Thursday, May 14, 2009

Homily: May 14, 2009 [Thurgood Marshall]

One of my favorite cartoons is a George Booth drawing which appeared in The New Yorker when I was in seminary. It shows a parson being chased out of a lovely white clapboard frame church by an angry congregation: everybody –even nice old ladies and staid businessmen—is visibly enraged. What, you ask, could have made these people so furious? Then you notice in the lower right corner the parish signboard which reads, “United M.E. Church, Reverend Clayton Millstone. Sermon: ‘Are We All Prostitutes?’ You Are Welcome.”
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

Homily: May 8, 2009 [St. John/Seabury Awards Night]

Because the Seabury chapel is named for St. John, and because the school is always on vacation after Christmas when his feast day comes, we always use the propers for St. John’s Day [December 27] for this annual celebration of Awards Night. The Gospel which we just heard [John 21.19b-24] gives us John’s account of Jesus’s final appearance to his disciples, and it is quite an arresting story: Peter has just heard that he is destined to die a grisly death at the hand of the Romans, and then he asks about the fate of the disciple whom Jesus loves. Jesus answers, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” [John 21.22] As compelling a story as this is, the way we just heard a snippet of it leaves out some of the other elements which make it so deeply evocative. Here are just a few lines from the earlier part of John 21:

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.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Sermon: The Fourth Sunday of Easter [Church of the Holy Spirit, Lake Forest, IL, May 3, 2009]

All the recent media talk about swine flu has put me in mind of pork in general, and that has made my thoughts turn to everyone’s favorite film about pigs, Babe. You’ll remember that Babe is a pig who wants to be a sheepdog, and the climax of the movie comes when Babe unexpectedly wins the sheepdog trials. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Babe is the way in which it puts in a good word for the dignity and intelligence of sheep, a claim you don’t hear made a lot in churches on Good Shepherd Sunday. You may remember that early on, when Babe tries, as the dogs do, to boss the sheep around, he fails. He asks his adoptive sheepdog mother why, and she replies: “You’re treating them like equals. They’re sheep, they’re inferior.” “Oh, no they’re not,” says Babe. “Of course they are,” she rejoins. “We are their masters, Babe. Let them doubt it for a second and they’ll walk all over you.” She must have had a prior career as a Middle School teacher.
Chanting “Baa, ram, ewe. To your fleece be true. Baa, ram, ewe.” the sheep on Babe’s farm have an un-sheeplike sense of their own dignity, and they respond to Babe’s interspecies respect with cooperation. Like the duck who thinks he’s a rooster and the pig who thinks he’s a dog, the sheep in Babe refuse to accept the world’s definition of them. Our cultural stereotype of sheep, to the extent that we urban and suburban people still have one, is that they are dirty, smelly, stupid creatures who need guidance and direction from dogs and people. What that stereotype fails to acknowledge, however, is that even dogs and people need guidance and direction. Sheep may need a shepherd, but so does everyone else. And not because we’re stupid. We need guidance and direction because we are social beings, and it is one of Western culture’s most dangerous presumptions to think that we can navigate all the thickets of life without the aid and companionship of others. “I Did it My Way” is a song best sung by a sheep hurtling over a cliff, followed closely by a dog and a man.
Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, a day commonly called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of the phrase from today’s collect which calls Jesus “the good shepherd” of God’s people and prays that “when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” [John 10.14] To be a Christian one must come to terms with this metaphor in all of its implications. Jesus tells us that he is our shepherd and we his sheep. We need guidance; we need direction. But to need guidance and direction is not, contrary to what Babe’s sheepdog’s mother says, to be inferior. How do we hear this comparison of us to sheep in all its fullness without forgetting that we, like sheep, have both limitations and dignity, too?

That comparison which Jesus made was not new:
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned everyone to his own way,
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. [Isaiah 53.6]

That’s the Servant Song from Isaiah; and our Psalm for today, the familiar 23rd Psalm, begins by proclaiming, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Israel turned to sheep as a human metaphor because they saw in sheep some observable aspects of human behavior. They saw that sheep do not always know or do what is in their best interest. They saw that sheep flourish more in an ordered community than they do in a wild free for all. When looking at shepherds and sheep, Israel’s prophets saw an image of the human condition. We think we’re individuals and that we know what is best for us. But the actual facts are otherwise. We achieve our fulfillment not alone but in community. We flourish as part of something bigger than we are. And we need guides, mentors, friends, companions to help us navigate away from life’s thickets and cliffs.
That is certainly the way the book of Genesis understands the human condition in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden. And that is certainly how our Gospels understand the story of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. We human beings mistake our own interest. When we think only of our own personal needs, wants, and aspirations we can become easy prey for charlatans and demagogues. When we follow what we think is our own self-interest divorced from that of others, we see what happens: Adam and Eve get expelled from the Garden; Jesus gets crucified; Americans live in a world with failed financial institutions, bankrupt companies, collapsing infrastructure, massive unemployment, two wars, and a society where 45 million Americans have no health insurance, to say nothing of what we’ve done to the planet. “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to his own way.” We like sheep get into trouble when we fail to realize that there is a larger, shared, common good. And that is why we need shepherds—prophets, mentors, guides, companions, friends—to help us remember that human life is impossible without the sustaining fabric of a community and culture and a commitment to mutual respect and obligation. As they say, “It Takes a Village.”
So we are like sheep in that we can get ourselves into personal and social trouble. And we need shepherds and sheepdogs to nip at us and guide us not just into safety but toward God’s vision of our real human destiny. Because the purpose of life is not just to be safe. The purpose of life is to live, as Jesus did, a fully realized joyous and compassionate existence. And that brings us back to the question of our sheeply and human dignity.
If we think again about what sheep represent in the ancient Near Eastern economy, we’ll see that sheep are, to their owners and shepherds, precious. The sheep are worth a good deal to those who own and maintain them. So when Jesus calls himself our “Good Shepherd”, or when Psalm 23 tells us that the Lord is our shepherd, what we should hear in that is not just a program of divine command and control. What we should hear in that is about human dignity and worth. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The Lord as shepherd leads the sheep through the valley to green pastures and still waters. You don’t lay down your life for someone worthless. You don’t give your shepherdly attention to someone whom you don’t care about. God, as shepherd, sacrifices and leads us precisely because we have so much worth and value in God’s sight. God made you and me in God’s own image. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us as one of us. God loves us not out of sentimental pity but out of identification and worth. God in Jesus knows what it is to be us. God desires that we have life and have it abundantly.
Right before we saw the movie Babe¸ our family spent a summer in England where we became familiar with a BBC show called “One Man and His Dog”. Every week for a half an hour, viewers of “One Man and His Dog” used to watch a shepherd put a sheepdog through the complex trials of guiding sheep through a complicated set of gates into pens. Like many people, we found this show oddly soothing. There was little commentary, and the only sound you heard was of the calls the man would make to the dog. Watching it was like sitting outside on a farm at the end of the day watching the advance of evening. It was also like finding yourself in the vision of the loving, safe, and generous world which God holds out to us at Easter.
I think about those sheepdog trials whenever I hear the words from today’s Gospel: “I am the Good Shepherd.” You and I, like sheep, need the nipping of that heavenly sheepdog at our heels to keep us thinking about how what we want can more closely resemble what we need and can live in harmony with what the everyone else needs. And you and I, like sheep, are blessed to have each other and the continued presence of the One who cares enough about us to guide and lead us away from thickets and cliffs and towards pastures and still waters.
Easter is about many things, but most deeply it is about what God means to us and what we mean to God. What God means to us is that the Lord is our shepherd, and this is good and gracious news. And what we mean to God is that we are precious to the One who lays down his life for the sheep. You mean everything to God. The fullness of both these meanings is what Easter represents. And Easter’s gracious surprise--for that One and for all of us-- is that we now have a resurrected, risen life with Jesus and God and each other and the world in which to live out the joyous implications of what being precious in God’s sight can mean. May our love and gratitude toward God and our compassion and solidarity with each other be the most contagious things we experience this spring. Amen.