This morning's scripture readings
present us with two scenarios which at first seem to be utterly alien. One
seems to depict the Patriarch Jacob having a wrestling match with God, or
at least with some god. The other is a forecast of an apocalypse, telling
us what attitude to take during the Great Tribulation before the Second
Advent of Christ. When I read texts like this, my reaction is altogether
different from when I chance to open the Bible to the Sermon on the Mount
or to the Epistle of James. Both groups of texts challenge the reader, but
in very different ways. How is one to meet their respective challenges?
It may be that James or the Sermon on
the Mount affront me, but the affront is to my conscience. I secretly feel
that these writers are right in their moral prescriptions and that I am
wrong in my moral behaviors. I have no choice but to take them seriously
unless I have so dulled the voice of conscience that I no longer hear
their prophetic words.
But this business about wrestling with
demigods who must be away ere the sun rises? Enduring the depredations of
the Antichrist? Here the affront is to my very sense of reality. Biblical
texts like these do not immediately communicate to the modern reader.
And here let me go back to my sermon of
two weeks ago, the one about cognitive legalism. Suppose one were to read
these passages, the ones about wrestling with God, about the Great
Tribulation, and one were to feel summoned to believe them despite their
quaint unbelievability? There you are, a subject of the Queen of Hearts
who commands you to believe six impossible things before breakfast. And if
you can manage to mutilate your common sense for long enough to do it, you
can then boast of your expertise in believing the implausible and gloat
over us poor unbelievers who cannot. Something's wrong there.
So what are we to do with passages like
these? This takes me back to last week's sermon. You do with these
passages what Bultmann said to do with them. You ask what understanding of
human existence is implied in them. And then you ask whether that
understanding challenges your attitudes about life the way the Sermon on
the Mount does. And in this case, I find that it does indeed. Let me tell
you what I see in these passages, Luke first.
I want to focus on Luke 21:19: "By your
endurance you will gain your souls." In the context I suppose this means
that you will save your skin if you hang on long enough. If you give in,
if you knuckle under, if you finally give in and renounce your faith in
the time of religious persecution, God will show no more mercy, and you
will be damned. I guess that's the point. But that to me is no more
relevant morally than the movie The Omen. I see something else in
the passage. Suppose we translate the Greek word psyche as "self"
rather than "life" or "soul." All are good translation options, after all.
Can it be that the passage implies something about personal growth
through adversity? Could the point be that you will not finally become
your real self unless you are willing to endure some unpleasant
What unpleasant things? Anything will
qualify as long as it is something that is likely to spell change
for you. Ask yourself which phrase feels more natural to you. Do you find
yourself thinking that current developments promise change or
threaten change? What is implied in your attitude toward change?
If you perceive change as a promise,
chances are that you see in it a prospect for growth. Perhaps you are
dissatisfied with the self you currently are and you look forward to
being, becoming a better self. Think about that for a moment. Suppose you
could be rid of a certain problem, a particular idiosyncrasy that troubles
you or your loved ones. Imagine what you would be like, what your life
would be like without that crippling thing. That annoying thing. That
besetting sin, whatever. I don't know what conditioned you to have it, but
it may be that the next hand of cards dealt you by circumstances will not
include that one. After the next shake-up of things, you may be different.
You will finally learn that lesson that could never sink in before.
It may be suffering that will cause
this change, that will wipe the lens clean, that will untie the repeating
neurotic loop. It may be someone else's suffering that will shadow forth
your own future. Like Scrooge you may be moved to say, at long last, "I
see: that unfortunate man's fate might be my own."
But if change seems like a threat to
you, I wonder if it is because you think you will not survive the changes
with the self you have been so far intact. You fear that you will have to
bid your present self adieu if you move on into the future. If you open
your sails up to the future. That is the only way to stop fighting change
and instead let change propel you into the future.
Luke has another similar saying back in
chapter 17, which, as it happens, is another end-of-the-world scenario.
This one warns: "Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever
loses his life will preserve it" (17:33).
Does this one contradict the one we are considering in
21:33? One says to act in such a way as
to gain your life, while the other warns you not to try it. But then it
says the only way to preserve it in the long run is to be willing to
sacrifice it in the short run. The point, then, is really the same after
all. But the saying in chapter 17 provides an important key to
understanding the one in chapter 21.
What is it you are afraid of losing if
you are afraid of change? It is a self, but it is not your real self. It
is not a lasting self, because you will lose it precisely by trying to
hold on to it. It is like yesterday's newspaper. If you want to be
well-informed, you have to toss yesterday's paper aside when today comes
with a fresh edition. Maybe you preferred yesterday's news. But it is not
news any more when yesterday is past! Pretending it is still yesterday
isn't going to do you any good!
The only way to keep your self, to gain
your emerging self, is to let the process of change do its work! You must
simply trust that the new self that emerges will be the real one! And it
will be replaced in due time by a realer, a more true you still!
This is simply what it means to trust
God for the future isn't it? What else does it mean? Does it mean to
believe the arbitrary assertion that God will make only pleasant things
happen to you? Believe that for a while, and you will come to a bitter
disillusionment. Or maybe you won't, and that will be even worse.
It is possible to be "in denial" about
your faith in God. Your childish belief in God has become outmoded. The
facts have shattered it. It is time to see what remains unshaken among the
wreckage. But some people will not.
Let me take an extreme example. Many
Pentecostal believers start with the bold belief that God not only can but
most certainly will heal them of their diseases. They pray for it or go to
a meeting and ask a healer to pray for it. Nothing happens. What are they
to conclude? They are told that either their faith was not strong enough
or that they were in fact healed but Satan is counterfeiting the symptoms.
By faith they are to wish them away and not take any faithless old
medicine in the meantime.
It happens that some beliefs, no matter
how cherished, like a loved one, dies. And just as you may repress your
grief, you may go into denial at the death of a loved one, so may you go
into denial about an outgrown belief. You may hang onto biblical
literalism long after you should have graduated to something else. If you
do, you are retarding your own religious growth. You are fearing to face
the new, more mature self that is waiting to be formed in you.
Whatever can be threatened, whatever
can be shaken, whatever you fear cannot stand, is destined to crash. Do
not go down with the ship. Let that which is destined to become the past
slip away. Believe that the real you is that which beckons from the
future. If it is a sadder you, it will be a wiser one. And dawn will
follow the darkness sooner or later. Rebirth can never come without death.
Remember the central myth of our tradition: the resurrection. It says that
triumph, realization of one's true destiny, cannot come without the
shattering impact of change.
Luke says it well: Was it not written
that the Christ should suffer and only then enter into his glory? The same
is true of you.
Tillich said that it is not really a
question of whether someone believes in God. That is putting the matter
all wrong. Everyone has a god, an ultimate concern. The real question is
whether what you are living for is adequate to nourish and sustain you.
Can it provide for you the courage to be?
In the same way, believing in God, it
seems to me, finally boils down to whether you trust the future to bring
to your true selfhood. Will you trust the future?
Will you trust God, will you trust the
future to issue in the true image of this, our congregation? If you fear
that the church you have cherished is over, you are holding on to a past
self that is slipping through your fingers faster the more tightly you
clutch it. Let it go, and welcome the new church that is coming.
It is hard not to see that our church
has turned a corner. Something new will begin. That is clear. But let it
be equally clear to you that you too, you as an individual, will be born
again from the womb of the future. There may be birth pangs, but let it
happen. Let it come. Welcome yourself. Your future self knocks even now
upon the door do not turn it away, thinking there is no room left. Unless
you open the door, the room you are in will soon be empty.
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