Posted by: owizblog | November 4, 2012

“What It Is, and What It Oughtta Be!” Sermon, UCB, 4 November 2012

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Today’s readings; Isaiah on hope; Revelation on the new heaven, the new earth and the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven. And Jesus at Lazarus’s grave, weeping, sharing grief, and then commanding “Lazarus – come forth!”
I had an odd experience as I read over them, starting my sermon prep. I was looking for connections, for a shape, a train of thought that I could share with you this morning, a train of thought that was the way God might be calling us to follow. And a very short piece of dialogue fell into my mind and wouldn’t go away. It’s from the American situation comedy Frasier.
The writing in Frasier is usually very sharp, and very funny, especially when it’s depicting people trying to be sharp and funny, and failing rather miserably. This is the eponymous Frasier, the suave radio psychiatrist, sophisticated, well-off, cultured, just a bit pompous, a square trying to be hip and contemporary with a new acquaintance.
“What it is!”
“And what it oughtta be!”
Isn’t that a wonderful greeting? I went to the computer, and put “What it is” “And what it oughtta be!” into a search engine which directed me to a dictionary of street slang. It said: “A Black solidarity greeting of the 1970’s, expressing philosophic agreement as to the present, past and future state of the black history/culture/experience.”
And it gave me another version.
First Brother: “What it IS!”
Second Brother: “What it WAS!”
Both together: “What it SHALL BE”

I’m pretty certain that I know where seventies African American street culture got that. I’m pretty sure it comes from the Christian faith. From the faith of parents and grandparents, a faith so many young black people were to move away from in the sixties and seventies, after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and they became radicalized. But a faith which still framed their language, the way they spoke of their world and their experience of it. A world full of injustice and wrong, not the way it should be – but that would, one day, be the way it should be.
“What it is!”
“And what it oughtta be!”
And that’s the shared theme of our readings today.

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It’s Isaiah in a nutshell:

Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces… It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

The Isaiah reading pretty much says: “What it is, and what it oughtta be.” Beyond things as they are, which is not how they should be, there are things as God will have them be.

Google had served me well already. “So let’s see what else it can turn up,” I thought to myself. “I need pictures…”

You’ll know that we have a Facebook page. An average of 250 separate people a week look at the UCB Facebook page on the Internet, and nearly eighty people follow it – and all their Facebook friends can see what I post about the life and work of our congregation. I put up a poster every week advertising what the theme of the sermon the following Sunday is, and illustrating it with a picture.

“Let’s see if a Google Images search can give me a picture for this week’s sermon!” thought I.

Tap, tap, tap… “What… it… is…”

It worked.

Mysteriously, it turned up a picture of a book, with a title, possibly the most boring, unpromising book-title I had ever seen: Oyster Fisheries and Legislation: Letters to “The Times,” by H. Cholmondeley Pennell.

But Google hadn’t finished there. It had also turned up a graph of something. When I clicked on that, and it turned out it was, depressingly, a graph of Body Mass Index, BMI, the relationship between weight and height that doctors are always giving some of us a row about, telling us to lose weight, eat less, exercise more…

The BMI; for so many of us a metaphor of the kind of hopelessness we talk about with a laugh and a shrug, a symbol of the things we can’t change in our lives (even though with BMI we could, and certainly should.) The gap between “What it is, and what it oughtta be…”

And it turned up another picture I couldn’t work out at first. On closer inspection, I could see that it was an image of a very eastern-looking congregation in a very eastern-looking church. Remember that.

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Let’s start with the book.

Oyster Fisheries and Legislation: Letters to “The Times,” by H. Cholmondeley Pennell. Google could take me no further now. Wikipedia the online encyclopedia would be my guide. I put the title and author into Wikipedia – and got:

Hampton-on-Sea was a drowned and abandoned village in what is now the Hampton area of Herne Bay, Kent. It grew from a tiny fishing hamlet in 1864 at the hands of an oyster fishery company, was developed from 1879 by land agents, abandoned in 1916 and finally drowned due to coastal erosion by 1921. All that now remains is the stub of the original pier, the Hampton Inn, and the rocky arc of Hampton-on-Sea’s ruined coastal defence visible at low tide.

And I remembered that our second reading this morning is Revelation 21.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

“What it is, and what it shall be…”

But why had Wikipedia directed me from Mr. Cholmondeley-Pennell’s book title to an article about a drowned village in Kent?
Well, it turned out that Mr. Cholmondeley-Pennell was on the committee, in 1864, which was trying to steer the realization of a vision.
Oysters [says Wikipedia] had thrived in the Thames Estuary since the Romans promoted them… The Herne Bay, Hampton and Reculver Oyster Fishery Company was incorporated with £10,000 capital in £10 shares on 25 July 1864 with Frank Buckland as chairman and Mr Cholmondeley Pennell as deputy.

A new village was built, where previously there had been only two farmhouses, a beerhouse, and a few cottages. An Act of Parliament was passed, after much lobbying, to nurture the oyster fishery industry. That’s what Mr. Cholmondeley Pennell’s book had been about.

But things didn’t work out. The vision, along with the village was swamped and drowned. It’s like a newspaper obituary. “Grew from a tiny fishing hamlet in 1864 at the hands of an oyster fishery company, was developed from 1879 by land agents, abandoned in 1916 and finally drowned due to coastal erosion by 1921.” The sea – the implacable sea – nibbled, and then wolfed, at the very land Hampton on Sea was built on.

The sea the Hebrew people had feared, and identified with chaos, throughout the Old Testament – that God had tamed at creation, had unleashed in the flood of Noah. The people of Hampton on Sea had forty years, not forty days, to get the measure of their plight, but their old world was drowned.

The sea that stood, in the Hebrew mind, along with the desert, and death, for chaos: is it at all surprising that the great vision of the Book of Revelation moves to its close with death destroyed, the sea no more, and the New Jerusalem safeguarded for ever from the thirst of the desert by the spring of water, and the river of the water of life?

“I saw a new heaven, and a new earth… and there was no more sea…” No more sea! I wonder how often the people of Hampton on Sea had listened in church to Revelation 21 read and preached… Did they wonder why their vision didn’t seem to be God’s vision?

“What it is, and what it oughtta be…” For them, the gap between the two must have been enormous. “What it oughtta be” – the promise of the development, their brand-new village, their hopes and dreams – was snatched away, and they were drowning, literally drowning, in “what it is,” the oppressive, hopeless, way things, are. Life going differently to the way we’d imagined it, planned it.

As individuals, as a community on this island, even as a congregation in this church, there are times when this is our experience, when this is where we have to live. Amid uncertainty, and anxiety, and the submersion of hopes and visions, living lives tossed about by great currents that reshape – and, we probably feel, erode, wash away – the world as we thought we knew it.
[BREAK]

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When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”

Jesus wept…

They are immersed in what’s happened to Lazarus, and to them. They are submerged, drowned, in “What it is…” which simply ought not to be. And they protest, Mary protests, in grief, about that. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It could have been different. It should have been different. And all that leads on to the deepest question of all.

“Why?”

And to that question, there is no answer. It’s just what it is. It’s how things are. Looking up “What it is, and what it oughtta be” in the Urban Dictionary, on the computer, I came across the completely separate expression “It is what it is.” It’s an expression of quiet despair. That’s how things are. You can ask questions if you like, you can ask “Why?” But “It is what it is…”

And that’s where dead Lazarus is, and his family and friends.

And that, too, is where Jesus comes. You all know the shortest verse in the English Bible, and here it is. John 11: 35 – “Jesus wept.”

So what have we got so far? We’ve got a street-slang greeting: “What it is! And what it oughtta be!” And we’ve just unearthed another street-slang expression, of despair and frustration and hopelessness: “It is what it is…” We’ve got a Body Mass Index graph – our stuckness, the difficulty of changing things we know we could and should change. Accusation, indictment, incitement to self-comtempt, as much as motivation. We’ve got a book about the setting up of a community of hope and change, Hampton on Sea, and the story of how that vision was swamped by the sea. They did struggle, and they lost.

And we have Jesus, sitting amid the frustration and despair and hopelessness of grieving people, and himself weeping. Hope has gone from this situation. This is death; hope buried in the ground, and sealed with a stone.

And Jesus tells them to roll away the stone.

And Jesus calls on God. Then,

Jesus cried out, with a loud voice, “Lazarus come out!”

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Remember that other picture I mentioned? The church congregation my Google search for “What it is and what it oughtta be?” turned up? I don’t know why the computer, and the search engine, and the internet sent me there, but it’s a picture of the congregation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church upreared over the putative site of another grave, where another burial had taken place. Jesus’ burial, on Good Friday, just before the Sabbath came.

“What it is, and what it oughtta be!” Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

God moves us from “It is what it is!” – from hopelessness, and despair – to “What it is – and what it oughtta be! And he calls us to live in that gap, between how things are, and how they should be, because that is what faith is. We spoke about that a while ago – this gap between “what it is” and “what it ought to be” – as the hope of the Kingdom, and we said that there’s nothing more characteristic of the Church.

The Christian faith isn’t about the possibilities that are still there in a failing situation. The Christian faith is about the impossible possibility that God opens up to us.

There used to be – and still is – the view that the job of the Church is to build the Kingdom on earth. It’s reflected in a surprising number of the hymns we sing; Blake’s Jerusalem; “Till we have built Jerusalem/In England’s green and pleasant land…” But that’s not the New Testament’s understanding of the Kingdom. Maybe the people of Hampton on Sea, with their vision and faith, in an age in which faith was still everywhere in society, saw their undertaking like that. This is what progress is, and has to be.

And the sea closed over it. To quote Robert Bridges’ great hymn:

“Pride of man and earthly glory/Sword and crown betray his trust/What with care and toil he buildeth/Tower and temple fall to dust…”

“It is what it is, man…”

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But see how Robert Bridges finishes his stanza, his thought…

But God’s power/Hour by hour/Is my temple and my tower.

To live in the gap between what it is and what it ought to be is to look at how things really are – and to look beyond them. To what we can’t see yet. Away from the possibilities we’ve already exhausted, away from our broken flood defences and our drowned dreams, to the impossible possibility which God alone opens up.

We don’t usually “exchange the peace” at our Presbyterian communions – but I’d be awfully tempted to suggest that today we greet each other with “What it is! And What it oughtta be!” In fact, that is the way we’ll do it this evening at our informal communion!

Because that’s our faith…

And I’m not going to suggest that we replace the handshake at the kirk door, at the end, with a high five, and follow the script of the Urban Dictionary:

“What it IS!” “What it WAS!” “What it SHALL BE”

But that’s our faith. And by living it in our daily lives, and by living it and sharing it as the Church, we, too, point to the horizon of the kingdom: “What it is” and “What it shall be…”

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