Archive for August, 2006

Spirit and Flesh

Sunday, August 27th, 2006

John 6: 60-69

1. A Spirit of Truth

It is the Spirit that giveth life.

Spirit. Spirit.

It is the Spirit that giveth life. There is a self-correcting Spirit of truth loose in the universe. There is a self-giving Spirit of compassion loose in the universe. One provides a saving, divine flexibility, crucial to our spiritual sustenance in the next decade. One provides a saving, divine femininity, crucial to our spiritual sustenance in the next decade. In such flexible femininity is the freedom of Christ, of which Paul said, ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’.

It is the Spirit that giveth life.

Spirit. Spirit.

Earlier this summer I made a wrong turn. I was driving back here, that is back home to Boston, though the route is not yet familiar because we have not yet really lived here, at home. It was dusk, and there was fog, and there was rain. Nor do I think of myself as someone who misses turns in the dark. With no trusted voice near me, no dad or wife to point out, in a trusted voice, the moment of error, I was left to my own pride. Early hints of misdirection went utterly unnoticed.

I make this appeal for sympathy and support, to you. I was reviewing, and rehearsing the next Sunday’s sermon, as the rain fell. I mean I had it more or less in mind—text, theme, outline, flow. I was trying to comb through it, as you do, to trim and tuck. This was in the mind’s eye, now. The paper copy lay next to me on the seat. You see, I have a good excuse for flubbing up, even a religious excuse.

I came toward Albany and turned onto Route 90. The to and fro of the sermon came and went, as the wipers on the car went swish swish swish. At some point, I began to feel funny. The rain fell. I had that down in the stomach funny feeling. Then in the shadows, somehow, without full consciousness, I began to realize that the landscape was not what I expected. Too much open space. Too little traffic. Then I passed an exit for Amsterdam. I did remember not that Amsterdam was east of Albany. Which it is not. After that, I clicked off the mental sermon memory work. The landscape was definitely wrong, even in the dark. I waited to see a Route 90 sign, hoping against hope that it would say 90 east, the way to dear old Boston. The sign came. 90 west. There was no escaping the truth of the matter. I made a wrong turn. So I exited, entered, retraced the twenty miles.

It is fascinating to think about the levels of awareness regarding error. When do we begin to notice that something is rotten in Denmark? A feeling…a dim awareness…a moment of consciousness…proof and recognition. I wonder if groups, as well as individuals, go through various stages of denial and avoidance, on the one hand, and recognition and admission on the other? A period of calm….A feeling in the viscera…A subconscious awareness…. A hair raising full alertness to the possibility of error…. A hope against hope to be wrong about being wrong, and to be right about being right….The moment of truth and proof.

The chagrin and mortification of the long trip back.

Of course we should have seen the signs ‘do not enter’, ‘wrong way, go back’, with lettering about just war theory making no space for preemptive, unilateral, imperial, unforeseeable action. Many did say, ‘this is immoral, post-Christian, and wrong.’ But that was down in the subconscious. The hands on the wheel made the turn. Drive on.

As a country we had a period of calm, of sorts, following the invasion of Iraq. We had statues toppling and mission accomplished moments. The Christian community, mostly mutely, occasionally vocally, criticized the war. In all, though, there was an early calm. Drive on.

But even those who affirmed the original action began to have a feeling in the viscera, shortly thereafter. Life is busy, so there was every reason to lean on the assumption that somebody knew what was going on. Drive on.

Then there was a pre-conscious awareness, that through the fog of war, nonetheless, we could make out the contours of a landscape different from the one we expected. Something about the lingering absence of any connection to 9/11 terrorists weighed on the national psyche. Life is busy, and didn’t we remove a villainous dictator anyway? Drive on.

It takes time to pull yourself away from the various tasks at hand to ask about just where the car is going. It is much easier to assume that we are headed in the right direction. But then you pass by one sign post or another. It clicks. Life is busy, but not so busy that you miss a lack of weapons of mass destruction. Drive on, but let’s check at the next exit.

We have been hoping against hope that we were wrong about being wrong and right about being right. We were not. All hell has broken loose, on our watch. We are headed west, not east. It is time to get off the highway and turn around. Drive back. And in that drive back we have to pass by all our missed signs. The sudden counter insurgency. The inadequacy of troop levels. The steady rejection of our plan by many of our best friends. Canada is our best friend. A good enough friend to tell us flat out how wrong we were. The mounting deaths of soldiers, the soaring severe casualties, which we shall view now for two generations in this land. The murderous levels of native deaths
. The collapse of infrastructure. The flaming civil war in which now our boys and girls are sitting ducks.

How do 300 million people come to terms with such a colossal mistake?

Pastoral counsel begins with the suggestion to return to the point where you last felt right. To the point in history before the doctrine of preemption. Before our decision to act unilaterally. Prior to the living out of the desire to seize oil rich land. Ahead of the moment when we jettisoned the memory of proportionality and restraint. In other words, when we still kept the pillars of Judeo-Christian just war theory in mind: responsive not preemptive, multilateral not unilateral, restorative not imperial, limited not endless. That time earlier. When we could remember RFK saying to his brother about pre-emption: “Jack, that would be Pearl Harbor in reverse”. When we could remember the wise, courageous ideals that went into the creation of the United Nations in the 1940’s. When we could sense the gravitational pull of oil, before we had K. Phillips documentation in American Theocracy. When we and he still remembered the Powell doctrine.

Sursum Corda. Here the good news of John 6. There is a self-correcting Spirit of Truth, loose in the universe. The future is open.

At depth, it is our operating idea of God that is at issue here, and is to become either the source or the barrier to the source of our needed spiritual sustenance. Is there freedom in God? Freedom to make mistakes and learn from them? Freedom to find flexibility to turn around? If your idea, or picture of the divine makes no space for trial and error, or if your operating idea of God is that of ‘John Calvin on a bad day’ (all providence, predestination, and purpose), if, that is, God wills every turn onto Route 90 west, and you were meant to make that mistake, then you have very little courage or capacity to turn around. To turn, turn…To learn and turn.

There is a self-correcting Spirit of Truth loose in the universe.

To be converted to life in this way would be, with Karl Barth long ago, at the end of his life, to be seized by a sense of the Humanity of God, a book he at last wrote in the last stretch of his work. For those of us interested in ameliorating some of the Calvinism abroad today, Barth’s valediction, in some ways a contradiction of his earlier work, is significant.

It was Tillich who celebrated Spirit: In the Spiritual Presence, man’s essential being appears under the conditions of existence, conquering the distortions of existence in the reality of the New Being. This statement is derived from the basic Christological assertion that in the Christ the eternal unity of God and man becomes actual under the conditions of existence without being conquered by them. Those who participate in the New Being are in an analogous way beyond the conflict of essence and existential predicament. The Spiritual Presence actualizes the essential within the existential in an unambiguous way. (ST III, 345)

2. A Spirit of Compassion

Let me ask you to think for a minute about Spirit and Flesh, with regard to Alice and Ralph Kramden. We have long ago left behind the caricatures here. As Gardner Taylor said, “we are all part male and part female, thank God”. We are all part Alice and part Ralph, part daddy party and part mommy party, thank goodness.

Regarding spirit and flesh, and with all loving respect to Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, there is hardly an actor that brought more corpulence, more flesh to the TV screen. By the same bus token, no actress brought more Spirit to the same screen than did his much wearied spouse, Alice. The set of the Honeymooners is not just a one bedroom walkup in NYC. The set is the heart, ours, yours.

Every ‘Honeymooners’ plot was the same. The husband, the Daddy figure, hatched a plot, part idealism, part desire to please, part love, part arrogance, part lunacy. Ralph would become a millionaire. Ralph would be elected lodge President. Ralph would become bus supervisor. Ralph would buy a business. Daddy knew best. All faith and no insight, all ideology and no community, all theory and no practice. The hermeneutical circle without a circle or a hermeneutic.

In slapstick panache, over the next 23 minutes, all heaven would break loose. Ralph would overestimate the project. He would underestimate the opposition. He would mistake the cost. He would overlook crucial facts. He would slightly, every so slightly, misrepresent the truth, a little supressio veri here, a little suggestio falsi there. He would dig himself into a hole, paint himself into a corner, lock himself into a cage and throw away the key. To speak this paragraph with you is to laugh and delight in a human person caught in the act of being human. You just cannot decide whether to laugh or cry.

Then, with disaster coming up the stairs of their modest, working class, plain, refrigerator centered, one room apartment, Ralph would go to the one person he could go to. Alice. And Alice would listen, honestly criticize, shake her head in disgust, and shake the dust from her feet, and shrug, and find an exit strategy. She would force Ralph to call and apologize. She would gather some friends to fix the plumbing. She would remind Ralph of his generous, not greedy self. She would fix a workable plan.

We laughed and went to bed happy and relieved.

Now. For some years across the US of A we have had an idea that one group of people constituted the Daddy in us and one constituted the Mommy. One set of individuals, to quote the otherwise perspicacious David Brooks, were the ‘peddle to the metal guys’ when it came to new, tough adventures. The other set, were those individuals still wallowing in such flea bitten, moth eaten, down at the heel, run of the mill inter
ests as feeding the household, keeping order in a working class environment, loving with kindness, communicating with honesty, and having a nose for foolishness. ‘Daddy party’ in us all and the ‘Mommy’ party in us all.

I would say, by this Scripture of Spirit and Flesh, that it is time to simply submit to the (false) dichotomy. Let us allow the ‘Daddy’ in us all that role. Sometimes, as in Asian wrestling, you subvert something by becoming subject to it, with a twist. Ralph Kramden has a good heart, and wants to please the mother figure. He truly believes in what he is doing. And he is funny. His ‘strategery’ is a source of hilarity. He wants to boldly go, or boldly to go, depending on whether you are an English teacher or a Trekky, where no man has gone. Preemptively, unilaterally, imperially, unforeseeably. Is it immoral? Post Judeo-Christian? Wrong? Certainly the motives were good and paved the way…

The Ralph in us got it wrong.

It is time for Alice to find her voice.

Alice the wise, the loving, the compassionate, the realistic, the suffering servant. Alice the Christ. It is time for Alice to conclude the episode. Yes, you can have the title Daddy, Ralph. You can be the head of the ideahold. You can swagger and strut. You can initiate—in all good faith, and with good intentions, and with a true heart, and much Flesh.

But it is the Spirit that giveth life. There is a self-giving Spirit of Compassion loose in the universe.

You gotta hit it Alice. Now. You gotta hit it. The Flesh is of no avail. So the housewife with no salary, no progeny, no status, no power—THE CHURCH—needs to help Ralph get off our back without hurting himself.

If this 6 billion person world household is going to have a future, Alice better find her voice. Alice? Where are you? Church? Theologically educated clergy? Where are you? Come out, come out wherever you are…We need to clean up the mess we made in Iraq, in order to get on with the real war on terror. We need to find a responsible exit plan.

Alice says: there will be no world worth living in, Ralph Kramden, until we give up the notion of atttacking people who have not attacked us. There will be no world worth living in if one country, no matter the provocation, goes around shooting others at will and wim. There will be no world worth living in if addiction to oil rules life. There will be no world worth living in, if we cannot restrain our anger, and miss the chance to “meet violence with patient justice”.

There will be a frying pan in the air fight. There will be a huge argument. There will be Ralph shouting, ‘To the moon, Alice, to the moon.’ That is what happens when you not only ruffle, but pluck feathers.

When that happens we will have been seized, as was Barbara Brown Taylor, by the Femininity of God. If your audition of God makes no place for soprano and alto voices, but only tenor and base, you will miss some of the spiritual resources needed for the 21st century. If your picture of the divine makes no space for the so-called feminine, you will miss the living water, with which to slake our global thirst.

There is a self-giving Spirit of compassion, loose in the universe.

One question is ‘what saves you’. Another is ‘what is saving you right now’, as Taylor asks. Today B Taylor is ‘being saved’ by nature, Sabbath, teaching, and friends (Leaving Church).

Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza reminds us of the patriarchy in Scripture, Scripture that is prototype more than archtype, but its application is in the voice of Alice: I’m warning you Ralph…You listen to me Ralph…I’m going to my mother’s Ralph.

It is the voice of Ma Joad: Well, Pa, a woman can change better’n a man. A man lives sorta – well, in jerks. Baby’s born or somebody dies, and that’s a jerk. He gets a farm or loses it, and that’s a jerk. With a woman, it’s all in one flow, like a stream – little eddies and waterfalls – but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it thata way….Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good an’ they die out. But we keep a’comin’. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.

It is, returning by Route 90, the voice of Mother Ann Lee and the early Shakers, in New Lebanon, at the border of Massachusetts and New York: Tis a gift to be loving, tis the best gift of all, like a gentle rain love blesses as it falls, and when we find ourselves in the place just right, twill be in the valley of love and delight. When true, simplicity is gain, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed….

TO TURN, TURN WILL BE OUR DELIGHT, TILL BY TURNING, TURNING WE COME ROUND RIGHT!

There will come a day…

A day when Ralph, the Ralph in us all, chastened, Ralph, grateful, Ralph, toughened, Ralph matured, will walk across the little refrigerator centered apartment kitchen of life, and give God’s own sigh, God’s own cry, God’s own hug, God’s own tearful and loving word.

And what will he say? What will Ralph say to Alice? What will influen
ce say to compassion? What will flesh say to Spirit? What will corpulence say to wit? What will power say to truth, well told? What will you say to the living Christ?

Baby, you’re the greatest…

By your manner of living, say so starting today.

Learning from Experience

Sunday, August 20th, 2006


John 6:51-58

1. Odd Experience

We have listened with care to a reading from the second century of the common era. One wonders what resonance, what close connection these words make to those listening for hope in Maine, or on the warm shores of Cape Cod, or out in the lakes and woods of New Hampshire. Living Bread. Live forever. True flesh. True blood. These words seem to be pulsing with life and promise, but they are, to the average ear, odd words too.

Recently a reporter from traveled to Alaska. The reporter followed a trail of news, stemming from the announcement that in several Alaskan cities, there lived an abundance of young single men, and a paucity of young single women. An eager editor, seizing a summer moment, sent off his dutiful scribe, to interview the Northern Lights. As I recall, the reporter did confirm the statistical imbalance, far more women than men. 3 men for every woman. 3 to 1. What made the article memorable, however, was a more insightful quotation, with which the report concluded. The reporter interviewed a young woman at a bar, and asked her perspective on this statistical imbalance. “Well”, the woman replied. “yes, it is true, look around you, yes, the ratio is heavily weighted. The men outnumber the women. There are something like two three men for every woman. You could say that the odds are good, if you are looking for a relationship. The odds, yes, the odds are good….but, on the other hand, again, look around you, the odds are good, but…though the odds are good…the goods are odd!”

Her experience changed her outlook, modified her perspective, qualified her inherited idea.

2. The Difference of the Fourth Gospel

This morning, the odds are good that we have before us great good news. We worship in a historic, beautiful sanctuary, with divided chancel, beautiful windows, wondrous music, plenty of parking. Those present have weathered the rain, the good gift of this week. Some weeks are better than others. Some weeks bring Spahn and Seine and a day of rain. Some weeks you get the day of rain. Still, come Sunday, the odds are good that we shall hear again a saving, good word.

But today, though the odds are good, the goods are odd. These are strange terms. We do better to acknowledge our puzzlement about the words and phrases, and we do better not too easily or quickly to append them to our way of seeing and hearing. They do not do well, these and other words from John, copied and strung along as signboards in baseball stadiums. They do not fare well, these and other words from John, recited and repounded in quick cadence. They do not travel well, these and other words from John, especially in the heat of a summer like this, if they have not been cleaned and cut and frozen. The odds are good. But the goods are odd.

It is odd that John has no record of the Last Supper, in his account of the passion. It is odd that John demotes Peter from his regular central role. It is odd that this gospel carries no remembrance of parables. It is odd that hardly anything of the standard ministry of Jesus, usual gospel fare, appears here. It is odd that the humanity of Jesus has virtually disappeared into the bright eternal light of his form in John, “God striding upon the earth”. It is odd that the New Testament would include a Gospel so fully at odds with its three synoptic cousins. Cousins, not siblings. It is odd that John, by the main, has no use for the sacraments of baptism and eucharist. Where would the church be without birth to celebrated and forgiveness to announce, birth to cleanse and guilt to absolve? It is odd that the Gospel we read today is shaped around seven stunning miracles, and four impenetrable chapters of teaching. It is odd that a Gospel so wildly different from the rest of those in the Bible should have made the cut, and been included. If you think having Ecclesiastes—which rejects, contradicts or at least questions much of the rest of the Hebrew Scripture—included there is a strange thing, then multiply that odd presence severalfold and you have a sense of how different is John. Nor in church nor in academia have we yet begun to account for the radical freedom and difference of this nonconforming gospel. It is odd.

3.A Strange Passage within a Strange Gospel

But the plot thickens again, today. Now when we approach the rickety gate of John 6:51, we arrive at oddity squared. Here the Johannine rejection is itself rejected. Where the rest of the gospel has laughed at end time speculation and ignored sacramental theology, our morning reading has replaced them both. In vivid imagery. In chomping sound bites. Pun intended. In bloody, gorey physicality. The greek word for eating, softly rendered here for mild English speaking palates, means “munch, grind, chomp”. Odd, odd. All the rest of the gospel concurs with a verse just out on the back lawn from the house of our reading, “it is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail”. Hence no baptism of the Lord. Hence no Lord’s Supper. Hence the washing of feet instead of eucharist. John has no use for end time speculation. John has no use for sacraments. John has no place for the left behind series. John has no place for hyper sacramentalism.

Except in this passage, and a few others like it. How odd.

It is as if in one paragraph we tumbled from pulpit to altar, from Philadelphia to Rome, from George Fox to John 23.

So odd, in fact, that scholars have sent their own studious reporters into the fray to interview, to gather the facts, and report on their own imbalance. One standing judgment about this passage is that it is a later addition to the original. A later editor added these and a few similar passages, whe
n the community entered new territory.

4. Watching John Learn from Experience

Facts are stubborn things, as one of our earliest Presidents, from Massachusetts, asserted. Facts are stubborn things said John Adams. They are the bedrock of our experience, which itself is a stubborn reminder to us of our limitation, our potential, our error, our success, our shortcomings, our glories.

Whether or not we can finally ferret out all the intricacies of this morning’s text, and whether or not any have stayed fully awake to follow the trail of such an effort, and whether or not the preacher of the day has served poorly or ably as a trail guide, there does stand out a feature of truth that may, in its own way, provide a healthy word.

The writers of the fourth gospel and its traditions changed course when their experience showed them a deeper dimension of their inherited faith. The fourth gospel in particular gives us the fossil evidence, the footprints, the fingerprints of people and communities that could change, when the facts and their experience warranted change.

Yes, there is another sermon for another day, from another text in another context, warning against us being ‘blown about by every wind of doctrine’. Fair enough. But let the day’s own Scripture be sufficient for the day. Sufficient to the day is the Scripture thereof…Today we find a reminder from the shrouded past, that even in the heart of the Bible, down in the depths of what is most firmly traditional about our faith, and buried in that most sublime and spiritual of the gospels, no less, that of John, there dwells a capacity to trust in what our actual experience, the blood and breath of our own lives, the flesh and bone of our own work and death can give us.

In the Johannine tradition there were moments when Spirit and Life were fully sufficient to guide the church: “those who do what is true come to the light” (3:18); “the true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world (1:9)”; “God so loved the world that God gave the only begotten son, that whoever believes…”; “very truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life” (5:24): “I am the resurrection and the life…everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (11:9).

Then there were others, when, for whatever obscure reasons, a regrounding in the earth of relationship, a reconnection with the blood and flesh of sacrifice, required a rewriting of the tradition itself.

Often this passage has been fought over by those extolling word, on the one hand, and those extolling sacrament, on the other. Oddly, the ecumenical movement has both ameliorated and broadened this debate, a good and old and lasting one. Is it hearing and believing that saves? Is it eating and drinking that saves? Is it Word? Is it Table?

Hear some good news. The very lasting existence of this debate honors our experience. There same days when it is the former that is needed. There are some days when it is the latter. And they do not blend together, in some easy synthesis, anymore than Wednesday becomes Thursday, by our wishing it to be so. Both Word and Table come in experience.

Schleiermacher seems to have captured this: Where Christ recommends as essential the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood, He had in mind neither the Supper nor any other definite act. He wished rather to indicate in how profound a sense He Himself must become our being and well-being…we must be related to Him as the branch to the vine (TCF, 704).

5. We learn too.

Ours is crucial good news today, for individuals, for churches, for nations. We learn too.

We just knew the earth was flat. Until Copernicus and Galileo. We just knew that India was just a few miles west of London. Until Columbus. We just knew that the world was formed in seven days. Until Darwin. We just knew that the reason was king of the forest. Until Freud. We just knew that Pluto was the last planet. Until this week. We just knew that homosexuality stood apart from our tradition. Until we met George or Mary, or reread Galatians. We just knew that they would welcome us as liberators in the streets of Baghdad. Until they didn’t. She just knew he would stop drinking before he hurt someone. He didn’t. He just knew he would win that money back with one more hand. He didn’t.

There is no lasting harm in surprising, different or difficult experience. Nor lasting shame in failure. With one exception. That is the sin against the Holy Spirit that comes with blind and willful ignorance of our lived experience. Sin is not receiving what is offered, as Ann Ulanov used to say.

Sometimes the Biblical witness is set against our experience, our blood, breath and bone. But here, as in general, what we find in the Bible is our experience, at its depth. And what we find in our experience, is the deep witness of Scripture.

At lunch, some years ago, after the single most hurtful, most depressing, and most bitter experience of my professional life to that point, my friend asked me a simple question about what had happened: “So, Bob, what have you learned from it?”

This week dear friends sent Ellen Goodman’s Paper Trail, autographed by the author, one of my double decade favorite voices. It is her capacity to consider the actual experience of life that makes her so gifted. Of course, she has her traveling
companions, three in number. Skepticism. Humor. And the question, “Wait a minute…”

Timothy Tyson’s memoir of his father’s ministry in the south during the 1960’s, Blood Done Sign My Name, includes the same three traveling companions, and reminds us that really change, really learning, can take generations.

When even an anti-sacramental, non millenarian, Spirit Gospel like John, can suddenly make space, in John 6:51, for some sacrament and some cosmic eschatology, you know that some experience changed some view.

New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth. One must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

My friend’s dad told him, “You do not have time to make all the mistakes yourself, so you will need to listen and learn from the experience of others, too.”

There is a great deal of hurt, a world of hurt, behind the development of the Fourth Gospel, which to this point we only minimally understand. Even as we have yet to appreciate John’s difference, we have yet also to appreciate, feel, his pain.

I wonder, this summer, whether, dangling a foot in the pool, or listening to the wind in the rigging, or awake at dawn, you might like to learn from the experience of the early church, from John, and with him find a way to admit, assess, and accept what we find there.

I wonder, this fall, whether, by televised debate or print exchange, we as a country might like to think about whether, in all our youthful and adolescent and idealistic intent, we may have made some errors, truly costly errors, near and far, in the past few years.

I wonder, this morning, sitting in the pew, or driving on Route 90, whether you might want to ponder your experience in the light of what is at the depth of your experience, living bread…coming down from heaven… To live life, that is, sub specie aeternitatis, under the aspect of eternity. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.