Sunday, January 9, 2011

Homily: The First Sunday after the Epiphany [January 9, 2011] Christ Church Cranbrook

With the turn of the year, a number of newly elected officials have taken their oaths of office around the country. My favorite moment was watching Governor Jerry Brown in my home state of California stumble over the part of the oath in which he was to say that he takes this obligation freely, without any mental reservation. After a laugh and a pause, Brown interjected: "Really! No mental reservation!"

Anyone entering on a leadership role in America today might well approach it with considerable mental reservation. We seem to be confused about the relationship between authority and accountability. Our culture seems to delight in choosing and then rejecting its leaders with great regularity. This happens in politics, business, the academy, and even the church. With the fickle likes of you and me, what leader wouldn’t be visited by a mental reservation or two?

Several years ago, Kathy and I were in England and I happened upon a book there by Adam Phillips called Equals. Adam Phillips is one of my cultural heroes--he’s a British psychiatrist who writes about philosophy. Unlike us, the English really do believe that different classes of people should be valued differently. Or at least they used to. But a major tenet of the American Revolution was a rejection of those ideas of class hierarchy. And it was the influence of Christianity that gave rise to the revolutionary idea that human beings are all of equal value.

A good deal of Adam Phillips’ book Equals deals with the paradoxical truth that human beings are both different and equal. As Phillips says,

That people are not identical, but that it is possible for them to be equal in certain ways, is one of our modern political hopes. Despite the vivid inequalities of wealth, prestige, history, talent and beauty there are certain cultural goods that can be shared by everybody. [Equals, xiii]

As anyone who has been through diversity training can tell you, we are all different. As any reader of the Declaration of Independence can affirm, we are all created equal. For this paradox to be, in Phillips’ words, “plausible and not merely inspiring” we need, as Christians and as a Americans, to do some hard work to figure out how we can all live together holding onto both those poles of difference and equality--not just as ideal affirmations but as dynamic facts of lived life.

We are not identical and we are equal. That understanding is central both to Christian and American values. When we emphasize equality, we tend to smooth over difference: all people are created equal, so they should all act, think, and behave alike. When we emphasize difference, we often tacitly accept disparities of status, opportunity, and power: as a straight, white male, it’s easy for me to accept the reality of your “other” gender, race, ethnic, sexual orientation difference—just as long as you realize that I am the model for the way human beings are supposed to be and let me be in charge. So how do we women and men, black and white, gay and straight, Asian, Latino, believer, atheist, Christian, Muslim, Jew—how do we both celebrate our difference and affirm our equality? And how do we do that in a way that is in Adam Phillips’ words, “plausible and not merely inspiring”?

As Christians we have a head start on this question, because as Adam Phillips rightly sees, our modern social affirmations of difference and equality stem from our culture’s theological inheritance:

It is the valuing of the individual despite his social status and not because of it, that both Christianity and democracy promote. It is as though people are deemed to be something-–to have something inside them–that is of equal value; and of a value greater than any worldly assessment can encompass. [Equals, 21]

It’s not that those worldly assessments don’t matter–-it’s that, for us Christians at least, those worldly assessments are not the final truth about us. One of the things that Adam Phillips has helped me see is the absolute centrality for us Christians of these dual affirmations of difference and equality. We are all different; therefore no one of us can claim to be normative. We are all equal; therefore none of us can claim to be superior. This is the central paradox of both Christian communities and of modern, democratic societies. None of us is normative, and all of us are equal. How do we live together—as Americans and as Christians—in the face of such seemingly contradictory affirmations?

Our answer, I believe can be found in today’s Gospel story of Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. Jesus did not have to, but he chose to be baptized by John and to live as a baptized person, just like you and me. How might that event shape and guide our lives?

Last Thursday, January 6, was the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the visit of the three Magi to the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem. The word epiphany is a Greek one meaning “manifestation”. The season is about the epiphany, the manifestation of God’s glory throughout all creation. As the first visible expression of that manifestation, our calendar gives us this Sunday on which we remember the Baptism of our Lord. The Gospel for today seems to understand the tensions inherent in what had to be a very strange occurrence. Talk about equality and difference! For Jesus to submit to John the Baptist seemed, at least to John, almost unthinkable. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

At the beginning of his ministry we see Jesus submitting to an act of initiation, and in so doing he witnesses to his commitment both to equality and difference. He does not stand on a claim of superiority to John. He realizes that he and John have different roles in the salvation story. Yet he submits himself to the authority of one who, in his own words, does not deem himself worthy to untie Jesus’s sandals. By refusing to exempt himself from what others are undergoing, Jesus proclaims something about our fundamental human equality. Even John the Baptist has trouble with the idea of this uniquely egalitarian Messiah. The Jesus Movement is not going to be a hierarchically structured affair. It will be egalitarian and it will be radically open to all.

But it will not be a homogenized community. It will understand, accept, and bless the coexistence of different people with different gifts, natures, and even different understandings of God and God’s demands. In today’s reading from Acts, Peter declares, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” [Acts 10] From the beginning, the Jesus Movement was a community that gathered human beings irrespective of racial or ethnic origin. Different as we Christians may be, each one of us is—inherently and before God--equal.

The sign and symbol both of that equality and difference has always for Christians been the ritual of Baptism, a ritual washing offered freely to all. Since Christianity’s beginnings, this sacrament has had transformative implications not only for particular people but for the church and the world. So a word about baptismal equality, and a word about baptismal difference.

If the equality which we celebrate as Christians in Baptism is to be “plausible and not merely inspiring” it must be lived out in a mutual accountability to each other. In discussing psychiatry, Adam Phillips tells us it is not only a talking cure; it is a listening cure. “Being listened to can enable one to bear–and even enjoy–listening to oneself and others, which democracy itself depends upon.” [Equals, xii] In other words: it is being listend to, and not just talking, that makes therapy work. If Baptism proclaims the equality of each of us before God and on our own terms, the community into which we welcome those newly baptized must be a listening community. The church is often better at talking—as I’m doing right now--than it is at listening. But there are profound truths that each of us has to tell the other, and we can only be open to those truths if we commit ourselves to be listeners. We talk a lot in our culture about finding one’s voice. But in a Christian community, we must also value finding one’s ears. It is in listening to each other that we witness to the true mutuality offered to us in the community called together by God and bound together by Baptism. If all of us are finally equal before each other and God, then every voice in this place and in God’s world is worthy of being heard and attended to. One way for us to celebrate our equality both in the church and the society is to be people who listen.

And now a word about difference. Baptism confers a dignified equality on us all as Christian people, but to say that we are all equal is not to say that we are all the same. It is precisely our uniqueness as individual human beings that witnesses to God’s presence within us. Your particularity—the specifics of who you are and where you come from biologically, culturally, and historically—your particularity matters. In calling each of us to live the baptized life first modeled for us by Jesus, God is calling each of us to accept that who we are and where we come from are good and that there are as many ways to follow and represent God in the world as there are stars in the sky or grains of sand in the desert. That is why we are “named” in Baptism. Your name is a sign that you are deemed unique and precious in your own right. Your name is a sign that you are of ultimate worth and dignity.

In our celebration of this first manifestation of God’s glory, the baptism of Jesus, we come now to reaffirm our own Baptismal Covenant. In being baptized just as you and I have been, Jesus committed himself to a life of fundamental equality with his companions. In baptizing a Gentile—as he was about to do just after the speech we heard in today’s Epistle--Peter opened the way for the full range of God’s human community–including you and me–into the company that Jesus taught and healed and loved and fed.

This is the day we rejoice in the possibilities of the baptized life. We are all different. And we are all equal. Together we make up a body that lives out Jesus’s grace and blessing in the world. In our baptismal diversity and oneness, we are a model for that world of how God wants things to be. For grace to be that model, and for the ongoing presence of the One who empowers us to embrace both equality and difference, we proceed together in Baptism and Eucharist to pray and give thanks. Amen.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Homily: The Second Sunday after Christmas [January 2, 2011] Christ Church Cranbrook

Today is the second day of 2011, the first Sunday in the new year, the beginning of the week when we remember the joys and recuperate from the excesses of the holiday season and return to the daily rhythms of life. Some of us are courageously embarked on abiding by resolutions made on New Year’s Eve; others of us have given up already.

Sigmund Freud said that life is always lived under conditions of stress. As we face into January, with all of its opportunities and challenges, we are addressed in this morning’s scriptures with three powerful messages that I believe all of us need to attend to. This morning’s homily, therefore, is less of a sermon than a midrash, the Hebrew word that means literally “investigation”. The rabbis developed midrash as a way of exploring the scriptures for both their plain and spiritual meaning. It’s a way of getting out of a passage everything that might lurk hidden inside. Our three Bible readings speak more directly to our shared conditions of stress this morning than anything I could say on my own. So let’s spend the next few minutes listening to what Matthew, Jeremiah, and Ephesians have to say.

We’ll start at the end and work backwards. First, from Matthew:

Now after the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. [Matthew 2:13-15a]

We could ask why such hostility greets the baby Jesus. Though for us comfortable 21st century first world Christians, the birth of Jesus is a happy, even joyous occasion, for those who lived under Roman domination in 1st century Palestine the birth of the Messiah was a dangerous political event. Jesus is a marked man from the beginning. As the Biblical scholar N.T. Wright puts it, “The shadow of the cross falls over the story from this moment on. Jesus is born with a price on his head.” [Matthew for Everyone, Part I, p. 14] As Freud put it, life is always lived under conditions of stress. The Jesus story wouldn’t be worth very much to us if he had been born into a hermetically sealed environment. Jesus is not the boy in the bubble. He is out there, exposed to life in all its dangers, chances, and hopes. He lives life, as we do, under conditions of stress. His journey will take him to a variety of different places. He will experience love, community, and adulation. He will also know pain, alienation, and despair. In this he is just like you and me.

And just like you and me Jesus will have to navigate losses and happiness under the loving guidance of the One he calls his Father. And he’ll be able to do that because he knows what the writer of the letter to the Ephesians and the prophet Jeremiah want you and me to know, too.

Listen again to these words from Ephesians:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe. [Ephesians 1: 17-19]

Many of you have heard me say that Ephesians is my favorite book of the Bible. It probably wasn’t written by Paul himself, but whoever did write it—a next generation follower of Paul’s—had a profound grasp on the implications of the Gospel for the church, the world, and for everyday human beings like you and me. During a particularly trying period of my life I carried a card in my jacket pocket with the passage I just read on it, and I would read that card at least once a day and reflect on what is said there.

The first thing we hear is that the writer prays that “the eyes of our hearts” may be enlightened. We’re asked to see not with our heads but with our hearts. Our heads get us into trouble all the time. Our hearts are not so easily misled. In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck’s brain tells him that he should turn in the runaway slave, Jim. But his heart tells him otherwise. My teacher Henry Nash Smith called Huck’s dilemma that of a “sound heart and deformed conscience”. The writer of Ephesians is here asking God to help us look at the world—at others and ourselves—with our hearts. What would your life be like if you followed your heart instead of your head? What kind of a person would you be, what kind of relationships would you have, if you saw yourself and others with the eyes of your heart? You’d probably be more accepting, forgiving, and tolerant both of other people and yourself. You’d probably spend your time doing things that both expressed your passions and responded to others’ needs than you do by living life conventionally, wearing what Oscar Wilde called “the shallow mask of manners”. Seeing life with the “eyes of your heart enlightened” in itself would be on its own a great and wonderful gift.

But, as they say on TV infomercials, “Wait, there’s more!” Ephesians’ author goes on to say that, when the eyes of our hearts are enlightened, he prays we might know three things: first, the hope to which God has called you; second, the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints, and third, the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe.

Hope, riches, and power. These are the three gifts that we will know when we see life, the world, others, and ourselves with the eyes of our hearts enlightened. Hope: we are to know the hope to which God has called us. That’s not just any hope. It’s not even the conventional hope that animates most of our lives. Hope in this context is theological hope; it’s hope that, when all is said and done, as Dame Julian of Norwich put it, “all will be well”. The Christian hope is cosmic, universal hope. It is the hope that God is in the process of drawing all things and all people to perfection and glory. That, not some cheap imitation, is what Christian people hope for. When the eyes of our hearts are enlightened we will be oriented not to false hope but to real hope. And our hope will be trustworthy because the One who prompts that hope in us makes promises that are always fulfilled.

Riches: We live in a culture confused about riches. More of that in a bit. But for now: the riches our writer speaks of are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints. Translation: yes, life is always lived under conditions of stress. But just as Jesus was given strength to live life under the shadow of the cross, so you and I have been given that same strength to meet the exigencies and contingencies of life as well. Jesus knew who he was and to whom he ultimately belonged. Secure in that knowledge, he took up with outcasts and took on the powerful and hypocritical forces of his day. You and I share the glorious inheritance among the saints. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, always cheering us on. The journey may not be easy but it will all come out right in the end.

And then there’s power. The kind of power the Bible talks of is not the kind of coercive force that you and I experience or wield in our day-to-day life. The power Jesus and Paul speak of is more like connectedness, like being tuned in to the depth and purpose of God. The immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe does not mean that we will be able to handle snakes or coerce others to our will. It means that as we are aligned with God’s love and will for us and for the world we can be agents of joy and blessing and hope. That is what the author of Ephesians means when he speaks of hope, riches, and power. Something much bigger and deeper than we are is being worked out through the very stuff of our lives, work, and relationships. And the more we look with the eyes of our hearts the more we will know that’s the way it is.

And then, finally, there is the beautiful imagery from the prophet Jeremiah. He’s usually a grumpy prophet, but in this passage he speaks of the new post-exilic life of Israel in abiding pictures of abundance. Listen again:

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,

and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD,

over the grain, the wine, and the oil,

and over the young of the flock and the herd;

their life shall become like a watered garden,

and they shall never languish again. [Jeremiah 31: 12]

The final scriptural gift for us on this Second Sunday after Christmas is the gift of abundance. Most of us most of the time have fallen out of touch with real abundance. What we think of as abundance the rest of the world would see as excess. We observe the so-called “holiday season” by acts of overindulgence about which many of our New Year’s resolutions revolve. Our style of life is so based in an ideal of consumption that we have forgotten what real plenty, what true abundance, actually looks like.

Jeremiah was a desert person speaking to desert people. The images of the abundant life he uses are the kind of things that people accustomed to desert living would understand immediately. Grain, wine, and oil. New lambs and calves in the springtime. God’s people will live in a “watered garden,” and they shall never languish again. To the extent that you and I have confused excess with abundance, we do languish. A life given over to consuming can never be satisfied. There will never be enough clothes, jewelry, cars, gadgets, second and third houses to fill that craving. A life given over to abundance—to plentiful grain, wine, oil—that is a life in touch with the rhythms of God’s world and creation. We languish because we think there is never enough. But, to borrow a phrase from Ephesians, when we look with they eyes of our hearts at what is around us today, we see that in fact we are together, here, in a watered garden now.

Even lived under conditions of stress, life can be rich and plentiful, powerful, hopeful, and abundant. If we look with our hearts and not our heads, if we orient ourselves to the plenitude of all that we have and are, we can experience grace and blessing and hope even in the midst of anxiety, tension, and loss. And so, as you seek to navigate the challenges and blessings of this new year, remember these words from Ephesians,

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.