Living for God

June 13, 2004: Living fo

Living for God

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

June 13, 2004

Scripture: Galatians 2:15-21;
Luke
7:36-8:3

“For
I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God.”

Galatians
2:19

The second century Christian
text entitled “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” tells the young
churches how they might spot a false prophet. These churches were house churches
and they received traveling apostles, teachers, evangelists and prophets. The
“Teaching” tells them to give hospitality to all such visitors but only for
a limited time. If a prophet wants to stay more than three days he or she is a
false prophet; that is how you tell. False prophets stay too long. My Methodist
tradition is one of itinerant ministers, and I think it was John Wesley himself
who said that if a preacher could not say all that he had to say in two years
there was something wrong with him, and so in any case he should move on.

I have been with you eight and a
half years now and by those standards I have been here much too long, but
circumstances have been different and it is not until recently that I have
become convinced that for the sake of the church I should move on. You need new
and younger pastoral leadership, and I have turned 65, a decent retirement age.
You need to hear the Gospel from fresh hearts and minds, more in tune with
contemporary suburban culture than I am. I have preached 421 sermons here, and
as I carried most of them, collated and bound, from my office to my car last
week, I felt how heavy they are. You have done well to endure them. Some have
found them helpful, even inspiring, for which I am grateful. Nobody excepting
perhaps my dear wife Rosemary (and possibly also Vic Fredericks and Bob Mullen
of the 8 o’clock group) have heard them all, but most of you have heard enough
of them and can now look forward to a change.

The text I take up on this my
retirement day is set by the lectionary, but is in any case a favorite of mine.
In Galatians 2 the Apostle Paul says that he had to die to religion in order to
live for God. “”For I through the law, died to the law, that I might live to
God.” The law here is the law of Moses, which is a symbol of the whole Jewish
religion into which Paul was born and for which he was so zealous, and thus a
symbol of all organized religion. So the saying amounts to an admission that he
found his religion to be a barrier to his communion with God; the more religious
he was the farther he drifted away. Thus Paul raises acutely the question of the
relationship between participation in organized religion on the one hand and
life with God on the other, and there is much in what he teaches to suggest that
in important ways we have to resist the former in order fulfill the latter. Be
that as it may it is not the theme I wish to dwell on today.

Rather I want to reflect on what
a life for God might be, as I look back on a life that has always at least
wanted to be such a life for God. Whether we succeed or fail we Christians all
have as a constant melodic line in the composition of our lives the desire that
they should be for God. Paul had to give up the religion of his ancestors, in
which he had attained great prominence, in order to live for God. He had to
sacrifice the promise of a great future in the religious establishment of his
time in order to be true to God. On that Damascus road he discovered that
despite his great learning and position of trust he was headed in the wrong
direction, and had to retrace and then repeat the journey of his life. It cost
him a great loss of prestige and wealth, great physical deprivation and
suffering, but he could call all such things “garbage,” by comparison with
the great gain of knowing Christ and being a part of Christ’s suffering in
this world, assured of being a part of his resurrection in the next (Philippians
3:8-10). In our text he calls this a being “crucified with Christ.” He had
to make a great sacrifice in order to live for God, and so might we.

Being crucified with Christ
means dying to the rewards and satisfactions that we gain from success in the
world of men and woman. We do this in order to follow Christ, in order to live
not for the world but for God. Listen to the Apostle as he explains what it
means to live for God: (I find these lines the most moving in all the Bible).
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who
lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of
God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
The conviction that God’s Son loves me and gives himself for me is the
heart and soul of my own life as it is of the Apostle’s.
and of every Christian’s. I can scarcely take it in. He gave himself to
the cruelty and humiliation of the Cross, for me! For me! How can he then fail
to give me all things in due time?

On this day when I give back to
God the gift that he gave me, the gift of the privilege of preaching His Word, I
feel it as a crucifixion, a self-sacrifice, a dying. But it is a dying with
Christ, a dying to one set of satisfactions of in this world, in order that I
might live to God. God loaned me the honor of the pulpit for these years and now
I must give it back; but at this time of loss I know that although I no longer
live as before, Christ continues to live in me, and the life I now shall live in
the flesh I shall continue to live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and
gave himself for me.  He loved me and gave himself for me long before I loved him
and gave myself for him, and long after I can no longer because of frailty give
him much he will continue to give me all, because he loves me. So living for God
entails at the right time giving up the precious things God once gave us.

I have always found Paul a
special teacher and guide. Perhaps because I have the same stormy temperament as
he had, stir up enemies as readily as he did, irritate people, as he did. I know
it has not been easy for you to have me as your pastor. I apologize for that
aspect of my personality, but I assure you that I have always risked your anger
for a good cause, the cause of speaking the truth of God as I believed God gave
me to see it at the time. And of course you were never under any necessity to
agree with me. Living for God entails risking the anger of men and women.

Let us at this point take a peek
at our Gospel lesson in Luke 7. Simon the Pharisee who refused to show Jesus the
elementary courtesies due to a guest, – a kiss of welcome, water to wash the
dust from his feet, oil to refresh his head and face – is an example of what
Saul the Pharisee was like before he became Paul the Apostle. I believe that he
would not even have gone as far as Simon did to invite Jesus to dinner, despite
the fact that having invited him he insulted him. The woman must have been aware
of the insult, and made a move to mitigate it by offering Jesus her most
precious possession, the alabaster flask of ointment.
She weeps because her beloved, the one man of all the men she had known
and had known her, who really loved her, has been humiliated, and she cannot
stand it. She lets her tears lave his dusty feet, and wipes them with her hair,
and all the religious man, the representative of organized religion, can say is
that she is a whore and Jesus is a false prophet because he cannot see that. It
never occurs to him that Jesus receives her caresses precisely because she is a
whore, because he came to save sinners, because the power of his purity is
greater than any pollution that might come from her, and that as she lavishes
love on him he is cleansing and healing her, responding with pure love to her
exploited and exhausted love, taking it into himself and healing it. The
representative of religion can only censure Jesus, and thus set up once again
the sad conflict between the truth of God and the power of the religious
institutions. “Is it possible to live for God in such institutions?” one
asks.

When Paul says the he died to
the law through the law he means that his encounter with the risen Christ showed
him the cruel absurdity of that kind of religious life. The truth of God is not
the laws of religion or the customs of society but the divinely inspired
openness to the love of others that Jesus shows in this Gospel story. Jesus
shows us here the power of receiving love. He receives her love, he accepts her
caresses, he lets her tears fall upon him, her hair rub across his skin, this
filthy whore. We all imagine ourselves eager to give love, but are we able to
receive it? That is the more searching question of our Gospel text. Simon the
Pharisee, poor fellow, is able neither to receive nor to give love, because he
knows it all and controls it all within the patterns of his religious law. To
live for God he must die to the control of the religious law.

“The life I now live in the
flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Can you receive that love? Can you let Jesus love you? Or do you insist on
loving him and thus controlling the relationship. I can no longer control
anything in the little institution which is this church, if I ever could,
since I am giving up my role in the organization. So I pray that this
congregation will remain centered on the Son of God, and allow him to love you
and give himself for you and to you, and thus mitigate as far as possible the
temptation to live for religion rather than for God.

May I end on some personal
notes? Today is the third retirement day I have enjoyed in my life. The first
was in 1986 when I retired as the Dean of Chapel and Senior Minister of Stanford
Memorial Church. The second was in 1997 when I retired as Senior Research
Scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford.
And now Rosemary and I have the sweet sorrow of retiring from your midst here at
the Woodside Village Church. So many of you have become our beloved friends. We
have shared with you the birth and baptism of your children, your marriages, the
crises of illness, the joys of recovery, the solemnity of death. You have
listened to my preaching and taken the sacrament from my hands. I thank you for
the honor and trust of those relationships.

I have had five careers during
the forty years of ministry, as a college professor, a seminary professor, a
university professor, chaplain and administrator, a political researcher and a
parish pastor. For each of these God gave me the blessing appropriate to the
time and the challenge. Thus I am firmly convinced that God gives the
appropriate blessing for every stage of our life. Therefore we need not look
back longingly, but rather thankfully, and we need not look ahead fearfully but
rather expectantly, seeking the blessing God has for us this time, and time and
time again until the final blessing, for which in the end we all live. Living
for God means, therefore, living in the light and power of the divine blessing
given for the time we are now in, and promised for all time and for eternity. 

I bid farewell in the words of
Paul. He ends the letter to the Galatians thus: “But far be it from me to
glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been
crucified to me and I to the world…The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with
your spirit, brothers and sisters.

Amen.

 

 

The Beauty of the Infinite

The Beauty of the Infinite

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

June 6, 2004

Scripture: Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17, 25-27

“And hope does not disappoint because God’s love has been poured into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit which has been given us.”
Romans 5:5

I spent last week in the canyons of Northern New Mexico. It is a magnificent country of red and yellow rock faces and canyons of green and pink. It is a traditional holy place, so much so that the Saudis built a mosque there not to be left out, and I stayed at a hotel owned by Muslims where no alcohol or pork is served. It is also the venue of a well-known Benedictine monastery named Christ in the Desert. The beauty of that landscape is striking and I could feel the spirit of silence and deep peace that must be what people down the years have identified as the presence of God or the gods. I was also privileged to spend some of that time with Michel Serres a French philosopher, who is also one of the 40 “immortals,” as the members of the French Academy are called. So I was inspired by nature and by human interaction during a time that was rich and satisfying. Some important parts of the following meditation were discovered in conversation with Michel Serres.

In the desert it is easier to imagine losing control of life than in the midst of ordered society, and some of the reflection at the conference I attended touched on the way human action, chiefly in the form of science and technology, is changing what used to be called “nature,” and paradoxically taking it away from our control even as it comes under our control. Now we do not know what precisely the word “nature” means. Believe me! Biological technology especially, and nanotechnology in particular, is changing human nature as it leads us to wards artificial living entities that replicate themselves without our intervention, the so-called “gray goo.” We are already in the advanced stages of the of dying of the world we think we still know and can count on. Consider only the change in the contours of marriage, aided by the accelerating separation of human reproduction from normal human sex. I could give many more examples of the thesis that we are losing a world we think we know and entering a world we can barely imagine, but I must move on.

I shall come back to this experience of the “loss of world” and its imaginative realization in the desert, but first I must remark that today is Trinity Sunday, and as such is the end of that part of the liturgical calendar that celebrates the great works of our salvation, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. We have now been through the moments when God becomes human, when the human God conquers death, and when God comes to dwell with us as Spirit and Truth. Now on one climactic Sunday we are asked to see this unfolded knowledge of God integrated and whole. I could try to explain how three persons can be one nature, but I shall not. Rather I shall try to convey this mysterious divine unity by means of the category of beauty, and so have chosen as my sermon title the name of an important new book by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite.

To begin our meditation we must distinguish between the two major categories of aesthetics, the beautiful the sublime. When you stand on a promontory in the desert it is relatively easy to feel the mysterious force of the sublime. One feels the little boxes in which one orders and contains one’s experience, that is, the card file that contains one’s world, break open and break up, and with them one’s own sense of control within an organized and bounded space. Perhaps the best image of this loss of control or loss of world (because world refers to that domain of life that one can control by action and by thought) is the sea. We even use as an idiom the phrase, “to be all at sea,” meaning to be in a disordered and
uncontrolled state.  The usual word for such an experience is the “sublime.” The sublime describes the state in which we seem to be going beyond our normal consciousness, breaking the moulds that constrain us. I imagine this experience must be like the effect of hallucinogenic drugs but since I have never taken them the closest analogue I can offer is the migraine headache effect, which blurs the sight, sometimes quite comically, as words for instance appear literally to fall off the ends of the page, or dissolve before one’s eyes, as it were. The cognitive effect of the sublime is like that, and it is often taken for the experience of God. Stand on a cliff in the desert and let the world of structures and boxes blow away on the torrid wind. Many people think that God is like the sublime, and that to experience God one must go to the edge of the world and then over the edge; but the opposite is the truth, we must go to the center of the world, because God is not sublime, God is beautiful.

Our faith does not say that God mysteriously is sublime but rather that God is marvelously beautiful, that there is a “beauty of the infinite.” What does this mean? Beauty is the opposite of the sublime; beauty is the box that contains our
world, the dry land where we stand safe from the sea, the specific thing that
our eyes fall upon as we scan the desert from the cliff top. If you try to see
everything you see nothing and experience the vertigo of the sublime, if you try
to see one thing you see everything and experience the beauty of the infinite.
Trying to see all things together as the way to God is like the proverbial attempt to drink from the fire hydrant, and in many cases is a deliberate drowning of the self so one will not have to face God. Trying to see God in one thing at a time, on the other hand, is like sipping a fine wine, a deliberate calming of the self, paying attention to the little things, the nuance in the taste, the whiff of aromatic in the nose. William Blake wrote of seeing eternity in a grain of sand and heaven in a flower.

 William Blake understood the God of the incarnation, the great God in the little things, and this brings us to a few formal words on the Holy Trinity, for the Trinitarian understanding of God rests entirely on the belief that God made his great mysterious self known in a single, specific man, and thus points us to the single, specific things of the world as the places where we see God, the flowers and the grain of sand, the child, and the beautiful man or woman, the cunning poem, the sound of the song and the song of the sound. Only specific things are beautiful, because God the infinite beauty did not give himself to us generally and diffused, “to whom it may concern,” but specifically, in Jesus Christ.

If we grasp the beauty of this Jesus, by means of the Holy Spirit that is poured into our hearts, we shall be able to see the beauty of the infinite or the infinite beauty in every single thing. If we see the beauty in Jesus we shall understand that God is disclosed in every little thing and far more clearly than in the overwhelming presence of all things together. In the categories I have set up for today, God is beautiful not sublime; God is the right word in the poem not the barrage of words in the press, the right note in the small song not the big noise of electric sound, the right color in the picture not the slash of violence across the canvas, the right elegance in the animal, the right gracefulness in man and woman. God revealed is always the absolutely appropriate and the absolutely specific.


Michel Serres and I in the desert agreed that as a worldwide culture we are experiencing a loss of the known world and the advent of a new world. I believe this to be more evidently the case that ever it was when Orwell wrote 1984 and Huxley, Brave New World. What they imagined is now coming to pass. Imagine my surprise when Serres, who is not obviously Christian, and I did not ask his faith or lack of it, announced that the thinker for such a time as this is St Paul, because of his grasp of the incarnation of God, and gave the keynote lecture to our conference on Paul’s categories of faith, hope and love. Speaking for myself, I have lived with St Paul all my life and have long been convinced that his is the message for our time, and all times. Nevertheless, when a man of Michel Serres’ stature and reputation as a philosopher of science, who started his career as a mathematician and whom the Hiroshima bomb turned to philosophy, says that Paul is the philosopher for such a time as this, I am encouraged to think better of my judgment about how I spent my life, and inspired again about how to spend the rest of it, as a writer and thinker in such a time as this, with a lifelong friendship with St Paul to draw on.

So let me end with the Pauline text at the top of our sermon. It is a Trinitarian text; God with whom we are now at peace because of Christ’s work, inspires our hope by coming to dwell in our hearts as the Holy Spirit. “…this hope is no mockery because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit given us,” he writes. In one short passage Paul speaks of God the Father, Christ the Son and God the Holy Spirit, interchangeably. The climax of the passage is the love of God poured into our hearts, to ground the hope Christ brings us and to seal the faith that introduces us to the venue where that hope and love are available. One God in three forms giving three gifts that in the end are one.

Paul is the thinker for this time of worldlessness, this time of diminishing control between worlds, because he knows God and can communicate God as the polymorphous presence of faith, hope and love, in the little and specific things, however uncertain and confusing the big picture may be. Remember how Paul ends 1 Corinthians 13: “Now abide faith, hope and love, these three, and the greatest of them all is love (1 Cor.13: 13). On this Trinity Sunday we might add, “Now these three abide, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and none is greater than the other because each defers absolutely to the other and together they make a seamless unity of deference, a dance of space making and self denial. That is why love is the greatest of all, because it is the unity of the divine person in one nature, (which stands to reason, because there cannot be love if there is only one)  that is why the hope we need as we slip out of the sublimity of the dying world and into the beauty of the new can only be sustained by the creator of all worlds, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, blessed Trinity.

Amen.

 

 

Another Advocate

Another Advocate

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

May 30, 2004:

Scripture: Acts 2:1-21;
John
14:8-17, 25-27

“But
the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will
teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to
you…”

John
14:26

The name that the translation
from which I took our sermon title renders, “another advocate,” is
translated in several other ways. For example, it is rendered “counselor,”
or “comforter,” or, simply transliterating the Greek original,
“Paraclete.” All these translations are good; Paraclete literally means,
“one called to the side of,” that is, one who, like counsel for the defense
in a criminal trial, stands beside the accused and defends him or her.
Therefore, all the above translations are good because such a person performs
the whole range of services covered by our translations; he comforts, counsels,
and defends the accused. Two more vital functions of this comforting, counseling
presence, according to our text, are that he is “the Spirit of Truth (vs.
17),” and that “he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance
all that I have said to you (vs. 26).” So we know that the Holy Spirit whom we
celebrate today is a comforter and counselor, our defender when others accuse us
(or we accuse ourselves too much), a Spirit of Truth, and one who reminds us
always of Jesus and his teaching.       

John characteristically deals
with the events of Jesus’ life, especially his miracles, by placing them
within a context of interpretation which says basically that the event is
important but not that important, and what really matters is that we understand
the event as a sign pointing to who Jesus really is, and that we follow the sign
to faith in him. The only truly important event that the Gospel of John wants us
to see is you and I coming to believe in Jesus as God incarnate because of what
John has written and we have read.

So let us try to imagine how
John would read our passage from Acts, the traditional narrative account of the
day of Pentecost. We discover that the point is not the so much the event itself
as the miracle of restored human understanding across cultural differences. All
those present understand what the Apostles are saying, there are no more
language barriers, the disaster of the Tower of Babel has been reversed and we
can understand each other despite the difference of languages. This event is the
beginning of the church and so the church is an inclusive, transcultural
community. When we read Luke in a Johannine way we discover that the point is
not that we should expect flames on our heads, or wind in the rafters, all the
literal things that the fundamentalist interpreters emphasize, but rather a
renewal of our ability to communicate with all life, and thus a forging of true
relationships around the world.

So from our passages we have the
following descriptions of the Holy Spirit: he is Paraclete, he is Truth, he is
universal understanding, and in all of these functions, as a summary of them
all, he is the true presence of Jesus our Lord. Let us consider each one of
these items in order. As Paraclete the Spirit gives us what these days we call
support, or another way of saying it is, “he is there for us,” there when we
need him, there when we fall into danger or despair. The forensic meaning of the
name is especially interesting because it takes account of the fact that many of
us feel guilty for no obvious reason, as if someone were accusing us. One of the
famous novels of the last century, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, begins when
a certain Josef K wakes up one day to find himself accused of a crime. The
nightmarish novel centers on his attempts to find out what he is supposed to
have done so that he can defend himself. He never finds out what he is accused
of, and ends up being convicted of an unknown crime. This bad dream of
guiltiness is the negative correlative of the Paraclete; he assures us that we
are not guilty, have committed no crime. In traditional Christian thinking the
accuser in such a context is the devil. One of his titles is “the accuser.”
So God the Paraclete by being there for us, to assure us that we are not guilty,
to assuage our anxiety, delivers us from the devil. As the Truth the Spirit
enables us to separate what is true and real from all that is false and phony.
When we know the truth we are free, when we do the true we are healed. In
chapter 10, John says of the true shepherd that his sheep recognize is voice and
therefore follow him, while they do not recognize the voice of the stranger. In
these days especially, but in all our days in this media drenched culture of
lies, we must be listening for the voice of the true shepherd. That voice is the
Truth of the Holy Spirit, and we recognize it when we hear it. Thirdly, as
mutual understanding the Spirit is the miracle of those moments when we are able
to see the world through the eyes of another, when we truly feel the co-humanity
of the hated stranger, the Muslim form Saudi Arabia, the African–American from
East Palo Alto. Let’s for a moment at least here in the presence of God who
knows all recognize the racism, xenophobia and chauvinism in ourselves, and give
it over to the Spirit.  Finally, the
summary of these three experiences is that they are the things of Jesus that the
Spirit makes real again for us. Jesus is there for us, Jesus is true for us,
Jesus is real relationship for us, and that is why the Spirit achieves all that
he does simply by making the things of Jesus live again in us and for us.

Therefore, the Holy Spirit is
the term that the Gospel of John uses for the ongoing presence with us of the
living Jesus. This is very important to remember; the Spirit is Jesus with us.
Why is it important? Because cut loose from this definition the Spirit becomes
an independent power that many people think is at their disposal to be used for
their own purposes. Today there is a powerful spiritual movement called
Pentecostalism, and while there is much that is authentic and blessed in it
there is also a major negative possibility, namely, that those who believe they
possess the Spirit will fall into a more or less severe state of megalomania.
People in this state give great authority to their intuitions, taking them as
guidance from the Spirit rather than hunches to be checked out rationally,
empirically and critically. Such people are dangerous, not least because they
are often so totally convinced of the rightness of their decision that they
convince other people. We are so pathetically susceptible to persuasion by those
who are totally convinced. I am told that in some schools of psychotherapy this
is called “identification with the archetype,” that is, in our religious
case, such a person has identified entirely with God and comes across as
speaking the Word of God. Most sects have leaders who do this sort of thing, the
so-called charismatic leaders, and many people are psychically overwhelmed by
them.

Clearly, when John tells us that
the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth and the possibility of mutual understanding
has as his main function taking the things of Jesus and making them live again
for us, he means something other than enabling us to identify with the
archetype. Rather John means that the Spirit is primarily the power in us to
witness to Christ not to identify with Christ. This is the all-important
distinction, the distinction between Christ and me. The Spirit does not identify
me and Christ, but rather facilitates and infuses a relationship between us.
What is the difference between identification and relationship? A relationship
by definition includes a separation that the relation reaches over to make
contact, while identity means the difference has disappeared and two individuals
have become one. This is the way it is with human relationships, – since
identification is not possible – and this is the way it is in our relationship
with Christ; relationship not identity, the meeting of two separate persons not
the melting of each into the other.

This separation is what is in
play when Jesus talks of his going away; the chapters in John that we have been
considering for the last several sermons are called the “Farewell
Discourses,” and for good reason. Jesus separates himself from us and then
returns to us over the gulf of that separation as another advocate, to stand by
us, be there for us, to open our minds to the Truth, to enable us to understand
over the distinctions of language and culture.  

Perhaps
we might sum up the teaching of John on the Holy Spirit by saying that the
Spirit does not make us Christ, but rather makes us ourselves. The underlying
implication, of course, is that we cannot be ourselves unless we are in a right
relationship with God, and that the Spirit brings us that. So think
relationship, think of the miracle of two separate people uniting while
remaining separate, indeed, enhancing their separate selves by means of the deep
relationships with others. Then focus on the primary relationship of our life,
the one made possible and nourished by the Holy Spirit, the relationship with
God. The Holy Spirit is the power of right relationships, with God and with one
another, and for that reason he is Paraclete, truth and interpreter.

Amen.

 

 

“As I Have Loved You”

“As I Have Loved You”

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

May 9, 2004

Scripture: Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

“A
new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved
you, that you also love one another. By this all people will that you are my
disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John
13:34-35

This is surely
one of the most demanding texts in the Bible, one that, I think, is honored more
in the breach than in the observance; or at least so it seems. Would you say of
this congregation that people know we are disciples of Jesus by the love we show
for one another? (Overheard amongst the stacks in Robert’s Market, “O, I
don’t go to that church; all the do there is fight”). The context of the
saying in the gospel is significant. Immediately preceding it Judas goes out
with feet washed by Jesus, rejecting that last symbolic plea for reconciliation,
to lead the police where they might arrest Jesus secretly. Immediately following
the passage, Peter boasts that he will never forsake Jesus and Jesus forecasts
that Peter will deny him three times before the cock crows to welcome the
morrow. Therefore, Jesus’ new commandment to love one another as he has loved
us, is sandwiched between two accounts of us betraying him. Is that significant? 

Our other text
is the famous vision of the New Jerusalem seen by John the Divine. The advent of
this perfect society is emphatically not the climax of human efforts to remake
the world or to bring liberty to nations on the point of a bayonet, whether they
want it or not, rather it is the work of the creator God. It is not the work of
politicians or soldiers, it is the work of God and nobody has to die for it,
excepting God’s only Son. A new heaven and a new earth frame the New
Jerusalem, which is “prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.” This
imagery of the bride recalls the words of love in the Gospel, as does the
promise that God himself will dwell in her and “… wipe away every tear from
their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor
crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away (Rev. 21:
3-4).” Her husband will bring to the bride the divine love that dries our
tears as it saves us from death, and the bride of will love him as he has loved
her. Thus our two texts tell us that the divine love always precedes human love,
and that only the divine love is able to remake the world and secure the pure
reciprocity that love demands.

Today is
Mothers’ Day, or, as my church dairy calls it, the day of the “Festival of
the Christian Home” and I fervently want to say something gentle and
encouraging. (I feel that the spirit of division in this congregation becomes
more as my day of departure draws near, but it’s not surprising that the
reality of the division in the nation impinges on us, especially since I have
insisted that we live our faith in the real world). So, what shall I do to
salvage a little goodwill, enough to last for five more weeks? Shall I simply
ignore the moral outrage committed by our Defense Department by sending young
and untrained reservists into circumstances that Philip Zimbardo’s famous
prison experiment of 1971 showed were bound to produce morally depraved
behavior? Shall I refrain from saying that the Secretary of Defense who is
responsible for the lamentable post war situation because of his failure to plan
and his self-blinding bumptiousness is honor bound to resign? Or shall I once
again speak the truth and say that instead of scapegoating little Lyndie England
from a trailer camp in West Virginia and six other service personnel, the high
officials who put them, untrained and unprepared, in that impossible situation
should resign forthwith, and themselves face courts martial or the equivalent
for dereliction of duty.

I say they are
honor bound, and for that reason do not expect them to resign, because they have
no honor. They have expertise, confidence, power, and pride, they have deep
devotion to Jesus, but like Judas and Peter in our Gospel story, they have no
honor. They do not hesitate to lie, stonewall, and slander, and now to scapegoat
the little guys. John Dean makes this case in his new book “Worse than
Watergate,” (and he should know since he was Nixon’s White House lawyer. He
also lists eight proven lies told by Bush in his 2002 State of the Union speech
to Congress advocating this war). Shall I ignore all that so that we may have a
cozy Mothers’ day celebration? Or shall I point out that similar torture is
going on right now at Guantanamo Bay, as reported by today’s Washington Post,
where we are holding people beyond the reach of our laws? Or shall I point out
that US citizens are being held by Ashcroft’s forces, beyond the reach of our
most fundamental safeguard, the habeas corpus law? 

Do you want to
know on this Mother’s Day of the many mothers in Iraq whose husbands and sons
are arrested by US military personnel, often bursting into their homes and
dragging off the males to disappear into the maw of the US detention system
there? Our own Kathleen Namphy, who has been there and done that, can tell of
this and of the immense patience it takes to find our what has happened to the
arrested men. (We now know that one of the corpses to come from the hands of our
Abu Ghraib torturers was not checked into prison at all, that there is no record
of his ever having been there). Do you want to know of the many Iraqi children
maimed and deformed by our military action over the last decade or so?
Probably not! I certainly do not want to hear this, but it is so, today,
and not yesterday. We are doing it now, troops sent by us, our children and
grandchildren, deceived by lying politicians and manipulated by public relations
experts, they are killing, torturing and maiming in order to make those poor
people just like us, to give them the blessing of our freedom to lie, cheat,
manipulate and maim.

So here’s
what I would be thinking if I were to sit down with mom to a festive meal today.
I would think of the all the moms in Iraq who do not know where their children
are and fear they might be in the hands not of Saddam Hussein’s torturers but
now of George Bush’s. I would think of all the moms in this country whose
children are dead or at risk because of the lies not of bin Laden but of George
Bush. I would at last accept the fact that we Americans are not different than
other people but just the same, only more so because we have the power to put
our depraved fantasies into action. In 1971 my colleague Philip Zimbardo,
Professor of Psychology at Stanford, using Stanford students as subjects, showed
that prison guards insulated from oversight and responsibility and thus given
absolute power over prisoners, behave in a morally depraved way. Not just Iraqis
or Frenchmen, but Americans too are just like that! I would also temper my
appreciation of mom by the realization that women as well as men are capable of
such moral breakdown. There are three women among the seven scapegoats now
offered by the president. Who will ever forget the picture of Lyndie England,
cigarette in hand pointing to the poor man masturbating? (One commentator says
perceptively that these unsophisticated Americans were collecting souvenirs. I
bet too that there will be those who regard her smoking as a more reprehensible
moral failure than her sexual mockery). I would be thinking that the only hope
we have of regaining a toe hold on the moral high ground anywhere in the world,
let alone among the billion or so Muslims, is if Rumsfeldt is dishonorably
discharged and put on trial for moral turpitude and dereliction of duty, and in
due course the man responsible for all this dishonor is voted out of office.
Short of that the whole sorry saga of this, the worst administration in US
history, will slouch on in infamy, poisoning our national life, reducing the
reputation of the US to shame all over the world, and strengthening our
terrorist opposition every day.

This is the
moral truth of this Mother’s Day and if you think it inappropriate to the
occasion, well it might help you to take note of the call to the first Mother’s
Day, issued by Julia Ward Howe in 1870:

Arise, then,
women of this day!

Arise all women
who have hearts,

Whether your
baptism be that of water or of tears

Say firmly:

“We will not
have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,

Our husbands
shall not come to us reeking of carnage,

For caresses
and applause.

Our sons shall
not be taken from us to unlearn

All that we
have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We women of one
country

Will be too
tender of those of another country

To allow our
sons to be trained to injure theirs.

(She goes on to
call for a great meeting of mothers, a mothers’ day of peace,)     

To promote the
alliance of different nationalities,

The amicable
settlement of international questions.

The great and
general interests of peace.”

So you see that
my mothers’ day meditation is in tune with the intention of the founder of
this festival, Julia Ward Howe. (She is also, by the way, the author of the
Battle Hymn of the Republic). Clearly her sentiments are dated – women are now
as vicious in battle and torture as men; an alliance of nationalities, the
United Nations Organization, exists, and women have the vote so deciding
agencies are no longer irrelevant to women- nevertheless, her founding call
gives our festival today a timely seriousness and helps us escape from the fog
of sentimentality into the bracing clarity of truth.

Let us pray
that the love of Jesus may indeed become a new commandment in us, and let us
pray for the coming of the New Jerusalem, and let us be clear that no matter how
puffed up the rhetoric, this Administration is not appointed by God to bring
liberty to the world, and George Bush is not a second Moses. Only humility,
patience, and strict justice are in order for us now…and a long road to moral
rehabilitation for our nation.

Amen.

 

 

The Good Shepherd

The
Good Shepherd

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

May 2, 2004

Scripture: Revelation 7:9-17;
John
10:22-30

“My
sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them
eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of
my hand…(that is, out of the Father’s hand)…I and the Father are one.”

John
10:27-30

We could go
through this text item by item and experience a nourishing sermon today, but I
feel moved to take the opportunity of the familiar image of the Good Shepherd to
offer a meditation on leadership. The shepherd is a traditional symbol of the
ruler and Jesus says in vs. 11 of this chapter, “I am the Good Shepherd. The
Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” He is contrasting the Good
Shepherd with the bad shepherds, the shepherd to whom the sheep belong, with the
hired hand who has no personal stake in the flock. How do our current shepherds
of the nation appear on such a spectrum?

Nevertheless,
let us look briefly at the items in our text above as an introduction to our
meditation on leadership. We are metaphorically sheep in the flock of Jesus the
Good Shepherd. As such we hear, in the sense of recognize, his voice; we follow
him, in the sense of doing what he wants us to do; he gives us eternal life, a
gift we have been emphasizing since Easter, and have claimed is the single most
valuable characteristic of the church, the one that sets it apart from all other
organizations in the world and makes it uniquely precious. If we follow the Good
Shepherd we shall never perish and never be separated from God, because Jesus
holds us in his hand and his hand cannot be pried open because it is the
almighty hand of God. Thus our text confirms what we have been emphasizing
especially since Easter, that the spiritual engine of the church is the power of
eternal life beyond this world.

I have made
this text the introduction to our meditation on leadership because it makes
clear that the gift given by the Gospel is not for life in this world but for
the life of heaven. In this world we live under the sign of the Cross, we see
puzzling reflections in a mirror, we walk by faith and not by sight, and are
well advised to take reason, evidence, and humility as a guide to decision
making. Therefore, we judge our earthly shepherds with understanding, not
expecting perfection. In the light of this brief exposition of our text, and in
the spirit of faith in eternal life, let us turn now to a meditation on
leadership.

You will have
noticed by now that I have discharged part of my obligation as your shepherd, by
always making clear this sheer centrality of Christ, his Cross and Resurrection,
to the faith. I challenge you to find one sermon in the 415 I have preached here
that does not point first and overwhelmingly to the living Jesus Christ as Lord
of our lives, Lord of the church and giver of the most precious gift of eternal
life. Having put that eternal truth at the center I have then tried to relate it
to living in the world, sometimes on the personal level, sometimes on a communal
level using psychological, anthropological, ethical, and yes,
political categories. I usually do the relating in terms of the realities
of life that are impinging on me at the time, and I try to make sure that those
realities are not idiosyncratic but representative of important things that
anyone living in the world would be bound to take note of.   

Today my
meditation begins with a picture of a father and mother receiving the body of
their dead child in a military coffin. I am speechless with dismay as I imagine
the agony of loss, the desolation at so much life lost. I have just become a
grandfather for the sixth time. Anna Elizabeth Wallin was born to our daughter
Ruth and her husband John late on Saturday night. I am filled with the joy and
satisfaction of one of life’s incomparable moments. All that beauty, all that
blessing, all that promise, all that grace, as this beautiful little creature
comes from the darkness of the divine love into the light of a loving family and
a generous world! Against this background I imagine the father and mother whose
child has come home in a military coffin, – more than seven hundred and thirty
seven such agonies to date, (not to mention the thousands of Iraqis killed), –
and I imagine them experiencing the opposite of what I am experiencing, and I
hear them asking why, wrenchingly, desperately asking why, and hungering for a
truthful assurance that their child died defending our country because there was
no alternative, that this death was not just brave, but necessary, utterly
necessary, occurring in the face of a real and imminent threat to the existence
of our homeland. Can our political shepherds assure them that the death of their
child was absolutely necessary for the country? Good shepherding would seem to
demand it.

Then there
arises in my meditation on leadership the picture of our leaders painted by Bob
Woodward, in a memoir encouraged by the president, who himself gave three hours
plus of face to face time to the journalist and allowed himself to be taped.
This record does not assure me that the death was necessary, rather it persuades
me that it was unnecessary and even whimsical. Woodward had similar access to
all the principals, and gives vivid accounts of meetings, debates and exchanges
at which he was present or had information from those who were present. I
conclude from this account, entitled “Plan of Attack,” (New York: Simon and
Schuster, March 2004) that there were only three people involved in the actual
making of the decision to go to war, Dick Cheney, George Bush and Condi Rice.
All the other principals, even Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, and especially Powell and
Armitage, were out of the loop where the decision was finally made (The latter
are the only two who have personally seen military action). This means that the
decision came from deep within the consciousness of only two men, Cheney and
Bush, because Rice, although she was always present at meetings seems only to
have reinforced Bush’s already made decision. At least two of the principals,
Colin Powell and Karl Rove said to Woodward that Cheney was in a “fever”
over Iraq, and Woodward sums up his impression of Bush as never really in doubt,
never really questioning the decision.

Here is a
quotation: “(Woodward) Blair said that he had received letters from those who
had lost sons in the war who wrote that they hated him for what he did. I quoted
Blair, ‘And don’t believe anyone who tells you when they receive letters
like that that they don’t suffer any doubt.’ ‘Yeah,’ President Bush
replied. ‘I haven’t suffered doubt.’ ‘Is that right?’ I asked. ‘Not
at all?’ ‘No. And I am able to convey that to the people.’ To those who
had lost sons and daughters, he said, ‘I hope I am able to convey that in a
humble way ’ (p.420).” Bush seems unaware that Blair’s quote brands him a
liar; he does not disagree but rather agrees with Blair and then states the
opposite of Blair’s position.

By this point I
am greatly dismayed at the way our shepherds are leading us, and then my
meditation becomes really dark, because as the recent PBS documentary in the
Frontline series, called “The Jesus Factor” in the shows, Bush underwent a
conversion to Christ in the Methodist church, just as I did. His language about
his conversion echoes my own. It was in a Methodist chapel in Austin at a
private service before his second inauguration as governor of Texas that Bush
got the call to be president, when the preacher compared him to Moses, who was
halting in his speech but nevertheless chosen to lead Israel to liberty. One of
those present said there was  an
“electricity” in the room at the moment when that text from Exodus was
expounded while the preacher looked at Bush. Afterwards Bush told some friends
that he believed God had called him to be president. This means that the
decision to go to war came ultimately from a level of religious experience that
I seem to know well. What makes this so problematic for me is that I continue to
experience in worship something like that electricity and I also take it to mean
that the Holy Spirit is present. I too have felt called, and done things on the
basis of that call.

What is the
relation of such experience to truth and reality? What is the deciding factor
when calling our national shepherd not a Good Shepherd but a “hireling, who
cares nothing for the sheep” (to quote the gospel text). I think it is the
presence or absence of informed critical reflection in addition to the
experience that makes the difference. Woodward’s book will shows that a lot of
study and talking went on, but it will also show that all was ultimately for
naught because the decision makers, Bush and Cheney, were in the end not
listening, were not open to criticism and change. The former acted out of a deep
sense of divine call, and the latter out of a volcanic rage that rumbled beneath
the pale surface of the physically impaired cowboy from Wyoming.

Why am I
dismayed? Because I have clung to the hope that a deep conversion to Christ is
also a deep conversion to reality, and truth, a breaking out of the tissue of
unreality that is the world of sin and death; but the opposite seems to be
happening in our country today, and our shepherd who has had such an experience
is leading us not through but into the valley of the shadow of death, strongly
supported by Christians who put conversion to Christ at the center of their
faith. This is troubling to say the least.

So, trying to
be a good shepherd or pastor I have told you the truth as I, and any reasonable
person, must see it. I shall not apologize for sharing this meditation with you,
not least because, among other more important reasons, these bad shepherds are
killing our young people and thousands of Iraqis for reasons that any reasonable
person can only call delusional. I know that some of you don’t want to know;
but if you think I make this stuff up to embarrass a Republican administration
because I am a Democrat, you do not know me at all. I give you this information
and opinion simply because I am trying to be a good shepherd and help you live
honestly in the real world. I bet you will not hear such straight talk again
from this pulpit for a very long time, if ever.

I speak also
because only five corporations control the information the major information
media in this country and we the public are
being swallowed by a propaganda monster. The example of the small
Sinclair Broadcasting Group in Maryland, using its corporate muscle to keep off
the air the reading of the names of the honored dead, scheduled on their
stations by the ABC network, is a nutshell indication of our advancing
imprisonment in propaganda. Also last week a woman lost her job for
photographing military coffins, and her husband was canned too for obscure
reasons. We are not to see the return of the honored dead, we are not publicly
to acknowledge them, because that is politically unpropitious for the Bush
campaign.

And that is not
the worst; worse even than this is that millions are too lazy to read the books
that reveal this corruption and decadence and are content to get their political
information from Rush Limbaugh, whose recent confessions about drug use over the
years must surely make his judgment suspect, or from the late night talk show
hosts, Leno and Letterman.

As a pastor I
want (in the last few weeks of my public life) do my bit
to keep the pulpit a place where people may hear the truth they may not
get from the media they consult, and from someone who is prepared to do the work
necessary to penetrate behind the lies of the bad shepherds of our nation. All
this work and witness might enable us who want to, to hear the voice of our Good
Shepherd and to follow him into the real world, and to live there authentically
and honestly. It may also help reduce the number of young people who die for
nothing.

Amen.

 

 

Peter and Paul

Peter and Paul

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

April 4, 2004

 Scripture: Acts 9:1-20; John 21:1-19

“And in the synagogues immediately he proclaimed Jesus, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’”  Acts  9:20

Today we have two readings that tell us about the founding, and hence the foundation, of the church. It seems good to me at this time for this congregation to try to be clear about the nature of the church for which it is now seeking new pastoral leadership. We might be asking questions like, “How is a church different from a club, and especially a community church, how is it different from the other institutions of the community, the recreation department of the city, the civil government, the county department of social welfare?” “What does the church offer that no other institution offers, and how far are we willing to be the church rather than a club, or a compromising ‘all things to all people’ affair?” It is impossible to achieve a pure identity in this imperfect world, nevertheless, it
is worth being clear about the ideal. At the very least this will help us stay on the same page in the long discussions that lie ahead. I hope that those discussions will not absorb so much of your energy that the active and successful outreach of this congregation withers on the vine.  

The Bible is very clear about the nature of the church: it is the community of those called and commissioned by the risen Jesus. This means that it is not the school of those who try to follow the moral teaching of the historical Jesus – whoever that might have been. (I should tell you here that I was a founding member of the ‘Jesus
Seminar’ who split from them quite early on over methodological questions,
that is, I do not think the evidence is there for a reliable reconstruction of
the Jesus of history). The church is founded on the resurrected Jesus and its
most precious treasure is the most precious treasure that there is in any case,
namely eternal life. AYSO can provide healthy competitive sport, the Boy Scouts
can provide outdoors experience and group education, schools provide knowledge, bazaars and sales provide community solidarity and a little money, dances introduce kids to the opposite sex in a semi-controlled way, yoga classes give exercise etc, etc, but only the church gives access to eternal life. The church
of Christ offers the utterly stupendous possibility of eternal life. The church
is the place and the people where the risen Jesus meets with forlorn sinners
doomed to death and transforms their misery into radiant hope. So as you look
for a new pastor, look for a competent professional who knows what the church is and not just a nice guy. You would not want a surgeon whose grasp of human
anatomy is faulty to operate on you just because he or she is a nice guy, so you
do not want clergy who do not know or worse, know and do not believe, that the
church is the company of those who believe and receive eternal life from the
risen Jesus just because he or she is a nice guy.

For this reason the lectionary on the third Sunday of Easter points us to the two greatest church founding passage in the Bible, the recommissioning of Peter and the conversion of Paul.
In the history of the church Peter might be taken to stand for the Roman
Catholic tradition and Paul for the Protestant tradition, and John, who actually
narrates the Peter story, might stand for the Orthodox tradition. Peter, Paul
and John, are the three great founding Apostles, and for that reason I’m sure
the last two Popes, representatives of Peter have named themselves John Paul. So
let us look at the two passages and see what we learn:
and as we do, I remind you again that they are both accounts of what the
resurrected Jesus does to found his church, that is, the church is the creation
of the resurrected one, it is part of the new creation, an instance of the new
birth from above.

Seven disciples go back to their old jobs as fisherman. The are Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee, Thomas our heroic doubter of last week, Nathanael and two unnamed others. Peter felt
terrible; he had lied in public three times that he did not know Jesus, and so
at breakfast on the shore Jesus makes him undo his lies, makes him confess three
times that he loves Jesus. “Simon son of John do you love me more than these?
Yes lord you know I love you (Not at all Peter, last time I heard from you, you
were swearing loudly that you didn’t even know me).” Three times Peter must
remake his confession, and three times he must accept the task of pastor,
“Feed my Lambs; Tend my sheep; Feed my sheep.” There are several points one
might make if one were to spend a week on this text – Jesus feeds the Apostle
first before he asks him to feed others, Jesus’ identity is elusive like it
was to Mary in the garden, showing that he is transformed and not merely
resuscitated, and why are there precisely 153 fish? I am going to leave all that
aside and go to the heart of the message. Peter was a traitor, he had denied his
Lord; he had been ashamed of Jesus; he failed. Nevertheless, on such a one Jesus
founds his church, and for what reason? Well, the real answer lies deep in the
heart of God, but as far as we can see, this situation makes it absolutely clear
that the power of the church, the gift of eternal life, comes from Jesus alone
and not from any virtue and fortitude in us. If Peter the first Apostle is a
lying coward and Jesus wants him to feed his lambs, then the rest of us lying
cowards must get on over to Jesus right away and hang very close. The rest of us
lying cowards must get out of the way so that Jesus risen and victorious can
build his church through us, and can give the precious gift of grace to those
who want it. We don’t need to be pillars of society here, or super sweet, or
real nice guys. After all, the first Christian Apostle was a lying coward.

The second Apostle in rank if not order was a murderous zealot. Saul of Tarsus was on his way to arrest
Christians in Damascus when the risen Jesus confronted him in a blinding vision
and asked, “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” You know the rest of the
story well; it is the paradigm of what came in Protestant circles to be called
conversion, and it has been a powerful cultural dynamic in the West. Let me just
mention in passing, that the paradigmatic narrative of someone changing his
religion is startlingly out of tune with culture as usual. To this day Jews who
convert to Christ are considered mentally unbalanced by many of their fellow
Jews, and Muslims who try it are killed. Anthropologically speaking human
culture is constructed for continuity not conversion. Ancient Egypt endured for
3500 year through 20 plus dynasties hardly changing a thing. My colleague
Jonathan Z Smith points out how anthropology has been distorted, because it was
pioneered by Christian missionaries, whose interest was in change rather than in
continuity. So, for instance, the literature used to be full of information
about how one becomes a shaman etc, not telling us that 90% of shamans did not
go through an ordeal of initiation but merely inherited the status. Missionaries
look for change, culture looks for continuity. I think the accounts of Paul’s
conversion in the NT, (Acts 9, 22, 26; Galatians 1: 11-24) may be the most
powerful cultural documents in the formation of the western sensibility. We are
for change, progress and conquest. The dark side of this of course is the goofy
imperialism of the Christian Right and the Neoconservative Jews currently
guiding the ship of fools (I mean ship of state) in Washington. Our President
thinks that because Jesus changed his heart the US military can change the
Middle East, that because he was once a drunk and now is, well what – a dry
drunk? the Muslims of the Middle East who once wanted to rule themselves
according to their indigenous political culture will now allow US Christians to
democratize them. This is the dark side of the Pauline influence, rampant
because of a persistent incompetence in interpreting the Bible by some woefully
inept Protestant clergy.

Let me close: the church’s one foundation is the living presence of the risen
Jesus, its treasure is eternal life, which it mediates to all who accept the
resurrected Jesus as Lord and Savior. Whatever you do here in the future, make
sure that it is focused, centered, founded and built on the call of the living
Jesus received in faith, believed in hope and lived in love. These are
challenging times; I often ask myself the question the Lukan Jesus asks, “When
the Son of Man comes will he find faith on the earth (18:8) ?” I am even more
pessimistic. I ask will he find faith in the church? Let us take our closing cue
from our opening text. When Paul recovered from the temporary blindness, we are
told, that he wasted no time but proclaimed immediately in the synagogues that
Jesus is the Son of God. He is the paradigm of the good preacher, while Peter
might be seen as the paradigm of the good pastor; but both of them are merely
servants of the one risen Jesus, and they were once broken and are now repaired,
living by grace alone in the only power there is, the power of eternal life in
the resurrected Jesus.

Amen