Sunday, September 21, 2014
When Meaning comes to call, will it find a welcome, a place in our lives? When Wisdom pays a visit, will we make room for it among us? These are crucial questions posed by the texts for today’s service. Brian McLaren argues that in the story of creation, there is a world of meaning, but that does not guarantee we will grasp that meaning and incorporate it in our daily living.
So far we have seen God bring order from chaos, create life on earth, bring about humanity in God’s own image and call it all good. Sometimes we see the goodness in it all, the sacred patterns, the world of meaning. Other times we have difficulty finding our way among the challenges of life on this small planet. We may delight in the beauty of the last rose of summer, a child’s playful mischief, or a song that sings in the soul. We may despair at the loss of a loved one, the challenge of underemployment or ancient enmities that break out in violence and war. You fill in the blanks. Where do you find meaning in life? What brings delight to your being? When do you feel hope erode and wonder where God is?
Many of us struggle with those scripture passages and stories in our tradition that seem to support a capricious, angry, punitive God, but then we get texts like today’s in which Yahweh is described as one who “…is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…good to all, and [whose] compassion is over all that he has made.” We are told about Holy Wisdom who “was daily [God’s delight, rejoicing before [God] always, rejoicing in [God’s] inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” There is both promise and hope in these ancient words that may still speak meaning to us today.
In his commentary on We Make the Road by Walking, McLaren suggests that there are “four common ways to understand the logic of the universe…” The first, he says, is to see life as “war…a survival-of-the fittest competition to the death.” This is the harshest sort of biological determinism. It posits that humans, along with other creatures, are inherently aggressive and will do anything to protect their own turf and well-being. It is a perspective that drives competition, winning and losing, getting ahead at any price and, ultimately, violence and war.
The second way is to believe that “life is compliance, a keep-your-head-down-and-do-what-your-told story of power, domination, and submission.” This is a kind of hopeless position in which survival is dependent on never rocking the boat, never exercising freedom, and never experiencing the challenges and joy that life holds. Mind your manners, mind your own business, never ask why or what or how or who. Fatalism rules.
Third, is a perspective in which “life is a machine that runs on cold and objective utility, not meaning or morality.” This would be the extreme of modern, technocratic society, the sort of dystopia presented in 1984, where Big Brother keeps society functioning without much question or challenge, or The Giver, in which life is devoid of memory and, therefore, all the meaning and wisdom that memory can provide. This perspective could be linked to the Deist notion of a God who winds up the universe like a giant clock and then leaves it to run on and out on its own.
Do any or all of these framing stories sound familiar? Have you encountered them in whole or in part in your own life and relationships? Each has its practical and philosophical champions. But, as children of God and followers of Christ, none of them supports the faith tradition that we claim. McLaren offers a fourth way in which “life is a story that includes conflict, compliance, and mechanism [yes] – but [also] has a higher or deeper purpose and meaning rooted in goodness, pregnancy, creativity, and love.” We see these dimensions in today’s texts – in the psalmist’s affirmation of the majesty and the lovingkindness of God, in the remarkably creative and ordering power of wisdom and in the Word or Meaning made flesh.
It is possible to trace in the ancient law and prophets, poetry and songs, history and proverbs the course of grace and truth, but we also can get bogged down in the details of times and traditions that do not speak clearly to us. It is challenging, even impossible, at times, to sort out the relation of the familiar material in the unfamiliar context. We make meaning as best we can, but we do not always find the meaning that was intended.
John says that there came a time when God could no longer depend on the ancient texts to tell the story and to establish the intended world of meaning. So God created something new. There was a time when “the Word became flesh and lived among us…” What is this meaning of this mystery and how does it affect the living of our lives?
The Word, in Greek, the Logos, who or what is it? Some would say Logic or the Organizing Principle or Wisdom or Meaning became flesh and lived among us. The Meaning takes human form to demonstrate its possibilities for us and for creation. I have quoted before a favorite passage from John Boswell who says, “A life can be an argument; being can be a reason. An idea can be embodied in a person, and in human form it may break down barriers and soften hardness of heart that words could not.” Does that make sense? Can you identify those times when a human being, a life lived, has helped you to see truth, to find your way, to move to a higher or deeper plane when no amount of rationality or logical argument could get you there?
I think of the witness of Gandhi and King and all those who believe and demonstrate the power of nonviolence when it can hardly be argued to make sense in an angry, hostile, violent world. I think of Mother Teresa and missionaries ministering to the Ebola epidemic who risk their lives to lift up the poor and downtrodden, the sick and dying of the earth against all reasonable odds. I see St. Francis and Dorothy Day and all those who turn their backs on the accumulation of wealth, who embrace poverty and draw close to God in service to the well-being of all creation. These and others bear powerful personal witness to that fourth way of life that finds “…a higher or deeper purpose and meaning rooted in goodness, pregnancy, creativity, and love.”
Boswell continues, “This [living being as ultimate argument or meaning] is, at least in part, what John the Evangelist means when he refers to Christ as logos. Although translators often render it as ‘word,’ it is much more than that. It is Greek for ‘reason” and “argument’: our word ‘logic’ comes from it.” Ultimately, then, “Christ was God’s unanswerable ‘argument.’ [God’s] people had hardened their hearts against his spoken reasons, the arguments propounded – in words – for centuries by the prophets and sages. So he sent an argument in the form of a human being, a life, a person. The argument became flesh and blood: so real that no one could refute it or ignore it” (John Boswell, “Introduction to the First Edition,” Chris Glaser, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Christian’s Struggle to Serve the Church, pp. xvii-xviii).
An argument, a manifestation of meaning so real, so powerful that, when seen in all its fullness and understood with the insight of wisdom, can neither be refuted or ignored. It is true that, with the wiles we often bring to the gift of human freedom and choice, we have historically, traditionally taken even this Christ and shaped to our own agendas. Often those agendas have been driven by the first three views of life’s trajectory – the logic of rivalry, the logic of compliance and the logic of meaningless mechanism. But the journey we are currently on as people of faith and seekers after meaning understands the incarnation in terms of today’s Words of Preparation: “The universe is God’s creative project, filled with beauty, opportunity, challenge, and meaning. It runs on the meaning or pattern we see embodied in the life of Jesus. In this story, pregnancy abounds. Newness multiplies. Freedom grows. Meaning expands. Wisdom flows. Healing happens. Goodness runs wild.”
Can you see it, feel it, hear it, smell it, taste it, embrace it – a universe, inhabited by us, along with all creation, a universe full of beauty, opportunity, challenge and meaning? The Meaning takes human form in Jesus of Nazareth, full of grace and truth, imbued with wisdom and radiant with light, the very essence of God in the flesh to show us first-hand who, what, how we were meant to be. Meaning, in the form of peace and justice, compassion and care, healing and wholeness became a living reality in the person of Jesus Christ, who now invites us to come along for the journey, to follow his lead, to make the road by walking. When this Meaning comes to call, will it find a welcome, a place in our lives? When such Wisdom pays a visit, will we make room for it among us? It may be that our very lives depend on it. Amen.