An Obvious Failure?

Daniel Wolpert July 29, 2018

Scripture 1 Kings 17:8–16

Good morning. It is wonderful to see all of you today. For those of you who are not aware, I am Daniel Wolpert. I am serving as the Interim Minister here. It’s wonderful to be here in worship together.

I want to begin by saying something about the Bible, because I know that there are different feelings about the Bible, especially here at Plymouth. One of the things that is important to realize about any theological statement or conversation is that it is, indeed, always a conversation between a particular community and, maybe, other communities or the wider society. One of the things that Plymouth has been in the midst of for its very long history is a conversation about scripture between those who are more engaged with the world and the practice of science and those who are concerned about how it is that science impacts our understanding of the Bible. It has been this conversation between what—unfortunately—has been labeled a kind of liberal theology or practice and a more conservative or fundamental kind of practice.

In the midst of this conversation, the Bible has, more often than not, become not really a helpful tool but kind of a club. We beat each other up with it. On the liberal side, one of the approaches is to say, “Well, I’m going to throw the club away.” And we sometimes feel proud when we say: “I don’t really care about the Bible. I want other kinds of texts.” Or “Ah, the Bible is fine, but there is a lot of it I can get rid of.” Or we’re happy when maybe our Confirmation kids get up and say, “I love reading about Zen,” or “I don’t really care about God,” or all kinds of things. It’s important to recognize that this is actually not so much an individual statement, but it is really part of this dialogue, because on the other side, of course, is the idea of biblical inerrancy. It’s as if the Bible was made on some Xerox machine up in the sky and kind of beamed down and we have to pretend that it is some kind of bizarre manuscript of facts.

What I want to encourage us to understand is that, even though 160 years may seem like a long time from our perspective, from the point of view of our history of scripture, it’s a little blip in time. There’s a much wider conversation that has happened over the years. Part of our problem, you see, is that whenever we approach any particular book, we wonder “What kind of book is it?”

We know that if we pick up a textbook on engineering, that’s probably not a very good bedtime book for our 5-year-old. Similarly, we don’t take our bedtime story for our 5-year-old to work at our nuclear power plant and expect helpful instructions. We know that there are fiction books, nonfiction books, books of poetry, cookbooks. We understand what type of book we are looking at when we look at it.

The trouble we really have with scripture is that it is a type of book that is very rare. There are only a few of this type of book in the world. These are books of spiritual teachings. In this last period, we pick up the book of the Bible and we say “What kind of book is it? It must be nonfiction, because if it’s fiction it’s fake and that’s not good. So, nonfiction: that’s good. Well, is it a history book?” Well, maybe a little bit. “Well, is it a science book?” Oh, yes. The earth is flat and only 6,000 years old. We all know that’s true. We don’t know what kind of book it is, and we get stuck.

In the Middle Ages, people who read the Bible understood that there were four layers of interpretation, and that the deepest layer of interpretation was a mystical interpretation of the text that had almost nothing to do with the first layer, which was the basic, superficial story. We have lost three out of four of those layers in the last hundred years. In many ways, we have reduced this profound, profound work to a kind of bad children’s tale.

I would like us to encourage ourselves and each another to engage a much deeper meaning of scripture and to appreciate the vastness of what it is that we have as part of our tradition.

So we have this funny story about Elijah helping this one woman and her son. One person with a kid. It’s a hard day of ministry: two people helped. I would like us to imagine if the pastoral staff came to the Deacons’ meeting and said, “Wow, we had a great day in ministry! There were two people in worship on Sunday! It was awesome!” The finance committee would immediately start drawing up plans for new staff, because this would be seen as some kind of colossal failure. The reason for this is that we bring the view of market capitalism into our assessment of success within our spiritual community.

This isn’t because we are bad people or because we have made some kind of colossal mistake. This is simply out of habit. We swim in that world all the time and so, everywhere you go, almost every event we have at church, everything that we do, you will almost always hear people say—almost the first thing—“Well, how many people were there? How much money came in this week? Are we meeting the goal of our offerings? We launched this new program—were there more people enrolled than last time when we launched a new program?” This is our mindset that we bring and impose on our spiritual community. So, one of the things that is very helpful is to ask ourselves: “Is this how God is seeing things?”

Here we have Elijah helping two people—and one of them is a kid and, in the ancient world, kids kind of don’t count as far as numbers—and yet, a thousand years later, Elijah is the person who appears on the mountaintop with Moses and Jesus. This is kind of the spiritual heavyweights that show up. Elijah becomes viewed in the tradition as one of the most powerful bearers of God’s Spirit and, in fact, is the one who is seen to herald the coming of the Messiah. He is in many ways a John the Baptist kind of figure. This is why he shows up here. Because he is regarded in such high esteem within the pantheon of spiritual teachers. God obviously is not distressed that his ministry only helped a couple of people.

In 563—that’s a long time ago, 563—a man set sail from the north coast of Ireland in a boat that is about as big as an oversized breadbasket. I have seen replicas of these boats. I wouldn’t get in one of these to cross Lake of the Isles. I can’t really imagine anyone getting into them to cross the North Sea. But that is what people of that time would do. They would set off to find some new place or go to a different island. This person, who is now known as Saint Columba, landed on a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland, which is now known as Iona. He founded a monastery there, and the monastery flourished for several hundred years. Then they ran into a problem—or rather a problem ran into them—a problem called the Vikings.

The Vikings began marauding around the north coast of the British Isles. The good Benedictines of the Iona community, who valued hospitality above all else, when the Viking ship would show up on the beach, they would send a little contingent of monks down to the shore to greet them, and the Vikings would kill them. Now, this is not really a sustainable model for ministry. Indeed, several centuries later, Iona ran out of monks.

If you now visit the island of Iona and you go into this amazing, ancient sanctuary, you will find the rock that the altar is made out of is two billion years old, some of the oldest rock on earth, this gorgeous green marble. You look at the stones in the wall that are from all different centuries as they have been repaired many, many times. At the far end of the sanctuary is buried the last abbot of Iona, the guy who closed the place down. You have to wonder: “Is he thinking ‘we failed’? Is he thinking ‘this is over’? Was he thinking ‘What is it that God is up to?’” I don’t know. Quite possibly. That’s what most of us wonder. The money is going down. The numbers are going down. The membership is going down. Enrollment is going down. What’s going on? What is God up to?

The monastery fell into disrepair and it disappeared on the map for almost seven hundred years. Seven hundred years, an awesome span of time.

In the early 20th century, in the midst of the Great Depression, there was a good Presbyterian minister in Glasgow who looked around his poor community. He noticed something interesting. He said, “I have some seminary students who know a lot about theology but know nothing about work.” That was kind of mean, but that’s what he said. He said, “I have a bunch of unemployed carpenters who know a lot about work but know very little about theology.” He happened to hear about this monastery on Iona that was in disrepair and, at that point, the island of Iona was owned by the Sixth Duke of Argyll . . . of sock fame. It’s true.

This pastor was sort of presumptuous; he called up the duke and said: “I want that monastery that’s on that island. I want to come and I want to work on it.” The duke, who probably had more property than he knew what to do with, said “Sure, go ahead.” This was the beginning of the Iona community. The pastor would take theological students and the carpenters out there. By day, they would work on rebuilding the monastery, and, by night, they would do theological and biblical reflection. The carpenters were the experts in one field and the seminary students were the experts in the other. They came to appreciate each other’s spiritual gifts and abilities. They saw each other as equals.

The island of Iona is now one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people come there every year to pray and to reflect and to deepen their life of faith: Christians, non-Christians, believers, non-believers, pagans, Wiccans, all kinds of folks.

Hundreds of years later, they went up the mountain and Elijah appeared to them.

God does not judge things by how many people show up. Sometimes I tell folks who are worried about numbers: “I have a foolproof way to grow your church. It’s not even seven steps. It’s only two. Step one: Tear down your church. Step two: Build a football stadium.” You will have more people. Does that matter? Sometimes when the Spirit is moving, there are a lot of people there, there’s a lot happening. Sometimes there is nothing happening—nothing that we can see, anyway.

Right now, because the church has so much adopted and adapted this market capitalist view of spirituality, right now there is so much anxiety because we see this decline and we keep thinking: “Oh my gosh, there’s something wrong. The market share isn’t going up.” And we run harder, faster, push more, berate our pastoral staff and our lay people. Everybody is lazy. People are incompetent. Blah. Blah. Blah. This is going on over and over again.

We forget that that’s not what God’s interested in at all. What God is interested in is that deep, deep listening and responding to the Spirit. Did you hear in the story what Elijah did? God said, “Get up and go,” and Elijah said, “Okay.” God said, “Go talk to this person,” and Elijah said, “Okay.”

Whatever it is that God is calling any individual or group of people to do, that is the powerful thing to do. That is the connection with this great flow of history, hundreds of years, thousands of years, decades, centuries that we are deeply connected to. This is not about what is happening with any one person or one community at any particular time. This is about that long arc, that evolutionary arc of transformation that God is always at work with in our universe.

Our job is to simply show up wherever we happen to be. To be deeply faithful wherever we happen to be.

I like to imagine that last abbot. Maybe he was by himself. Maybe there were two or three people. Maybe they had a couple of those little boats down by the shore and they were getting ready to head out somewhere else. I wonder if they said to themselves, “Is it worth doing the liturgy again this morning? This is the last time.” You know what? I bet they did it. I bet they said it. And I bet then they pushed out into the sea or maybe the abbot just said, “I’m going to stay until I die.”

We need to let go of this external vision that we have been fed over and over again since birth of how it is that success is measured. We need to simply let go of it. We need to start having this deeper, spiritual understanding of how it is that God understands success: one faithful, transformed person; one miracle; one person who sits in the darkness when it seems that all other lights have gone out. That is the person or the community that changes the world for the next chapter. Amen.