Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sermon: The Gospel According to James, Bond

The Gospel According to James, Bond

Standing here to preach today, I am supposed to see the faces of people thinking about a holiday. I might even expect to see mostly, the great Thanksgiving dinner that is about to happen. To get inside your heads, I’m supposed to mention a certain level of preoccupation, as hearts and minds keep drifting toward the warmth and food and family that is to come. Standing here this morning, I ought to perceive those happily distracted people who all have car keys in one hand, and recipes and cranberry sauce in the other and one foot already out the door.

But I don’t happen to see that. Instead, I see a people who only happen to look like ordinary Americans. I see people who go to work just like everyone else, people who pay their taxes just as though they were ordinary folk. I see those who, like me, buy groceries, walk pets, garden and take out the trash just as though we were indistinguishable from the people who lived next door. You wouldn’t know us apart from anybody else, necessarily.

But once a week we have these strange meetings. And if you catch us off guard, you might find us speaking what sounds like a foreign language or using mysterious hand signals. We’ve developed our own hierarchical structures within autonomous international organizations.

So: I see people who share a common and covert agenda, people whose political loyalties are consequently suspect. I see double agents.

Because when Thanksgiving rolls around, I don’t think turkey, necessarily, or even football. Instead, whenever Thanksgiving comes, I think: James Bond. Over the last decade of Thanksgivings no less than four separate television channels have elected to show a James Bond marathon. And my father is a fan. And my friends in college were fans. So I’ve become something of a fan myself. And the gift of television means that wherever I am, no matter who I’m with, when this week comes again, I can watch our international hero trot all around the globe seeking out all the evil masterminds one could ever hope to find.

(This year, by the way, it’s on SyFy.)

And if you think it odd to talk about James Bond in a sermon, consider this: when introducing himself in the New Testament epistle of the same name, James introduces himself as a bond servant. In the James Bond novels, the agent double-oh seven overcomes villains who bear out, in one form or another, each and every one of the seven deadly sins. It is not an accidental connection.

Still, it is a strange one, isn’t it? Out of all the weeks that network executives might have chosen, they choose this one year after year. And while it’s true that James Bond would indeed to have a lot to be grateful for – women, travel, technology – the one thing he never seems to be is glad. It’s just kind of all the same for him, which is why it took me such a long time to follow a James Bond plot the whole way through. Everything’s all on the same level, so it’s hard to tell very much of it apart.

And the most prevalent term that the author Ian Fleming uses to describe Bond is acedia. This is that restless laziness you get when all the joy is drained from everything and all the days seem the same. And it is the sin that our desert fathers considered to be one of the most deadly.

Acedia is prevalent today. In her memoir Acedia and Me, the poet Kathleen Norris describes acedia as the news crawl at the bottom of cable television stations: news of genocide is placed alongside the evening sports scores and the local weather, all just kind of…the same. On the same level. No one cares about any of it, very much, because it is all just…information. Acedia.

No, we are a different kind of double agent. Norris notes that monastics have long considered simple gratitude to be a potent antidote to the distractions of acedia, and we might start there. But our secret identities are a little different, too. Because our secret identities are…ourselves. Really fooled em, didn’t we? It’s not too hard for most of us to be anonymous, some of us for decades at a time.

A contest concluded this week over at Wired magazine. To test the capacities of our informational age, one of the Wired staffers had proposed that he would change his identity. He would keep all the same habits, all the same information and would even remain online, but all under a different name in a different city. And if anyone found him, if anyone figured out who he was, he would lose and pay out five thousand dollars to whoever found him. And he did lose.

And I thought: lucky guy! He disappears for a few weeks and he has thousands of people looking for him! He gets found out! How many of us get to actually be found out, uncovered just where we happen to be hiding in their lives? It’s only happened to me once that I can remember, and that was when our vicar shouted my name across a downtown street. It was like being shot! And that’s also when I decided to start coming to church here. The man found me out, knew my name.

That’s what agents do, right? Find out who other people really are.

Now it’s not always so easy as a name. Two of my married friends have this little girl, three years old. And they’re Christian, and they try to teach their kids to be Christian, so one day the little girl walks up to me and asks, “What’s a soul?” So I stand there – with all this theology flying though my head – and I say “Your soul? Is the secret inside you that whispers who you are.” Best I could do at the time. But it really matters, I guess, who you think is doing the whispering.

Yes, we’re a different kind of double agent.

In the film the Manchurian Candidate, the evildoers hypnotize their spies so that they forget who they are and what their mission is. This way, the spies can go even deeper undercover and infiltrate the highest levels of the United States government. The key for the Manchurian candidates is that something just happens to trigger that mission and activate the agent. There are particular gestures or phrases that, when they happen…activation.

We’re a different kind of spy. We actually are glad that we have men or women, and travel, and toys, and we’re glad when we don’t have those things. And while the Methodist Book of Resolutions recently called for a Christian counter-globalization, Christ’s kingdom has little to do, necessarily, with missile deployments or monetary funds or agreements about carbon dioxide.

Rather, the spies for Jesus have an alternative agenda. Whatever happens to the planet, we make people warmer. We change the climate of the human heart. As our spymaster himself once said to his own power-mad villain bent on world domination: “Everyone who belongs to the truth hears my voice.” Still trying to convert the man.

But these end scenes never turn out well, do they: the villain gives a confused, rambling speech, our agent hero gets off a few wisecracking lines, and no one changes their position in any way whatsoever. ‘What is truth?’ Pilate says, and washes his hands. Pilate goes in and out of the building, he’s restless and off-balance and doesn’t seem to know exactly what to say – he is, in essence, the very portrait of acedia. It is all the same to him.

But it is not all the same to us. We may be international men and women of mystery, but our theme song is not the Communist Internationale, it’s ‘Jesus Loves Me.’ Our training is in the technology of salvation – and wherever we go, we inflict collateral healing. In our wake we leave not dead bodies, but living spirits. Our casualties are those people whom we make more alive. By discovering everyone’s secret identities, we help them step into themselves.

Now there’s a question, isn’t it? This Thanksgiving, as we gather with all our various family and friends, have we made them truer versions of their selves? Are they actually better off for having spent some time with us?

Now the Lutherans would tell me to make sure it’s Jesus doing all this, and I think that’s right. And the Methodists would tell me to make sure it’s us doing some of this, and that’s a little bit right, too. But I think the salient fact, our Episcopal hope, of this entire transformation is that we’re all going to get there. One way or the other, our mission will succeed.

There’s a phrase we often use to talk about the kingdom of Christ: already, and not yet. Now we see that and think: already but not yet, a promise unfulfilled. But that’s not the sense we get from Revelation. Rather, when we talk about the one who is and who was and who is to come, the one who loves us and freed us, we understand that God is so faithful and God’s promises so good that it is as though they have already happened. The logic of the kingdom of heaven is such that it becomes “not yet, therefore, already.”

Doesn’t make much sense, does it? But then, our kingdom is not from this world. And we’re glad to see it here. We’re glad to feel ourselves, just a little bit, coming in from the cold.

So I don’t know what it might be. I don’t know if it would be these words or the gestures over the Eucharist or when we all say alleluia, or something outside this church entirely, but because the kingdom of God has nothing whatsoever to do with what we do, but has everything to do with who we are – and whose we are— I know that at some point, and soon, we must surely all consider ourselves…activated.


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