Planing the Grain of the Universe

Posted November 7, 2013 @ 6:55am | by Tripp

This was the sermon Trevor Bechtel preached at my ordination service nine years ago today. It still kicks my ass. Thank you, sir. (Note: To all others, be warned when you ask a Mennonite theologian to preach at your ordination service.)

This is a time of confusion. It is a time of division, of missed opportunities, of lack. It is a time of deceit, miscommunication and indifference. This is the time of the superabundant polyvalent aporia, waiting, empty, yearning to be filled.

There are places in which people know exactly what ordination means. They have appropriate symbols, rituals, processions, and liturgies. This is not that place.

There are times in which people know exactly what ordination means. They have the appropriate context, environment, attitude and history. This is not that time.

We stand, poised over the ruins of the church, with our backs glued to each other, searching among embers for some sign of that steady, secure, knot-free pattern which once knit us together in praise, worship, unity, and grace.

We crane our necks, our lips purse.

We search for the grain of the universe.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas introduced this metaphor in his Gifford Lectures a few years ago and has since turned the metaphor into the book "With the Grain of the Universe." This metaphor indicates that the universe has a distinctive grain to it just like the distinctive grain we find in a piece of wood - oak, maple or cedar - and that when one tries to go against the grain, we run into difficulties. When we attempt to recognize and work with the grain things go much better.

Hauerwas, ever the slippery theologian, spoke in these lectures about nothing other than Natural Theology - the idea that God's plan for the world is revealed in nature and that human reason can access this truth - while maintaining all along his continual emphasis on how the church must be the church, theology must be theology and Christian witness must be Christian.

Now, natural theology and what is sometimes called dogmatic theology are not usually brought together in this way. When we argue that Christian witness must be decidedly Christian we don't consider this a natural statement. It makes much more sense to us to argue that when Christian witness is intelligible, when Christian witness fits itself to society's ways of thinking and knowing, when Christian witness meets the best insights of science, reason, and logic that only then is it natural. An argument that Christian witness be Christian is considered dogmatic and unnatural. An argument that Christian witness be intelligible and reasonable is natural. This, sisters and brothers, is why I have named our time as a time of confusion. I believe, with Hauerwas, that the real grain of the universe is the pattern of life showed most decisively in the sudden pounding of nails into wood through flesh.

This is a story that many people are not particulalry interested in hearing. Still, it is the distinctive grain of the wood of the cross, not the grain of the judge's walnut gavel, not the grain of the banker's mahogany meeting table, and not grain of the mahajua floor of the oval office that lines up with the grain of the universe.

So this is a story about wood and the people that work with it. It is a story about recognizing that grain. It is a story about working with that grain. And often, when that grain is buried under layers of lacquer, paint, when that wood becomes encrusted with gold or bedecked with jewels as it has in much of today's world then it becomes a story of using the right tools to find that grain again. This is when we are called to plane the grain of the universe. Tripp, this is what you are being called to do today; to work with wood. Sometimes their work is obvious and predictable; sometimes it is surprising and counterintuitive. But I've gotten way ahead of myself, stories are best when they are told from the beginning.

So let's start closer to the beginning. Not with Eve and Adam and their trees, Not with Abraham and the sacrificial pyre he bound Isaac too. Let's start with Moses and the bush he found burning out of control. Moses is a good character to emulate if you are getting ordained. He is nervous to the point of angering God. Listen to him, "O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue." Moses here demonstrates a keen ability to speak in statements which contain their own proof. But eloquence is not what God wants in a leader. Eloquence gets you a golden calf. What God wants is faith. Faith that is not contained in the logic of this world or its speech. Faith and the ability to recognize the grain of the universe. The particular qualities of faith that Moses highlights for us are curiosity and trust.

Moses is open to the impossible and the bizarre. How many of us presented with Moses' burning bush would stop to investigate? It's easier to believe that this must be a particularly dense bush and therefore it's just taking a long time for it to be consumed. It's easier to believe that there is a bigger bush behind it that creates the effect of the lack of consumption. It's easier to believe that a small leak in a natural gas deposit has been ignited right in front of the bush giving the impression that the bush is burning. How many of us when walking by a burning bush like the one Moses saw would even notice that it was not consumed by the fire?

When God talks, Moses is willing to trust. Not at first, and not without a lot of questions, although as a good professor I'm going to say that all the good questions where one of the things that drew God to Moses in the first place. This is a beautiful trust, in part because it is a trust which has at its centre the simple revelation of the divine name. I AM WHO I AM. Moses receives his orientation to the grain of the universe in the simplest of revelations; a name - and a self referential name at that. But this simple revelation is also the most powerful gift God could give Moses for rather than any confidence in worldly wisdom, rather than laws or concepts, rather than debates or decisiveness this gift teaches Moses the absolute priority of trust.

This is important to the concept of ordination that I want to develop this afternoon. Ordination is not a special ontological status although you can count on yourself to change if you dare to speak for God. Ordination doesn't give any special ability to speak for God, about God, or in lieu of God. Ordination is not about exaltation, or victory, or confidence. The beautiful wood in this church was built to flow with the grain of the universe but there is no guarantee that it does. Too often the wood of the preacher's pulpit betrays its allegiance to the ways of this world instead of to the pattern of God. Too often the wood of the altar hides the justice it is meant to proclaim. Nothing about our buildings, our churches, our institutional structures guarantees anything. No denomination or confession has any special access to the divine, furthermore, and this is the important part, even if ordination or adherence to a specific creed or confession was revelatory of the divine, it would be nothing more than a hint of the grain of the universe, a name, something that only refers to itself. Nothing about our divisions is emancipatory. We sit this afternoon, surrounded by the ruins of the church, with our backs glued to our pews, searching among embers for a sign of that steady, secure, knot-free pattern which once knit us together in praise, worship, unity, and grace.

Anyways, this is the story of Moses learns the grain of the universe. Some of you may be frustrated with me by now. C'mon Trevor you are thinking, if you know me, or who the heck is this guy, if you don't. This is supposed to be a time to celebrate the church, to celebrate Tripp and to speak of the important role that we are ordaining him into. Instead you have taken us on one big thirteen hundred and seventy word downer. Well, I'm probably not going to be able to resist getting positive before the end of this sermon, but I am going to need to resist it for a while longer. Because the next chapter in our story is all about confusion.

It's the story of Nicodemus, the pharisee, a leader of the Jews. The grain of the universe is difficult to spot in this passage. It's not at all clear that Nicodemus is working with wood. Jesus points us to it, but only cryptically, in the wood that is hiding in the serpent that Moses picked up in the wilderness. You remember that in the calling of Moses, Moses had a staff and that God told Moses to lay it down on the ground and then it turned into a snake. Do you see how slippery the grain of the universe can be? Slippery and dangerous, for God tells Moses to pick up the serpent. Fortunately for Judeo-Christian history it turns back into a staff. This oblique reference to wood is really the only concrete example that Jesus gives Nicodemus. The rest of this conversation only indicates how little Nicodemus knows and Jesus seems fairly dim about the possibilities that Nicodemus will ever know more. The question is again one of belief. Can Nicodemus learn to trust the strange statements that Jesus spins out in this passage? "Are you a teacher of Israel and still you do not understand these things?"

Clearly the stern indictment of how workers in the world work with wood needs to take its turn resting on me. The grain of the universe does not become more discernible when it is mashed into a pulp, dried out in thin sheets, glued and sewn together, and printed with the words of academic discernment. The wood in my office isn't even wood. It's paper, and there is too much of it. So how do we find the grain of the universe?

"If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind"If there is anything distinctive about ordination, any reason why we should name Tripp as a character in this story, any hope for the church in the divided, postmodern milieu in which it finds itself in this third millennium, it is unity. Unity and humility.

For even Christ "who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross." Here the grain of the universe is made more obvious by a crimson stain.

Leadership in the church of the third millennium is, if it conforms to the grain of the universe, is no different than leadership has been in any church at any place at any time. The ordained person is marked not for glory but for humility, not for masterfulness but for servanthood, not for distinctiveness but for unity. I used the word, "aporia," at the beginning of this story. Us postmoderns love this word. It stands for wonder and amazement at the intricate holy mysteries, puzzle and confusions of existence. Aporia denotes a definite lack, like the lack we feel about the state of Christianity today, but it also denotes an attitude towards that lack which is eager to engage it.

We may not be able to be confident that we are working with the grain of the universe but our form of servanthood is a bold one nonetheless. It still seeks to take the plane into its hand and strip away that which distracts us from God's pattern. It still seeks to make that grain evident. It still looks for places where that grain is bursting forth. And at its most excited and hopeful it switches the meaning of the word. It ceases being a planing which strips away layers of deceit and, suddenly recognizing the grain, lifts off its surface and surfs along - like a hydroplane on a smooth lake.

I've seen Tripp work with wood in this way. In his curiosity, trust, and humility, yes, but even more decisively when his plays his mandolin or guitar. Tripp's music is a working with wood that surfs the wood's surface working with the grain and bringing praise to God. And Tripp's concern for the unity of the church is another obvious example. His work with the church of the reconciler, or my presence among you today is ample evidence of this. Not that the presence of a Mennonite is totally surprising among Baptists. But it bears remark when a Baptist goes of to an Episcopalian seminary, befriends a bunch of converts to orthodoxy, meets the Catholic trained Mennonite professor and is able to hold it all together.

Especially since this is a time of confusion. A time of division, of missed opportunities, of lack. A time of deceit, miscommunication and indifference. Our postmodern milieu doesn't hide the grain of the universe behind fire or snakes or legalism. It doesn't enhance the grain with a crimson stain. But the grain is there, waiting. We must look for it. We must find it. We must live our lives according to it.

This is the time of the superabundant polyvalent aporia, waiting, empty, yearning to be filled. Tripp this is your space. Grab your mandolin and start working the wood.

Thanks, Trevor.
I'm trying.

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