Rev. Alan Jones: ‘Let’s get used to God’s lack of taste’

Preacher Alan Jones gives his sermon, The Call to be Human, during the Sunday morning worship on June 24, 2012 at the amphitheater. Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

Mary Lee Talbot| Staff Writer

“The monk I trained with, who influenced me the most, told me: ‘Alan, what you have to face and what we struggle with most is God’s absolute lack of taste. God loves everyone. It is disgusting,’” said the Very Rev. Alan Jones at the beginning of his Sunday Morning Worship sermon, “The Call to Be Human.” Jones is dean emeritus of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, Calif. His text was Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 4:1-11.

The call to be human is a call to all of us to be truly human. He said we are always trying to figure out who is and isn’t welcome. In that search, man and woman ceased to be a fallen angel and became a promoted ape. Jonah was told to go to Nineveh and tell the people that they had 40 days before God would rain destruction upon them.

“But the people believed God and repented.” Jones said. “We see Jonah’s anger and God’s compassion and it really gets up our nose. Yet we are always called to the unknown and the untried.”

There is an old story that Adam told Eve as they were leaving the Garden of Eden.

“We are just going through a period of transition,” Jones said. “Upheaval is normal. Will our response be tension or community, the fortress or the banquet?”

In retelling the story in Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge Of San Luis Rey, Jones noted that the death of the five people on the bridge caused a great deal of soul-searching in Lima, Peru.

“Such incidents demand soul-searching,” he said. “But we look for easy answers and someone to blame.”

In the novel, Brother Juniper tried to understand why the five people died. He developed an obsession over the victims. He tried to explain the mind of God with his scientific inquiry. He wanted to tie up all the loose ends, but it was futile.

“It is futile to find out who is in and who is out,” Jones said. “After 9/11, British Prime Minister Tony Blair quoted the final passage of the book: ‘Between the land of the living and the land of the dead, the only bridge is love.’ And God loves everyone. God is the bridge of love, and that is what Jonah had to learn.

“What unites us believers, unbelievers and those in between are the questions,” he said. “What is life for, and why am I here? What is morality, and where does mine come from? People don’t look to science for those answers even if they reject religion. With the undertow of nihilism all around us, how do we live?”

Like Jonah, many of us would rather opt out. Part of the problem is the smallness of religion today.

“In the old world, we were content to let things moulder along and death and resurrection would come in good time. In America, you have extreme Christianity, action-figure Jesus. We hurry things along with the rapture, people going to heaven before the real end begins. It is a way of distracting us from the grace of being human,” Jones said.

We have the wrong diagnosis about the human condition, he said. We tend to see people as isolated humans. We have an absence of transcendent values. Where is the common good, the sense of the sacred?

“We shop for religion to suit our nature and our needs. We tend to believe that God ordains what we take for granted. When I was growing up, we knew it was better to be English than French.” The audience laughed, and he said, “OK — Italian.”

“The mystics tell us we are made for communing with each other and for life with God,” he said. “Do you know what the most scandalous claim was in early Christianity? Everyone mattered. People then did not think they counted, but they did. We need to recover this understanding. We need to re-imagine humanity in light of God’s gift.

“The consumer culture is one without sacrifices. It is a misdiagnosis of the human condition; appetite obscures the meaning of life as a gift,” he said. “We are meant for adventure in community and moments of sacred awe are rare. We are blocked by waste, objects to consume not subjects to revere. We need joy and repentance to recover our vocation: Life is our vocation.”

Jones quoted T. S. Eliot, saying that we are theatergoers sitting in the dark waiting for the scene to change.

“It is in the darkness that we recover our roots. We enlarge our uncertainty; we are willing to be in more fundamental bewilderment,” Jones said. “It is deep, joyful and uncomfortable; it is not easy. Can we stand it? Can we be believers who make room for doubt and for those who don’t believe?

”This is not the way that religion is popularly seen. There are not final answers or solutions. We wait for the new scene,” he said. “Let’s get used to God’s lack of taste. In the midst of change, will there be a banquet where there is more than enough? Can we wake up before it’s too damn late?”

The morning began with the opening of the 139th Chautauqua Assembly by Institution President Thomas M. Becker. He invited the congregation to have a “listening heart,” as Solomon asked of God, so he could govern justly and discern good and evil. He highlighted the radical vision of the founders of Chautauqua, which suggested that in this faithful community where diverse traditions come together, “the diversity animates the complex wonder of the human condition.”

The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, director of the Department of Religion, presided.

“Sundays at Chautauqua are rich and full,” she said, reminding the audience of all the programs that happen through the Department of Religion.

She introduced the 13 young adults from the International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons. They come from the United States, the United Kingdom, Lebanon, Hong Kong and China. She also introduced the four young adults who will coordinate the Abrahamic Program for Young Adults.

The first highlight of the service happened during the Prayers of the People, when the Chautauqua family milestones were called to mind. “Taps,” played by a bugler, followed the prayer.

“Taps” is a version of “lights out,” written by Col. Daniel Butterfield during the 1862 peninsula campaign in Virginia. Oliver W. Norton played it first. He was from Erie, Pa., and was the husband of Lucy Fanning Norton, who donated Norton Hall in 1929.

The Chautauqua Choir followed the bugler with the anthem “Abide with Me” by William Henry Monk, arranged by Molly James.

The second highlight was a new hymn written by Todd and Lisa Thomas and sung by Todd Thomas. Todd, a former Chautauqua Opera Young Artist, will appear as Enrico in Lucia Di Lammermoor this season. Based on the poem “Bless This House” by Helen Taylor and set to music by May Hannah Brahe in 1927, the Thomases wrote words to reflect being at Chautauqua.

George Snyder, chairman of the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees, read the scripture lessons, Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 4:1-11; and Mark 1:14-20. Todd Thomas read W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939.”

Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship and sacred music coordinator of the Institution, played “Vision of the Eternal Church” by Olivier Messiaen as the prelude and “Tu Es Petra” by Henri Mulet for the postlude. The Chautauqua Choir sang “Upon This Rock,” by John Ness Beck, and “Witness,” by Jack Halloran.

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