Archives for October 2015
A sermon preached by Bill Countryman at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA
22nd Sunday After Pentecost, October 25, 2015
Proper 25B: Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-8 (19-22); Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52
We’ve heard two strange and difficult stories in our readings this morning, both centering around an encounter with the power of God. It’s a good thing we have stories like this because there’s really no other good way of talking about our encounters with God. As soon as the great mystics start trying to find other language, they start sounding, well, mystical and, for most of us, confusing.
These two stories are very different in some ways—and very much alike in others. And they both deserve closer examination.
The first, from the Book of Job, is really just the tail end of a very long story. Some of you will have heard Bill Trego say more about it last Sunday. In very brief summary, Job is God’s devoted friend. But Satan, the celestial Attorney General, challenges Job’s sincerity and God allows Satan to inflict terrible suffering on him to test him. Job’s old friends gather around. They intend to comfort him, but they wind up in a theological argument about what he must have done to deserve such suffering. They want him to ‘fess up. He insists that he’s done nothing wrong. But he has no explanation for what has happened to him. The one thing he keeps insisting on is that he wants to meet the God who used to be his friend and now seems to be acting like an enemy.
At the end of the book, Job finally gets the meeting he asked for. God unveils for him something of God’s inexhaustible creative power and says, in effect, “Do you really want to go head to head with me?” Then, in today’s reading, we heard Job’s response:
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.
This overwhelming encounter with God leaves no room for questions and theological arguments. Job understands who he’s up against and gives in. And yet . . . and yet, he still dares to speak: to address God, the God whom he has known both as friend and, so it seemed, enemy. His words are filled with awe. But they have the ring of authentic faith. God and Job are divided by absolute difference—the distance between the One who is all-powerful and the mortal two-legged creature that is humanity. And still, they speak here to one another; they commune with one another. The Job who can say, in effect, “I see now that I am, by comparison, nothing,” still knows that he has been given the privilege of speaking with God as friend, face to face.
Our other story comes from the Gospel of Mark, at the time when Jesus is on his way up to Jerusalem. Jericho was the last city on the pilgrim road that led there, the last real chance to turn back and avoid the authorities in Jerusalem. There is a sense of gathering danger even in the opening words of the story: “As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho. . .” Aah! that large crowd that will play such a big part in the events to come, sometimes cheering him on, sometimes calling for his death. Events are taking on a momentum of their own. Room for maneuver is shrinking.
And then Jesus hears a lone voice calling for him—as persistent and obnoxious as the voice of Job demanding an interview with God. Many other voices, like the voices of Job’s comforters, “sternly ordered [the man] to be quiet, but he cried out” ever more loudly. And Jesus halts the whole unwieldy parade to respond: “What do you want me to do for you?” “Rabboni, let me see again.” “Go, your faith has made you well.” This brief conversation with the blind man seems almost incidental. But it was, for the blind beggar, just as unpredictable, just as improbable, just as overwhelming as God’s much longer conversation with Job.
There’s something odd in the way Mark tells the story—a signal to us to pay attention. We learn the blind beggar’s name: Bartimaeus. (Mark seldom gives a name to any of the people who have brief interactions with Jesus in his Gospel.) And then Mark explains the name for us: Bartimaeus means “Son of Timaeus.” Well that doesn’t help much, does it? Let’s put it all into into English: “Son of Worthyman.” (For that is what timaeus means in Greek.) This man didn’t deserve to be blind any more than Job deserved his sufferings. Like Job, he is suffering without cause. Like Job, he utters an insistent demand for God’s attention. And like Job, he gets it.
It seems we have two figures here who are both worthy people, whose sufferings in this world are undeserved. And both of them have a strong enough hope in God that they will go on calling out for some meeting, some understanding, some conversation. The people around them tell them they’ve been cast off, but that doesn’t stop them.
This is, I think, a widespread human experience. Maybe we don’t consider ourselves worthy, much less sinless. But what human being has deserved every last misfortune and difficulty that befalls us? Perhaps we have to be pushed pretty hard before we call God to account. But here, in these stories, are two figures who did that and who are held up to us as models. They are models of real, honest prayer: direct, straightforward, insistent.
And in both these cases, the people who called on God received good things. Bartimaeus received his sight. Job got his wealth back and received a new family in place of the old. Is that the point? Just pray the right way and God will take care of everything? No. There are too many examples to the contrary in scripture to think that it’s that simple. God does work miracles in our world—things that cause us to marvel and fill us with hope and new life. But God is not under contract. Miracles are not something guaranteed to follow on the correct execution of the right sort of prayer.
The real point of these stories comes in what follows—not in the miracles of healing and restoration, but in the change that comes over these human interlocutors with God. Bartimaeus, at Jesus’ word, “immediately regained his sight,” Mark tells us, “and followed him on the way.” He joined the disciples and the crowd going up to Jerusalem. If we had asked him before what he would do if he should regain his sight, he would probably have said, “I’ll go home and get back to work at my business—and maybe read a book.” Instead, he launched himself into a dangerous adventure—a new, bigger, more challenging kind of life than he had ever imagined. That can happen to us when we face up to God. He could tell that danger might lie ahead. He went anyway.
The change may be a little harder to see in Job because Job’s world was so different from ours. But you may have noticed how oddly the story ended. God restores Job to wealth and family. And then we’re told that Job does something new and different with what has been given to him:
He also had seven sons and three daughters. He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers.
Seven sons and three daughters—the same kind of family as before. But two things have changed. First, we’re told the names of Job’s daughters—something that rarely happens in the Scriptures of Israel. It implies that Job’s perspective has changed. Before the disaster, he valued his sons. Now, it is his children he values. The daughters are specifically noted, even though the sons are never named.
And, a further step, Job makes his daughters heirs alongside their brothers. This goes far beyond the norm of familial justice assumed in the rest of the Old Testament. Sons inherit; daughters get married off. But Job, after his encounter with God, is actually building a new kind of world. Having seen the splendor of God face to face and confronted his own human weakness and mortality, he responds with a kind of humanity and generosity he never conceived before.
Job saw and conversed with God and then gave up trying to figure things out. Instead of explanations, he chose a new life of generosity. Bartimaeus received his sight from Jesus. Instead of going back to his old life, he embarked on a new life of uncertainty and daring, following the one who had communicated God’s power in healing him. There is the heart of both stories. To encounter God won’t give us any explanations, won’t settle any questions, won’t solve all our future problems. But it will give us a new and bigger life—one that we probably could not have imagined without it.
We could put it all in more theoretical terms. But the stories say it better. Meeting God makes the world new. And sooner or later, it will be given to those who seek it.
Under the influence of San Francisco Bay, the Oakland autumn plays itself out in a way that will seem very strange to people in most other parts of the US. September is apt to be sunny and warm (even hot); it is more like summer than our actual summer months, which are kept cool by influences from the ocean. October is also warm; but with the gradually shortening days and lengthening nights, one begins to feel that autumn is indeed in progress. Leaf drop begins in earnest, hastened this year by our prolonged drought. The month is summer and autumn rolled into one. Only in November (El Niño consenting) can we expect the rainy season to set in. Even then, there will probably be no weather cold enough to leave a trace of morning frost until late December.
Still, with plants from so many parts of the world growing here, the garden looks like autumn. Tuberous begonias have dropped their flowers and are beginning to drain the energy from their foliage. The leaves of the apricot tree are turning the same red-tinged gold that one hopes to see again in next year’s fruit. Everything is slowing down. A few pots of chrysanthemums add color here and there. A couple of Sedum sieboldii have put on their dusty pink flowers, a perfect compliment to their grey green leaves.
There is harvest, too. The year gave us a bountiful crop of quinces: some turned into membrillo (my first try at it), some into a tasty stew with lamb, some into pie, some frozen for future needs. The fig tree, gift long ago from Father Tom Schultz, OHS, has at last settled in enough to give us a bounty of figs, including enough for the squirrels as well. (Good thing, since they get their share first, of course.) The’ve made for thiis autumn’s particular treat—splitting them and grilling them briefly over charcoal to go with whatever else was cooking there.
Still, autumn brings plenty of garden work. The Oscularia have expanded exuberantly and need cropping back before they completely overrun the path. (In the late spring, they will put on a show much like the Sedum sieboldiii, but with more intensely pink flowers.) Lavenders need pruning. The quince and apricot and fig will need it, too; but that will wait till they’ve dropped their leaves.
There will be bulbs to plant soon as well—and always the challenge of finding the right places: where they can be enjoyed from the windows while the spring is still cold, but where they’ll be out of the way of other projects. The thing about bulbs is that I always forget where I’ve planted them, making them a great surprise when they come up. My reward at the moment: a small clump of autumn crocuses (Crocus sativa, the kind from which Spanish saffron is made) in full bloom. Their comrades have all either perished or refuse to do anything more than send up leaves in the spring. For some reason, this clump alone has found the spot it likes.
It’s a pleasure to be in the garden on a cool October afternoon. Part of it is the relief from too much sun and heat, which wilt this septuagenarian pretty quickly. But the other part is simply the comfortable sense of being in the year’s late afternoon, a time of putting things away, settling toward dinner, evening, bedtime.
John Donne once said that the great spiritual malaise of his time was melancholy. My candidate for that distinction today would be the ease with which we assume the cloak of infallibility. It is our age’s favorite variation on the cardinal sin of pride (disguised deftly as humility) combined with a strong shot of anger and of anger’s distilled form, hatred—a very heady cocktail designed precisely to match our taste for self-righteousness
But let me be more exact about my topic. I am not writing about either papal infallibility or the infallibility (aka inerrancy) of scripture. While I do not profess either doctrine, I know faithful Christian people who do, and neither doctrine seems to pose any insuperable barrier to their genuine Christian faith. There is no occasion in these for anathemas, however much I may be tempted. (Well, I do seem to recall having come close to hurling a few such anathemas in Lovesongs and Reproaches. If so, I recant.)
My subject, rather, is the way in which all sorts of people (including those of us who don’t officially believe in infallibility of any kind) appropriate infallibility for ourselves. Not that we would admit to it. In fact, we would resist the notion mightily: It is not I who am infallible. I am merely the messenger, the reporter, the humble servant of infallibility.
What prompts these reflections at just this moment? For one thing, there is the ongoing drama of Evangelicals worldwide, hiding under the cloak of infallibility in order to attack gay and lesbian people—in some cases targeting their rights, in others their bodies and their lives as well. For another, there is a new bit of comedy playing out in the Roman Catholic Church, in which conservative voices are trying to figure out how to seize control the pope’s infallibility for themselves to ease their anxiety that the new gentleman in the chair is about to promote some things that they know infallibly to be false. It is a conundrum, of course. But it isn’t the first time that some Roman Catholics have come to the conclusion that they are more Catholic than the pope.
But the illness is much more widespread than these two examples. What are the symptoms by which one can recognize it? One is the offloading of responsibility: “I, of course, am a generous and loving person. It is not I myself who tell you that you are evil. I am just the reluctant messenger of God/truth. God/truth makes me do it.” When we adopt this stance, we usually feel that it is self-evidently right. After all, this is what my own group has long believed. Where would we have gotten it if not from God? The prospect that it might have more to do with the social norms of rural America in preceding generations (in the case of Evangelicals) or the politics of two preceding popes (in the case of conservative Roman Catholics) or academic culture (in the case of the new atheists) is not to be admitted into consciousness.
Another symptom is the avoidance of serious human engagement with the people one condemns. One claims not to know any of the sinners in question (e.g., gay folk or remarried divorced persons or women who have had an abortion) or else to know a few and perhaps even feel sorry for them (though the knowledge usually does not go beyond general acquaintance). In addressing those identified as displeasing to God, the infallible person adopts the stance of an adult lecturing a teen-ager, never that of an equal—thereby ensuring that there will be no real communication.
And if pressed on the issue of the scriptural command to love one’s neighbor as oneself, the victim of this spiritual disease will then explain that, of course, that is exactly what he or she is doing for you. Since you are doing something infallibly defined as wrong, the only loving thing to do is to prevent you from proceeding, even if it must be substantial cost to you. Really, all this misery is for your own good. Claiming love as the justification for patently unloving acts is thus a third symptom.
A fourth symptom is pervasive anger. Seldom does anyone claim infallibility in any other emotional state. Such anger lends a certain sense of exaltation to the human psyche, especially when it frees us to behave in ways we would normally consider boorish. It is really quite delicious to find oneself carried away by righteous emotion as one assaults the reprobate. The problem is that anger also clouds our perception of reality, painting everything and everyone with whom one is angry in the most livid and threatening of hues. In this way, it feeds on itself and creates new and worse caricatures of these people whom now, to tell the truth, one well and truly hates.
A fifth symptom is the way the illness communicates itself through the body. The traits of righteous anger, being visible, are particularly helpful in diagnosis: the narrowed eyes, pinched lips, jutting chin, rigidly held limbs, all approximating (as far as humanly possible) the look of an angry chicken (as my late friend M. R. Ritley pointed out to me some years ago.)
This spiritual malaise has proven so contagious that it has worked its way through all areas of modern human discourse. Atheists are as subject to it as the religious. Political theorists and economists easily become its mouthpieces. Our autocrats of taste may in fact have little else to fall back on. And it seems to be taking on increasingly ugly forms—forms that threaten us with loss of the hard-won civilization that our forebears have slowly constructed over the last four or five millennia.
Bearing the cloak of infallibility exacts a cost. Like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility, it exposes us to deeply inhuman menaces that would like to sap our souls. We are in danger of becoming hollow shells held together by little more than a brittle crust compounded of self-esteem and hostility toward the enemy. The supreme indicator of spiritual health is the opposite—not infallibility but love.
Last year I set out to read the novels of Jane Austen. I thought I had read one of them in my teens, but I turned out to be wrong about that—or perhaps my memory has faded even more than I suppose. My ignorance of Austen is evidence of a misspent youth, at least as far as English literature is concerned. I got caught up early on in the Greek and Latin classics and neglected those nearer to my own time. I don’t exactly repent. I still wouldn’t trade Euripides for Jane Austen, but I’m immensely glad finally to have made her acquaintance.
What did I find so engrossing about her novels? The people. One gets glimpses inside characters formed in a society that prized maturity and civility—by which I mean the quality of being an active participant in one’s own life and that of the people around one. That doesn’t mean that Austen’s characters are uniformly civil themselves. Indeed, it seems to take a certain number of rather uncivil people—the sort who are not trustworthy or considerate or responsible—to help make the story unwind. But her protagonists are in general people who have a sense of right and wrong and take some responsibility for their decisions, including the ones that turn out to be wrong-headed.
In this regard, her novels form a contrast with some more recent one’s I’ve read. There seems to be a certain tendency for novelists of the present day to create characters who don’t assume much responsibility for their actions or seem to be much aware of how they wrong others. Sometimes this takes the form of a life directed primarily by alcohol or other drugs. Sometimes it just seems as if, by the very culture in which they live, they have lost the notion of human civility.
There are respectable people, in these novels, too, but they tend to be foils, for the most part, and often they are presented as repressed, dull, constricted, perhaps a trifle simple. They would never do for main characters. The fascination is rather with the person who is more or less aimless and helpless in the face of his or her needs and neuroses.
Euripides, of course, does something similar. His protagonists tend to be victims of the trouble fate brings on them (often with their own cooperation). But, as Aristotle observed, the tragic protagonist has to be a person of great stature to begin with—not just respectable but heroic and larger than life. They come pre-equipped, as it were, with a certain civil standing. I can’t think of the principal characters in, say, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, or Freedom by Jonathan Franzen as tragic. In fact, I could never get deeply interested in them, despite having dutifully read all the way to the end. (Oops! There I go being respectable.)
With Austen, by contrast, I find myself in the company of complex human beings, struggling to maintain a degree of human civility and responsibility in a context that often makes this difficult. In Austen’s world, the problem they face is typically the pressure laid on the young to marry for the sake of family interests. But her principal characters are never merely the victims of this pressure. They participate actively in negotiating their way through the cultural terrain. The happy ending is a nice conclusion to their efforts, but the real pleasure of the novel is to see them living out a rich, though not untroubled, human existence.
It’s not just novels that exhibit this current collapse of civil personhood. Jon and I recently quit attending a local theater company of which I had been a long-standing subscriber. The choice of plays had changed radically. They were mostly new—neither a good nor a bad thing in itself. Some of them had garnered awards. And I can accept that a company inevitably changes with time and a change of leadership.
The problem was that the plays were boring. Few of them rose above the level of soap opera. Each differed from the one before and the one after only in having a change of window dressing: racial prejudice in one case, poverty in another, bias against overweight people in a third. People suffered, sometimes in ingeniously plotted ways, and made others suffer. But none of the characters had the basic gravitas to qualify them as civil human beings, and it became difficult to take their woes seriously. No excellence on the part of the actors could make me care about such flat characters.
By now, the reader may be thinking, “He must be very old-fashioned.” Quite possibly. After all, I chose ancient literature as my college major. However that may be, I have at least found myself engaged and enlarged by living a while with the denizens of Jane Austen’s novels. I emerge from my reading with a sense that it is indeed possible to be a civil human being—that human beings are not merely condemned to be shapeless lumps bounced around by incidental factors. Civility is not only possible; it’s much more interesting.