Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Courage and Ambiguity - Kurt Nelson

Rollins Chapel, 5.6.12
Romans 14: 1-8

Courage is something of  a second-rate virtue,
if you think about it.
It’s not like love.
Not like beauty.
Or wisdom.
Which are all rooted entirely in the good.
But there’s no courage without fear.
No courage without the possibility of failure.
No courage without the possibility of
bad things being true,
or real.
Courage necessitates a shadow side.
It is, as I said,
second rate.  And ambiguous
as virtues go.

And there are, of course,
many ways around it.
Three in particular come to mind:

We can simply deny the good,
and succumb to the idea of nothing,
or of nothing mattering.
We can go the way of Nietzsche,
or nihilism,
and simply try to get what we can,
while we can,
for little else matters.
And thus make courage unnecessary.

On the other end of the spectrum,
we can, and do, try to deny the negative.
We can pursue adamantly,
ideas like security,
and comfort.
And we can distract ourselves to the extreme.

If you’ve not read,
or haven’t read recently,
Aldous Huxley’s classic dystopia,
Brave New World
I would certainly commend it to you.
(Or, if you can’t quite stomach that one,
perhaps Lois Lowry’s The Giver.)
Both weave incredibly poignant tales,
of societies so bent on security, pleasure, comfort,
stability and safety,
that they give up entirely on things like
love, passion, freedom and memory.
They are compelling tales,
because they speak to our impulse toward,
a kind of hollow happiness.
And I’ll admit,
they hit a little close to home,
Given our persistent illusions of security,
and stability,
and our willingness to sacrifice much for them.
Not to mention our appetite for comfort at great cost.
And the increasingly efficient science we’ve made,
of distracting ourselves.
Thus, making courage largely superfluous.

and more common in my experience,
at least in the Christian world,
we can seek to deny ambiguity,
particularly through the lens of faith.
Significant amounts of ink
(and whatever the web-based version of ink is)
have been spilt trying to convince us,
that the church,
or the bible,
offer us an easy, achievable,
unambiguous connection to the good.
A connection which justifies all pain,
all suffering as connected,
to the ultimate source.
We need only open our eyes,
read with the right spirit,
and surely all will be made clear,
and all ambiguity wiped away.
One pastor writes (K. McDanell,

One’s view of Scripture is a gospel issue.  So though there is great reason to be concerned regarding the rejection of Scripture’s perspicuity [note: perspicuity means clarity, ironically enough], it is imperative that the reader be reminded that this is not a mere debate about semantics and dogma, but about the gospel itself.  If Scripture is unclear then the gospel itself remains a mystery.  And if the gospel is a mystery, then God help us all!

Now, I recognize
that there are many kinds of people in the world.
And in those many kinds,
there are people who love certainty.
Who long for a kind of solid-ground,
especially in faith.
And then there are people like me.
Who can’t help but live in ambiguity.
Who yearn for questions.
And, dare I say,
learn to love them from time to time.
If you are the kind of person who loves the certainty of faith,
I hope you’ll listen and come converse later.
But you may also want to just
spend some time with the hymntext today.
Or zone out.
Or pray for my mortal soul.

Because I think neither life nor faith,
nor indeed our scriptures,
are a matter of certainty.
But rather call us to live with the courage
of ambiguity.
And I think courage,
second rate as it may be,
is all too important
and indeed necessary to the life of faith.

And will say, honestly,
that while I can understand the appeal,
I find that sort of Christian security
 neither true, nor desirable.

It after all,
an odd collection of texts,
we call scripture.
And they form not an easy, single story,
but a rich,
and if we’re being honest,
sometimes confusing tapestry of narratives.

The scene opens, you’ll recall,
on a formless void.
And a separation of waters,
and creation of all that is,
light and earth and all creatures.
And all of a sudden,
in the middle of a verse,
we have a dry and barren earth,
and Man created out of the dust.
This seems to me a signal and sign,
that this is not a simple kind of story.

Following that,
we have hundreds of pages,
of honestly pretty mediocre people.
the grandfather of us all,
was ready to sacrifice his son.
Moses was a stutterer with a temper,
and a penchant for making excuses.
David was lustful, violent, and overly passionate.
These seeming “heroes”
and many more,
weave a tale of deceit and violence,
all while representing the one true God.

The stories span millennia,
and multiple literary genres.
Meanwhile the upstanding ones,
like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos and the like,
spend much of their time critiquing the religious leaders of the day.

And all of that is somehow brought into clarity,
in the grand vision of Word made flesh.
The divine living among us.
Told not once,
but four different times.
With subtly difference tropes and nuances,
emphases and details.
And the living embodiment of the divine,
speaks most often in parables,
which place the emphasis of interpretation
far more on the hearer,
than on the speaker.
Add to that a grand finale collection of letters and writings,
from all over the early Christian map.
Many of them with varied stories and visions to tell.
And I find myself wondering,
from whence is our certainty supposed to come?
Or perhaps more often,
wondering how we’ve convinced ourselves,
even a little,
that this is a tale meant to be about certainty.

But indeed, it seems to me,
nothing less would be adequate,
to tell the story even of creation,
or of humanity,
let alone God’s work with and for humankind.
Because life is uncertain and insecure,
much as we might like to convince ourselves otherwise.

John Polkinghorne,
Theologian and physicist writes (in Testing Scripture):
The tapestry of life is not coloured in simple black and white, representing an unambiguous choice between the unequivocally bad and the unequivocally good. The ambiguity of human deeds and desires means that life includes many shades of grey. What is true of life in general is true also of the Bible in particular. An honest reading of Scripture will acknowledge the presence in its pages of various kinds of ambiguity.

Nothing less would do.
A scripture that mirrors the tapestry of our lives,
is ultimately far more timeless,
far more beautiful,
far more significant.
I would suggest,
that a monolithic witness to all that is.

And scripture thus meets us where we are,
with all its clues,
and all our questions.
And we can, I hope,
love it for that.
And though we may not have certainty,
we have a number of important things,
pointing us to a robust,
if complicated vision of God:
We have the text.
And make no mistake,
it’s a good one.
We have our experience, and faith, and reason.
We have our living tradition.
And we have community.
We have tools to make and discover meaning.
And we know that this is work not meant to be done alone.
Courage is much easier to build,
and insecurity much easier to bear,
when surrounded by friends.

And thus we come at last to our friend Paul.
Romans is, as we’ve discussed before,
Paul’s magnum opus.
Written not to hypothetical early Christian communities,
but to real ones.
The evangelism has been done.
The uncircumcised are welcomed in.
The community built.
But still questions arise,
about the intersection of gentiles and Jews,
trying to follow Jesus.
Questions about when to worship.
Questions about what to eat.
And his advice is
Not to go unquestioning back into the text.
Not to quote laws or rules.
But to set forth an ethic of welcome.
An ethic of hospitality,
grounded on love.

Paul’s last word is not
inerrancy or legalism.
But thoughtful, lived community.
faith and hope.
“Welcome one another,” he writes a few verses later,
“just as Christ has welcomed you,
for the glory of God.”

Weak in faith, or strong?
You are welcomed here.
Vegetarian or meat-eater
(and note that I am one of the weak non-meat eaters)?
Questioners or certainty-seekers?
We can find space for you.
Scientists, artists, activists -
even economists,
you are welcome into this place for hope.

And I think those of us here have a special call.
To remind the world
that we can hold all these things ambiguous things together.
Faith and uncertainty.
Hope and the possibility of death, darkness and failure.
Love of neighbors and enemies,
and the burning call toward justice.

We stand in the midst of this,
saying not that we are certain,
but that we believe.
Saying that we hope,
even amidst the messiness of real life.

This is, I think, courage.
And the world needs it,
and I think our faith,
our scriptures and our lives demand it.

It may be hard news, for some,
that our faith is not about certainty or security.
But the good news is that our faith is about so much more.
About joy and hope
and about courage to live in that ambiguity.
And about God among us,
encouraging us to love and hope.

And as we ponder the courageous road ahead,
I leave you with these words from the 15th Chapter of Romans:
“May the God of hop fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Amen. Amen.

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