July 16, 2006
“Have a good summer!” Has someone said this to you recently? Or, something similar? “Are you having a good summer?” “How’s the summer?” “What a great summer!”
It is such a simple phrase, but to the needy, reflective ear, it raises a mortal question, a singular and, perhaps shattering, perhaps justifying question: What is a good summer?
In the most cotidian of clauses, there lie embedded sacred moments which deserve and require our attention, our full and alert attention. Please…Thank You…Hello…Goodbye…God bless you…Have a nice day…Have a good summer.
What is a good summer?
Before addressing this question, I digress to offer a story. You perhaps know it. Or perhaps you have told it. A farmer had an odd habit of feeding his only pig in a distinctive way. He would hold the pig in his arms, and carry him under an apple tree. There the pig would happily eat his fill as the farmer, arms aching, waited. At last a neighbor asked: “John, that is one way to feed a pig, but, in addition to straining your back and arms, it must take a whole lot of time. Aren’t you worried about that lost time?” “Oh”, said the farmer, “Of course you are right, it is a lot of time, but, then…what’s time to a pig?”
In the distance that lies between pearls and swine, between the precious pearl of great price and the swinish disregard for the Holy, between a glorious moment known as this summer, and our human capacity to miss the significance of the precious gift of such time, there may emerge an articulation of the good news.
The Gospel then is a warning to those of us, like me, who raise such questions, and those of us, like you, who chew on them. What is a good summer? A mortal question, to be understood, and a saving truth, to be told, depend on hearing. Faith, that is, comes by right hearing, and such hearing by the word of God.
Thus the simple sentence, “Have a good summer”, is, like much in life, a very thin ordinary veneer covering a deep, existential interrogative: just what is a good summer?
What constitutes a good, a godly summer? Perhaps with your help, and under the shadow of the Holy Scripture, which towers over our experience like a steeple towers over our communion today, we can respond by raising other questions. One good question deserves another.
Has your summer allowed an interruption? Of what? Of routine, of the usual of set patterns, of your own plotting and planning, of comfort, of discomfort, of what has been. Has summer provided a pause? Many of the parables of Jesus help us here, like that of the Rich Fool, a warning word from Jesus for the followers of Jesus. “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
Wait, stop, think, heal write.
A Hindu proverb says: During its lifetime, the lordly goose looks down upon the humble mushroom. But in the end, they are both served up on the same platter.
Life is meant to become a rich offering toward God, not a laying up of treasure on earth where moth and rust consume, and thieves break in and
steal. Life is space and time when the bone wearying labor of pulling on oars against a mighty wind, may give way, by interruption, to a vision of the divine. Against all odds, He walked to them, and sat with them, and spoke to them, and blessed them.
Mark 6 carries the account of Jesus unexpectedly appearing to astonish, and so to encourage, his wayward disciples.
Speaking of interruptions, of thieves breaking in, and of the unexpected, please allow this brief digressive interruption.
It reminds us of the ostensibly humorous story of the burglar, speaking of greed and covetousness, who slipped with his flashlight into a dark suburban home. He took jewelry and cash. Then in the dark he heard a voice: “Jesus is watching. I’m warning you.” The burglar trembled, wondering who had spoken. Turning on the light, he saw a parrot in a cage, who said, “My name is Moses, and I warn you, Jesus is watching.” Relieved, for the moment, the burglar smiled and said, “What kind of silly suburban people name their parrot Moses?” The parrot replied, “The same kind of silly people who name their long toothed, ferocious dog, Jesus. I warned you, Jesus is watching.”
Life is more than security. The best things about life are free. Travel light…I shan’t be gone long, you come too…
Has your summer involved some inflammation? Has the season brought spirit to a fever pitch? Is there around now any love on fire? The country is scorching hot. Various volcanoes are flowing with lava. And in your heart? Where is the fire? What is it that you love so much that it makes you…now nostalgic, now tender, now torrid, now angry, now remorseful, now hot, now vengeful, now envious, now determined, now happy?
One religious worker told us this week of his moment of calling, when he heard at a prayer meeting, “There is nothing better you can do with your life than to give your life to something greater than yourself.”
The Bible readers among us are right to suspect that Hosea 11 smolders here. Listen to this loveliest of passages again: “When Israel was a child I loved him…”
I am not talking about passion only, eros only, the body only, feeling only. Though I mean all that. I mean, rather, something beyond mere ‘sloppy agape’. I mean the heart. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Julia Kristeva, French philosopher, said of summer that there are “three great things in life: to think, to heal, and to write.” A Schweitzer would have agreed, and said, “There are three great instruments—the Bible, the pipe organ, and the stethescope.” I say: find a way, your way, every day, to preach and to sing and to love.
Somewhere in every life there is a hot, scorched, midwestern summer. Remember it. Somewhere in every life there is a potent lava flow, about to burst, bursting, having burst. Seek it. Somewhere in every life there is the love of Hosea 11, God like a mother holding an infant to the cheek. Recover it.
Has your summer involved some inflammation?
For many years, across the river at MIT, Huston Smith taught religion to engineers. His passion, inflammation, was world religions. In many ways, he was a generation ahead of his time. But in his eighties he is on fire. He is on fire to help us understand the world’s great religious traditions, in the large as well as in the little. There on the bookstore shelf is Why Religion Matters. There is The Soul of Christianity. There is Huston Smith reminding us, with fire, that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, and that “we are in good hands and so it well behooves us to bear one another’s burdens”.
Some summer reading will kindle our passion for the true and the good and the beautiful. We need reminders of all three, in a world that has ample reminders of their absence. A train bombed in India. A tunnel collapsing in Boston. A Middle East in turmoil. A war of our own making now remaking us. And a broken leg, a knee to replace, a sudden loss, a new boss.
Have we forgotten the love we had at first? Now is the time to rekindle that holy fire. Out on the Cape. Along the coast in Maine. Up in the White Mountains. Along lake Winnepesake. And in the heat of the city, and in the thick of things too. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein…
Has your summer included the care and feeding of an institution? Yes, I could have used another word like ‘incarnation’, more theological and perhaps more accurate. But then we all would have gone home unclear, un conflicted, un confronted, and un helped. Operational incarnation means institution.
Life does not give ground before individuals apart from institutions. Transformation, lasting good change, in history, happens not through individuals only, nor through movements only. Real traction in history involves institutions. Like corporations, governments, businesses, schools, parties, universities, associations, cities, and, churches. A movement is not superior to an institution. An institution is a movement that has grown up.
The reading from Ephesians 1 ( I commend to you this wonderful chapter), coming from the hand of a disciple of Paul of Tarsus, is a reminder to us of the need for institutional life. Here is the gracious beginning of an account of ‘God’s people’. In the corporate life of the church—an institution itself which as Tillich reminded us is both a revelation and a distortion of the divine—we are given adoption, inheritance, spirit, promise, forgiveness, fullness. tells us to “set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth." Christ, here, may be your lips, Christ, your reward, Christ, your glory, Christ, your new person, Christ, your Lord may truly be revealed in and through you. recites the tradition of deliverance, liberation, rescue, redemption, that is your birthright…
“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will…”
Has your summer involved an institution?
Has this summer brought inspiration? Something? Something fine and true? Something sensual? Something grand and loving? I truly hope so. “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
2 Samuel 6 recalls David dancing furiously before the Ark of the covenant. The travels of this remarkable symbol, including to and from the home of Obededom the Gittite, are the subject of another sermon. Today is a happier moment in the account of the Ark, but not the only account, and others are less cheery. Nonetheless, here at the least the great King David is enthralled by a moment of uncontrolled glee.
I saw an eagle soaring in the mountains last Tuesday. Karl Barth, said that “the gospel is the freedom of a bird in flight”. And I remembered the proverb: “Three things are too wonderful for me, and four I cannot understand. The way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a ship upon the high sea, the way of a serpent on a rock, and the way of a man with a woman.”
Has the summer brought inspiration?
David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, brought a different kind of inspiration, recently, in response to the disorders and tragedies in the natural world, notably the Tsunami. At least he is writing about God and Creation, and that itself is inspirational.
If nothing else, the Gnostics of the early centuries inhabited the same imaginative and spiritual universe as the earliest Christians: they no more than Paul took the principalities and powers and elements of this world as myths or allegories; they not less than Paul proclaimed themselves free from the tyranny of the ‘god of this world’. And, like Paul or the author of John’s gospel, the Gnostics understood spiritual liberation as something subversive of the order of the cosmos…a glorious escape from the kingdom of death. Any Christian who has not felt at least an occasional stirring of the pathos of Gnosticism…and a rage against the fashion of this world, and of a mysterious yearning for another and perfect world, at once strange and familiar, cannot in all likelihood fully appreciate the spiritual and moral sensibility of the New Testament.
Have a good summer
A summer that allows interruption
A summer that involves inflammation
A summer that includes an institution
A summer that brings some inspiration
(And, as you probably suspect that the sermon more deeply intends, in the same ways, have a good life).