Archive for December, 2004

Inauspicious Beginnings

Sunday, December 26th, 2004
Isaiah 63:7-9

Hebrews 2:10-18

Matthew 2:13-23

According to Luke, the angelic host sang to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” Christmas is the celebration of peace on earth, for it means that God is in our midst. The mystery of the incarnation is that God comes to us. We do not have to go to God: God comes to us.

In our reflective moments, of course, we smile at the fanciful stories surrounding the birth of Jesus, taking them with a grain of salt even as we love them. Even the logic of God “coming to us” is fancifully symbolic: God is our Creator and we are nothing without God. God cannot be apart from us at all, else we would not exist. So God cannot literally come to us from somewhere else. But we live in the dark about the foundations of our own existence so much of the time that the light that enlightens our true estate seems dimmed. The incarnation means that this true light has not been overcome by the darkness and in fact the light in Jesus calls this to our attention in saving ways. You recognize that I am paraphrasing John’s Gospel’s version of the Christmas story: “What has come into being in him [that is, Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)

The lesson the angels drew from the incarnation was peace. Because of Christmas, we have a very deep peace. But it is not a peace we can easily understand. Of all the attributes that characterize our world civilizations today, peace seems not among them. So we need to look closely at what the biblical notion of peace in this sense might be.

The Gospel lesson today reports the horror of Jesus’ birth, not the pretty part. Herod the King was furious that a messiah might be born so he killed all of the children in the Bethlehem area under two years of age. Think of that! Our government calls the slaughter of innocents in the pursuit of one’s goal “collateral damage.” Fortunately, Jesus’ family had been warned that something like this might happen, so they became refugees in Egypt, probably for about eight years. When they returned, Joseph was afraid to stay in Judea, where Bethlehem was, and settled north in Nazareth of Galilee, again a refugee. This was an inauspicious beginning for the incarnation and its strange peace.

Our passage from Isaiah praises God for all he has done for the House of Israel, showing them mercy according to the abundance of his steadfast love. In fact, Isaiah cites God saying of Israel, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely”; and Isaiah says God will be their savior in all their distress.” Isaiah goes on to say, after our reading, that the people were not faithful and that God did abandon them, only to try to claim them later. The House of Israel did not last, David’s line was cut off, and after a lapse of 19 centuries Israel today survives only by force of arms, not the active protection of God as in the days of Moses. To generalize the point, the biblical promises of God to Israel have not been carried through, and we read these promissory texts as if they were the attempts of a beleaguered people to explain to themselves why they were special to God when history made them seem like minor players, even losers.

What do we make of the divine promises? Those of you who remember the liturgical greeting with which we began our Sunday worship during Advent know that we spoke approvingly of the “sure and certain promises of God” that came to fruition in Jesus, with a similar promise that Jesus would come again. That language comes from our faithful liturgist’s Calvinist background. Was that rhetorical overkill, or perhaps whistling in the dark? For surely history has given the lie to those promises, unless you put up with indefinite postponement. Or perhaps the promises were not about history, as they seemed, but about something else. At any rate, whatever peace we have does not derive from any historical confirmation of divine promises.

Perhaps history is not the right arena in which to look for the incarnation or God’s victory. Christianity in America today is divided into two main families of response to this issue. Many of our conservative brothers and sisters are convinced that the Bible is to be read very much as a commentary on history and a prophetic historical document. The kind of theology expressed in the “Left Behind” series of books is an extreme example, though highly persuasive to many people, of the theology that regards Christianity as a witness to a cosmic historical war between God and Satan. Historical events are taken to have supernatural meaning relative to this war, and biblical prophecies are taken to refer to coming historical but supernaturally significant events. Human beings on this view are not at all decisive actors in this war, but are rewarded according to whether they are loyal to God’s side. One of the major battles of the war was when Jesus redeemed sinful humanity from the clutches of Satan, according to this interpretation. This historically oriented Christianity looks to the conversion of the Jews in Israel and the return of Christ for the last battle.

Biblical symbols for this conservative view of Christianity as literally historical come from the influences of Persian thought on Judaism during the Babylonian exile and subsequent Hellenistic culture. Portions of Isaiah, the Book of Daniel, most of the authentic letters of Paul, and the Book of Revelation can be read in support of this view, although they also can be read in other ways. Our text from Hebrews can be read this way when it says, “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, [speaking of Jesus] so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” For Christians of the conservative historical persuasion, it is easy to believe that the enemies of Christian nations such as America are the anti-Christ and that our wars have divine sanction as theologically righteous. Many conservative Muslims feel just the same way, though with the divinity on their side: the Iranian Muslim hate-word for the United States is the “Great Satan.”

For many other Christians with more liberal theology, the ideals of peace and justice outweigh the goals of vindication in the prophetic texts, and the person and teachings of Jesus are far more important than Paul’s account of the cosmic battle between supernatural forces. Liberal theologians emphasize the Gospels, as well as Ephesians, Colossians, James, and the letters of John. For these Christians, the cosmos is understood in scientific terms and the first century image of cosmic supernatural battles is laid down to ancient but false speculations. History for many of these liberal Christians does not have one unifying meaning as if it were a story, but rather is the arena in which social forces in different times and places interplay to produce crises of famine and plenty, justice and oppression, peace and war. Christian engagement is not merely to witness a war between supernatural agents but rather is to bring peace, justice, and abundance to the situations as they arise on our watch, precisely because Christ is with us. History as a whole does not have a narrative meaning. But history provides many contexts in which the meaning of human life is played out in communities and individuals according to the values of peace, justice, piety, faith, hope, and love, and in which human responsibility is very important, not mere witness.

During much of the course of Christianity these two
theological approaches have coexisted, differing mainly in stress and emphasis. This was because both sides used to recognize that all language about God is symbolic and each could acknowledge the symbolic truth of the other side even if each thought its own side was more nearly literal. Now, however, fundamentalism has wrenched the conservative side to an uncompromising literalism. Liberal theology too, alas, has sometimes taken the alleged literalism of science to mean that symbolic thinking of any kind in theology has no standing regarding the truth. There seems to be little middle ground save in those churches with a rich symbolic liturgy that are willing to use the symbols in full knowledge that they cannot be taken literally. I myself stand in the middle ground with a theology of symbolic engagement. But on the issue of whether the Bible’s historical promises are meant literally, I side with the liberal tradition.

All this is to the point of trying to understand the peace brought by the incarnation of God in Christ. That peace cannot be an historical peace. As Herod slaughtered the innocents at Jesus’ birth, we continue to do that today, and with much the same dubious motive of bringing stability to the Middle East. Disparities of wealth that drive people to war and terrorism are as great today as in Jesus’ time. Demonic fanaticism that attaches religious sanctions to political causes is as great today as ever. The only apocalyptic endings we can imagine are universal nuclear holocaust, destruction of the Earth’s ecology, or a cosmic collision. All this is bad news if your bet is on God turning history into a comedy.

The peace that passes understanding, however, is deeper than history. The Glory of the Lord is that God is the creator of the entire cosmos, from the Big Bang to the Final Dissipation. God is the creator of our life on earth, perhaps not a grand narrative but rather countless episodes of social interactions, some connected with one another, others occurring in isolation from many other events. Within the situations pertinent to our lives we have friends and foes, and struggle to defeat the opposition to peace, justice, equity, and love. We have triumphs and failures, joys and griefs, exhilarations and suffering, births and deaths. Our lives are fragmented and often morally ambiguous. Yet we know that, because God comes to us as our very Creator, we are together as God’s creatures in more fundamental ways than our fragmented, ambiguous, and competitive lives might suggest. For we are all parts of the infinitely rich divine life, eternally bound to one another in God. Although it sounds paradoxical, I am who I am in part because of the ways in which you are my other, and vice versa. You are part of my definition. Take away all the things in terms of which I define myself, and I am nothing. For each of us to be what we are, God has provided the whole cosmos.

So Jesus said you should love your neighbor as yourself. The reason is that you and your neighbor define one another and you cannot really love yourself without loving your neighbor. Jesus said you should love your enemy. The reason is that you and your enemy define one another: to kill your enemy is to grieve his mother as yours would be grieved at your death. Jesus did not say that all things are righteous: he said that we should be in opposition to oppression, poverty, and errors of thinking that lead to suffering. But we should know that victory over others is also defeat within the larger economy that embraces both sides.

Jesus said we should love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. God is not exactly like another person to whom we are connected within a common creation. God is the Creator commonly connecting us with all else. Love of God is the flip-side of gratitude for our existence. But whereas gratitude can be selfish, true love of God has to acknowledge God to be the Creator of all those other things that define us, not only those others who love us but also those that hate us, not only the abundance that gives us joy but the poverty that diminishes us, not only the health that makes life a blast but the sickness that saps body and mind, not only the birth of family and friends but the death that will claim each one. God is the common source of all these things that define our glorious, fragmented, and ambiguous lives. To love this God is not easy, which is why Jesus demanded the commitment of our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength.

Nevertheless, loving God is possible precisely because God is the common Creator of us all. The light that came into the world in Jesus Christ, that little child, that refugee, that confrontational teacher, that humble man, that lover, shows us that our own depths are the depths of God. Deeper than our struggles to love neighbor is the depth and loveliness of God our common Creator. To see into these depths is the peace that passes understanding. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward all. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Repent

Sunday, December 5th, 2004
Isaiah 11:1-10

Romans 15:4-13

Matthew 3:1-12

The main mission of John the Baptist, the hero of our gospel lesson, was to preach repentance, and then to baptize people as a sign of the seriousness of their return to virtue. Jesus came to John for baptism, and this was the occasion for John to point to Jesus as someone greater than himself. Christians since have transformed baptism into a once-for-all initiation rite rather than just a repentance rite. But we do celebrate the Eucharist as a repeatable rite that seals the bond of God with Jesus’ people. A crucial preparation for the Eucharist is a prayer of confession, which we just recited together. Confession is a preliminary step in repentance.

The sharp point of the Baptist’s remarks about repentance in our gospel text is what he says to the scribes and Pharisees, whom, with his customary good humor, he calls a “brood of vipers” and accuses of hypocrisy. He says that they ought to bear the fruit worthy of repentance, and that they don’t. “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Confession of sin is not enough: we have to do something about it and mend our ways. Confession is admitting that we have gone in the wrong direction. Repentance is actually turning around and going the right way.

On this second Sunday of Advent, as we are about to gather around the Lord’s table, we can ask whether we are a repentant people. As a nation we seem not to be peacemakers when we should be, not to care for the poor when that stands in the way of making the rich richer, not to exercise leadership from a position of humility. We seem to be defensive out of fear rather than kindly out of courage, self-assertive rather than loving, simplistic in our thinking rather than realistically complex, and convinced that one culture fits all and is above criticism. I recognize that other people interpret our national situation less gravely, and I hope they are right. But it seems to me that we do not bear the fruits of repenting pride in war, greed, arrogance, fear, national self-assertion over others, stereotyping and lies, and intolerance. Our nation has not turned back to Christian values in these matters, whatever else might justify our policies.

But not all of us favor the national course. Let me say no more about repentance for those who do favor our current national directions: the coalition of those who do is highly diverse, with many motives and differing cultural suppositions among themselves, as well as diverse understandings of the situation. I want to focus rather on what those have to repent who do not favor the national course, among whom I count myself. To be sure, each of us is highly inventive regarding sin, and we all have jillions of things to repent in particular. But my question is reaching for what went wrong among liberal Christians in America who now are so angry, grief-stricken, and depressed because we see our country to have become an aggressor nation when we thought it stood for justice and the protection of the weak, and we see our religion to have been defined publicly by a conservative version with which we share little but common symbols, interpreted very differently.

I have been struggling with this question, and have found a clue in some responses to the sermons I have been preaching recently. Several people have asked me, in one way or another, how they should relate to their conservative evangelical friends and relatives with whom they are in such fundamental and grievous disagreement, people they love despite the disagreements. Of course there is no pat answer to this, but the question itself is revealing. The culture wars in this country have been going on for decades, ever since the resurgence of fundamentalism in President Reagan’s “moral majority.” The theological religious disputes between conservatives and liberals have gone on for almost two centuries. What have we liberals been missing, or not doing, that suddenly it seems like a new problem to relate in friendly Christian fashion to the Evangelical Right?

To be sure, part of it is that we have not been thinking that the Right could co-opt our country and the public face of our Christianity, and it has suddenly done so. This was simply false pride on the part of the religious moderates and liberals. But there is a deeper failure here in liberal Christianity. It has to do with what I call “the paradox of liberal tolerance.” Whereas many outspoken conservative religious thinkers have no qualms about straightforwardly condemning liberal Christianity as unchristian and immoral, liberals have always insisted on tolerance of their opponents. Whereas our conservative sisters and brothers revel in sharp edged issues such as scripture first and last, liberals insist on taking into account every point of view. Whereas religious conservatives most often define morality by what they are against—abortion, stem cell research, and gay marriage in the most recent debates–liberals define morality by large values to which they are committed, such as peacemaking, solidarity with the poor, humility, courage in the face of ambiguity, love, cultural diversity, acceptance of complexity, and so forth, all fuzzy values that find specific meaning only in complex application in ambiguous situations. For most liberals, sharp-edged absolute values without particular contexts are ideological fictions good for nothing but verbal warfare.

Three things result from this difference between religious conservatives and liberals. First, liberals tend to respond to conflict by moving to the middle in order to be accommodating, apparently abandoning their own principles. Second, liberals tend not to articulate their own positions for fear of exacerbating conflict. Third, liberals look mushy and spineless whereas the conservatives look like they stand for something, and by standing for something definite they can rally people to their cause.

What we liberals need to repent of, therefore, is the failure to distinguish the practical work of bringing about harmony and Christian reconciliation from the clarion delineation of the essential Christianity to which liberal Christians are committed. The latter, the call to the positive liberal Christian way of life, is the more important of the two, because it is the justification for the reconciliation with other forms of Christianity. Conservative evangelicals tend to view reconciliation and religious harmony as signs of weakness.

The fruit of repentance for liberal Christians, therefore, should be a vigorous statement of the Christian faith and definite programs that put it into practice. This means, I believe, at least seven things:

*First, a fulsome theological elaboration of the great symbols and themes of the Christian belief in creation and redemption in Jesus Christ, without supernaturalism;

*Second, a detailed reading of the Bible, without crippling authoritarianism or literalism, but informed by all we can know about reading the message of texts;

*Third, a clear theology of the Christian community that does not insist that one culture be imposed on all but that articulates the obligations of many cultures living together with the norms of righteousness, piety, faith, hope, and love;

*Fourth, definite and specific programs for influencing public life in ways that operationalize Christian values of peacemaking, solidarity with the poor, humility, the courage to risk love, restraint on power, cultural inclusiveness, complexity of thought, and all the rest;

*Fifth, the development of specific demanding practices of spiritual discernment, formation, and growth that promote sanctification, wit
hout tying this to any one culture’s manners;

*Sixth, personal and institutional commitment to the most sophisticated and complex kinds of inquiry by which our world and God might be known, without the reduction of discourse to soundbites;

*And seventh, the rigorous education of Christians in these theological and spiritual habits so that we can be conspicuous witnesses in public life, not embarrassed about the particularities of our faith but eloquent in testimony.

The fruits that distinguish liberal repentance in our time, in short, are clear theology without supernaturalism, biblical understanding without literalism or authoritarianism, church life without cultural imperialism, political life based on Christian values without cultural imperialism, demanding spiritual life without cultural imperialism, complex thinking without authoritarianism, and Christian witness without simplistic parochialism. Only when we repent of accommodation and timidity by pursuing these fruits of repentance with vigor can liberal Christians have the strength to reach out to our evangelical brothers and sisters who otherwise seem to us to have stolen our religion and country.

I invite you to come now to the table of the Lord with the confidence that your Christian convictions belong here. In fact they are needed as fruits of repentance for the failure to be proper witnesses to the faith. At this table you will find people of deep conviction who might disagree with you. At this table you will find people who are seeking their way through confusion and doubt. At this table you will find deeper expressions of your own Christian commitments. But I hope that at this table you will find very few people who don’t care. Most of all, at this table you will find the God who comes to us this Advent and every moment, the God whose coming makes our responses to the issues of life matters of infinite urgency. As John the Baptist said, there is something better than and beyond the baptism of repentance, namely the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit, the fire of love, the Holy Spirit of reconciliation. Come, Lord Jesus. Come, People, to the table. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville