O come, O wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh. To us the path of knowledge show, and help us in that way to go. —From the ancient antiphons of the pre-medieval church
We long, we long for substance, for truth we can trust. We reach beyond data, beyond information, beyond technical knowledge. We belong to something invisible, so we are unsatisfied with the visible. We want to touch the universe and fulfill an intimacy with it.
We call it God’s creation, although we barely intuit its profound integrity.
Periodically, in the woods, under the stars, by the ocean, we feel our connection to God, but all too infrequently. The feeling can’t last long, anyway, such are the demands of the clock, the stomach, the grind. It takes a movie like Koyaanisqatsi to describe the source of our anxious, empty feelings, by showing the repetitive drudgery of technological life, by showing what manipulating nature the way we have done after all these centuries. We are awash in the detritus of a culture of creature comforts. We are out of sync with nature, having violated its order.
We have muddied our little puddle of water, we are all tangled up in our own shoelaces.
It makes sense that we are drawn here, to this holy place, the same as others are drawn to their sanctuaries. Although, we’re not sure what we’re looking for, or what it has to offer. Probably, we feel held in a place like this, embraced by this miniature representation of the universe—being a camera that lets in pure light to the eye, the mind, the soul. A still place in which to be still.
The silence speaks to us of the complete world, of God’s completeness. In here, we don’t feel small, even though we sense the infinity beyond us and the infinity within. This sacred space consecrates us, it validates us.
All the words spoken and sung, repeated in long strings of names, of images, we drift in them—the words of this Advent Sunday are--Wisdom. Order. Knowledge. Light. Joy. Purity. Blameless. Righteous peace. Justice. Godly glory. Mercy. Harvest. It makes a kind of poetry to sit and listen here—we savor it, even if we don’t understand it. We don’t have to. Because Jesus is the ultimate poem. A living lyric of unvarnished frankness, and fearless honesty. An echo of the wordless Word.
He taught us, yes, and he embodied God’s wisdom. And what is that? He demonstrated that righteousness and mercy require each other, are two sides of the same coin. God has provided for our self-correction by marrying righteousness to mercy. That’s because judgment is not condemnation. Judgement is just clarity, about what is and what we have done. This way we can regain our balance, make good decisions, and (even) restore the health of the planet. To be in right relation to God is to harmonize with the order of the universe.
Just as he is the ultimate poem, Jesus is the ultimate wisdom. He held up God’s plumb line, then made it possible—bearable—for us to stand next to it. He taught all of that, and then he handed us a loaf of bread. He told us to take this bread as if it was himself, himself who was God’s Word. This bread, to be eaten, must be broken. We must break and die, too, we must break and die, to live, as Jesus was about to. Jesus hands us manna from heaven, bread for the journey, a journey we take with the universe. This Jesus makes us know that the arc of the moral universe bends toward Justice. The prophet Isaiah said a Wisdom is coming we will want to call Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
You may wonder what we are about to do now, today at this Communion Table. Maybe you always have wondered. You should wonder. It is a mystery connecting us to the furthest reaches of the inky sky, and into the minutest of particles of subatomic matter. It is the gesture Jesus initiated that cements this community, not as a group of church members but as a “communion of subjects” (Thomas Berry), among the collection of interrelated objects of God’s universe.
Advent I What are we waiting for . . . ? Isaiah 11:1-10 Matthew 2:2-11
You probably know the tune from Godspell, from the very first scene, the words are “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” the very words in our scripture reading this morning, from the prophet Isaiah, sung in the musical by John the Baptist.
Do you remember the scene—the Baptist blowing the shofar, singing while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, random people hearing him, dropping what they’re doing and following—just great with everybody gathering at the Bethesda Fountain (in Central Park) in a runaway baptism scene.
That’s not the way it was, needless to say. Sketchy as the historical details are, we know enough to distinguish between scripture and—Broadway! But nevermind, it is a great movie.
We know enough about John the Baptist and Jesus to realize that the gospel account reveals a close relationship between the two, a mixture of competitiveness, rivalry, mentorship, political jockeying, and in the end, divorce.
The gospel account is a partisan interpretation favoring Jesus, of course. But John the Baptist opens the gospel in the most dramatic appearance and has some of the best lines in the whole gospel, of which these are just a few:
Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come.
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Don’t bother to claim Abraham as your ancestor—God will raise up children of Abraham from these very stones.
The ax is ready for trees that don’t bear spiritual fruit.
I am not worthy to carry the sandals of the one who is coming after me.
He will divide the wheat from the chaff, and the chaff he will throw into the unquenchable fire.
People heard these words and came in droves for his baptism, a symbolic act of purification borrowed from physical cleansing. This was attested to by outside sources. We actually know more about the historical Baptist than Jesus himself.
Jesus came, too. The Baptist’s prophetic ministry possibly sparked Jesus’ own ministry.
Jesus then came into his own prominence. Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. Jesus anticipated the violence that was to come. He warned against it and perhaps consciously took another path to his own radical vision.
Later, after being arrested by Herod for sedition, John asks from prison, are you the one who was predicted?
John’s question originates from passages like the one in our Responsorial this morning: “a shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse.” Who was Jesse, for heaven’s sake? What is meant my a shoot and a stump anyway? Jesse was the father of King David and so the start of Israel’s royal line. Isaiah’s point here is, Israel’s kings had failed. But out of the dead, desiccated roots of the royal line will spring a fresh branch. This king will reach toward the most fundamental needs of human society where conflict and combat fester. This king will not only have the key to his society’s needs, he will harmonize all the warring nations. He will have the spirit of the Lord upon him.
John the Baptist asks, are you the One, the one we’ve been promised and are waiting for?
And that’s right where the season of Advent breaks into the church year. Advent starts the new church year reminding us that for a long time Israel waited. It waited for deliverance from bad and unworthy kings. It waited for the balm that would heal human discord. It waited for a spiritual leader whose powers would be irresistible and invincible.
The followers of Jesus found that leader in Jesus and moreover, unlike John, this man Jesus was descended from King David. He had a pedigree—which Matthew was at pains to establish with that long genealogical list in his Nativity narrative. Their waiting was over.
The four Sundays of Advent, the month leading up to Jesus’ birth, recaptures the painful state of anxious anticipation of those who were like lost sheep. But for us, we know the story and have lived it, so we are not waiting for Jesus, literally, we are just remembering what it was like to wait. Advent positions the church, as the anniversary of Christ’s birth approaches, as if we were preparing and anticipating the baby Jesus’ arrival.
However, even though many today have heard of Jesus, he has still not arrived in their hearts. That may include church members who think that church attendance completes their spiritual journey. Like that brood of vipers the Baptist refers to who relied on their temple credentials.
But for most of us here, I hope, I don’t believe we are waiting. I’m not, anyway. We are actually just remembering when the world was waiting and what that was like. Remembering what it was like when we were waiting for Christ to come into our lives. But Jesus is already here.
Oh, we are still waiting for the problems of the world to be solved alright and for him to complete his work. And we are waiting for our relationships to be perfected. But we can get stuck in the same feeling we have waiting for the bus. What Jesus changed is that the waiting is not passive, like waiting for the bus. It is active—we take in the “already” and pursue the “not yet.”
People are not supposed to complain about imperfection and just dream of the perfections listed in Isaiah. Jesus asks us to live the dream, and he gives us the reason and the power to do so.
Today, I will translate Isaiah’s dream for you in Eliot terms. You already have the royal scion in Jesus, and you will feel the spirit of his wisdom and might, his discernment and compassion. What are we waiting for?
Eliot church can lead this community in upholding the cause of justice and equity for all people. What are we waiting for?
Eliot church can lead this community to form common cause with the indigenous peoples. What are we waiting for?
Eliot Church can become a safe haven for the expansion of the soul and the nourishment of the spirit. What are we waiting for?
Eliot Church can uphold the legacy of the Rev. John Eliot by articulating our faith without disrespect to the listeners. What are we waiting for?
Eliot Church can be a destination for the seeker and for the doubter, for the politically tempest-tossed and those who just want to sit next to someone who has faith, even if they don’t— What are we waiting for? We already have Jesus who got caught up in a political struggle himself.
Eliot Church can present a religion as beautiful as art. What are we waiting for? We already have Jesus, the poem of the universe.
Eliot Church can fulfill its identity as an owner-operated, equal opportunity, total participation gospel mission center. What are we waiting for? We already have Jesus our teacher and guide.
That’s how I translate Isaiah’s prediction of perfection. That’s how I translate John the Baptist’s call for our lives to bear good fruit. Your Jesus is already here and waiting for you. What are you waiting for?
Let this Advent be a season to grow our confidence in the spiritual role that we as Jesus’ disciples can have in this community.
There is time for everything. Revelation 1:4b-8. John 18:33-37
Everybody remembers the scene of Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” when he was caught in the relentless assembly line and winding up in the actual gears of the machinery. He made comic fun out of the tragedy of our enslavement to measured time.
But fundamentally it was no joke—beneath Chaplin’s antics lay the torture of the time table, the time line, the deadline. Since the invention of clocks, time has been our master. I just learned the other day that when the sundial, the first chronometer, was invented, the Roman writer Plautus bemoaned its existence saying, “We don’t need this—my stomach tells me what time it is.” Time was St. Augustine’s least favorite subject—he said, of course I know what time is, until somebody asks me what it is.
Now that society measures time, we feel trapped by it. So there are a few myths about time that I want to dispel.
They say, time flies. Wrong, a crow flies.
Time is running out. Wrong again, only people and dogs run.
Prisoners do hard time. Time is neither soft nor hard.
What do we mean when we say, there is no time like the present? What other kind of time is there?
We speak of quality time, hang time, high time, crunch time, and payback time. Where on your watch are these indicated?
We tell someone, “Take your time.” But isn’t it everybody’s time?
Even in our New Testament, it is written that the “end of times” is approaching, that the world is coming to an end—but it hasn’t. Yogi Berra confirmed this when he said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” That is, when somebody says, “time’s up.” Of course, time is neither up or down!
So we have conferred upon time an importance in excess of its reality and have managed to make it an instrument of our own exploitation.
We only have to look upward to the heavens, as has been done since time immemorial (!), meaning way before clocks existed, and see the sun passing every day and the stars wheeling by every night. And so it is that, inescapably, we have completed another, measured year. A church year ends today, and a new year starts next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent.
Christians recognize the passage of time, but not as torture. Christians look at time rather as fulfillment. Christians took up a distinction that the Greeks made between chronos, measured time, and Kairos, the fullness of time. The Kairos puts us in a dimension when something unique happens or is possible—a fourth dimension. Chronos is a function of nature relentlessly the same, whereas Kairos signifies time pregnant with potential difference, like when you walk down the street and your feet don’t touch the ground. For Christians the fullness of time represents any point in your life when you know that redemption is possible, when the experience of forgiveness reveals completely new possibilities for you. It is a “moment” that has no duration, when truth makes itself known and purges accumulated lies. Christ is another name for redeemed existence. When we know Christ, we live in the fullness of time.
I don’t think we can live in both chronos and Kairos at once. I believe we live in one existence at a time, while being aware of the other. We can be stuck in the workaday world, competing, maybe living from paycheck to paycheck, or riding high on the ever-rising stock market, and only suspect there is another way of being.
Conversely, we can live in the redeemed “moment” which has no time span, and still have to earn that paycheck or bank that fortune. I pray there are many who drive themselves every week from pillar to post to make ends meet whose feet don’t touch the ground because they are redeemed; the same even for some millionaires who are not making their big money for themselves.
Christ is another name for redeemed existence, I said. When we know Christ, we live in the fullness of time, we are residents of another “kingdom,” of which Jesus is the “king.” That’s why Pilate was confused about Jesus. Pilate was of course asking if Jesus was a king, like Pilate’s boss, Caesar, was a king. Jesus appears to evade the question, but he was actually only trying to communicate a counter-intuitive answer to Pilate. And many times, Christians get confused about this, too. We take “kingdom” literally when what it means is community, a community not of this world, as Jesus said, in that it doesn’t play by this world’s rules, or clocks.
By the time that the Book of Revelation gets written in 90 CE, the Christian community has begun to realize the enormous significance of Jesus for this world. And so the small figures of the peasant Jesus and the ragtag apostles and the persecuted martyrs and the harried church get magnified and portrayed on a huge canvas, in very emotional tones. Because Jesus has shown us a door to true life, he has revealed the life abundant, the Kairos, that was always there, though perhaps not labelled before as such. John of Patmos introduces Jesus in the same terms as the Lord God, as the Alpha and Omega, as the beginning and the end, he is the bookends, so to speak, of timelessness, what we call eternity, a quality that does not stretch forward in time, because there is no more time, but rather stretches inward.
However, we are not free of the imposition of chronos—we look at our hands, our bodies, our faces in the mirror every year, and not just once a year—nature will still have its way with us. Nor are we free of the combat between two competing visions of America—we can’t avoid the anguish and the anxiety of a nation that has just legitimized armed vigilantes.
But we can—we should, we must—choose to live in Jesus’ Kairos community, that place of rich and ever-surprising possibility, that we simply access through the door of forgiveness. Imagine, a whole book like Revelation with its images and emotions, based on so simple and small a human matter as forgiveness. Jesus didn’t invent forgiveness, neither did Judaism. But each, in succession, expanded its power and importance for human society exponentially.
Pilate asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Well, no, they don’t acknowledge me as such. But, yes, inasmuch as God’s mercy and lovingkindness is enthroned in me, the same God who said, “I am that I am,” “I will be what I will be,” “I am the One who endures.” When Jesus said there would be no more Temple, and when John of Patmos said there would be no more Temple, it was meant that the Kairos community has no need of walls. We are such a community, Eliot Church is—we may have walls for a temple, but the walls are not the point, are they? We are here today, and we welcome everyone and anyone here every Sunday, to get a taste of the fourth dimension and come on through. God has chosen you before you have chosen God.
Will it be bitterness, or love? Revelation 21-22
What happens when relationships shrink?
We have been witnesses to this in real time during Covid. And not just witnesses. We have suffered this shrinkage. Conversations over coffee—gone. Planned lunches with old friends—gone. Trips to see distant relatives—gone. Chance encounters—gone. The number of friendly contacts is way down, and so is the quality of those that remain.
What recourse do we have in such deprivation? What do we have to fill those holes? Are you among the many today reported to feel increased loneliness? As even the college and young adult population experiences now! Like the young woman pictured on the bulletin cover. Although it could as well be a young man. Or someone middle aged. Or like anyone here this morning.
It could help to think of the difference between loneliness and solitariness. You can be solitary and not feel lonely. It all depends on being able to see alone time as prime time. Only in a solitary state do we get acquainted with ourselves and, ultimately, with God. In a truly solitary state, we get down to basics.
But when we are lonely, the pain of it can be so acute that it drives us to make bad decisions and into the arms of disaster. I could tell you some of my stories, but suffice it to quote the great Roy Orbison’s famous song--
Only the lonely, Only the lonely, Only the lonely Know the way I feel tonight Only the lonely Know this feeling ain’t right There goes my baby, There goes my heart They’re gone forever, So far apart But only the lonely Know why I cry Only the lonely Only the lonely Only the lonely Only the lonely Know the heartaches I’ve been through Only the lonely Know I cry and cry for you Maybe tomorrow A new romance No more sorrow But that’s the chance You gotta take If your lonely heart breaks Only the lonely
Orbison’s lyrics don’t mention bitterness, but it is the next emotion in the sequence. Deprivation has a way of souring us on life. Think of people who have isolation forced on them. How do they possibly cope? As they will tell us, it is difficult. Losing a spouse, people here know about that. Or being incarcerated, we can only imagine. Being a prisoner of war, or when as a nation entire, the Israelites were taken captive and marched off to Babylon.
Bitterness is a real option and one frequently taken. How real is proven by Psalm 137 in which Israel laments having been ripped from Jerusalem, forcibly exiled in a foreign nation, and mocked for their religious needs. The psalm begins, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion.” By the end of the psalm, they are bitterly wishing the same misery upon their captors, and worse. The Bible is honest enough to admit that bitterness is natural. But it need not and should not be permanent.
Companionship is of the essence of being human, of course, so the lack of its comforts propels the reckoning with ourselves. Those who have loss forced upon them can teach us who endure relatively minor deprivations so much. Without a vision, our souls perish.
We require under these deprivations some vision, some hope for the future to sustain us. We need a vision that, even when postponed, still has the power to animate us. And we have it, in the Revelation of John of Patmos. By 90 CE when it was written, Rome had destroyed Jerusalem and dispersed its population. The Temple was razed. Jewish worship was terminated. It was Babylon in place. John fled to the little island of Patmos off the coast of Turkey where a seeming fever in his brain ignited his epic account of what was at stake in the world. This is what love looks like, painted on the largest possible canvas. Love inspires opposition, even violent hatred and yet nothing changes the divine constitution of the world.
Whatever and however much John of Patmos may have lost, his response was not to be bitter. In his exile, his solitary confinement, love made its claim upon him.
To lodge his vision within us, conceived as it was in solitariness, may well require of us a period of solitariness. This is when solitariness replaces loneliness and becomes a vocation. If we ever go through this experience, it secures us in a place only we recognize and others bemoan and bewail. This is what love wrought, to paraphrase our passage from Revelation--
There is no Temple in the city because God’s presence is the temple. There is no need of sun or moon because God’s light shines on the path of our decision making. The light is there to guide the nations and their rulers, so needed everywhere, especially Glasgow today. The doors of God’s hospitality are never shut to anyone in need. The wealth gap will be disappeared. And evil thoughts won’t even occur to people. Because while you think you live in Newton or Boston, you actually live in the City of God.
This is what love wrought. You can persist and endure here, because you are nourished by living water, surrounded by healing flora, a constant remedy for the human and political conflicts of daily life. We may have voted for mayor or President, but the one on the throne is God. Any of us who see this and know it, are deeply capable of the love which passes all human understanding and exceeds in its powers all that we may ask or think or even imagine.
That’s why a famous philosopher could write: religion is what the individual does with his or her solitariness. What a curious notion, because we normally think of religion as being social, something practiced in public and visible from the outside. But there is an inside to religion as well as the outside. The inside of religion is known only in and through your solitariness. Without the solitariness, you don’t have any religion worth the name, just the forms observed for their own sake. “If I just do this, if I just do that more often, my loneliness will go away.”
It won’t go away. Loneliness will master us and madden us, and make us bitter, unless we make our solitariness a vocation. That’s when we can face the unknowns, like the ones so vividly portrayed in Revelation, like the ones we already are experiencing in the double emergency of this worldwide pandemic and climate crisis.
When we are lonely, we rush to quench that feeling by grasping at relationships, or at group activities where we are still lonely. But if you have mastered your solitariness, you will be prepared for anything.
What will it be? Bitterness, or love? Let it be love—amen!
I. “You can’t take it with you.” We repeat this proverb regularly, don’t we? It’s the standard rationalization for spending money on ourselves, or giving a little to charity. “You can’t take it with you.”
But the real truth is worse, and it haunts me. When you die, I feel you do take it with you‒I mean, you take all your experiences, all your memories, all your accumulated wisdom, all the things that make you YOU with you. When I die, suddenly the so-many-odd years of experiences that add up to Rick Chrisman are gone. I will leave a family I created. I will leave some assets for them. I will leave some memories in their memory bank. But their memories of me are just an infinitesimal fraction of what I went through living my particular life. Each of us takes the equivalent of a long novel, many long novels, with us into that good night.
That thought haunts me. Even though some people leave behind enough money to get their names inscribed on a college dorm or on a hospital wing, even they will be taking everything meaningful away with them, like those fishing trips with dad, or the struggle with divorce, and Things [as Wallace Stevens wrote] to be cherished like‒passions of rain, or moods in falling snow; grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued elations when the forest blooms; gusty emotions on wet roads on autumn nights; all pleasures and all pains, remembering the bough of summer and the winter branch.
Every drop, the myriad events of life experience, too many to be shared with others, do they just evaporate when we die?
Other anxieties about death haunt other people just as much, and always have, evidenced by the fact that cemeteries are among the oldest cultural artifacts of every civilization. Their graves and monuments, the contents of the biers, the rituals that attend burial attest to the anxiety we feel before the reality of death.
Death has inspired endless curiosity, perplexity and abhorrence. Halloween, the night before Christians celebrate the departed, was thought to be the time when evil spirits wandered the earth looking for a home. It was believed that other spirits rose from cemetery graves to unite in a carnival called danse macabre. That’s why today’s Halloween costumes include skeletons and ghosts. Also, many grotesques with misshapen faces and bodies are common costumes—and these have invaded our movie houses and tv screens with frightening portrayals of the subhuman or uncanny. These make our friends with physical differences wince with pain at this time of year. Yet people seem to enjoy being frightened so much that horror movies have become a staple of the entertainment industry. Is this, too, a sign of our anxieties about death? Yes, and not just in this country—the Egyptian Book of the Dead, sky-riding chariots of Taoist China, the intermediate states between this world and the next, called Bardo’s, of Buddhism, the Seven Palaces of Jewish mysticism--all exhibit the worldwide obsession with “what’s next.”
Death became the ultimate enemy to be vanquished by any possible means. We moderns have resorted to drugs for altered states of consciousness, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, parallel worlds. Anything to glimpse what the after-world has in store for us, maybe to reunite with loved ones even. The ultimate visualization of this was given to us by Dante in his Divine Comedy, reporting his travels through Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise in the most lurid detail.
The sufferings of the present world caused immortality to become the wish ultimately longed for. We succumb to desperate speculation, looking for hope, mostly in the wrong places. Immortality figures throughout Christian piety and theology. It’s a selfish doctrine that quiets our fears of the unknown, often not amounting to more than saving our own skin, so to speak.
II. Meantime, little noticed is a contrary image in the Bible, it’s an image of life, called the Book of Life. You heard it referenced in the selection from Revelation and from Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
The Book of Revelation resembles a fever dream, and its images shimmer with vague meanings and ambiguity. The origins of the Book of Life go back to the Old Testament genealogical lists, lists of peoples’ deeds, records of those born in Jerusalem, etc. The image reappears in a vivid amalgam in Revelation, as the record of the dead and their deeds. The Book of Life, in one commentator’s words, is a kind of “heavenly citizenship list” of the righteous, perhaps also of those who believe, or who want to believe.
The Book of Life is the positive incentive for right action, by contrast with the usual negative ones of punishment and fear. The faithful life is not to appear to do good by conventional or pious standards, but for love to inspire every action of yours for others and for yourself. St. Paul also converts the negatives of life, its sufferings and injustices, into the positive light by saying, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” The evils you endure and death itself will be part of the glory—unite with Christ in this life and you unite with God in the next. Christ on the cross is the “open Book of Life himself, the book of the art of God’s love.” Luther held that Jesus Christ was himself the Book of Life. Nothing in life is wasted at death, all is well and all manner of thing will be well, wrote Hildegarde of Bingen.
Certain costs come with such faith‒decisions for or against the fads of culture must be made—the things to be resisted or rejected that Ecclesiastes called “Vanity”—“Seek the things that are above, where Christ is,” Paul wrote. Followers of Jesus find such decisions necessary to make. No action is morally neutral—it says even buying and selling have moral meaning. It may well require the non-conformism of a Henry David Thoreau and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Muhammad Ali. We need to let ourselves be interrogated by the image of the Book of Life.
Perfection and punishment for imperfection are exaggerated misreadings of scripture. We always make mistakes. The point of the Jesus-based life is to learn from our mistakes to become a better author of one’s own life story. To have one’s name inscribed in the Book of Life at the time of death.
III. It’s a way of saying, human histories become God’s history. God creates and goes on creating, co-creating with the universe and its human parts. You could say that we augment and enrich God’s reality as we die, not only our spirits return to God’s spirit but our complicated histories as well. The Book of Life symbolizes the cumulative nature of God. God is the sum of history, our histories. It is not the memories that are permanent, but the actions, the points of contact between human beings. This building will come down, but the fact that we worshiped here and touched each other will never go away.
Let’s end the Christian’s morbid obsession with the afterlife, and make an offering of our lives, mistakes and all. Because you do take it with you. And before you go, you know what you should do? Give it all back to God. And do this with joy and love, as St. Ignatius did—in this part of the Spiritual Exercises called the “Suscipe”—meaning, donation or gift.
First Point - This is to recall to mind the blessings of creation and redemption, and the special favors I have received. I will ponder with great affection how much God our Lord has done for me, and how much He has given me of what He possesses, and finally, how much, as far as He can, the same Lord desires to give Himself to me according to His divine decrees.
Then I will reflect upon myself, and consider, according to all reason and justice, what I ought to offer the Divine Majesty, that is, all I possess and myself with it. Thus, as one would do who is moved by great feeling, I will make this offering of myself:
Take, Lord, and Receive - Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.
I believe the point of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day is that our names will get inscribed in the Book of Life. Is this just another theology of wishful thinking? Not at all—call it my personal testament of faith in Christ whose God gathers us all up in glory.
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.
Why be sad--that's my question to myself. Sad is a big nothing.
Why be sad--sad goes nowhere--when you can be mad--it’s so much more satisfying. There’s plenty to be mad about--let me count the reasons--I’m mad at Texas, I’m mad at the US military-industrial complex (which we were warned about). Mad is good, mad is an emotion I can express.
Why be sad--sad stews in its own juices--when you can be worried. There’s plenty to be worried about--parents juggling kids and work, parents with special needs kids who can’t get special services, families sleeping at the borders under viaducts, refugees arriving with no secure landings, evictions of people already living paycheck to paycheck. Worried is good--worried is only natural to feel.
Why be sad, when we really want to grieve. We feel grief over the losses not only of lives but also of culture and community. Where can we go to weep--if we don’t we haven’t marked the day.
Why be sad--sad is a cop-out--when you can be disgusted. There’s plenty to be disgusted about--public leaders who lie, public leaders who won’t take responsibility--the ONE PERCENT. Disgusted is good--if you aren’t disgusted, you’re not paying attention.
Sad is a kind of limbo, a non-state, a malaise that suspends your animation. I’m not talking about SAD--Seasonal Affective Disorder--that is a real condition--chemical imbalances caused by decrease in available sunlight--for that there are treatments. Sadness, on the other hand, is un-real, a situation of sluggish arrest of the emotions.
Sadness is not so much an emotion as it is a mood--how do you express a mood?--you can’t. That’s dangerous because indifference slips up on us and then leads to anomie--a disregard for self or others--an ethic-erasure. Sad is a choice of those who won’t accept negative emotions, like anger, worry, and disgust.
Don’t be sad--there are alternatives--find the joy--look for it--it’s in there--it’s native to your nature--you are a creature of God--you live in a universe of divine abundance. Jesus was accused of committing joy--they said the disciples of John the Baptist fast, but your Jesus can be seen eating and drinking like they were at a wedding.
You came to the right place today--you came to church--Sabbath is basically a mental health day--you can sing here, you can listen, pray silently, you space out, you can daydream--it’s free time. The main thing is we don’t have to deny our emotions here. You should take away from a Sabbath service that you can be outspoken, you can be energetic, you can be real, you can be alive to your neighbor and to those you think are your enemies--what that permits, what that inspires, is JOY.
You entered a place of joy and peace today, where you will realize that the enemy isn’t other political parties or other religions or other races. The enemy in St. Paul’s language is the devil. For human beings life is a struggle against “the wiles of the devil.” What are those wiles except the temptation to check out, forget and lie down.
Why are we tempted to check out? It happens when the distance between the real and the ideal is too great for us. Rather than accept the real, we slip into a sadness that provides the convenient shelter we need. It’s OK temporarily, it’s unavoidable. Sometimes, “not OK, is OK,” and that calls for strength, spiritual strength.
St. Paul uses a military metaphor to describe that strength. We may wince at the military images, but we know what he means--
Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Perhaps, there may be a better analogy than the military one of Paul’s to talk about the strength that secures us in Truth, Righteousness, the Gospel itself, Faith, Salvation, and the Holy Spirit. If you think of one, please share it with me.
We not only have a Gospel to share, the Good news amidst the other news; we have a legacy at Eliot Church to renew and extend. We don’t have time for sadness--!