Tuesday, May 17, 2011
World, church, sanity, insanity
Notes from the Festival of Homiletics this week in Minneapolis.
At first, it sounded like they had very divergent views on the “world” versus the “sacred,” these two preaching superstars.
Tom Long, a Presbyterian who teaches at Candler Seminary in Atlanta, talked about the tensions between sanity and insanity, how those who think they are sane may in fact be part of the demonic insanity of the world.
Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopalian who teaches at Piedmont College in Georgia, warned against pitting the “world” against the “church.” As she told the 1,700 or so preachers at others gathered here for the Festival of Homiletics, “watch your language, especially when you are talking about the world.”
Long was reflected on the story in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus driving demons from an insane man into a vast heard of sheep that plunged to their death. He talked about the “apocalyptic combat between the holy and the demonic” that runs through Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus, adding that often “it’s hard to tell the difference between the holy and the demonic.”
The religious bureaucrats of Jesus’ day, after all, “checked their DSM4s and said, yes, he’s insane all right. Not even CPE could help him.” (Acronym decoder: Diagnostic Statistical Manual and Clinical Pastoral Education)
Long talked about the 19th century composer and pianist Franz Liszt, who was a rock star in his era, then confounded people when he threw himself into a lifestyle modeled on Jesus. As he was dying, writing a piece of music that Long described as moving from frenzy to shalom, Liszt’s son-in-law, Richard Wagner, said to Liszt’s daughter, “I think you father is insane.”
Who was more insane, asked Long? The musician wrestling with the deepest questions of life or the one whose martial music and anti-Semitic writings would become favorites of Adolph Hitler?
While Long was not exactly casting the world against the sacred, BBT worried that too many preachers do just that – including an earlier version of herself. She described the transformation she went through that led to her book, An Altar in the World,” where she went beyond the church-based use of tangible items – water, bread – to the patterns of church life that led her to see the sacred in filling a cat dish with water or eating a cucumber sandwich at her desk.
Instead of pitting the world against the church, the flesh against the spirit, she wondered what happened between the creation stories of Genesis and the line in the Epistle of James that says, “whoever wishes to become a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”
What happened, she said, was Caesar. The Roman emperor defined himself as God and Jesus created a world in opposition to Caesar’s world. This was not the same as calling flesh bad. Jesus, after all was the word made flesh, the incarnate God.
BBT talked of finding the sacred in the line at the post office as a little girl kissed her wounded hand, in the chemotherapy room where she sat with her father, in the walks and touches and thirsts that fill her life.
Watch your language, she told the crowd. God is in the world.