A voice of responsible Christian liberalism will, at some time or another, need to honor the lives of pilgrims and pioneers from another generation, who themselves lifted a hymn or two in the key of responsible Christian liberalism.
Many of these women and men would happily have recognized themselves in the spirited courage of the Gospel of John, and in the realism, the realistic humble service, of Luke’s jarring parable this morning. While Holy Communion means more than remembrance, there is a wide berth for remembrance on a day such as this, set aside for World Communion.
You were raised, many of you, alongside these servants. They worked the long day of their lives. They did so with honor. They struggled through the hard challenges of their day. They did so with grace. They summoned and were summoned by the courage to be. They had the courage to live. They were not afraid to seek the truth which alone sets free. They were not lastingly discouraged. They trusted that there is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe. Out in the fields, and later at home in the house, bent with service, they nonetheless held their heads high. They were proud people.
They had learned in their youth that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. They had been cautioned, rightly, that ‘not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’, is kingdom ready. They did recall the admonition to judge not, that one be not judged. Some put a hand to the plow and tilled the economic earth. Some tended the sheep of school, church, hospital, and prison.
But they knew that their field work was not ever to be a substitute for their domestic duties. They might have preferred the courage to do. But they did not avoid the tremendous challenge of the courage to be. They had a sixth sense too that Religion, particularly much of the Biblicist religion which passes for religion across the country today, is a tremendous challenge—even a mortal danger– to the courage to be, to communion, to World Communion. Religion is a hiding place, of the wrong sort, when it becomes avoidance of the courage to be.
Your field work will not suffice to supplant matters of the heart. There is only one you. There is only one person ever of your mind, heart, soul and strength. You may labor before plow and alongside sheep all your life long, but it will not suffice if you cannot come in, come home and prepare table service. You were not created to live someone else’s life. You were not given arms to cut against the grain of your own wood. You were not blessed with imagination in order to color in the blank spots in someone else’s canvass. Whether or not there is a God Delusion abroad, there is for sure a Soul Delusion, when the human being, made also for “domestic duties”, made to know the courage to be, is tricked into thinking that field work alone will suffice. Do not trade you birth right for a mess of pottage. Summon, that is, be summoned by, the courage to be.
On the right, in the large land of biblical fundamentalism, the Karl Barth of the Barthians, not the wise Karl Barth of the Humanity of God or the young Karl Barth of the Epistle to the Romans, but the Barth of what my friend might call ‘geographical theology, I mean of longitude and platitude’, the Barth of the Dogmatics, has captured the voices of American pulpits. In part because much of what once was responsible Christian liberalism has become neither responsible nor Christian nor even liberal, many have gone south. In the metaphorical north, the liberal voice has been muffled by liberationism to the farther left of the left and neo-orthodoxy to the farther right of the left.
And what has become of the servant who has come in from his field work? What is left of table, hearth, supper, bread and cup? What has happened to the command, to the duty, to service of the table? What has happened to courage?
It would take the courage of a Jeremiah to buy land in the territory of responsible Christian liberalism today. Who wants to discover the courage to be, when the interest in doing and being done to, along with its religious, Biblicist, clothing, has seized imagination by the throat? Who wants to face the table? To face the heart? To face the soul? Give us degrees to earn, problems to solve, committees to organize, careers to craft—and just before nightfall, adequate health care. That seems to be enough for us. Field work. Field work. Endless field work…
There is a deeper voice…
The DEEP VOICE summons us, summons us still…
Your field work, all your human doing, is no lasting substitute for your home work, your human being…
Table service? Hearth? Heart? Supper? The courage to be? Why, we hardly understand the terms anymore. We have to reach back fifty years to Thurman and Tillich just to get the alphabet, and the basic declensions and conjugations. The full language itself is almost entirely foreign. We have just enough attention to begin to learn the grammar of courage and being.
May it be enough of a spark. To speak, to sing, to live it…
Here is the gospel. Here is the resounding voice, the deep voice… Which one of you, following field work, will not say…SUPPER, SERVE, EAT, DRINK, TABLE? Heart. Soul.
Marsh Chapel, through its radio service, offers a voice of responsible Christian liberalism. It can be cover, for those young preachers finding the voice of the soul. It can be contrast to the bombast across the full right, and from the left of the left and the right of the left. It can be a return to domestic duties. A reminder. Of the courage. To be. It is a loss that over so much of the last generation, in the pulpits, the metaphorical southern preachments have not had a responding and resounding northern national voice, a liberal dancing partner from the metaphorical north. We have all missed the balance that might have been, therein. So we are in Boston for these years to attend to the courage to be, the domestic duties, the service of table, the songs of the heart.
Some listening will recognize that it is Paul Tillich’s phrase, ‘the courage to be’, which guides this sermon. No one cares to romanticize a past era, or wallow in nostalgia for a bygone moment. That was then and this is now. Let the dead bury the dead as once was said. But when you take a wrong turn in a spiritual road, say, fifty years ago, to make any progress, you at least have to revisit the last place you knew a bit of where and who you were. Hear the good news:
The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself.
Oh, prayer will help, and reading of the scripture and a church family and the habits of generosity and service, they also will help, as preparation evangelium, preparation for the gospel. All these will help. You can do these. Please do. But it is largely and lastly Grace that has brought you safe thus far, and largely and lastly it is grace that will see you through.
Please, as the author of Hebrews taught, please attend to the field work: 1.Love; 2. Love Strangers; 3.Love Prisoners; 4.Honor Marriage; 5. Be Good Stewards; 6. Remember Your Leaders; 7. Avoid Strange Teaching; 8.Praise God Ceaselessly; 9.Obey Your Elders; 10.Pray for the Church
Just don’t expect the field work to count for the matters of the hearth. I mean heart. I mean hearth. We are all both field hands and house servants.
Which one of you, having a servant, would allow him to stop working at the front porch? Do you not say? Do you not command? Do you not expect to eat and drink? Some paragraphs are so well written that they sing fifty years later. We close with one of Tillich’s best:
“We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it. Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. … It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!‘ If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.”
Life has given us ample space and time for our plowing and shepherding. Now life comes to the front porch. And what shall we say to life? No to supper? No to table? No to food and drink? No to heart and hearth? No to sacrament? No to the courage to be? Are we to say no to depth and truth and grace? God forbid. No, we say, prepare supper, and serve and give us the courage to be. It is only what is commanded, and right and dutiful. It is the spirit that giveth life, the flesh is of no avail. In bread and cup we are summoned by a courage to be.