Archive for September, 2005

Tolerance and Forgiveness

Sunday, September 11th, 2005
Exodus 14:19-31

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18:21-35

Nearly every commentator today proclaims that our world needs more tolerance and forgiveness, even when they disagree about whom to tolerate and whom to forgive. On this anniversary of 9/11/01, we should weep to see that tolerance and forgiveness are in far shorter supply now than before that date. The American response to the criminal terrorism of 9/11 was to lash out with a “war” on terrorism instead of an international police action and criminal prosecution. Finding no terrorists who wanted a stand-up war, we then attacked Afghanistan and Iraq, neither of which had attacked us, overthrowing their governments and driving their people into chaos and devastation. We lied to the world and to ourselves about those governments’ connections with El Qaeda and about our motives for invasion. Our government simply could not tolerate those governments which did not like us. Of course, on the other side the American wars fueled the intolerance and vengefulness of many Muslim people across the globe who identify with Afghanistan and Iraq, recruiting more terrorists than Osama bin Laden’s advertisements ever could. Many non-Muslim nations around the world became intolerand and vengeful against the American way of life because of our response to 9/11. So the world is in a pitiful state, now, with regard to the kinds of tolerance and forgiveness necessary for a world harmony of civilizations.

St. Paul, in our lectionary text this morning, states the case for tolerance and the forgiveness that must accompany it. “Who are you,” he wrote, “to pass judgment on servants of another?” The background of his comment on not passing judgment is that the Roman Christians were a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles, lower class and upper class. The Jews were worried about being kosher, and the lower class people were somewhat superstitious about eating meat that had been slaughtered in sacrifice to idols. In the ancient Roman world most butcher shops were attached to temples—that’s where you got meat, and nearly all meat had been sacrificed to some god or other. In Paul’s sophisticated view, kosher laws were unnecessary and the idols were just statues. He regarded the Christians who wanted to be kosher or to abstain from meat they believed to have been sacrificed to real competing gods as simply weak in the faith of free Christians. But they were true Christians, he believed, and therefore should be welcomed. He called on both sides to tolerate the scruples of the other, saying each side is ultimately responsible to God, not to some principle.

Our text from Exodus does not seem to have much to say about tolerance, quite the contrary. It tells the familiar story of the Red Sea crossing at the beginning of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and the story is very confused. You will remember that the Israelites had gone into Egypt about two centuries previously, where Joseph, son of Jacob, or Israel, had been a high official. The land of Canaan had been in a deep famine, and the Egyptians took the Israelites in as a massive welfare case. Over the years the Israelites multiplied and flourished, and the Egyptians felt they had to suppress them with forced labor. You know the story of the burning bush when God called Moses to go to Pharaoh to bring the Israelites out to freedom. Moses called down plagues and pestilences upon Egypt to persuade the Pharaoh to let his people go. Yet in each instance, God hardened the heart of Pharaoh so that he said no. Yes, the Bible is clear that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. The final devastating horror was that God went through the land killing all the firstborn of people and animals, passing over only the Israelite families who had slaughtered a lamb or kid and smeared the blood on their doorposts. While the Egyptians were awash in grief, the Israelites stole their valuables and made a dash for the border. When the Pharaoh learned about that, he sent his chariots after the Israelites and our text tells what happened next. God led the people in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. When the Egyptians approached, God whipped around to the rear to defend the column of slow-moving Israelites. He instructed Moses to hold his hand and his staff over the Red Sea, which parted for the Israelites. The Egyptians in their chariots raced in after them, but their wheels clogged and then God sent back the sea and they were drowned. The Lord arranged all this, the text of Exodus says, so that he might gain “glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers,” in the eyes of both the Egyptians and Israelites. To our modern sensibilities, this seems like somewhat adolescent behavior on God’s part, hardening the Pharaoh’s heart so that God can demonstrate his military glory. In ancient warrior cultures, however, of which Israel was one for a while, such glory-seeking was a virtue. How conceptions of God reflect their cultures is the topic of another sermon!) Of course we do not know whether any of this is historical. No Egyptian records mention anything like the escape of the Israelites or the loss of the entire Egyptian army.

The arbitrariness of God in this story was recognized by the Jewish rabbis early on. They tell about a victory party in heaven the night after the Israelites escaped through the Red Sea. Since God had done the fighting for the Israelites, the heavenly host was celebrating the victory of their divine hero. But God was found weeping. “Why?,” he was asked. “Although I rejoice for my children, the Israelites,” God answered, “I sorrow for my children, the Egyptians.”

In the rabbis’ tale lies a fundamental principle for tolerance, namely, that the feelings of all sides need to be taken into account. Or to put the point more theologically, God is as close to any one people as God is to any other. All are children of God. Of course, to understand God’s dealings with people in the form of a story, as the Exodus account is a story, is always to adopt the particular perspective of the story. The Exodus is a great model of freedom for Israel, but a model of ingratitude and thievery for the Egyptians and an utter disaster for the people of Canaan on whom the Israelites fell next. The stories of the Egyptians and Canaanites cast very different lights on Israel’s story of itself.

Let’s think about conflicting stories for a moment, as we try to understand Christian tolerance after 9/11. We Christians like to tell a story of ourselves as spreading a religion of love, peace, and justice through a world where those ways of relating to God and to one another are in short supply. Our story includes the Christianization of the Roman Empire, of Europe, of the Americas, and many parts of Asia and Africa. When Jews tell their story of Christianity, however, with two thousand years of Christian persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, the Christian self-image can be viewed only as outrageous hypocrisy.

A few weeks ago we witnessed the bitter grief of Jewish settlers being forced out of their homes in Gaza by their own army. For many of the settlers, that was like what happened to their European parents and grandparents under the anti-Semites. Yet, whatever you think about the justice of that forcible removal, we can hope that it will give the people of Israel deeper insight into the Palestinians’ insistence on the right of return to their own homes from which they were forcibly removed when the modern State of Israel was founded. Will the Israelis come to understand that the Palestinians have a similar story?

Or consider the story we Americans tell of ourselves regarding the founding of our nation. Good, upstanding, educated colonists led a revolution to separate Americ
a from the British Empire, because the economic and political policies of the Empire denied the freedom of the Americans to develop our own economic and political interests. The Americans’ scrappy little standing army, led by George Washington, could rarely win a stand-up battle against the vastly more powerful British war machine, with its trained mercenaries, supplied by the best navy in the world. So the war was fought mainly by colonial guerilla insurgencies that kept the British off guard, disrupted their supplies, and finally made the suppression of the insurgency too costly, especially when the French intervened to block the British navy and the support for the war diminished in Britain. We won that war, and when the British came back in 1812, we beat them again, pretty much the same way. Americans love the underdog, the resourceful people that get around the imperial economic machines and do not let more powerful people tell them what to do. That story is an essential component of our special sense of freedom and democracy. Now you know where I am going with this point. What people have a story like ours today? The Iraqi insurgents, of course. And we Americans are playing the role of the British Empire. Many dis-analogies exist between the American revolutionary situation and that of contemporary Iraq, and these should not be discounted. Nevertheless, the positive analogy of these stories is very strong.

Tolerance requires that we disengage ourselves from our own stories somewhat and see those stories from the standpoint of the others involved. The examples I have cited illustrate different ways in which national or religious stories relate. The stories of the Israelites, Egyptians, and Canaanites about the Exodus illustrate how one event can play very different and morally conflicting roles in the separate stories of the participants. The views of the Christians and Jews about Christian history illustrate how different perspectives within a single story give rise to radically different interpretations. The stories of modern Jews and Palestinians about their being forcibly removed from their homes, and the violence this justifies as counter-measures, illustrate how similar stories with heroes and villains reversed can lead to irresolvable conflicts. Northern Ireland has this kind of conflict of stories. So does the recent history of Muslims and Hindus in Pakistan and India. The similarity between the American revolution and the Iraqi insurgency illustrates the irony when one story defining heroes and villains becomes the narrative framework of another situation with the heroes of the first becoming the villains of the second.

Now I submit that tolerance is impossible so long as any group identifies itself with its story, or interpretation of a larger story, without also being able to honor the alternatives. The real problem is that God’s creation is too rich to be reduced to self-identity through narratives. We are tempted to solve the problem by enlarging the stories to be all inclusive. Where that is possible, all to the good. For instance, Christian self-understanding can be enlarged to acknowledge persecution of Jews, with appropriate repentance. We Americans can enlarge our current story to see how we have betrayed our founding story of freedom and respect for the underdog in our current policies. But sometimes mere enlargement of stories is not possible. Sometimes conflicts are real, and to maintain a close hold on our own story is to be committed to an intolerant narrative. A few weeks ago I preached against what theologians call the narrative understanding of Christianity, one based on a cosmic story of God fighting the forces of evil. That kind of narrative shrinks God into a finite, parochial player in a larger cosmic drama within which God might be the biggest and best but surely not the creator of the whole. Such a narrative is also a formula for hate, because it misleads people into hating those whom they believe God hates.

The Christian gospel instead builds on the rabbis’ understanding of God’s tears for the Egyptians. God is the creator of the whole cosmos, and all people are equally God’s children. Fundamental Christian tolerance relates to other people through our and their relation to God, not directly through our conflicting stories. Paul was exactly right when he said, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.” This is to say, we do not live and die as defined by our own stories. “If we live,” said Paul, “we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” The same thing is true of every other people, regardless of their being Jew or Gentile, Christian or any other religion, virtuous or disgustingly sinful. Our primal identity is our relation to God in our own context, and that relation to God includes relating to other people as also first related to God in their context, and only secondarily as interacting with us in our context. Our fundamental relation to other people should be to treat them as living and dying to God, whose children they are.

No moral relativism lurks here, because we all, ourselves and all those others, stand under judgment to God. But we cannot make any deep, ontological judgment on those others, as Jesus remarked in the Sermon on the Mount. That judgment belongs to God. Because of this, our fundamental attitude toward others needs to be tolerance. Our proximate moral judgments need to be made in terms of our best understanding that is informed by stories in part, by historical, sociological, psychological, and anthropological understanding, by the critical imagination of the arts, and by experience of practical life. Most of all, our proximate moral judgments need to be informed by the conviction at the heart of our faith that even our enemies are loved by God and should be loved by us even when we have to oppose them. This is the meaning of Christian tolerance. Because we sometimes do have to oppose people, tolerance requires forgiveness, our forgiveness of them, their forgiveness of us, and God’s forgiveness of all. Paul said,

Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cumming Neville

Investment

Sunday, September 4th, 2005
Exodus 12:1-14

Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20

Let me reiterate my welcome to you this morning, especially to the new students and their families who are here for the first time. Because we are in the middle of a worship ritual, it is fair to point out that going away to college is itself a ritual act of great importance. Of course, it is not only a ritual: it is a real life transformation. Yet it has a ritual quality to it, a culturally defined celebration of a life change. In American society, going away to college, or I should say from the university pulpit, coming to college, marks the passage from childhood in the care of family to adulthood in the care of one’s own responsibility. People who do not go to college, or leave home for the military or make some other such culturally defined break from childhood often do not realize when adult responsibilities are upon them. The ritual character of coming of age by coming to college is extremely important.

The ancient Romans also had an important coming of age ritual, at least for the young men. Among other things it involved putting on clothes that only adult males were allowed to wear. The ceremony involved a young man being given an adult toga by his father, or some father surrogate. The Latin word for clothes is the root of our word “vestments.” The liturgical vestments that Dean Olson, Dean Young-Scaggs, and I are wearing in fact are ancient Roman costumes worn by government officials. We today have radically different clothes for our government officials, except for judges, and the Roman vestments linger on in church life rather than government because they have taken up a liturgical role within Christian history. Worship leaders in some Christian churches wear no special liturgical vestments. When I grew up in Missouri, most of the Methodist ministers wore black doctoral gowns to lead worship; few of them had Ph.D. degrees, although liturgical custom said it was alright for ministers to dress like Ph.D.s when leading worship. Our own vestments at Marsh Chapel reflect an older kind of Methodism with roots in Anglicanism and before that in medieval Christianity. I doubt that the leaders of Christian worship in the first three centuries wore robes like ours, because few if any were Roman senators. Only after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century was it likely that worship leaders dressed like government officials.

I am not stressing the importance of liturgical vestments because I think there is one right way for liturgical leaders to dress, or even because I think liturgical vestments are important for anything except contributing to a consistent and symbolically rich, historically sensitive, service of worship. Rather, I stress the importance of vestments because of our text from St. Paul, where he says to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” What does he mean by “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ”? He means to vest oneself in the clothing of the Christian Way. Just as a Roman adolescent boy becomes a man by putting on the tunic signifying adulthood, Paul was saying, so would-be Christians should become Christians by putting on the Way of Jesus Christ.

One of the most famous conversions in Christian history was that of Saint Augustine in the fourth century, and I follow the interpretation of that conversion given by the theologian Carl Vaught. Augustine had been raised as a Christian by a pious mother, but had fallen away from her faith. As a young man he became a successful teacher of rhetoric and, hunting for a religion, tried out, first, the religion of the Manicheans and, then, the philosophical and religious practices of the Neo-Platonists. More than religious experimentation, however, he fell into a life of partying and sexual excess. (I am not suggesting that he was like anyone you will meet here at Boston University, you understand!) Augustine was tempted back toward Christianity, although he could not bring himself to affirm it. He prayed, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet!” One day he was in a garden with a friend, in a terribly wrought-up state of mind about whether to convert to the Christian faith. He heard some children on the other side of the garden wall chanting a game-rhyme that meant “take up and read, take up and read.” So he took up a copy of the New Testament lying on the garden table and read our passage from Romans: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Suddenly he knew what he had to do. He decided then and there to put off his way of life, which St. Paul called the way of the flesh, and to put on the Christian life. He put off the licentious way of life in which he had vested himself and put on the vestments of Christ’s Way. He had not solved all of his theological problems. He did not know yet the full implications of giving up the life he had been leading to take on the Christian life. Nevertheless, he put on the Lord Jesus’ Christ’s Way of life from that day forward and became one of the most important Christian leaders and thinkers ever.

What is the Christian Way summed up in the phrase, the Lord Jesus Christ? We know from the gospels that it does not necessarily have to do with giving up partying, sex, or riches, since Jesus was positive about all those things. Augustine had to give up those things because they were holding him in bondage so that, because of them, he could not put on the Lord Jesus Christ. In our text from Paul, the Christian way is beautifully described:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

That was Paul writing to the Romans. But possibly you noticed that he was quoting and glossing sayings of Jesus.

The big question for us is, how do we learn to love like that? It is one thing to say that we belong to a religion of love, and there are several such religions. It is quite another thing to put on the vestments of that religion so that we become lovers, as God is a lover. Of course, I don’t mean that you have to put on religious clothing, dressing like a Roman senator or a person with a Ph.D. Some Christians, like some Buddhists, do wear special clothes to indicate their invested religious identity. The true vestments of Christianity, however, have a lot to do with whom you associate with in your work and leisure. Augustine immediately told his friend, Alypius, who was in the garden with him, about his conversion and Alypius too converted and they began to help one another. So it will help you to cultivate Christian friends. It will help to join Christian groups. You are welcome in any of the groups we have at Marsh Chapel. It will help to read the Bible and theology, and to talk with serious friends about the meaning of the Christian life. It will help to develop habits of prayer and meditation. It will help to come to regular worship and meet people who are at very different stages in their practice of the Christian Way of love. For many people here, the true Christian vestments are brand new; for others they are nicely worn and comfortable. The Christian life is not basically about beliefs or even virtues. The Christian life is about putting on a pattern of behavior associated with Jesus Christ that leads to the cultivation of the way of love as Jesus taught and practiced.

So I invite you to invest yourselves this morning in the Way of the Lord Jesus Christ. Even the financial meaning of the word “inve
stment” derives from “putting on” the fortunes of the company in which you invest: the future of that company is your financial future when you give it your money. For you to invest yourselves in the Way of Jesus Christ, however, is not to have a balanced portfolio. I presume all of you students will try on the vestments of different religions. Everyone who reads the Daodejing becomes a Daoist for at least as long as it takes to clean their room and drink some tea. You will make friends with people who are deeply invested in different religious traditions from your own, and you might for a while invest with them for the sake of friendship. All that is to the good! But sometime you will need to invest all your heart, soul, mind, and strength in some particular Way, such as the Way of the Lord Jesus Christ. That Way has many forms, and it might take years to find those forms that suit your own life, that lead you to greater love. I admit that some forms of Christianity for some people lead them to lives of resentment, small-mindedness, and hate. But I urge you to invest in that Christian Way that leads to life and love.

The central ritual of the Way of the Lord Jesus Christ is the communion or Eucharist that we are about to celebrate. I invite you to put on the Lord Jesus Christ by coming to his table. No membership requirements exist for you to put on Jesus Christ at this table, for Jesus did not eat only with his disciples. No virtue requirements exist for you to put on Jesus Christ at this table, for Jesus ate with sinners as well as saints. No constancy or commitment requirements exist for you to put on Christ at this table, for Jesus never insisted that people come back. If you are here just because of custom, not commitment, come put on Jesus Christ and see whether things get serious. If you are curious about Christianity and its theology, come to this table to put on its intellectual Way for a while. If you are filled with doubts and rebellion, come put on Jesus Christ and see how doubts are contained within the Christian Way. If you already have put on Jesus Christ, come to his table to celebrate with his people. If you want to become better at the Christian Way, come to his table and put on Christ’s nourishment. If you are an outsider, come to the table and put on the fellowship of Jesus Christ. If you feel unworthy and ashamed, guilty and filled with self-condemnation, come to this table and put on the Lord Jesus Christ in whom there is no condemnation, for this table has the food of life. If you do not know how to love as God loves, put on Jesus Christ at this table and you will begin to learn. At this time of ritual transformation, where going to college means putting on adult responsibility, I invite you to do this by investing in the Lord Jesus Christ, our Way, Truth, and Life. Amen

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville