February 4th – Steve Jungkeit – with audio
Texts: Luke 2: 25-38; Philippians 1: 3-11
I began reading George Eliot’s classic novel Middlemarch this week. It’s set in an English village that’s undergoing convulsions as a result of the industrial revolution, and it tracks the intricate relational details of the inhabitants of that small town – Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate, and Nicholas Balstrode to name but a few. But I have a peculiar reading habit that I need to share with you. I often flip ahead within the book to see if I can discern just where the arc of the story is heading, and not only that, I often flip to the very last page of the book to learn how it will end. No doubt that indicates some weird desire within me for a kind of reassurance that things will be OK, no doubt it’s a terrible reading habit, but there it is, I do it. And so I flipped to the end of Middlemarch and I found precisely the words I needed to find as I thought about what I wanted to say to you this morning. Even if it’s a poor reading habit, it turns out to be a helpful practice for a laboring preacher. Here’s what George Eliot writes of the townspeople of Middlemarch:
“The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Eliot’s novel is an attempt to convey what it means to live not as great historical heroes, but as people of quiet integrity, struggling to know and do what seems best. It’s such a famous novel because of how well Eliot accomplishes her task. There are misfortunes and mistakes, there’s dedicated passion and self-deceit. But there’s also within many of the characters a practiced generosity and grace that winds up mattering in small, but nevertheless meaningful ways for those they encounter.
It all strikes me as a near perfect description for a community of faith, and for people like you and like me. What does it mean to live faithfully a hidden life? What does it mean to perform unhistoric acts that have no particular efficacy or consequence, of the sort that we can discern at any rate? What does it mean to live and act with full knowledge that little or no recognition will be doled out for the best decisions we make? What good is accomplished, in other words, from ordinary attempts to live lives of decency and integrity? If those acts can’t be seen, if they can’t be felt, if they accomplish nothing of great consequence, really, is all the striving worth it?
George Eliot’s answer seems to have been yes. She raises the possibility that things may not be so bad in the world as they might have been because of the tiny and seemingly inconsequential acts performed around the world in places like the town of Middlemarch. I tend to agree. I’ve come to think of Eliot’s description as a summation of what we might call “the integrity blues.” By that, I mean the decision to commit oneself to some form of the good, to do what we understand to be right, even when no one is watching, even when the lasting outcome may be hopeless, even when our actions seem to be inconsequential, even if we can’t always tell if we’re making a difference. Doing so, to borrow the words of the Apostle Paul, is to allow the good work of Christ which was begun in us to grow toward completion, even if we can’t always see how that growth is taking place.
Two of the most important characters in all of Scripture are Simeon and Anna, the aged couple who greet the baby Jesus when he is brought to the temple to be consecrated. Their role in the grand arc of the biblical narrative is tiny. They don’t effect or change a single thing in the course of the Bible. If Luke’s editor had cut their story from the final draft of the text, they probably wouldn’t be missed. But here’s what’s so important about them: they show up at the temple every day, waiting in prayer and expectation for a coming child who will redeem the time. Luke’s story suggests that they spend a lifetime doing what they hope is the right thing, without any assurance that they’ll ever glimpse what they were hoping for. That they live to witness their desired outcome is, in a way, beside the point. The greater lesson of Simeon and Anna is their willingness to keep on showing up, to continue their small and seemingly inconsequential practice of keeping vigil for the child who would one day arrive. I wonder: did they ever grow tired of their vigil? Did they ever question what good they were accomplishing? Did they ever lose heart, imagining activities that would be of greater consequence to those around them? We don’t know, but I like to imagine that even Simeon and Anna got the integrity blues from time to time, wondering if they were doing the right thing, even while trusting that, really, there was nothing better they could be doing.
Madonna Thunder Hawk was one of the travelers on our recent Tree of Life journey. Madonna knows something about the integrity blues. She lives out in South Dakota on the Cheyenne River Reservation, and she traveled with us in order to think about the parallels between Native American and Palestinian lives. One night I invited her to share her thoughts with our group, and she said something that was, for me, one of the most powerful things I learned on this journey. What she said was this: “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel for my people. Our problems aren’t going to be solved. We’ll never return to who and what we were. But we’re still going to stand up. We’re still going to do what we know is right, if only to preserve our own dignity.”
Her words stuck with me. “There is no light at the end of the tunnel for my people.” What Madonna Thunder Hawk was conveying, as I heard her, was that her efforts as an activist for human rights may ultimately have no direct efficacy. Her efforts, along with those of others like her, may ultimately be powerless to effect the changes they wish to see. She may die, in other words, without tasting any kind of victory, without seeing any of the wished for results for which she and others had been striving. And yet, even so, there’s value in standing for what she knows to be true, deep in her bones, down in her heart. Madonna lives out the integrity blues. Might it be that things are not so ill for current residents and future generations on the Cheyenne River Reservation, because of Madonna’s dogged insistence, along with others like her, that her people do have worth, no matter if anyone is listening?
Madonna’s is but one way to embrace and to live out the integrity blues. Her words represent why our church continues to lift up the voices of those living in Palestine, or the Cheyenne River Reservation, South Africa or Haiti, and of immigrants and refugees living close by, even when we don’t seem to be getting anywhere, even when the situation seems to be worsening, rather than improving. We do it not because we’re defined by results or outcomes, but because we know it to be right, down in our bones, deep in our hearts. There may not be a light at the end of the tunnel in those stories. We don’t know. But like old Simeon and Anna, we’ll continue our work, because we trust all that we have seen and heard. That’s what it means to embrace, and to live out, the integrity blues.
The integrity blues have much to do with our practices, with our ethics. But really, what I’m describing has to do with how we love one another. Because of course, love too, at it’s best, has no consequence. Love too has no predictable outcome, no managerial telos or end. To love another person because it will achieve some imagined result isn’t really to love at all. To love someone because it will get you something, or help you to change something, whether in yourself or in the other, isn’t really to love. That’s called coercion. We all know what it feels like when relationships are somehow instrumental, used to achieve some wider end or purpose. While that might be necessary in certain settings, it also feels like something less than love, because the relationship is attached to a kind of use value. At its best, to love is to affirm the worth of another independent of what they do, of the choices they make, of the ends the relationship might achieve. That can be hard, because frequently other people do make choices that we wouldn’t make for ourselves. But we make the choice to love anyway. That’s the integrity blues. We affirm and value and uphold who we love not because it makes us feel good, not because we can fix them or help them or make them a little more like us. We do it because it’s right.
I think the love of God for each one of us is precisely like that. Churches sometimes slip into that notion of instrumental love, saying that God loves us, but also that God wants something out of us – to participate in this or that, to do this or that, to become this or that. Churches with a strong social justice bent like ours are especially susceptible to that sort of thinking. I want you to hear that I think we’re wrong when we do that. What if God didn’t want or need anything from you? What if God loved you just because? What if, to put a finer point on it, God actually liked you, all the way down, in the core of your messiest self? What if God enjoyed and delighted in you, just because you’re you, and not because you’re an instrument in some wider purpose? What if God had the integrity blues for each and every one of us, affirming our value and worth as individuals, even if there’s no great benefit attached to it, even if none of us will become world historical figures, altering the course of world history. What if God liked us just because? Would that not be another example of the growing good of the world being dependent on an unhistoric act? Would that not be another example of a faithfully hidden life? And might it be that the world is not so ill for you and for me precisely because we have been so loved? God only knows, but I like to imagine that it’s so.
In the small and large challenges of your life, no matter how mundane or ordinary, whether you can perceive the significance of it all or not, may you find ways to live that faithfully hidden life that George Eliot describes, and that God has shown toward each of us. And if it gets hard, may you embrace the integrity blues and keep on moving, because as with Simeon and Anna, as with George Eliot, and as Madonna Thunder Hawk reminded our travelers in Palestine, in some mysterious way, the good of the world may just depend upon it. Amen.