I. What is the temperature in Nashville Tennessee? That’s what I want to know—but what do they tell me instead? Every hour on the hour, we hear the Dow Jones average on the radio news stations. The Dow Jones average is on my online newspaper copy by the minute.
Is that information I need? For economic news, I’d prefer to know the unemployment rate, or the number of evictions that occurred this week, or the amount of new investments in green energy this month. No, they tell me a number that only investors need. I want to know what the peoples’ economy is doing at the ground level.
Then there is the weather report. Have you ever timed the length of those? Did I need to know the exact temperature of every village in eastern Massachusetts at this moment? 56 right now in Lowell, 57 in Quincy, 56 in Lynn—and so on, a degree or two difference over dozens named across our region.
Really? I want to know the spiritual temperature in those cities—how are they doing with Covid, with plans for school, the mood at home. Isn’t there a number for that? No, they tell me there might be a spot of showers for a half hour in Fitchburg tonight while they’re sleeping. My God, they are wasting my precious time.
Instead, tell me what is the quality of life in Nashville where my closest graduate school friend lives, not that it’s raining there. What is their life satisfaction index? What about Nashville post-George Floyd? Couldn’t we just have a figure of whether life is still worthwhile there? Then in Newton, and Boston—how are we feeling overall? Is there a handy measurement that could tell us how it’s going at the corner of Mass Ave and Melnea Cass Blvd., or in the ER at Boston Medical Center? Please, just don’t give me the Dow Jones average any more!
II. If such a measurement ever could exist, maybe the Rich Young Man in our scripture lesson this morning would have felt more fulfilled—he was a spiritual man. But I thought Oscar Wilde had an interesting take on that passage. He believed Christ saw the comfortable people as the miserable ones, the ones in need of ministry, who need the burden of their luxuries lifted. And the way to do it, is for them to give it all away. Wilde held that selling all that the rich young prince had and giving it to the poor was meant to benefit him, not the poor. Christ, Wilde wrote from prison, pointed out “there was no difference at all between the lives of others and our own lives.” In a similar vein, he argued that Christ didn’t command us to “forgive our enemies” for their sake, but for our own sake “because Love is more beautiful than Hate.”
Some people do give their millions away, fortunately. Huge fortunes have been donated to support hunger relief and research into disease, to the arts and to environmental causes, to education and to athletics. Wilde’s point is not that giving it all away is supposed to make us feel better—rather, it relieves us of the burden of being rich, it will relieve us of trying to live up to our affluent peers and pretend to believe things we don’t remotely believe. Wilde argued that Christ had pity for the poor, of course, for “those who are shut up in prisons (as Wilde in fact was), for the lowly, for the wretched, but he has far more pity for the the rich, for the hard Hedonists (Wilde here was speaking of himself and his cohort), for those who take the short term view and waste their freedom in becoming slaves to things, for those who wear soft raiment and live in kings’ houses.” “Riches and Pleasure seemed to Christ to be really greater tragedies than Poverty and Sorrow.” “Christ was thinking of the soul of the rich young prince—the lovely soul that wealth was marring.” Wilde of course was reflecting his ambivalence toward his own cohort in society, the idle rich who inherited their wealth and squandered it on the most frivolous and damaging pursuits. “Christ treated worldly success as something to be absolutely despised. He saw nothing in it at all. He looked on wealth as encumbrance to a man . . . Christ swept it all aside—he showed that the spirit alone was of value.”
III. There was a bit of Ecclesiastes in Wilde that saw all our pursuits as so much Vanity, Vanity, all is Vanity. Wilde felt Christ just wanted us to be better lovers—“Christ was the leader of the lovers—he saw that love was that lost secret of the world for which the wise men had been looking . . . “He wanted us to be more philosophical, and more accomplished in humane skills.
The world earns its daily bread by the sweat of our brows, true. Jobs are one thing, but not worth the workaholism of our society. Michael Moore showed us in “Where Shall We Invade Next” how badly we Americans compared to European countries, for instance, in paid vacation time permitted and taken, parental leave, and in the case of Germany, freedom from work-related email off-hours. But people work hard at jobs that don’t even support a family—it can take three jobs when the minimum wage is so low. It can take three jobs when successful businesses and industries don’t reward their employees accordingly.
What is a business except an engine for community health and prosperity. Ralph Nader argued that business has 4 constituencies to which it is responsible—the stockholders, the employees, the customers, and the surrounding community and environment. What were companies thinking that necessitated EPA funds to remove toxic waste they leave behind? What were companies thinking when they extracted valuable metals and minerals from God’s earth at the cost of the health and reduced longevity of the miners. Why doesn’t the ruling class look at business as a community service? The wealth gap in this country is a continuing shame upon us.
But stop a minute with me. The accumulation of personal wealth has another, a human explanation—we are anxious for the survival of our progeny, and so people try to accumulate huge reserves to pass along to family members that even if we die, somehow they won’t. We parents do our utmost to guarantee our children safe and secure futures—one way is to will them our fortunes, those that have such, as if those are impervious to depressions or inflation or catastrophe.
Think of this. You know, the mythology about dragons in past societies reveals an important truth. Tell me, what function do the dragons perform usually? They usually are protecting a cave and the cave contains treasure—and the treasure is enormous. The dragon defends treasure—the false hope of the rich who believe it will guarantee our security and longevity, perhaps immortality. A real life illustration comes in an article written by a Wall Street hedge fund master after the 2008 crash—he was asked what was behind the greed of his peers on Wall Street, what needs did they have which justified such ridiculous levels of wealth? He wrote, they don’t need the money, they don’t even use the money, it is just the stimulation of seeing the numbers grow and grow.
IV. The best we can give our children and grand-children is a sense of moral responsibility for others. And it is up to each of us to make our own decisions about how to live that out, apart from the pressures of society or church, for that matter. The righteousness of God fosters true growth, growth like that of the palm tree and the great cedars. And the righteous flourish even into their old age, always green and full of sap. Righteousness also protects institutions into our old age and is the guarantor of a new generation on this street corner. Eliot Church has a great legacy of social justice and righteousness, and even today in our 175 year Eliot Church is flourishing—not so numerous, but your palm trees and cedars out there are still green and full of sap!
Jesus devoted more words to money than any other ethical subject—so don’t give me the Dow Jones average any more! Jesus never mentioned the weather, except for the spiritual weather. I know he’d be as concerned as I am about the temperature in Nashville, as I am.
The spirit of the Christ who is not in churches. John 15:11-17
Oscar Wilde, the insanely popular playwright and novelist of late Victorian England, author of The Importance of Being Ernest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, was a gay man in a rabidly anti-gay society. His public antics in both high society and in the sexual demi-monde of London earned him the notoriety he purposely courted, but it also trapped him into a court case that his cleverness could not out-wit. Accused of sodomy by the father of his lover, Oscar Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labor in the most abusive prisons of the English penal system.
This morning, I want you to hear a unique man’s unique testimony of Love—not love as a feeling, but as a state of being. This story is one fulfilment of Christ’s command to the disciples in the Upper Room—“to love one another as I loved you.” We are here this morning to learn from someone who wrote a letter during his prison sentence for a crime of which he was admittedly guilty, though accused by someone as guilty as he. His 120-page letter was destroyed by the recipient, but it was only a copy. We have it today because Oscar Wilde had sent the original to his literary executor!
Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor in the most abusive prisons of the English penal system. Prison nearly killed him before his sentence was up. Prison is like nothing else on this planet. Where else are you never alone but always feel lonely? Where else are you sequestered in a locked space but never feel safe? Where else does violence function as the coin of the realm, and the more arbitrary the better? Wilde complained bitterly, which only made the guards double down. His smallest infractions were cause for magnified penalties. His friends complained on his behalf after they had visited him and seen his broken state. Oscar Wilde actually wanted to die, was about to die, and very nearly did.
Then, because a new superintendent was appointed to his prison, Wilde’s physical and mental condition improved enough for him to be able to read and write again, which they had never permitted him to do. At this point, six months before the end of his sentence, began what deserves to be called the resurrection of Oscar Wilde. The complete resurrection of Oscar Wilde happened because now he wanted to live and felt he could face the world again. The accumulated and unexpressed emotions of anger, resentment, and shame had buried him. The spirit wants to move, you know, to sing, to dance, to speak—to write. The human spirit, the genie in the proverbial bottle, will out—or die. Even a letter will do, and the letter Oscar Wilde wrote to his former lover is the scriptural evidence of his resurrection. It was published for the first time in 1962 under the title, De Profundis, from the depths.
The letter was addressed to the young Lord Alfred Douglas, “Bosie,” who was a heedless, spoiled dandy with whom Wilde cavorted. But Bosie abandoned Wilde when he was convicted. The letter begins with disappointment and a long castigation of Bosie, which was nevertheless expressed in the most humane and compassionate of terms, the first sign of Wilde’s resurrection. This fact in itself is evidence of the transformed nature of Wilde’s soul.
But this long letter continues into a more personal confession revealing a fresh clarity about his responsibility for his fate and his purpose in life. Wilde owns up to bringing his suffering upon himself. He does not repudiate his sexual orientation, of course, but he does concede that he dove headlong into pursuits and pleasures and people of the most superficial sort. He doesn’t regret them as such, except to the extent that they were substitutes which blocked his experience of life. He blames society, justly, for deeming what he did a crime, although he was willing to admit what he did was a sin, because it was loveless. And here came his spiritual turn, toward Christ from whom he learned about Love, Forgiveness, Humility, Sorrow, and Beauty. It was not the church’s Christ who he learned from. It was the Christ of the Greek New Testament which he read at Oxford who never left him it seems until he got to prison. It was not the church’s Christ, over whom the doctors debated the Immaculate Conception. He found the spirit of Christ in the Bible he requested in prison.
The lesson for us to learn from Wilde is that Christ is not the private property of the Church. Wilde, and we ourselves, benefitted from two lightning bolts. One, when Luther broke the iron grip of the Church on the Bible by translating it into the vernacular. And Two, when the higher criticism of the 19th century broke the iron grip of Protestant Orthodoxy on their “paper Pope.” They freed us to establish an original relation to Jesus, freed us to see our lives entirely through Jesus’ eyes, freed us to love, forgive, accept sorrow and be inspired by the beauty of a so, so fallible world. The person “who can look at the loveliness of the world and share in its Sorrow, and realise the wonder of both, is in immediate contact with divine things and has got as near to the secret of God as anyone can get,” as Christ did.
Church people will argue whether this is a high or a low Christology. They will dismiss Wilde because nowhere does he say things like Christ is “the only way,” although he says repeatedly that Christ was unique. While his church contemporaries were arguing, Wilde looked forward to living. And this letter was the evidence of his resurrection.
Wilde’s letter is also a lesson in personal theology. He shows us what it means to write a personal credo out of materials owned by the churches. Additionally, it is full of trenchant observations about the failings of the churches. “There were Christians before Christ. For that we should be grateful. The unfortunate thing is that there have been none since (with the exception of St. Francis).” On the other hand, Wilde gives us a lovely revelation when he says, “Christ is just like a work of art himself—Christ doesn’t really teach one anything—by coming into his presence, one becomes something.”
Is there any role left for the church? In the eyes of an iconoclast like Wilde, probably not. But as an artist himself, Wilde would have had to concede that it is in the churches that the story of Jesus is preserved, it is remembered and retold, it is performed and sung, as for instance in the very Catholic Mass he enjoyed. Wilde wrote that Jesus himself was a poem, or like a poem, meaning that Jesus contained more than can be paraphrased. But each person must come to Christ in their own way, bringing every bit of ourselves that makes us cringe.
We are suffering through a pandemic right now, itself a kind of “prison,” and the closest we will ever come to one. But think of all those who suffer from racial prejudice and discrimination—just leaving home is to walk into a strange, perpetual confinement, a prison without walls.
May God find us here this morning, ready for our personal, and we hope, worldwide Resurrection.
Philippians 3:4-16 “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” I continue our theme of letters from prison with, not a letter, but a prose epic written in prison, which you might say was his “letter” to a nation in distress.
John Bunyan wrote, during a 12 year prison sentence in England, The Pilgrim’s Progress which was published in 1678. Bunyon was John Eliot’s approximate contemporary, 20 years younger. When Eliot was here in Roxbury, Bunyan was in England during decades of religious violence there. He was in prison for preaching without a license, an act strictly prohibited by the Church of England, but he was an evangelical dissenter who would not be deterred. Bunyan had no formal education and his family were artisans with no standing in society of that time. But Bunyan was a brilliant speaker and writer--with a great imagination.
The Pilgrim’s Progress, written as an allegory, was conceived and presented as a dream he had of a man on a journey. The man’s destination was a reunion with God. The moral was to “keep your eyes on the prize” (Philippians 5). Now, today's journey is a cliche, when the journey amounts to going from job to job, from relationship to relationship, from city to city--like an accidental tourist. What Bunyan had in mind was the life journey that is chosen intentionally, a pilgrim not to a geographical destination but to a state of being.
Bunyan reports that his dream began with the sight of a man, in rags, stooped under the burden of a very heavy sack and reading a book. The book, not named, was the Bible, and the burden on his back was his sins. He is desperate to get relief from his sins, which Bunyan portrays as more grievous than any other kind of adversity like natural disasters, pandemics, disease or poverty. He can’t persuade his wife and three children to escape with him from the “City of Destruction,” so he leaves without them. Alone and lost, he encounters “Evangelist” who advises him to seek “The Celestial City” where he will find God and the forgiveness of sins. What follows is an extraordinary account, like Dante’s Divine Comedy, of a harrowing journey beset with all kinds of trials (the Slough of Despond, the Hill of Difficulty, Vanity Fair, the Valley of Humiliation). Christian, as he is named, was hampered by well-wishing but useless companions along the way (Pliable, Obstinate, Simple, Sloth, Wanton, Faithful, Ignorance). But the moral was, to keep his eyes on the prize throughout.
Bunyan’s purpose was to encourage the beleaguered Non-Conformists. In a religious world where religion was taken mortally seriously, Bunyan sought to provide a path other than the intellectual controversies and the ritual formalities facing people of that time. He proposed a path of the heart, not of the head or the prayer book. It was a strict Calvinism, shared by Eliot too, teaching the hopeful message that God will relieve the burden of your sins. We are descendants of Bunyan and Eliot, without the asceticism and self-mortification, but believing in the forgiveness of sins.
Remember the MONOPOLY board game? One of the possible cards you could draw was, “Get out of jail free.” What a joke to think about today! If only there were such a thing! There are Presidential pardons, of course, but only a small percentage of those who apply receive clemency and, in some presidential cases, only for political purposes.
In this country, we have too many people in jail with long terms for minor drug offenses. They don’t see any Get Out of Jail Free cards, although that has been remedied lately, slightly. In this country, we have too many people in jail unjustly, including on death row. They seldom see any Get Out of Jail Free cards. But thank God for Brian Stephenson. Thank God for the Innocence Project. Thank God for the Partakers College Behind Bars program. Thank God for seminary projects that bring education and inspiration from the Bible to prison inmates. They go in, they attempt rescue operations either through legal maneuvers or biblical education.
Get Out of Jail Free is a bad joke, more like Get Out of Jail Broke. None of the projects I have named can prevent the stigma that sticks permanently to former inmates throughout their subsequent lives as free men and women, especially the many who are Black and Hispanic. You’ve probably read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow by now and know all about that.
The prison is one of “civilization’s” most awful inventions. The prison conditions of 18th century England inspired the prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” in our Bill of Rights. But very little changes, because prisons keep prisoners “out of sight and out of mind.” The sun never shines on the abuses within the penal system.
Prison punishes by deprivation, then adds cruelty--lives lived entirely in concrete and steel, white and grey, no color anywhere, no rugs, no curtains, nothing remotely natural, regimented schedules, lines and line-ups, deprived of privacy and family and caring touch, having to navigate sub-sub-cultures, deprived of safety, outright threats to their safety and the integrity of their bodies, and solitary confinement being the principal means of discipline--bestial!
I am asking a spiritual question now. What is the effect of a prison sentence? What happens to a man or woman incarcerated? How do they cope? What resources can they tap there? What hope greets them upon awakening every day?
One of the most remarkable evidences of such lives are the letters that come out of prison, like the one we heard read by Doug this morning from Ryan Post. There are other, more famous ones, like Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s autobiographical short story, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters, Oscar Wilde’s 60-page letter from Reading Gaol, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. People share remarkable things when they write from prison. Prison letters, the great ones that get published and all the personal ones that never see the light of day, make a claim on our attention because they are written in extremis. Confinement, isolation, boredom, danger, dehumanization--these conditions would turn anyone’s thoughts sharply inward, revealing the depths of the human soul.
I listen to that letter of Ryan’s and marvel at his composure, his insight. I wonder that the sensation of God’s generosity could ever have reached him. He attended Bible study, I know. I wonder if the other inmates have any inkling of the abundance of God’s love. I wonder if they ever see the stars, or the moon even, and realize the part they occupy in God’s miraculous creation. I wonder if they realize they are part of God’s universe, moreover that God’s universe is in them, that their beating heart and the chemistry of the endocrine systems and the yearning of their souls mimic the giant, monumental suspiration of the universe. I wonder if they feel any freedom in the simple knowledge that God made them. Could that alone sustain an incarcerated woman or man?
And further, do you suppose there is any chance that the deprivations they suffer make more room for the expansion of their souls--would there be anyone to show them how to take that spiritual step there? Or is this just foolishness on my part? I am asking a spiritual question now. Religious people voluntarily stripped themselves of comforts. Inmates have that forced upon them. Religious people find freedom in their austere practices, then sing hymns about it. It is a stretch to think a prison experience can be turned inside out and made into the opposite of its intention, to turn punishment into fulfilment.
But here precisely is the gospel message to us. God is saying to everyone who lives under absolute constraints, who live at the limits of endurance, living in extremis: you may just have to find your freedom there, and you can. It will take the spiritual equivalent of an earthquake to bust out of jail as if free, as happened to St. Paul. The story tells a kind of parable--the gospel of forgiveness knocks down human walls. There is so much to forgive, and to be forgiven for, it could require a prisoner’s term to make amends, including for the crime involved. The same applies to us. You may not walk out of the literal prison rubble as Paul did, but inmates can walk around the prison like a free man or a free woman, and the same applies to our prisons. Now, we can’t claim to live like someone in a prison anything like Walpole or Rikers Island or the Cook County Jail. And yet, some of us are locked up inside and need our earthquake, too. An earthquake experience awaits everyone in God’s world, like the earthquake that set Paul and Silas free, for anyone at their limits, in or out of prison. Christ’s gospel of forgiveness unlocks human locks.