Mundane and Sublime

Communion Sunday, November 04, 2018

Texts: Hebrews 9, Mark 12

I am an un-spiritual guy. I have a vague sense of what it is to be ‘really’ spiritual, and a clear sense that I are not that. The Week of Guided Prayer begins today at Calvary. Go.

The religious market is bursting with what my colleague Alydia calls the ‘spirituality of spirituality’: pentecostal or charismatic, liturgical or monastic, smells and bells, slain in the spirit, peaceably eirenic and otherworldly, disengaged or disinterested, transcending petty physical things, ‘spiritual but not religious’ – all characterized by ‘mindfulness’.

But I’m not buying it, and I’m not selling it. How un-spiritual of me, eh? R.D.Laing the psychiatrist wrote poetry back in the 1960’s, called ‘Knots’:

Never seen it.

Never felt it.

Never heard it.

Never missed it.

Is there a problem?

I identify with the absent ones, not participating in this marketplace of the ‘spirituality of spirituality’. I keep asking you about your ‘it’, Trinity’s ‘it’. Wordsworth, disillusioned romantic addressing modern industrialization in 1802, put it in ways that echo true for me in the face of post-modern digitalization:

O Friend! I know not which way I must look

For comfort, being, as I am, opprest,

To think that now our life is only drest

For show – We must run glittering like a brook

In the open sunshine, or we are unblest

The wealthiest man among us is the best….

No grandeur now in nature or in book

Delights us. Rapine, avarice, expense,

This is idolatry; and these we adore;

Plain living and high thinking are no more:

The homely beauty of the good old cause

Is gone; our peace, our fearful innocence

And pure religion breathing household laws…

I am an un-spiritual guy. I respect the ‘really’ spiritual folks – I encourage guided prayer, and other spiritual disciplines like tithing, reading scripture, visiting the sick, fasting and Sabbath observance. I know there’s more to life than bread alone. I love social gospel, political or liberation theology.

Still I am offered two choices of being spiritual: other-worldly, no earthly use, eirenic, holier than thou, or partisan, self-righteous, politically correct conclusory activism. You know how badly I react to binary polarization! Presented with ‘yes or no’, ‘A or B’, ‘right or wrong’ dilemmas, ? I will assume a ‘bobble head’ posture, and then I will say ‘maybe’, ‘C’, ‘both’, ‘neither’.

Tell me what ‘real’ ministers are like, and what ‘real’ religion should be, and I will exclude myself – and my church (until I leave, and you opt for one or the other tendency). The respect I ask for myself, in the politics of recognition, I commit myself to offer in turn to all, in the ongoing discourse shaping our identities, shared and distinct.

Annie Dillard, the American writer, puts it this way:

Scholarship has long distinguished

between two strains of thought

which proceed in the west

from human knowledge of God.

In one, the ascetic’s metaphysic,

the world is far from God.

Emanating from God, and linked to him by Christ,

the world is yet infinitely other than God,

furled away from him

like the end of a long banner falling…

The more accessible and universal view,

held by Eckhart and by many peoples in many forms,

is scarcely different from pantheism,

that the world is immanation,

that God is in the thing,

and eternally present here, if nowhere else…

To immanence, to the heart… all things are one…

to eminence, to the mind, Christ only touches the top,

skims only the top, as it were, the souls of people…

We are not ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ religion, superior enlightened modern scientific people who have gotten ‘past’ superstitions, the magical naivety of our ancestors. We’re amid the same struggles as they were. Is – was - this all about here and now, or all about higher things? We are not the first to be tempted to measure our lives in quarterly or annual reports or to escape into sentimental abstractions of ideals or universals, rubber never meeting the road.

Mao’s ‘little red book’ said in 1963:

Where do correct ideas come from?

Do they fall from the skies? No.

Are they innate in the mind? No.

They come from social practice –

and from it alone

George Casalis was a French Protestant Marxist Materialist theologian who wrote a book on reinterpreting Christianity quoting Mao: ‘Correct Ideas Don’t Fall From the Skies.’ He argues that our theology is shaped by and expressed through our social partisan practice. We don’t start with big truths, then deduce what to do. Instead, we ‘get it on the road’, then ‘get it together’ on the way.

Thomas Carlyle put it this way in Sartor Resartus, resisting high Victorian days:

Conviction, were it never so excellent,

Is worthless till it convert itself into Conduct….

Do the Duty which lies nearest thee

Which thou knows to be a Duty!

Thy second Duty will already have become clearer.

The Situation that has not its Duty, its Ideal,

Was never yet occupied by man.

Yes here, in this poor, miserable,

hampered, despicable Actual,

Wherein thou even not standest

Here or nowhere is thy Ideal:

Work it out therefrom;

And working, believe, live, be free.

Hebrews reflects a Christian community construing Jesus after the Second Temple fell, in 70CE. It assumes we know Exodus and Leviticus, for the layout of the tent, repeated in the temples, with outer and inner courtyards, sanctuary, and finally ‘holy of holies’, the ‘ark of the covenant’. On those stages, we played out the sacred dramatic re-enactment practices of sacrifice.

‘The way we always did it’ is lost, at least every few centuries. From a tent for an ark, to Solomon’s Temple, to Second Temple, to synagogues, Torah, Tanakh, and Talmud, the shape of it is conserved and transformed. The shape of things to come informs the shape of things we build and express. The ethical, moral, patterns, paradigms express the real meaning of redeeming ‘blood atonement’.

We moderns ‘relax form for meaning’, but without any disciplines, architecture, or practices, we can lose the thread, and fail to survive change. As an early onset Alzheimers sufferer describes it, ‘the filing cabinets dumped out, to be restacked in piles on the floor each time from a messy mound’.

Northrop Frye, United Church minister and literary critic, wrote in The Great Code that:

The supremacy of the verbal over the monumental

Has something about it of the supremacy of life over death

The word informs and expresses the past, the present, and our hope for the future, the penultimate, and our trust in the ultimate. Meanwhile we adjust our transformed practice to changing context!

Dorothee Soelle, German theologian of the second half of the last century, wrote in ‘Revolutionary Patience’:

Keep us from the romantic illusion, God,

that friendship falls from the sky like rain

and from the conservative illusion

that it grows slowly over the years like a tree

teach us that friendship takes work

like anything else that is good for us…

Two plus two? The tax accountant answers: what do you want it to be? Your kids and grandkids get it. Religion is caught, not taught. Love God. Love neighbour. Each generation audits their elders, and in turn will be audited by their children. How did we love God? How did we love neighbours? Get on with it. Leave the audit up to the kids.

The shema, or at least the first ‘six words’ of the shema. It is a Jewish child’s first prayer, for daily recitation, morning and night. It is printed inside the mezuzah on doorframes of your neighbours’ homes, and in tefillin less often seen. It is the agreed summary standard for informing or expressing faith:

Sh'ma Hear

Yis'ra'eil O Israel

Adonai The Lord

Eloheinu Our God

Adonai The Lord

Echad. Is one.

So why is it only Mark remembers Jesus saying it? Matthew and Luke omit it!

And you shall love the Lord your God

With all your heart,

And with all your soul,

And with all your mind

And with all your strength

Wait! That’s wrong! Ask any Jewish friend! The proper conclusion of the shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, has three elements: heart, soul, strength. Mark has added a fourth item, slipped it into the set, and changed the rhythm! (Matthew omits ‘strength’, and Luke reverses Mark’s third and fourth elements, having omitted the front end of ‘Hear, O Israel’.)

What did Jesus really say? If we had an audiotape, or a transcript, what did he say? Was Jesus – or were early Christians – not smart enough to remember the whole childhood prayer of the shema? Why did they get it wrong – differently - in our gospels? Have you ever tried to lead the Lord’s Prayer, and got off track? I have. ‘Our heavenly father… oops’. Are you shy to teach your kids and grandkids? Our whole congregation got the ‘Sursum Corda’ wrong today, too!

Do you envy your Catholic or conservative friends who can rattle off a creed or rosary or prayer or text for any occasion? Me too: at the edge of dementia, or in the midst of pain, it was a great comfort for our elders, is for our neighbours, and might be for us, but we confess that we don’t have that much rote content. But it’s a poor excuse for never trying to say a prayer, lest you get it wrong.

I am less interested in whether you have memorized some scripture or some prayer, than in whether you have a semantic field with lots of iterations of God-talk words, and a grammar that hangs them together without getting stuck in masculine pronouns, and a narrative that is persuasive and inviting and shared. I think people will ‘read’ you – ‘read’ us. Our children and others will audit us.

I think that’s what Mark’s version of this story says. The scribe overhears, listens to Jesus talking with other people, disciples and Sadducees, and is intrigued to join the discourse.

He asks, gets and answer, and tries to consolidate the learning by paraphrasing it back. Jesus doesn’t get the final word – the scribe does, with his paraphrase of the answer. Jesus doesn’t correct or improve the response, just affirms the scribe, saying ‘you are not far from the kingdom of God’.

How do you love God? The way you love that distant relative, at Christmas? What do you do to practice that love? What is the semantic field for you of words and phrases like ‘O God’, or ‘Oh My God’ or ‘thank God’? What is your practice of Godtalk? Is it all in masculine pronouns of power? What is our discourse, and what is our practice of loving God? How do we celebrate and study and serve that God-stuff?

How do you love neighbour? Not just humanity – but actual persons? What do you say, and do? What is your practice? How do you ‘read’ others, and your reality? As we used to warn: ‘the helping hand strikes again’ when it is unilateral

and not relational and dialogical. How do you build relationships?

Love God. Love neighbour. Me and God. Me and neighbour. Two plus two. It’s not just an idea. It’s a relationship with the other. It’s a practice of acting as if it were so. Wouldn’t it be great if people ‘read’ our people and our church and saw something inspiring: ‘see how these Christians love one another’?

We’ve gathered at the table – now receive what God offers – then work with it – make something of it – and of us.