Sermon: A Good Story

11.27.2016         Preaching Text: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” (Romans 13:11-12a)

We all like a good story. In fact, according to statistics, the average American household spends roughly 5.8% of its expenditures on entertainment, just slightly below what it spends on healthcare!

A big chunk of our time is directed towards TV, movies, and sports. There is, in fact, a new phenomenon in the age of Netflix called “binge-watching,” something I freely admit on occasion to doing.

There’s no doubt about it, we human beings love drama. Someone once described film as “life with all the boring parts taken out.” That sounds about right.

Of course, boredom is one of the “seven deadly sins,” otherwise known as “sloth,” an ancient term used to describe a constellation of affects: boredom, laziness, idleness, apathy, to name but a few. And in an age where passive cynicism and ironic detachment seem regnant, the urge to escape would logically seem great.

And this tendency spans the ages. It was not for nothing that Marie Antoinette famously quipped, “Let them eat cake.” She likely would have approved of ESPN!

Some years ago I read a fascinating book entitled, Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman, then-professor of communications at NYU. His thesis was that the ever-broadening means of communication, beginning with the telegraph in the 19th century, overall has had a deleterious effect.

For one thing, it disconnects us from our local communities. We are inundated with information of distant peoples and places about which we can do nothing! This creates a “disconnect” between these same people and events and our ability to act in a meaningful way. At worst, “news” becomes mere entertainment, its “facts” best suited to the game of Trivial Pursuit.

Thus, in what was hailed as a major breakthrough and boon to human progress, linking our world to other worlds, the telegraph, Postman wryly notes, rather than providing meaningful information benefitting society ultimately was used to tell us about “Princess Adelaide’s whooping cough.”

One of the surprises for me in reading the book was learning that at one time America was considered the most literate country in the world…by far, even more so than in England! Postman cites as evidence the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates, seven all told, which took place in 1858.

Remarkably, they were all-day affairs. The transcripts read like books. They were, after all, intended for a literate audience. The sentence structure is complex, nuanced, betraying a closely developed, lengthy argumentation.

Today, in studied contrast, we are inundated with “sound bites” that pass for information – the catchier the better. The scenes on our television screen pass before our eyes in milliseconds while the camera jitters restlessly from one angle to the next. Apparently it’s getting harder and harder to take the “boring parts” out of life, what with our culture’s ever-diminishing “attention span.”

So why do we flee into escapist entertainments? And divert our attention away from reality? Is life really all that dull?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a place for entertainment. For at best, the arts delve deeply into the human psyche and reveal to us aspects of life otherwise hidden. Again, at its best, the arts both elevate and inform, and ultimately, hopefully, direct our attention back to our Creator.

Aesthetics, in other words, is a good thing, and an essential part of life. Properly it offers succor for the soul and to the mind sobering insight. Life without aesthetics wouldn’t be worth living, nor would it be the life God intends for us.

But, as is often the case, Søren Kierkegaard offers a sharp caveat. In his thinking he names three “stages” of spiritual development: the aesthetic, the moral, and the religious. Aestheticism, as he sees it, is but the natural, untutored state of the non-believer.

To move from aestheticism into the ethical and religious stages, in contradistinction, requires “a leap of faith.” But in neither of these “higher” stages is aestheticism eliminated. It is, rather, “dethroned,” as he sagely puts it. Aestheticism has a proper role to play in life, he is saying, but no longer is it understood to be the highest good.

But to get back to my earlier question: why do we seek undue escape into entertainment, into aestheticism? It’s a question we rarely think to ask.

This is especially curious given our readings this morning from both the Old and New Testaments. As you know, they convey the seasonal themes of Advent, of waiting, preparing, expecting.

But they say something else. They tell us if by inference only how meaningful and vital life is. More specifically, the biblical take is that this life is one of immense intrigue and uncertainty. It’s a drama that demands our entire being.

Here there exists the tension between our understanding of this life and the one God offers, the one revealed by prophets, martyrs, and saints. It’s a mysterious, compelling, even elusive reality of which we get but mere glimpses.

Yet it hangs in the air, always, coaxing, badgering, impressing. And ultimately it demands our fullest attention. For it is far more real than that which we perceive as real.

In the early days of the church, as today, baptism was a person’s entry into a particular life, one founded on the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, one as improbable and unworldly as the other.

But in the infant church, in keeping with earlier Jewish practice, baptisms were performed in rushing waters, typically a river. The idea was that the Christian life was one of constant motion and activity, that is, not still, stagnant, or passive.

It was a life of a fervent and active hope that demands our fullest attention and commitment.

As I always point out, this time of year, Advent/Christmas, seems to evoke the oddest response from us hardnosed contemporary Western folk. Here we pay uncharacteristic obeisance to that which we otherwise ignore – the profound mysteries of the “unseen.”

The words we heard this morning, therefore, are not idle words intended to entertain. They are words that call us to attention, to action, to devotion.

It is here where “sloth” meets its match. As one of our son’s friends once said, referring to his bored contemporaries, “Just try living as a Christian for just 24-hours,” he said, “and you’ll have all the drama you could possibly want.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself! Amen.