Sunday, May 20, 2007

Your Mileage May Vary

~ Sunday after Ascension Day ~
Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53
May 20, 2007 ~ All Saints Church
Today we hear in both the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel According to Luke the story of how Jesus’ ministry on earth ended. How after proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom to the oppressed and liberation to the captive, after being betrayed, crucified, and rising from the dead and after appearing to the disciples during the 40 days after his resurrection the radical rabbi from Nazareth’s final act on earth was to disappear from their sight in such a way that two messengers dressed in white (that’s code for “angels”) had to come tap them on the shoulder and say, “Umm … how long are you going to stand there staring up in sky? He’ll be back …now get to work.” They clearly didn’t really “get it” yet … and sometimes I think, neither do we.

The final act of the Jesus-on-earth drama -- The Ascension -- is actually something we refer to quite a lot but don’t really talk about very much. Many Sundays one or the other of us stands behind this very altar and says: “Recalling Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer you these gifts.” And when I was growing up every single Sunday we said together the Apostle’s Creed: “… he ascended into heaven, and siteth on the right hand of God, the Father almighty, from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” For years I thought that was a theological loophole I was happy to slip through – since I was always the last picked for the relay race team I definitely wasn’t “quick” and since I wasn’t dead yet I figured if Jesus came back sooner rather than later I’d be good to go. I swear I remember figuring all this out up in the Junior Choir loft in about third grade – I was a precocious theologian long before either knew or cared about defining theology!

The best definition I’ve ever heard of theology is one attributed to Anselm of Canterbury: he defines it as Faith seeking understanding. What that means to me is if we start our theological inquiry from our faith then there’s all kinds of room for our understandings to change, evolve, revise and expand while our faith remains rock solid. Now, not everyone buys that. I remember right before leaving for seminary being asked by a neighboring rector if I was worried about my faith being threatened by my impending theological studies. “No,” I replied. “Pity,” he answered. Well, I never liked him very much anyway -- and it turned out I was right … not about him but about the theology thing. In seminary lots of my understandings were “threatened” – challenged, undermined, rejected, even. But not my faith.
My faith in the God who loved us enough to become one of us and then died trying to show us how to love each other is the same as it was when I was trying to figure out the Apostle’s Creed in 3rd grade. I did manage to get the quick and the dead thing sorted out since then but I think I still have a ways to go on sorting out the whole Ascension thing. And frankly, it hasn’t made it to the top of my “things my faith is seeking understanding about” list.

So I appreciated these words of fellow blogger “pastordan” -- who was working out his own theology-of-the-ascension online this week: He writes “…the underlying ideas of the story are these: that Jesus is no longer with us in the same sense that he was before his death; that he will eventually return to judge the living and the dead; and that in the meantime he is "in heaven," "with the Father," whatever that means. I don't know if that whatever is physical or metaphysical or supernatural or what, and I guess I don't really care. The details will work themselves out. That kind of attitude will drive many … right around the bend. But as a faithful reader, how is not nearly as important to me as why.

I can concede that Luke and the other New Testament writers might have been wrong on the details. They weren't writing modern history, much less scientific treatises. I think they nailed the why, though: God loves us, God wants us to be with him/her, God knows that the time is not quite right for that to happen. I find the room to live ethically within that structure. Your mileage may vary.”
That’s what Pastor Dan has to say. And I say “Precisely!” My mileage may vary … and so may yours. My faith seeking understanding may come to a different understanding than your faith seeking understanding. But since what I believe is that when Jesus does come back to “judge the quick and the dead” what he’s going to want to chat about isn’t whether we were right but whether we were faithful I’m still good to go. I’m OK with different faithful people coming to different understandings – AKA “your mileage may vary.” And I’m even OK with the idea that I might be – horrors – wrong about something.

A few months ago I preached a sermon entitled “Jesus Saves” and in it I said that I’m the kind of Christian that believes if we think the point of getting to heaven is getting to heaven then we’ve missed the point of getting to heaven. And today I want to make a similar statement about theology: I’m the kind of theologian who believes that if the theology – the understanding our faith inspires us to seek -- becomes more important than the faith that inspires the seeking then we’re missed the point of theology.

Here’s how my favorite theologian – not Anselm of Canterbury but Verna of Dozier – put it: I will trust that if I move today by the light that is given me, knowing it is only finite and partial, I will know more and different things tomorrow than I know today, and I can be open to the new possibility I cannot even imagine today.

Knowing more and different things tomorrow than we know today IS the point – I believe – of theological inquiry that calls us always into greater understandings of the infinite love of the God whose ways are not our ways – the God who inspires such awe and wonder in us that at times all we can do is stand dumfounded like the clueless disciples staring up in the sky – there are moments when all we can do is contemplate the mystery of the cross.

When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died;
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

I want to suggest today that the pride we are called to pour contempt on is the hubris to think that any single living breathing one of us or collective of us … much less a Council or a Conference of us … can decree that our faith having reached a particular understanding in a particular time – developed a particular theology in a particular context – has the power to end the conversation for all people for all time. I want to suggest that there’s a theological term for that – and that it’s “hogwash.”

We must, I believe, strive to make the critical distinction between the faith received and the theology perceived. Our ongoing work here at All Saints Church around the theology of sacrificial atonement is a great case in point. Elaine Pagels was in the Rector’s Forum last week and what she said made SO much sense to me. “How were the early Christians to make sense of the crucifixion? How do you deal with that?” she asked. In other words “where was their faith seeking understanding going to seek to understand the incomprehensible?”

She went on to say that as the faith of those first century Christians “tried to salvage some deep meaning” they turned to the most obvious religious image close to them and that was the ritual of Temple sacrifice. In that context, sacrificial atonement as the understanding their faith found to understand the saving power of the cross makes sense to me. What doesn’t make sense to me is insisting that we accept it now as the ONLY acceptable understanding. It is not and never has been the ONLY way to survey the wondrous cross.
To insist that it is turns faith seeking understanding into theology seeking conformity. It confuses the faith received with the theology perceived and denies the Holy Spirit’s power to call us into those new possibilities we cannot even imagine today. It’s the tail wagging the dog on a dog that won’t hunt!

Here’s a more recent example. In 1994 a bishop named Bill Wantland explained to me that I had tremendous gifts for minstry but could never “be” a priest because I was “ontologically incapable of being an efficacious bearer of a sacramental presence.” According to Bishop Wantland’s theology of priesthood the very essence of my being – my “ontology” as a woman – prohibited me from exercising sacramental ministry. It’s still the argument many use to exclude women from priestly ministry and it’s the argument some have used to refuse to receive the sacramental ministry of our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

The problem for me – other than the obvious – is that the ontological incapacity of a woman to function as a priest is based on the 13th century writings of theologian Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was a learned, faithful man whose faith seeking understanding arrived at that conclusion based on the biology of his time. It was a time when women were understood to be biologically inferior men possibly – Aquinas speculated – by an ill south wind blowing at the time of conception. Whatever the reason – and no matter how absurd that all sounds to us today – one can see that a theology that made sense in a 13th century context may not make sense in … oh, let’s say the 21st century Diocese of Fort Worth!

The question being called right now in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion is can there be room for different understandings at the same table? Is there a place in the pew for those whose faith seeking understanding believe the cross is explained by the theory of atonement and for those who reject it? Is there room at the rail for those who do not believe a woman is ontologically capable of being a priest and for those who elected a woman presiding bishop? Is there room at Lambeth Palace for the Bishop of New Hampshire and the Archbishop of Nigeria? Is there room at All Saints Church for those whose faith has reached a different understanding than Ed Bacon or Susan Russell or Marcus Borg or Elaine Pagels?

I may still be working on the Ascension but on this one my faith has reached an understanding: Absolutely! The criterion for being part of this community of faith – this communion – is NOT agreement but relationship. To quote Verna Dozier one more time: “Don’t tell me what you believe … tell me what difference it makes that you believe …”

The Episcopal Church historically has been a place where the difference we make because we believe has been more important than the differences we have between what we believe. That is our strength. That is our history. And that is our legacy – a legacy that last week’s Episcopal Church ad in the New York Times described in these words:

“Episcopalians struggle with the same issues that trouble all people of faith: how to interpret an ancient faith for today… how to maintain the integrity of tradition while reaching out to a hurting world… how to disagree and yet love and respect one another. Occasionally those struggles make the news. People find they can no longer walk with us on their journey, and may be called to a different spiritual home. Some later make their way back, and find they are welcomed with open arms.”

The Gospel according to the Episcopal Church.

And now the Gospel according to All Saints Church: “Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith there is a place for you here.”
Your mileage may vary but your welcome at this table never will. Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.


Jim Munro said...

Theology, as you have described it, is a wonderful, faith enhancing tool. As a retired political scientist, I feel that the current divisions in the Church are more about power than about theology. . .Peace!

Bill Carroll said...

At a time, Thomas was also suspect of heresy for engaging (critically) the thought of pagan philosophers. If Thomas were alive today, I believe he would be engaging all kinds of non-theological discourse, including feminist theory and queer theory, as well as Marxism. He would engage these theories critically, but would strive to incorporate what was true in them into his own synthesis, just as he did the (sometimes sexist) teachings of Aristotle and other ancient philosophers. In his commentary on John, Thomas writes that "Every truth, no matter by whom it is spoken, comes from the Holy Spirit."

The bishop of Paris, Stephen Tempier, condemned 219 theses, including some teachings of Thomas Aquinas in 1277, and it took nearly 50 years for the condemnation to be undone. Now he is a saint (in our calendar, as well as in the Roman Catholic calendar), and is widely regarded as one of the eminent doctors (teachers) of the whole Church. There are conservative readings of Thomas, but these really betray the spirit of limitless quest for understanding at the heart of the great Domican's work. In the twentieth century, the best Thomists are people like Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan, who laid much of the framework for Vatican II. Rahner was an advocate of the ordination of women, and once compared the Vatican to the politburo.

Mark Jordan, a notable gay Roman Catholic theologian, who has written several fine books on sexual ethics and same sex marriage , has also written about Thomas.

Susan Russell said...

bill ... thanks for this! I remember writing a paper in seminary suggesting that if Aquinas was alive today he'd be an Anglican!

John in LA said...

brilliant. as always

Susan Russell said...

Awww, schucks John! :)

Actually, I had a little fun with this one myself ... both in the writing and the preaching.

Mystical Seeker said...

I enjoyed reading your sermon.

I've been reading the book "When Jesus Became God", by Richard Rubenstein, where he talks about how the church in the 4th century was engaged in a protracted struggle over Arianism versus what became the orthodoxy. I think that the lessons for today are clear. The biggest failing of the developing church orthodoxy at that time was that it allowed no room for sharing the church with people of different faith understandings. This raging intolerance, especially of people like the violent and Machiavellian Athanasius, has been a model for much of the intolerance that continues to this day. (Not coincidentally, Athanasius has been a hero for contemporaries in the right wing of these controversies, including the Anglican communion). Faith should never be about assent to a fixed set of beliefs, in my view. That kind of doctrinal rigidity ossifies a religion and takes people away from a living relationship with God.

Sharyn said...

Susan is too modest to mention that she received spontaneous applause from the congregation (at 9am---when I attended)...probably at 11 also.

The Church said "AMEN"