Wednesday, December 3, 2008

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.


larsguthrie said...

Great, Gary!

I was really intrigued by Berger's insight into 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." (I also read your Dylan/Virgin of Guadalupe piece and see you are, too.)

larsguthrie said...

Also forgot to mention that my associations with Harvey and Doris are centered on communal eating. They're still hosting bashes for all of us in their eighties!

Anonymous said...

Lovely sermon, Gary. Child is father to the man. Later, Lou said...

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