Sunday, August 29, 2010

Homily: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [August 29, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

Kathy and I have just returned from some vacation time in California, and even though we have done a lot of air travel in recent years, I have never quite gotten used to the way some airlines have two carpets—a red one for “priority access”, a blue one for the rest of us—to be used by those boarding planes at their gates. It’s a sign, I guess, of my ongoing problem with authority that even though I always travel coach I persist in at least stepping on the priority access red carpet as I board the plane. I mean, if I don’t think of myself as a first class person, who will?
The question of who is in and who is out is a big one in our New Testament readings this morning. In the Gospel [Luke 14. 7-14] Jesus tells us a parable about the embarrassment caused when those assuming a place of importance are asked to move down the social ladder when the honored guests arrive. He also advises us, when throwing a dinner party, to eschew the rich and famous and in their place to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”. And then there is the letter to the Hebrews, whose writer advises: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” [Hebrews 13] I suppose if I listened to these readings more carefully, I would not insist on using the airlines’ red carpet—or any of the other perquisites my privileged position offers me. And I know I’d be found more regularly at a dinner table that looks a good deal more diverse than my own.
Hospitality is a big deal in the Bible. Both Jews and Christians were, originally, itinerant people, and travelling from place to place in the ancient Near East or the Roman world was a dangerous business. The climate was often inhospitable. And there were marauders and wild animals to be wary of. So it is easy to see why both the Old Testament and the New make such a point of enjoining God’s people to welcome others . In a dangerous world, hospitality is not just a social grace. It is a life-saving practice.
For about a decade I have been an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, an Episcopal monastic community with houses in New York, California, Canada, and South Africa. When you become an associate of a monastic order you don’t take their vows but you do commit yourself to observing, as far as you can, what they call their “rule of life”. The Order of the Holy Cross (OHC) is, like many monastic communities, organized around the Rule of St. Benedict, who lived in the sixth century and founded the Abbey at Monte Cassino in Italy. Benedict reformed western Christian monasticism by simplifying it and making its requirements more livable. And because he lived in a time—early Medieval Europe after the decline of the Roman Empire—which was just as dangerous for travelers as was the Palestine of Jesus’s day, Benedict made hospitality a cardinal virtue for monastic establishments. In dangerous times, monasteries were both places of prayer and places of refuge.
In Chapter 53 of the Rule [“The Reception of Guests”], Benedict says, “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, "I came as a guest, and you received me" (Matt. 25:35). He also says, “In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received.”
When Benedict says that we must receive all guests “like Christ” and that it is “in them that Christ is received”, he is building on a theology as old as the oldest parts of the Bible itself. In Genesis 18, Abraham welcomes three guests with food and water and shelter without knowing who they are, and we later discover that the guests he has entertained are angels or manifestations of the Lord. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that when we have visited the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, “as you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” Seen theologically, hospitality is neither just a social grace nor even a good, life saving practice. From a theological perspective, hospitality is a religious obligation, rooted in the center of our understanding of God’s relation to us human beings. God made us in God’s image. God has become one of us in Jesus. Every human child of God bears that image and so is worthy of the respect that we would extend to God. We welcome the stranger as we would welcome Christ because, for us, the stranger IS Christ. Just as we are Christ to the stranger. And to one another.
I suppose this is why I have found many of the news stories this summer so troubling. This summer has been a time of vocal and aggressive inhospitality. Just think of what we have witnessed in the last several months: the passage of a controversial immigration law in Arizona; the protests raised over the construction of an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan; the active efforts by Baptist churches in California and Ohio to stop the construction of mosques in their own communities; and yesterday’s “Restoring Honor” Washington mall rally organized by a cable TV personality whose slogan, “Christian Faith-Based Patriotism” seem to imagine America as a country with only one religion. Though I’m sure all of us in this room could bring our multiple perspectives to understanding these and other events, and that many of you will differ from my response to them, the sheer avalanche of cultural inhospitality this summer makes me nervous. It is customary in tough times to identify “others” or “outsiders” as the cause of our troubles. This is a natural and understandable human reaction. But it is not a Christian reaction. Welcoming, openness, acceptance—these things are not merely optional Christian values. They are the core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. As the author of the Letter to the Ephesians puts it, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” [Ephesians 2.13] Translation: before there was Jesus, all of us were alienated, cut off, lost because of human sin. But in the Jesus event, those of us who were far off have been brought near. Further translation: by our nature, we are not fit even to walk on the blue carpet. But by grace all of us have been asked to walk on the red one. We have made the transition from sinner to saint. But we did not make that passage ourselves. God has made it for us.
The problem, of course, comes when we fool ourselves into thinking that we belong and others don’t. In the musical Finian’s Rainbow, Senator Billboard Rawkins gets so frustrated with foreigners that he finally shouts, “My family’s been having nothing but trouble with immigrants ever since we came to this country!” To be a Christian is always to be aware of the fragility of our own status. We who were far off have been brought near. We who were dead are now alive. We are all strangers in a strange land, sojourners seeking what the letter to the Hebrews calls “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.“ [Hebrews 11.16] It is only when we realize that we, too, are guests (or strangers or aliens or whatever you want to call us) that we understand the depth and power of the gracious gathering of all people that God is up to in God’s world.
"When you give a luncheon or a dinner,” says Jesus, “do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.” He continues, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." This is a story, really, about God and us. You and I are the strangers, the alienated, the lost—the ones who have been invited to God’s banquet. We are the ones who, in the language of the other story, who have been asked by the host, “Friend, move up higher.” We are the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. We were far off and now we are near. We were dead and now we are alive. We were lost and now we are found. Only as we know this about ourselves will we be open to the radical blessedness of God’s love for us. And the great test of our openness will be our ability to see the other not as a stranger but as us.
It is not coincidental that Jesus uses the image of a dinner party when talking about the embracing, welcoming love of God. We empathize with those we know; we distrust those we don’t. As you gather at your household’s dinner table tonight, look around and see who is there. Then see who is not there. It’s no wonder that we have trouble building a multicultural, embracing society when our own dinner tables are so selective. And I include myself and my own household in that judgment.The challenge from Jesus in today’s Gospel is for us to start to build connections to others at the relational level. The solution to these problems will not ultimately be found in lower Manhattan or Arizona. It will be found at our dinner tables. If we develop relations with others faithfully, the larger social questions will begin to take care of themselves.
We now come to the Eucharist, to God’s banquet, to Jesus’s dinner party. This meal is the model for all our household and social celebrations. Note the uncritical, inclusive way that Jesus presides at this meal. God asks nothing of you—not where you came from, not how you lived your past life, not how you have treated yourself or others. God only asks that you come. In accepting that invitation, you acknowledge God’s hospitality to you. And if God has so totally accepted you, can you be an agent of exclusion for someone else? So come, now, to God’s table where you are welcomed as Christ himself. And knowing yourself loved as Christ is loved, you can love and accept others as he did, too. Amen.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Homily: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [August 1, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

In the 1980s, during the heyday of the “Yuppie” (Young Urban Professional), the following joke was going around Los Angeles in general and Malibu in particular where I was the Vicar.
A Yuppie was driving through Malibu Canyon in his new Maserati. Losing control of the car, he skidded and crashed, the car going over the embankment and down to the canyon floor, where it burst into flames. Luckily the driver, clad in what was left of his Armani suit, escaped and stood there watching his car burn. A passerby stopped and tried to see if he could help.
“My Maserati, my Maserati!” cried the Yuppie in despair.
“Forget about your Maserati,” said the passerby. You lost your left arm in the accident!”
The Yuppie looked at his empty coat sleeve, back at the passerby, and then down at the flaming ruins. He started to scream once more:
“My Rolex, my Rolex!”
In some ways that joke makes one of the points in Jesus’s parable of the rich fool better than any sermon might. 1980s Young Urban Professionals were not the first and will not be the last people on the planet who, to use Jesus’s words, “store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God”. Approached by a man who wanted him to split his inheritance with him, Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool:

"The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'’” [Luke 12. 16b-20]

It is human nature to seek security, and one of the ways we delude ourselves is into thinking that things (possessions, weapons, status, achievements, power) will insulate us from the consequences of our fragility. The rich fool is a fool not because he is rich but because he thinks that being rich inoculates him from the dangers and vicissitudes of life. Our real problem, of course, is that we are vulnerable to the changes and chances of living in the world. We cannot live very long open to or conscious of our vulnerability. So we place our hope in things that promise to make us safe.
The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived this way too, until his resistance to the Nazis landed him in a German prison in World War II. When he was in prison, Bonhoeffer wrote notes for a possible book about the idea of insurance as an advanced version of this problem. In his book outline, Bonhoeffer wrote of what he called

The safeguarding of life against ‘accidents’ and ‘blows of fate’; even if these cannot be eliminated, the danger can be reduced. Insurance (which, although it lives on ‘accidents’, seeks to mitigate their effects) as a wetern phenomenon. The aim: to be independent of nature. [Bonhoeffer, "Letters and Papers" from Prison, p. 380]

I want a life free of accidents and blows of fate. In revolt against my own vulnerability, I think that I can spread risk and so make it go away. But Jesus tells us what Bonhoeffer and others have had also to learn, often at great cost: to be alive is to be at risk. If by “safety” we mean invulnerability to accidents and blows of fate, then the only time you’ll ever be perfectly safe is when you’re dead.
When we hear the parable of the rich fool, our thoughts usually go first to the question of possessions. We do invest ourselves in our things, and to the extent that our things serve as idols diverting our attention from God, they can be pernicious. But a lifetime of experience has convinced me that possessions are not the only false bet we can make with the universe. We also place a high valuation on other passing, illusory things too, like accomplishments and reputation. If my Maserati or my Rolex won’t save me, maybe my Ph.D. or my résumé will.
As I thought about these things I noticed a story earlier this week about Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Prize laureate retired Archbishop of Capetown who has, since his retirement, continued to be a voice for reconciliation and justice on the world stage. He’s nearing 80 now, and an article in The Guardian (July 22, 2010) proclaimed in banner headlines, “Archbishop Desmond Tutu announces retirement from public life”. Here, in part, is part of what Desmond Tutu said:

Instead of growing old gracefully, at home with my family, reading and writing and praying and thinking, too much of my time has been spent at airports and in hotels. The time has now come to slow down, to sip rooibos tea with my beloved wife in the afternoons, to watch cricket, to travel to visit my children and grandchildren, rather than to conferences and conventions and university campuses. I have done as much as I can and need time to do things I have really wanted to do. I do want a little more quiet. ["The Guardian", 7/22/10]

Now at first glance Archbishop Tutu’s announcement seems unrelated to Jesus’s parable of the rich fool. Certainly no one could ever accuse such a beloved and prophetic religious leader of using his possessions to insulate himself from the fragility of life. But there is a sense in which what Tutu says connects directly with Jesus’s teaching in today’s parable. “So it is with those who . . . are not rich toward God.” In deciding that he has reached a point in his life where he needs to direct his energy to people closer to home, the Archbishop has demonstrated enormous wisdom. He has accepted, acknowledged, made peace with his own fragility and his own mortality. In the public sphere, he has done all he can to advance God’s work. He understands that he has a limited time left on the earth. And he has readjusted his values and priorities in order to use that time in a way that will further his spiritual journey.
In one sense, there is nothing new in this: in many world cultures, the transition from maturity to age is a movement from achievement to wisdom. So there certainly is precedent for Archbishop Tutu’s movement from a life of action to one of contemplation. But there is more to it than that. In exiting the world stage, Desmond Tutu is giving up a lot of the benefits of public life. He has influence, celebrity, and an audience wherever he goes. He loves people and people love him. And now, he is willing and ready, at age 80, to give up the adrenaline rush of world celebrity (itself a kind of false security) for a new adventure: going within, deepening his knowledge of himself and his connection to his family. And he’s doing this, I believe, precisely because he knows what the rich fool in Jesus’s story does not know. He knows, in Jesus’s words, that “one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions”—be they material or otherwise. He knows that his life is finite and he is fragile. And he knows that there is no cure for that condition. The only way out of living in terror of one’s finitude is to learn to live into it.
In today’s reading from Colossians, Paul gets at what Jesus tells us by a different means:
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. [Colossians 3.1-3]

According to Paul, you and I have been “raised with Christ”; we are to set our minds on “things that are above.” For a Christian, life only makes ultimate sense from God’s point of view. We only see and know ourselves partially. As Paul says, our “life is hidden in Christ with God”. To quote another mid-20th century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, even though human life is fragmentary,
The fragmentary character of human life is not regarded as evil in Biblical faith because it is seen from the perspective of a centre of life and meaning in which each fragment is related to the plan of the whole, to the will of God. ["The Nature and Destiny of Man", I, p. 168]
In other words: what looks partial and incomplete from our point of view looks complete and whole from God’s. Standing, as each of us does, in the middle of an incomplete process, our lives can look chaotic or worse. That is why we reach for signs and symbols—even false ones like things, achievements, or power over others—as ways of reassuring ourselves that it all makes sense. But God does not see your life as you see it. God sees your life from God’s point of view, intimately connected with all the rest of God’s creatures in God’s world. So what is hidden to you is absolutely manifest to God. And what is most clearly manifest to God about you is this: you are made in God’s image, worthy of dignity and respect. You matter. And because you matter God calls you to share with God in the redemption and reclamation of the world.
The rich fool did not know that about himself, and so squandered his life in trying to play it safe. He said, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Jesus says to you: from God’s point of view, your life is beautiful and holy and whole. You are more valuable than any of the lesser things on which you set so much store. Those things—possessions, achievements, power, privileges—will not save you. Only the abundant, unconditional love of God—freely on offer to all of us simply because we matter to God—will. This is the great truth of Christianity. It is why we gather weekly in places like this to give thanks. Seen from God’s perspective and in that light, it is a very good thing that we now come together at God’s table to eat, drink, and be merry.
So: relax. “One’s life does not consist in the abundance [or lack] of possessions.” “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Amen.