Saturday, February 10, 2018

Homily: David Cunningham Memorial Service [February 10, 2018] All Saints, Pasadena

            I have not seen David Cunningham in a while, but my memories of him are good and strong.  As different as our interests were we often found common ground in sharing our experiences of having gone to UC Berkeley in very different eras and our enthusiasm for bike riding and other vigorous activities. (I regularly marveled at the way he would ride from Pasadena to Newport Beach and back.) I am not and will never be a sailor, but you could not spend much time with David without experiencing first-hand his love of the sea.
            I remember David as not only physically vigorous but interpersonally compassionate and gracious. As a natural introvert, I marvel at those so at ease in the world. Even a cursory look at the short biography printed in the service leaflet will suggest the range and scope of his friendships and affiliations. David was a man of the sea and a man of his world.
            As time as gone by, I suppose the greatest way I have come to see David is through his children. It has not been my fortune really to know David, Robert, and Lesley, but I count Alexandra, Sarah, Mollie, and Dan as good friends. Whatever great professional and personal achievements David may have attained, his seven children and thirteen grandchildren provide more than a legacy: they are an ongoing gift to the world and a testament to the kind of person he aspired to be.
            We are gathered this afternoon both to give thanks for David’s life and to bid him goodbye. There will be time at the reception to share more personal memories and anecdotes. But right now it is time to reflect together for a bit on how we make sense of David’s life and death in the light of some more transcendent realities. We have heard four readings just now—three from the Jewish and Christian scriptures, one from the Buddhist sutras—and I ask you to join me as we think briefly together on what those texts might have to say to us in the wake of David’s passing.
            The readings from the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes and Buddhism’s Wisdom at the Time of Death sutra help us understand that you and I human beings are caught up in something that is larger and more mysterious than we can finally ever take in. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. . . . a time to mourn, and a time to dance. “ Therefore, says the preacher, there is nothing better for us “than to be happy and enjoy [our]selves as long as we live.” [Ecclesiastes 3: 1-13] In a similar vein, the Wisdom at the Time of Death sutra reminds us that “All entities are impermanent and illusory/Cultivate the understanding of non-attachment.”
            It is the shared wisdom of the world’s religious traditions that you and I are finite, fragile, dependent creatures. Though our culture tries mightily to convince us that we can be ever powerful and always in control, the facts appear to be otherwise. We all naturally want to have lives of happiness without pain, and we all naturally want to arrest the flow of time and fix things in the moments when we had things exactly the way we wanted them. But both the biblical and Buddhist traditions want us to see things differently. “For everything there is a season.” “All entities are impermanent and illusory.” We cannot control either time’s flow or its effects. We need to enjoy life as it is and cultivate non-attachment.
            The first truth we hear today—and it’s a hard one—is that David did not spend his last years in a way that either he or we would have wanted or predicted. He was diminished during those years, and his children had to exercise a great deal of proactive and compassionate care on his behalf. And if we are attentive to what scripture and sutra are saying, we will resist the temptation to see the whole of David’s through the lens of his final diminishment. Instead, if we hear those texts aright, we will learn to see both David and ourselves in all our fullness and will honor the entire sweep of time as it flows through all our lives.
            That’s the first truth, and here’s a second:  in Matthew’s gospel [Matthew 7:24-27], Jesus invites us to become like the wise person who built their house on a rock: “The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.”  Surely these verses are here to remind us that David, like the wise person, was a builder. But more importantly they serve to show us the other side of what Ecclesiastes and the Wisdom at the Time of Death sutra are saying. Yes, life is transitory and impermanent, and yes there is a season for everything, but it is also true that how you and I spend our lives and our time matters. We can neither control our lives nor fix our times, but we can, over the course of a lifetime, be part of something greater and incrementally build something that will survive us. Our buildings may or may not outlive us. But our compassionate deeds, our loving relationships, our going outside of ourselves on behalf of others—these things will last and will become something like the house that did not fall in the onslaught of rain, floods, and winds. We are transitory and impermanent, but the people we love and the things we cherish survive us. And that is no small legacy.
            And this second truth leads to a third, suggested both in Buddhist and Christian text. “All phenomena are naturally luminous and sacred/Cultivate the understanding of seeing things as they are.” “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” It is not only that we do not control time or events. It is also that even in the midst of them we fail fully to understand them. To live faithfully is to live in acknowledgment of the limitations of our perception and in hope of a truth that will be revealed. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians, we see only partially. Our hope is that we know fully once all things have been revealed. For David as for all of us, death opens us up to a contemplation of what he called “the mysteries of the universe”.
            While you and I await the ultimate unveiling of those mysteries, we can learn to trust and live into the luminosity and sacredness of all things now. In our dim mirror view the transitory and impermanent things of this world usually grab all our attention, while the enduring ones often escape our notice. As we reflect together on David’s life and death, we get a glimpse of that ultimate truth: here, now, we can enjoy life as it is given to us. We can experience the luminous and sacred joy of life in our connections with each other and the world we have been given to share together. For now, we know only in part. But when the complete comes, we will know fully.
            The death of anyone we love—even when expected--is always a shock, but inside that shock lies an invitation to see into the depth and the meaning of life. We are finite and fragile, but we are not alone. We are invited to build the houses of our lives on the rock of the love which lies at the heart of the universe. And we are invited to look and move into the depth of that love as we move from the dim mirror of life’s distractions to the offer to see God and each other face to face.
            I have seen the impact of David’s life revealed in the kind of friendships he treasured and in the wonderful children and grandchildren he has given us all. Life and death are mysteries, but every once in a while we get to pull back the veil and get a glimpse of things as they are. I am grateful for this glimpse of the larger truths into which David’s life has drawn us, and I will always treasure his great gift to us all of the ongoing blessing of his children and grandchildren in the world. For David, and for those he knew and loved, we proceed now, together, to give thanks. Amen.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Homily: The Second Sunday after the Epiphany [January 14, 2018] Trinity, Santa Barbara

            The last several weeks have been trying ones for everyone here in Santa Barbara. The Thomas fire—now the largest in recorded California history—seemed to take over our lives for days without end. Then last week’s rain came and caused much more death and devastation—not here in Santa Barbara, but in Montecito, Carpinteria, and points south. The entire community is suffering and on edge—either because of what people have lost themselves, or on behalf of what others are going through. And it is particularly weird that life in Santa Barbara proper seems so normal, while there is extensive destruction only a few miles away.
            As with personal tragedies, so with social ones: all of us are at a loss for exactly the right thing to say. Like Job’s pious friends in the Bible, we are often tempted to make some kind of religious sense out of suffering and loss. “It’s all part of God’s plan” is a phrase that never brought comfort or healing to anyone. And it’s not even religiously orthodox. The God we meet in the Bible does not deal in pious nostrums. The God we meet in the Bible is right in there with those who are up against it. The fires, floods, and mudslides are not part of some divine strategy. They are disasters, and the real faithful response starts when we say, with Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  As my late friend Bill Coffin said when his son died, with all this death and destruction, the first heart to break was God’s.
            To say that God refuses neat simpy slogans that explain away pain and that God suffers and laments with us is not to say that we are without hope. But Christian hope, like resurrection faith, does not stand in a vacuum. Christian hope, like resurrection faith, comes out of real suffering and tragedy and loss. If we are open to life and experience, we will find God in the midst of all this mess. But we must start looking for God as and where we are. And right now, where we are is in a mass of loss and confusion and pain.
            So if we are not going to call these fires and floods God’s plan or God’s judgment, where are we going to find meaning or comfort or hope? For me, it’s always best to start with the gospel, and the one we have this morning is from John [John 1:43-51]. It is the account of Jesus calling Philip and Nathanael. It may seem far afield, but let’s see if this strange and slightly funny story might have something to tell us about how to be and move on from where we are.
            According to John’s account, early in his ministry Jesus decided to travel from his hometown Nazareth to Galilee. He has already called Peter and Andrew, and he next chooses Philip and says, “Follow me.” Philip goes to his friend Nathanael and says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Now Galilee was evidently hipper than Nazareth, because Nathanael responds with a real put-down: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael, the arch urban sophisticate, wants nothing to do with the country bumpkin, Jesus.
            I have always loved the next part of this story, because it so true to human experience. Jesus tells Nathanael that he saw him under the fig tree. Not a big deal to us, but apparently convincing to Nathanael, who suddenly drops his skepticism and just like that believes. And then Jesus says this:
“Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. . . . Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
            Jesus cuts through Nathanael’s cynicism to make this astounding offer: if you follow me you will see more than miracles. You will see “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending” where you are.
            This image of heaven opened and angels going up and down may sound like mere words to us, but it would have been immediately recognizable to any first century Palestinian Jew like Philip, Nathanael, Andrew, or Peter. This image comes from the biblical story of Jacob [Genesis 25-28] whose life was always lived under tension and stress. At one particularly nerve-wracking point in the story [Genesis 28: 10-22], Jacob dreams that he sees a ladder stretching up to heaven.  “And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”  And right after Jacob dreams of this ladder and the ascending and descending angels, the voice of God speaks directly to him. God tells Jacob that, as crazy and stressful and unpredictable as his life appears right now, all will be well because he is the bearer of God’s promise. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”  Jacob is so moved by this experience and the resulting promise that he names the place “Bethel”. In Hebrew, “Bethel” literally means “House of God”. More broadly, it suggests, “God is right here.”
            The story of angels ascending and descending Jacob’s ladder and God’s promise is one of Israel’s founding narratives. God comes to Jacob not when everything is going smoothly (as nothing ever does for Jacob). God comes to Jacob in the midst of Jacob’s greatest distress, and God promises, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go. . . . I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Jesus points Nathanael to this story and its promise because he is making the same point to him that God made to Jacob in this biblical story. I am with you. I will keep you wherever you go. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.
            As I think about our area and its suffering, I do not have a quick or easy answer. The trauma is real, and recovery will be hard. But today’s gospel points me as it points all of us to Jesus and Nathanael, and through them to God and Jacob and the ladder and the angels. And I hear two truths in these divine encounters that I believe God means us to hear and attend to in the present moment.
            The first truth I hear is the obvious one that God makes in those words said to Jacob under the ladder of ascending and descending angels. Even and perhaps especially in moments of pain and suffering and loss and stress, God may appear nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless, if we keep our eyes and our ears and our hearts open, we will discover that God is in fact with us. God is not with us in some magical fairy tale way. God cannot give us a life free of suffering and loss. But God can take life’s tragedies and turn them around. And God keeps God’s promises. I am with you. I will keep you wherever you go. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.
            The first truth I hear is that we will, together, find God in the midst of all this rubble and loss. We will find God in each other, in the compassion and solidarity that emerge from this tragedy, in the new community we can build together, in the new life that emerges from real death and real loss. Resurrection life does not come cheap, but it is real and precious and holy. It is the life of promises fulfilled in spite of all appearances to the contrary.
            And then there is this second truth. Jacob named the place “Bethel”, “house of God”. He named it Bethel because it was where he knew God to be present. In pointing Nathanael and us to the place called Bethel, Jesus is reminding him and us that Jesus himself, and the community that gathers around him, is the new Bethel, the new house of God, the place where God actually dwells. Jews saw God in a place. Christians see God in a person. We call Jesus “Emmanuel”—God with us. The one we seek does not float above the clouds in some kind of gaseous fog. The one we seek is right here, right now, alive and at work in and among us. God keeps God’s promises. God is here.
“Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. . . . Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
            Yes, the pain and the loss of the present moment are real. And yes, God will take them and make of them something so hopeful and joyous that we could never have imagined it if we tried. God keeps God’s promises. God is here. The God who was faithful to Israel and Jesus will be faithful to us. Together we can find God’s comfort and bring God’s healing to those who mourn. These are not easy nostrums. They are hard won truths. They are the basics of resurrection faith. And they’re what we have, together, as we help our neighbors rebuild, and as we gather now around God’s table to give thanks. Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Homily: The Second Sunday of Advent [December 10, 2017] Trinity, Santa Barbara

            Although I’ve lived about half my life in the East and Midwest, I am a native Southern Californian and I thought I was pretty familiar with the seasonal fires we experience here from time to time. I served as the vicar in Malibu in the 1980s, and during my years there we had three very serious fires, two of which almost took out St. Aidan’s Church. But I have to say that this week’s wildfires—here in nearby Ventura, but also in Sylmar, West Los Angeles, Santa Clarita, San Bernardino, and two in San Diego County--these fires seem to be different not in degree but in kind from what we have experienced before. Our very environment is changing before our eyes. The folly of our human exploitation of nature is finally catching up with us. The climate change we have brought about through our selfish activity turns out to have real consequences for real people and the real world in the here and now.
            Today’s gospel passage [Mark 1: 1-8]—the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel—tells us of the preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. The other gospels give us more details about John the Baptist, but all Mark tells us today is that he proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins”. We’ll hear more details about John the Baptist from John’s Gospel next week, but today’s passage asks that we think about the core of his message: “a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins”. With fires and their attendant suffering raging all around us—with the natural world looking and feeling and even smelling apocalyptic everywhere we turn—it is not hard to think about repentance, forgiveness, and sin. Let’s explore what these ideas might mean for us individually and together on this Second Sunday of Advent.
The Gospel of Mark (the gospel we will be reading throughout this liturgical year) begins without any infancy narratives, thrusting us right into the adult life and ministry of Jesus through his baptism at the hands of John. Jesus hears John’s call, submits to his baptism, and immediately goes out into the wilderness to discern his vocation. Jesus then returns to spend his days teaching, preaching, healing, and challenging civic and ecclesiastical authority. Mark’s gospel enacts the implications of baptism in the lives of us, Jesus’s followers. And it even ends in the middle of an incomplete sentence, suggesting that you and I, Mark’s readers and hearers, are to go out and do likewise.
When we think about John the Baptist’s message and our own baptized lives--“a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins”—we are naturally drawn to those two loaded words that church authorities have so misused over the centuries: “repentance” and “sin”. Many people I know—including my own parents—have been driven from the church because of the manipulation and abuse of the ideas of repentance and sin. As a consequence, progressive Christians like you and me are often tempted to say that repentance and sin are outmoded concepts and that contemporary Christianity is now so advanced as no longer to need them. 
It doesn’t quite work that way. The writer Flannery O’Connor—herself a kind of Pre-Vatican II old style Roman Catholic—skewered this idea in her early novel Wise Blood. In this book we meet the radio preacher Onnie Jay Holy—host of the program Soulsease, “a quarter hour of mood, melody, and mentality”—who has founded the Holy Church of Christ without Christ. Reverend Holy is a popular evangelist, and he has tailored his gospel message so as to take all the hard things out of it. He tells people that they are not sinful but naturally sweet. As he says in his sermon,
“Every person that comes onto this earth . . . is born sweet and full of love. A little child loves ever'body, friends, and its nature is sweetness--until something happens. Something happens, friends, I don't need to tell people like you that can think for theirselves. As that little child gets bigger, its sweetness don't show so much, cares and troubles come to perplext it, and all its sweetness is driven inside it. Then it gets miserable and lonesome and sick, friends. It says, 'Where is all my sweetness gone? where are all the friends that loved me?' and all the time, that little beat-up rose of its sweetness is inside, not a petal dropped, and on the outside is just a mean lonesomeness.” [Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood, chapter 9]

O’Connor is of course skewering the kind of optimistic, liberal Christianity you and I might be drawn to—one that finds the ideas of sin and repentance uncomfortable and so wants surgically to extract them from our faith. As Onnie Jay Holy says, “If you want to get anywheres in religion, you got to keep it sweet.”
            As a progressive Christian, I know enough about my fellow travelers to understand this tendency. People have been abused by the idea of sin. Let’s take it out altogether. But sin is not really an abusive, hierarchical concept. Sin is the Bible’s diagnosis of the human problem. Sin is not something we “do”. Sin is something we are caught up in.
            A good way to see how we can’t help being enmeshed in sin is to look at how our prayer book talks about sin in the service for Holy Baptism. When the candidates and sponsors are examined, they are asked to renounce sin in three modes: first the cosmic, then the social, and only third comes the personal:
                        Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces
                        of wickedness that rebel against God?
                        I renounce them. (Cosmic)

                        Do you renounce the evil powers of this world
                        which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
                        I renounce them. (Social)

                        Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you
                        from the love of God?
                        I renounce them. (Personal)

For both the Bible and the prayer book, individual sin is a consequence of social and cosmic evil. Try as we might to live righteous lives, we cannot help but find ourselves implicated in bad dealing and oppression. We can eat local and drive hybrid cars all we like; we still cannot extricate ourselves from the web of political and economic injustice. Many of the very clothes I wear are produced by child labor. None of us has clean hands.
            As old-fashioned and frightening as it sounds, the word “sin” still has meaning for you and me today. The Bible’s idea of sin is less one of a fundamental sickness than it is a kind of wandering in the wrong direction. This is where John the Baptist’s message of “repentance” comes in. The Greek word—metanoia—we translate as “repent” literally means “turn around”. It’s like those red signs you see while passing freeway exits: “Wrong Way”. You and I, our nation and our world, are heading the wrong way. This autumn’s California fires, the devastating hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean are nature’s big red “Wrong Way” signs telling us to turn around and head another way. As in nature, so in our personal lives: the relational disruptions we experience, the sense of aimlessness or despair, serve as signs not that we are unclean or unholy, but that we are often heedlessly, sometimes purposefully, heading in the wrong direction. Wrong way. Turn around. Walk together toward the light.
            For John the Baptist as for Jesus, “repentance” does not mean feeling bad about something. For both of them, as for us, “repentance” means not “remorse” but changing our behavior. God doesn’t want us to feel bad about the selfish or hurtful things we’ve done. God wants us to stop doing them and start living in a new way.
            Listen again to the words of the collect for today:
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer . . .
Advent is a time when God calls us, in a phrase right out of the 1960s, to “clean up our act”. We walk together toward the good news of Christmas, the news of God’s unshakable love for us, of God’s abiding presence with us. We cannot take in that good news unless we first face in to the bad news. In fact, it is part of the good news that we get to hear the bad news at all. Our culture tells us that there is no problem that cannot be solved by buying something. Our Christian faith tells us another story.
I’m sorry to tell you: we are not naturally sweet. I’m happy to say: we are not hopelessly selfish. We are finite, fragile creatures who often get lost. Advent and Christmas proclaim that we are so precious to the one at the center of things that that one is coming to find us. We will miss God’s loving, generous, forgiving action if we persistently head in the wrong direction. We will also miss that one’s blessing if we obsessively dwell in our own guilt and shame.
Let’s listen to John the Baptist as he prepares us to meet Jesus. Wrong way! Turn around! God loves you and is coming to find you. Help God in that redemptive, liberating process by looking yourself full in the face. If you don’t like what you see there, take on a new way of living and acting toward yourself, toward others, toward the world. The blessing of Advent, and the promise of Christmas, is that God will walk with us as we turn around and travel together with Jesus toward the light. Amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Homily: The Last Sunday after Pentecost [November 26, 2017] Trinity, Santa Barbara

            Today, the last Sunday after Pentecost, also goes by another name, the “Feast of Christ the King”. This Sunday takes its title from today’s collect, which names Jesus as God’s “well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords”. To tell the truth, I have never much liked this Sunday or its title. In the twenty-first century, the idea of a king is either a nightmare or a joke. Comparing Jesus to one does not seem to be doing him any particular kind of favor.
            A new production of the play King Charles III recently opened at the Pasadena Playhouse. I haven’t seen it, but a family friend of ours composed the music for it, so I have been following the reviews. The play develops the idea that, after a lifetime of waiting, Prince Charles finally succeeds to the throne. The conflict develops when, to everyone’s chagrin, the new king refuses to act like a puppet but actually asserts himself as a thoughtful, principled monarch. Who, they wonder, does this man think he is? In the present era, kings are something of a joke, a sentimental holdover from a former age. Why would I want to compare Jesus to someone like that?
            If we turn to history, things get even worse. Real, historical kings were a mixed bag. When they had something like real power, kings couldn’t help themselves from abusing it. Just think of all the nasty things our Declaration of Independence says about George III. Calling Christ the king implies either that he is a fool or a tyrant. That’s what happens when we project social analogies onto the cosmos.
            We humans cannot help talking about God in social analogies. Because God is ultimately mysterious and indescribable, we attempt to explain God by using figurative language. Doing so is natural but inherently dangerous. Here is how my late friend, the priest and theologian Marilyn McCord Adams, describes it:
Theology trades in social analogies. God and the people of God form a society. When we try to express who we are to God and who God is to us, we naturally take our own society as a model. . .  [But] the human social systems that we project onto the heavens are inevitably unjust. . .  [Every] human society spawns systemic evils, structures of cruelty that torment and degrade some while privileging others. Casting God in various roles in such societies already represents God as complicit in injustice and cruelty. But there is worse to come. Societies make idols of their own survival, because our lives depend on them. They justify existing social arrangements by representing God as their author and enforcer. Because Divine Wisdom would know what it was doing, the result is to picture God as deliberately sponsoring whatever inequality and cruelty the social system spawns.--Marilyn McCord Adams, “Arguments from Tradition”, Christian Holiness and Human Sexuality.

            We think we’re doing Jesus a favor by calling him “Christ the King”, a term he never uses about himself. We want to say that real authority lies not with earthly rulers but with Jesus. We want to say that we follow Jesus but not Caesar. But calling Jesus the King can’t help but turn him into a kind of Caesar. What can we do?
            Luckily Jesus gives us an image and some language in today’s gospel [Matthew 25: 31-46], the familiar passage from the 25th chapter of Matthew.  The ones included are those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, visited those imprisoned or sick. Those excluded are the ones who failed to do so. This gospel passage suggests two things: that real authority lies not in power but in service, and that God is actually most recognizably present in those who are up against it.
A contemporary thinker I like very much, Terry Eagleton, wrote a small book several years ago with the gigantic title, The Meaning of Life.  And you might be surprised that Eagleton—a British literary theorist and highly secular philosopher and cultural critic—ends his meditation on life’s meaning with a discussion of just this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  For Eagleton, the genius of Matthew’s 25th chapter lies in the way it takes the “meaning-of-life question” out of the hands of philosophers and “returns it to the routine business of everyday existence.”  As he elaborates, “The key to the universe turns out to be not some shattering revelation, but something which a lot of decent people do anyway, with scarcely a thought.” Eagleton muses, “Eternity lies not in a grain of sand but in a glass of water.  The cosmos revolves on comforting the sick.” [The Meaning of Life, pp. 164-165]
            There is a lot to be said for the way Terry Eagleton and many of the secular people with whom I find common cause would read this chapter: whether or not we agree about the big questions, certainly we can all find common cause by alleviating human need.  Jesus himself seems to turn us from a consideration of the big questions to an extended parable about meeting him in the service of those who are up against it.  This is a truism that even Al Franken and Roy Moore, when they’re not otherwise occupied with their own problems, could probably agree on.
            And yet, as a follower of Jesus there is something beyond this truism that nags at me. Sentimentality aside, I want to give a glass of water or a piece of bread to a person in need not because it’s a nice thing to do but because I believe that in doing so I serve and meet Jesus. I don’t totally part company with Terry Eagleton and my liberal friends on any of this, because frankly I believe as they do that serving the suffering is the meaning of life. We Christians don’t feed the hungry or visit the sick only because it’s a nice thing to do.  We feed and visit them because we believe they represent God to us. 
            As we try to make meaning of the universe, we can’t seem to help ourselves. We persist in making Jesus into something like a heavenly version of an earthly monarch. We keep on rationalizing our justice work as some kind of benevolence or charity or, that awful phrase, “giving back”. There is both less and more to it than that.
            The Romans persecuted the early Christians for two reasons. First, Christians were martyred because they refused to worship the image of the emperor and in so doing insisted that someone other than Caesar had the primary claim on their allegiance. Second, Christians were suppressed because in the ministry of the early deacons, they set up something like the world’s first social service network. Rome was a laissez faire society. It didn’t like the idea of do-gooders doing what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel to do: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned. The early Christians violated Roman religion by insisting that real authority lay not in power but in powerlessness. They violated Roman values by finding something valuable in the very people Roman elites wanted to throw away. For early Christians, real patriotism was less about militarism and more about social justice. The poor, the sick, the imprisoned have a claim on our attention because they have inherent human dignity. Following Jesus meant honoring them and not some clownish thug pretending to power.
            I will leave it to you to conclude what Jesus would have us do in the present moment, a time when we are confronted both by human need on a startling world-wide scale and an array of clownish thugs claiming, in our own president’s words, “I’m the only one that matters.” Whether it’s refugees from Syria, the Rohingya in Myanmar, undocumented or falsely imprisoned people of color in the United States; whether it’s children or working poor people without health insurance or those at the mercy of unprecedented environmental disasters; whether it’s people we know who suffer from loss or illness or addiction or discrimination or abuse. There are plenty of suffering people all around us who need a hand and a voice. Real Christian piety is as much about making solidarity with them out there as it is about saying our prayers in here.
            When we call Christ a king, we are trying to do him honor but end up performing a disservice. As Jesus tells us this morning, we meet God not in the powerful but in the powerless. And if powerless people are holy, then that must tell us something about the nature of God. God’s primary attribute is not power but powerlessness. The one we meet in Jesus claims our allegiance not with a crown or a scepter, but on a cross.
            Let us follow the one who says “No” to power and stands with those who do not have it. Let us stand with the ones he stands with, and make common cause with those who in their suffering show us something of the depth and nature of God. Let us follow Jesus, and let us refuse to call him king. On this Last Sunday after Pentecost, let us finally come to know Jesus as our brother, not our monarch. Let us resolve not to kneel before him but to walk with him as together we love and serve the world. Amen.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Homily: The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost [October 29, 2017] Trinity, Santa Barbara

If you have ever worked as a teacher at any level (elementary, secondary, college, graduate school, even seminary) you will recognize today’s gospel (Matthew 22: 34-44) as having all the marks of a bad faculty meeting. Much like the aging tenured faculty, the Pharisees gang up on the new guy and try to pose him a trick question. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” There were 613 commandments in the Torah or Jewish law—248 “dos” and 365 “don’ts”—and being asked to select one from among them qualifies as a first century gotcha question. Like that of their modern academic counterparts, the aggression of the ancient scholars in this story proves that highly educated people are at least no nicer and often a lot meaner than everybody else.
Today’s gospel shows two interactions—the great commandment question posed by the Pharisees, and the one about David asked by Jesus—and as such it gives us the fourth and fifth of the “controversy stories” in this part of Matthew’s gospel. (Last week we heard the back and forth about paying taxes to Caesar. The prior week Jesus told the story of the wedding feast to which nobody came.) Taken together, these “controversy stories” place Jesus at odds with the prevailing religious wisdom of his time. Again, like a bad faculty meeting, we seem to be in the presence of a contest where the smug establishment can’t get the better of this brilliant upstart in their midst.  Though I’m not going to say much about the second interchange—the one where Jesus poses the question about
 David’s relationship to the Messiah—the Pharisees’ inability to answer suggests not only that they are arrogant jerks but that they’re really not very good bible scholars. Some people are authoritarians because they believe in hierarchy. Others rely on structures to protect them because they really are not all that good at what they do.
For me, though, the energy in this morning’s gospel revolves around the first interaction. The Pharisees ask Jesus to name the greatest commandment, and of course like any brilliant student Jesus immediately reframes the question and names not one but two. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”  And then he concludes: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Over the years, this surprising summary has become time-worn and familiar. If you’re as old as I am, you may remember this “summary of the law” as something the priest said every Sunday in the days of the 1928 Prayer Book. It’s familiarity often blunts its moral and intellectual force.
In one sense, there is nothing terribly surprising in this answer. Jesus is in fact quoting scripture here—in one case Deuteronomy, in the other Leviticus. (Deuteronomy 6:5 about loving God, Leviticus 19:18 about loving neighbor.) But in the way he answers the Pharisees’ question, Jesus does say something new: he is the first teacher in the Jewish tradition to say that loving God and loving neighbor are of equal importance. We knew that each commandment was important. We didn’t know that loving others was just as important as loving God. You cannot credibly say you love God if you are cruel or unjust to human beings. Piety without compassion is false.
This fall, we have set these four Sundays aside as a parish community to think and talk together about stewardship and our annual pledge campaign to support Trinity’s operating budget for 2018. The vestry has adopted what some might consider an audacious goal, to increase giving by $165,000 over 2017. The pulpit is not the place to go into all the reasoning behind this goal.  We will leave that to the three house gatherings we’re holding in the next couple of weeks. I will say, however, that as big as the goal sounds, all it does is fully fund the ministry we are doing now. There are no gigantic new programs or hires in this budget. We’re merely catching up to pay the lay staff and the next rector and associate what we think they deserve. This increase will align our compensation with our values, allowing us to work for justice outside with integrity inside.
But as we focus on stewardship, generosity, and our own giving, Jesus’s summary of the law offers us a framework to think about why we need a church in the first place and what you and I owe to its ongoing life and support.
I’ve worked in the church for over 40 years, and I have lived through and survived multiple attempts by churches to construct sophisticated, pithy, ingenious mission statements. (Thankfully, that time is over.) Crafting these slogans is useful in that it forces us to think about what we do and why we do it. But any church school kid could tell you that churches exist essentially to do two things. They exist to worship. They exist to serve. In linking the commandments to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and our neighbor as ourselves, Jesus has given us the only mission statement for the church that makes any sense. Let’s put it on our letterhead and website!
Churches exist to worship. When people tell me that they don’t need church, that they can worship God at the beach or on the golf course, I often want to reply that I understand them: I’ve spent plenty of boring sermons thinking about what it would be like to be outdoors. But more to the point, you and I need the church help focus us on the things that really matter. We come in the church to pray, and prayer is basically about paying attention. We gather not to get God’s attention, but to allow God to get ours. When I’m trying to sink a putt or looking for a shell in the sand, I’m focused on something particular and maybe even important, but I’m not focusing on God. When I come to church, the liturgy, the music, the readings, the sermon point me to reflecting on life’s ultimate questions. There are no other places in our common life where we set everything aside to open ourselves to the big questions of meaning and purpose. If I am going to try to love God with all my heart and soul and mind, I am going to need some place to do it and some other people to do it with.
Churches exist to worship. Churches also exist to serve. And if we are to believe Jesus this morning, the service is at least as important as the worship. Again, if prayer is about God getting our attention, we are asked to understand that we experience God as much through our connections with other human beings as we do through stone and stained glass and song. That is why churches have traditionally seen pastoral care—visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, responding to personal and family crises of all sorts—as core to what they do. It is also why churches have emphasized justice work and community outreach as ways of both helping those who struggle but also of opening ourselves to the good news and judgment embedded in the claims and cries of those beyond our walls.
Kathy and I are interlopers at Trinity. We’re only here for a prescribed time and I’m only here in a narrowly defined role. But in the few months we have been with you we have come to love this place. Who wouldn’t? You do the church’s two core tasks very well. You worship beautifully and with integrity. You serve each other and the community with compassion and commitment. So here’s the good news: if church is about loving God and loving neighbor, Trinity Church is already doing what Jesus told his legalistic interrogators and the rest of us to do.
And the logic of Jesus’s charge to us carries us one step further. It is time now to align our piety and compassion with our values. It is time for each of us to take seriously the claims of God’s mission on us and our resources. Something is not right if I say that I love God and my neighbor and then spend almost all my money on myself. If I value the worship of God, if I value the love of my neighbor as I say I do, then I will allow God to open up my heart to a spirit of generosity that will allow me to align the way I use my money with my spiritual priorities. If I’m spending more on my cable and cellphone bills each month than I’m giving to support God’s mission, something is seriously out of whack.
When he gave a serious answer to a gotcha question, Jesus called his inquisitors and us toward a higher righteousness than most people usually live by. It is easy to follow 613 rules. It is harder to organize one’s life around two big and challenging principles. As in my spiritual and moral lives, so in my personal philanthropy: what is a gift that reflects what I say I believe? What is a gift that aligns my resources with what I value both in the church and in the world?
In framing the questions this way, Jesus both simplified and complicated our spiritual and moral lives. In giving himself to us and for us, he set a standard of personal generosity that few of us will ever be asked to match. That is why we call this process a “journey to generosity”. Some of us are there now. Most of us are on the way. As we take this spiritual, moral, and financial road trip together, let us start by thanking God for what we already have: a beautiful place to worship, a committed and joyful parish community with which to serve, a wider community and world in desperate need of what we have to offer. 
May God’s generosity become the pattern for our own. And may we continue to grow in loving God and loving our neighbor in real and tangible ways as we make our way together down this road of faith and life. Amen.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Homily: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [September 24, 2017] Trinity, Santa Barbara

            The great Leonard Cohen—singer, songwriter, poet--died at age 82 last year on November 7, one day before the presidential election. Whether it was out of grief at his passing or terror of the election results, I spent most of November re-listening to the Leonard Cohen songs I have loved all my adult life. In the bleak days of November 2016 and beyond, I have found his particular combination of biblical allusion, Zen practice, and mordant wit somehow deeply comforting. 
One of my favorite of Leonard Cohen’s songs is “Everybody Knows”, released in the dystopian late Cold War Iran-Contra year 1988. When introducing “Everybody Knows”, Cohen said, "Here's a terrible new song. Yes, it embodies all my darkest thoughts...”

Here is one verse that’s suitable for reading aloud in church:
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
Everybody knows
            Something about this song captures the double-whammy of our shared human senses of feeling both guilty and aggrieved at the same time. It’s not only that we’re often selfish and self-serving; it’s also that we’re enraged that there are others in the world who are better at being selfish and self-serving than we are.
            A sense of the doubleness of our moral dilemma emerges in today’s gospel reading as well (Matthew 20: 1-16), the tale Jesus tells we conventionally call the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. A landowner hires laborers at five different times during the day: early and mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon, late afternoon. When it is time to pay up, the last receive their wages first. And when the first—those who had “borne the burden in the heat of the day”—come to collect their pay, they receive the same pay as everybody else. The first laborers are understandably angry: the landowner has treated the long-timers and the newcomers equally. When they complain, the landowner replies, “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Are you envious because I am generous?”
Those who write biblical commentaries will say first that this parable is really about the equality of Jews (those who have been faithful for centuries) and gentiles (those who have just recently joined up) in the church. While I’m sure there is some truth in this analysis, I don’t find the longtimer/newcomer tension the most interesting aspect of the story. To my mind, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard tells us many things about ourselves, most importantly something about the layers of self-deception which keep us from seeing ourselves and others clearly. We all manage somehow to feel both guilty and aggrieved. We all talk into our pockets. We all want a box of chocolates and a long-stemmed rose.
It is not an accident that Jesus uses the idea of money here to reveal and diagnose our spiritual problem. Money is the medium our culture has invented to represent value. As the poet Wallace Stevens said, “Money is a kind of poetry.” These vineyard workers are upset about their wages because their wages represent their time, and time (and remember, “Time is money”) is something we value. The landowner messes with the workers’ usual equations by assigning the same value to differing stretches of time: 3, 6, 9, 12 hours all receive the same pay. Hey, I gave you more of my valuable time. Don’t I deserve more than those others? Everyone thinks they have good reason to feel aggrieved.
I thought about this parable and the paradox it embodies earlier this year when I read a provocative op-ed piece in the New York Times [Richard V. Reeves, “Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich”, New York Times, 6/10/17] by Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution. It was called, “Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich”, and it was one of the few things I’ve read recently that made me stop and re-examine my own social and economic situation in relation to others. Like many fellow progressives, I have bought into the 1% versus 99% language used to describe economic inequality. But Reeves’s point is that the true measure of wealth disparity in America is not between the top 1 and the bottom 99 but rather between the top 20 and bottom the 80. As he says,
This favored fifth at the top of the income distribution . . . has been separating from the 80 percent below. Collectively, this top fifth has seen a $4 trillion-plus increase in pretax income since 1979, compared to just over $3 trillion for everyone else. Some of those gains went to the top 1 percent. But most went to the 19 percent just beneath them.
Reeves goes on:
The rhetoric of “We are the 99 percent” has in fact been dangerously self-serving, allowing people with healthy . . . incomes to convince themselves that they are somehow in the same economic boat as ordinary Americans, and that it is just the so-called super rich who are to blame for inequality.
Youch! If Reeves is right (and I think he is), I have a perceptual problem. Here I have been spending all that energy blaming Bezos, Gates, Buffett, and Zuckerberg (the 1%) and their superwealth and imagining myself in the same boat with those who are really up against it (the 99%). My perceptual problem turns then into a moral problem. It turns out that I really have more in common with the fat cats than I’d like to imagine. And not only that: as one of the top 20% I can continue to reap the benefits of affluence and still complain about not being in the heady reaches of the top 1%. As Reeves concludes,
There’s a kind of class double-think going on here. On the one hand, upper-middle-class Americans believe they are operating in a meritocracy (a belief that allows them to feel entitled to their winnings); on the other hand, they constantly engage in antimeritocratic behavior in order to give their own children a leg up. . . . For the upper middle classes, regardless of their professed political preferences, zoning, wealth, tax deductions and educational opportunity reinforce one another in a virtuous cycle.

Thus, like the laborers in the vineyard, I manage to have it both ways: I am guilty and aggrieved. I benefit from all kinds of generosity which I confuse with my own achievement. As the late great Ann Richards once said of the first President Bush, “He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, (1 Corinthians 4:7) “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” As my friend Harvey Guthrie says, “We’re all on cosmic welfare.”
            Jesus’s use of the symbols of money and time in this parable points us to a profound truth about ourselves. Whether we’re in the one percent, the top 20 percent, we are all recipients of enormous cosmic and social generosity. This is not a story only about the longevity of church membership. It is a story about our awareness of our own privilege and our need to extend that privilege to others. As long as we allow ourselves to claim a false solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed we will continue to do more to advance our own interests than to help realize theirs. As a white, straight, relatively affluent male, it is always tempting for me to put myself in the same discriminatory boat with people of color, women, gays and lesbians, and the poor. As a follower of Jesus, my job is not to claim membership in the community of the oppressed. My job is to make common cause with them and work together to undo the structures of oppression that have given me the leg up that I think I so richly deserve.
            Going through life feeling both guilty and aggrieved is not an attractive stance toward life. We are all the recipients of so much more generosity on the part of others and God than we usually acknowledge. It is easy to find yourself born on third base and think you hit a triple. It is easier still to lament that the triple should have been a home run. In our gospel for this morning, Jesus invites us to see ourselves and others in a new way. All of us have been given so much more than we could have earned on our own. We should not confuse our own good fortune with moral worth.
            In Leonard Cohen’s words, each of us wants a box of chocolates and a long-stemmed rose. In God’s economy, we cannot hoard life’s blessings to ourselves. In God’s economy, we must strive to make chocolates and roses available to all. Very few of us are the super-rich; very few are the real poor. Affluent or struggling as we may be, we are called to do what we can to extend our unacknowledged privileges to those who have few or none.
It is no accident that Jesus begins his Beatitudes by saying, “Blessed are the poor.” God’s justice is broader and more expansive than any so-called fairness you and I could concoct. We need to stop fooling ourselves, finding shelter in self-serving ideas of fairness. This is the way Jesus’s universe works: we all--the innocent and the guilty—finally deserve and receive the same reward. Are we willing to work to make our world like Jesus’s? Or will we remain envious because God is generous? Amen.