Oh, goodness. This is uncomfortable. Well, yes, it is rather warm in an un-air-conditioned nave on a hot summer day in Boston, but no, this is not what I was referring to. Even more uncomfortable for the preacher of the day than heavy vestments on a hot day is the task of wrestling with apparently contradictory texts. What are we to make of this?
Well, what shall it be? Are we to rejoice with Jerusalem, as God has declared victory for her and accounted divine sanction to her future success, as with Isaiah? Or, are we to follow the command of Jesus: “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you”? To rejoice or not to rejoice, that is the question, at least for today. And what finer day to ask the question than on the day we celebrate the victories and successes of the United States of America, from its founding to the present day?
Yes, we would be remiss, on this at least as much on any other day, to glory in our triumphs, victories and successes without acknowledging and grappling with the concomitant ambiguity inherent in such accomplishments. Noah Feldman, of the law school at a neighboring institution, put it poetically when he titled his recent contribution to the New York Times Op-Ed page, “The Triumphant Decline of the WASP.” Indeed, as Feldman points out, should Elena Kagan be confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States, then the great vision of meritocratic achievement and inclusion bequeathed to this country by white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants will be accomplished precisely by delivering a bench devoid of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
Or, given the recent proliferation of vampires in the media, I am hoping that a reference to the recent film Daybreakers may not be too far off mark: the central problem of the film is that once the vampires have bitten everyone and turned them into vampires, they have effectively cut off their own food supply. Oops!
These are, of course, both extreme cases of the colloquialism, “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.” While in the former case we may wish to affirm the outcome, and in the latter case we may find some amusement in the irony, it is almost certainly the case that the successes achieved were not quite what the instigators had in mind when they started the snowball rolling down the hill. (Do we have enough metaphors going on here? Are you keeping up? Oh, good.)
Now, do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that President Obama should have nominated a vampire to the Supreme Court. Vampires and the Supreme Court have nothing to do with one another.
What I do want to put on the table for consideration is the ambiguity of success. Politicians and pundits would have us take an apocalyptic view with regard to virtually every issue of our day. If we go one way, the world will come to an end. If we go the other way, we will enter a utopian paradise of harmony and bliss. To be honest, life would probably be easier if it actually worked this way.
Unfortunately, life is not made up of black and white issues. Life is complex, interconnected, and messy. In contrast to the apocalyptic view of life and its issues, we might call this the whack-a-mole approach to life and its problems. Every time you solve one problem, WHACK, one or possibly several more pop up that you could not have expected.
Even when we do manage to pull off what would amount to a clear victory, we are often left with a feeling of ambivalence. It may be that the Union North defeated the Confederate South in the Civil War, but then what exactly are we to make of the hundreds of thousands of casualties along the way? Or perhaps even more immediately distressing, it may be that you graduated first in your class from BU Law, but now there are no jobs for lawyers! Did I make the right choice? Did I follow the right path? I have achieved my goal, but was the goal really worth pursuing in the first place?
And not only are you stuck with both the good and the bad mixed up in whatever path you followed, you are also stuck with the outcome at which you have arrived, and not any other. After three years of law school you become a lawyer, which is also to become not a doctor, not a teacher, not a journalist, not an historian. After three years of seminary… Well, actually, it’s still not entirely clear to me exactly what you become after three years of seminary. But whatever it is, that is what you are, and not something else.
“Do not be deceived,” says Paul, “for you reap whatever you sow.” Is this not precisely the problem? Dare we to sow anything, for fear that we might be forced to reap it?
What, pray tell, are we supposed to do with all of this ambiguity? Let me assure you that you have come to the right place. The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that all of the ambiguities of life in the world are in fact taken up in God, whence they are judged. God does not judge us for clarity and decisiveness: “do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you.” No, we are judged based on the gracefulness with which we pursue righteousness: “rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” The trick, you see, is not to be right; the trick is to be grounded and oriented such that as ambiguous successes and failures come our way we can navigate successfully between Scylla and Charibdis. As I am wont to say to my colleagues in higher education administration, if our students somehow manage to learn nothing in the classroom but learn to fail and recover gracefully during their time at Boston University, we will have succeeded in achieving our educational mission.
And how better are we to learn to cope with ambiguity than by coming to the communion table? There is no more ambiguous space. What exactly are we consuming when we come to the table? Bread and wine, or flesh and blood? And if indeed it is flesh and blood, how so and how is this possible? We do not know. There is and never has been an entirely unified answer to this central question in the life of the Christian church. And yet, the ritual act of sacrifice at the center of the Eucharistic rite remains at the heart of Christian life and practice, in all of its ambiguity.
In one exchange at the fraction between priest and congregation, the priest proclaims, “Behold what you are!” and the congregation responds, “May we become what we receive.” As we
turn to Christ’s table, may we become what we receive. Let us become people whose ambiguous lives are yet sources of rejoicing, not in absolute successes on our parts but in the glory of God who loves us in the midst of ambiguity and ambivalence. Thanks be to God. Amen.
University Chaplain for Community Life