John4:42b and Lections
The Gospel we preach is a call to decision.
It is in making hard choices for Him, that we know Him.
We may not in fact know Jesus until or unless we have struggled, hard, to find the courage to choose, and to choose and to choose and to choose. Sunday by Sunday, we preach a Gospel that is a summons to choose. Come Sunday, we wonder and pray whether for this week, and this lifetime, we shall have found such courage, by being found by such courage.
The author of 1 Timothy, perhaps a student of the Apostle Paul, calls for the courage to choose to emulate Paul himself. The writer of our Psalm, and the writers of many Psalms, addresses the conditions under which a man or woman is caused to choose. We choose, but we do not choose our choices. The parable of the dishonest steward (should we call it the Lukan parable, Jesus’ parable, the church’s parable?—your name for it will give you away…) if nothing else portrays a colorful set of choices, and the very courage to make those choices. But it is the Gospel of John, throughout its 21 chapters, which more than other New Testament writing focuses like a laser these and other disparate paeans to the courage to choose. In one sense, the whole fourth Gospel is a meditation upon the courage to choose. For John, steadily and bluntly, this means Jesus: choose—for or against? Jesus’ provocation of this potential courage and choice makes him, as 4:42b says, the “Savior of the World”.
This morning, in a meditative moment, I invite you to consider what choices you may courageously make regarding the central historical, moral, and spiritual challenge of our brief patch of time. To invite you to do so, or how to invite you to do so, is itself a challenge. The past week has walked us toward this Word.
2. Voices in the Wilderness
This week we heard Helen Whitney, the famed documentary film maker, describe her work. You will remember her fine films. Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero. Monastery. The Pope. She itemized the singular challenges facing a religious documentary producer, and happily I noticed that without exception they also confront the preacher, and more especially the hearer, of every sermon. Here is her list. See if there are Sunday parallels for you.
It can be hard just to get the films made, and on the air. Networks are fearful of controversy. (Freedom of the pulpit?)
Access, finding real access to real human hearts and stories, can be very difficult. (The absolute need for pastoral conversation?)
Knowing how to use, but not abuse, one’s own biases is very difficult. Her bias: faith is a flickering flame, inextricably connected to doubt. (Should one use personal illustrations?)
Aesthetic challenges abound here, where one needs both precision and poetry. (How much content and how much contact?)
Who knows finally how best to right-size the ranges of information in the film. Simplicity and clarity, but not over-simplicity, and not a lack of subtlety, balance and contradiction. (Exegesis, explanation or application?)
How does one use psychology, and can one? Joseph Smith said, rightly, “No one knows my history”. (How do you illustrate, without letting the side show eat up the circus?)
Are truth claims made? Directly? Indirectly? Or bracketed? (Where is the intersection of Truth and Truth that frees?)
How do you find a conclusion? All great images shimmer with allegorical meanings. (How do I land this plane?)
Her films included people who replied wisely to wise questions: embracing the odd duck is the measure of true religion...I ache for faith…between thought and expression lies a lifetime (L Reed)…between idea and reason lies the shadow (TS Eliot)…The monastic journey is the human journey writ large…
During the week we were challenged in a late evening informal worship service to remember Micah 6:6: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. M Ghandi was cited: you must become yourself the change you would like to see in the world.
At every turn, that is, life is asking us for a response, for a considered, and compassionate response.
One of our family has said: Life is how you take it.
Although the Gospel of John portrays ‘the world’ as a dark and difficult place, in kinship with the Gnostic perspective the author both dons and debunks, he nonetheless holds to the hope of safety and health for all the world. Jesus is the savior of the whole world. God so loved the whole world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously remarked that he loved the silent church, before the service begins, more than any speaking. (“I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching” Essay on Self-Reliance). Across the northeast, where the churches are closing, closed and silent, his wish has strangely come true. Those in love with a silent church may richly love the emptiness of church after church in town after town from Bangor to Buffalo.
Some years ago I taught homiletics in Buffalo. We endeavored to prepare our students for the rigors and challenges of their work. Richard was one of our best graduates. We gave him Bible and history. We taught him philosophy and theology. We tutored him in rhetoric and composition. We videotaped his sermons and sent him to clinical pastoral education. Finally, years and months later, he was set forth, like Jonah on the banks of Ninevah, prepared. Or so we thought.
But I thought better of it, or worse of it, when he called that autumn. We had prepared him for a church that once existed. But not for the church he went to. We prepared him for the church we wished existed. But not for the church that exists today. The second Sunday in November, after church and fellowship hour, he locked the building and walked home. He ate lunch. About that time--the church roof fell in. Deferred maintenance does come calling, after a while. No one was hurt. The congregation left the building to the squabbles of insurance agents and ecclesiastical representatives, and made home in the fire hall. Richard preached. We had prepared him to preach. We had not prepared him to preach in the ruined silence of the silent ruins of the church.
Emerson’s prayer has been answered. The church is largely silent, and empty. Oh, you may say, as I have and do, that this need not have occurred, that there are responsibilities to assess, that there is much to learn, that all hope is not lost, that we believe in the resurrection, precisely, of the dead, that you cannot forever eat your seed corn, that parishioners are people too, that the church has exchanged birthright for pottage, that we church folk major in minors, that a generation of fearless builders rather than eccentric introverts are now needed to preach, that denominational leaders have a rendezvous with judgment, that God does not will the demise of congregations, that leadership and money still make a difference—all this we may consider on another Sunday.
In fact, over the next generation, tragically, we may choose to die, to put on our jammies, pull out the ice cream, turn on the television, unplug the phone, and shrink age weaken and die at 2-3% a year, as we have been doing since 1968. Today, let us assume for argument that the trends of the last four decades will take us to zero by 2048. Let us assume the worst. Do we have the courage to see something hopeful and choose something different, in the silent ruins of the church? The church is silent. And empty. In ruins.
GK Chesterton was asked if were stranded on a desert island what one book he want to have along. “Beginners Guide to Ship Building”, he answered.
What assets do we possess? In this new, dark world, what in the northeast do we have to offer an open future? It is easy to name what we lack. We lack leadership, membership, stewardship, fellowship. We lack willingness to change, courage to connect, confidence to risk. We lack the candor to celebrate those few places, here and there, where there is spirit and flesh.
But what do we have to offer? Town by town, church by church, struggling congregation by struggling congregation, choosing between mission and the fuel bill, between child care and the pastor’s salary? What have we to offer the unforeseen? Nothing?
Ah, but in Emerson’s perspective, ironically interpreted, this is not so. We do have something. Something lovely. Something better. And what would that be? Something silent. Something empty. And what would that be?
We may lack preaching, caring, people, leadership, tithing, creativity, children and money. But we have one asset in spades. Empty buildings, open floor space. ‘I love the silent church….’
I bring this comment to bear on the conclusion of last week’s sermon. I ask you in these three months to pray with me about whether the ruins of the historic Protestant church in the Northeast should now be devoted to refugee resettlement, in the wake of the horror in Iraq. Our Thought was rejected. Our Word was refused. We are left with Deed. What shall it be? To be alive in 2007, in the USA, means to have the courage to choose to respond, somehow, to the central historical, moral and spiritual catastrophe of our time. Iraq. How shall we respond? Shall we choose, and with courage?
To repeat. I have no word of the Lord. I invite your discernment. There well may be other, better choices. Let us pray, reason together. But let us do so, not just say so.
4% of the Iraqi population has been killed. Think about that in terms of our own land. 4% of the US population (a much larger population to be sure) would be the equivalent of the populations of 11 states (Delaware, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, Wyoming). 15% of the Iraqi population have become refugees. For us that would be the equivalent of the populations of 15 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, and Utah.) (Courtesy L Whitney).
We have something to offer. We have buildings that with a little renovation could become sanctuaries again. Not sanctuaries for worship. We lost that chance. But sanctuaries for Iraqis, the victims of our hubris.
The outcome of our sloth might be put into the service of repairing what our pride has wrought.
If every town took one nearly empty church and made it available for 30 refugees, we could make a serious dent in the problem. Two million Iraqis are wandering the earth, vagabonds. The Judeo Christian tradition, should nothing else ever be said of it, at the very least centrally acclaims the crucial importance of hospitality, particularly to the stranger and the outcast. We have every reason to express our contrition, utter our confession, admit our compunction, lament our regret about what has happened. OK. And? So? In addition, we have the space. Compunction and floor space both call us to choose with courage.
Of course, there are endless problems. There were endless problems for Harriet Tubman, bringing vagabonds up the Susquehanna River bed at night, with dogs barking. There were endless problems for those who housed German Jews, Gypsies, Communists, Gays, and others, fleeing the Reich. There were endless problems for others who gave dry land to boat people. There are problems galore. But what are we to do? Nothing?
I have a friend name John, a slight English man, who is in his nineties. He was an original Boy Scout. He knew Baden Powell. At age 18, he waited at Dunkirk. There on the French coast he waited, hoping there would be enough room in one of the boats to get him to Dover, in May of 1939. Some fisherman came over and got him, and he lived. Behold, I make you fishers of men. Do you have a better idea about what to do regarding Iraq? Do you have a better use for silent empty churches? I am all ears.
I think of all the saintly women and men who tended the parsonages in which both Jan and I were raised. We once were sojourners. You once were immigrants. You once were refugees.
Now let me address your good, unspoken questions.
And why this population, and not so many others? Fair question. Yet this is a tide which we ourselves created, and so we have a more primary responsibility here. And why the church and not the nation? Fair question. The great beams and branches of our country’s generosity will only burn when they are inflamed by the lighter kindling of the weaker faggots among us—the church, the isolated, the marginalized, the poor. You start the fire, and then see it burn. And why would people want to leave their homeland? Fair question. They would not, unless it came with the price of death, or unless the homeland was no longer theirs, home, or land. And what of all the endless details and practical concerns? Fair question. We do though have some experience in the churches, these same empty peace and justice churches, in showing hospitality. And you, preacher, is this all talk from you? Fair question. Jan and I right now are in conversation about what resources of our own we may offer, including time, including money, and including property.
It is time we found one thing to do, to help and to heal. I propose we spend and be spent in refugee resettlement. I ask you to pray about this. We have dear, spent, beloved churches which may be ready to lose their lives that they may save their lives. We individually may have resources, connection, properties, and ingenuities to offer to those in harm’s way. We need not, and dare not, await some other agency to choose for us, when we ourselves are called to summon the courage to choose. The history of Marsh Chapel includes heroism with regard to sanctuary. The initiatives of the New Frontier, born in Boston, include bold attention to the poor, particularly, for them, in this hemisphere. The heritage of Methodism, beginning at BU its Alma Mater, includes practical attention to the most human of needs, especially among the hungry and the destitute.
Hear what uncomfortable words about hospitality the Scriptures say to all who truly turn to the Lord.
Entertainment of a guest is a sacred duty in the Bible. Read again through Genesis. Nomads knew about the need for floor space. One day’s guest is another day’s host. The same is truer of the Newer Testament. Jesus himself lived, if we can sketch anything of his life, as an itinerant mendicant, a poor traveling preacher. The Christian movement depended upon the kindness of strangers, every bit as much as did the nighttime travelers through Boston in the 1850’s along the underground railroad. We love to romanticize the Underground Railroad. But now the chickens have come home to roost. What are WE TO DO? The primitive church shared home, hearth, collection, nourishment, raiment. They contributed to the needs of the saints, and so, practiced hospitality. In fact, hospitality may socially have been the single most distinctive feature of the early church, those strange people who harbored refugees.
7. Courage to Choose
To conclude. The gospel earlier read, the astoundingly odd parable of the dishonest steward, warns us to mark our time. This text surely has a strong claim to authenticity, to have come from Jesus himself. It is an unattractive story, and so would readily have been laundered. It is a perplexing story, and so might easily have been forgotten. It is a strange, odd, different story, and so might easily have been set aside. Luke remembers it, at the start of the second century, as his church struggles.
What does it mean? That cleverness trumps honesty? That shrewdness is an unheralded virtue? That money matters, and that money matters matter? That Jesus encouraged a wild and unethical monetary policy? That management sometimes requires hard choices? That realism outweighs idealism, and that gain outweighs candor?
Every attempt to read Luke 16 with an ethical microscope fails to some degree. It may be that this parable is not about morals at all, but about time, not about ethics at all but about mortality, not about behavior at all, but about the fact that there does come a time after which it is too late. Not about us at all.
But about …God.
Prize your time, the story says. What you need to say, say. What you need to do, do. Get ready. It is later than you think. The master is returning. Even the most material of people can understand this. To everything there is a season and a time. Be prepared. Have the courage to act, to do, to choose.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.