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.
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…
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!