Archive for March, 2004

A House Filled with Fragrance

Sunday, March 28th, 2004
Isaiah 43:16-21

Psalm 126

Philippians 3:4b-14

John 12:1-8

On this last Sunday in Lent, the gospel switches from Luke, which we have read the previous Lenten Sundays, to John. John’s Gospel depicts Jesus as much more weird than the pictures of him in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. As we reflect upon this dinner party recounted by our text, I ask that you keep uppermost in your minds the fragrance of the perfume that filled the house. Perhaps you have not thought of perfume as a Lenten theme, but it is.

The dinner party at which Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume took place in the house she shared with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus, on the night before his Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. They lived in Bethany, a Jerusalem suburb. As John tells the story, Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead was what brought him to the attention of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing council that reported to the Roman governor, who then was Pontius Pilate. Because many people were coming to believe in Jesus, at least as a miracle worker and possible messiah, the Sanhedrin feared that the Romans would take this to be rebellion and destroy the temple and city. Indeed a rebellion did take place about forty years later and the Romans did exactly what the Sanhedrin feared. The Sanhedrin resolved to kill Jesus in order to stay in the Romans’ good graces, according to John’s Gospel, and Jesus somehow knew about this. After raising Lazarus he had gone into hiding with his disciples in the town of Ephraim near the wilderness. But then as the Passover approached, he returned with his retinue to the Jerusalem area, knowing that the authorities were looking for him. The dinner party described in our text must have been a semi-public affair, and the next day Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, which was a royal gesture. Jesus did not need prophetic powers to predict his own death, and he was inviting the authorities to come and get him. John’s account of Jesus’ arrest the following Thursday evening depicts Jesus as boldly approaching the police who had come to arrest him and asking them who they were looking for. When they said, “Jesus,” he responded, “I am he.” And Jesus seemed to be in control of everything that happened after that, fulfilling the role he understood God to have for him.

Who was this Jesus, who seemed to direct the drama of his own death? John’s gospel differs from the others in answering this question. For one thing, according to John, Jesus at this point was a mature man, a little short of fifty years old, not a young man of thirty. For another, John’s Jesus was a theologian who spoke from a God’s-eye view, not a prophet who dispensed wisdom. But most important for John, Jesus was the incarnation of the Logos, that fundamental divine structure through which everything that is made is made, as the Gospel’s prologue says. Not many preachers try to say what this means. Nevertheless, precisely because Christians believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God as Logos, it is important to think this through. Those of you, dearly beloved, who think sermons should be only uplifting stories have my permission to study your bulletin for a few minutes while I speak about the philosophical ideas involved in identifying this Jesus as the incarnation of God. The Gospel of John insists on this approach.

In the first century Jewish and Greek thinkers, and then Christian ones, often believed that the transcendent High God creates the world through a medium of transcendental structures, sometimes called Sophia, or Wisdom, sometimes Logos, which can be translated “Word” but also “Logic”. John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” John said “And the Logos became flesh and lived among us,” and he identified this with Jesus. The Christian doctrine of incarnation is that the Logos became flesh in Jesus. Ancient philosophy had several theories about what this transcendental structure of reality is, none of which can be taken over simply as it was today. We need a theory of the Logos for our own time that coordinates with our science and philosophy, if we are to understand Jesus as the incarnation of God.

Permit me to offer the following philosophical reflections as an hypothesis about the Logos. We have to consider what it means to be a thing: that’s very abstract, the nature of a thing as such. To be a thing is to be a harmony of elements, some of which relate the thing to other things, others of which give the thing its uniqueness and own-being. As a harmony, each thing has a form or pattern; each harmony has components that are integrated in the form or pattern; each harmony has some existential location with its own place and dates relative to other things; and each harmony has whatever value is achieved by having its particular components integrated by its particular pattern in its particular spatio-temporal location. The Logos, I suggest, then consists of the elements of harmony that are universal to every thing, namely relational and unique features expressed in form, components formed, existential location, and value. Every thing is a harmony with these elements: form, components formed, existential location, and value. This Logos is in protons and quarks, mountains and seas, astro-physical entanglements, the clash of civilizations, and the subtle nuances of human life. It constitutes the connections of things as well as their differences.

Human beings are special cases. Protons, stones, and super-novas simply have the forms, components, existential locations and values that they do, all determined by law or chance. But we human beings have some control over what we do and become. For us, it is a problem to have the right form for our personal and social lives: we call that problem justice or righteousness. For us, it is a problem how to relate to the components of our lives that we integrate with our formal patterns; do we regard those components only according their instrumental roles in our humanly important patterns, or do we need also to regard them with deference or piety for their worth in themselves? Ecological concerns have shown us that things in the world are not to be regarded only in terms of how they fit the patterns of human life, but also in terms of their own careers and values. Natural piety toward the components of our patterns is a problem. For us, although we are thrown by chance, as it were, into our place and time, it is a problem whether to engage the issues of our existential location or to devise one or another form of escape or denial. This is the problem of faith. For us, the value we achieve is not automatic but results in part from what we choose in concert with others. So with regard to value, we live in hope. Because of our freedom, human form has the ideals of justice, components of our harmonies have the status of being objects of piety, existential location needs to be engaged in faith, and the achievement of value defines our religious hope. Although it is too complex to argue today, the integration of the elements in each harmony, in its human embodiment, is love: justice, piety, faith, and hope add up to love. Love that misses any of these elements is deficient.

Now the simple human story is that we have sinned, which means that we are deficient in one, some, or all of justice, piety, faith, hope, and love. We live, and seem to be bound to live, with the wrong form, with impious abuse of the components of our live
s, with denial of our existential responsibilities, and with despair at achieving a value to be recognized in ultimate perspective. Our love is deficient. This is to be lost.

The incarnation is that Jesus comes with the right form, the right piety, the right faith, the right hope, and the right love. Jesus shows us how to be just in a world of moral ambiguity, how to be pious when tempted to turn stones to bread, how to be faithful when the crucifiers gather, how to have hope when God seems absent, and how to love when it seems our only course is to be selfish. Jesus incarnates the Logos in human form, and is the Light for us. John’s Gospel is all about this. It begins with the prologue I quoted about incarnation, and continues with Jesus calling his disciples and training them to understand how to live justly, with deference, engaging their times, hoping when defeat seems certain, and most of all loving. The drama of his raising of Lazarus, receiving the death sentence, this party with his friends, the triumphal confrontation with his foes, the arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection are concrete and singular demonstrations of the justice, piety, faith, hope, and love that set us free. His last long conversation with the disciples, on the Thursday after our text’s party, began with his washing their feet and ended with speaking about love. Jesus gathered them for the crucifixion and resurrection, and finally bid farewell by re-establishing his friendship with Peter who had betrayed him, enjoining Peter to feed his sheep. Throughout John’s account, Jesus, the Logos incarnate in human flesh, is in charge and leads the disciples and us into a new reality with God, the reality of redeemed sinners in a community of love.

The house is filled with a fragrance that brings all this to mind, from the first party at the wedding in Cana to the wake that never occurs at which Jesus would be anointed for the last time with that pure nard. Smell is the sense of memory. The fragrance of the perfume is such a delight that stingy Judas thinks it could be sold for a great price that would help the poor. The fragrance also covers the stench of death, and Jesus says we are to remember his death. The poor are always with us, but if we remember Jesus we will have the water that quenches all thirst, the bread that is true life, the abundance that is God’s kingdom. The whole of the incarnation in our friend and mentor Jesus, with its profound mystery that goes far beyond anything I have said today, is called to mind in the fragrance that fills the house. Jesus blessed Mary’s extravagance and the loveliness of the perfume because this was the last time they would all be together, and from this party they would have to remember how to interpret the wild events that were about to transpire.

As we conclude Lent this year, I ask that you attend to the fragrance of holiness that brings the incarnate Lord into our midst. We live in our own houses, with our own problems, not in the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. But if we inhale attentively, we can smell that perfume. Its fragrance will remind us that the Christ in our midst is the one who loves us and teaches us to love, with justice, piety, faith, and hope. This is not merely a clever person, but one in whom the Logos structures of creation dwell in their fullness. Because we can come into Jesus’ circle of love, we too can have his justice, piety, faith, and hope, indeed his love, that brings him to the Father. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Prodigal People and the New Creation

Sunday, March 21st, 2004
Joshua 5:9-12

Psalm 32

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Christians are supposed to be new creations in Christ, according to St. Paul. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” The theme of new creation in fact pervades the New Testament, which itself is named “New Testament” to indicate this. John’s Gospel begins with the phrase, “In the beginning was the word,” which echoes the original creation account in Genesis. In the Genesis account, in the beginning were the roiling water, the divine wind or spirit, and then the divine word creating order. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have all those elements in their accounts of Jesus’ baptism. Christians have a new covenant, occasioned by Jesus. Jesus brings us a new commandment, according to John, to love one another as he has loved us. According to the book of Revelation, Christians live in anticipation of the New Jerusalem. Part of the meaning of Lent is the preparation of new members of the Christian community who will be received, some of them with baptism, at the Easter Vigil service. Entrance into the Christian community is a new life. Novelty is everywhere in Christian thinking.

Nevertheless, novelty is not everything, despite Paul’s saying that “everything has become new.” Christ is the Alpha as well as Omega. The new creation does not erase the old one and start over. Somehow it is a fulfillment of the old creation, or a redirection of it. If we think of the old creation as something to be rejected, we will lead ourselves straight into anti-Semitism, a path St. Paul sometimes took. In fact, the Christian orientation to novelty is significant because it is an imitation, a repetition, a bringing to completion, of God’s novelty in the first creation.

What can all this mean for us today with our scientific cosmology of the created order? In a strict sense, there is only one creation, the creation of the entire cosmos that includes space and time. I mentioned last week how vast this is. Because space and time themselves are created, everything within space and time is a creature. God can create anything our science and arts can discover to be real; there can be no conflict between scientific discovery and a theology of creation because science only discovers what God creates. We play out our lives within spatial and temporal history. From our temporal position now, the past is over and fixed and the future is open to many possibilities, some of which depend on us. Each moment of our temporal lives, we are local parts of God’s creative act. God’s creative act is not temporal but eternal, not in time and space but creative of them. Yet each thing within time and space is the flourishing of God’s creative act at that moment and place. As I say, in a strict sense, there is only one creation, and it is unfolding now.

How can we need a new creation, then, and how is such a thing even possible? How can we make sense of the biblical symbols of novelty within the time that is the product of the original and only creation? The answer lies in the complexity of human freedom, which the Bible symbolizes in its stories of the fall. Stars, stones, and eddies of expanding gasses are dumb creatures. They simply are what they are. Human beings learn language and, with that, self-consciousness. We take on identities in relation to society and the environment. We have orientations that guide our actions. Our self-consciousness, identities, and orientations are all in part of our own invention. We can know that the future can be actualized in many different ways and that those ways have different values. Since we can, in part, control what happens, it is our responsibility to actualize the better future. The qualities of our choices determine our own moral character. This freedom is an astonishingly complex affair, and is what sets us in worth above stars, stones, and expanding gasses.

Yet it is possible to abuse that freedom, all the while being creatures of God unfolding our lives day by day. Not only can we make wrong moral choices, we can choose to deny our created status and the relation to God this implies in any number of ways. In simple cases we merely focus too much on ourselves and lose sight of the larger connections of creation that might be affected by our actions. We forget about gratitude to the God who creates us in conjunction with the rest of the world. In more complicated ways we reject the world God gives us as unsatisfying, or filled with too much pain. Sometimes we double over this rejection so that we condemn ourselves for rejecting God, and then we get pretty close to despair. Such despair is really a perverse form of pride because we presume for ourselves God’s position to judge us. At any rate, what might have begun as simple selfishness soon, and universally, becomes a kind of bondage to the powers of the world to which we sell our souls to keep ourselves afloat. Those powers, such as money, sex, pleasure, control, aesthetic enjoyment, freedom, moral projects, and the like are all created and are all good in themselves. Yet they can become ropes that bind us and ruin our freedom.

To fulfill our human nature as created beings we are not only dumb creatures like stones. We need to exercise our freedom rightly to be in gratitude and harmony with the Creator and the created order. When that freedom has been perverted and we are in bondage, that’s when we need a new creation to untangle and fulfill the fundamental creation. The Christian life is that new creation of untangled people on the way to the fulfillment of sanctification. Individually Christians are new creatures, and collectively the Church is the corporate life of the new creation.

How should we interpret the parable of the Prodigal Son in this regard? The most obvious interpretation is that the Prodigal stands for the people who have become tangled and lost within the first creation. Like the Prodigal, people have slipped to selfishness and perhaps a youthful excitement about living freely on their own, squandering their inheritance, until they are starving. Then in desperation they turn to God who receives them back. We can read the redemptive process in Jesus as the way by which God receives them back. And we can rejoice at Jesus’ point in the parable that the Father’s love itself is a joy at the Prodigal’s return and an acceptance without rancor.

Have we not ourselves played the Prodigal’s part sometimes in our lives, perhaps in the distant past, perhaps rather frequently, perhaps even now? I doubt that I speak only for myself. As for myself I am actually an Elder Brother, prototypically so. I worked hard, obeyed my parents, did well in school, and became a professional academic and a professional minister in my early twenties. My prodigal younger brother flunked out of four high schools before graduating from the fifth, a military academy. He was in his mid-thirties before he was able to make a marriage stick, and to return to middle-class respectability and a loving family. He never returned to religion, and died in his fifties from lung cancer caused by prodigious smoking. Unlike the Elder Brother in Jesus’ parable, I never resented his success or respectability later in life. But I did resent the fact that he always had the greater share of our parents’ attention, mainly because he gave them so much more to worry about. The most ironic part of our relation was that I envied him his prodigality, his capacity to play music and not worry about making a living, his extravagant spending of what money he had and his charm in cadging more from family and friends, his love of engaging wild and diverse groups of peopl
e inside and outside his family, so often as if at a party. I envied also the fact that toward the end of his life he changed from being a “taker” to being a “giver,” with prodigal generosity. By contrast I have always been something of a giver, but grudgingly, and always also a taker, but with embarrassment and impatience at not being self-sufficient. Through my envy I too am a prodigal son, but a failed one. In the symbolic sense, I’ve never left the Father’s house, but I’ve spent a lot of time around the front door, sometimes inside and sometimes out, and have never expected a party when I go back in. Am I wrong in thinking that most people are like my brother or me, or some combination of the two?

The point of Jesus’ parable is that both brothers need reconciliation with their Father, with God, as the parable has it. The Prodigal Son turned from his Father to seek freedom and fun. The Elder Son worked for his Father, but obviously was not turned toward him in the gratitude and joy appropriate for creatures of God. If the Elder Son had been turned to his Father, he would have seen and loved the Father’s generosity to both sons. Instead the Elder Son also turned away from his Father to follow his prodigal brother with envy and resentment. The brothers respectively exhibited two common forms of alienation from God and the bounty of creation, and I fear many other forms of alienation exist as well.

The Christian message is that knowing Jesus can turn all these forms of alienation around so that any individual whatsoever can be reconciled to God the Creator. Our petty selfishness that puts us in bondage to the allures of worldly satisfaction, the extravagant selfishness of the Prodigal’s sort as well as the meaner selfishness of the Elder Brother, can be turned by the encounter with Jesus to hunger for God and to revel in God’s generosity no matter how painful our lives or how bound up our spirits have been.

Jesus was the new being who was subject to all the ambiguities and pains of life, surrounded by poor students, abandoned by them when the showdown came, crucified naked and bleeding in front of his mother, and yet never was alienated from God his creator. From the beginning he was faithful and in love with God, confident that God loved him, and at the end he commended to God his battered but purified spirit. His disciples came to understand this, and they too, in imitation of him, gained the power to become new beings. They taught their disciples, and on down the long line of redeemed sinners the new being comes to us. We too can be new beings in Christ.

A final point that turns the symbols of our texts once more: The word “prodigal” means extravagant. The Prodigal Son was extravagant in a small way, and when his funds ran out he limped back home. The great extravagance is God’s in creating the world. Our Prodigal God created a cosmos of immense dimension, from Big Bang to the Final Dissipation. Our Prodigal God gave us a garden world in a cosmos of rocks, fires, and gas. Our Prodigal God gives us freedom and a deep history with which to refine it. Our Prodigal God gives us leave to alienate ourselves from creation and with extravagant means of grace calls us back. Prodigal grace abounds in the Earth’s beauty, in the love of family and friends, in the opportunities for new life of all sorts, in the saints of the church and the sinners of the city. Prodigal grace abounds when we call to one another in love and say, “let us make lives with one another, and they shall be good.” God’s prodigal love does not let us go, it follows us to the wings of the morning, and rejoices when we return for new life. New life we have in God’s love, new life such that we become whole new beings, new life such that we can renew the world, new life such that we can bear up in joy when we have to accept our persistent failings and the world’s incorrigible evils. The new being in Christ is not a perfect being, nor is the new creation a perfect world. The new creation is a world in which we know how to love God as our beloved, and love one another as God loves us all. God’s creation of us is divine love. Our love for God, a prodigal miracle, is also divine love. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

While the Lord May Be Found

Sunday, March 14th, 2004
Isaiah 55:1-9

Psalm 63:1-8

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Luke 13:1-9

Our text from Isaiah is uncommonly cheery for Lent. Yet it is at the heart of Lent’s meaning. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” Two thousand five hundred years before the Atkins diet, the Jews knew that rich food is the stuff of divine favor. Milk, honey, wine, oil, fresh water, bread, and fatted calves advertised fulfillment in the Promised Land.

These viands were cited metaphorically, of course, to give content to God’s promise. But they worked as metaphors because they also were literally among the blessings of a prosperous and happy people. Knowing what we do today about alcohol, cholesterol and the carcinogenic effects of too much fat, we might officially prefer the metaphoric to the literal meaning. But if we can imagine Heaven as filled with pleasures that have no bad consequences, deep in our hearts we would want to dine on richly marbled hotel-cut roast beef with Bearnaise sauce, followed by Crème Brule, then chocolate truffles and baklava; cigars would be nice for the gentlemen. How I regret that this Victorian appetite was so unhealthy, sexist, and funded by the labors of others, usually conquered peoples! People in the ancient world did not have these hygienic and moral concerns about the good life.

Our text from Isaiah concludes a section that began with chapter 40 and that was written probably in the second half of the 6th century bce while the Jewish elite was exiled in Babylon. The first 39 chapters of Isaiah, which scholars call First Isaiah, were written in the second half of the 8th century bce, by someone who really was named Isaiah, the son of Amoz. The Assyrians had conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the time of First Isaiah, and the Babylonians had conquered the Southern Kingdom of Judah a few decades before the writing of our text. Chapters 56 to 66, Third Isaiah, were written toward the end of the 6th century after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem. Our text is the culmination of Second Isaiah, celebrating the exiles’ anticipation that Cyrus of Persia, who had conquered the Babylonians, would send the exiles home. Cyrus did send them home and for that was called a messiah. The Jews in the 6th century were overjoyed to be going home, returning to the Promised Land, a second Exodus from a second exile. Chapter 55 concludes after our reading by saying “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of a thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

Isaiah was one of the most important sources of images for early Christian self-understanding. Our passage resonated with Jesus’ claim, recorded in John’s gospel, to be the water of life to which the thirsty should come, the bread of life for those who are hungry. Part of the very deep resonances in the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine is that, while they symbolize the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus, they also are the biblical signs of prosperity and happiness. Although part of the assertion of the early Christians that Jesus was the messiah came from tracing his genealogy through his father, Joseph, back to King David (the second messiah, after King Saul), another part came from analogy with Cyrus, the messiah who set the Jewish people free.

The early Christians, however, transformed the meanings of these symbols as they applied them to Jesus. They had to do so. Our text from Isaiah makes reference to God’s promise to establish the House of David on the throne of Israel forever, and that simply did not happen. The Isaiah text speaks as if the whole nation of Israel has a messianic role, when in fact it became fragmented. Whereas most of the other Jewish sects at the time of the Second Temple waited for a new messiah like David, or perhaps a Roman Cyrus, the Christians, who were then one more Jewish sect, changed the whole meaning of messiahship and many other Jewish symbols. The other Jews sought a messiah who would establish Israel in the land and perhaps make Jerusalem the world’s capital. The Christians came to believe that the religious problem has little to do with settling in the land. It has to do rather with settling in God. We are estranged from God, like Israelites who have broken the covenant. The messiah is the one who overcomes our estrangement. The question for us in our day is how to understand this God and our estrangement.

The Isaiah text contains this wonderful, but spooky line: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” This is a highly anthropomorphic representation of God speaking. Astonishingly, what God says is that the anthropomorphic representations do not apply. God is not just a smarter, deeper thinker. God does not think in the sense that we do. God is as different as the heaven is higher than the earth. This theme runs throughout Second Isaiah, which is one of the earliest biblical books to say that God is the creator of absolutely everything, not just the heavenly king and defender of Israel, but creator of everything and Lord of all nations.

In our time, the conception of God as creator must accommodate a vastly enriched conception of the “everything” created. The universe is 15 to 20 billion years old and vaster in extent than we can imagine; it is not the small, earth-centered cosmos imagined in the first century. We understand the peoples of the world to be not only those of the Mediterranean basin, nor even those of all the Earth; God is creator of whatever rational desirous beings there are throughout the billions of galaxies, each with its own history, perhaps of sin and redemption. We understand the differences between subjective mind and objective reality, between inner personality and outer social roles, between temporal endurance and spatial location, all to be created differences. The fundamental physical and metaphysical characteristics of the world are themselves created. The Creator, then, cannot be a mind over against a world to be known, not a person interacting with individuals or peoples, not a temporal entity lasting throughout all time, or located in one place or all places: those are all creaturely traits, and can be ascribed to God only metaphorically. Because we now know something of the immensity of creation, we know that God the creator is immense. We are humbled by the difficulty of grasping the immense God in concepts derived from creation. We know that to ascribe to God characteristics that would make God a creature is idolatry. So we keep perfecting our symbols of God and then break them to keep them from idolatry.

One thing we do know, however, is that, as creatures, we are the actualized completion, the conclusions, the finish, the termini, of the divine creative act. God does not create us and then let us go: because space and time are as much creatures as we, no spatio-temporal medium exists apart from God into which we could be put. Nothing is outside of God. God’s creative act is the constituting of space-time and everything in it, in all their interwoven connections. What we are, God
creates. That we are is God’s living creative act itself, with us as the completion of the act, the breaking of the wave whose surge has crossed an infinite sea. We are the dance of the divine dancer, the song of the divine singer. God is the creating of the cosmos and we are God’s creative act as it is realized. At whatever time we are, that is God making us then. Wherever we are, that is God making us there. In all our connections to the environment, with each other, with the histories of our peoples, of the Earth, with the stars of heaven—that is God creating this network of creatures playing out their lives in space and time. No creature can be separate from God, for to be at all is to be a local part of the immense act of divine creation.

Because we are so local, however, we easily forget both our connections with others throughout this cosmos and our roots in God’s creativity. We become selfish. And then we notice that the cosmos fills our life with griefs as well as joys, suffering as well as rich food, persecutions as well as support, and with lives always short according to the cosmic calendar. So perversely we organize ourselves in rejection of the divine ground of our being. Instead of gratitude we feel anger, instead of bright attention we cultivate anaesthesia, instead of joyous humility we define ourselves by pride. We think we deserve bounty. We sell our souls to the promise of power to control our lives. We imagine the immense God to be a mere supernatural person whose good will we test, and usually find wanting. In sum, we are estranged, despite the fact our very existence is the shining forth of God’s creative act. This is quite different from literally being exiled outside of the Promised Land.

Or is it? The Promised Land for Christians is life in God’s creative act from which we cannot be removed even when we think we are. To be estranged is to be in denial about our own very existence, which we can see now to be the work of love in divine creativity. To be reconciled is not to be moved from outside God into the divine heart. It is to be turned to recognize where we already are, beloved with one another by the Creator giving us being, steadied in the divine promises that give us life however ambiguous. The messiah who turns us to accept our Creator, and ourselves as creatures is not a military king who wins land for us. It is the one who shows us how to live in gratitude for our lives within the divine life. It is the one who leads us to endure the sufferings of life so as to be at one with the fullness of life in God. It is the one who creates for us communities of shared love in which we can mature as lovers of one another and of our creator. Christians proclaim that Jesus is this messiah.

Let us then read Isaiah with a Christian revision of his symbols. “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.” Our creator is always here, within us and our fellows, in our mountains, rivers, seas, plains, forests, fields, highways, houses, buildings, schools, factories, hospitals, ghettos, battlefields, starvation, poverty, depression, hate, war, sickness, and death. God is never absent. Jesus says to turn and seek God in all these things. Nothing in life is beyond bearing if we bear it resting on the divine pulse of creativity. Life is ambiguous and fragmentary. Its complexities are nuanced beyond imagination and we grasp but its surface. Nevertheless, when Jesus turns us to God our gratitude and love can embrace the whole of God’s gift.

We know in this life that it is better to be full than hungry, satisfied than thirsty, rich than poor, healthy than sick, alive than dead. All these good things are worth pursuing. Nevertheless Jesus taught that there is a different kind of hunger and thirst, wealth and health, indeed life itself, than these relative things. When we are estranged, it’s hard to recognize the hunger and thirst for God; it’s hard to distinguish true wealth from mere riches, true health from a gym body, true life from more ordinary life. When we see the God in Jesus, however, our true hunger and thirst are made plain. The gospel for Lent is that the hunger and thirst for God can be satisfied by God our intimate creator. The abundance of the entire creation is our wealth, the wholeness of the cosmos is our health, the life of the Creator is our life. God’s everlasting covenant with us is that if we but turn to our Creator, God, who as Augustine said has always been nearer to us than we are to yourselves, will be accessible to satisfy our hunger and thirst.

Let us now use our Lenten discipline to put down our relative hungers and thirsts, and desires for wealth, health, and longevity. Instead let us stoke to fever pitch our hunger and thirst for God, our longing for God’s abundance and vibrancy and true life. We long for these too little and need more passion for them, an infinite passion. For the good news is that God says: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant.” Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Lament over Jerusalem

Sunday, March 7th, 2004
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Psalm 27

Philippians 3:17-4:1

Luke 13:31-35

Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem is a puzzle. Why should he lament a city where he says he will be killed? To understand, we must put this in context. Our lesson describes an incident when Jesus had been teaching uncomfortable things. Immediately prior to our text is the parable of the householder who shut the door and would not admit his former guests who were evildoers. The householder is the messiah, and those excluded “weep and gnash their teeth” to see the patriarchs and foreigners but not themselves admitted. Jesus repeats the familiar line, “some who are last will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Our text says that some Pharisees, who apparently were supporters of Jesus, warned Jesus to get out of the territory of Herod who must have been displeased with such teachings. Though Jesus refused to be hurried, he said he would leave soon because it would not be appropriate for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem. This was in reference to his own prediction, perhaps even intention, that he be killed in Jerusalem.

Now the Hebrew Bible mentions only one prophet being killed in Jerusalem; 2 Chronicles said that Zechariah son of Barachiah was killed by order of the king; this was not the same Zechariah whose prophetic writings we have. The parallel passage in Matthew cites the murder of innocent people from Abel in Genesis to Zechariah in 2 Chronicles; in the order of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis is the first book and 2 Chronicles is the last, so the point is a generalized condemnation of murder from first to last. Jesus, I believe, was taking Jerusalem to be the symbolic center of Israel’s betrayal of righteousness and of the covenant with God. Moreover, the betrayal was bloody murder, often directed against those who, like the Zechariah in question, were prophetic critics of the betrayal. Luke represents this as Jesus’ self-understanding of his own role as prophet; remember that Luke’s gospel was written after everyone knew that Jesus was indeed killed in Jerusalem.

The lament over Jerusalem needs to be understood against the background of the covenant between God and Israel. Our Genesis text describes one of the covenant scenes between God and Abram, later called Abraham, in which the elderly childless Abram is told he will have descendents as numerous as the stars in heaven. Abram believed God, and this belief was “reckoned as righteousness,” a phrase Paul would later pick up to indicate the meaning of faith: for Paul, Abram was justified because of this faith in the promise against all the evidence (Abram and his wife were too old to have children). Abram sacrificed a heifer, a female goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon, split the larger animals in two and walked between the halves carrying a smudge pot and a flaming torch to signify the covenant in which God, because of Abram’s righteousness in believing the promise of heirs, would give his descendents the land from the Nile to the Euphrates. Many other dimensions to this covenant emerged later, and then the covenant that Moses recorded gave much more explicit definition to the nature of Israel’s special relation to God. Finally God covenanted with David to keep his family on the throne so long as Israel was faithful to this rich, multi-sided covenantal relation that defined them as a nation of priests who, when they were holy, were allowed access to God’s presence. This literally meant having representatives go into the temple’s inner sanctuaries, and figuratively it meant living close to God in all things. Most of the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible has to do with complaints about Israel not living up to its end of the covenant, consorting with alien gods, and falling into terribly unjust practices, with God promising both punishments and mercy. When Jesus said that he had come to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19), he was presenting himself as the fulfillment of this prophetic tradition. And Jerusalem killed the prophets.

The theme of covenant, betrayal, and murder of the prophets is a sore point with Americans. The first European settlers in New England were explicit about founding a new society in covenant with God. The Puritan covenant was not about a place—any place would do. It was about a way of life of justice among peoples, and individual and corporate devotion to God. Of course greed was involved in the colonies as well, with devastating effects on the Native Americans; but the greed and the Indian Wars were known to be bad, to be failures of the covenant. The greatest failure of the American covenant was the inability to handle the problem of authority for its enforcement, an ancient biblical problem. By the time of the post-revolutionary constitutional debates, the notion of covenant had expanded beyond sectarian religion to embrace the Enlightenment themes of liberty, equality, opportunity, and self-determination for all, with a complicated government of checks and balances to foster protection of the weak, and of minorities, against the imposition of the will and culture of the majority. The American constitutional covenant embraced, in principle, people from any culture in the world who wanted to enter into the covenant of a pluralistic society with a willingness to make their way amidst a swarm of diverse ways of life. It welcomed the poor by offering opportunity. For over two hundred years, successive immigrant groups have made their way to America to develop American versions of their home cultures. In nearly every instance the fabric of American cultures at the time had to be rent and re-sewn to make room for them, often with pain but nearly always successfully. The great failure, of course, was the case of Africans brought to America in slavery, a blatant contradiction of the constitutional principles at the time of its adoption, the source of a bloody civil war, and the occasion of the deepest immorality of American society since the days of Reconstruction. Now, however, racism is recognized for the evil it is and is being amended on many fronts, however far we remain from a solution. The changes of immigration laws in the early 1970s allowed millions to come from Asian and Middle Eastern lands with cultures radically different from the genteel European culture of the Founding Fathers. No one can claim now that the United States is not in principle and often in practice a pluralistic nation based on a covenant to respect liberty, equality, opportunity, and self-determination.

As greed was the snake in the earliest American covenant, it has been a counter-theme in our national character ever since. It gathered explicit respectability in the presidency of Andrew Jackson who touted the slogan that “to the victor belong the spoils.” Greed was perhaps the greatest, though not only, component in the practice of slavery and racism, and it has fed America’s adventures in imperialism in its wars with Mexico and Spain and then in the cultivation of a global economy that insists on free trade for others and protection for American interests. Greed is a legitimate interest in a democracy, however reprehensible it might be morally and debasing to the ideals behind the covenant. Yet greed never overwhelmed the higher ideals of the covenant. The American policies after World War II that rebuilt Germany and Japan and revitalized their regions of the world, that supported the United Nations to share power with all peoples, and that bound the world together with multilateral treaties about economies and the environment, were magnificent te
stimonies to a generous American spirit. They extended the ideals of the American covenant to a conception of an entire world of freedom, equality, and opportunity, with a right of national self-determination, however compromised the ideals were in many details.

In our own time, however, it requires a prophet to remember the generosity of the American covenant. Our government advocates a global economic system that paupers nations that cannot compete and destroys cultures that are non-competitive. Our government responded to the criminal tragedies of 9/11, not with an international police action that would have been appropriate to counter an international terrorist organization, but with a bloated war on terrorism. In the name of that war we have invaded and now occupy two countries that did not attack or threaten ours. Greed, not the covenant to respect liberty, equality, opportunity, and self-determination, seems to guide our foreign adventures. At home our government’s tax policies favor the very rich while it withdraws social services from the poor that they need in order to have opportunity. On the one hand our courts are now extending the rights of liberty, equality, opportunity, and self-determination to homosexual people, as they earlier had done to women and African-Americans, all of whom had been denied those rights, inconsistently with constitutional principles. On the other hand the government is threatening a constitutional amendment to enforce one culture’s version of how those rights should be limited. Who will remind us of the covenant of liberty, equality, opportunity, and self-determination, and of the generosity of Americans toward those of lesser freedom, unequal burdens, and frustrated opportunity? Like Jerusalem, America has not always been kind to its prophets. See the memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., in front of this church.

Jesus did not lament over Jerusalem because it would kill him, or because it had killed the prophets before him. He lamented because it had not been faithful to the covenant that made it a holy city. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Our standing as American Christians is a complicated one. As Christians we should love all people, including those at enmity with America, and help first the least among our brothers and sisters. As Americans we have a natural desire to see America prosper in material goods, culture, and moral standing. Like Jesus, we cannot take up a condemnatory attitude toward our country, however much we might lament its current repudiation of its complicated founding covenant. Rather, our lamentation should be to take it under our wings as a hen gathers her brood. As Jesus went to Jerusalem to engage it, not repudiate it as Jerusalem had repudiated its covenant, we need to engage our country and its confusions now. Christians need to be their country’s spiritual directors, its shrivers!

So let us pray for a spirit of honest analysis of America’s policies abroad and at home, subjecting them to tests of righteousness, liberty, equality, opportunity, and self-determination. Let us pray for a spirit of courage to lift up and condemn the dross of bloated greed and power-madness. Let us pray for a spirit of power to speak these truths to those who hold power and can use it to silence prophets. Let us pray for a spirit of subtlety to understand the ambiguities of righteousness while upholding it, and to communicate this at home, in the workplace, and on the street, to strangers and even to friends. Let us pray for a spirit of humility to see where our righteousness become false righteousness and our moral certainties turn out to be foolishness. Let us pray for a spirit of faith that shows Jesus’ death to be the only saving one and that suffering on our part is not cosmically noble, only sad. Let us pray for a spirit of hope that sustains us when the enemy corrupting our covenant turns out to be our own interests and the institutions that sustain them. Let us pray for a spirit of love that keeps us engaged when we lose, that binds the love of our country to the love of all those other countries, and that never lets us think the voice of prophecy is ours against the villains because the voice of prophecy is God’s and we all are the villains loved by God.

So come to the communion table to join with other sinners grateful for God’s prophetic blandishments. Come to the table to celebrate Jerusalem’s murder that led to new life. Come partake of death’s detritus that is yeast to cause righteousness to rise wherever Christians gather for the good grace of Christ. Though our covenants be broken, yet may they ever be renewed. Though we be blinded by greed, yet may our generosity be restored. Though Jerusalem’s pride causes it to be toppled stone from stone, yet may it repent and be rebuilt. Gather at the table with those who lament our social betrayals and yet find seeds of resurrecting life everywhere. Gather with those whose love of country, neighbors, and self burns hot to purify our lives. Gather with those who pray to receive the holiness that brings us all to God. Behold God’s covenant, God’s betrayers, God’s redeemer, God’s saints, God’s hospitality, our home. Everyone is welcome at this table, gathered under God’s wings. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville