Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Sermon about the New Chasuble

The Sermon about the New Chasuble
November 30, 2008
Church of the Incarnation
Santa Rosa, CA
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence

Over the years, members of this generous congregation have made contributions to our Memorial Fund in memory of loved ones who have died. The Memorial Fund is one of our restricted funds – it is never used for salaries or programs, but rather to purchase items that will make a lasting contribution to the beauty and dignity of our worship. Chalices, instruments, stained glass windows – things that will endure. And so today we unveil our brand new Advent chasuble.

For many years, we have wished we had liturgical vestments for Advent that featured Mary’s color, which is blue, rather than the penitential color purple. We get enough purple during Lent, don’t you think?

Blue is the color of hope, and expectation, and prayerful waiting. It’s the color of Mary. You see here on my shoulder there is a rose - also a symbol of Mary (without thorns) and also appropriate for Santa Rosa (which, of course, is named after Saint Rose of Lima, the patron saint of Latin America). Plus, with the white background, we can also use this chasuble for weddings, and maybe even Christmas and Easter.

But you might ask, with all this economic recession, is this really the right time to buy a new chasuble? And the answer is, absolutely! It’s times like this when the world needs a new chasuble.

The world does not need a church that ducks its head and runs into a cave every time someone says it looks like rain. The world needs a church that will step out and proclaim a vision of hope when the rest of the world is caught up in a spiral of doom and gloom. And that’s what this chasuble is – a symbol of hope against a doom and gloom world.

It is the purpose of this sermon to prove this point.

Now, I can understand why there would be some confusion on this matter – after all, with readings like the ones we have today, some people might say that it’s the Christians who are full of doom and gloom, not the rest of the world. A casual reader of Isaiah might think that Isaiah is trembling before an angry God, who seems ready to punish his people:

“Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever.” (Is. 64: 1-9)

And isn’t it Jesus in Mark’s gospel who is predicting all kinds of apocalyptic calamity:

But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. (Mark 13: 24-37)

How could this be anything but a doom and gloom gospel?

Isn’t it really the Christians – well, and maybe the ancient Jews – who are always imagining something terrible about to happen?

Well, I really wish I had time to give the first of several lectures on the apocalyptic imagination of Biblical times, but just to cut to the chase I’d like you to imagine that you are living in Israel in the time that Isaiah’s words were first uttered – this would have been some time within recent memory of 587 B.C.

The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar has just swept through your country. Imagine an overwhelming army of the same kind of people who terrorized Mumbai this week – imagine an army of hundreds of thousands of people like that, invading our country, burning down every major city, destroying the White House and Capitol and National Cathedral, publicly executing our president, and then rounding up all the country’s best doctors, lawyers, teachers, musicians, artists, scientists and clergy and marching them off to slave labor camps in their country.

That's what Isaiah had just lived through when these words were written down. He had seen all of this happen.

I invite you to imagine what his conversation with God was like at that point. Well, actually, you don’t have to imagine it because it is recorded right here in your worship bulletins.

And this is what is spectacular about what Isaiah says. And this is why this became sacred text. Because rising up from the depths of his soul, in the midst of just about the worst desolating sacrilege one could ever witness, Isaiah proclaims a vision of hope.

Now, there’s no doubt his faith in God has been shaken – he has been searching for a reason for why God would have allowed this to happen. And the problem is that he can only understand it as punishment for their sins – that’s the only vocabulary he has to understand this – but he also says in verse 5: “we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.”

In other words, if God would only reveal himself more fully, we would have a clearer road map and we would live in greater harmony with God; so the solution to this whole mess is that God should reveal himself more clearly. And that’s where we get this apocalyptic yearning:

"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence - as when fire kindles brushwood!"

This is the quality of heart and faith that makes Isaiah’s words sacred to us – because in the midst of the most horrifying devastation, when the worst possible thing has happened, Isaiah still proclaims hope and faith in God and in a community that lives in harmony with God. Even when the world is run amok by violent hordes of Babylonian warriors in their brass boots, still we have hope in a God who will redeem us; still we believe in a community of laws and order; still we believe in the possibility of a peace that passes all understanding; a peace established by God’s revelation of himself to us.

And that is what apocalypse is all about. It is a lifting of the veil, literally; it is the bright day when God is no longer hidden, when God’s purpose is made plain, and when all of God’s children can finally see it for themselves, and live their lives in harmony.

Of course, Isaiah - and later Jesus under Roman rule - imagined this to be a cataclysmic event; and of course, who can blame them if they imagined some kind of deeply satisfying retribution upon those who had just desecrated and destroyed the Holy Temple. But it is that courage to imagine God at all – and not only imagine God, but imagine a world living in harmony – that makes everything else about us and our faith possible.

You know, when we’re surrounded by people who think it's the end of the world because they can't afford a $4 cup of coffee, or when we can't get away from people who complain and find the negative side to every story, or when we are trapped in a room with people who are always thinking that the worst is about to happen if it isn't happening already,

- we are the ones who say no, it’s God's reign that is about to happen if it isn't happening already.

These last few weeks, we’ve seen how so much of our economy runs on faith - panic sets in over consumer confidence and economic forecasts and assessments that are little more than a mixture astrology and reading tea leaves - our world economy is completely a matter of collective faith.

It really is as if we are all like a flock of birds, every individual turning instantly with the rest of the flock, caught up in massive waves directed by nothing in particular except news, radio, TV – they create a world that has no reality and yet decides whether or not thousands of people have jobs or not.

But we are Christians; and we have a voice too. We have something to say to the world. We have something to show the world.

When other children are lost in a meaningless competition for superiority in sports or in school, we are the ones who celebrate their achievements, but also carry an alternative imagination of a world under the reign of God. We are the ones to say there's more to life than jumping onto a treadmill of relentless competition. There's a place where you can go – it’s called a church – where you will be loved just for being yourself.

When our friends get cancer and the prognosis is not good we are not the ones who reinforce despair and death – no, we are there to hold your hand, and look into your eyes and speak a deeper truth, which is that we'll get through this together, and we will pray for healing ‘til the cows come home -- and that healing power is real.
Which gets us back to the chasuble. Because of course, here at the Church of the Incarnation we have our own gloom and doom forecasts - we face our own economic challenges as a community that can be scary. But we are here to say this is a spiritual challenge and nothing but a spiritual challenge. It’s up to us whether we choose to respond with fear or with faith. Are we living in the empire of low expectations or will we rise to the challenge of hope? Will we retreat from the world and join in the voices of gloom or will we proclaim the gospel with love and confidence in ourselves and in this parish and the value of our enterprise?

A few weeks ago Warren Buffet reminded us that when everyone else is selling, that's when you should be buying. I don’t know whether he’s a Christian but I do know he’s a man of faith.

When the plague came to Europe and everyone was in a panic, it was a handful of nuns and priests who taught the world about love and courage, ministering to the sick despite the fear of death all around them.

When food becomes scarce, we are the ones who open soup kitchens and food pantries – we’ve been doing it for hundreds of years – like our mission in Monte Rio and like the Living Room here at our church. We are the ones to show the world how to pool our resources to create abundance, and community out of scarcity and competition.
So gloom and doom doesn’t scare us. We don’t rattle. We are the proclaimers of hope. We are gospel people.

And this is why we have a new chasuble. Because in times of sackcloth and ashes, or even in times just of rumors of sackcloth and ashes, the world needs a new chasuble.
Somebody say, AMEN.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Wisdom vs. the Scoffers

This morning we are treated to a rare reading from the Wisdom of Solomon – a book from the Apocrypha that is part of what is called the Wisdom Literature of the Bible. Other books of the Bible that are included in the Wisdom literature are the booksof Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Ecclesiasticus. And one could also argue that the Gospels are themselves part of the Wisdom Literature, in that the teachings of Jesus and the person of Jesus both represent this tradition.

It’s too bad we don’t have more readings from these books of the Bible, because of all the books of the Bible, the Wisdom literature is probably the most compatible with the world view of the modern Episcopalian. In the Wisdom literature, the Creation is celebrated and human experience is honored; God takes on a female aspect and delights in humanity; and sin is defined not as the priests defined it in other parts of the Bible - as a violation of the Purity Code - but instead as simple ignorance and a general stubbornness.

In the first chapter of Proverbs, Wisdom, who is a female form of the Godhead,

"cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice...
How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?"

I don’t know about you, but those are questions I have asked often - especially during this long election season, when it seemed we were in an endless season of scoffing, I asked that question: “How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”

But, of course the problem is that it’s hard to ask that question without sounding like a scoffer yourself. I mean, whether you are, say, a governor from Alaska scoffing at the liberal media, or a fake newsman on Comedy Central scoffing at a governor, either way there was a whole lot of scoffing going on. And if there’s anything that I look forward to now, it’s a time of less scoffing and more listening.

Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat or a None-of-the-above, I’m sure we all can be proud of what our nation achieved on Tuesday night. Of course, as the parents of a bi-racial child who hopes to be president one day, Rose and I were deeply encouraged by the election results. Our son is just that much closer to the White House now.

Except, of course, it will no surprise that we were disappointed with the outcome on Proposition 8. I grieve for all of my friends who have just been informed by a majority of voters in California that some people are less equal then others. And I also grieve for how the debate was conducted. Whether you voted for Proposition 8 or against it, I think all of us would agree that the debate was dominated by a complete ignorance of the Bible.

It is incomprehensible to me that a Christian pastor, a man who claims to know the Bible, can stand before his congregation and say with a straight face that “the Bible defines traditional marriage as one man, one woman.”

Where, I would like to know, is that found in the Bible? All I know is that in 1 Kings, it says that Solomon had “seven hundred [wives who were] princesses and three hundred concubines.” I know that in Genesis, Chapter 16, it says that when Sarah was unable to conceive a child, Abraham took their slave, Hagar, as a wife. I know that in Jesus’ own time, the law was that if you were a married woman and your husband died, you were required to marry your husband’s brother, whether you liked it or not - whether he was married or not. I know that throughout the Bible, marriage as we understand it today is almost nowhere to be found; that women were considered a form of property, and that women had virtually none of what we in today’s society would recognize as basic human rights.

So for a Christian minister to stand up in front of God and all the world and proclaim the Bible as a model and standard for traditional marriage – well, either he hasn’t read his Bible, or he is willfully misleading his congregation. Which do you suppose it is?

I don’t know. But the fact that these pastors got away with it – the fact that they were not hooted out of their pulpits - well, that just speaks to a profound ignorance on the part of Christians for their own Holy Scriptures.

Wisdom cries out in the street... How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?

God forgive me for being such a scoffer.

I blame myself for not doing enough to address this state of affairs. Maybe we don’t teach enough about the Bible here in this church. Perhaps I should speak more often about what Biblical scholars have to say about the Scriptures we read in our services. Maybe I should talk more, for example, about the scholarship behind this morning’s gospel reading, which most objective scholars doubt ever came from the mouth of Jesus. As one group of scholars put it, this story lacks all of the traits that we associate with Jesus’ authentic teaching: it “lacks humor, exaggeration, and paradox, it is straightforward, unimaginative, and moralizing... its application is obvious... and in addition, the parable emphasizes the social boundaries” that Jesus himself challenged throughout his ministry. [The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus by Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar]

So what does this mean for us? I think it means that the reading of Scripture is not simple. That sometimes life gets complicated. That of course when we come to church and we kneel at this altar rail, we open ourselves to communion with God on the most elemental level – but that doesn’t mean we check our minds at the door. That the spiritual life that has integrity demands our best thinking and a critical reading of Scripture.

I heard a Unitarian pastor on the radio the other day (The Rev. Forest Church) who said that “our church does not give answers to unanswerable questions.” I loved that – and that’s the Episcopal Church too.

Maybe I, and other clergy, need to be more explicit in our teaching on the Bible; so that we can teach one another to be more discerning of Scripture - not just so that we have more educated congregations, but so that when people start representing the Bible in completely fictitious ways, there will be more of us who have the tools to argue the truth.

Well, if you are interested in deepening your understanding of our sacred Scriptures, I encourage you to consider joining one of the home Bible Study groups that are forming now in our church. You will hear more about them and other small groups next week, when Mitch Garcia will be preaching.

So getting back to Wisdom, this female aspect of the divine: she stands before us and begs us to come to her. In the book of Proverbs she pre-figures what Christians would later claim about Jesus Christ: she is the Hebrew version of Logos, this ordering principle of the universe; this aspect of creation that makes all knowledge possible. The author of John’s gospel clearly had meditated very deeply on this aspect of Wisdom when writing the prologue:

When he established the heavens, I was there,
When he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above... I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

Wisdom is presented in the book of Proverbs as the companion or the consort of God the Creator: her partnership with God the Father becomes what later Christian mystics would call the “marriage of the sacred masculine and the divine feminine.” As Jesus takes on these aspects of Wisdom, incarnate, this sacred marriage of the masculine and the feminine is revealed to the world in the form of a fully integrated human being.

Centuries later, Christian mystics like Hildegaard and Theresa and Meister Eckhart would proclaim their own visions of this divine marriage made manifest in Christ; and in the process they would reveal a sacred balance between the masculine and the feminine, both in how we represent the Godhead, and how we understand our own selves.

Perhaps it is time that we more fully embrace this Wisdom; perhaps it is time that we celebrate this divine aspect of the Godhead; maybe then, Christians will be less afraid of men who embrace their feminine side, and women who accept their masculine side.

This is the Wisdom of Scripture; this is the Wisdom of the ages, speaking to us. She is begging us to live a more balanced life – because “the desire for wisdom leads to the kingdom of God.”

Somebody say.... AMEN.