Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Homily: December 3, 2008 [Our Lady of Guadalupe]

The most recently released Bob Dylan album [Tell Tale Signs] has a song on it I’ve wanted to hear since word of its existence spread early in this decade. It’s called “Red River Shore”, and it was recorded for but left out of Dylan’s 2001 disc, Time Out Of Mind. “Red River Shore” is a song about human pain, disappointment, and longing. In the final stanza, the song’s speaker tells of “a man full of sorrow and strife” who could bring dead people “on back to life”. In passing he wonders aloud about this man in these words:

Well I don't know what kind of language he used
Or if they do that kind of thing anymore

This verse seems to be a description of Jesus by a man who has only heard a rumor about him. The phrase that continues to stick with me as I think about “Red River Shore” is those lines, “Well I don't know what kind of language he used / Or if they do that kind of thing anymore.” Even as he tries to imagine someone like Jesus, the man in this song wonders first about what kind of language he used. We all, it seems, want to hear someone talk to us (even about hard things) in words we can understand.
“Let it be with me according to your word.” That’s what Mary said to Gabriel when she was told about the noble but hard ministry God had appointed for her. “Let it be with me according to your word” might also best describe the interaction between the Virgin of Guadalupe and Juan Diego on the hill Tepayac at her apparition on December 9, 1531. The Virgin spoke to Juan Diego in his native language, Nahuatl, asking that a church be built on this hill in her honor. Juan Diego ran to tell the courtly Spanish bishop, Juan de Zumarraga, about the vision, and the bishop asked for a sign that he could recognize, which is itself a kind of language. Juan Diego returned to the hill and the Virgin told him to pick the flowers, which turned out to be the finest springtime Castilian roses growing in early winter. More than that, when Juan Diego put those roses in his tilma, they left the imprint of the Virgin’s visage on the inside of his cloak.
“Let it be with me according to your word.” The Virgin spoke in Nahuatl to Juan Diego and in the language of Catholic symbols to Bishop de Zumárraga. In response to the hunger which Bob Dylan expresses for someone to talk to us of life and love in a language we can understand, we have a story about miraculous cross-cultural communication, a kind of Renaissance Mexico version of Pentecost. No wonder the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe has become Mexico’s national celebration of religious and cultural identity. Cynics might see this story as an exercise in cultural imperialism, the Roman church appropriating the images and language of Aztec culture on which to overlay Christian teachings. But a more hospitable reading of the story would suggest that this legend exemplifies what Christians have done in every age and setting—that is, to appropriate the idioms of indigenous culture to give local expression to the Gospel. Strictly speaking, Christianity has no culture at all outside of the local ones it has come to inhabit. When is the last time you heard Aramaic spoken in church?
“Let it be with me according to your word.” All of us long for a connection with the ultimate, and all of us long for that connection to be made in words and images we can understand. The task of the Christian community has always been to find ways to live out the story of Jesus in words and images that people can relate to. That we tend to get wedded to particular cultural expressions of Christianity—the northern European idea of snow at Christmas or lilies at Easter, the Mexican fiesta of an Aztec Virgin—is a sign that we, as particular finite beings inhabit particular cultures. The grace in all of this is that God comes to meet us where we are—on a hilltop in Galilee, in an inner city homeless shelter, on a mountain in Mexico.
These past few weeks I’ve been reading a book of essays by a British art critic and novelist named John Berger. In his book The Shape of a Pocket, there is an essay about the French painter, Theodore Gericault, an artist who spent the final years of his life painting portraits of the inmates of a Paris psychiatric hospital. Here is what Berger says about these portraits:

Between the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life, the empty space, the gap, is enormous. The desolation lies there, not in the facts. . . . In such gaps people get lost, and in such gaps people go mad. --John Berger, “A Man with Tousled Hair” [Géricault] in The Shape of a Pocket, p. 176

Like the line about Jesus’s language in Bob Dylan’s song, something about these sentences in Berger’s essay leapt out at me and has stayed in my consciousness over the past several weeks. There is an enormous gap between the “experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet” and “the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life.” It’s in this gap between experience and narrative that so many folks in the world experience life as loneliness, oppression, loss, guilt, pain. The master narrative of our culture, until recently, has been that everybody (at least everybody who matters) is doing all right. If you weren’t doing all right—if you were poor or depressed or sick or grieving—then there was something wrong with you. As my late friend and former teacher John Snow of EDS used to say, the dominant myth of American life is Social Darwinism. If the idea of “survival of the fittest” doesn’t work for you, then the master narrative no longer explains your experience. Presto, you fall into that gap.
Taken in this light, it seems to me that one way of understanding what happens in the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, what happens on that hillside Tepayac, what happens when the Virgin speaks to Juan Diego in Nahuatl and to Juan de Zumarraga in roses—what happens is that God meets and addresses us in that gap. To the man singing of grief and loss, God speaks in the language of the here and now; to the Aztec peasant and the courtly Spaniard, God speaks in the particular language appropriate to the head and the heart. It’s no wonder that Mexicans have made the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe their national holiday: at its center it’s a celebration of the gracious and innumerable ways in which God comes out of Godself to meet us, to address us in that gap between experience and narrative.
I became a Christian when I was in college, and the reason I became a Christian, frankly, was that in the dark days of 1968—political assassinations, riots in the cities, an intractable war in Vietnam, escalating racial tensions in our nation—for me the prevailing narrative accounting for our shared experience of pain did nothing to explain that experience to me. It was only as I was addressed by the Gospel, a narrative that does explain my and our experience more than any social doctrine or political philosophy can—it was only as I heard the Gospel addressing me in my own culture and language that I heard a narrative which closed the gap between my experience and our national mythology, it was only then that I was addressed by God in that gap and called out of it into a new understanding of myself and the world. For me, Christianity’s greatest gift was that it made me cease to feel crazy. A God who could come among us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was a God who made sense to me, and still does.
What I’ve described as my own experience of conversion is, I believe, something like what happened to Juan Diego on that hillside: living in the gap between experience and public narrative, Juan Diego was met and loved by God in the person of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and henceforth he and his nation had a new story by which to make sense of life in all its height and depth, joy and sadness, pleasure and pain. This festival is important then precisely because, as a cultural festival, it reminds us that God’s primary ministry to us in the here and now is a narrative which makes sense of our experience. Unlike all the bad ideas afloat in our world right now, the Gospel is trustworthy and it makes sense. It is what God offers us, and what we offer the world.
As we gather this morning to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe, let us give thanks for the various ways, both in Mexican and American cultures, in relationships and experiences of grace, God steps in and pulls us out of that gap. God spoke to Juan Diego and Juan de Zumarraga in words and images that made sense of their experience. That was the Virgin’s gift to them then, and the corresponding grace and power to do that for the women and children and men in our lives is God’s great gift to us today. As we gather around Jesus’s table, let’s give thanks both for the Virgin’s witness and our calling to make her presence and the presence of the One who sent her real in the lives of the people we touch. Amen.

Sermon: Trinity, Fillmore, CA November 30, 2008 [Harvey Guthrie's 60th Ordination Anniversary]

As I have thought over the course of the past few weeks about this celebration of Harvey’s ministry, I have wondered about what it would feel like for Harvey and Doris to be packed into a crammed church hearing someone extol their virtues, and my mind was drawn fairly quickly to one of the great moments in American literature—I refer, of course, to Chapter 17 of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in which Tom, Huck, and Joe Harper find themselves actually attending their own funeral. Here in part is how Mark Twain describes it:

As the service proceeded, the clergyman drew such pictures of the graces, the winning ways, and the rare promise of the lost lads that every soul there, thinking he recognized these pictures, felt a pang in remembering that he had persistently blinded himself to them always before, and had as persistently seen only faults and flaws in the poor boys. The minister related many a touching incident in the lives of the departed, too, which illustrated their sweet, generous natures, and the people could easily see, now, how noble and beautiful those episodes were, and remembered with grief that at the time they occurred they had seemed rank rascalities, well deserving of the cowhide. The congregation became more and more moved, as the pathetic tale went on, till at last the whole company broke down and joined the weeping mourners in a chorus of anguished sobs, the preacher himself giving way to his feelings, and crying in the pulpit. –Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Chapter 17

Now asking someone like me to preach at an ordination celebration for Harvey Guthrie is like having a piano festival for Vladimir Horowitz and asking Liberace to play. You know we’re both in the same business, but our relative abilities don’t quite match up. Nevertheless, I shall try my best to draw such pictures of “the graces, the winning ways, and the rare promise” of our honoree and to skip over “the rank rascalities, well deserving of the cowhide” that by the time we come to the Litany only some of us will be “reduced to a chorus of anguished sobs.” Ushers will be standing by with both modesty cloths and smelling salts for those of you who find yourselves “slain in the spirit” or otherwise overcome with emotion.
So here goes!

Harvey chose today’s Bible readings because they are among the ones appointed for the ordination of a priest. These are great readings, and there are a number of ways in which they exemplify the ministry which Harvey and Doris have lived out over the last sixty years. As Numbers reminds us, God’s work is done not by imperial individuals but in community. Ephesians carries that observation forward and describes the church as the literal body of Christ, a community--as Richard Norris said-- which Baptism creates. A priest, as Harvey knows well, is not a magical shiny being from another planet. A priest is a person who lives the baptized life in such a way that others are invited into it and empowered to claim their agency as agents of God’s mercy, blessing, and justice in the world. And so if we hear John 6 in that spirit, it’s not only Jesus who does the will of the One who sent him; nor is it the deacon or bishop or priest. If a priest is using her gifts aright, all of us—Moses’s 70 elders, Paul’s brother and sister members of the Body, Jesus and his companions—all of us are working in concert to enact a vision which is corporate and social before it is individual and pietistic.
Now Harvey knows all this stuff, and you do too, so those readings will stand and speak for themselves. But because Harvey and Doris are both activists and readers, and have spent this 60 years living out not only a Biblical but a social and cultural ministry too, I’d like to share with you two quotations from my own recent reading which have made me think more deeply about Harvey and Doris and their ministry. One is from a fourth century Christian theologian. The other is from a 21st century left wing art critic. Taken together they both roughly approximate the scope of the Guthrie family passions and concerns.

In 397 A.D., the Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine, wrote a guide to Christian interpretation of the scriptures, called De Doctrina Christiana—“On the Christian Doctrine”. One of the knottier problems for early Christians was how to read the Old Testament. Do we read it on its own terms or as a prequel to the Jesus story? And how do we deal with all the unsavory stuff in it? Here is how Augustine addressed that in Chapter 15 of Book 3:

The tyranny of lust being thus overthrown, charity reigns through its supremely just laws of love to God for His own sake, and love to one's self and one's neighbor for God's sake. Accordingly, in regard to figurative expressions, a rule such as the following will be observed, carefully to turn over in our minds and meditate upon what we read till an interpretation be found that tends to establish the reign of love. Now, if when taken literally it at once gives a meaning of this kind, the expression is not to be considered figurative. Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, Book 3 [Chapter 15.3 “RULE FOR INTERPRETING FIGURATIVE EXPRESSIONS”]

So here is Augustine’s argument. Since we now live in the new dispensation (where charity reigns) every statement in the Bible points us toward loving God for God’s own sake and for loving our selves and each other for God’s sake, too. So Augustine says that you no longer need to read the Bible literally UNLESS the literal sense at once points you toward the love of God, others, and self. Fundamentalists please note. Hateful stuff in the Bible must be entirely disregarded. ONLY that which points us toward charity and away from “the tyranny of lust” (by which he means all our negative aggressive impulses) is an appropriately Christian understanding of the Bible. As he says, we are “carefully to turn over in our minds and meditate upon what we read till an interpretation be found that tends to establish the reign of love.” If you can’t get to the reign of love from the passage you’re reading, then you’re not reading the Bible correctly.
Now after you’ve all stopped texting your fundamentalist friends with this news, think for what it says to you about Harvey Guthrie’s hermeneutic. I have been listening to Harvey preach since the Fall of 1973—in fact he preached at my ordination, my wedding, and at my installation at Seabury. If he can hang on to do my funeral, he’ll have captured the brass ring. In all the Guthrie sermons I’ve heard—and especially in the ones that I have plagiarized—I’ve never heard anything said that does not, in Augustine’s words, “tend to establish the reign of love.” So point one about Harvey’s particularly priestly ministry has to do with the way he reads and teaches and proclaims the Bible. It is all done in service of the reign of love, the love of God and self and others for God’s sake, which is the animating principle of his and Augustine’s ministry.
The second passage from stuff I’ve been reading recently comes in a weird little book of essays on art by the British art critic and novelist John Berger. In his essay on Théodore Géricault Berger discusses the painter’s late life series of portraits of inmates of a Paris psychiatric hospital, and makes this intriguing observation:

Between the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life, the empty space, the gap, is enormous. The desolation lies there, not in the facts. . . . In such gaps people get lost, and in such gaps people go mad. --John Berger, “A Man with Tousled Hair” [Géricault] in The Shape of a Pocket, p. 176

Now it helps, of course, that Berger is (like Harvey and Doris) a leftist writer who looks at all art from the point of view of the oppressed, but there’s something in that phrase about the gap between “the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life”—there’s something in that phrase that captures what Harvey in his priestly ministry and what Harvey and Doris have lived out in their lifelong habits of advocacy and witness on behalf of those who inhabit the gap between private experience and public narrative. Until very recently, the public narrative in the First World has been that everything is all right. We’re all doing well. But Harvey and Doris have known for years that everybody isn’t all right and isn’t doing well, and they’ve given of themselves not only in Ventura County but in Ann Arbor and Cambridge and no doubt in New York City and White Plains before that to stand with and stand for those who find life in that gap intolerable.
So it seems to me that these snippets tell us a bit not only about Harvey’s priestly ministry and Doris’s baptismal ministry; they tell us a bit about what priesthood and baptism are really all about in the first place. Part of what priests do, is to gather people liturgically, to preside and bless and give thanks. But we do that, as we witness this afternoon, in the service of something else—as Augustine would say, “for God’s sake.” One pole of that priestly vocation is to preach and proclaim and lead and gather in the service of what Augustine calls “the reign of love.” But so that doesn’t become too vague and general, we have the other pole of the priestly tension, the service of those who inhabit what John Berger calls the often intolerable gap between “the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life”. Most people on this planet live lives that the relatively affluent likes of you and me cannot even begin to imagine. Harvey and Doris have lived their entire adult lives in the service of those who are up against it. And they have done that not only because they know both the joy of that reign of love and the pain of that intolerable gap. They’ve done that because, even living in very grandiose and prestigious environments, they have never forgotten where they come from. And they know the truth which all of us too easily forget to remember, that without the grace which constantly upholds us, you and I can quickly fall into that gap ourselves.
That they have done this all so cheerfully is what makes this day even better. Moses only tried it for 40 years, and fairly early on in the process he asked for divine intervention. Most priests live their lives somewhere between the pulpit and the altar. Harvey has expanded that priestly repertoire to include both the study and the kitchen as well. When I think of Doris and Harvey and what they have meant in my life, all of it is finally centered around meals. The way they create community at their own table. The way they serve and feed those who are both figuratively and literally hungry—seminarians, parishioners, friends, relatives, and especially those who are up against it. And through all of it, of course, there has been an easy kind of Percy Dearmer liturgical elegance—what Harvey once described to me as a liturgical style of “relaxed formality”. I hope that the Guthries don’t feel too much like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, but I’m glad I’ve been allowed to bloviate for a bit on their graces and winning ways. (Of course, if Congressman Gallegly had given this oration, there would have been more talk of rascalities and the cowhide.) Harvey’s and Doris’s lives exemplify what it can mean to do joyfully the work of the One who sent Jesus. As we commit ourselves to the ongoing doing of this work, let us once again put our feet under the table with Harvey and Doris, and join them in giving thanks. Amen.