Refiner’s Fire

Fire has been in the news a lot lately.  This year’s wildfires in California have been the worst on record.  The Camp Fire alone burned more than two hundred thirty-four square miles, killed seventy-seven people, and consumed the entire town of Paradise (now ironically named) displacing a population of twenty-six thousand.  One viral video of a couple fleeing Paradise, driving down a street with sheets of flame rising on either side of the car, looked like something from Dante’s Inferno.  Fire destroys utterly.  It leaves only ash in its wake.

Paradise, CA fire

Paradise, California, engulfed by the Camp Fire

That destruction is why fire has been used as a means of choice, both metaphorically and literally, for punishment throughout human history.  The model for hell utilized in scripture was Gehenna, the smoldering garbage dump in the Hinnon Valley outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem.  Gehenna, always within sight of the city, perpetually belched flame and gas.  As an image of eternal punishment it was, thus, a powerful deterrent to bad behavior.  As this-worldly punishment, there have been times when those in authority used fire as the sentence for religious offenses such as heresy.  Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer himself, the author of the first Book of Common Prayer, was gruesomely burned at the stake by Queen Bloody Mary in 1556.

The awesome destructive power of fire and its association with punishment have led us to fear it.  The mere whiff of smoke, and we scramble to find its source and stamp it out.  We may be perplexed, therefore, when today the prophet Malachi tells us that God will send a messenger ahead of the nativity, someone who is to ready us for the coming of Christ, and that that one will be like “a refiner’s fire” whose very goal is to burn us.  How can that be good news of any kind?  How is that a herald we’d want to receive?  Oughtn’t we to stamp out that message as soon as we detect it, and go on with our lives lest we be surrounded by sheets of flame?

Thomas Cranmer

Last summer my family and I visited the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.  In addition to the grand house, the estate includes, among other things, a working blacksmith’s shop.  I’d never seen a blacksmith at work before.  He told us that the temperature in his forge was more than one thousand degrees.  The heat from that fire could be felt fifteen feet away.  Its pulsating, potentially destructive power was obvious and ominous.  The blacksmith took a small, dull ingot of metal, and as he spoke to us he periodically thrust the ingot into the fire.  In the meantime, he would hammer the lump of metal in a manner that looked to my eyes like nothing other than mindless pounding.  But as we watched, that dull metal began to take on shape.  And twenty minutes after the blacksmith began, it had become a delicate leaf, with striations and veins and a luster that seemed to emerge from nowhere.  What had been an opaque and formless lump was a thing of light and beauty.  Though I watched it happen with my own eyes, it seemed almost miraculous.

In our world of offices and service industries and virtuality, we’ve lost skills such as those of the blacksmiths and metallurgists, and consequently we’ve lost an understanding of the refiner’s fire.  An ingot is thrust into a refiner’s fire until it reaches a molten state, and then the dross of impure metals is skimmed from the top while the precious ore remains, and in the case of steel, stronger than it was before.  The refiner’s fire is not a fire of destruction, in other words, but of purification, and strength, and wholeness.  It is the difference between the slag and the leaf, between darkness and light.

There is one other thing to remember about fire, which we see in the springtime after a fire has consumed an area of land.  Though it reduces to ash, fire also fertilizes and makes way for new green shoots to grow from the soil.

And in these ways the Advent messenger is like the refiner’s fire.  Just as we’ve lost the skills of the blacksmith, we’ve nearly lost the spiritual wisdom that tells us, forthrightly, what we must do if we are to encounter, and embody, and be redeemed by the birth of grace into our world.  Within ourselves, in the depth of our very souls, we must plunge into the foundry and meet the refiner’s fire, so that the dross in us can be skimmed away and the precious ore of our essence be made stronger and lustrous.  But what does that look like in a human life?

Biltmore blacksmith's leaf

The Biltmore blacksmith, refining slag into a rose

Before he was famous, the brain scientist David Eagleman, well known to this cathedral, wrote a little book entitled Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.  The book consists of forty of Eagleman’s ideas of what the afterlife might be like, ranging from the whimsical to the terrifying.  One account he titles “Mirrors,” and in it he says of us, “When you think you’ve died, you haven’t actually died.  Death is a two-stage process [and you’re not completely dead yet…In life] you were much better at seeing the truth about others than you were at seeing yourself…So poorly did you know yourself that you were always surprised at how you looked in photographs or how you sounded on voicemail.  [But now, in this first stage of the afterlife,] all the people with whom you’ve ever come into contact are gathered.  The scattered bits of you are collected, pooled, and unified.  Mirrors are held up in front of you.  Without the benefit of filtration, you see yourself clearly for the first time.  And that is what finally kills you.”[i]

I suppose that’s both whimsical and terrifying: To look into the mirror honestly; to allow ourselves to see not our pretended motives, rationalizations and justifications for the things we have sometimes done or who we have sometimes been, but rather to see our true reflection from the perspective of the others with whom our lives have intersected, both intimately and casually.  That would burn.  It would sear.  It might destroy.  But it might not.  If we are people of faith, if we trust in the God who made us in love, then that mirror would not be the fire that consumes Paradise but rather the refiner’s fire.  An inward acknowledgement, deep in the foundry of the soul, of who we have been at our best but also at our very worst would allow us to see the dross for what it is and skim it away, preserving the silver, and gold, and steel which is our essence—the very image of God within us—which has always been beautiful and precious to God.  Such fire is not punishment.  It is not hell, and it is not forever.  It is, rather, the unavoidable path from the slag to the leaf, from dullness to luster, from darkness to light.

It is also what makes room deep within us for the incarnation of God, for the birth and growth of the Christ who is coming.  That is why the messenger comes now, so that the dross can be skimmed, the ash blown away, and new shoots of redemption take root within us when Christ comes.

This is hard work.  It is, indeed, easier to stamp out this message while the flame is only a flicker, to ignore it and carry on with our lives.  To heed the refiner’s message and encounter the refiner’s fire—to look upon the dross of our lives honestly—requires owning things about ourselves we’ve never owned before.  It requires taking responsibility.  It requires mending relationships when we can.  And it requires valuing that which is truly precious while letting go of that which dulls us to love and grace in the world.  We can plunge into this forge, but will we?  The work is hard, and it begins with it some pain, but it also brings with it, as Malachi says, the promise of Christ, “the covenant in whom we delight.”  It refines us so that we become the very manger in which Christ can be born.

[i] Eagleman, David.  Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, 43-44.

What is hope?

The final scene of the 2016 Star Wars spin-off movie Rogue One is one of the most celebrated in recent cinematic history.  The action takes place immediately prior to the beginning of 1977’s epic Star Wars.  The plans to the Death Star have been stolen from Imperial forces by daring rebels.  Darth Vader’s pursuing spaceship catches up with the fleeing rebels, and as doors are forced open Vader’s unmistakable and ominous breathing wafts through the darkness.  The rebel soldiers cower, and the next thing the viewer sees is Darth Vader’s blood red light saber, as Vader moves relentlessly toward and through the rebel soldiers, sowing mayhem and death as he goes.  Just as Darth Vader is about to reclaim the Death Star plans, the rebel escape ship ejects and flies away, out of Vader’s clutches for the moment, but frighteningly vulnerable and small in the enormity of space.

In the story arc of the Star Wars saga, that scene at the end of Rogue One is the nadir, the darkest moment, when all is but lost.  It is a cinematic moment similar to those chronicled in our Old and New Testament readings today.  In Daniel, the seer has chronicled a lengthy vision of competing nations vying for power and control, as regular people suffer as pawns in a child’s game played by grown-up men.  Regular people feel desperate, vulnerable, and impotent to control their own lives.  Their world is, indeed, an increasingly dark place.

Rogue One rebel ship

In Mark, Jesus stands on the Mount of Olives, looking across the Kidron Valley to Jerusalem and sees the massive Jewish temple—larger than any building we’ve ever seen or ever will see—and knows in his imagination what is coming: That soon the Romans will crush the temple to rubble, that the world as the Jewish people have known it is ending never to return, and that the ending will bring fear, disruption, and pain.  Worst yet, in the midst of it all, some will arise with easy, tantalizing, and soothing words that palliate for a moment, but do nothing to make the world a better place.

These readings hit home for me, as perhaps they did for you.  A world in flux, and not for the better, seems reminiscent of our own experience, writ both small and large.  I’ve recently been at the bedside of people important to me and to us, who are suffering and dying.  Images of wildfires in California, of scorched land and scorched people, sear the consciousness as they sear the landscape.  Three deaths at Lamar High School in the past week touch everyone in this room with, at most, one or two degrees of separation.  They are shocking because they are so close, but they are also hauntingly familiar, since we read about similar deaths elsewhere now as virtually routine.

And none of that even touches upon our ongoing national and international saga, in which community and conversation continue to break down as we silo with like minds and assume the very worst of anyone who disagrees with us, and as we become ever more fearful that any unguarded comment we make may fracture our relationships with those we love and those with whom we’ve built our lives.  “There shall be a time of anguish,” Daniel says.  That seems about right.  “The stones on which you’ve relied will crumble” Matthew says.  That seems about right.

SONY DSC

Rewatching that final scene of Rogue One this past week, seeing that tableau with the tiny speck of the fleeing rebel spaceship against the foreboding darkness of deep space, underscored for me how tenuous the future is for every generation, including our own.  But as I looked at that tableau of the little spaceship in the darkness it also brought to mind the aphorism, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

That saying is traced back both to England, when Thomas Fuller wrote it in 1650, and to Ireland, where it seems to have lived in folk culture perhaps forever.  It also turns out that, to some extent, the saying is more than a metaphor.  For half of each month—the two weeks immediately following a new moon—the moon can be seen after sunset but not before sunrise.  Just before dawn the moon is hidden, its light omitted from the night sky.  And so, half the time, just before the first glimpse of sunlight appears over the eastern horizon, it is literally darkest before the dawn.[i]

In the movie Rogue One, just as Darth Vader is about to overtake the last of the rebels and the small rebel escape ship ejects to tentative safety, a rebel soldier enters the little ship’s bridge and offers the Death Star plans to what appears at first to be an angelic woman dressed in white.  As she turns to receive them, we see that it is Princess Leia, with the youthful and radiant countenance we remember from 1977.  (That’s the wonder of digital technology today.)  The soldier says, “Your highness, the transmission we received.  What is it they’ve sent us?”  And the Princess replies with a single word, “Hope.”

Both Daniel and Mark foretell darkness today, but that isn’t all they foretell.  The saying “darkest before the dawn” includes the invocation of daybreak.  It assumes that the darkness will not last forever, that the emergence of light is not only expected, but assured.  It implies that final word from Rogue One, spoken from the lips of Princess Leia: “Hope.”

Princess Leia-Rogue One

What is hope?  Dictionaries will define it as “a desire for something to happen” or “wanting something to be the case.”  But those are secular definitions, synonymous with what we might call wishful thinking.  They certainly don’t fit the bill of what Princess Leia means with her movie-ending utterance.  For her, hope is the result of dogged planning, extreme risk, and grievous sacrifice by many.  Hope is born not of wishful thinking, but through preparation and participation in a future that is not yet.

Hope is not, in the end, a secular word.  It is the preeminent Christian word, the word that rightly defines us in the world.  At the end of today’s Mark reading Jesus says the suffering his people will endure is not the suffering of despair—what Viktor Frankl calls suffering without meaning—but the suffering of birth pangs, the suffering that is the prelude to new life.  At the heart of Daniel’s prophecy today is not anguish, but resurrection.  New birth and resurrection are sentiments of hope.

So what is hope?  Hope is, first, trust that God is up to something even when we cannot easily see it.  Hope is believing, even though things we cherish may crumble, as people we love may die, as old ways may burn away, that God is preparing for the birth of something new, both in our individual lives—in each of us—and for our world.  But that alone is not hope.  Hope is not merely the religious version of wishful thinking, the pithy gesture of “thoughts and prayers” so often heard today.  Hope also includes our trust and belief taking action, working doggedly in concert with God, taking risks and making sacrifices for goodness and grace in our individual lives and in the world.  Hope is not just something we have; it is something we enact, something we do.  Hope is preparation for and participation in a future that is not yet, because by our cooperation with God, especially in the moments when the stones crumble and the darkness seems most opaque, the not yet begins its birth, and the first glimmer of dawn emerges on the horizon.

Darkness is real, but it is darkest just before the dawn.  And the dawn begins to break when those who side with goodness and grace have hope and live hope.  Then, Daniel says, the very angels of God will arise and work with us in tandem.  The old may give way, but in its place God will resurrect; God will birth something new.  And we ourselves will shine, Daniel promises, “like the brightness of the sky…like stars forever and ever.”  That’s something worth hoping for.

[i] https://davidson.weizmann.ac.il/en/online/askexpert/sky-darkest-just-dawn

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.

_________________

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