In this hour, at this time, in this place, may God’s word be spoken; and God’s word only be heard, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Today is the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost … and according to our liturgical mandate, we are to proclaim the good news, welcome the stranger, and strive for justice and peace among all people. In fact, as I’ve said several times before, the task of the preacher on any occasion is simply to declare the Gospel of Christ. That certainly makes sense when we gather together as a community of faith, and it follows that we need to understand as clearly as we can what the good news is all about that we are called upon to share with our neighbors.
Let’s pursue this line of thought a bit further. The Gospel message when it is literally translated means not only “GOOD NEWS” with capital letters, but even more to the point, it means good-news specifically that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. Furthermore, assuming that’s true, it follows we need to pay special attention to the teachings and sayings of Jesus; such as, the first shall be last and the last first, love your neighbor as yourself, judge not that ye be not judged, bless those who persecute you, and so on… for when we do that we obtain deeper understanding of what life is all about. Living a Christian life is marked by reading the Bible carefully and following the teachings of the Master. Pretty straightforward.
But hold on. It’s not quite that simple. There are dangers that lie ahead, and traps that can lure us in. The first of these is the matter of “interpretation.” This is where we come face to face with our friends who call themselves Biblical literalists. How do they read the Bible, or more to the point perhaps, how do we all read the Bible? Do we read it like an encyclopedia? Like a dictionary? Like a good mystery novel – from beginning to end? Do we pick and choose different parts? Or is the Bible more like poetry with free association of ideas, images and symbols? The point is that we are engaged in the complex task of interpreting the text, and there are no simple right-or-wrong ways of doing that.
In this regard, I am aware that Zion Church is moving through a time of major transition, and many aspects of its 200 year old history are being reviewed, assessed, evaluated, and appreciatively revered as having lasting value; while at the same time, with an eye toward the future, efforts are underway with the Worship Committee for example, to be open-minded and receptive to new and different ways of making our church’s liturgical experience relevant to the important things that are happening in our lives both today and tomorrow. There is a healthy tension that invariably emerges as we move ahead “in the sure and certain hope” that God has a purpose and a rationale for all that is taking place here in this very building. Everyone has a contribution to make regarding our overall understanding of the Christian Mission we are called to follow; and everybody should work together collectively so that we can legitimately interpret our Biblical mandate, and do so with a sense of Gospel integrity.
This is not an easy task, and as always, a note of caution is in order. Scriptural matters can get very complicated, both linguistically and theologically, as we try to understand the authenticity of Jesus’ actual words and remarks. Where were they said, for example? What language was used? Who heard them? What was the setting? What time of year was it? And so on. Scholars have been divided for centuries over the accuracy of the teachings of Jesus. Some of course say there’s no problem at all. It’s written down, black and white, as the Word of God and our task is simply to read it and obey. Others claim we need to appreciate the spirit behind the text and view all Biblical writings and sayings as the inspired Word of God. That view of course has great merit as well, and deserves to be acknowledged.
Yet scholars, being curious sorts, insist upon digging into the cultural realities of the past. So let’s be fair, give some credit to their work, and go along with them for a moment. As Christians we have some perplexities and peculiarities to explain. When Jesus spoke for example, it was in an ancient tongue that has long since died out. Jesus was not filmed or recorded for the evening news. And he’s not on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. Instead, what he left in his confusing wake of remarks after the resurrection, it seems, was an oral tradition of stories and open-ended parables – the first of which was put to parchment, not paper, by the Gospeler Mark, the earliest recorded Evangelist nearly 60 or 70 years after Jesus’ death. How accurate does common sense say those writings are, and how true are they to the specific words Jesus actually spoke?
Well – you be the judge.
Now it’s important that we keep a critical eye on our task. The Gospel needs to be proclaimed, but it is the theme of the Gospel – proclaiming the good news of love and justice – that should be emphasized, not the specific words of Jesus. I admit, this is often portrayed by some academics as linguistic gymnastics; convoluted forms of “semiotics” and “hermeneutics,” a couple of fancy words that suggest you are free to figure out and determine your own belief. That is clearly your right, and you will be honored and respected whatever you decide. For myself, and speaking only for myself, I want my faith to be as historically accurate as it is theologically believable. Blind-faith in my view is no virtue; in fact, it’s an oxymoron. To take a page from philosophy: it was Socrates who said – ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ – and I would add in the religious realm that an ‘unexamined faith is not worth believing.’
So where does all that take us in today’s 21st century world? Recently I have attempted to understand more clearly what drives and sustains our Christian ethical values over time. The best evidence that I can come up with are narrative accounts that integrate our own experience with the core beliefs of our identified religious traditions. We heard this clearly expressed, for example, when we convened our organizational meeting of the Worship Committee, and described the first series of jobs and employment we held. We then reflected-upon what was learned from those experiences; and from that initial orienting discussion a basic question arose: “In a world of change, where is our faith taking us?”
Let me try to answer that by ending with this story about the inevitability of ‘aging’ which is told by a feminist from the 1950s and 60s, Betty Friedan. The answer to where our faith is taking us is revealed in her final book which connects the process of ‘aging’ to the benefits of the ‘spirit of righteousness’ marked by insight, values, and ultimately wisdom. It’s a time-tested formula for understanding the meaning of life.
Betty Friedan’s last publication before she died in 2006 was a careful and lengthy consideration of what she simply called – getting old. In fact, the book entitled ‘The Fountain of Age’ explored the unexpected depth and strength that is hidden within ‘life’s third age.’ In one of the chapters, Friedan tells of being challenged to rappel down a 300-foot cliff during an Outward Bound-type expedition. She declined the invitation. Such a refusal would burden most adults with powerful feelings of guilt, shame, or remorse. For Friedan, it was just the opposite. As an elder, she experienced her refusal as evidence of a new kind of freedom, the power to say “NO.” She understood that, finally, “I don’t have to compete to prove myself any more – I can live with the fact that I’ll never rappel a 300 foot cliff, and that failure doesn’t really matter one way or another.”
This leaves us with a tantalizing and provocative conclusion. Ultimately…Ultimately – Who are we trying to impress? … God; Ourselves; Family; Friends; Neighbors; Rivals; Competitors? It’s a tough question, and one that I will put to you in the same way Betty Friedan was challenged.
Will you consider rappelling down whatever is a 300-foot cliff in your own life? If so, Why on earth, literally, would you do that? And if not, Why not? The Good News is that God is vitally interested in your answer, as you make an honest and spiritual accounting of your life. We ask all this:
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
CREDITS: Betty Friedan: Fountain of Age. 1993, Simon and Schuster
We should remember Eisenhower’s warning about the dangers of the military/industrial complex. If we claim to be a Christian nation, we should act more like the Prince of Peace and truly ask: What would Jesus do? I doubt he would encourage a huge military/industrial/surveillance complex which is constantly looking for ways to use their hardware at taxpayer’s expense. If we built up our own country rather than destroy others, we would have more friends in the world, more security, more employment, a larger tax base, and lower taxes.
William Bronson is a former commercial airline pilot. He holds a doctorate from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. (004)
Episcopal Voices represent different points of view from “all sorts and conditions” of Anglicans. Parishioner entries are welcome. Michael +