Sunday, June 29, 2008

God as a Verb... and other orthodox ideas

Note: this is Part Two of a 2-part series on the Creeds as interpreted by our Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Part One is not available as a text file but I can email a recording of it as a sound file if you'd like. Just post a comment to that effect and I'll take care of it. Maybe someday I'll learn how to post those here!]

If you were here last week you heard me promise that today I would continue a discussion of the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ new book, Tokens of Trust. In this book the Archbishop examines the creeds of the faith in order to introduce basic concepts of Christian faith. And what he has done is this: he has dug deeply into the classical theology of the past, without being pedantic or boring or having a lot of footnotes, and shown how these classical arguments for God can profoundly deepen our modern faith.

But we have to begin by addressing this very disturbing reading from the book of Genesis, the famous story known as “the binding of Isaac,” in which God directs Abraham to prove his faith to him by sacrificing his only son, Isaac, on top of Mt. Moriah.

A lot of us read this story and we find ourselves reeling: What kind of God would ask a man to prove his faith by killing his only son?

So it is important to say something about this story, and about how we read the Bible as Episcopalians, which is with reason as well as faith; this is an ancient remnant from the days when human child sacrifice was commonly practiced – and contrary to encouraging that practice, this story was told to help explain why the people of Israel no longer did it.

While many of their neighbors practiced child sacrifice well past the day when this story was set to writing, the people of Israel felt called by God to discontinue that horrifying practice – and they told this story, in part, as a way of explaining why. Their God was a God of mercy; who provided a ram in the thicket, rather than an innocent child.

But this story is a story of mercy, not murder. And it’s also a wonderful example of how reading the Bible is like going on an archeological dig – we find these ancient stories that take us back to the very foundation stones of civilization. Here is a story that takes us right back to the moment when we as a culture decided to turn our backs on child sacrifice – and in the process set an example for other nations and cultures.

So what kind of God is this? A God of mercy.

Which brings us to our book by the Archbishop. What this Bible story teaches us, among other things, is that what we say about God is important. Who God is, what God demands of us, where God is to be found – these ideas about God that we carry around in our heads and that direct our actions in the world profound consequences. If our God is a god of vengeance, then we will literally worship vengeance, and we are likely to bring violence and hatred into the world. If our God is a god of prosperity, we will literally worship comfort and wealth; and as a result the poor will make us uncomfortable and we will dismiss both the poor and the discomfort they cause in us; and we will try to live our lives mixing with our own kind, avoiding those who are different. This is one reason why the Living Room is such a special ministry for us at Incarnation – because it constantly invites us to be in close proximity with people who are very poor. If they make us uncomfortable, there is something of God in that.

But before we go too far down this path, we have to remember that as soon as we start talking about God, as if God were an object like any other object, accessible to our thoughts, we start getting into trouble. I’m reminded of the story of the teacher who asked the young student, "What do you think of God?” After a pause, the student replied, "God’s not a think, he's a feel."

And yet... we can’t help but ask questions about God; God might be more of a “feel” than a “think”, but how can we live in this world without thinking about God?
The famous SF Chronicle columnist Art Hoppe understood this when he was looking at a simple box of Kleenex, and realized, “If there is no God, who pops up the next Kleenex?”

This is not a question answered by the Archbishop.

But the Archbishop does tackle issues nearly as weighty.

His first two chapters deal with this first phrase from the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed:

“I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible...”

And again, let me emphasize that there is far more material in these 2 chapters than I can begin to cover in two sermons. There really is almost a lifetime of sermons in these first 50 pages.

But one thing he does is to insist that we stop thinking of God’s creation as something that happened in some moment in the distant past. Rather, he says, we should think of God’s creation as happening at every moment – that God is creating and sustaining us constantly, right now.

For example, rather than thinking of God as having created light, like a lightbulb that just keeps shining from that first moment, he says God is more like the electric current that gives energy to the lightbulb. And that energy is flowing through us and in us and in everything that is – a super-abundant, ever-flowing energy that keeps everything from slipping into non-being. He says,

"It should be a rather exhilarating thought that the moment of creation is now – that if, by some unthinkable accident, God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here. It means that within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the centre of everything. It means that each one of us is already in a relationship with God before we’ve ever thought about it."

This is ancient, classical theology – Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century supports this view – but the beauty of it is how compatible it is with modern physics:

"Behind and beneath everything we encounter is this [creative] action [of God]. We may look at something that seems unmoving and unchanging, like the pillars of a cathedral or the peaks of a mountain, but what is within and beyond it is an intense energy and movement. The scientist, of course, will tell us that at the heart of every apparently solid thing is the dance of the subatomic particles. The theologian ought to be delighted that this sort of talk puts movement and energy at the centre, but will want to add that at the heart of the subatomic particles is an action and motion still more basic, beyond measure and observation – the outpouring of life from God."

What does this mean for you and me? First, it means that there is nothing that is not held, supported, created by God. The Archbishop reminds us that in the ancient world, this was not necessarily taken for granted. There were many competing theories out there, many of which insisted that the material world was created by an inferior, second-rate god, or that everything material was inherently divorced from God – that the spiritual life had to do with escaping the prison of the material world in order to ascend to the ethereal realm of the spirit.

But that is not Christian theology, or classically Jewish theology. In our universe, God penetrates to the very heart of existence; God sustains every element of what is. That means that there is nothing in our lives that needs to be held in secret; there is nothing that we need to keep from God out of shame or guilt. God’s creative energy is constantly unfolding, even in the deepest, darkest regions of your life. There is nothing we can do, there is nothing that we can think, that isn’t already subjected to the light of God. We don’t need to live in the shadows. Everything about our lives carries the potential for redemption and reconciliation.

The Archbishop says that when we say that God is the creator of all things, visible and invisible, that means that there is “the possibility of an integrated life, not a life where some bits of us have to be covered up or swept under the carpet....

"There are the things in my life that I’m aware of, there are the things I’m not aware of – and there are the things that I try not to be aware of, that I’m ashamed of or frightened by. But all that I am is the working out of what God has made; some of it has worked out well, some not so well; I have learned to make good use of some of what God has given me and I’ve made a mess of some of the rest or just haven’t come to terms with it. Saying that God has made us in our entirety and is concerned about all of us isn’t, incidentally, the same as saying that anything we choose to do is fine – only that every aspect of who we are needs to be brought into the circle of God’s light, because he can deal with all of it. And that also means that we shouldn’t be surprised if Christians are interested in things like politics or economics, art or sport, and have awkward questions to ask and contributions they want to make. There are no areas that are essentially off-limits if God is truly the Creator of this world."

It is this majestic doctrine of God, this ancient doctrine that has its roots in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, that gives Christians the courage to let God into every aspect of their lives: not only what they are doing at noon, but what they are doing at midnight.

We could go on and on, but I will close with this final point, which is that the Archbishop resurrects the classical notion that what we can know about God is through what God does, not what God is. Who or what God is – that’s an impenetrable mystery. But what God accomplishes, what God does – that is knowable. We can see that with our own eyes – through the life of Jesus Christ. Through Christ, God is drawing the world to himself. God is reconciling us, one to the other, and the world to God, through the action of love.

Buckminster Fuller once said that “Love is metaphysical gravity.”

Love is what draws us together; love is what draws the world to God; love is at the heart of everything that is, seen and unseen.

It’s for this reason that you find me focusing so often on the action of God. As you may have noticed, I much prefer to speak of God in terms of what God does. I say, “In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of Life” -- because that draws our attention to what God is doing – and that is far more knowable, and far easier to talk about in simple, descriptive terms that are true, without putting the being of God in a box. And it is for that reason that I often refer to God as a Verb – as the great mystical traditions and classical theologians would encourage us all to do – not that God is not also a noun, but that it does God far more justice to talk about God in terms of what God is doing.

Which is also why I like to say, about this place – that “God happens here.” To me, that is the most accurate thing we can say about our community. God happens here. If you ever are tempted to start a sentence with the phrase, “God is...,” let the next word be a very: God is being born here. God is living here. God is healing here. God is weeping here. God is laughing here.

What is God accomplishing in you? What is God accomplishing in us? How is God happening?

God is happening here. God is creating us, right here, right now. Praise be to the Living God!


Monday, June 9, 2008

June 8 Sermon Part 1: Prophets vs. Priests

Sermon preached by the Rev. Matthew Lawrence

Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa

June 8, 2008

Part 1

Text: Hosea 5: 15-6:6; Psalm 50: 7-15; Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving

And make good your vows to the Most High. Ps. 50:15

I’m hoping that many of you recognize these words, which we recited during the Psalm reading this morning. This of course is one of the Offertory Sentences that the priest can use when it is time to turn the congregation’s focus from the passing of the peace to the Eucharist. “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

We find a description of the "sacrifice of thanksgiving" in the book of Leviticus, which was distinguished from a sacrifice of sin, otherwise known as a “guilt offering,” or a “sin offering.” In the old days a casual observer might not have been able to tell the difference between a sacrifice of thanksgiving and a sin offering; from the outside it pretty much looked the same: it involved the sacrifice of an animal on the altar, along with the offering of grain in the form of cakes made with leavened flour and oil.

No, the difference was not so much how the sacrifice was performed, but the intention behind it, and that makes all the difference, doesn’t it? In one case, one is asking God to overlook a failing or a sin. It’s not unlike paying a bribe – you’ve failed in some way, and you ask God to receive the sacrifice in order to win him over and spare you from judgment. But in the other case, you are offering the same animal and grains, not as a bribe, but as a gesture of thanksgiving – for the birth of a child, for a good harvest, for just the simple joy of being alive.

Two very similar rituals – almost indistinguishable – but for the intention.

The author of the Psalm offers us a glimpse into one of the classic tensions we find within the Bible – between the priestly class and the prophetic class. Many of the books of the Bible were written by priests, who had an interest in purity and ritual. Leviticus often times reads like a priest’s handbook – really, it functioned in that way, filled with detailed instructions on how to perform various rituals. At various times in Israel’s history, the priestly class was the dominant class – they not only performed the sacrifices, they controlled the sacred connection between God and the people – and they also were the dominant political power in the kingdom. In alliance with a king, for example, seeking to consolidate his power, they would institute religious reforms that concentrated power in Jerusalem and the temple cult. They issued purity laws that forbade marriages with foreigners, for example; they expelled or killed anyone who worshiped a foreign god; they saw to it that everyone was practicing the same religion and marching to the same drummer. And to them, it was a matter of national security. This, they believed, was critical to winning over God’s favor – and it just happened to coincide with winning political power for themselves. Their influence in the Bible, especially in the Pentateuch, is very strong.

But there is also another voice that we hear from in the Bible – a voice living in tension with the priestly voice. That’s the prophetic voice – it’s a subversive voice; a voice that challenges the priestly class, and in the process challenges the political power structures of the day. We find that voice this morning -- and it almost sounds like Jon Stewart from the Daily Show, it has this delightful teasing quality, which directly goes after the priestly class:

I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; your offerings are always before me. .. All the beasts of the forest are mine, the herds in their thousands upon the hills; I know every bird in the sky, and the creatures of the fields are in my sight. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the whole world is mine and all that is in it. Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?

In this Psalm, the challenge is playful, even humorous. But it is also, like a lot of political humor, extremely dangerous – because the author is directly challenging the very source of the priest’s power: the idea that we can cover up our sin, and avoid the consequences of our sin, with a bribe to God.

This challenging voice, this voice of direct confrontation against those in power, is found again in the words of the prophet Hosea, also read this morning, who stood outside the gates of power and railed against the people in charge. And again, this challenge is to the idea that we can hide our guilt by bribing God, as if God could be bought with sin offerings: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

It was in that ancient tradition of prophetic and challenging speech that Jesus came -- and in our Gospel this morning directly quoting Hosea -- inspired by the Holy Spirit, to confront once again the people in charge, including the priests who were collaborating with the Roman Empire and imposing strict purity codes and Temple taxes on the people to keep them under control, while they skimmed gold off the top. And if you want to learn more about this, and you have not already read Marcus Borg’s wonderful book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, I highly recommend it.

And so Jesus came and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple – collaborators in a money-changing racket to increase the wealth and power of the priests by means of a purity code. And so Jesus broke the Sabbath laws, and told stories about priests who were so consumed with their ideas of purity that they passed by a dying man on the road rather than risk contamination. And so Jesus sat down with the impure in society – the tax collectors and prostitutes and the sinners – not necessarily because he enjoyed their company, though I believe he probably did --but because by doing so he was once again openly defying the powers that were in charge. By challenging the purity codes of his time, Jesus was going after the very foundation of power and political control, and he was openly calling to task the political corruption that went with it and reminding us all, in Hosea’s words: “Mercy, not sacrifice, is what I require.”

And then finally we have Paul, who begins to interpret Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as the final and ultimate sin offering. As Paul sees it, there is no more need for guilt offerings. Jesus has become the final sacrifice; if there was a bribe that needed payment, it has now been paid in full. We live now redeemed, and free from the law. Because we are free, now, from this extortion system, this bribery system with God. If ever it was true, and the prophetic voices had been questioning it all along, at least now we can all agree that finally, once and for all, the only sacrifice we are called to make is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. We are called to open our hearts to God, fully assured of God’s mercy. This is our calling. As he suggests in our reading from Romans, we are freed from the law and the wrath that it brings; we are freed from an overbearing priestly class daring to impose themselves between God and us; we are freed from the manipulations of power-crazed clergy determined to keep us feeling guilty, so that they can take our bribes and stay in power.

I’m saying all this so that when you hear me, now and again, engaging in prophetic speech, you know where it’s coming from. It is not coming from a knee jerk liberal simply spouting the propaganda of the Democratic Party. It is coming from a priest who is willing to engage the subversive traditions of our Bible; and who asks us all to engage Scripture in its own sense and meaning.

---end of Part 1---

June 8 Sermon Part 2: Gay Marriage

---see Part 1 for Biblical context---

Last Friday some of you might have seen a letter to the editor that appeared in the Press Democrat, written by yours truly. Whenever my name appears in the paper, it’s probably good idea to give it a little context to know where it’s coming from.

A little over three weeks ago, the California Supreme Court found that marriage is a “basic civil right of personal autonomy and liberty” “to which all persons are entitled without regard to their sexual orientation.” About a week later, I received an email from All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, announcing that in the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling, and in the spirit of Jesus, they would be adopting a Marriage Equality Resolution, which, as the title suggests, promises to “treat all persons presenting themselves for the rite of marriage equally.”

As I was pondering this action, I received a letter from our bishop, in which he re-stated his position regarding same-sex blessings, which is that despite the recent Supreme Court ruling, he cannot authorize such marriages until General Convention – which is our national decision-making body – authorizes them.

As some of you may remember, our General Convention, last time it met two years ago, debated this subject rather strenuously, and the outcome was not entirely clear. For lovers of ambiguity, we got a snoot full. While it is true that General Convention did not authorize same-sex unions, it is also clear that it did not expressly forbid them. The truth is that they were split on the issue – but not for reasons that one might think. The debate was not over the merits or demerits of gay marriage, itself – in fact, that was almost immaterial; the debate was over how far we could go down this road before we would be kicked out of the Anglican Communion, and whether or not that was an acceptable price to pay for what a clear majority of the House of Deputies considered to be the just thing to do.

The language that the House of Bishops came up with – language that was rejected by the House of Deputies – was that they would not be authorizing “any public rites of same-sex blessings.” This language passed because it was sufficiently ambiguous – leaving open the option of holding private rites – blessing ceremonies held in homes and in parks -- which have been happening for many years in the Episcopal church in a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. And, indeed, in several other dioceses of our church, including Massachusetts and San Francisco, public rites of same-sex blessing have also been held in churches – just not with “authorized” rites.

So, while our bishop claims to be constrained by General Convention, I do not fully understand or agree with his interpretation of those decisions.

Now, all of this leads us to the letter that I wrote to the Press Democrat, in which I basically stated my position, speaking for myself, that while my bishop prevents me from holding such ceremonies in the church, I am not personally opposed to such ceremonies; and in a later interview with a Press Democrat reporter that you might be reading sometime this week, I indicated my interest in meeting with any couples who wished to explore how we can bring God’s blessing upon their relationship. I do so with the standard criteria we apply to all such relationships: that they be monogamous, that their commitment be life-long, that they be deeply consensual, that both parties feel they are entering into a sacred union, and that they are members of our congregation.

So that’s my position; and this is not a position in defiance of our bishop. I have sent a letter to our bishop telling him of my position, which is somewhat different than his, while also saying that I respect his concern for the unity of the church, and for the need for process.

We are in a difficult time: do the interests of church unity outweigh and veto the interests of civil rights? And it is clear that now, this is, as a matter of law, a civil rights issue. At what point do we follow our conscience, and at what point do we submit in obedience to our church and our bishop? I took a vow of obedience, and I believe in the authority of bishops -- that’s why I’m an Episcopalian. I also believe in the order of the church.

One of my favorite magazines, The Christian Century, recently published a pair of articles about the tensions we are experiencing in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion. One of them, written by Jason Byassee, opened with the following:

Last year the Church of the Resurrection in suburban West Chicago closed its doors and put its building up for sale. The Episcopal congregation had suffered membership losses 14 years earlier when some conservative members left to start their own church, also called the Church of the Resurrection, in nearby Glen Ellyn. The new congregation later aligned itself with the Anglican Mission in the Americas (AMIA), which is connected to the Anglican Church in Rwanda.

The new Church of the Resurrection later experienced its own split, with some members leaving to launch the Church of the Great Shepherd – also affiliated with AMIA – in Wheaton. The Church of the Great Shepherd eventually closed its doors, but not before a 2004 split led to the formation of the Church of the Savior back in West Chicago. During this time the ranks of St. Mark’s, an Episcopal congregation in Glen Ellyn, had been swelling – until the Episcopal Church consecrated an openly gay bishop in 2003, whereupon many St. Mark’s members left to form All Souls, still another AMIA church, in Wheaton. Meanwhile, another split at the original Church of the Resurrection in West Chicago, which had experienced renewed growth, led to the creation of the Church of the Resurrection Anglican, a church which is overseen by the archbishop of Uganda. So now there are two Resurrection churches in the area, both formed in exodus from the original – now defunct – Church of the Resurrection, and both affiliated with African Anglican bodies, not with the Episcopal Church in the United States.... (Jason Byassee, “Splitting Up,” The Christian Century, Vol. 125, No. 10 (May 20, 2008), p.22.)

The article goes on to speculate as to why these churches have split so many times, and quotes the Episcopal bishop Chicago, William Persell: “If you’re formed in opposition and negativity, you’re bound to keep on splitting – there’s always the need for more purity, and you don’t live with ambiguity very well, so you end up in a church of one.”

This is a beautiful illustration of what happens when a church decides to defy its bishop and throw to the winds the church order that we’ve inherited over centuries. I don’t recommend that for any church, including our own; while I also reserve the right to disagree with our bishop, which he understands.

So that’s where we stand right now; and in a week or two we will hold a forum in which we will discuss these issues in greater length, especially as they relate to our General Convention. As a Deputy to General Convention, it is my job to be talking about these things, and I look forward to pursuing the conversation further – so that we might continue to shed more light, and less heat, on this issue.

All of this comes, I hope, with your prayers, as we pray continually for our church, and for the great and continuing faith to which we are called; a faith that does not make us comfortable; sometimes a faith that challenges us into disagreement. Through it all, I pray that we will continue to know that we are all called, not to agree with one another, but to love one another. As long as we strive to love one another as Christ loves us, we can bear any disagreement with grace and joy. Pray for grace; pray for forgiveness; pray for love.