Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost - September 16 2018

Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
September 16, 2018
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Proverbs 1:20-33; Canticle: Praise of Wisdom; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

We get two very messages about Wisdom today, don’t we?  In the first, she says she will laugh when calamity strikes because the people have turned their backs on her teaching and her cries.  We are encouraged to consider what is the wiser course as we go through our lives, or there will be consequences.  Who can doubt this?

Unfortunately, sometimes when we are foolish, the consequences may not be borne by us, but by others.

But in the Canticle, we hear Wisdom extolled, praised, lifted up; she is able to transform, she enlightens, she orders all things well.

What choices!  Follow the way of Wisdom and all is beautiful, follow the way of foolishness and ignorance, and all is a disaster just waiting to happen.

Which one will you choose?

It does raise the question, what or who is Wisdom?  Many Christian theologians equate her with the Second Person of the Holy Trinity – the Christ.  That is because (1) we are told she was present at Creation; and (2) are also told that Jesus, the Son of God, was the Word and present at Creation – in fact all things were made through him.  Therefore Wisdom is Jesus. 

Yet Wisdom is also female.

During the second half of the Middle Ages, when the Moors conquered the Iberian peninsula by the end of the first millennium, they brought with them ancient texts of Greek philosophers, including Aristotle.  The only reason we know as much as we do of what Aristotle wrote is because these texts were brought by the Moors into Europe.  They had been translated from Greek into Arabic, and now were being translated from Arabic into Latin.  The early church had destroyed as many pagan texts, philosophical texts, as they could, but some were saved by being protected by the Moslem rulers. 

Life is weird that way.

Thomas Aquinas was a 14th century Dominican monk/theologian/ philosopher who worked with these texts as he wrote his many books  and commentaries, the most well-know of which was Summa Theologiae.  He wrestled with world views very different from the medieval church’s, and worked hard to harmonize the philosophers with the Gospels and traditions he knew.  His work, and the work of his contemporaries led to new ideas, new art, and new technologies.  Some call it the Medieval Renaissance.

I cannot begin to summarize Thomas’ work or his ideas.  I just want to hold up his name, pin it to the wall, because he was a rational and thoughtful student, who did his best to systematically examine how we know God, how God is made known, and the necessity of rational thought in conversation with faith.

Now, you are probably wondering what that has to do with Medieval views about Creation.  Did Thomas talk about that? 

It depends on how you read him.  He spends a lot of time positing the existence of things, say dogs, and then works to find their ultimate cause.  For Thomas everything begins with God, so in a sense everything points to God.  That’s his focus, though, not mine today. 

My point is, that by examining ideas, existence, and things in the world in such detail, he is creating a habit of thought that sets the world apart from human beings.  He doesn’t intend this, I think; for him human beings are very much of the world, but the rational process separates us from most of nature, and brings us, ever so slightly, theoretically, closer to God.

In the Gothic period, when great cathedrals were being built, and the object of the architecture was to increase the height and the light within the churches, the eye is naturally drawn upwards.  Every Gothic cathedral “points” east, where the sun rises, in an homage of sorts to the Resurrection.  In every Gothic cathedral, the high altar is literally that – high, raised, above every other space.  One climbs up and up to the altar, just as one would climb the mountain of Zion.

Paul Santmire, the Lutheran theologian I mentioned last week, writes that in the late Medieval period, the prevailing view of nature/Creation was encompassed in an idea called “The Great Chain of Being.”  The Great Chain of Being imagined a vertical hierarchy, with God and Light streaming down from the heights of heaven upon the earth, and the things of earth reflecting that glory back heaven-ward.  The Great Chain also posited that there are essentially two levels of being: the spiritual and the material.  Humanity shares a spiritual status with God, but anything in Creation that is not human does not.  So God and humanity are on the spiritual level, even though humanity also has physicality, and the rest of Creation is only on the material level.  And since the object of our life is to ascend to heaven – as one might ascend to the altar in a Gothic cathedral – we will leave our physicality, our matter, behind. 

The idea is:  humanity is, at least in part, spirit; nature, in her entirety, is only matter. 

Once we accept that idea, now we can begin to consider nature as outside ourselves, we can begin to study it, and we can begin to use it without linking it to ourselves, without considering it holy.  And as we learn to work with non-human matter, with soil, with water, with stone, with metal, and start bending it to our purposes with technology, we are less and less inclined to consider it as having any value in God’s creation beyond its utility for human purposes.

I’m not saying that all the medieval people would have thought of it in this way, but certainly by the time that technology took hold with machines and commerce and exploration, by the time of industry was more common in factories than in homes, we were primed to ignore the wounds to the earth that our choices caused, because we never saw them as problematic.  Nature had become alien to us.

And so, our intimacy with the earth has diminished.  It is possible today to find people who have never walked on untamed ground, in a forest, by the sea, on wild prairie, or a high mountain.  We tour the national parks in air-conditioned comfort, never thinking about the people whose home those lands once were.  We have romanticized but not faced nature on her own terms.  Many of us may have read Henry David Thoreau’s On Walden Pond, but did you know that he went home on weekends and his mom did his laundry for him?  He was not far from civilization at all; he could walk into town in the space of a couple hours at most.  And when he finally took it upon himself to climb Mt Katahdin, Maine’s blackfly population sent him packing. 

Wild nature is uncomfortable and dangerous.  Therefore, wild nature must be tamed. 

Wild nature only exists to be used, whether as a park – where no one lives – or as a coal or gold mine or a vacation site – but never as itself.

In wide swaths of our society, the connection is broken between humanity and the rest of Creation; and that breaking began so long ago that we don’t even know how we got to where we are now.

The question is, where do we go now?  What does Wisdom, who was with God at the beginning of Creation, ask of us now? 


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