After the Three-Legged Stool, This

Sermon, Clergy Day 11/3/11
Commemoration of Richard Hooker
The Rt. Rev. Paul V. Marshall, Bishop of Bethlehem

Would you, with all your gifts and talents, want to be remembered for a piece of furniture? I thought not, so let’s mention the three-legged stool and move on.

As our own Phil Secor and countless others have reminded us, Richard Hooker was no mere pragmatist or compromiser. He was a theologian. As John Booty has pointed out in his Reflections, some of Hooker’s major themes are community, worship, and sacramental completeness.

Just coming from All Saints Day, we have had occasion to think about “happy are they,” happy being a limping translation for makarios, a Greek word for that state of completeness, integrity, and way-beyond-good-feeling that the gods enjoy. Hooker’s explication of community and worship were not so much meditations on the Elizabethan settlement as they were exploration of what it takes to make people “happy.” For him the answer was wholeness of relationship to God and society.
 
The Church was, for Hooker, a special locus within general society where mutuality and cooperation were manifest. In his time people argued about the “marks” of a true church, and it is instructive to imagine how those lists would have changed if mutuality and cooperation were benchmarks against which each body tested itself and others.

Mutuality and cooperation. That is not a pragmatic formulation from the mind of one who sought peace at any price. These words reflect how Hooker understood the universe: “God has made nothing for itself.” (Sermon on Pride)

In a famous passage in the first book of The Laws, Hooker points to the whole cosmos working together in all its parts, concluding that our attention to the facto of fundamental created interrelatedness is “the stay of the whole world.” Do we do our part to keep the cosmos humming smoothly?

Our times demand that we add emphatically that Christ the reconciler is the center of that world. For Hooker, our response to recognition of the truth that the world is centered in fundamental interrelatedness is worship, awe, and…wonder. Hooker is way ahead of us is anticipating that delightful prayer that concludes the baptismal rite, asking for the new Christian, “the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” To be makarios, happy, is to have the joy of contemplating God’s creation of a universe of interrelation. That will preach 411 years after his death.

That attitude of wonder is Hooker’s “needful sword” to slice through the knot of eucharistic theology. After, all, one cannot come to the table doing math. Hooker the communicant was ready to leave Hooker the academic at home and came as his more basic self when he came to communion:

“Why should any cogitation possess the mind of a faithful communicant but this, ‘O my God, thou art here, O my soul, thou art happy.’”
 
Hooker considered the shape of the liturgical container for this experience of happiness a non-trivial matter. Rather like Jacob’s Dream or a Gary Larsen cartoon about the afterlife, Hooker imagined worship as including a kind of two-way escalator, with angels constantly bringing down truth, and taking back praise and prayers.

Occasioning such an event was not to be an off-hand matter. Book Five of the Laws has historical and theological concern for liturgy, but it argues for the maintenance of public form and private freedom in a highly pastoral way (and forgive me here for reading from my dissertation of 30 years ago). Hooker says that fixed liturgies work to help that imbecility and weakness in us, by means whereof we are otherwise of ourselves the less apt to perform unto God so heavenly a service, with such affection of heart, and disposition in the powers of our souls as is requisite. To this end therefore all things hereunto ap­pertaining have been ever thought convenient to be done with the most solemnity and majesty that the wisest could devise. It is not with public as with private prayer. In this rather secrecy is com­mended than outward show, whereas that being the public act of a whole society, requireth accordingly more care to be had of external appearance. (V.21.1)

Imbecility. Participating in a common liturgy invites me to confront my own randomness, immaturity, and lack of direction by letting the rite, the cosmos, the community, and my apprehension of those escalator angels shape me. Imbecility ministered to by majesty.

There is a warning here. We who are asked to lead the church must always care for our imbecility through liturgy and personal prayer, as Hooker says. And care for the imbecile next to you.

Care for the imbecile next to you. I have spent many years now noticing chatter, sometimes even running commentary, by clergy and other church leaders gathered for public worship. I have seen crowds talking away while world-class musicians have played world-class music. I have known some of you to tell me that you won’t sit by so-and-so because you cannot worship through the constant chatter. Let’s respect the imbeciles around us. Some may be bearing heavy burdens; others may be struggling to see light; still others may trying to lose themselves in adoration of God.

I’ve wondered why we do this. Is it anxiety about not being in the driver’s seat in this liturgy? Is it difficulty in accepting that other people have ways of functioning that reflect integrity as much as ours do?  Or is it a defense, a defense against the numinous or even a defense against our doubts? Is it a way to cut God down to size?

In any case, Hooker calls us to transcend such behavior so that the neighbor and we ourselves are more free to notice the angels going up and down, receive what they bring, and load up their pouches with our praise and prayer. In this, he says, we will be happy.

Remembering Richard Hooker is remembering that ultimately God makes us happy by making us connected, connected to the universe, our maker, and each other. He invites us to discipline ourselves for wonder, to care for our imbecility and the imbeciles around us, that that all may say, “O my God, thou art true; O my soul, thou art happy.”