Sunday, December 09, 2007

On Toward a Common Hope

Advent II: Lectionary Passages

By grace we pilgrim people are marching on toward a common hope.

The symbolic breadth of Isaiah and Mark’s sharp challenge to service tell us so.


In the first place, come Sunday and come to think of it, we are inextricably tangled up with each other. We are walking together. You are yourself and your circumstance, your identity is your situated identity. Ortega perseveres. Nearby to this place of worship are bruised brothers and sisters.

Nearby to this place of worship there is a lone woman raising two daughters and working two jobs. Nearby to this place of worship there is an older man dancing to his death around a bottle. Nearby to this place of worship there is a 19 year old, coming of age, large of body and empty in soul. Nearby to this place of worship there lives a brilliant, bitter bigot. Nearby to this place of worship there are athletes whose greatness longs and yearns for a commensurate grace. Nearby to this place are people who bite and devour one another, careless that they might be consumed by one another.

These folks are your situation. They are you. It barely needs saying, but a sermon is about saying, so: if you find meaning here, bring someone with you; if you find fellowship here, bring someone with you; if you find power here, bring someone with you. And if you find these not, you should another place where you do. We pilgrims are marching toward a common hope—shared in simplicity, simple in its sharing.


In the second place, day by day and week by week, in our own experience, we together are ‘crossing the river’. You only cross a river once. Every day this globe gets noticeable smaller. You do not get to Bethlehem, in any of its forms, without a dose of the river Jordan. Stonewall Jackson died saying ‘let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees’. It fits. On toward a common hope we walk, but to get there we cross over the river. The river Jordan, deep and cold…The river whose streams make glad the City of God…The riverside, down along which we lay down sword and shield, we put on long white robe…The deep river, home, milk, honey, on the other side.

Speaking of the river, as I walked along the banks of Charles last month, trudging over for to Harvard toward a word of common hope, the first 2007 Noble Lecture, the river, a hope shimmering and light, both electric and cosmic, spoke up from the dark reflective river. I had to be careful to listen to the night, while remembering to be careful about the relationships between pedestrians and motorists, the stronger and weaker, and the function of symbols, both de jure and de facto. (Red means stop? Suggests stop? Implies stop?) Symbol and service hovered Tuesday evening, but the river still spoke. To paraphrase an earlier Dean of Marsh Chapel, Howard Thurman: ‘The river and the night together surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by the behavior of human beings. The river at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the reach of the ebb and flow of circumstances. Death would be a minor thing, I felt, in the sweep of that natural embrace.’

The lectures that week illumined, lightened our darkness. How could we not be thankful? I am grateful to Rev. Professor Gomes for hosting each year these important lectures, and inviting three of us to respond. He chose a timely teacher. Is it not remarkable that such a voice as our speaker’s has come along, in full measure, at just the time in world history when her insight and imagination have been needed and appreciated? She has brought light to the vast night dimness in this land about religions, religion, world religions, other religions. We have needed, we need more of this light.

Our speaker was Karen Armstrong.

Perhaps we could briefly express also the gratitude of many lay people and clergy in recent years who have benefited from her work. Many have read her comprehensive religious history, A HISTORY OF GOD which traces the development of monotheism, from its inception to the present. Study groups have used her A BATTLE FOR GOD which traces the history of religious fundamentalism. Fundamentalism she shows is a modern movement in that it is reacting to aspects of modernism. Ministers and priests have read with profit her histories of BUDDHISM, and ISLAM, her ONE CITY THREE FAITHS, a history of Jerusalem. I am right now enjoying her memoir THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE. In writing that is clear, concise, readable and understandable, she has become a trusted public voice for those who are outside of organized religion, as well as for those within it. She has done her part to address the problem of American religious illiteracy, a problem analyzed and addressed with frequency on both sides of this river. After 9/11 she gave many people a balanced, clear conception of religious history, showing some of the historical, cultural, theological and other reasons for the way things occur, and so giving this emerging generation a move through the world instead of being stuck. Indeed, “no ideology is adequate to the desperate needs of this frightening and transitional period in history”.

We in academia have no need or reason to disparage those doing the hard work of synthesizing and communicating the rudiments of religious traditions in ways that lead to a common hope. Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Huston Smith and others need those in the following ranks to continue to convey a common hope.

Her work comes readily to mind as we here again the seasonal citation of Isaiah and the seasonal condemnation of John the Baptist.


For in the third place, our scriptural inheritance helps us on toward a common hope.

Symbol, hope filled symbol, is Isaiah’s hymn. So unlikely, this grand hope, yet here it is. So unearthly, this great hope, yet here it is on earth. So untamed, this giant hope, and yet here it is.

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb

And the leopard shall lie down with the kid

And the calf and the lion and the fatling together

And a little child shall lead them

The cow and the bear shall feed

Their young shall lie down together

And the lion shall eat straw like the ox

The sucking child shall put his hand on the adder’s dean.

They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain;

For the earth shall be full of the glory of God

As the waters cover the sea.

Service, fruit befitting repentance, is John’s interest. There he is again, out along the river. You can’t miss him. Dressed in camel’s hair. Feasting on locusts and wild honey. Growling, shrieking in the cold wild outback. Strong hard words. Prepare. Make. Straight. All Jerusalem went. All Judea went. All the region went.

Our three evenings of conversation last month, across the river, about mystery and mercy inspired, or provoked, several responses. In fact, the invitational and dialogical spirit of the lectures directly encouraged such responses. Think of some of the more memorable comments along the way: ‘humans need the search for meaning to be human’; ‘scripture teaches nothing but charity’; ‘we need to embrace our own a-theism’. And think of the memorable phrases as well: ‘unskillful atheism’; ‘proselytizing theism’; ‘cellphone captivity’; ‘endless invention’. I made such a response. It was an Advent response, one part Isaiah and one part Mark, one part sprawling symbol and one part jarring service.


In the fourth place, our march toward a common hope, shared and simple, asks something of us in our time. Life so lived, leaning toward hope, especially asks of us a reselection of symbols and a recommitment to service.

The dual emphasis upon mystery and charity, within these lectures, recalls the corrective and interpretative lines of 1 John 4, written 1900 years ago as a re-reading of the Gospel of John itself. While affirming the piercingly high Christology of the Fourth Gospel, the author of 1 John unites two sharp contrasts, in the fourth chapter of that epistle. “No one has ever seen God”. Symbol—open, apophatic, symbol. “Let us love one another”. Service—the challenge for personal service. In fact as Amos Wilder (the 1956 Noble lecturer) renders the passage: ‘one who does not love has not even begun to know God’.

We have been steadily and warmly invited into relationship. In that spirit I here identify two openings for further conversation, two footnotes to all that has been said, one about symbol and one about service.

With symbol, we are reminded of Chesterton’s remark that ‘the world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder’. With service, we are reminded of Ghandi’s remark that ‘to the hungry God must appear if at all as food’. The first captures the message of religion as symbol, the second the message of religion as service.

First, symbol.

We are encouraged selectively to consider our selection of symbols, ‘to selectively choose those elements that will inspire a counter narrative of compassion.’ This may mean some shifting of emphasis for us in our choice of primary symbols. For instance, one primary contemporary religious symbol is the rainbow. Given the emphasis presented in these evenings, as people of faith, perhaps we should be shifting our symbolic focus from the rainbow to the firmament, from promise to mystery, from covenant to creation, from Noah (and Abraham, Moses, David, and Jeremiah) to Adam, from Genesis 9 to Genesis 1, from religious symbols, symbols of community and covenant, ironically, to life symbols, unreligious symbols, post-confessional symbols, and, in WC Smith’s phrase, “a world theology”, though not, of course, a ‘world religion’. At Boston University, you will find dear, close colleagues, partners in this project, both with regard to mystery and with regard to charity. Some espouse an apophatic theology, some strongly affirm the centrality of the imagination, some publicly affirm the therapeutic value of religious literacy. In our interpretation and preaching we have tried to recall the elements of our shared experience which inspire a common faith, a common ground, and a common hope. In our experience we share many things, as we have sung before:

We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion.

We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion.

We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion.

We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion.

We all age, and after forty, and as my friend says, after forty its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion.

We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All six billion.

Our selection of central symbols may shift in this ‘frightening transitional period’.

For instance, think about the biblical language of heaven. Heavenly language and imagery draw us on toward a common hope. Look by cybermagic this afternoon at Jonathan Edwards sermon on heaven. We think of hell when we think of Edwards. But his sermon on heaven is surprisingly heavenly. We could use in our time his cadence of common hope.

I am convicted and astounded by the power of Edward’s symbolic speech about heaven. His more contentious, critical and ornery passages I pass by. But his writing on heaven is heavenly. Heaven is a world of love, he preaches, with four applications. Contention and strife make us less fit for heaven. Possession of such a common hope makes us happy—happy for regeneration, happy to have such a hope, happy to work hard to be worthy of it. Such a real hope alarms everything unheavenly in us. So let us earnestly seek heaven, a common hope: less indulgence, more exercise, some persevereance, keen hope and this conclusion:

If you would be in the way to the world of love, see that you live a life of love — of love to God, and love to men. All of us hope to have part in the world of love hereafter, and therefore we should cherish the spirit of love, and live a life of holy love here on earth. This is the way to be like the inhabitants of heaven, who are now confirmed in love forever. Only in this way can you be like them in excellence and loveliness, and like them, too, in happiness, and rest, and joy. By living in love in this world you may be like them, too, in sweet and holy peace, and thus have, on earth, the foretastes of heavenly pleasures and delights. Thus, also, you may have a sense of the glory of heavenly things, as of God, and Christ, and holiness; and your heart be disposed and opened by holy love to God, and by the spirit of peace and love to men, to a sense of the excellence and sweetness of all that is to be found in heaven. Thus shall the windows of heaven be as it were opened, so that its glorious light shall shine in upon your soul. Thus you may have the evidence of your fitness for that blessed world, and that you are actually on the way to its possession. And being thus made meet, through grace, for the inheritance of the saints in light, when a few more days shall have passed away, you shall be with them in their blessedness forever. Happy, thrice happy those, who shall thus be found faithful to the end, and then shall be welcomed to the joy of their Lord! There “they shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and lead them to living fountains of waters, and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.”

Reselect your symbols with an eye to the common hope.

Second, service.

As Karen Armstrong argued with regard to Genesis 1, religious insight comes often in rebuttal of popular, or current perspectives. Hence, the two creation accounts of Genesis, read with a kind of mirror reading, reject the Babylonian creation myths. Creation is about peace not conflict. We are offered a therapeutic cosmology. God saw everything created, and it was good. Today, it may be that both imagination and sheer creativity together will provide a healing, and fruitful interpretation both of scripture and of life. Thought and word, that is, may have to give way to deed, to service, for the creation myth to be heard as creative. One example involves our predicament in Iraq. Theological perspectives about our catastrophe in Iraq, great thoughts, were offered and ignored, over these five years. Preaching in many pulpits, strong words, were uttered and forgotten, over these five years. Thought. Word. Now it may be the time for deed. In specific, as we are considering across the river in your sister church, it may be the hour for communities of faith to look hard at the 2.5 million Iraqi refugees displaced and worse by our hubris, and do something about them. We may need to do some theology before we write any more theology. Charity may require, well, charity. Another example comes from the work and life of the interfaith youth movement. They are practicing the truth of what has been spoken here. They too affirm that belief which does not imitate God’s benevolence is sterile, that scripture is a parable of compassion leading to an experience of the divine, that we want to transcend resentment (or in Niehbuhr’s phrase, to ‘develop a spiritual discipline against resentment). But their miqra, their summons to action, is service itself. Discussion of symbols and scriptures is done after, and on the basis of, the shared experience of service to the poor.

The central significance of service may expand in this ‘frightening and transitional period of history.’

Today I again challenge this congregation, actual and virtual, to pray with earnest discernment about our place in the hard coming work of refugee resettlement. Several of you know have responded. Next Sunday there is a meeting, across the river, for which Br. Larry is seeking participants. Let your life speak.

Recommit to service as the shared basis for a shared common hope.


In the fifth place, and lastly, symbol and service have no better friend than Marsh chapel and its root and branch, from Little and Thurman, through Roberts one to five, and well on into the future

The symbolic breadth of Isaiah and Matthew’s sharp challenge to service tell us so.

They remind us: Bear fruit worthy of repentance. They remind us: The earth shall be full of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

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