Sunday, April 25, 2010

Homily: The Fourth Sunday of Easter [April 25, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

Today is “Good Shepherd Sunday”, and let me begin with a confession: all this biblical talk of sheep and shepherds has never done very much for me. I am a city boy, and I didn’t grow up spending long winter nights playing the pan flute to the sheepfold. So my only way into understanding what Jesus means when he says “I am the Good Shepherd” is to reflect on my encounters with sheep and their caregivers in paintings, poems, and movies, and books. Who can forget the sheep in the movie, "Babe"? “Baa, ram, ewe. To your fleece be true. Baa, ram, ewe.”
The book encounter is still the strongest. If you’ve ever read a novel by Thomas Hardy, you know pretty early on that something horrible is going to happen to the main character. So it is with Hardy’s novel "Far From the Madding Crowd". The first character we meet is a shepherd named Gabriel Oak, and in chapter five he awakes in the middle of the night to a sound that only an experienced shepherd would recognize: “the running of the flock with great velocity.” When Gabriel gets out of bed and pursues that sound he discovers that a tragedy has occurred. All two hundred of Gabriel Oak’s sheep have been killed rushing through a broken fence and falling over the edge of a hill. Their death presents a tragedy of both needless suffering and Oak’s financial ruin. As Hardy tells it:

Oak was an intensely humane man . . . His first feeling now was one of pity for the untimely fate of these gentle ewes and their unborn lambs.It was a second to remember another phase of the matter. The sheep were not insured. All the savings of a frugal life had been dispersed at a blow; his hopes of being an independent farmer were laid low -- possibly for ever. [Thomas Hardy, "Far From the Madding Crowd", chapter 5]

Even a city boy has to feel for the loss of all those sheep and what that means for a new and hopeful shepherd. Beyond that, though, Hardy’s description of Gabriel Oak’s feelings at the loss of his sheep illuminates what Jesus says about himself as “the Good Shepherd” in today’s Gospel: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” [John 10.27] Like Gabriel Oak, Jesus feels for the sheep. Like a real shepherd, God has put everything at stake for us human creatures. To call Jesus a Good Shepherd is to say something about who Jesus is and how he is toward us that even city folk need to hear.
One of the most compelling things about today’s Gospel occurs in the interchange about whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." [John 10.24b] Now Messiah literally means “the anointed one”, and the anointed one is, of course, the king. For most Jews of Jesus’s day, the hope was for a Messiah, a real king, who would come and establish Jewish independence and throw the occupying Romans out. And here’s another confession: how do we 21st century people think about kings? My greatest association with kingship is the Muppet character [Pa Gorg] in the Jim Henson show "Fraggle Rock" who constantly proclaimed himself “King of the Universe!” even though he had only two subjects.
Now what is curious and wonderful about this interchange in John’s Gospel is Jesus’s non-answer to this question about his kingship. When asked if he is the Messiah, he responds with talk about himself as a shepherd and the people as his sheep. As in the trial before Pilate, when asked if he is King of the Jews, Jesus never claims that title. “You say that I am a king.” [John 18.37b] Jesus’s followers, his enemies, and the public at large persist in calling him “King”. He responds by describing himself as a shepherd.
So how do we understand these two words—“Shepherd” and “King”? The people ask Jesus if he’s a king, and he tells them he is a shepherd. That’s like saying, “Are you President of the United States?” and answering, “I am a Zookeeper”. To a question about power and authority, Jesus responds with an answer of love and relationship.
Seen in this way, this Gospel asks us to ponder two new questions. Question One: Why is it that we keep describing Jesus as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” in spite of his persistent refusal to use royal language about himself? Question Two: What does Jesus’s claim to be “the Good Shepherd” mean for us in Easter?
As to Question One: On a recent BBC interview, the English children’s author and novelist ["The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" ] Philip Pullman was asked about his reported remark that the Jesus story was a tragedy. How could one describe the Jesus story as a tragedy? Here is what Pullman said in reply:

It is a tragedy. Jesus’s vision, the vision that Jesus in the New Testament is putting forward . . . is not a vision that could be used as for example a management strategy or a business plan or something of that sort. To that extent he’s a complete revolutionary and destructive of all organizations, all human structures of any sort. . . . [And the cruel irony is that] the only way his memory, his words at all could be preserved was by embodying them in a structure of the sort he would have detested and turned away from and rebelled against with every ounce of passion he had. [BBC "Nightwaves" 4/6/ 2010]

Now Pullman, the son of a Church of England vicar, is extremely critical of official, organized Christianity, but we in the church need to hear what he’s saying. When asked if he’s a king, Jesus replies that he’s a shepherd. Nevertheless, we in the church have persisted in calling him a king. No doubt we do that as a way of honoring and praising him, but it’s just the kind of honor and praise he doesn’t need. Calling Jesus a king inflates him in a way that actually goes against what he stood for. Jesus was, if anything, critical of kingship. Caesar was, to him, part of the problem. Why would he want his title?
The world has followed in recent weeks the painful revelations of priestly abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. We in our own denomination also experience clergy misconduct, including the kind of abuse alleged against Catholic clergy, so we should not smugly point fingers in their direction from afar. Nevertheless, it is no accident that the church with the highest royal theology of itself, still organized in the imperial manner of the late Roman empire, continues to wrestle with the misuse of power by its elites. The result of that abuse of power is the destruction of lives. All this royal pretension has consequences, and it’s clear why Jesus rejected it. Kings use people to satisfy their own ends. Shepherds do not.
So I would answer question one by suggesting that it is easier for us to hold Jesus at a distance by calling him King than by calling him Shepherd. A king is somebody everybody sees but nobody knows. A shepherd is something else again. A shepherd cannot care for sheep at a distance. A shepherd can only tend the flock by knowing and, yes, loving them. We find it easier to talk of Jesus in terms of power than in terms of love. But, as Philip Pullman reminds us, Jesus opposed human power structures with every ounce of passion he had. He refused the title of King.
And that leads us to answering the second question: as this is Easter season, what is the Easter meaning of Jesus’s calling himself “the Good Shepherd”? I begin to find the answer in my own resistance. I want to think of Jesus as a king. I don’t want to think of him as a shepherd. For me to think of him as a shepherd means that I have to think of him as more intimately involved with and closer to me than perhaps I want to. The king is off in his castle doing something remote and royal someplace. A king thinks of me only as a mean to his powerful ends. The shepherd is with and beside me now, involved in what I’m thinking and doing, caring for me, guiding me away from thickets and cliffside fences and toward streams of living water. A shepherd knows me, for good or ill, as I am. To think of Jesus, let alone God, in these terms means that I need to be open to a whole new way of seeing myself in relation to the universe. It means that I’m perhaps less special yet more precious than I thought I was. It means that I find my fulfillment in relationship with others. It means that God is ultimately not about power but about love.
There are many ways to try to understand the radical and transformative beauty of Easter, and here is yet another of them. All through Holy Week, human beings subjected Jesus to all of the indignities that raw power can exert on a human being. By raising Jesus, God has not responded in power but in love. A vengeful God would have given us Jesus back as a King. A loving God gives us Jesus back as our Shepherd. As sheep with a shepherd, so you and I are in the care of One who suffers for and with us, One who has invested everything in us, One who cannot be fully who that One is without us. Subjects mean little to a King. Sheep mean everything to a Shepherd.
Jesus is your and my Good Shepherd. Your power, your status, your achievements impress neither Jesus nor God. Your failings, your pain, your weakness, your brokenness mean everything to them. You and I are in the loving care and embrace of One who knows how difficult it is to be us. Rightly understood, that love and care and embrace are what bind us together to praise God and to serve broken human beings both in here and out there. Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He loves, cares for, and embraces you and me and gathers us in love and freedom around his table. Let us go forth in his shepherdly care ourselves to love, feed, serve, and bless each other and the world. Amen.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Homily: Easter Day [April 4, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

In last Sunday’s "New York Times Magazine", there was a moving, painful, yet often hilarious personal essay by Dominique Browning called “Losing It”. [] For the twelve years preceding 2007, Browning was editor of the magazine House and Garden. Just before Thanksgiving of that year, she was called into a meeting and informed that Condé Nast was shutting House and Garden down. For the first time in her life she was without a job. And for Dominique Browning, being without a job was something akin to being without a life. As she puts it:

I have always had a job. . . . Without work, who was I? I do not mean that my title defined me. What did define me was the simple act of working. The loss of my job triggered a cascade of self-doubt and depression. I felt like a failure. Not that the magazine had failed — that I had.

Anyone who has ever found themselves shut out from the things that define their life—and this can happen when one is let go or fired, when a business fails, when retirement comes, when a spouse moves the family to another part of the country, when a child leaves home for college—knows what Dominique Browning is talking about. In “Losing It” she goes on to describe, in painfully funny ways, the kind of vegetable existence she descended into. Her life became an unstructured round of meals, sleeping in, and obsessive house-cleaning. At the low point of her existence she finds herself loading an expensive dessert plate with peanut butter as her evening meal. “I dolloped the stuff onto the plate — an extra helping so I didn’t have to go back downstairs for seconds. I put the plate of peanut butter, a half bottle of wine, a glass and a linen napkin on a tray and climbed back to my bedroom.”
As a Christian community, we have just lived through Holy Week, sharing with Jesus the sorrows and pains of the cross. There are worse things—serious illness, the death of a family member, the end of a relationship—than losing a job. But losing a job is a serious, major blow. If you’ve ever gone through a loss of status like this, you know how devastating it can be to your sense of your self, your worth, even your desire to go on living. When we lose that which defines us—the position, the routines, the relationships—our life as we have known it can seem like a thing of the past.
We’re gathered together this morning to celebrate Easter, the central feast of the Christian year. Easter is about resurrection, new life, transformed existence. Jesus has been put to death on the cross but God has validated his life and purpose in this surprising act of raising Jesus from the dead. We celebrate Easter because, as Paul says in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, Jesus’s resurrection has implications for us. His resurrection is what Paul calls “the first fruits” of our resurrection. Easter proclaims that Christ is risen and we shall be, too.
There is more to Easter than the promise a future blessedness. Easter is most powerfully about the here and now. Dominique Browning’s "New York Times Magazine" story reminds us that you and I and those we care about need help now. Easter is not just about risen life after death. Yes, to be sure, it is that. But it is also about risen life now. Because Christ is risen, death has lost its hold over our lives and imaginations. This means that we will have a life beyond death. And it also means that we can have a life beyond mere life.
To return one last time to Dominique Browning’s story. Her slide into aimless, vegetable living stopped when she finally began to let go of her old lost worklife routines and rhythms and gave herself over to the life that was actually hers in the moment. Here is how she puts it:
Slowly, slowly, the months go by, each one a variation transposing loss, loneliness and anger to gratitude and hope. . .I find room in my life again for love of the world, let the quiet of solitary moments steal over me, give myself over to joy. What a surprise! . . . [T]hese are moments of grace. Old Testament loving-kindness, the stuff of everyday life.—Dominique Browning , “Losing It”, New York Times Magazine, March 22, 2010
What is this but a kind of resurrection? Though the budding plants and singing birds around us today lift all our spirits, Easter is not only or even primarily about the return of spring. It is about risen and transformed hopeful living, about what Jesus would call “watchfulness”, what the Buddhists would call “awakening”. There is a beauty and depth and grace in the present moment that you and I usually miss because we are too obsessively focused either on the past or the future. The gift of resurrection is the gift not only of what we Christians call “eternal life”. The gift of resurrection is the gift of living the life God offers us in Jesus now. That resurrected life is a life characterized by openness, forgiveness, compassion, and an ongoing sense of wonder at the the beauty and joy of God’s world and the lucky gracious privilege of being alive in it. Listen again to what Paul says about this life in today’s epistle:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.--1 Corinthians 15.20-22

Life will always present us with obstacles and challenges. The life God lived in Jesus shows us that you cannot be human without confronting frustrations to your hopes and expectations. We are, after all, finite, fragile creatures. We are subject to illness, abandonment, betrayal, failure, and loss. That is, unfortunately, the way it is. If even the life God lived in Jesus was characterized this way, you and I should not be too surprised when our plans and hopes collapse. But there’s good news there, too: the news that God lived this life in Jesus means that the life we live ourselves has meaning and value. It means that our sufferings and losses do not count for nothing. It means that Jesus’s destiny is our destiny, too.
“For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” The glorious truth this Easter Day is not only that you shall be risen. The glorious truth is that you are risen, with Jesus, today. The abundant life that Jesus lived with his companions—thankfully receiving and sharing God’s gifts, reaching out in love and compassion, being wakefully open to the glory and preciousness of God’s world and the beings who inhabit it, and your own precious uniqueness—this abundant life is now, can be now, yours. That is the real truth of Easter today. The gift of resurrection is yours to claim and live into now.
What that Easter living looks like will depend on where you are on the journey of your life. For some it may mean, as it meant for Dominique Browning, living into a whole new way of being. For some it may mean letting go of old hurts and wounds and failures and losses and greeting this new day in the spirit of resurrection. For some it may mean ceasing to worry about yourself and starting more to care for the needs and fates of others. Resurrection is not a one size fits all kind of deal. God is making you into the original, unique being you were always intended to be and fitting you to live your unique role in God’s world. So your risen life will not look like anybody else’s.
But that risen life is real, it is here now, and it is yours. As we come now to gather at God’s table, we share the meal in which Jesus promised to be present to his friends as they ate and drank in his memory. At Easter, though, this meal is not primarily a memorial. It is, as one theologian [Jurgen Moltmann] called it, a “feast of freedom.” We gather at this table and stand in Jesus’s presence in thanksgiving for this Easter freedom that God has bestowed on us in the resurrection of Jesus and us. In the surprising grace of the empty tomb, God has set Jesus free. In the gracious surprise of Easter morning, God has set you free, too. "Why look for the living among the dead?" Today is the day of your empty tomb. You have been made alive in Christ. Come to God’s table and give thanks for that awakening of rebirth, and then go forth to live that free and risen life in God’s abundant and hurting world. Amen.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Homily: Good Friday [April 2, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

The cross is where we come to offer up and contemplate the meaning of our suffering. Human life is characterized by goodness, community, and love. It is also marked by aggression, loneliness, and loss. The story of the Garden of Eden is as much an expression of our wish as our memory. We long for an existence without the presence of sin, death, loss, and pain. But our experience of the world tells us otherwise. Human beings bring Jesus—God incarnate, exemplary human being—to the cross. And here we witness the worst kinds of suffering that human beings can inflict on each other.
So far this year we have seen earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, massacres of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, and a continued spate of terrorist bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq, and twice this week in Moscow. Such widespread suffering on such a massive scale always prompts a thoughtful person to ask, “Where is God in all of this?” We human beings are meaning-making creatures, so it is tempting to read disasters as if they were messages from God. Though some preachers seem to be able to interpret catastrophes with confidence, I am never sure about that. Along with the prophet Jeremiah [Lamentations 3.33] I believe that God does not “willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” But I continue to be troubled by God’s persistent silence. We live in a culture where seemingly everyone talks ceaselessly about their own miseries. Is it too much to ask God to join in the conversation?
The writer Amy Bloom was interviewed recently about growing up the granddaughter of Eastern European Jews who had fled the pogroms in Lithuania for the U.S. early in the twentieth century. To the surprise of her interviewer, Bloom explained that her grandparents never talked about their lives in Eastern Europe before coming to America. “How do you explain their reticence?” he asked. She responded,

“They were not part of the Oprah generation. They didn’t feel that if you told everybody how terrible your life had been, somebody would give you a car. They thought that if you told everybody how terrible your life was, they would probably ask you to go back.” [BBC Radio 3 Nightwaves 3/8/10]

Because today is Good Friday, it is not inappropriate for us to think about our problems. Because we are human, we can imagine a life without struggles or trials, persecutions or pains. And because we are human, our experience of life will always necessarily include the unpleasant as well as the good. If the cross means anything, it means that God has taken on and experienced our sufferings and our losses. So if God has experienced human suffering, that suffering must now count for something. God knows what it is like to be you and me. It is OK to acknowledge that life doesn’t always give us what we want from it.
Today is, the day in the church year when we walk with Jesus from arrest and trial to his death on the cross. Like Amy Bloom’s Eastern European Jewish grandparents, Jesus as we meet him in John’s Gospel does not say much about how terrible his life has been. But even seeing it from the outside, as we do, we know that this is not the ending to his story that Jesus had asked for or imagined. But it is one he could have predicted. The choice, for Jesus, was always about keeping faith who he was, to doing what God had appointed him to do. As one who loved and healed and taught and gathered people to his open table, Jesus risked offending the systems that would keep people subjugated and alone. As one who loved life and lived it abundantly, his very exuberance proved a dangerous way to live in an oppressive and fearful climate. But even a cursory reading of the Gospels will convince you that Jesus loved the life that Good Friday demanded he lose.
In the great East window of Christ Church (above the altar, behind me) there is a vignette unlike any I have seen in anywhere in stained glass. It depicts Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying, in the words of Luke’s Gospel, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done." Up above this scene the window depicts an empty, open hand gesturing down toward Jesus. Why is that hand empty? Is it because God the Father will not intervene? Is it empty because God the Father cannot intervene? The window, like the Bible, poses, but does not answer, those questions.
We talk a lot about power when we talk about God. Our symbol is the cross, itself an instrument of coercive force. The earliest Christians did not use the cross as their symbol. They used the lamb, the emblem of one who is powerless. What we see this day and have seen all this week, is a drama enacted between those who would wield power (the state, the church, the mob) and those who cannot or will not (Jesus and his followers, God.) If we are to understand what happens today, we must look at it against the backdrop of our window’s depiction of God’s empty hand. The Passion and Death of Jesus are not about some divine king sending his beloved son to be tortured and killed. The Passion and Death of Jesus are about God’s refusal to resort to human tactics of aggression and revenge.
When I worked at All Saints, Pasadena in the 1990s, Archbishop Desmond Tutu came several times to preach and talk about his work in South Africa. In one talk he said that there are things worse than death. One person in the group questioned him. “What do you mean, Archbishop, when you say there are things worse than death? What could possibly be worse than death?” Tutu replied: "For me, one of the worst things would be if I woke up one day and said to people, 'I think apartheid is not so bad.' For me, this would be worse than death." Jesus goes to the cross in that spirit. Jesus loves life, but for him there are things worse than death. Breaking faith with his companions would be worse than death. Standing with imperial power against those who are abused by it would be worse than death. Ceasing to care about the poor, the sick, the lonely, the bereaved--all these would be worse for Jesus than death. It is more important for Jesus to stand with all God’s fragile, wounded creatures than it is even to live the abundant life he loves.
As you and I take our place at the cross today, let us keep in mind the image of that empty, open hand in the great East Window of Christ Church Cranbrook. We are taking part in a drama where the ones with power seek to deploy it while the One with real authority refuses to use it. Jesus is given over into the hands of wicked people not because God is cruel but because God stands with those who get run over by life. Yes, in the window, God’s hand is empty; but it is also open. That openness is a gesture of good will. There are no tricks up God’s sleeve, no jokers in the deck. God refuses to wield weapons against us. And God reaches out to us to lead us into a new way of being with each other. A way, in the words of Northrop Frye, “based on trust instead of threats.”
In the crucifixion of Jesus, God has experienced human suffering at its most painful and profound. God has stood with us in the worst kind of human experience. This means two things for us. First, it means that the One we pray to is not some distant powerful cosmic king. The One we pray to is a lonely, dying, man of sorrows and griefs. That One hears us in the way a cosmic king couln’t but a fellow sufferer could. Second, it means that God calls us to stand together with Jesus and with all those who suffer. So, because of the cross, these two things are now true for us. The God we pray to is One who knows what it is to be us, to be weak and fragile and lonely and lost. And that One opens a hand to extend to us as we walk with Jesus to his death and then on to new and risen life.
Here is how Paul puts it in a reading from his letter to the Philippians that we read earlier this week:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.

Jesus went to the cross because he knew that there were things worse than death. It was more important to Jesus to take the form of a one with no power and no status than it was to insist on his own dignity. It was more important to Jesus to stand against the forces that destroy life and belittle human beings than it was to have the titles and symbols of power which Caesar and Pilate and Herod so desperately coveted. Jesus did not want to die. But the freedom and compassion with which he lived gave him no other choice. And it is because he emptied himself to death on a cross that you and I can choose to live differently—a life based on trust instead of threats--too.
It is toward freedom and compassion that God’s empty open hand beckons you and me this Good Friday. We can live as free and compassionate people because Good Friday is not finally tragic. The story does not end today. What comes next is Easter. Here is Paul again:

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. [Philippians 2:5-11]