1. Matthew on Mercy and Sacrifice (Exegesis)
Caught between our own identities, and the fires of Hell, we have arrived in worship. Like Matthew, who paints himself as Velazquez did into his own portrait, we are invited. Follow me. “He comes to us as one unknown as he did long ago…”, wrote Schweitzer. The real moment of real invitation and real response is real apocalypse. Paul said he met Jesus ‘by apocalypse’. I am here by apocalypse. Another story for another day. You may be too. What are we doing here?
This is a rare and holy moment. Holy, and rare.
Matthew, the author of a dark Gospel, reflecting perhaps the persecutions of the late first century, has stitched his own matriculation to faith together with an apothegem (that is a word that you never use in a sermon) about reading. His entry involved reading. “Go and learn….” Why should anyone have needed to learn the meaning of such a fine and famous line from Hosea, about mercy and sacrifice? Evidently, the meaning was far from evident, by the time of Matthew’s suffering. More study was needed. Why? The experience of the fragile church under Domitian required new readings of the inherited traditions of the church. An inheritance without interpretation breeds a failure in communication. And, as the Amish of Pennsylvania have magnificently reminded us this week, it is costly yet true to desire mercy. The first word, forgiveness.
Each Synoptic passage is like a choral piece, including four voices. There is the Soprano voice of Jesus of Nazareth, embedded somewhere in the full harmonic mix. In Matthew 9, Jesus conflicts with the Pharisaic aversion to pagan inscriptions and iconography. There is the alto voice of the primitive church, arguably always the most important of the four voices, that which carries the forming of the passage in the needs of the community. From Mark to Matthew an insertion has arisen, the citation of Hosea 6:6. Evidently, the earliest church needed the fuller support of the prophetic tradition—mercy not sacrifice, compassion not holiness—as it moved farther out and away from the memory of Jesus. The tenor line is that of the evangelist. Matthew here, marking his own appearance in the record. His work seems to reflect a connection to school, to scribes, perhaps as Stendahl said from across the river, years ago, to Qumran. The baritone is borne by later interpretation, beginning soon with Irenaeus, Against Heresies: “What doctor, when wishing to cure a sick man, would act in accordance with the desires of the patient, and not in accordance with the requirements of medicine?” ( in Richardson, ECF, 377) If our church music carries only one line, we may be tempted to interpret our Scripture with only one voice, and miss the SATB harmonies therein, to our detriment.
2. Failures to Communicate (Explication)
Communication is such a delicate art. Frost’s telephone poem, set to SATB harmony by R Thompson and our choir, reminds us. A little means a lot. Otherwise, a failure to communicate.
Like the preacher who stood before the congregation at Yale chapel some years ago, where did hang a banner, ‘God is other people’, and for the word of that day simply said he wanted to replace the comma, ‘God is Other, people’. I am not God and you are not God and we are not God, together, as Camus might have reminded us. Otherwise, a failure to communicate.
Registering our cars in Massachusetts, I chuckled with the receptionist, who could not understand whether her interlocutor was speaking of Don a man or Dawn a woman. Two people separated by common language and inflection. By the glories of England and New England both. Nearly, a failure to communicate.
Communication can have dire consequences.
One day, following the morning service, we visited a dear saint in her home. She had been in hospital that week, and sat recuperating in her parlor. Her family was with her. And she had a story to tell.
That Tuesday, she prepared to be taken, by ambulance, from one hospital to another, for a particular procedure. She is a fine, older Methodist lady, so she prepared herself with what dignity one can muster in a hospital bed, robed in a hospital gown, and alone in the corridor of life. A little makeup, a comb and brush, some careful adjustments of remaining raiment, glasses perched, smile shining.
She could see the elevator door open, and her stretcher moving out. Then the attendants clearly mentioned her name as they signed the paper work at the desk. The nurse motioned across the hall in the general direction of her room. She poised herself, prepared to be a good, courteous patient. Down the hall the men came, and she waved. They returned the gesture. To her door they rolled—and then, remarkably, rolled on by! They passed to the next room, one inhabited alone by a frail, kindly woman who is deaf as a post. “Mrs. Smith?” “YES” she replied, her volume in inverse proportion to her accuracy. Into the stretcher went the wrong woman, and down the hall they moved. My dear parishioner called out, used her buzzer, flailed her arms like a gypsy at the campfire. But in a New York minute they were gone, carrying away the wrong person. On the way home, following the procedure, someone apparently had the presence of mind to look at the stretchered woman’s wrist band, name tag. I wonder how the reader felt not to see the name Smith. A rare moment of revelation. In this case, little lasting harm occurred. Our hospitals, in fact, to my eye, given their hourly commitment to excellence and attention to detail, put other institutions to shame. We all know the fear of the wrong arm amputated, the wrong knee replaced, the wrong woman put in the stretcher. Physician’s malpractice. But the news, good news, of medical malpractice is that you know soon—an hour, a day, a decade—what has happened, and you can endure it or correct it. So it goes with the physician’s malpractice.
Not so with the metaphysician’s.
Biological error lasts, at most, a lifetime. Theological error resides for three generations, or more. If, as ML King Sr. said, ‘it takes three generations to make a preacher’, then it also takes three generations, or more, to recognize and correct the effects of metaphysical malpractice. You cannot fully see its effect for 20 or 40 or 60 or 80 years. And it is a short way from birdie to bogie, from clean cuts to nicks and scratches in innocent organs, mistaken severations and amputations, blood spilled and shed in the wrong bed. Choose the physical mistakes, for the metaphysical are so much more insidious, more damaging, more real.
3. Go and Learn What this Means (Exemplification)…
Sacrifice may be good, but mercy is great. Without mercy, we have a failure to communicate. Without mercy, we have a failure to communicate. Hear the gospel in the movement from sacrifice to mercy…and…
From Incantation to Incarnation…
We risk harm when we replace incarnation with incantation. The gospel of John affirms the incarnation of the Christ, in the flesh. That is—children’s flesh, adolescent’s flesh, young couples’ flesh, people, people, people. The image of God. We have forsaken our passionate interest in people, young or old, fat or thin. Half our membership in the Northeast has been erased, since my ordination. Cataclysm. Apocalypse. A moment, maybe this one, when you look down at the stretcher and you see that the nametag is not what you expected. And you face failure. Face it. It won’t kill you. Denying it will kill more than facing it. We have decided to enjoy incantation, instead, the pseudo worship that has eviscerated many of our churches across the region. We, for the most part, have not wanted to do the hard work of preaching and liturgical preparation. We prefer easy incantation to the rich announcement of incarnation. People notice. We need to cross the river from incantation to incarnation!
From Innocence to Integrity…
We risk harm when we replace integrity with innocence. Innocence is not holiness, nor holiness innocence. While there are many facets to this single haphazard metamedical blunder, the matter of sex alone should make it clear. In our region we no longer talk about sex—a tragic silence given the unfiltered filth of the internet that has invaded most homes far beyond our poor power to add or detract. After the flames of the 60’s Jack Tuell and a couple of other Bishops sat over coffee and came up with the phrase, “in singleness celibacy, in marriage fidelity”. Given the chaos of the time, the phrase made some ordering sense. But today it has served to muzzle and muffle fully honest talk about sex. Tuell’s own confessional, repositioning sermon on homosexuality specifically mentions, and laments, the phrase. But the gays are the least of our problems. Our malpractice has caused fairly good people to mask their struggle for integrity, in failure as well as success, with a false innocence, assuming there can be no integrity without innocence. Our own church has had past denominational leadership that was struggling with personal identity and sexual expression. Is there any wonder that we have no significant conference or area work on human sexuality? We need to find our voice again, to honor God’s good gift of sexuality, and its best expression within the sacramental rite of marriage. We need to pull the scalpel out of the wrong intestine, and wash up and start again. We need a fuller conversation. You can have integrity and holiness without innocence. I might redact Tuell this way: in singleness integrity; in partnership fidelity. We are crossing a river from the east bank of innocence to the great capital region of integrity!
From Independence to Interdependence…
We risk harm when we replace just war with just war, interdependence with independence. The 2003 invasion of Iraq jettisoned our inherited experience codified in just war theory. It was preemptive, unilateral, imperial, unforeseeable, post-Christian, immoral, and wrong. Anybody with half a Bible could see that. But what did our pulpits say in 2002 and 2003? With a baker’s dozen exceptions, across the country, we said: not sure, don’t know, support the troops, what a world, hope it all works out, give it up to God… We had the wrong woman in the stretcher all along, but we just were too busy tuning our electric guitars to see so. Now 2700 are dead in Iraq. It took 25 years, but the chickens did come home to roost. Let us cross over from the quiet shore of independence to the bright light of interdependence!
Now we have, for many of our own close friends right here in this community who hale from other lands, jettisoned habeus corpus. My mother is a Latin teacher and my son a lawyer, so I did my research by phone. The gospel is for the wise: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. From the Magna Charta to John Wesley to the Bill of Rights to this hour, we have understood, rightly, the high priority and cost of individual rights. The right to trial when imprisoned, the right to petition. The right to see evidence against you. The importance of due process. Have we begun with the spirit to end with the flesh?
In the large minutes of early Methodist conversations between Mr. Wesley and his preachers, a remarkable sentence abides. Wesley has given his usual ‘the beatings will continue until morale improves’ speech: Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Be serious. Let your motto be holiness. Avoid all lightness, jesting, foolish talking. Converse sparingly with women, especially young women. Be punctual. Be ashamed of nothing but sin. You have nothing to do but save souls, spend and be spent in the work. Take no step toward marriage without consulting your brethren…
And then: Believe evil of no one; unless you see it done…You know the Judge is always to be on the prisoner’s side…
Garrison Keillor recently wrote:
I would not send my college kid off for a semester abroad if I were you. This week, we have suspended human rights in America, and what goes around comes around. Ixnay habeas corpus.
The U.S. Senate, in all its splendor and majesty, has decided that an "enemy combatant" is any non-citizen whom the president says is an enemy combatant, including your Korean greengrocer or your Swedish grandmother or your Czech au pair, an d can be arrested and held for as long as authorities wish without any right of appeal to a court of law to examine the matter. If your college kid were to be arrested in Bangkok or Cairo, suspected of "crimes against the state," and held in prison, you'd assume that an American foreign service officer would be able to speak to your kid and arrange for a lawyer, but this may not be true anymore. Be forewarned.
From Theological Theology to Christological Theology….
We risk harm when we replace God with Jesus. I love Barth, too, but Jesus is not all the God there is. We are still wallowing, as Doug Hall warned a generation ago (you see it does take a long time), in a Unitarianism of the Second Person of the Trinity. Just when the gentle wisdom of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Huston Smith and so many others might have broadened our creaky Christomonism, we let in the Calvinists. Yes, we want to name the name. The name that is above every name. But that name does not drown the others, like a Gulf hurricane, or bomb the others, like a Desert Storm, or burn the others like a terrorist hijacking. When John wrote “I am the way…”, he meant that wherever there is a way-- there is the Christ, wherever there is truth-- there is Christ, wherever there is life-- there Christ is, too. The day I met the Clergy Session of Conference, at Syracuse University, to be passed on for orders, Huston Smith walked over to the session from his office on the other side of the quad. He stood by me, outside as I waited. I was nervous. He assured me I had no reason to be. We need that voice today! The mystery of God is greater than the measure of Calvin’s mind, and greater than the Christology of the Reformation, and greater than the purpose driven life. We are crossing over the raging river from exclusivity to particularity, from Christology to Theology!
From Giving to Tithing…
We risk harm when we replace tithing with giving. The Christian life involves specific, serious commitments with regard to time, to people, and to money. To be a Christian is to worship weekly, to keep faith in marriage and other close relationships, and to give away 10% of what one earns. Not more than 10% but not less either. Where did we go off the reservation here?
The pervasive materialism of our culture receives its rejection in tithing, not in mere giving. The enduring sense of entitlement in our county receives its contradiction in tithing, not in mere giving. The abject loneliness of exurban life receives its denial in tithing, not in mere giving. We have spent too much time trying to encourage people, bit by bit, to keep faith.
How would your spouse feel if you said, “You know, I was 40% faithful this year, a 5% increase from last year.” That would not fly in my home. Other things would fly (pans, knives, etc), but that would not! Nor can this euphemistic blather about “abundance”, a culture of abundance, last much longer. We need full affirmation of a culture of scarcity, not abundance, and the virtues, once our stock in trade, that come with scarcity: frugality, saving, temperance, industry, and, yes, tithing. Let us cross over and rest in the shade of the tithing trees!
You live in a country in which 40% of the population can name the Three Stooges, and fewer than 5% the ten commandments. Literacy has a new meaning, referring not to those who can read, but to those who do read. You remember from A River Runs Through It, the line that Methodists are Baptists who can read. The future of the globe relies not on those who can read, but on those who do. Who communicate…
Would you see Christianity reborn? Be careful what you say.
Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice…’