Monday, March 26, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

www.silversidechurch.org


The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor


March 25, 2007

Heaven and Earth
(sixteenth sermon in series, “God in Great Art”)



I.

Well before anyone dared to dream or claim “emmanuel”—God is with us—there was, as most people of faith seem still to believe today—a wide chasm fixed between “heaven,” the abode of God, and earth, the abode of humanity. Periodically, and for various reasons, God or God’s representatives would visit humans on earth. Most often, God’s representative came, bearing a word from the Lord. God, of course, couldn’t be expected to be everywhere all at once; nor would a monarch typically do menial tasks like having personal contact with her or his subjects. God had “people” and creatures for that sort of thing.

When God Godself came, on those rare occasions, those were big deals with bells and whistles, thunder, lightening, and smoke. Why, when God made a personal visit to earth, almost as much of a fuss was made as when Condolezza Rice touches down in the Middle East.
Infrequently, God would sort of ease on down from heaven to earth and be somewhere without warning or fanfare. One such example of this was when God made a personal appearance to confront Eve and Adam for their dietary indiscretions. You remember that, don’t you? Eve and Adam both ate from the fruit of the tree in the center of the Garden of Eden—the one thing God had asked them not to do, and rather than send an emissary to spell out the consequences of their respective poor choices, God Godself came to the Garden of Eden.

They [that is, Eve and Adam] heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” God said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Gen 3:8-11 NRSV, adapted for inclusive language).

Wow! I think most of us would prefer lots of fanfare, letting us know that God was coming. This business here of hearing what sounded like just another person walking in a garden and suddenly finding out that someone is none other than the great God, Creator of heaven and earth and life itself, is much too disconcerting. We prefer noise, flags, and fanfare so that we can be prepared, emotionally and otherwise—you know, what to wear, how to address God, what to say.
Basic black? A Sunday suit or dress? A touch of cologne or not? Isn’t there a fragrance called “heavenly”?
“Good morning, God. I mean, your majesty. No, that’s for earthly monarchs. Good morning, your holiness. No, the Dalai Lama already got that one. Good morning, your eminence. Shoot! That’s for the pope! How about this: Good morning, your Godness. That’s it!”
Planning and anticipation make all the difference! God just walking up to you like a neighbor easing over to admire your garden—that could make someone have a heart attack! And, besides, who wants to be ready at every moment, at any moment, to have to talk to God?

The British poet, Francis Thompson, became fixated on just such a God. Thompson’s God sounds like a kind of stalker, to use modern terminology. What he wanted to emphasize in his greatest poem was God’s relentless pursuit of humans, God’s unwillingness to let any one of us become lost to the divine embrace and to be sure, if such a horrible thing should happen, that God would have done absolutely everything within God’s power to seek out any person and every person upon whom to bestow divine love.

Even so, in Thompson’s masterpiece, “The Hound of Heaven,” God continually walks up to Thompson as God did to Eve and Adam on that fateful evening while they enjoyed the cool of the evening breeze.

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed,
followed after.

But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbéd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”
I pleaded, outlaw-wise,

By many a hearted casement, curtained red,
Trellised with intertwining charities;
(For, though I knew His love Who followèd,
Yet was I sore adread
Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside.)
But, if one little casement parted wide,
The gust of His approach would clash it to:
Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.

Thank goodness, for the most part, people have conceded that when God comes it’s an earth-shattering kind of event. We can relax a bit by clinging to such a rationalization. God is in heaven, out there somewhere, and we are down here, and God will now and then come to visit us, but we want lots of notice—none of this sneaking up on us!






II.

As most of you know, I was Visiting Professor of Homiletics and Worship at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Rueschlikon, Switzerland, near Zurich, fall term 1985. I was assigned to teach three courses I’d never taught before, and I had to study much harder than did my students just to try to stay a step or two ahead of them. Still, my family and I did take some time to be tourists.

One day, following the advice of a teaching colleague, we went to see the two great churches, more or less, in the heart of Zurich. The most striking, upon first observation, was the Grossmuenster; its name is a word that means “big cathedral.” Its history is astounding, but I can only mention it today in juxtaposition to the church across Lake Limmat from it. The church across from the spellbinding Grossmuenster is called the Fraumuenster; it’s a smaller structure, and its name means “woman cathedral.” It had originally been a convent going back as far as 853.

Both of the great structures had originally been Roman Catholic sites, but, as Martin Luther’s reformation spilled over into the German speaking part of Switzerland, the Protestants eventually took over both of them. Under the leadership of Zwingli, a former Catholic priest like Luther himself, all things Catholic in both great churches were either covered up with several coats of paint or, if they were moveable, tossed. Some historians say that at one time the Fraumuenster was the church for Swiss noblewomen.

In any case, we stumbled into the Fraumeunster knowing very little of its history and not a thing in the world about Marc Chagall. We knew there was some kind of buzz about the stained glass windows in the choir area of the impressive structure. At that point, Chagall’s world famous windows were only about fifteen years old. Massive in size, as far as stained glass windows go, the brilliant colors mesmerize onlookers. One of the ways I know that I am more right- than left-brained in certain respects is that visually I’m inclined to take in the whole of something before I can begin analyzing its component parts.

I don’t know how long I stared, with my mouth gaping open, at the five brilliant Chagall windows before my brain would even permit my eyes to begin picking out the individual images embedded within the bold colors.

It was not unusual for the Jewish Chagall to paint pictures and create windows for Christian worship sites. That, in and of itself, astounded me. At first the phenomenon seemed incongruous to me like hearing Barbara Streisand singing “Ave Maria” on my wife’s favorite Christmas album. Obviously, at that point in my life, I hadn’t done as much reflection as I needed to have done on the Jewishness of Jesus; I want to say, the PURE Jewishness of Jesus. Chagall didn’t limit himself to scenes in Jesus’ life when he painted for Christian groups, but when he did paint Jesus he was clearing creating images of his fellow Jew.
I have no idea if my guesses about why Chagall did what he did the way he did even come close to his actual reasons or, for that matter, if the interpretations of his works I will offer in a minute ever even crossed his mind. With that disclaimer, I point out to you that the three central windows are bracketed by a “prophets” window to one’s left and a “law” window to one’s right.

The two most important collections of sacred writings for Jews have been the law and the prophets, and if you wonder why the prophets got put “first” and then the “law,” you’re not reading Hebrew-style. Hebrew is written from right to left; the first part of the sentence is at one’s right. So, in an Hebraic mindset, such as Chagall’s, law to the right DO come before prophets to the left.

Isn’t that impressive? My insight, I mean! Mimzie is supposed to tell me today, after this closing sermon in the series “God in Great Art,” if I have a money-making future interpreting art pieces. I’ll let you know what she says.

On the “Law” window, the most notable figure is Moses. He seems to be looking down sadly at his people whose rebellion causes them to suffer. You may recall from the story of Moses that he looked down from a mountain after having gone up to the top to meet personally with God, and what he brought back down with him were the Ten Commandments. In Chagall’s representation, Moses sees his people parading into war. I don’t know if those are Jewish people in his mind or if they are people representing the penchant for war among all of humanity.

Isaiah must be the figure at the bottom of the window getting ready to proclaim the peace he envisioned. He is embraced by one of God’s heavenly servants, a seraph perhaps. Is he in heaven trying to proclaim peace to the people he once left behind on earth? Or is this Chagall’s creative way of tying Isaiah’s powerful vision of God to a later proclamation of peace?

Why he is on the Law window rather than the Prophets window I can’t figure out. What I suspect, though, is that Chagall might have been suggesting that the laws of God are not to be kept as ends in themselves, but rather as a means toward shalom, inner and outer peace for all humans individually and in community.

On the Prophets window, the major figures are Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets in Israel, and his protégé, Elisha. You may know that Elijah was such a holy man, though not without flaws, that he wasn’t allowed to taste of death. Instead, at the end of his earthly life, God transports Elijah to heaven while Elisha and others watch in sorrow and amazement.



III.

The central window, with teals and greens dominant, is the Christ window. Jesus has been crucified, but the sense is that, even though his arms remain outstretched as if tied and nailed to the rugged cross beam, his body has been freed from the cruel implement of execution; the cross itself is barely visible. One must concentrate to make it out. I thought Jesus’ body might have been levitating as it moved upward to heaven.

Both of Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, are worked into the composition, and a lamb is there. If you were to try to read up on interpreting this window, you’d see associations of the lamb with Jesus as “lamb of God,” a sacrificial image of Jesus used symbolically, never literally, in the book of Revelation. I don’t buy that. I think the lamb is there because of the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John.

Mary holds baby Jesus in her loving arms, and Joseph is presented beside a tree. Is it a representation of the “tree of life” or is it Jesus’ own family tree from which the Jewish artist did not cast him out of the way some of the early Christian writers tried to do.

The right-hand window among the center set of three windows is the Zion window. This may be Chagall’s understanding of the culmination of history. A heavenly angel is sounding a trumpet—possibly to herald the end of the present world order and the beginning of eternity. The new Jerusalem appears to be coming down out of heaven on its way to be established on earth.

There’s a king there; presumably, it’s King David, and could the queenly woman with him be Bathsheba? The ancient thought of earthly perfection as a time when Jerusalem was flourishing, and King David was on the throne. Early Christians began to see that when the present world order passed away it would be replaced—not by the way, in heaven, but rather with a new order on this earth. This is what was represented by the decent of a new Jerusalem.

There is so much to ponder in looking at Chagall’s compositions. Why do these stories among all the possibilities? Why the particular colors and characters? And, finally, I suppose, is there an overall message that he might be trying to convey?

To that last question, I think there is a YES answer. Chagall has taken it upon himself to emphasize the constant connection between God and humanity, between heaven earth, if you will. In time, some few people—and Chagall among them I think—would realize that there was not, after all, any great gap between the realm of God and the dwelling of humanity. Still, the artist chose to work with the biblical imagines. That to me is stirring, inspiring, and instructive.

Even before some of us began to understand the full significance and truth of what one of the psalmists penned in Psalm 139, the writers of scripture were struggling to understand the constant connection between God and humanity. That is Chagall’s message. As the psalm says:

Where can I go from your spirit, [O God]? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascent to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, [the abode of the dead], you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast (Psa 139:7-10 NRSV, adapted).

There many joys and unexpected opportunities while we were in Switzerland. One of those was an invitation from the greatest Swiss preacher in modern times, Eduard Schweizer, to visit with him and his wife in their apartment. Dr. Schweizer had been Professor of New Testament at and some-time President of the University of Zurich. He preached many times in the Fraumuenster.

I have a collection of his sermons translated my major doctoral professor, and I carried it with me to the home of Dr. and Mrs. Schweizer. He signed it for me: “After a good hour on our terrance in Maennedorf (Zurich) on October 7, 1985. –Eduard Schweizer”

In the book, from the sermon that gave the book its title, “God’s Inescapable Nearness,” Dr. Schweizer preached:

How near is the Lord? As near as one born as I was born, though probably under much more primitive circumstances; as near as one who ahs a glass of wine with me under the disapproving eyes of the onlookers; as near as one who passes through the experience of death as I will have to do, but under more horrible conditions. This is how the Lord is at hand. Whether I think about it or not, whether I believe it or not makes no difference. He IS at hand for me anyhow.

Amen.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

www.silversidechurch.org


The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor


March 18, 2007

Parental Blessings and Curses
(fifteenth sermon in series, “God in Great Art”)



I.

It’s very difficult to undo the power of parental blessing. A child who feels blessed by her or his parent or parents has a head start in everything she or he will attempt in life—at all phases of life. There is no way to grow out of or age beyond the gift of parental blessing. If we are parents, there is no greater gift than a parental blessing.
In the modern world, a parental blessing—as I see it—is founded on unconditional love and builds on that with words and actions that say, “I believe in you, and my love surrounds you as you find your way in this world, doing whatever it is that makes you happy and fulfilled. I am so proud of you and proud to be your parent.”
A parental blessing is lived out by setting appropriate boundaries for the child and adjusting those boundaries as the child grows in her or his ability to make choices on her or his own. It is lived out in how a parent’s time is allocated; even when time is tight, a blessing parent finds time to be with her or his child in contexts that are important to the child. A blessed child knows one or both parents will always be there, even if she or he is in a self-created mess. When conflict management is necessary, it is always carried out in a way that never humiliates the child or diminishes her or him as a human being. We can see that blessing isn’t just one thing and that it’s much more than simply what we say. What we say, or fail to say, is very important. Let’s never underestimate the power of words.
In contrast to a parental blessing is a parental curse. I’m not sure one can ever completely overcome a parental curse; some people—with the help of good counselors like Donna Strachan Ledbetter and Tom Ledbetter—may learn to get along pretty well despite the curse, but I don’t many if any people who ever overcome it. Everyone here almost certainly knows someone who has been given a parental curse and who, thus, lives life with a defeated attitude. Her or his parents have already passed negative judgment on that person’s worth and potential, and she or he got the message—likely in early childhood—and has been carrying the painful baggage ever since.
In our time, a parental curse sounds something like this: “You are a worthless human being. I’m sorry we ever had you. Our lives have been nothing but miserable ever since you were born. I’m embarrassed to be your parent. You can’t get anything right; you never will. You screw up everything you touch. You’ll never amount to anything.”
A parental curse looks like this:

 a parent who never has time for her or his child;
 a parent who when her or his time is absolutely required shows resentment and frustration;
 a parent who in every situation of accusation assumes her or his child is in the wrong;
 a parent who shares no physical signs of affection—smiles and hugs and such;
 a parent who is silent, offering no words of praise, even when the child has accomplished something;
 a parent who makes it impossible for a child to have easy or any access to her or him.

I’ve had the privilege of serving churches across the years with outstanding clergy and theological educators in the memberships. In New Orleans: Deanne Aime, Ed Clarkson, Anne Earnest, Gene Huffstutler, G. Avery Lee, Myron Madden, Penrose St. Amant, and Frank Staff. In Baltimore: Marion Bascom, Cleo Boyd, and Paul Gillespie. In Wilmington: Ron Bergman, Bob Faatz, Tom Ledbetter, Tom McDaniel, and Gordon Umberger.
One name in that list, Myron Madden, was pastor of St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church three ahead of me. Myron went on to become head of the pastoral care department at the Baptist Hospital in New Orleans; he eventually left the hospital and went into a fulltime counseling practice, and that was his job when I arrived.
Myron and his wife, Ann, were amazing folks, and they lived out one of Myron’s great pastoral emphases: blessing. He studied it from every angle and wrote about it widely. Here are a couple of quotes from Myron:

We all know what a blood transfusion is. Expand on that idea, and you might call blessing a kind of life transfusion. At its peak in family the blessing is infusing one's life into the child. It is a gift of all one has, bestowed upon the next generation….I wonder if anyone ever gets enough blessing and affirmation in the childhood years. Blessing is a way of being affirmed as we are, not as we would like to be, not as we hope to become. It is an “as is” proposition. It has no past or future tense. It only comes in the now. It does not await some act of restitution nor a promise to do better. The gift of blessing is offered to us in the act of creation, not at the end of a life of good works. If parents understand relaying of blessing to children, they become the “creators” who pass it along as gift, never as a reward for being or doing good. It is a reward upon one’s being, a reward that raises life to the second power…. When blessing is offered only after good behavior or good grades, it may not pass the test of being real. Smart children with a keen sensitivity may refuse to perform for a pay-off of praise when there is little genuine love behind it all….Sometimes the parent seeks for the child to grow up and justify the parent’s investment by doing noteworthy and newsworthy things. In that case the parent is unable to bless truly and genuinely. If you look more carefully here, it looks like the parent is trying to get a blessing from the child’s performance.




II.

All three monotheistic traditions trace their foundations back to Abraham and the legends of the developing ancient Hebrew nation. One of the challenges about this being the case is that so much of the story-base from that time is clouded in mystery and confusion; and yet the Hebrew religion was born out of them and all other expressions of monotheism with it.
When I speak of mystery and confusion, what I mean, for example, is that many competent scholars do not believe Abraham was a person of history; they believe he was a fictional character created to explain how monotheism developed in Hebrew history. There are also scholars who point out that there is absolutely no historical evidence for the enslavement of the ancient Hebrews by the Egyptians and the subsequent exodus of Hebrews out of Egypt leading to a long journey and, eventually, to the so-called “Promised Land.”
Now, if we stipulate that truth can only be gleaned from what is historically factual and/or verifiable, we’re up a creek in terms of modern religious understanding and expression since all religions that claim an ancient heritage lack any ability whatsoever to verify by modern historical standards much of what is said to have occurred in the distant past. I think that is short-sighted. Surely there is something we can learn from stories and speculations of any people from any era who were pondering God. We have a lot to learn when we open ourselves up to an ancient people’s self-perception. Myths and legends tell us a great deal about the people who create them in addition to the aspects of life about which they intended to comment.
So, somewhere in the developing self-understanding of the ancient Hebrews, stories evolved about how the rather disparate groupings, tribes, among them came about and how they were related to each other. As the stories go, the twelve tribes of Israel each went back to a key ancestor who was one of the twelve sons of Jacob, later called Israel.
Oddly or interestingly enough, the twelve tribes, when they are listed in various places in the ancient Hebrew literature, are not the same. They vary or contradict. But, if they actually represent historical persons, these people certainly continued the foundations for soap operas so ably begat by Eve and Adam, Cain and Abel, Noah and his sons, Jacob and Rebecca, Esau and Jacob. You’ll see what I mean later.
Why, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, who started all of this in a sense, was born a trickster, and he lived by that standard a good bit of his life. His mother, Rebecca, encouraged it too! I don’t want to have you thinking that he played harmless pranks. Jacob’s “tricks” were based in deceit, and two of the people he deceived were his own father and this twin brother; in both of those cases, the deceit was to get him financial gain.
The tables would be turned on Jacob in a very big way, but he never seemed to learn his lesson until he had a personal encounter with God or with God’s messenger as he tried to sleep in a pitch black desert one night. After that, he knew he had to change his ways, and his name was changed from “Jacob,” meaning trickster or deceiver, to “Israel,” which means God has striven or saved or perhaps the one who wrestled with God.
Ultimately, Jacob had two wives and two concubines—yes, all at the same time—and thirteen children: twelve sons and one daughter.

• Jacob’s less favorite wife, Leah, whom he was tricked into marrying by her own father, bore him six of his sons and his only daughter: his first four children, all boys (Rueben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah); his ninth and tenth children, both boys (Issachar and Zebulun); and his eleventh child, Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah.
• Children five and six, both boys, were mothered by Rachel’s maid, Bilhah. Rachel was Jacob’s favorite wife. These sons were Dan and Naphtali.
• Children seven and eight, both boys again, Gad and Asher, were born to the maid of Leah. This maid’s name was Zilpah.
• Children twelve and thirteen, sons named Joseph and Benjamin, were born to the lovely Rachel herself.

If you don’t already know, none of the twelve tribes would be named after Dinah, the only girl in the family.
Evidently, as the Israelites traveled that long forty years in the wilderness on their way to what would come to be called “the Promised Land,” the tribes traveled and camped together. Later when they took the land of Canaan as their own, the lands would be apportioned according to the tribes, and a couple of adjustments were made.
The tribe of Levi was assigned to do priestly work for the whole nation so it was given no land to tend, and for some reason Joseph, who had been his father’s favorite son, had two tribes named after two of his sons. Thus, in the end there was no tribe of Joseph, but rather two tribes out of Joseph called Ephraim and Manasseh.
There would come a time when the tribes were not getting along well. A civil war would take place, and ten of the tribes would separate themselves from two tribes. The ten tribes in the north came to be called the northern kingdom, and the two tribes in the south would be called Judah. This would be called the period of the divided monarchy.
In time, the ten tribes would disappear, and absolutely no one knows for sure what happened to them. The Assyrians forced the ten tribes into captivity, and nothing more is heard from them. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin, separated from the northern kingdom, were not involved. They with their capital city, Jerusalem, were saved.
The speculation about where the lost tribes went has been endless. You have most likely heard some kind of mention here or there about the lost tribes of Israel. That reference is to the ten lost tribes that once comprised the northern kingdom.
There’s a whole PBS special on where the “lost tribes” ended up. It’s all speculative, of course, but it’s all worth considering whether or not we believe that there were ever original tribes named after historical men, sons of Jacob/Israel.
I think it’s fascinating also to know that there are some few groups of people in the world today who themselves claim to be descendents of one of the ten lost tribes of Israel.

 There is a Jewish sect in southern India claiming to have descended from the tribe of Ephraim.
 There is a group of Persian Jews who also claim to be descendents of the tribe of Ephraim.
 In northern India is Jewish group claiming descent from the tribe of Manasseh.
 In Ethiopia, a Jewish group claims to be descendents of the tribe of Dan.
 And in Nigeria is a Jewish sect claiming to have descended from one of the ten lost tribes of Israel, but they seem not to be sure; it could have been, they say, Ephraim, Manasseh, Levi, Zebulun, or—maybe—Gad.

Egad!







III.

Marc Chagall was born in 1887 to Hassidic parents in Vitebsk, Russia. He began studying art early in his life. In his early career, he lived and worked both in Russia and France.
Already a master painter, he fled to the United States when Hitler began executing European Jews. He would settle permanently in Paris in 1948.
He did his first sculptures in 1951 and soon thereafter added stained glass to his repertoire. In the 1960’s he traveled widely—usually to create large-scale commissions. For example,

o he installed his completed stained glass windows for the synagogue of the Hadassah-Hebrew Medical Center in Jerusalem in 1962 (the beautiful windows before you today as it turns out);
o he completed a ceiling for the Paris opera house and a window for the United Nations building in New York, both in 1964;
o murals for the Metropolitan Opera House were completed in 1967;
o in 1968, he completed the windows for the cathedral in Metz, France.

A major retrospective of his vast collection of work was presented by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1985, the year of the great artist’s death.
Chagall’s life was deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. He believed that the spirituality in art pieces needed to be timeless and universal. He once said, “It always seemed to me, and it still does, that the Bible is the greatest source of poetry that has ever existed. Since that time, I have been seeking to express this philosophy in life and art.”
One art historian has described Chagall’s paintings as “filled with child-like glee,” created with “crayon colors,” and filled with joy. That historian seems not to know of Chagall’s profoundly serious compositions. After the Holocaust, Chagall began to paint and create in glass numerous crucifixion scenes. And, why not? Jesus after all was a Jew.
At the dedication of the stained glass windows, pictures of which you see today, Chagall himself spoke on site in Jerusalem. Here are the twelve tribes of Israel as Chagall envisioned them based on the blessings and curses spoke to each of Jacob’s sons shortly before he died. Said Mr. Chagall:
How could I have thought that not only my hands with their colors would direct me in their work, but that the poor hands of my parents and of others and still others with their mute lips and their closed eyes, who gathered and whispered behind me, would direct me as if they also wished to take part in my life? I feel too, as though the tragic and heroic resistance movements, in the ghettos, and your war here in this country, are blended in my flowers and beasts and my fiery colors….The more our age refuses to see the full face of the universe and restricts itself to the sight of a tiny fraction of its skin, the more anxious I become when I consider the universe in its eternal rhythm, and the more I wish to oppose the general current. Do I speak this because with the advance of life, the outlines surrounding us become clearer and the horizon appears in a more tragic glow? I feel as if colors and lines flow like tears from my eyes, though I do not weep. And do not think that I speak like this from weakness—on the contrary, as I advance in years the more certain I am of what I want, and the more certain I am of what I say.
From Genesis chapter 49, Chagall took Jacob’s words to each of his own sons as his own inspiration for the respective panels of stained glass you see before you today. This is a different kind of blessing or curse than those about which I initially spoke. This is a blessing or curse at the end of a parent’s life. Let us listen to what this father’s final words were to each of his sons.
 “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might and the first fruits of my vigor, excelling in rank and excelling in power. Unstable as water, you shall no longer excel because you went up onto your father’s bed; then you defiled it—you went up onto my couch!” (Gen 49:3-4 NRSV). Well, this starts out strong and ends with a disappointing condemnation. Evidently, Reuben had had sex with one of his father’s concubines who bore him, Jacob, children. This was considered unacceptable and impure; thus, father Jacob’s praise was muted by a kind of curse.
 “Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. May I never come into their council; may I not be joined to their company— for in their anger they killed men, and at their whim they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel” (Gen 49:5-7). Ouch! Nothing here for either brother to hope for. Because of their behavior, their father had written them off in a sense; he had no hope at the end of his life that either of these sons would change his ways of violence.
 “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He crouches down, he stretches out like a lion, like a lioness—who dares rouse him up? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and the obedience of the peoples is his. Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he washes his garments in wine and his robe in the blood of grapes; his eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk” (Gen 49:8-12 NRSV). Here, now, is a beautiful and a stirring blessing. I’m not sure why Jacob compared Judah to both a lion and a lioness.
 “Zebulun shall settle at the shore of the sea; he shall be a haven for ships, and his border shall be at Sidon” (Gen 49:13 NRSV). Good, solid blessing for a good, solid son.
 “Issachar is a strong donkey, lying down between the sheepfolds; he saw that a resting place was good, and that the land was pleasant; so he bowed his shoulder to the burden, and became a slave at forced labor” (Gen 49:14-15 NRSV).
 “Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a snake by the roadside, a viper along the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that its rider falls backward. I wait for your salvation, O LORD” (GEN 49:16-18 NRSV).
 “Gad shall be raided by raiders, but he shall raid at their heels” (Gen 49:19 NRSV).
 “Asher’s food shall be rich, and he shall provide royal delicacies” (Gen 49:20 NRSV).
 “Naphtali is a doe let loose that bears lovely fawns” (Gen 49:21 NRSV). Well, this sounds like a blessing for a daughter, but I guess if you have twelve sons, one of them has to be the “sensitive” one.
 “Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring; his branches run over the wall. The archers fiercely attacked him; they shot at him and pressed him hard. Yet his bow remained taut, and his arms were made agile by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob, by the name of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel, by the God of your father, who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb. The blessings of your father are stronger than the blessings of the eternal mountains, the bounties of the everlasting hills; may they be on the head of Joseph, on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers” (Gen 49:22-26 NRSV). If you’re looking for an example of how to bless your child, here it is!
 “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf, in the morning devouring the prey, and at evening dividing the spoil” (Gen 49:27 NRSV). This wasn’t what I was expecting to be said of the second favorite son and the baby of the family. Still, I take it as a blessing for a baby brother who’d been picked on so much by his older siblings that he became a tough guy to survive.
After these words are given, and you saw Chagall’s interpretation of each brother, there is this exceptionally moving scene where Jacob’s life comes to an end.
All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, blessing each one of them with a suitable blessing. [I don’t know about that!] Then he charged them, saying to them, “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my ancestors—in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave in the field at Machpelah, near Mamre, in the land of Canaan, in the field that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite as a burial site. There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried; and there I buried Leah— the field and the cave that is in it were purchased from the Hittites.” When Jacob ended his charge to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people (Gen 49:28-33 NRSV).
“Gathered to his people”—such a powerful, touching image!
Cursing children as a parent’s final words to them doesn’t help anything so there’s no need to do it. Better to say nothing than to end one’s life cursing one’s children. But, without a doubt, a parent’s job isn’t done until she or he has found some way to pronounce a final blessing upon her or his children.
Amen.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

www.silversidechurch.org


The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor


March 11, 2007

The Last Judgment
(Fourteenth sermon in series, “God in Great Art”)

copyright © 2007, Silverside Church


I.

If you grew up in a Christian tradition and managed to escape threats of judgment and eternal hell, you are very, very fortunate indeed. I shudder to say this, but it is my belief that most people who are Christian or Muslim today are parts of their respective faiths not for positive, proactive reasons, but rather as a means, hopefully, of escaping God’s judgment and being consigned by God to an eternally burning hell. Religion for these people is, let’s face it, a kind of fire insurance policy. That is very sad to me, and yet I understand the mentality all too well. It was a part of my heritage at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads.
The words to the hymn/anthem, “My Eternal King,” are very stirring for me and, beyond that, very important for anyone who ponders motivations for faith commitments. Those of you who know the words to this song probably know the translation of the seventeenth century Latin version by Edward Caswall; the original version was probably in Spanish. Caswall was an Anglican rector who converted to Roman Catholicism. He probably did this translation in the 1850’s or the 1860’s.

My God, I love thee, not because
I hope for heaven thereby,
nor yet because, if I love not,
I must forever die.

Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,
should I not love thee well?
Not for the sake of winning heaven,
nor of escaping hell.

Not with the hope of gaining aught,
not seeking a reward,
but as thyself hast loved me,
O everlasting Lord.

So would I love thee, dearest Lord,
and in thy praise will sing;
because thou art my loving God
and my eternal King.

Caswall’s reference to the possibility of missing out on eternity with God, in which case he “must forever die,” was adapted in 1907 by the Sisters of Notre Dame for their “Sunday School Hymn Book,” presumably for children. Listen to this:
My God, I love Thee not because
I hope for Heav'n thereby,
Nor because they who love Thee not
Must burn eternally.
“Must BURN eternally”? It doesn’t even rhyme! But I’m quite sure it scared the hell out of many a Catholic kid. That, of course, was its intent.
If you are a biblical literalist, then you’re stuck with a horrendous final judgment, and if you’re a Christian fundamentalist you are heir to an expectation of a coming cataclysmic event that is a combination of every imaginable horror in both Hebrew and Christian scripture all rolled into one. Every apocalyptic terror alluded to with what were often actually metaphors have been literalized by literalists, and God becomes an enraged, out of control, despicable despot casting into a hellish eternity those who lack the proper allegiance at the moment the determinations are made. If you really believed in what was waiting for you and you didn’t align yourself with the “safe” alternative, you’d be mentally imbalanced.
There have been hosts of proposals about a proper lens through which modern readers must look back in order to understand Jesus most accurately. One of those proposals that periodically surfaces is that Jesus was some kind of an “apocalyptic prophet” who, like his contemporaries, expected the “Day of the Lord” to bring human history to a halt at any moment. The most renowned of modern proponents of this theory is none other than the popular writer and teacher of religion, Dr. Bart Erhman, presently of the University of North Carolina.
Professor Ehrman, whom I highly respect, looks at those who influenced Jesus and those whom he influenced, and he concludes, in essence, that it’s a no brainer to see Jesus as one more in the long line of religious figures, many noted Hebrew prophets among them, proclaiming the immanent end of the age. Who most profoundly influenced Jesus? Well, early on, we’d have to say it was his cousin, John the Baptist. John the Baptist was clearly a “repent for the kingdom of God is at hand” kind of guy.
The Dr. Ehrman asks who was most powerfully influenced by Jesus. There are several candidates, but coming to the top of the list might very well be Paul, the very person who had the compulsion and the guts to try to spread Christianity outside the Jewish context in which it had been born. It is not even arguable that early on in his writing ministry Paul was an absolute apocalpyticist. Read the oldest books we have in the New Testament, First and Second Thessalonians, if you doubt this.
Ehrman also believes that the whole of Palestinian Judaism in the time of Jesus was inundated with apocalypticism. That part of his argument is, I think, much harder to prove since there were multiple perspectives among the Jews on every major theological issue evidenced in the often radical differences with which the various political parties approached any subject. Even so, for the sake of following along to the end of his conclusions, this very popular writer and professor in our time ask us to pay attention to the literature that has come down to us. And in the same way that Paul begins with a highly apocalyptic perspective and lives long enough to need to soften it because the years kept passing with no end to humans, so also the whole New Testament as we have it along with the documents that followed immediately may have undergone the same transition. As Dr. Ehrman reads the New Testament and some of the other “gospels” that didn’t make the final “cut,” the earlier Gospels, Mark and Matthew, are more end-time focused than are the later Luke, John, and Thomas. He says this proves a softening of Jesus’ original emphasis, but the process doesn’t cloud what Jesus’ original emphases were.
Here are words attributed to Jesus himself by the oldest Gospel we have, the Gospel of Mark.
But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of [Humanity] coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then [God] will send out the angels, and gather [God’s] elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: “Keep awake” (Mark 13:24-37 NRSV adapted for inclusive language).
II.
The Sistine Chapel is a part of the so-called Apostolic Palace, which is the official residence of the Pope in the Vatican. Its architectural design is supposed to hearken back to the great Temple of Solomon in the history of Judaism. Its most important use across the years has been as the site from which new popes are officially selected by the voting cardinals.
The wall paintings by a number of painters including Rossellini and Signorelli are of major scenes from the Bible and the history of the church. The walls were completely finished in only eleven months, between July of 1481 to May of 1482. Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” painted on the altar was completed about thirty years later. That made its unveiling occur just a few years before Martin Luther officially challenged the Vatican in 1517.
Michelangelo Buonarroti was born 532 years ago as of this past Tuesday. He was born in Caprese, Italy. He learned the technique of fresco painting—that is, painting on fresh plaster before it dries—when he was in his teens. He was also a sculptor.
Michelangelo was called to Rome by Pope Julius II to create a tomb for him. This tomb was to contain forty life-size figures to be sculpted by Michelangelo, but it was never finished. Julius set him to working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling in 1508, and Pope Julius lived to see that completed in 1512. By the way, during the first year of that back-breaking work, too much mold grew in the plaster, and the great artist had to start all over again.
Later, Michelangelo was commissioned by Julius’ successor, Pope Clement VII to paint the altar of the Sistine Chapel. The massive assignment was completed during the pontificate of Paul III. It would be the largest fresco painted in sixteenth century Europe.
Michelangelo began his altar work in 1535 and completed it in 1541. The subject chosen was “The Final Judgment.” It was a horrifying scene—more about that in a moment. And there was tremendous controversy in response to his finished product.
One of the Pope’s advisors, a Cardinal Carafa, became a bitter ideological enemy of Michelangelo’s during the project. Michelangelo painted most of the human figures at the last judgment in the nude. This makes sense when you think about since clothing doesn’t count in the next world, but in Michelangelo’s mind human sexual/gender form was carried over into the bodies of those dwelling in the next world. Michelangelo’s figures being judged are naked, and Cardinal Carafa pitched a fit. He accused the artist of immorality and intolerable indecency.
A censorship campaign was begun. Michelangelo’s supporters dubbed it “the Fig Leaf Campaign.” I’m not clear on exactly what happened with it.
Another member of the Pope’s inner circle, Monsignor Sernini, complained about the altar paintings protesting to the Pope that naked figures such as those had no place in a sacred space like the Pope’s own chapel. Said Sernini, “Your Holiness, these are the kinds of pictures one sees in taverns and bath houses--uh, er—so I’m told.”
The Pope’s response is well worth the price of today’s sermon. James III said to the Monsignor, “Your jurisdiction, sir, does not extend to hell.” No fig leaves were added and no frescos were removed. Well, at that point.
Eventually an artist was employed to do nothing more than cover Michelangelo’s genitalia. Oops. That didn’t come out right. I meant, cover the private parts of the subjects in the massive painting. The second artist, one Daniele da Volterra, was remembered by his detractors as “Il Braghetonne.” I understand that the very nicest way of translating that nickname is “the britches painter.”
The story is told of the Pope’s first viewing of the original “Last Judgment.” Evidently, he fell to his knees and cried out to God, “Please do not hold me accountable for my sins when you come in judgment!” Some versions of the story say he actually collapsed with terror right there in the Sistine Chapel. In any case, the great Renaissance artist, Michelangelo, died in 1564.
He had included saints and “sinners” in his composition. Everything is painted in intricate detail. He uses his knowledge of the Bible to recreate certain scenes, and it is likely that he also worked in some themes from mythology—particularly in his re-creation of a boat that delivers the damned to mouth of hell itself.
More than a few art historians keep emphasizing the timing of Michelangelo’s work. Luther’s reformation had begun less than twenty years before he took up this papal altar assignment. One year before the artist began, King Henry the VIII had left the Roman Catholic Church and laid the foundations for Anglicanism, the Church of England. The Roman Catholic Church was losing its stronghold. Why would there be any need to force all who gathered in the Sistine Chapel to see these scenes of horror caused, by inference at least, by God?


III.
The progressive interpreter of scripture is confronted with the need to deal with very powerful scripture lessons, stories, and images if she or he is able to come up with a view of theology and history that lacks a final judgment, omits a time when God calls all the people who ever lived to account for their wrongs, allowing some into heaven and sending others to an eternity in a burning hell. We have a lot of explaining or unexplaining to do.
There have been reasons people have held onto a belief in the final judgment other than a preference for the literal reading of the Bible. One of those reasons has been the reality of injustice in the world. In our world, good people, innocent people often suffer. And evil people often win, hurting the good people as they do. Fair-minded people have wanted a hell, a place of eternal punishment and a God with what they regard as a sense of fairness who will not let the travesties of this world go unpunished in eternity. In other words, we want a God who will see to it that Adolf Hitler and serial killers have to pay for what they did on earth. As a matter of fact, there are those who, if God is unwilling to consign notable evil types to hell, want nothing to do with God.
The highly sin-conscious people in conservative Christianity have never given up the idea of God as fundamentally angry and punitive. Teachings about God’s love simply aren’t as compelling to them as are teachings about God’s wrath and burning desire (no pun intended) to punish those who transgress the divine laws. The only hope any human ever has for forgiveness in the conservative view is as a result of Jesus’ death, which God saw as a blood sacrifice and the only suitable appeasement to God for human sinfulness. So, at the last judgment, these people don’t expect to impress God with their goodness and moral achievement; they see themselves as fully sin-stained like all other humans, and the only way God can forgive them and allow them an eternity in heaven is because Jesus’ sacrifice is sufficient to avert God’s wrath.
“What can wash away my sins?” asks the old hymn, and it answers, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains,” proclaims another key him sung with conviction and joy in theologically conservative churches. Very few people, it seems to me, take the time to reflect on what a horrible imagine of God is portrayed in such hymnody; certainly the end result is not a God who is capable of loving anybody.
In this way of theological thinking, God gets a lot of practice for the final judgment by all the judging God does regularly in the present. I can guarantee you that the killer tornados in Americus, Georgia, last week were fairly quickly and certainly by the time of last Sunday’s sermons were presented by some preachers and their faithful followers as acts of God’s judgment on all the sinners in Americus. The fact that the innocent get killed in the process doesn’t slow these judgment mongers down one little bit.
It seems to me that if God can do all of this punishing and be in charge of the pathway of killer winds that God could have perfect focus and wipe out only those who deserved it. But no; there has to be an explanation that goes something to the effect that when the evil are being punished the good people will unavoidably be hurt in the process. Again, I find that implausible for a God who can supposedly do all things.
Nonetheless, we are heirs of such a view of God, and if we never believed it or have come to reject it still most of the persons of faith known to us believe in a God of judgment at least to some degree and a final punishment where a person may be sent to either heaven or hell for eternity.
Words of the Apostle Paul written to the Christians in Colossae: “For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality” (Col 3:25 NRSV). That sounds very threatening, and indeed it is. It is what Paul intended, but it is also precisely what he believed.
Words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of [God] in heaven” (Matt 7:21 NRSV, adapted for inclusive language). There’s another teaching attributed to Jesus that goes even further and makes the bold assertion that, in the end, most people will go to hell with only a few managing to make it to heaven:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it (Matt 7:13-14 NRSV).
What in the world do we progressives do with this kind of teaching from Jesus? Dr. Erhman says it’s the real Jesus, clearly anticipating an apocalyptic end of time with some going to heaven and some going to hell.
As for me, I can’t buy that. I think Jesus was more than capable of using non-literal metaphors and images in his teaching, and I believe that Jesus wanted people to understand the importance and significance of being in a right relationship with God. But I don’t think for a minute that he believed in hell (he never used the word!) or in a God who consigned people to an eternity of suffering.
The only real judgment there is, is a kind of self-judgment. Do we open ourselves up to the presence of God within us, or do we close ourselves off from God’s love? If we close ourselves off from God, that is hell. We judge ourselves. God doesn’t.
Michelangelo’s great art is just that: great art. The images you see before you today you will never see in reality; no one will. And, somehow, I think the artist knew this too.