Sunday, October 17, 2004

Two Biographies

Asbury First Methodist Church

Text: John 4:1-5

“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” John 20: 31

In Old Castile, northwest of Madrid, out on the arid, brown central Spanish highland, you may look toward the mountain range once toured by Robert Jordan and his munequita, before his fictitious but nonetheless atoning, salvific, christlike death, at the hands of Franco’s soldiers.

The mountain range, high and in its own way majestic, looks very much like a woman asleep. So the Segovianos call her or it or the mountain “la mujer muerta”. As I and Robert Jordan and perhaps you also have found, it is a day’s long hard hike up into the Castilian Mountains.

The Gospel of John is such a mountain range, high and lifted up. It challenges our endurance. It tests our orienteering. It measures our preparation and execution. There is an exacting and perfecting quality to this Gospel, similar to the exacting and perfecting character of fellowship at Asbury First.

I remember a lunch of cheese and bread and wine under the cedars of that gorgeous mountain range. And I remember my companion. It does not surprise me that Robert Jordan fell in love north of Segovia.

With every cut-back trail, at every rest point, atop every lookout, with every majestic view, this spiritual gospel will address you in the midst of two crucial battles, those of dislocation and disappointment, with the good news of grace and freedom, with the ongoing need to choose, and in choosing to find the life of belonging and meaning, personal identity and global imagination.

I realize belatedly that the most lastingly formative aspect of my theological education, at Union Seminary in the City of New York, in the years of the Carter administration was the preaching of William Sloane Coffin. Not the superior theological teaching of C Morse, nor the profound exegesis of JL Martyn, nor the bubbling homiletics of J Forbes, nor the psychological honesty of Ann Ulanov—though without these and other guides I could not have appreciated Coffin.

In his recent collection of wisdom sayings, Coffin has a typically urbane, piercing word to say about hypocrisy. It is as close to the mind of Jesus in John 4 as I think you can come: “I am a little clearer now on the issue of hypocrisy. Of course we all pass ourselves off as something we are not, but not anything we are not. Generally we try to pass ourselves off as something that is special in our hearts and minds, something we yearn for, something beyond us. That’s rather touching”.

We all have at least two life stories, the one we publicize and the one we privatize. They both have meaning. Nor should one be eliminated or the other. In this chapter, following on the opening given in our lesson today, Jesus addresses the two biographies of a woman from Samaria….Go call your husband…I have no husband…You are right in saying you have no husband for you have had five husbands and he whom you now have is not your husband…” As people and as a culture, we have more than one story to tell, more than biography. Two biographies, like the woman at the well. Our best foot and then the other foot. The gospel this morning, a saving and healing truth for you, is that Jesus the Christ knows both biographies, all our stories, and loves us still.

“We put our best foot forward, but it is the other one that needs the attention” (W.S.Coffin).

John has always more than one opponent or contestant. He is fighting always on two fronts. So much for tradition, so much for culture. So much for depth, so much for breadth. So much for Hebrew, so much for Greek. So much for church and so much for community. So much for memory, so much for experience. John contrasts the freedom of Christ with fragile, formulaic faith. Things do not always fit into little boxes. The Hurricane winds of change rearrange every manner of dwelling. Such great winds are not confined to Florida. You know them too.

The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is not easily blended with his counterparts in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Rather than projecting our own needs for uniformity out onto these ancient, holy, mysterious, puzzling and powerful writings, we first to listen to them. Listen. We need to let the Bible speak to us, as Robert McAffee Brown used to say. The Jesus of John 4 sees into other’s minds. He knows things without being told. He divines the secrets hidden in the heart. He stands alone and in public view, with a woman, a Samaritan woman, a troubled Samaritan woman. This Jesus is guided along in a lengthy mystagogical conversation, full of riddles, double entendres, hidden meanings, mysterious silences. He offers living water. In none of this does one find a single correspondence with the earlier three quests for Jesus in Matthew, Mark and Luke. John’s is an entirely different Jesus. So, asked a bright teenager in September, which is true?

And here is my answer. They all are. They all truly represent the actual historical experience of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, which various little communities in his fledging church did have of him. All four are historically accurate. With accuracy they describe the Jesus known in the actual lives of the communities of Mark, 40 years after Calvary, Matthew, 55 years after Calvary, Luke, 60 years after Calvary, and John 90 years after Calvary. They give us grace and freedom to sense Jesus, as they did, present among us, as He was among them. He is risen. He is not here. See the place where they laid him.

The account of the woman at the well provides one of two eyes needed to see. The other is the experience of Jesus, crucified and risen, which John knew and felt and preached. This Jesus, in 120 ad, knew his people. They felt his knowing presence. They felt his probing spirit. So do we. They faced his clairvoyant candor. So do we. They acknowledged his healing voice. So do we. A voice like no other--equanimous and serene. They sensed his love. They preached his love. They shared his love. Even across ranges of personal, intimate, generic confusion. And so do we. It is not the water of the well that slakes our thirst for salvation, but the water of eternal life. This water bathes both of our feet, both of our biographies, both the one we put forward and the one we hold back.

Grace During Dislocation

Young soldiers in their first year of service, at home or abroad, know about the dislocation that comes with growing up. So do their parents and aunts and uncles. Young women and men settling in at college, for the first year, know about the dislocation that comes with developing that second identity, that real self, yourself. At mid-life a man finds that he is ready to make up his mind to change his mind. Dislocation is mainly, but not only, the work of salvation for youth. Ask the 80 year old who sells her house. Or the 90 year old who keeps his. Salvation is not a matter of chronology, only, but of ontology and theology and psychology. Sachel Page was right to ask: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?”

Our lasting health will rely in part on Grace uncovered during dislocation. That John’s Gospel emerges out of the tide, the great sea change, of dislocation is itself a profound affirmation of grace. If this community, disoriented and discarded and dismembered amid Jews and Gnostics in 120 ad, could receive courage in change, then so can we. We need not fear change. You need not fear change. For down in the depths of dislocation, John discovered grace.

The most pervasive social change of the last thirty years, across our culture, lies in the rearrangements related to gender and to sexuality. The social distance between me and my grandfather is dwarfed by that between my grandmother and my daughter. My grandmother learned to drive using a buggy whip and sitting behind a team of horses. My daughter flies across the continent week by week. Elsie was born 30 years before she gained the right to vote. Emily rocks the vote. Gramma was one of a very small percentage of women to graduate from college. Emily runs the place. Elsie raised children, cooked meals, supported the church, and listened. My daughter works, leads, earns and speaks. Women are still undergoing the tears and strains of pervasive social dislocation. Nor is feminism finished. Nor is equality achieved. Nor does freedom fully ring, not for women in America nor certainly for women around the globe.

Yet with this righteous dislocation, every bit as necessary as that which liberated John, has come an undertow of anxiety, much of it related to our understanding of sexuality. Sex, physical genital intimacy, is not what it used to be. And women are still largely paying the bill. In the great sea of sexual dislocation, certainly alive in the text of John 4, is there any grace to be found?

As the fellow stumbled and said when he was asked to speak about sexual ethics, “It would be my pressure—I mean pleasure”

What are we teaching our children about sex? Do we happily and strongly affirm the covenant of marriage? Do our sentiments and advisements short of marriage lead, for the most part, to preparation for healthy marriage? Across the gender divides, can we still be responsible not only to but also for one another, without yet patronizing or prevaricating? Why are young men so largely absent from our churches?

To a global village conception of human sexuality, each one may contribute his part of green, space for grace and time for freedom. I have no word of the Lord on this, but what insight I have I share.

You are a grandfather or grandmother. With rosy cheeks and a smile, before dinner, you may recall a harvest moon, an evening of affection, with gentle hints at what chivalry can mean, did mean, will mean.

You are a mom or dad. Books with information can be bought and shared. But priceless and purchasing power is what comes next. Your sense of gratitude for life. Your honest joy, happiness and pleasure in intimacy. Your witness to the vulnerabilities of such closeness. Your conviction that God made humans as sexual beings and means to help us as sexual beings to become as humane as possible. Then stop. Look. Listen. Listen. Listen.

You are an aunt, uncle, teacher, neighbor, youth counselor. Bless you. Do you realize that you are, in trust, a safe space and trusted freedom for a younger person who may need to rely on you?

You are such a youth. Remember these 5 things: You are made in the image and likeness of God. You are precious. You know the difference between loving someone and using someone. You need not be afraid to stand apart from the crowd. You have right to sense how you are feeling, what you are thinking. Does this seem right to me? Does this feel right for me? If you make a mistake, well, remember forgiveness, consider what you have learned, shake the dust from your feet and move ahead. And you can also, if the moment is right, quote Anne Lamotte: “No is a complete sentence”.

You are a church on East Avenue. Say this: “Jesus is among us, speaking and healing. His grace tells us that the Word became flesh, that we are made in God’s image, that physical pleasure and sexual intimacy are God’s good gifts, that we can live with integrity, that we can become self-aware, that we can learn from but not be defined by our mistakes, that the covenant of marriage provides the best and surest and healthiest and safest location for sex, amid the great dislocations of our time”.

The Da Vinci Code, for all its many failings and inaccuracies, at least dwells imaginatively on the Incarnation.

Life is good. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This is the ringing affirmation of the Fourth Gospel. Physical life, in all its panoply of intimacy and estrangement, is good.

Freedom Following Disappointment

Now that we have come to chapter 4, we need to name and regret a biblical disappointment. If we are going to read John at all, and hear the gospel of John together, then we need to be honest about a scriptural disappointment. As with all of our lives, the Bible itself, the very Word of God, does nonetheless harbor disappointments. We can find freedom following violence, lack of vision, the immutability of the past. Here the good news: there is even freedom following religious disappointment.

Sometimes our great strengths occasion our most glaring weaknesses. If John is the Bible’s great strength, it would then be possible that here too we might find great weakness. And we do.

It is a hard disappointment to face the hard truth that things went wrong and that there is no way to change what happened. But we can learn from hard disappointment. Sometimes it is our very success that carries within it a seed of failure. It is our strength itself that calls out of the deeps to an echoing weakness. Strength and weakness are sometimes strangely conjoined.

Why is strong man A Schwarzenegger’s best movie “Kindergarten Cop”, a visit to childhood and weakness? Two different kinds of biographies.

Why did the extremely tough, hard, rigid, JE Hoover also, we now know, live out a second biography in the shadows?

Why does the figure of Elmer Gantry, and his not so fictional and very current cousins today, provide an odd combination of religious power and personal weakness? Two religious biographies.

Why did Mr. Clinton, the most adept, strongest politician of his generation, at the height of his influence, stumble irremediably into as impolitic an imbroglio as one could imagine. Two very different biographies.

Why did ML King, a holy, just leader, nonetheless succumb to the basest, or most human of passions? Here is a second biography too.

Why does an extremely intelligent person, a scholar, make what must only be called, in technical terms, “a stupid mistake”. Two biographies.

Do you know someone who is an extremely careful exerciser, committed to physical health, who nonetheless every now and then goes on an eating binge of mammoth proportions? Me and my shadow, strolling down the avenue.

Or what about that highly ethical, religiously prim and proper, sharply buttoned down woman or man, who, for a moment, throws all caution to the wind? Two biographies for every person: we are born to disappointment as the sparks fly upward. You did not marry a God. You did not give birth to a God. You do not work for a God. You do not relate to any God but the God of Jesus Christ.

Oh, I give no ground with regard to the truth of Scripture. The Bible is freedom’s book, the pulpit is freedom’s voice, the church is freedom’s defense. It is also occasionally true that the Bible is a holy disappointment. Nowhere in Scripture is the height of Christian freedom more powerfully depicted than in John, and yet, at the same time, nowhere is the Bible more of a disappointment.

This gospel is anti-semitic, at least to our ears after 1940. It was composed in the white heat of one small group leaving a synagogue in order freely to worship what the synagogue could only understand as a second God. It was the charge of ditheism, though denied and controverted, which moved John’s little church out into a free and frightening future. So the Gospel of John speaks roughly of its Semitic mother religion, of its own tradition. The living water is meant to surpass the dead water of Jacob, of Jacob’s well. Notice the way the writer refers with oral scare quotes to “the Jews”, like Robert E Lee calling Yankees, “those people”. Notice the dismissive explication, here and elsewhere of Jewish rites. Notice that even though salvation is from the Jews, his own people “received him not”. Notice Jesus saying “all who came before me are thieves and robbers”. We have an obligation to notice. And to regret, to express contrition and compunction. These words from this gospel have done immeasurable harm, from Augustine to Luther to the Third Reich to today, and that is a spiritual disappointment. As Christianity puts its best foot forward, it is really the other one that needs attention. We have two biographies ourselves. That of persecuted, and that of persecutor. Of all religious bodies, we have the most work to do with regard to anti-Semitism.

How are we to find freedom following such spiritual disappointment? By facing facts, by learning from our experience of success and failure, by moving ahead: the fact is that Christianity has been pervasively guilty of latent and patent anti-Semitism and the Gospel of John has been one of its sources. We have and can learn from this failure, by carefully monitoring our use of religious language. Be careful with religious language. And we can move ahead. John is guiding us toward a global vision, an ecumenical spirituality, a universal Truth, a global village green, space for grace and time for freedom. And our Jewish brothers and sisters can teach us to continue, with Jacob, to wrestle with God.

Our neighbor, a great leader in Toronto, Emil Fackenheim, was once asked how and why he could practice his faith after the holocaust. His reply: “I must. I refuse to give Hitler any posthumous victories”.

In 1978 Jan and I had dinner with Elie Wiesel in the home of Robert Mcafee Brown. Wiesel survived the death camps and spent 10 silent years in Paris before writing Night. Its pathos, its witness, its question, its challenge needs to stay before this generation as well…Where is God? Where is He?...The third rope was still moving, the child was still alive…For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet glazed…Behind me I heard the same man asking: Where is God now?... and I heard a voice within me answer Him…Where is He? Here he is—He is hanging here on this gallows….


These things are spoken that you may believe that Jesus in the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

This week you can choose to grow in faith, and so find a fuller part of your second identity. This week you can choose to grow in love, and so open a fuller part of the world’s imagination. This week you can choose to grow in faith, and so find a fuller part of your second identity. This week you can choose to grow in love, and so open a fuller part of the world’s imagination.

Faith is personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. It involves a leap.

Faith is an objective uncertainty grasped with subjective certainty. It involves a leap.

Faith is the way to salvation, a real identity and a rich imagination. But it does involve a leap.

Now is the time to jump.

All of us are better when we are loved.

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