For some reason I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the New Yorker writer and comic novelist Peter de Vries, whose books I read avidly when I was younger. A favorite of mine among his works is a 1971 novel called Into Your Tent I’ll Creep. It is set on the Gold Coast of Connecticut, and one of its main characters is a sophisticated Unitarian clergyman named Reverend Shorty Hopwell. Shorty is the kind of urbane, cultured cleric who announces the vintage of the coming Sunday’s communion wine in the service leaflet. He is so hip that he has made not only marriage but divorce a sacrament in his church, as he says “in keeping with the aim to make religion relevant to all of life.”
And then something happens. Shorty has an emergency surgery, and the only book he can find to read while recuperating is the Gideon Bible in his hospital nightstand. For the first time in his life, Shorty reads the New Testament and is born again. Shorty’s conversion to Christianity ruins his ministerial career. He loses his plush, plum parish and travels from town to town trying to evangelize the affluent suburbanites of Fairfield County. As a character says about him, “He’s got religion, and that’s bad in a minister . . . interferes hopelessly with his work.”
People don’t read Peter de Vries much anymore, but his novels are still laugh-out-loud funny. One of his protagonists becomes such an awful failure at everything he tries that he adopts as his motto, “I stink, therefore I am.” Another of his novels begins, “Call me, Ishmael. Call me anytime.” I love Peter de Vries because he aims his satiric arrow at both narrow fundamentalists and smugly comfortable liberal Christians alike, making fun of the easy pieties and shallow aphorisms constantly on offer as religious truth in our culture. As a character in The Blood of the Lamb says, “The superficial and the slipshod have the ready answers, but those looking this complex life straight in the eye acquire a wealth of perception so composed of delicately balanced contradictions that they dread, or resent, the call to couch any of it in bland generalizations.” And this was written in the days before cable television and the internet.
What brings Peter de Vries and his satire of urbane Christians to mind this morning is the prayer Jesus offers on behalf of his followers in John’s Gospel:
"I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. . . . And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. " [John 17]
To understand that prayer we need to see it in its context. Last Thursday was Ascension Day, the holiday that celebrates the ascension of Jesus to God the Father. In the chronology of the New Testament, after his death and resurrection, Jesus stays with his companions for 40 days—Easter through Ascension. On Ascension Day he departs, and then there is a ten-day period between the 40th day and Pentecost, which means, literally, “50th day”, when Jesus’s companions—the disciples and apostles—are literally on their own in the world. The theologian Karl Barth called this ten-day period the “significant pause” in the action, a time when the followers and friends of Jesus felt themselves bereft of his presence. The church’s calendar tells us that the Spirit will come next Sunday at Pentecost and that God will be with us irrevocably and for good. But his first followers did not know that, so for these ten days the abiding presence of Jesus was only a hope and a promise. So, like Jesus’s earthly companions, you and I stand today in the pause between the promise of Ascension and the fulfillment of Pentecost. We wait and watch with the disciples for what God will do next. The Gospel we heard this morning ends not with a proclamation but with a prayer: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one." We hope and believe that God will answer that prayer. We’ll have to wait until next week to see exactly how.
And it is this waiting and watching we all do—Barth himself called this ten day pause an epitome of the Christian life itself—that leads to a consideration of what Jesus might mean when he talks about us in relation to the world. When John’s Gospel uses the word “world”, it does so in two senses. There is the “world” as God’s creation taken as a whole, and that is a good thing. God made the world; God loves the world. But then there is the “world” as the part of creation that resists or denies God—that sense of “world” we still find in our English adjective, “worldly”. In today’s Gospel, Jesus seems decidedly negative about the world in its most worldly sense. He wants his friends and followers to be kept safe from the world and the devil, figured in 1 Peter today as “a roaring lion” . . . prowling around, “looking for someone to devour.”
One of the reasons I find Reverend Shorty Hopwell so funny is that I see more than a little bit of myself in him. While I don’t have a sommelier on staff to choose the communion wine, as an acculturated suburbanite, I do feel perhaps a bit too comfortable in what Jesus would call “the world”. And, as Episcopalians, most of us seem at ease navigating the customs of our affluent, consumer culture. There’s a lot of good in that: we don’t withdraw from the world as other Christians do, eyeing it with suspicion and distrust. We can meet people and love them where and as they are. But the more we participate in the worldly aspects of life, the more we are compromised by them. So when I hear Jesus in this morning’s Gospel, I wonder: are we polite suburban Christians all just a bit too comfortable in the world, especially this beautiful version of it? Have we substituted the language of the country club for the language of the Gospel?
The recent beatification of Pope John Paul II has prompted many to recall his lifelong opposition to Soviet-style Communism. While it is true that John Paul was rigorously anti-Communist, we in the West tend to forget that he was equally critical of what he called the excesses of “Consumerist Capitalism”, a system that he felt to be infected with the viruses of individualism, secularism, and the undervaluing of the dignity of human labor. John Paul saw both Communism and Capitalism as “Materialist” ideologies at odds with basic Christian principles. He felt that the Christian person must always be on guard against the threats of two systems that promised fulfillment totally within the material possibilities of life. John Paul believed that Christians should not equate salvation with either the all powerful state or material prosperity. For Christians salvation had to do with allegiance to a different order, one that is always ill at ease in and critical of things as they are.
This is not to suggest that, like Reverend Shorty Hopwell, you should give away all your possessions and wander the streets of Oakland County calling your neighbors to repent. But it is to question the way we often uncritically buy into our culture’s bad values. When Jesus prays for his Father to protect us because we are in the world without him, he knows what he is talking about. He knows that we are often easy prey for ideas, leaders, ideologies that promise fulfillment if we give our allegiance to things that are less than God. Political ideas, possessions, achievements, even relationships—these things are often very good on their own terms but they become pernicious when we begin to confuse them with ultimate values. Like sheep we can easily go astray. Bad values are always prowling around like a lion, waiting for us to elevate a second house, a career move, the college of your choice, or a new romance to the status of something we should worship. When he prays for us this morning, Jesus knows how vulnerable we are to the tyranny of bad ideas. He asks that God sustain us in this wilderness and make us into the kind of people who know that their hunger will be finally satisfied with nothing less than the enduring presence of God.
St. Augustine began his Confessions by saying directly to God, “Our souls are restless until they rest in you.” As Christians, we believe that God is incarnate, made flesh, in each of us. Augustine knew that there is a part of us that will always be unsettled until reunited with its source--God. The experience of being a Christian person at large in a “worldly” world is similar to the way the Old Testament writers portrayed the feeling of Exile. We know we have a home, and as beautiful as this world is, we know that this isn’t it. Some deep part of us longs for someplace else, what the author of Hebrews calls “another country, a heavenly one”. We know that our spirits will be restless until they rest in God. What do we do in the meantime?
A good friend of mine spent some time years ago in an alcohol rehabilitation program, and he said that one of the verses that sustained him in this wilderness experience was a verse from Psalm 119:
Your statutes have been like songs to me*
wherever I have lived as a stranger. [Psalm 119.54]
When we are honest with ourselves we know ourselves to be strangers, exiles, people in but not quite of this world. I don’t mean this in a “beam me up Scotty” kind of way. I mean this in the sense that Jesus uses. You and I make our way here Sunday after Sunday because we know, in some way that we can’t describe, that this place is our home. It’s our home because its focal point is the table around which Jesus gathers us in fellowship with himself and all those who feel themselves drawn to a vision of things as they should be on God’s terms. It’s our home because it’s the place we can, as we did in last Sunday’s healing service, let down our facades and acknowledge ourselves as people who need each other and God. It’s our home because it’s the place we hear the scriptures, God’s statutes, which are the songs God offers us as we sojourn in the wilderness. None of us has to be here this morning. But we make our way here because something deep in our spirits responds to the words and actions we do here. We make our way here because, living as we do in the gap between promise and fulfillment, we know that the abiding presence of the One we seek is in this place as in no other.
A week from today we’ll have Pentecost--along with Christmas and Easter, the third major feast of the Christian year. At Pentecost, the Spirit will come, the confusion of tongues will be healed, and the church will be born not as an institution but as the living flesh and blood embodiment of God in the world. But that’s next week. Today we wait and stand in the exilic wilderness of that significant pause, listening to the songs our statutes sing to us, praying with Jesus for grace to withstand the worldly temptations to mistake the partial for the ultimate, the false for the real. Even and especially in this wilderness, we are offered solace and strength, pardon and renewal at this table. Our souls are restless until they rest in the One whose statues are like songs to us wherever we live as strangers. Let us all gather around that table to sing those songs, to wait, to watch, and finally to give thanks for the One who always comes toward us, even now in this significant pause. Amen.