It is good to begin in a spirit of gratitude, and so once again it is incumbent upon me to begin this sermon with a word of gratitude to Dean Hill for his gracious offering of a preaching series in the late spring and summer of 2011. Yes, whether you like it or not, you have managed to arrive in the nave of Marsh Chapel for the final installment of Br. Larry’s 2011 Secular Holiday Preaching Series. Some of you may remember when we began, back in May, on Mother’s Day, and then a few weeks later continued on Memorial Day. And now, here we are, once again, this time on Independence Day weekend, at the conclusion of the series. For those who, at the conclusion of this hour, will have withstood all three installments, you have my sincerest condolences.
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray.
Holy God, Holy and mighty, Holy and eternal, have mercy on us this day, that we may come to live freely, humbly and honestly in the communion of you most Holy Spirit, in whose unity you dwell with Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
As parts of speech go, adverbs tend to fall at the, “Well, okay, but only if we must,” end of the spectrum. To be honest, the trendiest aspect of grammar these days is punctuation, as evidenced by the passionate debates on Twitter in the past few days about the use of the Oxford comma. The bedrock of grammar, of course, is the noun. Nouns have substance. We can see, hear, taste, touch and smell their referents. Verbs help us talk about what nouns do and adjectives help us distinguish the blue nouns from the red nouns. All adverbs do is to qualify the manner in which nouns do the things their attendant verbs indicate. We even go out of our way to find ways of avoiding adverbs. After hearing a politician or a preacher we are likely to say, “Well that was a stupid thing for him to say,” as opposed to saying, “she spoke stupidly.”
It is little wonder, then, that so many in our time struggle to find their spiritual voice, since religious and spiritual life dwells in the land of the adverb. To be religious or to be spiritual is to be concerned with the manner in which life is lived. Life is the noun, live is the verb, and the manner in which life is lived is expressed adverbially. The reality of the adverbial nature of religiosity and spirituality is found in our Gospel reading this morning. In the first half of the pericope, Jesus is frustrated by the lack of understanding of the ministries he and John the Baptist undertook. This lack of understanding is situated in the focus placed upon particular actions, or inactions, undertaken by Jesus and John, namely eating and drinking. Then, the members of the generation Jesus’ critiques ascribes particular connotations to the states of being of Jesus and John, respectively, based on those actions or inactions. The members of the generation observe the verbs and then classify the nouns according to those observations. In the second half of the pericope, Jesus indicates that the generation has missed the point, and that what is really important is hidden from them. Later in the pericope Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” We may ask, what makes people weary? Too much activity. Too many verbs! And those carrying heavy burdens have too many nouns, or too much of a given noun. When we learn from Jesus, we come to understand that it is not about how many activities we can undertake or how much we can carry. It is not about nouns and verbs. It is about the manner in which we do whatever we undertake. To follow Jesus is to learn to live adverbially. Not that adverbs are easier than nouns and verbs, just lighter and less frantic. No, the challenge of living adverbially is garnering the focus of attention required.
There are many adverbs in religious and spiritual life. On this Independence Day weekend, we will consider three: freely, humbly, and honestly. First, and the adverb most closely keyed to the holiday, freely.
The notion of living freely as a spiritual manner of life flies directly in the face of how moderns, Westerns, and particularly we in the United States generally think about what it means to be free. Most often we speak of freedom, a noun, a substance. Freedom is something we have as a possession, and one of the reasons we celebrate Independence Day is to celebrate the substance of freedom that was won as a possession in the wake of the colonies declaring independence and fighting the Revolutionary War. It is a bit odd to think of freedom as a substance. After all, have you ever tried to put freedom in a bag and carry it down the street? Can you walk up to a street vendor and say, “I’ll have a large cup of freedom with sprinkles on top?” Admittedly, for a time you could order Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast from restaurants and snack bars run by the U.S. House of Representatives, but that is a whole other story and a whole other sermon.
No, the modern western concept of freedom is not a noun like “book” is a noun, namely something you could carry down the street with you. Instead, most often what we mean by freedom in the modern west is both the capacity to act as we choose or desire and the lack of impediment or constraint resulting from the actions of others. This double concept of freedom is epitomized in Isaiah Berlin’s lecture, Two Concepts of Liberty, in which he distinguishes freedom “to” and freedom “from.” Of course, the two may conflict. After all, every action I undertake may impede the actions of another or constrain them from acting at all. If I hold a large rock concert on Marsh Plaza in the middle of a Thursday afternoon, this will likely impede the ability of scholars in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Law School, and the School of Theology from being very productive, and will be a significant distraction to students studying there, to say nothing of the Chapel Choir rehearsing in the nave here in Marsh Chapel. My freedom to hold the concert runs counter to the freedom of others from distraction. The conflict between freedom from and freedom to, and various approaches to managing the conflict, is the source of much of political, social and legal controversies of our time.
Our religious and spiritual traditions, however, teach us that to be free is not to possess the substance freedom but rather to live freely. To live freely is to cultivate the capacity to behave in ways that avoid the turn to the frenetic and overburdened. As Saint Paul tells it in our reading from Romans, to live freely is to live in concert among head, heart and body. Of course, the way Paul tells it belies a rather unfortunate dualism between body and spirit, but that should not inhibit us from retelling it in a way the expresses the truth of our common desire with Paul to live integrated lives. Such integration is a prerequisite to living freely.
The Buddhist doctrine of non-attachment is a correlate to this living freely. It emphasizes that in moving beyond frantic activity and heavy burdens we are able to be more fully present in the present moment. In doing so we are able to bring our full attention to the reality of the here and now without needing to control for every possible future outcome. This is not to say that we should neglect future outcomes; that would be irresponsible. It is to say that living freely means freely receiving what comes and offering back the best synthesis of what we receive in gracious generosity. We should not become too attached to what we receive, or we will not be able to offer it back generously. We should also not become too attached to the outcomes we intend in making our offering, as we are never fully in control of those outcomes. We do our best with what we have, and when our best is not good enough, we offer what we have received and what we have offered up to God in penitence and thanksgiving.
When living freely, it is very possible that the conditions in which we live, some of which are brought about by other people, will resist our best intentions. In religious and spiritual life, as we work toward living freely, we should not be too concerned when our best intentions cannot be realized. The religious and spiritual traditions testify that freedom-from is an illusion at best, and a trap at worst. At the same time, they teach that freedom-to is never absolute and is always constrained by the conditions at hand. The generation that so frustrated Jesus frustrated him precisely because they thought that the Messiah would come to bring their freedom from the political, social and religious oppression of the Roman Empire. The Messiah Jesus, however, came to teach them instead how to live freely under the conditions in which they found themselves, which living he believed would eventually restore them out of oppression, as the prophet Zechariah had promised.
What does living freely look like? Perhaps we should take our cue from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who said of the late Reverend Professor Peter Gomes of Harvard Memorial Church, “He was the freest man I ever knew.” I have quoted Governor Patrick on this several times, and many people have looked at me quixotically. I think that what Governor Patrick meant is that Reverend Professor Gomes lived freely. He cultivated a way of being that allowed him to be fully present wherever he found himself. When he found himself faced with a crisis at Harvard over the status in the community of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, he calmly stood up, taking up the authority of his revered position, and announced that he was gay. Furthermore, he said that the secret to his ministry of over forty years at Harvard was “ubiquity, ubiquity, ubiquity.” Reverend Professor Gomes lived freely, and that empowered him to be fully present in situations where he was wanted, challenging those who said they wanted him along the way, and fully present in situations where he was not wanted, opening up avenues of dialogue toward finding common ground amidst difference.
So too, those of us who seek to live religious and spiritual lives seek to live life humbly. Just as freely the adverb is a far cry from the noun freedom, so too the adverb humbly is a far cry from the adjective humble. In our gospel today Jesus says that he is “gentle and humble in heart,” but I would submit that the qualifier “in heart” would indicate that he means that he seeks to live his life adverbially humbly. After all, it would be hard to say the Jesus was entirely humble, riding into Jerusalem as he did on the back of a donkey in kingly fashion, fulfilling the words of the prophet Zechariah. This is not what we would associate with a humble person, which is to say one whose entire way of being, one whose life-substance is qualitatively humble through and through. To be humble is to be of small stature, to be one who refrains from entering the fray, to suppress the desire for the better, to say nothing of the best.
The problem with being humble is that it holds back the integration we already saw was a prerequisite for living freely, which is also a prerequisite for living humbly. This is precisely the problem with the dualism that Paul sets up by seeking to humble his body that his spirit might be free of sin. The humbled body can never be integrated with the spirit, which is to say cleansed or justified. More than simply being integrated as a prerequisite however, living humbly also requires recognizing and respecting the integrity of others. Integrity requires deference. To live humbly is to live in such a way that our own pursuit of religiously and spiritually fulfilled lives comes about in concert with the pursuit of religiously and spiritually fulfilled lives by others. At the same time, living humbly recognizes that religious and spiritual fulfillment for any one person cannot come about at the expense of such fulfillment by any others. If my salvation can only come about by the damnation of others, it is not salvation, but also, if the salvation of others can only come about by my damnation, it is not salvation. If the salvation of the mob can only come about by arresting, trying and crucifying Jesus, it cannot be true salvation, but neither can the salvation of the world come through the killing of the mob, as one disciple set out to do by cutting off the ear of the slave of the high priest. Living life humbly recognizes the integrity of others and so empowers us to resist that which would oppress us, often as not by submitting to that very oppression.
The nonviolent activism of Mohandas Gandhi and Boston University’s own alumnus the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., exemplifies what it means to live life humbly. It is in recognizing the integrity of others that Gandhi and King sought to organize those others to resist the attempts on the part of a wider society to oppress them, while at the same time teaching the others to recognize the integrity of the others who made up the wider society. What it means to live humbly is embodied in the three points of Gandhi’s philosophy, summarized in E. Stanley Jones’ biography of Gandhi, that inspired King to take up the practices of nonviolence:
1. that nonviolence is the method of the strong, not the method of the weak and the cowardly
2. that it is better to fight than to take up nonviolence through fear or cowardice
3. that by using the right means, the right result will follow
We should note that the last point is a summary of the principle that religious and spiritual life is concerned with the adverbial character of how life is lived, and that life lived adverbially is the good life, not life lived frantically and overburdened.
Now, what is this integrated self that we have been speaking of as a precondition for life lived freely and humbly? It is life lived honestly. If we are to have any hope of the many parts of ourselves abiding together wholesomely, then they must first be acknowledged honestly. Just as life lived freely is to be distinguished, even opposed, to freedom, and just as life lived humbly is to be distinguished, even opposed, to being humble, so too life lived honestly is to be distinguished, and even opposed, to truth. Truth is something that is established and stable for all time. Life lived honestly recognizes that we ourselves are not established and stable, that the way we are now is not the way we always were and is not the way we always will be. Furthermore, the situation of our lives is not established and stable, is not the same now as it always has been, and will not be in ten days either what it is now or will be tomorrow. If truth is once and for all, then living life honestly is a way of being in constant discernment of who we were, who we are, who we will be, in light of ever changing circumstances.
Of course, it is the very instability of living honestly, the very continuous and ongoing cycles of change, that gives rise to the adverbial character of religious and spiritual life. All of those nouns and verbs that pervade our speech and our thought about what is most true and good risk making us participants in the very generation Jesus bemoans in our gospel reading today. Take, for example, the extraordinarily vitriolic language all too prevalent on the tips of the tongues of politicians and pundits, to say nothing of friends and family, aimed at Muslims and the Islamic world. Such vitriol can only arise from a clinging to a truth that claims an exceptional character for the United States and a demonic character for all Muslims based upon the actions of a few. Today, in the midst of Independence Day weekend, we would do well to seek to live more honestly. How quickly we forget that the modern western world of science and technology would not exist except for the rediscovery of Aristotle, transmitted through the Islamic world back into the west during the late Middle Ages. How quickly we forget that the Roman Empire once thought itself exceptional, and now it is dust.
Today, in the midst of Independence Day weekend, let us live according to the good news of life lived adverbially. Let us live according to the good news that we can live integrated and wholesome lives when we seek to live honestly with ourselves and each other. Let us live according to the good news that we can live humbly, recognizing the integrity of everyone and everything around us. Let us live according to the good news that we can live freely even in the midst of the constraints brought about by chance and by the free lives undertaken by integral others. And in living freely, humbly and honestly we experience salvation. Clinging to a substantial freedom will leave us conflicted socially. Clinging to a humble nature will leave us conflicted personally. And clinging to absolute truth will leave us ineptly groping about in a constantly changing and complex world. Nouns and verbs are the substance and motion of life, but they are not the fullness and fulfillment of life. For fullness and fulfillment, long live the adverb! Amen.
~Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+
University Chaplain for Community Life
University Chaplain for Community Life