Sunday, January 17, 2010

Homily: 2 Epiphany [January 17, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

I grew up in Southern California, where it almost never snows and where all the stores have always been open on Sundays. When I moved to Boston to go to seminary I had to learn how to deal with two unfamiliar realities. The snow seemed at first like an astonishingly beautiful gift, though after a time its novelty did wear off. The closed supermarkets and liquor stores took some more getting used to. The Sunday closures required a level of planning that had never been asked of me before. In L.A. if it’s Sunday and you’re having people over--even if it’s a Sunday in February--you just run over to Von’s or Ralph’s and buy some groceries and a bottle of wine. In 1970’s Massachusetts it was more complicated.
One Sunday night in winter in my first year in seminary I invited a group of people to my apartment for dinner on a Sunday night. I had gone to the market the day before and bought the food and a very fine wine specially chosen for the occasion—those of you old enough to remember those days will recall the ubiquitous half-gallon jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy. Because I was lazy or forgetful, I left the two bottles of Gallo Hearty Burgundy-worth a combined total of about four dollars--in the car on Saturday, figuring that I would bring them up on Sunday. It snowed on Saturday night. Sunday afternoon I went to the car, grabbed both bottles of wine, and headed toward the dormitory. I slipped on the ice, dropped and broke both bottles of wine, and watched helplessly as the snow turned deep hearty shade of red.
That this was a tragic social disaster only dawned on me as I began to realize that I could not run out to the liquor store to buy two more bottles of wine. A seminary dinner party without wine—even rotgut—was unimaginable in those days. I was terrified that I would be seen as a cheap and inhospitable host. But the story has a happy, if not particularly dramatic ending. I swallowed my pride, called up my guests, and explained the situation. To my relief and surprise, they understood perfectly, and each person brought enough wine to the party so that the social embarrassment I feared--of hosting a wineless dinner party--never became a reality.
Something like what I experienced—deliverance from humiliation—is at work in today’s familiar Gospel account of Jesus’s turning water into wine. Today is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, and as this season progresses we watch God’s glory spread out from Bethlehem to Judea to the world much as that Hearty Burgundy spread out in the Massachusetts snow. And whatever else we say about Jesus’s miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, the first thing we need to see is that the impetus for this miracle is Jesus’s and more importantly his mother’s sense of compassion. In ancient Near Eastern culture, where hospitality was a central value, to run out of wine at a marriage feast would be a devastating social humiliation. Jesus cares about people in every aspect of their being, especially their dignity. God cares enough about each one of us to preserve and protect our proper sense of our own worth.
In one way or another, all our readings today are about transformation. Israel is transformed from a forsaken people to a beloved one. The church in Corinth begins to see that everyone in the community—not only its leaders--has purpose and value. In Cana of Galilee, water is changed into wine. Something ordinary is transformed into something extraordinary. In the presence of Jesus, his companions see everyday realities imbued with a new and heightened significance. It’s not only that the hosts are saved from humiliation. It’s also that a new, deeper dimension of life suddenly opens up before everyone around Jesus. This is what John’s Gospel means when it calls this event a “sign”. Water changed into wine has given us a glimpse into the nature of things and into the nature of the One who is at work behind and in and through them.
One of the things God wants us to get in this season which celebrates the spreading of Jesus’s glory is that you and I are constantly surrounded by wonder and beauty, but something keeps us from seeing them. We are distracted—by the chaos of our own inner life, by the tumult of outer events. We are, as individuals and as a culture, afflicted with attention deficit disorder. We do not know what is really going on within us. We have our attention focused on things that are trivial. Something about the presence of Jesus calms the people around him down and reveals to them the glory of the world in which they live and move and have their being. It’s not so much that the world has changed. It’s truer to say that their attitude toward it has. They take it in and see it, if only briefly, for what it is.
After a lecture, the great Zen master D. T. Suzuki was once asked about the experience of enlightenment. How is life different after enlightenment from what it was before? He thought a while and then answered, “Life after enlightenment is much like life before enlightenment--only after enlightenment one is walking two inches off the ground.” The world is the same, but you see it in a new way. If we were constantly aware of how beautiful and precious life and the world are, we probably would not be able to get anything done. So we’ve developed ways of shutting off, filtering out the luminous quality of the everyday. Those ways are helpful in the short run but they do us spiritual damage in the long run. We don’t value things in themselves. We don’t value people in themselves. We experience life as fragmentary, alienated, without purpose.
Part of the reason Jesus deals with ordinary things in his teaching—lamps, mustard seeds, fig trees, sparrows—is that he wants to show us that God is not someplace else. God is present and at work in and around you now. Jesus’s teaching, in John Updike’s words, gives “the mundane its beautiful due.” The way toward living a wholesome, holy, peaceful Christian life is less complicated than we make it. The task is not to go try to find it someplace else. The task is to see the glory present in the here and now. Jesus had this gift: unlike the rest of us, he was totally present to every person and thing in his experience.
This week we have all watched in increasing sadness and horror as the extent of the Haitian earthquake disaster has made its way into our minds and hearts. And one of the stirring things about this week has been watching the way so many people in the United States and around the world have responded to the deep human need as seen in the faces of those displaced and wounded and bereaved by this terrible event. There are times when people can seem so self-interested and heartless that you begin to wonder if they have any fellow feeling at all. And then there are times like this, when we see so many people acting out of their highest values and their most compassionate impulses.
When Jesus changed water into wine he acted generously to prevent a disaster from happening. In performing that transformation, Jesus also revealed the beauty inherent in the stuff of the world. He gave the mundane its beautiful due. One of the things we learn as we live with and listen to Jesus is the depth of his understanding of the fragility and beauty not only of things but of people. Jesus revealed the wine-like quality in water. He did that because he treasured the divine essence of the people he had come to serve.
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In the last sermon he preached, at Washington Cathedral, Dr. King said this:

We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. . . . This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.

Something like what Dr. King was getting at is going on in our church’s and our nation’s response to the people of Haiti today. “We are tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” What can we do but reach out, as Jesus did, to respond to suffering at once so profound and so close?
We go through life shielding ourselves from the beauty of the world as expressed in people, nature, things. We shield ourselves from its pain and tragedy, too. Sometimes occasions are so dramatic that they claim our attention, open us up to that beauty and that tragedy, and demand that we respond. These occasions have a ministry to us: they break us open both to feel the pain and celebrate the joy of what it means to be alive in this beautiful but broken world. The earthquake in Haiti is an occasion like that. Through this terrible event we have been given what Frederick Buechner calls a “fierce blessing”: the opportunity to respond with hope, compassion, and love. That opportunity is God’s gift to us in this hard yet gracious moment. We can together and separately support the many relief efforts now underway in Haiti. In this event God reaches out to us asking only that we take hold of moment and respond in generous love and compassion. A blessing is within our reach. Let us not drop it and watch it bleed slowly out in the snow. Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Homily: 1 Epiphany [January 10, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

One of the things they don’t teach you in seminary is what to say in your first sermon. So in the absence of a better idea, let me tell you about my dogs.
Kathy and I moved here a week ago accompanied by our two terriers, Sandie and Tessie. Sandie is a champion cairn terrier, bred as a show dog and raised by a breeder friend of ours. Tessie is a Scotch terrier, purchased from a breeder in Ohio and raised from puppyhood by us. Sandie is a pure dog. He is focused on protecting the rectory territory and hunting critters who venture into his line of sight. Tessie is socialized to people—she has more IQ points than either Kathy or me, and is able to predict and interpret our every move.
Now here’s the embarrassing thing. Sandie, who was raised by others, is perfectly well-adjusted. Tessie, who was raised entirely inside our household, is as neurotic a dog as you’ll ever meet. That probably tells you all you need to know about the Hall family.
When I think about the uniqueness of Sandie and Tessie, I realize that as particular and precious as their own individuality is, it pales in comparison to that of human beings. Sandie and Tessie are complicated and unique, and they’re dogs! Imagine the depth and beauty of what God is up to in the fashioning of a person. We humans are made in God’s image, and as with snowflakes, no two of us are alike. Think of what that says about us. Think of what that says about God.
Today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany, also known as the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. It is a day on which we are asked to think together about Jesus’s baptism and our own. It is a day on which we are asked to renew our own baptismal vows. That you and I begin our new life and ministry with each other on this particular day is a sign of what God is doing in the here and now. It may be coincidence, or it may be more than that. But it’s not overstating it to say that everything I know and believe about the church and its mission is summarized and expressed in this day which celebrates both Jesus’s baptism and ours.
Here’s how Luke puts it in today’s Gospel:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Luke 3. 21-22

As I understand today’s message, it comes at us in three ways: Jesus was baptized. You and I have been baptized. We are renewing our baptismal covenant today. Let me say three things about that.
First: Jesus was baptized. Generations of Christians have asked themselves why Jesus needed to submit to the baptism of John the Baptist. John preached a baptism for repentance and the remission of sins. As a sinless person, why would Jesus need to do something like that?
The answer, I think, is that Jesus understood baptism to be something beyond a ritual cleansing: he saw it as a commissioning, an “ordination” if you like, to ministry. Immediately after his baptism, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness and then emerged to live out his ministry: healing the sick, teaching in parables, casting out demons, gathering everyone at his table of abundance and welcome. Jesus got baptized not because he needed to be cleansed but because he wanted to show you and me what a Christian life looks like. A Christian life is one of wholeness, joy, service, compassion, forgiveness, love. The first thing we celebrate today is Jesus’s willingness to show us, through his own baptism, what this sacrament’s implications are for us. You and I will find life’s meaning, as Jesus did, in compassionate generosity toward each other and the world.
Second: you and I are baptized. In baptism, we get a name. “Name this child,” as it used to say in the older prayer books. The next big truth about Baptism is that it recognizes and blesses our own unique God-given individual identity. When the Spirit descends in the form of a dove, Jesus hears the voice say, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." This is the voice that each one of us should hear when our baptismal name is uttered. You are God’s beloved. God is well-pleased with you. Baptism is about mission and ministry; it is also about identity and worth. God has made you as you are and given you the gifts you have and it is good and pleasing to God for you to be you. Most of us go through life living out of a false self. Thomas Merton once defined salvation as the finding and accepting of our authentic self. In Baptism you are called not only to be generous and compassionate to others; you are called to be generous and compassionate to yourself. Your identity is a divine gift, and your life’s task is to accept it, to know it, to live into it and share your wisdom, questions, and insight with the rest of us.
And then there’s this third thing, the renewing of our Baptismal Covenant. A scholar I admire very much once said that the church is itself created by this sacrament of Baptism. In renewing our Baptismal Covenant, we are reaffirming this relationship we have with each other as the Body of Christ in the world. In this covenant relationship we have agreed that we will bring the fullness of our individual ministries and the fullness of our several unique identities into this parish community. I believe that God is doing something unique in you and in your life that God is not doing anywhere else. I believe that we can only become the people God calls us to be by making this place an open, loving, compassionate community where everyone feels accepted, valued, and loved exactly as they are. I believe that it is out of this experience of acceptance and love that we reach out to heal the pain and hurt that surrounds us in the world. At its best, a parish church is a community where all of our individual identities are brought into a gathered celebration of mission, uniqueness, and love. And the test of that will be whether we, our households, our community, our world are the better for our being here.
I hope it is apparent how deeply happy Kathy and I are to be back here. We began our married life here—we came to Birmingham and Bloomfield a week after our wedding in 1978. Our son Oliver was born here, and it was here that I began to develop skills and interests that have stayed with me my whole working life. Christ Church Cranbrook has long stood in my mind and heart as the image of what a parish church at its best can be. At the same time, I know that time has delivered a lot of blows to the Detroit area and that many people in this congregation are hurting personally and financially.
Jesus came on the historical scene at a time, like this one, of real economic privation. First century Palestine had many of the economic and social problems of twenty-first century Detroit. People were hungry, homeless, poor, and without a sense of their ability to control their own destinies. The conventional wisdom of Jesus’s day held that you get yourself through hard times by grasping onto and hoarding what is yours and hunkering down to protect yourself and what you have from others. Jesus upended everything by preaching the reverse. He said that when women and children and men opened their hearts and tables and houses to each other there would miraculously be enough to go around. As a sign of that he fed 5,000 people with five barley loaves and two fish.
You and I are together at a challenging and exciting moment in the history of this parish and the region we live in and serve. These are certainly hard times. But if we have learned anything from following Jesus, it is that the way through hard times lies not in selfishness but in generosity. You and I can get through anything if we do it together. Accepting everyone’s divine uniqueness, feeling the joys and pains of each other and the world are the ways toward both personal and social wholeness. This is a truth we learn over and over again by hearing the story of Jesus’s life and ministry as enacted in the Gospels. This is a truth we know because we have been given a name, a mission, and a community in our Baptism.
We come now to the renewal of our Baptismal Covenant and to the sacrament where we gather around that same table to which Jesus invited everyone—his companions, the hungry, the sick, the privileged, the outcast—to gather and share the abundance of God’s blessings. As you share this meal at Jesus’s table, remember who you are and to whom you belong. You are, as Jesus was, God’s beloved, a person endowed with unique, divine dignity, someone with whom God is now and will forever be well pleased. And you are a companion of Jesus, one who is invited to share the bread and wine as signs of God’s compassionate commitment to you and the world we all share. God’s promise is not that life won’t deal us hard blows. God’s promise is that we will survive those blows and indeed thrive to transcend them as we reach out in love and compassion to each other and the world. For that promise, and for the love which sustains it, we proceed in the Eucharist to give thanks. Amen.