Monday, October 20, 2008

Homily: Chicago Consultation Evensong [October 19, 2008]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Homily: Teresa of Avila [October 15, 2008]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 3, 2008

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

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

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

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