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.

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