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The Play's the Thing



Old Testament Reading: 2 Samuel 12:1-10

New 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 the earth.

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 biographical prototype.

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 possibility.

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 log-jam?

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 vanished.

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 Franny did

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 mundane. 

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).





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