Luke 18 and Lections
In a quiet moment, over the dining room table or along a familiar path, when quiet settles the moment, you may think for a moment about exits. How you leave something can be just about the most important thing you do. For something. Or someone. You could call this a religious issue, except that ‘religious’ is a term now readily dismissed from existential struggles. Think of it then as an existential issue. Jean Paul Sartre wrote a whole play, ‘No Exit’, a hard look at and lament over a closed sphere of existence.
The Gospel of John is largely about Jesus’ exit and lingering absence. His departure for the house of the many rooms, the Father’s house, becomes the occasion of learning to live with confidence. His absence is more valuable to the disciples than his presence.
It would swamp the gunnels of any sermon to illustrate in full the fact that the Bible itself is largely a string of exit scenes. The ending of things gives us the thing in itself, toward which it has moved from the beginning. So the Bible in both its testaments highlights exits. Count them, scouring the Scripture, this afternoon, and pick a favorite.
Every service of worship prepares and presages our personal exits, our existential exit, too. You may think that college students, so imbued with entrance and expansion, have no feeling for leave taking. This is not so. Our students are keenly alive to departure in all its forms, including its ultimate form. You will hear that keen alertness in the cantata sung later. It is one gift and task of religion to prepare a place for confidence in exit.
That in fact is the heart of the two lessons read earlier. One lesson is an imaginary valediction, written by someone taking Paul’s name and something of his legacy, and adoringly describing Paul’s exit. It is an ancient obituary of one who has fought the good fight. The other, the temple scene, compares two forms of confidence before God, confidence before the last horizon, so poetically named here as ‘going down to one’s house’. Of all the scriptural euphemisms for death, I think I like this one best. Down to his house…Which one do you think went down to his house justified? Down to his house…Down to his house…With what shall we go, with what shall you go down to your house? The music today Bach created as a preparation for a final exit. How shall we leave? It is about the most important thing we do.
The temple represents the ultimate threshold, the last horizon, as does Sunday worship for us. Two forms of confidence are contrasted, one of law and one of grace. We know the Pharisee far too well to stoop in our assessment of his virtues. He is a better person than we. He tithes, for example. He has far more reason than we to be confident at eventide, and that is what he is saying he is thankful for. We would do well to take some ethical cues from the Pharisee. But the passage is primarily about exits not ethics. It is about going down to one’s house. The words do have an ominous ring.
Before Luke adds the line about humility and exaltation, we hear in the parable a straight teaching, Jesus’ teaching, about what it takes to exit well. Mercy. What will get us down to the house justified is the gift of mercy. God be merciful to me. The announcement, relentless and thunderous and real and personal, that God is merciful and gracious, exploded into the Reformation, so many years ago. It was a remembrance of the confident exit, which is the confidence of faith in the face of all that closes off life. Daily. God be merciful to me, a sinner. Not merit but mercy merits confidence on the day of mercy.
In a quiet moment, over the dining room table or along a familiar path, when the quiet settles the moment, you may think for a moment about exits. How you leave something can be just about the most important thing you do.
Hear again Borden Parker Bowne’s warning, as he exited his great book on Personalism: “Belief must be lived to acquire any real substance or controlling character. This is the case with all practical and concrete beliefs. If we ignore them practically we may soon accost them skeptically; and they vanish like a fading gleam”. Mercy…
In the depths of life, one meets a longing for grace, mercy, forgiveness, and a deep recognition, too, that like life itself, and like eternal life, pardon lies beyond our power to add or detract, to create or destroy. It is a grace. It is grace. We may offer such a grace, or receive it, or refuse it, or neglect it. But it is not within our power to create it. We meet it in the life, in the obedience of faith.
Leave it to Flannery O’Connor to remind us of healing mercy that empowers a confident exit. It is the action of mercy that makes life real. Her voice, her stories appeal to our time. Almost any of her stories might have had this sentence tucked in amid the apocalyptic plots and grotesque characters:
Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again, but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it. He understood that it grew out of agony which is not denied to any man and which is given in strange ways to children. He understood that it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker. (Habits, 270)
Leave it Reinhold Niebuhr to remind us of humbling mercy that may empower a confident exit. As Andrew Bacevich so recently and so eloquently recalled here at Boston University: “Such humility is in short supply (today)…The conviction persists that (we) are called upon to serve, in Niebuhr’s most memorable phrase, ‘as tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection’ (Bacevich, 10/07, Niebuhr World Crisis, 76). This too, is a voice that appeals to our time.
We shall need to summon both spirit and strategy to find our way forward. It is this spirit of contrition, coupled with a rigorous generosity of heart and mind, which we shall need to exit our current national entanglement in the debacle of the Middle East. People of faith: you have something to offer, here, to our situation. Our liturgy in Christian worship, for these decades to come, will consistently circle around the Kyrie—the cry of the heart in the Temple of life, the recognition of what we have done, the regret, compunction, and lament that is the first spiritual step toward home. God…be merciful…to us. Our life in Christian service, for these decades, will consistently circle around a lived Kyrie—an embrace of those now victims, those now refugees. With every sung Kyrie, and with every lived Kyrie, we will take a step toward home. Here is a lasting image, a parable, by which to see our way home. Confidence in exit comes with recognition of the need for mercy, grace and forgiveness, coupled with confidence in what that utterance itself portends: a pardoning God. Worship today might forget everything else, except confession and pardon. Service today might forget everything else, except mercy and grace.
Leave it to a short lived Bostonian President, fifty years ago, to kindle in us a hopeful mercy that could empower a confident exit from the cloud of fear besetting us. His is a strangely contemporary voice, appealing to our time.
Seeing the last made first was at one time not very far from the heart of our shared hope. Fifty years ago we agreed that totalitarianism should be opposed, for the sake of the weakest among us. We agreed that nuclear weaponry should be controlled, for the sake of the planet as a whole. We agreed that our southern neighbors in Latin America deserved our lavish support, for the sake of children and the elderly and the poorest of the poor. We agreed that religious relations, say between Protestant and Catholic, should be set aside whenever possible, to avoid causing one’s brother to stumble. We agreed that basic civil rights belonged to all, especially to those whom history had marginalized and fractionalized. We agreed that young people who wanted to offer two years of service to God and country, to build for peace, should be encouraged and enabled to do so, for the sake of the least, the last, the lost. We agreed that we should explore the universe, the moon and stars and planets, for the sake of scientific learning to benefit yet unborn. We had more humility, perhaps, more sense of the merciful expense required, a leader then said, (such a Johannine phrase, this, for all its Pauline roots) ‘to bear the burden of the long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’. So the last might indeed become first, and the first last. Then we would, truly would, set sail, exit the harbor with confidence, as the chiseled memorial says at Hyannisport: ‘I believe that America should set sail, and not lie still in the harbor’.
In a quiet moment, over the dining room table or along a familiar path, when the quiet settles the moment, you may think for amount about exits. How you leave something can be just about the most important thing you do. A confident exit relies on mercy. Mercy, a healing mercy. Mercy a humbling mercy. Mercy, a hopeful mercy. A confident exit relies on mercy.