Most of you know that today is my last Sunday as your preacher. Since the conclusion of the academic year I have preached five sermons in a series of which this is the sixth and last, trying to sum up for you what I believe the gospel to be. The first sermon was on Jesus’ New Commandment, to love one another as he had loved his disciples, bonding them together as friends. That Commandment is the root of our faith, the rock of our salvation, the foundation of all righteousness, and our hope of heaven. Love is our purpose within time and our reality within eternity. The second sermon, for Ascension Sunday, was about Jesus leaving our historical temporal world for eternal life in God. This means that we are left with full responsibility for what we do here, and that Jesus lives in us only, but richly, in the imagination of our hearts. As Jesus ascended to eternal life, so may we as well. The third sermon, for Pentecost, was about God coming from eternity to us in time in the form of the Holy Spirit. Of course, many spirits tempt us besides the Holy One, and we need to discern the spirits by their fruits of love and justice. In the short run, to live by the Holy Spirit means hunting always for the harmony of all creation, and looking at all creation from God’s eternal point of view in which each and every thing has its beauty and value. The fourth sermon was about being born again, in which new life in Christ means rejecting the natural religion that was formed by evolutionary pressures on our primitive ancestors. In that “worldly religion,” as it were, although high value is placed on mutual care and nurture, justice and reciprocity, equal value is put on the defense of the in-group, hierarchical authority structures, and visceral disgust for what one’s in-group believes is impure. By stark contrast, for Jesus’ religion of God’s kingdom the so-called evolutionary virtues of in-group thinking, authoritarian behavior, and conventional purity taboos are the very vices that cause hostility. Instead, the new life for which Jesus said we need to be born again combines care and nurture into love, and justice and reciprocity into righteousness, both of which have eternal and temporal dimensions. Last Sunday’s sermon, the fifth, was about growth in this new life, which requires maturation in social consciousness beyond the in-group thinking that would impose our Christian patterns on everyone else. Growth also requires maturation in spiritual powers to rise above preoccupations with individual guilt and forgiveness to compassion for the suffering found throughout the cosmos, a compassion in which our unity with one another and with God ground the beatific vision.
A recurring theme in these sermons, and in Christian preaching since the beginning, is the profound relation between time and eternity. I hold, as Jesus did, that the ordinary way we live within time is oblivious to the greater reality that the flow of time exists within the richer dynamic of eternity. Wake up!, he said, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. If we understand time and historical events only on their own terms, life will seem like a fight for advantage. But if we understand time and history in terms of eternity, advantage in the worldly sense does not count, the first will be last and the last first, and death is swallowed up in the larger victory that is the divine life itself. Praise God!
To live with a consciousness of our eternal reality does not mean escaping from time and history, however. On the contrary, living with an eye to eternity gives us the courage and realism to face life directly. To face life is to engage the issues of our watch without denial. Most of the issues of our watch are personal ones, and we are like one another in many of them. Everyone has issues growing up, for instance. Some of us live long enough to worry about growing old. You know how easy denial is regarding the issues of life’s stages. Most of us also have issues with careers, with friends and family, with finding economic security, and enough adventure to make life interesting. Christians with the faith of eternal life have the courage to address the real issues as they come to us, even when they are painful. We have the courage to accept failure and loss and still go on. From the standpoint of eternity, everything that comes is a gift of God. Even the deepest suffering can be borne if we have Christ’s compassion.
Beyond the personal issues of our watch are social ones that affect our capacities to live in loving communities. Probably the deepest issue in our society is racism, a poisonous stain that mixes evil into the very best of our inventive history of democracy and our love of freedom. Within my own lifetime, our society has made enormous strides in eradicating the visceral sense European-Americans have had that African-Americans are inferior and can contaminate you. When I was a child, my white playmates “just knew” that it would make you impure to drink out of a water fountain used by blacks. This has changed. Nevertheless, the effects of that culturally induced but wicked set of instincts about what is pure or impure remain in many individuals, and in the social stratification of our country, the distribution of educational opportunities, and the availability of career paths.
If racism is not our deepest problem, perhaps the treatment of women is. In nearly all cultures, women have been scripted into roles of inferiority, isolation, powerlessness, and domesticity. American society is less vicious than many others in this regard, and it has made great progress here too. Yet many Americans still have a visceral sense of woman’s place that is shocked by the thought of women in roles that run contrary to the cultural script for male domination. In some churches, it is unthinkable that women could be ministers, for instance.
Lamentably, slavery, racism, and male dominance are solidly grounded in the ancient culture reflected in the Bible, and the contrary ideals of anti-racism and equality in gender matters have required a genuine revolution in Christianity to reject that culture in favor of a better one. The most acute issue of this sort for Christianity on our current watch, however, has to do with equal human rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people. On a superficial level, this issue has to do with recognizing the evil in the deep-seated social that deny full equality to these people, much like the traditional social roles for women do. On a deeper level, the problem is with the internalized visceral sense of purity and impurity among many in our culture who view these brothers and sisters as being perverted, deviant, broken in their humanity, or “intrinsically disordered” as some Roman Catholics believe. In point of fact, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people simply have sexual orientations that are in the minority in the population, and perhaps not as small a minority as some people believe. Their orientations are harmless to others, except in the same ways straight sexual orientations can be harmful, and the sexual minorities can function in all other social roles like everyone else according to their talents and the accidents of opportunity. This includes marriage, as the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Council has said. Those among us who “just know” that marriage is between one man and one woman, and who used to think that it had to be between people of the same race, those who find gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals to be deviants from “natural” sexuality, simply are enslaved to a visceral cultural code that itself is evil. The Christian issue on our watch is to free them from that bondage, and to defend the equality of all people as God’s children.
Or if racism and various forms of sexism are not our greatest social problems, the problems associated with poverty surely are. Whereas the Bible’s culture—not its theology but its culture—supported slavery, racism, and many kinds of sexual bigotry, the Bible has always been clear about the injustice of poverty and the constant obligation to help the poor and weak. We have come to realize, as the ancient world did not, that it is possible to change social conditions. So for us charity is not merely giving alms to the poor. Charity is to create a more economically just society. The problem is not merely that we happen to have an economic order that is unjust. The problem is that we have this economic order because of the greed of those in power who profit from it. Even those of us without much power and who are not super-rich are reluctant to change an economic order in ways that might threaten our security. How can we persuade ourselves to abandon our greed in order to improve the economic situation of the poorest? This is a crucial issue of our watch, and the Christian imperative to do something is clear.
Beyond the personal and social issues of our watch is the special issue of national moral character surrounding the war in Iraq. I understand that one of the two soldiers who recently were kidnapped, tortured, and killed in the course of doing their duty honorably, had told his family that he did not mind being in Iraq because he was defending his country. Who could have lied to him to make him think that? Iraq had not attacked the United States or even threatened to do so. Iraq had no connection with al Qaeda before the war, though our government lied to persuade us it did. Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, although our government spun the few intelligence reports that suggested it might to make it seem so. What responsible government would go to war without making sure of its justification? Only a government whose reasons for war are not justified, such as wanting to control oil, or to beat back resistance to American domination! That poor boy was lied to about his mission. He was not defending his country. He was invading another country without justification, and in his high sense of honor he thought he was being patriotic. Despite some scandals, our armed forces in Iraq have behaved honorably, efficiently, and with a desire to do the least harm in a very dangerous situation, all testifying to their strong sense of duty. But the duty that has been given them is wrong, evil, and contrary to the American heritage of fairness and support of the underdog.
Perhaps most devastating to our national character is the macho swagger that convinces people that it is worse to look weak than to change a wrongful course. Only fools or villains would argue that we have to “stay the course,” when we know the course to be based on lies and mistakes! Only fools or villains could say that our war dead “will have died in vain” if we abandon a war that was vain in the first place! Because this is a democracy, we are our government, and we are those fools or villains unless we do something to the contrary.
America will have deep obligations in Iraq for generations. I do not advocate any quick pull-out, or short time-table for withdrawal, as if we can pretend the war had not happened. Moreover, the real problems of Iraq go far beyond the American invasion. Saddam Hussein was a villain whose legacy will cause trouble for years. The disputes between Sunnis and Shiites are centuries old. The issues of the Kurds transcend Islam. The anti-Semitism of so much of the Islamic world is a grievous fault. The American invasion only stoked these pre-existent fires and removed the balances that contained them somewhat. Any way forward in Iraq will have to work out these and other issues over and above the American presence that exacerbates them.
No way forward for America is possible, however, without public admission to the entire world that the war was a colossal mistake. The lies and self-deceptions need to be brought to light. Profound and prolonged apologies need to be made. Such confessions of deep moral wrong are difficult for governments to make. Even when they do change course they like to pretend they intended the change all along. Yet the very issue is that collectively we have committed a deep moral wrong, and given our responsible power over into the hands of greed and arrogance that embarrass even our allies. Our deeply flawed national character needs to be redeemed, just as the German nation had to be redeemed after the Third Reich. Christians know that confession and repentance are essential to any change. This must be our message to our nation at this point in our watch.
Christians also know, however, that confession and repentance are virtually impossible without the conviction that God loves the sinner. Our Christian message needs to include the assurance that national redemption is possible because of the overwhelming fecundity of God’s grace. That redemption will require confession and repentance, and then generations of work to pay for our mistakes. The gospel message, however, is that God’s love is sufficient to redeem the people no matter how far wrong we have been. Grace upon grace, when we admit to ourselves the depth of evil, we glimpse beneath it the infinite, creative love in which we have the eternal life to face life on our watch.
Facing life in our time, particularly our political life, will not be easy. People do not want to hear the Christian word about justice, and in fear and secret self-condemnation they are not easily persuaded that the admission of their own evil opens them to the bounties of God’s healing. We are likely to be scoffed at when we face these issues, or even worse, persecuted. Even our friends and family can be offended by this gospel call to the honesty of confession and the hope of eternity. But let us remember the words of Paul, in a similar situation:
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! . . . [A]s servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God . . . We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
Beloved sisters and brothers, do not be tame Christians! May you face life with all the wild energy of God our Creator, with all the wild love of Jesus Christ, and with all wild courage of the Holy Spirit. God bless you.