What do elves, Tom Coates, a mallet quest, dwarves, St. Paul, and ninjas have in common?
They all have parts in today’s sermon (posted below in the “extended” section). Tom brought the typology of dwarves/elves and pirates/ninjas to my attention; St.Paul wrote the epistle on which my sermon concentrated (with constant attention to the Torah, from which the Old Testament reading today was the Ten Commandments); and an interlocutor online suggested that I incorporate the phrase “mallet quest” into my sermon. It did not make it per se, but the words “mallet” and “quest” appear in relatively close proximity to one another.
You may question the spiritual wisdom of my accepting a challenge such as this, and I see some warrant in that question — yet if we take preaching seriously as an exercise in sacred rhetoric (and few people take it more seriously than do I), the aspect of rhetorical artifice always constitutes both a dynamo of spiritual semiosis and the glittering lure of worldly showiness. I frequently resort to rhetorical gimmicks to dislodge conceptual logjams when I’m working on a sermon: making acrostics of the initial letters of the sentences in a paragraph, omitting or including certain letters (in an Oulipian mode), embroidering the words of particular songs or poems into sermons.
There are some rough, forced transitions, and some points I’d wish for more time in which to expatiate — but part of the point of my attending to rhetorical ornamentation is to distract me from my temptation to deliver academic lectures on my pet theological themes. At least to that extent, I think the device worked out all right for today’s sermon.
3 Lent B, March 19, 2006
Ex 20:1-20/Ps 19:7-14/Rom 7:13-25/Jn 2:13-25
In the name of Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit — Amen.
A couple of years ago, somebody introduced me to a biaxial typology of human character types, a technology-age alternative to familiar personality inventories such as the ubiquitous Meyers-Briggs typology. Instead of dividing people into introverts and extroverts, into “perceiving” or “judging” types, this typology identifies people along one axis as pirates or ninjas, and on another as dwarves or elves. The first axis distributes people according to their sense of piratical chaos or ninja orderliness, their exuberant ardor or their unobtrusive precision; the second axis distributes people according to their preference for the dwarf’s diligent hard toil over against the elf’s timeless rumination. [Improvise, vamp to allow time for people to figure out for themselves where they and their friends fall on this typology.]
Now, one can see in an instant that there’s no social scientific basis to this at all — it’s strictly folk knowledge (and I suspect it’s especially useful as such), and it doesn’t necessarily rest on historically sound descriptions of buccaneers, assassins, short people, or Orlando Bloom. But this typology does usefully testify to particular ways of thinking about how people do and should shape their lives, and these ways of thinking even at such improbable times as, for instance, when we’re trying to muddle our ways out of theological problems. Piratical Christians may suppose that none of our abstract thinking does anyone the slightest bit of good; they may claim that God wants us mostly just to live whole-heartedly, robustly, going for the gusto and relying on God to forgive our miscues and extravagances in the name of abundant life. Contrariwise, the theological ninja insists that God has made absolutely clear a code of explicit eternal laws to govern our behavior. On the second axis, the dwarven disciples might commit themselves to earnest effort to accomplish demonstrable good in their lives, to taking direct action in the world, building the Kingdom of God on earth, whereas the Christian elves might sponsor contemplative withdrawal from the hurly-burly of mundane life, in favor of cultivating the beauty of holiness in undistracted lives. We could substitute James of Jerusalem for the ninjas, and Paul’s uninhibited congregation in Corinth for the pirates, and Mary and Martha of Bethany for the elves and the dwarves.
So the Psalmist may have been a ninja, in this sense, when he said that “the Law of the Lord is perfect, and revives the soul” — and the pirates, in turn, can rush in to point to the example of Jesus’ wild disruption of Temple worship, chasing people around with a whip while they’re trying to fill out their pledge envelopes. But the typology also points to a more profound, more subtle theological point: the temptation to cast our deepest problems in terms that resolve easily into “us” and “them,” to our credit and their disadvantage. It doesn’t take an advanced degree in theology to recognize pernicious oversimplification when you see it — the church embraces both Mary and Martha, we need activists who love God recklessly as well as careful scholars of doctrine. But when the church considers questions of power and policy, we frequently fall back on facile dichotomies that congratulate people like us and castigate people like them.
At such times, we may want to open our ears to St. Paul, that always-unfashionable theologian who devoted his ministry to serving as Christ’s ambassador between “us” and “them,” between Greeks and Judeans, between the Law-observant established congregations based in Jerusalem and the innovative, emergent congregations in Antioch and the Gentile world. Paul could have insisted, ninja-like, on everybody adhering to the Torah, perpetuating unchanged the commandments by which God promised life to the people of Israel. Paul could have rebelled against the Torah, insisting that God had done something so new and so spiritually provocative that all that old stuff had to go by the boards. “Arrrrrr, Mateys, let us sin the morrrre, that grrrrace may abound!” Paul could have simplified his life and ministry by playing to the partisan audiences, and bequeathed to us a plainer, less complicated gospel.
Instead, Paul grapples with the Law in this morning’s lesson, but not because he couldn’t live up to its expectations. St Paul shows no hesitation about assuring us that he advanced in Judaism far beyond the rest of his contemporaries, because he was more zealous for the traditions of his ancestors. If anyone had reason to be confident in the flesh Paul figured he had more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the righteousness under the Law, Paul claimed to be blameless. Yet the Law, which this morning’s reading identified as “spiritual” and “good,” could not bring about the grace that sets people free; it could point to the difference between sin and goodness, but just as it calls our attention to possible sins, the Law inevitably tangles us up the more in fretting about what we may or may not do. Sin, working through our mortality, takes advantage of the Law to bind our imaginations all the more intractably to the question of just how much naughtiness we can get away with. So Paul bemoans the complications of the truth: The Law is good, but it does not release our imaginations from their captivity to sin and death. We rise from death to new life with Jesus, the faithful and righteous incarnation of the truth, who does not reject the Law but enlivens us, enlightens us by showing what joyous discipleship looks like, how it gives, with whom it shares.
So Paul tried to help us understand that God’s wisdom encompasses a more extensive, a more intensive vision of community than any flat, sloganeering, partisan program could sustain. The Law alone could not be exhaust God’s policy for human life, or Jesus’ death and resurrection would be pointless. At the same time, Jesus’ life and ministry derive their meaning from his unambiguous loyalty to the Law and to God’s promises. Likewise Paul saw, and Paul taught, that we have only begun to receive God’s grace if we receive it in harmony with the patterns of life that Israel teaches us, as they have been amplified, extended, intensified, by the faithful example of Jesus. In rising with Christ, as the Spirit transforms us by the renewing of our minds, we take part in the new creation that catches up both Gentile and Jew, and elf and dwarf, pirate and ninja in a spiritual ecology of unstinting mutual respect, so that the Law does not mark our division from one another, but it traces the interweaving and mutual enrichment of Moses’ commandments and the Spirit’s instruction, for which we all give thanks and praise.
Our own efforts to engineer a common life that suits us persistently fall prey to the limitations of our field of vision; when we claim to abandon the Law in favor of the Spirit, very often we institute a new, covert sort of Law in place of the older, explicit, God-given Law we displaced. We become fundamentalists of canons and power even as we claim to be set free by the Spirit, or we acclaim our open inclusiveness at the same time that we comfortably repel the wrong sorts of people from God’s holy sanctuaries.
To all our over-simplifying, however well-intentioned it may be, Paul thunders, “By no means!” When his congregations inferred that the Torah bore no relevance to the kind of lifestyle they learned from Paul, he reminded them that the Law is holy, good and just. True, the Law does not bind Gentile disciples of Jesus in the same way that it binds the children of Israel, because Jesus has called us Gentiles into communion with God specifically apart from the Law; but neither does the Law misrepresent God’s portrayal of a faithful, peaceable, holy way of life. In our belief and in our behavior, all of us have been baptized into a truth we did not dream up, an ethics we did not pick and choose, a community we did not select, a harmony of which we remain only one part.
We do not choose the Law, but we receive it as a gift from God. Such a gift we cannot reject, we cannot despise, without turning our rejecting the Christ who lived by the Law, to the Law and the Prophets bear witness. To the extent that we share the faith of Jesus, we are beholden to the Law as our guardian and instructor — and to the extent that we give praise to the Spirit who sets us free, we demonstrate that freedom by flourishing in a liberty that has no need of the Law because it nothing desires that the Law would forbid.
We can live that way. We can move past desire and contentiousness, beyond the desperate grasping for power that drives institutions and governments to defy the Law in the name of an illusory security. We can let go ancient mistrust and hatred, we can trust the stranger and bless those who persecute us. Indeed, we certainly will know that blessing one day! Yet these blessings will come to us only when we yield the willful determination to produce salvation on our terms, when we relax our death-grip on coercion’s mallet, when we cease our restless questing for our true selves and let grace blossom where God has planted it.
God has scattered the seeds of grace so far afield that they reach from the depths of hard-hammered Moria to the shimmering beauty of Lothlorien, from
the tall-masted decks of the Barbary Coast to the ninjutsu of Tokugawa Japan. Our imaginations stammer and fail before the comprehension of a holiness, a righteousness, whose gifts encompass so vast a range of constituents. If we had to depend on ourselves to accomplish salvation, to build a truly inclusive church, to ascertain the Way by which we arrive at the fullness of life, we would be wretched captives indeed. But thanks be to God, who knows us with unflinching truthfulness, who loves us with unwavering generosity, who imagines us as possible bearers of a glorious light in a radiant world — thanks be to God who has given us the Law that revives our soul, the peace that passes human understanding, the grace by which receive God’s gifts; who has given us the victory over sin and the grave, through Jesus Christ our Lord.