Archive for January, 2008

January 27

Theological Temptations

By Marsh Chapel

Lectionary Texts


Your love of Christ shapes your love of Scripture and tradition and reason and experience. You are lovers and knowers too. We are ever in peril of loving what we should use and using what we should love, to paraphrase Augustine. In particular we sometimes come perilously close to the kind of idolatry that uses what we love. We are tempted, for our love Christ, to force a kind of certainty upon what we love, to use what is meant to give confidence as a force and form of certainty. It is tempting to substitute the freedom and grace of confidence with the security and protection of certainty. But faith is about confidence not certainty. If we had certainty we would not need faith.

1. Errancy

Your love for Christ shapes your love of Scripture. You love the Bible. You love its psalmic depths. Psalm 130 comes to mind. You love its stories and their strange names. Obededom comes to mind. You love proverbial wisdom. “One sharpens another like iron sharpens iron” comes to mind. You love its freedom, its account of the career of freedom. The exodus comes to mind. You love its memory of Jesus. His holding children comes to mind. You love its honesty about religious life. Galatians comes to mind. You love its strangeness. John comes to mind. You love the Bible like Rudolph Bultmann loved it, enough to know it through and through.

You rely on the Holy Scripture to learn to speak of faith, and as a medium of truth for the practice of faith. Around our common table today in worship, we share this reliance and this love. The fascinating multiplicity of hearings, here, at and through Marsh Chapel, and the interplay of congregations present, absent, near, far, known, unknown, religious and unreligious, have a common ground in regard for the Scripture. A preacher descending into her automobile in Boston, after an earlier service, listens to this service to hear the interpretation of the gospel. A homebound woman in Newton listens for the musical offerings and for the reading of scripture. On the other side of the globe, way down in Sydney, Australia, a student listens in, come Sunday, out of a love of Christ that embraces a love of Scripture. Here in the Chapel nave, on the Lord’s Day, scholars and teachers and students have in common, by their love for Christ, a love for the Scripture, too. In this way, we may all affirm Mr. Wesley’s motto: homo unius libri, to be a person of one book.

But the Bible is errant. It is theologically tempting for us to go on preaching as if the last 250 years of study just did not happen. They did. That does not mean that we should deconstruct the Bible to avoid allowing the Bible to deconstruct us, or that we should study the Bible in order to avoid allowing the Bible to study us. In fact, after demythologizing the Bible we may need to remythologize the Bible too. It is the confidence born of obedience, not some certainty born of fear, that will open the Bible to us. We need not fear truth, however it may be known. So Luke may not have had all his geographical details straight. So John includes the woman caught in adultery, but not in its earliest manuscripts. (Actually she, poor woman, is found at the end of Luke in some texts.) So Paul did not write the document from the earlier third century, 3 Corinthians. The references to slavery in the New Testament are as errant and time bound as are the references to women not speaking in church. The references to women not speaking in church are as errant and time bound as are the references to homosexuality. The references to homosexuality are as errant and time bound as are the multiple lists of the twelve disciples. The various twelve listings are as errant and time bound as the variations between John and the other Gospels. And so on…

The Marsh pulpit, and others like it, are not within traditions which affirm the Scripture as the sole source of religious authority. We do not live within a Sola Scriptura tradition. The Bible is primary, foundational, fundamental, basic, prototypical—but not exclusively authoritative. Do you hear that? It begs to be heard. Today’s passage from Matthew 4 is an idealized memory of something that may or may not have happened in the way accounted, somewhere along the Tiberian shore. It looks back sixty years. Sixty years! What do you remember from January of 1948? Nor was it written for that kind of certainty. Matthew 4 is formed in the faith of the church to form the faith of the church.

If I were teaching a Sunday School class in Nebraska this winter I would buy the class copies of Throckmorton’s Gospel parallels and read it with them.

We grasp for certainty, but confidence grasps us.

2. Equality

You love the tradition of the church as well. “Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed…” John Wesley loved the church’s tradition too, enough to study it and to know it, and to seek its truth. The central ecclesiastical tradition of his time, the tradition of apostolic succession, he termed a ‘fable’. (It would be like political debaters today using charged language like ‘fairy tale’.) Likewise, we lovers of the church tradition will not be able to grasp for certainty in it, if that grasping dehumanizes others. The Sabbath was made for the human being, not the other way around, in our tradition.

Baptism is as traditional and central a variously understood practice as Christianity possesses. It is in some ways the very doorway to our traditions. Yet listen to Paul today. In his context, he rejects baptism. For him gospel trumps tradition.

Our linkage of the gifts of heterosexuality and ministry, however traditional, falls before the gospel of grace and freedom. Further, on a purely practical level, another generation will not be impressed by church growth strategies rooted in the exclusion of 10% of the population. There is a serious upside limit to the use of gay ba
shing to grow churches. My three children in their twenties are not going to stay around for it.

It is theologically tempting to shore up by keeping out. But such a theological temptation has no future. Equality will triumph over exclusion. It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave…

If I were convening a Lenten study in suburban Washington DC I would have the group read G. Wills’ Head and Heart: American Christianities, for some perspective on the way traditions change.

3. Evolution

You love the mind, the reason. You love the prospect of learning. You love the life of the mind. You love the Lord with heart and soul and mind. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”, you say. You love the reason in the same that Charles Darwin, a good Anglican, loved the reason. You love its capacity to see things differently.

Of course reason unfettered can produce hatred and holocaust. Learning for its own sake needs virtue and piety. More than anything else, learning, to last, must finally be rooted in loving. Did you hear the one thing requested in our vibrant Psalm? To inquire in the temple. Inquiry!

The universe is 14 billion years old. The earth is 4.5 billion years old. 500 million years ago multi-celled organisms appeared in the Cambrian explosion. 400 million years ago plants sprouted. 370 million years ago land animals emerged. 230 million years ago dinosaurs appeared (and disappeared 65 million years ago). 200,000 years ago hominids arose. Every human being carries 60 new mutations out of 6 billion cells. Yes, evolution through natural selection by random mutation is a reasonable hypothesis, says F Collins, father of the human genome project, and, strikingly, a person of faith.

If I were the chaplain of a small private school in New England I might have my fellowship group read this winter F Collins, the Language of God. He can teach us to reason together.

It is tempting to disjoin learning and vital piety, but it is not loving to disjoin learning and vital piety. They go together. The God of Creation is the very God of Redemption. Their disjunction may help us cling for a while to a kind of faux certainty. But their conjunction is the confidence born of obedience. Falsehood has no defense and truth needs none.

4. Existence

You love experience. The gift of experience in faith is the heart of your love of Christ. You love Christ. Like Howard Thurman loved the mystical ranges of experience, you do too. Isaiah, in looking forward, can sing of the joy of harvest. We know joy. Joy seizes us. Joy grasps us when we are busy grasping at other things. You love what we are given morning and evening.

You love experience more than enough to examine your experience, to think about and think through what you have seen and done.

But beloved, a simple or general appeal to the love of experience, in our time, in 2008, is not appealing or loving. It is not experience, but our very existence which lies under the shadow of global violence. To have any future worthy of the name we shall need to foreswear preemptive violence. How the stealthy entry of such a manner of behavior could shape our civil discourse without voluminous debate and vehement challenge is a measure of our longing for false certainties. Preemption is our besetting theological temptation. Our existence itself is on the line in discussions or lack of discussions about violent action that is preemptive, unilateral, imperial, and reckless. One thinks of Lincoln saying of slavery, ‘those who support it might want to try it for themselves’. Not one of us wants to be the victim of preemptive violence. We may argue about the need for response, and even for the need of some kinds of anticipatory defense. But preemption? It will occlude existence itself.

If I were gathering a book club in downtown Boston to read this winter I would select the articles and books of Reinhold Niebuhr. Our future lies on the narrower path of responsive, communal, sacrificial, prudent behavior and requires of us, in Neibuhr’s phrase, ‘a spiritual discipline against resentment’.

There are indeed theological temptations in the unbalanced love of Scripture, tradition, reason or experience. As we come soon to Lent let us face them down. Let us face them down together. Let us do so by lifting our voices to admit errancy, affirm equality, explore evolution, and admire existence. The measure of preaching today in the tradition of a responsible Christian liberalism is found in our willingness to address errancy, equality, evolution and existence.

January 13

Choice and Journey

By Marsh Chapel

Matthew 3: 13-17

1. Preface

Here it is after Christmas.

Our week began with one Hillary crying, and ended with one Hillary dying.

Here it is after Christmas.

And what do we have to show for it?

An empty manger. A family taken to flight. Herod on the rise. Kings come and Kings gone. And now, in just a few days time, Jesus meets us grown full. What did all that Christmas singing and speaking mean? It does not seem like we have very much to go on. Not much to go on.

The manger of Christmastide. The star of epiphany. And today the river of baptism. Hay and Star and Water. Not much to go on.

We are left with choices and the journey, choices which shape the journey, choices which are the journey. Choices that bring tears, and the journey that ends in death. Crying and dying. Our Hillary week, beginning with one and ending with the other, could not be more liturgical appropriate. Joseph chose and traveled. The Magi followed and worshipped. Jesus chose and dipped.

Take the Magi. They chose—to worship. They traveled—to follow. And so, we too. Left with little to go on. Daily choices and a long day’s journey. Choice and journey. It is a spare existential Gospel for Epiphany, and a true one.

Dark nights. Lonely trails. Unforeseen delays. Risky decisions. Vague premonitions. Misleading intuitions. Distorted powers. For all of the Eastern religion and miraculous birth embodied in the Christmas and Epiphany stories, what stands out is the empty frontier of living, in choice and journey. It is enough to make a grown man, or woman, shed a tear.

We do not think enough about tears, until or unless we are jolted by them. Tears are the river of life. Think of the verses that cry out from memory…Jesus wept… Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning… There is a time to weep and a time to laugh… Blessed are those who weep now, for they shall be blessed…Rachel wept for her children…My tears have been my food, day and night…The Lord God will wipe away every tear from their eyes… She washed his feet with her tears…

We do not think about tears until they overtake us. So it is with the journey and its end. Shakespeare sharply describes our condition:

Tir’d with all these, for restful death I cry:
As, to behold Desert a beggar born,
And needy Nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest Faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded Honour shamefully misplac’d,
And maiden Virtue rudely strumpeted;
And right Perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,
And Strength by limping Sway disabled,
And Art made tongue-tied by Authority,
And Folly, Doctor-like, controlling Skill,
And simple Truth miscall’d Simplicity,
And captive Good attending captain Ill –
Tir’d with all these, fro, these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

2. Choice and Journey

Choice and journey. What guidance are we given? Very little. Starlight and hay and water.

We are invited to make choices in response to a mute manger. We are welcomed to make our choices in front of weakness incarnate. We are encouraged to make our choices under the innocent gaze of a newborn. We are called, addressed, summoned to make the choices that themselves make us, make our lives, standing on hay. The revelation, if it is one, is a haymow revelation. Poor. We are to make our choices in front of human weakness, ‘asleep on the hay’. It is not much to go on.

We are invited to make our journey in starlight. We are invited to make our journey forward in the near darkness of starlight. We are invited to make our journey under the flickering littleness of a lonely star. We are called, addressed, summoned to ‘wonder as we wander out under the sky’. It is not much to go on.

3. Epiphany Gifts of Choice and Journey

The choices and journey of the wise ones lead into the choices and journey of the Lord at his baptism. All these stories, from hay to star to water, proclaim choice and journey.

After all, those wise folks who carry the burden of the gospel story as it begins in Matthew, and who bear such expensive gifts to the scene of Jesus’ birth, also bring you gifts. We certainly can be glad for the gold and incense and medicine with which they have again showered the Prince of Peace. What gifts, other than our whole selves and our every resource, are worthy of a Messiah? But, in their journey, remembered again today, the wise professors from Iraq also present you with holiday presents, gifts of the spirit. It is good to receive as well as to give.

The kings are seekers and searchers. They embody the dominical saying, “seek and ye shall find.” They do search, diligently, and they do find their hearts’ desire. One card given me this year ended with the phrase, “may you find your heart’s desire.” These magi would applaud such a note. Not for them, the one storey life. Not for them, the one horse life. Not for them, the overly easy, overly simple. To search diligently for your heart’s desire means work and loss and failure. To seek means to question, to reject, to give up. It may even mean changing your mind or your plan. Today at least some have come to church searching, or have come to church to represent to themselves that they still wonder, they still care, they still are yearning for the heart’s desire. Here is a kingly gift for every one who is searching diligently. Our wise men bless you. They may represent God’s benevolence toward you, the benevolent watching and guiding of a shepherd, or of a parent, or of a teacher. If no church will encourage your search, if no popular movement will animate your soul, if no family member or friend finally will validate your seeking–fear not: the kings of the East know the precious value of your search, for it has been theirs as well.

The wise ones offer you a gift which may not seem very religious, nor very fit for epiphany. Yet it is a princely possession for those who will receive it. I refer to their capacity to sift and measure, to sift and separate wheat from chaff, true from evil. These kings remind you of your own high calling, to discern, to test everything, to consider and ponder and think. Life is more than activity and work. Life is more than running and stopping. Life is more than selling and buying. Actually, none of these outward acts means much, without the heart’s desire. Here the magi have shared a remarkable, choice possession, yours for the asking. Herod’s information is accurate but his motives are unclean and his purpose is malevolent. Herod is a wolf, in sheep’s clothing. Wisdom knows the howl of the wolf. The kings could overhear the deception in Herod’s claim to worship. Herod lives still, and the wise of this world learn to distinguish true from evil.

The kings give you another look at the star. They encourage you to trust the inner sense you have of guiding, of light, of direction. You were not born without a moral compass. You have a conscience. It lives as long as you live. Through all of the valleys and hills of life, this inner sense will orient you, if you will receive it as the royal gift it is. All too often we forsake our own best insight, out of false humility, out of laziness, out of fear, out of self-doubt. Just here, the three kings have a post-Christmas gift to offer you. Train your ear to hear your own conscience. Strain your mind and heart to know the pure tones of the heart’s desire.

Strange gifts, for a strange story, and a strange season. Wise men from the east bring gold and frankincense and myrrh. Also, they bring you some gifts this morning. They are yours for the unwrapping. A blessing upon searchers. A blessing upon thinkers. A blessing upon believers. Go and search. Go and measure. Go and trust. Choose and travel.

Choice and journey.

4. Jesus’ Choice and Journey at Baptism

For the legend repeated and refurbished in Matthew, bearing the account of Jesus’ baptism, forcefully continues the same spare, existential gospel of Christmas and Epiphany. Choice. Journey. This is what we have day by day, our choices and the journey made from them. Look at how much has been left open, left free, left undone, left to you and me. What confidence, divine confidence, is so expressed in beings, human beings.

Jesus chooses to enter the roiling river Jordan, and to go on from there, beloved and beckoned. Jesus’ choice—to enter. Jesus journey—to die. And ours. And ours.

Matthew has added to Mark’s earlier account a rejoinder to those of his later congregation who worried about Jesus needing forgiveness, and who worried about Jesus needing John. He chose, judges Matthew, he chose. Matthew has further added to Mark’s earlier account a redirection of divine voice. In Mark the voice from heaven speaks to Jesus, ‘thou art’. But in Matthew, the voice speaks out to all, ‘this is’. He steps out, judges Matthew, he steps out. So the voice of heaven prepares the earthly journey.

Here we are. After Christmas. In life, in choice, in journey. A spare existential gospel for epiphany. In a week that began with one Hillary crying, and another Hillary dying, we might meditate on choice and journey.

5. Application

One gathers over time wisdom sayings about choice. Here are a few.

Plan for the worst, hope for the best, then do your most, and leave all the rest. Under Palm Trees in San Diego Ken McMillan, a dear friend, once gave us this proverb. It has been a help to me. Particularly in church, in denominational life, wherein not every relationship has been as dear and friendly as that with Ken, the saying has helped. It preaches.

Show up, pay attention, tell the truth, do not get overly invested in the results. This proverb’s origin I know not. It does help one survive committee meetings, though, setting the bar low, as it does. I have had occasion in academic life, which admits of some committee work, to remember it.

Here is my own Methodist handshake on choice, five fingers for you. As you decide ask yourself: Have I truly prayed about this? Have I learned as much as I can about the choice? Have I talked with four close friends? Have I lived with it, letting the soul breathe? The last is hardest to say: Have I felt for grace along the way? Prayer, Study, Conversation, Fasting, and Mystery—another way to consider the means of grace.

We prepare for choice.

Furthermore, for our journey we might remember, as from a more distant past, fellow travelers, with us, on hay and under star and in water.

Paul Tillich is one.

During the larger part of my life I have tried to penetrate the meaning of the Christian symbols, which have become increasingly problematic within the cultural context of our time. Since the split between a faith unacceptable to culture and a culture unacceptable to faith was not possible for me, the only alternative was to attempt to interpret the symbols of faith through expressions of our own culture”.

Wendy Wasserstein is one.

The gospel of choice and journey, a spare existential epiphany gospel, can be heard at the Huntingdon Theater, in Wendy Wasserstein’s fine play Third. At the drama’s climax, we are placed before the meaning of the journey we share, and asked, in a young man’s voice, “do you really want to sacrifice hope for the sake of irony”?

Sir Edmund Hillary is one.

We might think of the summit of Everest and its first visitor. His famous journey took him high. But his life journey took him wide. He found in the Sherpa people, in their need as well as their strength, a cause to serve, a way to give, a folk to love. Sir Edmund found himself by losing himself in faithful renovation of culture and cultural expression of faith. In our time we may not need a theological reformation as much as we need a cultural revolution, one whose summit again enlists the heart and mind in a common hope, a common hope.

We prepare for the journey.

Are you ready for choice? Are you ready for the journey?