphic image, like that of God the warrior who leads Israel out of Egypt. Some Christians imagine God as a kindlier, gentler version of the Grand Old Man in the Sky, while others continue with Isaiah to imagine God as a judgmental king.

Counter-images of God in the Bible seem to be deliberate deconstructions of the anthropomorphic images. For instance, when God descends on Mount Sinai to deliver the commandments to Moses the finite environment almost breaks apart, not being able to contain the Holy One of Israel. The mountain shakes violently and a sound as of mighty trumpets rises and rises and rises. The foot of the mountain is roped off so people will not come close and be destroyed.

Then there are images of God as creator of the entire world, higher than the distinction between light and dark, form and chaos. John goes so far as to say that God is love, not a being who loves but love itself. The early Christian theologians quickly noted that God as creator transcends any distinctions, creates time and space, and is not to be represented in images or concepts except through symbols that don’t quite apply. The author of Colossians, for instance, says that Jesus Christ, the incarnate logos, is the first visible image of the invisible, that is unimaginable, God.

Without being frivolous, let me characterize this spectrum of images in the following way. Toward the anthropomorphic end of the spectrum we have a small God who can play roles as a finite character in the story of Israel, or in our own stories. Toward the transcendent end we have an immense God, where “immense” means not only very large but immeasurably so. “Immense” means not-measurable, hence not describable except in carefully controlled symbols. The Christian theological tradition by and large, and rightly to my mind, has said that the real God is the immense one, not the small one. The images of the anthropomorphic God are mere metaphors, and we should be very careful with them, however important they are in many areas of religious life; the images of the immense God are serious efforts to grapple with a profound mystery.

The meaning of “trust” in God is obviously correlated with the spectrum of images of God. When we imagine God in anthropomorphic ways, thinking of God as an agent separate from us, within time and space, and interacting with the rest of the world, playing roles in our histories and lives, trust means expecting God to do things for us. Sometimes we imagine God to behave like a righteous king governing history, rewarding the good and punishing the evil, with a little mercy thrown in for the penitent. The Bible tells the story of God covenanting with Israel. Other times we imagine God to be interacting with us like another person, responding to prayers like a good big person would. The news about these images of the small God is very bad, I fear. The good people are not always rewarded and the evil are not always punished. God’s promises to Israel as the chosen people, interpreted in strictly historical terms, have not been fulfilled—quite the opposite. David’s dynasty has not been kept intact. Jesus did not return in the time-frame the Bible laid down. Good people, even innocent children, sicken, suffer, and die, despite our deepest prayers. However much parts of the Bible suggests that some finite God runs the universe like a righteous kingdom, that is empirically false, and other parts of the Bible admit that. We cannot trust some small God to make us secure, to reward moral behavior, or to control history according to some preconceived and promised plan. Instead we ourselves need to work directly to make our own families, institutions, governments, personal characters, and skills trustworthy. However faulty they are now, they can be improved. This is our public and personal moral responsibility. And we cannot hope for more in the management of life as it is played out in time. If our only images are of a small God, trust is vain, and the only realistic course is practical atheism.

Trust in the immense God is a different matter. Here we relate to the eternal creator of space, time, and history, the creator of all things that can be conceived to act within the historical cosmos. The question of trust in the immense God is not about safety or success as measured by the temporal unfolding of our lives, by “the world,” as the New Testament calls it. Trust is about whether we are sustained so as to be fulfilled in relation to the immense God. Here is the very heart of the Christian gospel: within time we should expect troubles and crosses, as well as such benefits and satisfactions as we can secure by luck and our own limited means: within the eternity relating us to the immense God we are resurrected to a richer sense of life than temporal life affords. The cross and resurrection are the defining themes of the Christian Way. As we approach Lent and Easter we shall ponder these themes often.

What does it mean to trust the immense God? It means that God’s eternal creativity within which we already and always live, move, and have our being gives us the power to live rightly and in fulfillment before God. Nothing in the world can prevent that if we trust that creativity and use th
e power. To live rightly before God requires living justly: we always have the power to seek justice and commit our substance to it, even if justice cannot be achieved fully and every apparently just pattern also has its injustices. The world can prevent success but it cannot destroy our search for and commitment to justice, which is righteousness. To live rightly before God requires living with pious deference to every creature, appreciating its value regardless of how it might be reduced to merely instrumental value for human life: our ecological environments, our clans, and our primitive passions are all due the piety of deference even when we order them for higher purposes. The world cannot destroy our piety, though it is easily lost through our own thoughtlessness. To live rightly before God requires living with the faith that our own situation can be engaged with courage, no matter how painful, frustrating, ephemeral, and distasteful. We do not have to pretend to be rich, beautiful, and in Shangri La, nor to complain about being poor, bald, and cold in Boston. The world cannot destroy our faith to engage our actual lives, it can only make them vain by worldly standards. To live rightly before God requires organizing our lives with the hope that we can achieve something of value ultimately considered, something that makes a contribution to the divine life. The world might frustrate our hope to achieve what we want, but it cannot deny us the hope itself and its organizational power for our lives.

Righteousness, piety, faith, and hope are the virtues for living before god, and together they add up to something more, however fulfilling they are on their own: they add up to love. Love seeks the best for its object, appreciates its object for its own value, engages the object with full devotion, and organizes itself so as live with its object in a way that enhances the good of all. Any love that lacks such righteousness, pious appreciation, faithful engagement, or directing hope is deficient in obvious ways. No matter how poor and incompetent we are, by our very created existence we can live with righteousness in pursuit of justice, with piety in deference to the worth in each thing, with faith in our situation, with hope to live before God well, and with love in the image of God. The world cannot take these away.

Whom do we love? God and our neighbors, of course, and the whole created realm. The particular shape of loving neighbors comes from just who your neighbors are, especially those who are your enemies. There is no such thing as righteousness in general, only justice for these people, no piety in general, only deference to these things, no faith in general, only engagement with your situations, no hope in general, only your path with these pilgrims. Love is of the particulars.

God is the greatest particular, the singular creator of this crazy universe, who gives you your sunsets and flowers, your songs and dances, your successes and failures, your odd friends, your resolute enemies, your pains, your ills, and your death. God, your vastly fecund creator, gives you your life, threaded with others through a cloth of only unique strands that bears all risings and ceasings, all starts and stops, all joys and pains, all births and deaths. The immense God is not some small deity dedicated to doing only nice things. Loving the singular creator of your existence is hard. Loving your enemies is necessary practice for loving the God of Immensity, because whereas your enemies only might kill you, God surely will in the end.

To be a lover, loving our God, loving the persons, friends, and enemies of our neighborhood, and loving the whole of creation that we can know, is to be in concord and consent with God’s own act as creator. To love is to be in harmony with God, the completion and fulfillment of the divine creative act, and it is to add a harmony lacking when love fails. The whole of Christian discipline and practice is aimed to create communities and individuals that image God as creative lover. God gives us the power to love in the gift of our creation itself: no matter how much we suffer and lose by worldly standards, we always can love. That God creates us with the power to love no matter what, is what we can trust for the good of our very being, despite all the troubles of the world that crucify us.

One final thought. When we do trust the God of Immensity and move on toward perfection in love, the knots and tangles of our fights with life fall away and the powers of divine fecundity move through us like music. We move with the flow of creation rather than against it and have more patience for righteousness, more perception for piety, more courage for faith, more energy for hope, and more wild passion for love. Although our lives will still be filled with troubles as well as joys, and have many dry times, trusting God and loving in consent to creation we shall not be like “a shrub in the desert” or “live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.” We “shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” Trust our immense God, our creator and eternal home, and despite everything you will have abundant life here and now. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Calling and Sending

Sunday, February 8th, 2004
Isaiah 6:1-8

Psalm 138

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Luke 5:1-11

Our texts from Isaiah and Luke are two of the famous calling and sending passages in scripture. One thinks also of the calling of Moses at the burning bush and the calling of Paul on the road to Damascus. In a vision Isaiah was called into the divine throne room, so vast that the whole of Solomon’s temple was the floor level, completely filled with the hem of God’s robe. God was attended by flying seraphim and spoke directly to Isaiah himself. Isaiah saw God directly, and was commissioned to deliver God’s message to the people.

Luke’s text tells of Jesus calling Peter, James, and John at the seaside to be his disciples and then to go out in the world as apostles of his Way. I don’t know whether Peter and the others really were fishermen, or whether the whole scene is an elaborate set-up for the wonderful line: “from now on you will be catching people,” or as the older familiar translation had it, “you shall be fishers of men.” The Gospel of John places the calling of Peter, James and John in a suburb of Jerusalem, and puts the incident of Jesus telling them where to cast their nets for an overwhelming catch in a post-resurrection appearance. At any rate, when the disciples were called, they left everything and their lives were transformed with a mission, as was Isaiah.

These two texts have something special in common. Both Isaiah and Peter were totally thunderstruck at the divine glory, something Peter recognized only when he saw the miraculous catch of fish. The first response of both of them was to bewail their own sin. Isaiah said, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” Remember the biblical tradition that you cannot see God and live. (Exodus 33:20) Peter fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” John Calvin, the great reformer and theologian, began his Institutes of the Christian Religion with the observation that if you reflect on the glory of God, your attention immediately will be called to the fallen estate of human beings. And if you begin by considering the wretchedness of the human soul, your attention immediately will be drawn by contrast to the divine glory.

In the cases of Isaiah and the disciples, the divine encounter revealed to them not only God, but also their own true identity as sinners. We don’t know whether this was the first time they realized their sinful identity—I rather doubt it because they were all quick to identify themselves accurately before God. The point, however, is that confrontation with divinity immediately delivers the imperative to present yourself honestly before God. In doing so, you may find out who you really are if you don’t know already.

The great twentieth century theologian, Paul Tillich, said that everyone has an ultimate concern. The object of our ultimate concern ought to be God, of course, although most of us put other things first—our comfort, money, power, the needs of our ego. I think that Tillich was wrong in his claim that everyone has an actual ultimate concern, however misguided. Don’t we all know people who aren’t concerned about anything in an ultimate sense? Don’t we have friends and acquaintances that flit from one concern to another, taking nothing very seriously? Don’t we know people who are everlastingly “finding” themselves and, then not liking much what they find, abandon that identity and hunt for another? Doesn’t the fact that we live in a consumerist society teach us subliminally to be concerned only about the next acquisition, which, as soon as we have acquired it, is not enough? We ourselves, of course, you and I, the Marsh Chapel crowd, are indeed concerned to acquire deep meaning in life, but many of those other people are concerned only with the acquisition of the next thing. Surely you and I have ultimate concerns: but most of those others don’t. We live in a society of proximate concerns. The passionate commitment to proximate concerns, to the acquisitions and little things, is a flight from the terrors of ultimate life.

The reason Paul Tillich believed, however naively, that everyone has an ultimate concern is that everyone, he said, is grounded by and in touch with the ultimate. Even when we don’t know what the ultimate is, and flit from one thing to another, the grounding presence of God in our lives drives us, he thought, to a passionate search for something about which it would be worth being ultimately concerned. He followed St. Augustine in understanding the depths of each human soul to reach into the vastness of God; Augustine said that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Augustine said his soul was restless until it finds its rest in God, because that is its natural place (see Augustine’s Confessions). In fact, the restlessness of Augustine’s soul was the divinity in the soul seeking its proper place. But Augustine himself from his youth was a driven man, earnestly seeking something to love ultimately. When he was young, he said, he was in love with love itself, with the idea of being a lover, and only as he tried out things to love, people and religions, did he mature. His conversion to Christianity was the choice of the right way of life, the Christian, through which he could acknowledge his soul’s true home in God, and this was the fulfillment of his ultimate concern. Not many of us are like Augustine, with the passion of ultimacy driving us from our earliest days. Most of us don’t take anything with ultimate seriousness. Or should I say, although you and I surely are ultimately serious, most of the others are not.

I agree with Tillich and Augustine that God lies deep in our souls. But we, or those others rather, are asleep to that divinity. People are under a deep anaesthesia to those frantic stirrings of ultimacy that drove the saints before they encountered God’s call. Hence we need a shocking encounter with the ultimate to wake us up. We don’t know much about Isaiah or Peter before their encounters with God and their special calls. They seem to have been successful, functional people. The events of their callings, however, brought them face to face with the ultimate and they were changed people.

Alas, I doubt that we would be much impressed with the ultimate encounters Isaiah and Peter had. If a contemporary person were to experience Isaiah’s vision of God in the throne room with the flying seraphim the likely response would not be “woe is me” but “way cool—is this a video projection or was there something in those brownies?” The same with Peter’s inference from the huge catch of fish that Jesus was the Lord whom the unclean could not approach: we would treat it as a scientific question about how Jesus knew where the fish were. Neither Isaiah’s vision nor Jesus’ dramatic catch would give us “ontological shock,” as Tillich called it, the shock of encountering something ultimate when we had thought only proximately important things were there.

If we have the ontological shock of encountering God, it might be in some sublimely beautiful thing, a sunset, a song, or a smile that reduces us to tears. More commonly we come up against ultimacy when suddenly faced with the ruination of our career, or the death of someone we love, or the immanent prospect of our own death. Or maybe we stumble on ultimacy not in external events but in a sudden recognition of our own abject failing, when the ultimate appears as a divine judge. Or maybe we find God as a creative power deep within our soul that we had not recognized before, a power wild and perpendicular to whom
we thought we were. But if we are asleep, we defend ourselves against the ontological shock of the ultimate in front of us. We do not attend carefully to what is beautiful. We deny or trivialize death. We lie to ourselves about our failings, always saying we can and will do better. And we tame the God within with the ropes of conventional expectations. I say, my friends, that we need to take down these defenses and wake up to ultimate reality. Creation abounds with opportunities for the divine encounter.

The price we pay for such an encounter, however, is the humbling admission of our own identity. No matter how good we are in comparative terms, in absolute terms we are bums. Please don’t think that I am demeaning human virtues, of which you and I have many even if those others don’t do so well. It’s just that with us the virtues are so mixed with harms and vices that our identity is ambiguous, a mixture of good and bad. The encounter with the divine does not make us merely lament our sorry state. It makes us admit that state, to be honest. To test yourself for spiritual honesty, imagine yourself presented before God who sees and knows all things, face to face (as I quoted Paul last week). To live before God is to live naked of any excuses and cover-ups. Encountering God strips us naked of all the shams by which we try to present a good face to the world or to ourselves. Even a sunset, observed with ultimate seriousness, does that.

Sometimes it seems to work the other way. Without any conscious encounter with God or anything ultimate, we interrogate ourselves about our personal identity and find nothing we like. We admit to ourselves our ambiguous morality, our self-deceptions, our flights from seriousness into a round of petty proximate concerns. We had been so proud of ourselves, so much in love with ourselves, that when we come to the shocking and unwelcome admission of moral vacuity we turn against ourselves with the condemnation and spiteful hate of a spurned lover. For a while we can take perverse pleasure in the ironic righteousness of our self-condemnation, but sooner or later that evaporates and we have just despair. No hope. Nothing. Nothing worthwhile is in the soul at all. Abandon hope, all ye who enter honest into the soul. But if you admit to absolute despair you will have found God. What is it that propels this internal examination but ultimate concern itself? Honesty that goes to the end finds the object of ultimate concern, the God whose creative power rushes through us like a mighty river. It’s like John Calvin said: starting without God but with only the human soul we immediately find God.

The result of the divine encounter and the turn to absolute honesty is a mission, a meaning for life. When Isaiah and Peter came to know who they were, they knew what they had to do. Of course they didn’t know the details. God had to instruct Isaiah what to say, and Jesus had to shape the ministries of those who gave up their nets to follow him. Nevertheless, Isaiah and the disciples knew who they were relative to God, to the ultimate. Whatever confusions they later had, and the disciples had many, they lived through those confusions before God. They kept their proximate concerns in perspective, and lived for those things that were of ultimate importance.

Let me tell you now that we all have been called. The simple gospel is enough for that. We have a mission to live before God as lovers, to create communities and human relationships that make love possible, and to pursue careers whose real meanings, whatever the job, is to extend Jesus’ ministry of recreating the world in love. The exact content of your life and mine is dictated by the particular contexts in which each of us lives before God. We each must discern what our destiny of living in ultimate perspective is, and that depends a lot on the needs of the world around us. We are thrown into our particular situation and need to learn how to live ultimately in that world. The discernment of spirits, so as to detect the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that identifies precisely what is ultimate in our lives, is a gift devoutly to be prayed for.

Before that prayer for discernment, however, is my fervent prayer for you today, that you encounter the God who shows you who you really are, who allows you to shuffle off your petty identity and take up an identity powered by ultimacy. You can fly to sublime beauty and God is there. You can suffer deep tragedy and God is there. You can sink to despair and God is there. You can encounter the wild creativity of our cosmos in the deepest recesses of your heart and God is there. I invite you to wake up to the divinity that is before and behind you, to your right and left, above and below, and deep within. When you come awake, you will know who you are and will be called to what to do. You will bear God’s creative love in the shape and substance of your life. Without the resonance of ultimacy your life is as a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. With the ontological shock of the divine face to face comes honest life before God and an ultimate direction for life. Come, Holy Spirit, and reveal yourself, and us. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Love and the Spirit

Sunday, February 1st, 2004
Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm 71:1-6

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Luke 4:21-30

First Corinthians 13 is one of the most lyrical passages in all of scripture, equal to the 23rd Psalm as a beloved text etched in the memory of Christians. To hear it afresh we must slightly dislocate it. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, it comes immediately after a discussion of spiritual gifts such as preaching, teaching ,prophecy, faith, and speaking in tongues. Not only does Paul say that love is a more excellent way than all those other gifts, he says that without love, speaking in tongues is just noise. Without love, prophetic powers, mystical understanding, and theological knowledge are nothing. Faith powerful enough to move mountains is nothing without love. Even sacrificing all one’s worldly goods, and giving one’s life in martyrdom, gain nothing without love.

What astonishing logic! When Paul talked about the other spiritual gifts, he ranked them. Speaking in tongues is good, but not of much use unless someone else has the gift of interpreting them, which is a higher gift. Helping others is even a higher spiritual gift, but not as good as teaching, having a prophetic voice, or preaching in an apostolic way. Faith and hope are at the top of the ranking of spiritual gifts along with love, and love is the greatest. Nevertheless, none of those other spiritual virtues count for anything unless one also has love. Although we might struggle for those other virtues all our lives, attempt to teach them to our children, and take joy in slow steps forward, Paul says they do not count without love. Love has a unique place in Christian holiness, as the condition that makes all the other spiritual gifts or virtues worth having.

The beauty of 1 Corinthians 13 therefore masks terrifying news. For love, so seemingly humble, is so very difficult. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Who can live up to this? Aren’t we all sometimes impatient, sometimes unkind? Don’t we all have limits to what we can endure? Which of us is perfect in this love, even when described in Paul’s humble way?

When 1 Corinthians 13 is used at weddings, most people interpret it as setting forth an ideal for love. This is the ideal to which the newly-weds aspire, and the parental generation chuckles because they know that the bliss of the nuptual day will be exchanged for tough times that try patience, kindness, and all the other aspects of love. The wedding party prays that the couple will grow into love that can carry them through life’s difficulties, and this is all to the good. Paul’s point, however, is that, regardless of being a future ideal, only actual love can make the other virtues count. Having love as an ideal, not a reality, is not enough.

Paul’s reasoning in this chapter is that of all the gifts and virtues, only love is self-sufficient and never ends. Only love is eternal. When prophecies are fulfilled, we don’t need them any more. Speaking in tongues ceases. Whereas now our knowledge is partial, when it is complete in the knowledge of God, we will not need our partial knowledge. Our knowledge of God will be complete when we know God as God knows us, fully, face to face, not a glancing reflection in a mirror. That kind of knowledge is full love. According to Paul, love alone of all the spiritual gifts and virtues is for its own sake, not for the sake of something else. All the other gifts and virtues are good because they are useful for something else. Love is for nothing else: it is simply the way God is God and the way we should live before God.

Some of you know than I like to sing and have an “old ruined voice” like the late Johnny Cash. One of my favorite pieces, even sweeter than Johnny Cash’s own songs, is Johannes Brahms’ song cycle, Four Serious Songs. The first song of the four is on a text from Ecclesiastes that says, in an English translation of Brahms’ adaptation: “One thing befalleth the beasts and the sons of men; the beast must die, the man dieth also, yea both must die. To beast and man one breath is given, for all things are but vanity. They go all to the self-same place, for they all are of the dust, and to dust they return. Who knoweth if a man’s spirit goeth upwards? And who knowedth if the spirit of the beast goeth downward to the earth? Therefore I perceive there is no better thing than for a man to rejoice in his own works, for that is his portion . . . ” The second song, also from Ecclesiastes, says: “So I returned and did consider all the oppressions done under the sun. And there was weeping, weeping and wailing, wailing of those that were oppressed, and had no comfort, for with their oppressors there was power, so that no one came to comfort them. Then did I praise the dead which are already dead, yea, more than the living which still in life do linger. Yea, he that is not is better than dead or living, for he doth not know of the evil that is wrought forever on earth.” The third song, from the apocryphal book of Sirach, laments: “O death, O death, how bitter art thou unto him that dwelleth in peace, to him that hath joy in his possessions, and liveth free from trouble, to him whose ways are prosperous in all things, to him that still may eat. O death, O death, how bitter, how bitter art thou. O death, how welcome thy call to him that is in want and whose strength doth fail him, and whose life is full of cares, who hath nothing to hope for, and cannot look for relief. O death, O death, how welcome art thou, how welcome is thy call.” Although those texts might have an exaggerated pessimism, they also have a great realism. Why does life seem meaningless? Why is there such evil? Why is death cruel to the happy and a release for the wretched? The fourth Serious Song, as you must have guessed, is our 1 Corinthian text, the text that says love is not for something other than itself, that it is the highest gift and never ends.

Brahms’ point in the fourth song is not to reverse the burden of the previous three, that life has no transcendent meaning, that evil is pervasive, and that death ruins the happy and is the best the wretched can hope for. Brahms’ point is that those things are transient and are transformed when taken up into the greater reality created by love. Love gives purpose to life that might have no purpose itself. Love lets us bear the evil that comes with God’s creation. Love lets us triumph over death that is premature and over a miserable life for which death is a welcome blessing.

Brahms’ fourth song begins with a wild dance of upsetting rhythms, crashing chords, and impossible leaps, like real life, interrupted by lyrical phrases longing for love; that life’s greatest virtues count for nothing without love is a madness of noise, a cacophony of sounds. The slow middle section reflects on now seeing through a glass darkly and looking forward to then seeing face to face; the sinuous melody is like the
sound of a distant hunting horn, while underneath the piano builds a hidden beat of triplets, the divine energy. The last section begins like the first but with small changes brings the cacophony to transcendent harmony; it connects heaven and earth with more than octave leaps in a paean to faith, hope, and love. A coda brings the song home with the melody and rolling triplets of the middle section, now made harmonically more complex, to say that the greatest of these is love. I want to sing this love song for you, counting on you to remember that I am merely a preacher bringing the message of love in a vocal medium, not a certified singer like our choristers. That the song is too high for me is like the fact that such love is also too high for me. [sing]

Now the reason love fills eternity is that God is love, as John says. The best way to understand creation is as the creativity of love that makes lovely things for their own sake. God’s loving presence with each of us in our inmost heart is the Holy Spirit loving. By the Holy Spirit we can love God. By the Holy Spirit we can love our neighbors. The Holy Spirit is God creating us to be lovers. When we search our souls and find little love of God and neighbors, this means that we must awaken to the Spirit within us. When we search our communities and find little love of God and neighbors, this means we must awaken to the Spirit among us. In one sense it is vain to attempt to call down the Holy Spirit or to understand its workings through the cosmos. But in another sense the Holy Spirit is the fount of our very existence as individuals and communities. The creative Spirit is God loving us into existence. That we don’t see this much of the time is because we, not the Spirit, are asleep. So I call upon us all to wake up to the Spirit of love, the power of creative impulse, the deep-seated sympathy that makes our hearts flip-flop at the sight of danger or suffering for others. We can awaken to the loving power of God pounding like triplets about to break out in new life and justice. So life has no meaning on its own terms: life filled with love is lived in God. So evil is inevitable and rampant: evil endured in love is transfigured to victory in God. So death cuts short the happy and consoles only the wretched: love for however long a life is part of the eternal love in God’s life.

Forget the impatience of your love and wake up to the patience of God’s love. Slough off the unkindness of your love and put on the cosmic kindness of God’s love. Don’t let your love be envious, you already possess all things in God. Your love need not boast because it already reflects the glory of creation. Abandon the arrogance of your love, for God’s love that you share humbles itself to slip beneath the claws of meaninglessness, evil, and death. If your love insists on its own way, don’t worry because God’s love of which yours is part always gets its way. If your love is irritable or resentful, don’t worry, you also have God’s love that is joyful and all-giving. If you sometimes rejoice in wrongdoing, don’t worry, for even that flawed love awakens the longing for God’s truth in love. When we are awake to the true Spirit of God’s love in creation, it does not matter that our love does not bear all things: God’s love bears all things. Though our love cannot believe all things, God’s love set the truth to be believed face to face. Though our love’s hope is faint, God’s love sounds all Heaven’s trumpets. God’s love is the beginning of creation and its end. Between Alpha and Omega God’s love pulses the Holy Spirit through our lives, setting the weakest, most flawed, perverse, and self-defeating of our faint versions of love within the fullness of God’s love. Praise God, that to have even the most pitiful and wretched impulse of love is better than perfect faith, hope, or any other spiritual gift with no love, for it participates in the being of God. If we have any love at all, we live within the whole of God’s perfect love that draws us toward the perfection of creation. Come Holy Spirit, love divine. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville