Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ichabod or Ebenezer?

I feel so blessed - SO blessed! - to be able to share with you Dr. James A. Wharton's sermon, given just a few years ago at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary's centennial celebration.

Initially, I was under the impression that this sermon was available on the web. As I discovered, however - this being some 6+ years later, it is not ... ... and so, I spent some time trying to reach the 'powers that be' at the seminary in Austin to see how I might be able to obtain a copy of it.

You might recall that I first mentioned Dr. Wharton in some prominence in this post, wherein I shared not one of my 'transformative moments', but one of his!

We have since gone back and forth - the seminary and I - leaving voice mails and so forth, but today I feel an almost unbelievable sense of wonder and absolute delight in being able to share with you Dr. Wharton's sermon.

Today, I spoke to both Dr. Wharton and his wife on the phone. They are currently residing in the Carolinas ... a beautiful part of our world ... and he very graciously gave me his permission to publish his sermon on my blog. And so, without further ado, here it is ... ...

Ichabod or Ebenezer?
By James A. Wharton, former Professor of Old Testament, Austin Seminary
A sermon preached on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, October 1, 2002.

Text: I Samuel 4:10-22; 7:7-12

So . . . Who shall it be? Ichabod or Ebenezer? What is at stake here is nothing less than the freedom of God. Are we to worship a God who is captive to our traditions and our ideas and our feelings about God? Or . . . and this is a huge or . . . are we called to worship the God of whom Scripture tells, the one who is gloriously free from us, the one who shatters our most sacred preconceptions about who God must be, and yet the one who chooses to be with us, and for us, in surprising faithfulness to all that has gone before?

Ichabod? Or Ebenezer? Washington Irving and Charles Dickens have made it difficult for us to see anything profound in the choice between these two weird sounding names. Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow . . . the quintessential wimp. Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol . . . the quintessential cheapskate.

Wimpy and self-serving as we ourselves may be, nobody wants to be an Ichabod or an Ebenezer, and there is not much to choose between them. It's been a long time since Presbyterians could sing "Here I Raise My Ebenezer" without laughing.

It strikes me that the one hundredth birthday party of Austin Seminary is a grand occasion to take a fresh look at Ichabod or Ebenezer. To face again, as these texts invite us to do, the huge question about the freedom of God. As I see it, this is the watershed question that confronts the church of Jesus Christ in our time and place.

The story of Ichabod begins with Eli, the priest at Shiloh . . . a man who devoted his entire life to the worship and service of the Lord of Hosts, who was radically present to God's people, the one who was enthroned above the cherubim on the ark of the convent which was enshrined in the temple at Shiloh.

I feel increasingly kin to Eli, because Scripture describes him as being "old, and heavy." And, like Eli, I know what it means to cherish strong convictions about who God is, and who we are in relation to God, and what on earth God is up to, and what God wants from us, and what we may expect from God.

For old Eli, all those years of devotion, and all those cherished notions about God were now at risk, as never before in his lifetime. Imagine the shock Eli must have felt when the soldiers of Israel and their chaplains burst into the holy place, take upthe ark of the covenant on their shoulders, and charge off to do battle with the Philistines. Thinking to use their God as a weapon of mass destruction. After all, the ark of the covenant means that God is with us . . . Immanuel . . . Gott Mit Uns. Surely God will protect us against the evil doers, against the enemies of God . . . that is to say, against those who threaten our politics, our security, our way of life.

Perhaps those who carried the ark into battle also thought of themselves as "One nation, under God." Just how far "under God" they were was made painfully clear on the day of battle. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia, "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just." If we are to retain"under God" in our Pledge of Allegiance, I suggest that it be followed by an obligatory Jeffersonian tremble, as we reflect that God is just. Thank God, the God we worship is not captive to our nationalistic pieties.

Eli's heart trembled as he awaited news from the field of battle. He trembled for the fate of Israel's armies. He trembled for the fate of his two warrior sons, Hophni and Phineas. But Scripture notes only that he trembled for the ark of the covenant. If the ark fell to the Philistines, then all was lost, including his lifetime of devotion and his deepest convictions about God. If the ark is captured, then God is dead. And so is Eli, as soon as he hears the news.

Despair of this magnitude is not reserved for disillusioned old men. A young woman, in the very act of giving birth, receives word that her husband has been killed in action. She sees her whole future stripped away in an instant, and she experiences the same unbearable emptiness as the old priest.

"Don't be afraid," say the midwives. "You have given birth to a son." As if bearing a male child should make a woman feel that her highest destiny has been fulfilled. She knows better. With the last of her strength she names the child "Ichabod" and cries out, "The glory has departed from Israel."

All her young life she may have heard old Eli expounding the holy mystery of the glory of God . . . Kabod, in Hebrew . . . which was enthroned above the ark of the covenant. The best definition of God's Kabod I have heard was given by old Johann Albrecht Bengel in the early eighteenth century. He called it "Aufgedeckte Heiligkeit" . . . "Holiness Laid Bare." Perhaps the young woman believed it all, who knows. But the sheer cruelty of this unspeakable moment forces her to cry out, like a keening wolf, "Eeeeee . . . where? Eeeee Kabod . . . where is the famous "holiness of God Laid Bare" in this hellish time?

It occurs to me that this might have been a convenient place to conclude the Bible. With apologies to Andre Gide, we might have renamed it The God that Failed. When the crunch comes, God simply fails to measure up to anyone's expectations. To the expectations of the armies of Israel. To the expectations of Eli, or his sons, or his young daughter in law. The word for that is "Ichabod."

A convenient place to end the biblical story, except . . . except for a strange stirring abroad, a strange stirring that challenges us to think the story between God and the world may not be over yet. I find it fascinating that this strange stirring doesnot begin among the survivors in Israel . . . not among the pious . . . not among the true believers. It begins in the camp of the enemy, the Philistines, of all people.

Apparently, there were two major mistakes you could make about the ark of the covenant: Mistake number one was that God was somehow contained in, or held captive by that strange piece of ecclesiastical furniture. This was Israel's mistake. Mistake number two was that God had nothing to do with the ark of the covenant or with God's ancient promise to Israel to be radically present with them in their story.

The Philistines appear to have made mistake number two. Before you go to bed tonight, re-read the hilarious story of how the ark makes its was back to the people of God...not on the Philistines' terms . . . not on Israel's terms . . . but on God's terms, as a kind of deceleration of God's independence from all preconceptions about God, including the preconceptions of God's own people. The Philistines and Israel alike are confronted with "The Holiness of God Laid Bare," in absolute freedom from all human efforts to make God conform to our own self serving interests. God is God, and we're not.

I take this to be the first principle of Reformed theology 101. The God we worship is not captive to any religious ideology, including our own. This is bad news for every form of religious fundamentalism . . . by which I mean the smug certainty that our thoughts are God's thoughts, and our ways are God's ways . . . that those who oppose us are the enemies of God.

It often goes unnoticed that there is not only a Right Wing fundamentalism . . . there is also a fundamentalism of the Left. Anti-Fundamentalism is fundamentalism still. With it comes the cock-sure confidence, not only that right-wing fundamentalists are wrong about God, but that our own terribly sensitive and intelligent and open minded and politically correct notions about God are correspondingly right. In short, left is right, and right is wrong. God is on our side, not on theirs. God has no choice but to place the stamp of divine approval on our peculiar version of political and social and economic and theology correctness. God simply must conform to our own best image of . . . well, us.

I shall not pause to describe the fundamentalism of what our outrageous colleague Walter Johnson loved to call the Far-Middle, the mindless fundamentalism of "The man upstairs." The old Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, once described this group to perfection. Speaking of his own religious community, Carson said, "For us, God is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."

And that brings us to Ebenezer. The ark has returned to the people of God . . . on God's terms, not ours. Israel is still locked in a struggle for survival with the Philistines. Against all odds, under the leadership of Samuel, Israel wins a skirmish with the Philistines. The future of God's people remains as precarious as a fiddler on the roof.

But Samuel looks at all this in a different perspective. His strategy of battle did not include aiming the ark at the enemy asa secret weapon. Instead, his sole preparation for battle is to assemble the community for a time of repentance and prayer and fasting . . . a frank recognition that God is God, and we're not. Our thoughts are not God's thoughts. Our ways are not God's ways. If there is to be a future for us at all, it will not be because we are right about anything, but because God freely chooses to be with us and for us anyway, in spite of our failure to be the people God has called us to be.

For Samuel, then, the fact that God's people have survived the day is nothing less than an act of God's amazing grace. As Samuel sees it, a victory of this magnitude must be commemorated, not only in his own time, but in all future generations, including ours. To that end, he sets up a stone monument, and names it "Ebenezer". . . Eben Etzer . . . stone of help. "Thus far . . . up until now, that is . . . God has come to our aid"

How unmonumental this monumental statement sounds to contemporary ears. Not a word about our bravery in battle. Not a word about the sincerity of our repentance and prayer and fasting. And not a hint that this victory guarantees us a future of peace, and security, and prosperity. Such a future as we may have, wherever it may lead, will rest in God's free hands, not in ours. We have no claim whatever on God's future with us, but we do have this dazzling memory . . .one among so many others in the biblical story . . . that, when we had reached the rock bottom of our human resources . . . when we could only cry out "Eeeee Kabod" . . . God was there with us and for us, in ways that pass all human understanding.

To my ears, as a Christian, the desolate cry "Ichabod" resonates with Jesus' cry of dereliction from Good Friday's cross: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Does God love this heartbreaking and heartbroken world so much, that even the most profound human despair is taken up, and embraced, and experienced to the death, in the very heart of God, so that it cannot separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord? Is that what prompted the Apostle Paul to speak of "The glory of God . . . God's Kabod . . . the "Holiness of God Laid Bare". . . in the face of Jesus Christ?"(II Cor. 4:6)

It has always been a dicey business to step into an unknown and often terrifying future supported by nothing more than memories of God's free and always amazing grace . . . so far . . . up until now. Yet, in every generation, Christians have continued to see what we take to be sign after sign that God's grace in Jesus Christ has been with us. We have seen it most clearly, I think, in the lives of highly problematical people such as we are, who . . . nevertheless . . . have been empowered to live in faith, and in hope, and in love, in something reminiscent of the way of Christ.

In microcosm, perhaps that is the story of Austin Seminary over the past century. Especially on this day, we are challenged to remember the signs of God's irresistible grace that have emerged among us . . . here and there, now and then . . .throughout our history. I think now about kitchen workers and dietitians, maintenance engineers and janitors, secretaries and administrators, students and graduates, many of whom won no great public acclaim, but of whom the world was not worthy, dedicated professors and deans and presidents, board members and benefactors who refused to give up on us even in tough times, thousands of Presbyterians who suffered the ministrations of our graduates gladly,and prayed for us anyway, and confounded us with their generosity. I also recall a distinctly non-apostolic succession of odd-ball characters among us, who would not let us take ourselves too seriously.

Ebenezer . . . Eben Etzer . . . "Stone of Help". . . that is not a word that describes our religious ideology, or our wisdom, or our virtue, or any other attribute we may think to posses. The word for all that is Ichabod. Ebenezer is a word in praise of the free grace of God, who has worked among us in such unlikely ways to keep our story going, in spite of us on many occasions.

As Austin Seminary moves into its second century, our future is not at all clear. Past history warns us that Ichabod moments may yet lie ahead of us, times when it may seem to us that "The Holiness of God Laid Bare" has departed from us. But, insofar as we remain faithful to the God who has been so surprisingly faithful to us, our watchword for the future can only be Ebenezer . . . so far, up until now, God has come to our aid. Into God's free and gracious hands we can commit our future of God's so beloved world.

And now, in the unreconstructibly Presbyterian and Reformed words of Psalms 115 . . . Non Nobis, Domine, Non Nobis, Sed Nomine Tuo Da Gloriam. "Not to us. O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory." Amen.

As I said, I feel so blessed and so favored to have been allowed to share his sermon with you. I came very close to crying when I spoke with both Dr. Wharton and his wife on the phone earlier today. I felt such joy!

I pray, most fervently, that our dear Lord will hold each of you in His loving arms and watch over you as you go forth in your daily endeavors.


The Bug said...

Thank you thank you thank you for sharing this wonderful sermon! I hope you don't mind if I share it with my Rector - it's right down her alley.

Goldenrod said...

Bug, I have just now had the chance to sit down and read this sermon in its entirety, trying to digest its full meaning. (I'll probably end up reading it again and again and again.)

The only thing that equals what I've just experienced is the phone conversation I had earlier today with Dr. Wharton and his wife, Charlotte.

I very much doubt if Dr. Wharton would mind if you shared this sermon with your rector. In fact, I'm pretty sure that he would encourage you to DO so!