Edgar C. Reckard - "Good News Is No News" (April 17, 1966)
|May I ask your attention to two brief passages,
|one from the old Testament, one from the new.
|In the 10th and 11th chapters of the book of prophet Isaiah,
|behold, the Lord the God
|of host will loop the bows with terrifying power,
|the great in height will be hewn down
|and the lofty will be brought low.
|He will cut down the thickets of the forest with an ax,
|and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.
|There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
|and the branch shall grow out of his roots.
|And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.
|And a part of the passage that was read
|as our new Testament lesson from the 24th chapter
|of the gospel according to St. Luke,
|they remembered his words,
|and returning from the tomb they told all this to the 11
|and to all the rest.
|Now it was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna,
|and Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them,
|who told this to the apostles.
|But these words seemed to the apostles an idle tale,
|and they did not believe them.
|In the name of the father, and of the son,
|and of the holy spirit, Amen.
|This is as you know perfectly well,
|the Sunday after Easter often referred to as low Sunday.
|referring not only to the attendance
|at churches and chapels,
|but more especially to the spirits of men.
|And if we take seriously the ancient wisdom
|of the liturgical year,
|we shall in this season following Easter
|give our thought a particular direction.
|for in lend preceding Easter,
|we are reminded the time is appropriately one
|in which our minds and spirits are directed
|toward the meaning of suffering, and defeat,
|and death, in the midst of life and all its turbulence.
|In the weeks following Easter,
|the liturgical calendar reminds us,
|we ought to attend to, and celebrate the meaning
|of life and all its turmoil,
|in the midst of evil, and defeat, and dying.
|So these two passages I have read
|and to which I direct your thoughts,
|remind us that it is God's perennial nature
|to produce the evidences of new life in the midst
|of the appearances of death.
|For after the storm that destroys the forest we are told,
|a shoot comes forth from the stump.
|That strikes me with a special vividness this year
|because I have been trying
|to deal with a eucalyptus stump in my garden,
|which persists in putting up shoots in spite
|of all my efforts to kill it out.
|And it looks like I may have to devastate
|that whole area in order to get rid of it.
|But this is the imagery that the prophet puts
|in our minds here, that out of the remnants
|of the stumps that are left after a storm,
|God sends up new shoots.
|But the new Testament lesson,
|reminds us of how obtuse faithful people often are
|in discerning that God is about his perennial business
|of producing new life in the midst of destruction.
|So in this new Testament Easter story all the males,
|all of the especially privileged
|and trained disciples of Jesus,
|regarded the news of the resurrection as an idle tale.
|And it was left to the women to take seriously
|the possibility of a radical and indeed unique thrust
|of God's purpose in man's history.
|Did you ever think of how humiliating it is
|that the early church recognized,
|indeed it had no alternative to recognizing.
|That the principle first witness to the resurrection,
|was a highly psychotic woman of questionable reputation.
|Unfortunately, it was not the last time
|that it has been left to such as this
|to recognize the points at which God purposes are at work.
|Well, this whole line of thought in my mind was developed
|as I considered coming back here to this university
|and this state today.
|You will know from your programs that my home now is
|in Southern California, in the Los Angeles megalopolis.
|Whereas a way 'cause recently said,
|one can get up every morning of the year,
|throw open the windows and listen to the bird's cough.
|But in spite of the fact that Southern California
|is now my home, I count this part of the United States
|and especially the Appalachian foothills
|as one of my spiritual and intellectual homes.
|And along with this area, I count the British Isles,
|in particularly England, as a second beloved intellectual
|and spiritual home.
|Last year my family and I were on sabbatical,
|once again, living in Britain a country of so many friends,
|the birthplace of one of our sons.
|And as I thought of coming here,
|our experience last year reoccurred.
|And many of the observations we had made seemed
|to be a mirror image of what I knew I would be returning
|to when we returned to this country and especially
|as I return to this part of the United States.
|As far as the life of the churches in the British Isles,
|and the life of the churches in this country are concerned,
|they present one now with mirror images of each other.
|In England, the church is legally established,
|but now it is largely disestablished
|as far as the cultural and intellectual life
|of the country is concerned.
|In the United States and especially in this part
|of the United States, the church is legally disestablished,
|but it is still largely, culturally,
|and intellectually established.
|That is to say we still expect the forms and concepts
|of our culture to be informed by Christian ideas and values.
|I invite you now to reflect with me for a few moments
|on this contrast I have presented to you.
|But let me share with you first briefly,
|a suggestion of the rest of what I want to say.
|The first thing I want to say to you in simple form is this.
|That the present situation in much of the world,
|and especially in Western Europe,
|poses to the life of the church a more serious threat
|than most of us in this country recognize
|or like to recognize.
|It has now become vividly possible that Western culture
|might become not a reformed Christendom,
|but a quite different culture altogether.
|The second thing I want to say to you is
|that the churches' response to this situation has been
|in my judgment insensitive and inadequate.
|The church has failed really to take to account the fact
|that to most of the Western world,
|it is no longer true that the Christian faith comes
|as a release and a joy.
|For most of the Western world it is now the fact
|that good news of the gospel is no news.
|And having reflected in that way,
|I then want to ask briefly what can be discerned that you
|and I who try to live as faithful Christian people
|in this time, and especially in a university community
|might try to do as Christians.
|This whole line of thought develops in my mind
|because one Saturday last when I took a couple
|of my sons off to do some brass rubbing
|in a rather out of the way parish church in Oxfordshire.
|Here we were in an ancient, and beautiful,
|and once important church that had now fallen
|into dampness and decay.
|Near the lectern, the roof leaked a bit
|and there was water standing on the floor.
|And the only evidence that any service had been held
|in the place recently were the partially burned candles
|on the altar.
|And as we stood there, my mind went to a poem
|of a very interesting
|and I think important contemporary English poet
|by the name of Philip Larkin,
|who one day wrote a poem that went like this.
|He called it "Church Going," and he says,
|once I'm sure there's nothing going on I step inside,
|letting the door of thud shut.
|Another church, matting, seats, and stone, and little books,
|sprawling of flowers cut for Sunday brownish now.
|Some brass and stuff up at the holy end.
|The small neat organ and a tense musty unignorable silence,
|brewed God knows how long.
|Hatless I take off my cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
|move forward, run my hand around the front.
|From where I stand the roof looks almost new,
|cleaned or restored.
|Someone would know I don't.
|Mounting the lectern I peruse
|a few hectoring large scale versus, and pronounce,
|here endeth much more loudly than I'd meant.
|The echoes snigger briefly.
|Back at the door I sign the book,
|donate an Irish sixpence reflecting
|that the place was not worth stopping for.
|Yet, stop I did, in fact I often do
|and always end much at a loss like this,
|wondering what to look for.
|Wondering too, when churches fall completely out
|of use what we shall turn them into.
|If we shall keep a few cathedrals chronically on show,
|their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
|and let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
|Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
|A shape less recognizable each week, a purpose more obscure.
|I wonder who will be the last, the very last,
|to seek this place for what it was.
|One of the crew that tap and jot
|and know what roods-lofts were, some ruin-bibber.
|Randy for antique or Christmas-addict,
|counting on a whiff of gown-and-bands
|and organ-pipes and myrrh.
|That poem of Larkin, simply reminds us
|that it has become possible for sensitive
|and intelligent Englishman,
|realistically and without bitterness to think
|of the possibility of an England without the church.
|And this is rather temperate.
|On occasion, the attack upon the church and its influence
|on the culture and thought of England,
|becomes much more direct.
|And the church is seen to be not only irrelevant
|in the long future but dangerous in the immediate present.
|When critic wrote in a Sunday newspaper last winter,
|it seems to me that the fundamental difficulty
|in basing our standards on Christianity is
|that we are thereby preaching a doctrine of self-sacrifice.
|The Bible does indeed contain a great deal of wisdom,
|but to proclaim as a perfect model a man who chose
|to be crucified for the sake
|of others does not set a healthy example for society.
|I believe that the sickness of our presence society is due
|to the unconscious belief that we must sacrifice ourselves.
|And so one can read this criticism sweeping
|and perhaps slightly hysterical claims
|that the church is responsible for international warfare
|and for racial injustice.
|These critics hold that, now the time has come
|when we must not only contemplate
|the slow death of the church,
|but must do all possible to hasten its decay.
|And this is true not only in England,
|it has long been true in France, and in Scandinavia.
|And you must be deaf if you do not hear it
|to be increasingly true and increasingly loud
|in the United States.
|This is all said by the critics of the church ,
|with an increasing sense of certainty.
|And for any of us to hold that there is
|an alternative possibility
|the future seems to these critics,
|a mark that one is either a hopeless sentimentalist
|or a simple fool.
|The second thing I want to say is this.
|The response of the church to this situation has all too
|often been insensitive and inadequate.
|One must say first that most of the church
|and most Christian people have simply gone
|on about their housekeeping and bookkeeping without noticing
|that it lives in a day when a revolution is demanded.
|Without noticing that it lives in a day
|when God's storms break down the mighty trees.
|And hopefully from the stumps there come up new sprouts.
|One Sunday last spring,
|sons and I had been camping near Bath Abbey.
|And we went into the Abbey for Sunday morning service.
|Across the nave from me there was a handsome monument.
|And after the service, I went across to read what it said.
|And there on the monument it said about the man.
|His aims were steadfast, his mind original,
|his work prodigious, the achievement worldwide.
|His life was ordered in service to God and duty to man.
|And that was a monument to Sir Isaac Pitman,
|the inventor of shorthand.
|Now I tell you to most of the world,
|it seems that the church has spent
|its time admiring such achievements,
|and memorializing such trivial accomplishments
|in extravagant pros.
|But even when our response has not
|been so wildly out of scale as that,
|it has still been inadequate.
|We hear a great deal of rather desperate talk
|about the importance of communication
|and the improvement of communication.
|And it has assumed that theologians
|and preachers have a message that they wish to communicate,
|which they themselves by
|and large understand perfectly well.
|But the truth is,
|it seems to me that we are all children of our time.
|Theologians and preachers as well
|as all the church going people in the non-church masses.
|And none of us sees the Christian message exactly
|as it first came into the world.
|And the first essential step in discussing the problem
|of communication therefore is always to investigate it,
|what it really is we want to communicate.
|And when we start seizing upon that problem,
|we know that we are in a revolutionary
|and reformatory situation.
|In Christian thought,
|in trying to present to the world what it is
|that the church believes, we can no longer afford to go
|on talking about options that are irrelevant
|and seem to be irrelevant it to the world about us.
|You probably have heard the story of a little girl
|who was given in her Sunday school lesson the verse
|to love one's neighbor as one's self,
|is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.
|And she responded not unnaturally,
|whoever thought it wasn't.
|And we not only speak in this irrelevant way,
|but when we come to the very heart of the faith,
|and begin thinking as we do in this season about with
|what we want to say to the world about our Lord himself,
|we speak in ways that are almost certainly misleading.
|The casual secular ear, heres in our language
|almost exactly what we do not want it to hear.
|It hears about an ancient myth of a God who
|for a short time assumed human guise
|and moved about mysteriously among men.
|And we say to them, here is the gospel, take it or leave it.
|And the world says fair enough, and leaves it.
|The shape of speaking meaningfully
|to the world about our Lord must now be one of speaking not
|in metaphysical language any longer,
|but of speaking in terms of the problems
|that make up a satisfying human existence for all men.
|Well, I've been saying and I leave the point now,
|that the church simply must adjust its thinking to an era,
|in which it is no longer the world's judge,
|it is no longer the world's mentor,
|it is no longer even its kept priest.
|Well, what are we as Christian people to do
|and say in the midst of this rather gloomy picture I've
|been presenting for the first Sunday after Easter?
|Well, the first thing I suppose is simply to recognize
|that this is the quality of our age and accept it as such.
|One of the happy things is
|that God does not require others success.
|He requires faithfulness.
|And this is going to
|be a period of failures and frustrations.
|But it's also a period of exciting possibilities.
|One English convert to Christianity wrote last year,
|I cannot imagine a more enjoyable time to be a Christian
|for while the holocaust is sweeping away much
|that is beautiful and all that is safe
|and comfortable and unquestioned.
|It is relieving us of mounds of Christian bric a brac,
|and the liberation is unspeakable.
|And so we live in a time
|of new stirrings theologically and liturgically.
|And one of the exciting things
|about living out one's christian faithfulness
|in the midst of a university,
|is that this university community stands
|on the frontier of the life of the mind,
|but also of the like of the spirit.
|And it is here above all else
|in a community like this that the new shoots
|of life are up to be discerned and celebrated.
|In January, in our own chapel in Claremont,
|we celebrated for the first time there
|the taze Eucharistic liturgy, the holy communion according
|to the right of this group of reformed monks in France.
|And here I as a Presbyterian,
|and one of my assistants as a congregationalist
|and the other is an Episcopalian with permission
|of our churches were celebrating this together.
|And as we did so, in a right that tried to catch up all
|it could of Orthodox and Catholic tradition,
|the sermon was being preached by a Roman Catholic monk.
|There you see as an exciting possibility.
|One of the stirrings that give to our time of destruction
|and defeat some of its possibilities.
|My own observation for what it is worth to you,
|is that new meaning of the faith, and new hope and joy come
|when the renewed life of worship in the Christian community
|is combined with a renewed life of service.
|That is to say,
|if the church is really to be disestablished,
|then we ask nothing of the world about us,
|but the right to live.
|And when we have asked and been given the right to live,
|then we move into the world to do its work
|and to meet its need without even making
|upon it the claim of gratitude.
|And when that possibility grips us,
|and first I hope in communities like this,
|then we shall begin.
|I am confident to discern the points where the new shoots
|of hope break through the torn ground.
|At the end of that poem of Larkins with which I began,
|he writes this.
|He's been wondering about who the last person to understand
|that building will be and he writes,
|or will he be my representative, bored, uninformed,
|knowing the ghostly silt dispersed,
|yet tending to this cross of ground through suburb scrub
|because it held unspillt so long and equitably,
|what since is found only in separation.
|Marriage, and birth, and death, and thoughts of these,
|for which was built this special show.
|For though I have no idea
|what this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
|it pleases me to stand in silence here,
|a serious house on serious ground it is,
|in whose blent air all our compulsions meet are recognized
|and robed as destinies.
|And that much, never can be obsolete,
|since someone will forever be surprising a hunger
|in himself to be more serious
|and gravitating with it to this ground.
|Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in.
|If only that so dead lie roundabout.
|Larkin promises us that there always will
|be serious people to raise these questions.
|I myself wonder whether we can even hope for that.
|But the God of Easter, who brought
|from the dead the new life in Christ,
|will bring new life breaking forth
|in that form or in some other.
|God grant to us in this season,
|that the good news of resurrection life breaking forth
|in the midst of an alien world may not be
|for us also an idle tale, but the clue to hope and joy
|in the midst of all that life may hold, of discouragement
|and defeat in our time.
|Let us pray.
|Almighty and merciful father,
|restore our souls in Jesus Christ.
|Give us the spirit of him who dwelt among man
|in great humility and was meek and lowly of heart.
|Let our love and charity be as abundant as our joy,
|that our hearts may be tendered to all need.
|And our hands give freely for his sake.
|Grant finally that being rooted and grounded
|in the mystery of the word made flesh, we may receive power
|to overcome the world, and gain the life eternal,
|through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.
|Now into God's gracious mercy and keeping,
|I commit you the God of peace
|that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus
|that great shepherd of the sheep,
|through the blood of the everlasting covenant
|make you perfect in every good work to do his will.
|Working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight.
|Through Jesus Christ to whom be glory forever and ever.
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