Picture scanned from Grabar, Die Kunst des frühen Christentums, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8080658
Archives for February 2016
Permission to reproduce has been requested.
[A sermon preached by Bill Countryman at Good Shepherd Berkeley on the Second Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2016. Readings (Year C): Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35]
And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
We’re going to talk about faith today. Abram, after all, is one of the great examples of faith in the scriptures. But I want to start out by acknowledging that the topic of faith makes a lot of people, including church people, uneasy. That’s partly because we live in an era that’s pretty much divided between people who aren’t too sure what they believe and people who know too much about it. A lot of people, if pressed on the topic, would probably say something like “Well, I think there’s something important here, but don’t try to pin me down.” And, on the other hand, you have fundamentalists or some evangelicals or conservative Roman Catholics who know exactly what they believe, right down to the punctuation marks. You could easily get the impression that those are the only two options.
So what exactly did Abram believe that got him such good marks in our reading this morning? Well, first a word about the English language. You know, every language carries the scars of the history that it’s passed through. That’s definitely true of the English language of faith: there’s the verb “believe” and the nouns “belief” and “faith.” Because our language got shaped in a period of intense religious struggle—the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the battle between Puritans and Anglicans in the 1600s—”faith” and “belief” have come to refer largely to the business of doctrine. The question is What creed are you willing to recite—or, at times, even die for?
In the process, belief or faith came to be about asserting a particular list of doctrines as true, whether it was the Nicene Creed, or the Westminster Confession, or any number of other formularies. If somebody asks you, here and now, in the English language, “What do you believe?” it’s a good bet that they want specifics. And I suppose the most common response from an Episcopalian begins with something like, “Well, I’m not altogether sure, but . . .”
Well, don’t feel bad about that. It actually puts you right in the company of Abram, who didn’t have any of fancy definitions of faith to fall back on. No, in the case of Abram, words like “believe” and “faith” have to mean something else. And our story is actually pretty clear about what that is. It tells us that Abram has had a long history with God. It’s included taking some big risks—moving lock, stock, and barrel from the place where he grew up to this new country that God directed him to. But all these years have passed, and he’s getting old, and he still has no son to hand everything over to. In that day and age, that world of petty kingdoms and no real rule of law, this was a disaster for which there was no real remedy.
So what does it mean when scripture says that Abram believed God? It doesn’t mean that Abram had a creed to recite. It means that Abram decided to go on trusting God—trusting God because of the sense of companionship, even of friendship, that had grown up between them over the years.
Listen to the text again with that one word changed: “And Abram trusted the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” It’s quite a different text, isn’t it?
Now let me say that the change I just made wasn’t arbitrary. The Biblical Hebrew word in question covers a whole range of English words: “trust” as much as “believe” or “have faith.” We use a form of that word in our prayers when we say “Amen,” meaning “It’s so, it’s worth trusting, yeah, way sure.”
The same is true of the corresponding Greek terms in the New Testament. Neither of these ancient languages had separate words for “believe” or “have faith” in our modern sense of “subscribe to a set of doctrines.” The next generation of translators should probably go back and purge them most places and replace them with “trust.” We need to hear scripture as talking about trust—not theological arguments.
Abram, after all, didn’t have any creeds. What he had was a friendship with God that had seen him through thick and thin for, we’re told, a hundred years or so. It hadn’t been an easy life, but it had been a good one. And Abram had a conviction that, however complicated and difficult and unpredictable life might yet be, God’s friendship was still the thing he could rely on. God might not fulfill all Abram’ss needs and wants in quite the way he wished; but God was still the deep source of strength and hope for his life. It may have been a bit vague theologically, but it was powerful.
It’s the same kind of trust that Jesus demonstrated when he dismissed the threats of Herod. He was ready to go on proclaiming the good news and take the associated risks, even though he knew where they were leading
And it’s the kind of trust that Paul called us to in our reading from Philippians. Other people, he says, trust in earthly things. Well, yes, celebrity, money, power do indeed offer short-term rewards, but if that’s what you trust in, they will end up destroying you as a human being. They are fickle at best and cannibalistic at worst. But “our citizenship,” says Paul, “is in heaven”—another way of saying that our deep trust is in our friendship with God. You have to be, to borrow a Yiddish term, a real mensch—a true human being—to live up to that kind of trust.
So if we are asked about our faith, we can honestly reply that we are learning to trust. It’s not a one-time thing. Abram had to keep learning it over and over. His greatness lay in his willingness to keep renewing his trust and his friendship with God. And this is the kind of faith or trust we hope to grow into, ourselves. It was good enough for Abram and it’s good enough for me.
And, happily, we also had in our readings today the perfect prayer of trust, one that we can keep returning to again and again as we learn to live in faith: Psalm 27. “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” says the Psalmist; “whom then shall I fear?”
And then the Psalmist goes right on to make it clear that life has been no picnic, that we still experience danger and fear. But against all that we set the intimacy and joy of a life that “beholds the fair beauty of the Lord and seeks him in his temple.”
“What if I had not believed that I should see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!” cries the Psalmist. What if I had lost my bearings altogether? Who would I be then? Instead, he reminds us, “tarry and await the Lord’s pleasure; be strong and he shall comfort your heart; wait patiently for the Lord.”
That is what scripture means when it tells us that Abram trusted God and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.
I like this painting because Jesus and Mary are tiny figures far in the back. You would never notice them if it weren’t that they have auras around their heads. The scene is all bustle and confusion. But, as with virtually all portrayals of the story, the water jars are far too small.
Tintoretto: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15542127
by Bill Countryman
Our life is lent us by a mystery.
Lent points us now to our mortality.
And Lenten roses in funereal tones
embroider winter’s pall as it declines
Back in the late ’60s, I read a review of Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village that made me want to read the book. Even though I never got round to picking it up, the title stuck all this time. Now, forty odd years later, I’ve finally read it—and I’m grateful to my memory for hanging on to it!
To be sure, I had reminders, since Ronald Blythe, now in his 90s, writes a weekly column in The Church Times composed of observations and ruminations crisscrossing a broad array of literary, gardening, historical, artistic, and religious concerns. The column is called “Word from Wormingford,” the town where Blythe now lives in an Elizabethan house called Bottengoms Farm.
To the American ear, this may all sound just too quaintly English. Believe me, it is anything but. Akenfield is based on interviews with people in the region of Suffolk where Blythe grew up and brings to life a whole range of characters caught in the rapid transition of the English countryside after World War II—transition from horse-powered to machine-powered agriculture, from farms that raised a wide array of products to factory farms, from an agriculture that required many laborers, preferably not too well educated, to one that required fewer hands and more specialized skills.
It is a process, of course, that the United States (and, for that matter, the world at large) is still going through in various ways. There are times when the fictitious “Akenfield” seems not so very different from, say, the American Rust Belt or the small towns of the Plains states.
What is particularly beautiful and intriguing about the book is the way people were willing to open up with Blythe as he asked them to talk about their experience of the times and their response to change. One has no way to know just how precisely he reproduced the interviews on which he based the work. They were certainly disguised to protect his interlocutors. Yet, each has the individuality and unpredictability that tell us these figures were not “made up” out of his own imagination.
The book is distinct from most enquiries of an ethnographic sort in that the whole project seems to have been motivated originally by pure curiosity about Suffolk and country people like those he had seen, as a child, plowing with horses. He was exploring his own world and had the gift to do it without sentimentality. Yes, he was fascinated by the past, but has no illusions about its having been a kind of rural paradise. Yes, he is part of the changing present, but sees both its advantages and its costs.
The book has two great gifts to offer the reader, even in a world that has continued changing at a great pace. One is its breadth of human sympathy. Whether you are teacher, priest, pastor, physician, judge, or just plain old citizen, you will be likely to find your human sympathies and your social awareness broadened and deepened by it
And, if you once start reading, you will receive its second gift: a series of narrative as compulsively readable as a good collection of short stories.
Happily, it is readily available in a recent reprinting by New York Review of Books, with an introduction by Matt Weiland. Take and read.
The following poem is quite different from those that have appeared previously on this blog. For one thing, it’s longer (about 13 minutes). Instead of the brevity and sharp focus of a sonnet, it is an extended meditation on the Transfiguration of Jesus and what it meant for the three disciples who witnessed it: Peter, James, and John. The story (found in Mark 9, Matthew 17, and Luke 9) follows on Peter’s Confession of Jesus as Messiah a week earlier and leads, in its turn, into the story of the demon that the disciples could not cast out. This is a good time of year to post it, since the Transfiguration is the gospel reading for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (February 7th this year), just before the church year turns toward Lent.
The poem is focused on the disciples’ inability to understand why Jesus kept talking about death, before and after this astonishing vision of his glory. There are some things we simply cannot understand in our lives until we go through some sort of transformation ourselves. My inspiration for narrating a Biblical story in this way, exploring what it means for the characters, comes from the sixth-century poems of St. Romanos, which can be quite frank about the the mistakes and uncertainties of their protagonists.
For the full series of poems read on this site, click the category “Poem” below.
The San Francisco Symphony’s concert on Friday, January 29 had everything a concert should have except the attendance it deserved. The guest of the evening was Stephen Hough, playing Saint-Saëns’s “Egyptian” concerto (No. 5). Even I, grumpy as I can be about concertos, had nothing to complain about. Just the opposite, I got completely absorbed in it.
The thing I often object to in concertos is that they are more about displaying virtuosity than about making music. I think the ultimate offenders in this respect are the Paganini violin concertos, which I find almost unbearably tedious. But I’ve been known to fall asleep during some more highly regarded examples of the genre as well.
There was no napping during the Saint-Saëns. Yes, it’s a flashy late-nineteenth-century concerto. But the performance was never less than truly musical. Part of the credit goes to Saint-Saëns, himself. The whole work is beautifully integrated and holds the attention. And, as bonus, we get his extraordinary ability to craft beauty and excitement while smiling to himself all the while. No, he never cracks a joke in the piece, but you can still tell that he is the man who could write Carnival of the Animals as well.
But equal credit goes to Stephen Hough and the conductor, Edwin Outwater. They were in perfect alignment. Even the flashiest passages never lacked for nuance and feeling. When Hough jumped up from the piano bench at the end and gave Outwater a big hug, it was the perfect commentary on the whole performance.
Outwater displayed the same musical creativity in the rest of the program as well. It was an odd but intriguing assortment of works, connected by their use of “oriental” allusions (mostly Near Eastern, but occasionally East Asian). The connection is obvious for the Saint-Saëns. I hadn’t know enough about Weber’s opera Oberon to hear the allusions in its overture, which started the program off; and having our attention drawn to them enhanced the work. But the main thing was just that Outwater brought the overture to life in a way I’d never heard before. The opening horn solo was calmness itself.(Kudos to the horn player, whose name I didn’t learn.) What followed was full of energy and emotion, elicited by close attention to ithe music’s structure and dynamics. It was music I’ve heard before, but never with the same kind of conviction.
The second half of the evening began with something I hadn’t known existed: four selections from Feruccio Busoni’s incidental music to the play Turandot (antecedent of Puccini’s later opera). As music, it was a bit like listening to extracts from a film score—more sense of occasion and emotion than any independent musical purpose. And it was puzzling, amid the “orientalizing” in the other movements, to hear a flute playing “Greensleeves” in the section entitled “Turandot’s Chamber.” Apparently an Italian composer living in Germany in the early twentieth century thought it exotic enough for any purpose.
And, finally, Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Weber,” a nice summation of the evening, not only because Hindemith chose some Turkish-sounding themes to work with (and one connected to the Turandot story) but because Outwater demonstrated the same alchemy as with the Weber overture. The whole piece, which I first got to know fifty years ago, came to life in new ways. And the back row musicians, the brass and percussion, surpassed even themselves.
So why was a third of the hall, as far as we could see, empty? Well, it was a rainy evening. And the additional traffic occasioned by a kind of Super Bowl carnival along the Embarcadero probably scared some people off. I wonder, too, if many concert goers simply don’t know how much they would have enjoyed it. With a more run-of-the-mill performance, any of this music might not seem particularly exciting.
In any case, I’m sorry for the people who opted out. And I will be paying close attention to the name of Edwin Outwater in future concert listings. (I already knew to pay attention to Steven Hough.)