Hold the Door

There is a scene is episode five, season six of the celebrated HBO series “Game of Thrones” when the very future of humanity hangs in the balance.  Bran Stark and his friends are being pursued by the White Walkers, who represent cold, calculating evil, and the undead, who represent the swarming power of chaos.  Bran, who is paralyzed, is carried on a litter by his massive but simple manservant, Hodor.  Hodor drags Bran away from their enemies down a long, narrow passageway with a pinpoint of light at its far end.  As they reach the light and rush through the doorway, the swarm of undead catch up with them.  With brute strength and raw power, Hodor slams the door behind him and braces it with his massive back.  Bran’s litter is taken up by another, and he continues to flee.  As he looks back at Hodor, the powers of chaos attempt to break through the door, bit by bit.  They claw at Hodor’s arms, his back, his face.  But Hodor is unmovable.  His love for Bran is unsurpassable.  His strength is unassailable.  His will is supreme.  Because he holds the door, because he holds back chaos and evil, Bran is saved.

Hold the Door

In Mark’s Gospel today, the disciples James and John earn their nicknames, “Sons of Thunder.”  They bluster and brag and ask of Jesus in a manner that is, in reality, the staking of a claim that Jesus place them—James and John—at his right and left hand.  They wish to be Lancelot and Galahad to Jesus’ King Arthur, and that image is not too far off the mark of who they think Jesus is and will be.  Glory swims in their eyes, and they want to be in its very center.  James and John can imagine the importance, the accolades, the prominence their central role will bring.  In the new world, the Camelot of sorts, the new kingdom of David they expect Jesus to inaugurate, things will revolve around them.

Overhearing the brothers’ bluster, the other disciples get angry, but notably Jesus does not.  His reaction is, I suspect, more like sadness.  He can predict what’s coming, and he knows that there is great irony in what James and John ask.  Jesus asks them if they can drink from the cup he must drink.  They brazenly say “Yes, of course we can,” but they don’t understand.  They’ll surely eventually drink from Jesus’ cup, but it will not be the nectar they imagine.

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In Job today, the protagonist has suffered for thirty-eight long chapters, enduring friends who insist that Job’s trials must be the result of his own sin (which he knows is untrue) and wondering pleadingly how it can be that a man such as himself, who contributes to society, cares for his family, and tends to the poor finds himself on the receiving end of such pain.  Job has been the very center of his community, and, he believes, he deserves better.  Finally, Job has challenged God to make an appearance and justify Godself.  Today, God shows up.  And Job becomes the first person in history to say to himself, “Be careful what you ask for…”

God begins, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”  And God’s soliloquy continues for four chapters.  God explains to Job that God causes rain to fall on parched places that have never entered Job’s concern or even consciousness, turning deserts to oases where human beings have never dwelled.  God explains to Job that God’s care, delight, and love are bestowed upon every creature of the earth, from the majestic lion to the ridiculous ostrich.  God explains that God is present at the birth of each lamb and each deer.

In a nutshell, God reveals to Job something more shattering than all the pains Job has experienced thus far, namely, that Job is not at the center of things, including the center of God’s own attention, at all.  It is not that God doesn’t love humanity—God surely does—but God loves humanity as part of God’s gracious whole, not over and above the rest of the good creation.

At the end of God’s long speech, beyond our reading today, God gives Job a vision of two terrifying creatures: Behemoth and Leviathan.  One is on land and the other is in the sea, but they both represent the stampeding, swarming, overwhelming power of evil and chaos that constantly threatens to overtake the world.  Job believes that God’s attention should have been on Job’s every and individual need, a nursemaid God who binds every scraped knee.  But the vision of Behemoth and Leviathan God offers Job corrects Job’s sight to see where God’s constant attention actually must lie.  Like Hodor bracing that door with his mighty back against the White Walkers, God, in every moment of the world’s long existence, labors mightily to keep Behemoth and Leviathan at bay.  God—with supreme will, unassailable strength, and unsurpassable love for us and for all the good world—holds the door closed against the evil and chaos that would otherwise overtake us.

Leviathan and Behemoth

William Blake’s Leviathan and Behemoth

As I have grown older and my own conception of God has evolved, God’s speech to Job has gone from being one of my least to most favorite passages of scripture.  Our removal from the center of things is a corrective to our human tendency toward arrogance and narcissism.  It refocuses our attention away from ourselves and toward the beauty and wonder of the created world.  And, the image of God binding Behemoth and Leviathan; the image of God, with outstretched arms and steely intention, holding back the chaos that would otherwise run roughshod over the world every moment of our existence; deepens my gratitude and even love for God.

But it also brings me soberly back to Jesus’ melancholy prediction in Mark today that James and John will indeed, eventually, drink from his cup.  The image of Jesus on the cross is, in the end, another version of God holding the door.  Jesus’ saving work on the cross is God’s ultimate act, God’s ultimate labor of love against chaos, evil, and death.  Jesus suffers on the cross to enact God’s redemption of the world.  And both James and John will (as today they ignorantly hope, not knowing what they ask) drink from Jesus’ cup.  They will be transformed to become agents of that redemption, too.  They will, in service to grace, also labor to hold back the chaos.  It will claw at them, and they will both eventually give their lives fending against it for grace’s sake.

This is the lesson today, from both Job and Mark’s Gospel: God gives humanity a role, a purpose, a sacred job to do, and that cup is not at all easy to drink.  Ours is not to cast ourselves as the center of attention, either the world’s attention or God’s.  Ours is to recognize both the goodness of God’s whole creation and its fragile contingency, with ruinous chaos constantly beating at the door.  God’s demonstrated promise is to hold that door, to bind Leviathan and Behemoth, to preserve this world with grace against being overcome by the forces that rail against it.  And our purpose; our co-operative role; our calling to, indeed, be the left and right hands of Jesus is to hold the smaller doors whenever evil and chaos claw their way through the gaps.  We are to drink the cup that Jesus drank and stand with courage and conviction against the forces that seek to mar God’s goodness and destroy God’s world.  As Job learns today and as James and John eventually learn, it is a humbling role, one that removes us from the center and places us in service.  It requires a reframing of who we are, relative to our own prior conceptions and relative to God.  It may require more of us than we thought we could give.

God holds the door and makes space for the lives of wonder, beauty, and goodness we enjoy.  And we are called to brace our backs with God, extending our own arms in love.

Adam, Eve, and Our Humanity

God looked down at Earth and saw all the ways humanity has been acting—the backbiting, the disregard and disdain, the willful hypocrisy—and God called one of the angels and sent the angel to earth to analyze the situation. When the angel returned, she told God, “Yes, it is bad on Earth; 90% of people are acting horribly toward one another, and only 10% are not.”

God thought for a moment and then decided to send another angel to earth for a second opinion.  When that angel returned she went to God and said, “Unfortunately, it’s true.  The world is in trouble.  90% of people increasingly hold each another in utter contempt. Only 10% actively seek reconciliation and joy in one another.”

God was not pleased. So, God decided to e-mail the 10% that were sharing grace in the world, because God wanted to encourage them and give them a little something to help them keep going.  And do you know what that email said?… Yeah, I didn’t receive one either.[i]

Had it been real, I’m sure you all would have received God’s encouraging email, even as I’m sometimes doubtful that I would.  I think we’ll all acknowledge that in our world, it is difficult these days to maintain equanimity and goodwill, much less hope.  Increasingly, it seems, we scurry to the polar ends of the socio-political spectrum; we interpret all data about those at the other pole in the most suspicious and negative light; and we increasingly only constructively engage with those with whom we already agree.

You know me well, and you know that I don’t casually or recklessly preach politics from the pulpit.  When I do preach about things going on in our world, which sometimes unavoidably includes things that touch upon politics, I do so with trembling knees and in prayerful hope that I am preaching only the Gospel of Christ.

This morning I am not going to talk about the Supreme Court nomination hearing, its related saga, or yesterday’s confirmation vote.  There is most definitely a time and place to discuss in Church such pivotal national events, and it is very likely that the Faith & Society Seminar will do so in the spring.  And when we do, we will do so in a manner that seeks to offer an alternative to the suspicion and presumption of ulterior motives by our neighbors that I lamented at the outset this morning, because in the Church we are called always to presume goodwill of one another, not malice.  We are called to sow grace, not suspicion.

This morning, though, the entire set of lectionary readings does virtually insist that we commit our souls and minds to the broader topic that has been swirling around in our culture for some months now, namely, the relationship of men to women.

Adam and Eve mosaic

Our Old Testament reading takes this issue all the way back to its origin: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then God took one of the man’s ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.’”

We know what happens next.  God walks with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day, until the day that the serpent approaches Eve and convinces her to eat the forbidden fruit.  Adam follows suit and also eats.  Their disobedience brings expulsion from the Garden, lust, toil, and death.

At the dawn of the fifth century A.D., St. Augustine gave us the interpretation of these events that has remained normative throughout Christian religious and cultural history.  As Rosemary Radford Reuther explains, Augustine argues that “the male was created first and then the female from his side to indicate the relation of superiority of the male and the subordination of the female by which they are to relate to each other in the social order.  For Augustine, then, gender hierarchy was part of the original creation.”[ii]

And it gets worse for Eve when the serpent shows up.  Augustine says, again according to Reuther, that “Eve took the initiative in this choice to disobey God, because as a woman she had less rationality and was closer to the bodily lower self and so was easily deceived by the tempting serpent. Adam, in Augustine’s view, was not deceived but went along with Eve in an act of kindly companionship lest she be left alone outside of Paradise.”[iii]

A math of sorts emerges from St. Augustine’s interpretation: Eve is derivative and, thus, less than Adam + Eve’s identity is tied to the body, whereas Adam’s is tied to the mind + Eve gives in to her physical appetites by eating the succulent fruit = Eve and her descendants—that’s all women—are both lustful and objects of lust.  They are less than men, and they are to blame for all sins of the flesh.

Seghers, Gerard, 1591-1651; The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

St. Augustine

No single person has had greater influence on Western thought than St. Augustine.  His conclusions live in our cultural ether, both religious and secular.  They are unquestioned, assumed, and therefore unconscious.  Augustine’s interpretation of the Creation, Adam, Eve, and the Fall has informed the ways Western culture has viewed women to a depth of which we have been scarcely, and are only now becoming, aware.  The objectification of women, the demeaning of women, the disregard of women, and the abuse of women all find a source in St. Augustine and, thus, in the Church.

And, Augustine is wrong.  I don’t dispute the most influential doctor of the Church lightly, but here Augustine is wrong—flatly and plainly so—and I don’t mean that he is wrong simply by our twenty-first century standards (though that is also, obviously, true).  Augustine was wrong when he developed his argument sixteen hundred years ago, because he is wrong in his interpretation of the language of scripture.

You see, we are too footloose in the way we apply the name “Adam” to the man in the Genesis story.  The Hebrew word Adam—Ha’Adam—clearly and rightly means not “man” but “human.”  Even more accurately, Adam comes from the Hebrew “adamah,” which means earth or ground.  In the Hebrew text, Adam is the name used exclusively to refer to the first person in the second chapter of Genesis, prior to the creation of Eve.  At this point in the story, in other words, the first person is neither male nor female.  The first person is, rather, “human being,” a person of the earth.  The best translation of “Adam” is, actually, “the earthling.”

When Eve is created, when the earthling is separated into two beings, both receive a new name.  At that point in the Hebrew biblical text, the name Adam recedes, and the new names Genesis uses to refer to the two, differentiated people are “Ish” and “Ishshah,” which mean male and female.  Eve, it turns out, is not derivative of Adam at all.  Rather, from Adam—the earthling, neither male nor female—come both Ish and Ishshah, the man and the woman.  What was one whole becomes two new equal parts.  We miss this in English translation, but it is clear in Hebrew.

In a manner I take to be providential, today’s other readings speak with similar clarity.  The Psalmist today, along with the Letter to the Hebrews which borrows from the psalm, speaks of both men and women together, begging of God, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  Yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory.”  Woman and man both, crowned with glory and honor, only a little lower than God, and created in God’s image.

Even today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, which on the face of it is about divorce, has at its root Jesus’ restoration of the status of women.  Whereas under Mosaic law a husband could simply turn his wife out, Jesus asserts a standard that puts wives and husbands on equal footing.

This is the biblical witness.  What does it mean today, for Christian people, both male and female?  The implications are monumental.  Pushing back against millennia of theology and cultural accretion that have insisted women are derivative, of the flesh, blameworthy, and culpable for men’s wrongs, we must teach our youth, enact in our world, and live our own lives in ways that affirm women as crowned with glory scarcely less than that of the angels.  The Church must be a leading, and not a lagging, indicator in our culture that women are, in every way, the right recipients of honor, integrity, merit, and, most importantly, respect for their bodies equal to men. Whatever the issue of the day; whether in the public sphere, the workplace, our educational institutions, or the family; whatever the circumstance, large or small, we are to speak these truths, remembering that only together—Ish and Ishshah as one Ha’Adam, man and woman as one humanity—do we reflect the very image of God.

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[i] Adapted from a joke at http://www.ba-bamail.com/content.aspx?emailid=19941

[ii] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/dba4/9fc272b7c40236a923caf6d12d89a06d208c.pdf

[iii] Ibid

What if we’re wrong?

On the plane to and from the Holy Land earlier this month, I read Chuck Klosterman’s book entitled But What If We’re Wrong?  Klosterman offers an interesting exercise: He attempts to position himself and the reader as if we are one, two or five hundred years in the future looking back at our twenty-first century selves.  And he begins with the premise that human beings then will recognize that human beings now are wrong about virtually everything.  His study runs the gamut.  For one, he makes a fairly persuasive—though bizarre—argument that Chuck Berry, and not Elvis, Bob Dylan, or the Beatles, will be the only representative of Rock-N-Roll who is remembered at all two centuries from now.  Berry will be the Mozart of the rock era.  All the others, Klosterman says, will be minor footnotes.  (The book is worth a read.)

But what if we're wrong

Klosterman also focuses on our most essential, unquestioned knowledge and says it will be proven wrong in the future, using as a real-life historical example the way in which Copernicus and Galileo revealed to us that millennia of cosmological thinking about an earth-centered universe was wrong.  (Yeah, the big stuff.)  Klosterman argues that every generation assumes that it’s bedrock principles and notions about God, the universe, and everything are solid and that every generation is, sooner or later, proven wrong.

Take gravity.  Aristotle said, and people believed, that items fell from heights to the earth because all objects crave their natural place.  The natural place of rocks is earth, for instance, and so rocks will do everything possible to get to the center of the earth.  Aristotle’s theory held for two thousand years. Grasp that: We thought Aristotle spoke the truth for two millennia, until Sir Isaac Newton explained gravity to us.  We now believe that our theory of gravity is unassailable.

But what if we’re wrong?  I know that sounds crazy, and you definitely should not learn your physics from a priest, so take the words of Columbia University theoretical physicist Braine Greene (quoted in Klosterman’s book) instead.  Greene says, “There is a very, very good chance that our understanding of gravity will not be the same in five hundred years.  In fact, that’s the one arena where I would think that most of our contemporary evidence is the most circumstantial, and that the way we think about gravity will be very different.”

Professor Greene has guest starred on The Big Bang Theory, so you know he is worth paying attention to.  If you’ll stick with me and this science lesson just a minute longer, Professor Greene explains this way:

“For two hundred years, Isaac Newton had gravity down…And then from 1907 to 1915, Einstein radically changes our understanding of gravity: No longer is gravity just a force, but a warping of space and time.  And now we realize quantum mechanics [and string theory] must have an impact on how we describe gravity…Now, that requires extra dimensions of space.  So the understanding of gravity starts to have radical implications for our understanding of reality.  And now there are folks, inspired by these findings, who are trying to rethink gravity itself.  They suspect gravity might not even be a fundamental force, but an emergent force, [a symptom of something more basic, like heat is a by-product of motion and friction].”

“I think,” Professor Greene says, “that gravity is the least stable of our ideas, and the most ripe for a major shift.”

Brian Greene Big Bang Theory

Professor Brian Greene, guest starring on The Big Bang Theory

Whoa.  I don’t understand most of that, but it still blows my mind.  I think of gravity as the surest of all our notions.  It’s as sure as, well, gravity.  But Chuck Klosterman and Brian Greene believe our future selves will chuckle indulgently at our quaint understanding, sort of the way we chuckle at Aristotle and his rocks desiring to bed down on the earth.

Why do I bring this up this morning?  Because I think the reason many of us come here to church Sunday after Sunday is because we have a deep suspicion that we may be wrong.  Not about gravity, but about something just as essential and unassailable, about something that, to question or dispute, would expose us to ridicule or dismissal.  I think we suspect, or fear, or maybe hope, that the world’s bedrock and conventional wisdom about success, and value, and our sense of self are just flat wrong.

That conventional wisdom was little different two thousand years ago than it is today.  Like all of our certainties, it has had incredible staying power.  It is what the disciples are arguing about on the road in Mark’s Gospel today.  Jesus hears them debating and jockeying about who among them is the greatest.

That is our conventional wisdom about the world: It is an endless game of asking the question, “Who is the greatest?”  Whether it’s writ large in the contest of nations, cultures, and races; or writ small in our social circles, the workplace, or among children (sometimes adult children) in a family, the world, we believe, is about who is the greatest.

What sets me above others?  What makes me more deserving, better?  Surely something, so says conventional wisdom.  Surely, I am set apart and above, and if I’m not, then something is wrong because Lord knows I should be.  The goal, even if subconscious, is to claw myself up to the pinnacle, by whatever means I can employ to get there.  Or, as the flip side, maybe I’ve been formed to believe that I can never get there, that I am destined for the bottom of the heap, that I am not strong enough or worthy enough.  I’ll never be good, much less the greatest.  Either way, the world’s wisdom is predicated on a pecking order, and the rules of the game require winners and losers, calculations of relative value that uplift some and push down others.  It’s a zero-sum game in the end, and that’s as sure as gravity.

But what if it’s wrong?  I think we think it just might be, and as I said earlier, I think that’s why we’re here.

St. James today acknowledges the world’s age-old conventional wisdom.  James says it is characterized by selfish ambition, envy, covetousness, falsehood for the sake of gain, and conflict that leads to the death of relationships.  In one of the bible’s more captivating phrases, James says all of these things emerge from “the cravings that are at war within [us].”  It is like entropy; eventually it will tear us apart.  But then St. James, like some theological Copernicus or first century Chuck Klosterman, argues that this wisdom is an illusion, that it’s just flat wrong, that the world really and rightly revolves around something else entirely.  There is a different wisdom, a different truth which James calls “wisdom from above,” and James explains that it “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”  It is God’s wisdom, and it is, in fact, the opposite of the way the world tells us to get ahead and find our value.

Suffer the children icon

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

This is a revolution as seismic as Newton’s discovery of gravity.  It shifts the way we see reality.  It reveals to us in a flash of insight that “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”   It changes what we value, who are heroes are, who we want to emulate, our goals, and how we define the bounds of our community. When we finally and truly embrace it, the old wisdom of the world seems, in retrospect, as silly as Aristotle’s belief that rocks desperately desire to fall to earth, and we recognize that we can’t ultimately hang on to both ways of thinking.  St. James calls that being “double-minded,” and that kind of compartmentalization gets us nowhere.  We must let go of the old wisdom entirely.

But how do we exchange the old wisdom for the new?  How do we make it real and not merely theoretical?  “Draw near to God,” James says, “and God will draw near to you.”  We center ourselves in God, and we at last exchange peace for striving.  (It is a blessed relief.)  We surround ourselves with others who have long suspected that the old wisdom, the world’s truth, is wrong, and we begin to form relationships in which yielding can be a virtue and mercy becomes a strength.  And we do both of these things here, in the church.  In a world in which being right has never seemed more important, we come here and admit that we are wrong.  That’s why the church matters, at the end of the day. We admit in humility that our ways of propping up this world are destructive and must be set aside if we are to thrive—or even survive—either as individuals in our daily lives or as the whole human community.  I believe we’re wrong, and I thank God that we are.

A Home for God

In its earliest days, when Augustus and John Kirby Allen marketed their soupy, Yellow Fever-infested, sixty-six hundred acre real estate boondoggle as, “having an abundance of excellent spring water and enjoying the sea breeze in all its freshness…handsome and beautifully elevated, salubrious and well-watered,”[i]  Houston, Texas attracted sophisticated people such as William Fairfax Gray, a blue-blooded Virginian who moved here with his family.  But an influx of sophisticated people dis not render Houston cosmopolitan overnight.  In 1838, Gray himself wrote a letter lamenting the brutality and heathen immorality of his new home.  Gray wrote that, “Dissolute and vicious habits are too general here.  Those who do not fall into [them]…mourn over the privileges and social blessings they have left [behind] and eagerly look for the time when they shall be received here.”[ii]

Why did Houston have such a difficult time in those early days adopting godly, civilized ways of being?  William Fairfax Gray felt sure of the answer.  He said, “We have had several Presbyterian preachers here—several Methodist—occasionally Baptists—and one Roman Catholic…but not once have I heard an Episcopalian preach, or the Episcopal service read since I [arrived]!”[iii]

The time had come, it seems, for the Episcopal Church to arrive in young Houston.  From Houston, William Fairfax Gray wrote to the Board of Missions of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States begging for resources and a missionary priest.  And by March 16, 1839, he would wait no longer.  Gray and twenty-seven other prominent men of Houston signed the charter establishing an Episcopal Church—at the time, the Episcopal Church—in Houston.  And thus, Christ Church was born.

If this much of this history gives you a sense of déjà vu, it’s because I first shared it with you four and a half years ago, when we celebrated Christ Church’s 175th anniversary.  But there’s more: In 1845, Christ Church’s growing congregation purchased an abandoned wooden schoolhouse and moved it onto this city lot at Texas and Fannin, creating Christ Church’s first makeshift building.  Two years later, the first proper church was completed, followed by a second church in 1859.  In each instance, the congregation outgrew the worship space even before it was completed.  Finally, in 1893—the same year the United States was hit with a major economic depression—Christ Church built this stately and beautiful sacred space in which we now worship, and which we are in the ongoing process of restoring for future generations.  The first service in what is now the Cathedral was held on Christmas Eve 1893, one hundred twenty-five years ago this coming Christmas.  What a dedication that must have been!

Christ Church Cathedral old photo (1936)

Christ Church Cathedral, not quite in 1893

And here we are, newly back in the Cathedral after several months in Reynolds Hall.  Without conscious planning on our part, but surely, I think, with God’s smiling providence, the day of our return to this space is the singular day in which the lectionary gives us the story of the dedication to end all dedications, that of Solomon’s great Temple in Jerusalem.

If we think Christ Church’s journey to the completion of this space was long and arduous, we need to read our bibles.  For the Israelites, the long trek that culminates today with the dedication of the Temple included escape from Egypt, forty years of wandering in the desert, a long period of tribal warfare with neighbors and one another, the dysfunctional reign of King Saul, and finally the consolidation of power under the great King David, before David’s son Solomon finally builds what both he and God call a “home for God.”

After years of building, furnishing, decorating, and preparing, today the great Temple is ready to be dedicated.  At one point in the august proceedings, Solomon’s confidence falters.  He, Solomon the Wise, shows acute human doubt when he asks, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?”  Solomon has built a house for God.  It is grand, and beautiful, and crawling with priests.  It surely looks the part.  But will God show up?  Almost three thousand years after King Solomon, as we reenter this beautiful and sacred space in the midst of a restoration, as we rededicate it by our use, we may wonder, too.

Solomon's Temple dedication

Dedication of Solomon’s Temple

In this morning’s reading, King Solomon is not disappointed.  God keeps God’s promises, and God has earlier promised that God will abide in the Temple.  It is Solomon’s confidence that is shaky, not God’s commitment.[iv]  When the Temple’s holy precincts are opened, we are told, “A cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.”

I believe that is true here, too.  I believe that, as our prayers and praises rise in this space, so does God’s Spirit.  Can you sense it?  Do you feel it?  It expands and fills these holy nooks and crannies like the smoke of incense, seeping into and through the wood, seeping into and through us.  The glory of the Lord fills this house.  God dwells here.

Obviously, our restoration of this sacred place is not complete.  There will be scaffolding and green fencing around God’s house for several months yet.  Navigation around the campus is, admittedly, a bit tricky.  But all this ongoing work on the Cathedral serves to remind us that our ongoing work in this world is incomplete.  The reading from 1 Kings today ends with the image of one who barely knows Israel’s God nevertheless seeking God out in the Temple, dropping to his knees in his need, and praying to God for solace and help.  Solomon says that God’s glory will be revealed most of all when God responds to that man, to the one who has not yet known God deeply.

That is our work left to do, each and every day.  We live in an era of scandal and disillusionment, and the news of the past week from politics to the church only underscores that fact.  In a world where people increasing live as if we are our own little gods, answerable to no one, and ignore the reality that the divine is present in our midst and in our lives, our fidelity to the God who lives here calls us to go out from here and meet those who do not know God, who are alienated and estranged, and extend a word, or a hand, or an act of surprising grace.  When we leave this space and live that way, then God’s glory is revealed in stunning arrays, and God begins to fill the world around us.  Lives are changed; the world is changed.

Cathedral with scaffolding

From this very house—this very base of operations—God moves out into this city, passing in glory over and into God’s creation and God’s people.  We call this day Rally Day, and what better around which to rally than that!  We, like the disciples today when Jesus asks them if they will walk away from his Gospel, say, “Where else could we go?  For you give us the words of eternal life.  We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”  This is God’s home, and we are privileged and blessed to make it our home, too.  And where God dwells, grace abounds.

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[i] https://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/At-least-the-Allen-brothers-got-it-right-on-2144575.php

[ii] A Happy Worldly Abode, 25.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] 1 Kings 6:11-13

If it walks like a duck…

In 1738, an eccentric but very serious French inventor named Jacques de Vaucanson created a life-size, copper-plated mechanical water fowl that amazed an audience at the French Royal Academy of Science.[i]  The bird could quack, as well as move its head and wings.  It ate kernels of grain.  And most spectacularly, it digested and excreted that grain like, well, something malodorous that moves through a duck.

This was the Age of Enlightenment, when such philosophical giants as Hume and Kant were asking the big questions about life, knowledge, and the universe.  And Vaucanson’s invention oddly, if but for a moment, took center stage.  It begged a philosophical question of its own.  Copper or not, some contended, if it quacks like a duck, and flaps its wings like a duck, and…excretes like a duck, it must be a duck!  And thus was created the “duck test.”

The “duck test” entered more commonly into our lexicon a century later through the poet James Whitcomb Riley, who said explicitly, “When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.”[ii]

Incidentally, in our own era the duck test has gained in sophistication through the artificial intelligence test developed in 1950 by Alan Turing.[iii]  The Turing test monitors the workings of computers to determine whether they exhibit functions equivalent to that of human thought.  If (or when) a computer passes the Turing test, we will have to ask seriously, “If it thinks like a person, if it is intelligent like a person, is it not a person?  Is it not alive?”

mechanical duck

A blueprint for Jacques de Vaucanson’s mechanical duck

Though that’s both ominous and interesting, it’s a lot deeper than I intend to dive in this sermon.  We’ll stick with ducks.  If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.  The idea is simple and compelling.  It’s also theological.  Proverbs 23:7 reads, “For as a person thinks in his heart, so is he.”[iv]  In other words, whatever resides within us—whatever anger, grudge, resentment, suspicion, self-regard—is not separate from us.  It is us.  Despite our twenty-first century tendency to detach and compartmentalize, Holy Scripture will have none of it.  Sooner or later, I am not a man who is angry or resents or self-serves.  Rather, I am anger and resentment and self-serving. That’s who I am.  In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis mentions, for instance, the grumbling woman who becomes the grumble.

We may be able to mask this from the world.  But we mustn’t fool ourselves into thinking we’ve fooled God.  The Prayer Book has us remind ourselves by praying to God each and every Sunday, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid…”[v]  God knows what is in our hearts, and God knows, even if no one else does, who we are.

My goodness, that’s depressing.  It may help to note that it is not only dark thoughts and vicious feelings that can define us.  Ducks are not inherently ominous, and the Proverb is not necessarily negative.  As a person thinks in his heart, so is he, and if we are inwardly loving, empathetic and compassionate, selfless, then that, too, is our identity.

But what if we aren’t?  That brings us to St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians today.  Unlike most of the New Testament epistles, Ephesians wasn’t written to address a specific problem.  In fact, it likely wasn’t originally directed only to the church in Ephesus.  Most likely, the Letter to the Ephesians was a general letter directed toward all or many churches.  It addresses general, universal issues that face everyone.  And one of the issues it addresses head-on is our human tendency, often without awareness, to be formed into the kinds of people God doesn’t want us to be.

Paul diagnoses that we “live in the futility of [our hearts and] minds…darkened in [our] understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of [our] ignorance and hardness of heart.”[vi]  That sounds hopeless.  But is it?

Years ago, married friends of mine saw their marriage fall apart.  The reasons for the breakdown were common and mundane, and eventually the couple lived as uncomfortable roommates in the same house.  They reached a point where it was extremely awkward even to be in the room with each other, and physical contact of the slightest kind was abrasive.  The husband said to me, “I can’t even remember why I ever wanted to be married.”

For the sake of their children—and only for their sake—the couple went to marriage counseling.  The counselor told them to go out to dinner at least once a week, and when they did so, to hold hands at the table.  She told them to sleep in the same bad and scoot toward the middle.  She told them to sit down together at the end of each day and recap the day’s events to one another.  And she made them, verbally and in writing, promise to do these things for six months.

holding hands at dinner

In the counselor’s words, she told my friends to act “as if” they were a contented couple who enjoyed and were interested in one another.  At first, it was physically and emotionally painful.  Everything in them rebelled against the practice.  And things didn’t get better in a day, or a week, or in several weeks.  How could it?  As my friends thought in their hearts, so were they.  They disdained each other.  They were disdainful.

But eventually, subtle shifts began to happen.  On the drive home from work, he would realize with surprise that he looked forward to recapping his day with her.  She would catch himself wanting to try out that new restaurant with him.  They would brush past one another in the kitchen and linger rather than recoiling.  They pretended and practiced, with dedicated intention, until, finally, the “as if” became real.  Their outward actions transformed their inner selves.  More than a decade after these events, they are married, and they are people marked not by disdain but by joy.

Acting “as if” is a common prescription in psychotherapy.[vii]  It also turns out to be a spiritual practice with deep roots in Holy Scripture.  In his Letter to the Ephesians, in addition to diagnosing us so deflatingly, St. Paul reminds us that we are called to union with Jesus Christ and with one another as his Church.  Paul encourages us to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called.”[viii]  And how do we do that?  How do we go from being people with darkened and futile minds to become grace-filled people who live through grace in the world?  By acting “as if.”  Today Paul is our counselor.  He says, “Put away falsehood.  Speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but…do not let the sun go down on your anger…Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up…so that your words may give grace to those who hear…Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

Kaczka mandarynka (Aix galericulata)

St. Paul puts a fine point on his prescription when he says, “Be imitators of God.”  Act “as if.”  When we do this with dedicated intention, Paul affirms, then slowly, perhaps imperceptibly at first, and with God’s help we are changed.  You see, one who speaks consistently in love will eventually find it very hard to hate.  One who lives in community with his neighbors will find it impossible to disregard them.  One who dwells upon God’s blessed forgiveness will, perhaps to his own surprise, find that he cannot hold on to his grudges.

We walk in grace; we speak with grace; we spread our wings in grace; and we discover that we have become a different duck.  In Paul’s words, we mature to “the measure of the full stature of Christ.”[ix]  In this way, and no other, the kingdom of God dawns.  In this way, having been transformed, our lives of grace begin to transform the world.  As if it could be true…We’ll never know unless we start quacking.

_________________________

[i] https://www.mirror.co.uk/usvsth3m/you-know-phrase-if-looks-5235884

[ii] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/6770726-when-i-see-a-bird-that-walks-like-a-duck

[iii] http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/users/reingold/courses/ai/turing.html

[iv] New King James Version

[v] BCP 355

[vi] Ephesians 4:17-18

[vii] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-mentally-strong-people-dont-do/201606/when-fake-it-till-you-make-it-and-when-you-shouldnt

[viii] Ephesians 4:1

[ix] Ephesians 4:13

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

“What I did on my summer vacation,” by Barkley Thompson…Remember those grade school essays?  I’ve been away for a while.  Sixty days, to be exact.  I was on sabbatical, which is not exactly vacation but was hugely fun.  So, what did I do on sabbatical?

I finished writing a book, which is this very day available in the Cathedral bookstore.  I wrote a historical essay on a dark chapter in my family’s Texas history, in which one family member murdered another in 1878.  (I’m hoping a journal will pick it up.)  And, I prepared the lectures for the Dean’s Hour series on God in Southern literature that I’ll teach in October.

I read a lot.  I read the morning newspaper, which was a rare treat.  I read Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  I re-read a sublimely good Wendell Berry novel.  And I read one other book, to which I’ll return in a few minutes.

But I didn’t simply sit at home, read, and write.  At the beginning of June, Jill, the kids, and I traveled to Malta, where I served as the summer vicar of Holy Trinity Anglican Church.  While in Malta, the Thompsons lived in the big, rambling one hundred ten-year-old former Bishop’s House, which had what I’ll call a “moldly nostalgia” to it.  It was shabby chic, with a strong emphasis on the shabby.  Even so, it was home for most of a month.

Valletta

Valletta, Malta

After returning stateside, I supplied one Sunday for our sister parish, St. Mary’s in Bellville.  I visited General Convention for a day in Austin.  We hosted twenty-two Thompsons for a family reunion at our little place in Austin County. I returned here for a day to honor the life of, and lay to rest, our friend and brother Ardell Ray. Finally, we traveled to Linville, in the mountains of western North Carolina, where I served at All Saints church last Sunday.

As I said, the sabbatical was hugely fun, but it was also taxing in a way I did not expect, both intellectually and geographically.  I’ll explain why.

In writing the essay about my Texas family, I traveled back in time and read century-old letters that chronicle my own kin betraying kin, loved ones disowning loved ones, family spilling blood with acts of violence.  In reading Ron Chernow and Southern authors, I revisited periods in our national history in which we treated one another as less than human.  In reading the daily newspaper, I was reminded that such periods are not only past history, but also present.

Geographically, on Malta I again encountered a place that has been conquered more often than perhaps anywhere else on the planet.  Every empire that has ever traversed the Mediterranean has invaded, at one time or another, Malta.  From the Middle Ages to the Second World War, the Maltese have been a people under assault, pawns in someone else’s geopolitical chess game.  This identity is in the Maltese psyche, and for a month I experienced just an iota of it through osmosis.

I. G. Killough letter to Eliza Faires, June 19, 1878, p. 4

A letter written by my great, great, great grandfather, lamenting the family feud that would ultimately lead to his murder in 1878.

Just down the road from here in Bellville, St. Mary’s church is between rectors, and the good folks there are experiencing the palpable anxiety that comes with such between time.  The parishioners of St. Mary’s wonder who will emerge to become their next spiritual shepherd.  They wonder if they’ll be o.k.

A bit further on, in Austin at General Convention, the day I visited the anxiety there was heightened because the debate was Prayer Book revision.   You want to discomfit a convention center full of Episcopalians?  Talk about revising the Book of Common Prayer.

And then I met grief, as did each of you, when Ardell died.

When I think back over the summer, over all of these things, I realize I should be drained and famished, spiritually speaking.  Betrayal, disregard, violence, conquest, anxiety, grief: These are the things I visited on sabbatical.  But then, one doesn’t have to go on sabbatical to encounter any of these.  They are part and parcel to everyday life.  We need only turn on the news, or peek around the next corner, or get out of bed in the morning to find them.  Perhaps we should all be famished.  And yet, today I stand here with and before you, and I am full.  Each experience I had on sabbatical—both in my armchair and traveling far and wide—sustained me.  Why is that?  How can it be?

The last book I picked up on sabbatical (the one I am still reading) is Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie’s classic Tales of Old-Time Texas.  Dobie shares one tale about the ubiquity of cornbread in the wilds of old Texas.  Those who left their old lives behind to blaze a trail in Texas often suffered depredation and want; they encountered betrayal and loss; their souls, like their mouths, at times become so parched as to leave them desolate.  But every time it seemed that hope was gone, when they’d reached the farthest edge of the frontier, the weariest traveler would come upon some cabin or campsite and be offered cornbread.  Wheat was scarce, and even salt pork sometimes ran out, but cornbread was reliable.  When life was precarious, a kernel or two of corn ground into meal and mixed with a sprinkle of water was enough to sustain.  It was like a gift from heaven.

Sabbatical books

In last week’s Gospel lesson, five thousand hungry people were fed with fish and bread.  They ate their fill and felt good.  Their grumbling stomachs were assuaged.  Today’s Gospel lesson begins the very next morning, and the crowd is ravenous again.  The full-bellied satiation of the evening before has worn off, and the crowd craves for something more.  They follow Jesus doggedly across the Sea of Galilee, and one senses that their desperation is not of the kind that comes from missing breakfast.  Their hunger runs deeper than their stomachs.  The Gospel is trying to tell us something more here.  It is revealing to us what we already know in our own lives: that material sustenance—whether food, leisure, abundant things, or manufactured summer experiences—is always transitory.  It can fill us up and satisfy us for an hour, a day, or maybe even a season, but eventually we recognize that transitory things can’t nourish the spirit.  At best, they are like a faddish diet pill that merely masks the emptiness caused by the anxieties, griefs, and disappointments in our lives.

The crowd who follow Jesus around the lake want him to feed them again like he did the night before, to keep their gnawing emptiness at bay. But this time Jesus won’t give them something transitory.  Jesus says to them with a truth so simple as to be elegant: “The bread of God gives life to the world…I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Each of my sabbatical experiences could have ended with a gnawing spiritual hunger, an emptiness.  But none of them did, because in each of them I met Jesus.  Each time the landscape began to look desolate and the pangs began to throb, some kernel of grace, some sign of God’s very presence appeared.  In the often convicting Southern writing of Flannery O’Connor; in the fierce Catholic devotion of the Maltese people; in the anxious but ardent faith of Episcopalians in Bellville and Austin; in the vulnerable love of this congregation for Ardell Ray; in blessed moments with my family—in each of these Jesus was present this summer as the bread of heaven.

And so it is with all of our encounters.  At the very edge of our frontiers, when we are drained and empty and the landscape seems desolate, there is a kernel of grace to be found, it we will but look.  Jesus is always there, ahead of us on the lakeshore.  He meets us, assuaging our deepest hunger, filling our emptiness, redeeming our bleakest encounters and greatest challenges with God’s embracing love.  He is the bread of life, the very gift of God that never runs out.  And like those met in friendly cabins or around warm campfires, he is ours to share with one another.

It’s good to be home.  I’ve missed you all.