Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Final Comprehension

Scripture for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost includes Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; I Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Is it possible to imagine a more beautiful fall than the one we’re transitioning through on our way into winter? Still we see swaths of color on the eastern-facing slopes, and here and there a tree explodes in shimmering gold or burns blood-red, surprising us on an autumn walk in the woods. Jack Frost has dawdled with us, but hasn’t bitten us hard yet.

It’s a perfect transitional time to hear the poet Mary Oliver, her poem “In Blackwater Woods”:
Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

-- Mary Oliver, "New and Selected Poems"

A black river of loss cuts its way across our nation, dividing us into warring camps fighting culture wars, opposing parties that attack and blame each other, opponents and proponents who know how to talk the talk but seem clueless how to work together for the good of the whole.

Tuesday night, we witnessed a transition. It was a river of loss for one party, a welcome turning of the tide for the other. To borrow the poet’s thought, we don’t know what’s on the other side of this transition. Or, yes we do: we’re mature enough to know that this too shall pass, and two years hence we’ll be bracing for transition again. Meanwhile, gridlock, anxiety, and a radical lack of imagination have inoculated us against believing in quick fixes.

If I could nominate one saint to preside as our transition coach, it would be Richard Hooker, 16th-century Anglican parish priest and theologian. Schooled in the thinking of Thomas Aquinas, Hooker taught the severely divided church of his time how important it was to reframe all arguments, all positions (including his own) broad-mindedly. In a perilous time of transition, when Queen Elizabeth I was attempting to steer the Church of England to a healthy settlement of issues that bitterly divided catholic Christians from reformed Christians, and reformed Christians from the ultra-reformed Puritans, Hooker insisted that much of what divided them all—namely, how they organized themselves—were “things indifferent” to God.

Here is a Wikipedia snippet about Hooker’s contribution: “He wrote that minor doctrinal issues were not issues that damned or saved the soul, but rather frameworks surrounding the moral and religious life of the believer. He argued there were good monarchies and bad ones, good democracies and bad ones, and good church hierarchies and bad ones: what mattered was the piety of the people. At the same time, Hooker argued that authority was commanded by the Bible and by the traditions of the early church, but authority was something that had to be based on piety and reason rather than automatic investiture. This was because authority had to be obeyed even if it were wrong and needed to be remedied by right reason and the Holy Spirit.”

So what caught my eye, last Monday at Morning Prayer, it being November 3rd, the Feast of Blessed Richard Hooker, was the collect appointed for the day.

“O God of truth and peace, you raised up your servant Richard Hooker in a day of bitter controversy to defend with sound reasoning and great charity the catholic and reformed religion: Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

If you didn’t catch it, hear it again. The middle way has capacity for being more—and being other-- than compromise for the sake of peace; it can also achieve comprehension for the sake of truth. While we do not know exactly what salvation will mean, surely it stands for the final comprehension, the final truth, and can best be served by our practicing comprehension and truth-telling along the way.

The final comprehension at the end of time is a theme that runs through our propers today. The collect sets our sights on the day when Jesus Christ will come again with power and great glory for the world’s final and ultimate transition: from its longstanding embattled divisiveness, to a reconciled humanity… from the partly-realized rule of God, to God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven… from its chronic subjection to tyrannical emperors and greedy business moguls, to the reign of God’s peace and justice.

It is then that all who have been made his in baptism hope “to be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom.” You’ll recall from the last baptism you witnessed here that an astonishing goal is announced for each person: that he or she “grow into the full stature of Christ.” It’s meant to take our breath away, and to raise our sights. Our collect today extends the timeline for such barely imaginable fulfilment: it is on the last great day that this likening to Christ may be ours.

The final comprehension of the living and the dead is why the apostle Paul is able to comfort the Thessalonians who are struggling with a hard question. They expected, as did all in the first-century church, to see the second coming of Christ in their own time. Instead, more and more time passed, more and more exemplary believers—and ordinary beloved members—died. Would they be deprived of witnessing his return in glory?

Far from it, answers Paul. The dead in Christ will rise first, he announces, and we can hear the Thessalonian Christians breathing a great sigh of relief. Having this hope is the apostolic call not to grieve as if all there will be at the end is the black river of loss. That is the world’s belief, and explains the iron grip of fear that marks the world’s grieving. The message is not “Do not grieve.” It is “do not lose your hope.” The hope that in the final comprehension, “We who are alive… will be caught up in the clouds together with (those who have died) to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

These words of encouragement promise the resilience of the communion of all believers. I trust that by believers is meant those who do their best to love as Jesus loves, all who have done their best to let Jesus’s love love through them, not those who have studied for the final exam, answered all the questions correctly, written an approved essay, worshiped a certain way, and subscribed to all the articles of the Nicene Creed. For it to be the final comprehension, it will be the gathering-in of all, not just some, and it will be to serve the purposes of God, not the agendas of religions, governments, and businesses.

From Richard Hooker’s viewpoint, religion must advance and deepen and serve the piety of the people, their powers of trust and hope and generous caring. These are the tenacious powers that matter to God, matter to the world, matter to the final comprehension.

That is the oil it takes to light our lamps, to keep our lamps lit. It isn’t enough to carry a lamp that gets you to the doorway of the party: your lamp must be fueled enough to see you through to the completion of what you’ve been chosen to do. It isn’t enough to win an election with flashy campaign rhetoric—the talk must give way to the work, the honor be secondary to the responsibility to serve.

And Joshua’s warnings have a timely ring. In his time, the Hebrew people found many appealing false gods on both sides of the river, familiar old Egyptian gods from their slavery days before they crossed over, then enticing new fertility gods in the land of Canaan. Temptations galore!

Joshua drew a line in the sands of that desert exodus, insisting that the Hebrew people would make the transition from slavery to freedom only insofar as they decided what God they would serve: false gods old and new, or the one true God, the people’s source and goal and guide.

For Americans to work together for the good of the whole, we’re all going to have to put away our false gods. Principles and priorities enshrined by our political parties, inherited from the past, need to be set aside if they do not serve the American people now.

To break the gridlock in American governance, to end the captivity of elected leaders (and hence of us all), we all are called to put away our false gods. We all are called to hold to higher standards of service the leaders we have chosen. We all are called to keep awake, and to remain engaged.