Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Homily: December 3, 2008 [Our Lady of Guadalupe]

The most recently released Bob Dylan album [Tell Tale Signs] has a song on it I’ve wanted to hear since word of its existence spread early in this decade. It’s called “Red River Shore”, and it was recorded for but left out of Dylan’s 2001 disc, Time Out Of Mind. “Red River Shore” is a song about human pain, disappointment, and longing. In the final stanza, the song’s speaker tells of “a man full of sorrow and strife” who could bring dead people “on back to life”. In passing he wonders aloud about this man in these words:

Well I don't know what kind of language he used
Or if they do that kind of thing anymore

This verse seems to be a description of Jesus by a man who has only heard a rumor about him. The phrase that continues to stick with me as I think about “Red River Shore” is those lines, “Well I don't know what kind of language he used / Or if they do that kind of thing anymore.” Even as he tries to imagine someone like Jesus, the man in this song wonders first about what kind of language he used. We all, it seems, want to hear someone talk to us (even about hard things) in words we can understand.
“Let it be with me according to your word.” That’s what Mary said to Gabriel when she was told about the noble but hard ministry God had appointed for her. “Let it be with me according to your word” might also best describe the interaction between the Virgin of Guadalupe and Juan Diego on the hill Tepayac at her apparition on December 9, 1531. The Virgin spoke to Juan Diego in his native language, Nahuatl, asking that a church be built on this hill in her honor. Juan Diego ran to tell the courtly Spanish bishop, Juan de Zumarraga, about the vision, and the bishop asked for a sign that he could recognize, which is itself a kind of language. Juan Diego returned to the hill and the Virgin told him to pick the flowers, which turned out to be the finest springtime Castilian roses growing in early winter. More than that, when Juan Diego put those roses in his tilma, they left the imprint of the Virgin’s visage on the inside of his cloak.
“Let it be with me according to your word.” The Virgin spoke in Nahuatl to Juan Diego and in the language of Catholic symbols to Bishop de Zumárraga. In response to the hunger which Bob Dylan expresses for someone to talk to us of life and love in a language we can understand, we have a story about miraculous cross-cultural communication, a kind of Renaissance Mexico version of Pentecost. No wonder the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe has become Mexico’s national celebration of religious and cultural identity. Cynics might see this story as an exercise in cultural imperialism, the Roman church appropriating the images and language of Aztec culture on which to overlay Christian teachings. But a more hospitable reading of the story would suggest that this legend exemplifies what Christians have done in every age and setting—that is, to appropriate the idioms of indigenous culture to give local expression to the Gospel. Strictly speaking, Christianity has no culture at all outside of the local ones it has come to inhabit. When is the last time you heard Aramaic spoken in church?
“Let it be with me according to your word.” All of us long for a connection with the ultimate, and all of us long for that connection to be made in words and images we can understand. The task of the Christian community has always been to find ways to live out the story of Jesus in words and images that people can relate to. That we tend to get wedded to particular cultural expressions of Christianity—the northern European idea of snow at Christmas or lilies at Easter, the Mexican fiesta of an Aztec Virgin—is a sign that we, as particular finite beings inhabit particular cultures. The grace in all of this is that God comes to meet us where we are—on a hilltop in Galilee, in an inner city homeless shelter, on a mountain in Mexico.
These past few weeks I’ve been reading a book of essays by a British art critic and novelist named John Berger. In his book The Shape of a Pocket, there is an essay about the French painter, Theodore Gericault, an artist who spent the final years of his life painting portraits of the inmates of a Paris psychiatric hospital. Here is what Berger says about these portraits:

Between the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life, the empty space, the gap, is enormous. The desolation lies there, not in the facts. . . . In such gaps people get lost, and in such gaps people go mad. --John Berger, “A Man with Tousled Hair” [Géricault] in The Shape of a Pocket, p. 176

Like the line about Jesus’s language in Bob Dylan’s song, something about these sentences in Berger’s essay leapt out at me and has stayed in my consciousness over the past several weeks. There is an enormous gap between the “experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet” and “the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life.” It’s in this gap between experience and narrative that so many folks in the world experience life as loneliness, oppression, loss, guilt, pain. The master narrative of our culture, until recently, has been that everybody (at least everybody who matters) is doing all right. If you weren’t doing all right—if you were poor or depressed or sick or grieving—then there was something wrong with you. As my late friend and former teacher John Snow of EDS used to say, the dominant myth of American life is Social Darwinism. If the idea of “survival of the fittest” doesn’t work for you, then the master narrative no longer explains your experience. Presto, you fall into that gap.
Taken in this light, it seems to me that one way of understanding what happens in the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, what happens on that hillside Tepayac, what happens when the Virgin speaks to Juan Diego in Nahuatl and to Juan de Zumarraga in roses—what happens is that God meets and addresses us in that gap. To the man singing of grief and loss, God speaks in the language of the here and now; to the Aztec peasant and the courtly Spaniard, God speaks in the particular language appropriate to the head and the heart. It’s no wonder that Mexicans have made the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe their national holiday: at its center it’s a celebration of the gracious and innumerable ways in which God comes out of Godself to meet us, to address us in that gap between experience and narrative.
I became a Christian when I was in college, and the reason I became a Christian, frankly, was that in the dark days of 1968—political assassinations, riots in the cities, an intractable war in Vietnam, escalating racial tensions in our nation—for me the prevailing narrative accounting for our shared experience of pain did nothing to explain that experience to me. It was only as I was addressed by the Gospel, a narrative that does explain my and our experience more than any social doctrine or political philosophy can—it was only as I heard the Gospel addressing me in my own culture and language that I heard a narrative which closed the gap between my experience and our national mythology, it was only then that I was addressed by God in that gap and called out of it into a new understanding of myself and the world. For me, Christianity’s greatest gift was that it made me cease to feel crazy. A God who could come among us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was a God who made sense to me, and still does.
What I’ve described as my own experience of conversion is, I believe, something like what happened to Juan Diego on that hillside: living in the gap between experience and public narrative, Juan Diego was met and loved by God in the person of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and henceforth he and his nation had a new story by which to make sense of life in all its height and depth, joy and sadness, pleasure and pain. This festival is important then precisely because, as a cultural festival, it reminds us that God’s primary ministry to us in the here and now is a narrative which makes sense of our experience. Unlike all the bad ideas afloat in our world right now, the Gospel is trustworthy and it makes sense. It is what God offers us, and what we offer the world.
As we gather this morning to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe, let us give thanks for the various ways, both in Mexican and American cultures, in relationships and experiences of grace, God steps in and pulls us out of that gap. God spoke to Juan Diego and Juan de Zumarraga in words and images that made sense of their experience. That was the Virgin’s gift to them then, and the corresponding grace and power to do that for the women and children and men in our lives is God’s great gift to us today. As we gather around Jesus’s table, let’s give thanks both for the Virgin’s witness and our calling to make her presence and the presence of the One who sent her real in the lives of the people we touch. Amen.

Sermon: Trinity, Fillmore, CA November 30, 2008 [Harvey Guthrie's 60th Ordination Anniversary]

As I have thought over the course of the past few weeks about this celebration of Harvey’s ministry, I have wondered about what it would feel like for Harvey and Doris to be packed into a crammed church hearing someone extol their virtues, and my mind was drawn fairly quickly to one of the great moments in American literature—I refer, of course, to Chapter 17 of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in which Tom, Huck, and Joe Harper find themselves actually attending their own funeral. Here in part is how Mark Twain describes it:

As the service proceeded, the clergyman drew such pictures of the graces, the winning ways, and the rare promise of the lost lads that every soul there, thinking he recognized these pictures, felt a pang in remembering that he had persistently blinded himself to them always before, and had as persistently seen only faults and flaws in the poor boys. The minister related many a touching incident in the lives of the departed, too, which illustrated their sweet, generous natures, and the people could easily see, now, how noble and beautiful those episodes were, and remembered with grief that at the time they occurred they had seemed rank rascalities, well deserving of the cowhide. The congregation became more and more moved, as the pathetic tale went on, till at last the whole company broke down and joined the weeping mourners in a chorus of anguished sobs, the preacher himself giving way to his feelings, and crying in the pulpit. –Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Chapter 17

Now asking someone like me to preach at an ordination celebration for Harvey Guthrie is like having a piano festival for Vladimir Horowitz and asking Liberace to play. You know we’re both in the same business, but our relative abilities don’t quite match up. Nevertheless, I shall try my best to draw such pictures of “the graces, the winning ways, and the rare promise” of our honoree and to skip over “the rank rascalities, well deserving of the cowhide” that by the time we come to the Litany only some of us will be “reduced to a chorus of anguished sobs.” Ushers will be standing by with both modesty cloths and smelling salts for those of you who find yourselves “slain in the spirit” or otherwise overcome with emotion.
So here goes!

Harvey chose today’s Bible readings because they are among the ones appointed for the ordination of a priest. These are great readings, and there are a number of ways in which they exemplify the ministry which Harvey and Doris have lived out over the last sixty years. As Numbers reminds us, God’s work is done not by imperial individuals but in community. Ephesians carries that observation forward and describes the church as the literal body of Christ, a community--as Richard Norris said-- which Baptism creates. A priest, as Harvey knows well, is not a magical shiny being from another planet. A priest is a person who lives the baptized life in such a way that others are invited into it and empowered to claim their agency as agents of God’s mercy, blessing, and justice in the world. And so if we hear John 6 in that spirit, it’s not only Jesus who does the will of the One who sent him; nor is it the deacon or bishop or priest. If a priest is using her gifts aright, all of us—Moses’s 70 elders, Paul’s brother and sister members of the Body, Jesus and his companions—all of us are working in concert to enact a vision which is corporate and social before it is individual and pietistic.
Now Harvey knows all this stuff, and you do too, so those readings will stand and speak for themselves. But because Harvey and Doris are both activists and readers, and have spent this 60 years living out not only a Biblical but a social and cultural ministry too, I’d like to share with you two quotations from my own recent reading which have made me think more deeply about Harvey and Doris and their ministry. One is from a fourth century Christian theologian. The other is from a 21st century left wing art critic. Taken together they both roughly approximate the scope of the Guthrie family passions and concerns.

In 397 A.D., the Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine, wrote a guide to Christian interpretation of the scriptures, called De Doctrina Christiana—“On the Christian Doctrine”. One of the knottier problems for early Christians was how to read the Old Testament. Do we read it on its own terms or as a prequel to the Jesus story? And how do we deal with all the unsavory stuff in it? Here is how Augustine addressed that in Chapter 15 of Book 3:

The tyranny of lust being thus overthrown, charity reigns through its supremely just laws of love to God for His own sake, and love to one's self and one's neighbor for God's sake. Accordingly, in regard to figurative expressions, a rule such as the following will be observed, carefully to turn over in our minds and meditate upon what we read till an interpretation be found that tends to establish the reign of love. Now, if when taken literally it at once gives a meaning of this kind, the expression is not to be considered figurative. Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, Book 3 [Chapter 15.3 “RULE FOR INTERPRETING FIGURATIVE EXPRESSIONS”]

So here is Augustine’s argument. Since we now live in the new dispensation (where charity reigns) every statement in the Bible points us toward loving God for God’s own sake and for loving our selves and each other for God’s sake, too. So Augustine says that you no longer need to read the Bible literally UNLESS the literal sense at once points you toward the love of God, others, and self. Fundamentalists please note. Hateful stuff in the Bible must be entirely disregarded. ONLY that which points us toward charity and away from “the tyranny of lust” (by which he means all our negative aggressive impulses) is an appropriately Christian understanding of the Bible. As he says, we are “carefully to turn over in our minds and meditate upon what we read till an interpretation be found that tends to establish the reign of love.” If you can’t get to the reign of love from the passage you’re reading, then you’re not reading the Bible correctly.
Now after you’ve all stopped texting your fundamentalist friends with this news, think for what it says to you about Harvey Guthrie’s hermeneutic. I have been listening to Harvey preach since the Fall of 1973—in fact he preached at my ordination, my wedding, and at my installation at Seabury. If he can hang on to do my funeral, he’ll have captured the brass ring. In all the Guthrie sermons I’ve heard—and especially in the ones that I have plagiarized—I’ve never heard anything said that does not, in Augustine’s words, “tend to establish the reign of love.” So point one about Harvey’s particularly priestly ministry has to do with the way he reads and teaches and proclaims the Bible. It is all done in service of the reign of love, the love of God and self and others for God’s sake, which is the animating principle of his and Augustine’s ministry.
The second passage from stuff I’ve been reading recently comes in a weird little book of essays on art by the British art critic and novelist John Berger. In his essay on Théodore Géricault Berger discusses the painter’s late life series of portraits of inmates of a Paris psychiatric hospital, and makes this intriguing observation:

Between the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life, the empty space, the gap, is enormous. The desolation lies there, not in the facts. . . . In such gaps people get lost, and in such gaps people go mad. --John Berger, “A Man with Tousled Hair” [Géricault] in The Shape of a Pocket, p. 176

Now it helps, of course, that Berger is (like Harvey and Doris) a leftist writer who looks at all art from the point of view of the oppressed, but there’s something in that phrase about the gap between “the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life”—there’s something in that phrase that captures what Harvey in his priestly ministry and what Harvey and Doris have lived out in their lifelong habits of advocacy and witness on behalf of those who inhabit the gap between private experience and public narrative. Until very recently, the public narrative in the First World has been that everything is all right. We’re all doing well. But Harvey and Doris have known for years that everybody isn’t all right and isn’t doing well, and they’ve given of themselves not only in Ventura County but in Ann Arbor and Cambridge and no doubt in New York City and White Plains before that to stand with and stand for those who find life in that gap intolerable.
So it seems to me that these snippets tell us a bit not only about Harvey’s priestly ministry and Doris’s baptismal ministry; they tell us a bit about what priesthood and baptism are really all about in the first place. Part of what priests do, is to gather people liturgically, to preside and bless and give thanks. But we do that, as we witness this afternoon, in the service of something else—as Augustine would say, “for God’s sake.” One pole of that priestly vocation is to preach and proclaim and lead and gather in the service of what Augustine calls “the reign of love.” But so that doesn’t become too vague and general, we have the other pole of the priestly tension, the service of those who inhabit what John Berger calls the often intolerable gap between “the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life”. Most people on this planet live lives that the relatively affluent likes of you and me cannot even begin to imagine. Harvey and Doris have lived their entire adult lives in the service of those who are up against it. And they have done that not only because they know both the joy of that reign of love and the pain of that intolerable gap. They’ve done that because, even living in very grandiose and prestigious environments, they have never forgotten where they come from. And they know the truth which all of us too easily forget to remember, that without the grace which constantly upholds us, you and I can quickly fall into that gap ourselves.
That they have done this all so cheerfully is what makes this day even better. Moses only tried it for 40 years, and fairly early on in the process he asked for divine intervention. Most priests live their lives somewhere between the pulpit and the altar. Harvey has expanded that priestly repertoire to include both the study and the kitchen as well. When I think of Doris and Harvey and what they have meant in my life, all of it is finally centered around meals. The way they create community at their own table. The way they serve and feed those who are both figuratively and literally hungry—seminarians, parishioners, friends, relatives, and especially those who are up against it. And through all of it, of course, there has been an easy kind of Percy Dearmer liturgical elegance—what Harvey once described to me as a liturgical style of “relaxed formality”. I hope that the Guthries don’t feel too much like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, but I’m glad I’ve been allowed to bloviate for a bit on their graces and winning ways. (Of course, if Congressman Gallegly had given this oration, there would have been more talk of rascalities and the cowhide.) Harvey’s and Doris’s lives exemplify what it can mean to do joyfully the work of the One who sent Jesus. As we commit ourselves to the ongoing doing of this work, let us once again put our feet under the table with Harvey and Doris, and join them in giving thanks. Amen.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Sermon: November 26, 2008 [Thanksgiving, All Saints Pasadena]


Two weeks ago today, I went through Manhattan to visit a museum on my way to spend a couple of days at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. As I walked down Fifth Avenue, someone thrust an issue of what looked like The New York Times into my hand. Even though people rarely give you free copies of newspapers, I didn’t think much about it until later in the day when, in the solitude of my monastery guest house room, I opened the paper and saw this banner headline: “IRAQ WAR ENDS”. After I shook my head in disbelief, I saw the next banner: “NATIONAL HEALTH INSURANCE ACT PASSES”. This was followed by another, even juicier story: “USA PATRIOT ACT REPEALED”. I think that I began to sense that something funny was going on when I saw the next headline, “ALL PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES TO BE FREE.” And I knew I was really in parody land when I spotted this story, “CONGRESS RETURNS CIVICS TO HIGH SCHOOL CURRICULUM”.
As I looked closer at this faux issue of The New York Times, I discovered that it was dated July 4, 2009. Upon further investigation of the paper’s fine print, I learned that this prank was the collaborative project of a number of progressive organizations. Still, it’s hard to describe the shock of seeing a newspaper proclaiming the news someone like me wants so desperately to see enacted into reality. The war over? Health care for everybody? High schoolers studying Civics? I knew it couldn’t be true, but I desperately wanted it to be.
Now your ideal headlines might read differently, and you and I may differ on the political shape of our ideal dreams for America, but we all have those dreams, and in our best moments people all across the political spectrum can attribute the best motieves to each other. We all want our nation to incarnate the values envisioned by our founders.

The unreal experience of seeing the news one hopes for reported as fact even though you know it can’t quite be true mimics the Zen koan-like paradox of hearing tonight’s Bible selections read in sequence. We do not live by bread alone, says Moses, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. [Deuteronomy 8] Fair enough, but then Jesus and his brother, James, seem to be at odds with each other about the tension between doing versus being. Listen again to James—the apostle who was also Jesus’s younger brother:

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.--James 1

You and I social action types love to quote James—he also said “Faith without works is dead”—because he places such a sharp priority on deeds over intentions. If you hear the word but don’t act on it, you’re like a person looking in a mirror who forgets what they just saw—in other words, a narcissist with a bad memory. Those of us who hear the Gospel calling to us to do more than think good thoughts about the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the lonely, the sick love James and his emphasis on action because he emphasizes social responsibility.
But then there’s this comforting (but also troubling) teaching from James’s older brother, Jesus. Listen to this again:

Consider the lilies of the fields, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will God not much more clothe you-you of little faith? –Matthew 6

Wait a minute: I just heard your brother telling me that action is the central value of the Christian life. Now you’re telling me to be like a bird who takes food as it comes or a flower who receives clothing as a gift. On its surface, this teaching can be heard as a counsel to take life as it comes. It reminds me of the New Yorker cartoon I saw once of two men chatting at the entrance to hell. One guy says to the other, “I went with the flow and I wound up here.”
So we have dueling banjo brothers giving us seemingly contradictory teachings. How do we make sense of this? And what does it have to do with Thanksgiving?

The first thing I want to say before I say anything else—and not only because my wife, Kathy, is here listening intently to every word I say—is that neither Jesus nor his brother is telling those of us preparing for tomorrow’s feast that we don’t have to help with the cooking or the dishes. God may feed the birds and clothe the lilies, but part of striving for the righteousness of God’s kingdom does not entail sitting back and letting everyone else wait on you. At least not if you want to stay in your relationship.
Actually, if you listen to Jesus carefully, he’s not telling you not to act. Indeed, he ends this teaching using the most active verb in his vocabulary: strive. “Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness,” and all the necessary things of life will be given you as well. So just as his younger brother James can say, “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers,” so Jesus calls us to “strive for God’s righteousness”. The life of faith is a life both of contemplation and of action. We worship God both in prayer and in action. The desert mystics in the earliest days of Christianity were very clear about this. Even a hermit living in a desert cave in Egypt was supposed to stop praying if a hungry person came along. Attending to human need is the most authentically devout thing we can do.
But listen again to what Jesus actually says after he tells us about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field: “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? . . . Therefore do not worry, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ “ Jesus isn’t telling us not to act; he’s telling us not to worry. Even though many of us tend to think that worrying is actually doing something, Jesus and his brother James make a very sharp distinction between them. Staying up nights worrying about things—either my own personal well-being or that of the nation or the planet—does nobody any good. By fretting and fussing I may think that I’m getting something done, but I’m really like James’s forgetful narcissist looking in the mirror. The faithful person is called both to acceptance and to action: acceptance of the reality that I’m not in charge, and action in the areas where I can potentially make a difference. I know that God is going to put a Thanksgiving turkey in front of me tomorrow, but I need to participate in the process that brings that meal about. Losing sleep about what can go wrong with it is a self-deluding waste of energy.

And that brings me back, in a way, to that wonderful, weird fake New York Times I was handed on the street a couple of weeks ago. Sure, I want to see the war end, civil liberties restored, and the quality of our educational system transformed. But if I want to see that day come about I have to do more than hope and less than worry about it. The problem for all of us 21st century people, of course, is that our minds are constantly barraged with images of things we might worry about which we can never personally address. There is an awful lot of pain and suffering in this world, and God cares deeply about all of it. But our task is not to imitate God here. Our task is to let God be God and take on all of it, and to commit ourselves to acting in ways that are appropriate to our passions, gifts, and resources. We cannot solve everything, so we should not worry about everything. Instead, we should face into human need as it presents itself to us in the scope of our daily experience and strive, as Jesus would say, to make it right. God is God. We’re not. So we cannot fix everything, even by worrying about it. But we still have important work to do.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. God knows the world is a mess, and our hearts are called to open up to all those who are sick or lonely or hungry or lost or in any way up against it these days. But listen again to Jesus:

Therefore do not worry, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Creator knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

What Jesus says about worrying applies not only to the world we tend to fret over, it applies as well to you and me. Not only should we not worry about how all those fake New York Times headlines will come to be realized, so should we not worry about what will become of us. You and I are precious to God; and if God feeds birds and clothes lilies, will not that same God also take care of us. To be sure, we need to work with God and each other on behalf of others and ourselves, but worrying about what will become of us puts us through needless anxiety and scatters our energies.
Jesus came among us for a number of reasons, one of the chief of which was simply to show us that one can live an abundant life even in the midst of scarcity. We live that abundant life by pulling together, not apart. We live that abundant life by actively working for the well-being of ourselves and others and by giving up worrying about things that are beyond our control. How many beautiful days have you squandered by having your attention diverted from what was right in front of you? That is the kind of worrying that keeps us from living the abundant life which God offers us—a life of blessing and grace and renewal, a life lived in Thanksgiving for the abundant wonder of life which is present to us even when things look their scarcest
May all of us find ways, together and in our households and communities, to observe Thanksgiving this year as an opportunity to see the abundant blessings that are ours even in times of anxiety over scarcity. And may we find times, with Jesus and his brother James, to give up worrying and instead to be doers of the word, striving for peace, justice, and wholeness for ourselves, each other, and the world. Amen.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Homily: All Saints Day [November 3, 2008]

One of my favorite movies, even though it’s almost unwatchable in parts, is Elaine May’s 1987 comedy, "Ishtar". In this hilarious but misfired epic, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman play a couple of loser songwriters who team up to compose some memorably horrible tunes, including my favorite, “Dangerous Business”. Here is a sample of their lyrical songwriting magic:

Telling the truth can be dangerous business.
Honest and popular don't go hand in hand.
If you admit that you can play the accordion,
No one'll hire you in a rock 'n' roll band.

Then, during the bridge, they go on:

Because life is the way we audition for God;
Let us pray that we all get the job. [“Dangerous Business” words and music by Paul Williams]

As I thought about preaching on All Saints Day, the lyrics to “Dangerous Business” suddenly popped into my mind. As any preacher can tell you, telling the truth is dangerous business; and if any preaching is dangerous, then telling the truth about All Saints Day can be particularly so. Like all great Christian feasts, All Saints Day carries the burden of multiple meanings. We in the church tend to think of All Saints Day as a celebration of the ongoing life and witness of the whole church, extensive in time and space. That’s why we baptize people and renew our own baptismal covenant on this day. For us churchly types, All Saints Day is a festival honoring the “cloud of witnesses”—here, there, past, present, yet to come—who step into and out of the font and by so doing are claimed and called as followers of Jesus and members of his body.
But we all know that All Saints Day has another cultural valence, and that has to do with death. Our celebration of the universal church and all its members has gotten recast by the culture as a remembrance of the faithful departed. Like Christmas modulating from a festival of the Incarnation into a celebration of the solstice, or Easter from what Jurgen Moltmann called a “feast of freedom” to a springtime paean to “new life”, All Saints Day has elided into both Halloween and el dia de los muertos. Again, it’s not hard to understand how this happened. But how do you and I—followers of Jesus who live in this actual culture—deal with this tension? I’ve been in churches which gave themselves over to an All Saints requiem of lugubrious mourning. I’ve been in churches where they’ve structured it as a catechumenal fantasy. Neither approach seems, to me, appropriate. All Saints is about the church. It’s also about death. And putting it that way is (or can be) a dangerous business.
Let’s start with the observation that we live in a culture decreasingly able to deal with death. One of my favorite current writers, the poet, essayist, and real-life mortician Thomas Lynch, wrote this last Saturday in "The New York Times":

In the United States . . . we whistle past our graveyards and keep our dead at greater distance, consigned to oblivions we seldom visit, estrangedand denatured, tidy and Disney-fied memorial parks with names like those of golf courses or megachurches.

Lynch continues:

The dead get buried but we seldom see a grave. Or they are burned, but few folks ever see the fire. Photographs of coffins returned from wars are forbidden, and news coverage of soldiers’ burials is discouraged. Where sex was once private and funerals were public, now sex is everywhere and the dead go to their graves often as not without witness or ritual. [“A Date With the Departed”, NY Times, 11/1/08]

While it’s essential that we in the church keep our eyes focused on All Saints Day as a celebration of the communion of saints and not just a necrology of the departed, it’s also vital that we pay attention to cultural expressions of grief like Halloween and el dia de los muertos. At this time of year, with autumn morphing into winter, we can’t help thinking about our own mortality and the frailty of human life. As Thomas Lynch reminds us, “The seasonal metaphors of reaping and rotting, harvest and darkness, leaf-fall and killing frost supply us with plentiful memento mori. Whatever is or isn’t there when we die, death both frightens and excites us.” Whether it fits with our liturgical orthodoxy or not, people come into our churches at this time of year with death and not Baptism on their minds. Unless we can find a way to talk about All Saints Day in terms that honor both death and Baptsim, then we will be doing justice to neither our missional nor our pastoral task.
Thankfully, the lyrics to “Dangerous Business” are helpful to us here:

Because life is the way we audition for God;
Let us pray that we all get the job.

The truth, the “dangerous business” truth, about Baptism of course is that it is all tied up with death. If Baptism is the sacrament by which all of us saints have entered the church, then we’ve all made that entry through what the Burial Office calls “the grave and gate of death.” In Baptism we are not only washed; we are drowned to our old life so that we can come up out of the water and be raised into the new. Even and especially at the point of entry into the Christian community, our tradition is unsentimentally honest about how it understands the facts of human existence. To become a Christian, you must start by coming to terms with the fact that you are mortal, that you will die. This is true because the One in whose name we gather, the One whose body we constitute in the world, Jesus Christ, this One came to terms with that realization himself. And more than that: the One Jesus calls his Father, the One whom we know in Jesus and the fellowship that gathers in his name, that One also had to come to understand what human finitude felt like as part of the divine process of being connected with us. Death is not an ugly problem to be swept under the rug. As Thomas Lynch says, “Whatever is or isn’t there when we die, death both frightens and excites us.” It is, in one sense, what makes us human. It is, in another, what connects us to the divine. It is the end, in the sense both of finish and of purpose, of life. As the song says, it’s our “audition for God.”
Jesus understood that, of course, certainly when he set his face to go to Jerusalem, and not the least when he was preaching the Beatitudes to the crowds on the mountain. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” [Matthew 5] In grounding his teaching in a vision which linked human finitude with divine blessing, Jesus gave us a way both to celebrate the breadth and depth and fullness of the communion of saints and also to acknowledge our solidarity with one another in our poverty, our sorrow, and our fear. In his terms, we are blessed, we are happy, when we realize that we’re smaller than the forces that control and define us, and we find strength to live freely in the face of them only in community and solidarity with one another. The way forward in the face of death is to live life in compassion and witness, in service to “the poor” in all their incarnations, in concert with the community which gathers in Jesus’s name.
Telling this truth can be dangerous business because it means that, as Christians, we will not try to preach a cultural success story but will rather ground our testimony in an acknowledgment of our own finitude, anxiety, and weakness. As Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor”, and so forth. When we name the blessed we are not naming the needy unfortunates whom we stoop to serve; we’re naming ourselves. Not everybody can take hearing that, and so it’s not surprise that we want to turn All Saints Day into either a death watch or a church extravaganza; but it’s the Gospel truth. And if we are faithful in telling it, then we will be honoring all the wonderful and complex aspects of this glorious but perplexing holiday. We are finite; and we find our purpose in life standing with others who know themselves to be finite, too. And we defeat death as Jesus did, by living lives that face into that finitude and find joy and blessing and peace even in times of scarcity and enmity and fear. Or as the song has it,

Because life is the way we audition for God;
Let us pray that we all get the job.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Homily: Chicago Consultation Evensong [October 19, 2008]

Just so you don’t accuse me of proof-texting, our reading from Ecclesiasticus this evening [Ecclesiasticus 4.1-10] is not something specially chosen for a gathering of movement Christians but is actually the Daily Office reading for Sunday in Proper 24, Year Two. If you don’t believe me, ask [Seabury’s Liturgy Professor] Ruth Meyers. As radically and prophetically wise at it is, our passage from the fourth chapter of the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach poses for us an interesting question: when we read scriptures like this, who do we consider to be “the poor”?
In the most recent issue of The New York Review of Books [October 23, 2008] the Irish writer Colm Toibin has an article simply called “James Baldwin & Barack Obama”, which I read with great interest. We all know who Barack Obama is; some here may be too young to remember the great gay African American writer James Baldwin. When I was a teenager in the early1960s I saw James Baldwin speak in person, and it was seeing and hearing and then reading Baldwin which ignited my interest in the Civil Rights Movement—and it was through my experience of the Civil Rights and then Anti-War Movements in the 1960s that I came into the church in college. I’m probably one of the few straight white guys in history who read everything James Baldwin wrote while they were still in high school, including, of course, his mid-1950s homoerotic novel Giovanni’s Room—an eleventh-grade oral book report experience I hope never to repeat.
Now James Baldwin was gay and Colm Toibin is gay, but Toibin’s NYRB article isn’t about sexuality in any overt sense. Rather, it looks at the similarities between Baldwin and Obama and how both men found in the church a way to deal with the experience of being oppressed. Here’s how James Baldwin put it:

Perhaps we were, all of us, bound together by the nature of our oppression, the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run; if so, within these limits we sometimes achieved with each other a freedom that was close to love.

As James Baldwin said many times over the course of his life, Christianity makes sense out of the experience of the oppressed because it alone combines the paradox of the way great sorrow can coexist with great joy. And that is why, when you read Baldwin talking about even racists and homophobes, you sense in what he says a unique combination of rage mixed with compassion..
In the late 1940s James Baldwin left the U.S. for a self-imposed exile in France; he came back a decade later to face the Civil Rights struggle in America in the late 1950s precisely because he carried within hima uniquely Christian mixture of rage and compassion, a profoundly biblical sense of life that had been fostered and nurtured in the Black Church. It was only what Colm Toibin calls Baldwin’s “wisdom and sense of forgiveness” which enabled James Baldwin to be such a powerful figure in America in the 1960s. He never lost the edge of his prophetic rage, and he never forgot that even Bull Connor was a human being formed by historical realities.
Now all that’s very interesting, but why this excursus into the life of a writer who’s been dead for 21 years? I suppose it’s because something in this passage from Ecclesiasticus gets at this ability to hold compassion and rage, wisdom and forgiveness in tension with one another as a Gospel style of life. Listen again to Jesus ben Sirach:

My child, deprive not the poor of their living,and do not keep needy eyes waiting.Do not grieve the one who is hungry,nor anger anyone in want.. . .[Ecclesiasticus 4.1-2]

The question again presents itself: whom does Sirach, whom does Jesus of Nazareth, whom do we Christian people mean when we talk about “the poor”? I don’t want to sound too much like a strict constructionist here, but the first, best answer is that when the Bible talks about “the poor”, it means “the poor”. As difficult as some of our lives may be, those of us who are relatively affluent need to be cautious about equating ourselves too easily with those who, as the real poor, are the special objects of God’s and Jesus’s compassionate concern. In the recent days of the economic downturn, a lot of people with resources have taken to thinking of themselves as “poor”. But this isn’t really what our biblical sources mean by “the poor”, or by “widows and orphans.” They mean those with no food, no money, and no prospect of getting them.
Our passage starts with that literal understanding of poverty, but it then takes this subtle linguistic turn and expands its understanding of our obligations to the poor to include the oppressed: “Deliver him who is wronged from the hand of the wrongdoer; and do not be fainthearted in judging a case.” [Ecclesiasticus 4.9] So in a way which is doubly true the way most Biblical truths are doubly true, the poor are both the literal poor and the figurative poor. The poor are those who are up against it economically, socially, politically, culturally. The first obligation of a person of Biblical faith is to stand with and for those who are up against oppressive and destructive forces. And our second obligation is to do so in a way which combines those paradoxical attitudes which James Baldwin and which all great spokespeople for human liberation have managed to hold together: rage at the oppression, compassion for both victim and oppressor, forgiveness for oneself and others, and wisdom to make sense out of it all.
You and I are gathered tonight as members of a Christian community of people working to ensure the same justice for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people that the heroes of my childhood demanded for American blacks, and which the heroines of my earlier days in the church demanded for women. In the spirit of James Baldwin and Jesus ben Sirach, those of us who gather to do that work need to remember a couple of things. One of them is not to be misled when others tell us that the real object of Jesus’s compassion is someone other than the people we are here concerned with. That’s what they said to Martin Luther King and to Sue Hiatt, and that’s what they now are saying to us. In my ecclesiastical lifetime I cannot count the number of well-meaning people who have said that issues of human liberation are somehow a distraction from the work of the Gospel. “Let’s get over race or gender or human sexuality and back to the business of caring for the poor,” they say. What they fail to see is that the work of human liberation is the work of the Gospel, and that we engage that work wherever we find it. The witness of our Biblical tradition is that we have to deal not with some other issues which we might care about abstractly, but with the particular oppression that is right now at hand. And in the first decade of the 21st century that issue, so far as it concerns Anglican Christians, is the equal access of all Christians—gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and straight—to all the offices and ministries of the church. This isn’t some other time. This is now. It is on this issue, and not some other, that we are called to stand with Jesus and those whom Jesus would stand with now, today. If the church cannot move beyond toleration and inclusion to celebration and embrace, then the basic credibility of our enterprise is in question.
And here’s the other thing to remember: that standing with the people whom Jesus would stand with—the poor and the oppressed in all their identities—is a wonderful, paradoxical mixture of sadness and joy. The ugliness of homophobia can make you sick. And the work of bringing about justice is in itself a joy. As James Baldwin knew, both things can be true at once. The hatred and the prejudice of the oppressor can make you crazy, especially if you adopt some shadow version of it as your own central principle. The only way through this is Jesus’s way, James Baldwin’s way, Nelson Mandela’s way, Dorothy Day’s way—the way which weaves rage and compassion, forgiveness and wisdom in an ever expanding fabric of justice and love. Here again is how James Baldwin puts it:

Perhaps we were, all of us, bound together by the nature of our oppression, the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run; if so, within these limits we sometimes achieved with each other a freedom that was close to love.

“A freedom that is close to love.” As companions of Jesus and all the people Jesus stands with, we all have been called to live and walk and rest in that freedom that is close to love. May our time together be a celebration and living out of what Jesus celebrated, proclaimed, and embodied--a freedom that is close to love. Amen.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Homily: Teresa of Avila [October 15, 2008]

Gary Hall
Seabury-Western Theological Seminary
October 15, 2008 [Teresa of Avila]

In the early days of The New Yorker, E.B. White began an occasional feature called the “Newsbreak,” which continues to this day, a short piece that fills out the column at the end of a longer article. My favorite species of Newsbreak is one White named “Block that Metaphor!” in which the magazine simply reprints, without comment, a hopelessly overworked or mixed metaphor taken from the daily press. Here’s a typical “Block that Metaphor!” example from the Des Moines Register: “I’m tired of being Charlie Brown and putting in more hoops for teachers to jump through and then pulling the football of higher salaries away at every turn.”
I couldn’t help wanting to cry “Block that Metaphor!” when I heard Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s answer to a recent question about her belief in “American exceptionalism.” Here’s part of what she said:

"But even more important is that world view that I share with John McCain. That world view that says that America is a nation of exceptionalism. And we are to be that shining city on a hill, as President Reagan so beautifully said, that we are a beacon of hope and that we are unapologetic here. We are not perfect as a nation. But together, we represent a perfect ideal. And that is democracy and tolerance and freedom and equal rights." -- Governor Sarah Palin, October 2, 2008

Now I used to teach American literature before 1900, and so I realize that not everyone knows as I do that our 40th President did not invent the metaphor of a “shining city on a hill.” Few people remember that Ronald Reagan was not being original but was in fact quoting John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon given on board the ship Arabella, “A Model of Christian Charity”, in which he referred to the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s New England experiment as a “shining city on a hill.” As an English Puritan, Winthrop believed that the whole world would be watching what he and his fellow Calvinists were attempting to do in establishing a Reformed theocratic state in the New World. And since to those born after, say, 1960 John Winthrop seems like only a slightly older form of ancient history than Ronald Reagan, I’m not surprised that fewer still know that Winthrop himself did not invent the metaphor but instead took it from his sermon’s scriptural text , itself a passage we just heard read from today’s Gospel:

"You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." [Matthew 5.14-16]

It’s a good thing E.B. White didn’t follow Jesus around, what with all this Gospel’s talk of cities and lampstands and even salt. How many metaphors can one man block?
Here, actually, is what Winthrop said to the Puritans as they were about to disembark on their early 17th century “errand into the wilderness”:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God's sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a going. [John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”]

When Winthrop takes Jesus’s metaphor of a “city upon a hill”, he expands on it in a more interesting way than either Reagan or Palin did. He uses Jesus’s image of a city on a hill with a kind of doubleness: sure, in one sense, a city on a hill is a shining beacon to the world, a figurative statue of liberty proclaiming universal values to a broken world. But it’s also something else: a city on a hill is visible in another way, too. It’s out there, exposed. It’s visible for all to see. It’s a hard thing to hide. And, if you read the Psalms, it’s vulnerable to attack precisely because it’s so obviously exposed. So Winthrop works the metaphor for all its wonderful, complex doubleness. We’re a city on a hill: If we succeed, we’ll be a light to the nations. If we fail, we’ll be exposed as fools for all the world to see.
Now I’m not sure why the lectionary writers chose this “city on a hill” part of the Sermon on the Mount as the appropriate Gospel for St. Theresa of Avila, but it may be because they were following out the way her mind works opens us up to large metaphors like this one. St. Theresa was, of course, the sixteenth century Spanish nun who established the reformed Carmelite order and wrote two spiritual classics, The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle, the latter of which is, you guessed it, one large extended metaphor. The Interior Castle figures the soul as a castle and its journey toward God as an exploration of that castle’s seven “mansions” or rooms, as in Jesus’s Johannine saying, “In my father’s house there are many mansions.” If you’re looking for spiritual metaphors—plain, fancy, simple, or mixed, you can’t to better than this one which appears early on in The Interior Castle:

I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions.—[Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle]

For Teresa, the soul is a castle, a large, complex, mysterious dwelling. We are compliecated beings, and we are mysterious, even to ourselves. As Augustine said, we are mysterious because we are made in the image of God, and God is mysterious. Teresa knew what Augustine was talking about. She thinks of the soul as a castle, a complicated, mysterious structure, but just as importantly she thinks of the soul as a castle made out of a diamond. We are not only complicated; we are precious. We are beautiful because God is beautiful, and we are made in the image of God. When Teresa thinks in this metaphorical way, she expresses, as John Winthrop and Jesus did, the truth of a metaphor in all its complexity. To say we are a city on a hill or a castle made of a single diamond is to say two things at once. In Winthrop’s case, it says that we are attractive but exposed. In Teresa’s case, it says that we are hard to know and at times confusing for all that and yet in some indefinable way made of the most beautiful and durable and pure stuff there is.
And running as I might be to block these metaphors, there is something about them that gives us an image of the Christian life in all its fullness. Those of us who feel called to live out the life of an ordained person know something about what it means to be a city on a hill, to be an example to the world in every sense of that word. Because we live out the baptized life in a public and sacramental way, our behavior and our reputations get inextricably interconnected with God’s. If people look at us fragile creatures and see God, then God’s reputation is at stake in how we behave. That’s the life we’ve signed on for. We live the Gospel life publicly. We are potentially both a beacon and what Winthrop calls “a story.” We are visible and we are exposed. It matters how we live our lives.
And when you find that metaphor and its implications exhausting, you might check yourself into Teresa’s interior castle and bask for a time in the mysterious friendliness of that extended comparison, too. You are a castle made out of a diamond. Such a castle would be hard to ignore, certainly: it would be visible for miles around. Yet, in Teresa’s deeper sense, that castle is both mysterious and beautiful. We are complicated because God is complicated. We are beautiful because God is beautiful. We human beings are called to take ourselves and each other seriously if only because all of us, finally, enshrine the image of that beautiful and complicated God.
You are the light of the world, a city on a hill, a castle with an infinity of rooms made out of a single perfect diamond. There are times, with E.B. White, when I want to block all these metaphors because, as Gary Larson of The Far Side once said, they make my head hurt. But sometimes if you root around in them long enough they begin if not to make sense then at least to be true, and it is for their truth and for the lives of those who expound them, like Teresa whom we honor and remember today, that we proceed in the Eucharist to give thanks. Amen.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Homily: October 3, 2008 [George Kennedy Allen Bell]

We all inhabit what feels like an apocalyptic moment. We are in the midst of cataclysmic changes which affect all of us, and we have no clear idea of how things will come out. The economic crisis which engulfs our nation and the world is one part of that. The seemingly endless presidential election is another. And let’s not even start on the church. We don’t need to read Mark’s Gospel to know that things are changing dramatically all around us. If you want to see disruption, dislocation, and judgment, just look at what’s going on in our culture right here and right now.
In apocalyptic moments, it is a natural human tendency to want to hold on to things that appear to be fixed and solid. In the cultural chaos of the 1970s, the 1928 Prayer Book and the all-male priesthood became focal points of stability for many who found the liturgical questioning of Christendom and the expanding of clerical gender roles troubling. In our own day, the quest of gays, lesbians, and same sex couples for full inclusion in the church’s ministries and sacraments has driven many to define opposite-sex marriage as a core tenet of Christian doctrine. When the earth begins shaking, it is tempting to cling to something that looks solid, even if it’s only a piece of balsa wood.
Something like this must have been in the mind of Jesus’s companions when they looked upon the Jerusalem Temple. Here is how Mark’s Gospel puts it:

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’--Mark 13.1-2

Their reaction, we can imagine, was a variety of shock. “‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’” they ask [Mark 13.4]. If you were a Palestinian Jewish peasant from the north country near Nazareth, where the biggest town you had ever seen was Caesarea Philippi, you too might marvel not only at the size of Jerusalem and its Temple but at the prospect that anything so big, so permanent, so solid might not be strong and secure enough to last forever.
When we put our faith in proximate things rather than in final things, when we confuse the signs of God’s presence with the reality of God’s presence, we tend to become unstuck when the thing we have mistakenly put our trust in turns out to be just another species of balsa wood. For all its solidity and permanence, the Jerusalem Temple proved in A.D. 70 to be as fragile as a Hollywood back lot set.
Fortunately, women and men come into our experience and remind us, through their lives and witness, that there is some One behind all the transient show of life who is trustworthy and who will endure. Such a person was the man, new to our liturgical calendar, whom we remember today, George Kennedy Allen Bell. You could not ask for a more establishment church career than the one Bell had—study at Oxford, Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, Bishop of Chichester, and leading contender to be Archbishop of Canterbury when William Temple died in 1944. Yet his ministry involved some risky commitments and decisions: in the early 1930s Bell was President of the “Life and Work” Conference at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, and over the course of his life he was a leading figure in the Ecumenical Movement. More than that, Bell was also the first and most stalwart international ally of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church which opposed Hitler and Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. And even beyond that, Bell was also a lifelong advocate of peace: late in World War II he spoke out publicly against the indiscriminate area bombing of German cities because it killed hundreds of thousands of innocent noncombatants; and this opposition probably cost him becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. And after the War he vigorously opposed Britain’s development and deployment of nuclear weapons.
When you live in apocalyptic times, it is easy to become confused about what is eternal and what is transitory. For us, looking at someone like George Kennedy Allen Bell from a distance, it would be easy to mistake the trappings of his ministry—Oxford, Canterbury Cathedral, the see of Chichester, an international ecclesiastical reputation—as the thing itself. But Bell knew better than that. He knew that the signs of his ministry were not ends in themselves but were rather tools to be used in the service of God’s ever-expanding horizon of justice, love, reconciliation, and peace. Having a big church career was not his ministry. Using the resources of his title and office in the service of Jesus and his cause was. He knew what was eternal and what was transitory. It is that kind of knowledge which will sustain us in apocalyptic times.
“‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’” If you’ve put your faith in transitory signs as the ultimate sources of meaning, then Jesus’s words this morning are bad news. But if, like George Kennedy Allen Bell, you’ve understood that the One who made and loves us will continue to be in and with and for us no matter even if the medium through which we’ve come to know that One disintegrates, then you can live a life of blessing and freedom and mercy and peace. May each of us, in our own way, shift our attention from that which passes to that which endures, so that we may accompany Jesus and each other on a journey of faith toward the One in whom our security and safety finally rest. Amen.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Homily:C.Davies Reed Priesthood Ordination, Indianapolis, IN 9/27/08

C. Davies Reed graduated from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary on Friday, June 1, 2007. For the three years prior to that, Davies had been in residence at the seminary, and in addition to his work in the classroom, field education, and community events, Davies was an extremely faithful chapel-goer. I don’t believe I ever found myself at a Seabury liturgy where Davies was not present, and I too went to chapel a lot.
Now Davies was well known for many things in chapel—he has a beautiful singing voice and an liturgical demeanor. But perhaps his greatest claim to fame was the regularity with which he prayed, aloud, in the daily intercessions for Mitch Daniels, the Governor of your state. There’s a place in the prayers where we pray for the President and all those in authority and leave a space for “the leaders of our several homelands”, and at that point Davies would always boom out the name “Mitch!” As well-intentioned as this practice was, it actually precipitated a spiritual crisis for many of our students. In Illinois we don’t feel quite so cheerful about Rod Blagoavich as you all seem to do about Mitch Daniels—Governor Blagoavich always reminds me of Mayor Quimby on The Simpsons—and the New Yorkers didn’t want to scream out “Eliot!” nor the Californians “Arnold!” every time Davies boomed out the name “Mitch!” So no other governors ever got their names mentioned. But Davies is such a charismatic leader that eventually other students, none of them Hoosiers, began praying for Mitch, too. By the time of Davies’ graduation, we were all praying for your governor on a daily basis. Under the spell of Davies natural authority, we couldn’t help ourselves. At Awards Night, after noting the succeeding triumphs of the Daniels administration during Davies’ tenure in seminary, I bestowed upon Davies the honorary award for “Intercessory Excellence” for the way in which he had almost singlehandedly made the Governor of Indiana’s life a blessing through his own faithfulness in intercessory prayer.
C. Davies Reed graduated from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary on Friday, June 1, 2007. On June 9, 2007—eight days after our chapel closed down for the summer and Davies left Seabury for good—the following story appeared in the Indianapolis Star:
Governor’s hog earns him a bite from farm’s dog
Dogs may not be a governor's best friend -- especially when they're startled by a governor's motorcycle. Gov. Mitch Daniels was bitten on the leg by a dog at a farm just outside Bloomington on Wednesday after the governor unintentionally startled the animal with his Harley-Davidson.

I submit that happened because we stopped praying for him. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that I remain on Davies’ personal prayer list.


We’re here this morning to witness and support God’s setting aside of C. Davies Reed to the priesthood in Christ’s Church. Before we do that, church tradition asks that we think together a bit about what scripture might have to say to us this morning. So listen again to what we just heard Jesus say:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. [John 10.14-15]

That’s just one, dense, sentence, but it holds within it a whole world of meaning. By comparing himself to a shepherd, Jesus tells us that he is someone who loves, looks out for, cares for those entrusted to his charge. Nothing too startling about that. But then there’s this: Jesus insists that he knows us, just as he and his Father know each other. Now that’s a bit more surprising. How can a shepherd really know the sheep? Jesus seems to be saying that the same kind of intimate connectedness which he and his Father share characterizes the way a shepherd should know his sheep because it is the way Jesus knows each one of us. When we hear this read at an ordination, we cannot escape the implication that there is something in the way a priest relates to God’s people which mirrors, reflects the way the Father knows Jesus and Jesus knows us. Jesus is the good shepherd. Priesthood, like all other sacramental signs in the Church, is about relationship. If what we are witnessing today has any claim to be authentically of God and the Jesus who calls us into fellowship with that One, then the kind of intimacy we see in the love of the Father and the Son for each other and of Jesus for us must characterize the way a priest and the people in that priest’s care know and love and look out for one another.
How do you and I make sense of all this “shepherd” and “sheep” language? I for one have never found the comparison a flattering one. I don’t mind thinking of Jesus (or even Davies) as a shepherd, but (as Chris Rock might say) who you callin’ a sheep? Sheep are not the most disciplined nor discerning of creatures. They don’t have the best possible judgment. And they tend to follow leaders whose credentials have not been established. As accurate a description as that might be of us, we don’t inhabit a world with shepherds and sheep in it anymore. Is there another image of the priest that might help us out here?
Earlier this month I went to a reading by one of my favorite contemporary poets, Paul Muldoon, who is (among other things) a Professor at Princeton, the Poetry Editor of The New Yorker and a passable rock and roll musician in his spare time. As much as I loved the reading, I was most powerfully struck by what he said later about the process of writing poetry. Here is what he said about poets: “They’re out to do the very best by the poem that is coming into the world through them.” And then he went on to suggest that the thing a poet wants to do for that poem is “allowing it to become itself through one, to do what it needs to do to be what it has to be in the world.” As I was listening to Muldoon talk, I could not help thinking of the theological language we use in the church about the Virgin Mary. We call her the theotokos, the “God-bearer”. The poet is the person who bears the poem into the world. The theotokos is the one who bears God in the form of Jesus into the world. When Jesus talks about shepherd and sheep, might there be a way for us to think of the priestly shepherd in a new way--as a poet—and to think of us as his poems? Or might we be able to look at a priest and see her as someone giving birth to the divine life of the people entrusted to her care? Like the poet, like the Virgin Mary, the priest is one who helps bear the divine into the world, who does, in Muldoon’s words, “the very best by the [divine life] that is coming into the world through them; who allows, also in his words, each person “to become [himself or herself] through one, to do what [he or she] needs to do to be what [he or she] has to be in the world.” [Radio West, KUER, 9/18/08]
So suspend for a minute your image of the shepherd and the sheep and think instead of the priest as a poet or as a woman in childbirth, someone who is doing the very best by that thing or person coming into the world, someone whose job it is to let that person do what she needs to do to be who she has to be in the world. That, it seems to me, is what a priest really is: in one sense a shepherd, in another more of a poet or better yet a midwife. The job of the priest is to work, with us and with God, to bring to birth what God is doing in and through us. Now what do I mean by that?
What I mean by that is this: to the extent that we make the priest the focal point, the center of attention, of life in the church, then we are looking at the wrong thing. Jesus pointed not to himself but to his Father, to the One whose love and justice are at the center of the universe. In comparing himself to a shepherd, Jesus reminds us that the shepherd’s concern is not with himself or his own reputation, but rather with the sheep who are entrusted to his care. The poet, the midwife—these too are people concerned not so much with themselves but with the ones they are bringing to birth in the world. The priest’s job is not to proclaim himself. The priest’s job is to be a shepherd, a poet, a midwife of those in his charge. Her work is about letting her people become whom God is calling them to be.
Four hundred years ago, our greatest theologian, Richard Hooker, said two great things about the Christian life. First, he said, that the goal of every creature in the universe is to become the authentic, complete person whom God created them to be. Second, he said, that the ministry of every creature in the universe is to assist every other creature in becoming their authentic selves. In other words: as a human being, you have two obligations. One is to become the person God made you to be. The second is to assist other people in becoming themselves, too. So in the language we’ve been using to think about shepherds and sheep and poets and midwives and priests this morning, it is the role of the priest to gather a church community in such a way that the people in that gathered community move more fully into the their own authentic, unique realization as beloved human beings created in God’s image and at the same time learn to love each other and the world in such a way as they too live that sheperdly poetic midwifely vocation of assisting others become themselves, too. It is all of our vocations as human beings to live fully into the image of God in Jesus Christ which is our destiny. It is the vocation of the priest to help us do that.

When we think about things this way, it is easier now to come back to the image Jesus uses in today’s Gospel and get at what it is saying to Davies and to us as he steps forward into the priestly life:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. [John 10.14-15]

Jesus is our good shepherd. He knows us and we know him, just as he and the One he calls his Father know and love each other. Though we have only one good shepherd, Jesus, it is still the case that out of the sheeply likes of you and me we call people, like Davies, to step forward and dare to give their lives to the shepherdly work of knowing and loving us in such a way that we can come to bear what God is doing in each of us into the world. This is not, as you can imagine, easy work. It not only requires that you come to know and love people whom, in another life, you might not be able to stand. It also requires that you become, in a way, transparent. Being a priest is not about you. It is about Jesus and about bringing forth his image in the people entrusted to your care. A friend of mine once compared priesthood to walking around through life with your pockets full of rocks. At times it feels that way, but they’re the rocks that ground us and root us in the work which God and Jesus call us to do. We are not the light, but we are called to bear witness to the light. The light, as John the Baptist said, is coming into the world. And it is born into the world by the sheeply likes of you and me. And it is the priest’s shepherdly, midwifely, poet-like job to bring what God is doing in each and all of us to birth.
And so, Davies: You are, and will continue to be, an impressive person, and not only because your prayer life keeps the governor from falling off his motorcycle. You have great public and private skills. You are smart, you are entrepreneurial, you are compassionate, and you are deeply faithful. Yet as impressive a person as you are, that is not what your priesthood is about. Your call, as is the call of all of us in this order, is to be the vehicle by which your people will live out to completion what God is doing in and through their lives. You are called now to be a poet, a midwife, one who brings to birth the divine thing that God is doing in the world not so much in yourself now but in those entrusted to your care. Jesus is your good shepherd. To the extent that you know that good shepherd and that good shepherd knows you, you now will take your place among the company of those whose true calling is the bearing of God’s divine purposes into this beautiful yet broken world. And if you are as faithful in that as you have been in the journey which has brought you to this place, then God will give you grace to be a good shepherd, too. Amen.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Homily: Lauren McDonald Priesthood Ordination, Toano VA 8/23/08

In 1990 my wife Kathy and I went to see a Tom Hanks movie called Joe Versus the Volcano, and while I have forgotten the picture itself I remember two things about the experience. First, and most painfully, this was the first time in my life I was issued a senior ticket by the teenage vendor without being asked. I was 41 years old. The second thing I remember about Joe Versus the Volcano is this line screamed several times into a telephone by the actor Dan Hedaya: “I know he can GET the job but can he DO the job?” I don’t remember the plot, the situation, the context, or anything else about Joe Versus the Volcano. But I do remember the line, “I know he can GET the job but can he DO the job?” It has become a catch phrase in our family.
Now that’s an odd way of beginning an ordination sermon, especially for someone as able and accomplished as Lauren McDonald—a recent seminary graduate who actually HAS a job. I am not asking, “I know she can GET the job but can she DO the job?” about Lauren. Having known her as a student and seminary leader for three years, I’m convinced that there is not a job on the planet that Lauren McDonald can’t do. At the risk of turning this into a testimonial dinner oration, Lauren is smart, organized, compassionate, and deeply grounded in the faith. So I don’t ask that question about her. But I do ask it about some of the people who feel called to ordained ministry in the 21st century. It seems to me that many folks who present themselves for ordination these days are more concerned with BEING a priest than with DOING what the church needs them to do. And that is one of the reasons I am so enthusiastic about Lauren: though she may have left the theater behind, she is still deeply in touch with her internal stage manager. If you’ve ever seen Lauren in the midst of a project, surrounded by the people today’s Gospel calls “harassed and helpless”, striding purposefully and carrying a clipboard, you know the kind of organizational expertise I’m talking about. And, as much as she may have succeeded in developing other aspects of her personality, it is that particular “stage-manager” gift which is so needed by the church today. As William Sloane Coffin once said to me, “Anybody can preach. Blessed are those who can organize!”
Lauren can preach. She can also think, teach, preside, and pray. She’s the kind of person I would call up in a crisis or want to visit my sickbed. Her ministry is a gift to the church, and I’m grateful to her for answering God’s persistent nagging call to living the ordained life. Our ordination process is so obsessed with roadblocks that often we forget simply to say, “Thanks.” Thank you, Lauren, for offering yourself to a life of this work.
Now all of this comes to mind because of the readings Lauren has chosen for today. From the sixth chapter of Isaiah, God asks “‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’” And Isaiah answers, ‘Here am I; send me!’” From the ninth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus declares, “‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’” But especially from the fourth chapter of Ephesians (my personal favorite book of the Bible), the writer of that letter says this:

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. [Ephesians 4.7, 11-13]

The New English Bible puts it this way: Christ has given each believer “his due portion of Christ’s bounty.” And what that means is this twofold truth: the gifts that Christ gives us make us the unique people we are. And those gifts bind us together into one body. What the New English Bible calls “Christ’s bounty” therefore makes us both individually different and spiritually united. And if I understand priesthood at all, the author of Ephesians is asking that we think about all priests, and especially Lauren whom God is setting apart today, as stewards of that bounty. “I know she can GET the job but can she DO the job?” We know that God has called Lauren both to BEING a priest and to DOING the work of a priest. But as one final scriptural nudge before we seal the deal, let’s think together about what it means, for a priest, to be a steward of Christ’s bounty, to be a shepherd of unity and difference.

One of the things that make Ephesians such a beautiful book is that it is an extended meditation on Baptism and the church which Baptism creates. Over the past several decades, we have come to a renewed appreciation of Baptism and how it both binds us all together into one body and also gives us each a unique identity. A Baptismal vision would have us see Christian people as those who get our identity both from membership in the larger body of Christ and particularly as creatures precious in and of ourselves made in the image of God and transformed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Now when we think about priesthood, and what a priest DOES, the most important gift a priest can have in the 21st century is the ability to gather community—to be a steward of Christ’s bounty. That’s an essential gift not only because contemporary Western life is so alienating and lonely. Christianity always pushes against every culture it resides in, and the Gospel has some powerfully critical things to say about the way we have let contemporary culture and technology separate us from each other. But the priest needs to be able to gather community not only in response to contemporary society’s maladies. The priest gathers community because, simply, we cannot experience the fullness of God’s desires for us and our world without each other. As Anglicanism’s great theologian Richard Hooker put it, the ministry of every creature in the universe is to help every other creature realize its perfection, the end for which it was created. Christianity is not a cult where the guru takes on disciples who sit at his feet. Christianity is the living Body of Christ in the world. That’s not a metaphor; it’s an actual fact. You and I are Christ’s body in the world, and the priest is a woman or a man who can gather us and lead us into the kind of relationships in which we, as loved creatures, help each other realize our own completion or perfection. We all achieve what Ephesians calls “maturity” only with and through the company of each other. So the priest is not here to dispense ingenious nuggets of wisdom about the Bible. The priest is here to gather us in such a way that we will live and work and pray and study and celebrate together to the end that all of us help each other to live more fully into the image of God made known in Jesus. That is primarily what the priest is here to do. The priest is a steward of Christ’s bounty, a shepherd of our unity. This doesn’t mean that the priest makes us agree with each other about everything. (This is the Episcopal Church we’re talking about.) This means that the priest convenes a community of real human beings in which everyone is afforded place, a voice, and the dignity of service.
But that’s not the whole story. As a steward of Christ’s bounty, the priest is also a shepherd of difference. In the old Prayer Book service, the priest used to say, “Name this child” before the moment of Baptism. And I think that baptismal question gets at the other part of Christian identity. Because if Baptism and life in the church are about being part of a body, so they’re also about becoming the unique person God created you to be. Thomas Merton defined salvation as discovering your authentic self. If we live in a world which separates and alienates us, we also live in a world which continually impels us to adopt a false identity, a mask or persona with which we greet the world and about which we often become confused ourselves. If priesthood is about building community, it is also about aiding individual women and children and men in the process of authentic self-discovery. If we believe, as we say we do, that God made each of us in God’s image, and if we believe, as we say we do, that in the Incarnation God became one of us in Jesus Christ, then that means that each precious human child of God has some truth to tell us and the world that is uniquely hers or his to tell. So part of what we mean when we talk about ministry as “pastoral” I believe has to do with this ongoing discovery of learning and claiming who you are as a creature of God and what God is doing uniquely and unrepeatably in and through your life now. We send priests to seminary not so they’ll learn the company line about what to say or do in every imaginable situation. We send them to seminary so that they can begin a lifelong process of discovering their own authentic selves, their own authentic faith, so that they can know and claim God’s activity in their own lives and so be a trustworthy guide to the rest of us. A priest is a steward of Christ’s bounty, a shepherd of unity and difference. I only have something to tell you if I truly know who I am. And I only have something to learn from you if you truly know who you are.
This process of mutual self-discovery and self-disclosure that we’re in is the work of the church, and it is the most important thing we have to offer each other and the world. It is too important, as a friend of mine used to say, “to politely fool around.” Real Christian communities and real Christian people talk and think and pray about hard and sometimes unpleasant things. God is up to something in us as a people, and God is up to something in each of us as individual human beings. And for some unfathomable but gracious reason, Lauren McDonald has consented to place herself, as an agent of God’s blessing and grace, right in the middle of all that.

These days it’s commonplace for me to get a senior ticket at the movies, even without asking. I’ve been a priest for 30+ years, and I may look older than I am, but it’s a fact that at many of the ordinations I come to, the ordinand is older than I am. Happily, Lauren is part of a reversal of that trend, and she is starting on this priestly journey now with a good stretch of working life before her. I have no idea what the Episcopal Church will look like institutionally 30 or 20, or even 10 years down the road, and I have no idea what kinds of ministries Lauren will be called to live into as the church evolves. Ordination these days is a “passport to adventure.” And it is into the life of this adventure that Lauren has given herself and is being ordained this morning.
And so, Lauren: God has called you to be a priest, a steward of Christ’s bounty, a shepherd of unity and difference. You have answered that call, and now you take your next steps as a shepherd. You’ve seen sheep, and you know that getting them to do anything together is always a challenging assignment. We sheep are not the easiest creatures to work with in groups, and individually we’re not much better. How many sheep can you think of who actually look at their lives in deeply prayerful reflection? Nevertheless, it is into this life and work of stewardship and gathering and of self-discovery and self-disclosure that you have been called. You have the faith, the skill, the intelligence, and most importantly, the compassion to do the work God has called you to do. May you always, surrounded by the harassed and helpless likes of us Christian sheep, continue to display the shepherdly leadership that is deeply ingrained in your spirit. And may you continue that process of self-discovery which will make you a trustworthy guide to the faithful, and which you exemplified when you responded to God’s prompting by saying, “Here am I, send me.” Amen.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Remarks: Seabury's 150th Anniversary [May 15, 2008]

My favorite speech in all of Shakespeare is one that very few people have ever heard. It comes at the end of the "The Two Noble Kinsmen", the last play that William Shakespeare had a hand in writing. It is very probably the last thing he ever wrote to be said on a stage. This speech is given by Theseus, the Duke of Athens. As he addresses the gods whose inscrutable will has been worked out over the course of the play’s events, Theseus steps forward and says this:

O you heavenly Charmers,
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have, are sorry: still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question. Let's go off,
And bear us like the time.

To paraphrase: Calling the gods “heavenly Charmers”, Theseus laughs at the myriad ironies of life. What things the gods make of us! We laugh about the things we don’t have, we take for granted and regret the things we do. All of us always are in some respect children.
And then he prays for three things. First, for grace to “be thankful/For that which is”; second, for wisdom to leave off disputing things “that are above our question”; and third, for courage to “go off,/And bear us like the time.” In some sense, this speech, more than any other in Shakespeare, is a true valedictory to his career in the stage. As we gather together on a night which celebrates 150 years of history and looks forward to an uncertain future, what might Theseus’ entreaty to the gods have to say to you and me?
First, “Let us be thankful/For that which is.” As a community of faith, learning, witness, fellowship, and ministry Seabury has served the Episcopal Church for 150 years with a constant commitment to excellence, faithfulness, and compassion. There are so many profound ways in which this is a wonderful place: a seminary which educates men and women for the church’s ministries, a supportive collegial atmosphere for faculty and staff to work in, a residential community for seminarians, spouses, children, and partners. These hundred and fifty years have provided countless occasions for grace and blessing, and the seminary’s time in Evanston has provided a setting of incomparable natural and architectural beauty. Whatever comes next, we have been given this gift of what we have had. “Let us be thankful/For that which is.”
Theseus’s second prayer is for grace to leave off disputing things “That are above our question.” That the currents of history and economics, the change forces in both education and the church, have brought residential theological education to the crisis point it occupies in our church right now is a cause in many quarters for consternation and grief. All of us who were educated in this residential educational model value it dearly, but let’s remember that it’s only 150 years old. Jesus never went to seminary, nor did any of the great Christian leaders in the earliest centuries of our church. The model of education we prepare to leave behind is a construction of 19th century ideas responding to 19th century realities. Leaving it behind is like saying goodbye to the vision of the church portrayed by Anthony Trollope in Barchester Towers. Beautiful as it is, this nineteenth century model no longer speaks effectively to current realities.
We must all resist the temptation to assign credit or blame. We are standing at the confluence of forces bigger than we are. Our job is less to explain them than it is to respond creatively and faithfully to them. Let us leave off disputing things “That are above our question” and instead be about the work that God is calling us to do.
And that, I think, is what Shakespeare means by Theseus’s third entreaty, for courage to “go off,/And bear us like the time.” What does it mean to “bear us like the time?” It means being alive in and responsive to the challenges and gifts of the present moment. We are, together, the custodians of a glorious and noble history. We are the stewards of that history, being asked right now to help envision what it might look like to live it out in the years ahead. But, right now, we are being asked to “bear us like the time.” We stand in both grief and glory. We weep at the loss of a way of being together in this place and in the dispersal of a community which has meant so much to so many. And we glory in the possibilities of responding to God’s call to live and love and organize ourselves for mission in ways we haven’t even imagined yet. There is no way to stand in both of those realities but fully to be present to them. Let us go “off/And bear us like the time.”
As we express our thanks for 150 years of ministry, education, and witness, let us together pray Thesus’s prayer: for grace to “be thankful/For that which is”; for wisdom to leave off disputing things “that are above our question”; and for courage to “go off,/And bear us like the time.” If we are faithful in being present to the gifts and challenges of the present moment, the God in whose name we gather will give us grace, wisdom, and courage to transform the blessings of our common past into the emerging glory of God’s promised future—not only for ourselves or Seabury or the church, but for all God’s creatures in this beautiful yet broken world.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Homily: St. John/Seabury Awards Night [May 9, 2008]

Last Sunday I went to church at All Saints, Pasadena, and heard Wilma Jakobsen tell the following Zen story from the pulpit:

One day, while walking through the wilderness, a man encountered a vicious tiger. He ran for his life, and the tiger gave chase. The man came to the edge of a cliff, and the tiger was almost upon him. Having no choice, he held on to a vine with both hands and climbed down.
Halfway down the cliff, the man looked up and saw the tiger at the top, baring its fangs. He looked down and saw another tiger at the bottom, waiting for his arrival and roaring at him. He was caught between the two.
Two rats, one white and one black, showed up on the vine above him. As if he didn't have enough to worry about, they started gnawing on the vine.
He knew that as the rats kept gnawing, they would reach a point when the vine would no longer be able to support his weight. It would break and he would fall. He tried to shoo the rats away, but they kept coming back.
At that moment, he noticed a strawberry growing on the face of the cliff, not far away from him. It looked plump and ripe. Holding onto the vine with one hand and reaching out with the other, he plucked it.
With a tiger above, another below, and two rats continuing to gnaw on his vine, the man tasted the strawberry and found it absolutely delicious.

According to the Zen masters who interpret this story, every element in it is symbolic. The tiger at the top represents the past: try as you might like to, you can’t go back and redo or undo what you’ve done. The tiger at the bottom represents the future: all the dangers and possibilities that lie ahead of you are unfathomable. The vine represents life in the material world, and the rats who gnaw at it represent the passage of time: the repeating cycles of day and night weaken us and bring us closer to death. Do what we might to avoid doing so, we all will ultimately have to face the tiger awaiting us down below.
And then there’s that strawberry. As one commentator puts it, “The strawberry represents the astounding beauty, bliss, energy and vitality of the present moment. It is always there, always available for those who have the ability to see it and experience it.”
This is, of course, a story about living in the present moment. Most of us live somewhere else. We live in the past, endlessly revisiting things we cannot change. We live in the future, worrying about things we cannot control. We fail to reach for the strawberry either because we’re clinging desperately to material life or because we are so preoccupied with the tigers and rats that we have lost our appetite for life. But the wisdom of this story suggests that the grace and abundance of reality are always available to us if we can keep ourselves focused on and present to what’s actually around us in the here and now.
Now before you go write your bishop that the dean was telling pagan stories in the chapel on Awards Night, I would remind you that tonight we are also nearing the end of the Great Fifty Days of Easter, and that, in particular, we are still in what Karl Barth called “the significant pause” between Ascension and Pentecost. In the logic of our liturgical calendar, Jesus has ascended to heaven but the Spirit has not yet come. We live, as a praying Christian community, between the already and the not yet. We are like the man on the vine hanging between the two tigers. The Ascension has already happened. Jesus is gone. We are alone in the world. He has told us we won’t be left on our own, but we live only on that promise. Pentecost is coming, but it hasn’t yet arrived. We are out there hanging, left somewhere between promise and fulfillment.
A Zen master might say that our life is always perched somewhere between past and future. As a Christian, I’d put it this way: our life in this world is always situated between Ascension and Pentecost, in transit between the promise and its fulfillment. Jesus has told us that the Comforter will come, but she’s not here yet. To be a person of Biblical faith is always to be someone who is waiting on God to fulfill God’s promises. And as we do that we have two choices. We can choose to believe the promise and organize our lives around it. Or we can decide to doubt the promise and try to find some alternative way to make our way through life. Choosing to believe exposes us to risk. Deciding to doubt makes one cling to the past.
Now when I talk about belief and doubt, I don’t use those terms in quite the way our larger culture does. At least to me, to be a Christian person does not mean that you have literally to subscribe to a confessional faith statement about the literal veracity of credal and biblical propositions. (Now you can start calling your bishops.) And to have doubts about any or all of it has always been a viable faith option, especially for us Episcopalians. So I don’t mean to equate belief with credulity and doubt with skepticism. For me, the tension between belief and doubt has more to do with the contrasting life options of action and resignation.
A believing person commits her or his life to the proposition that Jesus and God are trustworthy. A doubting person is not quite ready to do so. In this “mean time” which we all inhabit, the believing person acts as if the Spirit has already come. The doubter hedges his bets and looks for cover. Because she knows she is ultimately secure, the believer is able to take on the pains and burdens of all God’s creatures. Because he’s worried about his ultimate safety, the doubter never quite makes it out of the house. And again, I’ve met rationalistic skeptics who lived like believers and orthodox Trinitarians who were moral and political cowards. So this is not about what you think. It’s about whom you trust. The real sheep/goat question in Christianity, then, has to do with how you live in this significant pause between Ascension and Pentecost. Are you going to live in the present as if Pentecost has already come, or are you going always to look distractedly with one eye toward the past with nostalgia and the other toward the future with anxiety?
And this is where tonight’s Gospel becomes relevant. Peter complains to Jesus about the unfairness of the two destinies of himself and the Beloved Disciple. Why do I have to die and he doesn’t? When Jesus says to Peter, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me," he is summing up the Ascension-Pentecost Gospel in its simplest terms. What do you care about the past or the future? What matters is your faithfulness in the present moment. Follow me!
Tonight is our annual Awards Night, and we might think of it as a way-station on the journey between the twin tigers of matriculation and graduation. (Who the rats signify in your own ecclesiastical process I’ll leave it up for you to decide.) You can’t go back and be the person you were before this whole process began. You don’t know where your life and vocation are going to take you. But you do have within your reach the strawberry of the present moment. All of us hang somewhere on that cliffhanging vine, and all of us stand, at least metaphorically, somewhere between Ascension and Pentecost. God has promised us something greater that we can quite imagine or understand, but it’s not quite real for us yet. Are we going to live into that promise and act as Jesus would act in the circumstances we face? Or are we going to run for some kind of personal and philosophical cover? Are we going to live in the present moment and grasp the strawberry of Gospel life? Or will we cling to a vine which is unraveling even as we speak? That is the question this Zen story, this Gospel, and this liturgical moment ask of us and we can only answer it in the terms on which Jesus poses it, not really as question but command: “Follow me.”
All of us live our lives between the past and the future, nostalgia and hope, promise and fulfillment. The Bible is our sacred book because it makes the case that God is trustworthy. Those of us who gather around this table have been called into a community of people who have heard those promises and have staked our lives on the reality that they will be fulfilled. None of us knows what awaits us, but we do know that we can never go back. The here and now, the present moment, the actual circumstances of our life and world–these are the gifts that God has given us to await the Spirit’s coming. Reality is all there is, and it is enough. Forget about those tigers and rats. Eat the strawberry. In doing so you’ll find that what you hope for and stake your life on, even now, is coming to be. Amen.