Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Homily: Tuesday in the Fifth Week of Easter [April 22, 2008]

Last Thursday night, in the Shakespeare class I teach this semester, we discussed the great tragedy, King Lear. As is true of many of Shakespeare’s plays, Lear is a tragedy which has been read and performed differently by every generation of critics and directors. The play ends, of course, with both Lear and his one faithful daughter Cordelia dead on the stage. You expect a tragic hero to die, but the Christ-like Cordelia’s death always strikes us as almost unbearably painful. In the Restoration period, Nahum Tate rewrote the play to give it a happy ending: Gloucester’s legitimate son Edgar and Cordelia marry and live happily ever after. Tate’s ending dominated the stage until the twentieth century, when King Lear’s deeply tragic worldview appealed again to an audience which had experienced two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb.
Those of you who read Frederick Buechner’s books know that he has a lot to say about the theological power and significance of King Lear. What struck us in the class the other night was something that builds on what Buechner has to say about Lear in a recent book, Speak What We Feel. And that is that the play holds up, toward the end, a radically double vision of life and its possibilities. A gentleman, describing Cordelia’s reactions to news about her father, compares the appearance of her face to “Sunshine and rain at once”. And later on, when Edgar describes his father Gloucester’s death, he says that his “flaw’d heart” “'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, /Burst smilingly.” “Sunshine and rain at once.” “Two extremes of passion, joy and grief.” The sun can shine while it rains. We can feel joy and grief at the same moment. Two things can be true at once.
I suppose that we all know that sunshine and rain, joy and grief can coexist in one person, thought, or moment. What I took away last Thursday, though, had more to do with what we here at Seabury are now experiencing as a faith community. Today, I am meeting with every member of the staff, delivering the hard news to many of them that they won’t have a job here after the school year ends. On Thursday, the board will meet and make some hard decisions about Seabury’s finances and the faculty’s tenure. These are grievous and painful moments, and there is not any reassurance or cliché or bromide that will make them better. So believe me: there is plenty of rain and grief to go around. And yet--
And yet I have seen, over the past several weeks something else—something Shakespeare might call sunshine or joy—at work around here. I’ve seen it in the way the people most at risk and most directly affected by these decisions have been present to each other. I’ve seen it in the spirit of openness, compassion, and support which I have heard expressed toward me as the bearer of this bad news and on behalf of all those whose lives and careers are undergoing such profound upheaval. If I never understood it before, I get it now that sunshine and rain, joy and grief, can both inhabit the same space and experience at the same time. What Seabury is going through is sad beyond belief. And the ways in which people in this community are holding each other up restores whatever part of my faith in human beings I had lost earlier in these months of struggle.
And that, I believe, is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” [John 14.27] What John’s Jesus calls “the world” does not understand “Sunshine and rain at once” or “Two extremes of passion, joy and grief.” The world of John’s Jesus is a happiness world, a world which wants things to be single, crisp, and clean. That world is the world of the binary opposition, the radical dichotomy, of theological dualism. It’s either on/off, dark/light, good/bad, life/death.
But what John’s Jesus calls “the world” does not ever deal quite honestly what you and I and Jesus know about the world as it is. And the world as it is continues to mix what we call opposites in an ongoing flow that produces life in all of its inextricable wonder and weirdness. That is why Jesus can say that he gives us peace not as the world gives. The peace that Jesus gives us is a peace which passes understanding precisely because it is peace that stands at the intersection of joy and pain. The cross is central to our understanding of God because two things can be true at once: love/ hate, death/ life, sorrow/ joy all inhabit the same space and make up what it means to be alive. And a Christian person is one who experiences the peace that Jesus talks about in all the richness of its contradictions ambiguities. That peace is neither ignorance nor apathy. It comes only as one engages life in all of its complicated doubleness.
As Bonnie Perry said to me about all of this last week, “It really sucks!” It really sucks that good people are losing their jobs. It really sucks that a place animated by a 150-year tradition of faith and excellence and scholarship and ministry is having to re-think and reorganize itself because of the current financial realities of theological education and the Episcopal Church. There may be sunshine in this rainstorm, and there is abundant joy amidst all this grief. But before I can see the sun or experience the joy, I need to live into the depth of what losing these people and this place is finally all about.

By the end of King Lear, Edgar we have lived through three hours of horrible human treachery combined with unimaginable human grace. At the very close of the play, Edgar (the betrayed yet faithful son who masqueraded as Poor Tom and sacrificially accompanied his father Gloucester after he was blinded) moves to the center of the stage and says these surprisingly modern lines about all of the tragic yet joyous doubleness that has transpired on the stage:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

I doubt if William Shakespeare ever did CPE, but he knew something about human beings and our need to be present to how what is happening actually affects us. The lamenting speaker of the Psalms knew that. Job knew that. Jesus knows that. There will be time to talk of Seabury’s future as it begins to unfold. But right now: it really sucks. It is not only o.k. to feel that. It is o.k. to say it.

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Homily: Oscar Romero [April 15, 2008]

I suppose it won’t come as a surprise to you that I spend a lot of my time worrying about Seabury, its faculty, students, and staff, its future. Whatever else you can say about the present time here in Evanston, it’s stressful and it’s scary. To be sure, there may be a hopeful future at the end of all this, but right now most of it is painful and wrenching and hard. All of us who work here have precarious professional lives. Those of you who study here must find a way to make room for the stress of the seminary community in the midst of all the other ordination process traumas you experience. I must say that, as much time as I do spend worrying about everyone and their future, I am constantly amazed at how gracious and charitable everyone—especially those most vulnerable—have been during this period. I think we all know something about what it means for a grain of wheat to fall into the earth and die.
Whenever I think about this passage in the 12th chapter of John’s Gospel, I think about what Oscar Romero said about it:

Those who surrender to the service of the poor through the love of Christ will live like the grain of wheat that dies. . . The harvest comes because of the grain that dies. . . . We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.–[Oscar Romero, March 24, 1980]

Once you’ve heard that from Oscar Romero, what is there left to say? Oscar Romero was, of course, the Archbishop of San Salvador, who was shot by Salvadoran death squads on March 24, 1980, minutes after he had said the words I just quoted. Romero had been a surprise to everyone as the leading prelate of El Salvador. In his earlier career as parish priest and seminary rector, Romero had opposed Marxism and given no hint that he would question the authority of the Salvadoran regime. But when Pope Paul appointed him Archbishop in 1977, Romero’s new role brought him into increasing conflict with both ecclesiastical and governmental authority. Grieved by the government’s violence against the people, he stopped attending all official state functions and asked repeatedly for international intervention on behalf of human rights. In the same final sermon in which he talked about the grain of wheat that dies to be reborn, Romero called upon Salvadoran soldiers as Christians to refuse to carry out the government’s abuses against its own people.
Now I do not raise the spectre of Salvadoran death squads in order to juxtapose it with Seabury’s current struggles. (“You think you’ve got problems? Just look at Oscar Romero!”) Rather, I bring Seabury’s problems into the light of Oscar Romero’s witness because, frankly, I believe that our cultural comfort can make us forget what the church is really here for.
Whether we like it or not, the Episcopal Church and its institutions participate in the many ideologies of market capitalism, and we, perhaps unconsciously, perpetuate those ideologies’ implied assumptions. We are incorporated by our secretaries of state. We have boards of trustees who represent the larger community’s oversight of our activities. We invest our money in the nation’s established financial institutions. Looked at from the outside, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary looks pretty much like any “non-profit” corporation. The same could be said for a parish church, a diocese, or any kind of church institution.
In a consumerist, culture like ours, even non-profit institutions exist to aggrandize and perpetuate themselves. To be sure, we all have “mission statements”, and to a greater or lesser extent we all see ourselves as accountable to those articulations of what we’re here for, but for all real purposes the standards by which we judge ourselves are not much different than the standards by which any secular business or charity measures its performance. Are we taking in more money than we spend? Are we doing at least as well financially as our competitors? Do our numbers (average Sunday attendance, enrolled students, employees on the payroll) show us to be winning the competition or losing it? Whether we admit it or not, whether we like it or not, at some level of our consciousness we all evaluate ourselves against American cultural norms of success and failure.
I would never want to be heard to suggest that we should not take standard accounting and business practices seriously. We are, after all, stewards of the resources which God has given us. But when you put American culture and its values up against the witness of someone like Oscar Romero, what do you get? What you get is not so much a critique of what and how we are doing. What you get is a basic and more fundamental question. And that is: are we confused, in this consumerist culture, about what the church is in fact here to do?

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.—John 12.24

Oscar Romero found himself appointed Archbishop of San Salvador because he looked, both to the government and to the church, like a leader who would not confuse or upset the status quo. But what they got with Oscar Romero was someone who reminded them what the church was for. “Those who surrender to the service of the poor through the love of Christ will live like the grain of wheat that dies.” This wasn’t just a prophetic challenge to the church and the regime; it was a total reordering and recollection of what the church, in fact, exists to do. As much as the culture wants to turn us into that, we are not chaplains for the established order. As much as the logic of our own systems propels us toward doing so, we are not here to expand and aggrandize ourselves. We are here, simply, to “surrender to the service of the poor through the love of Christ.” And by “the poor” Romero means, as Jesus did, “the poor”—those without money, status, resources, or power. When we attempt to spiritualize poverty into something else—to co-opt the language of poverty to describe any number of difficult but ultimately secondary conditions—then we are playing games both with Jesus and Oscar Romero.
Archbishop Romero found Salvadoran violence reprehensible for all kinds of reasons, but particularly because it victimized the poor. The same should be true for us. The poor people of the world right now are experiencing an explosive inflation of food prices which is making basic nutrition unaffordable for most people on the planet. If the church exists to “surrender to the service of the poor through the love of Christ,” then the real question before us today has more to do with what we are doing about global starvation than any other worthwhile cause we could possibly come up with. And in the light of that truth, the real question about our own experience of institutional dying should be this: as Seabury dies in its old incarnation, will we be reborn as a community which surrenders itself to the service of the poor through the love of Christ? Despite all the measures of institutional success and failure which we and others may attempt to apply to ourselves today and tomorrow, there is only one question which finally matters. A grain of wheat dies that it may be reborn. As the old Seabury begins to die, may Oscar Romero’s example inform our faithfulness to what real Christian witness is about—a sign of that new and risen life for the poor and for those who serve them which approaches even now on our horizon. Amen.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Homily: William Law [April 10, 2008]

I have always been fascinated by the piety which surrounds sports in our culture. To hear some commentators talk about steroid use by prominent baseball players, for example, you’d think they’d been betrayed by the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Dalai Lama. People routinely talk about athletes as role models, but as I remember the star performers of my high school and college days, only a few of them were people I would want to imitate as ethical leaders. I’m not sure I want to have even Rowan Williams as my role model; but I know for a fact that I never want to be like Jose Canseco. Don’t get me wrong: I like sports, especially baseball and college basketball. But I would never buy a product, vote for a candidate, or hold an idea because an athlete had endorsed them.
But I think I’m in the minority in our culture. Witness all the breathy language we heard this past week about the Olympic torch. Early in the week, when protesters had disrupted the relay in Paris, the NPR announcer said, in earnest tones, that the torch had actually been extinguished four times! But then he quickly added that the Olympic officials said we should not confuse the Olympic torch with the Olympic flame which is kept separately and would never be allowed to go out. Am I the only person in the audience who wants to raise a hand and observe, “Who cares?” So what if the Olympic flame goes out? Yet care some folks do care, because the torch protests on behalf of Tibetans and China’s own citizens have been greeted with some fairly pious pronouncements about the sanctity of what they call the “Olympic spirit.” And here is where what I call the “piety of sports” becomes relevant. Many of those offended by the torch protesters are actually saying something you and I in the church hear all the time-- words to the effect that sports (like religion) should have nothing to do with politics. But the Olympics are inextricably involved in politics: the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the 2008 Beijing Olympics are all political uses of the games as attempts by repressive regimes to legitimize themselves. And if you’ve ever seen the half-time show at a college bowl game or a Super Bowl, you know that we Americans are not above using sporting events as occasions to bolster nationalistic feelings of our own.
I begin a consideration of the saint we remember today, William Law, with a meditation on sports piety because Law was the author of the eighteenth century spiritual classic "A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life" and was a man who, for all his so-called “piety” knew something about bad values and the interaction of religion and politics. William Law was an old-fashioned High Churchman who, on the accession of George I, would not take the oath of allegiance to the new monarch and so became a “non-juror” and had to resign his Cambridge fellowship and all possibility of earning a living in the Church of England. For most of his life, Law was a household tutor and later school headmaster. Though he achieved prominence in England through his writing, he was never able to support himself by working in the church. He was, in other words, a pious (or what we would call today a “spiritual”) person who understood that piety usually has political implications. Given his Tory sympathies, he might not have joined the torch protesters, but he certainly would have understood their motivations.
I’m probably one of the few people in the Episcopal Church who can claim actually to have read "A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life": for a while in graduate school I thought I might like to write my dissertation about it. Then I read it. And though I hold it in very high esteem (as did Samuel Johnson and John Wesley among others) I wonder at times if the folks who made William Law a saint have actually read it themselves. It is tough going. It’s not a hard read, but it’s bracing: Law was what we might call an ethical rigorist: he held that Jesus meant the Sermon on the Mount literally and that human beings were called to seek moral perfection. When John Wesley finally gave up following Law, he wrote him that his counsels were “too high for man.” James Boswell complained that "A Serious Call" would make us “Asceticks upon the Monastick plan.” Not only that: as Law got older he began reading the 17th century German mystic Jakob Böhme, and by the end of his life he had pretty much left institutional orthodoxy behind. Here is what he said in a later book, "The Spirit of Love":

Religious Practices [like this one right here, right now] are then only parts of true Religion, when they mean nothing,seek nothing, but to keep up a continual Dying to Self, and all worldly things, and turn all the Will, Desire, and Delight of the Soul to God alone

Warning to prospective takers of the General Ordination Exams: as they say on television commercials, “Do not attempt” this kind of thing on your own. It's a high wire act. William Law was the kind of priest we will put in our saints’ calendar but will neither employ nor read very carefully. It is not surprising that, as he aged, his theology of the church got a good deal lower and his theology of individual spiritual union with God a good deal higher. As Flannery O’Connor once observed, “We suffer as much from the church as for it.”
What does all this add up to? As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” [Matthew 6.1] We live both in a culture and in a church which are confused, I believe, about what makes for an authentic piety. In our culture, we project a lot of meaning onto things like Olympic torches, national flags, and sporting events. In our church, we have become rather rigorous in doing what Jesus warned against--practicing our piety before others–witness the exfoliation of public “spiritual” movements and practices in our church in the last 30 years. When you go to an ordination or job interview, everyone will ask you about your spiritual life. But when is the last time anyone has asked you about your moral life? What William Law’s life and example should remind us of is this: a deep piety will always express itself in action. William Law held highly principled views about the proper oath of allegiance to the English monarch, and he was willing to sacrifice his livelihood and career on behalf of those principles. Yes, of course, he is revered for the depth of his own personal piety, however impossibly rigorous it may seem to us today. But let’s remember that he called us not only to a devout but also a holy life, one where our deeds will match, to the greatest possible extent, the words which we address so piously to each other and to God.
We turn now to our own intercessions and then to the Great Thanksgiving. As we utter our concerns and hopes for ourselves, each other, and the world, may we, in the spirit of William Law, express not only our desires for them but our intentions to act on their behalf. It is this spirit that animates those who question the sacredness of the Olympic torch. It is this spirit that calls us, separately and together, to aspire to both a devout and a holy life. Amen.