The Story You Tell

This Monday, I had the honor and pleasure of preaching for the Harvard Divinity School Anglican/Episcopal Fellowship.  The lessons are the same as those for last Sunday, 26 October.

Readings
Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18 (“You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”)
Psalm 1 (“Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked”)
I Thessalonians 2:1-8 (“we never came with words of flattery”)
Matthew 22:34-46 (The summary of the Law)

Sermon

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your mind.’
This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it:
`You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Sounds easy, right?

That’s the blessing and the challenge of the New Testament.

God calls us to love one another, and

though we have details spelled out for us,

throughout the Bible,

we keep coming back to the same principle.

In some way or another we all need to work it out for ourselves.

We need to own our faith.

Love, easy in the abstract,

must be worked out in the concrete daily interactions

between self and other,

between self and God.

This is the challenge of the New Law: you must work it out for yourself.

A close reading of the “rules” for love

spelled out at Sinai,

and again at the Restoration of the Temple,

and revealed by the prophets,

and spoken of by Jesus,

and worked out in community by Paul,

shows that they don’t all strictly agree.

At one point we are to use our talents wisely.

At another we are asked to give up everything.

At one point we give money to Caesar – and all that entails.

At another we are meant to give it up to the Temple, or the poor.

I’m not being a relativist.

I think there are definite answers and I think they are made clear in scripture.

I’m just not sure they can be fully verbalized or even theorized.

We must love in practice,

not just with our doctrines, but with our being,

not only with our lips, but in our lives.

In the 19th century it was called character.

Much earlier it was virtue or humaneness.

The blessing of the new law is what I, with some trepidation,

will call creative morality.

I mean that in the best way.

I mean that your morality

must be a unique expression of yourself

created only by the full devotion of your life and talents.

There are at least seven billion ways be moral.

There are, comparatively, very few ways to be bad.

We are conditioned to think of goodness

as the straight and narrow path,

any deviation from which is evil.

But that gives lie to the idea of free will.

For will to be both free and good, it must admit

of some grace that can only be found in freedom,

in the original meaning of that word art.

New Testament morality means more than following the letter of the law,

it means looking for ways to fulfill the meaning of law.

It means applying yourself,

in other word caring about morality.

The new law could not be followed by a robot,

or by a Golem.

And if you haven’t read up on Golems I encourage you to do so.

The idea comes from Renaissance Judaism:

a human shaped lump of clay

powered by a word of God

placed inside.

Rabbinic Jews are no more attached to blind obedience than Christians –

in some ways they are less so,

because of a rich tradition of rabbis

arguing about the law.

A Golem, however, cannot interpret, only follow instructions.

As All Hallow’s approaches,

I will point out the themes explored with Golems

have been reused in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,

as well as R.U.R: Rossum’s Universal Robots,

            the origin of that word in modern Czech and English.

Obedience and creativity appears to be a popular moral theme.

Moral authority means, to some extent, being a moral author.

It means writing your own text.

Just like any author, there are countless rules to be followed.

All moralities are not equal,

any more than all books are equal.

Nonetheless, God demands that you write one.

The law, which has been written on your hearts

in letters of flame,

does more than compel obedience.

We are more than Golems, more than robots.

We are called to be authors,

and every time we find ourselves practicing authority,

we must remember our role

in creating the text of that position.

What narrative will you construct with your morality?

Who are the actors?

Do you give others agency in your story?

Do they drive the plot, or are they swept along by events?

Or are they simply spear-carriers,

foils for the protagonist?

Does your story have a happy ending?

Is it a tragedy or a comedy?

How is virtue rewarded?

Let me suggest that our whole lives are built around

the tales others tell.

Sometimes they are quite brazen about it,

as CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien

giving us mythical mentors.

At other times we piece together these stories

from clues dropped by our friends and neighbors.

Those stories can be even more powerful,

particularly the tales told by our parents

and by our closest friends.

I find myself in a room full of people who aspire to moral authority,

for leadership in the church means that, if nothing else.

We are confronted by rather grim tales

from the Conservatives and Liberals alike,

from culture warriors and fundamentalists,

anti-religionists and partisans on every side.

And, sadly, we hear these same plotlines from those

engaged in struggles within our own church.

Some of the most pervasive tropes include

redemptive violence – claiming the role of victor –

and martyr complexes – claiming the role of victim.

Within the church we often jump to call ourselves

prophet or teacher, without recognizing that those roles

always involve three characters.

A prophet is sent by God to a recalcitrant people.

A teacher is sought by students to teach truth.

Putting yourself in one of these roles,

always requires a supporting cast.

The New Testament is particularly hard on pastors,

because it is our job to act as readers and commentators

on the stories our congregations write,

without writing for them.

If they cannot simply be obedient,

neither can we simply tell them what to do.

We must train them to write for themselves,

to take authority and authorship for themselves

in communion with one another and with God.

In this context I have found literary analysis

to be a wonderful tool for myself,

but of limited value to the people I speak to.

The world is full of editors and critics,

ready to tell you why your story is not good enough,

ready to analyze all the flaws in your plot,

the inconsistencies and errors,

to burst the bubble we call suspension of disbelief.

I pride myself that I am a decent editor,

and I turn that critical appraisal on myself daily.

But, when it comes to others,

I have learned to be a more sympathetic reader.

I have learned to listen, not only to their words,

but to their story.

What is their motivation?

What characters matter to them?

What do they expect from the ending?

I have also learned that one really good story,

can be worth a thousand expositions.

We know this in the Anglican tradition.

We know that Narnia and the Screwtape Letters

capture imaginations in a way that essays never will.

We know that songs and poetry linger in the mind

when dogmatic statements fade to dust.

And we know it in Christianity.

After all, God chose to give us a story in Christ Jesus.

It is a good story.

The greatest story ever told,

if you like that sort of language.

A bit purple for my tastes, but probably accurate.

Some of the leaders of the church have forgotten that

their lives tell a story,

and that people will listen to that story

and remember it

long after they have forgotten the names of the people

and the words they spoke.

When Jesus calls for all of your heart and soul and mind,

he’s using words his audience would have recognized

as the whole of the self.

The rhythm and tempo and plot of your life

speak in the world.

You are not completely free with them.

You cannot write yourself wings,

but you do control a thousand details.

Every person you meet can be a central character in your plot,

if only for a page or two;

you can make them so.

Every paragraph can dwell on the richness of the scene,

the profound grace-filled beauty of it all.

Every obstacle can be a chance to reveal the characters’ inner strength,

if only you’ll give them the chance.

Every time someone asks you how you are doing,

you contribute to the tales they will tell of you,

because they listen to the tale you tell of yourself,

and the world you inhabit.

Every time someone seeks your attention,

from the homeless woman on the street

to the child in your congregation,

from someone threatening or belittling you

to someone giving you a compliment,

you contribute to the tales they tell about themselves,

the way they see themselves in relation to God and the world.

It’s rather an awesome responsibility,

to think I play a role in all these stories,

in all these lives.

It’s somewhat daunting to realize how all the tiny episodes

get strung together to form a narrative.

Scarier still, the thought that we,

as Christian authors claim to know something about the process.

We, as Christian authorities,

must create spaces in which people

learn to write better stories about themselves.

And so, to close, I would like to reread today’s epistle.

“You yourselves know, brothers and sisters,
that our coming to you was not in vain,
but though we had already suffered
and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi,
as you know,
we had courage in our God
to declare to you the gospel of God
in spite of great opposition.
For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery,
but just as we have been approved by God
to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so
we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.
As you know and as God is our witness,
we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed;
nor did we seek praise from mortals,
whether from you or from others,
though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ.
But we were gentle among you,
like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.
So deeply do we care for you
that we are determined to share with you
not only the gospel of God but also our own selves,
because you have become very dear to us.”

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