Monday, July 28, 2014

The Sunday Sermon: The Leaven in the Lump

 When I started thinking about today's sermon, a couple of weeks ago, I had in mind a celebration of the ways the world has opened up to women and other oppressed groups. This week we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the first 11 women to the Episcopal priesthood, an act which was noncanonical at the time but which forced the issue and led directly to the full exercise of ordained leadership by women in the Episcopal Church. Last week the Church of England cleared the way for women to be consecrated as bishops, a decision which is already influencing other Anglican provinces to move in the same direction. The Old Testament reading reminds us that women were once handed over from father to husband, regardless of their own wishes, whereas today we get to choose our own life partners, at least here in the United States. Last Saturday's Pride parade was a wonderful celebration of the freedom of LGBTQ people to live and love as their hearts direct them and without fear, at least here in San Diego.

There seemed to be much to celebrate.

But at the same time, the world was having a very bad couple of weeks. Rebels in the Ukraine shot down a commercial airliner, killing over 200 men, women and children, including some of the world's top AIDS researchers. The tension between Israelis and Palestinians boiled over and Gaza became a bloodbath. ISIS started winning battles against the Iraqi army and occupied Mosul, threatening Christians in one of the world's oldest Christian communities with death unless they converted to Islam and driving them out of their homes. Horrible violence continued, unreported, in South Sudan and Syria. The epidemic of Central American children coming alone and undocumented across our southern borders became a public crisis with politicians and ordinary citizens alike taking sides over the proper response, leading to ugly scenes, protesters, shouting matches, and traumatized children stuck in the middle.

In the midst of all this, I had a conversation with someone who was deeply distressed by all that was going on. The immediacy and vividness of the news media, along with the 24 hour news cycle, exposes us all to constant trauma. We are hit by one piece of bad news and before we can recover or even begin to process it, we are hit by more bad news. This is soul-destroying stuff. The emotional response that emerges from such trauma may be rage: rage at everyone and everything. A terrible, paralysing helplessness that cannot be expressed except by anger but that is really fueled by grief and fear: grief over the overwhelming tragedy all around and fear that the world has spun out of control. We long to do something but we are strangled by the awareness that there is so little that one person or even one church can do. Where is God in all this horror? How might we perceive God working God's purpose out, the divine plan of salvation, in the twists and turns of human history? Why doesn't God intervene, cut through the tangle, and make it all OK? Perhaps Scripture has the answer. Surely the Gospel will have good news for us today. Jesus offers us a bouquet of parables: mustard seeds, yeast, hidden treasure, and a mixed catch of fish. The Kingdom of God, it seems, is made up of secrets, weeds, things that are buried, things that create fermentation and disorder. It's subversive, sneaky, and subtle. God's ways are not direct but devious. The Gospel tells us that we will not find the Kingdom of heaven by building monuments and enacting laws. We will find the Kingdom of heaven in the small, hidden places, the slow drip of water on rock, the relentless upsurge of life where it's least expected and perhaps not even welcome.

"The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened." You need to know that in biblical times yeast didn't come in sealed packages or foil-wrapped blocks. Leavening worked like Amish bread works: you take some of the living dough and you pass it along to the next person who feeds it and mixes it into more dough. The ancient peoples saw yeast more as we see mould. It was a dangerous and unclean substance which had its uses but was to be eliminated if you wanted a clean kosher kitchen. For Jesus to say the Kingdom of Heaven is like mould ...

Well, let's think for a moment about the millions of microbes that occupy our bodies - scientists say that of all the cells in a human body, only 10% of them are human cells. The other 90%, which together weigh only about 7 ounces, are foreign organisms, known as the microbiome, that live in, for the most part, friendly symbiosis with our own systems. For about the last 50 years humanity has been engaged in a determined effort to eliminate germs: bacteria are bad, microbes are malevolent, antibiotics are the answer. We have tried to eliminate the unclean. Now we are learning that much of the microbiome is beneficial to us. Yogurt manufacturers are telling us to eat probiotics, to replace the microbes we have killed off from our digestive tracts. Other microbes, found in the birth canal, are essential for the newborn baby's development of a healthy autoimmune system. Ailments from autism to lupus to peanut allergies may be attributable in part to the overuse of antibacterial agents. That which was considered unclean and polluting is being rediscovered as a provider of health and balance.

If those millions of unseen microbes can have such an effect on our individual health, perhaps there is something that we can do for the health of the world. Perhaps we can be the leaven in the lump.

The 11 women who were ordained to the priesthood in Philadelphia on July 29, 1974, were leaven in the lump of the Episcopal Church. At first they were regarded with disapproval, as something unclean and polluting of the church. Some Anglicans still feel that way today about ordained women, to the extent that they refuse to recognize the ordination of a man ordained by a female bishop, or even by a male bishop who has also ordained women. But for the most part, thankfully, our corner of the Church now fully embraces the unique gifts that women bring to ordained leadership. We have come to recognize and celebrate the life-giving qualities of the leaven in the body of Christ.

Last Saturday about 100 Episcopalians took part in the Pride parade, as members of our contingent. There were some 300,000 people at the parade altogether. I haven't been involved in an event that big since the marches for nuclear disarmament in the early 80's. We had a couple of convertibles, banners, flags, the Bishop, some placards, and about 20 clergy in black clerical shirts. Some of us had bowls of holy water with which we sprinkled the crowd as we walked. The response was astonishing. People chased us along the route so that they could be sprinkled. People ran up to the cars where some of the clergy were riding and begged for blessings. Some shouted thank you or simply cheered. One woman turned to her companion in wonder and said, "She blessed my baby!"

People who had been turned away from their communities as unclean and polluting were able to receive the love of God in Christ through the blessing of the church. People who had been judged, condemned, and separated from the life of the church received an assurance that nothing, nothing could separate them from the love of God. In the midst of international crisis and political gridlock we saw some local healing happen. The Kingdom of Heaven was palpably present in those drops of blessed water and in the exchanges of greetings and smiles. We were only 100 out of 300,000 but we were the leaven in the lump.

When we are faced with massive tragedy, bad news upon bad news, our hearts start to break. If we cannot bear the pain, we may wall off our emotions with anger and cynicism, to protect ourselves from suffering; but if we do, we risk also walling ourselves off from God's love in Christ, for it is in the suffering of Christ where we find, not an answer, but God's response to our suffering. And God's response, if we are able to perceive it, is to be present to us, to simply be there in the midst of it all, to be with us as leaven in the dough. Paul puts words to the situation. The Spirit intercedes, he writes, with sighs too deep for words. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No. Only we ourselves may effect that separation, and we effect it by refusing to let our hearts be broken by the pain of creation. In an ever-intensifying cycle, fear leads to anger and anger leads to violence and violence begets hatred which circles back to fear. But the Cross interrupts that cycle with love, and that love is available to us all, if we allow our hearts to be broken as God's heart is broken for the world, if we open our hands to receive what God is offering us. The other day I was asked to say some prayers for a young Navy man whose ship was about to be deployed. We prayed together, then I laid hands on him and offered him God's blessing. He went off to join his ship knowing that he is part of the body of Christ in this place, and that we will hold him in prayer until he comes safely home. Nothing is going to separate Emanuel from the love of God in Christ, while St. Paul's is able to keep the bond strong. You will hear Emanuel's name in the prayers of the people throughout his deployment and I invite you to add his name to your own daily prayers.

The ancient story of our spiritual origins, Genesis provides us with ample evidence that God's ways are not our ways, that the path to the Kingdom of heaven is more like a labyrinth than a Roman road. Today's episode is the story of two young women sold for the price of 7 years' labor each, the first contracted to Jacob in a conspiracy to deceive; Jacob the trickster this time the victim, stuck with not only the wife he wanted but also her less attractive older sister. Two weeks ago the story of Jacob and Esau told us how the younger twin tricked his brother out of his birthright and became the carrier of the covenant. Now the next chapter in the story of salvation is prepared. Leah will produce six sons for Jacob; only after that does Rachel become the mother of Joseph. It is Joseph who ultimately keeps the people of the promise alive by providing for Jacob's family in Egypt during a famine; but that is made possible only by the fact that Leah's oldest son, Reuben, had persuaded his brothers not to kill Joseph, and that Judah, Leah's number four son, had persuaded them to sell Joseph to slavers who later sold him on to Potiphar in Egypt. Oh, and it's Judah's line of descent that eventually produces Jesus.

If you were able to follow all that, the labyrinth should be looking pretty twisted. The kingdom of heaven is found in the small hidden places, in the redemption of betrayal and family tragedy, in the quiet prayer and the one pearl hidden in a bushel of oysters. The answer doesn't lie in the elimination of the bad stuff, because we don't always know what is bad and what is beneficial. Our hearts break for the brokenness of creation, but they are healed and uplifted by the leaven in the lump. And all the time, in the midst of war, oppression, and disaster, the Spirit sighs within us, reminding us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ, and that, despite it all, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us and gave himself for us and gives himself again and again in the sacraments of the Church. Thanks be to God.

July 27, 2014
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges 

1 comment:

Virginia Howlett said...

Beautiful,inspiring, true. I'm far away from St. Paul's today but feel so connected by these words of love, wisdom and hope.