Thursday, October 8, 2009

Homily: October 8, 2009 [William Bliss and Richard Ely]

I begin with a confession: the story of Lazarus and the rich man (traditionallly called “Dives”) has always terrified me. It shows up in our lectionary only once every three years, and I have usually found a way to avoid talking about it—either choosing another reading to talk about or by artfully arranging the preaching schedule. I don’t have this reaction to any other story Jesus tells, but this one really freaks me out. Perhaps my reaction has something to do with the details. Listen again to the beginning:

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

Sermon: Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio [September 20, 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 BeyoncĂ© 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.