Posts Tagged ‘Robert Neville’

The Last Shall Be First

Sunday, September 21st, 2003

Proverbs 31:10-31

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Mark 9:30-37

Ever since I took on the responsibilities of this pulpit people have been asking me to preach about the great social issues of our time. Those of you who have heard some of my previous sermons know that I hold theological sound-bites in contempt: the Word of God is complex and I apologize but do not repent for burdening you with the many distinctions required to see things in perspective. Ethical and political issues are equally complex, with no single perspective of analysis or simple solutions. Christians do not have any special advantage over others in the analysis of problems of international war and peace, global economics, racial prejudice, or distributive and retributive justice. But Christians do have deep underlying ethical convictions that need to be expressed in measuring our responses to those great problems. And so people are right to call preachers to the responsibility of addressing them. It would be wrong for preachers to avoid that responsibility for fear of alienating those who disagree with their conclusions. Preachers also need the humility to recognize that honest disagreements among Christians must be borne with respect.

The particularly insistent cry to hear the Word of God about war and peace in our time comes from the fact that America has suddenly become an aggressor nation. Americans are accustomed to believe that aggressor nations are the bad ones, and we have prided ourselves on opposing them. The events of 9/11 made all the world recognize that the United States was the victim of terrorist aggression. The terrorists were murderers, not martyrs: the sacrifice of someone else’s life for one’s cause is murder even if one’s own life is lost in the process. The response to 9/11 should have been an intense international multilateral police action to identify and eradicate murderous terrorists. But that police action was subordinated to the rhetoric of a war on terrorism embodied in a virtually unilateral American war against Afghanistan for harboring terrorists, as if the vile but pitiful Taliban government could have done anything about El Qaeda had it wanted to. The result has been to make Osama bin Laden a Robin Hood hero to the world’s populations that identify with the underdog against the American bully, and the government of Afghanistan has been returned to a death-dance of warlordism. Then the United States almost unilaterally and against the opposition of many of its traditional allies attacked Iraq, beginning with an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate its leader. The initial justifications for the attack on Iraq—stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and connections between Saddam Hussein and El Qaeda—were widely doubted at the beginning and in retrospect seem false. Many suspect them to be mendacious fabrications of the American government. I certainly don’t know the truth about that, but the increasing public feeling that the American government started the war for reasons other than the stated ones has brought our national conscience to a spiritual crisis: who are we to be imposing our will with such violence? We ask this while praying for our armed forces abroad who are at great risk.

The crisis in conscience surely comes in part from the fact that so little has been successful in the American aggressive wars. The Taliban are still a warlord power opposing Afghanistan’s puppet government, Osama bin Laden is still at large, as is Saddam Hussein; the government and material infrastructure of Iraq have been destroyed and their rebuilding with American money and military commitment is vulnerable to guerilla sabatage. The opposition to American bullying has now become a worldwide ideal of freedom and divine service, and does not need a leader. America’s traditional allies who had been rejected by our government’s unilateral policies are alienated. We will have decades of trouble. If the wars had been more successful, perhaps the crisis of conscience would not be so great. Nevertheless, now that the casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq far exceed those of 9/11, the American conscience asks what justifies America’s attempt to impose its will by virtually unilateral military force. The official answer is that righteous force is justified against dangerous evil. Whether the enemies identified by the American government are so evil as to justify eradication by force is a question I will not pursue here. The American conscience is in a spiritual crisis, however, because it has begun to doubt the righteousness of the American motive for war.

Where is the Christian gospel in all this? Where is our ethical bedrock from which we can erect a perspective for a Christian response? The ethics of most religions is based on a motif of reciprocity: as in the Golden Rule, do to others what you want them to do to you or, negatively, do not do to them what you wouldn’t want them to do to you or, more forcefully, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Anastasia Kidd of the School of Theology here studied popular music’s responses to 9/11 and found that the country and western community, which has a strong Christian base of sorts, celebrated vengeance and punished singers who sang of mercy instead.

Christianity accepts the Golden Rule, but tentatively. In point of fact, Christianity has a much stronger motif for ethical and religious behavior than the Golden Rule: if someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other also; if someone asks to borrow your coat, lend your cloak as well. Jesus’ chief lesson in leadership, according to John, was when he washed his disciples’ feet. St. Paul in Philippians said Jesus was in the form of God and took on the form of a slave. Jesus in Mark 10 said that it is harder for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven than the poor, and in the same chapter, with parallel passages in the other gospels Jesus said that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” We could multiply examples like these many times over. For Christians, the motif of humility trumps the motif of reciprocity. Humility trumps reciprocity.

In ethical matters, humility means something like putting others first. If someone slaps you in rage, do not reciprocate rage but turn the other cheek so that their rage can work itself out. If you don’t like someone slapping you, first you learn to love your enemy, the motif says, and then figure out the loving way to respond. If someone needs clothes, don’t give them just the minimum but see that they are cared for properly. Perhaps it would be better to change the economic conditions that make people needy in the first place.

Needless to say, this ethical dimension of the humility motif is not easy to reconcile with consumerism and the competitive elements of capitalism. And it is a stranger to American foreign policy in recent years, ironically at a time when Christianity is supposed to be influential in government. The ethics of democratic government is complicated because, as democratic, governmental policies and actions express the needs and wishes of so many constituencies. I do not want to suggest an easy reading of Christian and anti-Christian trends. The democratic process that reconciles so many diverse interests in concrete policies might easily look as if it is guided by a “me first” rather than humility motif. Nevertheless, Christians are among the interest groups in the American democracy and often have prevailed to put the needs of poor, disenfranchised, and angrily frustrated people, as well as enemies, onto the national agenda. Sometimes this has shaped large scale policies, for instance the development of the land-grant universities in the 19th century and the Marshall Plan for rebuilding the economies of enemies in the 20th.

Now, however, the “me first” motif seems to govern important American policies in fairly simple and uncomplex ways. Unilateralism in international affairs, coupled with the massive power to act unilaterally if we want, has resulted in a policy that allows us to stomp declared enemies and dismiss uncooperative allies as unnecessary. The motif of “me first” has been extended even to the government’s claim to define international evil. When the United States proclaims the existence of an “axis of evil” countries and then attacks one of them, no one should be puzzled when others, North Korea and Iran, hustle to develop nuclear deterrents.

The humility motif also has a psychological dimension that affects national policy, having to do with ambition: it is the opposite of arrogance and the desire for glory at the expense of others. In the passage read from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus had been telling the disciples that he was going to be arrested and killed. They did not like this, and surely did not understand it. Yet they thought it might mean that the Kingdom was coming and with divine victory they would all have places of importance. In fact, they argued about who would be the greatest. Jesus was disgusted that they did not understand the harsh reality of execution. And so he tried to alter their expectations by attacking their lust for greatness itself. They should not act like fancy rulers but like little children. Matthew and Luke have parallel passages. In the 10th chapter of Mark, Jesus is quoted as repeating the point, saying “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whosever would be first among you must be slave of all.” Matthew and Luke emphasize that the first shall be last and the last first when they say, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matt. 23:12; Luke 14:11 and 18:14) Whereas Christianity has never denied the need for leadership, and in fact has insisted upon it, it has said at its best moments that the personal ambition of a leader should not be for the glory of being first. When the ambition for glory succeeds, it becomes arrogance. Rather, the ambition should be to have the humble mind-set of a child or a servant, innocent of prestige distinctions and focused on getting the job done.

We must be careful to extend the analogy of personal humility to national humility with great care, for in many respects the analogy does not hold. Governments have a responsibility to protect that individuals can set aside in a spirit of self-sacrifice. Nevertheless, the American government can conspicuously put others first by making sure that profits on oil, for instance, are fairly distributed in a country before the oil is taken out, and can make sure that poor nations in Africa have the most advantageous condition for the development of their agriculture in a world market. Nnational humility that puts others first calls for restraint and the acceptance of less than maximum profit for Americans, discipline clearly in line with Christian commitment. The American government can conspicuously reject arrogance by cultivating the advice and consent of allies, by entering into treaties to control arms and protect the environment, by subjecting itself to the judgments of international courts, and by charitably contributing in proportion to our wealth to the alleviation of pandemics such as AIDS. For humility to trump reciprocity, American Christians need to call on the government to find ways of being servant of the world so as to exercise true leadership as Christians see it.

Behavior expressive of the Christian humble way does not always lead to success. If the American government pursues a servant role in world affairs, building up the economies and cultures of weaker lands and submitting itself to the civilized judgment of nations with whom it should be allied, it might not remain the richest nation in the world, nor the strongest. Moreover, evil forces might arise that need opposition by force—I do not advocate a pure pacifism in the face of evil. Allies might need to be persuaded to join America in the use of force against their own immediate interests. But these things can be done in humble ways, using force with great reluctance and seeking to be persuaded against the need for its use. As we ask humility of our government, we must practice it ourselves, and reconcile ourselves to its material costs.

So I invite you into the humble way Jesus preached in the Beatitudes. Seek not arrogance but poverty of spirit, not vengeance but mourning for those who harm and are harmed, not a “me first” way but meekness, not avarice and materialism but a hunger and thirst for righteousness, not retribution but mercy, not conniving for position but purity of heart, not war but peace, not victory but persecution for righteousness’ sake. The humble will be persecuted for righteousness’ sake, do not mistake that. Humble people and nations are not life’s winners in the material sense. But they are indeed life’s winners in the spiritual sense that counts. The humble will be blessed. The arrogant will be brought down. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Not Many Should Become Teachers

Sunday, September 14th, 2003

Proverbs 1:20-33

James 3:1-12

Mark 8:27-38

Although not special to most of you, today is special to me because this afternoon I will be installed officially as Dean of Marsh Chapel and Chaplain of the University. At that service, to which you are invited, I’ll speak briefly on the special duties of a university pulpit, especially one in a university town such as Boston.

The lectionary texts for today are enough to give one pause about a university pulpit, however. The passage from Proverbs 1 starts happily enough with a strong speech by Dame Wisdom, one of the Bible’s most outrageous characters, that begins “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?” She goes on to say that she pours out her thoughts but the simple ones ignore them, leading to their calamity. “For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them.” What an advertisement for higher education!

It is dangerous to be simple. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that we should seek simplicity, but distrust it. He was right. The reason to distrust simplicity is the narrowness of evidence it takes into account. Unless simplicity is a state of mind and soul attained after mastering worlds of complexity—and this is not what Dame Wisdom had in mind—it lives on inherited prejudices for which a person can barely be responsible. Simple people of the sort Dame Wisdom criticized are ignorant of the cultures different from their own and of circumstances where things are at stake that are different from the issues of their own circumstances. This often makes them bigots with regard to different people, fools with regard to different circumstances, and complacent when some new beast comes slouching toward their holy place. The world today does not allow many people to meet only their own kind or deal only with their inherited circumstances. The University at its best sometimes imparts the vision and experience required for wisdom. A university pulpit should aspire to this task in religious matters.

Nevertheless, a great gulf exists between Dame Wisdom, the divine personage of the Book of Proverbs, and us mortal teachers. The University finds it easy to miss the mark in the wisdom department and should take to heart the admonition in the Letter of James with which I title this sermon: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes.” James went on to say that the tongue of a teacher is like a bridle on a horse, a rudder in a ship, or a little fire in a tinder forest—small but capable of enormous consequences. We so-called teachers of wisdom need humility, James warned.

Perhaps James had in mind the incident related in our text from Mark’s gospel. The disciples were abuzz because people were saying that Jesus was John the Baptist or Elijah, or some other prophet come back from the dead. Jesus asked Peter what he thought, and Peter answered that Jesus was the Messiah. In Matthew’s account of this incident Jesus says that God must have revealed this to Peter, because Peter’s “flesh and blood” was not bright enough to get it. Immediately after this Jesus said that he, Jesus, would be made to suffer, would be rejected, killed, and then would rise in three days. Peter, back in the flesh and blood mode, rebuked Jesus for saying these horrible depressing things. Jesus retorted to his prize student, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Given Peter’s subsequent role in the Christian movement, we have a super object-lesson of teachers getting it wrong. Teachers can go from true witness to unwitting Satanic betrayal without batting an eye. Peter thought he was just cheering up Jesus when he got wrong the whole meaning of Jesus’ identity as Messiah.

Religious teachers have a difficult road to walk, responding to Wisdom’s demand to help the simple without making some small mistake, often out of a desire to comfort, that has very large and damning consequences. If the only teachers in question were preachers and professors, this point would have a valid but limited range of application. The problem is that we all are religious teachers for our neighbors, children and friends. James might well have written, “Not many should become teachers, but for better or worse you all will be.”

Therefore we should look more carefully at what Jesus said went wrong with Peter: “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” What can this mean? Perhaps it depends on the audience. Mark is particularly detailed in his account of who was talking to whom in this incident. Jesus asked his small group of disciples about his identity, and in that intimate group Peter said he was the Messiah; Jesus responded by enjoining the disciples not to tell anyone else about this identification and then explained to them that he would suffer, die, and be raised. Peter took Jesus aside in private to rebuke him, but Jesus turned back to the whole group of disciples to rebuke Peter as Satan: he did not respond to Peter alone, as he might have if he were gently correcting his favorite student. He meant it as a lesson for the disciples. Then Jesus immediately called the large crowd of followers to join the disciples and made the remarkable speech about how they would have to deny themselves and take up their cross in order to follow him. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

In Mark’s text, Jesus’ address to the crowd is an interpretation of setting your mind on divine rather than human things. The crowd diid not know that Jesus was the Messiah, only a spooky hero come back to life. They did not know that the Messiah is to be betrayed, killed, and raised from the dead, a point that only the disciples had heard and had not yet comprehended. What the crowd was told was that following Jesus is a matter of life and death.

In Deuteronomy 30 Moses had told the Israelites, as they were about to enter the Promised Land, that he set before them life and death: choose life, that you might live, he said. Jesus renewed that challenge but with a huge twist. Moses said that to choose life, which meant following God’s commandments, would secure long life and prosperity in the Promised Land. Jesus said that to choose life, which meant following him and his gospel, could lead to forfeiting both worldly success and life. Those who would save their life in Moses’ sense of gaining the world will lose it. Those who lose their lives to follow Jesus will gain it in a divine sense.

Jesus’ main point is at the heart of the Christian gospel, and it has two sides.

First, in the divine perspective, right living before God does not correlate with worldly success. To be good does not necessarily lead to long life and prosperity. As we would put it, there is no divine moral governance of the world, rewarding the worthy and punishing the wicked. Rather, Jesus’ paradigm is that the Messiah who restores people to a right relation to God gets betrayed and killed. Resurrection for Jesus did not mean that he returned with an army to drive out the Romans and establish justice, nor did it mean that he returned to set up a university that surpassed Plato’s and Aristotle’s in teaching divinity. In the most literal reading of the resurrection accounts, Jesus left Earth for Heaven after forty days. History remained ambiguous and treacherous for Christians ever after. So we should not expect the ordinary life of even the saints among us to be more successful in worldly senses than education, prudence and luck can ma
ke them. Nor is suffering a mark of divine disfavor, however much most of the world’s religions, including corrupt forms of Christianity, have believed that.

Second, the gospel is that the true meaning of life is to be found in the ultimate perspective of God. Jesus had a lot to say about this, including the readiness to deny ourselves for others, to build communities of love, and to witness to the divine perspective when the world has other values. Next week the gospel text is about how those who would be first will be last, and vice versa. The central task of Christian teachers—and all Christians teach one way or another—is to articulate what life looks like from the ultimate perspective of God, what its ultimate predicaments are in contrast to its worldly problems, and what its ultimate salvation consists in contrasted with the lure of worldly successes.

In pre-classical times many people believed in God as a kind of super-human agent, with human virtues and powers intensified to a supernatural degree. With this conception, the divine perspective was something like an all-powerful control panel for history. God could be imagined as a totally righteous and powerful king insuring justice within history. In classical times, including the time of Jesus, many people believed in God as an infinitely removed Spirit high above a cosmic stack of heavens and hells, and they believed that souls were immortal or, as in the Christian case, could be raised whole with a celestial body. The classical conception imagined the divine perspective as placing a soul after death in a level of heaven or hell appropriate to the person’s merit; for Pauline Christianity it meant that because of Jesus’ merit the saved went to the highest heaven where Jesus in a properly celestial form dwelt with God the Father. Some among us might share these pre-classical and classical assumptions, both of which are found in the Bible. But most of us read the Bible and imagine God differently. Our task as teachers today is to articulate the ultimacy of the divine perspective, and its significance for what is ultimately important in human life, for a world understood through modern science, shaped by confrontations of civilizations, and criticized by the prophets of imagination.

I invite you all to take seriously what it means to be a follower of Rabbi Jesus. Have pity on the simple people of the world, teach them the complexities of life, and strive for a new simplicity while distrusting it. Join with the disciples in learning that the most Satanic simplicity is to judge ultimate matters with worldly standards. Hear with the crowd that the choice of ultimately true life in following Jesus is costly in worldly terms. Please join with those who would deny themselves the ambition to gain the world and enter into the discipline required to teach divine wisdom to the simple. For the simple will be taught by us no matter what we do. I invite you into the Christian Way in which we catch a glimpse of divine wisdom through living a life patterned by crucifixion and resurrection, as Jesus told the simple disciples. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Belief, Works, Cult

Sunday, September 7th, 2003

Romans 13:11-14

James 2:14-17

In what senses are you religious? The modern world usually identifies religion with belief, on the one hand, and religiously defined good works on the other. When you ask what people’s religion is, most often you do so by asking about their religious beliefs. When you are in crisis about your own religion, most often it is because you doubt what you think you are supposed to believe.

On the other hand, we all know people of deep piety whose belief system is embarrassingly simple-minded and confused. For most of us, our grandparents were like that and, for many of us, we ourselves were like that only months ago. Yet we know that the sincerity of such simple-minded faith frequently characterizes saints who are self-sacrificing, deeply attentive to the needs of others, committed to steady support of family, unflagging in work, loyal to friends, and filled with joy, hope, peace, and love. St. Paul said these virtues are marks of the Holy Spirit. Most of us, in practice, follow the author of The Letter of James in the pragmatic definition of the religious life: it’s what you do that counts and that also is the clue to what you really believe deep down, below the level of conscious thought and choice. So two ways are commonly used to think about being religious: belief, and good works.

A third way to identify a person’s religion, however, is by looking at that person’s cult. “Cult” is a word with bad connotations for some people for whom it refers to a radical sect that steals people away from their home culture and brainwashes them into a new and narrow culture. The basic meaning of the word, however, is simply education, the taking on of a culture or way of life by practising its elements. We “cultivate” the educated life in the University by practices such as lectures and classes, research and study, use of the library and laboratory, coffee-breaks and informal discussions, artistic productions and athletic fanaticism, all-night arguments and exam-cramming, attending conferences, writing grant proposals, publishing papers, celebrating academic successes, especially in relation to Harvard, and telling congratulatory stories about what good teachers, students, and staff members we are. Individually these practices have their pragmatic purposes. Collectively they are rituals that inculturate us into the deep patterns of critical academic life. As we follow those practices as rituals, our habitual behavior and thought become patterned by them.

So it is with religion. People who have no practiced pattern of life for relating to ultimate matters have disorganized religion, or no religion, even if they have religious beliefs and do good works associated with religious people. Those people stumble on ultimate matters of life and death haphazardly, unprepared on the deep levels of habitual behavior and thought.

St. Augustine, who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, was one of the greatest of all Christian theologians. He was also the first person to write an autobiography, which he called his “Confessions.” The drama of his autobiography centered on his conversion to Christianity. Raised a Christian by his pious mother, he had strayed to other religions and distinctly non-Christian practices. He struggled with the intellectual content of Christian belief relative to other beliefs and could find no decisive argument. He also struggled with whether to give up his licentious but enjoyable life. The crisis came to a head one day when he and a friend were in a garden anguishing over whether to convert. Augustine heard some children on the other side of the wall singing “take and read, take and read.” He picked up a Bible that was open to Romans 13:14 where Paul said to “put on Christ.” The theologian Carl Vaught has shown that the Latin words were those used for a young man putting on the robe that marked manhood and citizenship.1 Augustine took that to mean that he should put on the clothing of a Christian, as it were, to vest himself in the Christian way of life, and to enter into the cultic practice of Christianity.

What did that mean for him? It meant taking up the Christian practices of worship and prayer, leaving his friends who could not tolerate that, and befriending Christians and those who were supportive of his vesting himself in the Christian cult. It meant reading the Bible, participating in the rituals of the Church through the liturgical calendar, and observing the sacraments of the Church. In quick time Augustine was ordained a priest and then a bishop. For decades he administered a diocese in Hippo in North Africa and was one of the most prolific theological writers of all times in any religion.

He “put on” the Christian way and, clothed in the Christian cult, worked out the belief contents of his faith. Augustine was one of the most rigorous, critical, questioning, and creative thinkers ever, and his theology is a root inheritance of Western Christianity, Roman Catholic and Protestant. He never pretended to believe something he really doubted. But his theology was worked out within the context of the cultic practice of Christian life. The cultic practice of Christianity gave him the freedom to question, doubt, and explore beyond the then boundaries of Christian belief.

The cultic practice most common to Christians around the world and from the beginning is the Eucharist, which we are about to celebrate. The form of its celebration varies, and we shall follow a liturgy derived from the United Methodist tradition. Participating in the Eucharistic liturgy shapes the soul, no matter what you might be thinking about on a conscious level. Repeated participation is a bones-and-muscle education in the deep grammar of Christian life. We have no rules here about who can take communion, not even that you have to be baptized, only that you should understand it to be a way of putting on the Christian life like a garment marking emerging maturity and citizenship in the Church.

The Eucharist is a liturgical rite with many layers of intertwined meaning resonating together to shape the cultivation of Christian character and community. First and foremost it combines symbols of death—Jesus’ spilt blood and broken body—with symbols of renewed life—the elements are food for life. Crucifixion and resurrection go together in many senses for Christian vision and practice. Second, the Eucharist symbolizes the universal table of Christians all over the world, even those whose civilizations are incomprehensible to us and whose nations are our enemies: more important than our differences is that we have all put on Christ and eat at his table. The Eucharist has many other levels of meaning, but perhaps the most disturbing is that it is a symbolic cannibal ritual in which we eat the symbols of Jesus’ flesh and blood. What could be so serious in life that we are drawn to consume symbolic flesh and blood? I’ll talk about that and other levels of meaning in the Eucharist on other occasions. But know for now that you have no more serious business with God than what is addressed symbolically by participation in the Eucharistic celebration. The Eucharist in the Christian cult is practice at being right with God.

So today I invite you to the Table. Come, you who are saints, to this cultic part of the Christian life that deepens your character and community: you shouldn’t miss this opportunity. Come, you who are Christian by mere custom and social arrangement: here your Christianity becomes more serious. Come, you who have fallen away from Christian practice because of boredom, or because of disagreement concerning belief or the direction of moral efforts, or because of guilt at moral failings: with this act you put on the Chr
istian way again and all the exciting power of thought and action are yours anew in freedom. Come, you who are considering the Christian way: try on our clothes and see how they feel. Come, you who are confused, self-hating, angry, despairing, fearful, lonely, loveless, or lost: come to this table and for at least a moment put on a Way of life that promises direction, forgiveness, joy, hope, courage, companionship, love, and a home in God.

We celebrants are not personally worthy to offer you these elements, and so we dress in liturgical disguises, vestments of the Christian cult. You, beloved, can come as you are.

Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

1 See Carl G. Vaught, “Theft and Conversion: Two Augustinian Confessions,” in The Recovery of Philosophy in America: Essays in Honor of John Edwin Smith, edited by Thomas P. Kasulis and Robert Cummings Neville (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), especially p. 241.