Preface: Light and Growth
And what is so rare as a day in June?
You are children of the light, children of the day. In the daytime of our active living, the daylight of our active yearning, we are present this morning. This is the season of growth. The liturgical seasons, laden with substantial significance they are, need not eclipse the real presence of the natural seasons. It is the natural seasons which provoke some of the questions to and toward which the liturgical seasons provide responses. June is the season of promise, of planting, of budding, of growth, including growth in faith.
And what is so rare, asked J R Lowell, as a day in June?
On this Day in June we trace four daytime stories and find three lessons for spiritual growth. Four stories and three lessons…
Four Stories: Abram, David, Paul, Jesus
Abram is given the courage to leave. Under the genus and genius of the courage to be one may find, or be found by, the species and specific courage to leave. When you most need the courage to leave, you will most appreciate its gift to you, by grace. People do not always find the timely courage to leave. For all the right and all the good reasons you can think of, sad to say, people do not shake the dust from their feet as frequently as you think…because to do so is difficult. Yet there come times when you ought to leave. Fortunately, Abram had Sarah along with him to put steel in his spine.
One of our public figures has recently taken a very public leave of his church. Separation has its time, a time there is for everything. Oh, I do not dispute the thundercloud of the gathering retort that it does no good to pull up the carrot every ten minutes to see if it is growing. But, you know, life is short, and when things are really wrong, harmfully wrong, dangerously wrong, it is time to pack. That is a form of the principle of reform, as messy as it makes life, and religious life. Messy is preferable to hellish.
Go. Go! From country…From kindred…From parent’s house…Go. Do so with grace, with tenderness, with humility, with suffering, but do what you need to do to breathe. Your suffocation profits no one.
Our passage from Genesis is the true genesis of Genesis. Genesis 12 opens the Bible. Brueggemann catches a part of the truth: “This cluster of promises becomes the originary principle for all that follows” (OTCCI, 41). He misses the heteronomy lurking behind both theonomy and autonomy. The word, that is, is a word both spoken and heard, and without the hearing the speaking does not carry. The first divine word heard in the human community of faith is…Go! New England struggles with the history of immigration which is our heritage. On the one hand we honor pilgrims, puritans, and various waves of arrivals here in the newer world. On the other hand, their own sense of journey, courage to leave, capacity to change, willingness to risk with responsibility is sometimes lost on us.
A settled minister, a settled Christian, a settled person of faith is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron--like ‘jumbo shrimp’ or ‘United Methodist’.
Go. Shoo! Go. In these verses which originate the story of Israel, all the rest is based on a decision to pull up stakes, sell the farm, list the house, put the furniture on e-bay, buy a storage unit, and say goodbye. A wandering, wondering Aramean was our father. Trace backwards the account of today’s Holy Scripture: The cumulative blessing of all the families of the earth depends on itinerancy. The blessing and protection of the faith family and community depends on itinerancy. The growth of faith in community depends on itinerancy. The honor of one’s name depends on itinerancy. The making of a great nation depends on itinerancy. The inheritance of land, space, promise, future—all these too depend on itinerancy. So, Abram went. Incidentally, the rest of the Biblical narrative becomes possible only on the heels of Abram’s departure, his courage to leave.
Do you need to summon a form of the courage to leave this week?
David did not write all of the Psalms, but he wrote some of them, and his name is legendarily connected to them all. I love the place David holds in our Bible, David the hymn writer. David may have started singing with Bathsheba, but he concluded his songs with songs of praise to the Living God. In New England we have amnesia about hymns. Jonathan Winthrop may have sung in the rolling surf of the Massachusetts Bay. The Puritans may have chanted their quiet hymns of faith. The tunes of Irish folk songs and Italian love poems may have made their way into our worship. But friends, across these six states united by a common love of the Red Sox, otherwise known as New England, we have forgotten a bit what it sounds like and feels like to sing hymns with six or seven hundred people in the same room. We have not taught our children to sing the four lines of harmony. We have not practiced the presence of God in the power of singing. I grant exceptions. But when people come out of Easter worship saying, ‘Wow. That was great. So many people. Such hymns.’, it is a measure of what we have forgotten. We could have that experience every week, if we all got out of bed on Sunday. We live in earshot, by the way, of Fenway park, and I do hear the festive tones of ‘Sweet Caroline’, win or lose, rain or shine, at the seventh inning. It sounds good. So I know you can sing. If you know the words. If you like the music. If you have others around you to guide and support. If you feel the moment.
Notice the specific amendments in Psalm 33 (a highly memorizable passage by the way). A new song… Played skillfully…On the strings… with loud shouts …rejoice…praise…make melody… with a ten string harp…
Notice the specific glories in Psalm 33 ( a highly memorizable passage by the way). Our soul waits for the lord. He is our help and shield. Our heart is glad in him. We trust his holy name.
“God looks down upon humanity, searching their inmost being. What is in men’s hearts?’ (E Leslie, 86).
The heart of the Bible is hymnody. It is the Psalter, the hymnbook of the Bible that is its core and heart. Paul, Augustine, Luther, Wesley---all based their calls to faith on the book of Psalms. And David is remembered for many things, but he is revered as the legendary giver of the Psalms.
Abram had Sarah, and David had Bathsheba and who knows who else. But I cannot quite find a woman to set alongside Paul. Yes, I know about Priscilla and Aquila… Still…Perhaps Paul’s evocation, early and late, of the Holy Spirit herself might round out his story for us on this Day in June. It is the Spirit that frees Paul to leave his own religious heritage. It is the Spirit that opens Paul to another way of reading about Abram. It is the Spirit that settles into Paul’s mind the crucial centrality of promise. It is the Spirit that empowers Paul to lay down the law and pick up the Gospel, to lay down Torah and pick up grace, to lay down the experience of others, and to pick up his own. The law—any and all—is finally the experience of others. Faith is your experience not that of others. That is why faith is so utterly and incomparably personal.
Our reading again captures Paul’s sermon in Galatians, though most of the rest of Romans serves to reinterpret Galatians. We see the unvarnished Paul here—law or faith, there is no middle ground. Have you begun with the Spirit to end with the flesh? Paul calls us out. Your faith will not be yours lived in the shadow of another’s observance. To thine own self be true (that is not in the Bible by the way). Faith that is not utterly personal is not faith. Faith is personal and love is responsible.
How do we understand faith working through love? If we are not careful a kind of fatalism can creep over us, whether sacramental or biblical. For to read out only three verses from Romans 4, and leave them hanging in mid-air, out of context, out of grounding, out of place in the larger sweep—and a large sweep it truly is—of the Epistle to the Romans is not to understand but to misunderstand. Paul affirms faith, and justification by faith. But Paul also affirms faith, and the obedience of faith. Romans 3-8 has to be read within earshot Romans 12-16. Faith is faith working through love. Faith is personal, love is responsible. Faith means work.
Bill Muehl spoke once about Romans 4. (His is a name I have heard from mutual friends, but this one sermon is my only personal contact with him.) Muehl brings a tough, Pauline argument to our Pauline passage. He is trying to find his way through law and grace in a way that is real. He remembers a TV show in which a character says, of a woman of ill repute, ‘Prostitute is what she does not who she is’. Over several pages or minutes Muehl tears apart this false dichotomy and this false interpretation of Romans 4. He tears at and tears apart the false separation of being and doing, of who we say we are and what we do says we are, what we say says we are, how we act says we are. You become what you do. His point: personal faith is about what we do and who we are. I love his concluding illustration:
Some years ago a group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to pick up their children after the last class before Christmas recess. As the kids ran from the classrooms, each one held in his or her hands the brightly wrapped package that was the surprise, the gift on which the kids had been working for some weeks leading up to Christmas. One little boy tried to put on his coat, carry the surprise, wave to his parents all at the same time, and the inevitable happened. He slipped and fell, and the surprise broke with an obvious ceramic crash on the tile floor. For a moment, he was too stunned to speak or cry, but then he sat up in inconsolable lament. Well, his father, in an effort to comfort his son, but also to try to mitigate the embarrassment of those present, went over to him and patted him on the head and said, ‘Now son, it really doesn’t matter. It’s not important son. It really doesn’t matter’. But the child’s mother, somewhat wiser in such affairs, went to the child’s side, knelt on the floor, took her son in her arms and said, ‘Oh, but it does matter. It matters a great deal’. And she wept with the child.
Our God is not the careless parent, who casually pats us on the head and says…You are justified by your faith. What happens to you and what you do, these things are not important at all. Our God is the parent who falls to the ground beside us, takes up our torn and bleeding spirits, and says, ‘Oh, but it does matter. It matters eternally.’ (Muehl, “It Matters Greatly”, 262 Sermons from Duke Chapel).
Now we come to Jesus. Across the gospels, Jesus’ attention to women is manifest, and theirs to him. Across the gospels, Jesus’ attention to those needing healing is manifest, and theirs to him. Jesus healed. Those who touch Him are healed. Those whom He touches are healed. Matthew affirms a code of holiness, but even in Matthew, where holiness and compassion collide, it is compassion that survives. ‘I enjoy mercy’, says the Lord. Jesus heals on the way, and at the end of the road. Two healings are wrapped together in our passage, a resounding report of the power in Divine Love to heal earthly hurt. Do all the good you can!
You may not be able to say, with such amazing grace, ‘Take heart, daughter, your faith has made you well’, as did Jesus. But then, you are not Jesus. Yet one good, healing good, you can do this week is to let someone else know of a time in your own life when disappointment gave way to grace, when dislocation became the doorway to freedom, when what seemed like bad news turned out to be pretty good news after all.
Proust: So manifold are our interests in life that it is not uncommon that, on a single occasion, the foundations of a happiness which does not yet exist are laid down simultaneously with aggravations of a grief from which we are still suffering (RDTP, 292).
Perhaps our familiarity with this signature passage in the Gospel of Matthew occludes our view of its powerful call to healing. The Risen Christ, who suffered Golgotha and outwitted the tomb of meaningless death, passes by. Your Christ is passing, your Christ is passing, your passing by shouts the Gospel! One earnestly seeking healing reaches up and touches the garment of Pardon Personified. Do we notice—a generation of political theology to the contrary notwithstanding—Jesus’ attention to a ruler, to authority, to power, to leadership? Do we reckon that this leader—a generation of biblical theology to the contrary notwithstanding—may not have been of synagogue, in the redactor’s imagination, but of empire? (The word for ruler is archon, as valent a Greco-Roman term as one could imagine.
Where do ordinary hands reach out, desperate for pardon? I listen on the esplanade, as young mothers swing their toddlers. I listen at the ballpark, for conversations over hotdogs. I listen with guests at the dinner table. I listen at the coffee shop. I listen to talk radio. I ‘listen’ to common letters to the editor.
The paper yesterday brought this paragraph, a hand from the heart of a sickened people and broken land reaching up to touch the passing Christ:
Democracy can commit not just blunders but horrendous wrongful acts with disastrous consequences for another nation…(Our) chosen leaders abused the power of their offices to conquer and devastate another country that was not a threat to us. How can we redeem ourselves? What do we owe the Iraqi people? What can we say to the families of our dead and wounded soldiers? Can we continue to promote the virtues of democracy to the rest of the world? And we still have the daunting problem of extricating ourselves from the scene of the crime…(Benjamin Solomon, NYT, 6/7/08).
How..to redeem ourselves? We cannot.
How to be redeemed?
By reaching to the Person of Pardon, and allowing our prayers to be conformed to prayers of pardon, and presenting our lives to be shaped as examples of pardon. Do you know God to be a pardoning God? No promise without peace, no peace without pardon. Pardon us our sin as we pardon those who sin against us…
Itinerancy. Hymnody. Personal Faith. Compassionate Pardon. A church that could methodically convince its leadership to itinerate, its people to sing lustily, its preaching to emphasize personal faith, and its laity to heal every earthly hurt—imagine such a church! A church that could methodically energize a global network of clergy to move wherever need and talent meet, that could gather on every hill and molehill a thronging chorus of gracious singing, a church that could preach like the wind about the places in the heart, a church that could assign every baptized soul a healing ministry—imagine such a church! A church that could methodically spend itself in sudden moves and dislocations, in hymns of joyous beauty sung with gusto, in words read from the Bible and spoken from the heart, in service to the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame—imagine such a church! A church methodically built on these four stories of Abram, David, Paul and Jesus—imagine such a church! Itinerant ministers. Thunderous hymns. Personal preaching. Healing compassion. Hm…I wonder what we would call such a denomination? It would certainly be ‘Christianity in earnest’…
Coda: Three Lessons
Earnest souls, for our spiritual journey this week, what lessons do we learn, people of the day, in the season of growth in faith—what lessons do we learn on this Day in June?
1. First, there are many ways to keep faith. All four of these stories are utterly distinct, variegated, different, multifarious. Your manner of faithful living may not approximate any single other. Abram moved. David sang. Paul trusted. Jesus healed. And you? There are many ways of keeping faith.
2. Second, the expression of faith changes with the context of its time and space. There is serious discontinuity, from book to book and age to age, in the private and public practice of faith. J R Lowell’s other poem also is worth remembering. New occasions do teach new duties.
3. Third, over time there are lasting features of faithful living. One is the courage to leave. Another is the desire to sing. Another is the personal acceptance of responsibility. Another is the attention to suffering. Real religion is mobile, choral, real, and caring. With tender courage, in loving responsibility, let us sing:
(Oldest extant church hymn, Oxyrynchus Papyri 1786)
Together all the eminent of God
Let them be silent
Let the luminous stars not…
Let them hold back, rushing of winds, founts of all the roaring rivers.
And as we hymn Father, Son and Holy Spirit, let all the powers answer
‘Amen, Amen, strength, praise, and glory forever to God
The Sole giver of all good things