Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Homily: Absalom Jones

Now that we Halls have a digital video recorder, I’m finally able at this late stage in clerical life to watch the Sunday morning news programs—the group of pundits whom Calvin Trillin once dubbed “Sabbath Gasbags.” This past Sunday, on Meet the Press, a distinguished group of Sabbath Gasbags passed the time dissecting the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and one of them quoted a line from Eleanor Roosevelt’s autobiography that I had never heard before: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." [“This is My Story”, 1937] Eleanor Roosevelt is one of my heroes—if you ever have the chance, visit her recently restored home at Val-Kill in Hyde Park, New York--and any account you read of her life involves the myriad ways in which she struggled to overcome the shyness and insecurity she developed as a result of her mother’s harsh criticism of her looks and comportment. (As a young girl, Eleanor’s mother Anna called Eleanor “granny” because she lacked the physical grace which Anna herself was known for.) One of the many things Eleanor Roosevelt exemplified over the course of her life was the ability to claim her own agency. You may think me inferior, she said, but I don’t actually become inferior until I consent to your opinion.
This quotation started me thinking about a lot of things, especially as I have tried to make my way through the public reactions to all of Seabury’s announcements last week. Most of the responses I’ve gotten have been both personally and institutionally supportive. Most people in the church –most rational people in the church--understand that all of our institutions—from dioceses and congregations to camps and chaplaincies and even seminaries will need to change dramatically if we wish to adapt to the changing social and economic realities of the 21st century. But there are a few voices—either rigid ideologues or those wedded to the “traditional” way of doing things—which have emerged calling Seabury’s decisions admissions of some kind of institutional or theological failure. It’s when I begin to internalize that critique that I find Eleanor Roosevelt’s words so helpful: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Or, as a former colleague of mine used to pray, “let us never become agents of our own oppression.” Their story about me doesn’t become my story until I buy it myself.
It seems to me that it’s in the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt’s musings on how we collaborate in our own oppression that we read the Gospel we have heard this morning as we, together, commemorate Absalom Jones:

I do not call you slaves any longer, because the slave does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.—John 15.15

When we commemorate Absalom Jones, we usually remind ourselves that he was the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church. But the more you read about Jones (and about his friend and colleague, Richard Allen) the more you see that what distinguished Absalom Jones was his refusal to be an agent of his own oppression. When the members of Philadelphia’s St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church decided that the black parishioners should sit in the balcony, Jones and Allen walked out—Jones to become an Episcopalian, Allen to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Absalom Jones went on to have a distinguished ministry in the Episcopal Church, and his day has become a focusing point for all of us to reflect on our church’s institutional racism, still alive and well almost two hundred years after Jones’s death. But today I would like us to think about Jones in the light of what Jesus and Eleanor Roosevelt have to say to us about our complicity in our own oppression. “I do not call you slaves any longer . . . but I have called you friends.” "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Whether you hear these words through the filter of your social location, your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, your body image, or your job, the witness of Absalom Jones has something radical and life-giving to say to you.
There is something in us as human beings that makes us want to define ourselves by means of arbitrary categories which we ourselves invent. In the Bible, this tendency reveals itself in the use of words like “pagans” or “nations”—from the latter of which we get the word “ethnic.” The first big controversy in Christianity, after all, was whether your ethnicity, your belonging to a human category, had any ultimate meaning for your status in the church. Once we could say that neither Jew nor Greek, circumcised or uncircumcised mattered, we had articulated a fundamental Christian truth. All categories—racial, sexual, ethnic, national—are meaningless in the face of our fundamental human identity as creatures made in God’s image and drawn into God’s divine life in the Incarnation. Because we are cussed, ornery, sinful folk we will continue to try to define our sense of belonging more narrowly than God defines it. But the basic Christian facts are incontrovertible. God does not think in categories. Only we do.
And if we were to stop there we would have said a good deal of the truth, but not all of it. Because Absalom Jones realized that his racial identity was not the final word about him, but he realized something else, too. He realized that his racial identity could be used as a tool of his oppression only if he consented. We remember and give thanks for Absalom Jones, then, because he graciously and courageously said, “No.” He refused to consent to feeling inferior. He refused to become complicit in his own oppression. To use Jesus’s language, he ceased being a “slave” in a literal or metaphorical sense of that word because he stepped out of the cycle of abuse. By refusing to consent to a limiting and soul-destroying version of who he was, Absalom Jones claimed his status not as a slave of Jesus but as his friend. And that, I believe, is what our Baptismal Covenant means when it talks of seeing “Christ in all persons” and respecting “the dignity of every human being.”
Christianity is about many things, but perhaps chief among them for us this morning is its continuing proclamation that God takes us seriously. God created us in God’s own image. God has become one of us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are not God’s slaves. We are God’s friends. That means, at least, this: God does not consent to our oppression or to our inferiority. Our oppression and our so-called inferiority become our identity only when we consent to them. We have examples—Absalom Jones and Eleanor Roosevelt, Jesus himself—of those who have refused to let their oppressors write their story. And their examples are a witness to us for our way forward as women and men trying to make sense of our own lives and vocations in changing and stressful but also potentially freeing times.
“I do not call you slaves any longer . . . but I have called you friends.” "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Let us give thanks that God takes us seriously enough to have called us to take on and live out our own agency. And let us commit ourselves to being agents of liberation and wholeness and grace not only for us but also in the lives of those whom God would empower to shake off others’ oppressive definitions of them, too. Amen.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Homily: Tuesday in the Second Week of Lent

Several years ago, Kathy and our son Oliver and I drove with Kathy’s sister and brother-in-law from Toledo to their vacation cottage in northern Michigan. Because we wanted to be ecologically responsible, we all went together in one car—some kind of small two-door Chevy. Kathy, Oliver, and I sat in the back seat. Roger, Kathy’s brother-in-law, drove. Betty, Kathy’s sister, sat in the shotgun seat.
Now the seating plan was uneventful, but listen to what we had with us. Each person had a suitcase. They had gone to the market in Toledo and bought groceries for our time up at the lake. So the trunk was full of luggage, and every person in the back seat had a bag of groceries on their lap. Then Betty decided that because it was hot we’d need an extra fan, so as she was the last person to cram herself into the vehicle, she pulled a large, rotating fan on top of her lap. We were, as you can imagine, rather full.
Now the problem driving five people up I-75 for five hours is that, at least two or three times, someone will need to stop and go to the bathroom. So just picture what it meant for us to pull up to a rest stop, loaded like the Joads on their way to California in The Grapes of Wrath, hand all the stuff out of the car, clamber out, go to the washrooms, and then reinsert yourself surgically back into the vehicle. It was neither a pleasant nor a pretty process.
We did this a couple of times, and then the third time (quite near our destination, actually) we got to a sylvan, wooded rest stop and went through our usual car-extrication routine. As I wandered around the rest stop parking lot talking to myself and swearing never to take a trip like this again, I saw a couple who looked at that moment to me like Adam and Eve, the unfallen vision of what we were trying to do. They were a young man and woman in their early 20s, and they spoke German. They wore t-shirts, shorts, and sandals. They drove a very small rented car. In the back seat they had a small pop tent and some sleeping bags. They carried two small daypacks. They were not encumbered with bags from Kroger, American Tourister luggage, or rotating electric fans. They seemed to me, in that moment, the perfect image of freedom. Unlike Huckleberry Finn, I resisted the temptation to join them and light out for the territory. And so I dutifully climbed back into the rolling hell of my own and my family’s making and saved my dreams for another day.
I thought about that young couple when I began to reflect on Jesus’s teaching about the scribes and Pharisees. Although I know that the heavy burdens are a sermon illustration and the real point of the message is hypocrisy, I find, in our school’s present situation, something appealing in Jesus’s language today:

‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.’—Matthew 23.2-4

Now I’m not talking about Pharasaical hypocrisy here. I’m merely talking about heavy burdens. And as I think about the range of emotions I feel about Seabury and its future, they run from grief (I too am a product of a seminary experience configured very much like this one) to relief (at last we are being forced to try something new). For the past several decades, the autonomous seminaries of the Episcopal Church have been trying to juggle several contemporaneous realities: a shrinking pool of applicants, rising expenses, expanding programmatic expectations, declining resources in the hands of bishops, dioceses, and congregations. We have tried to do business as usual in a rapidly changing environment, and the logic of those changes has finally caught up with us. Whatever else we know, we know this: the church does not need and cannot support us in our current form. The question, of course, is this: what does the church need, and what can it support? I believe that Seabury has a future, but if it is a creative and faithful one it will look less like the overburdened family car full of people and luggage and food and more like the young German couple in their sandals and shorts. We will only survive if we are lighter, leaner, more collaborative. We will only thrive if we see this as a blessing rather than a curse.
It would be injudicious of me to compare the Episcopal Church to scribes and Pharisees, so please don’t call your bishops and tell them I did; but it does seem to me that the institutional church has laid on all of us seminaries burdens which it is not itself willing to help us bear. The church has fewer students and no money with which to support us, and yet it it continues to demand that we behave in certain historical institutional ways—doing the Middler ordinations, administering the GOEs, to name only two of the onerous burdens of running a joint like this. I believe that within the current moment of crisis there lies a great opportunity. We will be different than what we historically have been, but we will also be free. In ceasing to carry around an unsustainable superstructure on our backs, we will be free to adapt and respond to the deep needs of the world and the radical changes even now taking place in the church. We will no longer be what we have been. But the needs of the church and the world call now for a radically new and visionary way of educating women and men and entirefaith communities for what it means to live into the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Letting go of those burdens has set us free, I believe, to do that.
Of course I realize that there is a human side to all this. Both my parents were leaders in their labor unions, and I know enough about the history of the 20th century to know that when we get Romantic about the big economic picture we lose sight of the consequences for flesh-and-blood human beings. I know that people’s livelihoods and careers are at stake, and I know that many students have relocated here at great personal cost. So please do not mistake my enthusiasm for na├»ve optimism. I will do everything I can as the leader of this community to make this transition compassionate and just and equitable, and I am committed to making these decisions collaboratively. To do less would be to break faith with the One in whose name we, and the church which created us, gathers.
Let’s remember that Jesus and his companions never went to seminary. These gothic buildings can delude us: the particular form of the way we do this is only a couple of hundred years old. The church’s sense of what it wants in its leaders and how it wants them to be educated is always evolving. But that sense is always radically centered in Jesus and his ministry of hope, liberation, compassion, and even abundance in the midst of what looks like deprivation.
We come now to the Eucharist. In spite of anything else I might have to say about all this, what we have, finally, is this meal together. Whatever all this means for us individually and collectively, the Eucharist tells us two specific and trustworthy things: first, that God has fed, does now feed, and will continue to feed us; second, that we are all in this together. For that nurture and for that community, let us proceed in this common meal, to give thanks. Amen

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Homily: Thursday in the First Week of Lent

Today is Valentine’s Day (sorry if I’m the one to remind you this late in the day!), and as far as we can determine, the day takes its name from not one but two or possibly three second century Valentines—one a priest in Rome, another the bishop of Terni, the third a a mystery man in Africa. All three were martyrs. In the late fifth century, Pope Gelasius I put St. Valentine’s Day on the church calendar at February 14, hoping to “Christianize” the Roman fertility festival known as Lupercalia. In the courtly love days of the Middle Ages, the poets and troubadours associated St. Valentine’s Day with the growing cult of romantic love. Modern American consumerist culture has of course turned it into what we in my family call a “greeting card holiday.” I know this dry historical summary won’t do much to warm the heart of your main squeeze, but it will at least help explain why I won’t utter another word about St. Valentine, his day, candy, flowers, or greeting cards during the remainder of this homily.
Our Gospel this morning is one of the more familiar and more troubling of Jesus’s sayings in the Sermon on the Mount:

‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.’ [Mark 7.7-8]

If you’ve ever spent any time as a parish priest, as I have, you will no doubt recall the numerous conversations you’ve had with people about this passage. In one context, the question comes this way: Does that mean, Reverend, that God will give me anything I ask for—a new car, a better job, a trophy spouse? In another context, the question sounds like this: tell me, Father—will God cure my cancer, heal my marriage, save my child? As a preacher, it is tempting to take the most base and selfish spin on this passage and preach mightily against it when, of course, the Palestinian Jewish peasants to whom Jesus spoke in this sermon had survival rather than luxury vehicles on their minds.
So let’s be clear: Jesus has created a problem for us preachers. Like Hillary Clinton promising to win Ohio and Texas, Jesus has put us on the spot. He has promised that God will give us what we ask for. So how come, Reverend Father preacher, I keep asking for things that I never get?
When we pose the questions of prayer and the way God hears and answers it, today’s reading from the Book of Esther provides us with some grounding and orientation. Listen again to how the book describes her preparation to pray on behalf of her people:

[Queen Esther] took off her splendid apparel and put on the garments of distress and mourning, and instead of costly perfumes she covered her head with ashes and dung, and she utterly humbled her body; every part that she loved to adorn she covered with her tangled hair. [Esther 14.2]

This is a striking beginning to a powerful prayer. As the Jewish Queen to the Persian king, Ahasuerus Esther was alarmed at the counselor Haman’s plan to destroy all the Jews in the Persian Empire. Eventually, Ahasuerus relented and allowed the Jews to take vengeance on their enemies, Haman famously included. The Jewish festival of Purim celebrates this deliverance of the Jews from those who would destroy them. Now if you know your Bible, you know that it was Esther herself who persuaded her husband, Ahasuerus to abandon Haman’s plan. But our passage for today shows her asking God to “turn their plan against them.” So before she herself could act, Esther approached God in all humility asking for guidance and insight and, of course, justice.
Now what interests me about this passage is this prefatory bit I just read to you. Before she prayed, Esther “took off her splendid apparel and put on the garments of distress and mourning”, she “utterly humbled her body”. Esther did not approach God as a Persian queen nor even as a Jewish princess. She approached God as someone in distress and mourning, devoid of all the outward symbols of power, beauty, and wealth.
This is a very important and powerful moment, I believe, in the history of what the Bible tells us about prayer. By taking off her royal robes and clothing herself in the garb of mourning, Esther approached God not from a position of power but from one of weakness. Or, to put it another way, she approached God as one of her vulnerable people, as someone with something to lose. Esther came to God in solidarity with those who are at risk, who suffer, who mourn. Esther came to God as someone who knew herself to be finite and fragile and frail.
And if you know even a bit about how God deals with human beings in the scriptures, you’ll see that what Esther does is consistent with the style of prayer adopted by Job, by the speakers in the Psalms of lament, even the style used by Jesus himself. Esther dressed as, stood with, those who are up against it. She approached God as someone who, as Jesus says elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, “knew her need of God.” Esther acknowledged herself as a dependent, limited person whose vulnerability placed her in community with the fellowship of the rest of the world’s vulnerable people. And it was when she adopted that posture, as Job and Jesus did, that God attended to her prayer.
This helps me, at least, to see what Jesus might be up to in promising on God’s behalf an answer to all our prayers. If the Sermon on the Mount is an extended commentary on the line that opens it—“Blessed are the poor”—then what Jesus seems to be saying is this: insofar as we stand with and for those who know their need of God—the poor, the sick, the mourners, the oppressed, the prisoners—insofar as we stand with them then we know our own real situation. And our real situation is that we have more authentically in common with life’s so-called losers than we do with the so-called winners. When we stand with and for those who are up against it, we are in a posture out of which God can hear where we’re saying. When we stand with them we articulate our real, not our fake, needs. We ask for healing, for justice, for love, for pardon, for help. When we speak that way we are being authentic. When we speak that way God hears us and answers, usually in unforeseen and surprising way, our cries.
And this is what Lent is really about. It’s about paring away the fake and the worthless and the overblown garments with which we usually clothe ourselves and, like Esther and Jesus and Job, putting on the garments of those who suffer. When we let go of the false and speak out of deep solidarity with the poor, we are speaking the truth about ourselves and about God. Lent is a season of ashes and mourning not because of some sentimental fantasy about piety but about getting real with ourselves and with God. If, like Esther, we can use these forty days to see ourselves as we are, and to speak to God out of that reality, then God will answer and open and lead us toward the new life we see now even dimly before us the dawn of Easter approaches. Amen.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Homily: Martyrs of Japan

Today is Tuesday, February 5 (just a friendly reminder for those of you who, this early in the semester, are sleep deprived) and February 5 means different things depending on whose calendar you’re looking at. For most of the United States, today is “Super Tuesday”, the day on which one of the presumptive nominees in each major political party will attempt to knock out the competition in the perfect storm of primaries which aggregates today. For the residents of New Orleans and Rio de Janiero, today is either “Mardi Gras” or “Carnival”, a day on which you dress up in festive clothes, parade around to festive music, drink a lot, and generally behave like an idiot. For most Episcopalians, today is “Shrove Tuesday”, a day on which the men of the parish will ceremonially don aprons and wield spatulas, serving up dreadfully overcooked sausages and rubbery pancakes as a prequel to our Lenten observance. I don’t know about you, but most Shrove Tuesday dinners make me want to abstain from eating entirely and forever.
And for those of us observing a more finely-tuned liturgical calendar, today is the day when we remember the Martyrs of Japan, 6 Franciscan friars and 20 of their converts who were crucified on this day in 1597. However you understand the cross-cultural missionary enterprise of the early modern era, such a loss still has the power to move and to shock. And because this is the day before we begin whatever Lenten observance we have figured out for ourselves, the Gospel for today serves both to honor the Martyrs of Japan and to remind us of what it is we’re (individually and together) headed for:

"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” [Mark 8]

We are, metaphorically, perched on the verge of Lent. And Jesus’s strong insistence on the way of the cross as the way of life is, for us first-world privileged Christians, profoundly counter-cultural. The message our culture sends us is a message of grasping after something: you preserve your life by beating out the other guy. For Jesus and his followers, you preserve your life by what the theologian Sallie McFague calls “cruciform living.”
This last weekend I participated in a retreat on environmental theology. The focus of the retreat was twofold: for the first part we tried to understand how Christians might properly understand the theological meaning of nature. For the second we asked the harder question, a version of the one persistently posed by Aristotle: “How, then, shall we live?” . One of the readings we discussed in the second part was a selection from Sallie McFague’s book, Life Abundant. Here is what she says:

We cannot, in good conscience “love the world”–its snowcapped mountains and panda bears–while at the same time destroying it and allowing our less well- off sisters and brothers to sink into deeper poverty. Hence, I believe Christian discipleship for twenty-first-century North American Christians means “cruciform living,” an alternative notion of the abundant life, which will involve a philosophy of “enoughness,” limitations on energy use, and sacrifice for the
sake of others. For us privileged Christians a “cross-shaped life” will not be primarily what Christ does for us, but what we can do for others.” [McFague, Life Abundant, p. 14]

A philosophy of “enoughness”, though, is a hard bargain for the likes of you and me. Speaking only for myself, with relation to things I am like a morbidly obese person who no longer know when he is full. I do not have trustworthy judgment when it comes to knowing how much is enough. And I’m a person who reads the Bible and goes to church every day. So if we Christians don’t ever quite know what “enough” is, imagine how hard it is for the others in our culture who have been led to believe that one is satisfied only when one is stuffed.
So one thing our Gospel suggests at least to me on the verge of Lent is a Lenten practice of what Sallie McFague calls “enoughness.” Can I live even for 40 days trying to regain a trustworthy sense of what is enough–enough food, enough money, enough energy use, enough books and cd’s and the like? One sense in which the cross speaks to us on Shrove Tuesday is the sense of “enoughness.” Jesus lived an abundant life in the midst of deprivation, and he called others to share that life. “Cruciform living” means living in such a generosity of spirit and practice that allows the underlying abundance of God’s creation to shine through. This is one way in which the cross speaks to us perched on the verge of Lent.
But there is another. For the retreat we also read a brilliant and hopeful and disturbing essay by Rebecca Solnit from the July, 2007 issue of Harper’s magazine called “Detroit Arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape.” Solnit’s article describes both the industrial deterioration of Detroit and the surprising rebirth of local agriculture in the vacant blocks of open land left by the razed and burn-out buildings. Here is one of the more provocative things she observes as she watches the painful but inspiring new life which follows economic devastation:
The free-range chickens and Priuses are great, but they alone aren’t adequate tools for creating a truly different society and ecology. The future, at least the sustainable one, the one in which we will survive, isn’t going to be invented by people who are happily surrendering selective bits and pieces of environmentally unsound privilege. It’s going to be made by those who had all that taken away from them or never had it in the first place. [Harper’s, July 2007, p. 73]

In other words, if we’re really talking about “cruciform living,” then as a friend of mine observed at this weekend, “something has to die” before this rebirth can begin. That something is obviously the exploitive consumerist fantasy in which all of us seem to live and move and have our being. Detroit is coming to life precisely because it exhibits what Rebecca Solnit calls “the first signs of an unsettling of the very premises of colonial expansion.” [p.73] We cannot live out the logic of the cross only by “happily surrendering slective bits and pieces of environmentally unsound privilege.” So our Lenten cruciform observance must point us both to self-denial and to advocacy. Only as Christians witness, as individuals and as a community, to a truly communitarian and abundant way of living can we be truly said to be walking the way of the cross.
Which means, among other things, that rightly understood, Super Tuesday is as much a Christian observance as Shrove Tuesday, even as holy as the Feast of the Martyrs of Japan. How you vote (and not just that you vote) is as important as what you give up over these next forty days and beyond. May the One who walked with the Franciscans in Japan in the 16th century in their martyrdom walk with us in America now in our strivings toward “cruciform living,” that God’s world and the creatures who inhabit it may know life abundant as well. Amen.