Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Homily: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost [August 28, 2016] All Saints, Pasadena

 "Jostling for Position with God"

            There are many things to love about living and working in Washington D.C. where, until recently, I served the cathedral. It is a beautiful city, full of interesting people, with great museums, good restaurants all around, and the natural world close at hand. Every day that Kathy and I woke up in Washington I counted myself happy and lucky to be there.
            There is, however, one great drawback. As the seat of governmental power, Washington is what we might call a court culture, somewhat like living in a perpetual “Game of Thrones”. It is literally true that when a powerful person walks into a room or opens their mouth, everything else stops. So living in Washington is also like being in an endless E.F. Hutton commercial: when a person with real or perceived power speaks, people listen. Everyone there seems to be jostling for position with the powerful: organizing a big state occasion ceremony at the cathedral was like wrangling egos on a movie set. In the planning sessions for those services the battles over who would get to be on the platform—and who could be closest to the person of the moment--could be intense. And I’m sorry to tell you the church folks were often worse than the politicos. During these precedence and protocol food fights I would often wonder, “Is this really what Jesus had in mind?”
            Well, if you listen to today’s gospel (Luke 14:1, 7-14), apparently not. In the passage we just heard from Luke, Jesus tells us to avoid sitting in the place of honor at a banquet lest we be told to go back down to the cheap seats. Instead, Jesus advises that we sit in the lowest place and then be invited to move higher up. Good advice, but I doubt Jesus would have had much of a career in Washington protocol.
This passage is an odd one because in it Jesus gives what sounds like just plain talk, but Luke tells us that it is a parable. Now parable is a loaded word. In the New Testament, a parable is a story that demonstrates or enacts something about the nature of God. So Jesus is not really talking like Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt, or Miss Manners here. In this little story about where to sit at a dinner party, Jesus is telling us something about God.
As if to emphasize what it is Jesus wants to show us about God, he finishes the story with another piece of advice:
"When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
So at the conclusion of this gospel passage, here is what we have: an opening parable about position and precedence with some advice about sitting at the lowest place, and a concluding saying about whom you should invite to your own banquet. Don’t, like a Washington hostess, invite the rich and powerful. Be instead like God:  invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. This is theology masquerading as etiquette. If you want to jostle for position with God, do what God does. Care about, get to know, and serve, the poor. If you want to curry favor with God, start by currying favor with the poor.
The poor. I remember them. We used to talk about them a lot. How long has it been since we have heard anyone in American public life mention the poor? In this election season we have heard about a lot of other things—about emails and walls and syringes and hand sizes, but we have yet to hear one serious word from either of the major candidates for president about the poor.  Hillary Clinton says, “I believe America thrives when the middle class thrives.” Speaking to that same middle class, Donald Trump says, “I am your voice.” But who speaks for the poor?
Here is what Matthew Desmond, a professor of Sociology at Harvard and author of the recent book Evicted says,
We don’t have a full-voiced condemnation of the level or extent of poverty in America today. We aren’t having in our presidential debate right now a serious conversation about the fact that we are the richest democracy in the world, with the most poverty. It should be at the very top of the agenda. [New York Times 8/11/16]

            As if to emphasize this point, this week brought a particularly depressing anniversary. On Monday, August 22, it was exactly 20 years since President Bill Clinton signed the so-called Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—the law we have come to call the Welfare Reform bill. In those 20 years the government has cut benefits to the poor dramatically, yet the rate of what we call “deep poverty”—the share of the population “living on a household income less than half of the official poverty level” has increased. The current U.S. Government poverty level is $16,000 a year for a family of two. So we are talking about people living on $8,000 a year. And extreme poverty—people living on $2 a day or less—has doubled since the signing of that law in 1996. To the extent they can, most poor people cobble together an income made up of low-wage work, food stamps, and disability benefits. And no one in this election cycle is talking about them.
            Worse than that, hardly anybody in the church is talking about the poor this year. A couple of weeks ago someone shared a cartoon on Facebook which accurately depicts the problem. Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount. He lifts his hand and says, “Blessed are the poor.” Someone in the crowd shouts back, “Blessed are all lives, Jesus.” We seem to have relegated the poor to being yet another interest group iin whom we have lost interest.  But in the gospel they are much more than that.
            Those of us who follow Jesus seem to have forgotten what Jesus himself said about his own priorities. For good and understandable reasons we have expanded the circle of our concern to include almost everybody, and it is right that we do so. But in expanding that circle we seem to have forgotten that the poor stand at that circle’s very center and demand a preferential place in our attentions. It is hypocritical to blame either of our major party candidates for their obliviousness about poverty in America when we have become oblivious ourselves. In focusing on giving more benefits to those of us who are already comfortable, they are merely reading back to us our own priorities.
            Listen again to Jesus:
When you are invited to a . . . banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host. [And] when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

            Taken together, these stories tell us something about God and ourselves. You and I are like guests at an exclusive cocktail party who spend our time sucking up to the host, and it turns out that the host wants us to turn our attention to the people who couldn’t get into the party in the first place. We tend to think that we can curry favor with God by listing our accomplishments. We are a bit like people on the cathedral platform jostling for the position closest to the most famous and powerful person. Jesus knows we can’t help ourselves in this regard, that we will continually fall for the bright shiny objects of fame and power and seek to have them for ourselves. And here is his point:  if you want to get in good with God, turn your attention away from those trinkets and turn toward the concrete reality of people who are up against it. If you want to jostle for position with God, do so by knowing and loving and serving the people everyone else has forgotten. Most of the things we value are worthless. And the people we often call worthless mean the most to God.
             I believe America thrives when the middle class thrives.” “I am your voice.” Our political leaders will only speak for the poor when we who follow Jesus speak for them. Churches all over America are looking for new and innovative programs to make themselves relevant to a post-Christian age. How about we start with the big idea that Jesus gives us. Jesus’s persistent calls for us to love and serve the poor tell us something deep and true and important not only about the poor but about what it is to be human in the first place. Living in the affluent part of America and trying constantly to prove our worth to ourselves and others is exhausting. As Lily Tomlin said, “Even if you’re winning the rat race, you’re still a rat.” The poor have nothing and yet they are blessed. They are us, denuded of all the worthless stuff with which we encase ourselves. All human beings—especially the poor--are blessed in and of themselves. We do not need all the effluvia we tack on to ourselves to be important. We matter, as the poor matter, because we bear the basic dignity of what it means to be human. We honor that dignity when we honor those who have nothing, who most purely reflect human dignity back to us. And that dignity, borne and redeemed by God in Jesus, is all that finally counts about us and about those we serve.
            Our political leaders will only wake up to the importance of poverty in America when we wake up to it ourselves. And we will only begin to take it in as we come to see ourselves in those who are up against it. We reject the poor because we deny the possibility of being poor ourselves. But given the world’s economic, environmental, and social fragility, each of us could be wiped out in a moment. Accepting one’s vulnerability is a hard but vital spiritual task. And it’s the basic first step of what it means to follow Jesus. So let’s take that step and see where that journey takes us. Let’s make poverty in America both a social and a spiritual priority. Maybe then our politicians will listen. Maybe then we’ll all have jostled ourselves into a little bit better position with God. Amen.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Homily: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [July 31, 2016] All Saints, Pasadena

"Eat, Drink, and Be Merry"

After 7 short months, let me give you an interim progress report on retirement.
Here's the upside: Kathy and I finally have some time together, even though it's still split between some ongoing volunteer commitments we each have and a seemingly endless need to work on a house we've pretty much neglected for 15 years. So far, so good.
Another upside to retirement is that I now have the time to engage in leisurely, cultural pursuits. I have time to binge watch a number of TV shows I previously neglected:  Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Americans, and the greatest of them all, Friday Night Lights. I probably care more than I should about the problems of Coach Taylor and the Dillon Panthers, but hey, rooting for a fictional football team is probably healthier than caring about office politics.
Here, however, is the real downside. I've always been a political junkie, and without a day job to go to I spend far too much time watching news on cable television. I think of Joe, Mika, Chris, and Rachel as my actual friends. I am too invested in the daily machinations of our presidential candidates to do myself or anybody else much good. I’m so grateful those conventions are over. (Talk about dystopia!) I couldn’t have taken one more day. And then, when something violent or horrible happens--Orlando, Dallas, Nice, any of the traffic-stop shootings--I seem to spend endless hours obsessing about those who have suffered and died. The killing of Father Jacques Hamel in a French parish church last week nearly did me in, as did the dismissal of all charges in Freddie Gray’s death. This summer's events have made me both heartsore and heartsick.
This has been a particularly difficult summer for all of us. Not only have we witnessed a seemingly unprecedented amount of violence both here and abroad. We've also been exposed to a particularly virulent strain of ugly social thought in our public life, and the looming general election campaign promises to be at best an unedifying spectacle and at worst a WWE smackdown. Where can we go for comfort? How do we get our bearings?
In today's gospel [Luke 12:13-21] Jesus tells the story we call the parable of the rich fool—the tale of a man who, like me, retired when he thought he had it all made. The sayings which surround the parable make it sound like a tale about money. But, as elsewhere, Jesus here uses money to signify something else. This is a story not about money but about control. Check that: this is a story about the illusion of control.
A rich man builds a big barn to store all his crops. He has so much grain and so many goods that, by his calculations, he can now sit back, relax, and binge watch Real Housewives of Nazareth to his heart’s content. When he says to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry”, he is expressing the false hope that events are in his control. And then the tables turn: the full barn wasn’t his guarantee of anything. He died, and his riches went to someone else. Not exactly a comforting story for a recently retired person, but an apt parable about the fragility of human life.
Although the multiple stresses of the modern world can make us think that we are the first people on the planet ever to live with anxiety, consider the situation of those who came out 2,000 years ago to follow Jesus. They were poor Palestinian Jewish peasants. Their country was occupied by imperial Rome, an empire that impoverished its colonies in two ways: it taxed them mercilessly, and its standing army ate most of their food. So the Palestinian Jews of Jesus’s day were usually both hungry and broke. Being hungry and broke can make one anxious. And when we’re anxious we often retreat to a hording mentality. The rich man with his barn is a good example. He thinks: “I’m going to get enough for myself and ride out the storm. As long as I’ve got mine, the rest of the world can go to hell.” Not a beautiful sentiment, but we say that to ourselves all the time. We have bought in to the shared illusion of control. We think that our relative affluence will protect us.
When people came out to follow Jesus they were usually poor, starving, and often sick. How did Jesus respond? First, he healed them. Then he invited them into a community of sharing, compassion, mutuality, and hope. Jesus helped frightened people do exactly the opposite of what their first instincts told them to do. He taught them that the way out of anxiety was not through hording but through sharing. Each New Testament gospel has an account of the feeding of five thousand people with a couple of loaves of bread.  What are those stories but examples of the truth that, when we pull together rather than apart, there is always enough to go around?
You and I have a lot in common with Jesus’s first companions. We live in a world characterized by oppression, inequality, and violence. And we have even more in common with the main character in the story he tells, the man we call “the rich fool”. As developed world people, we are all relatively affluent. Our prosperity brings with it a lot of privileges, but it also wraps us in a dangerous web of illusions. One of the things I learned in my years in Malibu, Bryn Mawr, Bloomfield Hills, northwest Washington D.C., and (yes) Pasadena was just how isolating affluence can be. Your investments may bring you some creature comforts, but they won’t protect you from global warming, the rage of those suffering gross inequality, or the depredations of illness and age. Why are we surprised that our politicians talk about building walls when so many of us live in gated communities?
If you are like me, and if you and I are like those who followed Jesus, then we are heartsore and heartsick about so much going on in the world and in our nation right now. Our first response is almost always to retreat to an imagined place of safety where think we can be in control. If it does nothing else, Jesus’s parable of the rich fool reminds us that we are not, finally, in charge. And Jesus’s whole life and ministry reminds us that not being in charge isn’t really so bad.
The hard news this morning is that you and I do not control events. The good news is that someone else does. That someone else is the one Jesus calls his Father, the one who makes the sun shine and the rain fall on the just and the unjust, the one who clothes the lilies of the field and feeds the birds of the sky.  The basic point of Jesus’s life and ministry is this: despite all of the real pain, suffering, and injustice in the world—and believe me, Jesus knew just how real pain, suffering, and injustice could be—despite all that, the deeper truth he shows us is this: reality is friendly to us. The way out of suffering, as our Buddhist friends tell us, is to give up on the illusion that things could be any way other than how they are. 
For those of us who follow Jesus, this means relaxing not into our affluent privilege but into the knowledge that the world we inhabit is God’s. This knowledge doesn’t insulate us from our fragility. We will continue to suffer and struggle personally and socially, and we will always be vulnerable just when we think we’re not. But knowing the world is God’s and not ours frees us to open ourselves and reach out to others, to make common cause with every other human being of whatever description who knows they too share our finite, vulnerable human condition.
The rich fool thought salvation lay in reclusive isolation. Jesus knew that the abundant life is all tied up with living, eating, praying, and working with others for justice. There’s the white knuckle ride of the control fantasy, and there are the open arms of mutuality and love. The choice is yours. Take your pick.
            This choice does not come without its risks. Remember that the one who offers us abundant life is the one who died on the cross. Life will always be what it is—abundant and stressful, peaceful and dangerous, free and oppressive. But those of us who follow Jesus come to know something else: we come to know, through our engagement with each other and the world, that the only peace worth having is an engaged peace, a peace that faces into and responds to the pain, injustice, and suffering known by others. The world may feel dangerous, but it is finally safe. We are in the grasp of one who knows and loves us as we are and will not let us go, no matter what comes toward us. Our security lies in accepting both our personal fragility and our cosmic security and then using them as a platform from which to reach out in love to others.
            You and I are not in control. It wouldn’t be all that great if we were. Let us learn from the example of the rich fool.  When our lives are required of us, what will we have to show for them? I hope we leave more than only a full barn. I hope, instead, for a shared legacy of justice, love, and peace. Amen.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Homily: Independence Day [July 3, 2016] All Saints Pasadena

“A Better Country”

            I begin with a word of warning: this sermon is a bit thin in the joke department. My assignment is to preach about Independence Day, and you can’t talk about the Fourth of July at All Saints without at least mentioning our public life. Now obviously, there is a lot of hilariously stupid stuff going on in American politics right now, but it’s hard to think up a joke about the election that won’t get All Saints Church back in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service. It is nearly impossible to say anything sane and rational this year without making it appear that you’re be taking sides. So: homiletical hands off the presumptive nominees. Then again, I probably could make some fun of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, but since this is Independence Day we Americans should probably not be too contemptuous of people who have followed our lead in deciding, in the words of our own Declaration, to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another”. So hands off Brexit as well.

Two weeks ago today I had the opportunity to spend the day in Washington, D.C., the city from which Kathy and I moved back to L.A. five months ago. It was a lovely, if muggy, late spring day, and instead of going back up to the cathedral and finding out how well they were getting along without me, I decided to walk from Union Station over to the Capitol and then down the length of the mall—past the museums, the Washington Monument, and the World War II Memorial--to the Lincoln Memorial at the mall’s west end. I wasn’t really sure what was drawing me there, but I knew that given everything that is going on in America these days, I needed a good dose of Abraham Lincoln if I was going to make it to November.
When you climb the steps and enter the Lincoln Memorial, you see before you a giant statue of a seated President Lincoln. On the north wall to your right is inscribed the full text of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. On the south wall to your left you can read the Gettysburg Address. You turn around facing east and remember that on the steps of this building Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
Having lived and worked in Washington D.C. and hung around our government for a while, I am pretty jaded about America’s displays of civic piety. But on this Sunday morning in June I was surprised and moved to feel myself caught up in what the Lincoln Memorial embodies about America and its aspirations.
            And maybe because we have spent the last several months subjected to so much xenophobia and race-baiting by political figures both here and abroad, it was the composition of the people gathered in the Lincoln Memorial itself that most impressed me. On that Sunday morning I found myself one of the very few white people in the building. The group gathered that day was a tapestry of the makeup of the American nation: African Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Whites, and even some Native Americans all mingling together and paying tribute not only to our greatest president but also to the vision of America he lived and died to advance.
I spent many years before coming to All Saints in the 1990s teaching American literature to high school and college students. In those years of living with American texts, it always struck me as pretty obvious that from its colonial beginnings our nation has lived with two visions of itself: one exclusive, the other expansive. For some, like Benjamin Franklin or Jay Gatsby, the “American Dream” is the possibility to make it big in terms of money, fame, and what we otherwise label “success”. For others, like Walt Whitman or Frederick Douglass, the “American Dream” is the opposite: a communal vision of shared hope and mutual accountability.  Is America about Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or the Social Safety Net?  Yes generally to both, but only to one for those of us who follow Jesus.
I have never been one of those who want to to talk about America as a “Christian nation” or of the Founders as Christian people. Please. The Declaration doesn’t mention Jesus at all. It talks about a vaguely defined “Creator” as “Nature’s God”, and in the excerpt we read together, “Divine Providence”. Half of those guys gathered in Philadelphia were Deists, and Deism isn’t even really a religion. It’s a philosophy. So don’t go looking to the Declaration of Independence for religious advice on personal or social issues. Nevertheless, from the beginning in America there has always been an interfaith religious community surrounding the world of politics, and up until the 1980s these faith voices consistently pressed for communitarian values and social change. Think of the 18th century preaching that advocated revolution, the 19th century Abolitionism stoked by Christian preachers, the 20th century vision of a Social Gospel that did so much for workers and children and women’s rights. And then of course there was the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King.
Bill O’Reilly once interviewed Michael Moore and asked him, given all the social positions his films advocate, if he was a socialist. Moore replied, “I’m a Christian.” For those of us who follow Jesus, there can only be one version of the American Dream—a dream of racial, social, economic, political justice. That dream has been articulated not by fast-buck entrepreneurs or evangelists with French cuffs and razor cut hair, but by women and men who have felt the call of allegiance to something bigger than themselves. These Christian change agents have steadfastly looked to the example of Jesus and the way he lived—saying “No” to imperial pomp and oppression, saying “Yes” to compassion and liberation—and they have brought those values right squarely into our political discourse. Doing this is hard work. They held to a vision of America that was not universally held or admired. Remember that we killed runaway slaves, beat striking miners, murdered Civil Rights workers, and burned crosses on integrationists’ lawns. What kept these visionaries going?
I think what kept them going was the Christian hope we heard articulated in our reading from Hebrews this morning. The eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews tells the story of Abraham and Sarah who left their home for a new country, and they did so without any guarantees, only with the divine promise of a place “whose designer and maker is God”. It’s a hard thing to leave your homeland. You only do so in hopes of finding a better one.  The author of Hebrews spiritualizes the journey and makes it a pilgrimage. To Sarah and Abraham, this new country was not an imperial dream of colonialism in Palestine. It was a pilgrimage toward  a place in the imagination, in the mind of God and in the hearts of humanity. It was a better country, a heavenly one. As the Letter to the Hebrews says:
All of them died in faith.  They did not obtain what had been promised, but saw and welcomed it from afar.  By acknowledging themselves to be strangers and exiles on the earth, they showed that they were looking for a country of their own.  If they had been thinking of the country from which they had come, they would have been able to return to it.  But they were searching for a better country, a heavenly one.  So God is not ashamed of them, or ashamed to be called their God.  That is why God has prepared a city for them. [Hebrews 11: 8-16]
      Those of us who follow Jesus will always be, like Sarah and Abraham, “strangers and exiles on earth”. Like them, we will always be divinely discontented in a social order that fosters or even allows social, racial, gender, sexual, or economic injustice and inequality. Like our biblical forbears, we 21st century followers of Jesus will ever be restless to establish what the author of Hebrews calls “a better country”, that is “a heavenly one”. This divine restlessness doesn’t mean that we’re going to try to put the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns or have kids say the Lord’s Prayer in our classrooms. It does mean that, together, we who follow Jesus will work to have America resemble the inclusive and egalitarian community that Jesus established in the face of the Roman Empire.  That is the same vision that our communitarian precursors in America have always envisioned:  a nation not of power but compassion; a politics not of  advantage but of justice; a social order not of privilege but equality; and a society where there are no insiders and everyone knows what it means to be valued and at home.
To my mind, Abraham Lincoln was America’s greatest president. He was also the least conventionally religious of our leaders. But he did know something about God, about politics, and about history. As I stood in his Memorial two weeks ago, I took the time to read again these words from his Second Inaugural inscribed on the north wall:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
What is this but the articulated vision of that better country toward which Sarah and Abraham yearned? You and I will always be strangers and exiles in any society that falls short of the vision of justice and peace the gospel holds out for us. On Independence Day—especially one in the middle of an election year--we who yearn for a better country do not have the luxury of wallowing in our shared alienation. “Let us strive,” as Lincoln said, “to finish the work we are in.” Let us not just look toward that better country. Let us walk toward it and build it here and now.
We will not see or achieve that better country by looking back to some imagined time of privileged greatness. We will achieve it in walking toward the better country, by making common cause with all those who are inspired by the dream of a place where God’s priorities and ours just might resemble each other.
So let us look, and let us walk, and let us build. Let us welcome that country from afar and bring it nearer with our prayer and faithful action. Together we can achieve Lincoln’s dream of “a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations”. Walking there won’t be easy, but it can be fun. And as we go there together we will come to know in our hearts and in our lives that the country we build and inhabit is being achieved for us, for our sisters and brothers, and for God. Amen.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Homily: May 15, 2016 [Pentecost] All Saints Pasadena

            In the unforgettable words of Michael Corleone, “Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.”
            For the majority of you who have no idea who I am, I’m Gary Hall. I worked on the staff here for 11 years—George’s last five, Ed’s first six. In 2001 I left All Saints for a 15-year whirlwind ecclesiastical tour of the U.S., stopping in Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington. Given the craziness of this year’s presidential process, it seems I left the District of Columbia just in time. Now I’m back here, ready, in retirement, to perp walk yet another rector through an All Saints transition. If I believed in reincarnation, I might wonder, “Was it something I did in a former life?” Socializing a new rector to All Saints is not pretty, but somebody has to do it.  “Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.”
            But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today is Pentecost, the day on which we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’s companions 10 days after his Ascension. If you are like me, the word “Pentecost” conjures up images of people speaking in tongues, rolling around on the floor in ecstasy, screaming how Jesus wants everyone to use gender appropriate bathrooms. “Pentecost” elides easily into “Pentecostal”, but there’s a world of difference between the two.
            The word “Pentecost” does not mean “slain in the Spirit” or anything like it. In Greek, “Pentecost” means “fiftieth”: today is the fiftieth day after Easter. In the New Testament chronology, Jesus rises three days after Good Friday, and then he spends forty days after his Resurrection restored to his companions. But he cannot seemingly stay forever.  So ten days ago on Ascension Day-- the fortieth day after Easter—Jesus departed for good and told his friends to wait for what will come next.  This ten-day period—the gap between the fortieth or Ascension Day and the fiftieth day or Pentecost—is the time theologian Karl Barth called “the significant pause”. It is a time of waiting, watching, and (yes) feeling anxious.  We have been left alone here. We have been promised a renewed presence. But who will it be and what will it look like?  These ten days are an epitome of the faithful person’s existential dilemma: we’re left alone in silence and waiting for God to act. The disciples stay in Jerusalem together, and all they can do is pray and wait.
            This ten day significant pause between Ascension and Pentecost gives us a compelling picture of an anxious community gathered in expectation. After working with a group of dedicated companions for personal peace and social justice in a dynamic and compassionate community, and after a long lead-up to his final departure—a charismatic faith leader has left his followers seemingly on their own waiting for what’s next, with only a promise of something new to follow. The community anxiously awaits the arrival of the one who will take them on the next steps of their missional journey.
Sound familiar? Who says the Bible isn’t relevant? This could be Jerusalem in 33 AD or Pasadena in 2016. Or it could be both.
Today’s celebration of Pentecost is both a remembrance of what happened then and an enactment of what happens now. Here is how the book of Acts describes the original fiftieth day:
When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. [Acts 2: 1-4]

On the fiftieth day of Easter then, the Jerusalem Christians got their answer. The Spirit of God came upon them in tongues of fire, empowering them each and all not only to speak and hear each other, but also transforming their hearts and minds. On the fiftieth day of Easter now, what might be on offer for us here, today? In neither situation does the answer to God’s on-going presence with us rest in the arrival of one flesh-and-blood person. Pentecost is not about a replacement Jesus or a brand new Ed Bacon. Pentecost is about something radically different. In both Jerusalem and Pasadena, the companions of Jesus are called dramatically into the center of things in a whole new way.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes this promise to his companions:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. [John 14: 15-17]

The word rendered as “Advocate” is the Greek word παράκλητος—or in English “Paraclete”—and παράκλητος means a few distinct things. In New Testament times, a Paraclete was an “advocate” in our traditional sense, one who pleads another’s case before a judge. Jesus is promising us a counsel for the defense. But a Paraclete was also one who intercedes, prays for, acts on behalf of, someone else.  So in promising us a Paraclete Jesus is promising us someone who will pray for and with us. Moreover, a Paraclete is also a helper, an assistant, one who stands by and with us when the going gets rough. So in promising us a Paraclete, Jesus is promising us someone who will help us do and become the people God wants us to be.
            When we talk in the church about the Holy Spirit, we often make her sound somewhat gaseous, like an aerosol spray floating around in the ether someplace—a kind of cosmic air freshener.  When Jesus himself talks about the Holy Spirit, he does so in these words:  defense counsel, intercessor, helper.  The Holy Spirit is not some vague divine ghost in the atmosphere. The Holy Spirit is God standing in, with, and among us.
            I have recently become a fan of the work of Monica Youn, a poet and lawyer who teaches at Princeton and regularly appears in the New Yorker magazine.  In a recent poem (“Goldacre”, June 1, 2015) she writes these intriguing words:
the young morning
with minutes
with wisps of wool

Now that line is part of a larger argument, but its reading depends on understanding the word “grommeted”. A “grommet” is a metal eyelet placed in a hole to allow a string to run through it. Think of a shoelace hole. In Monica Youn’s sense, a grommet is a hole made useful.  When she talks about the young morning being grommeted with minutes, she is suggesting that we have made the gracious gift of time “useful” by cutting it up into measurable bits. Grommeting takes things wild and unruly like holes and time and makes them useful. But in domesticating these things, grommeting deprives them of their wildness.
Grommeting:  Isn’t this what we in the church have done with the Holy Spirit?  In ancient Greek religion, the sibyls received the wild gift of prophetic speech. The religious establishment made this ecstatic prophecy useful by turning it into an oracle at Delphi where the wild spirit could be commercially available on demand.  In the same way, the church took the Holy Spirit and we forced her into a grommet. We made her useful, tame, institutionally reliable. Here was this wild gift where each person received what Jesus calls elsewhere “power from on high” (Luke 24:49) and we caught her, organized her, and tried to build a structure around her so that we could tell you, “The Holy Spirit will be reliably available at 132 North Euclid Avenue on Sundays at 7:30, 9, and 11:15.” Child care provided. We told you that we had the Spirit and you didn’t, and if you wanted to get a piece of her you had to come to us, the Spirit’s official licensed distributors.  We tried to make the Spirit useful.  We grommeted her, turning her into something like the official deodorant of the National League.
The trouble, of course, is that the Spirit we heard about this morning, the Spirit Jesus promises us, the One we come to know in places like this but also out in the natural world and in the prophetic justice work of the Gospel—that Spirit is neither domestic, tame, nor useful. That Spirit refuses to be grommeted. She is wild and free, an expression of the One at the center of the cosmos, the One we know in Jesus, the One who speaks in and through each of us when we are becoming the people God made and calls us to be.
Friends, I have spent forty years of my life serving and representing the institutional church, and nothing I say here should be taken as a disavowal of all the wonderful ways our structures forward the mission of the Gospel.  But let us not delude ourselves. Let us not confuse the institutional church with the Spirit of God. The witness of scripture, the witness of countless people who have gone before us, is that the Sprit of God is wild, free, and available to all. When the Spirit descended on the gathered community in Acts, she did so in flames of fire. She came not to one but to all. And if you read the next chapters of Acts, you’ll see how the Spirit sent them out into the streets of Jerusalem, not only proclaiming the name of Jesus but also finding and serving the lame, the blind, the lepers, the sinners, the lost, and calling them into a new transformed community of love, justice, healing, and peace.
“Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.” Kathy and I are so happy to be back here. I am thrilled once again to be part of a community that seeks to claim and know that Spirit in its prayer, its community life, and in its witness. And speaking as one who loves this place and its people, I would remind us that Pentecost came not in a single human being but in a spirit of love, power, and joy that transformed a community so that we could transform the world.
The Spirit of God will not be grommeted. Try as we might, we cannot make her useful, domesticated, or safe. She calls us onward into new and sometimes dangerous places. I know we’re all eager to meet the new rector, but as qualified and charismatic as he or she will certainly be, the next rector of All Saints Church will not be the exclusive official representative of the Holy Spirit on earth or even in Pasadena.  Pentecost suggests that the Spirit is alive and at work right now, in you, in me, in us, in ways we cannot ask for or imagine or even understand. She calls us to new work, new hope, new service. Our Paraclete is not someone awaited from the outside. Our Paraclete is here among and in us now, calling us to invite a new leader as our sister or brother into the good thing we’ve already got going on to help shape and build its next iteration for the years ahead.
Michael Corleone was right: “Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.” We’re all in this together. Let us not grommet the Spirit. Let us not grommet the next rector. Let us not grommet ourselves.  We have been clothed with power from on high. It’s all going to be all right.  Amen.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Homily: Robert O. Blake Memorial Service [January 9, 2016] Washington National Cathedral

            Although I’ve never liked the term “father” when applied to clergy, in one respect we are a bit like parents.  We are not supposed to have (or acknowledge we have) favorites among our parishioners. But since I’ve been retired now for all of nine days, I can finally admit that yes, we often do, and for me here at the cathedral Bob Blake will always remain my favorite.
            Why that is so may not be immediately apparent.  While an obviously accomplished, faithful, and gracious person, Bob drew me toward him for additional reasons. We were both native Californians—and not only native Californians, but native Southern Californians.  It’s true that I went to UC Berkeley and he attended that other place on the peninsula, but we learned not to hold our colleges against each other, especially as Stanford has outperformed Cal routinely on the gridiron for many years now. But there was more to it than that. The first time Bob took me to lunch, he asked rather casually if I had ever heard of his uncle, David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford. Now that’s an obscure reference, but I replied, “Bob, you’re looking at one of the few Washington alumni of David Starr Jordan Junior High School in Burbank.” After discovering that rather bizarre connection, we were friends for life.
            There were, of course, a million other reasons to love Bob Blake. He would write regular generous and supportive emails to me (with the entire message contained somehow in the subject line) expressing his willingness to assist personally and financially in whatever justice ministry the cathedral might engage in.  After a distinguished career as a diplomat and then a stint in international development, Bob devoted the last years of his life to working for social justice on a range of issues—the environment, pre-eminently, but also poverty, race relations, and hunger. Bob was the real deal, both as a person and as a Christian. His faith informed his social and personal commitments, and he was generous with his time, energy, and resources in working to make the world and America a better place.  Who couldn’t love a guy like that?
            Talking with Bob Blake was like being part of a living history lesson. You’d learn about the inner workings of the State Department and the U.N.; the ins and outs of the Kennedy Administration; climbing Mount Everest; and (my own personal favorite) what it’s like to be cooped up in an embassy for a week with Richard Nixon. That Bob had been both so close to power and so relaxed about it was part of his charm. That he climbed mountains and didn’t boast about doing so enhanced, at least for me, his personal appeal.
            The Gospel reading Sylvia chose for today’s service is a familiar one. In the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “In my Father's house are many mansions.” We often read this passage at funerals because of the beautiful way in which Jesus assures us that even in the face of death, we have been provided for.  “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” This passage has always stood for Christians as a promise that we and those we love are ultimately held in God’s eternal, loving, embrace.
            All that is true. Yet, in reading this passage, I hear something else about Bob Blake that all of us can hold on to in the wake of his passing.  In the King James version of the Bible, Jesus talks of his father’s house having many “mansions”. That’s a confusing word to us 21st century people. When I hear the word mansion, I think of a big house like Mount Vernon or The Biltmore. But in Early Modern English—the language of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and the Prayer Book-- a mansion was either a place where someone literally dwelt—a house or lodging—or it was a figurative abode—Paul called the body the “earthly mansion wherein we now dwell”. So in the English of the King James Bible, a mansion is, literally and figuratively, a home. In my father’s house are many mansions. In our ongoing life with God, we are and will be at home.
            Now Bob Blake was a well-travelled guy. From Whittier, California to Washington D.C. and Maine with stops in Palo Alto, Baltimore, Managua, Tokyo, Moscow, New York, Tunis, Kinshasha, Paris, and Mali. Bob Blake got around. And I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to observe that Bob was pretty much at home everywhere he went. To speak both literally and figuratively, the world was Bob’s mansion.  The world was Bob’s home.
            “In my father’s house are many mansions.” We are gathered this afternoon not only to give thanks for the life and work of Bob Blake. We are gathered also to entrust him, to hand him over, to God’s care. We know that Bob was at home in the mansions of the world. It is Jesus’s assurance that he will be at home in the mansions of God.
            And our other Bible reading—from Isaiah 61—gets at what allowed God to be at home in the world:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners.

This is the scripture passage Jesus read in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. It’s the one that defined Jesus’s life and ministry and has become the mission statement of those who feel the world’s pain and believe that following Jesus has implications for how we live our lives.  For people like Bob Blake, Christianity was not just about his own personal salvation. For Bob and people like him, Christianity is about feeling for and standing with the ones Jesus names: the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the prisoners, the poor.  For Bob Blake, being a Christian meant not only being at home in the world; it meant making the world the kind of place where everybody could be at home.
            I have been a priest for almost 40 years now, and over the course of my working life I’ve probably known a handful of men and women with Bob Blake’s qualities: deep faith, personal grace, professional accomplishment, and real empathy for those who are up against it.  You don’t meet a lot of people like Bob in my business, but the ones you do meet are the ones who make the whole lifelong enterprise worthwhile. They are so grounded in what it means to follow Jesus that they make it just a little bit easier for you to follow Jesus, too.
            “In my father’s house are many mansions.”  “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me . . . to bring good news to the oppressed.”  We all knew Bob in different roles and capacities, so there are as many reasons to be grateful for the gift of Bob Blake’s life as there are people gathered in this cathedral today. Bob was a husband, a father, an outdoorsman, a diplomat, a tireless worker for justice and peace. To spend any time in his presence was to come away feeling that you had been engaged and encountered by a great spirit and a deep mind.  He was, in every respect, a lovely and fascinating person.
            But he was more than that.  He was a follower of Jesus who shaped his life in response to Isaiah’s vision of what it means to stand for God’s values of love, justice, peace, and compassion in a beautiful yet broken world. He made it a better place, and he helped to make it enjoyable for an ever-widening circle of people. He was at home everywhere in God’s world, and by his life and witness he made it easier for all of us to be at home in the world with him. In the short time I knew him, he brightened and deepened my life. I am not alone in holding him as a favorite. As Bob Blake moves on now with Jesus to the mansions in his father’s house, I know as surely as I know anything that he will be at home there, too. Amen.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Homily: The First Sunday after Christmas [December 27, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

The longer I go on living in the Christian tradition, the more I realize the profound truth of a simple idea. For every positive statement we make, we can state its opposite and still be speaking the truth. Paul said, "Justification comes by faith apart from works of law." James said, "Faith without works is dead." Both statements were made by apostles, both appear in the New Testament, and both seemingly contradict each other. And yet: the truth of each does not imply the falsity of its opposite. The longer I go on in the life of faith, the more I realize that two apparently contradictory things can be true at once. Reality is bigger and more complex than I am. The broad, comprehensive nature of Christianity makes all narrow partisan ideology seem shallow and false.

So two things can be true at once. We're saved by grace, yet works matter. God is compassionate, and God is just. We're all sinners, and God loves us. To hold on to one half of any of these statements (without also grasping the other) is to see only part of the picture, and thus to misunderstand the radical nature of grace.

Something along these lines occurs to me whenever I think about Christmas these days, because Christmas is at its core a set of what seem like massive contradictions. It is a celebration of light at the darkest time of the year.  It is an affirmation of peace and blessing in a world of aggression and alienation. It is an occasion when we have to hold two, seemingly opposing, ideas of God in our head. No wonder Mary spent her time after the shepherds' departure treasuring their words and pondering these things in her heart. The King of the Universe has been born in a stable. How paradoxical can you get?

One way of thinking about Christmas is to hold the Hebrew word "Emmanuel", as Mary did, in your heart. "God with us." From the beginning of time, it seems, human beings have lived with two distinct images of God. God is at the same time the Being behind the Universe and my personal Savior. God is far away, powerful, and transcendent. God is also nearby, vulnerable, and immanent. Some religions emphasize God's immensely other holiness. Other religions emphasize God's compassion and concern for me in all my idiosyncratic particularity. The unique thing about Christianity is that it does not choose sides in this game of dueling theological banjos. Christianity says two true things together at the same time: yes, God is other and righteous and holy; and yes, God is familiar and compassionate and nearby. And the way we say that is Christmas.

On Christmas Eve we heard the familiar story of the birth. On the First Sunday after Christmas we hear the less familiar opening verses of John's Gospel. Listen to what they say:

In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the

Word was God. Christ was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Christ, and without Christ not one thing came into being. What has come into being in Christ was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1]


What John announces here is a more poetic way of saying what Matthew's and Luke's birth stories tell us. The God who we thought of as far away is the same God who is right here, passionately and compassionately involved with us. Christmas is about God's willingness to take on what it means to be human, to be with us in our frailty and freedom, to experience what we experience from the inside out. When you really love someone you are concerned with sharing and knowing their interior experience. God loves the way we love—though perhaps with fewer blinders on--and Christmas is God's way of risking the safety and the isolation of perfect transcendence for the vulnerability and community of love and life in and with us.

But the journey does not stop there. Yes, God comes to meet us.  But now we go to meet God. Christmas is a two-way transaction. Because if God shares our experience, now we also can share God's. Listen again to the 61st chapter of Isaiah:

For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
   and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
   to spring up before all the nations. [Isaiah 61:11]

These joyous words come to us from a hard season of personal and social pain. In their historical setting, the last chapters of the book of the prophet Isaiah sit perched on the brink of a great thing God is doing for Israel, but they arise from a time of great suffering. Israel has been nearly demolished and taken into captivity in Babylon. The whole sweep of its life and meaning appears to be over. And then, out of nowhere, in a way no one could have predicted, God acts. Israel is freed from Babylonian captivity. They return home. The story is back on. Isaiah 61 announces a revolution in divine and human experience: in bringing Israel home from Exile, God has done something so unbelievably enormous that it almost defies description. Isaiah cannot be silent because this divine deliverance requires that it be noticed and praised.  God’s truth and justice and love and salvation are going forward. They spring up as naturally from God’s actions as shoots come forth from the earth and as the plants of a garden spring up from the seeds that have been sown within it. God moves towards us in mercy and justice. We move toward God in thanksgiving and praise. We are saved by grace alone. Faith without works is dead.

In other words: yes, God is moving toward us.  And yes, we are moving toward God. In the life of Jesus, God takes on what it means to be a human being. We call God’s movement toward us “the incarnation.” And the incarnation, the enfleshment, is not only about what God does for us. It is just as importantly about what we do for God. After the Jesus event, God understands human life differently than God had before. God now knows what it is like to be us. God experiences our joys and sorrows and hopes and fears not just from the outside but now from within.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. [John 1:14]


When we say that the Word has become flesh and dwelt among us, we are saying that God and we have met each other in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And when we say that, we mean these two things. First, we mean that human life—in all its glory, in all its smallness—has been ennobled by God's choosing to take it on and experience it from the inside. That’s why we do justice work: because in becoming one of us, God has given every human being unique worth and dignity. Second, we mean that the divine life of God—in all its transcendence, in all its immanence--has been irrevocably changed by its encounter with what it means to live and die as a particular human being. That is why we pray, because the one we pray to knows what it is to be us.  God has taken on our experience, and we have taken on God's destiny.

Christmas is about contradictions, about opposites, about two things being true at once. In Jesus Christ, God and humanity meet once and for all. In becoming one of us, God has taken on human mortality. For our part, you and I have been taken up into God's immortality. Two things can be true at once. God knows and loves you more fully than you can imagine and understand. Your life has meaning and depth and purpose beyond the human markers we use to identify it. You are part of something timeless and universal. You now share God's divine life in ways that connect you to the entire human community. Because what is true for you and me is also true for our brothers and sisters of every racial, ethnic, sexual, or class identity.

So Christmas and its season are jam packed with good news. God has come to meet us. We are moving toward God. Both sides are transformed in this encounter. We and God meet, once for all, in Jesus Christ. This meeting is the real gift of Christmas. Two things can be true at once. And it is the work of a lifetime to see, and know, and thank God that they can. Amen.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas Leaflet Message, 2015: Washington National Cathedral

O the magnitude of meekness!

Worth from worth immortal sprung;

O the strength of infant weakness,

If eternal is so young!

                --Christopher Smart, “The Nativity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”


Christmas 2015 arrives at an unusually fraught time in our national and international life. We seem this season to be assaulted by distressing news on an almost daily basis.  Life seems ever more fragile and at risk. Civility seems all but absent from our public discourse. We spend our days alternating between postures of anger and fear.

It is natural in times like these to want to defend ourselves and to strike back at those who either threaten our sense of security or offend our values. Our safety, we believe, resides either in our corporate and personal power or in our superior principles.

As vexing as today’s world can be, it is no more disturbed than the one into which Jesus came two millennia ago. Then as now the arrogant overwhelmed the meek.  Then as now the preciousness of life seemed of no account to those bent on enmity and control. Then as now the answers on offer seemed to revolve around getting more—resources, power, control—with which to overwhelm those who posed a threat either in fact or imagination.

But it has always been the affirmation of the biblical tradition—from the Hebrew prophets to Jesus himself and to his earliest followers—that security resides neither in power nor money nor status. Real safety—the kind that Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul both live out and offer—consists in what might seem like a counterintuitive set of emotions.  Real security consists in trust—trust that reality is finally friendly, trust that the world is actually good, trust that God keeps promises.  The One behind the world—the One who comes into it then and now at Christmas—is ultimately trustworthy. And we are finally safe.

The eighteenth century English poet Christopher Smart understood what Isaiah and Jesus and Paul proclaimed and what Jesus’s mother Mary lived out in her faithful nurture of her infant son.  We normally think of and describe God as ultimate power, but such a construction gets it totally wrong. The truth is really the other way around.  God is not to be seen in ultimate power.  God is on view in ultimate weakness. God comes among us not as a warrior but as a baby. Our image of God is not of a mighty king but a helpless infant. Our fantasies of power are fakes. What Smart calls the “strength of infant weakness” is the real truth about God, the world, and us.

We gather in this cathedral church during the season of infant weakness to celebrate the strength and endurance of those values and virtues that Christopher Smart names “the magnitude of meekness”.  The One born at Christmas will come to stand with and for us humans in ways that will outlast the pretensions and postures of power in all its pompous self-display. The infant Jesus embraces us in his weakness, and beckons us to share that embrace around. The problems of 2015 lose their power to frighten us. We can live, with God and Jesus and our neighbors in gratitude and trust.

May the God we meet in infant weakness bless you in the magnitude of meekness to live in hope and thanksgiving, both now and throughout the year. Welcome to Christmas at Washington National Cathedral.


Gary Hall