Sunday, February 28, 2010

Homily: 2 Lent [February 28, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

I was saddened several years ago to read that the Crayola company—the people who make crayons—had discontinued all the so-called “natural” colors with which many of us grew up (remember “Burnt Sienna”?) in favor of new, more vibrant, electric colors. Their spokespeople explained that children were spending more and more time indoors and so were drawing less and less from life. The kids couldn’t use the colors with which you could draw grass, trees, flowers, and sky. They wanted colors that would replicate the cartoon images they saw on TV.
Whatever the reason, it is true that you and I and our children spend less time outdoors than our forbears did. We are urban, suburban people. We make our livings at great remove from the natural world. And though we may profess a love of nature, it is true that very few of us know or understand how to work a farm. Our love of nature may be deep and real, but it is less grounded in reality than was that of our parents and grandparent. It is also more sentimental.
Now I don’t claim a lot of personal authority to say any of this, because, frankly, I’m as urban a fellow as you’re likely to meet on life’s pilgrimage. I love the outdoors, and I run and walk and ride bicycles, but if you put me in a field or a henhouse or a barn I would be totally clueless. So imagine both my admiration and my shame this morning as I listened, with you, to Jesus’s comparison of Herod with a fox and his characterizing his relation to Jerusalem as “a hen gathering her brood under her wings”. Listening to Jesus is almost like hearing one of Aesop’s Fables: Herod, the wily Jewish king, is portrayed as a fox who preys on his own people. The Jews of Jerusalem are characterized Jesus’s beloved brood of chicks; they’re also, to change the comparison slightly, sitting ducks.
So the first thing today’s Gospel asks us to think about is the way in which Jesus, our Lord, our Saviour, and our teacher grounds his sayings in the stuff of life. Like the teller of a children’s tale, Jesus uses the images that arise from his hearers’ way of life. To call Herod a fox or to compare himself to a mother hen is a way of speaking to his audience in the terms they understand. They got him at first pass. For you and me, separated from the farm and the workshop, getting at what he means takes a bit more study.
Once we open ourselves up to the plainness of Jesus’s agricultural language, we should begin to hear the really surprising thing he is saying about his relationship to his people—and by “his people” I mean not only Palestinian Jews but us, you and me. Listen again to his words from today’s Gospel:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Luke 13.34

What Jesus is talking about, perhaps predicting, here is the fall or destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D., several years after his death. So Jesus (and Luke, the author of this Gospel) are thinking about the predatory relationship of foxes (Herod, the puppet king in the service of Rome, and the Empire itself) and prey (the Jews, and all those who are seen as a threat to imperial power.) He expresses his desire to save the Jews from imperial Roman brutality by comparing himself to a mother hen who gathers her brood under her wings.
Now I’m not Farmer Gary, and I don’t know this from first-hand experience, but I have heard that one of the ways hens save their offspring from fire is to gather them, much as Jesus describes, under their wings. When that happens, the fire kills the mother hen but the covering of her wings protect the offspring from the heat. There are accounts of fires that ravage henhouses where live chickens have been found protected by the wings of hens in just this manner. This appears to be a way in which the species continues, by sacrificing the parent to ensure the survival of the child. So when Jesus compares himself to a hen gathering her brood under her wings in the advent of a looming fiery destruction, we should hear in that not just a loving, sentimental, motherly embrace. If we hear this agricultural comparison in all its fullness, we should understand it more deeply: a sacrificial self-giving in order to protect and finally save those in his care whom he loves.
So now that we’ve messed around together with Jesus in the barnyard, what does this Gospel have to say to us? I hear two things.
The first has to do with our need, as finite, created, natural, animal creatures to get out and engage with the natural world in a way that our grandparents would have understood. Now I’m not suggesting that you throw away your cellphone, your laptop, and your iPod and go out and work the soil. (Though doing so would probably be a good thing for all of us.) Given our obligations and the realities of our lives, few of us can do that. But there is a consistent stream in the literature of Christian and world spirituality which calls us to orient ourselves in the natural world. It is possible, as a modern person living a complicated and stressful life, to go days on end without any experience of the natural world of the outdoors. The problem with living that way is that one becomes unstuck, disconnected from the ground of our experience. Like kids drawing cartoon characters, we adults have forgotten how to use the natural colors in the original Crayola assortment.
So I would say that the first point this morning concerns our need to reorient and root ourselves in the natural facts of our animal existence. That should include some time every day in the outdoors if possible, and it should also include an awareness of what we eat and drink and where it comes from. I may not be able to go out and raise my own foodstuffs, but I should at least get a sense of where they come from—what kind of processes led to their production, what kind of human labor went into their harvesting. We stand in a wonderful web of relationships—to other people and the plants and animals around us—and we need to see ourselves in our proper context. Remember that God put Adam and Eve in Eden. Our natural home is not a palace but a garden.
So point one is that we should seek to emulate Jesus by orienting ourselves to the natural world of which we too are citizens. Point two comes from that comparison he made of himself to a mother hen gathering her brood under her wings and so protecting them from the ravaging fires of destruction. When you think about Jesus and what he means for you and me, keep in mind that image of the hen gathering her brood under her wings as the foxes and fires come near. That is the way Jesus is toward you and me. Once you root yourself in nature, you remember that nature is not just flowers and green grass; it’s “red in tooth and claw”. There are real pains and dangers and losses as part of natural and human life, and God’s promise to us this morning is that we are, like the brood of chicks under Jesus’s mother hen wings, in the embrace of one who will preserve and protect us from those things we fear the most. The drama of the Christian Gospel lies in the deep truth that God in Christ is like that mother hen for us: gathering, sheltering, protecting, preserving, even at the cost of her own life.
Lent is a time we have been given, as Jesus was in his wilderness experience, to cleanse and reorient and open ourselves to the deep, abiding truths of our relationship to the universe. The first truth is that you and I are natural, animal beings who can find ways, even amid the stresses and pains of postmodern life, to find a place to stand in God’s created world in which God has placed you and reconnect with the realities of natural and human life. As we say on Ash Wednesday, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent is about taking on, accepting, and living into the stuff of our natural, dustly existence.
The second truth is that there is a deeper blessing to being human and alive than we might understand at first glance. Because that natural, created, dusty truth is not the only or final word about us. We are like those chicks gathered in a brood under Jesus’s mother-hen wings. The foxes and the fires of life are real, and they will always be coming toward us. But we can live our lives without living in fear of them because we are gathered in the sheltering embrace of One who means to save us. So throw out those electric-colored crayons, get out your old natural ones, and draw yourself a picture of yourself in the world which God has given you. Take some time to just live and be in the world in which God has placed you. And while you’re at it, look around you for a glimpse of Jesus’s sheltering wings. Amen.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Homily: 1 Lent [February 21, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

In the issue of The New Yorker currently out on the stands there is a photo essay by the photographer Platon called “The Promise: Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement”. These portraits show us some members of the “Moses Generation” of Civil Rights leaders who are still very much alive and with us: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the Little Rock Nine, Joseph Lowery, Andrew Young, and Congressman John Lewis to name some of them. It is a compelling collection of photographs that helps us remember the generation of Civil Rights leaders who helped all Americans face into the injustices of slavery and segregation in the 1950s and 1960s.
I am always affected by memories of that moment in American history. I am a Christian largely because of the Civil Rights movement. As an unchurched high school student in Los Angeles, I became politically active in the election of 1964 when there was a proposition on the California ballot to repeal the state’s fair housing legislation. It was through the “No on 14” campaign that I first met Christian clergy, and it was my encounter with ministers opposed to segregation that marked my first engagement with Christianity in action. So in some sense I am here in this pulpit because of the work of that “Moses generation” of Civil Rights leaders.
One of my heroes in those days was The Reverend Joseph Lowery, co-founder with Martin Luther King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. There is a picture of Lowery in the New Yorker photo essay, and seeing it reminded me of remarks he made at an event in Selma, Alabama two years ago. Joe Lowery began by talking about his cholesterol and ended up discussing the Civil Rights movement. Here’s what he said:

I'm glad [the doctor] reminded me that there's good cholesterol and there's bad cholesterol. Everybody in the movement was a little crazy. But like cholesterol, there's a good crazy and a bad crazy. When Harriet Tubman was running up and down the Underground Railroad, she was as crazy as she could be, but it was a good crazy! And when Paul preached to Agrippa, they said, 'Paul, you're crazy,' but it was a good crazy! I’m saying today we need more folks in this country who’ve got a good crazy. . . . God takes care of folks who are good crazy.—The Reverend Joseph Lowery, Selma, Alabama March 4, 2007.

As with cholesterol, there’s “good crazy” and “bad crazy”. In 21st century America we are all too familiar with “bad crazy”—professors shooting faculty colleagues, angry taxpayers flying their planes into IRS offices, and all kinds of public and private actings-out of violent pointless rage. You don’t have to go very far to look for examples of “bad crazy.” They’re all over the place.
But what about “good crazy”? Isn’t that, in a sense, how Jesus was acting in today’s Gospel? Our passage from Luke [Luke 4.1-13] takes up from where the chronology of the Jesus story last left off: earlier, Jesus appeared at the Jordan River where John the Baptist was baptizing and submitted to John’s baptism. Immediately thereafter, in today’s reading, Jesus (as Luke puts it) “full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” Luke tells us Jesus “ate nothing at all during those days.” You’d have to be crazy to do something like that, but it’s a good crazy.
These 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness have always been taken by Christians as our pattern for Lent. As often happens, though, we focus too much on the season’s deprivations themselves and neglect to attend to the prequel and the sequel. Jesus left his Baptism “full of the Holy Spirit”, and he emerged from the temptations in the wilderness ready to begin his public ministry. He came to his wilderness experience fresh from hearing God call him God’s beloved. He left that temptation time once again “filled with the Spirit”, [Luke 4.14] ready to preach and teach and heal in his native region of Galilee. The temptation period did not stand on its own. It came from someplace and it led to someplace. And so for us: Lent does not exist for its own sake. Lent is not just a 40 day period to feel bad. We take it on not because we’re worthless, but because we are loved. And when it’s over we emerge into the grace and power of the Resurrection at Easter. The whole enterprise may sound crazy. But it’s a good crazy.
When Jesus was in the wilderness, Luke tells us that he was tempted in three ways. First, he was tempted to turn a stone into a loaf of bread. Second, he was tempted to worship the devil and so receive all the glory and all the authority of the kingdoms of the world. Third, he was tempted to test God and God’s promises by throwing himself from the highest point of the Jerusalem temple. The menu spread before Jesus tempted him physically (bread for a hungry man), psychologically (set yourself up as king of the universe), and spiritually (take matters into your own hands and make God reveal himself.) How could you say no to any of those things? To reject food, power, and spiritual certainty, you’d have to be crazy. But it’s a good crazy.
These three temptations tell us as much about Jesus as they do about the one who tempts him. Jesus responds to each temptation with a verse from scripture. To the first temptation of bread, Jesus replies, “One does not live by bread alone.” To the second, worldly wealth and political power, Jesus replies, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” To the third, a quick experiment to see if God is actually trustworthy, Jesus answers, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test." In some ways, these are images of the things that tempt us physically, psychologically, spiritually. Some of us are driven by fear, and so will do anything for security. The bread here is more than bread. It symbolizes safety. Just leave me alone and let me have my three squares and a flop and I won’t cause you any trouble. Some of us are driven by our ego needs, and we’ll do anything to get power over or attention from others. So the kingdoms of the world are more than political authority. They stand for power over others in both behavior and esteem. Some of us cannot stand the ambiguity which seems to be a given of human existence. We want to know for certain who God is, where God is, and what the rules are. So we will do anything just to be freed from anxiety. Throwing yourself off a building symbolizes the desire for certainty at the expense of faithfulness. Jesus says no to all three, and you and I may think him crazy. But it’s a good crazy.
If Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness is the pattern for your and my 40 day observance of Lent, then the question this morning can be put this way: how do these three kinds of temptations speak to you, and how might you use these days to take stock of your relation to them? What will you do, how will you compromise yourself, for the promise of safety and security? What will you do to get enough money, prestige, and power to make other people like you and do what you tell them to? What will you do to get God to answer the questions that keep you up at night and give you an absolutely reliable metaphysical snapshot of how things really are? These three temptations may not come toward you in the form in which they assaulted Jesus, but they represent the three spiritual problems with which all of us wrestle.
What’s important about this story is who Jesus became at the other end of it. After resisting these temptations of security, power, and certainty, Jesus launched himself into a loving, open, fearless ministry of compassion, justice, and hope. By passing the first temptation, he was able to live his life trusting that he was secure already, and that the bread of life would be there to sustain him in all the triumphs and trials of life. By passing the second temptation he was able to see beyond earthly, human distinctions and gather around himself a diverse group of companions who were both powerful and powerless, esteemed and outcast. By passing the third temptation, Jesus was able to live into an uncertain future with hope, even when being faithful to the logic of that hope took him to the cross. These forty days in the wilderness helped Jesus live a life that many called crazy. But you and I know it was a good crazy.
No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, the temptations always come at you in these three ways. They ask that you and I betray others or ourselves in order to meet our primal needs for security, for power, and for certainty. What Jesus knew as he went in to the wilderness was the thing that sustained him through it to the end. He knew that he was God’s beloved, that God was well-pleased with him, and that no matter what came at him he would be sustained by the One whose Spirit filled him to live his life in love and compassion with others. Jesus knew that, hungry or not, he was safe in God’s love. He knew that, powerful or not, he was approved by God in his life and work. He knew that, without being certain about the outcome, he would be able to trust in the One who called him forward as a blessing to the poor, the sick, the lonely, the oppressed.
Jesus used these forty days to take hold of those three great truths, and in so doing was empowered to be the person God had made him to be and live the life God had called him to live. You and I have been given these forty days to take on and take in the same three great truths. You are secure in God’s love. You are approved by God. And you can trust the One who promises to make you safe. Knowing these truths and acting on them can make you a little crazy. But it’s a good crazy. Amen.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Homily: Ash Wednesday [February 17, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

There are certain sermons you hear or read that determine how you’re going to understand a passage of scripture for the rest of your life. For me, one such sermon is Reinhold Niebuhr’s homily on today’s reading from 2 Corinthians, “As Deceivers, Yet True” published in his 1937 collection, Beyond Tragedy. In the passage we just heard read, Paul talks about the contradictory ways in which the early Christians were seen by the outside world.

In honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true [2 Corinthians 6.8]

Reinhold Niebuhr was using the King James Version of the Bible, hence his slightly different language: “By honour and dishonour, by evil report and good report: as deceivers, and yet true.” [2 Corinthians 6.8] Here is what Niebuhr says about this passage, or what he calls Paul’s description of “the character, the vicissitudes, and the faith of the Christian ministry”. He says:

[W]hat is true in the Christian religion can be expressed in symbols which contain a certain degree of provisional and superficial deception. Every apologist of the Christian faith might well, therefore, make the Pauline phrase his own. We do teach the truth by deception. We are deceivers, yet true.” [Reinhold Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy¸ p. 3]

In the same way that a visual artist misrepresents three-dimensional reality in order to portray it on a two-dimensional canvas, so the Christian church has had to talk in partial truths in order to represent a larger, paradoxical truth. In Niebuhr’s words, “It must be made into a symbol of something beyond itself.” [Beyond Tragedy, p.6] In my way of putting it: the truth of the Gospel so far transcends our understanding of it that we can only talk about it in half truths. So all preachers are, in one way or another, liars. But we lie to tell the truth.
In the same way that a visual artist misrepresents three-dimensional reality in order to portray it on a two-dimensional canvas, so the Christian church has had to talk in partial truths in order to represent a larger, paradoxical truth. In Niebuhr’s words, “It must be made into a symbol of something beyond itself.” [Beyond Tragedy, p.6] In my way of putting it: the truth of the Gospel so far transcends our understanding of it that we can only talk about it in half truths. So all preachers are, in one way or another, liars. But we lie to tell the truth.
This is the way it is with Ash Wednesday. As the first day in the 40-day season of Lent, this is a penitential occasion, a day on which we reflect on our sinfulness. It is true that we are sinners, that we are selfish, that we are limited and mortal, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” [Isaiah 53.6] We cannot give a full account of ourselves without acknowledging that we each see the world from a limited and partial point of view which places ourselves at the center and everyone else on the periphery. The focus of Ash Wednesday is very much on our limitations.
But to say only this does not do justice to the fullness of the paradox. So we are deceivers, yet true. Because the other side of this equation is Easter and resurrection and what they say about our goodness and worth. God’s raising of Jesus from the death to which we put him is a profound sign of how important we are to God. We are made in God’s image, endowed with God’s blessing and purpose. As fallen and sinful and selfish as we are, there is more to our story than our sin. So we need to keep the other side of this paradox in mind as we observe the first side of it. All we like sheep have gone astray. And Christ is risen as the promise of our resurrection. Two things that seem contradictory are true at once. Ash Wednesday makes no sense without Easter. Easter makes no sense without Ash Wednesday.
All of the great ideas of Christian faith and life stand in tension with what look to us like their opposites: justice and mercy, faith and works, judgment and forgiveness. It is a perversion of the fullness of the Gospel to emphasize one over the other. Some traditions exclusively emphasize God’s judgment and so turn Christianity into a stern, merciless and joyless enterprise. Others over-emphasize God’s mercy and so become purveyors of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”. Only the Christian communities that try to hold on to both sides of the equation even begin to get it right. You and I are sinners. And God loves us. Both things are true at the same time. Today we concentrate on the sinful part. But hold on, because even in this Lenten period we will see evidence of God’s deep and abiding love for us. And then there will be Easter, which will put everything in its proper perspective.
We come soon to the part of the service where ashes are imposed on our foreheads and the priest says, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” When I was younger I heard that sentence as exclusively bad news. I heard that sentence telling me I was nothing, that I was dirt, that I was going to die. As I have gotten older, I hear it telling me something else. It tells me that I am of the earth and so good. Like all living creatures, I am subject to the limits of time and space. All of us are “but flesh, a breath that goes forth and does not return.” [Psalm 78.39] The sentence that imposes ashes on my forehead tells me that as a mortal, finite creature, I stand in the middle of a tension that is too big and complex for me to take in all at once. It tells me that all, finally, will be well.
We, all of us Christian folk, are deceivers yet true. Over the course of our lives we navigate contradictions that confuse us. To help us in that work we have been given this forty-day period of Lent in which we are asked by God to look inward, past our exterior deception, toward our inner truth. If you think you have no sin you deceive yourself. And if you think your sin is the most important thing about you, you deceive yourself yet again. Lent is a time of self-examination, of repentance, of fasting. But we do those things not for their own sake but in the service of the divine love that calls us forward toward Easter. Lent is a time when we are given the opportunity to peel back our masks and see ourselves as God sees us: as limited, mortal, often selfish and lost creatures who nevertheless are unique and precious to God. Both things are true. And we can’t really see them without a bit of smoke and mirrors.
We are deceivers, yet true. God knows you as you are and loves you as you are. May this Lent be a season when you come, if only a glimpse at a time, to know and see yourself as God does. Amen.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Homily: 5 Epiphany [February 7, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

At the end of last week Kathy and I made a quick trip to Washington, D.C. to attend a milestone birthday party for a close high school friend of mine who lives in Georgetown. We didn’t have much time there, but we were able to spend Friday afternoon in my favorite place in Washington, the National Gallery of Art. A number of favorite artworks are there, and my intention was to spend the afternoon revisiting them. But as often happens to me in museums, something changed my plans. As I walked down the capacious open hallways of the Gallery’s first floor, my attention was immediately arrested by a large, circular painting I’d never noticed before: Fra Angelico’s and Fra Filippo Lippi’s 15th century version of The Adoration of the Magi. It’s a huge circular painting, called in Italian a tondo, and it rests inside an ornate gold-painted frame. For some reason, the picture drew me away from my familiar intended path and caused me to spend a half an hour looking at it.
This is the painting that we’ve reproduced as an insert in your bulletin today. It depicts the event we observe on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, familiarly known as the Adoration of the Magi. This is the story, in Matthew’s Gospel, that tells us how three wise men came from the east bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the cradle of the infant Jesus. Symbolically, this story suggests that the divine glory manifest in Jesus will be made known to the whole world. It is from the Epiphany, or manifestation of God’s glory in Jesus, that this season of Epiphany gets its name. God’s glory is unstoppably on display. The first stage in God’s self-manifestation is to the Magi. As the season progresses we see God’s glory spreading through the ministry of Jesus to the church, to the whole human community, and finally to nature itself.
So here I was at the National Gallery unexpectedly caught up by a painting I’d never seen before. I didn’t know this painting existed. I didn’t expect to spend so much time looking at it. The picture literally drew me toward itself. Seeing it was, frankly, a religious experience that I’d like to share with you. So please take up this small reproduction and look at it with me for a moment. I’ve never preached with visual aids before, so please bear with me!
Now there are several people in this congregation who know a good deal more about visual art than I do, so I’m not going to presume to attempt saying anything intellectually fancy about this painting. But there are a few things that jump out at me. The first is that peacock on the stable’s roof. The second is the line of those five nearly naked men on the wall just to the left of the peacock. The third is the frightened young man in the lower right hand part of the circle. Don’t ask me about that weird, dog-like creature at the bottom. I’m sure he’s symbolic of something, but of what I haven’t a clue. I know I’ve never seen anything like him in the American Kennel Club listings.
Peacocks, though, are another matter. Because it is beautiful and multi-colored, the peacock, like the butterfly, has long been a symbol of the Resurrection. That’s one reason why the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor raised them at her farm in Georgia. So this painting, set near the beginning of the Jesus story, calls our attention to the end of it. The One who is born in the stable and laid in a manger at Christmas and adored at Epiphany is the same One who will be crucified on Good Friday and raised at Easter. The peacock is there to call our attention to the divine significance of this humble birth: the infant Jesus is glorious because of what his life portends. He will be a living manifestation of God’s loving purpose, and his death and resurrection will be a foretaste of our eternal destiny.
Even more interesting to me in this picture, though, is the line of the five pale men wearing loincloths standing atop the wall toward the left side of the painting. That they are nearly naked suggests that they are probably beggars. That their skin is so whitishly pale suggests that they are lepers. Whatever they are, they are atop a wall and seemingly cut off from the rest of the people, therefore excluded from society. Yet as lonely and miserable as they are, they cannot help but be caught up in the joy of the moment. They too look toward the infant Jesus with expectation and with praise.
And then there is the frightened young man in the lower right part of the painting, the one immediately behind Joseph. He holds up his right hand shielding his downcast eyes, as if something in the vision of the baby Jesus is too much for him. While everyone else looks either up to heaven or toward the child, this person looks away, as if this vision presents him with something he cannot fully make himself take in.
Now the reason I asked that this painting be duplicated is not only that I wanted to share it with you, but more importantly because I felt that as I read this morning’s Gospel Fra Angelico’s tondo helped me understand something of what Luke is trying to tell us in his account of the miraculous catch of fish. [Luke 5.1-11] They are two different stories from two different Gospels, but they make the same points. In today’s Gospel, Jesus gets into a boat near the shore. Though the fishermen had been out all night fishing, they had caught nothing. Jesus tells them to go farther out and let down their nets. Peter scoffs in disbelief, but he obeys Jesus and is astonished by the number of fish they bring up. They catch so many fish that their nets break and the boat threatens to sink. When Peter realizes the size and extent of this miraculous catch of fish, he falls to his knees in front of Jesus. And what he says is both surprising and authentic. He doesn’t say, “Thank you, Jesus, for helping me catch so many fish.” Rather, he says, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" In reply, Jesus tells him not to be afraid, for soon he will be fishing for people.
The same three things that we saw in the painting are being told us in the story. We have an Epiphany painting and an Epiphany Gospel, and they both attest to the same deep truths. As with the peacock at the stable, the point of the story is not the catch of the fish but the deep and transcendent love and power of God. As with the five poor lepers in the painting, so with the size and abundance of the catch: God’s glory makes itself known in the expansive and limitless abundance of the whole creation. And as with the young man’s inability to look at the glory revealed in the cradle, so Peter cannot take the divine glory he has just seen. Something about the direct experience of God frightens as much as it draws us. "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"
As we move together toward the culmination of this season of glory and light, I believe that God wants us to take in the three powerful truths depicted and spoken to us in this painting and in Luke’s Gospel account. The miracle story, like the peacock in the painting, points us toward what this whole divine drama is about. Easter, Resurrection, new life, hope and transformation—these are the big truths of the Christian life. In our own personal struggles, sometimes even in our church disagreements, we forget why we are here in the first place. We’re here because Christ is risen and we shall be, too. God has offered each and all of us new and abundant life with one another in Christ. Because we are risen with Christ, we are transformed, a “new creation”, as Paul calls it. So we are free to live hopeful, generous, compassionate, lives free of anxiety and fear. There is nothing we need fear—not even death. The presence of the peacock in the painting helps us remember what life with God in Christ is all finally about. You are loved, accepted, and saved. You can live your life without fear.
Those five leprous beggars remind us, as does the size of the catch of fish, that God’s call does not just extend to us. We have been given this gift of hopeful, fearless life so that we may invite others into it. Like the fishers in Luke’s story, God has called us to be people who cast the net expansively and inclusively, inviting not just oriental potentates but the full range of the human community into our life and fellowship. God invites everyone to the table. God wants the beggars and the lepers seated right next to the three wise men at the dinner table. We need, in our households and in our church, to practice that kind of radically welcoming hospitality. The promise is that when we do that, our nets will be full to the point of breaking.
And then there’s Peter’s response to Jesus, depicted in the young man who shields himself from the cradle’s glow. "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" When
God’s light shines on us, it illuminates those parts of us we’d rather not acknowledge. Every time God appears directly in the Bible, the first response is usually an experience of personal unworthiness. Who am I to be the recipient of such a glorious and transcendent presence? Yet that is the deep and paradoxical truth of the glory of God as made manifest in this season. God loves those parts of you that even you yourself cannot stand to look at. The light of the Resurrection shines on the totality of who we are. There is nothing about you that God cannot love and heal and bless. Resurrection means you and I can be fearless not only in facing out but in facing in. God’s judgment is a clarifying and healing judgment. God calls us to face into and love ourselves and each other as we are, so we can move forward together toward a future of blessing and promise and hope.
Let us bask together in this divine glory, made manifest in Jesus and in each other. Let us spread the invitation to this banquet to all God’s creatures, especially those we don’t usually make room for around our dinner tables. And let’s acknowledge that though we may see parts of ourselves we’d sooner ignore, God already is working to heal and bless them. A picture is worth a thousand words. This painting preaches these truths better than I can. May it help us take in our Gospel story and keep us centered on the depth and breadth and transformative power of God’s love for you, for me, and for the world. Amen.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Homily: 4 Epiphany [January 31, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

When we left Christ Church Cranbrook in 1981, Kathy and Oliver and I moved to Southern California. The next year I became Vicar of St. Aidan's in Malibu where I served for the balance of the 1980s while going to graduate school at UCLA. Malibu was a tough assignment, but somebody had to do it! As you can imagine, there were a lot of colorful characters in Malibu, but one of the best of them was a parishioner named Edna Cox. Edna was a widow whose husband had patented several inventions, and so she had the resources to be a generous supporter of many causes in the community. One day when I was visiting her, she said, "Now, son, I never pledge, but I'll give to any special project you have. So when you see something you think the church really needs, just ask me."

A few weeks after this visit, Edna and I were standing at the back of the church as the closing hymn was ending. Now St. Aidan's is a nice, small, 1960's church building situated on a hillside across the Pacific Coast Highway from Paradise Cove. It has an unparalleled natural vista, but at that time it also had some of the ugliest church furnishings you could imagine. The chief offenders in that line were a pair of hideous tall gilt candlesticks on the altar that looked like they were intended for impaling parishioners in arrears on their pledges. Though they were obviously expensive, these Viking style weapons of doom were unspeakably ugly. So, remembering Edna's offer of generous help with any special project I might have, I sidled up to her and said, "You know, Edna, we've got to do something about those God-awful candlesticks."
Edna paused for a moment, looked me straight in the eye, and replied, "I gave those God-awful candlesticks." As you can imagine, I was deeply embarrassed, but luckily for me Edna was both a generous and forgiving person. We laughed over this conversation many times in the ensuing years. Those candlesticks are still there.
Whenever I read today’s Gospel, I remember this interchange, and I take some comfort that Jesus himself seemed to have had issues about controlling his speech. Certainly, Jesus's words today to the home town crowd were not chosen to win friends and influence people. The two stories he tells-one about the prophet Elijah being sent in a drought and famine to help not an Israelite but a Philistine, the other about the prophet Elisha healing not a Jew but a Syrian from leprosy-these stories were obviously deeply offensive to a hometown crowd of pious people who believed themselves to be God's elect. In the first part of this story, which we heard last week, Jesus audaciously claimed himself to be the embodiment of Israel's Messianic hopes; today he goes on to tell God's chosen people that they weren't really all that special. Hearing that, I don't feel so bad. At least I didn't tell Edna Cox I was the Messiah.
Whatever the reason, Jesus's words riled up the hometown crowd. Luke puts it this way: "When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff." [Luke 4.28-29] We always think of Jesus as the very model of a teacher and preacher. Yet here he was eliciting such rage from the Nazareth synagogue that they responded to his words not with admiration but with a desire to kill. What was going on?
Part of the congregation's reaction to Jesus has to do with his being a local boy returned home to preach for the first time. "A prophet is not without honor except in his own country." For some in the synagogue, Jesus's very familiarity worked against him. But there's more to it than that. When the local crowd begins to disbelieve him, he tells them stories about God's seeming preference for outsiders. "You think you're special," he seems to say, "but God cares as much for Philistines and Syrians—people you have traditionally defined as your enemies--as he does for Jews." If you believe you're special, hearing someone say you're not is probably not going to stir them to sign up for your fan club.
Today is the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, a day whose theme is Peace. In our collect for today, we asked God to "mercifully hear the supplications" of God's people, and "in our time grant us God's peace." Because of this collect, the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany has traditionally been a Sunday on which Episcopal churches pray for peace. All of us look for peace-international peace, interpersonal peace, interior peace. Given what we've seen and heard in today's Gospel, what might this Sunday have to say to us in 21st century America about our desire for peace? I hear two things.
The first thing I hear is that words matter. There are a couple of places in the New Testament where Jesus loses his cool and speaks in provocative ways. If you believe, as I do, that we see Jesus grow and mature over the course of the Gospel narratives, then perhaps it's not irreligious to suggest that at this early moment in his ministry Jesus was not quite the master of himself that he was in his more mature teaching moments such as the Good Samaritan story (which makes essentially the same point). Jesus evoked the rage of the crowd here, and I'm not so sure that we're supposed to see that as a good thing. Certainly their reaction is uncalled for. But telling a group of observant Jews that God loves Philistines and Samaritans better is a bit like yelling fire in a crowded theater. Later on in the Gospels, Jesus is no less forceful, but he is more tactful. After this, he no longer hurls fighting words at his adversaries. Rather, the more he matures, the more he turns their own fighting words back on them.
So point one is that if we want peace we need to use words that promote peace. This does not mean that we need to be weak or naive or to compromise our principles. But there are ways for people with opposing interests to learn to live with each other and actually work together for the common good. At his best, Jesus always proceeds out of an acknowledgment of the good intentions of the other. As Reinhold Niebuhr often observed, nobody in this world thinks they are doing evil. Everyone pretty much operates out of their sense of the good. It's only in melodrama and cartoons that the villain acts out of pure malignity. As Christians, our task is to make common cause between us and other people's best selves, and that means trying to see the world from their best intentions, from their point of view. One strong way to promote peace is to speak respectfully to and of everyone--even of people who stand for principles with which you strongly disagree.
The other thing I hear in this story is our need to expand our notion of who is in and diminish our notion of who is out. The Nazareth congregation erupts in rage because Jesus has equated them with Philistines and Syrians. But what if their definition of themselves had been big enough to see Philistines and Syrians not as "others" but as "themselves"? Again, as Reinhold Niebuhr often observed, we human beings are better in our relations with those close to us than we are with those at a distance. We empathize and identify with people we know. We fear those who are radically different or removed from us. As long as I stand inside a very small circle and define that space as the boundary of what is regular or normative, leaving everyone outside it defined as abnormal or deficient--if I see myself as the normal human being and everyone else as somehow less than me or an aberration-then I'm cleaving to a modern version of the Nazareth congregation's horror at being equated with a Syrian or a Philistine. You and I have more in common not only with each other but with people radically different from us than we think we do. Our task, as followers of Jesus, is to expand the diameter of the circle of people we think of as being like us, of those with whom we share a common human identity.
It's easy (and not particularly admirable) to love and accept people like ourselves. It's work to love and accept the other in ourselves, to see the self in the other. The constant clash of cultures we experience today makes contemporary living a challenge, because every day we are presented with images of people whose worlds and realities look very different from our own. But if we want God to give us peace in our time, we will need both separately and together to look for the best in the other, and we'll need to see the other in ourselves. And that is as true for a church, a community, a family, a workplace, as it is for the arena of international relations. Walt Kelly was not entirely joking when he had Pogo say, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
Our nation is polarized. There are real enmities and conflicts in the world. Christians are not called to be naive about those things. But we are called to be the people who look for the best in each other and in those around us. When God looks at you, God sees you as God would have us see each other: God sees you as your best self, operating out of your best intentions, as one worthy of God's grace and care and protection. So—and this may sound audacious--let's try to be a bit more like God. Let's speak to each other--at home, at work, in the civic square and marketplace, in the public and international arenas, even in church--in words that are respectful of that divine image incarnate in every human being. And let's push that circle each day to be a little bit wider, so that we come to see our self in the other, the other in our self. Amen.