Saturday, March 15, 2003

ART IMITATES AGAPE

As the chanteuse once inquired, "Isn't it ironic?" I leave off my discussion of history not being ours to control, and drive off with my wife Judy to view "The Quiet American" with Michael Caine. I'd read a review in the Globe that said it was all about Americans and Vietnam, and that Greene is famous for predicting the mess in Vietnam but he was wrong about Americans being ugly. Well, that just goes to show you that most people don't get it when it comes to Christianity. Greene was a serious Catholic, and this is only incidentally about Americans and Vietnam. It's essentially about the hell that happens when people try to force history in the proper direction "by any means necessary." Michael Caine's character is an adulterer, a dope fiend, a lazy reporter, and worse. But he doesn't arrange for setting off a plastic bomb that slaughters a streetful of innocent people. It takes a high-minded idealist to do that.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world--
Have mercy on us.

HISTORY IS NOT OURS TO CONTROL

Can we calculate the potential costs and benefits of torturing a human being? Perhaps one who knows about a terrorist plot to kill thousands of innocent civilians? Mark Kleiman does the calculations in his usual analytical way. It's important to understand, then, the difference between calculating and the theology of agape.

Agape, or selfless, sacrificial love grounded in faith, believes that all calculations of cause and effect are doomed to failure. When my daughter Hannah, at the age of four, stole a dollar out of my wallet, I decided to spank her. Today, seventeen years later, she is honest to a fault. She has also never forgotten the spanking, and our relationship is still strained. I think it started then. Maybe not. Did I do the right thing? I don't know, and I don't believe those who are supremely confident that blasting the hell out of Iraq will result in the best of all possible worlds can possibly know the consequences of those actions one year from now, let alone in ten years, or one hundred years, or one thousand years. The self-anointed experts who claim to be dealing in "real politik" are in actuality quite naive. Those who think they know what chains of cause and effect will be set off by a particular act of mass violence are suffering from a severe case of hubris. The realists are the ones who recognize the fact that we have no idea what unintended consequences will result from our choices today.

Agape is anti-analytical. Agape is confessional. Agape understands, with Gandhi, that "The ends never justify the means. The means determine the ends." The prayer of a disciple of the nonviolent Jesus is essentially this:

"My God, I have no idea where I am going. I cannot see the road ahead of me, and I do not know where it will end.
Nor do I know myself. And the fact I believe I am doing your will does not mean I am actually doing so.
But I believe the desire to please you [i.e, to act always in the Spirit of the Lamb, of servanthood and sacrifice] pleases you.
I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road [and direct History in the right direction] even though I know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always, though I seem to be lost, and in the shadow of death [and though my loving actions appear to be totally naive and futile, even irresponsible to the calculations of the principled, democratic torturers and warmakers], I will never fear. For you are always with me [and, in the power of the Resurrection, I and those I love are utterly indestructible], and will never leave me to face my perils alone."

Thomas Merton, with brackets by me.
A Sermon on Jews as the Best Christians

My sermons will be posted here quite often. They are almost always addressed to the people of Church Hill United Methodist Church in Norwell, Mass., a wonderful group of human beings who have put up with me for more than twelve years now. You can learn more about us at our website . This sermon incorporates the essence of "Agape" (pronounced Ah-gah-pay) theology: It's not about getting saved individually, as the evangelicals would have it, and it's not about being good liberal politicans who pray, as the people who used to control the United Methodist Church would have it. It's about being a new kind of people, transformed and made utterly fearless by the power of the Resurrection. Enjoy.

THE NEW CREATION

Jeremiah 31: 31-34, Romans 12: 1-2

Since we last gathered for worship, our President has named a date for the unleashing of all-out war against the nation of Iraq. The date set is March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. And so, it is a very good time to look at what the Bible has to say about the role of nations, and the role of God’s people in the world. In the days of trial ahead of us as believers, what is our task? And how are we to accomplish it?

This Lent we are reading The Upper Room daily devotional together. The theme for this week is “The New Creation.” Our scriptures today are on that theme. The first one, from Jeremiah, is often read in worship. But the reading for Saturday is never read, and it sets the context for “a covenant written on the heart.” The context is exile, destruction, and defeat. As the conquered Israelites are about to be taken away in captivity, Jeremiah has a message for them. He tells them:

(Jeremiah 29: 4-7): “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The woman writing in The Upper Room had been transferred to a poor city with a bad school system. She read this passage and was encouraged to get involved in her children’s school, to start a Bible study, and to make her new hometown a better place to live. But for 2,000 years, the Jewish people understood this passage to refer to the mission of their entire people. They were to be exiles, with no city of their own, and so no army to defend their city. Wherever ten Jewish families could meet together and praise God, that would be home. For 2,000 years, the Jewish people were faithful to God without crusades, inquisitions, witch burnings, or holy wars. This was true for so long, and so universally, that one Christian historian was moved to write that, through the Middle Ages, the one group of people most faithful to the original teachings of Jesus Christ was the Jews. (John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes Towards War, p. 115-125).” In other words, it is possible to follow Jesus. What is required is a transformation of the mind. We must become “a new creation.”

Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” In ordinary thought, this is taken to refer to your personal habits and vices: do not be conformed to the world that offers you tobacco, alcohol, gambling, and strawberry cheesecake. But it means far more than that. For Paul, “the world” means the whole way of looking at the world in which the number one goal, the ultimate value, is survival. The world says, “We will be kind to the poor--unless they threaten our survival. We will be generous with our neighbors--unless they threaten our survival. When our survival is threatened, all other, lesser values, are thrown out the window. Above all else, we must survive.” That is the value system of the world, of every nation, and the value system of every plant, animal, and human being on this planet. Everything alive has at its core the instinct to survive.

But not for those who have come to believe, and know, that death has been destroyed. Survival is not the ultimate value for those who have come to the certain faith that Jesus did not stay murdered. Jesus is alive, and because he lives, all who are baptized in his Spirit, and who call on his name, will live forever. That is the faith that empowered us when we faced the lions in the Coliseum. It was there for us when we walked hand in hand for freedom in Selma, Alabama. And it is there for us today, whenever we act in the name of mercy and compassion, with transformed minds and emboldened hearts. In the power of Easter, we are a new creation.

Let me be clear on this point: living the new creation does not work for governments. Whatever your opinion of the war on terrorism, it is unfair and in fact impossible to demand that a government operate like the church of Jesus Christ. We can work for our government to be more just, more truthful, more compassionate. But we cannot expect it to substitute for the kingdom of God. Only we can be the kingdom of God. Governments cannot know that Jesus is risen. We can know that, and together work towards being as faithful to the teachings of Jesus as the Jews were: across all boundaries, together with our sisters and brothers praying with us this morning in Iraq, in Pakistan, in North Korea, all over the world—to show the world what human life was intended to be: a life lived in compassion and generosity, without fear.

How are we to do this? The passage from Jeremiah points the way. “No longer will anyone say, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” They will not have to read the covenant anymore, because God will “write it on their hearts (Jer. 31: 33-34).” In other words, the will of the Holy Spirit for your life will move from your head into your heart. It will go from being an idea, to being your habit, your way of life.

Perhaps you were struck last month, as I was, by the story of a nurse, working in a rest home in Connecticut. When the fire broke out, some people fled. That’s human nature, the instinct to survive. This woman went against natural instinct. She had developed a new instinct—the instinct of sacrifice, the instinct of love. While others ran out, she ran in. Eyewitnesses say that she stood in the midst of the flames and chaos, directing the movement of firefighters, EMT’s, nurses and patients. She was breathing in smoke. The skin on her hands was blistering as she pushed bedridden patients through the fire to safety. And at the end of it all she said, “It wasn’t anything special. It’s what I always do.”

And that is the key to the life lived as a new creation, the life of the transformed mind. Living for others was what she always did, every ordinary, working day, for years and years of what I would call discipleship. The life of that nurse was a daily process of transformation, of a spirituality of servanthood. So that when the day of trial came, she stood ready, ready to face the flames. When we read the story of a hero, we are reading the most recent chapter of an entire life given over to not being conformed to the survival values of this world, but being transformed into a transformed mind, the mind of sacrifice and servanthood in the Spirit and example of Jesus Christ.


It’s a teaching moment, then, that our invasion is planned for St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick also invaded a foreign nation. He invaded pagan Ireland alone: without weapons, armed only with “the belt of truth; the breastplate of righteousness; the helmet of salvation; and the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6: 14-17).” In the power of that Spirit, he conquered Ireland with love. Whatever your opinion as a citizen of this nation, your calling as a citizen of the kingdom of God is clear: to write the law upon your heart. To not be conformed to fear, but transformed by faith; to show God’s love to the world.