Monday, March 31, 2008

Homily: John Donne [March 31, 2008]

Although I believe deeply in the Resurrection, most of the Easter sermons I have heard over the course of a lifetime in the church fail to convince me of much of anything. And I think they fail because, frankly, preachers are most comfortable talking about the Resurrection as an abstraction. They quail in the face of discussing risen life in its particulars. This is strange, because, as John Dominic Crossan reminds us, the Resurrection of Jesus was about something particular. As he so ably puts it, the Resurrection of Jesus was God’s “In your face, Caesar!” in response to a political execution. In raising Jesus, God did not act in some sort of “returning Spring nature renewal hopping bunny and budding flower” affirmation of a vague and general “new life”. In raising Jesus God raised some particular One–Jesus of Nazareth, a human being who made community with other human beings, whose life gave the lie to Empire and all its pretensions.
So when we come back together after Easter Week and Spring Break, the questions which dogged us during Lent have not evaporated with our celebration of Easter. Empires–Rome and its pretensions in the 1st century, America and its pretensions in the 21st–continue to perplex. In raising Jesus, God has said “In your face, Caesar!” to all human assertions of power, even ecclesiastical ones. What does that kind of understanding of Easter have to say to you and me? And what on earth might it have to do with the great 17th century priest, poet, and preacher John Donne, whom we remember today?
I started thinking about John Dominic Crossan’s understanding of Jesus as I reflected yesterday on this morning’s Gospel. You may remember that Crossan talks a lot in his scholarship about the sociology of the early Christian community which gathered around Jesus, and his term for the economic group from which Jesus came is the “artisanal class”. As a carpenter, Jesus was not exactly a peasant, but he wasn’t a master craftsman, either. He was more like a skilled laborer–someone who has pretty much disappeared from today’s first-world economy. In his day Jesus would have served an apprenticeship either with his father or in the shop of another skilled laborer. So it is very interesting, in that light, to hear Jesus say this about his relationship with God:

Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. –John 5.19-20

In this passage, Jesus uses the language of apprenticeship to connect his own work with the work of his Father: of all the many figures we might use to describe Jesus’s life, the best is to see it as like an apprenticeship in a carpenter’s shop. Jesus has worked along side his Father as he has gone about spreading light in darkness, healing amid sickness, justice and mercy among the oppressed and aggrieved. He can claim to speak for God, then, because he has spent his life doing “what he sees the Father doing.” Jesus’s life has been an apprenticeship in godliness. He and the Father have been working side by side from his Baptism to the Cross. And Easter, the empty tomb, takes that relationship one step further. It opens it up to us.
And that, it seems to me, is what Resurrection is specifically, particularly, about. It proclaims the particularity of that apprentice relationship which Jesus enjoyed with his Father being open in the here and now to you and me. For God to say “Yes!” to Jesus and “In your face!” to Caesar is to validate a specific, particular, achievable style of life for you and me. The resurrection of Jesus is, specifically, a call for each one of us to say “No” to the pretensions of Empire, wherever and however they assert themselves in our lives. The resurrection of Jesus is, specifically, a call for each one of us to say “Yes” to the blessings of compassion and empathy and solidarity and community wherever they offer themselves to us. And the great open secret of the resurrection is that this style of risen living is actually possible, even for the sinful, fallen, fragile likes of you and me. It isn’t really as hard to do as we make it seem. Jesus lived that way by watching and working with his Father. You and I can live that way by watching and working with Jesus and the company of companions which gathers in his name.
A line from one of last week’s Daily Office readings has stayed with me for several days–it’s Paul’s assertion in 2 Corinthians 5 that “we walk by faith, not by sight.”[2 Corinthians 5.7] This is true and misleading at the same time. It’s true in the sense that we walk without knowing precisely where we will end up. But it’s misleading in that it’s not as if we don’t know what a Christian life ought to look like. We are all Jesus’s apprentices, and what churchy types these days call “formation” is really nothing more than watching and imitating Jesus while he works. The “victory” we celebrate at Easter is a victory not of power but of love. Rome thought it could kill the kind of life which Jesus and his companions represented–a life which made celebratory, compassionate abundance real even among people who were being ground under by the Empire. In raising Jesus, God has won the argument. Yes, it’s new life, but not just any kind of new life. It’s new life that looks and feels like Jesus and his life. It’s new life lived in companionship with Jesus and his Father and all the women and children and men in the world who dare to challenge and question Caesar and all human pretensions having to do with power.
John Donne was a more strict Calvinist than you and me. Even though he lived in the sacramental life of the church with all its implied assurances, part of him always asserted that old Puritan question: “How can I know I’m saved?” Donne’s poems never quite come to an assurance of salvation in the indicative mood; they come to rest, to the extent that they rest at all, in the optative [“May it be that”] mood. At the end of the meditative process they take us through, they don’t triumphantly say, “I know now for sure I’m saved.” They put it more optatively, like this: “Oh may it be that I’m saved.” So even as much as Donne believed in the Resurrection and lived his life in and through the church, there was always a part of him which knew, as Paul says, that “we walk by faith and not by sight.” The joys and obligations of the Christian life are abundantly apparent now. What they will add up to, what they will concretely mean at that last day, is anybody’s guess. And, when we’re honest about it, that is about all which any of us Christian preachers can credibly say about how things will look on the last day.
In his sonnet sequence, “La Corona”, John Donne said this about the Resurrection of Jesus and what he believed and hoped would be its implications for himself:

May then sin's sleep and death soon from me pass,
That waked from both, I again risen may
Salute the last and everlasting day.

In that optative spirit, may you and I so serve our apprenticeship with Jesus and his Father, that when all is said and done about us the “yes” which God will say to and for us will be the same “yes” which God said to and for Jesus at the empty tomb. May we so stand with the powerless and against Caesar that Jesus and his risen life will be now and for ever “in our face”. Amen.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Homily: Good Friday

Since last Tuesday I’ve been thinking a lot about Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race. Actually, I’ve been thinking less about the speech itself than about the reaction to it. While most people who heard it have spoken about it in grateful and even glowing terms, a fair number of responders have remained angry that Obama failed to renounce his relationship with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
As I understand their argument, they find Wright’s preaching offensive because it makes a forceful critique of white America’s treatment of African Americans—both historically and in the present day. According to Wright’s critics, his preaching continues to mention painful and oppressive realities in our national history: slavery, racism, discrimination, and tacit governmental policies which penalize drug use in radically different ways for blacks and whites. Clearly, Wright offends many of his white critics because he continues to talk about painful things they would just as soon forget or ignore. Wherever one stands in the American political spectrum, it is clear that few of us like regularly to be reminded of human pain, suffering, and loss. Witness how quickly we forget our history. Witness how even our situation comedies—even when they take on a painful subject at all—usually resolve it with the sharing of some lessons learned and a group hug.
Our culture does not know what to do with suffering. When the Declaration of Independence said that we humans were entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, it set in motion a culture which would increasingly organize itself around happiness as a definable and worthwhile life goal. But the other side of “happiness” is the stigmatization of those whom we define as “unhappy”. If you live in a neighborhood like this one, you will never see a really poor person unless you seek one out. And over the course of the last hundred or so years we have relegated the aging and the sick and the dead to ever more marginal zones of our collective consciousness.
You and I live in what one of my seminary professors used to call an “eighteenth century museum,” by which he meant the United States of America. A national culture which combines Enlightenment optimism with two hundred years of slavery, gun violence, consumer capitalism, and stigmatization of the poor, produces a culture which comes to define the good as that which maximizes my experience, the bad as that which delimits it. “If I’ve only got one life to live, let me live it as a blonde.” “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” As a result, we live in a culture which only knows how to process pleasure and does not know what to do with suffering. And when radical preachers remind us that, whether we acknowledge it or not, suffering persists and might even be on the increase in our country and around the world, something in us wishes that they would shut up about all that, or at least that their more famous parishioners would disown them.
It’s as denizens of this eighteenth century museum, citizens of this happiness culture, that you and I approach the cross this afternoon. Because, like the preaching of Jeremiah Wright, what happens here makes absolutely no sense if our definition of the good life is centered on an idea of happiness as that life’s goal. Jesus goes to the cross, not as someone intent on maximizing his own experience of life. Jesus goes to the cross because his life is organized around some other ideas. And it is those other ideas I would like to think with you about for the next few minutes.
Listen again to the Epistle from Palm Sunday’s lectionary, the famous hymn from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God,did not regard equality with Godas something to be exploited,but emptied himself,taking the form of a slave,being born in human likeness.And being found in human form,he humbled himselfand became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.—Philippians 2.5-8

As opposed to a life organized around an idea of happiness, Jesus’s life was organized around another principle—one of “self emptying” or kenosis as the theologians call it. Jesus “emptied himself”, as Paul says, he “humbled himself”, becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Jesus could do that because he understood that the point of his life had little or nothing to do with happiness as you and I would define it. Jesus’s life was one lived in solidarity with the very people our culture would seek to ignore—the ones we would call the sufferers, the ones our society always attempts to marginalize. When Jesus sat down at a table, he did so with the poor, the sick, the ritually unclean, those considered disreputable. Jesus organized his life around the idea of solidarity with all human beings and particularly with those whom the so-called “happy would” want to exclude from their line of vision. And in going to the cross, he identified himself even with those who are seen by the state and the religious establishment as its enemies.
We can understand the theological meaning of Jesus’s death on the cross in many different ways. But central to all of them is the idea of Jesus’s self-emptying, his willingness—“contentedness” as the old Prayer Book had it—to be counted among even the most despised and rejected of human beings. Jesus died as a crucified enemy of the state, a threat to the social order. And because of the ignominy of that death, we have tried to spiritualize it, to rationalize it, to make it beautiful or sentimental or understandable. But it isn’t any of those things. It’s as beautiful and sentimental and understandable as the electric chair, the gallows, the gas chamber, the lethal injection. And if we are going to seek to understand Jesus and his God at all, we are going to have to get our heads around the discomforting truth that the One we call Lord and the One he calls his Father understood how desperately important it was and is for God to be seen as at one with those whom the world and its structures have disavowed. God is on the cross with those whom the happiness culture will not look at and cannot understand. God is on the cross with us when we stand with those others. God is on the cross with us when we are those others ourselves.
Near the close of our liturgy today, we will say a prayer which has always meant a lot to me, and which always hovers somewhere around the edges of my consciousness at a time of death and during a funeral and its aftermath. Because if I am at all honest with myself, the reason I come to Good Friday has less to do with its place in the Easter drama than it does in my own quest to understand what significance this self-emptying of Jesus to death on a cross could have for me. And what always helps me make sense of it is this prayer which says, in its old-fashioned yet eloquent way, that some kind of transaction occurs at the cross which has life-changing consequences for you and for me. Because Jesus was willing to empty himself and stand with those who have no one else to stand with them, God now sees not only him and them but you and me in a new way. When God looks at us now, God sees not only the fallen, failed, sinful human beings we know ourselves to be. When God looks at us in the light of Jesus’s self-emptying journey to the cross, God now sees what we look like in the light of Jesus and his faithfulness. That’s what this prayer says, and here is how it says it:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to setyour passion, cross, and death between your judgment andour souls, now and in the hour of our death. Give mercy andgrace to the living; pardon and rest to the dead; to your holyChurch peace and concord; and to us sinners everlasting lifeand glory; for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you liveand reign, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

As I read this prayer, it says that God will not disown us now nor in the hour of our death. God will not do that because God sets Jesus’s “passion, cross, and death” between God’s judgment and our souls. God, in other words, is not afraid of our suffering and will not seek to ignore or disown us because of our failure or finitude or frailty. God knows what to do with suffering. So did Jesus. So should we. May we take from that knowledge grace and strength to acknowledge our own suffering and to stand with those who have no one else to stand with them, except of course Jesus, whose love and faithfulness and self-emptying we give thanks for today. Amen.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Homily: Tuesday in Holy Week

Whenever I hear today’s Gospel read, I think about the 24 hours that Kathy Hall spent in labor delivering our son, Oliver. It was a difficult labor, and nothing anyone did seemed to make it any easier or bring it more quickly to conclusion. After about 7 or 8 hours of chaotic contractions, Kathy turned to me and said, “You know, I wish I could just get on a bus and go home.”
Eventually things worked out and our son was born. But it was a hard 24 hours, and every time I come up against some difficult challenge that I would just as soon walk away from, I remember Kathy’s remark. “I wish I could just get on a bus and go home.”
We are, today, together in the early part of Holy Week, the week during which Jesus could have gotten on a bus and gone home but didn’t. A New Testament archaeologist friend of mine says that, if you’ve spent any time in Jerusalem, you know that Jesus could have just walked out of the garden into the Kidron valley and gone off to start a new life in India or Japan or any of those countries which claim that he in fact did that. But the testimony of the Gospels is that Jesus did not do that. He did not slip away into the Kidron valley. He did not get on a bus and go home. Instead, it is the testimony of our tradition that he stayed faithful to seeing through the predicament in which he found himself.

"Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say-- `Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name."—John 12

Everything in Jesus’s life and ministry has led him to “this hour.” And as tempted as he is to say, in his understandable human panic “Father, save me from this hour!” he chooses instead to say something else: “Father, glorify your name.”
One of the most arresting moments in both the novel and the movie No Country for Old Men occurs when the seemingly psychotic but philosophically consistent Anton Chigurh enters a gas station and asks the proprietor to flip a coin on a bet. “I didn't put nothin' up.” Says the man. “Yes, you did,” says Chigurh. “You've been putting it up your whole life you just didn't know it. You know what date is on this coin?” The proprietor answers, “No.” Chigurh replies, “1958. It's been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it's here. And it's either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.” If you don’t know what happens next, read the book or ask [Seabury’s resident movie expert] Donna Iolango.
Like a coin that has been traveling twenty-two years to get to this life and death interaction, the ministry of Jesus has been rolling inexorably toward a confrontation with the systems of the world which resist him. The Fourth Gospel portrays that confrontation in extremely stark oppositions: light and darkness, life and death. You and I might use some different terms: compassion versus indifference, justice versus oppression, openness versus exclusion, truth versus lies. The problem which Jesus presents to the authorities is two-fold. Not only is he, as the light of the world, a compelling alternative to the lies by which most human systems are governed; it’s also that his very light exposes the falsity and corruption of what it is they represent. So Jesus comes to this hour neither by bad luck nor bad planning. He comes to this hour because, being who he is, he cannot help but pose a challenge to the very foundation of the systems which oppose him. He has to be eliminated. If he slips away, gets on the bus, he ceases to be the light, the life, the compassion, the justice, the openness, the truth. If he stays faithful both to the logic of his life and the exigencies of this moment, he will glorify the name of the One he calls his father and we call God.
“You've been putting it up your whole life you just didn't know it,” might be the best epigraph for Tuesday in Holy Week. Because, of course, this sacred drama is not only about Jesus; it is about us. In the same way that the logic of Jesus’s life led him to “this hour,” so the logic of each one of our lives leads us, inexorably to the moral and vocational and relational choices that we will be asked to make in our hours. To say that is not in any way to argue for some kind of Christianized idea of fate. But it is to argue, as Ralph Waldo Emerson argued in his great essay, “Compensation”, that character is in fact destiny. Listen to what Emerson says:
The law holds with equal sureness for all right action. Love, and you shall be loved. All love is mathematically just, as much as the two sides of an algebraic equation. The good man has absolute good, which like fire turns every thing to its own nature, so that you cannot do him any harm. [“Compensation” in Essays, First Series]

To speak in twenty-first century English and not nineteenth, Emerson is reminding us that we become what we become by being, over the course of a life, who we are. The gift of being Jesus over a lifetime is that you get to be Jesus; the penalty of being Donald Trump . . .well, you can figure it out.
On this Tuesday in Holy Week, we are walking, with Jesus, through Jerusalem on the way to the cross. At any moment, Jesus could have slipped away, gotten on the bus, but for reasons that have everything to do with who he was, he did not. It’s not that Jesus was “fated” to go to the cross. Nor was it that he somehow courted martyrdom. Rather, he realized that the inexorable trajectory of his life had to bring him to this moment, and to be anything or anyone other than who he was would have been to abrogate the course of his entire life.
On this Tuesday in Holy Week, the Gospel asks us—separately and together—this question. What is the inexorable trajectory of your life? What have you cared about, stood for, worked for, worried about, given yourself over to during the days and years that bring you to this moment? How can you be faithful to your passions and commitments in the work that God is calling you to now? What is so central to your understanding of yourself that without it you cease to be you? It is the answer to this question that the Gospel for Tuesday in Holy Week asks you to claim and carry forward to Good Friday and Easter.
The church always demands sacrifice from its members and its leaders, but it is a grave mistake to think that God wants you to be someone other than who you have been leading up to the present moment. What should we say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that you have come to this hour. Instead we say, “Father, glorify your name." Amen.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Homily: Wednesday in the Fifth Week of Lent

The HBO series The Wire just ended its five-year run last Sunday, and it is one of my favorite television shows. In my estimation it’s one of the best series ever produced. Over the course of its five seasons, The Wire has looked at the structures of the city of Baltimore through the lenses of the organization of the drug dealers on one side and of the more “official” city bureaucracies—the police, the city government, the school system, the press—on the other. What you come to learn over the course of watching The Wire for five years is that the power issues are the same in any system. Whether it’s a drug lord, a mayor, a school superintendent, or a newspaper editor, managers tend to function in similar ways. For some reason, institutional leaders often get confused about their loyalties. They put their energies into saving and promoting the system and are often willing to sacrifice individual human beings in the name of the institution.
Last week David Simon (the creator of The Wire and a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun) was interviewed on Fresh Air, and Terry Gross asked him why he was so cynical about newspapers. Here is what he said in reply:
I’m cynical about everybody in management. . . . I think the archetype of all of our bosses comes from [Stanley Kubrick’s film] Paths of Glory. That is to me one of the fundamental political films of the twentieth century. You look at George Macready and Adolphe Menjou in that movie and those are The Wire bosses throughout seasons one through five.—David Simon on Fresh Air March 6, 2008

Now if you haven’t seen Paths of Glory ever or in a while, I suggest you go out and rent it. Made in 1957, it’s Stanley Kubrick’s film recounting a true incident in the French army in World War I in which three soldiers were executed symbolically because of the so-called “failure” of three regiments to undertake a suicide mission aimed at a well-defended German hill. In the movie Kirk Douglas portrays the military lawyer defending the soldiers; Adolph Menjou plays the General who orders the suicide mission; George Macready is the General who orders the execution of his own men for cowardice. It’s one of the most chilling movies ever made, and I think it’s that because it gets at a fundamental truth of systems. Whether it’s an army, a government, a school, a business, or even a church, systems tend to organize around the protection of the elite who run them. That’s why Enron betrayed its employees and stockholders. That’s why the Roman Catholic hierarchy sided with abusive priests against their victims. Even systems which exist to serve the larger good end up being about something else; and that “something else” usually involves both advancing and protecting the institution at the expense of the human beings involved.
My mind went back to The Wire and Paths of Glory when I began to reflect on our Gospel for tonight:

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’—John 8.31-32

I’ve heard many sermons about this familiar saying, yet I never feel that the preacher has engaged it quite adequately. Jesus’s saying here is a mysterious one. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Usually when we hear this phrase quoted, the first clause gets lopped off. How are we to know the truth? We know the truth if we continue in Jesus’s word. Only as we do that will we know the truth, and only then will the truth make us free.
So Jesus does not use the phrase “the truth will make you free” precisely in the way we normally hear it quoted for us. This is not an abstract proposition about staring “the truth” in the face, stepping out of denial, coming out of the closet, or any one of a million other ways we are asked to “know the truth.” When Jesus talks to us about knowing the truth, he does so in the context of assuring those who already believe in him that if they continue in his word they will know the truth and then be set free.
Now when I think about what John’s Gospel means by “Jesus’s word” it has something to do with what you and I call the “Incarnation”. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus is the light of the world. That light is present in Jesus and in the community which gathers in his name. After one cuts through all the fancy, complicated prose of the Fourth Gospel, what remains is one underlying proclamation: God is at work in Jesus and in the human community. Human beings are precious both in their own right and in the light of the One in whose image they are created and who is now, because of Jesus, incarnate in them. Human beings matter.
And John’s Gospel is, like David Simon and Stanley Kubrick, rather cynical about institutional human systems. Both Pontius Pilate and the Sanhedrin come off like the French army in Paths of Glory and Baltimore drug dealers in The Wire. They are more interested in self-protection than they are in justice. The painful ironic reality of our situation as a church is this: we are the custodians of a proclamation about human dignity and worth, and we hold that truth in the “earthen vessel” of an institution, a system, which can routinely mistreat people even as it proclaims that Gospel. That’s why we have Reformations every so often.
And, obviously, the tension between the institutional and the human realities is very much on my mind these days as Seabury makes whatever transition we are making into our next mode of existence. On my worst days, I feel like Avon Barksdale, the drug dealer in The Wire or General Mireau, the George Macready character in Paths of Glory. Part of the pain for me, and I believe for all of us in this present moment, is that we are, in order to preserve Seabury and remake it for the future, taking something beautiful and healthy and good and putting it to death. I understand that this has to happen, and that new life can only come after something actually dies, but I also realize the human cost. And that, it seems to me, is why we have a more trustworthy image of leadership than the one provided for us by human systems in Jesus--because Jesus, and his word, are rooted in the preciousness and dignity of people as the ultimate reality. Institutions are fictions. People are real. When we ground ourselves in that Gospel, then we know the truth. And it is that truth that will set us free.
These are hard days for all of us. The best guide we have for navigating them comes to us from tonight’s Gospel. The most important thing about this place is God’s people. The system exists to serve them, not the other way around. Both Paths of Glory and The Wire give us examples of what happens to institutions when they organize themselves around fictions and not around facts. Seabury needs to die in order to be reborn. But its rebirth must be one that serves the Gospel purpose of Jesus and his trustworthy word to us about life and light and hope and truth. If we ground ourselves in that reality, then even as we do hard things we will be fully present and alive to each other. We will know the truth. And the truth, as hard and as beautiful as it is, will set us free. Amen.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Homily: Tuesday in the Fourth Week of Lent

Maybe it’s the mood I’m in these days, but does the guy whom Jesus heals in today’s Gospel [John 5.1-18] strike you as a bit of a whiner? When Jesus asks him if he wants to be healed, instead of saying, “Yes, indeedy, I sure do,” the man replies, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ Again, maybe it’s just me, but I seem to hear a note of exasperation in Jesus’s response: ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ I’m not sure they had the phrase, “Get over it!” in Jesus’s day, but if they did, he might have used it here. When I get strung out, it is comforting to recall that even Jesus could be a bit short-tempered.
So not only does today’s Gospel begin with a psychodynamically bizarre interaction, it continues with what I find to be one of the most unintentionally funny lines in the New Testament. (Admittedly, the New Testament is not a lot of laughs, so you don’t have to go very far to be funnier than “O foolish Galatians!” or “Wives be subject to your husbands.”) Right after Jesus heals the man, the legalistic rule-abiders see the formerly lame man walking and carrying his mat, and they say to them, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ Now that strikes me as hilarious—trying to arrest a formerly lame man for carrying his mat. That’s like a cop walking into Lourdes and saying, “It’s illegal to mount your crutches on the wall.” “It is not lawful for you to carry your mat!?” Talk about missing the point.
As with last Sunday’s story about Jesus’s healing the man born blind, there seems to be a subplot in this passage, buried not very deep beneath the surface, about our tendency as human beings to cast our attention in the wrong direction. On Sunday, the Pharisees missed the point of the blind man’s restoration to sight and focused, instead, on the technical legal issues which surrounded it. And the dissonance, the disparity between the enormity of the miracle (restoring sight, curing a man lame for 38 years) and the legalistic response (you were doing miracles in a no-miracles zone) seems to be a product not only of religious fussiness but of something deep in human nature itself.
That disparity comes when we think about something like the Sabbath. In his little book on the subject [The Sabbath], Abraham Joshua Heschel called the Sabbath “a palace in time”. What he meant by that is that the God of Israel, who was not to be identified with a physical sanctuary, had hallowed a particular bit of time—one day of the week—as the meeting place of God and human beings. There has, we all know, been a rediscovery of the idea of Sabbath in recent Christian thinking, and the Jews have understood and honored this observance throughout their history. So we are not to take Jesus’s Sabbath healings as some kind of protest against a day of rest. There are plenty of New Testament places where we see Jesus seeking quiet and solitude. He’s not running an anti-Sabbath guerilla movement here. Something else is involved.
And that something else gets at that thing deep in human nature that wants to take that which is life-giving and wonderful and put rules and regulations around it. In some ways, the very idea of the institutional church itself is an attempt on the part of us human beings to codify and make regular and predictable that which is essentially wild and unpredictable and free. In “Holy the Firm” Annie Dillard talks about church as a “high wire act”, a dangerous thing we’re doing when we get together. And yet we treat it as if it’s regular and predictable and sensible. But there’s nothing at all sensible about it. We are messing with fire when we get together. And yet we think—with our canon law and our orders and our printed liturgies—that we can somehow contain it. More fools we.
I think one of the points of this reading is that God, as the Yahwist knew, is free. God will do what God will do, and the human codes and systems and structures that we have set up to contain God are all ultimately doomed to fail. That is what Jesus means when he says, later on in this passage, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ God will do what God will do. And if that means that blind people regain their sight and lame men walk on a day ritually set aside for rest, so be it. It’s not that the Sabbath doesn’t mean anything. Rather it’s that, even as beautiful and holy and blessed an ordinance as the Sabbath finally needs to stand aside in the face of something greater.
And that something greater, of course, is the kind of deep and compassionate love of God for all God’s suffering creatures exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus. The Desert Fathers and Mothers were clear that holiness was not as important as charity: when a beggar made his way to your sacred cave, you were supposed to drop your breviary and give him some food. In the same way, it is important that we humans observe the Sabbath—and by extension the pious practices and rituals that enable us both to praise God and experience God’s presence in the here and now. But there is one thing that is more important: and that is responding to a fellow creature who suffers. “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” The sun shines and the grass grows even on the Sabbath. God may have rested on the seventh day of creation, but God is always somehow at work. And the work of God—not, please note, the work of the church—the work of God is always before us. The poor are still poor on the Sabbath, the oppressed still oppressed, the lonely, the sick, the outcast, the mourners are all still in their conditions even on the Sabbath. God rejoices when we keep the Sabbath. How much more does God rejoice when, even on the Sabbath, the teachings of Jesus in the Beatitudes come to life.
I don’t have any neat way to tie this to Seabury, its future, and the processes of discernment and change we are going through right now. But I will say this. My main responsibility as Dean and President of this school is to make sure that, in whatever form it comes to find expression going forward, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary continues to serve the ministries of the Episcopal Church for which it was founded and to which so many people have given their energies and resources over the years. But I am also deeply aware that what we are dealing with here are human realities. We all love this place, its life, its traditions, its role in the church. And we all love and feel for each other, especially in a time when so much is yet to be determined. None of us likes living with unanswered questions. But we would be less than faithful if we rushed to quick solutions in order to assuage our anxiety.
So I don’t know yet what Seabury will become. But I do know that it will become something coherent with the historic mission it has always enacted, and it will make that transition in ways that are deeply respectful of the people who love and serve God in this place. I know that because I know something else. I know that Jesus is to be both believed and trusted when he says, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” And it’s because, however confused and anxious we may be, that we can continue to proclaim that both Jesus and the One he calls his Father are still working, even when that work happens outside our structures and systems and usually out of our sight and hearing, that we can together gather at his table and give thanks. Amen.

Homily: St. Chrysostom's, Chicago [4 Lent]


One night last week my wife Kathy and I were talking about the idea of the “red herring”. If you read a lot of mysteries, as we do, you will know that a “red herring” is a character who is so heavily emphasized as to throw the reader’s suspicion onto them rather than on the real guilty party. In common parlance, a “red herring” is a diversion intended to distract one’s attention from the real issue. As Kathy told me, the term derives from the English hunting practice of drawing a real red herring across a trail so as to confuse the hounds.
Now I don’t know about you, but my life is full of red herrings, and they’re not just the kind you read about in mystery stories. Much of our attention, most of the time, is pointed in the wrong direction. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s season this year features a new production of Othello, and one persistent theme in that tragedy involves what one character early on in the play calls “false gaze”—a term, like “red herring” he uses to describe a military strategy employed by the enemy as a way of misdirecting our attention. He says of this plan, “'tis a pageant,/To keep us in false gaze.” [First Senator, Othello, 1.3] And by “false gaze” he means a “red herring”, focusing our attention on the wrong thing. As a play, Othello is full of characters who are misdirected by “false gaze”. They make all kinds of mistakes in judgment because they are looking at the wrong thing. They’re deluded into equating blackness with evil and whiteness with good. No one in the play seems to notice that what Coleridge called Iago’s “motiveless malignity” parades around masquerading as empathetic diligence. And the most famous “false gaze” of all in the play involves Othello’s willingness to be persuaded of Desdemona’s faithlessness simply because of a handkerchief placed in the wrong hands. By looking at the handkerchief and not at the woman Othello professes to love, he allows his “false gaze” to persuade him that what is false is true.
Now these are not simple literary or cultural issues. The problem of the “red herring” or “false gaze” is a spiritual question is well. We are, together, in the season of Lent, a time of preparation for Easter. And Lent is, I believe, a time where we try to let things go and take things on as a way of redirecting our attention. One of the traditional Lenten antiphons for Morning and Evening Prayer comes from Psalm 119:
Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; * give me life in your ways.-- Psalm 119.37 BCP

If you’re like me, you spend a lot of your time in what Shakespeare called “false gaze”, or in what Psalm 119 calls “watching what is worthless.” My life at times feels like a mystery story in which I continually pursue red herrings. How do we, all of us, who are bombarded by thousands of messages and images each day, focus our attention on the real issue and not the red herring? How do we step out of the practice of “false gaze”? How do we stop “watching what is worthless”? That is the question posed to us on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, and I believe it is the spiritual question that all of us, in some form or another, confront each moment in our daily lives.

But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." –1 Samuel 16

The first story we heard this morning is the story of the prophet Samuel’s search for a new king for Israel. In this famous account, Samuel looks at Jesse’s seemingly more “kingly” sons first and discovers that none of them is the one God has chosen to lead the nation. Then finally the smallest one is called in from tending the sheep, and he turns out to be David, the right one. God cautions Samuel that he does not see as mortals see. “They look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
God does not see as mortals see. That is both a comforting and a frightening assertion. Samuel, using normal human judgment, would have chosen the tallest or strongest or fiercest looking character to lead Israel. But God intended for Samuel to choose the youngest and smallest to be the leader of the nation. Samuel went looking for someone who fit a predetermined stereotype. God expanded his vision by showing him something else. For “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."
The first thing we need to consider, then, is this question of how we see compared with how God sees. We look on outward appearance. God looks on the heart. How does that work in the give and take of our real lives?
The first place for me to start is to acknowledge that I do not see as God sees. I will be the first person to admit that, like Samuel or Othello, I am continually prone to watching what is worthless. It seems to be a sad truth about us human beings, but we are easily distracted. Life, as Freud says, is lived under conditions of stress, and the stresses and tensions of modern life—from earning a living to negotiating our love relationships to raising our children to simply living in a modern urban environment—these stresses and tensions tend to be uppermost in our minds most of the time. When I am living life under the conditions of stress, I tend to think that the immediate problems I face (money, security, getting around) are the most real issues before me. The level of stress and tension in modern life is enormous, and one of the most corrosive things about this stress is that it leads us towards Shakespeare’s term, “false gaze”. I once went to a conference where the speaker began by saying, “As you sit here, there are voice mail messages piling up in your voice mail and e-mail messages piling up in your inbox, and you can do nothing about them.” This conference occurred, alas, before the invention of the BlackBerry, so now I suppose it’s possible to attend to the trivial even while sitting here in church, if you’re discreet about it. But his point was this: the level of preoccupation which most of us experience most of the time thanks to both stress and technology is becoming an emotional and psychological and spiritual problem of enormous dimensions. Harvard College discovered that its undergraduates spend something like a total of 40 minutes per day eating all three meals. They are simply too busy with other things to sit down and actually attend to a what they’re eating. The stresses of life and the ubiquity of messages claiming our attention combine to make us, at worst obsessed and at best, preoccupied with what the Psalm calls “watching what is worthless.”
But this is not only a contemporary phenomenon. Samuel fell into it when visiting Jesse’s household in search of a king. The singer of Psalm 119 saw that tendency in himself when he asked for deliverance from watching what is worthless. Stress and tension are one part of the answer, but there is another—and that has to do with the way we are made. If you think back to the Bible’s story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, you’ll remember that they were given everything they needed for abundant living but were misled by the serpent into wanting something more than they actually had. In eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve became the poster children for the red herring or the false gaze. They thought not about what they had but about what they lacked. Instead of being thankful they became aggrieved. And in their aggrieved state they made some really bad decisions. What this story tells us, as if we didn’t already know it, is that we tend to take the blessings and important things in life for granted, and we tend to obsess about the luxuries. Adam and Eve had the world, each other, and abundant resources at their command. In turning their false gaze toward the red herring of the forbidden fruit—how’s that for a mixed metaphor?--they obsessed about the one imagined thing they lacked. I don’t know if you see yourself in them, but I sure do. There’s always that one thing I don’t have that if I got it I think would make me truly happy. Then I get that and there’s one more thing I seem really to need. It’s an endless procession. So yes, the world tricks me into false gaze, but there’s something in me that is ready to drop what I’m doing and follow red herrings on a moment’s notice. And that something is the kind of spiritual blindness that Jesus comes to address in this morning’s Gospel.


Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, `We see,' your sin remains."–John 9

The very length of this morning’s Gospel makes it hard to take in all at once, but essentially it’s John’s ironic account of Jesus giving sight to a blind man and that action becoming the occasion of the Pharisees becoming blind themselves. For John, Jesus is “the light of the world”, and the tragic part of his story centers around the increasing blindness of the religious and secular authorities to the truth of what he represents. The Pharisees and the Romans think they see quite clearly. But, like Samuel in the first story, they do not see as God sees. They are trapped in their own smug self-interest. They are not open to what God is doing in the present moment.
The verse I quoted earlier from Psalm 119 actually asks God for two things: to “turn my eyes from watching what is worthless,” and to “give me life in [God’s] ways.” In John’s Gospel, as in the Eden story, as in the account of Samuel looking for David, we have seen what it means for human beings to watch what is worthless. What might it look like for us to have life in God’s ways?
I once attended a retreat where the leader announced, as the theme of his addresses, the following proposition: “We become what we attend to.” He wasn’t talking precisely about red herrings and the false gaze, but what he said seems connected to what we’re thinking about together this morning. “We become what we attend to.” If we attend solely to the junk and glitter and glitz of 21st century first-world culture, then that’s what we turn into. If we keep our eyes on Jesus, we might just become like him. We live in a world which, like a game of three-card monte, continually misdirects our attention. And look at the result: stressed-out, burned-out, alienated people looking in vain for what, if they could stop for a minute, they’d see they already have. That’s what we become when we attend to what is worthless. What would we become if we attended to what is worth everything, which, for us Christians, means: what would we become if we kept our eyes on Jesus?
When Christian people are baptized, one of the promises we make is that we will “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” This is essentially a promise to go to church—to hear the Bible stories read, to participate in the Eucharist on some kind of regular basis. We’ve made this a part of our agreement with each other for a lot of reasons—principally, I suppose, because we need each other. But one big truth embedded in that promise is the understanding that as easily misdirected red-herring following false gazers, we need some way of focusing our attention on what really matters. And that is what church is about: it’s about hearing the story of Jesus and then coming together around his table in a way that gently but forcefully reminds us of what matters. “We become what we attend to.” The goal of the Christian life is to become like Jesus. And we want to become like Jesus not because there’s something wrong with us as we are but because, for us, Jesus represents the real good life that the red herrings promise but never deliver. Jesus is just and loving and compassionate. He is a healer. His table fellowship gathers everyone—even the outcast and the disreputable—into a community of wholeness and blessing and love. Jesus lives an abundant life in the midst of scarcity. He knows who he is, what he needs, and how to live creatively with other people in God’s world. What we want to be, when we’re honest with ourselves, is like that. And the only way we can be like that is to turn our eyes away from the false gaze and the red herrings and focus them, instead, on Jesus.
You and I live our lives in a sea of red herrings which constantly demand our false gaze. In our quest to turn our eyes from watching what is worthless, our desire to have life in God’s ways, we are offered this morning a simple, life-changing Lenten gift. In gathering around this table and hearing the Gospel stories, we are coming to keep our eyes on Jesus. And when we do that, we are becoming like him in ways we might not yet even imagine or guess or understand. For the gift of Jesus, and for grace to so point our gaze in his direction that we become the One we attend to, let us proceed in this meal together to pray and give thanks. Amen.