Archive for September, 2004

Living in Our Own Time

Sunday, September 26th, 2004
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

2 Samuel 11:27b-12:9

Luke 16:19-31

The gospel from Luke is one of the most colorful stories in the Bible and it has a vivid history in Christian art and imagination. The rich man is known as Dives, although that is just a Latin word for “rich man.” The images in the story that Jesus used for Hell and Heaven are not typical of the Hebrew Bible. For most of the Hebrew Bible, Hell or Sheol is a shady place where all souls go and gradually dissipate. Ecclesiastes pointed out that the rich and the poor, the good and the evil, all go to the same place and amount to vanity. A strong tradition of thought in ancient Israel was that God is the God of the living, not the dead, and that people who handle dead bodies are unclean and need to be purified. This tradition was more or less well represented in Jesus’ time by the party of the Sadducees, which included the priests who superintended the Temple worship. You will remember the incident recounted in the 20th chapter of Luke where the Sadducees tried to trick Jesus with a question about whose wife a woman would be in heaven if she had married each of seven brothers. The Sadducees themselves did not believe in the resurrection and thought this question revealed the contradictory nature of belief in a heavenly afterlife. Jesus answered that in Heaven people would not have sexual identities and would be like angels. He then reinterpreted the claim that God is the God of the living by citing Moses’ name for God, namely the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: if God is the God of the living, then in Moses’ time, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must still be alive in some afterlife.

In contrast to the Israelite belief that souls just fade away in Sheol, a tradition of immortality or resurrection grew up in Jewish thought during Hellenistic times, that is, after Alexander the Great conquered the area and brought in Greek culture about three centuries before Jesus. In Jesus’ day, this was represented by the party of the Pharisees, and Jesus was a theological Pharisee in this and other matters. The logic of this position was something like this. If the soul is naturally immortal, or all souls are resurrected from the dead, then the righteousness of God’s kingdom requires that in the afterlife the good souls must go to Heaven and the bad souls to everlasting Hellish punishment. In early Christian thought, some people believed that every soul is naturally immortal and therefore has to go someplace, to Heaven or Hell. Other early Christians believed that only the saved believers would be resurrected to be with God and Christ while the unsaved would simply remain dead with no resurrection at all. The Greek philosophical idea of natural immortality became more influential in later Christian thought so that by the time of the Middle Ages most people were convinced that every soul survived and had to go somewhere after death. In addition to Heaven and Hell, which rewarded good or bad people, the Medievals imagined Limbo for unbaptized children who had died before the age of responsibility and Purgatory for the people who were bad but could be made good by some eons of torture. Most of us today would doubt the benefits of eons of purgatorial torture. Jesus’ image of Heaven for Lazarus and Hell for Dives was not quite as elaborate as the Medieval imagery, but lay in that line of development.

Now we do not know whether Jesus’ image of Heaven and Hell in our text was what he really believed, or was a metaphorical appeal to the popular imagination for the sake of telling his story. His more usual image of last things was that God would cataclysmically come down from Heaven into history, punishing the evil-doers, rewarding the just, and setting up a global kingdom of justice with Jesus as its head. On this account Jesus would return to history and reshape it, although he also believed in treasure in Heaven. I myself suspect that Jesus’ vivid picture of Dives in Hell looking up at Lazarus in Heaven, resting in the bosom of Abraham as the spiritual says, was intended as something of a literary device for making his point.

It is interesting to note that Jesus did not say that Lazarus was a particularly good man. Nor did he say that the rich man Dives was particularly bad. We are left to infer that the sin of Dives was that he did not pay attention the poor man at his gates. Jewish religious law was quite clear that the wealthy have a responsibility of charity to the poor. Presumably, Dives’ brothers also were rich but callous, which is why he worried about their fate. The power of Jesus’ story is that its very picture of sumptuous wealth juxtaposed to crippling poverty brings to our mind, like a physical perception, the fundamental injustice of such disparities in wealth where the rich don’t care for the poor. You don’t need the law, or even an editorial comment, to see that it was wrong for Dives to feast sumptuously every day while beggars sought his crumbs with the dogs. It was up to Dives to do something about that. We can just see that.

Americans can see the point of Jesus’ parable even when it is hard to see that we are the rich people of the Earth while others scramble for the crumbs our global economy leaves them. Even poor Americans are rich by global standards. Remember that King David did not seem to see much wrong in seducing Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and then sending Uriah to the front lines to be killed in battle. Then Nathan, his prophet, told him about a rich man with many sheep who took his poor neighbor’s only and beloved sheep so he could give a banquet. David as royal judge condemned the rich man, and Nathan told him, “you are that man.” David got the point.

American global capitalism increases the world’s wealth and make many people richer. But it stomps those who cannot compete well. We blame non-competitive people for their own poverty and non-capitalist culture that makes them non-competitive. Our economic system increases the gap between the competitive and non-competitive, and demands that the non-competitive people give up their native culture to enter the shallow, rat-race culture of competitive wealth-seeking. If Jesus’ parable causes us to just see that Dives should be condemned, Jesus tells us Americans, “you are that man.”

Please understand that I am not against capitalism, nor against Dives dressing and eating well. The point is that we and Dives have a responsibility to the poor on our global doorstep, especially those whose poverty is accentuated by the system that provides our wealth. Capitalism, or any other economic system, is morally tolerable only when it cares for the losers. The deceptive mythology of capitalism, alas, likens economic competition to a sporting competition: the winners deserve to win by virtue of being better, and the losers deserve to lose precisely because they are less competitive. In real economic life, however, why should losing to the Haliburtons of the world mean that your people deserve to be poor and dependent on crumbs? Lazarus no less than Dives is a child of God.

Now all of these points make good sermon material and I hope you take them to heart. But notice that Jesus took the story in another direction. He said there was a great gulf fixed between Heaven and Hell that could not be crossed: no Purgatory or Limbo for Jesus! What you do in this life is what counts. Moreover, when Dives begged Abraham to send someone risen from the dead to warn his brothers, Abraham replied that Moses had laid down the moral standards, the brothers knew that, and that should be enough. You see, Jesus’ real point was not about the geography of Heaven and Hell. He concocted that scene to draw attention to the irreversible and absolute moral significance of what we do in
this life. It is not what we shall do in some heavenly or hellish afterlife that counts. Our worth consists in how we live in our own time. The scene of Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham and Dives in torment was Jesus’ imaginative expression of the worth of their respective lives. He said that the worth of those lives cannot be changed after they die.

What does this imply for us? First, it means that what we believe about the geography of the afterlife is not important one way or another so long as we get Jesus’ point: we stand under judgment for what we do and are in this life. Unlike Dives who seems to have been oblivious to any absolute judgment on his life, we should live with a consciousness that what we do now has ultimate significance for who we are before God. The danger in afterlife-thinking is that we are tempted to postpone taking our lives seriously. Jesus turned afterlife-thinking around to say, “be serious here and now.” Not later but now we live under divine judgment. Now our lives have ultimate significance for defining our worth.

A second implication is that we should therefore attend to the issues that arise on our watch with utmost seriousness. The poor are on our doorstep: what can we do about them now? Countless other issues in addition to poverty shape the moral contours of our environment. Dealing with them all is how we live in our own time.

The Christian gospel is that, no matter how good we are now and throughout our lives before God, it is never good enough. Yet God loves us anyway and receives us with mercy, restoring us to good standing. But now, being restored, we have no excuse for not amending our lives and pursuing the holiness of justice and mercy in the way we live in our own time. Christianity says that Dives can be changed in his own lifetime.

So I invite you to take your life in our time with ultimate seriousness, knowing that this is the life you have to lead and none other. I invite you to accept the grace of God in Christ to give you the power of righteousness while you still have this life to lead. I invite you to look at the world around you and make a difference for justice. Help the poor, improve the economy, oppose the selfish, put peace ahead of control, treat your enemies as you would be treated, protect nature as God’s creation, cherish friends as God cherishes you, create high culture and a decent society because you are creators in God’s image, forgive because God forgives, renew others because God renews, love every one and every thing because God does, and live your life now with the laughter and joy of absolute seriousness because this is the life God gives you. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Manna from Heaven or Mammon from Hell?

Sunday, September 19th, 2004
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

Psalm 79:1-9

I Timothy 2:1-7

Luke 16:1-13

Prayer before the sermon

(silently)
Lord Jesus Christ,
Although my words will undoubtedly humiliate you,
Please accept them all the same;
And through the humiliation of preaching
May we be encountered by you
Who bore the humiliation of incarnation
And the cross
For our sake and the world’s.

(spoken)
In the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.

I

Money is a touchy subject. We don’t like people telling us how to spend our money. Some synagogues deal with this neatly by means of a membership system. You pay up front for a year’s worth of benefits. By contrast, most Christian churches wave the issue in your face with a weekly Offering ritual. It is good to be reminded that we leave this world in the same penniless state in which we enter it. So we can live with the Offering. But sermons on money? Forget it.

Preachers know this and typically keep things simple. We praise the virtues of generosity and diligence, and hint that listeners should support the “Kingdom of God” with pledges and donations. I will not object if you send mountains of money to Dean Neville in support of this fine chapel. But I am not standing in this sacred place to raise money. Today our readings force us to grapple with the Bible’s view of money. Is it mammon from hell, as Jesus and Luke suggest? Or is it manna from heaven, the key to health and happiness and a form of divine blessing? The biblical perspective on money, wealth, poverty, and economic justice is painfully out of sync with our way of life. Jeremiah and Jesus and Luke never remotely imagined our economic circumstances. Yet there is something timeless about the Bible’s preference for the poor and marginalized. So how should we think about money and what should we do?

II

First, then, let’s get this biblical view of money, wealth, poverty, and economic justice out into the open. Many years ago as a newly minted minister I was just beginning to lead a Sunday evening worship service when a young woman entered the door of our church with a child about 6 years old. They both looked unhealthy. The woman was strung out on drugs and desperate for money. I still vividly remember what I felt, especially for the child, who may have been the woman’s daughter or just borrowed for the evening. This was a heartbreaking scene of desperate need and child abuse, scenes common around my city church. Do you feel compassion joined with a shudder of horror when you contemplate such a desperate situation? The driving principle of the biblical view of money is as simple and direct as those emotions of compassion and horror. The Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ teaching alike prioritize the poor and vulnerable, the sick and lonely, the marginalized and disenfranchised. Economic arrangements that protect and support these people are good. Economic arrangements that do not are wicked. It is an uncompromising litmus test.

The Democratic Party in this country has been drifting away from these bracing principles of economic justice. Their opponents mocked them as “soft-hearted liberals,” saying that government welfare breeds dependency and laziness in the poor. Save for a few lone voices, democrats seem to have succumbed to this critique in their quest for the hearts of the vast American middle class. But at no point does the Bible apologize for being idealistic and compassionate in its litmus test for economic justice. I wish we would worry less about the poor taking advantage of tax-based hand-outs and more about suffering children, here and abroad. It makes long-term economic sense as well as moral sense. Taking care of children is the surest path to peace in a world that easily sacrifices peace on the altar of power. It is soft-hearted and hard-headed and biblical all at once.

In this country the most loudly trumpeted Christian view of money is the prosperity gospel. Just as God took care of the Israelites in the desert with manna from heaven, so God will send you money, in proportion to your faith and generosity. We have all heard this used as a fund-raising technique on radio and television religious broadcasts and there is no shortage of books to fill in the details, in case you are wondering how to get in on this remarkable financial scheme. It is ironic that such a popular Christian view has so little biblical support. It reminds me of New Guinea cargo cults. My Bible-translating missionary friends used to tell me about native people going into a dangerous frenzy every time an airplane arrived from the sky gods with wondrous goods and supplies. If they could get their religious rituals just right, they believed, they could induce the gods to send more planes with more good stuff. See the similarity with the prosperity gospel? If we live and believe just right, we can get God mysteriously to send us all this good stuff.

Since I have just slammed the Democratic Party in this country, let me cast my jaundiced eye on the Republican Party. One of the invocation prayers at the recent Republican National Convention in New York included the statement, addressed to God, that “You have blessed us to be the most prosperous nation on Earth.” (The RNC website records that it was Bishop Keith Butler, Southfield, MI, who delivered the invocation at the beginning of a Republican National Convention session, Sep 2, 2004, 9:02pm, New York.) You know, I have a good idea of how hardworking and imaginative people get their money, and I don’t think God sends it from heaven. Religion sometimes helps people be hardworking and imaginative but powerful economic systems that create good jobs and opportunities matter more. This prayer sanctifies in a national audience the prosperity gospel’s cargo-cult superstition. Worse, it pretends that the massively disproportionate resource consumption of this country is just the sort of thing God favors, a divine blessing. This is a dangerous fiction. In the biblical perspective, being the most prosperous nation on earth conveys deadly serious responsibilities and brings not divine blessing but divine judgment.

Everywhere we look, it seems, the biblical view of money and wealth is ignored. But the Bible doesn’t budge: it is manna from heaven when used to support the poor and defenseless but its influence on our moral sense and our social priorities can make it mammon from hell.

III

This is abundantly clear in Jesus’ curious parable of the sneaky steward. It seems to be a story of white collar crime. The steward accepts responsibility for managing the affairs of a wealthy landowner, botches the job through laziness or corruption, and then deepens his wickedness to make last-minute friends among other wealthy people by discounting their debts to his boss. He is going to need those friends immediately because he is being fired. I suppose it is the ancient world’s equivalent of monster.com, a clever way of getting your résumé out there. On this reading, the steward certainly is not a heroic character.

There is another interpretation in which the much maligned steward is not so bad. In this part of the ancient world, the very few wealthy landowners such as the steward’s master hired people to run their affairs and gave them a lot of authority. Think of
Joseph running things for Pharaoh. So the steward probably had the discretion to discount debts. As for his corruption, the story refers to rumors, not facts (think of Joseph again). On this reading, the master was gullible, believing local trash talk, and the steward was the victim of a conniving competitor. He had to do something. Without friends who needed his skills, his alternatives were straightforward. He didn’t have the money to run a farm for a wealthy landholder, and he lived in an occupied country that didn’t have a military, so the vast peasantry was his fate. There he would dig ditches and plant crops. If he didn’t like hard labor, the only choice was begging in the streets. That’s how it goes in economies with no middle class and not much of a social welfare system, both in ancient times and today. So the steward did his sneaky thing and survived.

In Jesus’ context, wealth was rare and brought great power. It meant profiting from a system that kept most people hard underfoot. It is no wonder that his pro-peasant preaching insisted that you can’t serve God and money. Still, Jesus found a moral in the parable of the steward: religious folk should be as smart about matters of ultimate concern as worldly people are about their economic affairs. Luke took that spiritual message and gave it an economic twist, urging his readers to use dirty dollars wisely. Make sure that your arrival at the pearly gates of heaven draws cheering crowds of people who remain eternally grateful for your generosity in this life. Lucre might be filthy, but you can buy good stuff with it, so spend it as though heaven means more to you than feathering your earthly nest. Jesus’ and Luke’s messages differ, so it is no wonder that this passage does not read smoothly.

IV

At this point, we have four biblical insights about money and wealth. One: the Bible’s litmus test for fair economic arrangements is the way the poor and vulnerable get treated. Two: you can’t serve God and money. Three: be smart about ultimate matters in your life and don’t let the desire for wealth destroy you. Four: if you’ve got money to spend, it is nothing to be proud of, so spend it on things that advance good in the world and create a home for yourself in heaven. These are all worthy take-home messages. But do they make sense in our context?

What would Jesus or Luke or Jeremiah say about flexible economies full of opportunities for creative and disciplined people, which girlie-man Arnold Schwarzenegger correctly says is the secret of immigrant success? What would they say about Alan Greenspan’s subtle adjustments in a Federal Reserve interest rate, tuning economic growth to create employment while keeping inflation in check? Or about international loans used to leverage social and economic change in poor nations? Or about the way global free trade spreads wealth but also brings hated economic and cultural side-effects?

Our world is not the world of the Bible and I find it difficult to apply Jesus’ and Luke’s views of money to our economic choices. Whereas Luke calls money unrighteous, I give my children weekly pocket money to help them learn how to manage money, partly because I have seen how economic activity can be a means of personal growth. Should I teach them money is evil instead? We have seen wise economic support gradually transform run-down communities, improving health and welfare for thousands, as well as the reverse process due to economic neglect. Should we reject the prosperity and safety brought by wealth and productivity as wrongheaded?

Jesus was a great advocate of the poor. But how do we follow his example? Does caring for the poverty-stricken mean tax-funded social welfare programs or do we replace government help with a thousand non-profit points of compassionate light? We all know about micro-loans to the poor, initiated by Muhammad Yunus’s amazing Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. But the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an both ban interest on loans, a policy that would destroy micro-loan initiatives. Does caring for the poor allow us to ignore these sacred texts on this question and spread micro-loans around the world? I hope so.

Unfortunately, Jesus did not talk much about the economic arrangements of his own time, which might have helped us figure out how to implement his vision. He did say that his followers should pay taxes to the Roman Empire that occupied their country; they were Caesar’s coins after all. But that’s a tough sell for Bostonians who revolted over taxation by a foreign government. Jewish law dictated a schedule of debt forgiveness but debt holders routinely preserved loans by transferring them to holding companies when debt relief time came. Did Jesus think this was a sensible way around a silly rule or a devious way to observe the letter of the law while violating its spirit? We simply do not know how Jesus would advise us to implement his views of money and wealth in his time or in ours.

Of course, the bible is not entirely without cutting-edge economic wisdom. And here I hope you’ll allow me a little humor for the patient children present as this sermon turns for home. Did you know that President Bush’s economic opportunity zones are biblical? The area around the Jordan River got especially rich when its banks overflowed. Investment interest appears in the Moses story: Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the river bank and drew out a little prophet. And what does the Bible say about selling or holding your investments in hard times? Well, Noah was floating his stock while everyone else was in liquidation.

V

More seriously, Jesus did give financial advice on one occasion. He told a rich young man to give his money away in order to be saved. Some saintly people have given away everything and lived with the poor, but I guarantee they weren’t raising families in Boston. Let’s face it: by global standards, most of us are wealthy, and on the wrong side of Jesus’ teaching on money. But I don’t want us to regard our wealth as intrinsically wicked, as unrighteous mammon useful only for buying our way into heaven. I want us to use our money wisely, to make a difference in the world by means of it, to be thankful for the security and comfort that it brings, and to act positively instead of obsessing over money and mortgages and bills and taxes. I want us to take a stand against rampant consumption, to be mindful of the whole world and not just our own families, to advocate for global economic responsibility and ecological prudence.

That’s what I want. But what practical advice would Jesus give you, if he were preaching here? Well—and this is thought provoking—I am pretty sure he would not be hanging out here. Despite the many Bible stories documenting Jesus’ social preference for the poor and sinners, suburban middle-class Christians think they would be Jesus’ favorites if he walked among us. The Cosmic Christ may like hanging out with everyone equally. But not the biblical Jesus. If he were in this country at all—and that’s a big leap—he would be preaching and healing in the streets of South Boston and Dorchester, calling gang members to be his disciples, living out his commitment to the poor and marginalized, and paying little attention to big churches and anxious wealthy people. I am sure that most church folk would find Jesus as offensive as the religious leaders of his own time did. I am sure that most would overhear his message about money and the poor and think it unrealistic. And I am sure Jesus would not compromise his message, not for a second, not even in the smallest degree, not for anyone.

Living a life of poverty in solidarity with the poor might make you one of Jesus’ favorites. But if you’re not going to do that—and I’m not—then all we really have to go by is Jesus’ l
itmus test: we can tell how well we are handling the wealth we have by evaluating the circumstances of the poor all around us. There might be a place in the kingdom of God on earth for wealth, even though Jesus was poor. There might be room for lovely homes and mortgages, even though Jesus was sometimes homeless. There might even be a role for executives in luxurious boardrooms deciding the fates of thousands of workers, even though Jesus was sometimes unemployed. In Jesus’ picture of that kingdom, however, there is no place for people who don’t care about the vulnerable, who don’t acknowledge the effects of their over-consumption, who are numb to the circumstances that immerse children in disease and ignorance and violence, or who refuse to bend their influence to change those circumstances. Jesus was incredibly idealistic. He didn’t care about being practical. He wanted to transform our values, open our eyes to exploitation and poverty, and devote ourselves to God’s service.

VI

My question for you, dear listeners, is what will you do? What wealth do you possess but do not yet use on behalf of the poor? What influence might you wield but do not yet bring to bear on unjust economic circumstances? What compassion do you feel but do not yet pour out on behalf of our planet’s poor? Forsake your possessions and live with the poor, if you have that saintly calling. Otherwise, rein in your lifestyle and use your resources on behalf of the kingdom of God with the shrewdness of the steward in Jesus’ parable. Resolve today to root out the evil of self-righteous neglect in your own life. Decide today to make one small change to alter the world around you. Sponsor a child through one of the agencies that make that convenient. Spend some of your spare time volunteering. Read something that raises your consciousness about growing poverty in the United States. Meditate on the deadly poverty of the last hundred years in much of the world—the two-thirds world it is called, not for nothing. And in all that you do, if you intend to follow Jesus seriously, never forget his litmus test for economic arrangements. It is tough. It is idealistic. It is impractical. But it is also good and true and beautiful. Amen.

- Wesley J. Wildman

The Value of Something Lost

Sunday, September 12th, 2004
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

Psalm 14

1 Timothy 1:12-17

Luke 15:1-10

New people in Boston know a great deal about getting lost. Those of you new to the University this academic year surely must have noticed that many streets do not have name signs. Sometimes, traveling down a street, the cross streets will be named but not the one you are on. If you do by chance know the name of the street you are on, it might not last because likely the name changes every few blocks. And if you ask a native how to get to the Boston Library, for instance, they will say, “go past Kenmore Square to Copley Square and it’s across from Trinity Church.” If you protest that you don’t know where the squares are or how to get from one to the other or what Trinity Church looks like, they’ll say this means you probably are not from Boston, a misfortune from which you might not recover. The only remedy, I know, for being lost in Boston is to root for the Red Sox through enough near-miss seasons as to enter into total mental empathy with native fans who know how to get from Fenway Park to anywhere.

Jesus’ point in the Gospel reading from Luke was not about being lost, although that too would be worth a sermon, but about losing something you value and the effort you expend on finding it. In our text he told two parables. One was about the shepherd who lost one sheep and left all the others to go after it. He risked ninety-nine sheep for the sake of finding the lost one. The second parable was about a woman with only ten coins who scours her house to find one that is lost. She did not risk her nine remaining coins to find the lost one, but she worked hard to find it. In both cases, Jesus emphasized the great joy that comes from finding what is lost, a greater joy than enjoying what was not lost. He editorialized on both parables by saying there is greater joy in heaven for the recovery of a sinner than for all the righteous people who are not lost. People who think of themselves as righteous are always uncomfortable with these parables.

Jesus knew about this discomfort, of course. Immediately following our reading today in Luke is the parable of the Prodigal Son. As you know in that story, a father loses his younger son who wanted to leave home and seek his fortune; the son squanders away his fortune in riotous living—not at all like going away to college, you understand–and he returns home to be a slave in his father’s house. The father receives him with the greatest possible joy, dresses him in the best robes, and kills a fatted calf to give him a party. It was like finding the lost sheep, the lost coin, but far more joyous because it was the father’s child. It was like heaven rejoicing at the salvation of the sinner. Then the elder brother comes in from the field where he had been working and throws a fit at the festivities for his brother. He complains he has worked like a slave all his life for his father who has never once given him a party, not even a goat, let alone a fatted calf. He refuses to come in, and the father goes out to mollify him, saying that the elder son would be his inheritor and that he too should welcome his brother home because the boy had been dead and was brought back to life. Jesus stopped the story there and did not say whether the elder brother ever came in to accept his brother, or his father’s love.

The most dramatic part of the parable of the Prodigal Son is that it has no ending. So we are prodded to ask, what is the story really about? It is not only about the prodigal who lost his wealth and came crawling back to heaven. Nor is it really only about the loving father who accepted him back and rejoiced more over his return than over his long-suffering eldest son. The parable is about the righteous elder brother who lost his innocence: he was jolted to discover that his years of righteous obedience and service to his father were morally ambiguous, motivated in part by selfishness and pride in being superior to his brother, not only by the love he protested.

In Luke’s gospel, the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son go together. Just before those parables, Jesus had been addressing a large crowd of his disciples and just afterward he returned to addressing his disciples. But these three parables, in chapter 15, are addressed to Pharisees and scribes who had been criticizing him for socializing with known sinners. The Pharisees and scribes were like the elder brother, representing the tradition of faithfulness and strict observance of religious obedience in the large household of Jewish faith, of which Jesus and his disciples, as well as critics, were members. What kind of righteous people could they be to object to Jesus ministering to sinners? On the other hand, what is the point of righteousness if the recovery of sinners is so much more important than the congratulation of the righteous? Why should anyone be righteous, they might ask, if it is better to be a sinner and repent in the nick of time?

The answer, of course, is that you should be righteous, not for the reward or congratulations, but because that is the righteous thing to be. The proper motive for righteousness is in the righteousness of the deed, not in having an identity with status. When the motive for righteousness is to have an identity that prides itself in being better than the identity of sinners, then the moral ambiguity of that righteousness corrupts the righteousness itself. Taking pride in one’s righteousness is an innocence well lost.

Americans these days know something about this kind of loss of innocence. No matter what you think about the upcoming Presidential election, things are vastly changed since the Presidential campaign four years ago. The United States now occupies two countries that did not attack us or provide a greater threat to American security than any number of other countries. This was justified by a new doctrine of “pre-emptive war,” which everyone knows deep down is just another name for a war of aggression when no immediate threat is present. So the American innocent sense of being the righteous defender of peace and justice is made ambiguous by our occupation of foreign territory.

In the grief and confusion after 9/11, the third anniversary of which we remembered yesterday, the government made the perhaps understandable mistake of declaring a “war on terrorism.” War is what you fight to conquer or hold territory and control a government. Terrorists duck when attacked and hold no territory, and they govern no peoples except themselves. What was needed was a massive international police action against the criminal terrorists. But misled by the rhetoric of war we attacked and conquered Afghanistan instead, driving out an admittedly bad Taliban government, which no more could control Al Qaeda than Mr. Karzai’s puppet government can. We pray that Mr. Karzai’s government can bring stability, but Al Qaeda still flourishes in the hills, as do the Taliban forces; the tribal leaders, whom our press calls warlords, have more power than the central government.

In respect of Iraq, our government either deceived itself or attempted to deceive the nation about connections with Al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction. Surely someone in the government knew how terrible war is and should have insisted on making certain about the need to go to war before doing so. Some Americans believe the government deliberately lied about its motives for war, and others believe it was only incompetent with regard to intelligence. In either case, Americans’ traditional innocent pride in their government has become morally ambiguous.

Our soldiers, for the most part, have fought valiantly, taking care t
o minimize civilian casualties where possible, and coping with the shock of being hated by many people whom they thought they were liberating. But the prison scandals have cast a pall of ambiguity over the integrity of the military and the American tradition of procedural justice.

Both Presidential candidates call for outcomes that would make it the case that our fallen soldiers are not dying in vain. Would to God that were so! The same thing must be said for the Iraqi soldiers who died under the rain of our bombs. No soldier’s death should be in vain. But what else could those deaths be but vain in some very profound sense, if the war should not have been fought in the first place? Deep down, everyone knows this, and the attempts to find something good to come out of the war only confuse the nation’s tortured conscience.

Our country has so lost its innocence that it seems to be more sharply divided than at any time since the Civil War. Deep down everyone knows the sad tale I’ve sketched, though it is told with many spins. Some people so sharply mourn the loss of innocence and life that they insist our course must have been right somehow, despite the evidence, and are ready to believe anything that reinforces that view. Other people are so angered at the loss of innocence that they rage that their righteous nation has been stolen from them. Debates about economic, environmental, and welfare policies occupy a lot of middle ground. Even the so-called “culture wars” of the last two decades were fought over a broad middle ground. But the sad tale of American military adventures has so divided the country that even our sense of being a united people has been made ambiguous. Honest and wise people differ over where to go from here, and no easy solutions present themselves. What is certain is that, wherever we go, it will be without the innocence we felt four years ago.

Without suggesting anything about what Jesus might say concerning the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I do believe that Jesus would say our loss of innocence is a good thing. You can lose a sheep and find it again. You can recover a lost coin. You can even have an estranged child return to you. All of these losses recouped are like divine joy at the redemption of sinners. The deeper meaning of Jesus’ parables here, however, has to do with the false righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes, as Luke describes them. Their sense of moral superiority blinded them to the value of Jesus associating with sinners. In a like manner, the accursed innocence of American false righteousness has blinded us to the necessity to work for peace and justice, prosperity and security, with sinners, among whom we are.

We struggle to transcend partisanship and hear the gospel in the turmoil of our divided politics. Where is the Holy Spirit in the political racket? I believe at least four promptings of the Spirit can be discerned.

First and most obviously, we need to respect, honor, and love those with whom we disagree. When no common ground can be identified, this is difficult, especially when the dispute is fueled by grief and anger. But we all have the common ground of loss of innocence, whether we admit or deny it, with the consequence that we have to work together to make the best of a morally ambiguous situation.

Second, the gospel prompts us through the Golden Rule systematically to look at ourselves from the perspectives of those who oppose us. This means we each must empathize with all the divided perspectives within American politics. More importantly, it means we must look at America through the eyes of its opponents: our “insurgents” are their “freedom fighters,” our “liberation” is their “foreign occupation.” Christians especially should aim for a God’s-eye view, and God sees through every perspective, loving all the sinners on all sides.

Third, the gospel prompts us to be with and help the people who are hurt, the grieving families of fallen soldiers (on all sides), the civilians maimed or grieved, the economies shaken, the elderly, sick, and uneducated whose lives could have been improved were it not for the cost of our wars. Irrespective of political or national stance, each hurting person is like a lost sheep or an estranged child for whom we have responsibility. Every bombed house is someone’s lost coin.

Fourth, the Spirit insists we must come to terms with our loss of innocence. We can ask forgiveness of our own failings in the measure we forgive others. We can be wise about policies only when we are transparently honest. We can go forward only if we know the costs will be high and the outcomes ambiguous. And as redeemed sinners, we cannot under any circumstances back away from the hard issues on our watch just because we know we might fail or do evil in some respects even as we win for the good in others.

The gospel calls us to love the whole creation, despite its ambiguities and pains. The Christian way to the joy of heaven is through the wilderness of crosses. This is a hard lesson for students, especially new ones, who, like the grieving and angry, want a clear path to righteousness. Let me invite you, however, into the company of redeemed sinners whose innocence is lost, the company of Pharisees and scribes who have heard and understood Jesus’ parables. In this company, the griefs and rages of ambiguous life can be borne with heavenly joy. May God receive and bless us all. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

The Potter’s Vessels

Sunday, September 5th, 2004
Jeremiah 18:1-11

Philemon 1021

Luke 14:25-33

On behalf of Marsh Chapel let me welcome all the new students who are moving in here this weekend, preparing for matriculation tomorrow and classes the day after. Even more warmly we welcome your parents who are here to help with the move-in. May your aches and pains from carrying books and TV sets temporarily obscure your sadness at losing your children to a university that is separate from your home. Like potters molding clay, you have molded your children until now. From now on, different potters will be at work. The foundational shape you have provided is far more important than anything the academy can do. Yet your children now move into a new world with new potters.

The Bible has many wonderful images for God, who of course in a literal sense is beyond imagination. The central controlling image is that God is creator of heaven and earth, of everything visible and invisible, as the first chapter of Colossians puts it. This is a paradoxical image because it says, in effect, that God literally cannot be imagined. Anything that can be imagined is something in heaven or on earth, something visible or invisible. That covers everything that is some one thing rather than something else. Anything that can be imagined is something created. The majesty of God the Creator, whose praises we sing, is that everything imaginable derives from God’s creation. In everything imaginable, God is present as creator. But to identify God with any imaginable thing is idolatry. I want to put this point about divine transcendence in the front of our minds as we think about the image of God as a potter.

All the images of God are metaphors and symbols, which means that we make a point in using them, but should not say that they describe God outside the context of making that point. The Psalms say that God is the rock of our salvation, and we know what that means without ever literally thinking that God is a rock to be studied by geologists. The 23rd Psalm says God is a shepherd, and we know what that means without thinking that God runs an agribusiness. When Jeremiah speaks of the hand of God, or Isaiah of the hem of God’s robe, or Exodus of Moses seeing God’s backside, we know that these are metaphors of a divine body when God is really not a body. Yet we can use those metaphors without flinching or misusing them. When so many books of the Bible imagine God as speaking and mention the Word of God, Jews, Christians, and Muslims sometimes forget that this too is metaphorical. In Exodus, God is imagined as a warrior who leads the Israelites out of Egypt, and in 1 Samuel and other places God is imagined as a king. Hosea spoke of God as a lover with an unfaithful wife. In Job, God is likened to an architect when it comes to laying the foundations of the natural world. Jesus often spoke of the “Kingdom of God,” and yet he imagined the head of the kingdom as a father rather than a king. Many of the images of God represent God as a person of some sort. And yet John says that God is love, not a lover but love itself. Metaphors like these are necessary to relate the Creator of heaven and earth, all things visible and invisible, to the affairs of human life, and we need to keep track of the contexts in which they apply and those in which they are obviously false in a literal sense.

Jeremiah’s image of God as potter has application in the context of God creating and shaping people and nations. In the first chapter of Genesis, the famous first creation story, the natural world arises out of God speaking like a king laying down the law. But in the second chapter of Genesis, more detailed about the creation of human beings, God is imagined to be a potter. God takes mud and molds it into the form of a man, like a ceramic doll, and then breathes into it to bring the doll to life. St. Paul describes God as a potter, in Romans 9, when he wants to make the point that the creator can do with us what he wants. What do we learn from the image that God is a potter and that we are the potter’s vessels?

The chief lesson is that we can look to the things that shape us and see God in them. The hand of God, to use that image, is in all the things that give us life and form. When I was a teenager I worked in a Scout Camp during the summer and loved to lie out on the parade ground on clear nights when everyone else slept and groove on the stars above. I felt them as my most real and awesome environment. Under the vastness of that sky I was absolutely, ultimately, nakedly myself before God on that hill outside Irondale, Missouri, and I loved God the Creator who made me in that place in the heavens and earth. One such night, knowing that I was already God’s because I lay within the potter’s hands, I decided that the way to be myself in God was to be a minister. Many of you too, I suspect, find yourselves most cosmically and intimately shaped by such experiences of God as the one who places you within the vastness of creation.

Many other parts of nature shape us as well, and thereby reveal how the Potter-Creator works. We are not clay, yet we have evolved out of the elemental physical properties of the earth. Our blood is about as salty as the ocean from which our distant ancestors emerged. Humans are social beings, and the history of society and civilization is part of the shaping process. Our own communities are powerful forces for shaping us with cultures that make us somewhat akin and somewhat different. A few minutes ago I alluded to the ways our families shape us, like a potter giving us form. We are also shaped by our friends and enemies, our schools and work, and by the accidents of history during our watch. The technical theological term for all these formative influences is “prevenient grace.” God is to be found in all the things that “come before” and shape us.

Jeremiah reminds us of the downside of this, however, namely, that sometimes the pots do not turn out well and the potter has to remake them. Planets collide and suns flame out. The natural evolution of the human species was at the cost of countless species that died out; maintenance of human metabolism requires enormous expenditures of the energies of others things. Human societies make high civilization possible but they also do horribly unjust things. Families are not perfect and friends sometimes lead us into great harm and evil. Christians believe that everyone is born and shaped with flaws.

Christians also believe, however, that everyone can be repaired like a pot thrown back onto the wheel to be reshaped. This too happens in many ways as people learn what is right and wrong and events force serious judgments on behavior. Institutions of moral and spiritual education are in every civilization, and they all can be construed as agencies of the divine Potter, more grace.

The specifically Christian agency for the repair of broken vessels is discipleship to Jesus Christ. Our gospel text from Luke indicates that this is no small thing indeed! Discipleship requires total commitment. Jesus says that potential disciples need to count the cost beforehand to see whether they want to enter onto the Christian path. Luke quotes him as saying that “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” These are extremely sharp words and run directly against Jesus’ message emphasized elsewhere that we should love all these people, and strangers as well. In Matthew’s version of this saying, Jesus says that whoever loves their relatives more than they love Jesus cannot be his disciples, not that they actually have to hate their relatives. Nevertheless, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying he has not come to bring peace but a sword a
nd that being his disciple will in fact set people against their families.

Jesus’ point, I believe, is that for us to repair our broken lives we need to attach ourselves wholeheartedly to his way of living in a community of love. This does not mean that we have to leave our families or friends—these are the sources of our strengths. But sometimes our families, friends, and social habits are the very cause of our failings and we need to go back to basics. We need to accept being thrown back onto the potter’s wheel to be reshaped. The Christian life day by day is lived on the potter’s wheel, always in process of being reshaped. This means always hunting for means of grace to be better vessels, better people. The technical theological term for this is “sanctification.” As we seek out and live among the shaping influences of sanctifying grace, we are able to re-establish relations with family and friends, bringing out the best in all. Flawed children from broken homes in an urban ghetto can be made whole and new by a long trip to the country where they can lie on their back at night under the stars and feel that God creates even them, along with all the points of light. Prodigal sinners can return to their homes and find love that makes them new. Confused young people can come to the university and find the gracious love of learning that turns them away from their own problems to serve the world and God. The comforting thing about being a broken vessel is that even the flawed pot is part of God’s creation. Creation continues until all are redeemed, every broken vessel.

Now I invite you to Jesus’ table to partake in the ancient meal that feeds the soul and heals it when distressed. Come to this table to feel the Creator’s grace that shapes us through the heavens and the earth. Come to this table that inherits all the graceful powers of civilization. Come to this table where families are purified and fulfilled as the family of Jesus. Come to this table where the comfort of God can be felt in every influence of the Potter’s hand. Come to this table to find your own work as a divine influence on your friends and world. Come to this table, a potter’s wheel, where you can become a perfect vessel of the divine Potter. In Jesus’ name, come. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville