The Purification of the BVM | Luke 2:21-40
*Preached at Grace North Church February 2, 2003.*
This sermon will be a bit of a departure from the text. I find there are only so many sermons you can give on the demonization of menstruation in the history of religions, so I've decided to reach farther afield than the assigned theme for this week, and I hope you'll forgive me. In the name
Last week, after I taught my first two classes at the Chaplaincy Institute (the interfaith seminary I have so recklessly thrown my lot in with), I was invited to stick around and check out some of the other classes. I thought this was a good idea, you know, get the lay of the land, an idea of how other instructors handle their classes, etc. I was pleased and delighted to discover that one of our guest presenters was a woman from the United Religions Initiative, or the URI for short.
I have to say, I'm very excited about the URI. It is the only organization in the world set up so that people of all faiths or none can stand together and speak with one voice on matters of human rights, peace and justice, and international equality.
It all began several years ago when a notable character in our community's history, Bishop William Swing of the Episcopal Diocese of California had a flash of insight. There is a United Nations, which does much good in the world-why is there not a United Religions? So, gathering a small group of people in his living room, he described his vision, and the United Religions Initiative was born. From that small beginning, and the encouragement of that tiny circle, he set out to visit the Pope, the Dalai Lama, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and many other religious leaders to garner support for his project.
As the vision grew, though, so did the realization that such an organization could not possibly succeed if it was built from the top down. After much discernment and consultation, the little group decided on a very different way of going about things. They decided to go congregational, in our terminology. They decided that the basic structure of the URI would consist of the free association of autonomous Cooperation Circles.
The beauty of this system is that no one gets to say what a Cooperation Circle actually looks like. So any group, anywhere in the world, with 2 or more members can declare themselves a Cooperation Circle, affiliate with the URI and schedule their own events with no interference from any larger structure. A Cooperation Circle can be a parish that is open to people of diverse faith traditions. A Cooperation Circle can be a collection of elderly ladies in Wisconsin who meet once a month to knit and discuss the Dalai Lama's latest book. One Cooperation Circle right here in Berkeley is a Wiccan community that facilitates active listening dialogue between liberals and conservatives.
The woman from the URI told us about one Cooperation Circle in Israel who had invited eighty Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Druse women to live together in Nazareth for 48 hours. For two days the women studied each other's faiths, prayed togeher, danced and sang together, did yoga and meditated together. They shared their lives, suffering, hopes, pain and dreams with one another.
She also told us that the URI had recently held its first global assembly in Rio de Janeiro, attended by 300 delegates representing 185 Cooperations Circles from 47 countries, belonging to 80 distinct religious traditions.
The effect on the class was electric. It struck me during the presentation on the URI that, well, of course there should be an organization such as this. What moved me was not the fact that one was being formed, but that they seemed to actually be doing it right. Community starts at the bottom, and grows up; it can't be dictated from above. It was a structure in which none were excluded, in which each member has an equal voice, and none are more equal than others. It made me want to be a part of it, to help it succeed, to help it change the world.
Such talk terrifies my mother, of course, who can't get enough of the LEFT BEHIND series of books and is certain that any interfaith organization is the harbinger of the antichrist. But what can you do? She likewise objected to my studying world religions in my doctoral program, insisting that such studies would "confuse" me.
In fact, however, just the opposite has occurred. What I discovered in my many years of studying our sister faiths is the amazing congruence of their teaching, rather than their exotic distinctions.
More than that, whenever I would venture out and explore another faith in-depth, I invariably came home to my own with much greater understanding and compassion. It was only after studying the Tao that I really GOT the mystical Body of Christ. Only after grasping the Hindu system of avatars that I understood the Incarnation. It was only after I grasped the Buddhist doctrine of dependant co-arising that I really felt a part of the Communion of Saints.
I do not think I am in any way unique. The experience of richness found in studying our sister faiths is a common one. No less an authority than Thomas Merton said, "The holy man of our time, it seems, is not a figure like Gotama [Buddha] or Jesus or Mohammed, a man who could found a world religion, but a figure like Gandhi, a man who passes over by sympathetic understanding from his own religion to other religions and comes back again with new insight to his own. Passing over and coming back, it seems, is the spiritual adventure of our time."
It is a journey to which all of us, in the 21st century, are being called. One reason I am proud of this community is the openness toward other faiths that you have always shown. I mean, what other parish could I possibly give sympathetic sermons on nihilistic existentialism, Hindu iconography, or Zoroastrian dualism?
We are able to do that here, I think, because we possess something that appears to be in short supply in the "real world," and that something is VISION. When Mary and Joseph entered the temple they were met by Simeon, who, although blind in the conventional sense, nonetheless possessed great vision. For when he encountered the Christ-child, he was granted a vision that exploded his religious paradigm. He saw BEYOND THE BOUNDARIES of his religion; he saw the truly new thing that God was working in the world. He saw that in the gift of this child, the distinctions between Jew and Gentile were to be dismantled. He saw that the wall between who is IN and who is OUT was being torn down.
To borrow a riff from St. Paul: In Christ Jesus there is no longer male or female, respectable or criminal, Jew or Gentile, gay or straight, saved or unsaved, us or them. Now there is only US. One community of the earth, with no outsiders, one world, one fate, one insistent cry for freedom, justice, equality, and inclusion.
Simeon was brave. He didn't say, "I can't proclaim such a vision, it is heresy!" For surely it was. He simply and bravely spoke the vision he beheld. He saw beyond the boundaries to a new sort of world, and he proclaimed it in the temple.
It is no secret that Bishop Swing is a controversial character in our community. But I have to hand it to him. Whatever his failings as a human being, whatever he has done to injure any one of us personally, I also believe that he was given a vision by God. He saw beyond the boundaries of institutionalized religion, and he spoke that vision bravely, and the world is better for it. And the full fruits of his efforts have not even begun to blossom.
We here at Grace North Church are also a people of vision. Like Simeon and Anna before us we have seen BEYOND THE BOUNDARIES of denominationalism, of heirarchical power, of ideological conformity. We have been granted a vision of the Community of Grace, and in our halting, imperfect ways, we are making it a reality. I am proud of what we are doing here. I am proud to call you my friends; I am proud to call this my church.
But we are not through yet. As Pastor Robinson said, "There is yet more light to break through from the Holy Word." I believe God still has work for us to do. I believe we need to keep our eyes peeled, and remain open to whatever may come, for there are still boundaries we have yet to see beyond. Of course, we are not aware of them yet, but when they present themselves, what will we do? Are we comfortable being what we are, or are we truly visionaries, ready to follow where the Spirit leads?
When you pray, this week, I invite you to pray for Vision. That's Vision with a capital "V". I invite you to ask God to shatter your religious categories, to grant you a vision beyond the boundaries of your comfortable faith. As Meister Eckhart once said, "I pray God to rid me of God for the sake of God." Only when our preconceptions of who God is, what salvation is, and what Heaven is like have been irrevocably shattered can we see with any real clarity who God really is, the incredible gift salvation holds for us, and where the Community of God truly resides.
But be careful. Jesus did say, after all, ask you ye shall receive. The only thing you can say with any predictability about God is that he is bound to surprise you. He's not a TAME lion, Lucy, but he's good. And I am certain he's got a surprise or two for us up his sleeve. But don't blink. Let's keep our eyes open, so that we can see the Vision when it comes. Let us pray
God of every tribe, nation, and faith; the One source unto which we all one day return, we crave spiritual clarity, we hunger for truth, but too often our vision is obstructed by culture, society, and often, our own woundedness. Grant us the vision of Simeon, to see beyond the boundaries of conventional religion, beyond the boundaries of acceptable society, beyond the boundaries of our own fear and fragility. Give us not only the eyes to see such a vision, but the courage to speak it, and the will to live it. For we here strive to be a true Community of Grace, where there are no outsiders. And we ask this in the name of One who likewise saw beyond the boundaries and calls us to likewise leave them behind, even Jesus Christ. Amen.
*With thanks to Shawn Madigan, CSJ, whose Holy Family sermon provided the wonderful image off Simeon "seeing beyond the boundaries" and so inspired this sermon.*