Untouched and Still Possible

I forgot to hit record on Sunday, so I present here a written text of my sermon (written after the fact from the chicken-scratch outline I use to preach, so those of you who were there, please excuse any differences).

My friend Susan shared W.S. Merwin’s poem, “To the New Year,” with me:

To the New Year

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

After reading this poem, I spent the week pondering what knowledge and what hopes are invisible before us, untouched and still possible. A powerful question for a moment in time when many of us are exhausted, and feel that the hopes of our age have been disappointed, and that knowledge hasn’t served us very well. 

I was fortunate, as I pondered, to find that the readings for this Sunday include a passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which he speaks of wisdom — “though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish.  But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” Richard Rohr paraphrases this passage in an interesting way, although I promise that when I share it with you, you’ll find it even more confusing than the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible’s rendering of Paul’s words. But don’t worry, the rest of this homily will be a long walk to help you understand what Rohr means when he puts the passage from 1 Corinthians this way:

“a wisdom to offer those who have reached maturity, not the philosophies of the masters of our age, but the hidden wisdom of God that we teach in our mysteries…things beyond the mind of humanity that God has prepared for those who love him.”(1)

In order to understand what Rohr means, we have to understand the world that Paul lived in, and the community that he spoke into when he wrote to the Corinthians. This was the world of the newly forged Roman Empire, which the great scholar Peter Brown calls the World of Late Antiquity. Rome became an Empire in 27 b.c.e., at the end of a period of civil wars when the ultimate victor of those wars, Octavian, made himself the Emperor Augustus Caesar. This was twenty-seven years, give or take, before the birth of Christ, and eighty years, give or take, before Paul wrote to the church in Corinth.

The advent of empire brought a load of unintended consequences. One of these consequences was that the aristocrats and established families lost a great deal of political power. They no longer controlled things, as they had during the Republic. So they had to start finding other ways to assert power, and they did so by becoming super, super local. They doubled-down on the traditions of whatever city or region they were from, and began to see themselves as the upholders of local customs. They built new temples to old gods, or restored old temples to their former glory. They got really insistent on enforcing local laws, laws that were particular to the place where they lived, but applied in very few other places. They even had their own currencies and monetary systems. And they did what elites always do, when they want to find some way to prove that they are better than everyone else — they found something completely arbitrary and used it as a form of social distinction. In this case, that arbitrary thing was the kind of Greek they spoke. Greek was the trade language of the Roman empire, but it was koine Greek. The disenfranchised elites decided to go back to speaking archaic Greek as a way of proving their sophistication. And they prized the authors who had written in that archaic Greek, priding themselves on their ability to quote long passages of ancient philosophers.

In contrast, the empire brought a lot of newfound freedoms to the lower classes. As Brown writes:

“The successful businessman, the freedman administrator, the woman whose status and education had slowly improved, found themselves no longer citizens of their accustomed towns, but citizens of the world.”

These people could travel widely through the empire, and they were constantly arriving in cities and provinces and finding themselves annoyed by all of the local traditions. They found themselves breaking weird, obscure laws that didn’t exist anywhere else, and trying to make purchases with currency that was worth less in Athens then it was in Corinth. When they tried to go to the brand new temple, or the beautifully restored shrine, they found that they weren’t wanted there, and that the worship was inexplicable to them, anyway. And they found that they were lonely. They had left their own towns and villages, where they were known and where they knew people, and were traveling through an impersonal empire, and they couldn’t go back to the traditions of the past, because the rich people had come in and claimed those traditions, and didn’t really want them to have any part of those traditions anymore.

I have been describing a time of great befuddlement and social confusion, and you would not be far off if you started drawing comparisons to our own time in your mind. When people find themselves in a time of befuddlement and social confusion, they tend to respond in some typical ways. There are some people who want to claim that there really isn’t any confusion, that everything is known and really just as it has been, and that if anyone is confused or uneasy, it’s because they’re refusing the knowledge that was given to them by the past, and that’s sitting right in front of them now, and it’s their own fault. This is a traditionalist or conservative response to cultural befuddlement. There is a radical response that isn’t much better. It starts with an assumption that there needs to be order, and if the old order isn’t working well, the thing to do is to tear it down completely, create an entirely new order, and impose it on everyone. And if some people want to reject it, they’ll have to be imprisoned or sent to reeducation camps or killed. There is, however, another possible response, and it’s the response that many people in Late Antiquity chose, including the church in Corinth that Paul was writing to.

You see, many of the people who found themselves free to travel and trade in a new way came from Asia Minor and Africa, from Judea and Egypt and parts further East. They brought their own gods with them as they traveled, but since there wasn’t a temple in which they could worship these gods, they banded together in small communities. These communities are known as “mystery cults.” When we hear the term “cult,” we think of the Manson Family, or Jonestown. But that’s not what the term meant in Late Antiquity. It meant a small, worshipping community that held initiation rites, shared meals in common, prayed and danced, and were buried together when they died.

And the Christian community in places like Corinth was one of these mystery cults. Some of you may be shocked by this assertion, but it’s true. In Christianity’s case, the initiation rite was baptism, the shared meal was the eucharist, there was praying and dancing in church, and people were buried together. I learned about this in college, and the professor who taught the course was later very surprised to learn that I had become a Christian priest, because she had made sure that we knew about the profound similarities between early Christianity and the cult of Mithras. But to me this was not a defect in Christianity, because the Christian mystery cult offered such a profound and beautiful response to confusion and befuddlement.

Paul, when he wrote to the Corinthians, suggested that, instead of pushing back against or trying to overcome confusion, they embrace it instead. This is the third option when we come into times of societal upset. Don’t try to control things. Don’t try to return to the past. Lean into the mystery. Dance with it. Enjoy it. Let it speak to you and shape you. For Paul, the answer to the problems of the age lay in experiencing the divine in the person of Jesus Christ. And when Christians gathered together for their sacred mysteries, they called that experience the Holy Spirit. Some people would call this foolishness, but the truly wise would recognize it as the most profound expression of God’s wisdom.

Can we embrace mystery in the same way today? Can mystery be the answer to the confusion of our age? I think the answer is yes, but not in a passive way. I’ve often heard people say that God is mysterious with a shrug, and what they really seem to be saying is, “if God is mysterious, why should I bother trying to understand?” But if we’re created in the image of God, we have that same mystery in ourselves, and most of us can’t help but try to understand ourselves. And, the base assumption is only half true. Yes, God is mysterious, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t understand. Let me return to Richard Rohr, who says this better than I can: “Mystery is not something that you cannot understand, but it is something that is endlessly understandable! It is multilayered and pregnant with meaning, and never admits to closure or resolution.” Ask a question of mystery, of God, and you will get an answer. Only, every answer makes you realize that there are ten more questions, that you can spend your entire life dancing with and playing with and being shaped by mystery.

Here is the hope for the world — not that we can force it to stand still — not that we can force it to exist under entirely new structures and dominions — but that most of it is mysterious, inviting us to dance and sing and eat with mystery. Or, as W.S. Merwin put it, “our knowledge such as it is / and our hopes such as they are / [remain] invisible before us / untouched and still possible.”

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