Psalm 14

Romans 8.1-11

In The Beauty of the Lilies

Sixth Sunday of Easter

In the hot last days of Spring 1910, on the elevated plains of Paterson, New Jersey, where film director D.W. Griffith was making the movie The Call to Arms, a seventeen year old actress named Mary Pickford, sweltering in tights, a velvet cape and a heavily brocaded tunic, fainted.  At the moment when Mary Pickford fainted, down in the rectory of the Fourth Presbyterian Church at the corner of Straight Street and Broadway, in the center of Paterson, New Jersey, the Reverend Clarence Arthur Wilmot lost his faith.  So begins John Updike’s 1996 novel In the Beauty of the Lilies, a four-generation story of twentieth century America, whose title is borrowed from this morning’s final hymn, Julia Ward Howe’s “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.”  In The Beauty of the Lilies follows the lives of the Rev. Wilmot, his son Teddy, Teddy’s daughter Essie, and her son Clark, as the effects of the reverend’s loss of faith reverberate, not only through the Wilmot family, but through the eighty years of American history the book encompasses.

Now I will give you my bias up front:  I have been a fan of Updike’s writing since high school; his novels, essays, poetry and short stories.  I think he had a sure grasp of the American experience of the late twentieth century, and was never afraid to wrestle with the difficult issues which you and I, encumbered with the weight of freedom, have had to wrestle with ourselves.  A devout Episcopalian, he was also a writer whose faith is important to him, it features prominently in most of his books, and he is skillful at exploring the implications of the struggle to live as a faithful Christian person in our day and age.  Some of his books, naturally, are better than others at fulfilling their promise, but I do think this is one of his finest.

Deb read from the Psalms this morning something we just heard a couple weeks ago, “The fool says in the heart, There is no God...  The Lord looks down from heaven upon humanity, to see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God.”  In the Beauty of the Lilies makes the same statement, that a life without God can eventually degenerate into foolishness, and worse.  But what is even more destructive than that emptiness itself is that the life without God wastes its years searching for a suitable substitute - which leads to the question, Is there anything that can take the place of God in our lives?  Is there anything that could conceivably fill the void left by the absence of the creator, redeemer and sustainer of every human spirit?  What could replace such a precious jewel of such price?  The plot of D.W. Griffith’s movie which opens Updike’s book was set in medieval times, and is centered around a lost jewel of great price:  Mary Pickford fainted, and the Reverend Clarence Arthur Wilmot lost his faith.

What are some of the substitutes that have been pursued in the attempt to fill the emptiness of the godless life?  Updike has chronicled many of them.  Some people live as though financial success and security are the appropriate goals of human life.  They spend their lives being ground down by their jobs in the pursuit of the almighty dollar and the accumulation of wealth, at the expense of their own health, well-being, and too often at the expense of their own family life.  But the single-minded pursuit of economic security exacts a toll.  What is it the popular bumper sticker says:  “Whoever dies with the most toys, wins?”  Updike’s four Rabbit books - Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit At Rest, draw a picture of the lifelong quest for success and prosperity, and of the devastation it wreaks on those who allow it to become the driving force in their lives.

Others try to fill the godspace within us with physical pleasure, whether it is conspicuous consumption or the distraction of dionysian delights, the fulfillment of the senses, or the indulgence of forbidden fruit.  But the lifetime accumulation of trinkets and baubles, and the reflexive gratification of the id, leaves a hollowness in the soul which in the end, does not satisfy, but rather destroys.  Two of Updike’s lesser-known books lay this out with painful clarity.  1968’s Couples, which describes the free-loving and bed-hopping community of Tarbox, Massachusetts, testifies to lives destroyed by the indulgences of physical freedom and the pursuit of pleasure.  And 1975’s A Month of Sundays, illustrates the conviction of the apostle Paul that the way of the flesh is death, while the way of the spirit is life.  Updike is clearly familiar with Paul’s words in Romans 8, and his insistence on the dangers of the gratification of human desire finds both birth and life in the writings, not only of the apostle, but also of such Protestant giants as John Calvin and Karl Barth.

But it is the emptiness of secularism, which to this day gnaws at the soul of our nation, which is the most alluring, and most insidious temptation, because in secularism’s surrogates like patriotism, and rugged individualism, and even the semblance of religiosity, call it Christiantiy-lite, give the appearance of respectable God-substitutes.  On this Memorial Day weekend, it might be considered a sign of disrespect to suggest that things like nation and family and a faith that asks too little of us are unworthy of veneration.  But I think it remains true that whatever convinces us to worship the work of our own hands:  our income, our accomplishments, our nation-building, our comfortable and easy-going images of God, amounts only to the idolatry of our own desire and imagination.

And this is the place where In The Beauty of the Lilies ends up, as the Rev. Clarence Wilmot’s great-grandson Clark joins a religious-looking community that venerates all these things but looks suspiciously like the Waco’s Branch Davidians and Jim Jones’s Guyana community rolled into one.  Clark becomes part of a cult called “The Temple of True and Actual Faith,” which becomes increasingly isolated from the outside world, and instead builds its own structure of faith and discipline until, in a confrontation with outside authority, the leaders burn down the compound and everyone in it.  It is a tragic ending for a book, but even more tragic, and more horrible, when we find it in the headlines of tomorrow’s news.  And yet Updike is saying that the loss of God in life and culture leads necessarily to some kind of human tragedy.  Life without God becomes a life-long search for God-substitutes, none of which ultimately satisfies, and most of which have the potential to destroy.

And yet how often our culture is tempted to make penultimate values ultimate, to put other ideas and entities ahead of or in place of our relationship with God.  A lot of them seem to make sense, at first; they appear to be undeniably worthy of our time and attention.  Nor is there anything inherently wrong with them in and of themselves, except when they do eventually assume the place of highest value in human life.  It was William Barclay who once said, “If the tempting things always looked bad, we would seldom fall.  The most insidious temptation of all is to let the good interfere with the best.” 

For example, I am certain there will be many people observing Memorial Day this weekend who believe the good of the nation is the highest good, especially those who served and sacrificed for it.  And by their very service, they have preserved and defended their right to believe this.  There are those who believe that the family is the most important entity in society, because it simultaneously creates and models the fabric and integrity of human relationships.  And they are correct, in that the family is the fundamental building block of human life and society.  To some, the notion of individuality, of human rights passionately possessed, is paramount for the world to function with honor, and dignity, and respect.  And until that day when all people do enjoy the same opportunities and rights, our attempts to achieve them must not flag.  And there are still others for whom the church is the center of life.  And what could be more noble than to stand foursquare for religion? 

Yet at the risk of offending nearly everybody here this morning, I would still insist that these are still only penultimate considerations, that they have their value only in tandem with an authentic relationship with God.  Indeed, they can only possess value when God is factored in, because it is God who imparts value, and meaning, to every aspect of human life.  Every aspect.  To put anything or anyone else at the place in our lives where God belongs - whether patriotism, or family, or human rights, or religion - to put anything or anyone else at the place in our lives where God belongs - is in effect to say that there is no God.  And as we heard from the Psalms, it is only the fool who says in the heart, There is no God.  Remember William Barclay:  if the tempting things in life always looked bad, we would seldom fall.

It is Updike’s suggestion that the reason we succumb so easily to the God-substitutes of American culture is because Jesus is essentially foreign to us; or, in the words of the hymn from which his title is taken, “Christ was born across the sea.”  All you need to do is read the Sermon on the Mount again to recognize how alien and outlandish Jesus’ ideas really are.  “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, offer the other also; if anyone would sue you [that great American pastime if ever there were one], and takes your coat, give your cloak as well...  Give to whoever begs from you... do not refuse anyone who would borrow from you...  God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  Whoever would be first, let them be last, and the last will be first.”  These are exotic sounding notions to a nation that prides itself on greatness, and being first in everything, and fancies itself the moral beacon of the world.  So it is no surprise that we have tried to ameliorate the directness and simplicity of Jesus’ teaching, and we have tried to smooth out the rough edges of Jesus’ words.  Which basically means that too many of us wind up with a God-substitute which endorses our preconceptions and permits us to live in psychic comfort, instead of stirring us up and making us angry as he did to practically everyone who knew him in his own day.

Updike’s book is fiction, of course.  But what do we do with the suggestion that we have replaced the God of the Bible with any number of lesser gods, none of which can ultimately satisfy the human soul?  I’m not a literary critic, but it seems to me that Updike’s characters are witnesses to the fact that we can only locate the faith that Rev. Wilmot lost when we claim, each one of us for ourselves, the “jewel of great price,” the reality in our lives of the Christ who was “born across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me,” because let’s face it:  time, like our God, is marching on.

I’d like to conclude on a personal note, if I may.  When Updike passed away in January of 2009, I used my sermon the following Sunday as a kind of testimony to the man, his writings, his commitment to and expression of his faith.  It surveyed much of his work and addressed his own feelings about contemporary Christianity and its place in American life and letters.  Updike was a neighbor of sorts; he lived for a while in Ipswich, and spent the final thirty years of his life in Beverly Farms.  One thing I did not realize when I wrote that sermon is that the Parish Administrator at my Beverly church knew Updike’s widow and, unknown to me, sent her a copy of that sermon.  A few weeks later I received a very nice handwritten note from her, thanking me for my thoughts, and saying she would love to keep the copy of my sermon.  It was very gracious of her to reach out to me, and I was touched by the gesture, and I allowed myself to read it as an affirmation of my respect and admiration for one of America’s finest writers and cultural theologians.




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