Thursday, November 27, 2008

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


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 This was followed by another, even juicier story: “USA PATRIOT ACT REPEALED”.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 3, 2008

Homily: All Saints Day [November 3, 2008]

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

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

Then, during the bridge, they go on:

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

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

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

Lynch continues:

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

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

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

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

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