Calvin for Lent: Exit or Voice

Matthew 4: 1-11

Romans 5: 12-19

Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7

(Philippians 1: 19ff.)

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.

Scripture

 

            Over pasta last summer, a hot July night, six of us of long friendship ate and talked.  Our dear friend Anita has been for decades a committed lay reader in her summer church.  She has taken pride in her work, praying and practicing for her lector role, recruiting others, and helping in worship.  With spaghetti and wine and the warmth of long relationship we nodded and supped.  But something had happened.  The old pastor left.  A new one came.  He was, sadly, rude and belligerent with his helpers.  Not just once, or twice.

Said Anita:  “What should I do?  I love to read, and I love my lector team.  But his behavior I cannot abide.  I have talked to him.  He rebuffs me.  If I stay, I endure and even collude in his misbehavior, but I will still have my voice in church and with the committee.  If I leave, I exit from what I love and also leave behind any influence I might have to help, support or protect others.  I am loyal to my church, but I am ready to go.  What should I do?’

Hours, days and months are actually shot through with this form of dilemma in choice.  Exit or leave?  A famous study forty years ago laid out for economists the dimensions of the dilemma.  (Albert O. Hirschman. 1970. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.)  But such a condition goes well beyond the marketplace.

Exit is as old the exit from the Garden of Eden.  Voice is as old as the dominical voice of Christ resisting temptation.  Exit and voice: how do the Scriptures frame such living choice?

Our lessons from Holy Scripture this morning propound the moral and mortal limits of life in sin and death.  As does every Sunday benediction, sung or spoken, Genesis 2 and Romans 5 and Matthew 4, directly remind you:  your life is brief and messy.

The ancient myth, beginning in the garden of paradise and moving to the east of Eden, entwines fragility and fragmentation, existence and estrangement, sin and death.   The tree of the knowledge of good and evil provides the symbolic substance, the serpent provides the symbolic occasion, and the fig leaves provides the symbolic covering of the entanglement of sin and death, shame and loss.   The strange world of the Bible—not strange in the sense of odd or wrong but strange in the sense of numinous and monumental—accosts us today with a ringing reminder of suffering and death.

Others may put these verses in different frames (a pan-religious frame (Joseph Campbell), or in a salvation history frame (G Von Rad), or in a tradition historical frame (Rudolph Bultmann), or in a literary religious frame (Diana Eck)).   For us in worship, though, these words are holy writ.  They function as words with divine import for human living.  They remind us of moral and mortal limits to life in sin and death, suffering and death.  They set before us the perilous multiple choices of life in a certain realistic context, as we shall see in a moment with regard to the choices, hourly and daily, between exit and voice.

The deep, hard cold of a real old time religion winter season, like ours here in 2014, befits our Holy Scriptures today.  It is bracing to feel the full wind and cold of winter.  We are thus reminded, perhaps even made mellow and melancholy, no bad thing, by the stern icy reminder of morality and mortality, sin and death.

This Lent we engage as our conversation partner in preaching, the great Geneva Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564).   We have found it helpful, in this season, to link our preaching here at Marsh Chapel, an historically Methodist pulpit, with voices from the related but distinct Reformed tradition, which has been so important over 400 years in New England.   The Methodist tradition has emphasized human freedom, the Reformed divine freedom.  In Lent each year we have brought the two into some interaction, both harmonious and dissonant.  It is fitting that we begin with Genesis 2.  Genesis 1 is a more Anglican chapter, if you will, representing the goodness of creation.  2 and 3 are more Calvinist, if you will, representing the fallen character of creation, known daily to us in sin, death and the threat of meaninglessness.  Both traditions, English and French, make space for both creation and fall.  But the emphasis is different, one more garden the other more serpent, one more creation the other more fall.  (With Calvin we encounter the chief resource for others we have engaged other years—voices like those of Robinson (2013), Ellul (2012), Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin)(2011), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).)

Our passage from Romans 5 gives us Paul’s own apocalyptic rendering of the themes of sin and death.  We should be careful to recognize that the words are the same here as in Genesis 2 and 3, but the meanings are different.  For Paul both sin and death are spheres of influence, orbs of control, dominions and principalities and powers.  His apocalyptic worldview makes a changed use of the inherited terms from Genesis.  Likewise his philosophical mode is quite different from the narrative structures in Genesis 2 and 3.  The freedom found in Christ smashes the controls of the orbs of sin and death, for Paul.

So Calvin writes, about this passage: To sin is to be corrupt.  The natural depravity which we bring from our mother’s womb, although it does not produce its fruits immediately, is still sin before God, and deserves his punishment…Grace means the pure goodness of God, or his unmerited love, of which He has given us a proof in Christ, in order to relieve our misery. You did hear the Apostle say that this grace was given to all men.  That sounds fairly universalistic to most readers.  All.  Yet Calvin says otherwise:  Paul makes grace common to all men, not because it in fact extends to all, but because it is offered to all…not all receive him. (Commentaries, loc.cit.)

            Like that wind you felt on the Esplanade the other day, these sentences from Geneva in 1540 or so have their purposes.  They posit that we are not in possession of grace as much as we are in need of grace.   Grace is the gift of God sorely needed by the people of God.  130,000 dead in Syria.  A four year old pummeled to death in New England.  A mother driving into the surf with her children in Daytona Beach.  Construct your own list, following a good reading of the Sunday newspaper.  A cold, sober realism is found both in Romans 5, on Calvin’s reading, and in the daily reports of suffering, near and far.

Our passage from Matthew 4 connects with Adam and Christ along the trail of temptation, from the garden of Eden to the wilderness of Palestine.  This gospel, a teacher’s gospel, makes sure to begin with the harder news, that even Christ himself was tempted to make improper use of freedom.  In Calvin’s view, every form of temptation comes with a divine purpose, a gracious protection, and a form of grace to be received:  The temptations that strike us are not fortuitous, or the turn of Satan’s whim, without God’s permission, but that the Spirit of God presides in all our trials, that our faith may be the better tried.  So we may take our sure hope that God, who is the supreme Master of the ring, will not be unmindful of us, or fail to succor our weaknesses, as He sees we are unequal to them. (Commentaries, loc. cit.)

In January William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses stood out from others on a bookstore shelf.   A sort of novel, it is, as powerful as it is impenetrable:  “Himself was his own battleground, the scene of his own vanquishment and the mausoleum of his own defeat’ …’aint only one thing worse than not being alive and that’s shame’…”they learn only through violent suffering, with words written in human blood”…”they can learn nothing save through suffering, remember nothing save when underlined in blood”.

Experience

 

            How shall we use our human freedom faithfully in the light of the divine freedom known to us in Christ?

 

Exit or voice or resignation?  Fight or flight or play dead?

Your roommate smokes for breakfast, drugs for lunch, drinks for dinner.  Do you leave—him, school or both?  Do you confront—‘one of us is crazy and I think it’s you’?  Do you grin and bear it?

 

Your faculty has taken a new direction, that is, a wrong turn.  For well- intentioned reasons, they have exchanged birthright for pottage.  Do you politic, agitate, criticize, and combat in what may well be a losing cause?  Do you call a friend who has wanted you to come to Brown or NYU for a long time anyway, and prepare to exit?  Or do you close your door, grade your papers and play a little more golf?

 

Your brother is about to marry the wrong woman.  He is impressionable and she is impressive—an empress if you will.  Do you shout a warning and then risk never speaking to him again?  Do you reason, consult, have lunch, empathize and appeal to the better angels of his nature?  Do you throw up your hands, send an early shower gift, and bite your tongue?

 

You are a major world super power.  With limited success you have partially pacified a resentful Middle Eastern Muslim nation.  Now what?  Do you exit, stage left, leaving behind a decade of warfare, tens of thousands dead, tribal hatreds still much in evidence, and hope for the best?  Do you stay, increase your footprint and military presence, give voice to the rights and needs of children, women, non-muslims and others?  Or do you practice a little benign neglect, and put your energy into health care, immigration reform, nuclear disarmament, Chinese economics, and the next election?

 

How much for exit and how much for voice?  How much for flight and how much for fight?  And, then, when do you just pull your turtle head back into the shell and play dead?

 

In 54 ad Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle to the Gentiles, in a verse with subterranean links to Genesis and Matthew, exit and voice, wrestled with the same angel\demon.

 

On one hand, he wrote, ‘For me to live is Christ, to die is gain. Yet which I shall choose I cannot telI.’ (Phil. 1: 21). For once his regular apocalyptic eschatology, the horizontal primitive hope of the day of the Lord, which he fully expects to see in the flesh, gives way to a simple, vertical, Greek, gnostic eschatology, an immediate translation to glory.  Troubles, trouble in the churches it may be, spark Paul’s momentary exit strategy, his longing to  ‘depart and be with Christ’.

 

On the other hand, he considered, ‘To remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account’.  I am for you, so I should be with you.  It is better for you that I am here.  We can add:  to raise my voice, to lift my voice, to write my letters, to preach my Gospel, to have influence into the next generation.  Paul longs for exit.  Paul lives for voice.

 

How much for exit?   How much for voice?  How much protestant exit?  How much catholic loyalty?  How much reformation?  How much counter-reformation?  How much pulpit?  How much table?  How much discontinuity?  How much continuity?  How much new world?  How much old world?

 

On these spiritual balances  hang the cure of our souls.  Needless to say, there is not an answer, no formulaic response, no ‘one size fits all’, no ethical Procrustean bed.  Another Pauline verse beckons:  ‘only let each one be fully convinced in his own mind’ (Rom 8:44).  We could, in faith, though, at least carry away from Lent 1 some shared understandings as people of faith.

 

We understand that on a daily if not hourly basis, we are choosing, by the freedom of the will, between exit and voice.  To have voice means to have to stay.  To exit means to give up voice.  To exit may be your statement, your voice, within a certain context, but it is, then, your valediction, your swan song.  On the other hand, your voice may be your exit, but it is then a prophetic utterance, with all the continuing costs attested in the 4 greater and 12 lesser prophecies of our Hebrew scripture.   Or you could just sit this one out, take a siesta.

 

We understand that most decisions involve some admixture, some balance—neither Webster only or Calhoun, only; but the shadow of Henry Clay, the great compromiser.

 

We understand that where we place our physical self, our body, where we place our standard on the field of battle, our social location, makes a difference.  Starting with showing up for worship, to speak with our neighbors, to sing the hymns of faith, to utter our prayers, to attend to the Word.

 

We understand, too, that whatever voice we lift, even the muted voice of silent witness, has a hearing, makes a difference, marks our faith, and influences the faith of others.

 

Exit?  Voice?

 

Over forty years, in painful relationship to my beloved Methodist Church, I with others have struggled about exit and voice.  Many of my friends, colleagues, students, and companions have chosen exit, one way or another.  In some limited ways, I have, too.  These are faithful people making hard decisions.  I honor the cradle Methodist who chooses Episcopal orders, the Methodist seminarian who reluctantly becomes a Congregationalist, the gen-x and millennial cohorts leaving us behind

 

I stay.  I stay to raise my voice, and to reject giving my orders, my position, my influence, and, over time multiple generations of pastoral leadership, to a currently afro centric general church.  I stay because I believe that over time, around the world, under the influence of a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe, the mighty scourge of homophobia will be rejected by a body that in its singing voice and reasonable mind—in its spiritual bones—lives the gospel of freedom, grace, love, acceptance, kindness, and forgiveness.  Over time, Methodists will not want to harm 9 year old gay children.

 

But.  This response is generational.  It will take longer than my limited life time for this change fully to come.  This response is global.  It will require a change of heart, over time, in African Methodists.  This response is gritty.  It will mean underground railways to marry gays and deploy ordained gays.  It will mean prayer and withholding apportionment dollars.  It will mean seasoned, genuine response in many settings:  charge, annual, jurisdictional, global and intergalactic conferences.  It will mean upomone—longsuffering, longsuffering, longsuffering.  It will involve political love.

 

(Political love, active love in institutional life, is a crucial, necessary feature of realistic faithfulness.

Political love is political because it occurs by intention within the city community.  Political love is love because it is divinely gracious—an incursive addition to life.

Love listens and remembers.  Love compliments with sincerity and pointed limitation.  Love watches for another’s unspoken longing.  Love uncovers festering injustice.  Love shows up, attends, responds, and then invites.

This political love accepts the requirement of alliance, even alliance with opposition, without neglecting friendships, or forgetting the beauty of friendship.)

Dag Hammarskjold:  “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason”.

 

Exit or voice?  You be the judge.

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

Leave a Reply