August 27

Spirit and Flesh

By Marsh Chapel

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….


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.

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