Sunday, May 16, 2010

Homily: The Seventh Sunday of Easter [May 16, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

As you no doubt remember, last Sunday was Mother’s Day, and just to let you know what kind of a prince of a guy I am, I took advantage of an e-mail special offer for a free Mother’s Day dish from a national chain Chinese restaurant with an outlet here in Royal Oak. Kathy loves Chinese food, so what better way to celebrate Mother’s Day than with a Chinese takeout meal for mom and a bargain for dad? The only problem was that the coupon had to be presented by “mothers only”, so that meant that Kathy herself would have to go into the restaurant to claim this particular bargain. As I pitched this idea to her, Kathy’s response wasn’t entirely enthusiastic (“Oh, great. Why don’t you just have me cook the food myself?”), but we decided to make an occasion of it by bundling up the two dogs, putting them in their luxurious lambskin car seats, and driving off, coupon and credit card in hand, to Pei Wei Asian Diner.
I’ll spare you the chaos Kathy encountered once inside the restaurant. Let’s just say that an eatery filled with screaming children, grumpy mothers, and cheap dads is not a pretty picture. Because what I want to tell you about happened in the car as I stayed in it with the dogs so Kathy could go in and pick up our bargain dinner. As soon as Kathy began to walk away from the car toward the restaurant, our two dogs went nuts. They got out of their car seats and scrabbled at the windows. They whined. They issued pathetic little howls. Even though I, magnanimous dad of the year, was still in the car with them, my august presence was not enough. Kathy had departed, to their dog way of thinking forever, and they longed eagerly and anxiously for her return and expressed that longing in ways that made me wish, frankly, that we had called instead for a pizza.
I tell that story because it replicates, as closely as anything I can describe, the mood on this Seventh Sunday of Easter. The anxiety, longing, and panic felt by our two terriers at Kathy’s departure is something like the mix of feelings described by the New Testament writers who tell us of the way Jesus’s companions felt after his Ascension. (I always get extra points at home when I compare Jesus to Kathy, so perhaps this analogy will make up for the skimpy Mother’s Day spread.) Jesus’s departure was traumatic, an occasion both for rejoicing and for grieving.
Last Thursday was Ascension Day, a day we don’t celebrate much any more, the 40th day of Easter, and on this day the book of Acts tells us that Jesus was taken by a cloud out of the apostles’ sight. Think for a minute about what screenwriters would call the arc of the Jesus story. Jesus was with his companions in Galilee and Jerusalem for between one and three years. Then he was arrested, tried, and put to death. So he is gone. Then at Easter he is given back to his followers and friends in the resurrection, and for 40 days more he stays with them. It is almost as if they have him back for good. But then on Ascension Day, the 40th day, he is taken away again. That is both good news and bad news. It is good news in that Jesus’s exaltation vindicates his life and ministry and purpose. It is bad news in that his ascension to God’s right hand means his absence from us.
And so we have this ten-day period—a stretch of time between Ascension and Pentecost (which itself means “50th day”)--when Jesus’s companions wait to see what God will do. Jesus is gone. He has promised us, in the words of last week’s Gospel, that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” [John 14.26] The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth called this ten day period between Ascension and Pentecost “the significant pause”. God has promised to act, but that promise has yet to be fulfilled. We live life in the pause between promise and fulfillment. It is a time of watching and waiting, a mixture of anxiety and hope. This ten-day pause is an epitome of the life of faith—indeed of all life--itself.
One way to understand what God is up to in the Christian drama is to see the whole biblical story as a parable of God’s desire to be connected to us. You could understand the Old Testament as a story of God’s search for us. God made us in God’s own image, but we pulled or fell away. God called us perpetually to return, but we would not. So then the New Testament details for us God’s radical plan for re-connecting. God becomes one of us in Jesus. The coming of God into human flesh is God’s ultimate act of being with us. We celebrate Christmas not because it is Jesus’s birthday but because it proclaims God’s taking on our life, and with it our joys and failures, our hopes and losses, our sorrows and our sufferings.
One way to understand Ascension is to see it as the other side of Christmas. Jesus’s birth proclaims God’s coming down to us. Ascension proclaims our rising up to God. As Rowan Willaims says, “The ascension of Jesus . . . [is] a celebration of the extraordinary fact that our humanity in all its variety, in all its vulnerability, has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life.” [Rowan Williams, “A sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Ascension Day Sung Eucharist”, May 21, 2009] If Christmas celebrates the divine significance of all things human, Ascension Day proclaims the abiding human aspects of the divine.
Therefore, Ascension time is not just a triumphal “shout out”, a cosmic “I told you so!” regarding the celestial enthronement of Jesus. Ascension time is an expression of the way God is transforming us here, now, to be agents of blessing and hope ourselves. Jesus speaks to God with a human voice. The incomparable variety of human speech—sung and shouted and whispered from the broken streets of Detroit to the shady lanes of Birmingham and all places in between—has now been spoken in and through us and so in and to the heart of the divine. Or, as Williams says, “the humanity that we all know to be stained, wounded, imprisoned in various ways; this humanity—yours and mine—is still capable of being embraced by God, shot through with God's glory, received and welcomed in the burning heart of reality itself.”
Now that is a wonderful thing, and when we drop Ascension Day out of our consciousness we lose sight of what I call this other side of Christmas. God is in us. We are in God. That is good news. But it coexists with a loss. Just as dogs whine for their mistresses, just as children yearn for their parents, so the friends and followers of Jesus grieve at his departure. Pentecost, the fiftieth day, one of the three major feast days of the church, makes no sense absent the events of Ascension, the fortieth day. If this whole drama is ultimately about God’s presence with us, then we need to face into the implications of God’s absence. It is good news that Jesus is speaking to God with a human voice. But he does that during this “significant pause” between promise and fulfillment. Pentecost is joyous not only because God gives the Spirit, but also because God’s giving of that Spirit means that we are not alone, we are finally reconnected once and for all. The coming of God’s Spirit is the answer to our grief. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. To be human is to stand between the already and the not yet. Our lives will always take place in what theologians call “the mean time,” what the poet W. H. Auden called “the time being”.
So how do we get through the mean time, the time being? God has exalted Jesus, but Jesus is gone. What do we do while we wait? Do we sit passively in hope that God will act? Do we take action ourselves? Or is there a third way—a way of prayerful action—that will bide us through these days? I believe there is, and it’s an opportunity expressed yet almost hidden away in our first reading this morning.
In today’s reading from Acts, we heard what happened to Paul and Silas in Philippi—the first proclamation of the Gospel in Europe. The have been arrested, and flogged, and put in prison. (Welcome to the Western world!) An earthquake loosens their chains and breaks open the prison doors. The jailer believes that Paul and Silas will have escaped and so prepares to kill himself because he knows the consequences for his losing these prisoners will be brutal. To his surprise, Paul and Silas stay where they are. In astonishment and gratitude, the jailer asks them, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?"
Paul and Silas prepare the jailer for Baptism by telling him and his household about Jesus. And then we hear this remarkable detail, so small that it’s almost lost in the spectacle of the larger events: “At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.” [Acts 16. 33-34]
The first thing the jailer does upon hearing the story of Jesus is to wash the wounds of the ones who told him. The next thing he does is to set food before them. Like us, the jailer dwelt in a mean time, in a significant pause, in the gap between promise and fulfillment. He lived in a brutal, cynical age, yet he hoped and longed for something better. When told about the life and ministry of Jesus, he responds by saying, “Yes”. And as he waits for that “Yes” to be made a reality, he does the only thing that now makes any sense: he washes and feeds Paul and Silas. The way to get through life in the mean time is to act with compassion.
And that, of course, is the way you and I can get through this ten-day gap too. Because the “significant pause” between Ascension and Pentecost is an image of any time we are asked to face into grief or anxiety or both. In ascending to the Father, Jesus has taken our hopes and pains with him directly into the divine life of God. While he does that, we wait for the ultimate connection, to be enacted at Pentecost, which will fulfill our promises and repair our griefs. What do we do in this mean time, this time of loss and expectation, this time being? The answer is simple: we act like the jailer. We wash each other’s wounds. We invite each other to our tables. We open our hearts in compassion.
Human life, our life, will always be lived in the gap, the mean time, the time being, the significant pause. Jesus is gone, but he has not left us comfortless. God will act, and all will be well. But still we wait. And if we hear what our Bible readings say to us today, the way we get through life in this significant pause, this gap, is to do what the jailer did. Wash another’s wounds. Invite a hungry person to your table. These simple acts are God’s strategy for times of alienation, loss, struggle, and even despair: let us wash and feed each other. Let us fill our days with acts of love, forgiveness, blessing, and mercy, so that as God’s love spreads through us, we may give voice to the needs and hopes of all God’s children. Hearing them, Jesus will take them directly to the center of reality where they will be heard, and redeemed, by God. And standing together in this significant pause, we can wash and feed each other and the world, as we wait together for what God will do next. Amen.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Homily: The Sixth Sunday of Easter [May 9, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

In the middle of last month, Kathy and I celebrated a wedding anniversary. As we were talking about how to observe it, I turned to Kathy and said, “You know, you have now spent just over half your life married to me.” A look of mock horror came over her face. “Is that all?” she replied. “It seems like forever!” I’ll let you be the judge whether in this case “forever” is a great deal or a life sentence.
The idea of “forever” is on my mind this morning, though, because our readings for today play with the contrast between that which is temporary and that which endures. In today’s passage from Revelation, we read that the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, will need no temple “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” In this morning’s reading from John’s Gospel we hear that the risen Jesus will soon leave his companions for good, but he counsels them not to fear his departure because “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Contrary to how we might think of things, the Bible suggests that even the Jerusalem temple and the earthly presence of Jesus are not fixed, final realities but have been given us as provisional, temporary aids to help us make our way on life’s journey. The temple may look like a structure built to last forever, but that appearance is an illusion. We will have it as long as we need it, but when its usefulness is ended, it too will pass away. The provisional will give way to the eternal.
The problem, of course, is that you and I always confuse the two; we regularly mistake the provisional for the eternal and have difficulty letting the temporary go. We erect buildings like this one thinking that they are meant to stand forever. We invest ourselves in human relationships believing that they will extend beyond time. But our passage from Revelation reminds us that the provisional is indeed temporary. Jesus gave us the Eucharist as a meal to celebrate together not for eternity but only until he comes again. In his teaching about marriage, Jesus tells us that even this most exalted human relationship exists only for time (“til death do us part”) but not for eternity. Like the church building, like the Eucharistic meal, our institutions of marriage and the nuclear family have been given to us as provisional structures to help us live life in a fallen world. The promise is not that buildings and rituals and families will last forever. The promise is that they are here, now, to help us live life abundantly. What finally abides is not the symbol of God’s love but the reality of God’s love. When all is said and done, when we come finally to stand together in God’s presence, we will need neither church building nor sacrament nor family structure. We will need not even the sun or the moon to light our way, for as John says in Revelation, “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” That’s hard for us to take in. The sun and the moon, the fixed orbs in the sky, are merely provisional lights to us in the darkness. When God’s love is finally made perfectly manifest, we won’t need even them. And if the sun and the moon are only temporary, what else finally can stand?
But to say that these precious things we have come to love and depend on (marriage, the family, the church, human rituals and social organization) are temporary and provisional is not to say they are somehow less important than we thought they were. But it is to say that we are not to confuse even these good things with “the thing itself.”
We are finite, limited beings. We need the provisional things of life to equip us for the here and now and to school us for the eternal. And here is where parenthood comes in. Today is, of course, Mother’s Day, and both today and Father’s Day are always emotionally complicated because many of us inhabit both parent and child roles ourselves, and also because our flesh and blood mothers and fathers are complex creatures. Our parents are larger than life. From the crib they look like gods. As we age we see them in perspective. In God’s scheme of things, we have been set in families as temporary, provisional communities of love and nurture and support. We have been given parents, and some of us have become parents ourselves, in the service of teaching and habituating children in the structures and rhythms of life. Rightly understood, the parent-child relationship is a provisional relationship, intended as preparation for what Jesus would call “abundant life”. But because our parents are cut from the same cloth we are, because they are finite and fragile human beings like ourselves, they don’t always live up to our hopes for them. So people are often conflicted about this holiday. For many of us, Mother’s Day is a time gratefully to remember and celebrate the supportive nurture given by our parents that has enabled us to live abundant adult lives. For just as many others of us, though, these parental holidays are something else: a time to be healed and to forgive the people whose limitations got in the way of their own abundant living and so made them unable always to model and support it for us. Some of us are in both emotional places at once. Good parents are an incomparable blessing. Even bad parents did the best they could. Sometimes we have to leave it at that.
The problem with days like Mother’s Day is that our culture always confuses the provisional with the eternal. We confuse the symbol with what the symbol stands for. Because God loves us like a parent, motherhood and fatherhood are beautiful things, but parenthood is not an end in itself. Joyful, abundant living is. The nuclear family is a mixed blessing: for all of its intimacy and warmth, the household can also be a dangerous place. The Bible paints a complex picture of nuclear family life: to be sure, we have Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as the perfect image of the Holy Family; we also have Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel as our more realistic model of the way actual families often work. In our culture’s confusion over absolute values, we have elevated the nuclear family to almost divine status. But to make the nuclear family our default image of the ideal community creates as many problems as it solves.
Some of us have parents who gave of themselves heroically and sacrificially. Others of us have parents who were narcissistically self-involved. (I've been a priest long enough now to be able to say both things with confidence.) On Mother’s and Father’s Day we need to try to accept our parents and love them for who they are. Because, good or as bad as they may have been, our parents are with us only as custodians. The same goes for our children: they do not belong to us. They are with us as God’s charges to love and nurture and guide and support. To the extent that your parents loved you into being your authentic self, today is a day to give thanks. To the extent they saw you as a way to fulfill their own needs at your expense, it’s a day to rejoice that childhood does not last forever.
The goal of parenthood is not to foster continued dependence but a nurturing preparation for abundant adult living. As Christians, we are always asked to love life’s provisional structures for the way they lead us to love the eternal, not as ends in and of themselves. As it happens, today, as we observe Mother’s Day, we are also gathered on the Sixth Sunday of Easter. This day has perhaps the most profound Collect of the Day in our Prayer Book. The collect for today is one of my two or three favorite prayers in the church year, and it provides a way to understand the ultimate meaning of what God is up to. Do not confuse the provisional with the eternal. This church building is transcendently beautiful , but it will not last forever, and even it cannot begin to compare with the glory of God’s heavenly city. Your nuclear family may be warm and nourishing, but because it is made up of real human beings, it will never be able to match the deep and sacrificial love God has for you in Jesus. Accept your parents and your family for what they are, but do not ask them to be more than they can be. God has in store for you something that transcends anything you can even ask for or imagine. So put your trust in the real thing; do not settle for hopes and dreams that are too small. God has prepared for you good things that surpass your understanding and even your capacity for hope. Put your trust in God’s promise of those blessings and not in their provisional substitutes. Love them for their own sake and for what they show you of God and God’s love for you. Or, as the collect itself has it,

"O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire . . ."

This prayer is printed in your bulletin today. Take it home and read it daily until you get it. And when you get it, you can tear it up, live it, and let it go. Amen.