Sermon: Poetry, Not a Recipe

Poetry, Not a Recipe
This sermon was prepared by the Rev. Scott Wells for the Universalist National Memorial Church pulpit for September 2, 2001.

Psalm 8 (responsive)
John 1:1-9
A poem from St. John of the Cross

A special greeting to all who are visiting with us, either for the first time or for the first few times, and peace to all.

In keeping the theme I started in August, I’m continuing to light upon the basics. Newcomers deserve to know what makes this church and Universalism distinctive, and to know in what ways we are like the other churches around us. Church members – and I can see you out there – deseve a refresher. We invest a lot of time, energy, prayer, and money to make this church: we deserve a dividend of understanding why its worth the effort.

Today, then, I preach on faith: what it has been and what it can be, and as a warning to the receptive, what it should not be.

What faith is.

First, faith is not an idea. If you carry nothing else away from today’s sermon, remember that faith is not an idea. But if that’s the only thing you carry from the act of worship we share from 11 a.m. To 12 a.m. each Sunday, then be wary. You are undoubtedly missing something important. And the something important is what leads us to a mature understanding of what faith is. But to return to what faith is not, so that we don’t set out on the wrong foot.

Faith is not an idea. It might have been primarily an idea in the past, but no longer. For the last seventeen centuries, more or less, faith, and particularly Christian faith has been a foundational truth that supported Western culture. In speaking, faith is something that we hold as a postulate. Faith could be set down in words, and as such could be assented-to or denied. Yet the choice of denial is the very meaning of heresy, and that was forbidden. Supported by culture and governments, faith as expressed through religion was an incontestable given. This public support of Christian religion, which at various times spanned through the Americas, Europe, Australia, and much of Africa and Asia, has been known as the Constantinian captivity of the church. Ever since the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine legalized and established the Christian church, there has been an incentive to be a Christian, and very often a penalty for not being one. The year 1492, with the monarchs of Spain Ferdinand and Isabel, might be best remembered as the year when Columbus made his first travels in the Americas, but religious historians, plus many Muslims and Jews recall it with bitter memory. The Christian monarchs ordered the conversion or expulsion of said Muslims and Jews, thus destroying one of the most advanced societies in Europe. Most fled to the East; others stay and coverted. Some conversions were genuine; others, perhaps most, were for show value. In any case, being a Christian was all that mattered. This case is illuminating because the definition of being a Christian caries with it the assumption of an irreducable minimum.

Being a Christian could be boiled down to accepting a set of beliefs without conviction, or more than a bare minimum of ritual action. We know from experience that when a minimum is required, the least is the most anyone will do. I can’t help but think that the poor state of Christian faith in Europe today comes from centuries of state-compulsion that led to popular indifference.

Of course, there have been groups of people since the fourth century – Christians – who have lamented this situation, both the minimalism of the faith, and the use of state power to support a particular interpretation of Christianity. Baptists historically, for instance, hold that adult profession of faith, followed by the namesake baptism, is necessary for making the true church, and that the state-supported faith is untrue. Universalists, too, have been a part of this anti-Constantinian tradition, if to a lessor extent. When the Congregational Standing Order was the the established worship in New England – and which ironically included the Unitarians – it was a coalition of free churches, including the Baptists, Quakers, and Universalists that cut the bond of church and state.

Well, the good news is that we’ve gotten our way. The Constantinian era has, in the last hundred years, died, in the United States and Western Europe in any case.

We live in an era where we have more than options within faith, but have an option of whether to have a faith or not. I believe that there is an impulse to be religious, a deep and basic human need. Some express this impulse and others ignore it, or sublimate it elsewhere. So to be precise, we have options on whether we express a faith or not.

What will this look like?

First, we can learn from non-Constantinians before us. In this way, we look back to the example of the ancient church that had no other motive for their faith than the truth and life it brought. Faith, it follows, stops being an idea and becomes a vocation. In other words,

In return, we get something more than those people who have only known a Constantinian church.

Consider this: it is hard to say what drives our society today. It is obviously not religion. Politics and politicians are mistrusted and suspect of wrong-doing. The military has offered no compelling vision of how society should be run, so I do not fear a coup. If anything, corporate culture is the most likely to affect how people dress, eat, move, speak, and act. From there, it is a short step from a culture of profit motive to affecting how we think, feel, and believe. In this new world, to be free is to live removed from the world. Christian faith can, for the first time since the fourth century, be an active vehicle for people to be free. This is most true in those places where Christianity was imported and it had to be adapted to respect the indigenous culture, such as parts of Latin America. Will it be true of Universalists?

I feel the most free when I draw close to God, for God loves me, and does not care if I buy brand X or brand Y. I feel the most free when I regard other human beings as brothers and sisters and not niche markets. I feel most free when I meditate on the “final harmony of all souls with God,” knowing that God’s purpose is cosmic and not shaken by volatile markets. Yet I know I am most free when I act out of these beliefs, and make it my life. As with the Apostle Paul, “I am unashamed of the Gospel.”

This means, as Universalists, we cannot look on freedom as the least we must affirm or the most “we can get away with.” Being a Universalist today – and tomorrow – is to grow into a new life: open to the past God has set before us, brave to forces that would cheapen life, and loving to our neighbor who may be lost in the haze of meaninglessness. We will not be rewarded for our faith by kind words and smiles. Any faith received like that today should be suspect of failing its mission. God’s success or failure depends on us choosing this new life, and making faith our vocation. Making faith our vocatin is – or should be – one of the missions of the church. Now, how do we do this?

Liberal churches making theology

One of the ways the liberal churches are distinctive is our way of formulating theology. Making theology is complex and messy, despite any pretenses of being some kind of professionally-driven or orderly pursuit. The old saying about not watching politics or sausage being made applies here, too. Yet we are governed, and we should care what we eat. And yet the contents of a kielbasa pales in importance to the importance of what we put into our souls. Bidden or unbidden, we feed our souls on a motley diet.

The liberal churches value a set of tools not ordinarily associated with theology. Anyone who has seen a work of systematic theology will notice how much it looks like a law code. Argument, reason, persuasion, and precidence are common themes. Universalists were expeciailly keen on using argument and reason, even if the result wasn’t systematic! So to make faith in a new way, we need to add tools from another perspective. Let me suggest that faith can also be like art. We can use intuition and imagination. Having established reason as a testing measure in theology, intuition and imagination have become vehicles for grace. A historical imagination gives us an insight – or multiple insights – into how an idea developed when we have no direct evidence or means of proof. Imagining ourselves in the same crisis that led, for example, John the Evangelist, to adopt an idea of the Word of God. John, of the all the gospel-writers has the best idea of how language creates ideas. This passage, often described as a recaptiuation of the Creation of the Universe, is the beginning of a theological work describing the mission of Jesus Christ. We have been taught that “in the beginning was the Word” is talking about the time-outside-time when God was suffient and alone in the void before anything was; anything, that is, but the Word, the creative principle through which God made all things. This word. There is another way of looking at the beginning of John. Perhaps John, if he lived early enough to remember Jesus personally, rememebred him preaching. The few living ear witnessed remaining at the time when John was written would have been very old, and might have been little more than children when Jesus taught. It would be easy to believe that this awe-inspiring wonder-worker was like God starting all over. Comparisons with the creation of the world would be natural, because Jesus seemed to create a new world with his words, even as God said “Let there be light.” Thus we might see Jesus as the true Word.

But his Word was not a recipe, but a poem. There is no formula that can be said that will change the world for our desiring, or even one that will change us for God’s purpose. The power that comes through God’s voice is more art-like, more poetic, even more (dare I say) creative then that.

Though parable-telling, example-making, teaching, and ultimately living the Gospel Jesus made his life the best lesson he left for us. We cannot do it the same way. He was a particular person, living in a particular place and under a particular conditions, never to be repeated. But like a poem, Jesus’ life and ministry speaks at different levels, and can be interpretated.

This is how St. John of the Cross could move in the world with such intensity and life:

Flame, alive, compelling,
. . .
your glory fills me.
so tenderly your love becomes my own.

Note: the poem, “A Song of the soul in intimate communication and union with the love of God” by St. John of the Cross, translated by Marjorie Flower OCD, is under copyright, and so only the first and last two lines (for identification) are included here. The full text is found in Poems of St John of the Cross (Varroville, Australia) and was reprinted in Celebrating the Seasons: Daily Spiritual Readings for the Christian Year, complied by Robert Atwell. (Harrisburg, Penna.: Morehouse Publishing)

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