Sunday, December 24, 2006

Two Kinds of Christmas

Luke 1: 39-45


There are two kinds of Christmas and both are blessed.

The search for truth and the gift of faith are both blessed. Elisabeth and Mary; John and Jesus; the true and the good; both and all are blessed, in Luke’s Gospel, by God’s healing of the world in Christ, who is both holy and lowly.

There are two trails to Christmas.

Hal Luccock preached in the south and in the north, over many years, and said: ‘In the south the hymn is always “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing’, and in the north the scripture is always ‘Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name’.

With the southern many or the northern few, come again, twice born, to Christmas.

There are two sorts of Christmas.

That of body and that of soul.

That of flesh and that of spirit.

That of reality and that of Being.

That of doubt and that of faith.

That of honesty and that of courage.

That of experience and that of hope.

There is a Christmas of northern efficiency and there is a Christmas of southern charm.

That of culture and that of narrative.

In this morning’s Gospel, following earlier separate scenes, the two stories come together—John and Jesus, Prophet and Pastor, two Kinds of Christmas—John soon to be out by the river, Jesus soon to be in his Father’s house.

We shall test today the weight bearing strength of Horace Bushnell, 1849, in his two phrases: ‘In one view faith is grounded in evidence, but it also creates evidence by the realization it makes of spiritual things.’(God in Christ, 301).


Spiritual things?

Two kinds of Christmas…

A. Christmas Doubt

One kind of Christmas begins with the search for truth, and, therefore, with the real experience of doubt. For today, then, a full look at war, greed and silence.

Facts are stubborn things. Take a hike with me, down by the river. One Christmas Sunday, late modern or post-Christian, commences at the river, let us say at the head of the Charles. A riverfront Christmas, for which John the Baptist was given lung and voice, that perhaps of the cultural congregation, even late modern and post-Christian, listens in the dark for the truth.

1. War

A pause at the Charles. To begin.

The world looks nothing like Christmas.

We are so anxious and fearful of what has become of our fragile planet that we burrow into feverish work, feverish drink, feverish sex, feverish exchange—getting and spending. But we are a people at war. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Here is the clothing of hubris: the shirt of pre-emption, the coat of unilateralism, the hat of imperialism, the waistband of incompletion. No, come this Christmas Sunday, one does not see the wordflesh fully abroad.

We watched Carmelo Anthony grow up. He led Syracuse to the championship, and smiled all the way. I loved to watch him. Lose or win, he smiled. Down thirty, up ten, he smiled. Coach Boeheim smiling or scowling—and it wasn’t mostly smiling—mellow Carmelo smiled, happy to be alive.

Unlike him, it was, last week, to throw a first punch. Not his own self. To strike first, to act alone, to swing with temper, and to cause unforeseeable consequences. We live out of the future, but understand out of the past. So, in hindsight, he can see, and confess, and apologize, and receive and rework forgiveness. I noticed he apologized to a long list, but he mentioned his mother. That’s the young man we watched grow up.

We have watched good people across four years engage this young country in the worst strategic error of our history, our single biggest military mistake. We swung first. We acted alone. We did so with temper, angry and arrogant. Without foresight, limit, or breadcrumbs to mark the path home. Pre-emptive, unilateral, imperial, unforeseeable. Hindsight is 20-20. People of good heart and mind differed as to whether the invasion was a tragic necessity or an unnecessary tragedy. There is little doubt now.

What would the river say? John the Baptist?


He would also ask where the churches were (with a few exceptions) to remind and confront, where the pulpits were (with a few exceptions) to challenge and teach, where the congregations were (with a few exceptions), to protest and reject.


What are we to do now? In the large, it is difficult to know.

But in the small? We come to worship. That is, we must confess, and seek pardon. The center of Christian worship is the prayer of confession and the statement of pardon. To move forward we need to repent of the past, truly repent in numbers—3,000, 15,000, 650,000, 2,000,000 (dead, wounded, displaced, refugee). And seek the open future that comes with pardon. Do you know God to be a pardoning God? Carmelo knew his mother to be a pardoning mother, or he would not have asked pardon.

War is a long way from Christmas.

2. Greed

A pause along the Esplanade, say at the Arthur Fiedler statue. To continue. A place to honor music, the height of the invisible. It is a good thing that Arthur is so sturdy, for the ‘invisible’ faces steady headwinds and even cross winds in our time. The pervasive materialism, endless exurban expansion, and mindless consumption of a people hurtling down a highway focused on the speedometer and blind to the road ahead, are a long way from Christmas. This week, even from our national pulpit, the White House press conference, we are encouraged to shop. To buy! And to give? Both would strengthen the economy, but in different ways. One leans toward commodity and the other toward community. It may be, one thinks, along the river, that Immanuel—the college, or the doctrine, or the hope—have gone, left for a far country. As Vahanian said of ‘God’ 50 years ago, the symbols of faith have grown cold for the culture. Has such a fate of symbolic anachronism now permanently infected Christmas? Is the whole symbol set, from angels to straw and all between, become, simply, a once told tale? We know that symbols die. Sometimes from neglect, sometimes from abuse, sometimes from both. It is hard to find evidence that the poor manger has much traction to shape a culture any longer. Whither wonder, morality, generosity?

3. Silence

A pause at the Hatch Shell. To listen. Here is my friend awash in grief for the tragic and inexplicable loss of a spouse. Here is he, years later, still caught in the flow and ebb of that sorrow beyond sorrow. It is an empty time for this concert stage, and its empty loss, and lack, is one that many know better than any other truth. To hear the improbable predictions of Isaiah, about streams in a desert, is to this ear, just now, at the shoreline of the absurd.

When to the heart of man

Was it ever less than a treason

To go with the drift of things

And to yield with a grace to reason

And to bow and accept the end

Of a love or a season? (Frost)

And from the hurt comes doubt. We are indebted to writers like James Wood (NEW REPUBLIC ON LINE) for careful reviews of speaking and thinking about God, today. Having in the churches exchanged much of our capacity in philosophical theology for a saltier mix of personal narratives and identity politics, we find ourselves scrambling a bit to respond to first level questions about evidence, about suffering, about creation, about content, about God. Overhear the fine stentorian British voice and impeccable speech with which Richard Dawkins flays theism, and more so the undergraduate cheering and jeering he evokes. Like the primitive Christians, thinkers today do not fear the charge of a-theism. Nor should they. The search for truth, by the presence of John, is blessed at Christmas.

At the river we listen to the silence…

The violence of the Tsunami has not yet been fully cured.

The destruction of Katrina has not been rebuilt.

The loss of safety, discipline and respect in urban and other public schools has not been improved.

The loss of life in Darfur has not been stemmed.

The rising ocean levels, something for shoreline cities to consider, have not abated.

The market for nuclear weaponries has not disappeared.

The threats of cancers in all forms have not been stymied.

The voice of Ivan Karamazov carries still, all the way down to the Science Museum, and all the way around the globe...

Here then is one Christmas trail and tale: a search for truth and an experience of doubt. The honesty and the courage of this account need naming.


Although… A pause, perhaps now at night, with the light shimmering on the Charles, to wonder…

Kind Sir. Just how sure are you? In the moonlight, with a shimmering. Lights and a light wind and the faint call of carolers. And…Other? Mystery? Spirit? The Luminous Numinous? A little faith tracks the trail of every doubt, and sometimes, come Christmas, even causes us to doubt our doubt.

All along the river of doubt there is a shimmering something alongside… Mystery. Being. Spirit. All the cultured doubt of a late modern, post Christian culture, still, does not erase what is just beyond saying, knowing, and hearing. Doubt is shadowed by faith.

B. Christmas Faith

And faith is shadowed by doubt. Another kind of Christmas begins with the gift of faith. A full hearing for wonder, and care, and peace.

Your Christmas trail may be ecclesiastical and not cultural, indoors and not outdoors, by candlelight and not moonlight.

You may be a cradle Christian at Christmas, or a cradle Christmas Christian. Then your trail would move not along the river, but along the rail.

3. Wonder (in the Silence)

A pause at the Gospel, in church. To think. Now inside, not outside. Now at the rail, not at the river. Now with Mary and Jesus, though hearing still Elizabeth and John.

All failure, folly and horror bracketed, for the moment, there is the start of this trail in carols of the English tradition, and in candles to evoke the numinous, and in word and sacrament to mirror heaven. Now thirty years of Christmas winters and Christmas Eve services later, I can testify that every year, as at no other time of year, there is an awareness of lasting life. The world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder, as Chesterton never tired of saying. It is the imagination, that quality of heart and mind so necessary to being human, which quickens again, here at the rail. Step ahead, just a moment, as sometimes we do, to read the Gospel, moving the page itself into the heart of the church.

Wonder still appears on the candlelit faces uplifted at midnight worship. Good deeds, selfless and real, emanate still from hearts, homes, and communities of faith. Generosity, both of spirit and of wallet, emerges again in December.

Now the passage read from Luke for this Sunday prepares us for the very birth of Christ. Here is Elizabeth, the mother of the one on the river, and Mary, the mother of the one at the rail. There are two kinds of Christmas, that of John and that of Jesus, both blessed. One in the cold light of reason, and one in the warm heart of love. Both are good, both needed. Even in utero, according to this Lukan narration, John the Baptist is aware of, we might say prophetically aware of, the unborn Messiah. But there is a palpable portent of possibility shot through all of this strange reading.

We shall honor by acceptance its strange, numinous portent, pregnant with potential for the future. The Gospel creates its own audience, in the audience of its announcement. How you live creates a wake. How one speaks creates a set of possibilities. I like to think of the older English scholars at Christmas, like C H Dodd: ‘faith is an act which is the negation of all activity, a moment of passivity out of which the strength for action comes, because in it God acts’ (IBD 41) He renders a sense of imagination, that quiet surrender of the self to the spirit of God.

On a reliable hope hangs our global future. We can imagine more than war. We can imagine more than the stark Manichaeism of ideological rhetoric about ideology, as in ‘a conflict between the ideology of liberty and the ideology of hatred’ (GWB, 12/21,06). The greatest consequence of war is further war, but its second harshest consequence is the dulling of the imagination. Hear good news. Hear echoes of Deborah and Judith and David and even Obededom the Gittite. Blessed are those who hear the word and keep it. At Christmas, the open future of possibility lives. One range in that future includes conversation, dialogue, diplomacy, innocence, life, love.

2. Care (amid greed)

A pause at the lesson. To continue.

Who would begrudge to them their favorite hymn, as come midnight on Christmas Eve, all the secular shopkeepers, and mercantile stockholders, and non-religious vendors stand under the street lamp, besnowed and singing: ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’? Some giving of gifts, of course, is happy, right and good, a part of our mutual shepherding, one of another.

The earlier prophecy from Micah recalled David, born in Bethlehem, and was taken by primitive Christianity as a prediction of the Christ. The whole of the book of Micah realistically portrays the limits of human goodness. Here, for once, a sentence from Calvin: ‘Some are so excessively pleased with themselves that in order to shine alone they despise God’s gifts to their brothers, while others exalt men with such a degree of superstition that they make idols of them for themselves’ (Calvin, Commentaries, #1, loc.cit.). And yet, the image of the shepherd stays with us, and stands out. Many of our churches are over programmed and under pastored. A shepherd leads by example. Here is care: in the giving of money. Here is care: in taking the cloak as well, and going the second mile. Here is care: waking in the morning with hope, and praying into the night with hope. Here is care: investing in what can cross the bridges of difference. Here is care: the ability to see one’s own hurt and suffering, to some degree, as part of a larger labor pain, the birth of the future.

1. Peace (in a time of War)

A pause, too, at the letter to the Hebrews, and its early portent, even at Christmas, of the sorrow and struggle to come. To conclude. Suffering produces endurance. But God, in Christ, has acted to heal and cleanse. In faith, we have a way forward, even in the face of other ways forward that do not seem to go forward. Every day we can live a changed life.

Do we oppose pre-emption? We do. Then in our own lives let us, in faith, eschew any first strikes, on the cheek, or on the character, or on the person.

Do we oppose unilateralism? We do. Then let us in our own lives eschew any selffull, unilateral action that is not cognizant of circumstance.

Do we reject imperialism? We do. Then let us free ourselves, personally, from acting in overweening ways, in ways that use people and love things, rather than loving things and using people (Augustine).

Do we criticize lack of foresight? We do. Then let us learn patiently to plan, to foresee, with forbearance. (For this fourfold outworking of the Christ in the World, see R Neville, A Theology Primer).

We know the truth of Niebuhr’s distinction between moral man and immoral society. Individuals are free in ways that elude collectives. But collectives are shaped by individuals. And both, collective and individual, can develop Niebuhr’s saintly desire: develop a spiritual discipline against resentment, develop a spiritual discipline against resentment, develop a spiritual discipline against resentment.

Plan for the worst, hope for the best, then do your most, and leave all the rest”. And when we worship, let us confess and be absolved.

Forgive us our sins…

If we do nothing else, let us worship, and if we do nothing else in worship, let us confess our waywardness, in the hope of pardon.

Here is a Christmas faith. In church, gospel, lesson and letter, we may surely affirm the gifts of faith at Christmas: wonder in silence, care amid greed, peace in a time of war.


And yet. Lest faith curdle to blind faith, and the gift of faith into the wrapping of fideism, we may take the test of reason, a pinch of doubt, with us too. ‘Test the spirits’, says the Scripture (1 Thess. 5: 22). We need the buried middle voice, lost in English, audible in Spanish, visible in Greek. (e.g. Me corte el pelo). While Luke surely means to place Jesus above John (cf. R Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 333ff.), and that without a doubt, Luke nonetheless makes full space for both kinds of Christmas.


There are two kinds of Christmas. One of Elizabeth and one of Mary, one of John and one of Jesus, one of river, and one of rail. Yours may be one tinged by faith, though full of doubt. Yours may be one tinged by doubt, though robust in faith. Both are blessed, both the true and the good.

We might add, though, if your Christmas is of the indoor variety, take a walk in the moonlight; and if your Christmas is of the outdoor variety, come in to the beauty of the sanctuary at night. It takes a poet to get this middle voice, this reflexive, this nuanced announcement in the right key. So, Auden:

He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth. Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life. Love him in the World of the Flesh: and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Starting Over

Luke 3: 1-6

Did you ever want to start over…?

Did you ever drag yourself, reluctantly, to church, in December, wondering whether anything good, anything new, anything other than the experience of the last six days might appear…?

Appear he does. John the Baptist, an imposing figure. Railing in the wilderness. Overshadowing the exhaustion, religious and secular, of life shorn of faith. Dressed in camel’s hair, a scratchy outfit. Feeding on locusts and wild honey, on the wild offerings of untamed nature. Set apart, for the moment, as is his wont, from history. A voice, not a face, crying, not speaking, in the wilderness, not the city…

It is healthy that we not approach the manger, let alone all the cozy secular trappings of Christmas, without this annual run-in with a truly rough diamond. He stands among us today, rude, arrogant, abrasive, demanding a hearing for faith in God’s future. The voice of one crying in the wilderness…

For the advent of the Christ, to whom John bears witness (all the chaotic nonsense which we make of Christmas to the contrary), if nothing else, if nothing else, suggests the frightening possibility, the struggle, of starting over…

Faith means starting over…

Sometimes faith means having the courage to start over, even in the midst of loss: New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth, one must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth…

This rough warrior, prowling in the wilderness, down in the depths, the depths, reminds us of the condition of our existence. The liminal, last things. As hungry as the heart is for immortality, we are mortal. As feverishly as we might like to think otherwise, we know deep down that we are accountable for our lives. As strange and non-descript as our belief in eternity remains, our consciences resonate with the image of a final sifting, heaven and its sub-basement. Death…Judgment…HeavenHell: the advent of Christ illumines these conditions of our existence…

Faith is the power to start over, in the midst of anxiety, and even in the throes of despair. Faith is God’s gift, and the message of the Advent of the Christ. What the reason can never fully capture, and what the law can never fully define, faith gives: the power to struggle free of despair. Faith says: ‘Start again’…

Start, says John, down in the deep icy river of the truth, down where you find my wet camel coat, my long hard fingers, my rasping voice…

John, like a hanging, focuses our attention. What one thing should be said of Jesus this Advent? You can say many things. As Tittle repeated, ‘the preacher can always find something innocuous to talk about on Sunday’. What one thing? In Advent 1862, the one thing to have said of Jesus was that he was black, a person of color. In 1933, that he was poor. In 1944, that he was Jewish. In 1965, that he championed women. In 1986, that he was a child, born of a Mary’s womb. And today, coming toward 2007? What one advent word rings out from the dark Jordan?...

Just this one. That Jesus was the Prince of Peace…

Oh this railing Baptist cuts through our native pre-emption, our national unilateralism, our country’s imperialism, our shared lack of foresight. PREPARE THE WAY…

Start over...

Go back to the source, the start, where and when you once knew something clearly. Go there, and begin again…

Take with you the Courage to Be, in Life, in Family, in Work…

Of life, I give you James Baldwin: ‘Nothing is fixed forever and forever, it is not fixed. The earth is always shifting and the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down the rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them, because they are the only witnesses we have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to one another, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with each other, the sea engulfs us, and the light goes out’…

Of family, I give you Mark Helperin: ‘I was graduated from the finest school, which is that of the love between parent and child…In this school you learn the measure not of power, but of love; not of victory, but of grace; not of triumph, but of foregiveness’ (Memoir from Antproof Case, 298)…

Of work, I give you Annie Dillard: ‘The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere. After giving many years of attention to these things you know what to listen for. Some of the walls are bearing walls. They have to stay, or everything else falls down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it down. Duck. Courage utterly opposes the bold hope that this is such fine stuff the work needs it, or the world. Courage, exhausted, stands on bare reality: this writing weakens the work. You must demolish the work. AND START OVER. You can save some sentences, like bricks. It will be a miracle if you can save some paragraphs, no matter how excellent in themselves, or hard won. You can waste a year worrying about it, or you can get it over with now. (Are you a woman or a mouse?) (The Writing Life, 73)…

Faith means starting over, in life and in family and in work…

As we receive Jesus Christ, his presence and memory and thanksgiving, in bread and cup, MAY GOD GIVE US THE GIFT OF FAITH THIS DAY THAT WE MAY BEGIN AGAIN…

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Leaving Behind ‘Left Behind’

Mark 13:1-8

1. Preface: Andrew Young on Faith and Religion

Boston University was recently graced by the voice and presence of Andrew Young—activist, pastor, theologian, congressman, ambassador, mayor and close confidant of Martin Luther King. One pastor said: “He is one of our ‘wise men’”. We were honored to be at breakfast with him, across a round table in the Howard Thurman center, guests too of the office of the Dean of Students. BU students, Ken Elmore, and Kathryn Kennedy provided the hospitality.

For those of a certain generation—those of us now with bifocals, aging joints, haphazard memory, thinning hair—Andrew Young is a wise man and an icon too. The newspaper carried his contorted visage in a photograph at the new King memorial. We are aware, too, that for ranges of humanity in other generations, his name is slipping from its household word quality into more of a vintage mode. C’est dommage.

Mr. Young answered several questions. One: “What should the relationship be of politics and religion?” You might be surprised at his answer. It recalls Paul in the 15th chapter of Romans, extolling the virtue of those, his enemies, who nonetheless were preaching Christ. There is wisdom in magnanimity, and there is magnanimity in wisdom…

Every great revolution in the history of this country was supported by a religious revival or enthusiasm—the Revolutionary war, the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement…No, I do not agree with Pat Robertson and those folks, but I also recognize that they are doing some good in the world…they are sending missionaries and feeding the hungry and other good things. Faith and politics invariably go together.

2. American Eschatology: 21st Century Consolation Literature

It is a particular, peculiar, and potent intersection of the two which concerns us this morning. In our time, religion and politics have intersected at an unusual point, that of the doctrine of the last things, of eschatology, or the doctrine of the Christian hope. As we have propounded all fall, on a reliable hope hangs our future. But to approach such a globe saving, history opening hope—I speak here of salvation in the little and in the large—we shall need to clear the ground of unreliable hope. The remaining historic churches (orthodox, catholic and protestant) have done a poor job in contesting the region of hope. We have not steadily and repeatedly reminded both church and culture about what, historically, and so theologically, we may understand regarding biblical teachings about hope. We have not done our job, to translate tradition into insight for effective living. To some degree we have turned aside from the apocalyptic language and imagery of the New Testament, in turn embarrassed, frightened, offended or simply baffled by the ancient hope, like that in Mark 13.

And what has become of the void of interpretation we have left behind? It has become filled by material about being ‘left behind’! Of all the dangerous literalisms which can infect the pseudo-interpretation of scripture, none has become more damaging than the literal, non-historical, rendering of apocalyptic material in the New Testament.

For many people living culturally outside the range of religious reality that encourages literal apocalyptic language, the broad reading and public enjoyment of such literature can seem unbelievable. How did 20 million homes accommodate copies of the fictional accounts of rapture, in the Left Behind series alone? How did this series become the primary lens through which, for many, the Christian hope is seen? Kevin Phillips recent work, American Theocracy, in his two chapters, Radicalized Religion, and Defeat and Resurrection, put a full spot light upon this phenomenon, including its connections to political agendas. According to Phillips, 55% of all Americans believe the Bible is literally true and 59% of all Christians expect the events of the Book of Revelation to occur (p 102). When combined with the sort of covenantal ‘exceptionalism’ and ‘righteous remnant’ perspective that often accompanies such a reading of the Scripture—found in Ireland, South Africa and the American South at crucial junctures—the influence of literal apocalypticism has become significant. ‘Lost Cause’ religion becomes the seedbed for left behind theology (p110ff).

Further, these affirmations and perspectives are often tinged with a particular kind of understanding of God’s will. During the outing of a bright, effective large church pastor who homiletically condemned apparently practiced homosexuality, several evangelical commentators reflected on ‘God’s timing’ in bringing forth this ‘revelation’ about Pastor Haggard. ‘God just decided that it was time to bring this to people’s attention’ is a comment typical of this position.

Timing is everything , but is everything God’s timing?

On this (mistaken) view, God is free, but we are not. God is free to be, but humans are slaves of providence. God is making the choices about when outings occur, not actual humans. At crucial points, there is, on this worldview, a hearty willingness to let go of human freedom, human responsibility, and human wisdom gained through hard experience, and to let God take the blame.

Which, of course, is the sad heart of literal apocalyptic. In apocalyptic, the future is not open, not evolving, not influenced by the myriad choices of individuals and groups--and so not my responsibility. I let that go. No, in apocalyptic, the future is assured by God, controlled by God, chosen by God and so is God’s sole responsibility. So, in letting go, I let God be, well, God. It is a temporarily consoling perspective for those who crave such fleeting consolation. It is a darkly fascinating rendering of the slogan, let go and let God.

But it is not true.

Not to our reason, not to our experience, not to our tradition, and finally, in careful interpretation, not to our Scripture either.

3. Ancient Christian Apocalyptic Eschatology: 1st Century Consolation Literature

On the basis of sound biblical interpretation, it is time to leave behind ‘left behind’ thought.

Mark 13 was written in or near the year 70, in the shadow of that century’s judeo-christian version of 9/11, the final destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Our chapter today assumes that the reader—‘let the reader understand’ (v14) will intuit the imagery of buildings and stones. More, the later Gospels are written in the ever lengthening shadow of a truth hard to swallow, at least for the early church. The end was not in fact in sight.

Jesus, Paul, the earliest church and most of the New Testament carry the common expectation that within days or years, but soon, the apocalyptic end of the world will occur. All were mistaken. Even 2 Peter, who changes the math, and makes a day equal to 1000 years, has grudgingly to wrestle with the delay, the postponement, of the first Christians’ fervent hope. Recite 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 several times and you will get a sense of what this apocalyptic hope entailed. It is early Christian mythology. As with all myth, it carries meaning, including meaning for us. But as a world-view, as a view of history, it is wrong.

It did not happen.

What Jesus predicted, and Paul expected, and Mark awaited—did not happen. The end did not come. And centuries of further sparkles of expectation, from the Montanists, to the Medieval mystics, to the Millerites of upstate New York, to the Jonestown community of 1978, to the Y2K enthusiasts of just a few years ago, did not make it so. This biblical apocalyptic may be mythologically meaningful, but it is chronologically corroded.

Further, the language and imagery of the New Testament are apocalyptic through and through. Apocalyptic is the mother tongue of Christian theology, especially of Christian hope. So our beloved Bible must be interpreted anew, in a non-mythological way.

Fortunately, the New Testament itself begins to do so. Some of that reassessment is beginning in our passage this morning—‘the end is not yet, this is but the beginning’. Some of the ethical application and communal reinterpretation of this will come in a few verses: you have no idea if or when the end will come so, in scout fashion, be prepared. But most of the courageous imagination in this regard is found in the Gospel of John, aided somewhat by the later Paul.

The fictional, pseudo-biblical, consolation literature of our 21st century apocalyptic literalism needs to be left behind. It is not true: not to the Bible, not to the church, not to the mind, not to your experience. Humans may make of this earth the scenery of the new novel, The Road. We pray, pray it may not be so. But even if it were to occur—the end is not yet. You cannot escape your responsibility for the future of planet earth by hiding behind the skirts of an unfounded, ultimately unbiblical apocalypticism. It will not do, in this sense, to let go and let God.

We are not free to avoid our responsibility to the environment, with the excuse that the Lord may return in a generation or two anyway, and who needs gasoline in the rapture?

We are not free to avoid our responsibility to seek a common global peace, cognizant of the hard won insights of pacifism and just war theory both, on the bet that time is running out for the late great planet earth.

We are not free to construe current events in the Middle East on the templates of colorful but unhistorical apocalyptic myths, for the consoling succor of somehow thinking that God handles the Middle East any differently than Asia or the Alaska.

We are not free to project our anxieties about the dilemmas of the current age—an age by the way that was supposed to have seen ‘the end of history’!—out onto a far-off falsehood, like the raptures of fancy, fiction or facsimile—in order to avoid what we of course have to do in every other sphere of life: negotiate, compromise, discuss, trade, and muddle through.

Most especially—places like Marsh Chapel with a rich heritage of hope must also expect of ourselves a rich offering to the future that comports with our inheritance, to whom much is given, from him much is expected—we are not free to neglect a common hope.

Here is our freedom. Pray daily for the hope of the world. Think creatively about the hope of the world. Act specifically, week by week, in communion with a reliable hope. The future is up to you.

And for goodness sake, leave behind ‘left behind’.

4. Coda: Andrew Young’s Worldview

Andrew Young has aged. He walks more slowly. His skin is weathered. He carries more weight.

But he is a wise man, our wise man. And he lives in hope.

Asked about his education, he recalled a single informal study group, led by Professor Bill Bradley of Hartford Theological Seminary. The students gathered for hours of conversation, encouraged by their teacher. “That group gave me hope. They gave me my worldview. The worldview I have to this day. It is a worldview centered in Christ”.

Young’s worldview owes something to Reinhold Niebuhr, with whom we close:

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;

Therefore we must be saved by hope.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Six Marks of Discipleship

(The six summary meditations here were punctuated in worship by the choir singing the corresponding Frostiana pieces).

  1. Vocation

Televised Tavis Smiley asked Maya Angelou this week to name the essence of what Dr. Martin Luther King, whose sculpture adorns our plaza this morning, was all about. “Love”, she said.

One untelevised scribe, records Mark, asked Jesus, whose people we are, to name the essence of what he was all about. “Love”, he said.

Simple but excruciating. Easy but difficult. Too good to be true, and too true to be good.

This autumn, while listening to the Gospel of Love in St Mark, we have awaited this word with choral embraces to help us each week. We lost our theological way, fifty years ago. Our choir has been asked to embed our preaching in the music and poetry of fifty years past, Frost and Thompson, for a purpose. The purpose has been to recall, and perhaps reclaim, a trail lost for a time, one of a common hope for love. Go back to the spot you last remember where you knew where you were.

Find your back to a sense of vocation, of calling. Life is about decisions. We have the choice to live as those who have survived and who have further survived our own survival, who have moved from guilt to gift. We have the power to choose a road grassy and wanting wear…

  1. Invitation

You have what you give away. You only true possess what with joy

you can give somebody else. The most precious gift, in love, is your time, your welcome. Never discount the power of welcome.

Our liturgy, in the church, is our welcome.

Our teacher and Dean, Dr. Ray Hart, challenges and reminds us: What we have been culpably inattentive to is that in the same period of the modern cosmological revolution the arts have been more attuned to that revolution than has the Church. Is Schoenberg our Palestrina? Kandinksky, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollack our Raphael, Michelangelo? Merce Cunningham our choreographer? Et cetera, et cetera? Are we liturgically alive? (BUSTH matriculation sermon, 2004)

Power in the power of invitation is good news for the community of faith, for you. There is no greater joy in Christ than sharing the joy of Christ. You come too, you come too…

  1. Communication

All life is meeting’, taught Martin Buber. If we are ever to be saved, to become real persons in communities of real persons, we shall have to seek the gifts of communication. Go and learn, we are taught. Would you see Christianity reborn? Be careful what you say.

Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice… Incarnation, Integrity, Interdependence, Theology, Tithing. Otherwise, we have a failure to communicate.

  1. Leadership

The chancel choir harmony, SATB, reminds us of the four voices in every Gospel text: the soprano of Jesus’ teaching; the alto—most important—of its formation in the early church; the tenor of the evangelist; and the bass line of historic church interpretation.

Neither do the Gospels avoid engagement with the practical issues of community life. Chief among these is leadership. Every one of us has some power. If you have a pen, a telephone, a computer, email, a tongue, a household, a family, a job, a community, a church—then you have some authority.

Who taught you, by precept and example, how to use it? How much of what you picked up needs keeping and how much needs to be put out on the curb? A simple passion for the common good of the servants of God is at the heart of leadership.

Here is leadership: simple, authentic service. Tell me what it was you said…What was it that you thought you heard…

  1. Freedom

You know, it is possible to miss the forest for the trees. Today we look at the full forest.

Stop for a moment, by the woods. East, West, South, and especially due North, here is a natural survey of majestic freedom, symbolic of the Bible—its main theme freedom, and its four compass points of faith, fact, fairness, and future. The Bible is a book about freedom.

God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. The pulpit is freedom’s voice. The church is freedom’s defense. And the Bible is freedom’s book. The Bible is a survey of freedom.

We can pause for a moment and bask in the silent deeps of freedom, as if by the woods, on a snowy evening…

6. Hope

For we are a people in need of a rebirth of hope. On reliable hope hangs the future. Are we living with abandon? Are we living with hope? Are we living with hopeful abandon?

We are a people in need of a new rebirth of hope.

Hope that is responsible, communal, sacrificial, and orderly. Hope that moves us from political cowardice to religious courage. Look: she has given her whole life. Hope that, with Ruth and Wiesel and OMalley and Wright and Macquarrie and—especially—a certain watchful widow-- asks of us a certain height, a hope, so when at times the mob is swayed, a hope, we may take something like a star…


Others have shown us something of thanksgiving, of being truly alive, in vocation and invitation and communication and leadership and freedom and hope. One old north country exemplar comes to mind at this time every year, Max Coots, who wrote:

"Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are....

For generous friends with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we've had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the other, plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels Sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem Artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks."

by Reverend Max Coots

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Something Like a Star

Mark 12: 38-44

(This sermon concluded with the last of six FrostianaR Thompson pieces, in which the autumn preaching has been embedded. Our thanks to Mr. Jarrett and the Marsh Chapel Choir for their spirited, fine music this year, and through this season)

Twenty years after Jesus’ crucifixion, somewhere in the hills of Palestine, or perhaps in Jerusalem, a small group of radiant women and men gathered for worship. We are gathered here, 2000 years later, as descendents of this alto-voiced primitive Palestinian church. After song and prayer, a preacher stood to speak. Like all preachers he was carried both by memory and hope. His memory was as it was. Human, no doubt. His sermon was hope, all hope. And his hope was his sermon, too. In Christ Jesus, the preacher announced the possibility of living with hopeful abandon. We need to hear his word of hope. For we are a people in need of a rebirth of hope. On reliable hope hangs the future. To speak of hope, the preacher remembered, or realized, a story about Jesus and a widow, a poor widow, who lived with hopeful abandon. She gave all she had. She gave out of her poverty. She gave even her whole life.

I have felt her eye me—and you—all week. Are we living with abandon? Are we living with hope? Are we living with hopeful abandon?

1. Money

Neither hope nor abandon accrues to most of our thinking about money. And whatever else may lurk within the phrases of Mark 12:41ff, the gospel seems to be about money.

Asked to speak to his Rotary club about sex, the preacher replied, ‘it would be my pressure—I mean pleasure’. So, too, with money. It would be my pressure…

People are funny about money.

Jan and I are tithers. We have learned, from others, over time the freedom and joy of giving away 10% of the year’s motley earnings. I encourage all Christians to begin the walk of faith by giving away a percentage—a tithe—however you finally want to calculate it. For your sake. For your own joy and health. Some generosity is a preamble, call it a prevenient discipline, a preemptive overture, to the obedience of faith. It is habit that produces virtue, not the other way around.

2. Money (can’t buy love)

Yet the widow sees deeper into us. For though some of life’s problems can be solved by writing a check, most cannot.

Neither getting nor spending, nor giving nor receiving, warns our widow, will give us life. You cannot take it with you.

My friend David Mosser is a pastor in Dallas. He has a unique sense of humor. He and others, from Texas to Maine, are trying to raise church budgets this year to pay for staff and for service to the poor, and a whole lot in between. David’s strategy—he claims—is to visit in each home, aided only by the presence of a single layman. His strategy succeeds. So I finally had the insight, the presence of mind to ask him who he takes along. ‘The undertaker’, he says.

I have done 30 funerals a year for 30 years, more or less. Not once did the hearse have a trailer in tow. Nor did any hearse of 2” or 1 1/2” trailer ball. Nor did any have a car top carrier. Nor did any have a luggage rack. Not one in 900.

I find it remarkable, truly uncanny, just how few men and women, daily, understand this.

None of the real, abiding matters of life give way before money alone…

Who am I?

What do I believe?

Whom can I trust?

To what may I give allegiance?

Where is my loyalty?

What is love?

Where is love?

Shall I ever truly be loved?

To whom shall I offer friendship?

With whom should I share my whole self?

And where and when and how?

Who will remember that I have lived?

What will he or she remember?

Who cares that I live now?

Will I ever escape the loneliness of freedom?

Is there truly a way to forgiveness?

Which matters more: how smart I am in the prime of life, or how dead I am at the end of life?

Does love outlast death?

Is it better to love and lose, or never to love?

Can I trust my own experience?

Can I trust my conscience to be my guide?

Is there life after blunder?

Where is love?

No, the limits of lucre are lucid. Money does not buy love.

Yet here is the widow and here are her two copper coins and hear them clink and jingle in the midst of the gospel. What does the widow mean? She looks deeper into you. Will the preacher please interpret the text?

It would be my pressure…I mean pleasure.

3. Interlude: An Alto Voice

Hers is a second level voice. Not originally that of Jesus—not soprano. Not written only by Mark—not tenor. Not absorbed in the history of interpretation—not bass (only one Commodianus, of all the early Christian writers, fully cites this passage—Commodianus, ANF IV, 221)

This minatory saying is like others from the gospels: woes for the cities of Galilee, woes for the rich, criticisms of the current generation, threats to this generation, threats to Jerusalem, woes to the daughters of Jerusalem, woes to those who say ‘lord, lord’, rejection of false disciples, warnings about the parousia, and others (RB, HST, 49).

Following Bultmann, regarding this biographical apothegm, the widow came to life in the experience of the Palestinian church—a true alto. (“There are objective criteria which yield the sure conclusion that at least the greater part of the doubtful passages were formed in the Palestinian church.”) Furthermore, this is the kind of narrative which best supports Dibelius otherwise overwrought argument that this material originated in sermons. Here his ‘theory of sermon paradigms has its greatest validity…they are best thought of as edifying paradigms for sermons…They help to present the Master as a living contemporary, and to comfort and admonish the Church in her hope’ (RB, HST, 60)

Matthew has censored the widow. Luke keeps her. Mark puts her in here, because of the use of the word widow earlier. “Jesus is the champion of the people against their extortionate and hypocritical leaders”…. ‘To do nothing where an act of love is required would be to do evil’…“At the sight of the actual state of the leaders of the people and of the great mass of the people itself—at the sight of religion frozen into ritualism, at the

sight of superficiality and love of self and the world—Jesus’ message

becomes a cry of woe and repentance”. (IBD, Mark)

4. Just Concern

The coins still jingle.

She looks hard at us, this widow does. Do you not wonder whether Jesus objected to her naïve piety, since it was not reciprocated by the rich?

I heard a speech last Sunday night, delivered in Topeka, Kansas. My wife was born while her family was in Onega, Kansas. My son-in-law, a Chicago preacher, was raised in Olathe, Kansas. One favorite theologian, Dorothy Gale, came from Kansas. No place like home. The blood of abolitionists, and the preaching of Boston University School of Theology graduates, formed an earlier Kansas. Whatever happened to Kansas?

In Topeka, the Kansas capitol, a leader made promises about taxes and terror—fewer of the former, and none of the latter. You keep your money, and we will keep you safe.

Two further readings of the widow are possible. One justice, the other, hope. Paradoxically, they contradict one another. They may reflect different strata in the gospel history, a soprano voice, to one side, an alto to the other. They are not the same sermon at all. So here they both are, and you make take whichever you need home, or both, or neither. Uncannily, though, they both reject Topeka. One rejects our materialism. The other rejects our fear.

First, while this has seldom been preached, the widow may represent Jesus’ further skepticism about political and religious materialism, that causes a poor woman, naively pious, to impoverish herself in order to feed hypocritical scribes and other leaders, religious and political. Here is how such a reading would sound…(harsh voice) This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. They have given out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

Here is Jesus the Sabbath breaker, Jesus the friend of outcasts, Jesus the consort of the poor, Jesus the prophet, rising up, flaring up in Mark against a country in which the great have much and small have little. What one of us today truly, truly wants to face eternity, God, heaven, Jesus, or even the bathroom mirror lusting for tiny taxes in a rich land where urban children cannot read, where executives earn 250x the salaries of workers, where 30% have no health care, where infrastructure, environment, and communal interests go begging? Frugality we all affirm. But injustice? We have not looked hard enough at the widow before us today. Here she is, looking us in the eye. Here is the widow whose life has been taken from her by our various inverted pieties. (The second use of the word ‘widow’ here at least makes this reading possible). Do you really want to be remembered as a generation of people who, when push came to shove, preferred to tolerate grave injustice rather than shoulder taxes for the common good? Look…she has lost her whole living…

5. A Common Hope

Yet the concern for justice—one every pastor who has watched lonely parishioners send money off to television land has known—is not the widow’s might, or mite. It is a just concern, to be sure. But her lingering eye upon you bears something more. She looks deeper.

That is, second, it may be that this dear widow is truly a reminder of the joy that comes from tithing, from living with abandon, and giving with freedom. “She has given out of her poverty”. On this reading, not justice, but liberty is hailed. Do we want to be remembered as a people and a generation who let a few suffer in uniform for a war most have long since judged mistaken? As those whose hope was limited to security for ourselves, with little thought of those policing for us, let alone those maimed along the way? As those so imaginatively starved, so hope deprived, so love limited that all we can see is the fencing in of our own position? All protection and no risk?

This poor widow, like the babushkas of Russia who kept the Orthodox church alive under Stalin and Kruschev and Kosygin, stubbornly hopes. She embodies a hope that gives her courage, not cowardice. She lives with abandon. She lets her life speak. More: she lets her life preach. Do you? Do we? Do we glisten with that common hope that is the hallmark of the friends of Jesus, the communion of saints, the good church of every age, and the bones of Marsh Chapel?

For once, the lectionary does help us by retelling the story of Ruth, whose story is well worth your afternoon re-reading. Ruth and Naomi cross boundaries, love one another, and live with hopeful abandon. Our text today carries the culmination of that hope, Ruth’s reward. With the poor widow, Ruth lives leaning forward. Do we? Do we live with hopeful abandon?

Do we lean forward with the craggy chin of Elie Wiesel, who gently said on Monday, 10/23/06…Respect is the contradiction of fanaticism…information leads to knowledge, and knowledge to sensitivity, and sensitivity to commitment (2x)…I thought anti-semitism would have died in the camps but it did not…(RAH lecture notes)

Do we lean forward with the riveting gaze of Cardinal OMalley, who said on Tuesday, 10/24/06…What young people lack and need is a sense of calling, of vocation…I am speaking not of religious calling only, or mainly, but of a sense of purpose, of direction in life, of the investment of life in something of meaning and depth and power…What students need is a sense of calling, of letting their lives speak…(RAH lecture notes)

Do we lean forward with the English humor of NT Wright, who said on Wednesday…Made for spirituality, we wallow in introspection. Made for joy, we settle for pleasure. Made for justice, we clamor for vengeance. Made for beauty, we are satisfied with sentiment. But new creation has already begun. The sun has begun to rise…It is time, in the power of the Spirit, to take up our proper role, our fully human role, as agents, heralds, and stewards of the new day that is dawning. (Simply Christian, 229)

Do we lean forward with the spiritual and mental openness of John Macquarrie, whose book I finished that Thursday…With decline of myth as an intelligible form of discourse, religious faith too has tended to decline and Christianity has become less and less intelligible. On an ability to reformulate the insights of biblical faith in an intelligible, non-mythical way that will nonetheless avoid the reductionist error…may well depend the question of whether our Western culture will continue to hold to its Christian heritage in any lively way, or whether it will turn increasingly in the direction of a pure secularism. (God Talk: 180-181)

We are a people in need of a new rebirth of hope.

Hope that is responsible, communal, sacrificial, and orderly. Hope that moves us from political cowardice to religious courage. Look: she has given her whole life. Hope that, with Ruth and Wiesel and OMalley and Wright and Macquarrie and—especially—a certain watchful widow-- asks of us a certain height.

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud --
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.

Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says "I burn."
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.

It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

scripture: romans 12: 9

Let love be genuine
Hate what is evil
Hold fast to what is good
Love one another with mutual affection
Outdo one another in showing honor
Never lag in zeal
Be ardent in spirit
Serve the Lord
Rejoice in your hope
Be patient in tribulation
Be constant in prayer
Contribute to the needs of the saints
Practice hospitality

paragraph: john macquarrie

With the decline of myth as an intelligible form of discourse, religious faith too has tended to decline and Christianity has become less and less intelligible. On an ability to reformulate the insights of biblical faith in an intelligible, non-mythical way that will nonetheless avoid the reductionist error of van Buren and others, may well depend the question of whether our Western culture will continue to hold to its Christian heritage in any lively way, or whether it will turn increasingly in the direction of a pure secularism. I certainly think that the latter course would bring about a severe impoverishment of personal life.

God Talk: An Examination of the Language and Logic of Theology, 180-181.