Sunday, June 21, 2009

Homily: Third Sunday after Pentecost [June 21, 2009, Church of the Holy Spirit, Lake Forest, IL]

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

Homily: June 14, 2009 [Second Sunday after Pentecost] St. Lawrence, Libertyville, IL


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

Homily: June 7, 2009 [Trinity Sunday] St. Lawrence, Libertyville, IL

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.