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Sermon, St. Peters Cathedral
St. Petersburg, Florida
Sunday, October 30, 2005
I am honored to be with all of you today as spirits swirl 'round us: The spirits of the poet of the Psalms, and of Joshua (that mighty warrior), and of St. Paul (the Roman soldier turned prophet), and of Matthew (the greatest of gospellers). Their spirits and their words do swirl around us on this All Hallows' Eve in this great church, swirl with ancient portents and mysteries; swirl as voices from a history of conflict and war and enemies on all sides, even as they assure us of ultimate victory and the righteousness of our cause. There is great comfort in being assured, as Joshua assures us, that God "will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorities and the Jebusities." (That ought to cover pretty much all our enemies except perhaps the Bulldogs and the Tigers and the Crimson Tide.)
So much of the Old Testament is focused on the defeat of our enemies, on victory in battles fought - in a memorable Old Testament image, 'up to our hips in the blood and gore' - against those who, because they oppose us, are unrighteous, unworthy, and unloved by our God. And so much depends, we are told again and again, on knowing that the God of Israel is on our side.
These ancient words and wars and martial assurances, these calls to battle and promises of victory swirl around us today as the ghosts of the bloody past on All Hallows' Eve.
The greatest hero of the Old Testament is David, a hero in battle, slayer of Goliath, "the uncircumcised Philistine." There is no more stirring chapter in the history of warfare, no chronicle of courage more compelling than that of David facing down the giant, Goliath, who says to David: "Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field." To which the young David, whom sculptors and painters have tried to imagine ever since, replies, "You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down, and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel... " David becomes a mighty general, the king of a constantly warring nation, a famous adulterer, ever contending with his enemies and even his own subjects, a model for Odysseus and Hamlet and Joan of Arc and Robin Hood and Lancelot and so many great warrior heroes ever since. Of David is the 110th Psalm sung (perhaps written by David himself):
The Lord saith unto my Lord,
sit then at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.
And David, David the King, was, of course, the Old Testament's proleptic image of the King of the New Testament, Jesus, called the Christ.
How David the Warrior King, beloved of God, is replaced by Jesus, the King of Peace, is the story of the Christian Bible. It is, in fact, the dramatic and moral action of the Bible, to evolve the story of the Old Testament, symbolized by David, into the story of the New Testament, symbolized by Jesus the Christ.
The world of the Old Testament is similar to, and can perhaps be seen more clearly through, the world of the ancient Greeks.
Our western civilization, as you know, was largely invented by the Greeks 2000 plus years ago. The Greeks invented self-government; they invented the whole idea of politics - a civic community made up of free individuals. They invented democracy. They also invented the writing of history, tragedy, comedy, and most forms of poetry we know today. Philosophy and the fundamental questions it asks, such as "How does the good man live his life?" are inventions of the Greeks. Their ideas about the natural environment and their way of thinking about the natural world formed the basis of science today. Our culture was shaped in permanent ways by the tragedies of Sophocles, the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, the systems of logic and the biological inquiries of Aristotle, and the politics of Plutarch.
The Greeks invented our ideas of courage and of honor. Much of what we believe today about courage and honor come from the Iliad, and specifically from the behavior of Hector, "breaker of horses." Not from Achilles, whose own mother was a goddess, but from Hector, who was, like David, a great and fully human warrior.
But the Greeks remain a world apart from us. Not on the basis of politics: Indeed, the United States is the third great birthplace of democracy - preceded in history only by the Greeks and the Roman Republic. In politics, the Ancient Greeks are our near neighbors.
No, the gulf between us and the Greeks has to do not with politics but with our idea of justice. A fifth century B.C. Greek's answer to the question, "What is Justice?" would be the same as Plato's in The Republic: "Justice is doing good to your friends and harm to your enemies," making them, in the words of David's Psalm, your footstool.
Four hundred years later Jesus is saying, "Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you"; "love your neighbor as yourself"; "blessed are the meek,.. "; "blessed are the merciful,... "; "blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." This is a brand new voice, a brand new idea, and a brand new approach to the ultimate questions.
Because of Jesus of Nazareth, man or god, fact, myth, legend or story, we believe it is possible to live in a world of peace with our enemies, that warfare is not the natural state of mankind: That would never have occurred to the Greeks, nor to the world of Joshua and David.
The words of Jesus of Nazareth bring a whole new dimension to the concept of Justice. The very idea of Christian love is born with the story of Jesus and extended by his disciples, St. Paul in particular. Conventional love is evoked by loveable qualities in the beloved, but Christian love embraces sinners and outcasts, Samaritans and Jews, Hittites and Amorities, friends and enemies, the loveable and the unlovable.
Paul's famous description of Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13 ought not to be heard as if he were describing a quality that was already known, but a new capacity on earth. His words list the attributes of a specific person, Jesus Christ, and describe the divine love that Paul believed Christians would reflect toward others once they experienced Christ's love for them:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
There are no footstools, no slaughter, no blood and gore, no glorious victory over our enemies here. There are no enemies, only neighbors. There are, in the words of today's Gospel, no masters or servants, only the Christ. How different is this language and this epoch from that of David and his footstool enemies: "He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted."
The ideas and ideal of Christian love embodied in the life of Jesus of Nazareth lead to a new idea of human community and our individual obligations to it. In this new conception of justice we are obliged to act on behalf of strangers who have no merit beyond their humanity. Perhaps the best known formulation of this new kind of love is Matthew's:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, he will sit in state on his throne, with all the nations gathered before him. He will separate men into two groups, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right hand, 'You have my Father's blessing; come, enter and possess the kingdom that has been ready for you since the world was made. For when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home, when naked you clothed me; when I was ill you came to my help, when in prison you visited me.' Then the righteous will reply, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and fed you, or thirsty and gave you drink, a stranger and took you home, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and come to visit you?' And the king will answer, 'I tell you this: anything you did for least of my brothers here, you did for me.'
It is this new concept of Christian love that propels the West to care about, in time, the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned - as a moral duty; and those obligations lead to care about the rights of all men - and eventually women, and eventually those of all skin color, and eventually all sexual orientation.
The concept of Christian love has evolved over historical time, and the idea of Christian love has taken hold, I would argue, not because of threats of an afterlife in hell, but because of its emotional power and efficacy. As Aldous Huxley put it, assessing his Brave New World twenty years later: "Love is as necessary to human beings as food or shelter."
And this need for love is not the love of a sixth grade crush; it is the need for deep, abiding connection with the deep humanness of the Other, even the Other who is or would be our enemy. Wendell Berry puts it this way in a recent poem:
The tomb is empty. There is
no death. Death is our illusion,
our wish to belong only
to ourselves, which is our freedom
to kill one another.
From this sleep may we too
rise, as out of the dark grave.
In a very real sense, the New Testament rises out of the sleep and the need of the Old.
So we draw at all times on two very different cultures, Hebraic and Hellenic, as Matthew Arnold called them, for our answers to the basic questions of the thoughtful life: How should the good man live his life? What is Justice? What is the good?
It is probably not true, as the Beatles said when I was young, "Love, love, love: Love is all you need." To be fully human, in our time, we must be both Hellenic and Hebraic, Hector and Jesus, courageous and loving. We must remember the story of David, and recognize that it is answered by the story of Jesus. We need to remember the heroes of the Old Testament, ghosts though they are, for the struggle they make, which mirrors our own, to find and understand God's way in a world of conflict. We need to read the Old Testament as a search, as a question that is answered by the New. We need the Greek virtues as well as the Christian: Courage, and honor, and a full sense of our own inevitable mortality are still essential to answer the question of how a good woman or man leads her or his life. Equally essential are the Christian values of faith, hope and love, at least in the sense proposed by the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:
Nothing that is worth doing is completed in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.