Wednesday, December 16, 2009
The hero of The Fountainhead is an architect named Howard Roark who chooses to destroy his own creation rather than see it compromised. In many ways Howard Roark has served as the popular image of the visionary architect in American culture, and even though Philip Johnson, Frank Gehry, and Richard Meier are no doubt much nicer people and more socially conscious than Rand’s hero, we nevertheless tend to expect the designers of our major public buildings to be the Romantic individualists emblematized by Howard Roark. You may laugh at these swooping titanium roofs today, but one day they’ll be celebrated as the greatest monuments of the early 21st century.
At the same time in my life—the early 1990s—when I was listening to these Objectivist teenage book reports, I was also working with a real architect named Brenda Levin, a woman who designed the Math and Science building at Oakwood School where I was serving as the principal. As part of the team helping to make that building a reality, I had the opportunity to watch a real architect in operation. And what surprised me the most about working with Brenda and her colleagues was the way in which she demonstrated how a successful architect actually works. Though the start of the process may be a visionary ideal conception, getting a building built requires enormous collaborative and community relations skill. Only a novelist would think of an architect as a loner. A better image might be a filmmaker: the architect needs to begin with a vision and then work with flesh and blood people with their disparate interests, values, and ideas to achieve a shared consensus on what the building will actually become. Not only that: the architect has to take building codes, utility lines, neighborhood interests, and the pedagogical uses of the structure into account. Designing and bringing a building into being is more like conducting an orchestra than like being a soloist.
Today we give thanks for the lives of two architects—Ralph Adams Cram, Richard Upjohn, and one artist, John LaFarge. All three were instrumental in the late 19th and early 20th century Gothic revival in church art and architecture that produced, among other things, these buildings here at Seabury. Cram designed two of my favorite spaces, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, and Holy Cross Monastery, the main house of the monastic order of which I am an associate, in West. Park, New York. Upjohn designed a prodigious number of church buildings, including Trinity Church, Wall Street and one church I know well from my early days as a priest, St. Thomas Church in Taunton, Massachusetts. LaFarge was both a painter and a stained glass artist, and crafted among other things four prominent stained glass windows at Trinity Church, Boston. And Cram’s partner, Bertram Goodhue, designed Christ Church Cranbrook, the parish where I will become rector in January. Two other parishes where I’ve worked—All Saints, Pasadena, and Church of the Redeemer, were designed by Gothic revival architects in the same movement: Reginald Johnson and Charles Burns respectively. Though I run as far and as fast as I can, I can’t seem to get away from these flying buttresses!
Those of you who have been in the Anglican Ethos class this fall know that the rediscovery of Gothic architecture was more than an aesthetic fad. The neo-Gothic architects were themselves influenced by the Oxford Movement, and the ritual and liturgical affirmations of 19th century Anglo Catholicism involved a lot more than a taste for stone and stained glass. The Tractarians became a movement because they opposed the Erastian, Whiggish ideas of the church as the religious arm of the state. To Newman, Keble, Pusey, and Froude, the church was in fact the literal body of Christ. Or as Charles Gore later put it, “The Visible Church is the Son of God Himself.” The Gothic revivalists were attracted to Medieval vesture and architecture because these things represented the last period in Western history when the church had lived out of a unitive vision of its ministry and mission. So the Gothic buildings and liturgical arts designed by Cram, Upjohn, LaFarge, and others came to stand for an aspiration that the church might live up to the high ecclesiology of the Oxford Movement.
It always surprises people who don’t know me very well that I share this vision of the church, that my ecclesiology is a sort of ironic postmodern Tractarian Anglo-Catholicism. It is this understanding of the Gospel which has resulted in the strongest and most vibrant strain of social action in the church’s recent history. And it is only this kind of theological vision of the church—one that sees it as something more than a well-intentioned non-profit institution—that has the power to transform both lives and society.
Today’s Gospel—rather predictably, I’m afraid—is Matthew’s version of Jesus’s words about the wise person who built a house upon the rock. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.” [Matthew 7.24-25] As we think about those words in the context of our celebration of Cram, Upjohn, and LaFarge, two things come to mind.
First: it is precisely this serious vision of the church, and only this vision of the church, which is worth giving your life to. “The Visible Church is the Son of God Himself.” God is doing something in the world of which the church is the sacramental sign. And though we do all kinds of stupid, painful, oppressive, even sinful things in the church, nevertheless it is only in the life and witness of a community of finite people, brought together in Baptism and sustained in the Eucharist, that any kind of sense can be made of the world at all. The ultimate, final creative source of the universe is alive and work in the flesh and blood likes of you and me. That is the vision to which these artists and their buildings testify, and that is the vision that sustains a body of people seeking to discern God’s will for them and the world in the midst of all kinds of suffering and despair. We are part of the thing we proclaim. And the hope we announce is not only ours but belongs to the One who in Advent comes toward us. As Cormac McCarthy puts it in The Road, we are “carriers of the flame.”
Second: building your house on the rock does not mean being either recalcitrant a “traditionalist” or a self-centered jerk. Nor does it mean being a narcissistic visionary artist who will have no truck with compromise. It means being an architect in the sense that real architects do their work. As lay and clergy leaders, we are charged to be the visionary conveners of a conversation, trusting that God is and will be incarnate in the body over which we preside. “The Visible Church is the Son of God Himself.” We don’t need any more reactionaries or egomaniacs. What we do need is women and men who take the Gospel and the community which carries it seriously, people who feel both the pain of the world and the calling to address that pain in ministry, action, and prayer.
Cram, Upjohn, and LaFarge were that kind of people, and so, I hope, are all of us. And it is for the visible company of all us finite and fragile and faithful people that we proceed in the Eucharist to give thanks. Amen.
Sunday, December 6, 2009
It’s hard to remember now, but back before the Tiger Woods “single car accident with possible wifely golf club rescue” story took over all print, broadcast, and electronic media, there were actually other things we cared about—and I don’t mean the couple who crashed the Obamas’ first state dinner. I mean things like healthcare legislation, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the state of the economy, and, yes, even Christmas! I am neither a golfer nor a follower of the sport—I tried hard to learn how to do it, but the golf gods decided to smile elsewhere—so Tiger Woods looms no larger in my consciousness than do, say, NASCAR drivers or WWF wrestlers. So I’m a bit surprised at the “All Tiger all the time” coverage right now. I just hope when the time comes my wife Kathy has the presence of mind to rescue me from a smashed up car with a blunt instrument.
Part of the job of a preacher, though, is to help us all focus on the important stuff that is going on, and for us Christians, of course, the most vital looming event in our lives is the coming of Christmas. And what better way to focus on Christmas than the shopping frenzy of Black Friday? Last weekend, when we were in California for Thanksgiving, the Los Angeles Times carried a story called “Black Friday: Wal-Mart in Upland Temporarily Closes after ‘Fighting Inside’” [Los Angeles Times, 11/27/09]. The story told of how police were called to the store at around 3 a.m. to help the staff deal with about three hundred people who were fighting each other and store workers, tearing into shrink wrapped packages, refusing to line up. After the police arrived, expelled the shoppers, and restored order, they caught several trying to sneak back into the store through the lawn and garden section. “It was scary,” one worker said.
What better way can you think of to prepare for the coming of the Prince of Peace than to go down to Wal-Mart and knock some heads together? Although there is a humorous side to this story, I don’t bring it up to be flip. Remember that a year ago, at a Long Island Wal-Mart, a 34-year-old worker named Jdimytai Damour was killed when a frenzied mob broke through that store’s doors and trampled him to death. I’m sure that at least part of this frenzy stems from the high rate of unemployment and the desperate desire for bargains that people feel will enable them to give gifts to their families and friends at Christmas. People are hurting financially, emotionally, and spiritually. They worry that there is not enough to go around.
But the very fact that Christmas itself has become an occasion for fear, outrage, anxiety, and depression tells us that we are all very much off course. Even those of us who are not in desperate financial straits still shrink at the approach of some of the excesses of the season we’re in. We feel, somehow, that it’s up to us to make this season “perfect” (as Martha Stewart might say) for ourselves and for the people we love. For some of us, that perfection is tied up with getting the season’s hot toy. For others of us, that perfection involves a flawlessly decorated and served gathering or event. For still others, perfection consists in merely surviving a day inside with people you can only stand to be with a couple of times a year. What saddens me about Christmas as we celebrate it is that we have turned it into a problem to be solved rather than a festival to be enjoyed.
One of the great blessings of the Christian life is the season of Advent—the four weeks that lead up to Christmas Day. Advent asks that we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas—and that coming moves backward and forward in time. Christ came at the first Christmas, Christ will come at the end of time, and Christ comes to us NOW. While the rest of the world frenzies to the beat of the “Christmas Season” (which actually began around Labor Day), you and I have been given the gift of Advent, a time to watch and wait for something extraordinary which is coming toward us NOW.
In today’s Gospel, we hear the first reference to the ministry of John the Baptist, who, as Luke tells us, appeared in the area around the Jordan River and proclaimed a baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. The most famous thing that John says is actually a quotation from the prophet Isaiah:
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
[Luke 3.4-6, Isaiah 40.3-5]
John is talking, of course, about the coming of Jesus and his ministry. He is a voice crying in the wilderness, making the paths straight and the rough ways smooth in preparation for the One who approaches. He preaches a Baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins so that we may greet with joy the One who will be born in Bethlehem. The Church has traditionally thought of Advent as a penitential season, not quite Lent, but a time of cleansing and preparation. It is a time for us to attend to the voice of one crying in the wilderness. It is a time for us to make our own paths straight and our own rough ways smooth. We are making ready a place in our minds and hearts for the One who is coming toward us.
And that understanding of Advent as a time of gift and quiet and preparation brings me back to the frenzies of Black Friday and our own drive to over-achieve in our celebrations of Christmas. When we listen to that voice crying in the wilderness, I hear two words being spoken to us in the here and now about how we can—individually and together--prepare the way of the Lord.
First, to each of us as individuals: Christ is coming toward you NOW. This means many things, but perhaps the deepest thing it means is that you are worth enough to God and Jesus for this whole immense drama of salvation to take place. Each of us, to some extent, dwells in an internal and external wilderness, and each of us needs to hear that the One coming toward us does so in love and blessing and peace. There are many reasons people overdo it at this time of year, but at least one big one is a nagging fear of worthlessness. Maybe if I give the perfect gift, serve the perfect dinner, put on the perfect party—maybe then I will matter and be accepted. The first great truth of Advent and Christmas is that God is doing this whole thing for YOU. Christmas is about what theologians call the Incarnation—the coming of God into human flesh in Jesus Christ—and what the Incarnation finally means is that you and I matter. We are created in God’s image and endowed with God’s purpose and blessing. By taking on human life in Jesus, God says that everything we do and experience counts for something. If you are entertaining and giving gifts out of a deep sense of the abundance of God’s love for you, wonderful! If you are doing all that out of a sense that you have to earn something, then think again. You matter. You count. You are accepted. You are loved. That is what God’s voice says to you in the wilderness.
And God’s voice says a second word to us that we, all of us, need to hear together. It’s not only that God comes to us in our wilderness to tell us that we matter. It’s that there are others lost in this wilderness who need to hear that message. There are hungry, poor, sick people who need to hear that message. There are lonely, cynical, alienated people who need to hear it, too. If Christmas becomes only a celebration of our own preciousness—if we try to hoard and keep this blessing to ourselves inside our own small circles—then it’s only a pale parody of the real festival which God calls us to. The real, deep point about Christmas is that it’s a celebration of the crazy, wild, profligate abundance of God’s love for you, for me, for the world. One way we make the way straight for the coming of Christ is to knock down our own internal barriers which keep us from truly joyful living. Another way we make the way straight for Christ is to stand with and for those whose lives are characterized by scarcity. To the poor and the oppressed we reach out in generosity and advocacy and hope. To the lonely and alienated we open our hearts and houses and our churches of welcome and meaning and life. In community with all God’s beloved children we try, as Jesus did, to create a table fellowship where we can together enjoy the abundant life God means us to live.
The Black Friday Wal-Mart slugfest serves as a grotesque image of what Christmas in our culture can become—a crazed mob driven by fear, anxiety, and a gnawing sense that there just isn’t enough to go around. As a counterpoint to that image, today’s gospel gives us another one—that of a community crying in the wilderness, gathering us in a community of repentance and forgiveness, waiting expectantly for the next wonderful thing God might be about to do.
Christianity has always been a counter-force in every culture it has inhabited, from the Roman Empire to the present day. We have always been, as John the Baptist was, a voice crying in the wilderness. In a world obsessed with the material excesses of the season, you and I are called to be, as John was, voices crying in the wilderness, people preparing the way of the Lord in our own minds and hearts and houses and in the wider world we all inhabit. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make the pathways straight, the rough places smooth. You are so important to God that God comes toward you even now to grant you fullness and abundance of life. And all God’s people—especially the ones at the margins of illness, poverty, and alienation—are precious to God as well. Some One and something great is coming towards us. Let us pause and open ourselves up to it, so that finally we may, all of us together, give thanks. Amen.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. [Luke 16.19-21]
You don’t have to be a creative writing teacher to notice how utterly concrete and realistic Jesus is being here. And then it gets worse:
The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. [Luke 16.22-23]
In life, Dives enjoyed comfort and Lazarus suffered in misery. In death the situation is reversed. And then the story gives us one more twist of the knife:
[Dives] called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” [Luke 16.24-26]
A couple of things make me squirm here. One is the great unpassable gulf between the place of agony and the place of bliss. The other is that even in death Dives doesn’t get it. He continues to think of Lazarus as his servant. I’m surprised Abraham didn’t respond by snapping, “Go and get your own damn ice water!”
Why does this story scare me so much? Perhaps my fear comes from my ambivalent relation to my own affluence. Though I don’t dress in purple and linen and try not to feast sumptuously every day, it’s hard for me to ignore the extent of my comfort, especially when I get out of the Fantasy Island confines of Evanston’s First Ward. In Malwai Kathy and I once visited a village so remote that they had never seen white people before. We were the only people wearing shoes. It doesn’t take a literary genius to see who was Dives and who Lazarus in that cross-cultural encounter. At least we had the grace not to ask them to go get us some lemonade.
Today is the day we have set aside to remember two men who are new to our calendar of saints, William Bliss and Richard Ely. Bliss organized the first Christian Socialist society in the United States and edited the movement’s magazine, The Dawn. Richard Ely was Professor of Economics first at Johns Hopkins and then at the University of Wisconsin, and he was a member of the Social Gospel movement and advocated labor unions and the abolition of child labor. Both were Episcopalians and both flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It is in the spirit of the celebration of William Bliss and Richard Ely and their witness that we heard the opening words of the 61st chapter of Isaiah, the same passage which Jesus reads when he visits the synagogue:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the poor,
to bind up the broken-hearted,to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners. [Isaiah 61.1]
Both the Episcopal Church and Seabury-Western are at a pivotal moment in their history. The church has miraculously navigated the rapids of the sexuality debate and suddenly finds itself for the first time in 40 years without a polarizing social issue (Civil Rights, Vietnam, the Ordination of Women, the Arms Race, Human Sexuality) to fight about. Seabury has similarly come out of the other end of the reorganization process and its administration and board will now have to find something to do other than wring our hands about deficits. Both the wider church and the school it serves suddenly occupy a liberating (and perhaps terrifying) place. We are free, now, from the wrangles which have distracted us. We are able (perhaps compelled) to think together about what Jesus actually wants us next to do.
When our son Oliver was a junior in college at Berkeley, Kathy and I moved from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. We rented a van and spent a weekend with him in Monterey before moving some of his things to the Bay Area. On the Saturday in that weekend I had an accident with the van and had to spend the entire day at the rental car company sorting it out. When I complained to my therapist about the waste of a precious day I could have spent with my son before leaving California, she said, “Of course you did. You had to find something to think about other than your own grief.”
My experience of using a car accident to mask my grief helps me understand our church’s recent history. We are all, all of us, terrified by the implications of the story of Dives and Lazarus. I don’t suggest for a minute that the issues we have engaged over the past decades are unimportant. Far from it: I’ve been a partisan in all those issue debates for thirty years, and it has been vital to press the church to grapple with problems of war, peace, and human dignity. These questions of identity are justice questions, and the church must always be on the side of justice. But we have let them occupy too much of our spiritual space. If we had really been organized around Jesus’s mission of service to the poor, would we have thought for two seconds about the race, gender, or sexual orientation of those who were gathered together in this work? So here’s a thought. Perhaps we have fought with each other about polarizing social issues, perhaps we have dug ourselves into and out of an institutional chasm, because we want to find something to think about other than our own relative affluence. It would be a terrible mistake to think that God does not love us affluent people; remember that, in this story, Abraham calls Dives, the rich man, “my child.” What rankles God and Jesus about us affluent folks is how self-absorbed and callous we have become to the suffering of others. We complain about our minor discomforts while most of the world’s people are starving. And worse than that, like Dives, we often want them both to serve us and to help us feel better about ourselves.
Might I suggest that there is only one thing that you and I both as Episcopalians and as members of the Seabury community should be thinking about? We should be thinking about the primary thing that Jesus thought about, and that is: how to serve the poor. And by “poor” I mean just that: the hungry, the destitute, those without houses and healthcare. All of us relatively affluent Episcopalians—white, black, gay, straight, women, men—have a larger cause to come together in service of. We are anointed, as Isaiah and Jesus were, to proclaim good news to the poor. That is now, as it has always been, our primary mission.
And we in the seminary community have to think critically and creatively about what that mission means for us. If we are to serve a church mobilized on behalf of the poor, then we ought to care about them ourselves. We talk a lot about leadership. What would it mean to be educating lay and ordained leaders to be advocates for the poor? We talk a lot about congregational development. What would it mean for us to be challenging congregations not only to grow but to mobilize for feeding Lazarus, getting him housing and healthcare, and not simply holding Dives’ hand?
These are tough questions. We’re all terrified of this story and its implications for us, and so we all distract ourselves from engaging the central calling of Jesus’s life. But the best way to engage our terror is to face into and not away from it. If we are serious about being a transformed, missional seminary serving the church and world, the image of Lazarus has to be at the center of everything we do. That is the implication of the lives and witnesses of William Bliss and Richard Ely for us today, and it is for the ways in which their ministries both call and challenge us to stand with and for those with and for whom Jesus stood that we proceed, in the Eucharist, to give thanks. Amen.
Monday, October 5, 2009
If you have a television set or a computer, you know that we have been suffering recently through a spate of embarrassing public outbursts. First there was Representative Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” shouted at President Obama during the healthcare speech. Then there was Serena Williams’ “If I could, I would take this . . . ball and shove it down your . . . throat” meltdown at the U.S. Open. These were soon followed by Kanye West’s grabbing the microphone from Taylor Swift at the Video Music Awards in the middle of her acceptance speech to proclaim, “Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’ll let you finish, but Beyoncé has one of the best videos of all time!” With the exception of Representative Wilson, whose “they told me I had to apologize” statement ranks with history’s greatest non-contrition apologies, the outbursters have regretted and atoned for their remarks. But even heartfelt apologies do not erase the shock of this kind of public self-display. Tonight is the Emmy Awards, and I’m nervous.
While I’m concerned about the decline of civility in our public discourse, these recent outbursts suggest a deeper cultural problem, one noted by New York Times columnist David Brooks last Tuesday. As he said, “Today, immodesty is as ubiquitous as advertising, and for the same reasons. . . . Baseball and football games are now so routinely interrupted by self-celebration, you don’t even notice it anymore. This isn’t the death of civilization. It’s just the culture in which we live.” [David Brooks, “High Five Nation”, The New York Times, 9/15/09] It’s this culture that allowed Jerry Lewis to announce as he received his special Oscar last February, “The humility I feel is staggering, and I know it will stagger me for the rest of my life.” It’s this same culture that enabled Michael Jordan, in his “egomaniacal and self-indulgent Hall of Fame speech” [David Brooks again’] to announce that, though there may be no “I” in team, “There's ‘I’ in win.” Who needs to worry about simple civility when we are surrounded by so many people so loudly and so blatantly and aggressively promoting themselves?
If you, as I do, find all this self-advertisement not only distasteful but profoundly troubling, then how do we as Christians respond to it? Are blatant egotism and false humility our only options? Or is there another way? Let’s listen to what Jesus has to say to us in the Gospel this morning.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."—Mark 9.33-35
As followers of Jesus, we have to begin by admitting our own involvement in the ongoing struggle between self-promotion and humility. The reason the most important person in a church procession comes in last is because early Christians took Jesus’s statement “Whoever wants to be first must be last” literally. In Roman processions the most powerful person went first. The church simply reversed the order. So that’s why, when you see Christian clergy lining up, there is a very polite shuffling about who is going to be last in line. We’re all trying, not unlike Jerry Lewis, to demonstrate who is possessed of the most staggering humility.
There are several places in the Gospels where Jesus catches his disciples either covertly arguing with each other or directly asking him about who is going to be the first runner-up in the Jesus movement. Jesus always responds to these quarrels somewhat like an exasperated Kindergarten teacher, explaining that the community he has gathered does not look or behave like the Empire which subjects and surrounds them. Relationships in the Jesus community are not about power. They are about mutuality. Again and again Jesus reminds his companions that the way through hard times lies through compassion, equality, sharing, and service. We don’t thrive by imitating the self-aggrandizing power structures of the Empire. We do thrive by building an alternative community based on empathy, compassion, justice, and love.
What seems to get Jesus’s goat in today’s Gospel is not only that his friends don’t “get it” that the Jesus community is not the kind of place where there should be power struggles. What seems particularly to rankle is their colossally bad timing: they don’t “get it” at the very moment when he describes what will take place during Holy Week.
"The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.—Mark 9. 31b-32
Here he is talking about the cross, and they’re working on their organizational hierarchy. The logic of Jesus’s life and witness has brought him into such conflict with human power establishments that they will have no recourse other than to kill him. And here are his friends, even as he’s describing this conflict, striving to imitate the structure of those very power establishments bringing Jesus to the cross. It sounds, in its own way, as bad as a healthcare town meeting.
So what we have in today’s Gospel is a snapshot of the human situation. If Jesus is our image for what God is like, then this passage presents us with a glimpse into God’s values: God calls us to live together through faithfulness, sacrifice, compassion—the characteristics that any one of us would define as true humility. We humans usually respond to that call by building our own structures of privilege and authority. How do we make our way forward through this heavily ironic impasse?
Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."—Mark 9.36-37
What is so compelling, at least to me, about today’s Gospel is that in it Jesus responds to this moment of misunderstanding by doing something dramatic. He does not give them a lecture about powerlessness, vulnerability, empathy, compassion, or sacrifice. Instead, he holds up and asks us to consider a human child.
Now, as a Zen master might say, we need to look at the real child Jesus shows us and not at our cultural preconceptions about a child. We need, as Jesus does, to see the child as it is. We live in a culture that is at once sentimental about and abusive of children. We idealize children (especially our own) and then we send them (especially other peoples’) to schools we wouldn’t even want to enter ourselves. We lavish our own children with material things and then we consign other peoples’ children to poverty, disease, and homelessness We talk about them as if they were gold and treat them like garbage.
Because he lived in a culture which was not at all sentimental about children, Jesus does not see them this way. Jesus knows that, like adults, children are complicated creatures, capable of generosity and selfishness at the same time. So Jesus does not hold up this child, I believe, to show us a greeting-card vision of sincere, spotless cheerful Christian humility. He is not asking his companions to be what we would call “child-like.” So what does his gesture ask them and us to consider?
I believe Jesus asks us all to consider a child because in both his culture and ours, the child is the perfect image of the powerless person. A child has no money, few rights, and is at the mercy of everyone bigger or stronger than themselves. Jesus does not hold up the child to say, “Be like this, all cute and cuddly.” Jesus holds up the child to say, “Be like this. Truly poor, truly powerless, truly at one with those who are at the short end of life’s stick.” For Jesus, the child is the perfect image of the powerless person, and it is as the ultimately powerless person that Jesus himself goes to the cross. If we want to follow Jesus, we do so most authentically when we stand with the marginalized, stateless, poor, oppressed, victims of the world. Real status in the Jesus movement does not attain to those who rack up honors, titles, degrees, and awards for themselves. Real status attains to those who become child-like in Jesus’s sense of the word. It has nothing to do with real or false humility. It has everything to do with who you stand for and with in your life and work.
Where is the good news in all of this? It comes to us in the two images Jesus gives us this morning, the image of the child, and the image of the cross.
Whether we want to be or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all, all of us, like the child. We are all vulnerable. In the face of life’s biggest challenges we are often helpless. We survive, finally, not by our own wits but by the generosity and love and compassion of others. When Jesus holds up the child, he asks us to consider not only what we should become but what we actually are. You and I, all of us, are like children. We are limited, we are finite, we are vulnerable. We will make it through life’s challenges only with the help and support of each other. We need help. And that is good news. It contradicts the received wisdom of our sick culture that promotes power and self-sufficiency as the ways to fulfillment. The reality, as Jesus shows us, is not like the mythologies of Rome or late-Capitalist America at all. Look at the child; see yourself as a child; build solidarity with and serve both real children and the vulnerable child you know to be in everyone. That--not greatness, not winning, not even being the last one in the procession—that is true fulfillment on God’s and Jesus’s terms.
And then there’s that image of the cross, the thing Jesus had been talking to his companions about before they started squabbling with each other about their place in the pecking order. In a world that not only tolerates but seems to exalt self-promotion, the church gathers weekly to remember and give thanks for One who, in Paul’s words, “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant . . .[and] humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” [Philippians 2.7-8] Our self-promotions will not save us. Only the cross—and the kind of divine and human faithfulness it stands for—will. The cross will always stand as the counter-cultural symbol of true Christian greatness. Living into God’s and our own powerlessness is finally the only way to combat the corrosive forces which diminish us, each other, and the creation. And the image of that kind of faithfully powerless living finds its most perfect symbol in the weapon the Empire used to put Jesus to death and which God’s love defeated—that is, the cross.
We are gathered now as a group of vulnerable childlike people around the table of One who lived and ate with us as one of us and in so doing challenged the power structures of Empire. God calls us to this table as children, as vulnerable creatures who know our need to be fed. God calls us to this table as those commissioned to hold up the cross as the symbol which can even now bring down the oppressors who would wield it against the smallest and poorest in this world. May we find in this meal both nourishment in our vulnerability and strength in our witness to stand with those Jesus stood with and, in so doing, discover how deeply they, and we, are loved. Amen.
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Homily: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [August 9, 2009, Church of the Holy Spirit, Lake Forest, Illinois]
On Tuesday, July 7, I was personally touched by history. Kathy and I were in Los Angeles for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, and on that Tuesday morning I went for a bike ride in Griffith Park. If you know anything about the geography of Los Angeles, you know that Griffith Park is right next to Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood Hills. The way I was personally touched by history is this: I went out for a bike ride at precisely the same moment that Michael Jackson’s family motorcade left their Encino house for the private family funeral at Forest Lawn (which was then followed by the televised funeral service at Staples Center later that morning). So how was I, a lowly recreational bike rider, touched by history? Here’s how: just as I was about to exit Griffith Park, the police shut down all the park exits for the duration of the motorcade and funeral. So along with some miscellaneous joggers and other bike riders, I was trapped inside Griffith Park chatting with the policemen for a couple of hours as television helicopters hovered overhead. I kept waving at them, but they didn’t seem to notice. Even so, you might say I was in the neighborhood of international fame. When I did finally get to leave the park, I was shocked to see thousands of people lining the streets, even though the Jackson family was long gone. It was kind of like my own personal Tour de France. Now, I admit it wasn’t much of a brush with history—let’s just say my family and friends are sick of hearing me talk about it, as now are you—but it was a memorable event.
I have thought a lot about Tuesday, July 7, 2009 since that day, and not only because of my forgettable brush with history. That Tuesday was also the opening day of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which met for the following ten days in Anaheim. If you live, as I do, mostly within the friendly confines of the Episcopal Church, our General Convention is like the Super Bowl, World Series, and Stanley Cup Finals of Church groupie life all rolled into one. Church activists live for General Convention. If they made action figures of bishops and deputies, many people I know would collect the set. Because Seabury had a booth and hosted two events there, I had spent the three months leading up to General Convention working with people who talked of nothing else. So imagine that you are me, Joe Seminary Dean and part-time church nerd, at the epicenter of Anglicanism on the opening of an event when not only the whole Episcopal Church and even the Archbishop of Canterbury are gathered in your home town, and there is not one single mention of it in a newspaper, on television, or even public radio. I mean zero, zip, nada. There was, to be sure, dawn to dusk media coverage of Michael Jackson’s funeral, but not one word or picture or column inch of print devoted to a church gathering which would be asked to make some momentous decisions regarding the future of a major Christian tradition.
As I’ve thought about Tuesday, July 7th and its cultural impact, my reflections have less to do with the habits of the media than you might think. Because what really strikes me about the confluence of these two events—the death of a pop star, the opening of a church convention—is how people responded to them. Whether you like Michael Jackson’s music or not, you have to admit that millions of people around the world found something in his life and death that touched them so much that they had to stop in their tracks and grieve when he died. And whether you’re a devoted or a casual Episcopalian, you have to grant that the opening of our triennial convention on the same day was largely a matter of national indifference. Why do people seem to reach out to figures like Michael Jackson to make meaning of their lives? And why do they not seem to want what we in the church have to offer?
"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. . . .I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." [John 6]
You and I live in complicated cultural and historical times, and when I try to think about what it means to be a Christian in days like these, I usually turn first to the writings of St. Augustine. Augustine lived and served as a bishop and theologian and pastor in the late days of the Roman Empire, a time when social and cultural change were rampant and life was deeply unsettled. How does one--as a finite human being beset by unrest and change and disruption on all sides—how do you and I get and keep our spiritual and moral bearings in days like these? When I ask myself those questions, I turn to Augustine for help. And when I turn to Augustine, the first thing I come upon is his famous statement as he addresses God in the opening paragraph of his Confesssions: “Inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te.” “Our heart is unquiet [or restless] until it rests in you.”
“Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Augustine is speaking to God here. And what makes him so profoundly relevant to you and me in the 21st century is that he speaks as a Christian person who begins his reflection on life and its meaning from the standpoint of the restlessness of his own heart. Augustine knows that he is a human being made in God’s image. God is the source of his being. Yet to live in the world is to be in some sense separated from God, from his source. Some deep part of Augustine’s being knows itself to belong to God and to yearn for reconnection with God. So Augustine begins his extended autobiographical prayer with the admission that his heart will always be restless until it rests in God.
Now that may sound like a platitude or a truism, but it is profoundly true in more ways than I have time to talk about or even name this morning. When I’m honest with myself I admit that my heart, too, is restless, that there’s always something I want or need or long for that I cannot quite grasp. As a human being, my attention can be diverted to watching what is worthless, to thinking that if I only have x or y or z then I will truly be able to relax and be happy. My x or y or z may not be the same as yours—for one person it’s a relationship, a job, a house; for another it’s an achievement, personal health, or recognition; for a third it might be world peace, universal health care, environmental justice. The point is, all of us, like Augustine, have restless hearts. What Augustine knows that we often don’t is that there is only one cure for restlessness—and that cure is not a job, not a person, not an achievement, not even physical and psychological wellness. The only cure for what ails our restless hearts is finding our rest in God. God is our source. We look for peace and fulfillment everywhere, but we find them only as we reconnect with the ground of our being.
And that, I believe, is what Jesus means when he says to us that he is the bread of life. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. . . .I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." Certainly John’s Gospel talks about bread at many levels here—real, physical bread for one thing, and the bread of the Eucharist for another. But when Jesus calls himself “the bread of life” at least one of his meanings is to name himself as that which alone will satisfy our hunger. There is a space in us which nothing but God can fill. We try to fill it with other things—with things that pass away or satisfy only briefly—but an important step on every person’s spiritual journey is the realization at some point in life that our deepest needs call out to the One who is our source. “Our heart is restless until it rests in God.” Another way to say that is that Jesus is the bread of life. Whoever comes to him will never be hungry or thirsty. We think we know what we want and we need, but we really don’t. We are restless without God, hungry for Jesus. No matter how good they are, a pop star or a political figure or even a religious leader is not going to satisfy that restlessness and hunger. Only God, the source of our being, can do that.
What were the millions of people who registered online for 1700 tickets to Michael Jackson’s funeral hoping to get from that experience? If we use Jesus’s or St. Augustine’s language, they were seeking nourishment for the empty places in their souls, they were looking for a restful place to quiet their restless hearts.
I am, of course, being ironic when I say that I was personally touched by history on July 7, 2009. But the people who talked of Michael Jackson’s music and funeral as transcendent experiences were not being ironic. Many of them talked movingly about how his music had given shape and meaning to their lives. While it’s tempting to be critical of those folks, they are telling us something we need to hear. At the very least let us admit that they are one step ahead of many of us in that they acknowledge their need for connection with something bigger and deeper than themselves. While I’m not advocating that you rush out of church this morning to buy a copy of Thriller, I do want to suggest that you and I have something to learn from those who arrange their lives around something many of us would probably consider trivial.
“Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” “I am the bread of life.” Each of us has a restless heart, and each of us yearns to be fed with something that will fill the emptiness which every one of us at some point must confront. It is easy to lose your way, to find yourself, as the poet Dante did, in a dark wood in the middle of life’s journey. We all wish to count for something, to be remembered, for our lives to have mattered. All of us are vulnerable to every imaginable kind of loss—the death of a wife, husband, parent, child, friend; the loss of a place, a person, a job, a friend. We can’t help but organize our lives around things and people that are passing away. Jesus knew that. Augustine knew that. But they also knew something else, and that something else is what God has on offer for you today.
Our restless hearts will never be at peace until they rest in God. Our deep needs will never be met until we reach for the bread of life which is, of course, Jesus himself. God knows that you are restless and hungry, and God also knows that you cannot help yourself from chasing after shiny worthless things, that even the relationships which mean so much in each of our lives will not endure forever. God knows that and the pain of that, and God knows what you most deeply need, and has given us an image of the answer to our questions in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus does not ask you to turn from the people and things we love so much but to look through those things and people to the ultimate source of what is good and true and life-giving. And that of course is God. And we see what God looks like when we see Jesus.
That people have to sign up for a lottery to get tickets to a pop star’s funeral while many of our churches stand empty should wake us up to our responsibility, as followers of Jesus, to bring the world in to our sharing of the bread of life. We are hungry for what God offers, and it is pretty obvious that the world around us is hungry, too. Our job in the church is both to receive and share that bread with each other. But we’re not being faithful if we don’t open it up to others, too.
In a world which surrounds us with idols and ideas and even good and loving people as ways to give meaning to our lives, God offers you today and always the opportunity to see through them to their source, to the One who really matters. That One knows and loves and accepts you and calls you to be an agent of love and acceptance and blessing to others. You and I have been personally touched by history, and not because of some ephemeral connection with a television camera or a pop star. We have been touched by history because we have been made and loved and saved by God in Jesus. Our hearts need no longer be restless. Jesus is the bread of life. As we share this bread in love and service to God and each other and those we don’t even know yet, we may get a glimpse of a place and time when all our hungers will be satisfied and our hearts will be truly at rest. Amen.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
In 1978, my wife Kathy and I got married and moved from Massachusetts to Michigan. She is from Ohio and I am from California and we met, of course, in Boston. We lived in Bloomfield Hills the first three years of our married life, and the only thing I wasn’t prepared for there was the tornado warning. In California they don’t have tornados, but in Michigan they do—in fact, a big one had touched done major damage in West Bloomfield right before we got there—and I wasn’t ready for how frightened I would get when the sky would turn that weird color and the sirens would go off and they would tell you to head for a basement. Kathy, of course, looked at me in those panic moments as if to say, “What’s your problem? These are tornado warnings. They happen all the time. No big deal.”
The situation was reversed in 1981 when we moved to Los Angeles and, a month or so after we got there, we had a fairly large earthquake. I had grown up with earthquakes—in fact I’d slept through the big Sylmar earthquake of 1971—and so when this one happened, I got up, looked to see if there had been any damage, and went back to bed. When I got there, I saw two enormous blue eyes looking at me. “What was that?” Kathy asked. I replied. “It’s just an earthquake. No big deal. Go back to bed.”
Even though today is Father’s Day, I don’t think my empathetic response qualified me for “Husband of the Year.” But that’s the way it is. You learn to live with what life gives you, I guess. Midwesterners are blasé about tornadoes; Californians take earthquakes in their stride. But, at some deep level, all of us know the massive extent of destructive force that nature can exert in any geography.
In his great poem, “Tree at My Window,” Robert Frost talks about outer and inner weather. Being human, we must make things more than they are, and it has always been that way with storms. States of weather have always been primary human metaphors for states of the soul. Just think of all those song titles: “Stormy Weather,” “April Showers,” “Good Day Sunshine.” Weather always means more to us than the roaring of the sky or the shaking of the earth. It stands also for the state of our souls. Or as Frost says as he looks out at and addresses a tree being blown about in the heaves of a storm,
But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost. That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather. [Robert Frost, “Tree at My Window”]
When we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll all admit, if even only to ourselves, that life can sometimes be an extended series of storms, a mixed bag of earthquakes and tornadoes, floods, fires, and hurricanes. Life comes at us and we find ourselves “taken and swept/And all but lost” as Frost says. It isn’t always sunny weather.
Jesus knew that it isn’t always sunny weather. He knew that there were disruptions that can overwhelm us. And that is why when, in today’s Gospel, Jesus calms the storm, he comes toward us in love not just as master of our outer weather. It’s good news that Jesus can calm a raging outer storm. It’s even better news that he can calm the rages of our inner weather.
A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" [Mark 4.37-40]
This is a familiar story, similar in many ways to the Gospel account of Jesus walking across the water. In both stories, two things are true. The first is that this is not just a symbolic story: Jesus really does calm the storm. But it’s clear that he calms the storm out of compassion for his friends who are beside themselves with fear.
Beyond that, two more things are going on. The storm outside is raging. The storm inside is raging.
The storm outside is raging. Jesus lived and taught among people who were out there in the storm. To be a Palestinian Jew in Jesus’s day was to be a poor, hungry, person living in a country occupied by a powerful foreign empire. Jesus’s compatriots were depressed and anxious about life, and at least one central aspect of his teaching and ministry was holding out the promise that you can live an abundant life in the midst of real deprivation. When things get tough, we tend to want to pull apart from each other and hunker down separately in survival mode. But Jesus taught and lived a different truth: the way through hard social times is to come together, to live generously and compassionately with each other. When we do that, there is always, as in the feeding of the 5,000, more than enough to go around.
But of course the storm outside is raging in another sense. It’s a real storm threatening to swamp a real boat. Jesus’s friends experienced his calming of the storm as an expression of his divine nature, his deep connectedness to God as the source of his being. In its outward expression, then, the storm is both real weather and challenging economic and social conditions. “Why are you afraid?” Jesus asks.
Many of us in this church today confront the outer weather of this moment in our economic and social lives. Whether it’s your job, your investments, your work, each of us in some way confronts stresses and challenges on behalf of ourselves and others. Life is hard right now, and in the midst of a hard storm like this one, we can all lose heart and wonder whether it’s worth going on. “Why are you afraid?” Jesus asks The first truth we need to hear this morning is this: Jesus rises among us, even now, to calm that storm which rages all around us. He does that precisely by pointing to a way of living—in mutuality, in generosity, in compassion—which is the real strategy for enduring tough times. We will make it through all of this with Jesus and each other as we do it together. That is the real Christian hope he offers us to calm the raging outer storm.
But there’s that inner weather, too. The storm inside is raging. Not only do we suffer the blasts of outer events beyond our control. We all of us suffer those inner blasts of anxiety, depression, fear, loneliness, and loss. It’s part of the sick illusion of our culture that you can always be on top of things outwardly and inwardly. Sometimes the pain we feel for ourselves and on behalf of others is just too much. We all have those nights (or weeks, or months, or years) when, as Frost says, “I was taken and sweptAnd all but lost.” Jesus’s companions thought they were going to go down with the boat. There are times, for each of us, when we fear getting swamped by the inner forces which can feel beyond our control.
It is to calm this inner storm that Jesus invites you in the Gospel this morning. If Jesus had another central point in his ministry beyond a call into compassionate living, it was a call into self-acceptance. You may think that there are parts of you so dark and secret that nobody could love them. You may think that there are aspects of your being that are unlovable. You may think that there are things you have done (or thought about doing) that are unforgivable. It’s normal to think that way. All of us do it, and not just occasionally.
Part of the ministry of hard times is that they carry with them what Frederick Buechner calls a “fierce blessing.” These hard times shine a bright light on our outer and our inner storms, and they often expose to our notice those parts of our selves that we would rather not acknowledge. And it is in bringing all those dark places to light that Jesus also reaches out to us and calms our inner storm. You are made in the image of God. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has taken on your life and experience. There is no part of you that God does not know. There is no part of you that God does not bless. There is nothing you have been or done that God does not accept and forgive.
We suffer internally because we think that we and others cannot take the truth about us. The fierce blessing of social and personal storms is that they open us up to the truly important things in life. In the love and companionship of your neighbors and family and friends, you have been given the means to make it through the hardest of economic and social stress. And in Jesus’s call for you to know and love and accept all of yourself—even that part of you that seems unknowable, unlovable, unacceptable—you have been given the way to live with peace and joy and power even in the stormy times which can threaten to swamp us all. When Jesus asks his terrified disciples, “Why are you afraid?” what he is really saying is this: Have no fear. The outward things you worry about have no real power over you. The inward secrets you seek to hide are not as bad as you think they are.
And so Jesus stood in the boat, rebuked the storm, and calmed the waves. Whether it’s tornadoes or earthquakes you fear, whether it’s unemployment, shrunken resources, or the suffering of your friends and neighbors that threatens to overwhelm you; whether it’s your own guilt or sorrow or remorse which keeps you from the joyful acceptance of God’s love for you: take heart. Even now, Jesus stands in the boat and offers to calm the outer and inner storms which seem so powerful. He calls you to step out of your alienation and into compassion with every other human child of God, who feels just as you do. He calls you to let go of your stern judgment of yourself and others and accept God’s love and forgiveness.
We come now to his table, the place where we share this meal which stands as a sign both of our connection to each other and of our acceptance by Jesus and the One he calls his Father. Come forward, be fed, and go forth on a calmer sea, ready to love and be loved by the God who is always at work calming our outer and inner storms. Amen.
Sunday, June 14, 2009
I come from Los Angeles, a part of the world where mustard is an invasive species. When people from the rest of the United States settled in Southern California during the great real estate booms of the 1920s and 1940s, they brought with them non-native species like mustard and snails thinking that they would enhance the natural environment. The snails they brought because some entrepreneur thought he would make a killing raising escargot. What he got was a plague to all gardeners. The mustard importation was easier to understand: it is a beautiful plant, and it looks especially lovely on those hills which run down to the sea adjacent to the Pacific Coast Highway. On an overcast, marine-layer day, the yellow mustard plants are beautiful to behold against the grey sky. The problem is that they are the horticultural equivalent of snails. They don’t belong there, they have no predators to control them, and they run rampant over every species that does.
Now I’m sure that Jesus never meant to compare the kingdom of heaven to a predatory non-native species, but that’s the way things work in a postmodern world. So when I hear a parable like this, I can’t help hearing both its original and its current cultural context. I hear it, as an Indian theologian I know says, in stereo: in one ear I hear Jesus in his native Palestinian biome; in the other I can’t help but hear him in my own. In one ear, the parable of the mustard seed is about the mystery of how God’s hidden purposes work: this tiny seed, over time, becomes a big bush. In the other ear, the parable morphs into a meditation on how the native and the new can abide together in the same neat little seedy package.
Today’s Gospel asks us to consider the seed as the image of two divine processes. When we think about the seed, it embodies two mysterious truths. The first is that something small can generate something big—“mighty oaks from little acorns grow”. The second is that all this happens in secret and over time. Who would think, looking at a redwood seed (also very tiny), that it could produce such a giant sequioa? And, how is it that after almost endless waiting one day you look at the seeds you have scattered and see new life sprouting where there was only lifeless dirt before?
With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. [Mark 4.30-32]
The first part of Jesus’s teaching this morning comes to us as an image of something small becoming something great. Henry Thoreau, the author of Walden, wrote many other essays about his observations of nature, and one of his last writings was an essay called “The Dispersion of Seeds.” Late in his life, Thoreau became interested in what he called “the succession of forest trees,” how meadows become forests, the way in which, through seed dispersal, trees invade, colonize, and come to dominate an area. Here’s a brief example of the way he saw this process:
As I went by a pitch-pine wood the other day, I saw a few little ones springing up in the pasture from these seeds which had been blown from the wood. There was a puny one which came from the seed this year, just noticeable in the sod, and I came near mistaking it for a single sprig of moss. . . . What a feeble beginning for so long-lived a tree! . . . Thus, from pasture this portion of the earth’s surface becomes forest—because the seeds of the pine, and not of moss and grass alone, fell on it. These which are now mistaken for mosses in the grass will perhaps become lofty trees and endure two hundred years. [Henry D. Thoreau, “The Dispersion of Seeds”]
Now I quote this to show that what Thoreau sees when he looks at a pine tree is what Jesus sees when he looks at a mustard bush: something large that had its origins in something tiny. It has been customary for preachers to read Jesus’s teaching about this natural process as a metaphor for the church. But I’m not sure that Jesus thought very much about the church. True, he did think about his companions and his friends, the ones we call his disciples. And what he thought about them had a lot to do with their lowly, small place in the strata of society.
Jesus was a Palestinian Jewish peasant. He lived and worked and taught in the world of Palestinian Jewish peasants. These were men and women who lived in a country occupied by the Roman Empire. They worked with their hands, fishing and farming. They were heavily taxed to support the occupying Roman army. They were hungry. They were poor. They were subject to another nation. They were at the bottom of the economic and social ladder.
It seems to me that, when talking about how little seeds become mighty bushes, Jesus is not predicting a world wide Empire-like church: instead, he’s talking about the worth and dignity of the small thing in and of itself. You and I tend to be impressed by greatness. But Jesus looks at the great thing and notices, as we should notice, that even the great thing owes its existence to a small thing.
The first point this morning is this: as a society, we are going through a time of readjustment, a time when we are asked to rethink our values and priorities in the light of changing economic and environmental realities. The dignity of the mustard seed should say something to us about the dignity of the small thing in our own lives. Our worth and dignity do not come from inflated definitions of worldly status. If you are up against it financially or professionally, if you feel a loss of worth because of changes in the economy, consider, as Jesus’s friends did, the mustard seed. “From now on,” says Paul in today’s Epistle, “we regard no one from a human point of view.” [2 Corinthians 5.16] No matter how it looks to others, even the mustard seed has dignity and value in God’s view of things, as do you.
The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come. [Mark 4.26-29]
The mystery of this parable is not only that something small becomes something big; it is also that its revelation takes place over time. You and I and the birds who nest in the bush’s branches have to wait for the mysterious purposes of the seed to do its work. Remember that Jesus and his listeners lived before our modern understanding of plant biology. Even when the seed’s work is finished, how it happened is still a mystery.
Here is Henry Thoreau again:
Nature works no faster than need be. If she has to produce a bed of cress or radishes, she seems to us swift; but if it is a pine or oak wood, she may seem to us slow or wholly idle, so leisurely and secure is she. She knows that seeds have many other uses than to reproduce their kind. If every acorn of this year’s crop is destroyed, or the pines bear no seed, never fear. She has more years to come. It is not necessary that a pine or an oak should bear fruit every year, as it is that a pea vine should. [Henry D. Thoreau, “The Dispersion of Seeds”]
Jesus spoke to men and women who were impatient: they wanted freedom, power, food, justice, and they had waited a long time for them. When he asked them to consider the mystery of the seed and its workings, Jesus was using that image to suggest that God’s processes work themselves out over time. It’s not that he’s asking us to lie back and wait. Far from it; Jesus always enlists us as agents in spreading God’s reign. There is, after all, someone in this story who scatters the seed in order that it may germinate. Instead he’s assuring us that, even when we think that nothing is happening, God and God’s love and faithfulness and blessing are always at work on our behalf.
Like Jesus’s friends and companions, you also may be impatient. You may be at a place in your life where something has to change but you don’t see when or how that can happen. You may feel depressed or anxious about your relationships, your work, your health, even your inner worth. Each of us, every adult human being, lives through stretches of time like this, when nothing seems to work and when there doesn’t seem to be any reason to go on living. If this is true for you right now, then take hold of the image which Jesus offers you this morning. Consider the seed. It is small, yet it produces something great. So it has dignity and worth in itself. Consider the seed: someone plants it and nothing seems to happen. And then, as if by magic, one day it sprouts and produces “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.”
As small as you may feel, you have worth and purpose and dignity. As frustrated as you may feel, God’s purposes are always, even now, working themselves out in your life. Consider the seed, how it testifies to God’s mysterious love and faithfulness. And come forward to be fed now in the bread and wine made from the bounty of God’s harvest, which itself started out small, grew over time, and now becomes more abundant than any one of us could ask for or imagine. Amen.
Sunday, June 7, 2009
One of my all time favorite scenes in a movie occurs in Mel Brooks’ "Blazing Saddles". (No, not that scene.) The one I’m thinking of starts in on a tight shot of Sheriff Bart’s Gucci saddlebag, and then pulls back as we see this black cowboy riding across the desert to the swinging accompaniment of Count Basie and his Orchestra playing their big band rendition of “April in Paris.” Gradually, as the music swells, the camera pulls back further and there, live in person, is Count Basie himself seated at the piano with his entire big band spread out on the desert. As Sheriff Bart rides by he gives the Count a low five. The soundtrack, it seems, has come to life.
Something like this happened to me very early last Sunday morning as I was running along the lakefront in Evanston where I live. I had gotten up very early to run as I was scheduled to be part of the Pentecost services at Holy Spirit in Lake Forest last Sunday, and so as I was running at around 5:30 a.m. I began to hear the sounds of a Gospel choir singing the old Protestant hymn, “Blessed Assurance”. Where, I thought, is this music coming from? And then, as I turned my attention away from the lake, I saw a full choir of about 25 or so African American men and women singing their hearts out into the sunrise.
Now I find nature, unadorned and of itself, extraordinarily intoxicating. But when you add Gospel music to it, the experience is almost impossible to withstand, much less to describe.
Last Sunday was, of course, Pentecost. Today, the First Sunday after Pentecost, is the day we Episcopalians traditionally call “Trinity Sunday.” As a seminary professor I have talked myself blue in the face, advising seminarians and newly ordained clergy to refrain from all attempts to explain the Trinity on this day. Given the communication challenges, we might as well call it “Fermat’s Last Theorem” Sunday or “The Second Law of Thermodynamics Sunday” for all the good our intellectual pulpit explanations do us. Trinity Sunday is the Preacher’s Graveyard. Nevertheless, here I am and here we are. And the Trinity is a reality worthy of celebration. The problem is, even though I believe in it, I’m not sure I understand it myself.
So instead of trying to make sense of a big abstract idea, let’s start with something concrete that Jesus says to us in this morning’s Gospel:
"Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." [John 3.3]
This saying does not come to us out of a vacuum. It occurs in response to a visit from Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee who comes to Jesus by night and wants to understand more fully who Jesus is. Nicodemus is confused by the tension between what the religious system tells him and the evidence of his senses. The system says that Jesus operates outside the authorized channels God uses to relate to human beings. His eyes and ears tell him that Jesus can perform signs which must be evidence of his connection with God.
Here’s what Nicodemus actually says to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”[John 3.2] We might expect that Jesus would respond with some kind of metaphysical, philosophical answer, a kind of first century version of a Trinity Sunday sermon. Instead, he says this: “"Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." [John 3.3]
Posed a question about meaning and authority, Jesus responds with an answer about a person’s interior life. His answer reminds me of a debate I once saw between a Fundamentalist minister and a seminary professor on the authority of scripture. The Fundamentalist went first, and he spoke for a half hour about the scientific and philosophical reasons why the Bible must be the literal Word of God. After he sat down, the professor got up and said only this: “I value and trust and believe in the Bible because I have met God through it,” and he sat down.
When it comes to the questions which dog us most—who is God, who am I in relation to God, what is my relationship to others and the world, how am I responsible to God and my fellow creatures—often we approach them with the same attitude shown by that Fundamentalist minister: we delve deeply into intellectual arguments and search for philosophical and scientific reasons why such-and-such must be true. But the spirit that Jesus shows us in this encounter with Nicodemus is more like that of the seminary professor: the proof of my faith is not found in theories or in concepts but in my experience of God.
"Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” [John 3.3]
Different kinds of Christians might explain Jesus’s statement differently. To the Catholic “being born from above” would imply the sacrament of Baptism; to the Evangelical it would suggest a born-again conversion experience. Both of these meanings make sense of the text. But what do you think Jesus might have actually meant?
Without trying to be too sentimental or showbiz about it, I would suggest that “being born from above” might mean, for Jesus, having and holding on to some direct interior experience of God, one that you know to be authentic, even if it would make no sense to others. That experience will look various because people are so different and God relates to us in our unique particularity. So for me it might be hearing a Gospel choir as I run along the Lake Michigan shore, while for you it might be sitting in your backyard at the end of the day or serving breakfast to a homeless person. It could be listening to music, making something with your hands, holding your spouse or child or parent close to you. You and I can meet God in as many places as we can imagine, and then some.
We Episcopalians are rule-obeying, orderly Christians, and we tend to be like Nicodemus. We unthinkingly trust that the system will deliver God to us in reliable, predictable ways—say at a certain time on Sunday mornings. But as Jesus says elsewhere in today’s Gospel, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [John 3.8] God is like the wind, coming out of nowhere and going someplace we can’t even see yet. And Jesus’s challenge to us rule-obeying orderly Nicodemus-like Christians is this: he calls us to be “born from above,” to attend to the authentic, unique, personal ways in which God speaks within and to us, and to trust those experiences at least as much as we trust the orderly, formal system we have grown to know and love called the church.
Which is not to say that we don’t need the church. We do need it, because it is only as we come together and share what God is doing in our lives that we can get the full picture of what God is doing in the world. The church needs you so that you can tell it the truth about God that only you have to tell. As an institution, the church is like Nicodemus’s Pharisees, better at telling you the system’s truth than at listening to yours. That is why Jesus challenged that system: to show that an unpredictable and generous God could actually relate to you and me in original and surprising ways.
God is doing something in and through you that God is doing nowhere else in the world. You are unique, and what God is doing in and through you is unique. Your calling, as a follower of Jesus trying to live a meaningful life in the world, is to claim what God is doing in and through you and offer it, through the church and your relationships and your work, to the world.
As I understand it, the Trinity is Christianity’s way of describing how God, Jesus, and you and I are all connected to each other. It is more true to the spirit of Trinity Sunday to tell stories about how we feel God’s presence in our own lives than it is to try to spin out a theoretical diagram of the relations of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As a Christian, I believe that God is at work in Jesus, in you and me, and in the world. That doesn’t mean that I always hear Count Basie or a Gospel choir as I go about my business, but it does mean that I need to hold on to and nurture those moments in my own interior experience which tell me I’m connected to the One behind it all. And that’s as true for you as it is for me.
We come now to God’s table, the Eucharist, the meal we share together. This is a place where many of us experience that presence which Jesus describes as being “born from above.” For others of us, it’s a powerful reminder or our connection one to another. Whatever this meal means to you, God invites you to it as a way for you to claim and share the unique thing that God is doing only through you. And with or without Gospel or big band music, that’s as good a glimpse into the mysterious gift of the Trinity as there is in this world. Amen.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
I feel that I risk engendering the same kind of reaction here tonight, because the title of this sermon might well read, “Are We All Pharisees?” Now I know enough about human nature to realize that no-one wants to be called a prostitute; and I know enough about religion to believe that no-one wants to be called a Pharisee, either. But, as regular, church-attending, rule-abiding Christian people, isn’t that what we are?
I ask this without trying to be either accusatory or cute, because I think the New Testament has always given Pharisees a bad rap. That’s understandable: as my New Testament teacher Krister Stendhal used to say, the Pharisees were simply the “Jews down the street” who didn’t sign on to the Jesus movement. Consequently they got caricatured as hopelessly hypocritical fussbudgets who were so blinded by their slavish obedience to rules that they couldn’t recognize the Messiah when he was right in front of them.
But in fact scholars know that the Pharisees were, like us, ordinarily pious religious folk who were attempting, as best they could, to follow the received practices of their religion and live a faithful and respectable life in the world. The New Testament portrays them as almost melodramatically nefarious beings—first century Darth Vaders, skulking around, playing practical jokes on Jesus—but really they were just average conventionally religious folk trying to make sense out of life with the tools their tradition had given them. As someone who believes in regular attendance at worship, living by an ethical code, and in following processes and procedures agreed on by the larger community, I can pretty much count myself as the 21st century equivalent of a Pharisee. And so, I believe, can most of us Episcopalians.
So why is Jesus so cranky about them? And does that mean that Jesus’s critique of them applies also to us?
‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach.—Matthew 23.2-3
When you correct for the first century grumpiness factor, I believe that you’ll find that Jesus’s criticism of the Pharisees (similar to Amos’s railings against pious Israelites in the first reading) is really a critique of common sense, or received wisdom. As creatures of habit, we human beings tend to codify our behavior and traditions as the will of the gods, or in our case as Episcopalians, “the way we’ve always done it.” Though there is certainly a component of self-interested sin in this—especially if your bread is buttered on the side of the way we’ve always done it—really the problem is our collective inability to see that God might be actually doing a very new and different thing.
And that’s why we need prophets. We need them not so much to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable” as we need them (just as we need artists) to help us try on a new way of looking at things. Consider the life and career of Thurgood Marshall, whom we celebrate tonight. We know that Marshall was the first African American Justice on the Supreme Court, appointed by Lyndon Johnson in 1967. Before that, he was Solicitor General (again appointed by Johnson) and a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals appointed by President Kennedy. But Marshall became famous earlier in the 1950s when he served as Chief Counsel to the NAACP and, in that capacity, argued the plaintiff’s case in Brown versus the Board of Education before the Supreme Court. It was that decision, of course, in which the Warren Court decided that “separate but equal” was inherently inequitable and so made an end to school segregation in the United States.
Now there was certainly plenty of human sin and hypocrisy and selfishness involved in school segregation. But to some extent school segregation persisted because of the human habit of becoming entrenched in certain ways of seeing things. And so what Thurgood Marshall brought about was a kind of change which took not only moral courage but also visionary imagination. He and his colleagues had not only to change the system; they had first to be able to imagine that it could be otherwise.
And that combination of moral courage and visionary imagination is what Jesus brought to first century Palestine and what you and I are called to bring to our time and place. Jesus lived in a time when life in the Roman Empire meant political oppression, economic subjugation, and all-around privation and scarcity. In the midst of this bleak situation, Jesus dared to say that human beings could live differently. What brought Jesus to the cross was his implicit challenge to Empire and all its presumptions. You can live an abundant life, he said, even in the midst of privation. By coming together and having things in common, rather than cowering in your corner and holding on to what’s mine, you and I can find joyful plentiful life and love in solidarity with each other. That was liberating and dangerous news. As, of course was the message of the Civil Rights Movement. Thurgood Marshall lived to a good old age. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not.
Jesus challenged the common sense and received wisdom of first century Palestine. Thurgood Marshall challenged the common sense and received wisdom of 1950s America. As we gather tonight—surrounded in our country and our world by men and women suffering at the hands of an economic downturn, in a nation waging two wars (one of which, I’m sorry to say, seems to be expanding), living in a society where 40 million people have no health insurance and where children bear the brunt of our social and economic injustices and inequalities— those who study and teach and graduate from places need to be able to respond to all that. Our vocational question, now and then, is this: how is God calling you and me to witness to this hurting world tonight?
Are we all prostitutes? Are we all Pharisees? At the risk of sharing the fate of Reverend Clayton Millstone: sure we are. That, it seems is human nature. And helping us see how we will always be caught in that trap is why Paul wrote his letters, and why Augustine, Luther, Bonhoeffer, and Barth continued to grapple with the dilemmas our nature offers when confronted with grace.
I wish that Christianity offered a cure for Pharisaism, but two thousand years of lived experience tells me it doesn’t. We’ll always be people who hold on to rules and traditions and practices because we’re ritualistic creatures of habit with lizard brains, and we just can’t seem to keep ourselves for investing our energy in the wrong things from time to time. But I do believe that Christianity holds out a vision of abundant life to a hurting world. As in Jesus’s day, the way toward personal abundance lies not in hoarding but in sharing. As in Thurgood Marshall’s day, the way toward my liberation lies in my standing with you in the struggle for yours. Then as now, the Gospel proclaims that the way to abundance and freedom lies in solidarity and compassion. And what God needs now, as then, is a group of men and women who have both the moral courage and the visionary imagination to glimpse ways in which that just might be true.
The church, of course, is the place where we practice and learn that. And this meal we now come to both proclaims that abundant compassion and enacts it. For this meal, and for the life and witness of Thurgood Marshall and the vision of Jesus to which his life gave witness, let us proceed, together, in the Eucharist, to give thanks. Amen.
Friday, May 8, 2009
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. . . . Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. . . . When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. [John 21. 1,4,9]
I grew up in Southern California, and when my parents divorced early in my childhood my father moved out to Malibu and got a house there because, if you can believe this now, it was cheap. So I spent many of my elementary school weekends at the beach, and that early experience probably colors the way I hear the 21st chapter of John’s Gospel when it is read. I cannot hear about Jesus at the beach sitting around a charcoal fire without thinking of what that looks, feels, and smells like from my own early experience. One of the things I remember best about those Malibu weekends was going down to the beach and sitting around a fire. In that seaside setting you have all the elements which early humans thought made up the universe: earth, air, fire, water. There is something primordial and eternal in that kind of moment, and also something fleeting: everything in that scene is ephemeral. As a scene which mixes the eternal and the ephemeral, a fireside by the water is the perfect place to say goodbye.
So since my earliest days of reading the Bible with some care, I have been moved that the risen Jesus’s final meal with his companions occurred on a beach gathered around a charcoal fire. As much as Easter is about the joyful return of Jesus to his friends, it is also ultimately about the loss of Jesus, too. Jesus is returning to the One he calls his Father. This is the last time his companions will see him. And without trying to sound impious or inelegant about it, it means something at least to me that Jesus leaves his friends after a final beach cookout, and the meal he shares with them takes place in the setting not only of a beautiful natural place but also in the context of the work of fishing, the stuff of their daily life.
“Lord, what about him?” [John 21.21] Peter, of course, stands and speaks for all of us here. Having lived with Jesus and the other disciples through the events of Holy Week and Easter, Peter cannot help but wonder that human destinies can be so various. “When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go,” Jesus had told him [John 21.18]. And when Peter asks about what will happen to the Beloved Disciple, he is gently chastened: “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” How precisely is this fair?
As Jimmy Carter once said, when talking about the differences between what rich people and poor people could afford, “there are many things in life that are not fair.” It’s not fair that one disciple goes to a martyr’s death while the other dies in peace on an island in the Mediterranean. It’s not fair that some live to old age in health while others die young. And speaking as one who lives in the rhythm of seminary life, it’s not fair that teachers and students grow close to one another through all the shared experience of their time here and then have to go their separate ways.
Tonight begins the observances of a week in which we will do things as we have always done them pretty much for the last time. We will have Awards Night and Commencement next year, but they’ll be smaller, more intimate occasions. Tonight marks the beginning of a week of the final observances of a certain kind of way of being Seabury. Like the Easter season, the week we begin tonight celebrates both resurrection and loss. Graduating students and departing faculty are going on to new life and new work. And the seminary itself is in the midst of being dramatically reborn. All this is good news. In almost all measurable ways, our individual futures are bright.
Nevertheless, there is considerable loss in what we do this week. We will never be together in precisely this way again. Traditions and relationships will change. And we all know how much Episcopalians like change.
I have to confess (if it hasn’t been otherwise obvious) that I have been in a bad mood much of this Spring, and I believe my grumpiness results, in part, from my inability to express the sadness I feel at the graduation of the class of 2009 from Seabury. Part of that is because everywhere I turn, people are telling me how wonderful it is that Seabury has succeeded in reinventing itself. Part of that is because I do not like to say goodbye to people I care about, even if I do so for some very good reasons. And part of that is, no matter how liberal or progressive you and I might think I am, I really don’t like change. As much as I believe in and look forward to that new thing that Seabury is becoming, I loved and valued the old thing, too. That was why I came here. So, for me, this is the first graduation week in which I get to watch not only the students but the faculty and the whole school itself go on to what Milton called “Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.” [“Lycidas”]
Now I don’t know if you are in quite the same emotional place as I am—which I would describe as hopeful and sad at once—but I will bet that like me you feel some combination of excitement and loss as you contemplate what it means for all of us to do these things together in this way for the last time. And as we face into this paradoxical task—what Claudius in Hamlet called “mirth in funeral and . . . dirge in marriage,/ In equal scale weighing delight and dole” [Hamlet 1.2] Jesus’s remark to Peter serves at least as a sharp slap in the face to call us back to our senses and our values.
“If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” Working in a seminary, like working in the church itself, is not about preserving a museum exhibit of the past. It is about being agents of God’s love, justice, healing, and reconciliation. Because our life together in a place like this is so intense, it is our natural human tendency to want to build a wall around it and preserve it as an artifact of our experience—much as Peter wants to do at the Transfiguration. But what Jesus says to Peter here tonight is what Jesus says, in a variety of ways, to each of us. If it is God’s will that we separate and go our different ways, and if it is God’s will that Seabury itself be transformed into something different than any of us has ever known, and if it is God’s will that God use each of us in ways that we could never ask for or imagine, what is that to us? Our task, like Peter’s and like the Beloved Disciple’s, is to follow Jesus. That is what we are here for. As Jesus said to his friends in another context, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” [Luke 9.62]
The briskness of that retort does not, in fact, leave us comfortless, because God never does. As we all prepare ourselves to drop what we are doing and follow Jesus, let us never forget that Jesus’s last earthly gathering with his friends took place at a meal on the beach, gathered around a charcoal fire, sharing the Eucharistic elements of bread and fish. Earth, air, fire, water. Bread, fish. The ephemeral and the eternal. We will never be together in precisely this way again. But we are together, because, in our various ways, we share this meal and then get up and go out to follow Jesus. Amen.