Sermon by Burton Cooper
Acts 16:16; Rev 22:12; Jn 17:20-26
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears, say “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty, come.
And let anyone, who wishes, take the water of life.
What a heartfelt invitation from the Book of Revelation: “Come,” come all you thirsty ones, come; take the water of life, take it as a gift. For who is not thirsty for life, and who doesn’t wish for the water of life. But even as we wish for the water of life, we are also looking at our world, listening to the daily news, finding ourselves asking ourselves, “What are we coming to, what in the world are we as a human race coming to?” In this morning’s gospel, Jesus prays that those who believe in him may come to be one, completely one. That’s the great, human dream of peace and unity, the dream that humanity can achieve peace through unity. It’s a heartbreaking dream, especially these days, because it strikes such an ironic note. For our world has indeed achieved a unity of a sort, though more of the devil’s sort than God’s. Our world, our planet, has become one, completely one. Only now we call it globalism. Everything is interconnected, nothing that happens on earth anymore is merely local. Is there an ebola outbreak in a remote village in Africa, or a flu epidemic in Southeast Asia; then the whole world is alerted, and fear spreads even faster than the disease. Did militant, fundamentalist Islam find a foothold in the Middle East some decades ago; now there’s hardly a country in the world that doesn’t fear and arm itself against terrorist attack. Are industrialized countries spewing fumes from fossil fuel into the air; then the whole planet undergoes the destructive effects of climate change. Is there an economic crisis in Europe, China, the US; people throughout the world will lose their jobs, become homeless, go hungry. Is there war and poverty in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East; millions of refugees pour across borders into unwelcoming countries. The history of humanity has indeed become one, but it’s a worldwide, warming climate, war and violence, economic and political instability that embodies that unity, a kind of unifying destruction from which no one escapes. We humans are in danger of turning our history into a monster, a devouring monster, and if we cannot succeed in re-creating ourselves, making ourselves anew, if wejust go on doing what we are doing, thinking what we are thinking, being what we are being, we shall leave in ruins God’s good and beautiful creation, or at least the earthy part of God’s creation.
I find myself, these days, thinking about the biblical flood story, a story which for most ofmy life I thought of as childish, but which now, in light of the current ominous direction of our history, I think of as prophetic, as a warning to us humans of the darkness we can bring upon ourselves and all life by our own actions, our own beliefs. When we ask ourselves what is it in us that gives us such worldwide destructive power and that propels us on such a disastrous course, then our answer finds us falling into the realm of irony and contradiction. For it is human creativity, or rather the downside of God’s great, good gift to us of creativity, the downside of the great good gift of our drive to understand the natural world, that gives us the power to bring our world to ruin. For it is human creativity that has given us our industrialized, mechanized, computerized, pharmaceuticalized, medicalized, plasticized, chemicalized, interconnected lives with their great good of less drudgery, longer and healthier lives, more leisure time, greater access to education and the arts, faster communication and travel; but also leaving in its wake increasingly warming and polluted air and water, less arable land, depleting water supplies, massive growth in human population, the extinction of other creatures, weapons of mass destruction. So this is the great irony of human existence, the great contradiction in human existence: the more creative we become, the more interconnected we become, the more one world we become, then the more threatening and more extensive become the powers that can bring about our ruin. And today those destructive powers seem to be legion and on our doorstep, just waiting to explode upon us. I feel like crying out, like the frightened jailer in today’s lectionary story from the book of Acts cries out, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Only for us it’s more like, “What must we, as a human race, do to be saved?” And surely we know that the mere development of what we are can’t save us, for further development can only heighten all the contradictions in which we stand. For we stand in a worldwide sea of contradictory truths. The Chinese have their truth, the Taiwanese theirs; the Israelis have their truth, the Palestinians theirs; the Shia have their truth, the Sunnis theirs; Isis certainly has its truth; liberals have their truth as do conservatives; the religious have their truth, the secularists theirs; refugees, immigrants, have their truth, nationalists have theirs --- need I go on. So many of us have our own truth. In their limited way each truth has its merit. But all too often our truth enters in deadly, murderous conflict with the truth of others. For truth is multiple, value is multiple, and though it is counter-intuitive, truths and values can be in conflict with each other, so that we have to learn how to live with that kind of incoherence, peacefully, fruitfully, and not combatively, murderously. Who, what, will teach us? Once we were optimistic that reason could teach us, could unite us in thought and belief. Today, only a lack of historical knowledge could explain such an optimism. I think of words scrawled on a wall in Afghanistan: “Throw reason to the dogs --- it stinks of corruption.” That’s a little extreme, of course, and in any event, it’s not reason that’s corrupt but the self that reasons. If not reason, then, what will save us, what will give us hope?
Well, we can start with today’s words from the Book of Revelation: “Come, let everyone who is thirsty, come; let anyone take the water of life.” Let us think of the water of life as the very ground of life, the power of life, the reason why there is life, why there is something and not nothing. For unless we presuppose the water of life, unless we presuppose a ground of life, there cannot be life at all. What shall we call that water of life? Shall we call it God, shall we take that leap of faith and callit God? And as the Book of revelation tells us, as every confessional book of faith tells us, the water of life, God, is not simply blind power pouring out living beings to fend for themselves, but is caring power, where caring means that the ground of our being, of all beings, is not simply creative, is not even simply just but is compassionate, loving, merciful, forgiving. So that our being, when it opens itself to the depths in our own being, tro the water of life, finds itself thirsting not simply for life and creativity, but for justice, compassion, love, forgiveness. If our hope regarding the human race, and what it is coming to, (if our hope) lies anywhere that hope lies in our capacity to find compassion, forgiveness in our being, and I do not simply mean forgiveness of the other whose truth is not our truth, but to ask God for forgiveness of our own sin in not acknowledging the element of truth in the other. For God is the only absolute truth. If only the world would learn that we all need forgiveness. I know how far fetched and far away that hope can seem.
Daniel Berrigan died last week. As I’m sure you know, Berrigan was a courageous Jesuit priest who was amongst those leading the opposition to the Vietnam War, and went to prison for it. He gave his life to protesting social injustices, and towards the end he felt the futility of all his life’s efforts. What made his life bearable he wrote, “was a disciplined, implicitly difficult belief in God as the key to sanity and survival.” It’s a poignant statement. It’s also the answer to that human question, “what mustI do to be saved.” For I take it that Berrigan means that our hope lies in a power beyond us, in God, in a power in reality, drawing us, patiently ever drawing us, no matter how dismal and bloody our responses, ever drawing ustowards love, justice, forgiveness. I think of a line in Eucharistic prayer C: “Open our eyes,” it says, “to see your hand at work in the world about us.” Sisters and brothers in Christ, I know only too well how hard it can be to see God’s work in our distraught world. Belief, as Berrigan says, is difficult. Our hope, our prayers, have to be in God opening our eyes, in enabling us to take that leap of faith, that joyous leap that lands us in the valley of hope, in a community of hope thatlives towards love, a community which in its worship opens itself to hearing God saying: Come, come all you thirsty ones, come; take the water of life, take it as a gift.
Praise God for this great gift of grace.