“If I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” This quote is sometimes attributed to the reformer Martin Luther, The Confessing Church in resistance to the Third Reich, or to Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Rev. Brian D. McClaren said, “The point is we don’t know the future, because it has not occurred yet — so it is unknown. A year ago, no one knew COVID was barreling down the track toward us.”
He gave the homily at the 9:15 a.m. EDT Thursday, Aug. 20, morning devotional service on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. His homily title was “Working for the Best.” The scripture text was Colossians 3:9-17 (NRSV) —
“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
McLaren acknowledged that his previous homilies had been given to shake up his virtual congregation. “Today, I hope you see why I took the risk.”
He continued, “If we assume that everything will be OK, if we have faith in inevitable progress, we tend toward optimism and complacency. If we are always pessimistic, then we tend toward despair and complacency. Either way leads to complacency. The world is a worse place than it would have been if we had not been complacent.”
As a Christian, McLaren understands the realities of crucifixion; he knows the worst can happen. As a Christian, he also believes in the power of resurrection, that the best can emerge from the ashes of the old. “What looks like the end of an age are actually the birth pangs of a new age, a new chapter of life,” he said.
One way McLaren thinks about God is “the mysterious greater power that brings life from death, hope from despair and beauty from ashes.”
He quoted his friend Valarie Kaur, that God “transforms the stagnant darkness of the tomb to the fertile darkness of the womb.” He likened the change to a necessary forest fire that looks like it will destroy the forest forever, but in reality leads to lush new life.
“In these days of lying presidents and fake news, I believe in not lying,” he said. “With hypocrites and coverups, I chose to strip off my old self and clothe myself with a truth-seeking self.”
He continued to use the scripture text, line by line, to exegete the world. In response to white supremacist racism and Chrisitan bigotry, he would have a world “where there is no Jew or Greek, barbarian or Scythian, no us and them.”
In a world where character does not matter, he would clothe himself with compassion. Where presidents and movie producers glorify revenge, he would show that forgiveness is possible. When the Constitution is shredded, he would show that love is the tie that binds
Where there is unrest, he would let the peace of Christ rule. Where there is resentment, he would be grateful. Where scary ads cause fear, he would let the word of Christ rule. To demagogues who try to define reality, he would teach that all wisdom is in Christ. Where there is rage and desperation, he would lead people to sing spiritual songs with grateful hearts.
“In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” is a powerful ending to prayer, McLaren said.
“We tend to say it mechanically, like ‘over and out.’ But think about ‘in the name of’ this way. In ‘The Hunger Games,’ Jennifer Lawrence performed in the name of Katniss Everdeen. In ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ Judy Garland performed in the name of Dorothy Gale. In ‘Mrs. Doubtfire,’ Robin Williams performed in the name of Mrs. Doubtfire,” he continued.
Jesus the Christ is the anointed one, in service to save the world. “We, as Christians, are playing the role of little messiahs, to save the world one day at a time, one vote at a time. This is not done in the name of the Christian religion, but to vote, protest, argue, tell the truth and speak up as Jesus would,” said McLaren.
If we are to reframe our politics, McLaren told the congregation, we need to decide to be citizens acting in the name of Jesus Christ.
“Other traditions have their own language for reframing politics. For Jews, it is the law and the prophets. For Buddhists, it is the Buddha nature, for others (it is) from God the merciful and compassionate one,” he said.
He continued, “I am trying to shake us up, to help us see differently and put behind us our old selves so we can make way for a new reality, to see sacredness in everything.”
McLaren told the congregation, “May you and I begin to live into a new reality. If we plant a tree, it is because we believe even though the world falls apart, we will tend our tree so it grows and develops fruit. That tree will free us to see we are not far apart. The tree helps us to give hope to our times.”
Jane McCarthy, leader of the daily Service for Blessing and Healing and a leader of the Women in Ministry program at Chautauqua Institution, presided from the Hall of Christ. Joshua Stafford, interim organist for Chautauqua Institution, played the Tallman Tracker Organ. Michael Miller, a Chautauqua Opera Apprentice Artist, served as vocal soloist. The organ prelude, performed by Stafford, was “So Fades the Lovely Blooming Flower,” by George Shearing. Miller sang the hymn, “O Lovely, How Deep, How Broad, How High.” The anthem was “Jerusalem, My Happy Home,” by Shearing. Stafford played “I Love Thee, My Lord,” by Shearing, for the postlude. This program is made possible by the Edmond E. Robb – Walter C. Shaw Fund and the Randall-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy.