Christ and the Presence of the Kingdom

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John 2: 13-22

Preface

‘The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.’ (Ps 19:1)

Together we are on a Lenten journey. We are moving from sensation to reflection, from the depths of a technological culture to the heights of a reflective faith. We in Marsh Chapel today are on this journey. We listening from afar are on this journey. We around the globe in later audition are on this journey, all together. We are climbing, hiking, marching together. We are moving from activity to awareness. We are on the way from sensation to reflection.

Experience

“Let us preach You without preaching;
not by words but by our example;
by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what we do,
the evident fullness of the love our hearts bear to You.” (J H Newman)

In CC, 7/1/08: ‘One of the main goals of most religions is to open up self-absorbed individuals and connect them with a broader community and with the source and goal of all reality’. (M Volf)

In particular, this Lent, we are trying to announce the Good News of the Gospel, the gift and grace of faith, in a way that creatively redeems the technological culture of our time. We are moving from cyber sensation to careful reflection, from fingertip activity to spiritual awareness. We want to be aware of who we are and what we are doing. On this journey we may run into trouble, now and then.

One day you encounter e-trouble.  My son knows I think the world gets better one conversation at a time, and worse one email at a time.  He clerks for a federal judge.  One morning my son called me with this story.  “I knew you would enjoy it Dad”, he said.  “It involves trouble and email”.  Well, apparently in the judicial employment system, when one falls ill and runs out of sick days, others can take from their account and give to the need.  A worker received days from about twenty others, healed, and went back to work.  The colleague who organized the sick day bank support assayed to write a thank you note, which she did.  It was a very simple note, graciously thanking the donors, reporting on the healing, and wishing all well.  This would have been no problem.  Except that in mailing the thank you note, she hit the wrong key, and sent to the wrong list, not a list of twenty donors, but a general list of 200,000 judicial employees. Here is a trouble, a day’s own trouble, organically designed for the tweeter, list serve, email, website 21st century.  Oops.  Yet even this would also have been no problem.  Except that a lawyer in Arizona took umbrage at the e-incursion, and said so in a curtly written note:  ‘not my issue, not my problem, you invaded my space, thanks but no thanks, plus I really do not agree with this whole socialist sick day swapping anyway.’

Which would have been alright, too.  Except that she hit ‘reply all’, and, in the next hour, said my son, he had 100 emails in his box.  Yes, Sick Day Bank! No Arizona! Yes Thank You Note! No To Rude Response! Yes to Liberty, No to Obama (I have no idea how he got in there)…Until one kindly attorney from the St Lawrence River area shouted out:  “STOP.  This is what makes people suspicious of lawyers in general and federal workers in particular.  We have better things to do with our time.”  This also would have been no problem.  Except.  Except that before he signed off he wrote:  “PS, while I have your attention, I want you to know that I am an amateur chef, and I would like to take this opportunity to share with you all MY FAVORITE RECIPE FOR COOKING SALMON”.  Yes, he hit reply all.  And on the day went:  Salmon Yes! Salmon No! Amateur Chef Yes! Email recipe, NO!…

Remember the way the Bible begins. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep. And… God… (what?)…God…said…Speech creates, redeems and sustains. God speaks in Genesis 1and creates a world. God promises in Genesis 17 and creates a people. God commands in Exodus 20 and defines a Decalogue. God authorizes through the judges and admonishes through the prophets and teaches through the writers and prophecies through the seers. To Elijah, we recalled last week, he speaks in a still, small voice. God…speaks…God’s word. In the parables of Jesus. In the sermon on the mount. In the thunder outside Paul’s Antioch.In the child’s voice in Augustine’s garden. In the silence of the dark night of St. John of the Cross. In the lectures of Luther, the sermons of Calvin, the hymns of Wesley, the shouts of the Baptists, the wails of the Pentecostals, the prayers of the Anglicans, and the quiet of the Quakers. Day to day pours forth speech. All the way to this moment, this morning, this sermon.

You know, you do not know where this sermon will end. After an early sermon my Dad commented, critically, ‘well it had two of the essential ingredients of a good sermon—a beginning and an ending’. Where this ends, and how, you do not know. You hope I do. Me too, though we leave a measure to the Holy Spirit. You do not even know IF this sermon will end! (It will.)

There is a sonorous mystery to speech, all speech, to words, to voice. Voice can frighten. S Terkel interviewed a 20 year old who abhorred the telephone, because, said he, ‘I just don’t know how to end a conversation.’ That is the way with speech. You cannot scroll ahead to the end, or read the last chapter first, or speed through the sub headings. You don’t know how it will turn out. You do not know how or if the sermon will end.

I wonder what the mystified congregation in Duke Chapel, May 1975, thought when they heard William Stringfellow say the following?

Technocracy cannot tolerate human creativity because that cannot be quantified, programmed and forecast; so it must be suppressed, destroyed or displaced. As often as not, it is substitution which happens, and then the nomenclature of the art is misappropriated and applied to the anti-art, so as, after a generation or two, to even deprive human memory of the art. Meanwhile, it barely requires a footnote, a ridiculous parody of this whole process is technocratic totalitarianism by which the disciplines are corrupted and dehumanized as rendered in the realm of sports, both in the university and in society generally, especially in the political use assigned to commercialized sports to supply distraction or vicarious involvement to habituate persons as spectators to fill up the time, or otherwise to nurture public passivity and enforce ignorance. (William Stringfellow, May 1975, Duke Chapel (Willimon, 163))

Scripture

This year we will scale a far greater promontory, the highest peak in the Bible, which is the Gospel of John. With every cut-back trail, at every rest point, atop every lookout, with every majestic view, this spiritual gospel will address you with the choice of freedom, with the ongoing need to choose, and in choosing to find the life of belonging and meaning, personal identity and global imagination. More personally, this Gospel helps those who struggle with dislocation and disappointment. The Bride in Cana experienced dislocation, and so have you. The Bride of Christ experiences disappointment, and so have you.

John features Jesus in mortal combat over all of these. Jesus demarcates the limits of individualism during a wedding in Cana. Jesus pillories pride by night with Nicodemus. Jesus unwraps the touching self-presentations of hypocrisy in conversation at the well. Jesus heals a broken spirit. Jesus feeds the throng with two fish and five barley loaves. Jesus gives sight and insight, bifocal and stereoptic, to a man born blind. Jesus comes upon dead Lazarus and bring resurrection and life. He brings the introvert out of the closet of loneliness. He brings the literalist out of the closet of materialism. He brings the passionate out of the closet of guilt. He brings the dim-witted out of the closet of myopia. He brings the church out of the closet of hunger. He brings the dead to life.

The two basic historical problems of the New Testament are ancient cousins, first cousins to our two fundamental issues, the two existential battles in your salvation today.

The first historical problem behind our 27 books, and pre eminently embedded in John, is the movement away from Judaism. How did a religious movement, founded by a Jew, born in Judea, embraced by 12 and 500 within Judaism, expanded by a Jewish Christian missionary become, within 100 years, entirely Greek? The books of the New Testament record in excruciating detail the development of this second identity, this coming of age, that came with the separation from mother religion.

The second historical problem underneath the Newer Testament is disappointment, the despair that gradually accompanied the delay, finally the cancellation, of Christ’s return, the delay of the parousia. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Paul expected to be alive to see the advent of Christ. Gradually, though, the church confessed disappointment in its greatest immediate hope, the sudden cataclysm of the end.

Two problems, historical and fascinating, create our New Testament: the separation from Judaism and the delay of the parousia. In the fourth Gospel the two come together with great ferocity. What makes this matter so urgent for us is that these very two existential dilemmas—one of identity and one of imagination—are before every generation, including and especially our own.

How do I become a real person? How do we weather lasting disappointment? How do I grow up? How do we become mature? What insight do I need, amid the truly harrowing struggles over identity, to become the woman or man I was meant to become?

What imagination—what hope molded by courage—do we need to face down the profound despair of nuclear twilight and break free into a loving global future? More than any other document in ancient Christianity, John explored the first. More than any other document in Christianity, John faced the second.

Tradition: Jacques Ellul

Here is an Ellul Litany:

Christian: salt, light, sheep
It is impossible for us to make the world less sinful, and impossible for us to accept it as it is
Ethic: temporary and apologetic
Every moment of man’s life is not historic but apocalyptic
A Bomb: fact that had to be accepted
Present time judged in virtue of a meta historical fact, the incursion of this event into the present
Lordship is objective; hope subjective
‘A thing is only good or bad in its own time, according to its situation in the light of the Kingdom fo God, according to its conformity to the work of God for the coming of the Kingdom, an according to its possible us for the glory of God
Become aware, first
Live don’t act

‘Thus man who used to be the end of this whole humanist system of means, man, who is still proclaimed as an ‘end’ in political speeches, ha s in reality himself become the ‘means’ of the very means which ought to serve him: as for instance in economics of the state. In order that economics should be in a good condition, man submits to t he demands of an economic mechanism, becomes a total producer, and puts all his powers at the disposal of production. He becomes an obedient consumer, and with his eyes shut he swallows everything that economics puts into his mouth. Thus, fully persuaded that we are procuring the happiness of man, we are turning him into an instrument of these modern gods, which are our means. 51
Technical means become more important than the search for truth.

1. Man is no longer to any extent the master of his means
2. Technics extends to all spheres of life
3. Ends proposed are useless
For the Christian what actually matters in practice is to be not to act
Real action is simply the testimony of a profound life
Life is not efficient
Thus what we need is to rediscover all that the fullness of personal life means for a man standing on his own feet in the midst of the world, who rediscovers his neighbor because he himself has been found by God. 78
The man of the present day does not believe in his own experiences, judgment or thought.
There is no discussion with the radio or the press (or email)
Technics: precision, rapidity, certainty, continuity, universality—which are all characteristics of efficiency
The intelligence of modern man is no longer nourished at the source of contemplation, of awareness of reality and is more and more absorbed by the instrument which it has created, an instrument whose principal aim is the control of the material world
Intelligence is set free from dogmas and is a slave to means
Lack of awareness. Enslavement of the intelligence to technical methods.
Rediscover the meaning of the neighbor, of the ‘Event’ and of the Holy.
The intervention of God in human history in Jesus Christ.
What the church ought to do is to try to place all people in an economic, intellectual—yes also in a psychological and physical –situation, which is such that they can actually hear this gospel—that they can be sufficiently responsible to say yes or no, that they can be sufficiently alive for these words to have some meaning for them.

Reason

Who was Ellul?:

Youth: poor, no music. ‘I learned what unemployment is with no assistance, with no hope whatsoever, with no help from anywhere. I learned what it is to be sick with no government medical care and no money to pay the doctor or the druggist. I remember my father spending his days looking for work. Given his abilities, I felt that was an absolutely stupefying, incredible injustice that a man like him was unemployed.’ 5.
Dialectics: includes contraries, does not exclude them. A new historical situation emerges, integrating the two preceding factors with one another…both have vanished giving birth to a radically new situation.
The goal is to live the human freedom within the freedom of God. Logically the two cannot be reconciled, but dialectically, one can live with them.
Marx: economic situation. Yes. But not all the answers—life, death, love.
‘In my own life, I confronted the demands of Marx and the demands of the Bible and put them together.’
Then, Barth: ‘once I began reading Barth, I stopped being a Calvinist…obviously I could no longer be a Calvinist once I understood the dialectical movement of Barth’s thinking…Calvin constantly offers answers, solutions, or a construction, while Barth launches you on an adventure…
Parallel (camping) university. 1. Delinquent youth 2. Environment

In reasoned measure, by the reason, he reminds us of our capacity to neglect.

We succumb to willful neglect of vast stretches of reality. We are complicit in willful ignorance of broad swaths of actual human experience. ‘Nothing human is foreign to us’ may be our hope but it is not our reality. Yet a sober Sunday morning moment of contrition is quite enough to show us our willful neglect of vast stretches of reality.

We willfully neglect the amount of time each of us will be dead. In fact we live as if we are ‘temporarily immortal’. Yet regarding flesh and bone we shall each of us be dead an extremely long time, a vast long length of time when compared to the three score and ten years of our living. Our life is limited, but our death is limitless. We live though as if the opposite were the case. Given such a willful neglect of this one stretch of reality, it may not then be surprising to note how much more we also find ways to ignore.

100,000 Iraqis have died since 2003, as a consequence of our actions then, full of mixed motives. 4 million Iraqis are today refugees, many of them children, as a consequence of our actions then, full of mixed motives. We have spent $1 trillion dollars on this macabre misadventure. A trillion is a million millions or a thousand billions or a billion thousands. A trillion dollars is real money. And we wonder why our economy is sagging, shrinking, weakening?

There are 20 million other than legal alien residents of our country today. That number begins to approach 10% of the US population. But other than remembering that three of them twice mulched Governor Romney’s lawn, we are blithely ignorant of them, unless we have need or a run in.

Coda

Together we are on a Lenten journey. We are moving from sensation to reflection, from the depths of a technological culture to the heights of a reflective faith. We in Marsh Chapel today are on this journey. We listening from afar are on this journey. We around the globe in later audition are on this journey, all together. We are climbing, hiking, marching together. We are moving from activity to awareness. We are on the way from sensation to reflection.

In particular, this Lent, we are trying to announce the Good News of the Gospel, the gift and grace of faith, in a way that creatively redeems the technological culture of our time. We are moving from cyber sensation to careful reflection, from fingertip activity to spiritual awareness. We want to be aware of who we are and what we are doing. On this journey we may run into trouble, now and then.

The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.’ (Ps 19:1)

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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