“Sophia and My Neighbor’s Van: A Violent Confrontation,” a sermon by Dr. Anthony Baker, assistant professor of Systematic Theology, given on September 17, 2009, in Christ Chapel
A Brief Explanatory Prologue
This sermon makes use of a pattern of typological exegesis common in the early church. In these readings, Sophia is read as a dimension of, or perhaps a synonym for, the Logos, and so her personification in Wisdom literature is taken as a cosmic telling of the story of the Incarnation. My reading is influenced by a group of Russian Orthodox writers, though they would want me to clarify whether I think Sophia is an earthly manifestation of the divine, or the Logos itself, or perhaps a name for the divine nature that all divine Persons share. I don’t clarify such matters here, because I couldn’t imagine how that would be important to the rhetorical task that this sermon attempts.
Even more than these Russians, the text most in my mind was Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and this my source for the image of the violated Sophia. Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightening contains the suggestion, which I borrow near the end, that Peter’s satanic intervention is really an attempt to get Jesus to follow him, rather than the other way around. The image of our suspension from heaven by golden threads comes from Plato’s Laws, and is his way of characterizing life in a liturgical city.
The only other acknowledgement that I feel I should make is to give credit to Professor Micah Jackson for the slightly “blue” line about Lady Wisdom’s annoying behavior. In using this line, I am trusting the skills of a gifted rhetorician. If it offends, I simply remind you that I, like Moses, am lacking in the orator’s art, and my Aaron, in this case, is officed a few doors down in the back corner of the McDonald building.
Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1
Mark 8: 27-38
It’s one of the more disorienting teachings of Christianity: the vast expanse of interstellar space, and within it this earth, our fragile island home, are only a dim and distant reflection of the beauty, majesty, and grandeur of the Garden of Eden. The main issue I take with Eucharistic Prayer C from the Book of Common Prayer is not its oh-so-seventies language, which has aged about as well as the “attacking the Death Star scene” from the original Star Wars. The trouble is that the Prayer speaks as if the universe searchable by telescopes, microscopes, and jet planes is identical with the one God created. The Prayer thinks when it looks out on the vast expanse, it’s looking at the Garden.
And there is a danger in the assumption that what appears at first glance to be the case is actually what’s true about the world. Not to be too hard on the Eucharistic Prayer, I’d rather turn a bit closer to home for an image of this common sense that turns into a hazardous sort of anti-wisdom. I’d like to call this way of thinking the Logic of My Neighbor’s Van.
My neighbor collects vans. I don’t know where he gets them, and I’m not sure I want to. But the game of guessing what sort of vehicle will be parked on the street in front of our house has become a favorite way for the Bakers to entertain themselves during the rush hour trips up and down I-35. Sometimes it’s a big red 15 passenger affair, sometimes a white van with a Budweiser logo on the door, sometimes a prisoner transport that warns ominously, “Do not come within 15 feet of vehicle.”
The current addition to our neighborhood, though, is my favorite. A big white bus that says on the side: “US Extradition.” And then the slogan, “Securing and Protecting all roads and avenues of extradition.” Now I wondered, first of all, what the difference between a road and an avenue is. But what really has allowed this van to become an object of interest and contemplation to me is that the Extraditors seem to have run out of words, and ended it up by repeating the name of the department within its slogan, which comes down to saying: “US Extradition: We’re here for Extradition!”
The logic of my neighbor’s van seems to govern an awful lot of the received wisdom of our age. “America exists to protect America,” “Democracy exists to further the cause of democracy,” “our money is here to make us money,” “health insurance is out there to make sure we have health insurance.” “The Episcopal Church must survive the current crisis so that there can be an Episcopal church.” “Gays and lesbians need to be ordained because then we’d have ordained gays and lesbians” —or sometimes, “gays and lesbians shouldn’t be ordained, because then we’d have ordained gays and lesbians.”
This is static thinking, ultimately conservative, regardless of where it lands on the political spectrum, because the goal is self-preservation. It’s summed up neatly in the phrase, cherished of CPE survivors and said with a shrug or-alternatively-a sigh, “It is what it is.” This little phrase really means, “The horizons of this issue are limited in reality to the way they appear to me at this moment.” In philosophical language, this is called reducing ontology to epistemology — but you may have to take Kathy Pfister to the Posse East for an explanation of that.
Today’s scriptures can be read together as a narrative of the confrontation of the Wisdom of Heaven with the Logic of My Neighbor’s Van.
The Wisdom of Solomon announces with great fanfare the arrival of the character who, under God’s direction, fashioned this creation. The Lady Sophia, divine feminine, is “fashioner of all things.”
She is more beautiful than the sun,
and excels every constellation of the stars.
She is intelligent, and holy.
She loves the good.
She is beneficent, humane,
steadfast, sure, free from anxiety,
all-powerful, overseeing all,
she pervades and penetrates all things.
For she is a breath of the power of God,
and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;
For she is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.
She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
and she orders all things well.
A universe ordered by such a royal queen would be wonderful place to live. We would find ourselves connected to the goodness and beauty of God by golden threads, and would live our lives in happy suspension from the overflowing heavens. I would love to meet this queen, and thank her for ordering the world that I am fortunate to call home.
And, as if on cue, she appears, in the text from Proverbs. I meet this queen of queens on the street, oddly enough, and I know that the knot in my stomach is going to make my voice quiver. I try a few practice lines: “Lady Sophia, I’ve heard all about you.” “Hagia Sophia,” I wonder? What’s the proper address? “The Very Sophia?” “The Most Very Sophia, welcome to your world?” But my rehearsals are all for naught-she’s not greeting her populous today. Instead, she’s walking about with a maddened eye, shouting through keyholes and banging on shutters.
How long will you fools hate knowledge?
Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
You have planted the fruits of malice, she tells them, and of self-assuredness, greed. Let the fruit that you have sown and tended like cherished children now be your food. Let the machines that you have built in order to consume everything in sight now turn on you. And when you call on me, your prayers will rebound off a silent sky.
I quickly duck into an alley and avoid this tirade. Hell hath fury after all, and it’s the fury of Wisdom’s scorn.
I wonder why Wisdom is turning out to be such a wise ass? This is a foolish way to behave-there are standards and protocols to be followed in the city, and she’s making enemies. She shouts again, “How long you fools?” Someone from inside a locked house calls back, “This is the world, get used to it! This is the way people treat one another, the way we use our money. This is the way things are. It is what it is!” And she calls back, “No it’s not what it is, because it’s no longer what I made it to be. Your city is not a true city, you are not truly people, your world is not a true world, and your wisdom is not true wisdom. I’m the mirror of God, and I don’t recognize my creation any longer.”
Finally, collecting my nerve, I approach the Heavenly Queen. As I come near, I see that her clothes are soiled and torn-as if she’s has been violated. I take her by the arm and stop her in mid march down the street. “Lady, why are you making them hate you?” I ask.
She turns and looks at me. “Who do you say that I am?”
“I know who you are,” I reply. “You are Wisdom, come from God, the hidden fabric of the universe. And that’s why you have to stop this. You should be on a throne, with crowds of people sitting at your feet-but this ranting is not the way.”
She turns her back on me and begins to walk away, but then stops again. “Get behind me Satan,” she says. “The Wisdom of heaven does not imitate the foolishness of earth. If you are my disciple, then follow me through these streets. You may lose this world,” she said, casting her arm about to the shuttered windows around us, “but you will gain the life I fashioned you to live.”
I stand for a moment, rooted in place. Was I right about her identity? Is it possible to recognize the Wisdom of God, but not recognize the foolishness of the world? Those people shuttered up in their houses seem pretty sensible to me actually, sitting at their tables, ignoring this street barker who wants them to give up everything for her.
What do I do now? Do I follow her, into a future that I can’t imagine or even really understand? Or do I slink off into the alley, assuming that this was all a case of mistaken identity? Who do I say that she is?
Ours is a community that gathers round wise words. Our story is the story of the Divine Lady, incarnate as the man Jesus. This story tells that the universe was crafted by these wise hands, made by God’s own Wisdom, which is a spotless mirror of his being. But the world that we look out on has come ungoverned by wisdom. The stars we see, the winds we feel, and the words we hear no longer witness directly to the craftsmanship of their maker. Wisdom is abused in our age.
But we are a community gathered round wise words. We have these scriptures, and two millennia of written and lived commentary on them that we call the church. That means that in this place wisdom must be given voice, and not drowned out by foolish banter that stubbornly insists that vans and people and cultures and institutions are what they are.
Here the light must shine in the darkness and the darkness must not overcome it. We must care for wisdom, even as she is handled roughly by this world. We cannot, however, care for her by protecting her. Our temptation may be to hear Christ speak in our sacred text, but then, like so many half-blind Simon Peters, to fix him up; to ask him to follow us, so that we can show him the right way to make a grand entrance on the public square of the age.
But Wisdom’s path goes a different direction. We stand today at the fulcrum of the gospel: So, Simon Peter, you recognize Christ. You know who he is. Will you follow him on the path to Jerusalem, or stay behind with the Messiah of your imagination, the one who might yet make nice with the powers and principalities? This call to follow will seem foolish, since it runs counter to the logic of a world that is what it is. We’ll be asking for whatever we get, when we start opening our doors on this street preacher. He’ll likely pester us about our lives being out of sorts with the grain of the universe. And then there we’ll go, off to Jerusalem to do something stupid. That’s the Wisdom of heaven, lived out on planet earth.
Who do you say that he is? We answer not only with our lips, but with our lives.