by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

December 17, 2006

Scriptures: Hebrews 10:4-10; Luke 2:1-20

“And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger” –Luke 2:16

I have been reading poetry lately, and one of the marks of good poetry is its particularity or concreteness. A poet sees a thing in this world, – a tree, a solitary lass, a locomotive – and makes it the bearer of meaning beyond its mere “thingness,” by metaphor and simile and setting. I came upon this German poem by Heinrich Heine, in a song by Robert Schumann. The Lieder (Song) tradition of 19th century German Romanticism, from which this comes, is one of the truly exquisite gifts of European culture to the world. Great composers, – Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Richard Strauss and others, set to music great poets – Johannes-Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich von Schiller, Heinrich Heine and others, and great singers – like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Thomas Hampson, performed and interpreted them for us.

Here is Heine’s poem: “Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne, / Die liebt’ ich einst alle in Liebeswonne. / Ich lieb’ sich nicht mehr, ich liebe alleine / Die Kleine, die Feine, die Reine, die Eine; / Sie selber alle Liebe Wonne,/ Ist Rose und Lilie und Taube und Sonne.” (The Rose, the Lily, the Dove, the Sun, / Once in bliss I loved every one, / No more, No more; Now I love solely, / Her who is small, fine, pure, and only; / She herself is the bliss of love, / Is the Sun and the Lily, is the Rose and the Dove.” – my translation).

This is a poem of two lists, one concrete, of objects taken from the Song of Songs, – Rose, Lily, Dove and Sun, – another abstract, (a sound play on the poets name, Heine), Kleine, Feine, Reine, Eine. He loves her only (alleine) and she is tiny (Kleine), exquisite (Feine), pure (Reine), and unique (Eine). She has entered his soul, the non-material dimension of his being, has moved from the external world to his innermost heart; but that is not where she stays, no, she re-materializes, returns to the external world as Rose and Lily, Dove and Sun; but not the same old Rose, and Lily, Dove and Sun with which we began: now she is transfigured, laden with the meaning true love gives, transforming the material world by an ecstasy of love (Liebes Wonne), not dissolving matter into idea, but rather establishing love in matter, hard, concrete, and particular, upon a shimmering foundation whose effulgence now glows. The meanings given for Wonne are, “joy, delight, rapture, ecstasy and bliss.” It is a favorite word of the Romantic poets, and it describes what our poet’s world becomes after his experience of his beloved has reconstituted it a place of ecstasy and bliss. Through her exquisite concentration of pure and unique love his entire world shines with delight.

So, joy to the world, the Lord has come. He is small, he is exquisite, he is pure, he is unique, and he transforms my life and my world. When I see him I am like Dante when first he saw his Beatrice; “Incipit Vita Nova,” he said, I say, “New Life Begins!” Once we loved in a natural way the Sun, the Dove, the Lily and the Rose, in a bliss of created energy, but marred by sin and death; now we exalt in new life and a self transformed by this pure, exquisite, and unique little one. See Jesus! See the New Creation!

Thus the first point of my Christmas sermon is the one I make every year: particularity. This newly creating God has a mother named Mary and a guardian named Joseph, he was born into a manger in Bethlehem, and his name is Jesus, These are particular proper names. Not ideas, not hopes, not wishes, not explanations and not theories were born at Christmas, but Jesus the son of Mary and the ward of Joseph, who is before us now as a newborn boy on his birthday. We relate to him as we relate to a person, a very little person; we exclaim at his beauty, we greet him by name, we congratulate his mother and foster father, and we love him with that wondering, life-giving love that we recognize so well from the birth of our own children and the children close to us. If you have ever loved anyone, if you have ever felt the miracle of love for a child, you know the heart of our religion. We are those who believe that this transfiguring experience of awe before the beloved is the real presence of our God to us. God is love in this exquisite, pure and tiny baby with whom we enter into the eternal relationship of life, here and now. We know this because we encounter in the Other especially in the newborn Other the power of creation, the creative power, the energy that creates and designs and invents and cherishes and preserves and comforts and satisfies and affirms, the creative power that seals us in God’s image by our creativity, and our love, which is creativity’s perfection.

My second annual Christmas point is that this discovery changes our understanding of power decisively and forever. We have always known that the weakest so-called power is coercion at gunpoint, or threat, or promise, or deception or flattery or manipulation; we have always known that power corrupts and pride poisons, that he who exalts himself is humbled and the humble are exalted. Pride kills; pride is poison. We know that from a cursory glance at history, and we know it from even a brief meditation on God’s most magnificent act of power to date, His own Incarnation as a baby boy, to recreate the world from within its weeping walls by the gently irresistible power of human love like the love we can feel for a baby, when it becomes the unique love for this one unique baby, Jesus who is God as a human being.

As the pregnant Mary sang; “God has brought down the mighty and exalted the humble.” How has he done that? By blindsiding the world of the mighty and making it happen in a stable. What does Donald Trump have to say to that?

How all this works, I do not know. If I could explain it we would not need to sing it, chant it, cheer and share it. I began with a romantic poem because I think the saving relationship with this little boy is like the miracle of romantic love, like but of course not the same, when the beloved first pounds on the door of the heart, enters the soul, and comes out again to change our world. After that all things shine with ecstasy, a “Wonne,” and the love that once grabs our heart holds our world in meaning down the years of love’s maturing and mutatating into something more solid than Romance and more lasting than earthly attachment . So let us love one another, for love is of God, and at Christmas it is especially evident how humble and trusting, how vulnerable God is and how much he needs us to love Him and take care of him; but make no mistake, this humble God is the great power in the universe!




by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

December 3, 2006

Scriptures: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

“Keep a watch on yourselves; do not let you minds be dulled by dissipation and drunkenness and worldly cares so that the great Day closes upon you like a trap; for that day will come on all people, wherever they are, the whole world over.” –Luke 21: 34-35

Today is the first Sunday of Advent and Advent is a season of preparation for Christmas, the first coming of Christ. Traditionally, preparation has a literal and a spiritual dimension; literally at our house you can already see wrapped gifts here and there, and spiritually here in church today we begin our preparation of prayer and meditation. The psychological motivation for this practice is clear; before great good times we spend times of anticipation and what better way to anticipate than to get ready, and what better way to get ready than to examine our lives, sweep the stable as it were. We do this before Easter, during Lent, and before Christmas, during Advent.

Advent has a different content than Lent. To observe Lent is symbolically to accompany Jesus during the 40 days of his temptation in the wilderness, while Advent anticipates his first coming in humility by contemplating his second coming in glory. This way we remind ourselves of the transcendent dignity of the babe in a manger and cultivate the proper attitude of reverence. We also have an opportunity as we contemplate Christ’s two comings, first in humility and then in glory, to meditate on what is loosely called the end of the world, which the apostle Paul says is very near, (Romans 13:11-12: “In all this remember how critical the moment is. It is time for you to wake out of sleep, for deliverance is nearer to us now than it was when we first believed. The night is far spent and the day is near. Let us therefore throw off the deeds of darkness and put on our armor as soldiers of the light.)” It is this “end of the world” I wish to speak about today, asking what we might do in the mean time, before it comes.

I used to be contemptuous of wild symbolism like the beginning of our passage for today, “Portents will appear in sun, moon and stars. On earth nations will stand helpless, not knowing which way to turn from the roar and surge of the sea; people will faint with terror at the thought of all that is coming upon the world; for the celestial powers will be shaken, (Luke 21: 25-26),” and then I started taking notice of the evidence for global warming, nuclear proliferation and economic/cultural breakdown through globalization. I saw the movie, “The Day After” which had an ocean liner sailing down the NYC avenue that runs in front of the proud lions of the public library, and although I have not seen it I have heard much about Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient truth.” Two weeks ago the people in my circle of friends and acquaintances began to speak of the scientific prediction that all fish in the seas will be extinct by 2050, and that added greater urgency than ever to my effort to find wisdom for this hour. I turned to the Bible and found there a vivid awareness of the possibility of such outcomes, and today I would like to share with you what I believe is its main message in this regard.

I am no longer contemptuous of the apocalyptic scenarios of disaster in which the natural and the human are bound up together. Anyone who has seen Shakespeare will know how it was an accepted trope in his time that significant human events have their natural counterparts; think of poor Lear in the storm on the heath. (It is a sobering thought that King Lear was Shakespeare’s play about retirement written on the eve of his own). More authoritatively for our purposes, the birth of Jesus was marked by a comet, which guided astronomers to his birthplace. My Cambridge director of studies Hugh Montefiore, got from the great expert on science and civilization in China, Joseph Needham, who had the rooms below Hugh’s in Gonville and Caius College, Chinese astrological charts that recorded the appearance of such a star at the time of the birth of Jesus. I used to go past Needham’s door virtually every day on my way to supervisions with Montefiore, and heard immediately of this discovery.
So in this spirit what should we do to prepare? Christmas is coming, and so is the end of the world. Meanwhile what should we do? We should interpret the signs accurately and announce our findings honestly, and act responsibly, and all the while watch and pray for the coming of Christ in Glory.

Our passage tells us that interpreting the signs is as simple as seeing the leaves appear on the fig tree and concluding that spring is here and summer not far behind. I think the reading of the signs of our times is just as simple, excepting for the fact that we deliberately confuse ourselves. George Bush returned from Vietnam and the Middle East last week showing no signs at all of having gotten back in touch with the real world which virtually everyone of his advisors now seems to be entering. Frank Rich in the NYT today asks if Bush is speaking to the portraits on the White House walls as Nixon once did. I wonder: he still has Vice and Condi with whom to fantasize, before he has to move on to Calvin Coolidge and Millard Fillmore, or even, Bush 41. When a spokesperson says, “It’s a very complicated matter,” we should hear, ” The facts do not comport with our preferred theory, and we are having difficulty forcing reality into our unreality.” Thank God that Sen. Inhofe is no longer chair of the committee that is concerned for the environment. Remember, he is the one who said that global warming is a liberal money making scam and the biggest hoax in history. Sen. Barbara Boxer of Marin County is replacing him and that shows that God has a sense of humor.

But global warming and expiring fish are easier to read that the political and social effects of so-called globalization. We have before us now the unprecedented phenomenon of the Muslim murder-suicides, largely endorsed by Islam despite weak and infrequent protests from cowed co-religionists. This alone shows a profound failure of civilized culture, which is a series of distinctions that rests on one foundational distinction, that between life and death. I cannot go into this now but refer you to my recent article, “Politics and Apocalypse,” available on my website Along with this horseman rides nuclear proliferation, the Cold War threat now become a domestic affair for hairy fanatics with small suitcases. With two horsemen like these, who needs four?

So we are at a very serious and searching moment of history. It is imperative that we heed the warning of our text: not to stray from reality, deliberately or carelessly: “Keep a watch on yourselves; do not let your minds be dulled by dissipation or drunkenness and worldly cares so that the great Day closes upon you like a trap (Luke 21:34-35).” This dulling of the mind is taking place at an accelerating pace as deliberately our leadership avoids reality for the sake of their private lusts for glory, money and sex, which, by the way, were traditionally called pride, greed and concupiscence by us Christians, before the economists of the Enlightenment changed them from sins to “interests.”.

Even so, we will not be helped much by vigilance and honesty alone, because to know the truth is not to do it. The human perversity that we Christians know as sin, original or boring, causes us to act contrary to what we know to be wise. Do you think Bush really does not know what the truth is? He knows, he knows, but for the sake of his own pride he prevaricates, and thus he is not a fool but a knave, not a poor retard but a moral leper. He, and Vice and Condi are murdering your children and mine for the sake of their pride. Do you think the Democrats will do more than meliorate things marginally? Already the K-street lobbyists are buying up Democrats to replace their lost Republicans. Do you know that currently the major response to global warming by oil burning is a major turn to coal burning? Improvement is possible, Avery Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has a stunning plan for our energy future, which I commend heartily, but I doubt that it will be executed, why, because of lobbyists for oil and coal, corrupt congresses and morally paralysed presidents.

Only Christ can deliver us. In saying this I am not mouthing a party line but telling you the sober truth. We Christians are not deluded; the more you listen to what the Bible really says, not what the Left Behind sadist fanatics say it says, the more you will know how wise we Christians are. This is not a plea for more partisan religion in politics, but rather for more Christ-borne wisdom, not in its dubious religious guise but in its obvious worldly truth. And meanwhile, we long lovingly for our Lord Himself. “Come Lord Jesus!”
So, “Be on the alert, praying at all times for strength to pass safely through all these imminent troubles and to stand in the presence of the Son of Man (Luke 21:36).”




by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

November 19, 2006

Scriptures: 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Mark 13:1-8

“Take heed that on one leads you astray” –Mark 13:5

One might think that the recent election shows that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, and that the electorate has experienced an apocalypse, that is a moment of insight, but you would be mistaken. The inmate of the White House is still speaking of victory in Iraq and the new Speaker of the House has shown, in one week, that she is either politically inept or ethically challenged, or both, and that there is little to hope for from the new Congress with respect to the war. The co-chair of the so-called bipartisan consultative committee on Iraq, James Baker, is photographed in Iraq not with his Democratic co- chair Lee Hamilton but with the mad-dog architect of the whole sordid disgrace, Dick Cheney, affectionately known as Vice. My heart aches for the parents and loved ones of the 3000 of our military personnel sacrificed to the moral corruption of these poseurs, and the relatives of the scores of thousands of Iraqis murdered by their overweening pride. Gen Abizaid believes we can establish a stable democracy in Iraq and that we can count on the local security forces to uphold it, and that it will take only a few more months (four to six he said) to achieve this. Patently these are lies, not mistakes, not miscalculations, but deliberate, dastardly lies, told to cause the deaths of more young people so as to cover up the lying corruption that has already taken place, and therefore, they are morally culpable in the extreme. Each one of these persons, and all their supporters fall under the ban of Jesus: they are those who are leading us astray and in the context of today’s apocalyptic thought world, they are of the Anti-Christ.

Our text is the opening paragraph of what is known as an apocalypse. An apocalypse is a revelation or uncovering of things that have been hidden hitherto, of which the best-known example is the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible. An apocalypse usually concerns the ultimately important things, the end of the nation, the end of the world, the people who are true, and those who are false, the final judgment and the fate of judged. 9/11 precipitated a kind of apocalypse in the political life of our nation, but it was not an apocalypse of Christ but of Antichrist. Our leadership took the event as an opportunity to terrify the nation for five years and use that terror to gain support for deeply unwise, nay morally corrupt, military adventure. They led us all astray just as Jesus warned us they would. I cannot go into detail here, but if you study the apocalypse in the 13th chapter of Mark’s Gospel you will see that these scare tactics are not new; “Many will come in my name, saying, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place but the end is not yet (13:5-7).” If you knew the truth of this administration and not just the paranoid fantasies of a Rush Limbaugh, especially the roles of Cheney and Rumsfeld, you would understand why I use of them the apocalyptic imagery of those who are sent by Satan to lead us astray.

I am using this extreme imagery because it is the imagery of our set text, and also because it is from the same spot on the spectrum that our holy warriors use to justify themselves. The leader says, “I am he,” that is “God has sent me;” “I do not consult my father the 41st President because my Heavenly Father advises me.” Apocalypse is the unveiling of the hairy claw in the velvet glove, the tribal idol who has led us to disaster rather than the Christ who waits to lead us out again to a place of peace. We must leave Iraq immediately, or before, and begin the slow journey home to the borderline sanity we usually cling to. Perhaps you remember Francis Ford Coppola’s film of the Vietnam war, ” Apocalypse Now;” it portrayed the essential horror of it in terms of Joseph Conrad’s novel of the 19th century Congo, “Heart of Darkness.” The mantra of Conrad’s protagonist Kurtz, was “Oh the horror, the horror…” Likewise Coppola’s Colonel Kurtz played by Marlon Brando; they both give voice to the satanic heart of a war misused by great powers. We need another apocalypse film now. I warned five years ago from the pulpit that it would come to this; now I warn that five years from now you will not find one responsible person who does not agree that it was unwise to invade Iraq; meanwhile we shall stay there for another two years at least because our rulers are too ashamed to confess that they have done wrong.

One of our great literary apocalypses is Fyodor Dostoievsky’s novel “The Demons.” (Also translated as “The Possessed”). It is a long meditation on the Gospel account of the exorcism of the Gadarene demoniac and the migration of his demons into swine who drown in the lake, in the version of Luke 8:32-36. It features a herd of young political fantasists, “demons” that is, loosely arranged around a windbag of an intellectual whose pathetic life unfolds through the 700 pages, by itself and through the damage his young disciples do. His name is Stepan Trofimovich Verkovensky and we see him on his deathbed in an inn where his affliction has laid him low. A Bible woman, a traveling seller of Bibles and other holy books, whom he had met in one of the inns prior to the one we find him in now, nurses and comforts him. To her he confesses during the deathbed conversion he is undergoing, as follows: “My friend, I have been lying all my life. Even when I was telling the truth. I never spoke for truth, but only for myself, I knew that before but only now do I see…Oh, where are those friends whom I have insulted with my friendship all my life? And everyone, everyone! Savez-vous, perhaps I am lying now; certainly I ‘m also lying now. The worst of it is I believe myself when I lie. The most difficult thing in life is to live and not lie…and…not believe ones own lie, yes, yes that’s precisely it! (p.652) “. Thus he sees himself, but when he lifts his gaze to the horizon he sees a good future for Russia: “…These demons that come out of a sick man and enter into swine- it’s all the sores, all the miasmas, all the uncleanness, all the big and little demons accumulated in our great and dear sick man, in our Russia, for centuries, for centuries!…But a great will and a great thought will descend to her from on high, as upon that insane demoniac, and out will come all these demons, all the uncleanness, all the abomination that is festering on the surface…and they will beg of themselves to enter into the swine…But the sick man will be healed and “sit at the feet of Jesus…”(p.655).

Our dear sick man is the USA, and of course it will survive and more or less thrive, but ultimately it will with all of creation sit at the feet of Jesus, healed of the diseases brought on by lies. In the mean time, let us speak the truth as best we can; that at least will be a turn towards Jesus and away from the demonic precipice. As for me; I confess with Stepan Trofimovich, that I have lied all my life and am probably lying now, about everything except this: this is the one thing I know I have spoken truly : Jesus is the One! Jesus can exorcise our demons, Jesus can make our lives and true again. Therefore, Go to Jesus! Behold the Lamb, slain as the foundation of the world!


The Great Commandment

The Great Commandment

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

November 5, 2006

Scriptures: Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

“…you shall love the Lord your God,…you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” –Mark 12:29-31

Jesus, in the last week of his life, debates religious figures and teaches the general public in the portico of the temple in Jerusalem. A religious scholar joins the group and “seeing that he answered them well,” asks Jesus, which of the commandments is the greatest. Jesus replies by quoting two commandments from their sacred scriptures, which we know as the Old Testament. The scribe asks for one commandment and Jesus gives him two, because he could not separate the love of God from the love of the neighbor. He does, however, give them in the order of God first and the neighbor second, but never the one without the other. The love of God entails love of the neighbor and love of the neighbor expresses the love of God.
That is the essence of today’s lesson, and we could go home at this point were it not for the fact that we must still check and see whether what we presume to know about love is true. We take for granted that we know what love is, and indeed we might know a lot about it, but I think it is worthwhile to take this opportunity to ask whether that is really the case and see what more we might learn. This is a difficult task because what we call love is so various and so many of its forms have has been confused and degraded.

The first commandment comes from Deuteronomy 6:4 and the second from Leviticus 19:18. The first is a central part of the liturgy of worship in the synagogue and Jesus would have recited it every Sabbath. It is called the “Shema” after its first word, which means, “Hear” or in our usage, “Listen” or “Listen up!” The Shema expresses the essence of the creed of biblical religion, the oneness and uniqueness of God; there is only one God and He not one among many but the only one at all. Islam has a comparable creedal summary, which goes something like, “Allah is the one and only God and Muhammad is his prophet.” This confession then is one of the things that mark the closeness of the three Western religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam to each other; they are all monotheisms.

Jesus quotes the second commandment from Leviticus 19:18, a passage about the taking of revenge, whose full text is, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of you own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” The larger context is a series of regulations for keeping the Jewish people holy, or as we might put it, “kosher.” As it stands in Leviticus the quote restricts the concept of neighbor to ones ethnic group, and thus could be a two edged sword, cutting for Israel and against the Gentiles. This fact did not go unnoticed by the hearers of Jesus as we learn from Luke’s report of this event (Luke 10:25-37). Luke goes on to tell us that the scribe who questioned Jesus “…desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘who is my neighbor?'” Why did he need to “justify himself?” Luke tells us that the questioner had asked his question as a debating move, to trap Jesus into heresy or some such wrong position, (“And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test saying,’ Teacher what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”) and when Jesus escaped by his deft answer the lawyer tried again, and this time he succeeded; he showed up the fact that Jesus was not a good Jew by the then current standards, although we of course think he is the best Jew of all, and understands the real meaning of Judaism better than most, indeed, understands and represents it perfectly. So this is not and anti-Jewish observation.

According to Luke’s gospel, in answer to the question “who is my neighbor,” Jesus told the story we know as the “Good Samaritan” of a Jewish man robbed and injured on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, being left on the roadside in his misery by three Jewish religious figures, who “passed by on the other side of the road,” for religious reasons, namely, that they could not risk their ritual purity by touching a man who might be dead, and being helped by a Samaritan who as such was an ethnic and religious pariah to Jews. This is about as provocative a story as one could tell in those circumstances.

Thus Jesus opened up the concept of neighbor to include every human being and especially those whom your group considers the most obnoxious. This universal humanism is the unique feature of the teaching of Jesus, and whether the church has always or ever practiced it, it remains the unique center and heart of the Gospel. The good news of the Gospel is that in Christ God’s love reaches out to every human being without regard to racial or cultural customs, and without regard to religion, even the Christian religion. We need not mention the current disgrace of Pastor Haggard, a sort of Pope of the Christian right who, like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Baker of yesteryear is found to be a hypocrite, or the crimes of pedophile Catholic priests, to show that we know of the hypocrisy of religion. In extending the concept of neighbor beyond ethnic bounds Jesus also and emphatically extends it beyond religious bounds, and not just inner religious sectarian splits, but all religion at all. The universal love of God does not come only through religion, and in many cases religion might be getting in its way. Are you beginning to see why the religious folk had him crucified?

The love of the one and only God extends to all and every human being, and therefore, to love the members of ones own ethnic or religious group more than others or as is most often the case, against and instead of others, is not a virtue but as sin. It is the great sin of religion, which accounts for the regular attendance of religion at most battles, wars and sieges. Religion may not cause war but it is an early participant once war has started and in this it is driven by the notion that my ethnic neighbor is the one I must love and the stranger the one I must treat warily in peacetime and in wartime hate. Our fiasco in Iraq is based on a deep underestimation of the religious and ethnic element in human society. Our reasoning there is based on our own unique polity, which is one of very few in the history of the world to have transcended the ethnic premise. I learned with surprise that 44% of Iraqis are married to their first or second cousins, which means that the basic unit of power is not the municipality or the county council, and certainly not the state, but rather the clan first, and then the religion.

Jesus knew this dismal fact about our pathetic species, that we are not far removed from the chimpanzee that lives in a clan and sees all other clans as rivals for food and safety. To counter this basic social urge to cling together against outsiders Jesus poses the idea of love for the universal neighbor, and from this feature of his idea of love we gain insight into love itself.

Naturally, that is biologically, love is the feeling of priority we bestow on our children, the special importance of those we call loved ones, who are primarily family members. Even our law endorses this priority of biology when it automatically awards children to their biological parents in circumstances where they might not be good for the child at all. Romantically, love is that powerful feeling of attraction we feel for someone else, so powerful we call the other “mine” and undertake to share everything, even or especially our bodies with them for life. This is natural love, and it is full of good things for us, but it must be allowed to grow beyond biological boundaries and clan-based affinities to the unrelated and even the unknown other.

The Samaritan who stooped for the stricken Jewish victim who, he might assume, considered him to be scum, and were he not comatose would have shrunk from his touch, – “I don’t want this nigger to touch me” – illustrates and exercises love that is on a trajectory from natural to supernatural, and this trajectory reaches its goal when we exercise that same goodwill as we show to our families and friends towards our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48: Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your friends and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”). When love for loved ones and friends, becomes love for enemies, it becomes love indeed. Prior to that it is merely love in training, the simplest kind of affinity on its way to the most profound intimacy, the love of God. I call this love of God an intimacy because when we find it we find ourselves as we really are, and all our loved ones become equally open and intimate to us, because we find them in God, that is we begin to see them as God sees them. When we finally have a self that we can give away we are also at last in a position to receive the others who might want to give them selves to us. And furthermore we enter into and share the love that God has for me and for others, so we see enemies as God sees them, and they are transformed. The only way I know to deal with enemies is to see them in prayer, pray for them and hold a positive will for them. I know of what I speak; I have prayed steadfastly for people whom I detest and who returned the compliment. I prayed for them but I never liked them.

All culture is a process of the transforming of dumb nature into word and spirit. By words we say goodbye to the ape in us, and journey towards the angel in us, from group affinity, to universal community, to spiritual intimacy, this is the path of creation, from love to Love, from group to God. So Jesus made the love for God first and the love for the neighbor, not second, but like it. Why? Because the love of God and love of the universal neighbor, whether friend or stranger, or even enemy, is one and the same supernatural energy that God gives to those who seek Him sincerely and strenuously by heeding the teaching of Jesus and opening to Christ’s divine grace. So, let’s use the image of surfing: Get your board out onto the top of that great wave and surf the love of God and all the world down home to Paradise.


Status and Salvation

Status and Salvation

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

October 22, 2006

Scriptures: Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

“For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” –Mark 10:45

Our Gospel readings have now followed the theme of service and the servant for three or more Sundays, because the Gospel of Mark focuses on that theme in the section we are reading and indeed makes it a keynote of its whole gospel message. The context is rivalry and envy, status and striving, mostly within the pathetically small band of the disciples. Last time we looked they were arguing who is the greatest among them and Jesus showed them a baby in its mother’s arms, totally dependent, wholly trusting, as an example of the attitude that enters the divine intimacy called the Kingdom of God (9:33-37, 10:13-16). In today’s reading the sons of Zebedee, James and John, ask a favor, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). Perhaps they thought such status their due because they were in the first group whom Jesus invited to join him, along with Peter and his brother Andrew. If so the rivalry was focused on Peter and Andrew.

The parallel account of this incident in Matthew 20:20-28 is even more tightly packed with psychological cargo. In it James and John’s mother ask Jesus to do this favor for her boys. This means two things, one, that since the four boys had worked together as fishermen there was an established background of rivalry between the families in which the respective mothers were involved, and two, that John and James’ mother was part of the group of disciples, and perhaps Peter and Andrew’s also – their mommies went along to feed them and make sure they had clean underwear – and we can imagine them urging their sons to be sure they get the best deal, pushing them to succeed like the legendary Jewish mothers are supposed to do. So, if we follow Matthew, the problem is not only the rivalry in a bunch of boys, but their families are involved too, and we have the raw material of the average soap opera right there in the Gospels. The point is that this is real life we are dealing with, life like we live it in our own families and workplaces, here and now, and therefore that this teaching of Jesus is obviously applicable now, needing no interpretation.

So we have here is another instance of the attitude of rivalry, competition and striving that Jesus is at pains to warn against and condemn. One might say that it is for Jesus the sin of sins.

Consider the extreme sanctions he lodges against it. For this we must go back to the beginning of the section of the Gospel of Mark that deals with this theme. It is the confession of Peter in Mark 8:27-38, where having accepted Peter’s confession of his own divine status, Jesus forecasts the suffering and ignominious death that is in store for him. Peter refuses to accept this prophecy and Jesus calls him Satan, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God but of (the world).” Then Jesus warns them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save her life will lose it; and whoever loses her life for my sake and the Gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a person, to gain the whole world and lose his soul? For what can one give in return for ones soul? (9:33-38, passim). I cannot improve on these immortal words and so I quote them. They tell it all.

Mark knows how very important this theme, command, teaching, example (I don’t know how properly to describe it; perhaps I should say, “revelation,”) of humility with regard to status is for Jesus, and so he goes on to narrate examples of its opposite, to show how fatally prone we are to precisely this sin of status seeking rivalry, and to remind us again and again of Jesus’ warning against it. Mark seems to be obsessed with the evils of status seeking and status holding. In the course of his story from the Confession at Caesarea Philippi to the summation of the message in our text for today, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life” (10:45), he shows how we disciples argue about who is the greatest, keep mothers and children from Jesus, complain about someone no of our group healing in the patented name of Jesus, and we see a rich young man who prefers the status his wealth gives him to the life Jesus could give him.

To James and John, Mark’s Jesus says, “You do not know what you are asking,” and warns them of the arduous spiritual trials ahead (10:38-40). The other disciples become predictably indignant at the brothers, and the plague of rivalry appears above the horizon of denial.
The rubric over the whole narrative is “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). It specifies the three prestigious classes in the society, the government (elders), the religious institutions (chief priests) and the academy (scribes). They are about to cast out and kill Jesus, and Peter and the other disciples could not accept this, because they wanted status in precisely the terms of these institutions. It is easy to understand how this prophecy would arouse what we might call “status anxiety” among Jesus’ intimate followers; their prestige depended on his, and his humiliation was therefore their humiliation. For them no political power, no religious power, and no intellectual distinction, none of the honors of this world; they must make do with the obscure intimacy of fellowship with the divine source of all life and prestige, at home in the Kingdom of God. They balked.

And we balk. Last week I had the dubious privilege of the extreme democracy of the San Jose airport security facilities. In general I love the human race, but no close up; there are so many of us, and we seem so ridiculously vulnerable, tearing of our shoes and surrendering our belts, holding pants up with one hand and stripping coats and jackets off with the other, in deep consultation about our toilet waters and toothpaste, all the while wearing masks of extreme patience over grimaces of hostility and blushes of indignity and shame. I spotted that place where the lines converge on the machines and sweating citizens stoop to tear off their shoes, as a place of extreme democracy, a place where we were all without any status at all, and I did not like it. So I am the first disciple to admit that I need this teaching of Jesus to be drummed into me daily, hourly, because it is so contrary to my natural attitude.
I am not being entirely facetious; democracy, even in its imperfect forms, which are the only forms we see, is an impulse that comes from Christ himself. Listen, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:42-45). Jesus tells us that the Christian form of authority is the authority not of the Lord but of the servant.

Well, we have heard the term “public servant” used of politicians and bureaucrats, and when we hear it a wave of cynicism washes over us because we know whom they really serve, and we know the damages they are willing to do to the public interest in the service of their own sectional and personal interests. I believe in democracy, despite my uneasiness about crowds and my preference for one on one and solitude, and I know how hard we have to work really to be democratic. The Christian root from which democracy grows is visible in our Gospel for today; there are no privileged seats in the Kingdom of God; every one of us pathetic shoe stripping, pants holding people is powerfully loved by God, and therefore worthy of being taken seriously when consulted about our own governance. Democracy is self-rule in the deepest sense of ruling over our individual selves so that we can contribute authentic spiritual guidance to the governance of the group. The spirit of that self-rule is the spirit expressed in the example of Jesus, who although he is Son of Man, came not to be served but to serve and to give.

I believe that a sincere engagement with what Paul calls “the faith of Christ” is the way to go if one wants to break free of the icy hand of envy and cool the red hot cheeks of rivalry. It is not possible to give here the teaching that we need to move in this faith away from status seeking and the honors of this world. I have been trying to give that in my Bible Study class, which is now approaching the end of its 32nd year of continuous weekly teaching. You can begin to appropriate the true democracy of Jesus by contemplating these sections of Mark’s gospel. What Milton once called the “last infirmity of noble mind” can cripple us to the end, or we can find in Christ the quiet fulfillment of all our desires and especially our great desire for significance and a successful life. It costs work, but what else is ultimately worth our effort?


Like a Child

Like a Child

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

October 8, 2006

Scriptures: Hebrews 1:1-4; Mark 10: 13-16

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it ” –Mark 10:15

I shall be briefer than usual today because most of you heard me yesterday at Myrtle’s Memorial Service and are therefore due some relief. In any case the lesson Jesus wants us to learn this week is simple, simple as a child. How shall we understand this?

Look first at the context of our saying in the gospel: it is a series of debates; about who is the greatest in their little band (9:30-37), about whether those who do not belong to their group should be allowed to cast out demons in Jesus’ name (9:38-41), about divorce (10:1-12) and about the right use of riches (10:17-31).

The theme of children occurs more than once in this context. In 9:36 Jesus points to a child and says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me…” In 9:42 he warns that whoever causes a child to sin, it were better for him that a millstone be tied around his neck and he be drowned in the depths of the sea. In 9:13 he rebukes his disciples for keeping away the people who brought children to him for blessing; “…When Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the Kingdom of God 910:14). Clearly the gospel writer has gathered together several of the sayings of Jesus about children and clustered them here; one might assume that in the oral stage of the tradition of the teaching, sayings were remembered in groups, like “children,” “family,” “rivalry,” and “riches.” What may we learn of our Lord’s view of children from this cluster, and what may we learn for our own edification and purification?
It’s simple: we learn that children are especially precious to him, that he identifies with them and so the way we treat them is the way we treat him. Therefore it is especially serious if we lead a child astray. Then, as a climax in the exposition, he says that we must receive the Kingdom of God as a child receives the love of his/her parents, that is, naively, simply, with trust.

Alas we see too much abuse and exploitation of children, by international wars and famine, by the clergy of the Christian churches, and latterly by the member of the House of Representatives who chaired the sub-committee on the matter of exploited and abused children. What should on say to this? Stop it! Whether it be war, insurgency, or just email, stop it!t matter,

I don’t want to moralize here. Our human perversity and frailty is all to well-known to us, and we should always include ourselves with the sinners in any moralizing we do. So, if I am not to moralize, what shall I say? Let me try to understand what it might mean for us to receive the Kingdom like a child.

I prefer John’s word for “Kingdom of God,” namely, “Eternal Life,” so let me recast the saying as follows, “Whoever does not receive eternal life like a child shall not enter it.” This immediately takes us to the theme I dealt with in Myrtle’s memorial sermon, namely, the way we receive resurrection life just like we receive life in the beginning. When we were born we were utterly dependent on the creative love of God working through our parents to bring us into being, when we receive eternal life we are similarly dependent on the creative love of God. The divine love that lifted us from the womb to mortality lifts us from the tomb to immortality. So the children Jesus has in mind might not be toddlers or older, but babes in arms. We might imagine mothers bringing their babies for him to kiss, like politicians have their handlers arrange for them.

If this is the case it is not anything about the disposition or moral state of children that might guide us to Life, but the simple fact of the sheer dependency of babies. Unless you realize that in this matter of eternal life you are as totally dependent as you were when your parents conceived you, and your mothers pushed you out into the world, you are missing the point and the privilege. Your first contribution to your life was a loud cry of indignation at being shoved into a cold world, a protest against the struggle that lay ahead. Let your last contribution not be a similarly uninformed one, but rather a joyous realization that the same divine love is waiting to receive you and give you life again.
So Jesus here as everywhere is teaching us who God is, at least as far as we are concerned. God is that divine love that encompasses our life from our beginning and forever. We can rely absolutely on that love, as a baby depends on its parents. This is more than just a metaphor, because we in fact all relied utterly once and will all rely utterly again, and the only question is, can I trust those outstretched arms? The question really is otiose becaue we have no option here, nevertheless, God deigns to answer us and Jesus says that when we receive it as a babe in God lives through us forever.


On Violence and Religion

On Violence and Religion

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

September 24, 2006

Scriptures: James 3:13-4:3; Mark 9:30-37

“If anyone one would be first, he/she must be last of all and servant of all” –Mark 9:35

When one hears a saying like this one suspects that it is impossible to follow Jesus. There is surely a diagnostic category in the science of mental health for someone who wants always to be last of all and servant of all. Such a person would be diagnosed at least as lacking in self-esteem, and probably as prey to several more dire disorders. Yet Jesus says it is the ideal way to be. In order to understand the saying properly we must consider its context, and see it as part of Jesus’ antidote to deformed desire.

Our two readings for this week complement each other neatly. Our Gospel speaks of the necessary suffering and humiliation of our Lord, and the need for the disciple to be like the Lord servile and self-effacing, while the Epistle tells of the true wisdom that is free of jealousy and selfish ambition. Jesus speaks to disciples who, having heard that their teacher must suffer humiliation and death, start wrangling over who is the greatest in their little group of twelve, and James speaks to a church, which many of know as typical, where there is “bitter jealousy” and “selfish ambition” and where people “boast and are false to the truth.” We recognize ourselves immediately, and we wonder if we ever shall be able to live lives the are “pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty and insincerity.” We wonder if it is not just cant and hypocrisy to be talking about “…the harvest of righteousness sown in peace by those who make peace (James 3:17-18).” How many church members like that do you know?

James diagnoses our malady as a pathology of desire. Listen to this: “What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions (James 4:1-3).” This is a conventional description of the human problem; virtually every religion begins with this diagnosis, and then prescribes various anti-dotes to sick and self-destroying desire. To take only four examples, Judaism prescribes obedience to the Law of Moses, Islam, the prophecies of Muhammad, Buddhism, the teaching of Siddharta, and Christianity the teaching of Jesus. All of these representative religions target the same enemy, sick and self-destroying desire but differ in their recommended antidotes. Why should we prefer one to the other?

The recent statement of the Pope in which he quoted a Byzantine source to the effect that Muhammad’s prophecies brought forth only violence and inhumanity is unfortunate not only in its effects but also in its implication that the historical record of Islam in these matters is worse than other religions in general and than Christianity in particular. It is impossible to imagine such poor judgment on the part of a man so patently brilliant and careful so one can only conclude that he wants to open a dialogue with responsible Muslim leaders about the current surge of criminal violence that is bursting forth from within Islam. Unfortunately he gives the impression that Christianity’s historical record is better than Islam’s in the matter of curbing and curing the violent passions of desire. While one cannot maintain that Christianity has historically been free of lethal desire, or even better than Islam in this regard, one must face the fact that today, in the year 2006, there is no comparison between the two religions in this regard. Now there is an ever- growing wave of the cruelest and most fanatical violence crashing from Islam upon the creaky dams of an almost vanished Christendom, murdering men, women, children, old folks and babies with zeal and satisfaction. Its view of the world is gravely distorted, holding for instance that US and European business activities are a Christian crusade to deprive and enslave Muslims. This so-called Muslim jihadism is a major threat to world peace, as well as a massive pathology of human religiosity. It is as if the KKK and the Aryan Church of the Pure White Race were the chief representatives of Christianity today – entities that cause derision and nausea among the vast majority of Christians, and are massively repudiated. The fact is that the largest Christian institution, the Roman Catholic Church, is consistent and adamant in its opposition to war, especially the current US war, and to the death penalty. It is in fact a militant pro-life (in the general sense) institution ranged against the cultures of death, which solve their problems by killing human beings, from the weakest to the strongest. It stands against the desire for death, not violently but in firm humility. Whatever its record was in the11 thru 13th centuries when it crusaded, or the 15 and 16th centuries when its Inquisition was most active, it has not for a long time been anything like that. Therefore, it is no argument to claim that all religions are the same in this regard, and the Pope cannot challenge the responsible leaders of Islam today. Let’s hear from them! Let’s have an international Muslim conference to condemn finally, adamantly and forever, the violent jihad they claim has not part in classical Islam.

Since we Westerners cannot get the meaning of jihad right when all Muslims use it for spiritual struggle in general and only the murdering scum use it to mean merciless killing of the weak and defenseless, it would be very helpful if, as a writer named James Guirard suggests, Islam in general stopped referring to the crimes of their murdering scum as jihad (Holy War) and called it hirabah (unholy war), called the perpetrators irhabists (terrorists) rather than jihadists, and called these self proclaimed holy warriors not mujahideen (holy warriors) but rather mufsidoon (criminals or evildoers). One could not imagine responsible Christian leaders calling the work of the KKK a holy war, or their member’s holy warriors, and then complaining when people thought they were approving of their evil deeds. (Cf. Atlantic Monthly, Sept 2006, p. 69).

I regret that the Pope’s strategy in this matter was so inept; he has confused things, while at the same time demonstrating by the Muslim reaction the validity of the criticism that a Muslim theology of a God who transcends reason produces irrationality. The reason of the modern hirabah is the reason of humiliation, hatred, and revenge, not of civil dialogue and civilized tolerance, that is, not reason at all but idiot desire in its orgasmic paroxysms of violence. There is no point in claiming the attitudes of civil dialogue for Islam while so many of its best representatives are silent about the wild cruelty of its baby killing saints. Let us hear from the Muslim equivalents of the Pope that these people are not Muslims at all and in any way, but merely murderous felons to be excommunicated and attacked in the name of the Muslim god.

I know that one does not make ones own product better by dispraising the product of another, and I emphatically do not argue that because Islam is at present so bad, Christianity is rendered better. Nevertheless, it is instructive at some level I cannot specify, to compare the example of Jesus with that of Muhammad. Jesus goes willingly to humiliation and death because he in principle overthrows the religious order, and will not defend himself against the retributive violence of that injured order. He dies, falsely proclaimed a felon, outside the city, forsaken. Muhammad leads his armies to victory and spreads his religion by the sword. He dies in his bed in the presence of his wives and children (I am no expert on the life of the prophet, so these descriptions are not accurate in domestic details, but there can be no denying that he was in significant measure a military leader). I appreciate the comparative realism and humanity of the prophet’s example; Jesus is too extreme for most of us to emulate; but I am convinced that only Jesus got to the root of things, and revealed the disease of desire and its orgasmic violence. The cruel Cross, not the peaceful divan, discloses the truth about us, and thereby lances the infected heart; but it is the cross of the crucified, not the sword of the crucifiers that counts. That is the determinative and impossible difference; we are always claiming to be the crucified when in fact we are the crucifiers. (Did I not fear for my life, I would include here a remark about prophets who die in their beds).

There is so much that dare not be said these days; so the sore festers and the body soaks up the poison. CK Williams, in a poem recently published in the TLS (9/8/06) called “Apes” writes: “It’s occurred to me I’ve read enough; at my age all I’m doing is confirming my sadness.” This speaks for me; confirming my sadness I turn to Jesus whose sadness was infinite and whose subsequent joy, eternal. Myrtle told me shortly before she died that she found the figure of the suffering, crucified Jesus on the crucifix in St Ann’s chapel very comforting as she sat in service there. Jesus has a way of taking up our pain into his, but only when we are through with pretending. So let’s try to face the truth about our decadent desire and our inability to reform it, our need of the one real savior, Jesus the Resurrected, and let us go to him.


Hearing and Speaking

Hearing and Speaking

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

September 10, 2006

Scriptures: James 2:1-10; Mark 7:24-37

“And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly” –Mark 7:35

Last time our theme was the “Words of Life,” this time it is the link between hearing and speaking, another meditation on the power of words. We return again and again to the theme of communication because we are concerned with the life of the “spirit,” and spirit is the world created by words. Spiritual life takes place in the gap between the word and its referent; it is our wonderful capacity to use words to create worlds of meaning. Think of that continual conversation with yourself that goes on in your mind; think of how that conversation gives structure, and direction, and thus meaning, to your life; think of how the very word “mind” is to be distinguished from “brain” and how this distinction represents the great distinction between spirit and matter; think of how this conversation in the mind links up, via conversation in the outside world, with the inner conversations of others, thus creating a shared world of conversation, a world of shared languages, a set of relationships, a culture, a spiritual world. In so far as our identities are shaped by the worlds we live in, and that is very far indeed, we are individually, nodes in a network of communication. That network is the spiritual world, the world of the spirit that Jesus knows so well, knows perfectly, because he is the first word, the Word who was “in the beginning,” and he will be the last Word, the Omega as well as the Alpha.

This is why it is so important to understand the “communications revolution” of the last twenty years. It is a process of change in the very branch on which our culture-imbedded identities sit. I know this claim seems excessive but it is not. It seems excessive to us because we believe, mistakenly, that we are ultimately, utterly autonomous monadic centers of consciousness, when in fact we are ramifications of relations, whose taproot is the relationship with the divine, and whose other roots ramify into a network of nodes and branches along and through which life flows. The network of life is this root system of communication, the language of the Logos, the Tree of Life.

Bear with me as I unpack this meditation a little more, I assure you it is what the evangelist wants us to know, what he is communicating through the story he tells of a man who was unable to hear and unable to speak, whom people brought to the Lord and whom the Lord enabled to hear and to speak. Note that he could not hear and he could not speak. Does this tell us something? Perhaps he is a wise man in this regard, compared to those who jabber on even though they cannot or will not hear, let alone listen. This man at least inhibited his tongue because he could not listen (We are told that he had a speech impediment; I take this as an instance of what used to be called “hysterical” afflictions; he knows he is cut off from one side of the dialogue and so he inhibits the other. He is “tongue-tied,” and the text tells us that his tongue was “set free” when his hearing was restored). In any case Jesus gives him back both powers, and he does it in the most physical way.

Let us meditate on this physicality. Jesus takes him aside privately, puts his fingers in his ears, and rubs his spittle on his tongue and looking up to heaven commands, “Be opened.” Whatever actually happened, the evangelist wants us to know that there was intimate physical contact between Jesus and the man. Jesus’ saliva on the man’s tongue reminds us of the “eating” and “drinking” of his body and blood in last time’s Gospel reading (“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me…” John 6:56). That imagery caused many to leave Jesus; in this narrative such public effect is avoided by the act’s taking place in private. Nevertheless, we the readers know what happened and we could be disgusted – this is a risky thing to narrate. What is so important for us to know that the evangelist will take this risk of alienating us?

Let us reflect. We are interested in the world of the spirit, whose essence is hearing and speaking, not in the realm of the body. We wish to escape into a world beyond empirical verification or falsification, from the place of action to the place of ideas, from events to words, and to make the narrative a symbolic presentation of states of mind; but the physicality of the contact with Jesus, the event nature of the restoration of hearing and speaking, means that we cannot. We cannot avoid the “event” nature of this restoration of spirit. We do not work our way out of spiritual deafness and dumbness by strenuous thought and rigorous argument, but rather we come to Jesus and ask for him to heal us. He puts his hand in our ears and his spittle on our tongues, his bodily substance and his bodily fluid on us, and we speak and hear again. That means that we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we take the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and in that event he opens our ears and frees tongue-tied speech.

We cannot know if the events of our narrative unfolded literally as they are told; the deed was done in private so who saw it? Must we assume that the man himself told others in defiance of a direct command of Jesus not to do so? The text tells us that people in general did not honor his request for privacy, but the man himself? Perhaps. Nevertheless we do know what Mark wants us to learn, namely, that the healing and restoration of our spirit happens when we meet Jesus and he allows us to draw near enough for him to touch us, and give himself to us, bodily. We need not be too literal about this bodily contact for obvious reasons; he is not here for such contact and hasn’t been for a long time; but we do have sacraments to attest how in our faith the physical and the spiritual are mutually entailed. In this order of life, the possibility of word, deed, and consciousness rests on and arises from the carbon-based matter of our bodies, and our faith knows that in this world flesh and spirit cannot be separated.

So our faith is not a pattern of ideas, or a chain of proofs, but rather a series of historical events. Events in the flesh entail events in the spirit, and for this reason the Word became flesh (John 1:14) and not simply more words. It was to put an end to speculation and calculation, and ends to idle words that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth; we beheld his glory, glory as of the only son from the father.” Notice how strikingly John says that we beheld the glory in the flesh, not in the mind or in a vision or pattern of words. So our miracle story is part of the great narrative of the incarnation of God, telling us that God is not ashamed of our flesh, and we shall find him there when we allow him to unstop our ears are untie our tongues.

Let’s take care of an historical parallel in case the people who think that because you do not mention everything you know you do not know it. There are accounts in contemporaneous literature of wonderworkers who spat, stuck their fingers here and there, and looked up to heaven groaning and sighing, and that our narrative might be based on a cultural cliché; but the point is clear whatever the historical bedrock might be, namely that Jesus must open your ears before you can open your mouth.

You remember how in Isaiah 6:9 God commands the prophet to say to the people, “Hear and hear, but do not understand, see and see, but do not perceive (cf Mark 4:12 and parallels);” and how often Jesus said after telling a parable, “He who has ears to hear let him hear (Mark 4:9)”. The prophet links hearing with seeing, the evangelist links it with speaking. To be sure all of the five senses can be awake or asleep to the presence of Jesus the source of life. Smell, taste, touch- each of these lovely gifts of sense can be sensuous or dulled, unable to praise God in the creation; sight can be blind and hearing dull; but Jesus wants them to function fully and so brings them to life again in us. Jesus wants us to listen not merely hear, perceive not merely see, and speak not merely talk.

So one important lesson of our story is clear: Do not speak before you listen. The man at least had the decency to tie his tongue since he could not hear. On a sabbatical leave in Munster Germany some years ago I heard that one of the Professors of Philosophy at the University where I was visiting occasionally sent his chauffeur (he had a rich wife) to class to announce the Herr Professor Dr Dr von…would not be lecturing today because he had nothing to say. Recently I read that WH Auden turned down an invitation to give a named lecture series at Harvard and a $25000 fee for the same reason, and he needed the money. Our man had the integrity to tie his tongue when he had nothing to say. And then Jesus met him and opened his ears and untied his tongue, and he went off speaking.

What do you think he said? “And he charged them to tell no one; but the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the dumb speak.’ ” This is the second and even more important message of our Gospel.

Once, long ago I met him too, and he opened my ears and set free my tongue, and ever since I have been speaking, writing, arguing, exhorting, beseeching, preaching, proclaiming and now singing, that Jesus is the one, Jesus is the one who makes sense out of things, and life out of living. It’s as simple and profound as that. We all know what meaningless means, and how impossible it is to make sense out of life by studying, puzzling, traveling, searching; how we always either postpone the big question to another time or give it up altogether and live a divertissement. Mark tells us that Jesus opens our ears and our mouths, gives us the answer and enables us to tell it to others.

What a marvelous gift, here in this world where so many of our leaders, no less, say nothing because they hear nothing, and they hear nothing because they do not want to hear, – especially not the cries of the burning children, – and what they say is worse than nothing, it is lies, lies, lies, that kill, maim, and distort. How long O Lord? Let us for our part listen and then tell the world who Jesus is and what he has to say.


The Words of Eternal Life

The Words of Eternal Life

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

August 27, 2006

Scriptures: Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6: 56-69

“You have the words of eternal life” –John 6:68

We are back again with that recurring theme of the Gospel of John, life, and not just transient life, but eternal life. John speaks of life and how to experience it, in many ways – by metaphors like water and bread, by mystical or philosophical images like light and Logos – but here he attributes it to the discourse of Jesus. Eternal life comes in and through what Jesus has to say.

It is significant that Peter the respondent does not say “You speak the words of eternal life,” but rather “You have the words of eternal life.” The difference between speaking and having is important. Jesus asks the shaken disciples, who remained when others were shocked into apostasy by the demand that all eat his flesh, “Are you going too?” and Peter answers “To whom Lord shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” He says not “speak” but “have.” The idea is perhaps best translated by the idiom used above, “…have to say.” Eternal life comes through what Jesus has to say.

Why is this small difference important? Because if we say the power is in what he speaks, we can hear the message, detach it from the messenger, and take it away with us to use on our own. If however, it is in what he has to say, we cannot leave because he himself is the substance of what he says. His whole being is an expression in time and space of what he has to say. This interpretation is confirmed by the reference to coming and going: “are you also going away? …”To whom shall we go (come)?” So the important image in play here is one of going to Jesus and staying with him no matter how shocking he may be from time to time, of not leaving no matter what happens.

The scene before us is touching: Jesus tells us not just to eat him but more emphatically, to chew his flesh and suck all the juicy nourishment out of it, and wash it down with his blood. The portrayal is extreme. No wonder many said, “This is too much to take, were leaving!” Jesus is testing our loyalty and our trust. Just as Jesus’ mother said to the servants at the Cana wedding in Ch 2, “Do whatever he tells you to do,” and the water changed into wine, so now the Gospel implies the same instruction, and the true disciple obeys, while the shaky disciple can’t take it and leaves.

All of this teaching is already there in the Gospel passage before we come to the central question of “What are the words of eternal life?” So let us register this preliminary teaching before we try to go farther. In order to get it right we must go to Jesus and stay with Jesus whatever happens. This going and staying is not easy; Jesus reminds us that only God the Father can make it possible, and thus it is the Father who initiates the gift of eternal life, just as he initiated our temporal life in the great gift to us of our birth (vs. 65). So, the context in which the words of life sound for us it the intimate and loyal relationship Jesus offers us and we receive in response to the Father’s call and creating grace.

Thinking within the context of this relationship we begin to understand how these words of eternal life are exchanged, not like a public announcement, nor like a recipe, theorem or prescription, but like a conversation, like an intimate conversation. Let me give you an example: this week I saw a strip of photographs of Queen Victoria aged in her forties. Two things came to me, one that my maternal grandmother, whom I loved dearly as a little child, looked just like Queen Victoria, and two, how different my Granny was from how the Queen appeared, so utterly unwelcoming and unapproachable. Thinking over this sermon in that connection I recalled that the Queen once said of her famous Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone, “I hate that little man, he always addresses me as if I were a public meeting.” She said this to her Conservative Prime Minister Disraeli when he was back in office, perhaps because he dealt with her more subtly and flattered her shamelessly – she called him “Dizzy.” ( Her gillie and later chief of homeland security, so to speak, Mr. John Brown, we are told, called her “Woman,” in a broad Scots accent, as in “Woman, Behavior, yerself!”).

The point is that the words of eternal life do not, according to this Gospel, come as public speeches or general announcements, but rather as the deep substance of real conversation. For this reason I value our Bible Study classes so much; they do from time to time become real conversations, in which we share ourselves with God and one another. Sometimes such a conversation happens and it is always life giving when it does.

So the words of eternal life are personal not general, private not public, embedded in the reality of a sustaining relationship. The first such relationship is, of course, the bedrock relationship of our life, the relationship with God, where we suck on the breast of original creativity and hear the voice of the creating Logos; but there are other levels of life-giving relationship in which intimate words are also essential. C.S.Lewis tells of conversations he had with his wife as she was dying of cancer, which he described as “nourishing.” All significant human transactions employ words and it is along the lines of words that life flows in and out of literature, business, and ordinary life with family, friends and strangers. We all know this life-bearing function of words by our experience of the ability of words to hurt and to heal, to abase and to exalt. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can break my heart,” I said once in a sermon, and then saw it later in Dear Abby. I claim it as original to me, if only in the sense that I made it up for that occasion and did not copy it from somewhere. In any case the saying is true. There are words of life and words of death. And then there are, words of eternal life.

What is the difference? We creatures can use the gift of words for many good and bad purposes, to build up and break down, only God’s words give eternal life and create world. The difference between our words and God’s is that God creates and we merely procreate, which, however, is not an unimportant function by any means. Our words can be nourishing if they are procreative in the sense of channeling the divine creativity to others, life giving in the sense of bearing the divine life to others.

In our Gospel we witness a paradoxical rhetoric that speaks in opposites. We must crudely eat the flesh and we must discount it in favor of the word and the Spirit. This exposition by opposites is well known in rhetoric and we need not feel that we have to choose either/or; John wants us to choose both/and. If we do we shall see that we are dealing with the very act of worship we are making here, both word and sacrament, both spirit and matter. The divine is not to be separated from the human, the spiritual from the material; both subsist in relationship to each other, in forms that are appropriate to the context in which we find ourselves, that is, in this world matter predominant but spirit always in, with and under, in that world, spirit dominant and mater transformed.

We could say so much more about the importance of words in human life, for instance we might reflect on the probability that it is the ability to use words in the first place that made the pre-humans human and the whole concept of spirit possible (that is, spirit as a existence beyond matter, existence in the gap between thing and idea, mediated by words). We could ponder the mysterious role of listening, the other side of words, in healing and restoring; how it is not just the dearth of hearing that kills, but perhaps ever more the dearth of being heard. That is why I describe the words of eternal life as a conversation with Christ, with listening and hearing, back and forth. So much more to think about, but we must stop. Let it be sufficient for now that we know that Jesus embodies the words of life and that he wants us to be with him and engage in a nourishing conversation with him. And let us come to his table to eat his body and hear his words of life.


The Bread of Life

The Bread of Life

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

August 13, 2006

Scriptures: Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35;42-51

“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.'” –John 6:35

Much has happened in the larger world since last we met five weeks ago: Iraq has fallen into civil war, and Israel has been provoked into war with a Muslim militia. These are very serious developments, not only because of the loss of human life they entail, but also because of the dire trend in current history they confirm. There can be no doubt now that a dominant element in worldwide Islam has declared war on the Judeo-Christian West. The Hizbollah attack on Israel was commanded from Teheran to draw attention temporarily away from Iran’s international difficulty over nuclear weapons, and what shall we say when nuclear tipped rockets come down the pipeline from Teheran to Beirut to be fired into Israel? It may shock you to hear that after my severe criticism of Israel’s conduct in the past, I support Israel wholeheartedly at present. To put the matter cynically, Israel has cost us much over the years and now is the time for her to repay us somewhat by doing as much damage as possible to our common enemy in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere, that is, to the Shiite branch of our Muslim assailants. The Sunni branch is, of course, Al Quaida, and we thank the British security services for saving us from them last week.

As for the issue if civilian casualties and collateral damage; it seems to me that we settled the ethics of that to the detriment of civilians when we participated heartily in the carpet bombing of civilian Germany and Japan during WW2, especially the fire bombing of Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo, and the Atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Destruction of civilians was endemic to aerial bombardment then, and it still is. In the present situation precision not carpet bombing is used but enemy tactics make heavy civilian casualties certain because they locate military assets in schools, hospitals and apartment houses, just as the tactics and ordnance we used and are still prepared to use made our air war in WW2 lethal for bystanders. Since WW2 the ethics of warfare states that as long as one does not intend to harm civilians one is morally justified. I do not believe that Israel intends to harm civilians, indeed, with warning pamphlets beforehand and the use of precision guided ordnance they are taking every possible means short of surrendering their right to self-defense to wage war morally. On the matter of collateral damage Just War Theory has been out of date for 70 years at least.

This Muslim anti-Western trend, now accelerating, is not only a temporary reaction to the larger force of globalization that is everywhere Westernizing the world and eroding Islamic culture, but also a resurgence of Muslim religious zeal against its Jewish and Christian rivals, who are so much more successful by worldly standards. Why, they ask, if our religion is superior and our culture supreme, are we everywhere so ludicrously ignominious? There is now a settled trend of Muslim hostility to Jews and Christians that no mealy-mouthing can whiten.

How shall we think about this and what shall we do? Since Shiite and Sunni Muslims are hereditary enemies, temporarily united in Lebanon and Gaza by their common hostility to Israel and to us, but at each other’s throats in Iraq, one strategy might be to try hard to exacerbate that hostility by cultivating one side. A Sunni leader recently described the Shia as “a bone in the throat of Islam.” That tactic is too cynical you will say; but it is ancient wisdom that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. If that diplomacy is fanciful there must be and are other kinds we can pursue, because military force alone cannot do the job. It may be that the job of achieving a steady peace with Islam is an impossible one, chiefly because of Islam’s theology, and therefore force is endemic to the relation. Force, in any case, is always needed somewhere in the picture, but can only be used with much wisdom, a commodity in short supply among our current leadership, who are using force to make enemies and proliferate danger, not to cement peace.

Well, what has this to do with Jesus, “the Bread of Life,” and what has Jesus to do with global violence? Perhaps nothing; and if nothing then we are wasting our time paying attention to him. I note with interest that evangelical Christian circles are currently saying nothing in support of their darling Israel, as if Jesus becomes irrelevant when the matter finally hits the fan. I don’t know if Jesus is relevant to war and peace. Let’s see if our Gospel passage can inform us.

The frame of reference begins in 6:15, “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” We are, therefore, in a political frame of reference, and the Gospel intends us to read the passage as a commentary on politics. One side of the argument goes: Jesus has multiplied the loaves and fishes, that is, he has shown he can provide food! At last a competent leader! Quick, give him political power, make him king! Jesus leaves the scene.

When he returns from the mountain he tells them that the bread he gives is not material food, despite the miracle. The miracle was a sign and symbol of the spiritual reality that the grace of God received through faith in Jesus satisfies the hunger of the soul forever. Material bread sustains the body spiritual bread sustains the soul. Therefore, he is greater than Moses whose Mannah from heaven kept merely the bodies of their ancestors alive in the wilderness those 40 years. Jesus gives spiritual food that keeps our souls alive forever. The symbology of the Gospel is very compact; Jesus says that this bread is he himself. So they ask him whether he is telling them to eat his very body; that’s what in Congress is called a “poison pill” requirement, something so extreme as to render the whole bill non-viable.

Jesus answers yes and no. Yes we must not only ingest his flesh but we must also chew it slowly and deliberately (6:53-57). Ugh, they say. Then he says the opposite, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life (6:63).” A Christian reading this would know immediately that the bread of the Eucharist is in mind, that the way we enter and stay in fellowship with Jesus is by heeding his words, opening our spirits to his spirit , and sharing the bread and wine of the Eucharist which are symbols of his bodily presence to our bodies.

So what, you may say, does all this have to do with the challenge of massive violence in our world today? Let me try an answer. You remember how in the narratives of his temptation, in Matthew and Luke, Satan offers Jesus the Kingship over the entire world in return for the betrayal of his Father, and how Jesus refused. He rejected the offer of a crown, because he knows like we know that political power is less valuable than spiritual power, that on the highest seat of power in this world sits a human being upon the same bodily surface as sit all human beings, and that all to soon he or she is carried off feet first and never seen again. Jesus is spiritual nourishment and spiritual life force and that life force is everything to us, forever. “What shall it profit if we gain the whole world and lose our soul (Mark 8:36)? ”

If Jesus is Spirit then the Christian moral life is Spirit too, and that means that in situations like the one discussed above there is no Christian moral or political position, no this-worldly laws of conduct, types of polity, ways of acting. There are only prudent, wise and flexible ways, to be taken in the Spirit of Jesus. Hence my own volte-face with reference to Israel and its enemies. Then I believed Israel was acting unduly harshly towards its Arab subjects, now I believe the Arabs are explicitly denying Israel’s right to exist, and palpably threatening Israel’s existence. My judgment has changed accordingly, and I believe it is a Christian judgment, made in the Spirit of Christ. I do not ever wish to be heard saying “x right or wrong.” It depends on what x does.

I do, however, hope always to be heard saying, “Jesus, my Lord, show me what you would have me do.” And since he is the food my soul lives on, I trust that while my judgment shall certainly not be infallible in this world my soul shall be spiritually robust forever. Thanks be to Thee, Lord Christ, for you are the life-giving bread and the living water!