Sunday, September 15, 2013

Of Golden Calves and Lost Sheet: A Reflection Upon Priesthood


For the Rev. Coryl Lassen on the day of her Institution at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA

Create in us clean hearts, O God,
And restore a right spirit within us.

Today, in honor of Corrie’s institution as the newest Rector of St. Mark's, I would like to talk with you about priesthood, about what it means to be a church, about what it means to be human, and finally, what it means to trust God. Few sets of readings are more honest in their assessment of these things than the ones we have heard read today.

Our first story takes us into the wilderness where the identity of Israel was formed, where a people came face to face with their own deepest questions, hopes and fears. While Moses lived out one of the most incredible and life-changing relationships with God in all of sacred story, his brother Aaron served as Israel's first priest. To be a priest is to witness and affirm others’ life changing relationships with God.

But to be a priest is also to be embedded with the people God has given you, to care for them, meeting them not where they should be, but right where they are: old, young, rich, poor, healthy, sick, confident, frightened, wise, ignorant. Such empathy is an incredible gift, but it is not without challenges.

When the Israelites left Egypt and went into the wilderness, they were leaving a way of life that had formed their goings out and their comings in for 500 years, a civilization that had been formed in part by one of their own, Joseph, son of Jacob. In many ways, they were victims of their own success. In Egypt they had grown numerous, and so capable that they alarmed Pharaoh. The Bible talks about their being enslaved by Pharaoh, but I suspect they were also enslaved by their own competency, their own work ethic, very much as we in the United States are finding ourselves exploited today, not by our failure to work hard, but by our success. Success is the enemy of growth. Success wants to stop the clock, keep everything as it was, so instead of leading us down new paths, success creates a pile up. More work. More profit for the owners. More buildings. More supply cities. Once upon a time, people worked to make a living. Today, enslaved to past success, we work to subsidize billionaires.

Long ago, Israel was set free. Problem was, they had been in Egypt so long, they had forgotten their own roots: they had forgotten how to live in the wilderness. And when Moses disappeared for one of his long communions with God, they were left to fend for themselves. This is important. God has as much to teach us when we perceive in God to be absent as God does when we know God is present, and the Bible is full of stories about God's absence. I have talked about the absence of God stories with you already, and won't go into them again in detail; suffice to say, when people feel that God is gone, they tend to lose it. Control issues, especially, flare. Ask any saint: it's difficult enough to give control to God when God feels present. It's almost impossible when God feels absent. Political ideologies, computers, market theory, war, addiction, remodeling frenzies, social posturing, from the very greatest to the most petty, all these rush in to fill the vacuum left by a perceived absence of the Divine. If God is not in control, says this mind, then I must be in control, because if I am not in control, there are others waiting to control me. One of the reliable signs that a community has let go of God is that it breaks into warring factions that need some kind of joint symbol to bring them back together.

We priests, especially if we are doing what God has asked us to do, get caught in the middle of this very easily. We are asked to mediate between God and world, between the altar guild and the choir. We are asked to bring comfort to our dear ones who are suffering. We think that we can do it, and most of the time we can. But sometimes, well, imagine yourself Aaron with a whole lot of scared people who have a lot of gold that isn't doing them much good out in the middle of the wilderness, and they want their gold to be important since it was their last gift as they departed Egypt, to build a calf, not a full Apis bull or Hathor cow, but a calf, an icon to remind them of where they had been and where they had still to grow, and it was such a relief to pool all their goods in common and have something concrete upon which to focus…and, how could they know that the anger of God would burn hot?

Today is the day after Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of Atonement. Many Jews consider this the happiest day of the year. Yom Kippur is not so much my admitting that I have done wrong, but the experience of having God taking me back. Having the life changing conversation, and knowing that God is listening. As humans, we make mistakes. We make big mistakes. We worship gold rather than God. We treat nature as a personal feeding trough rather than a gift to be cared for. We are know-it-alls throwing our ignorance around as if it were truth. God knows that this is how we learn. This, in the words of Jewish educator Wendy Mogel is "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee." On this day of Corrie's institution, I wish all of us the courage to learn, to find the blessing even when our successes harm others and our failures make us ashamed.

Still, we priests often think we know more than we do. We often make pronouncements. And so God gives us 1 Timothy. Oh, the part we read today is inspiring: I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly. I say to you what I often say to myself: to receive mercy is not to receive knowledge. The act of being forgiven makes me only an expert in forgiveness. It does not give me permission to be bossy. But – having been forgiven his ignorance by God, the writer of the letter to Timothy (who probably was not Paul), goes on to behave like a know it all: he instructs men to pray, and women to dress modestly. In one of the most flagrant examples of Biblical bigotry, he writes "Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty." To attempt to control any human being besides oneself is idolatry, because it places my opinions above the will of God. Some men have problems with women. Some women have problems with men. This does not mean that God has problems with any of us. But like Aaron and the golden calf, it is a temptation for priests to build a faith community in the image of themselves. On this day of Corrie's institution, I pray that all your identities and all your prayers grow community of genuine and surprising diversity.

And finally we come to the Gospel and one of the most beloved images in Christendom: the lost sheep laid on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd and brought safely home. That's what we want our great high priest to be: the one who shoulders us, our fears and our burdens and brings us in safety to our senses.

As we have richly seen during these past months, it's not quite that simple. Even as Corrie has been our priest and shouldered our burdens, we have shouldered hers as well as she has made her way through a difficult course of chemotherapy. Which brings me to my final observation about what it means to be a priest and a Church.

We are living at a moment when the habits of the last 500 years are going away. We are at a point of transformation as profound as the age of Copernicus and Galileo. If their age gave us the revelation that Earth was nothing more than another planet revolving around the sun, and overthrew the triumphal cosmology of the Catholic Church, our new age, the age of Darwin, kicks us out of our humanistic self centeredness on an isolated planet by giving us back to the universe. We are not the masters of nature, but the keepers of nature, fully embedded in the natural world. We are formed of stardust. We are a species. Every bit as much as a woodpecker, a river otter, or an iguana, our ability to thrive depends upon the health of the earth. In this world, it is not Church against science; it is Church together with science in the new wilderness of learning what it means to live according to the law of nature rather than the golden calf of our own invention.

God has known this from the beginning. As Isaiah says: "A voice cries out: in the wilderness prepare the way of The Lord."

In the wilderness, nothing is lost. Nothing is wasted. And thus, in the ecology of faith, Jesus comes to bring the lost sheep home. There can be no 99 and 1. There must be 100%.  And this is my prayer for you and Corrie: that for you all, this community will be your home. That you grow and flourish. That you learn to trust God and live well. For that is what the priesthood of all believers is all about.

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