Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Faithful Holiness

The following is from a sermon I preached on Sunday, based on the lectionary texts:

In an essay entitled, “A Tale of Two Stories: On Being a Christian and a Texan,” Stanley Hauerwas suggests that it is much easier to embrace and understand our American culture than it is to be embraced by the Christian story. Yet, he says, “it is a story that is every bit as concrete and particular as that story of Texas. The difference is that it is not just a story of a land or a family, but the story of a man which, when told and lived rightly witnesses to the God who is the creator and redeemer of all people yet who chooses to be known through the calling of the people of Israel and the life and death of Christ,” (Christian Existence Today, 40). In the end, he maintains, “the truth of the story we find in the gospels is finally known only through the kind of lives it produces. If such lives are absent then no amount of theory or manipulation can make those texts meaningful,” (40-41).

And yet, the pursuit of greed has been baptized in our culture as not only being a legitimate one, but both a desirable and important one. The American attitude towards life is illustrated by the old TV commercial where the person says, “Mastercard, I’m bored!”—only to be whisked off to tropical islands and magnificent culinary delights. The American attitude is that life consists in pleasure and pleasure is to be found in acquiring and experiencing things. And, in the end, we slip dangerously towards the idolatry of which Scripture speaks, perhaps best encapsulated by our egocentric hero, Bart Simpson’s smart-aleck grace: “Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing!”

In contrast, Hauerwas claims, by reading our own lives through the lens of God’s redemptive story in Christ, we come to understand that the pattern that makes up our own life is in fact a story of grace. But in order to come to that understanding, we must first begin to pay attention to the gospel story itself. We learn that story, he claims, by “caring for the tombstones of the saints,” (40). Now, many of you know that I spent some time a few weeks ago taking my father to visit the old Hartley cemetery I had discovered back in Kentucky from whence my great-grandfather set out on a life of adventure in 1892, the year that Greenville College was founded. Through years of painstaking research and several important connections I made, I was able to visit that cemetery six summers ago with Bert Hartley, the last of his generation. So, this summer I was determined to get my dad there while he could still get around and experience what life in that backwoods environment must have been like during the 19th century. But one of the major problems is that there is no one left to care for the over 600 family cemeteries which exist in Greenup County alone. The weeds are growing high and the stones slowly sinking into the ground, even as the letters fade due to weathering. Before long, even these monuments will be meaningless and unreadable—as over twenty of the plots in that cemetery already are.

But Hauerwas means something a bit more metaphorical when he speaks of “caring for the tombstones of the saints.” In the ancient church, folk would literally picnic on the graves of their spiritual ancestors. And, as they shared a meal together over the burial plot, they would begin to tell the life story of the one whose feast day they were celebrating—surely raising the eyebrows of the children who listened in, as well as passing on the valuable narrative from one generation to the next. Those stories were treasured because they not only kept the memory of the loved one alive, they held up before the living the model of the one who had gone before. For, faithful holiness, claims Hauerwas, is only possible when living a faithful life takes on a concrete form.