Biblical Themes That Have Long Spoken to Me: An Introspective Invitational Sermon

I was asked to preach at University Lutheran Church, Cambridge, MA, October 12, 2008. This assignment turned out to be more important for me than I had anticipated. In retrospect, I now realize that, however much I sought to exegete the biblical texts with which I was working, I was also reliving a theological journey of my own.

This was the church I had attended as an undergraduate and served once, for three years, as its Assistant Pastor, 1966-1969, just after I had finished my doctoral studies at Harvard Divinity School. Serendipitously, the lectionary texts appointed for the day bespoke themes that have long captivated me. I invited that university congregation to be claimed by those themes, too. I herewith extend that invitation to a still larger audience.

Are You Living In the Valley of the Shadows?
Come to the Mountain –
Then Come Down to the Feast
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. H. Paul Santmire
University Lutheran Church, Cambridge
The Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost

October 12, 2008

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to stand here in this pulpit, where I used to stand, with some frequency, forty years ago. It was a wonderful trip.

Today I invite you to concentrate on three texts from Holy Scripture.

First, this phrase, which you know well, from the 23rd Psalm, appointed for today: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” (Ps. 23:4)

Second, from our first lesson, the prophet Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines…” (Is. 25:6)

Third, from our Gospel, where Jesus picks up Isaiah’s image, the great feast: “Look, my banquet is all prepared…. Come to the wedding.” (Mt. 22:4)

These texts suggest this theme to me: “Are you Living in the valley of the shadows? Come to the mountain. Then come down to the feast.”

I.

First, the valley of the shadows. I don’t have to tell you too much about this.

Last week a gathering of which I was a part, including some folks from this congregation, explored together some of the striking meanings of the fine 2007 novel by Don DeLillo, Falling Man.

I thought I had had enough of 911, but I was swept along by this book. It is indeed a 911 novel. But it’s much more. It’s a novel about 911 as a metaphor of our times. The tone is set, when the main character, Keith, stumbles out of one of the towers on 9/11, and eventually finds his way home, where his estranged wife, Lianne, tries to pick shards of broken glass out of his dazed, dust-covered face.

I think that that book does tell the story of these times, as well as yours and mine, remarkably well. Are you living in the valley of the shadows? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear you answer Yes.

I’ll leave it to you to read the novel, if you wish, if you haven’t already done so. To fill out the picture, I want to set another book by its side, which in its own mundane way also speaks of the valley of the shadows, but more from the perspective of someone who wants to believe.

Around the time when I was hanging out in this pulpit, a Catholic publishing house issued a thin, but provocative volume called Letters to God from Teenagers. This is one of those letters, which I have kept on file all these years. I take this to be the voice of one who also lives in the valley of the shadows:

Dear God

Where are you? I know you’re supposed to be everywhere, but there are times when I just can’t seem to find you. I see good and honest people getting hurt and dying. I see people who don’t have enough to eat. Are you there with them? It just doesn’t seem fair that people should have to suffer like that. I know that you suffered and died on the cross for us, and maybe I’m a little selfish, but it just doesn’t seem right.

There are times when I really need someone, and I want to reach out, but I don’t know if you’re listening. How can I learn to hear you better? What am I expected to do and become? I want to be able to do the right thing

Your friend,

Susan

Are you living in the valley of the shadows? If so, what can you do about it?

 

II.

Come to the mountain This is the image we meet in the second text, from the prophet Isaiah. It’s an arresting image, which probably has claimed your mind and heart at one time or another. Come to the mountain.

I’m here this morning, because both your pastors are on retreat with students today. That’s probably a very good idea. Years ago, Pastor Connie Parvey, as I recall, used to take groups of Uny-Lu students, now and again, to see the sun rise from the top of Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire. Another good idea. Come to the mountain.

Actually the image of the mountaintop experience is as American as cherry pie, as you probably know. Many Americans writers, from Henry David Thoreau to John Muir, to a host of authors in our own day, have been fascinated with the wilderness and its heights. The Boston Globe just published a story the other day about Thoreau and Mt. Khatadin in Maine.

So. You don’t like life down here in the valley of the shadows? Get away from it all. Rise above it all in the wilderness. Get some perspective. The Harvard-trained New Testament scholar and ethicist, Richard Baer, called this experience: “breaking with the tyranny of the cognitive mind.” Come to the mountain. Right?

It makes sense, in a sense. But that’s not yet to grasp the particular claims of the mountain image as we meet it in the prophet Isaiah.

Yes, to be grasped by the power of Isaiah’s message, you’re going to have to get away from it all, whether this “all” is the post-911 world of the DeLillo novel or the personal anguish of that Catholic teenager in her letter to God. Break with the tyranny of the cognitive mind. Go somewhere where you can get some perspective, where you’re not the captive of all these shadows.

But for Isaiah, that somewhere isn’t anywhere. For Isaiah, that somewhere is – Jerusalem. Throughout the Old Testament, the image of the mountain of the Lord was a common way of speaking of Jerusalem. And that image typically brought with it a vision of renewal of the whole earth and especially a time of blessing of the poor of the earth, when the people of God would finally be redeemed.

Never mind now the broken historical Jerusalem of those days or ours, the coming of the new Jerusalem, according to Isaiah, will usher in an era of peace and justice on the whole earth.

So here’s the prophet, speaking from exile, presumably, speaking from the position of membership in a marginalized, sometimes persecuted minority. In the midst of this valley of the shadows, he has this dream. He proclaims: come to the mountain! And he means: come to this particular mountain, a new Jerusalem, in the midst of a new creation: a place where God will be “a refuge to the poor;,” as Isaiah says, “a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.” (Is. 25:6)

Even death, according to the prophet, and all the violence of a world where the powers of death hold sway, will be overcome. Life will reign and, in another voice from the same tradition, the lamb will lie down with the lion, and a little child will lead them. And at that time, according to this image, all the peoples – indeed the whole creation – will glorify God. St. Paul later puts the finishing touches on this image by announcing that at that time, when the whole creation will have been renewed – God will be “all in all.”

So. You may have shards of broken glass cutting into your soul, if not your body. You may be poised to write your own letter to God, questioning everything. If so: Come to the mountain, and see the new Jerusalem. Break with the tyranny of the cognitive mind and dream dreams of an incredibly beautiful future for the whole creation.

This is the mountaintop experience that the prophetic tradition holds before you and me, especially for those of us who know we’re living in the valley of the shadows of death.

 

III.

Which brings me, finally, to our third text, from Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast, as we have it in Matthew’s Gospel today.

I’m not going to try to wrestle with all the details of this marvelous story. Such as the account of the poor bloke at the very end of the story – remember this? – who showed up at the wedding without the right clothes on.

Rather, I want to trace the trajectory of the mountain image in the prophetic tradition, as it was claimed by the Jesus movement and then by the early church.

Are you living n the valley of the shadows? If so, come to the mountain. This now is the invitation with which I want to conclude: Then come down to the feast.

Here I’m informed by a seminal article by Uny Lu’s own Helmut Koester. This article traces what I’m calling today the imagery of the mountain, the vision of the new Jerusalem, as the center of an entirely renewed world of justice and peace. It then shows how that imagery shaped the self-understanding of Jesus’ first followers and presumably of Jesus himself.

It all came together for the Jesus movement in the meals over which Jesus himself presided. The participants in those meals apparently thought of themselves in terms of the festival mountain imagery from the prophetic tradition. These meals, in that sense, focused for them the thought of the new Jerusalem and the new creation.

In this context, there was then another development. The imagery of the mountain festival of the end times coalesced with yet another theme that was apparently near and dear to Jesus’ heart, the wedding banquet.

It’s all happening here, in other words, in some sense. Here in this festival meal, before your very eyes, that mountain vision of the new Jerusalem, is beginning to take shape. What was once – and still is – a great and marvelous hope for the future is now being realized in some sense in this wedding feast. See with your own eyes. Touch with your own hands. Hear with your own ears. And taste.

But there’s more. In that article, Helmut Koester also showed that something remarkable happened to the mountain festival imagery and the wedding theme as they coalesced in the mind of the early church. Jesus had said at one of those meals – “Do this in remembrance of me.” Do this meal for the recalling of my life and death, as you eat and drink together. This consciousness of the Cross then shaped everything else for the early Church.

In effect, the mountain imagery came down to earth, right in the middle of the valley of the shadows. The wedding imagery was likewise shaped by the remembrance of Jesus’ suffering and death. These festive meals thus became the foretaste of the beautiful and just world to come, in this world of death, redeemed by the Savior’s own death.

 

IV.

I stumbled into this experience myself, once upon a time, right here.

Imagine me, as an undergraduate, rolling out of bed up the street in Lowell House, at five to eleven on a Sunday morning, unshaven, wearing the same clothes I fell asleep in the night before – studying, of course. But I kept showing up here, for reasons which I only dimly understood at the time. What I did understand was that I came just as I was, without one plea.

I guess I was no different from many other undergraduates then, or perhaps now, who had been raised in the church, but who had encountered many conflicting and distressing realities in life and learning at institutions like Harvard.

I remember times of intense loneliness in those days, sometimes rejection by others for whom I cared a lot. Early on, I suspected that I had been admitted to Harvard not because of any intellectual gifts, but because they thought I could help them produce a winning swimming team. (That didn’t work either.)

When I did begin to get my academic sea-legs under me, things on occasion tended to get worse, rather than better, as far as my soul was concerned. Of German heritage, with a major in German history, I discovered the holocaust, really for the first time, when I was a sophomore. And I was profoundly depressed to realize, fully, the complicity of many of my German Lutheran brothers and sisters in the murder of six million Jews and many others. That was the tradition that had given me my deepest bearings throughout my life. And was that what that tradition was really like? Why would anyone in his or her right mind want to be a Lutheran Christian?

In those days there was a whole host of reasons, which could easily have prompted me just to chuck the faith of my forebears.

But, for reasons, again, that I only dimly understood at that time, I kept trundling my way down here from Lowell House most Sundays. And I ended up staying! The Lord brought me here, and I never left, for better or for worse. And I ended up being a child of hope, who loves Jesus – and the earth and the poor of the earth. A miracle indeed.

Now it helped that I had very good pastoral guidance here and that I was always welcomed warmly and without preconditions by this community. No one ever told me I didn’t have the right wedding garments on.

But when everything else was said and done, I have no doubt now that it was the bread and the wine that carried me through and blessed me with hope.

Luther once remarked concerning people who weren’t sure whether they should receive Communion or not – throw the bread and wine at them! Not a bad idea.

For me, this bread and wine was and is and hopefully will continue to be, for whatever years I still have left on this earth, the feast of the victory of our God. And this feast opened up for me, again and again, the vision of the travail of the earth and the plight of the poor of the earth – and the promise of God for both. The mountain imagery. The wedding imagery. The power of the Cross. I thank God for the bread and the wine, in this place, in the midst of the valley of the shadows.

Strikingly, at the end of the DeLillo novel, Falling Man, after many accounts of human brokenness, Lianne, the wife of the survivor, Keith, herself plagued with uncertainties and disappointments of all kinds, finds her own way, unknowingly it seems, to a nearby church on Sundays. It appears to be a typical urban Catholic parish, in decline. It has seen better days. The few worshipers there are mainly older women. Improbably, there, it appears that she finds peace for her sharded soul.

It would be pushing DeLillo’s anguished narrative too far, I think, to say that he envisions Lianne as finding God there, in those simple, perhaps pedestrian Eucharists. But the reader can readily imagine Lianne being at peace in the presence of the Crucified there. Maybe, indeed, Don DeLillo knows more than he thinks he knows.

Be that as it may, this is my invitation to you today, as you may find yourself with shards of glass in your soul, if not in your body, as you may be poised to write your own letter to God, if you haven’t already done so.

Are you living in the valley of the shadows? Come to the mountain. Then come down to this feast. Amen.

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One Response to Biblical Themes That Have Long Spoken to Me: An Introspective Invitational Sermon

  1. Wendy Cooper says:

    I am in the process of writing my ordination paper, and was perusing your website as I struggle with Creation and Providence, Judgment and Grace….You were an important contributor to my thesis at Chicago Theological Seminary, and I was returning to you for help now.

    However, what I find here in these wonderful words is deeply person. It has been a long road from seminary to ordination paper, and I find deep encouragement in this sermon.

    Thank you.

    Wendy Cooper

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