COVENANT NETWORK CONFERENCE 2003
New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC
Sermon – Thursday Worship, November 6, 2003
That Our Joy May Be Complete
I John 1: 1-10
Dean and Professor of Homiletics, San Francisco Theological Seminary
The Word of God comes to us again this time from the first Epistle of John. Will you listen again for God’s word to you.
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his son Jesus Christ. We are writing this so that our joy may be complete.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light, as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. [I John 1: 1-10]
My friends, the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Let the people of God say “Amen”. Let us pray.
Be in our words, O Lord, and in our understanding. Be in our hearts and in the love we bring. Be in our lives and set us to praise, for we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Oh, how we want the unbroken circle. Daddy singing bass, Mama singing tenor, Rodney King on one side, Coretta Scott King on the other. Maybe we would cross our arms in the time-honored fashion. Perhaps there would a sway. Oh, how we want the unbroken circle, the old homestead, dear familiar faces. What could be more wonderful than to sit at her table again, to smell his pipe tobacco? Oh, how we want the unbroken circle, the stuff that dreams are made of, Nirvana, Elysian Fields, Valhalla where swords are plowshares, and children play with their hands over the hole of an asp.
The drive for union is surely one of the sweetest, most desperate and enduring of human emotions. An old fashioned poem, the kind favored by early 20th century devotional writers, captures this drive. It is unabashedly sentimental. I thought I’d better just go ahead and say that right out in case my reference to early 20th century devotional literature was not enough of a clue. It is unabashedly sentimental, and it is written by that most famous of the authors of that era, Unknown.
I think oft times as night draws nigh of an old house on the hill,
Of a yard all wide where blossoms bloomed and children played at will.
And when at last the night came down, hushing the merry din,
Mother would look around and ask, “Are all the children in?”
It’s many and many a year since then, and the old house on the hill
No longer echoes the children’s feet, and the yard is still — so still.
But I see it all as shadows creep through many years since then.
I can hear Mother ask, as she did before, “Are all the children in?”
I wonder if, when the shadows fall on that last short earthly day,
When we say goodbye to the world outside, all tired with our children’s play,
When we step out into that other land where Mother has long been,
Will we hear her ask, just as of old, “Are all the children in?”
I know, of course, why that poem was written into the fly leaf of my grandmother’s bible. I know why, even much against my better judgment, that poem chokes me up. I know, and I bet you do, too.
The drive towards reunion is one of the sweetest, most desperate, and enduring of human experiences. We live in a time, as Arthur Schlesinger put it, with too much Pluribus and not enough Unum. Of course we want it. “Please,” the writer of First John is saying, “please” (years before James Brown sang the song), “please come back to us. Agree with us! Can’t we stay together? Can’t we get along?” This is the kind of letter First John is, the kind that a Mama writes to a wayward son, the kind that an old professor writes to former students who have stood and turned their backs on him, the kind that spurned lovers practically invented. This is a letter meant to woo, to patch.
That is not the way that all commentators put it as you may be aware. Mostly the writer of First John has been understood, I believe, in adversative terms, that is the writer has been understood to be lacing this letter with not-so-lightly-veiled and not-so-softly-pointed arguments aimed at the people he considered the Center’s detractors and deserters. For example, there is the way that all those What clauses in the beginning of the letter hammer home the corrective to the other side’s thinking, and the cryptic way that he reiterates, “If we say we have fellowship while we walk in darkness we lie. If we say we have no sin we lie. If we say we have not sinned we make God a liar.” The writer of First John is read as being tough on his opponents, perhaps angry.
I understand that, but I am going to say that I think there is more there. I think the community so known for its teachings on love, the community that bears the name of the beloved disciple, the community that penned those singable words, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and everybody who loves is born of God and knows God” — I think that the Loving Community, capital L, capital C, had its heart broken when Brother Parks and Sister Rogers and Aunt Betty all stood up to leave.
This is a letter meant to woo. “And we are writing these things that our joy may be complete” –and we are preaching to you this way that our joy may be complete, and we are arguing with you like this so that our joy may be complete, and we are telling you these things that we believe so that our joy may be complete! The drive toward reunion runs strong. The drive towards reunion runs strong. The drive towards reunion runs strong, or perhaps I am only speaking for the women of First John’s community.
I am not sure how important the details of the argument are to us. Certainly, to recount the theological differences between the two sides would be one way, an important way, to preach this text. We could talk about the folks who walked out on John’s community who were among the recipients of this letter. I could get pretty excited, I guess, over the excesses of their high-flown Christology, their very spiritual belief that only Jesus’ divinity was really important. We could also talk about the sender of the letter and the community that he represents, about their stalwart, stubborn, gorgeous insistence that Jesus’ earthly, Jesus’ very fleshiness was essential. We could draw parallels, as has been done tens of thousands of times in homiletical history. We could critique contemporary practices, certain styles of worship, certain kinds of hymnals, certain people’s spiritual practices.
There are lots of sermons here, but what is striking to me is the argument itself. There is an argument here. If the content of this argument is familiar to us, the form is familiar, too. What is striking to me today as the drums roll and the sabers rattle, and the casualties continue to mount, is the fight that is behind this text and the fact that it was never resolved.
Among the folk I talk to about this text is my favorite spiritual advisor, an elder statesperson within Christianity who has helped fill congregations on both coasts and over many years and in three different denominations. I knew she was the perfect person to ask. I was looking for that Big Story, you know, that I would need for the end of my little sermon on Koinonia that I had planned for you. I was looking for a big story about church splits that she has seen healed or great moments of reconciliation that she had known, a fight that had got stopped early on, examples of the deep, wide, and sweet communion that the writer of First John is hoping for. I approached her eagerly. “Oh,” she said. “Well, I don’t think that sort of thing happens much this side of eternity!”
That was the moment I remembered that we know how this fight ends. We know the story about the fight in John’s community and how it ends. It makes me think of that hard, practical take on life that mystery writer Dorothy Gilman voices. She has a young, whiny ingénue lean on the shoulder of an older, wiser woman and complain about her own young person’s inability to be successful in romance. “Well,” said the older, wiser woman to the young girl, “there are no happy endings, only happy people.” Right, both the elder statesperson and the mystery writer are right. This side of eternity unbroken circles don’t happen as much as they should. Much of the time we are left to make the best lemonade we can. Yet the drive toward reunion is one of the sweetest, most desperate, and most enduring of human experiences. Except when it is not.
Pugnacious! It’s a word that has been on my mind these days. I’m not sure if that is something that has happened just in the two months since I have been appointed Dean at San Francisco Theological Seminary or if it probably has to do with larger events. Pugnacious! The inclination to fight! If there is a human drive that is stronger than the drive for reunion, that is it! Much as we long for the unbroken circle for the spiritual osteoblasts that could heal our fractures. Much as we long for reunion, for shalom, for peace in our time we are a pugnacious species! Give us a christological hair to split. Set us the task of sharing power or sanctuaries or riverbanks. Assign to us the problem of feeding the hungry, and there you have it. Pugnacious!
That reminds me of a story Father Walter Burghardt told a number of years ago in a powerful sermon he preached during the height of the AIDS crisis. It was a story, he said vaguely, that he thought he had read in Life magazine or Look. It was a story about a nearly untouched civilization in one of the world’s deepest corners. It seems that this verdant little valley was inhabited by a small village of human beings who for tens of thousands of years had coexisted peacefully with nature and made for themselves a lovely life. For tens of thousands of years the farmers and their families had gotten along very nicely, tilling and tending. Oh yes, the occasional fox would cross into the occasional hen house, sometimes more than occasional, but the farmers were philosophical.
Life went on until one day when a couple of the folks got tired of sharing their chickens with the local fox population. They made a plan. At dawn on the appointed day all the village turned out and formed a human circle around the periphery of the village. Men and women, kids and toddlers stood with rakes and hoes, hatchets and clubs. At the signal they began stepping in slowly, closing the circle, driving the foxes towards the circle’s center, clubbing them to death as they went.
The foxes were confused. Some foxes, furious, fought back and were clubbed to death for their temerity. Some foxes tried to stay behind with the wounded and were clubbed to death for their compassion. Some foxes were confused, didn’t know what to do, went into the middle of the circle and lay down. But the people knew what to do. They clubbed the foxes to death and showed their children how.
The unbroken circles we plan are so lovely. The unbroken circles we make are so often quite different.
Fortunately for us,God knew what to do. As First John reminds us, God sent a Saviour, a touchable, handleable, smellable, seeable Saviour in both human and divine form. God sent someone who could redeem both the pugnaciousness that seems so very stuck in our flesh and bones and those spiritual longings for unbroken circles and children gathered in. God knew a way to put her finger on the stuckness of our circles and our cycles and to create a path forward, a path (as the writer of First John says) in the Light.
No, it did not mean a Joseph Mankewitz happy ending for the community of John, but on the other hand you can’t say that they didn’t leave us some sign posts. You might even say that it is largely due to the lyrical descriptions of Christian love that we have in First John that we know koinonia when we see it, and we do see it! It does break out! There are moments.
For me it is the sight of blue fingernail polish that does it. It reminds me of a meal eaten at a Seminary cafeteria twenty some years ago at a distant and nameless East Coast seminary. It was a week or so after I had returned from a quiet Thanksgiving with a third cousin, and I was still sporting the blue thumbnail polish that her teenager had painted on me during the entertainment portion of the afternoon. I had half forgotten to take it off, or maybe I couldn’t be bothered. I was just a little depressed, I think, a little far from home, a little bit of an outsider, not really having found my tribe yet at the new community. I dragged myself to lunch and sat myself down at one of those huge wooden, round tables. I noticed the flash of color as the student across from me put his tray down. “Howard”, I started to say. I pointed at his hands, but before I could get the words out three other people at the table quietly lifted their hands one at a time, each with an electric blue thumbnail. A moment later Bill Brower from the speech department faculty came in and did something that few faculty ever did at this nameless seminary in New Jersey. He sat down opposite me at the round table and joined our circle. He nodded to me briskly and wiped his mouth – one blue nail.
There are signs and signposts. There are moments – some of them are sweet, and some of them are serious. Cindy Crowner, an SFTS alum of whom her former teachers are tremendously proud, was telling recently how she went from her work as director of the Kirkridge Retreat Center to attend the national conference of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. There she heard Sami Awad speak of his work among the emerging nonviolent movement among Palestinians. Mr. Awad, Cindy says, believes that without security of a homeland for Palestinians, Israel will never be secure; but he also believes that as long as the Israeli homeland feels threatened, there will be no progress towards peace. Despite that impossible situation, Sami Awad testified, his pleas are beginning to be heard. As he said, even some young Palestinians who are aligned with the most violent resistance movement are beginning to gather around him, beginning to come to him quietly and ask what a nonviolent movement could look like.
There are signs and signposts. There are moments. When I get discouraged with the state of the Church in the United States I often look West these days, across the Pacific Rim to its other side, to some of our sister churches in other countries for encouragement. And so it was that I heard this story from Kim Young Bok, a great theological educator in South Korea. Kim Young Bok told the story of another resistance movement in the Christian church, in the Korea of a generation ago, a period when the Korean church was cruelly repressed. In those years a number of Christians, factory workers and students, joined in the struggle against the dictatorship. At a busted demonstration one day, a young man from Young Bok’s congregation was arrested as many were. This young man, though, was tortured by the police, and the torture was bad. The young man gave up first the information that he knew and then the names, all the names.
The people in his congregation were horrified. Some were arrested on the basis of the information their young brother had given. After his release from prison the young resister did what few, if any, other people in his position had ever done. He found his way back to his home congregation. And, Young Bok says, the church didn’t know what to do. They met. They discussed scripture long into the evening and debated with each other. By the end of the meeting the voices that had argued for forgiveness had been heard and heeded, and the congregation accepted their young brother back into their midst. Forgiveness was the only way forward, they had decided, the only way to continue being the church, the only way to life. They opened their circle, and they let him in.
It doesn’t happen as much as one would fondly hope. But that it happens at all is a miracle. That it happens at all is a miracle and testimony to God’s tidal wave of gracious healing, invisible power at work in our midst. My friends, there is a miracle coming. There is a miracle at work within us. There is a miracle at work among us, beyond the power of even the most sentimental of us to tell.