October 22

The Promise of Hope

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 22:15–22

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What a friend we have in Paul! 

Whose mighty voice has rolled down through the ages bringing us the good news in all its stark simplicity:  Christ the Lord is Risen! 

Raised in Tarsus, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, of the Tribe of Benjamin, as to the law a Pharisee, a defender of the traditions of the elders—and so a persecutor of the church. 

Who rode to Damascus and on the way was blinded and there heard a voice saying: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” 

Who in that blinding encounter with the Risen Lord, gave himself up, pronounced a sort of death sentence over himself, and so died with Christ and walked henceforth in newness of life. 

Who believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead and so lived moment by moment thinking, “Who knows what will happen next?” 

Who cared for those first few Christians, and worried about them, and grew angry with them, for they so easily lost this vision:  that since God had raised Jesus from the dead, who knew what would happen next? 

Who challenged the Thessalonians: “This is the will of God, your sanctification”.   He taught them about death. 

Who challenged the Galatians: “Be not deceived, God is not mocked.”  He taught them about the law. 

Who challenged the Philippians: “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel”.  He taught them about service. 

Who challenged the Romans: “Be ye not conformed but be ye transformed by the renewal of your minds.”  He taught them about the spirit. 

Who challenged the Corinthians: “Be reconciled.  The form of this world is passing away”.  He taught them about culture. 

Who challenged Philemon: “May your goodness not be by compulsion but of your own free will”.  He taught him about power. 

Whose mighty voice speaks to us today, in these verses from 1 Thessalonians 1 (the oldest chapter in the New Testament, from 50ad) ever answering the question of what we should do by saying something, first, about what God has done.  Our faith springs not from ourselves but from God, the Giver of both life and faith. 

Paul reminds us that “the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7).  What else can we expect from a God who raises crucified Messiahs?  Who knows what will happen next? The future is as open as we, in faith, will allow it to be. 

We may recognize in Paul a form of thought that differs utterly from our own.  If Paul did retain some of his formative religious worldview, the part he closely retained here was his inherited apocalyptic eschatology.   The resurrection must be, he reasoned, the beginning of the end.  Hence, preaches Paul, the form of this world is passing away. 

Paul’s worldview, his apocalyptic eschatology, is not our worldview.  Paul’s world, though, is very much ours too.  So, this morning, we shall need to imagine, to dream, and to interpret these verses in a new way, for a new time, as did our forebears like Martin Luther, Elie Wiesel, Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King, Jr., as have 6 Marsh Chapel Deans, as did 10 Boston University Presidents plus our current interim President, as did those of us in pulpits, not so long ago, in the winter of 1991, and in the spring of 2003. 

No, we may not share Paul’s worldview, but we share his world.  So, we may benefit from his friendship, and practice his faith.   What a friend we have in Paul!  He befriends us by bequeathing us two kinds of hope.  And hope we do need, in a time like ours, in an autumn like ours, of strife, warfare, and of fear.  Today, that is, today. 

In the Gospel of Matthew 22, Jesus meets us between Caesar and God.  He is ensnared, or nearly so, in a trap set between conservative Herodians and liberal Zealots. Between conservatives and liberals.  Hmm. In good rabbinic fashion, he responds to a question with a question.  Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, this little bitty coin, and render to God what is God’s, your very life. 

We are not alone in history to have suffered strife. As Christian people, trying by day and week to walk by faith not by sight, we know something of the difficulty here, and something more perhaps than we knew a month ago today.  Sometimes you just have to learn things the hard way.  The preacher is not free just to read the Bible and not the newspaper, nor free to preach without reference to civil society, culture, and the social conditions of life which have pervasive, profound impact and influence on the baptized and unbaptized alike. 

Let us hold and finger the coin of Caesar as we are touched by the finger of God.  Let us take stock. 

I saw this again midweek in our student union, as undergraduates undertook to underwrite ‘trick or treat for UNICEF, that creative confluence of culture and care, of politics and religion, given birth decades ago, when some of us first set out, costumed and eager, a bag for candy in hand and a box for coins in another. 

In this time of middle eastern mayhem, not unlike, by this preacher’s memory, the winter of 1991 and following, or the spring of 2003 and following, we may want to pause and take stock.  For the Matthean dilemma, liberal and conservative, and its questions, we may want to pause.  For those more on the left, a question today, and be careful how you answer, will be, first, and last, do you believe and affirm that Israel (in the Middle East, as a Jewish democracy) has and must have a right to exist.  Then follow self-defense, proportionate response, ‘meeting violence with patient justice’. For those more on the right, the question, and be careful how you answer, will be first, and last, do you believe God is Lord of all life, all human life, not narrowly divine only to one perspective, one tradition, one religion, one sacred book?  Then it follows that the killing of innocent children from one tradition will do nothing to avenge the slaughter of innocent children from another. From answers to both questions, there flow manifold consequences.  With President Biden, personally, I answer yes to both.  

Let us remember lessons from the past. In summer 2017, at the Chautauqua Institution, we had the pleasure of learning from, dining with, and speaking to Stella Rimington, the former head of British Intelligence, MI 5 (1992-1996).  She was the first woman to lead that agency.  A television drama was produced about her, starring Judi Dench.  She was bristling and candid regarding then current global perils.  She proffered no immediate or ready recommendation for resolution to then current dangers. She affirmed no optimism about the US President, at the time. Sharply, frankly, and bluntly she admitted the US and British intelligence failures that led to the tragedy of Iraq, the mistaken misinformation about weapons of mass destruction.  She worried extensively in rumination about the internet, about the technology controlling so much about us.  That is, she offered no encouragement, no bright forecast for the near-term global future.  To conclude, she said, as you would expect, ‘that nonetheless the best we can do is to ‘keep calm and carry on’. 

Let us hold and finger the coin of Caesar as we are touched by the finger of God.  Let us take stock. 

No, we may not share Paul’s worldview, but we share his world.   So, we may benefit from his friendship, and practice his faith.   What a friend we have in Paul!  He befriends us by bequeathing us two kinds of hope.  And hope we do need, in a time of terror and tragedy.  Let us survey our current tragedy, but let us also convey our lasting hope.  

Two shades of hope abide.  “Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage” (Augustine).  One realized.  One unrealized.  One for today and one for tomorrow.  One from Bultmann, and one from Niebuhr. 

Here is one shade of hope… 

You can in faith ‘face the world free from the world’, with a righteous and realized indignation, tempered with full humility. Even a kind of anger, if tempered with humility. That daily form of hope is yours by decision, by choice, through a commitment to live by the faith of Christ. 

We may rely not on ourselves alone, but upon God who raises the dead. 

We may face the world, free from the world. 

We may lean into the future, free of the burden of past worry. 

We can live on tip toe. 

We can compose every day with brilliance as if it were our last, which, in a way, each one is. 

The person of faith, who overhears the distress down deep in this world, so deep that others don’t hear it, does not rely on himself to sooth it.  He knows there is one Savior and he isn’t Him. 

What a friend we have in Paul, who preaches Jesus Christ, and Him crucified! 

Why does Paul teach this way? 

Because Paul expects that “the form of this world is passing away”.   God has raised Jesus from the dead.  Who knows what will happen next? 

For Paul, this meant a daily, excited, imminent expectation of the turn of the ages, a new heaven and earth, the end of time and the beginning of a new era.  For our sake, it is a blessing that Paul’s own timeline was a little fuzzy.  Otherwise, we would not be here.  But the spiritual truth which lives in this passage, its existential reality, is the same.  Every day is our last.  Paul so reminds us, and so shakes us out of our stupor.  THIS is the day the Lord has made.  We shall rejoice and be glad in it! 

In all of life, in the fullness of faith there lies this strange, new potential.  Potential.  Potential for something new. 

We face the world, free from the world. 

When things go south, let us live not in the form of this world (in despair and doubt and dread), but in the form of the coming world (hope and freedom and a sense of God’s uncanny potential). 

Bultmann: “Only Christ can give the kerygmatic character to everything which is ‘taught’ as Christian. Therefore, Christ is correctly preached not where something is said about him, but only where he himself becomes the proclaimer.” 

The resurrection is, simply, the preaching of the gospel.  But preaching in a way that is heard. Bultmann helped us see the present hope in Paul, facing the world free from the world. 

Here is a second shade of hope… 

Niebuhr, the great liberal (still a great tradition, affirmed from this pulpit0 who helped us see the future hope in Paul.  Both shades of hope require a translation from apocalyptic expectation into insights for living today, both individual and collective, present and future, Bultmannian and Niebuhrian.  Niebuhr gradually left behind some of his younger optimism. He also gradually left behind the narrow and prideful tones of a strict socialism.  Gradually he found his way, as we will need to do again in this painful decade ahead, toward a faithful Christian realism.  He found a realistic way toward hope.  That is our work today as well.  Recalling his phrases, we too need to beware ‘the sentimental optimism about the essential goodness of men without realizing how evil good men can be’.  Learning, but critically, from Niebuhr we too need ‘a check not only on policies but on pride, to guide men in a mood of dialectical humility’.  We too need to realize that ‘all justice rests on a balance of power’. 

You can in love ‘love one another’ as Christ loves you, toward an unseen horizon, a far-off land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  You can hope against hope. 

Let those who rejoice do so as if they were not rejoicing.  Let them rejoice not in the form of this world but in the form of the world to come. 

We meet each day with courage. We touch and are touched in the presence of Divine Potential, the raw possibility of a new day. We live on tip toe.  We live each day as if it were our last, which it is.  We greet the hour and its struggle, from a certain distance, and over every loud booming statement there is a misty question mark. 

You know, it is not always clear what is bad news, or good.  What can seem cause for the greatest rejoicing also can carry hurt, and vice-versa.  God’s time is not our time.  God’s purpose is not equivalent to any one of ours.  God’s justice is not the same as our own.  God’s freedom far surpasses yours and mine.  A crushing defeat can, in God’s time, and with patience, become the source, the medium of great victory.  I think of Franklin Roosevelt.  Where would our country be today, without his life’s strange mixture of rejoicing and suffering and struggle and perseverance?  Is it not odd that the one President who appeared to be the least vigorous, was in fact the most? ‘To lead you have to love, to save you have to serve’. 

Let those who buy and sell, do so as if they had no goods.  Not in the form of this world, but in the form of the world to come.  Augustine said it so well:  we use what we should love and we love what we should use.  We use people and love things, when we are meant to love people and use things. About your car, your house, your wardrobe, your bank account, your things—ask this:  Do you own it or does it own you?  Do you own it or does it own you? 

Yes, use the things of this world and buy and sell.  Let us do so, though, not in the form of this world, but in the form of the world to come.  Not in grasping selfishness, not in anxious pursuit, not in such strangely intense attention.  Rather:  with aplomb, with a certain disregard, with an inner freedom, the freedom to saunter in spirit, to saunter, flaneur dans les rue. 

What a hopeful friend we have in Paul!   

Paul who wrote to the Thessalonians, of hope for the present and hope for the future, so long ago: 

We give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 1: 1-10). 

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