Monday, April 3, 2017

Homily: The Fifth Sunday in Lent [April 2, 2017] St. Alban's, Westwood

It is a great pleasure to be with you at St. Alban’s this morning. I have known Susan for probably thirty years, and I’ve tried never to hold it against her that she did so much a better job at St. Aidan’s in Malibu than I did as her predecessor there. She is a great priest and a good friend and colleague and I’m grateful for her invitation to help out here from time to time.
I’m also grateful to St. Alban’s parish for the hospitality it showed me when I was in graduate school across the street in the 1980s. In perhaps one of the greatest acts of ecclesiastical generosity ever known, Norm Ishizaki let me park in your lot for free during the summers when I didn’t have a parking pass. As I later learned when studying church growth with no less than the late Robert Schuller, there is nothing in the church more important than parking. There’s certainly nothing at UCLA more important than parking. So I owe both Susan and you all a debt of thanks.
Today’s scripture readings present two of the most startling visual images in all literature, certainly in all scripture. The prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 37: 1-14) describes Israel as a valley of dry bones being reassembled and breathed back into life. John’s gospel (John 11: 1-45) portrays the risen Lazarus as one who “came out [of the tomb], his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.” Each of these images serves to tell us something about the experience of being brought back from death to life. And the death here not just literary death. Israel’s bones and Lazarus are not figuratively dead. They are literally dead. And yet with God and Jesus they live.
I have been a priest for over 40 years now, and I have spent about half of that time in parishes and half of it teaching. Whenever I encounter such startling images of death and renewal as those in today’s scriptures, I always recall another equally compelling moment, this one not in the Bible but in Shakespeare. It’s in the fifth act of Shakespeare’s late play The Winter’s Tale—a play I taught in a seminary class for several years on the theology of Shakespeare’s late plays--and it depicts the statue of a dead woman coming, on stage in front of us, to life.
If you’re not familiar with The Winter’s Tale, let’s just say that it is neither a comedy (though it plays like one) nor a tragedy (though it feels like one) but a romance—a genre somewhere in between the two. It concerns a king named Leontes who becomes so insanely jealous of his wife Hermione that his violent and erratic behavior leads to the death of their son, the loss of their daughter, and the death of Hermione herself. This is a play in which people do unspeakably bad things to each other, and those actions have tragic—or near tragic—consequences.
The great final scene in The Winter’s Tale reads on the page like it would never work yet never fails to move me when I see in on the stage. The artist Paulina brings Leontes to see a statue of his dead wife and, miraculously, the statue gradually comes to life. In the climactic moment, the artist tells Hermione,
Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him
Dear life redeems you.

And over the course of several minutes the dead statue becomes a living woman. But the miracle of this new life, surprisingly, has less to do with resurrection than with what happens next: the formerly dead Hermione and her husband Leontes become reconciled. He repents and she forgives. The end of the play brings not only life; it brings repentance and forgiveness—real forgiveness for real wrongs enacted—and with it the possibility of a new community built now, in W.H. Auden’s words, “on trust instead of threats.”
It is, as I say, one of the most powerful moments I have ever seen on a stage. You wouldn’t think it would work but in fact it does. Like Israel’s bones or Lazarus’s body, Hermione’s resurrection both startles and satisfies. In her new life Hermione brings forgiveness to a man who desperately needs it and then, as it can only in Shakespeare, healing spreads around all over the place.
It doesn't erase the pain or guilt for the wrongs done, but it does make possible moving forward together into a new future.
A family, a community, and a nation are given back to themselves. For Shakespeare, as for us, new life involves more than revivification. New life brings restoration to a set of relationships, to a community, based now on forgiveness and renewal. A set of relationships now based on trust instead of threats.
The experience of reading this play in my seminary class was transformative. As in any intense community, the seminary I served was rife with rivalries and resentments. Our shared engagement with The Winter’s Tale gave us a frame of reference in which we could together think about how we can live together in a real world where real wounds do actual damage to flesh and blood people.
Working in churches and schools can be intensely interpersonal. I was once in an extremely tense faculty conversation where I was trying to help resolve a dispute between two colleagues that had become totally unmanageable.  One of them believed that she had been offended and disrespected by the other, and though the other had apologized several times, the one offended would not let go. In the middle of this back and forth rehearsal of grudges, the second turned to the first and said, “You know, I believe you have made a shrine of your wound.”  It was such a startling remark that it opened the logjam of our conversation and allowed us to move forward to a new way of being with each other.  I have never forgotten it.
“You have made a shrine of your wound.”  I can’t speak for you, but I know that there are many times in my life where I have made not only a shrine of my wounds.  I’ve built a temple for them and regularly worshipped at them and then checked and re-checked to make sure that my grievances were maintained in top working order.  But the invitation to new life—be it breathing life into dry bones or unwrapping the bandages and freeing a corpse—this invitation comes with another one: the possibility of letting go of rivalries and resentments, of taking down the shrines we have made of our wounds.
To say that new life entails the willingness to repent, forgive, and be reconciled is not to diminish the real pain we can feel in our personal, corporate, even national lives. As in Shakespeare and the Bible, so in life: we human beings can do real damage to ourselves and each other. We want so much to be healed of our grievances and our wounds. We want what Israel and Lazarus’s sisters wanted: we want new life, a second chance, a new beginning. These things are all given us in our scriptures this morning. And yet it seems to be true that we can only be open to this life as we are willing and ready both to repent and forgive.
Just as all people can make a shrine of our wounds, so we Christians can make a shrine of Lent. We can become so enamored of the self-denial we’ve chosen that we can forget that we give up or take on these things not in the service of Lent but in the service of Easter. Lent is not about Lent. It is about Easter. It is a season that helps us clear the decks not only of our distractions but also of our grudges and our resentments and so opens us up to take in the power and beauty of the new life on offer at Easter.
As with Israel’s bones and Lazarus, so with you and me: the new life we hope for and crave is available to us now. And as Shakespeare reminds us, our ability to grasp this life is mysteriously tied to our ability to come together in repentance and forgiveness and let our wounds and resentments go.
When Jesus first heard of Lazarus’s illness, he announced that it was for God’s glory, and he prayed that God might be glorified through Lazarus’s return to life. And so with us. As you and I continue to walk together through Lent toward Easter, may we all come to see our struggles as vehicles for God’s glory--so that through our mutual sorrow and forgiveness, we and the world may dismantle the shrines we have built to our wounds and so feel our dry bones live, our bandages unbound, and our relationships one with another blossom into new and risen life. Amen.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Essay: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of Sergeant Pepper (with Huntz Hall on the Cover) March 14, 2017

On Sunday night, June 11, 1967—the week in which I was to graduate from high school--I was sitting in my bedroom with a group of my friends listening to a satirical program on KPCC FM, an alternative radio station in Pasadena, California. The program—Radio Free OZ—mixed music and comedy in a subversive and groundbreaking way. (Peter Bergman, the host of Radio Free Oz, would go on to found the Firesign Theater, one of America’s first satirical comedy collectives.)

On this Sunday night we were gathered in my bedroom because I was the only one of us with an FM radio. We came together because Bergman’s program had announced that he would read the names of the people on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (Even with teenage eyes none of us could quite accurately discern all the faces on the album cover’s collage.) Imagine my surprise when, reading left to right in the top row, Bergman read the name of my father, Huntz Hall, as figure number 12.

We were stunned. I was stunned. Though as a member of the movie gangs the Dead End Kids, the East Side Kids, and the Bowery Boys my father had been famous from the 1930s through the 1950s, his reputation was in a bit of a lull in the 1960s, and my friends and I thought we were the only people under 50 who knew who Huntz Hall was.

In 1935, six teenage actors appeared on Broadway in Sidney Kingsley’s social-realist drama, Dead End. They played a mixture of tough street kids living near the East River in New York, under the shadow of the affluent apartments of Astor Place. The play was a stage hit, and the boys traveled west to Hollywood in 1937 to appear in the film version starring alongside Humphrey Bogart, Joel McCrea, Ann Sheridan. This film was such a success that they were signed to a contract at Warner Brothers studio where they made several movies with Bogart, James Cagney, John Garfield, Ronald Reagan, and others. They became a teenage sensation. A look at movie magazines and newspapers of the 1930s will confirm what my father always said later in life: “We were the Beatles of the 1930s.”

The Dead End Kids lasted at Warner Brothers for a few years, then moved to Universal Studios where they morphed into the East Side Kids. Their movies morphed as well, from A pictures to B (budget) movies, second features played mostly for comedy. After World War II they left for Monogram Pictures and became the Bowery Boys, making an additional 48 films between 1946 and 1958. As the group changed, original members dropped away. By the time of their last iteration, the Bowery Boys featured two of the original actors: Leo Gorcey (the star) and my father, Huntz Hall, as his partner and sidekick. By the time the final Bowery Boys movie appeared in 1958, Huntz Hall was the only original Dead End Kid left.

When the Bowery Boys ended, my father was no longer a star but continued (until his death in 1999) to be a steadily working actor. Though he was no longer mobbed on the street at a “Beatle of the 1930s”, Huntz Hall was known to my generation mostly through the Saturday morning reruns of East Side Kids and Bowery Boys movies on television. He and Leo became the favorites of a generation of ensemble comedians (Second City, Saturday Night Live). And he also became a countercultural hero because of his arrest for possession of marijuana in October of 1948.

In the late 1940s, Los Angeles police started going after high-profile Hollywood people for marijuana possession. (Robert Mitchum’s arrest a month before Huntz Hall’s made front page news.) In the same sweep, police found marijuana stashed in the back yard of my father’s Hollywood apartment. Mitchum was eventually convicted and served two months in jail. Though the two coffee cans full of dope found by the police were his, Huntz Hall was acquitted and went back to work.

In 1967, the year of Sergeant Pepper’s release, Huntz Hall was somewhat remembered as an old-time movie star, but he was famous within pot-smoking circles because of his bust for possession of marijuana. He was in a sense a real cult favorite.

I called my father (he lived in New York then) the day after I heard his name read on the radio and asked him if he knew he was on the record cover. Indeed he did, and he saw his picture there as something of a life lesson.

Five years earlier, Stanley Kramer had tried to cast Huntz and Leo in his all-star comedy movie, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Leo agreed readily. My father asked for too much money. Leo made it into the picture, my father did not. He realized he had overplayed his hand. He decided he would be smarter the next time a great offer came around.

Months before Sergeant Pepper appeared, someone from Brian Epstein’s office called asking for permission to use Huntz Hall’s face on the album cover. The office had also called Leo Gorcey asking for a release. This time it was Gorcey who asked for money. My father had wised up, and asked instead for four autographed copies of the record. Gorcey was turned down (hence the empty space next to my father where his image originally lay.) Huntz Hall got his four autographed albums and his visage remained on the cover.

Over the remaining years of his life, I talked with my father about the Sergeant Pepper cover and the reasons he thought he was on it. On several occasions he told me that though the Bowery Boys were not known in England, the Beatles had seen the movies on American television and loved his and Leo’s comedy. He always felt that his place on the album cover was a tribute to his status as a pioneer of offball screen comedy.

While his reasoning is probably true, I believe there is another explanation for Huntz Hall’s face on the Sergeant Pepper cover, and it lies in the marijuana plants arrayed in front and to the side of the Beatles in the picture. Marijuana became its own subculture during the Beat and Hippie years of the 1950s and 1960s, and my father became more famous within that subculture as a dope smoker than as an actor. (He never liked his druggie reputation and in fact once sued the author Terry Southern for representing him as a drug addict in the novel Candy.) But despite my father’s protestations, I have always thought Huntz Hall’s face on the Sergeant Pepper cover a coded message saluting the early users of hallucinogenic substances. He stands there along with Lenny Bruce, William Burroughs, and Edgar Allan Poe as an exemplar of the creative artists whose creativity was enhanced by using marijuana. Together they form a kind of brotherhood of dope-smoking forbears.

A lot, of course, has changed since that June night in 1967 when I heard the list of names on Radio Free Oz. My father lived another thirty-plus years, and through not only the increased distribution of the Bowery Boys movies but also his influence on the improvisational comedians of those decades he is perhaps better known today than he was then. Because they are saddled with often melodramatic plots the Bowery Boys movies don’t hold up that well as films, but the comedy parts are as funny as ever. Unlike other highly rehearsed comedy duos (Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello) Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall were probably the first two screen comedians to improvise directly in front of the camera, and comedians of my generation learned a lot from watching their movies. So the question, “Why is Huntz Hall on the Sergeant Pepper cover?” does not seem quite so urgent in 2017 as it did in 1967.

If the cultural reputation of the Bowery Boys is more settled now than it was then, so is the social position of marijuana use, at least in the United States. Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized some or all uses of marijuana, and the drug’s in-joke cultishness has modulated into general social acceptance. So those who were once seen as outlaw pioneers of drug use have been domesticated, seen today perhaps not as renegades but simply as those who were somehow ahead of their time.

Five days after that night in my bedroom, my friends and I did graduate high school in June of 1967. I have gone on to have a very different life than my father. After some initial flirtations with show business, I became an Episcopal priest, got a Ph.D. in English, and served for a time as a teacher of English and American literature. Over the forty years of my own career I served as parish priest, high school and college teacher, seminary and cathedral dean. In almost every job I had, there would be a moment when someone in a get-acquainted exercise would ask me to tell them something about myself they probably wouldn’t know. To say that people were shocked to learn that their priest or teacher or dean’s father was on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would be an understatement. My father’s face on the cover is as surprising today as it was then, a gift for which I will always be grateful.

The Reverend Canon Gary R. Hall, Ph.D., retired as Dean of Washington National Cathedral in 2015 and lives with his wife Kathy in Los Angeles.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Homily: The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [January 29, 2017] St. Luke's, Monrovia CA

It is a great pleasure to return to St. Luke’s this morning. Those of you who have been around for a while may remember that in the summer of 1979 I spent a month here as the vacation replacement for your then-rector Ev Simson. A parish family generously loaned us their spacious house in Arcadia and a car to go with it. As a native Angeleo, I found it hard to return to Michigan when August was over that year. It’s good to be back.
And of course it is great to reconnect with Neil Tadken, your rector. I’ve known Neil since our time together at All Saints, Pasadena over 25 years ago. He still looks like he did then. Me, not so much.
Our gospel for this morning is the passage which begins Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount—the 10 sayings commonly called “The Beatitudes” [Matthew 5: 1-12]. Sitting in the chapel of St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue in New York City several years ago, I noticed that there were ten stained glass windows in the chapel, each depicting one of these sayings. As my eye moved along the row of windows, it stopped at the third, arrested in disbelief. Instead of the words, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” I found the phrase rendered, “Blessed are the debonair . . .” I was probably not the first pewsitter who snickered at the way a Park Avenue church had made Jesus sound like someone right out of the Social Register. Where else would the New Testament appear to equate meekness with savoir faire?
Knowing a bit of French, I went home and looked up debonair in my French-English Dictionary. The preferred modern meaning of debonair in French is the one we’d expect, “of a nonchalant elegance”(very much like your rector). But there are older meanings of debonair that the French translators of the Bible must have had in mind. When Jesus says in our English Bible, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” it is rendered in French as, “Happy are the debonair, for they shall inherit the earth.” In this context, debonair means something like, “of good manner”. This doesn’t mean that the “debonair” are fashion forward (again, like your rector). It suggests that they are humble, gracious, and self-effacing. And that, says Jesus, is a pretty good way to go through life.
These opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount are commonly called "The Beatitudes" because of the repeated use of the word we translate as "blessed". That same Greek word can also mean something like "happy". For many of us who seek to follow Jesus, The Beatitudes serve as a warrant for action. When Jesus says that the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are "blessed" or "happy", many of us hear those words as a to-do list for our ministries. If we want to follow Jesus, we say, we need to be about serving the poor, being peacemakers, and hungering for righteousness.
That understanding is a good one. But let me suggest another that might stand beside it. Jesus's Beatitudes are not only, or even primarily, a set of marching orders for setting the world right. They are an announcement of what Christians have always called “the gospel”. They are a proclamation of the good news. In the Beatitudes Jesus is not so much telling us what we ought to do as he is telling us what God is already doing. These verses are an announcement of what God is up to in the world. This "kingdom of heaven" that Jesus talks about is not some future blessed state up in the clouds someplace. The kingdom of heaven is breaking in on us even now in the ministry of Jesus and in the community that gathers around him. The kingdom of heaven is made up of people quietly, humbly, sometimes even subversively living as Jesus would in the here and now.
In Jesus’s day, as now, human values were massively messed up. First century Jewish Palestine was an occupied territory, and people were taxed and starved beyond the breaking point to support the imperial Roman state. Into that culture of oppression and scarcity, Jesus came and announced that people could have lives that were both free and abundant if they would gather together in community. People followed Jesus not only because he was a great teacher but primarily because he was a healer and liberator who embodied the freedom and generosity of God.
In other words, in stepping into the Jesus community, you stepped into a space or place or zone where life is lived as God intends that it be. Jesus did not come to found an institution called "the church". In fact, the word we render as church—ekklesia—is a Greek term which means "the called". It's a newly coined word for the New Testament because the older words-synagogue, assembly, temple— couldn't quite name the reality of what the Jesus movement was about. The church, the ekklesia, the called, is the body of those called into the Jesus community to make real in their lives and the world what Jesus calls the reign of heaven. The church is the gathering of those who want to live life on God's, not Caesar's, terms.
Living life on God’s terms means, of course, that we will try to live out those Beatitude values in the world. Living life on God's terms means standing with the people Jesus names in these verses—the poor, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the mourners. Living life on God's terms means naming Caesar and all Caesar's successors as impostors, pretending to an authority that belongs only and finally to God. But we will be neither authentic advocates for those up against it nor credible critics of empire if we can't love and accept and forgive and celebrate each other right here first.
As we gather this morning in a divided and confused nation and world, Jesus's Beatitudes call us to rekindle our awareness of what it is we're doing when we get together in church. We are coming together, as did those gathered around Jesus, to step into that zone where life is lived on God's terms. We are coming together, as did those gathered around Jesus, to share in the good news that we can critique and change the world only to the extent that we can love it and each other first.
The French Beatitude I saw in Manhattan is but one of many translations of Jesus’s words. One of the most interesting versions occurs in the New English Bible.  Here is how that Bible renders the first saying:
How blest are those who know their need of God;
the kingdom of Heaven is theirs. [Matthew 5:3 NEB]

There is a lot of wisdom in these words. Perhaps the truest thing you can say about us Christians is that we, whatever you call us--the Jesus community, the church, the communion of saints,—are the people who know our need of God.  Caesar does not know his need of God, nor do those who organize their lives around power, achievement, success, or money.  You might say there are two kinds of people in the world:  those who know they need God, and those who think they don’t. The most pervasive lie our culture promotes is the idea that you are or should be totally independent of others, that you can somehow be both self-sufficient and self-made.
Those of us who seek to follow Jesus know that we all finally need each other.  Those of us who make our way into the Jesus movement are united not by what we think about theological or social issues. We are united in our shared knowledge of our need for God.  We are all mortal, dependent creatures.  True wisdom lies in accepting and celebrating the fact that we are finite and human, and in finding ways, together, to make life better and richer and deeper or maybe even just bearable not only for ourselves but for each other and the world.
“Blessed are the debonair, for they shall inherit the earth.” “How blest are those who know their need of God; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” What is God up to in the world and in your life? If we believe Jesus, God is making a world in which each of us can find true joy and meaning in life by accepting our need for God and each other. True admission of our shared need makes us “debonair” in its deepest sense—it makes us humble and gracious and self-effacing. Given everything that’s going on in our world right now, being humble and gracious and self-effacing is a pretty good way to go through life.
We often make being a Christian or following Jesus harder than it really is. If we look to Jesus as a setter of impossible standards, we will feel defeated before we begin. But if we look to Jesus as one who knows his need of God and finds life’s fulfillment in making common cause with others, we will see him as our brother and companion on a journey of generosity, compassion, and joy. So, for this morning, let’s forget those impossible standards. Let’s begin by admitting our need for God. Let us gather around God’s table and be fed and blessed and assured that God knows and responds to our need. Let us come together to love and support each other. And then let us go out of here together, intent on sharing this love and support with our neighbors. If we can give all that a try, we may none of us become perfect, but we will each and all of us, become truly debonair.  Amen.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Washington's National Cathedral should not bestow a blessing on Donald Trump [Religion News Service] January 17, 2017

(RNS) Washington National Cathedral was founded in 1907 and envisioned as a “Westminster Abbey for America,” which, in part, is why it finds itself at the center of controversy about its role in President-elect Donald J. Trump’s impending inauguration.
For more than a century, the cathedral has tried to stand in two worlds at once, attempting to be both a practicing Christian church and a gathering place for American civic expression. As the cathedral’s former dean, I believe that fidelity to the former role now requires rejecting the latter.
For much of its life, the cathedral experienced the tension inherent in playing two roles as creative but not potentially destructive.
But much has changed in American religious life over the past 110 years, and the cathedral has found it increasingly difficult to have it both ways.
After World War II, Christians began seriously to reflect on their relations with the prevailing culture. How could our religion square its validation of oppressive regimes (Protestants and Catholics in Nazi Germany, mainline Christians supporting segregation in the American South) with the principles of love and justice exemplified and articulated by Jesus?
Over the course of the past 75 years, it became impossible to see the church’s mission as compatible with its traditional role of endorsing the status quo. We began to see ourselves less as “Christendom” and more like the early church that stood up to Rome.
In the same way, American public and religious life has changed dramatically over the course of the cathedral’s life.
The Episcopal Church, once a powerhouse of American religious leadership, now comprises less than 2 percent of the population. At the same time, the increasing ethnic and racial diversification of America has brought with it a growing religious pluralism.
In light of the multifaith community we Americans all now inhabit, does it not seem anachronistic for one Christian cathedral (albeit a distinguished and beautiful one) to presume to call itself the “spiritual home of the nation”?
I believe Trump’s election has proved that the cathedral’s attempt to continue this religious/civic balancing act is no longer tenable.
In his words and actions, Trump has shown himself to be outside the bounds of all mainstream norms of Christian faith and practice. His often-expressed xenophobia and misogyny, not to mention his mocking of the disabled and admission of abusive behavior, place him well outside the values of compassion and respect for human dignity that mark historic Christianity at its best. It is simply inappropriate to use a precious institution such as Washington National Cathedral to suggest that the church bestows its blessing on a leader so obviously beyond the pale of Christian thought.
The cathedral’s dilemma exemplifies this watershed moment in the Christian church’s role in American public life. The community that claims to follow Jesus must choose between its role as what our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls “the Jesus Movement” and its long-standing practice as the validator of the status quo. With Trump’s election we cannot, with any integrity, be both.
If the church is going to be faithful to Jesus, we must (as he did) stand as a force of resistance to unjust and oppressive civil authority. We cannot use the words, symbols and images of our faith to provide a religious gloss to an autocrat.
Although it is considered by some an extraordinary step for the former leader of an institution to criticize a decision made by its current leaders, I am doing so because I believe that the cathedral’s decisions to host this service and to allow its choir to sing at the inauguration itself have provoked a crisis within not only the Episcopal Church but the entire American Christian community. I hope that the depth and extent of the reaction will occasion some extended reflection about what it means to be “a great church for national purposes.”
To deny Trump’s right to be feted in Washington National Cathedral is not to say “he is not our president,” nor is it to say “we should not pray for him.” I pray for the president- and vice president-elect every day. I will continue to do so during their terms in office. I simply do not believe that the most visible symbol of compassionate faith in America should lend itself to endorsing or espousing their shrunken, fearful vision of our national life.
I hope that the cathedral will soon return to its primary role: proclaiming an inviting, inclusive, just and liberating vision of the gospel to all Americans and the world.
(The Rev. Gary Hall served as the 10th dean of Washington National Cathedral from 2012-2015)
(Editor’s note: The Washington National Cathedral declined to provide a response to this commentary)

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Homily: Tuesday in the Third Week in Advent [December 13, 2016] Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati

For many of us in my aging generational cohort, the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan served as one bit of good news in an otherwise grim year. Last Saturday morning, the great Patti Smith showed up in Stockholm to sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” on Bob Dylan’s behalf. There has been some controversy over the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan, voiced mainly by those who think Dylan is not in the same literary league with fellow American Nobelists Sinclair Lewis and Pearl S. Buck. Other disgruntled critics are probably big, big fans of more recent laureates like Elias Canetti and Dario Fo. (When all this Dylan controversy started, a friend and fellow Dylan fan asked rhetorically if the Nobel Committee had run out of obscure, central European essayists to recognize.) Nevertheless, there can be no dispute that Patti Smith’s performance of Bob Dylan’s dystopian lament will stand as one of the great moments in performance history. It’s available on YouTube, and I encourage you to check it out.

            Part of the reason I found Patti Smith’s performance so riveting is that she forgets the words midway through and asks to start over. She is clearly overwhelmed by the moment. Another part of the reason is that the song itself speaks to the current cultural moment as if it were written this morning:

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

            As the song goes on the blue-eyed, darling young one describes a vision of a cruel and callous world: poets die in the gutter, clowns cry in the alley, people are wounded by both love and hatred. The emotional process described in “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” exactly mirrors what many of us have been through over the past several weeks, especially since November 8. Like time or space travelers, we look around and find ourselves marooned a culture and world that seem alien and inhospitable. A lot of people seem to be getting away with behaving badly and expressing ideas aloud that I wouldn’t want to hold in private. The humane values espoused by us mainline Christians have been brushed aside in favor of a new, harsher set of attitudes. The foxes seem to be taking over the henhouse.

            As I read over the readings to prepare for today, I could not get Bob Dylan’s song out of my mind. Zephaniah [Zephaniah 3:1–2,9–13] addresses a “soiled, defiled, oppressing city”:
Ah, soiled, defiled,
   oppressing city!
 It has listened to no voice;
   it has accepted no correction.
It has not trusted in the Lord;
   it has not drawn near to its God.
            (As a former resident of the District of Columbia, I couldn’t tell if he was describing Jerusalem or Washington.) In Matthew’s gospel, [Matthew 21:28–32] Jesus tells a story of two brothers asked to work in the vineyard. One says no and then goes, one says yes and stays home. “Which of the two,” asks Jesus, “did the will of his father?” But the news is not all bad. Something or someone else is afoot. In the first reading, Zephaniah proclaims that the speech of the defiled city will be changed “to a pure speech”. In the second reading, Matthew’s Jesus announces, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
            We have, then, two scripture readings today which offer us a mixed grill of judgment and hope. The city has lost its bearings. The respectable people have turned callous and self-satisfied. But that’s not the end of the story. Someone is coming who will set all that right. That’s how it is in Advent. We are asked to look our predicament square in the face. And in doing so we are shown a light and a path and a future.
            Last week a friend of mine posted this on Facebook:

With the death of John Glenn falling so closely after the deaths of Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, et al, I'm beginning to think The Rapture has occurred, leaving the rest of us schmucks stuck here with Trump. [Judd Parkin]
Though I echo the feeling of his post, the gospel never holds out to us the false hope of divine intervention. Nevertheless, Advent is about seeing a light and a path and a future even as we stand huddled together in the very darkness and alienation of an ugly moment. Where might we find them?
            My own quest for the light and the path and the future take me back to the words of Bob Dylan.  In the final verse of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” the speaker, that blue-eyed son/darling young one is asked, “Oh what’ll you do now?” We wouldn’t be surprised if the answer to that question was, “retreat into my own alienation.” But here, instead is the stirring and startling reply:
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

            Advent announces both judgment and hope. It shows us the hard truth of our situation and offers a light and a path and a future. Jesus shows us the light and the future in the willingness of the truculent son to get up and go out to the vineyard. The path to our future lies ahead in our individual and shared willingness to go where the speaker in Bob Dylan’s song goes: to stand with and for those who are most vulnerable in this new, scary moment. The hope for our nation, our church, and ourselves lies in our willingness to sing a song of judgment and hope even in a time of oppressive darkness.
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it

            Advent announces the coming of one who will transcend and outlast all the forces unleashed against him. In this current moment, we bear witness to that one by telling and thinking and speaking and breathing and reflecting, so all souls can see it, the judgment and hope on offer this season. Let us find our meaning and purpose as a force for resistance and blessing in a broken yet beloved world. A hard rain is a-gonna fall. We can survive and outlast it in solidarity and compassion, together. Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Homily: The Second Sunday of Advent [December 4, 2016] Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati

            I want to begin by thanking Dean Greenwell for inviting me to spend Advent with you exploring what the mission of Christ Church Cathedral might look like, and Canon Zacharia for organizing the details of my time here. As a former parish priest, cathedral and seminary professor and dean, I know how important it is to take time to reflect theologically on what we’re doing. And as one who has worked in the church for over 40 years, I know how seldom it is we actually take the time to do that.
            I have been very fortunate in the communities I have been called to serve—from Malibu and Pasadena in California, to Evanston, Illinois, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, all the way east to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and finally the northwest part of Washington, D.C. Hey, somebody had to be in all those nice places, right? Nevertheless, one thing I’ve learned about serving affluent communities and their churches is that they can become a little, well, shall we say, “entitled”.  Indeed, all “establishment” church institutions—urban or suburban--can become a little self-satisfied if they’re not careful.
One of the parishes I served still has to this day numbers on all its pews. Though they had stopped charging pew rents 50 years before I got there, parishioners still treated certain pews as their own and would ask visitors to vacate them if they happened to sit there. I thought of that parish and your challenge here at Christ Church Cathedral when I first read through the gospel for this morning. On this Second Sunday of Advent, we focus on John the Baptist, his strange habits, and his prediction of the coming of Jesus. But as I read the gospel this time around here’s the part of the passage that leapt right out at me.
Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. [Matthew 3: 9-10]
John the Baptist directs his challenge precisely at the people we might today call “entitled”. But let’s not be too hard on them, shall we? The Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’s day were pretty much the “good Episcopalians” of today. I always try to resist the preacher’s tendency to beat up on the Bible’s entitled, establishment folks because my greatest personal spiritual battle has to do with taming my own inner Pharisee. Those of us who keep the church going—giving to support it, showing up every week, volunteering to do its many thankless tasks—we are pretty much just trying to get through life with faithfulness and grace. You could say the same for the Pharisees.
Yet here is John the Baptist calling us a “brood of vipers”. “Even now”, he says, “the axe is lying at the root of the trees”. He calls us to “bear fruit worthy of repentance”.  Hey, John, give us a break! We’re just trying to hand out church bulletins here. Why pick on those of us who year in and year out keep the place going?
The answer to that question brings me back to the image of those numbered church pews. It’s one thing, says John (and later, Jesus) to live a faithful and pious life. It’s quite another to think that doing so confers on you a special status. What we Pharisees and good Episcopalians get right is our acknowledged need to experience and respond to God in this kind of setting. What we get wrong is the all-too-human tendency to confuse what we perform out of our own need to do it with being better than those who don’t.  As John says,
Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Today is the Second Sunday of Advent, a day on which we move closer to Christmas by hearing John’s prophetic critique [Matthew 3: 1-12] so that we may open ourselves to the grace and glory of God’s presence in and with us at Christmas in the birth of Jesus. “Repent”, says John. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” How do we make sense of this language today? How do we move out of our own Episcopalian entitlement into something like bearing fruit worthy of repentance?
One thing I hear in John’s prophetic critique is a call to step out of the illusion of my own privilege and entitlement and into the truth of the human vulnerability I share with others. You and I live in a pretty scary moment in time. Early last week a young Ohio State student attacked his fellow students with his car and a butcher knife. The incoming administration in Washington seems determined to destroy even the minimal social safety net we have established for seniors, the sick, and the poor. The wildfires in Tennessee and the tornadoes throughout the south serve as yet another reminder (as does the ongoing drought in California where I live) that climate change is moving even faster than we thought. And the continuing spike in hate speech both during and after the election calls in question our shared sense of what it means to be an American.
What is all this but an axe lying at the root of our trees? You don’t have to be a religious nut or a seasoned preacher to hear God addressing us in this dangerous and frightening moment. When John the Baptist compares us to snakes slithering away from a fire, I know what he’s talking about. We humans are destroying our environment, rending our social fabric, and in danger of losing whatever we had left of empathy and compassion in America. If, as good Episcopalians—the Pharisees and Sadducees of our own day—we are to respond to this current moment, the least helpful thing we could do is to assert our own entitlement. We are the ones who have kept the flame going for so many generations. That is no small achievement. But what is our role now as we prepare for the advent of Jesus in the wake of the wrath not only coming but here at work among us now?
One of the ways our Anglican tradition has tried to tame its inner Pharisee is through the very heart of our established church heritage. We Episcopalians began life as the Church of England, and for the first several hundred years of our existence we were the established church of a nation state. Though we present-day Episcopalians can still behave as if we’re the ones in charge—believe me, I lived and worked in Washington, D.C--, we know that in America there is no one official religion. Nevertheless, from our established church days we carry within us a profound sense of our shared investment in the common good. Our great 16th century theologian Richard Hooker called that idea “commonwealth”, and he articulated a vision of the church which understood itself empowered by God to advocate for and act on a notion of what was best not just for us but for the entire community.
You and I here not only at Christ Church Cathedral but those of us who follow Jesus in this Episcopalian mode around the country—we have a shared calling and mission to speak for, to act for, to care for the common good. Even now, the axe is lying at the root of the trees. Even now we face together into the wrath to come. God calls us to bear fruit worthy of repentance. The way we tame our entitled, inner Pharisee is to empower our shared commitment to the common good. Who else will speak for an inclusive, generous, compassionate vision of America if we don’t? Who else will announce that entitlement also involves responsibilities if we don’t? Who else will represent Jesus with some kind of faithfulness to his actual message if we don’t? Jesus and his followers stood up to and outlasted Rome. You and I can be a force for resistance and transformation in this dangerous hour.
Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Those of us who worship God in places like this can be silly and fussy and entitled. But we are also the bearers of a vision of God’s approaching kingdom made real in a nation and church dedicated to advancing the common good and standing with and for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the vulnerable. On this Second Sunday of Advent, let us prepare for the good news of Christmas by getting ourselves ready to offer a creative and hopeful vision to an angry and hurting nation and world. Let’s stand up, together, now for gospel values. If that’s not a mission statement for a cathedral church in the 21st century, I don’t know what is.  Amen.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Remembrance: Leslie Wright Hall 1925-2016 [December 1, 2016] All Saints, Pasadena

For much of her adult life, my mother Leslie Hall was best known as the wife (then ex-wife) of Huntz Hall, my father. Happily, for about 30 years (the 1960s through the 1980s) she was well-known in her own right as the Motion Picture Costumer responsible for three iconic television “looks”:  Elizabeth Montgomery in “Bewitched”, Barbara Feldon in “Get Smart”, and Mary Tyler Moore in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. They didn’t give Emmys in those days as they do now for costuming, but she would likely have taken home several during her long run as the commonly acknowledged best in the business in her time. At one point she had several shows going at once:  in addition to Mary’s show she also supervised “Rhoda”, “Phyllis”, and “The Bob Newhart Show”. When all those folded she went on to do “Lou Grant” and then the second “Newhart” show, after which she called it quits. The look she developed for Mary Tyler Moore had a major impact on working women’s fashion in the 1970s.

Leslie Hall was born in 1925 in Chicago. After high school she worked as a model and was first runner-up for “Miss Chicago” of 1946, losing (ironically) to Cloris Leachman with whom she later worked for so many years. In the same year she came out west to Los Angeles and became an Earl Carroll showgirl, and it was during those years that she met and married my father. They moved from Hollywood to Toluca Lake in the early fifties after my birth and divorced in 1953. A couple of years later, my mother decided to go back to work.

She originally wanted to be a set designer, and got a job at CBS Television City as a “set decorator”, working on an eclectic range of shows: “Playhouse 90”, “Art Linkletter’s House Party”, “Climax”, “The Bob Crosby Show”, and others. 1950s Hollywood sexism asserted itself, and it became clear to her that she would probably never graduate from prop shopper to set designer, so in the late 1950s she switched over to costuming, where her aesthetic and organizational abilities were more quickly recognized. At Warner Brothers she worked on all the television shows which dominated prime time in the late ‘50s: “77 Sunset Strip”, “Hawaiian Eye”, “Surfside Six”, “The Roaring Twenties”, “Maverick”, “Laramie”, and the rest. As a chubby, unpopular sixth grader I basked in her reflected glory when Troy Donahue showed up once with her at my school to pick me up at the end of the day. The twelve-year-old girls at Beverly Vista School couldn’t believe that someone like me could have a connection with such a dreamboat. My reputation soared for nearly a week, then settled back to its customary level.

Leslie Hall married three times: to Huntz Hall, my father, to Ben Kadish, a producer, and to Myron Healey, a character actor. After the third marriage ended in divorce she made the wise decision that marriage was not for her.  That was good news for me. In my teen years I tended to get along better with her boyfriends than I had with her husbands.

The final 20 or so years of my mother’s life were not happy ones. After retirement she became somewhat reclusive and phobic, with dementia and physical incapacity finally taking over her mind and body. For the final ten years of her life she lived at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills where she received wonderful care.

As you can tell, I am fiercely proud of my mother. She overcame a horrendous childhood in Chicago: her parents were a pair of Jazz Age Scott and Zelda wannabes who failed every parenting test imaginable. After high school she wanted to go to college, but her father forbade it. So she moved out west instead. Perhaps her greatest achievement in my mind was her challenge to the structure of the Motion Picture Costumers’ union: when she began work in costuming, men’s cards were numbered 1, 2, and 3; women’s were 4, 5, and 6. The highest card a woman could hold was 4.  Leslie Hall challenged that system and won. She became the first woman costumer to hold a number 1 card. Her perseverance meant that women and men—at least in this one area of below-the-line Hollywood work would have pay equity in the years ahead.

You don’t survive a childhood like my mother’s without some scars. Let’s just say that as a parent she could be complicated. But she gave me exponentially better parenting than she received, and my friends always marveled at how cool and funny my mother was and how better we got along with each other than they did with their parents. At my school open houses a couple of teachers actually accused me of trying to pull something over on them by bringing my sister instead of my mother. She was enormously devoted to me, and she loved Kathy and Oliver and my first wife Michelle too. Dementia really took her away over a decade ago, so much of our grieving has been done along the way. As saddened as I am by her passing, I am even more grateful for her generosity and her courage as a single parent in a time when raising an equally complicated kid didn’t come with a lot of social support. I hope someday she will get her due in the history of television fashion. And I trust that she now knows the depth of a divine love which she longed for all her remarkable life.