I was greatly blessed that Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy was published during my years as a pastor (Gilead in 2004; Home in 2008; Lila in 2014). Her writing has been called “luminous,” and her descriptions, especially of the Revs. John Ames and Richard Boughton, certainly shone a radiant light on my ministerial calling. Like John Ames, I would sit from time to time in an empty sanctuary and, in the quiet intensity of a Psalm 84 moment of longing and praise, I would count my pastoral blessings. “The feeling of a baby’s brow against the palm of your hand,” Pastor Ames confides at one point. “How I have loved this life.”
However, powerful currents swirl beneath the serene surface of Gilead. Intergenerational conflicts and the havoc wreaked by a returning prodigal son are as much of a reality as are the kindness and charity. Critic A. O. Scott calls Home “a book full of doubleness and paradox, at once serene and volcanic, ruthless and forgiving. It is an anguished pastoral, a tableau of decency and compassion that is also an angry and devastating indictment of moral cowardice and unrepentant, unacknowledged sin.”
Significantly, says Scott, the novel is not in the form of “yet another breathless exposé of religious hypocrisy, or a further excavation of the dark secrets that supposedly lurk beneath the placid surface of small-town life” (NY Times, 9/21/2008). Instead, depth of character and unfeigned goodness are intertwined with the contradictions and ambiguities of being human, all slowly lived out over four generations.
This way of writing and reading is helpful for understanding this Sunday’s Scripture passages, especially I Kings. God knows, we need to hear and heed the immediacy of breathless exposés and investigative excavations. In fact, the poison of one of the latest heart-wrenching reports even made me hesitant to use the above quote about touching a child. But today’s passages give us a chance to read and hear at a slower speed, against the backdrop of centuries, a skill most rare in these days of perpetual urgency and nanosecond reactions.
On the surface, I and II Kings report the succession of Israel’s kings from the death of David in 962 to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587. Because this material was brought to its final form just before or just after the catastrophic destruction had taken place, the entire span of 400 years is seen in that light. The story, then, often is told with irony. What is stated and what appears to be true is not always what is going on beneath the surface (Walter Brueggemann, I Kings, Knox Preaching Guide).
Solomon’s reign is told in that context. I Kings 8 is a beautiful extended prayer at the dedication of the Temple, the hallowed focus of God’s presence, the place of access to God’s mercies, the destination for pilgrims. Yet, the prayer is full of irony. Solomon’s rise to the throne reads like the climactic baptism scene from The Godfather. He prays for and receives the wisdom of a listening heart, but is foolish about the very things that cause the collapse of his reign. He is ruler of the community freed by God from bondage in Egypt, yet he is seduced by Pharaoh’s way of being king, forgetting Samuel’s warnings from years earlier about forced labor and social injustice. Temple and palace are so entangled that religion and royal-sanctioned violence become indistinguishable. The story slowly unfolds over the long haul. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, this narrative is not ancient history but present context for mighty questions about God’s presence and God’s mysterious, sometimes ironic, deeds across the vast sweep of history.
John’s Gospel is marked by multi-levels of meaning. Jesus’ life and ministry embodies the manna in the wilderness and the Word of God that gives life. He refuses the attempts to make him king, and in his death he breaks and redeems the age-old dreary, destructive succession of royal religion. We partake, chew, savor that we may abide in his presence and enter more deeply into a special kind of life. According to Gil Baile, “Israel’s historic experience was that failure and defeat were neither impediments to a relationship with its God nor fatal to its historical mission. Though it took Israel’s religious geniuses centuries to draw out the profound implications, it is clear enough in retrospect that Israel’s God was a God who saw the world upside down, a God who had special regard for those reckoned as worthless in terms of wealth, prestige, and power (Violence Unveiled, p. 153).”
Recently I’ve begun work as a chaplain in a state prison unit. After years in the “living room” as a volunteer, I’m slowly becoming familiar with what goes on in the rest of “the house.” Although still very much a novice, I’ve already learned that prison is a gargantuan system with the capacity to wither the souls not only of convicted felons but of prison staff and officers as well.
I’ve also discovered that the Church is in prison, even before the volunteers arrive, and that the Church members there have a role and a calling in the unfolding drama of God’s kingdom. Reading Scripture in that location is fresh and invigorating. I sometimes can hear the tune of Psalm 84 as an inmate wistfully tells me about his home congregation. I’ve seen a ready grasp of “catastrophe” and “exile,” and an achingly poignant understanding of time. Some give eloquent testimony to the presence of Christ whose crucifixion has turned the world’s darkness into an agent of revelation, and that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. Talk about a vast space and time to live in!
Given Paul’s intimate knowledge of imprisonment, the incarcerated may have the best take on Ephesians. If our view of “church” is that of a privileged compound or gated community, a temple and/or palace, we may think that the purpose of the armor of the Lord is to guard our place and protect our stuff. Weapons among prisoners don’t go over too well, and as far as I’m aware, no prisoner wants to remain where s/he is. So for them, the purpose of putting on the whole armor of God is so they can be, for however long they must, ambassadors in chains.