Monday, March 30, 2009

Homily: Monday in the Fifth Week of Lent

The older I get, the more I understand salvation in the terms which Thomas Merton used to describe it. “For me,” Merton said, “to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” [New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 31] The most pernicious effect of our culture is the way it thrives by alienating us from ourselves. Its materialism implies that we can only be ourselves by consuming things produced by others. Its ceaseless internet and broadcast noise distracts us from our interior lives. We don’t know who we are, let alone what we feel, what we think.
These problems are not new, of course. Take, for example, the problem of desire. The story of Susannah and the elders has long been used as a figure for what happens when the respectable folk repress their desires. One of Wallace Stevens’s great early poems, “Peter Quince at the Clavier”, talks in just such language:

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna:

Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt

The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.

Because he is an artist, Stevens’s Peter Quince is present to what he is feeling. The “red-eyed elders” are not: the Bible story uses the almost comic secrecy and confusion as a way of showing the elders’ alienation from themselves: “Both were overwhelmed with passion for her, but they did not tell each other of their distress, for they were ashamed to disclose their lustful desire to seduce her.” [Susannah 1.10-11] The ugliness and violence to which the elders resort shows that there is nothing more dangerous in this world than a self-unaware person capable of wielding power. The elders’ desire for Susannah expresses itself not as love but as aggression. Because they do not know and accept their own feelings they translate their shame into threats toward the person who symbolizes what they desire. It’s as if they want to kill the person who arouses them.
This form of blaming the victim is not new. We see it all through the racial and sexual stereotypes of human history. We see it in church sexual misconduct. And we see it most potently today in the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel, the account of Jesus, the Pharisees, and the woman taken in adultery. Like the elders in the Susannah story, the Pharisees in this account are using their very respectability as a shield against their own interior lives. I wonder how Jesus would have responded if they had simply come up to him and said, “Jesus, help us. We want to sleep with women who are not our wives.” But of course they don’t do that. Instead, they bring in the adulterous woman. [Note: they do not bring the adulterous man! If they caught her in the act, there needed to be what we used to call a “co-conspirator”. Where is he in all this? I wouldn’t be surprised if he were one of the woman’s accusers.] They ask Jesus whether she should be stoned, in accord with Mosaic law. And he replies with this famous and inscrutable gesture: John tells us, “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” [John 8.6] When finally pressed for an answer, Jesus responds with one of his most famous teachings: “‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” [John 8.7] Instead of blaming the one who elicits desire, Jesus dares to expose the interior lives of the Pharasaic accusers to light. Instead of focusing on “the other”, Jesus says, pay attention to what is going on within yourself. Instead of worrying about what all those other people are doing in their bedrooms, pay attention to what you are doing in yours. Instead of projecting all the things in yourself that you can’t accept onto women, people of color, gays and lesbians, and undocumented workers, come to terms with the parts of yourself that you do not acknowledge, let alone understand.
All of us do this, of course. The point here today, in this fifth week of Lent, is that Jesus points us to self-knowledge and self-acceptance as the keys to personal and spiritual wholeness. When I refrain from picking up the stone to throw at you, I do that in Jesus’s terms because I’ve come to see that the behavior for which I want to stone you is actually an expression of the aspects of my own identity that I want to refuse. And so in putting down the stone I’ve not only taken a step toward self-awareness, I’ve also taken a step into community. Because if we are one in our sinfulness we have the beginnings of solidarity with each other. Our oneness in sin is, as Bill Coffin used to say, “no mean bond.”
And then there is that mysterious gesture. “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” He did it not once but twice. Every reader of this story has a different take on what Jesus was writing there, but I don’t think he was making a list of the Pharisees’ sins. I think, instead, he was looking into himself. Something about his encounters with women—here the woman taken in adultery, in Mark’s Gospel they Syro-Phonecian woman, not to mention Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene, and a host of others—something about these encounters calls forth something in Jesus we have not seen before. I think that when Jesus wrote in the earth he was taking account of his own internal life, he was exploring and describing all of the complex feelings and thoughts that this woman and her predicament elicited. As she is “taken in adultery”, so Jesus is caught in the act of knowing, discovering himself. This gesture of looking inward and writing is something that the woman’s accusers and Susannah’s elders are incapable of. Their responses project outward and so result in aggression. Jesus’s response turns inward and so results in compassion. “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” [John 8.11]
As we head into Holy Week, let’s remember that it was precisely the kind of self-awareness which Jesus exemplified which drove his self-unaware opponents crazy and eventually sent him to the cross. The big Holy Week drama we are about to encounter essentially re-enacts the age-old conflict between those who know and accept themselves and so can come to accept others and those who don’t. The real power of the resurrection is the way in which it shows that God can love and bless everything that is true about us, even the things that we cannot quite yet love and bless ourselves. Let us join Jesus in looking inward and writing on the ground. If we do that faithfully, we might, in this new community built on trust instead of threats, go our ways separately and together and try to help each other sin no more. Amen.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Homily: 1 Lent [March 2, 2009]

It’s probably a dangerous undertaking to ask a liberal to preach about Matthew 25. I mean: there it is, the whole Christian progressive social agenda summed up in one pithy Bible story. You want to serve God? Give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty. Welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner. There isn’t a lot more to say about the Christian life, really, than what Jesus offers us in Matthew 25. We serve Jesus by serving others. And note: when Jesus talks of serving others he doesn’t mean just any others. He means the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned, what he calls “the least of these”.
Now we could stop there—adding, of course, a few examples from contemporary experience which would give some heft to what we mean by “the least of these”—and we would have honored what Jesus is talking about in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. A contemporary thinker I like very much, Terry Eagleton, wrote a small book last year with the gigantic title, The Meaning of Life. And you might be surprised that Eagleton—a British literary theorist and highly secular philosopher and cultural critic—ends his meditation on life’s meaning with a discussion of just this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. For Eagleton, the genius of Matthew’s 25th chapter lies in the way it takes the “meaning-of-life question” out of the hands of philosophers and “returns it to the routine business of everyday existence.” As he elaborates, “The key to the universe turns out to be not some shattering revelation, but something which a lot of decent people do anyway, with scarcely a thought.” Correcting the 17th century priest and poet Thomas Traherne, Eagleton muses, “Eternity lies not in a grain of sand but in a glass of water. The cosmos revolves on comforting the sick.” [The Meaning of Life, pp. 164-165]
There is a lot to be said for the way Terry Eagleton reads this chapter, for the way that a lot of the secular people with whom I find common cause would read it: whether or not we agree about the big questions, certainly we can all find common cause by alleviating human need. Jesus himself seems to turn us from a consideration of the big questions to an extended parable about meeting him in the service of those who are up against it. Though they might differ on how they would identify what 20th century Republicans used to call “the truly needy” (or 19th century Tories “the deserving poor”), the value of serving others is is a truism that even Gene Robinson and Peter Akinola—not to mention Sarah Palin, Ralph Nader, Bill O’Reilly and Barney Frank—could probably agree on.
And yet, as a follower of Jesus there is something beyond this truism that nags at me, and it’s a verse from the Leviticus reading we heard a few moments ago. “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” [Leviticus 19.2b] When Yahweh commands us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the reason given for that commandment seems simply to be the statement, “I am the LORD.” [Leviticus 19.18] As a follower of Jesus, I want to give a glass of water or a piece of bread to a person in need not only because it’s a nice thing to do but because I believe that in doing so I serve and meet Jesus. As a creature of Yahweh’s, I am commanded to love my neighbor as myself because somehow doing so is all tied up with God and God’s holiness.
I don’t mean here to part company with Terry Eagleton and my liberal friends (or even with compassionate conservatives) on any of this, because frankly I believe as they do that serving the suffering is what Kant called the Ding an sich—the “thing itself” which without any philosophical embroidery is itself the meaning of life. As Christians we play around a lot with symbols, but we should never forget the basic definition of a symbol: that it stands for both itself and the thing it represents. A symbol has to be something real to start with or it can’t represent anything. The rose that stands for love is first of all a real rose. When the writer Mary McCarthy opined that the communion wafer is a symbol of the Holy Ghost, Flannery O’Connor famously replied, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” [New York Times Book Review 3/1/09] We don’t feed the hungry or visit the sick because they’re symbolic. We feed and visit them because their need has a real claim on us, because they have value in and of themselves. Regardless of what we think about it, serving the oppressed counts for something before we attach any meaning to it at all.
But that Leviticus phrase still flits around the back of my mind: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Once we recognize—as Jesus does--that the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned have value in and of themselves, then we as followers of Jesus can take service to them one step further. In traditional Christian terms, we serve the poor because in them we meet and serve Jesus. In traditional Jewish terms, we attempt to live out God’s holiness in service to those who bear God’s image into the world. Loving your neighbor as yourself turns out to be not just “good works” but a rather high order of piety too.
As we embark on the first full week of Lent together, most of us find ourselves working out a quest for personal and corporate holiness. As we do that both together and alone, let’s remember what today’s readings illuminate for us. Holiness is not some abstract personal quality like serenity or calm. Holiness is living out a response to the need we see everywhere around us. Holiness is loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Holiness is serving the least of these who are members of the human family. We seek to be holy because God is holy. And God lives out God’s holiness by loving and serving the ones made in God’s image, even you and me.
Like the neighbor, the least of these, you are a member of the human family. You, as they do, bear God’s image into the world. Let us use Lent to seek to be holy as God is holy—to recognize and serve the dignity of every human being as a fact with value and meaning in and of itself. This means at least recognizing and accepting your own dignity, that you are someone with meaning and purpose and value. As the Baptismal Covenant puts it, “Let us seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourelf.” Let us seek to be holy, as God is holy. Amen.