Sunday, November 16, 2014

A future worth building (J. Barry Vaughn, Nov. 16, 2014)

I have recently been reading Returnings: A Spiritual Journey by Dan Wakefield. It is what I would call a “spiritual autobiography,” an account of Wakefield’s boyhood in the American Midwest in the 1950s, a time of affluence, security, and religious faith, followed by his education at Columbia University when he adopted a superficial agnosticism. The book is about Wakefield’s eventual return to the Christian faith later in life.


Wakefield writes of his youthful outrage at the pious platitudes of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, the popular preacher of the 1950s who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking. Wakefield says that Peale popularized a “bland, conformist Christianity” that “not only seemed superficial but downright offensive.” The Power of Positive Thinking asserted “that religion was a ‘scientific’ method of making one’s life better” and that “the Bible contains ‘techniques’ and ‘formulas,’ … “that ‘may be said to form an exact science’.”


“Dr. Peale made it seem so simple with his assortment of hints for happiness such as ’10 easy, workable rules,’ ‘7 … steps,’ and so on.


A friend of Wakefield’s family took him to New York City’s Marble Collegiate Church which Peale served as pastor. Wakefield described “the vastness of the church and the huge crowd of worshipers…” He said ”there was not an empty pew… at the shrine of 1950s upbeat conformity and assurance. I remember the smile and the gleaming white teeth of the famous pastor.”


I had an occasion to meet Norman Vincent Peale several years ago and think that he had a bit more depth than Dan Wakefield is willing to attribute to him. Nevertheless, it is difficult for me to reconcile Peale’s belief that the Bible contains anything like a “science” of “positive thinking” with the words of the prophet Zephaniah:


Be silent before the Lord GOD!

For the day of the LORD is at hand;

At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,

and I will punish the people

who rest complacently on their dregs,

those who say in their hearts,

"The LORD will not do good,

nor will he do harm."


THEIR wealth shall be plundered,

and their houses laid waste.

Though they build houses,

they shall not inhabit them;

though they plant vineyards,

they shall not drink wine from them.

The great day of the LORD is near,

That day will be a day of wrath,

a day of distress and anguish,

a day of ruin and devastation,

a day of darkness and gloom,

a day of clouds and thick darkness,

Neither their silver nor their gold

will be able to save them

on the day of the LORD's wrath;

in the fire of his passion

the whole earth shall be consumed;

for a full, a terrible end

he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth


The words of Psalm 90 are almost equally harsh:



You turn us back to the dust and say, *
"Go back, O child of earth."


For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past *
and like a watch in the night.


You sweep us away like a dream; *
we fade away suddenly like the grass.


In the morning it is green and flourishes; *
in the evening it is dried up and withered.

The span of our life is seventy years,
perhaps in strength even eighty; *
yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow,
for they pass away quickly and we are gone.


About the same time that Norman Vincent Peale was writing The Power of Positive Thinking, theologian Paul Tillich was teaching at Harvard University’s divinity school. In one of his great sermons Tillich wrote this about Psalm 90:


A shallow Christian idealism cannot stand the darkness of such a vision. [But] the Bible… the most universal of all books, … reveals the age-old wisdom about man's transitoriness and misery. The Bible does not try to hide the truth about man's life under superficial statements about the immortality of the soul. Neither the Old nor the New Testament does so. They know the human situation and they take it seriously. [The Bible gives us no] easy comfort about ourselves.


There is nothing in Tillich about the Bible or the Christian faith as “a ‘scientific’ method of making one’s life rosier.” I might say that Tillich represents the opposite pole from Peale!


I don’t know about you, but I prefer Paul Tillich to Norman Vincent Peale.  I also do not find the words of Psalm 90 to be all that depressing, especially when you contrast them with the words of Zephaniah.


Zephaniah tells the people of ancient Judah that they would build houses but not inhabit them; they would plant vineyards but not drink the wine that would be pressed from their grapes.


In contrast, the psalmist says to God, “You have been our refuge from one generation to another.”


Do you hear the contrast? Zephaniah speaks of the futility of human effort: Nothing we build will last. That’s true, says the psalmist, but we DO have a home, an eternal home, in God who is our refuge from one generation to another.


In brief, the human predicament is this:


Life is short. Nothing we do or build or make will last forever. So what’s the point? Why try?


Not only are we mortal but even our civilization is mortal, finite, limited. According to Psalm 90, we may live for 70 or 80 years. A civilization may last for a few hundred or even a few thousand years, but even our civilizations will pass away.


However, there ARE things that are eternal, and Paul speaks of them in his first letter to the Thessalonians: “…since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”


Faith, hope, and love – these are the things that are eternal, the things that last.


Today our stewardship drive concludes. We are asking you to make a pledge to Christ Church not so that we can build the things that are mortal and finite such as buildings. We are asking for your financial support so that we can build things that really last, such as faith, hope, and above all, love.


This last week I saw the new film Interstellar. Like Zephaniah and the author of Psalm 90, Interstellar can be seen as a pessimistic and gloomy film. For some unspecified reason, life on earth is coming to an end. Humankind must find a new home on another planet. But any planet conducive to human life is an unimaginable distance from Earth, so some way must be found to bridge the vast distance from our galaxy to another. Some way must be found to transcend not only the vast distance of space but even time itself.


One of the main characters in Interstellar says something that even the apostle Paul would agree with: “Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful, it has to mean something... Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends the dimensions of time and space.”


“Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends… time and space.”


In today’s gospel reading Jesus tells us of the wealthy man who went on a journey and entrusted one servant with five talents, another with two talents, and a third servant with only one talent.


We misread this completely if we think the word “talent” as Jesus used it means anything like the word “talent” when we use it. It does not mean a skill, such as a talent for music or painting or playing football.


The talanton was the largest unit of currency in Jesus’ time. It meant something like a huge bucket full of solid gold." You would have to be a weight lifter even to pick up a talanton.


I don’t think Jesus was thinking of money at all when he spoke of “talents.” What do you or I have that would be the equivalent of a bucket of solid gold?


The word “talent” as Jesus used it meant all the gifts that God gives us.


In the parable of the talents Jesus is asking us: What have you done with all the things that God gives you -- the life, the health, the intelligence, imagination, and creativity, and above all the love with which God endows all of us? What have you done with all that?


Those are the things that last, the things that will not go down to the dust. Those are the things that we are trying to build here at Christ Church.


In his sermon on Psalm 90, Tillich went on to say: “The psalmist does not think that … the truth of what he has been saying will cast man into despair. On the contrary, he believes that just this insight can give us a heart of wisdom -- a heart which accepts the infinite distance between God and man, and does not claim a greatness … which belongs to God alone.Something new appears in these words: the significance of past and future, the prayer for a better future,…  a future of happiness and joy, of the presence of God…. God … is … the God of the future. The cycle from dust to dust, from sin to wrath, is broken. There appears the vision of an age of fulfillment, after the ages of misery…. The individual no longer stands alone before God. He is included among the other servants of God, in the midst of the people of God who look not toward their return to dust, but toward a life in a new age in which God is present. Hope supersedes tragedy.”


That is a faith worth living for and a future worth building: We are mortal but we are not alone. We look not only toward our return to the dust but toward life in a new age in which God is present.


So build something that will last: Love others with all your heart.  Counter despair with hope.  Overcome evil with goodness. Because at the very heart of the universe there is a goodness greater than evil; a hope greater than despair; a love which holds us in an eternal embrace.