What It Was

Yesterday morning, I preached at Duke Divinity School’s daily chapel service (they allow fifteen minutes here!). It’s an odd experience, since I still don’t feel well-attuned to the chapel congregation (and the congregation itself changes a fair amount, depending on the kind of service that people are anticipating). I prepared for a more Baptist-inclined congregation than actually turned out; if I’d known who actually would be there, I’d have tuned it more toward sedentary-Methodo-piscopalians. I’m observing that because I’m an incurable rhetorical tinkerer, though, not because the service was markedly off-kilter.
In the course of the sermon, I coin* the neologism “bourgeoiscracy” to characterize the smothering ideology of self-congratulatory (upper-)middle-class normativity, the creepy pseudo-mystical side of which Chris chronicles. I had a few things in view, in deploying that term. First, it has a memorable sound: it vividly conveys the sense that it’s hard to pronounce (the chaplain, Sally, commented to me about that after the service); in that way, it’s a notch better than “bourgeoisity,” which was in my handwritten draft of the sermon. Second, I wanted to identify the way of life, not particular bourgeois people. It wasn’t a “Repent, sinner!” gesture, but a “this afflicts most of us to some extent; let’s name it and try to get over it” gesture. Third, it captures what I had in mind more satisfactorily than “mediocracy,” which I’ve used before to describe a similar condition, but which circulates even more widely. The word then constitutes a sort of auditory/cognitive piton onto which I can hang the points I wanted to develop. (I did the same sort of thing when I used “Sacramerica” in my Ekklesia Project talk).
The congregation seemed to receive the sermon well; most importantly, the rest of the service brought to bear a coherently Methodist iteration of Anglican liturgy and hymnody, and we all had a chance to pray and sing together. I’ll add the sermon itself in the “more” part of the post.


* As I write this, I see that others have deployed the term before me, so I won’t make any far-reaching claim to have originated it. For the purposes of this entry, working on this sermon, I coined it — but others did get there first. (Even more people have used “bourgeoisity,” so I’m even gladder I chose “bourgeoiscracy” instead.)




Goodson Chapel, Duke Divinity School
Jdg 4:3-7/Ps 123/1 Thes 5:1-11/Matt 25:14-30
November 18, 2008
The one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground
and hid his master’s money.
In the name of God Almighty: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. — Amen.

In last week’s readings, we waited for an unpredictable bridegroom; next week we will attend the judgment of a King who evaluates barnyard animals; this morning, we look over our shoulders watching for the return of a hard, capricious master who gives us an assignment and then disappears until the time comes for an unannounced pop quiz, a quiz with eternal consequences. All we know is that he’s coming back — sometime — and he has high expectations for us.
Now you yourselves, sisters and brothers, have no need for anyone to tell you about times or seasons — you know the end (of the semester) is near — nor do you need to hear about the dangerous results of misguided investment strategies. We did not gather this morning for me to tell you something you didn’t already know about Jesus. We came here together in one place now because we’ve already enlisted in this miscellaneous militia of mercy; we’re here to remember together what brought us such a long, long way from where we started. So encourage one another and build each other up, so we can rejoice as one at the calling to press on together — as indeed you are doing. We have gathered to help one another break free from the chains that common sense has shackled onto our imaginations, the fetters that have so long bound us, so long weighed us down, and we have gathered to stretch our legs together in a joyous sprint for the freedom that of the goal that is set before us.
That goal asks from us more than we can supply each of us out of our own capacities. That goal pulls us out of common sense. It’s as though we needed to come up with so much money, in so little time, that there was no alternative but for us to go to the QuickMart and buy a lottery ticket. That’s bad decision-making in a statistical kind of way, that’s not a common-sense investment, but if you need to come up with a hundred thousand dollars between today and Friday, you tell me where that money’s coming from. I’ll say this much: you won’t get a thousand Franklins fast by burying your nest egg out in the back yard.
Common sense may equip you well to get by when you’re not in an extreme situation, but when that hard master is opening the account-books, it won’t cut the mustard to say, “Uh… I buried your talent to keep it safe.” The kingdom of God isn’t common sense, it’s the stunning risk of reckoning all gain as though it were nothing for the sake of the gospel. It’s offering up to God your only, your long-awaited beloved child. The kingdom of God takes all the common sense of the Greeks, the wisdom of a perishing world, and explodes it into a staggering ballet of precarious logic, the unaccountable ledgerbook of grace upon grace, by which haphazard disciples share in an abundant life that reaches beyond every boundary, every dimension, to the glorious, victorious song of the elders before the throne of God. And before that throne, the risks we have taken for the gospel’s sake — not for personal advantage, not for the acclaim of our neighbors, not for foolish or careless reasons or no reason at all — every risk that we have ventured for the sake of the gospel, God gathers up and crowns with all the majesty of their greatest possible fulfillment.
Once you come down with a case of that gospel fever, once you’ve glimpsed the radiant corona of the beatific vision, all the common sense in the world rings hollow and flat. But strong powers want us to trade our celestial birthright for exactly that mess of common pottage. They’ll tell you, “Don’t be a sucker; buy low, sell high; don’t take chances.” But you know; you’ve been down to that riverside, and you know that there’s no way to avoid chance-taking if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven. We’ve already signed on to take our chances with this God who who never lets us down, who always keeps faith, but usually keeps faith in uncommonly surprising ways.
We’re trusting an untamed God whose ways drive us into risky wilderness, away from the fleshpots of Egypt, away from the cozy comforts of secure subdivisions. We’re following the example of the first two slaves in this morning’s parable; they weren’t putting the master’s gold in some FDIC-backed certificate of deposit, they were risking those talents, and risking their lives, by venturing the master’s gold on the uncertain fortunes of the ancient commodities market. In fact, the character I want most to hear about from today’s gospel reading would be a slave who risked it all and lost it all — because even though I can’t tell you for sure what Jesus would have said about that character, the principle of the parable says that it’s better, it’s more in keeping with the master’s will, if you at least take what you’ve got on hand put it to work. According to the parable, the master commends the servants not just for doing well, but for having recognized that in their precarious situation, they had to take desperate measures.
The real gambler in this story is the fearful slave who tried to play it safe with the master’s wealth. Instead of recognizing that this Lord of risk wants servants who stake everything, who know that none of what we appear to possess truly belongs to us, that hunker-down servant tried to take the sure-thing can’t-lose path to discipleship — and in so doing, he lost the whole shebang. He clothed himself in the insulating protection of darkness, burying away the graces with which he was entrusted. He listened to the voices that said, “We’ve never tried that before. If the master liked having that one talent yesterday, he’ll like having one talent tomorrow. You can’t take any chances with this guy.”
Now, you may have observed, sisters and brothers, that we live in a mind-bogglingly complicated world, and the complications change on us day after day. You may have noticed that hunkering down doesn’t buy you peace and security — the market crashes, or some tyrant launches an attack, and everything that looked so safe, so reasonable, goes catty-wumpus. That kind of security is the anaesthesia of the bourgeoisie, the illusory confidence in people’s own power to control their own destiny, burying the resources of hope and truth and love in exchange for the image of a contented cow, an ox that feeds on the grass. Security is the bourgeoiscracy’s idol, their favorite mode of domination, the false god who is worshipped by people who think they’ve got enough going for themselves that they don’t need an undomesticated God. Bourgeoiscracy wants us to bury those talents, instead of risking them on a mission to tell the world about the coming of a King.
Bourgeoiscracy cannot abide risk; it wants to control contingencies, to nail down every upstart circumstance that might upset the applecart. Bourgeoiscracy needs to fend off change, which you may have noticed is not welcome news if you’re not already bourgeois. Bourgeoiscracy insists that everybody is equal, nobody is special, just as long as they can have things their own way. And if there’s one risk that bourgeoiscracy cannot take, if there’s one contingency that they must suppress, it’s the chance that somewhere, sometime, somehow there’s a goodness and a glory and a justice that might rise up and unsettle the cozy pieties of the gated community of bourgeoiscracy. Because bourgeoiscracy cannot abide the prospect of greatness; and the Lord for whom we’re waiting is great indeed.
You know how this works, sisters and brothers. Ain’t no one who mistrusts the king more than the dukes and duchesses, the earls and countesses who think they could do quite as well as kings or queens themselves. Ain’t no one who mistrusts a dean more than the faculty; ain’t no one to question the pastor like the church board. And we ought to keep our pastors, our presidents, even our deans honest and accountable, yes sir. But bourgeoiscracy will try to make sure no king moves into the neighborhood at all, because, you see, a great heart might welcome sojourners who would lower the property values. A great imagination might see a world transfigured toward freedom and sharing. A great spirit might release the slaves, relieve the poor folks. (“Then who would run the leaf blowers?”) A great king might turn and ask the bourgeoiscracy just where they buried those talents.
This week in Goodson Chapel, we’re getting ready to welcome a great king. We’re holding a king’s royal feast this morning, and on Thursday we’ll make a special place of honor an icon of our king. So you don’t need me to tell you what time it is, what season it is — the king is coming! Turn away from shades-of-gray vanilla common-sense bourgeoiscracy and hasten, rush, leap to embrace the perfect love that casts out all fear. Strip away those fusty tweed wraps of self-protection and vanity! Let go, my friends, let go of the possessions and illusions and vanities that hide the magnificent majesty of the king from your sight — because even if you can hide him from your sight, nothing you can do will hide you from his. Let go of the dignity and security and complacency and predictability and stability that wrap us up and weigh us down, now clothe yourselves in the armor of radiance, arrayed with the holiness that reflects God’s own glory!
Last week we stayed up late waiting for a bridegroom, and today we gamble everything, everything, on the goodwill of the master who demands our boldest risks. And come Thursday, we welcome a king into our midst, lofty and untamed, who will remind us every day that we bring nothing here that is not a gift from him, we depart here with nothing save by his grace, and in between we risk our selves, our heart and our mind and our muscle and our spirit, we risk it all to do his work — so that when he arrives he will greet us with his venturesome servants from generations of generations to whom he looks with loving pride and says, “Well done, good and faithful servants; enter into the joy of your master.”


3 thoughts on “What It Was

  1. You have danced around this concept before. Quoting you (from my Commonplace Book), 29 October 2002:

    The Edict of Milan was issued in 313. From this time on, the church was a publicly accountable movement. Thus begins the bourgeoisification of Christianity.

  2. Yeah…I’m going to borrow the sentiment. Thanks for the reminder, AKMA. And Jane Ellen, thanks for the reminder as well. This sunday, I am going to as us to see Christ the King as a subversive…somehow. Can we see that stepping toward God is stepping away from the powers that be? Stepping away from Empire? In fact, if we have courage, following Christ can be the most subversive act of all.

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