Year A, Proper 17 September 3, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth.”
Discernment is a funny thing. Do you know what I mean by “discernment,” in a religious context? It means divining, or understanding the will of God. It means hearing God’s call to you. Discernment means figuring out what are you supposed to do. God has something to do with that. As Episcopalians, we speak of discernment often in the context of discerning vocation, meaning figuring out if you are called to Holy Orders, to the diaconate or the priesthood, or perhaps to a monastic vocation.
Discernment is tricky business. Rarely is God’s will revealed in obvious ways: a burning bush or in being struck blind and hearing Jesus’ voice. That would be nice, but God’s will is usually revealed in more subtle ways, surfacing in the words of those we love, those who challenge us or those little niggling feelings at the back of your mind that we can and so often do, ignore. Sometimes it comes in a flash, an epiphonal moment of clarity and the whole world, or at least your understanding of it, changes. Sometimes it is a slow unfolding, the leisurely opening of a rose bud, or a tomato taking its sweet time to go from green to that first blush before it takes on the deep hallelujah red that makes hot summer days worth dealing with.
I have been in the midst of one of those slow-burn discernment processes for some time now. It is getting harder and harder to pretend that things are okay; harder to ignore inconvenient truths about capitalism and privilege, race and the climate, how thin the line is between civilization and chaos. How is authority exercised and how should it be? What do we have/what should we have respect for? What or who can we trust, and why? Fundamental questions are right at the surface, including right here at Resurrection. What is the purpose of a parish? What is the role of the faithful Christian? How does your knowledge and love of God, and God’s Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit inform you and guide you in the way of justice and truth? How?
I was pretty flustered leaving in late April. I had an inkling of how adrift I was, but as soon as I had some time and space in which to breath, I was startled by where I was, how thin I was spread, how confused about what was actually happening in our nation: Were we on the verge of tyranny? Was it embittered partisan hysteria? Both? Neither? Somewhere in between? Clarity is still elusive. But I did what I was supposed to do. I very consciously tried to put things aside and focus on just being. I focused on the here and now, the things right in front of me: Windy and the girls, a writing project, a piece of land, a garden and a home. I tried to be quiet, and I left the farm as infrequently as humanly possible. It is very quiet out there. But inside, deep inside, behind the veil of consciousness… busy, busy, busy.
So now I am back, and that slow burn, the behind the scenes churning, the kneading of the subconscious, which is God’s preferred medium of revelation, that slow burn is starting to reveal some fruits. Last week, I said that we are going to be spending some quality time with St. Paul the Apostle, because that is not something that we have done much of at least since I’ve been here. (And we’ve got weeks [and weeks] of his letter to the Romans ahead of us). And we’ll be doing that. Paul’s legacy is central, but it is just one aspect of what I am figuring out that we need to do.
“Christ is made the sure foundation.” That is one of our great hymns, and it points to what I am discerning a need for in this moment, or at least that is what I am feeling called to delve into in this moment and to offer. What did our ancestors believe? How did those beliefs, their understanding of the nature of reality, the nature of God and their relationship with God, how did that sustain them in their lives? How did it feed them in times of trouble and in times of peace? What are the “whats” and “so whats” that leads us to “now what?” How have the big questions been answered? There are big questions that have been asked time and time again over the ages in one form or another: Who are we? Where are we? What’s wrong? What’s the solution? What time is it? Fundamental questions. Foundational questions. And to make sense of world around us and our place and purpose in it, maybe what we need are some fundamental, foundational answers. We need reference points outside of ourselves and the polemical world in which we live. Post-modernity taught that no one is objective, objectivity is impossible… our public discourse has so embraced that notion that now even the most basic facts are subordinate to our opinions about those facts. It is so hard to tell what is true right now, and harder yet to know what to do about it or what to tell your children or how to look toward the future. Do you feel adrift? Untethered? Flapping in the winds of your own life and in the lives we share together? I do.
We need help. All sorts of help, and the help that I am feeling most pressed by, that I am feeling most in need of, that I am discerning is sorely lacking in these tying and chaotic times is a sure foundation. We need a rock, like Jesus declared the church would be built upon, on which to build our lives, our faith, our knowledge of the world and how to be in it. We need a foundation outside of ourselves, larger than ourselves and our worries, real and imagined, of this moment, in order to make sense of it all. We need direction in which way to face. We need God’s help if we are going to be of any consequential help to anyone else. As Christians, a great starting place that we have is this: the Church, God’s holy catholic and apostolic Church. The ever flawed vessel that the church is, still is the bearer of the Christian story. It offers a vision of a sure foundation, a starting point rooted in scripture, held up by tradition, by generations of our ancestors, and subject to inquiry and to the lived experience in our own lives and those that have gone before. It is not just the story of Jesus; not just the story of our ancestor Israel, it is the story of everything, answers to those big questions: Who are we? What is wrong? What is the solution? Well, the church is a bearer of that truth. You also have a direct line to God in Christ with the Holy Spirit, but I think we give ourselves too much credit if we think we can make sense out these things completely on our own.
In my own piety, my own practice and study, and in what I am doing here with you all, I am, as I said last week, going to be going a little more radical then I have been, that is back to the roots, back to our traditions and some of the more traditional teachings of the church. I don’t seek, nor will I try to offer definitive truths. We are Anglican, after all. Doctrine, teaching, that’s all fine and good but you can keep your Dogma, your definitive truth claims to yourself, thank you very much. And things change. Last week Peter was the “rock,” this week, “Satan.” But I am going to try to take in the teachings of the church in a new way, in a way more respectful of our tradition and the generations who have wrestled with all of this before us. I am going to try things on which I have dismissed in the past. Sometimes I have dismissed traditional teachings out of ignorance, just not knowing what the point was, not understanding the so what. Or that I hadn’t/haven’t experienced some of the trials and hardships, the fears that some doctrine attempts to address. Sometimes, more often than I like to admit, I have dismissed things because I didn’t want to deal with the consequences of accepting some of the teaching, the things I might have to give up or take on. Existential or moral laziness. When Jesus said to take up a cross and follow Him He can’t mean me? Or that cross, whatever cross I am being called to bear in my life. That’s hard. Or give up everything I own??? He can’t be serious. Well?
Sometimes I haven’t understood the teachings, not known what to do with them. And sometimes I have dismissed some traditional teachings because we got it wrong, we have evolved as human beings as have our cultures and we know better about some things, like human beings aren’t property, men don’t always know best and human love manifests in incredible variety; things like that.
This will be an unfolding process. We’ll try some things on, different ideas, different ways of understanding our world and our place in it. We’ll test some different hermeneutics or lenses, ways to look at the world. Some of it will make perfect sense, some less so, and some of it might seem irrelevant. But like the old Chinese men in East of Eden who learned Hebrew so they could understand the context of a single word, timshel, “thou mayest” in Genesis 4, we might learn that those little bits, those theological motes might make all the difference in the world, like timshel. That word teaches us that we have a choice, a choice between doing right and wrong. It is one of God’s great gift to us, the freedom to choose, revealed, more like hidden in a word mistranslated from the Hebrew into the Kings English.
Now we didn’t spend any time with Paul this morning. That’s okay. The 12th chapter, verses 9-21 of his letter to the church in Rome is as clear and straight forward a list of ethical instructions as any in our or any other holy text. It culminates in v. 21 with a rule to live by: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” You do have a choice. All of this, what the generations have to offer, can help; if you choose to take it. AMEN.