By Charles Rush
September 22, 2002
I Cor. 13: 13
st summer the London Times carried a report from Lagos, Nigeria where a new political party held an outdoor conference to announce their beginning. To ensure that there were clear skies for that day, they hired a rain doctor, Mr. Chief Nothing Pass God. The Rain doctor’s fee, by the way, was $47 and a bottle of gin. I guess I’d better not complain.
The political conference
was about to begin. The Rain doctor began his incantation to drive back the
rain. The press is all gathered around. The people are packed in together.
Right in the middle of his incantation, the heavens opened up and it began to
pour rain- not just a misting, a real drencher.
The British press
loves this sort of thing and who can blame them. There is a rush of reporters,
aching to ask the Rain Doctor what went wrong. They were not disappointed. Said Chief Nothing Pass God, “I have
not failed. What caused the disappointment was that this job came unexpectedly.
I did not have sufficient time to prepare.” (The Sunday Times, sec. 5,
p. 12. May 26, 2002). Full preparation, one supposes, would have required two
bottles of gin and $94, no doubt.
another story, this one from India that came in the middle of the brewing
conflict in Kashmir, it was reported that workers at the Congress Party, the
oldest political party in India, had consulted religious leaders and
astrologers to see if there was any political significance to the
fact that a 125 year-old Banyan tree, a tree that was right across the street
from the Party headquarters, had blown over during a dust storm. They thought
it was an omen, a portent of some pending doom. I just don’t get asked
questions about omens anymore.
I get cartoons. Someone this week sent me a clipping from the New Yorker that
shows a picture of a guy walking into his apartment, his wife seated on the
sofa reading. He is carrying a funeral urn that you would put ashes in. He says
to his wife, “Do we have some place we could put the ashes from our
making the rain stop and interpreting the significance of some strange weather
phenomenon, a tornado or whatnot, figuring out whether the circumstances were
right to wage war against the next tribe, figuring out if this was a good time
to plant, figuring out how to arrange a marriage, figuring out what needed to
be done to get pregnant, trying to figure out what our future held- all these
things were the principal functions of priests from Neolithic times up until
800 a.d. or so, when Christianity finally began to permeate across Europe.
one of the greatest of the ancient temple centers is to be found at Avebury,
right near Stonehenge, about an hour southwest of London. The great Sarsen
stones there stand in a wide circle that takes about 20 minutes to walk around,
probably 6-8 acres in the middle of them. They are surrounded by a ditch that
was originally about 90 ft. deep, with a surrounding mound outside the ditch
that was about 90 ft. high. Today, it is covered in grass and sheep roam about
on the site. But 5000 years ago, it was all white chalk.
the great circle of stones, the Druid priests erected another circle of wooden
posts. The elaborate system was principally used to keep watch on the changing
seasons and the priests informed the farmers when to plant what. It wasn’t
simply that they needed to know when the spring came. That didn’t take
sophisticated astrological analysis to figure out. They were watching for signs
from the heavens that would tell them if it was a season of blessing or curse. They
watched for unusual astral phenomenon might carry a divine portent.
addition to these duties, they had memorized a trove of practical wisdom on the
treatment of various diseases and they knew where to find various medicaments
that were brewed carefully and then taken in conjunction with the right
incantation of the proper prayers to effect healing. It wasn’t an either/or but
a both/and that made it all work.
they were the primary keepers of the social order, enforcing the moral code of
the village. The Druid priests had an absolute judgment, meaning there was no
right of appeal to any higher court. What they said went. In this regard, they
were both respected and highly feared, and you have to suppose that ordinary
people tried to keep clear of them as much as possible. Take the way you feel
in the presence of the stern judge, when you do jury duty, the way you felt as
a kid in the presence of the stern priest before confession, and you have that
anxious dread that makes for low grade heart burn. We believe that this was the
way the ancient people felt about the priests.
Druid priests required sacrifices to be made periodically in order to appease
the gods. And we know that occasionally, they practiced human sacrifice. Why
did they practice human sacrifice? We don’t know for sure. It appears most
likely that these ritual sacrifices were in conjunction with guilty judgments
for capital offenses like murder, rape, or adultery. It also appears likely
that another large proportion of the victims were slaves captured during war.
Most likely, they were a propitiation to keep the anger of the gods at bay. But
they were not only criminals and enemies. We have some evidence of young girls
and children that were also sacrificed. Why? We don’t know, but you presume it
was some terrible tragedy that required a great sacrifice. And you can only
lament the harsh conditions of life that could lead one to conjecture that the
gods would cause such a tragedy or that
the gods would be gratified by such a sacrifice.
final, vital duty that priests performed for the people, were auguries and
incantations in preparation for battle. As far as I can tell, every religion
from the period had special war gods- Greek, Babylonian, Egyptian, Teutonic,
Celtic, and they all appear to have a war god in the inner circle of the divine
pantheon. The priests went through the proper rituals, examining entrails
usually, for signs that the gods would bless the army with victory.
can still see remnant of this on most Gothic and Norman churches, the gargoyles
and other hideous little monsters that adorn the corners and portals of the
church that drive out demons and other evil. The war gods were also invoked,
sometimes symbolized on armor or statues that were carried into battle for
suspect that ordinary laity had the same warm, fuzzy feeling that teenagers
have for Policemen. They may be necessary to prevent anarchy but you do not
look forward to seeing them. And religion itself was something that one did out
of duty, guilt, and fear rather than the quest for inner harmony, communal
peace, or the establishment of virtue. Socially religion was more about order
than it was about a sharing, caring community of support.
of this long, long history of religious piety, it should come as no surprise
that when Christianity was introduced in these cultures, it took several
centuries before the inner logic of this new faith trumped some very ingrained
attitudes and practices. We tolerated priests and nuns that encouraged
repression and order above all else and religion was still principally a
humorless pursuit involving more the mortification of the flesh than the
celebration of wonder.
mention this to underscore just how novel and important this new message that Jesus
had for spirituality, that at it’s heart spirituality is all about love.
Surely, people have known about love before the rudiments of civilization, but
never had it been made central to the spiritual quest before Jesus. As a
concept, love exists in Judaism but it is not a driving force. The driving
force is purity- the full meaning of being kosher. Likewise, Islam, where the
driving force is righteousness or submission to the will of God. Buddhism, it
is the quest for inner peace. Likewise, in Hinduism… love exists but it is not
a driving force.
saw a BBC show this summer, where they were interviewing people in Europe,
America, the U.S., some of them church people, most of them not. And they were
asking them what the purpose of religion was. Over 90% of them said, ‘to
make us more loving.’And it is a sign of just how deeply Christianity
has affected the entire world that today people think that love in religion is
just common sense.
is so self-evident to all of us that we look back on the history of the Church
and we cannot believe that there was ever a time when religious people could
sanction the use of violence or could compel people to pay for Churches through
taxes. That is because we are so convinced that spirituality ought to be about
love, it ought to persuade rather than coerce. It ought to nurture, not
command, to develop, not force.
Paul, in our scripture this morning, says that love, in fact, is the crown of
all the spiritual virtues and he is right. It is said about Jesus that he was
the stone that the builders rejected which has become the cornerstone of the
new building that God is making. How true that is of love. It is the new
foundation of spirituality. St. Paul summarizes the teaching of Jesus in our
passage today. He says, you can be devoutly religious, you can serve on all
manner of civic boards, you can make enough money to give your children the
best education and the richest cultural experiences through travel, you can
fund all manner of worthy philanthropic organizations but if you are not a
loving person, then you missed the point. Ultimately, love is what makes us
spiritually real. Love is the telos towards which we are headed. This is what
God most cares about, says Jesus.
love ought to permeate, orient the rest of our lives. Love gives content to
hope and faith, keeping us from making blind leaps towards just anything. It
keeps courage from being reckless abandon. It keeps wisdom from becoming
supercilious and vain. It gives justice a roundedness of mercy and healing. It
grounds the inner quest for harmony with an organic connection to other people.
Love has to permeate the other virtues for them to come to full flower.
as Paul says in Colossians, binds all things together in social harmony. It
looks to the fulfillment of others first, said Jesus, and in doing that
collectively produces incredible communal support. That, ultimately, is the
point of the Church- to be a support for one another, to produce what the
Christians called koinonia- a deep social relatedness that encourages one
another, that brings out the best in each other.
blooms people. We heard from friends not long ago about their son
Maximillian, known to us as Mad Max. Max, for reasons complex and detailed, had
a lot of introjected anger in High School. He was pierced and tattooed but it
wasn’t really that. When he walked out the door in the morning, it appeared
that he had spent the previous hour making himself uglier, almost hiding
himself behind this ridiculous front that he wore to school that shouted “I
want to be a loser”. It drove his mother up the wall. And he is a bright boy,
but he would not, absolutely would not engage in education. That drove his
father insane. They lectured. They threatened, they enticed. Nothing could
penetrate this armor. Max’s parents had pretty much given up hope. Last spring,
they started noticing a fairly radical change of dress. Piercing was reduced to
a single ear ring. One day, Max gets a normal haircut, has normal clothes on.
His father can’t stand it. They are driving down the road. He says, “Max I see
you cut your hair.” No response. “Max, why did you do it?” Long pause… “Jessica
didn’t like it.”
Dad is driving down the road, “Yes… Jessica we love you.” The key that unlocks
the door and sets us in a whole new direction. Romantic love can do that, bloom
people with a new confidence, a new wonder about the world, new possibilities,
profound transformations. It is wonderful.
maternal love. A principal in Newark was telling me about a woman in his school
from Guatemala. She cleans houses in Short Hills and has been in our country
for about 5 years. She lives in a falling down section of Newark because that
is all she can afford. She stood out, in the Principal’s mind, because she is
always there with her son Luis. She has Luis in crisp clean clothes for school
every day. From day one at school, she made Luis introduce himself to the
Principal and to his teacher, shake their hands, and say, “Good morning.”
the broken community around her, she was intent on filling that boy with
discipline, a sense of respect, a love for learning. Luis was her project and
her love for that boy filled him, day in and day out, with the character to
rise above his situation and make a better life for himself. He was blooming.
the teacher in the wonderful movie Music of the Heart, about a classical
musician that began teaching in a school district in Harlem at a school that
had never had a music program. She encounters all of the brokenness that
poverty brings to a community… no resources, social anarchy, kids with
attitudes, children acting out as a full time occupation, ridicule.
first students are the marginal kids because music, of course, is not cool to
the cool kids. But she stays with it, teaching them violin. Over the course of
time, she gets to know some of the parents, begins to understand some of the
special burdens that are laid upon the poor, makes some changes to accommodate
other students. Shortly, she has a parent here and there, stopping her and
asking her plaintively, “Will you teach my child?” The class grows, the kids
develop the habits, and this new dimension of their personality begins to grow,
the part that appreciates beauty. And as they develop talent, they have a newfound
sense of self-esteem, self-respect. Cornell West says that the greatest
spiritual damage that poverty wreaks upon people is a culture of lovelessness
that makes people unable to love or respect themselves. Day by day, this
teacher was reversing that trend.
day, she decides that the children need a goal to work towards and she figures
out what they need to do to play in Carnegie Hall, just a few dozen blocks
south, but a whole world away. All of the kids get pumped. The parents become
galvanized. Eventually, all the parents and all the kids have to get organized
and raise some money to make this all happen. Community spirit just blossoms in
their midst and the higher reasons for which we were born start to become
manifest. And they get to Carnegie Hall and they sound marvelous.
is like that. Love blooms people into their fullness. Love is patient. Love is
kind; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on doing things only one
way; it is not irritable or resentful. Love rejoices in small signs that things
are going right and does not glower over setbacks great or small. Love is
capable of bearing a great weight of responsibility. Love believes when there
is no evidence around us that belief is warranted. Love is hope filled; it can
endure to the end….Faith, hope, and love abide… But the fullest of these is
love. Brothers and sisters, open yourselves to the divine love and watch those
around you begin to bloom into their fullness.
© 2002 .
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