The Play's the Thing
Testament Reading: 2 Samuel 12:1-10
Testament Reading: Galatians 3:1-5
It always gratifies me when a sermon
makes people interested enough to follow up on it afterwards with
questions. That happened last week. So this morning I want to develop
certain themes from last week further.
Last week I argued that going to
church and hearing the Bible, and the songs, and the sermon, and the
rituals, is much like going to the theatre. In both cases, you have
agreed to suspend your ordinary beliefs about the mundane world and let
your imagination run away with you.
You are willing to feel and react
emotionally for a while as if King Lear or Jean Valjean were a real
person. And you are willing to take what they say, what happens to them,
quite seriously while the curtain is up. When it is rung down you spring
back into your ordinary beliefs; you know King Lear is a fiction. But
you have perhaps learned and been changed as a result of willingly
suspending disbelief as long as you did.
I suggested last week that the faith
required for you to profit by the Bible or the sacraments or the liturgy
is no different from the kind of literary or dramatic suspension of
disbelief you exercise in the theatre. It is, as Coleridge called it,
"poetic faith." It need not for a minute entail changing your mind and
actually coming to believe that miracles occur, that gods once walked
If the willing suspension of
disbelief you exercise when you attend the theatre or watch a film, if
the poetic faith you have when you read a novel, does not call for a
sacrifice of the intellect, neither does "faith in the Bible" and
precisely for the same reason.
This is what Yale theologian Hans
Frei, a favorite of my old mentor Bob Streetman, said in his book The
Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. He said that for too long scholars
were not satisfied with the narrative texts of the Bible as written. No,
they had to dig deeper and arrive at the rock bottom of the historical
events underlying the narrative. Only eventually the supposed "rock
bottom" seemed more like a quicksand pit that had no hard bottom in
sight! Did it really happen this way? Which way did it happen?
Was the historical Jesus the same as
the Christ of faith? Frei said that all this was vanity and a striving
after wind. Why not just let the narrative of the Bible do what all
narratives do? They beguile us by the story they tell, and we find
ourselves changed and enriched by being enthralled. Let me be clear:
that is all I am saying.
So the stories of the Bible are not
sworn testimony, like court affidavits, that require cognitive assent.
They are literary works requiring the suspension of disbelief for the
brief time you are reading or hearing or seeing them. If you will just
temporarily suspend disbelief you will allow them to do their work. And
what work is that? What, specifically, can you expect to take away with
you from a service where the Bible is read?
A few weeks ago I preached a sermon
called "The Place in the Text." This was already an answer to the
question some of you asked last week, and you may have been away when I
preached it. In any case, here it is again. In that sermon I suggested
that you live your life on the model of some story you have heard or
read, whether an epic or a soap opera. The meaning of your life is its
conformity, at least its attempt to conform, to a certain literary or
Hearing the story of Jesus who served
others, not himself, may galvanize you to imitate him, to take up your
cross and follow him, as the gospels say, envisioning just this
I know a man who modeled himself on
Sheridan Whiteside from The Man Who Came to Dinner. I know
another who modeled himself on Kierkegaard, another on H.P. Lovecraft,
another on certain characters from Bergman, another on Eva Perone,
believe it or not.
You may find in the stories and
dramas of the Bible some path to follow through the rest of the week.
You cannot take out the door the sacred experience, the moment of
inspiration, but the lesson you learned can go with you.
You may find a word of rebuke in what
you hear in church. Like David with his guilty conscience, you may find
yourself skewered by some prophetic parable, as when the prophet Nathan
decides, like Hamlet, "The Play's the thing wherein I'll catch the
conscience of the king."
I find that while the mere axiom
"It's bad to be self-righteous" has no power to pop the bubble of my
religious ego, thinking about the dramatic scene of the Pharisee and the
Publican deflates my pretension quite effectively!
Or Dives' aloof indifference to poor
Lazarus, despite thinking himself, no doubt, a good and pious man. I
don't only think about that when it is forced upon me in church, as if
church were a place to get it out of your system by flogging your
conscience, Shi'ite style, and then cruising along the rest of the week
like normal. Ever since I heard Don Morris preach on the oblivious
hypocrisy of Dives a decade or more ago, I've never been able to get it
out of my head or off my conscience! I wish I had been able to
leave it in church!
Sometimes when you come to church,
and the curtain goes up, and that magic time, that finite province of
meaning, is conjured into existence, you may find something else that
you can take with you after the spell vanishes. You may find there a
magic key to the confusion of your life, a magic solution to a problem.
Suppose for instance, all is out of
kilter with you because of some offense committed against you. You have
a festering wound. You have lost a friend. You bear a burden of
bitterness that you can neither carry nor let go. The pattern of your
relationships is altered, misaligned, because of your alienation from
your ex-friend. Those who side with him or her bear your enmity as well.
What a mess! How has your life come to such a pass? Such a mess? Such a
And then you hear again the Parable
of the Prodigal Son. It is a story much like yours in some ways. Here is
a son who bears disgrace and so cannot really count as a son. But which
is worse: his entire absence in a far land? Or his presence as a slave
on the farm? Why can't things be the way they were before? Well, maybe
they can be!
There is one little thing you can do,
one magic wand you can wave. It is called forgiveness, and sometimes it
is able to turn back time and heal great wounds. Once you see that, you
can take it away with you into the mundane world for the rest of the
week. Maybe it wouldn't have come alive, wouldn't have come to appear to
you as a live option without hearing that parable again. But now that it
has, it will not vanish when the weekly Brigadoon of the church hour has
But the main thing one might hope to
take home in one's spiritual doggy bag after church is some sort of
religious experience. Granted, the Kingdom of God, which is a finite
province of meaning, is only there in the midst of the two or three who
are gathered together to invoke it. And you cannot bear it away by
yourself, but you can successfully take away a spark from the fire, a
relic, a token, that will put you in remembrance till next time.
Schleiermacher put this well.
For in his suffering unto death,
occasioned by his steadfastness, there is manifested to us an absolutely
self-denying love; and in this there is represented to us with perfect
vividness the way in which God was in him to reconcile the world to
himself, just as it is in his suffering that we feel most perfectly how
imperturbable was his blessedness. Hence it may be said that the
conviction both of his holiness and of his blessedness always comes to
us primarily as we lose ourselves in the thought of his suffering."
He said that what we lack and sorely
need throughout the week is God-consciousness, awareness that we are not
autonomous, but that we depend in every moment upon that over-arching
infinite Whole that we call God. This is piety. And it is easy to feel
it in church, harder to remember God outside that little oasis.
So what lasting good does church do
you? It is there that the gospel is preached, and where, as Paul said,
Christ is placarded before your eyes as crucified. There the picture is
conjured in moving hues. And it is in this depiction of the
self-sacrificing faith of Jesus Christ that the secret of his own
God-consciousness is communicated to us. It is in the poignancy of that
communal vision, that Passion Play upon the stage of preaching and
sacrament, that the sufferings of Christ become tangibly real.
It is not so real any more as church
ends, the service is over, and you return to the workaday world. But
something is different nonetheless. You may find it hard, as the Pilgrim
did, in the Russian spiritual classic The Way of a Pilgrim, or as
in Salinger's Franny & Zooey,
to pray constantly without ceasing. Your God-consciousness may not be a
constant state of Satori as Schleiermacher supposed it had been in the
case of Jesus. But neither will it be what Sartre called the true
atheism, the heedlessness of God, the tacit indifference to spiritual
things characteristic of the worldling, the one sold utterly to the
The lapse of God-consciousness
becomes a throbbing wound, a potent trace, of God-consciousness. It
becomes the plenitudinous emptiness of the poor in spirit.
For the one who would be conscious of
God, the distance of God itself becomes a spirituality of longing, a
creation of a vacuum which God must come to fill, a void in which the
precious echo of God is then heard to resound all the more loudly.
"Thus have I beheld thee in the
sanctuary, to see thy power and thy glory. My soul is sated as with
marrow and with fat, and my mouth shall praise thee with joyous lips as
I remember thee upon my bed and meditate upon thee in the watches of the
night" (Psalm 63:2,5-6).