Archive for February, 2007

A Tradition of Principled Resistance

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

Luke 4: 1-13

It is the season of Lent, and again, come this first Sunday in Lent; we meet Jesus in the wilderness. There He resists. In the time honored tradition of a three part story, we are given a lesson about making and keeping human life—human. Here, as in our other gospels, the Lord faces and masters the various temptations which we also know. They include a kind of will to power, and a sort of pride, and a type of avarice. We come to church with some experience temptation and resistance and temptation. As the song writer says, ‘good experience comes from seasoned judgment–which comes from bad experience’.

In many communities, including our own, the sun rises this morning, this Lenten morning, on experience of loss and hurt. This morning there are homes and families who have suddenly known unexpected loss. This morning there are friends and groups of friends who have been faced with mortal danger. At one breakfast table, a wife now sits alone, for the first time on a Sunday in 60 years. At another breakfast table, a family gathers for the first time, in a long time, and missing a member. It would help us to remember just how short our words do fall in trying to describe the depth of these moments. Our words arrive only at the shoreline, at the margin of things. Beyond this we practice prayer, a kind of sitting silent before God.

Our immediate community here along the Charles River today mourns unexpected losses in a recent, tragic fire. Along with the scripture and the music, amid the hymns and prayers of our worship, there walks also among us today, by the mind’s farther roads, a recognition of loss. There is some shock to loss. There is a kind of fear that comes with loss. There is, often later, an honest anger. There is some numbness. There is a real, and good, desire to do something helpful. There are questions, numerous and important. And there is the one haunting question, too, why?

We do not know why these things happen. We hurt, and grieve. In the bones. At the deeper levels, we just do not know, and for a community committed to knowing, and knowing more, and more, this means wandering in a serious wilderness. Give us an equation to solve. Show us a biography that needs writing. Provide us with an experiment. Happily we would organize a committee, or develop a proposal, or phone a list of donors. But loss, unexpected and unfair, is tragic. The tragic sense of life takes us out into wilderness, where we learn to resist.

Faith is resistance. Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand.

We are in worship this morning to attest to something. Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand. Worship is the practice of faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand. God is the presence, force, truth, and love Who alone deserves worship, and worship is the practice of the faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand. Worship prepares us to resist. So we see Jesus again in the wilderness. To resist all that makes human life inhuman. So here you are, come lent, come Sunday, come this Sunday.

This week you may, suddenly, find that a choice is required of you, through no fault, intention, planning or device of your own. Further, the choice you want to make perhaps could involve refusal and resistance: refusal of a request from an archetypal authority, resistance to a popular mood, resistance to an ingrained habit, refusal of the pleas of a friend. Russell Lowell predicts that at least once to every person and group comes such a moment to decide.

With all your heart you may want to refuse, to refuse. An invitation, a suggestion, a promotion, a direction, an order. Your heart may say: This is not me, not right, not good. Resistance always costs. Resistance means sacrifice. Resistance hurts. The slings and arrow of fortune’s discontent draw blood. Resistance, refusal. Does such principled denial have a place in Christian living? Dare ask: Does God evoke and use refusal? Does Christ, God’s everlasting Yes–in whom Paul says there is no longer Yea and Nay, but only Yes–Does Christ desire resistance and refusal?

For Daniel, refusal to give up his family name, his religion, his faith landed him, with the others, in trouble. You enjoy the story, I know. Daniel resists the order to blaspheme, and accepts punishment, even death. Bound in the heart of fire, the prophet of God is protected, strangely, by God who answers prayer.

For Naboth, refusal came more dear. Old King Ahab had every vineyard he wanted but one. He asked for the land. Naboth refused. He asked again, this time presumably in a more kingly voice. Naboth refused. Ahab asked again, with a hint of threat on his tongue. Naboth refused. And Ahab went whimpering to bed. Not so, Jezebel, who simply took Naboth aside, and cut off his head. Refusal can either cost you a king’s friendship, or your head, or both.

John of Patmos did something to put himself out on the rocky prison isle, a first century Papillon, as he wrote his Revelation, our last Bible book. Refusing to worship Caesar? Names jeeringly attached to Rome–beast, satan, whore? Resistance to the more established synagogue?

What if I were to shout to you this morning that this church had received a magnificent bequest, a precious gift left us by an ancestor? Further, were I to announce that this one gift was worth more than all our buildings and all our current endowment and all our church program put together? Would you not dance, sing, soar?

You inherit a tradition of principled refusal, a pearl of great price, a treasure hidden in a field, a precious gift. A tradition of principled refusal.

Several summers ago an older woman was robbed at gunpoint in her own home. The newspaper, perhaps accurately, has quoted her in full as regards her view of this crime: “We are raising a generation of hooligans.”

Pummeled still, even in old age, even in closeted retirement, the violent spirit of the age pounds at her, lacing her with blows left and right. Yet she resists! You may recognize her, now.

This was Rosa Parks. A younger Mrs. Parks found herself, seated midway back in a Montgomery bus, on December 1, 1955, pummeled again by the hand of aggression, the Strong Man of this world. For some reason, she refused to move. Bus stopped. Police came. Crowd gathered. Anger, shouting. The Montgomery bus boycott began. A tradition of principled resistance–this is your native land, your mother tongue, your home territory.

The prophets of old knew this. They spoke about God’s unbending holiness. They spoke about God’s own refusal to set a divine seal on any present moment, any present setup, any present arrangement of power. They spoke about human suffering, about how God sees, hears, knows, remembers, and intervenes for the suffering. They spoke about God’s justice, critical of every established power. They refused. Here it is: “Prophetic speech is an act of relentless hope that refuses to despair, that refuses to believe that the world is closed off in patterns of exploitation and oppression.” (Brueggeman).

My son had only one request for a gift one year. He showed me a catalogue that pictured a little grill, for cooking meat, “ A lean, mean fat reducing machine, guaranteed to reduce each average hamburger by 3 oz of fat–$59.95” Then I noticed the sponsor of this culinary instrument—George Foreman. And I inflicted a story on my son, as parents do.

In 1974, one of the greatest boxing matches of the century pitted Mohammed Ali against the world champion, George Forman. Kinshasha, Zaire. November 2. Ali predicted: “The most spectacular wonder human eyes have ever witnessed.” 60,000 cheering fans, shouting, “Ali Bu Mal Ye”, which antiseptically translated means, “Go get him”.

Scenes: Forman charging, rounds 1-6. Forman 25, young, strong, powerful. Recently defeated both Frazier and Norton. Ali: 32, guile fitness and will. After 5 rounds, Forman arm weary and bewildered. 3rd Round, Ali leans to crowd: “He don’t hurt me much”. 5th round, Forman tantalized by the stationary target, angry, frustrated. Angelo Dundee had loosened the ropes! Ali, later: “The bull is stronger but the matador is smarter”. Then, 8th round: “Ali is leaning back against the ropes, inviting the champion’s hardest blows suddenly in the next instant he springs forward and brought Forman down. Down the strong man went, the first time ever he had been knocked out.

The historic Christian church in this country has been on the ropes for a generation, 30 years of blows to the midsection. God’s spirit is not in a mode of lightening triumph, for those who would still maintain a real connection between deep personal faith and active social involvement. But the eighth round is still coming…

Those who may need to resist and refuse today are part of the spiritual rope strategy, the wearying of the Strong Man, the resistance of evil, the binding of evil. It’s not pleasant. Hurt, setbacks, delay, confusion. But there is an eighth round coming! There is an eighth round coming!

How hungry the church is today to perceive this truth. God is at work, in part, to encourage and give stamina to those on the ropes, using Ali’s rope a dope strategy, binding the Strong Man.

A tradition of principled resistance.

I can imagine an objection or two.

Well taken, is your perhaps silent objection thus far: some refusal is Godly, but some is not. Too often those who resist or refuse are simply petulant, immature, arrogant, slothful, idiotic, selfish. Agreed…But we speak here not of forms of hypocrisy, so many they are. Rather, we speak of principled resistance, which shows its character by enduring body blows, by leaning against the rope and aching.

Or, maybe you doubt that refusal takes a part of small stage play. Perhaps only the civil disobedience of Ghandi or the peaceful resistance of Martin Luther King or the risky French Resistance of Albert Camus stand out, great historic refusals, great moments of common endurance. But you would be wrong, I suggest, to think so. Most resistance is hidden, unheralded, unknown, unrewarded. Most principled refusal is known only to the one sagging against the ropes, the one catching the body blows. Most real principled resistance is very ordinary.

Tithing is primarily a form of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s understanding of success and refusal to accept the implication that all that we have is ours alone. Worship is primarily a form of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s time clock, where all time is meant for work or play. Marriage and loyal friendship are primarily forms of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s low estimate of intimacy, refusal to accept the unholy as good. Choosing carefully is primarily a form of spiritual resistance: “We live in a society that primarily starves our soul…we have to really resist the culture to care for the soul…but…if we choose with care our professions and ways we spend our time and our homes in which we live, if we take care of our families and don’t see them as problems, and if we nurture our relationships and friendships and marriages then the
soul probably will not show its complaints so badly.” (Moore)

You are a part of a tradition of principled resistance.

In 350, Philip of Macedon wanted to unite Greece, which he did except for Sparta. He did everything he could. Finally he sent them a note: If you do not submit at once I will invade your country. If I invade I will pillage and burn everything in sight. If I march into Laconia, I will level your great city to the ground. The Spartans sent back this one word reply; “if”. (laconic).

You may not need this word today. You may want to remember it, though, especially if you are young. For one day, one day, you may want to use some of your spiritual bequest, your prophetic endowment. You may need to draw on the tradition of principled refusal.

Good news has it that along the ropes, and upon the cross, Jesus has bound up the Strong Evil, subverting by being subject to, and so empowered us to resist.

A year before he was executed by the Nazis, languishing in a small prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this hymn:

“By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered

and confidently waiting, come what may,

We know that God is with us night and morning

And never fails to greet us each new day.”

A Mountain View?

Sunday, February 18th, 2007

Luke 9: 28-36

Opening

Martin Luther King’s own favorite sermon, “The Dimensions of a Complete Life”, as Gary Dorrien reminds us (157, The Making of American Liberal Theology), was itself based on a sermon from Boston’s own Phillips Brooks. King preached the sermon in 1954, to candidate at Dexter Avenue, and again at Perdue in 1958 before a national UCC convention, and again in 1964 in Westminster Abbey to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. As you learn, preaching on a circuit, what is good the first time, can often be better preached three times or more. The opposite also may be true. King, following Brooks, compared life to a cube, possessing the three dimensions of length, breadth and height. The good life flourishes when all three interact in something like a great triangle. “At one angle stands the individual person, at the other angle stand other persons, and at the top stands the Supreme Infinite Person, God”. Length means achieving personal goals, breadth comprises the concern for the well being of others, and height signifies the desire for an upward moving longing for God.

Today’s text is about the third dimension, about height, and personally asks you whether your life exhibits this, King’s third dimension. Height. Hast Thou Height? Granted your personal achievements. Given your communal engagements. Have you a known, or been known by, ‘a mountain view’? In Boston, during this winter of 2007, in the speaking and hearing of Luke 9: 28, there could hardly be a more personal, pertinent question. On it hang hope and health, yours and mine. A mountain view is one of the gifts which the religious communities may offer to support our common hope across the globe.

The work of a sermon is in the hearing, and the astute hearer regular asks A: what is this about? And B: what difference does it make?

A. What Is It About?

Today we hear Luke’s later version of the Transfiguration. Originally a resurrection appearance account, this legend eventually was placed, by Mark, in the year 70ce, back into the life of Jesus, as a confirmation of his Messiahship, a portent of Easter, and an affirmation of Peter’s earlier confession. Our lectionary places this passage, given symbolical and other similarities, adjacent to Exodus 24. But the truth is that there are as many reasons to disjoin as to conjoin the two texts, and it is generally better to avoid more than the inherited usurpation by the Newer Testament of the Older, if at all possible. Rather, the passage as it washes up from Mark on the shoreline of Luke’s persecuted Roman congregation, near the turn of the century, is an ill fit to our current lectionary assembly.

Mark has brought the trumpets of universals to the occasion. All life longs for height! Hear the resurrection gospel! Light. Shining. Cloud. God. Tradition. Prayer. Silence. Presence. White…white as snow…white as no fuller on earth could bleach…white as light…dazzling white. What arrives to Luke is a Mountain View, an announcement of God. This is my beloved…listen…

Today’s Gospel is about Luke’s editorial and authorial changes to the Transfiguration. There is movement and harmony here, a four part, SATB choral interpretation at work in the Gospel. Notice with me a dozen changes Luke makes, working on what he inherits from Mark. Marsh’s pulpit today interprets Luke yesterday, who interprets Mark the day before, who accounts for the Transfiguration.

First, Luke adds two days to the number of days in the distance from the earlier text, perhaps a more regular 8 day week, than the more resurrectional 6 day account in Mark. Luke’s is a more ordinary account of what a week is. Your week: sleep, work, travel, talk, sleep. Sermon. Sleep, work, travel…

Second, Luke demotes James to the third position, after not before John, perhaps a move to distance himself and his church from the Jewish Christianity which James led. Luke represents more a Roman, regular human, than a Jerusalem, brother of the Lord, religious sentiment.

Third, Luke depicts all present in prayer. We can identify with prayer. It is something, however weakly, we practice. It is a human word to God, not the other way around.

Fourth, Luke makes the white ‘dazzling’, to stand out in our human experience.

Fifth, Luke fills in the detail of the conversation, the tertulia, held among the Law and the Prophets and the Lord. They speak of exodus, of glory, of what is to come. Mark kept them mute, Luke gives them voice, human language.

Sixth, to be clear, Luke has called these figures ‘men’. Mark gives their names, Luke their genus and species. They are to be seen and heard as men, real men, not ghosts

Seventh, Luke puts the disciples to sleep, a magical sleep, so well known in all our folk tales, from the Brothers Grimm to Frank Baum. Sleep, sleep…nary a more human activity than slumber.

Eighth, Luke reveals Peter as even more human than thou, not only not knowing what to say, as in Mark, but not knowing what he had said. My dear friend and colleague was accused of publishing every thought he ever had, to which he deftly replied, “Oh no, I published much more than that”. Our self-criticism can reveal our ownmost selves.

Ninth, Luke dec
lares explicitly, what you know best in your nightmares, that the disciples are afraid. You fear, I fear, we fear. Fear in handful of dust. After 9/11, we are people drenched in and numbed by fear.

Tenth, Luke radically changes God’s statement about Jesus. Mark has “this is my beloved Son”, a repetition of Jesus’ baptism. Luke uses a strange word, a perfect passive participle, for Jesus whose perfection, passive reception and earthly participation, Luke names this way: “This is my Son, my Chosen”. Actually, the word means, “picked out from”. Love is great but vague. We are known in our choices, we choosing humans. Thank you for love. Now, what choices does that imply?

Eleventh, Luke implicates the disciples in the keeping of silence. Mark has Jesus keep the secret, Luke the disciples. Secrets, open or otherwise, are the stuff of human community, and tragedy. A family or institutional system is dysfunctional at the point of its secrets, and its fingerprints are in its secrets. What is not said is what is loudest.

Twelfth, Luke emphasizes the prophetic dimension of this tale, as the Apocalypse of Peter will do later in the century (Apoc. Pet. 6). Prophecy is what keeps biblical narrative human.

What is all this about? Just this. At twelve points, Luke has not so subtly re-written an inherited account of epiphany, of a mountain view, at every point to make it more human. Granted a mountain view, Luke smashes home his sermon: this holy event is human, accessible to human beings, grounded in human experience, open to all the human frailties and weaknesses we so painfully know, human, human, human, human! Homo sum: humani nil a mi alienum puto. I am human, nothing human is foreign to me.

In the main, the Transfiguration ill suits Luke’s general gospel purpose, to present the human face of God in Jesus, or so it would seem. But look! Luke has brought you something profoundly hopeful and healthy. Good life has height, as well as length and breadth. Good life has height that is a part of human experience. For Luke, unlike for Mark, the Transfiguration is not about divine but about human experience, not about a divine voice but about human ears. Luke’s passage is about heightened human experience.

B.What Difference Does it Make?

So, what difference does this make? If any?

On Sunday we may ask this of the text of the day: what is it about and what difference does it make?

In another year, or on another day, we might need to preach the Markan Transfiguration, which Matthew more dutiful repeats, as a simply positive declaration of divine authority. Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, in 1919 hit the church and the academy like a bombshell landing on a playground. In chaos, one longs for certainty. After ten years of disquietude, 1997—2007, we can understand why appeals to authority work. Monica, Y2K, hanging chads, election by fiat, the rubble falling onto Wall Street at 9/11, run up to war, false information in the run up to war, war engaged four years ago, mission accomplished, mission not so accomplished, another dicey election, the crumbling of the mission, the fraying of parts of the Bill of Rights: a decade past of fear upon fear. Who would not appreciate the clarity of positive authority, in such uncertainty?

Positive authority: Bible, Pope, Me. Ah, the joy of saying, “one of us is wrong and it is you!” Clarity. Certainty. Very satisfactory. Mount Sinai. Mount Olympus. The Transfiguration, in the other gospels. A mountain view, to be sure…but not Luke’s, not one accessible to human experience.

It is striking that Luke, facing similar fright as do we, during the terror of Domitian, wrote otherwise, here. (May his courage, and the courage of the other biblical writers, ever infect us.) As if to say, there is more than one witness, the persecution of Christians under Domitian, he heightens human experience, making even transfiguration fully human. As if to say to us, there is more than one witness, the horror of 9/11, making even our life open to height.

At least ask yourself, as this sermon comes around third base to head on home, whether your life has height? Human height? Has it?

The tradition of responsible Christian liberalism, advocated at Marsh Chapel, understands and honors Luke 9:28. Now those of us who initially studied theology thirty years ago, heard very little of this. We heard Neo-Orthodoxy, on the one hand. We heard Liberation, on the other. Both the liberationists and the Barthians are correctives to the larger liberal tradition, needed at times and good at times, but both espousing not only a responsible authority, but also a kind of authoritarianism, and both imbued with a lasting anger, whether that of Hauerwas or that of Cone, which Luke’s Transfiguration does not justify, as appealing as both are to the 9/11 nighttime all around us. How we have missed the fuller voices of Deotis Roberts and James Forbes, of George Lindbeck and Paul Tillich, now that the cultural night has set in!

Luke 9: 28 offers another message. Your life, in its struggle up the mountain, may open up, at points, to a humanly accessible mountain view!

In fact, if life does not retain a height dimension, life becomes a kind of death. Without the mountain presence, the absence of the valley becomes the valley of death. Luke has smashed home his sermon, already, so in like fashion we may want to ask ourselves, I may ask you, a question. Does your life have height? Is the spiritual ceiling in your weekly house of sufficient stature? How high is heaven, day to day? Is there any place for a cloud, for brilliance, for presence, for the numinous? Is there a room with a view? Is there a place for special experience, even ‘special revelation’?

Sometimes, as Karl Jaspers taught us, the third dimension of life, its height, may be opened to us in liminal moments: change, loss, death, birth, relocation, illness, healing. Let us remember Jaspers this Lent.

Sometimes, as John Wesley taught us, the third dimension of life, its height, may be provided for us by means of grace: a regular mealtime prayer (do you know one?), a memorized set of verses (do you have them?), a favorite hymn or two (do you hum one?), a pattern of worship (do you claim one?), a church family to love and a church home to enjoy (do you attend one?). Personal goals, life’s length, do not come without effort. Communal changes, life’s breadth, to not come from wishes. Why should we think that a mountain view, a certain height, will come our way without attentive effort? Let us remember Wesley this Lent.

Sometimes, as Ralph Harper taught us some years ago, we need the height

of presence: “When I am moved by a painting or by music, by clouds

passing in a clear nigh sky, by the soughing of pines in the early spring, I

feel the distance between me and art and nature dissolve to some degree,

and I feel at ease. I feel that what I know makes me more myself than I

knew before. This is how the saints felt about God, and I see in my own

experience elements that I share with the saints and prophets, the

philosophers and priests.” (On Presence, 6) Let us remember presence this

Lent.

Sometimes, as Tony Campbell taught, we need to remember that you cannot cook on a cold stove. What bakes bread is not only yeast but heat! Let me hear you whistle! Let me feel your body in the pew! Let me notice you humming a hymn! Let me eat at your table and see your photographs! Let me know your name! Then there may come the chance for a certain height. Let us remember Campbell this Lent.

Closing

In my junior year, spent abroad in Segovia, I had the good fortune to meet and friend. We climbed the mountains of Castile together, but I never saw her in church. Then the week before Lent in 1975, the last year of Franco’s reign, we in the plaza. My friend was carrying, in good Castilian fashion, the Ejercicios Espirituales of Ignatius of Loyola. Surprised, I inquired about this reading for Lent, and participation in the visionary exercise of Loyola. “Siempre se saca algo bueno de estas cosas” said the confirmed agnostic: “ah, one always gets something good from these things” said the passionate climber of mountains. Another kind of mountain view…

Hear the gospel: height, a mountain view, awaits you, too.

What a Friend We Have in…Paul

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

1 Corinthians 7:25-31

Paul–Apostle

What a friend we have in Paul!

Paul—Apostle

Whose mighty voice has rolled down through the ages bringing us the good news in all its stark simplicity: Christ the Lord is Risen!

Paul—Apostle

Raised in Tarsus, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, of the Tribe of Benjamin, as to the law a Pharisee, a defender of the traditions of the elders—and so a persecutor of the church.

Paul—Apostle

Who rode to Damascus and on the way was blinded and there heard a voice saying: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”

Paul—Apostle

Who in that blinding encounter with the Risen Lord, gave himself up, pronounced a sort of death sentence over himself, and so died with Christ and walked henceforth in newness of life.

Paul—Apostle

Who believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead and so lived moment by moment thinking, “Who knows what will happen next?”

Paul—Apostle

Who cared for those first few Christians, and worried about them, and grew angry with them, for they so easily lost this vision: that since God had raised Jesus from the dead, who knew what would happen next?

Paul—Apostle

Paul’s Apocalyptic World View

Who challenged the Thessalonians: “This is the will of God, your sanctification”.

Who challenged the Galatians: “Be not deceived, God is not mocked.”

Who challenged the Philippians: “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel”.

Who challenged the Romans: “Be ye not conformed but be ye transformed by the renewal of your minds.

Who challenged the Corinthians: “Be reconciled”

Paul—Apostle

Whose mighty voice speaks to us today, ever answering the question of what we should do by saying something, first, about what God has done. Our faith springs not from ourselves but from God, the Giver of both life and faith. “All religions are attempts to know God; none is the event of being known by God…God’s graceful election of us by his rectifying and non-religious invasion of the cosmos in Christ is the subject of the whole letter.” (Martyn, Galatians, 4:9)

Paul reminds us that “the form of this world is passing away”. What else can we expect from a God who raises crucified Messiahs? Who knows what will happen next?

The future is as open as we, in faith, will allow it to be.

The voice of the Marsh Chapel pulpit, a national voice for a once vibrant, now wounded, nonetheless crucial form of faith, call it a responsible Christian liberalism, has not feared the future. We seek the truth, and so have nothing to defend and everything to share. So we may recognize in this passage from 1 Corinthians 7, a form of thought that
differs utterly from our own. If Paul did retain some of his formative Jewish worldview, the part he closely retained here was his inherited apocalyptic eschatology. The resurrection must be, he reasoned, the beginning of the end. Hence, preaches Paul, the form of this world is passing away.

Paul’s worldview, his apocalyptic eschatology, is not our worldview. Paul’s world, though, is very much ours too. So we shall need to imagine, to dream, and to interpret these verses in a new way, for a new time.

Paul for a New Day

New occasions teach new duties. What a friend we have in the one non-gentile NT author who nonetheless was the ‘apostle to the gentiles’! Paul was a shirt tail cousin of George Bernard Shaw, whose ringing question, ‘why not?’ haunts us. Paul was related, though not by marriage, to Robert Kennedy, who lived, in extremis, Shaw’s question. Dr. James Walters of Boston University is a third cousin, twice removed in this blood lineage, for he did say this week, in good Pauline fashion, “epiphanies are the vehicles through which God creates dreamers”.

No, we may not share Paul’s worldview, but we share his world. So we may benefit from his friendship, and practice his faith.

We may rely not on ourselves alone, but upon God who raises the dead.

We may face the world, free from the world.

We may lean into the future, free of the burden of past worry.

We can live on tip toe.

We can compose every day with brilliance as if it were our last, which, in a way, each one is.

The person of faith, who overhears the distress down deep in this world, so deep that others don’t hear it, does not rely on himself to sooth it. He knows there is one Savior and he isn’t Him.

What a friend we have in Paul, who preaches Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.

The Corinthians want to know about marriage.

Odd, strange, foreign, and alien as the teaching is to our ears, we must Paul aright. Says he, “Don’t worry, marriage isn’t sinful”.

An irrelevant answer to an unasked question, say we.

We never thought it was!

We forget Paul’s apocalyptic worldview. We also forget that for Paul and for many in earliest Christianity, marriage—as the epitome of dealings with “the world”—was decidedly inferior to celibacy. This text recommends a sort of brothersister alliance. The early church so understood it. The desert father Amoun of Nitria (love that name) spent his honeymoon expounding 1 Cor 7 to his (surely puzzled) bride.

Why does Paul teach this way?

Because Paul expects that “the form of this world is passing away”. God has raised Jesus from the dead. Who knows what will happen next?

For Paul, this meant a daily, excited, imminent expectation of the turn of the ages, a new heaven and earth, the end of time and the beginning of a new era. For our sake, it is a blessing that Paul’s own timeline was a little fuzzy. Otherwise we would not be here. But the spiritual truth which lives in this passage, its existential reality, is the same. Every day is our last. Paul so reminds us, and so shakes us out of our stupor. THIS is the day the Lord has made. We shall rejoice and be glad in it!

What if we are free?

What if Christ is Risen?

What if the form of this world is passing away?

What if …

Our interest is so great in the form of this world that we don’t notice the world that is to come. We forget. We rely upon ourselves when really, by faith, we mean to rely on God who raises the dead. God who

Has shown great strength with his arm

Has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts

Has put down the mighty from their thrones

Has exalted those of low degree

In all of life, in the fullness of faith there lies this strange, new potential. Potential. Potential for something new.

We face the world, free from the world.

We meet each day with courage.

We touch and are touched in the presence of Divine Potential, the raw possibility of a new day.

We live on tip toe

We live each day as if it were our last, which it is

We greet the hour and its struggle, from a certain distance, and over every loud booming statement there is a misty question mark.

This year at Marsh we have asserted that on a reliable hope hangs our future. A hope that life has meaning and that this world, not some Gnostic nether world but this world, can work. Weekly you have pressed: what are the features of this hope? We reply: one ingredient in hope is imagination, a willingness to live ‘as if not…’.

As If Not…1

“As if not..”

The form of this world is passing away.

So let those who have wives live as if they had none. Let them be married, not in the form of this world, but in the form of the world to come, “as if not…”

Once there lived a model couple. Pillars of church and community, they arrived at their mid-fifties in joyful wedlock. They were models of self-giving love. He would arise every morning thinking, “What can I do to make her life brighter today?” She would end every evening with some bright thought for the morning. The minister would pass by that house and smile.

Then one night the preacher had a phone call from the couple, and a distressed question: “Can you come right over?” After some awkwardness and foot shuffling they asked, “Would you marry us?” Well it was a long story. They had begun many years earlier working together, running the town store. Times were tough, so, to save money, they moved in, together to share space. Then they fell in love. People in the town assumed they were married, and, well, what could they say? So, year followed year and decade followed decade. They felt, though, that is time to make if official. A simple, elegant ceremony ensued. The minister would pass by that house, again, with a smile.

About a month after the wedding, the minister received another late night call. Down he went again to visit this model couple, who, for the first time were on the verge of separation. They were at wits end. The wife spoke up: “Nothing has been right since the wedding. It used to be, you know, every day was a new happiness. But since the ceremony and the ring and the certificate, I guess we have started to take each other for granted. There was something about being free to leave, that kept both of us on our toes. We used to really watch out for each other, even serve each other. But now that the knot is tied, we are chaffing at one another.”

A long night of conversation followed. Tears and apologies, advice and consolation. There was a return of the old feeling for the old couple. In the wee hours the minister put on his coat to leave. But before he left he forced the couple to make a solemn vow. He made them promise to live together, from that day forward, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, as if they were not married. As if not…

Let those who have wives live as if they had none. Let us be married, not in the form of this world, but in that of the world to come. Not in complacency and disregard and a taking for granted—this world. But in surprise and kindness and joy and love—the world to come.

As If Not…2

Let those who mourn do so as though they were not mourning. May they mourn, not in the form of this world, but in the form of the world to come.

A long time ago, up north, I called on woman in a nursing home, in the autumn of the year, in the autumn of her life. She was alone and that day mourning the loss of her last living relative. Over tea, she made a familiar confession. “At 18 I knew everything there was to know. I had a tall pile of answers and hardly any questions. But somewhere between ages 25 and 75 that pile began to shrink and another started to grow. Question jumped on top of question. Finally about age 85 I came to a point where I could honestly say I did not know anything, really, at all. With my sister gone, I know nothing and no one.” Nothing? No one? She thought, a little longer, and then added, a gleam of contentedness shining through her deep hurt: “I guess I do know something and Someone. I know Whom I can trust.”

There is something in that trust, that kind of proto-faith, which breathes with imagination. May our graduating seniors take heart! All the songs have not been sung yet. All the poems have not been written yet. The storehouse of good deeds yet undone has not closed for the evening.

My friend Jon Clinch, best man in our wedding and I in theirs, has a great new novel coming out this month. Titled, FINN, the book imagines the life of Huckleberry Finn’s father, Pap. Pap’s life is something to be mourned, though his death is not. In the course of writing this dark tale, the author has given us an insight, a novel reading of the greatest American novel, which no one, no one, for 120 years, had earlier seen! You read this book and sense that the author has found the key to pick the lock of Twain’s mind! Do you know what a huckleberry is? What color it is? What hue? Twain hid his secret right in plain view, in the name, Huckleberry, whose mother, according to this newest fiction, was black.

Let us imagine in the form of the world to come.

Let those who mourn do so as if they were not mourning, for the form of this world is passing away. When things go south, let us live not in the form of this world (in despair and doubt and dread), but in the form of the coming world (hope and freedom and a sense of God’s awesome potential).

Paul has been read for 2,000 years, yet only in the last generation was his apocalyptic eschatology fully appreciated. Paul awaited a new creation! How new? Look again, with JL Martyn, at the Greek text of Galatians 3:28, where Martyn finds an expectation of a new creation, so new that all the old categories, including those most debated today, are set aside:

“The variation in the wording of the last clause suggests that the author of the formula drew on Gen 1:27, thereby saying that in baptism, the structure of the original creation had been set aside…it is a radical vision of loving mutuality enacted in the community of that new creation”. (Galatians, Anchor Bible, 3:28 loc cit).

Today we mourn the loss of young life in Iraq. We read of the best and brightest, lost and lamented. Our hearts break. They break. Shall that mourning be our only mourning? Or shall we mourn the loss of the best and brightest in the form of the world to come? That is, with active imagination about what might honor their loss by preventing further loss?

As if not…

As If Not…3

Let those who rejoice do so as if they were not rejoicing. Let them rejoice not in the form of this world but in the form of the world to come.

You know, it is not always clear what is bad news, or good. What can seem cause for the greatest rejoicing also can carry hurt, and vice-versa. God’s time is not our time. God’s purpose is not equivalent to any one of ours. God’s justice is not the same as our own. God’s freedom far surpasses yours and mine. A crushing defeat can, in God’s time, and with patience, become the source, the medium of great victory. I think of Franklin Roosevelt. Where would our country be today, without his life’s strange mixture of rejoicing and suffering and struggle and perseverance? Is it not odd that the one President, who appeared to be the least vigorous, was in fact the most? ‘To lead you have to love, to save you have to serve’

As If Not…4

As if not…

Let those who buy and sell, do so as if they had no goods. Not in the form of this world, but in the form of the world to come. Augustine said it so well: we use what we should love and we love what we should use. We use people and love things, when we are meant to love people and use things.

Let us allow Paul to befriend us. He may help us obse
rve the reversals announced in Jesus’ beatitudes. He may help us leave aside our negativity for the psalmist’s ‘delight’ in the Lord.

So James Finley, ‘Merton once told me to quit trying so hard in prayer. He said, ‘How does an apple ripen? It sits in the sun.’ A small green apple cannot ripen in one night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red, ripe, and juicy beside its small green counterparts. Like the birth of a baby or the opening of a rose, the birth of the true self takes place in God’s time. We must wait for God, we must be awake; we must trust in his hidden action within us.’

Jesus told of a man who grew more and more crops and built bigger and bigger barns. At last the man could say: “soul, take thine ease, eat and drink and be merry”. But that very night his soul was asked of him. “Whose then shall all these things be?”

Yes, use the things of this world and buy and sell. Let us do so, though, not in the form of this world, but in the form of the world to come. Not in grasping selfishness, not in anxious pursuit, not in such strangely intense attention. Rather: with aplomb, with a certain disregard, with an inner freedom.

About your car, your house, your wardrobe, your bank account, your things—ask this: Do you own it or does it own you? Do you own it or does it own you?

Coda

What a friend we have in Paul:

Let those who have wives live as if they had none

Those who mourn as if not mourning

Those who rejoice as if not rejoicing

Those who buy as if not buying

Those who use this world as if not using it

FOR THE FORM OF THIS WORLD IS PASSING AWAY.

A Place at the Table: Communion Meditation

Sunday, February 4th, 2007

Frontispiece

You will no doubt recognize the more apparent deterrents to worship, having weathered them over time. Empty sanctuaries deter worshippers as do cold ones. Empty sermons deter worshippers as do cold ones. Empty hearts deter worshippers as do cold ones. The ancient condition of buildings, the comparably ancient condition and average of preachers, the ancient condition our condition is in has severed the head from the torso of northern historic Christianity. In some places we are dormant and convalescing, in others simply dead. Most parts of northeastern Protestantism have lost half their membership since 1977. There has been virtually no leadership acknowledgement of this deterioration and death. We remember William Tecumseh Sherman’s quip about a soldier’s death—‘to die a hero’s death and have one’s name misspelled in the newspaper’. Two centuries of toilsome (and some tiresome) preaching we have let go, with hardly an accurate report. Abuse, denial and neglect of the body by the head, of the church by the leadership of the church, have taken their toll.

There are other deterrents too.

Among the lesser impediments to church attendance are the Scriptures themselves, so wild and different in their variety. Our lectionary tries to corral this wildness with a set schedule for the readings. One wonders about this, this sort of quenching of Spirit. Maybe one reading, readily read, is sufficient. Kathleen Norris, author of Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, wrote recently of her own return to the cold, empty church of the Great Plains. She complained most about the words, the many, full, heavy, exacting words. As a poet, she would go home from a 50 minute service, three hymns, three readings, and a sermon, utterly exhausted, to nap all afternoon. The wild variety of words plum wore her out. Today, for instance, Isaiah, the Psalmist, and Luke–who have virtually nothing in common.

The Scriptures

1. Isaiah springs from the eighth century before Christ. The prophet speaks, many would say, in a chamber of the court and with the mantel of a court prophet. His voice is high and lifted up. The great tumults and sufferings of Israel in the sixth century have yet to occur. He is recorded and remembered in Hebrew. He may use a word like ‘holy’ without the slightest pause for definition. He affirms the audition of calling without equivocation, difficult to be sure for those of us who have never directly heard the voice of God. As you have not. As I have not. Isaiah may be both fiery and austere. Israel to whom he speaks is at peace, for once well kept, somewhat well led, and able to seek the higher things, like epiphanies in epiphany.

2. The psalmist writes two hundred years closer to us in time, in the fifth century bce. He mixes metaphors and types. He takes most of his time and song to introduce his thought. Somehow he has not yet been brought fully to monotheism, so witness his mention of the ‘gods’. His is first order language, the language of worship, prayer, preaching and praise. Gone is careful reflection. Excised is the search for understanding. Left aside are the needs of the mind to comprehend. Nor do we learn the nature of his malady. We hear his sincere thanksgiving for deliverance, and his trust. Though I walk in the midst of distress, thou leadest me. Unlike the austere, stately court prophet, our psalmist prizes what is lowly. After all, his history and context are utterly different! The false security of Israel’s earlier experience, and that of the prophet Isaiah, has been wrecked on the shores of Babylon, on the shoals of exile, on the sheer devastation of defeat. Isaiah hears, the Psalmist sees. Isaiah shouts, the Psalmist prays. Isaiah is thankful not to be like other men, but the Psalmist prays, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’. The lesson and the psalm are separated by 200 years, by historical moment, by context and experience, by place in culture, and by personal experience. They do not see, I to I, let alone I to Thou.

3. We have also asked you, both those present and those present by broadcast, to listen for the gospel in Luke. Here the language is Greek not Hebrew. The genre is prose, not poetry. The event is miracle, not mystery. The Lord is Jesus, not Jehovah. The location—in all cases speculation—is Galilee not Jerusalem, for the narrative, and Rome not Jerusalem, for the gospel. We have moved from one tongue to another, from one tradition to another, from one tale to another. The Lord who is the great catcher of fish has already dispensed with the Sabbath, made for the human being, and not the other way around. We have verbal whiplash from Isaiah to the Psalmist to Luke. With Kathleen Norris, we are ready for a nap. The wild variety and jarring differences in the Scriptures themselves are a kind of impediment to worship. For all their varieties, we may pray and implore, do these Scriptures have nothing in common, nothing of a shared, a conjoint proclamation?

A Sense of Dependence

In fact, they do. They have in common a sense of dependence. Humans depend. Perhaps, coming to the table of freedom in love as we do this morning, we might pause briefly to consider our shared dependence.

You could call it, with Isaiah, a condition of unclean lips. You could name it, with the Psalmist, a need to be lead. You could identify it, with Peter, as sheer amazement.

You could call it, with Isaiah, the need to be cleansed. You could name it, with the Psalmist, the priority of humility. You could identify it, with Peter, as shame: ‘go away from me for I am a sinful man’.

In all the dizzying diversity in our readings, today, there is to be found a common ground, a common faith, and a common hope. To be clear: there is a common experience of dependence. What we most need: life, forgiveness, eternal life
, we cannot manufacture. We depend. We may pretend not to depend. But in the end, we do, depend. All six billion of us are alike, in this regard. We depend.

And when, in the wee hours, or in the fox hole, or in the hour of surgery, or in the moment of epiphany, we come to ourselves, we come before God. With Isaiah we may cry: ‘unclean lips’. With the psalmist we may pray, ‘lead me’. With Peter, we may shout, ‘go away from me’. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Once we wrote and spoke, in the church, about a scandal of particularity, in the Gospel of Christ—particular name, place, cradle, tradition. Fair enough. But this Lord’s Day, and this century of global determination, and the readings resounding around us, say something new. The scandal of the gospel is not so much a scandal of particularity as it is a scandal of universality. Every human being has a place at the table. We find our place through a feeling of dependence.

A scandalous universality is this—our shared dependence.

Bishop Solomon told a story about a dream of heaven, where entry required 100pts. One man walked to St Peter, head bowed.

What say you?’ asked Cephas.

Well, I once helped Habitat for Humanity’

Good—one point. What else?’

Well, I remember once I gave to my alumni fund’

Good—one point. What else?’

Uh, I was always kind to animals.’

Good—one point. What else?’

‘Oh St Peter, I just do not have enough points! At this rate I would only get in by the grace of God’

‘Grace of God—97 points! You’re in!’

The lesson and the psalm and especially the gospel today move us from our material success to our spiritual dependence. The great catch today is immediately understood not as advice for entrepreneurial fishing, but as the announcement that every one, like many a netted fish, has a place at the table. The mysterious event has a meaning, for the earliest hearers and for us. Before God we shout—unclean, amazed, sinner, led. But the event is meant to open the future, wherein every one has a place at the table. Here is the heart of the tradition which formed Marsh Chapel, the Methodist tradition of an open table, where every one has a place. It is a scandal of universality of global proportions.

The pressures of guerrilla terror, the warmed planet, perpetual warfare, disparities of wealth, and unmanaged cyberspace may perhaps make us somewhat more addressable by Isaiah, the Psalmist and Luke. Our complicity in the roots of violence, the degradation of the environment, the perpetuation of strife, the increase of injustice, and the coarsening of communication may give us better ears for today’s readings. But the word was there all along. Fear not, for now you will be catching people…

Table Manners

You have a place at the table. Yet this sense of dependence, this scandal of universality, this place at the table, all ask something of us. If we are to have a common future, we shall need a reliable common hope. A common faith and a common ground are not enough. We shall need a reliable global hope, a residual trust that life has meaning and the world—this world, not some Gnostic other world–can work.

When we preached a common hope in the autumn some wisely asked what the contours of this common hope might be. What may the religious communities, not Christianity alone or as the arbiter of truth but the religious communities, offer to the announcement of this common hope?

One spiritual sensibility, crucial for a common hope, which we may offer, is presented today, in Scripture and at table. The practical, ‘cash’ value of dependence and universality is a sense of compunction, a language of contrition, an awareness of failure, a desire for pardon, a daily prayer of forgiveness: forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

We will all do better if we watch our manners.

Listen before you speak… Serve others then yourself… Offer a prayer as you come to the meal… Enjoy others, and let them enjoy you… See if there is anything you can bring along… Perhaps someone needs a ride… You will no doubt send along some kind of thank you note… Serve from the left, clear from the right… Be sure to thank the host, and to bid farewell to the hostess… Try
not to eat and run… Watch for those who are missing…Be grateful…Give thanks…

All these table manners, and personal graces, are ways of living out, and so remembering, our capacity to jostle, to bruise, to harm, to maim others. These table manners are ritual acts of kindness thrown up in the teeth of much unkindness. They have their root in a profound sense of dependence—on others, on God, on Pardon.

May I be excused? You may be excused. Pardon me. I beg your pardon.

There is a kind of scandalous universality to life and to faith. The Marsh Chapel pulpit carries no shadow of amnesia about the needs of various particularities. We have carried, and carried well, a long tradition of particularity. But this is another day, another Sunday, another century, another set of readings! All have a place at the table. Our manners, and their inculcation, come as reminders of our dependence. We depend. On God. On others. We are prone to need forgiveness. From God. From others. So we ask God continually for pardon, as those who can ask because we trust already to have received. If you do not trust pardon to be offered, you will not have the courage to ask for it. So we continually ask others for forgiveness as those only who can ask because we trust already to receive.

A Place at the Table

To have a world we shall need world citizens. One hallmark of such global citizenship, offered through the religious communities, is a profound sense of dependence, from which comes a sense of compunction, a feeling of contrition, a need of forgiveness, a hope of pardon. We shall have no peace without a sense of compunction.

Those in the religious communities are not a few resident aliens, strewn about amid a see of quasi-human non-believers, the last few good people this side of Armageddon. No. All our distinctions matter not here. Not our differences in raiment and garment. Not our distinctions in custom and language. Not our distinctions in order and vestment. Not our distinctions in liturgy and homily. Not our distinctions in denomination and tradition. No.

Scandal, scandal, scandal…the scandal of universality.

No, we have nothing to defend and everything to share. We are in the hands of the Holy God. Our colleague Henry Horn, longtime Lutheran pastor at Harvard, died this week. Many of us heard his life story as he told it, in resonant voice, at age 93, on January 18, two weeks before his death. Of his own vocation, his own faith, he said, ‘it is in my bones’. His denomination wanted scripture, chapter, verse, liturgy, order, custom, hymnody, psalmnody, vestment. Said he, ‘it is in my bones’. That is the kind of scandalous universality that surrounds us today. You have a place at the table!