Sunday, October 28, 2018

Homily: The Twentythird Sunday after Pentecost [October 28, 2018] Trinity, Santa Barbara

            Because I’m an obsessive person who cannot bring himself to procrastinate, I prepared my sermon for today before yesterday’s horrific shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue and even before most of the bombs sent to prominent Democrats had been discovered. Because today is an important day in Trinity’s life—not so much because it’s my final Sunday but because it represents the end of a five-year-transitional period in our parish leadership—I have decided to stay with what I had already prepared to say.
            But I do want to add a quick thought before I proceed. The escalation of hateful rhetoric coming out of the White House has now produced a climate in which some feel encouraged and even authorized to employ bombs and assault weapons against those who represent a more hopeful, inclusive, and liberating vision of life. If there ever was a time when America needed congregations like Trinity—faith communities that proclaim a vision of love, justice, peace, and which celebrate cultural, racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious diversity—that time is now. The Tree of Life synagogue also housed the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Trinity is active in the interfaith Immigration Advocacy Collaborative. Of course, we pray for those killed and injured yesterday. And surely many of us in the church will continue to work to stop gun violence. But the best tribute Trinity can make to the shooting victims at Tree of Life will be to redouble its advocacy on behalf of those whom the nation’s fearful haters want to intimidate and exclude.
            So much for my thoughts about yesterday. Now to the business at hand.
I spent most of the decade of the 1980s as vicar of St. Aidan’s Church in Malibu. (It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.) On my final Sunday at St. Aidan’s, in April of 1989, a woman who had been in church almost every Sunday during my time there approached me at the coffee hour reception.
            “Gary,” she said, “I want you to know I’ve listened carefully every week as you have preached. It’s clear to me that you have three sermons.” She then proceeded to outline, very succinctly and perceptively, the three sermon topics I consistently used. I have to say, as annoyed as I felt, I was impressed with her listening skills. So here’s how I responded.
            “You know, you’re right. I do have three basic sermons. But here’s the thing: that’s two more than most clergy have.”
            Today is my final Sunday here with you in this interim period at Trinity. A week from today you will welcome Elizabeth Molitors, and I’ll be preaching at the cathedral in Des Moines—a fresh and unsuspecting audience on whom I can unleash one of my three sermons. Later in November I will begin as priest in charge a St. Wilfrid’s in Huntington Beach, a parish similar in size to Trinity but which has gone through the sudden and traumatic exit of its rector. It will be important work, but it will be nothing like Trinity. My time here has been, for me, personally restorative. You are a passionate, faithful, generous group of people, and being with you has been both ennobling and actually fun. I am deeply grateful for this experience.
            So on this final Sunday, what can I say that I haven’t already said at least five times? Let’s see what the story of Jesus and Bartimaeus might have to tell us.
            My late lifelong friend and mentor, Harvey Guthrie, used to say that one of the subplots of Mark’s gospel concerned the endless thick-headedness of the disciples. They follow Jesus around, listen to him teach, watch him heal, and yet they still seem not to understand what he is doing or why he is doing it.  Harvey often said that the big question behind these stories in Mark was, “Are they going to get it?”
            “Are they going to get it?” If we listen to today’s gospel, the answer is probably, “Not quite yet”.  A blind man, Bartimaeus, hears Jesus approaching and shouts out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The disciples, budding bureaucrats that they are, order him to be quiet. But Jesus calls to him and asks him what he wants. “My teacher,” he says, “let me see again.” Jesus replies, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Mark concludes the story by telling us, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed [Jesus] on the way.”
            “Are they going to get it?” At least as far as this story is concerned, the jury is still out. Someone in this story does in fact get it, but he’s not one of the insiders or usual suspects. We might refresh Harvey’s question and ask, “Are WE going to get it?” I have two parting thoughts I would like to share with you.
            First: like all the gospel writers, Mark is keenly aware of the irony of the blind man seeing as the sighted ones remain (at least morally) blind. While the people who follow Jesus around can’t seem to help themselves from bickering about their status and shooing outsiders away, it is the person on the margins—in this story a blind beggar sitting by the side of the road—who really understands the implications of what Jesus is up to. In many ways, the story of Jesus and Bartimaeus should be for us in the church a cautionary tale about our constant need to open ourselves to the needs, concerns, and corrections of the world. What family systems psychologists call the “fusion force” that makes groups possible does bind us together, and that’s a good thing. But that same drive to fuse with each other can figuratively blind and deafen us not only to the pains but also to the gifts of those still on the outside.
            In this tale of Jesus’s encounter with a blind beggar, Mark wants us to understand that Harvey’s question will always hover over the community that seeks to follow Jesus. Are they going to get it? Are we going to get it? The answer seems to be, yes, we will get it, but only by attending to and serving those who are not yet here. More than most other churches I have served, Trinity opens itself to the needs and critique of the world. But it is vital that we find ongoing and structural ways to listen and respond to the people outside of us. Trinity went through one revolution in the early 1990s and opened itself both missionally and theologically to visions and voices long unheard in the church. Twenty-five years later, where might those outside voices come from and what might they be saying here and now? To be the people authentically following Jesus, we need continually to listen to the people who are not here. Only by hearing and serving and learning from them will we begin to get it.
            That’s the first thought. And here is the second. “Immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way.” The Christian life is a dynamic, not static, experience. Because our encounters with God can be so transformative, our natural tendency is often to make church a museum of our earlier experience rather than a living matrix in which we and God engage each other in the here and now. Jesus gives Bartimaeus, the blind beggar outsider, new sight, and when he gets it, Bartimaeus knows what to do with it. He could have set up a “Bartimaeus Miracle Sight Museum” and charged visitors to listen as he endlessly retold the story of the great thing that happened to him right on this spot. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he uses his new sight to get up and follow Jesus on the way. What Bartimaeus gets, and what you and I need help to keep on getting, is that God has given us all of our gifts--of life and love and community, our skills, our desires, and yes even our struggles and losses—not as ends in themselves but as resources for our primary work, that of following Jesus, becoming who we really are, and transforming the world in the process. Just as we can get stuck being insiders, so we can get stuck in the past and spend our lives constantly trying to recover and recreate it. Bartimaeus celebrates his new sight by using it to follow Jesus on the way. The more you and I center ourselves on following Jesus, the more deeply we will get it.
            Many of you know that your next rector and my friend Elizabeth Molitors graduated from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois and was a student there when I was the dean. She once said to me that a typical Gary Hall sermon consists of three points and a poem. (It seems this sermon critique karma will follow me around forever.) So, as a tip of my hat to your incoming rector, let me leave you with two lines from what many consider the most beautiful poem in the English language, “Lycidas” by John Milton.
            “Lycidas” is an elegy, a poem written in response to a death, in this case of one of Milton’s classmates. The central figure in the poem is a shepherd who sings his elegiac lament from dawn to dusk as Milton says “to th’oaks and rills”. As the poem ends, the shepherd puts down his pipe and is now ready to move on:
At last he rose, and twitch'd his mantle blue:
To-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.

“Are they going to get it?” The story of Bartimaeus shows us that we will get it if we get up and follow Jesus on the way. And John Milton’s shepherd in “Lycidas” shows us that, having taken account of our wins and losses, our triumphs and our traumas, we live into God’s vision for our lives by moving on into new and unimagined ventures alone or with others, but always under God’s watchful care. Trinity, you have been through a lot, and now you are ready for your next chapter. It has been a joy, an honor, and a privilege to share this part of your journey with you. Thank you for being who you are and our time together. So now, let us get up and follow Jesus, each on our own way. “To-morrow, to fresh woods, and pastures new.” Amen.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Homily: The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [June 24, 2018]

            I grew up in Southern California and went to seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a valley boy, I often felt at a bit cowed in the presence of patrician New Englanders, but I also had a bit of an attitude about it—they didn’t take it kindly when I called Cambridge “the Berkeley of the east”. I did, though, have one real advantage when it came to studying the Bible. New Englanders, like northern Europeans, live in a four-season climate.  This explains the counterfactual lines we sing in our Christmas hymns, like “The snow lay on the ground/The stars shone bright.” There was no snow on the ground in Bethlehem in December. At Christmas, they were probably all out skateboarding. When it comes to understanding biblical weather, Easterners are hopelessly confused. Californians, however, know better. The Holy Land, like the Golden State, is a two-season climate. True, we do not have a round of spring, summer, fall, winter seasons. Instead, like Palestine, we have two: dry season and wet season. It’s not that we have no seasons. It’s that we have two that we can recognize and interlopers can’t.
            Being from a two-season climate is a great help in reading the Bible, especially when it comes to understanding scripture’s profound ambivalence about water. In climates like ours, water is either scarce or superabundant; there is either too little or too much. Every once in a while we get the just the right amount of it, but on many occasions we find ourselves facing either into drought or flood. Hence the Bible’s seemingly two-faced attitude toward water. It is, at the same time, precious and dangerous. It is at once the source of and threat to life.
            The Bible’s hydraulic doublethink helps us understand the symbolic undertone to today’s gospel (Mark 4:35-41). If you think back to the book of Genesis and its creation and flood stories, you’ll see that biblical water often stands for chaos. In the earlier creation account, God makes the world by bringing order out of chaos, especially by separating “the [upper] waters from the [lower] waters” (Genesis 1:6). In the later Noah story (Genesis 6-9) God punishes human wickedness by “bringing a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life” (Genesis 6:17). Over the long haul of its history, when Israel thinks about chaos, the element they use to represent it is water, especially by the way we experience water in a storm.
            Jesus and his companions were Jews, and so they lived and thought within the Bible’s cultural and symbolic framework. It is no accident, then, that in today’s gospel story, Mark uses a windstorm on the water to represent the internal and social chaos which we all experience and innately fear. A windstorm arises, the waves threaten to swamp the boat. While his disciples panic, Jesus is asleep in the stern. They wake him up, he calms the storm, and the story ends with general astonishment that “even the wind and the sea” obey him.
            It’s not only ancient Israelites and first century Palestinian Jews who find meaning in windstorms and floods. You and I also seem to be hardwired to see weather standing for something more than itself. Robert Frost talked about “outer” and “inner” weather. We humans seem reflexively to see climatic conditions as emblematic of states of the soul. Just think of the songs: “Blue Skies”, “Stormy Weather”, and so on. We cannot seem to help talking about our inner lives without using meteorological comparisons. Wallace Stevens often referred to his own internal struggles as “major weather”.
            It is easy to imagine the inner and outer major weather Jesus and his followers knew, not only in the boat but in their daily lives. Remember that first century Palestinian Jews lived under Roman rule and, because of Rome’s need both to tax them and take all their food to feed their army, the Jews were at once oppressed, impoverished, and starving. But the Bible’s stories are not only about them. They are also about us. The windstorm on the lake stands for more than the inner and outer weather of the disciples’ lives. That windstorm represents our own chaos, too.
            On Tuesday night, when she began to read a breaking Associated Press story about the immigrant family detention crisis, Rachel Maddow broke down in tears. Here is how that story she couldn’t get through reading begins:
The Trump administration has set up at least three “tender age” shelters to detain babies and other young children who have been forcibly separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, The Associated Press has learned. Doctors and lawyers who have visited the shelters in South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley said the facilities were fine, clean and safe, but the children — who have no idea where their parents are — were hysterical, crying and acting out. Many of them are under age 5, and some are so young they have not yet learned to talk. []

            It is a sign of Rachel Maddow’s fundamental humanity that she had an impossible time reading this story live on the air. If there is any emblem of the social, political, and moral chaos in which we live and move right now, it has to be this ongoing story of the Administration’s separation of asylum-seeking parents from their children at the border. That we have gotten to a point in this nation where our leaders not only take children away from their parents but callously quote the Bible as they do so, means we have lost any moral and ethical moorings we may have once possessed.
As I have lived with this story during this awful week of cruel and inhumane news, I have felt exactly like one of Jesus’s disciples in a storm-tossed boat. We seem, now, to live in a world that makes absolutely no sense. All of the values we used to expect from our leaders (justice, compassion, and at the very least telling the truth) have departed. We are being swamped by waves of chaotic indifference and cruelty. Nothing in our shared experience has prepared us for living in such a constant state of moral and social turmoil. When the disciples angrily confront Jesus and say, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” I know what they are talking about. Wake up, God! How can this be happening?
The traditional way to read this gospel story depends on its tag line: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” We preachers normally take this story as some kind of miraculous endorsement of Jesus and his divinity. To me this week, though, it’s what Jesus says after he calms the storm that really matters.  “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” This is not only a story about Jesus as a first century wonder worker. This is a story about Jesus empowering his companions, especially us.
“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” I was sorry that Rachel Maddow felt it necessary the next day to apologize for losing it live on the air. But I was enormously pleased that, the next night, she was back at it, ready to jump into the fray. The point of today’s gospel is not only that Jesus can calm the chaotic storms of life. The point of today’s gospel is that God has empowered us to do that, too. What makes us think we can opt out of these struggles and rely solely on divine guidance to save us? Jesus knew what you and I need to learn: the disciples had it within them to calm the storm themselves. They did not trust their own power, and so the storm threatened to defeat them. Faced with the chaos and cruelty of the current moment, you and I have license neither to opt out nor to despair. We have only one choice, and that is to work together to organize and resist the depredations brought on by those who would engulf us in constant, traumatic, unfeeling chaos and despair.
I was cheered this week when I read on Facebook that a Bay Area friend of mine is devoting his free time between now and November to working in Tulare to help defeat a particularly onerous member of Congress. I was saddened to read on the Secretary of State’s website that only 35.6% of California voters turned out for the June 5 primary. Elections, now, are the things that matter. The rallies and the pussy hats and the Twitter posts are great, but if we are going to calm the chaotic storm we face together, you and I are really going to have to get to serious work. As the late William Sloane Coffin, Jr. once said to me, “Anyone can preach. Blessed are those who can organize.”
If you remember the last page of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (back to New England again), you’ll recall that as the whaling ship Pequod sinks beneath the wave, the last image we see is of the American flag being nailed to the submerging spar. At least one of Melville’s meanings suggests that solipsistic tyrants like Captain Ahab endanger not only themselves but our whole collective enterprise. Our ship of state is sinking fast, and we cannot let our current Fifth Avenue Ahab bring us all down. The Pequod was not a democracy, but (at least for the moment) America still is. We can change our course if we organize and act together for the common good. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” The best cure for chaotic inner weather is working together to calm our outer weather. Jesus knew that authentic power is shared and we hold it together. The situation is serious but not hopeless. To quote our current despot against himself, “We alone can fix it.” Amen.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Homily: The Third Sunday after Pentecost [June 10, 2018] Trinity, Santa Barbara

            On primary election day, last Tuesday, June 5, Kathy and I served as poll workers in Canoga Park. This is the fourth election we have worked since we moved back to L.A. two years ago. We don’t have exalted positions. Kathy’s title is “Clerk No. 1”. Mine is “Clerk No. 2”. My friend and former teaching colleague, Larry Dilg (“Supervisor”) has been working elections a couple of years longer than we have, and he recruited us to be part of an ongoing precinct team. Larry is a smart and hospitable guy, and he has built a small staff of people who can both do the work effectively and treat the voters with respect.
This past Tuesday, Los Angeles County inadvertently dropped 118,000 voters from the rolls. As you can imagine, we had to serve a number of frustrated people and convince them to cast provisional ballots, which we were able to do. Nobody in our precinct lost their temper, and everybody voted. Although the days of a precinct worker are long (they run from about 6 a.m. to around 10 p.m.), the work is rewarding because the voters take it so seriously. I think I’ll keep doing it until I’m too feeble to lift all the equipment.
            In Los Angeles County several precincts usually share one location. At Canoga Park Presbyterian Church, our precinct (the “orange” table) shared the parish hall with another precinct, (the “green” table). The green table precinct was led by an elderly man in a US Navy cap who seemed very unhappy to be there or, in fact, anywhere. His affect was such that he could not address the many voters with problems without seeming to scold them. About once an hour a voter would come over to our table and ask how they could file a complaint against the other supervisor.
            The women who worked at this other precinct tried their best to control their leader and put out some of the interpersonal fires he started, but everybody over there ran out of patience when the polls closed at 8 p.m. Several people were still in the process of voting, but as both precincts began the process of closing up, the leader across the hall really began to lose it. There are very specific instructions about how to set up and tear down—largely having to do with ballot security-- but this guy had his own way of doing things. When his colleagues began to question some of his orders, he erupted.
            “I don’t care what the official procedures are!  I am the leader, and your job is not to question me but to do what I say!” Very like Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny.
            A composed and dignified young woman quietly responded that to her mind everybody’s job was to follow the county’s procedures and that no one person was above them. At this, rather than respond with a rationale for his authoritarianism, the older man unleashed a string of misogynist epithets, managing to call this young woman a couple of offensive names. My friend Larry went over and tried to calm things down, but everyone (especially the people still voting) was rattled by the experience. As Kathy said on our way out, “I think that guy’s sell-by date has passed.”
            My experience of the man I now call the “misogynist martinet” comes to mind as I reflect on the gospel [Mark 3: 20-35] for this morning. Today’s passage is from the early chapters of Mark’s gospel, the part in which Jesus’s public ministry seems to alarm everyone in town, especially his own family, who try to restrain him from healing and teaching. But the main attack comes from the scribes, religious professionals whose official authority system is threatened by a popular free-lancer like Jesus. Rather than give a reasoned argument explaining their critique of Jesus, the scribes immediately resort (as did our misogynist martinet precinct supervisor) to name-calling. “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts our demons,” they say. Jesus is clearly more popular and effective than the religious professionals. The only way they can think of to attack his credibility is to call him names.
            It is hard, when hearing a story like today’s gospel, not to think immediately of certain leaders in our national public life who use social media to make ad hominem and ad feminam attacks against their adversaries. (No names, please!) Whatever your associations with name-calling, we are all familiar the practice of labeling people rather than engaging them in their full humanity. Attaching a label (often, but not always, a gender, race, ethnic, or sexual identity epithet) is a way of reducing a person to a thin abstraction. It’s easier for me to hate or dismiss you if I can think of you as something rather than someone. And it’s easier still for me to deflect your criticism of me if I can call you the devil in the bargain.
            As in many Jesus stories, the great thing about this gospel interchange lies in the way Jesus turns the tables on his attackers. As Jesus asks,
“How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.”
            Jesus knew that part of the problem with name callers is that they don’t think very clearly. If demons are of the devil, and Jesus is of the devil, then why would the devil cast himself out? Once you rob the invective of its power, the scribes’ argument makes no sense. And that is why Jesus then goes on to make his remark about what we in the church have come to call the “unforgivable sin”.
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
By making their charge that Jesus’s works were of the devil, the scribes had attributed Jesus’s power to Satan rather than God. Apparently for Jesus, you can say anything you want about God so long as you don’t make the mistake of calling something that actually comes from God “evil”. When I was younger I was confused by this passage, but now it strikes me as eminently simple. It gives me great comfort whenever I hear a hateful preacher talking against same-sex marriage, gender equality, or racial justice. Like the scribes in the story, some folks make the mistake of equating status quo oppression with the will of God. In so doing they are treading on dangerous ground. It is one of the highlights of my professional life that right wing evangelist Franklin Graham on two occasions called me an apostate for performing same sex weddings and allowing a Muslim prayer service in the National Cathedral. While I would not presume to accuse Mr. Graham of having committed the unforgivable sin, I will suggest that it is not smart to misconstrue works of the Holy Spirit. When in doubt, it’s always good policy to side with the champions of love, justice, and compassion.
            Our culture seems to be caught up right now in a maelstrom bad thinking, bad theology, and personal attacks. Given this miserable national mood, it shouldn’t surprise us that two new documentaries have appeared in local theaters: a movie about Mr. Rogers (Won’t You Be My Neighbor) and another about Pope Francis (Pope Francis—A Man of His Word). After endless hours of cable news featuring hateful rallies, screaming pundits, and pugnacious tweets who wouldn’t want to spend some time in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood or schmoozing with Francis? It is no accident that, in this dispiriting national moment, we find ourselves drawn to people who enact those values of love, justice, and compassion that got Jesus into so much trouble even in his home town.
            The renewed popularity of Mr. Rogers reminds us of one of the first truths we all learned in nursery school, that name calling is never a good idea. Jesus knew that the people who called him evil did so primarily out of fear. And frightened people, like frightened animals, can be dangerous. The precinct leader who called his colleague names resulted to name calling because he feared, correctly, that his time in authority was nearing an end. The scribes who called Jesus evil clearly believed the same thing. And who knows what goes on in the mind of our Tweeter-in-Chief?
When we are confronted by frightened, dangerous people our natural response is to jump reflexively into the fray. But before we start throwing elbows too, let’s pause and remember the women and men who show us another way to be in the world. God’s grace comes to us in many forms, but high among them is the possibility of showing kindness in the face of hate, compassion in response to aggression, generosity in the wake of fear. Love, as Mr. Rogers knew and practiced, is both formative and transformative. Love, as Pope Francis demonstrates by his life and witness, both makes us and renews us. Love, as Jesus always reminded his followers, is all that we finally have to offer.  I know this may sound simplistic, but I believe it to be the gospel truth. Amen.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Homily: The Sixth Sunday of Easter [May 6, 2018] Trinity, Santa Barbara

            Over the course of my life I have read George Orwell’s classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, on four widely separate occasions. I first read it in 1964, my sophomore year in high school, for a book report. I next read it in 1984 because, well, it was 1984. I then read it after September 11, 2001 when the president and congress passed the Patriot Act and questions of terrorism and civil liberties were so prevalent. And I read it again recently because of all the assaults on truth and language we seem to be undergoing. Somehow today, the idea of a leader insisting that 2 + 2 = 5 doesn’t seem quite as farfetched as it once did.
            Every time you read a great book something new emerges for you. In high school I was particularly taken with George Orwell’s inventions of doublethink and the Thought Police. In the Reagan years I focused on the way allies and enemies kept changing places. In the Bush-Cheney era, with its continual assaults on language, George Orwell’s coining of the language called Newspeak (in which euphemisms abound) seemed most important. This time, something unexpected caught my eye.
            If you remember the plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four, you will remember that its protagonist, Winston Smith, is detained by the Thought Police and interrogated by a man known only as O’Brien. Smith has been found to have been harboring negative thoughts about Big Brother. Early on in their dialogue, Smith admits hating Big Brother. O’Brien says in reply,
You hate him. Good. Then the time has come for you to take the last step. You must love Big Brother. It is not enough to obey him: you must love him. 

What ensues, of course, is one of the most horrific episodes of brainwashing ever recorded. O’Brien finds the way in to Winston Smith’s deepest fears and gets him to betray the woman he loves. As the novel ends, Winston Smith’s mind has been changed. Here is how George Orwell describes Smith’s final epiphany:
He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

            Now I will resist the temptation to make the obvious connection between Big Brother and other possible large national leaders we might think of who seem to exact loyalty in exchange for absolutely nothing. Instead, what struck me on this rereading of Nineteen Eighty-Four was its ironic connection to this morning’s gospel (John 15:9-17):
                  As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

            There are many things we might say about Jesus, but first among them today is that John’s gospel portrays him as the ultimate anti-Big Brother. On Maundy Thursday Jesus washes the disciples’ feet but does not ask that they wash his in return. Last week we heard Jesus describe himself as the vine and us as the branches. Today we hear Jesus commanding us to love one another. Big Brother demands that we love him. Jesus commands not that we love him but that we love one another.
            George Orwell’s Big Brother is not the first (and will certainly not be the last) leader in human history to demand love from his subjects. The political world in which Jesus lived and taught was dominated by Rome, whose official state cult made the emperor a god. In our social lives we have become habituated to dealing with leaders (usually political and religious authorities, sometimes even our bosses) who demand something more than mere loyalty: they demand personal adoration. These encounters begin with the transactional (“I will keep you safe and you will pay your taxes”) and then morph into the relational (“I give your life meaning and you will love me”). This slow creep from covenant to worship is one reason I have increasingly come to distrust charisma. There’s always a hidden price to pay. There’s always a dark side.
            But none of this is true for Jesus. To be sure, he does talk in the gospel reading about laying down his life for his friends, but even there he does not move to the obvious and logical Tony Soprano conclusion, “so you owe me big time”.  Jesus refers to his self-offering as an example of the depth of his love. And what he asks in return is neither obedience nor worship. What he asks in return is that we love one another as he has loved us.
            I think one of the reasons we spend not one day but fifty days celebrating Easter is that it takes a long time to take in just how countercultural the resurrection really is. I spent the last years of my professional life in Washington D.C., and I think one of the reasons Americans distrust our capital city is because it encapsulates all the worst transactional values of American culture. All relationships there are based on power and obligation. When I first went to D.C., people continually asked me how, having grown up in Hollywood, I was adjusting to Washington. “No problem,” I would say. “They’re both the same culture.”
            The resurrection of Jesus, which we celebrate in these fifty days of Easter, is the ultimate rebuke to a culture of power and obligation. Big Brother and Caesar demand unthinking obedience and fawning love. Jesus and the God he incarnates ask only that we love one another. The values of power and obligation always appear to be winning. The values of humility, justice, compassion, and peace always seem to lose. But the day and season of Easter suggest the way things really work. In George Orwell’s world, Big Brother will always prevail. In God’s world the humility, justice, compassion, and peace made real and present in Jesus eventually outlast the pretentious imperial forces that seek to crush them.
            In God’s universe, it is Jesus and those who care for others who prevail. And when all is said and done, our only obligation is to love our fellow human beings. We love God not vertically but horizontally. And as Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us, in the social realm, love must be more than a feeling. We love each other one way in a family, differently in a community. For those of us who seek to love one another socially, love must always be translated as justice.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

            As followers of Jesus, you and I believe and hope that love and justice will ultimate prevail. As realists, we know that we must follow Jesus in a world dominated by the values of Caesar and Big Brother, Washington, and Hollywood.  On this Sixth Sunday of Easter, Jesus shows us how we can make our way through all the bad values and false loyalties that our culture tries to force upon us. We follow Jesus and become our real selves by loving and serving each other and the world.
            Every generation that reads George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four sees in its pages its own problems reflected back to it. Winston Smith’s tragedy lies in the way he is persuaded to love an authority figure instead of a fellow human being. In that novel’s world, there is tellingly no voice of Jesus to remind anyone of the priority God places on mutual human love.
            Patriarchy, hierarchy, and empire die hard. Even after centuries of Christian faith and practice, we Christians persist in thinking that God is more like a jealous emperor than a humble Palestinian Jewish peasant. After all these years, we still seem to think that God is some kind of narcissist who, like Big Brother, demands love without question. But if we really hear what Jesus is saying, we’ll find that it isn’t like that at all.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
            Here is the good news: we do not yet inhabit the world of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. There is still room for us to hear these countercultural words of Jesus. We stand against empire whenever we choose to love people instead of power. May we continue to hear these words and live them out in our personal and social lives, and in so doing frustrate the narcissistic demands of all our various Big Brothers and of all systems that would alienate us from Jesus, each other, the world, and even ourselves. Amen.



Homily: The Fifth Sunday of Easter [April 29, 2018] Trinity, Santa Barbara

Earlier this month, Kathy and I were away celebrating our 40th anniversary for a couple of weeks, and we returned to an avalanche of troublesome American news. This may sound like the understatement of the year, but there seems to be an epidemic of incredibly bad behavior going around. I am not sure how to process the news I see and hear about all kinds of people—presidents, cabinet members, entertainers--these days. Just this week, a former policeman has been charged with a decades-old series of murders. A nominee for a cabinet-level position withdrew after allegations of workplace harassment and on the job drinking. A cabinet secretary blamed all his very serious ethical lapses on his subordinates. People we thought we looked up to are being shown to have behaved abusively and, now, criminally. The conviction of Bill Cosby on three felony counts of sexual assault last week is only one more in the series of what we might charitably call “disappointments” we have witnessed in the past several months. The good news is that these people are finally being called to account. The bad news is that it seems that almost everybody in public life an has an incredibly dark side.
The temptation we all face is to look at these public malefactors and to draw a hard line between them and us. If I see one more tweet or Facebook post about how my innocence has been shattered I will scream. “I loved Bill Cosby as Scotty on I Spy and as Dr. Huxtable on The Cosby Show. I feel cheated.” But who ever gave us permission to think ourselves innocent in the first place? It is a great mistake to look at abusers and not see ourselves somehow implicated in the culture that enables their behavior.
Now that’s a kind of post-Easter downer way to begin a sermon, but remember that the theologian Karl Barth once said that Christian preachers should hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Today, on the fifth Sunday of Easter, we are asked to understand how Jesus can be for us the way, the truth, and the life. How might we put the Bible and the newspaper together today?
This morning’s Gospel (John 15: 1-8) is relevant here.  It gives us Jesus’s well-known allegory of the vine and the branches [John 15: 1-8], a familiar yet challenging text. Here is the part we always remember: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower,” says Jesus.  “Abide in me as I abide in you. “ Gosh that sounds nice. But then comes the part we always forget: “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” Not very sentimental at all.

            “I am the vine, you are the branches” is a saying that has brought comfort to Christians over the centuries, an extended metaphor suggesting our unity, our oneness in Christ.  The figure of the vine was also a traditional Old Testament metaphor for the people of Israel [Psalm 80].  In John’s understanding, Jesus himself is the new Israel and all of us who believe in him are what Paul would call “members one of another.” [Romans 12: 5] But the more we press on it, the more we see that Jesus’s use of this figure of the vine and the branches is not just about the connection of Jesus with the church. To say that Jesus is the vine and we are the branches is to suggest something not just about Jesus and the church but something even bigger about the nature of God and the world.  Remember the words of Dr. King:
We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.  We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.  For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.  [“Letter from Birmingham Jail”]

All of us—not only Jesus and the church, but God, humanity, and the world--are woven together in one fabric of life.  We are all in this together.  So one thing we hear in today’s Bible-newspaper dialogue is a word of human solidarity even in hard moments like the present.  The bad news is that because of this solidarity I find myself judged in the dark work of human sin and aggression. The good news is that I find myself vindicated whenever justice is done. A full, mature Christian spirituality understands that we see ourselves in both sides of this equation. It is tempting to identify only with the victims, but we must also see ourselves in the aggressors. We cannot look at these events—sin on the one hand, righteousness on the other--and not see ourselves implicated.  Human solidarity is universal and absolute. “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Jesus is the vine. We are the branches.  We are all in this together.
            But what are we to make when Jesus speaks of God’s role as the vinegrower? “God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit God prunes to make it bear more fruit.”  The Greek verb here (airo) suggests both cutting and cleansing.  Yes, we are all connected to each other through our oneness in Christ.  And yes, God is at work in events that try and test and shape us into the people God intends us to be.  As Dr. King says, “For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” Vines need pruning and we need cleansing. Just as you would not let a rose bush grow wild but would cut it back to enhance its fullness, so God uses hard events in our personal and social lives to shape us for God’s own purposes. The life of faith is the process of becoming ourselves, of growing and being shaped into the people God intends us to be. This process has moments of joy and wonder. It also has times of self-examination, suffering, and pain.  To describe the way life shapes us through testing and trial, the Hebrew prophets often compared it to the smelting of precious metals. Jesus uses the figure of the gardener and the vine.
Whichever figure you use, the point is inescapable: the events of our lives—the joyous ones and the painful ones, even and especially when we see ourselves and others revealed in all our uncomfortable complexity—these events weave us into a single garment of destiny with God, each other, and the world. Even when Jesus says something hard that makes us squirm in our pews a bit—as in today’s, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”—even that cleansing, pruning announcement is shot through with good news. Whether I like it or not, God is making me into the person I am called and destined to be. God is doing that through the agency of every person with whom I come in contact. Those parts of me that resist God’s love and justice will, like those branches that wither, be thrown into the fire and burned. Rose bushes probably do not love being cut back. But they only realize their potential at the end of some rigorous pruning.
The season of Easter is all about the deep and abiding solidarity you and I share with each other in Jesus. It is only because we all live and grow together in Christ that the resurrection is not only about Jesus but is now also about us. In coming to terms with the complex fullness of our cultural icons you and I are being asked not to excuse their behavior but to see how even the dark side of someone else can illuminate our understanding of ourselves. If we look at the events of the week and come away only concluding that there are some bad apples out there but thank God I’m not one of them we will have missed the point entirely. God loves and transforms and blesses us in all our complex and ambiguous fullness. Easter is about God’s ability to take the sum total of who we are and prune and shape it into new and beautiful life.
Jesus is risen. We shall be, too. Getting there is a lifelong journey of sometimes painful self-discovery. God knows and loves and blesses even the parts of you that you cannot acknowledge and accept. Pruning and cleansing are painful, but as in vines and roses, so in you and me: they always lead to new life. Dr. King knew what he was talking about when he described life as a “single garment of destiny”. For that life, for the way we are inescapably tied to each other, and for God’s ongoing remaking us into the image of the one we see in the risen Jesus, we proceed in this Eucharist to give thanks. Amen.

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.