Lift up your hearts: Amid the furious, random hurts in life, which fall upon us without respect of person and without divine intention, in random chaotic violent abandon, there remains, over time, a chance for growth, the possibility of good change, a capacity for faithfulness, over time. Learn sympathy. Cultivate patience. Give it just a little more time. Give it just a little more time. Give it just a little more time. Let it alone, Sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you may cut it down.
This Lent we again, one last time, engage as our theological 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. For example, Genesis 1 is a more Anglican or Methodist chapter, if you will, representing the goodness of creation. 2 and 3 are more Presbyterian or 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. The English tradition emphasizes human freedom, and the French divine freedom. (Both traditions are with us today, even embodied, as it happens, in our current Presidential campaigns, wherein still there is at least one Presbyterian and at least one Methodist (☺)). With Calvin we encounter the chief resource for others we have engaged in Lent in other years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin, (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).
2016 marks the tenth and last Lent in which from this pulpit we engage the Calvinist tradition. Over the next decade, beginning Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, will turn left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year. Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?
Calvin Interpreting Luke (1)
Let us listen, now, to John Calvin interpreting today’s Gospel, Luke 13: 1-9. In brief, we might judge, his interpretation, utterly typical of his work on the whole, is both right and wrong, both true and false. First true, second false.
First, Calvin rightly and directly applies the passage to our self-concern, wherein we tend to be more self-centered than centered selves.
Calvin: “The chief value of this passage springs from the fact that we suffer from the almost inborn disease of over-strict and severe critics of others while approving of our own sins…Whoever is not shaken by God’s hand sleeps soundly in his sins as if God were favorable and propitious to him…(Commentaries, loc. cit.)
Calvin judges, rightly, that we do not easily sympathize with others’ hurt. We sleep. We sleep in our sins, unless somehow roused. This gradual awakening to random hurt is at the very heart of young adulthood, and at the very heart of a college education.
Speaking of education: You hear Elie Wiesel, in the death camps, saying that God is swinging on a rope in the face of the hung child. You hear Arthur Ashe, dying of Aids, saying that the experience of racism is far worse than his mortal illness. You hear Werner Klemperer bear witness to the slowly tightening noose around his Jewish neck in the Germany of the 1930’s. You hear Frank McCourt tell about licking greasy newspaper to survive childhood in Ireland. You hear Agate Nasal tell of unspeakable horrors inflicted on defenseless women on the eastern front in the 1940’s. You hear Tim O’ Brien remembering ‘The Things They Carried”. And these all bear witness to hurt in history—with another list needed for hurricane and earthquake and tornado and plague, nature’s own force against innocent life. You are becoming educated.
Speaking of emerging adulthood: All of us learn in these years. In junior high school you often look in admiration at those just older. Being with you takes us, daily, back to those fairer days. One remembers…
When the senior youth gathered in the church or parsonage, we just younger watched and listened. Our retired assistant pastor (he died suddenly at a church dinner a few years later) had a red haired son, Tommy. He was a favorite for all—happy, a prankster, kind. The next fall the group gathered at Christmas, the spring graduates now home from college for the first time, and enjoying the firelight, the tree, the chocolates, and the mistletoe. That Christmas Tommy stood out for his red hair, but also for his green uniform. Bright red hair, sharp green private’s Army uniform. Red and Green. He was headed to Vietnam. He came to mind last week, getting the sermon ready, in a quiet moment of reading Tim O’Brien’s memoir, The Things They Carried. A few years later, the war now over, some of us came home from our first year of college, too. The pastor said, he teaching meager sympathy in a violent world, ‘You might want to go over to the V.A. in Syracuse sometime this break. Tom Mallabar is there. He lost his legs, you know, in the war.’ We did not know. We did go. The pastor knew how easy it is, Calvin was right, absent an act of sympathy, absent a readiness to stop, to look, to listen, to look past the tragedy of lasting hurt. We sleep, unless roused. How human it is to look past hurt, someone else’s anyway. Some of in the years of emerging adulthood, includes waking up to others’ hurt. You are becoming adults.
And a Lukan word from Ernest Tittle: Perhaps we, too, would do well to reject the way of military force and violence, placing reliance instead on efforts to combat hunger, misery and despair, to lift from anxious peoples the burden and threat of armaments, to abolish racial and religious discrimination, bring industry under the law of service, and assure to all (people) everywhere the opportunity of a good life (39)…(E.F. Tittle)
Calvin Interpreting Luke (2)
Second, however, Calvin misinterprets by a wide margin the fuller meaning of the Gospel today. His penchant for judgment occludes his vision of grace. On a regular basis.
Rendering not the stories now but the parable of the fig tree: “The sum of it is that many are tolerated for a time who deserve destruction…They do not realize their sin unless they are forced…”
But listen to the parable, Brother Calvin! Here in Luke, not judgment, but grace is affirmed, not death but life, not authority or force, but growth and change. In Luke 13, the question of ‘Why?’ is set aside in favor of the challenge to repent. Governmental terrorism, in the hands of Pilate, and natural accident, in the case of a Tower in Siloam, are simply admitted to be what they are—utterly random in impact.
In the parable, the gardener points away from past performance and points toward future potential. Time. Time is given. A time of reprieve, a time of reckoning, a time of recollection, a time of restoration. Time heals. There is impending judgment, but there is time for change. This is Luke’s own material. This is Luke’s own toddler, budding attempt to deal with what John, alone, in full adult fashion, addressed, the church’s abject disappointment that the expected return of Jesus, on the clouds of heaven, ‘before this generation passes away’ (Luke 21:32) has not happened. The first century is ending and Jesus has not returned. In the main, Luke simply continues to hold out hope, soon and very soon, of the traditional expectation. Not here in the parable of the fig tree. Here he finds, channeling his inner Fourth Gospel Spirit, the possibility that more time may be a good thing. We would all say so, 20 centuries later, since more time has become our time! The Greeks taught us that life is long. Give it just a little more time. Here Calvin, wrongly, misses Luke’s point and power, as much as earlier he caught both. Too much TULIP and not enough fig tree. Especially, and perilously: too authoritarian and too inflexible, and too inerrant, a view of the Holy Scripture. Scripture alone, not Scripture in tradition by reason with experience. No, says Luke, change, over time, can come and can become lasting goodness.
Friday last week we sat in the southern California sunshine, the daily environment of our son and daughter in law, paradise, San Diego. Imagine our surprise as we opened the New York Times, the paper of record, that morning, in the blue-sky light breeze warm water SO CAL sun. One of two letters to the editor was written from the pews of Marsh Chapel. Written out of your community, sent to the great city of New York, printed, and passed on to the needs of the world around, including those of us reading 3,000 miles away, on Pacific Beach.
Our friend, Advisory Board member, retired BU Academy Headmaster, Mr. James Berkman addressed the country, in four paragraphs, regarding the life, death and legacy of Antonin Scalia, and the matter of interpretation. The letter complimented recent Times reporting on Scalia. The letter affirmed the ‘inarguably brilliant’ aspects of the judge’s work, and its pervasive influence. The letter recalled a question raised by the author to Judge Scalia, in Cleveland, years ago, and the creative ‘dissent’ the judge offered in response: ‘he sidestepped to deliver a powerful answer on a facet he cared more about’. Yet, the letter, in true honorable fashion, also recognized the limitations and dangers of ‘originalism’: ‘if we were to follow (Scalia’s) philosophy, where would women and blacks be today: still treated as second class citizens and slaves of our founding fathers?’
Interpretation of an ancient text, whether the US Constitution, or the Holy Scripture, does indeed require acute appreciation for what the venerable text originally meant. Without that mooring, we are adrift, forever at sea with our own proclivities alone to guide us. But truth was meant to set sail and not merely to lie still in the harbor! The bark needs both anchor and sail, both mooring and wind. Interpretation, that is, also, and more so, requires of us the courage to exact from the text, not only what it meant, but also, now, what it means. Our teacher Father Raymond Brown, said often, and taught repeatedly, that the full meaning of a text is not always best given in its mere wooden repetition. In fact, the conservative Roman Catholic Father Brown taught otherwise: what most resembles faithfulness to the ancient tradition may look very much like change, growth, something new, today.
In life and in interpretation things take time. Time. Let the fig tree have another year. Time. Let me nourish the tree with water and nutrients. Time. Give this scrawny plant some time, and see what happens. As the letter to the editor said, ‘it is appropriate to weigh the balance of legacy’. One of the real, lasting dangers and perils left to us by a certain perspective in the Calvinist tradition, still strong and at large today across parts of this great land, is the shadow of Biblicism, even of Bibliolatry, the mistaken preference for the text over the very Lord to whom the text bears witness. And the Lord is the Spirit. And where the Spirit is, there is freedom. Over forty years of ministry now, and over forty years of the privilege of teaching the Bible, which I love with all my heart, which I love with my very life and time and work, the terrible, stinging memory stands out, of ways the Bible has maimed children, women, men, families, others, when wrongly rendered. Calvin and Luther may have needed all the weight and power of the Bible, without its aporia, nuance, variety and depth, to break from Rome. Sadly, some of that weight, without time without water or nutrient, and without proper, educated, informed, disciplined interpretation, falls like a millstone upon the weak. A case in point, of course, is current Methodist use of the Scripture to support bigotry against gay people. When one brings to mind all the children in all the churches in all the pews in all the years, who know at age 8 that they are gay, and what they have heard from men in black robes, ministers respected and revered even by their parents, it causes one to tremble. On one hand, asked how well I know the Bible, I can respond, ‘The real truth is not how well I know the Bible, but how well the Bible knows me’. I love the Bible. On the other hand, when the weight of holy writ, and the power of tradition, by bad–originalist?–interpretation—six verses from Leviticus, Romans and Corinthians as opposed to whole New Testament, the whole Pauline corpus, and the whole letter to the Galatians, see the whole of its chapter 3—falls like a millstone on the necks of children in the minority, and that with the blessing of many who should and do know better, but say nothing, and many of them educated at Africa University, and riding Methodist dollars into prosperity on that continent, then I do not love the Bible. Calvin bears some responsibility here—though of course, not alone. One of the two great failings we inherit from Calvinism we see just here: The Bible become a millstone around the neck. (The second we shall address March 13.)
Amid the furious, random hurts in life, which fall upon us without respect of person and without divine intention, in random chaotic violent abandon, there remains, over time, a chance for growth, the possibility of good change, a capacity for faithfulness, over time. Learn sympathy. Cultivate patience. Give it just a little more time. Give it just a little more time. Give it just a little more time. Let it alone, Sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you may cut it down.
Bring sympathy and patience to bear. Can you do that this week? Where in your life will a little sympathy and a little patience bear a lot of fruit? Paul Scherer, a fine Calvinist, wrote in a much more sympathetic and patient era: “I know the things that happen: the loss and the loneliness and the pain…But there is a mark on it now: as if Someone who knew that way himself, because he had traveled it, had gone on before and left his sign; and all of it begins to make a little sense at last—gathered up, laughter and tears, into the life of God, with His arms around it!”
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