Sunday, February 13, 2011

Homily: The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany [February 13, 2011] Christ Church Cranbrook

There may be some people who came to church this morning under the misapprehension that George Clooney would be here. Though he is directing a movie that will use Christ Church as a location next month, there is no truth to any of the rumors about his presence in church on Sundays. I say this with some trepidation. I saw what happened when the crowd in Cairo’s Tahrir Square expected Hosni Mubarak to step down Thursday night and he didn’t. If I could give each of you a stop and chat with Mr. Clooney I would. But some things are beyond my authority. Now to the sermon!

Not too long after our wedding in 1978, my wife Kathy and I moved from here from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since Kathy is originally from Toledo and I from Los Angeles, the Detroit metropolitan area was a friendly place for us to move to. Kathy’s family was close by, and the suburbs here were very much like suburban L.A. After all those years in Berkeley and Cambridge, I felt very much at home.

There was, however, one anomaly. As you know, we are across the river from Windsor, Ontario, so one of the fringe benefits of living here is Canadian television—specifically Channel 9. Canadian television is very good television, and in those pre-cable days usually it was the best thing on when I would come home after a Saturday afternoon wedding, plop down on the sofa, and turn on the tube. There were Canadian arts programs, Canadian politics, Canadian humor shows, Canadian hockey. And then there was curling. More Saturday afternoons than I can count, the only thing there was to watch on TV in metropolitan Detroit was hours and hours of Canadian curling.

Now for those of you who have never experienced the sport of curling, it is kind of like shuffleboard played on ice. A bunch of people stand around aimlessly and then slide these things called "rocks" in the direction of a painted bulls-eye. When the rock gets near the bulls-eye some of the people begin sweeping furiously with brooms, trying apparently, to influence the course of the rock. When the rock stops, there is a lot of shouting and cheering and the announcer says to his companion, "That looks like an 8, Gordo,", and one of the two teams is, mysteriously, declared the winner.

I lived here for three years and watched curling almost every Winter Saturday afternoon, and to tell you the truth, I never really understood what it was I was watching. I suppose it's like a visitor seeing baseball on American television: why did that guy get to walk to first base when the pitcher's leg moved a certain way? Not even Vin Scully or the late Ernie Harwell stops to explain the rules. Well, in Canada they think that everyone in North America understands the rules of curling. But if you don't get it, you’re in for some pretty surrealistic television.

My fascination with watching curling on television increased as I began to see it as a metaphor for something else. Watching a game for which you don’t understand the rules (in this case curling, and don’t get me started on cricket) is kind of like life itself. We're all playing a game at which the rules are lost or concealed or forgotten or in the process of being made up.

Specifically when it comes to morality, we human beings are often at a loss about how we can “do the right thing”. What is the right thing? How do we know it? How do we do it? Today’s readings outline this problem for us. The writer of Ecclesiasticus, Jesus ben Sirach, puts it this way: If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. Sirach is a Wisdom writer, and Israel’s Wisdom tradition stressed morality as a common sense enterprise. But then we have Jesus of Nazareth in the famously difficult Sermon on the Mount. He tells us not only not to murder but not even to be angry with anybody. We’re supposed to reconcile ourselves with our enemies. And don’t think you’ll get off easily by not committing the physical act of adultery: if you even think about it you’re guilty. And you can forget about divorce, too. And whatever you do, don’t swear an oath on the Bible; simply say “yes” or “no”.

Thanks so much for the help, Jesus. You really cleared things up. Astute listeners may have noticed that the two Jesuses—Jesus ben Sirach and Jesus of Nazareth—contradict each other. For one the law is obvious and easily followed. To the other the law is a tricky business, and following it is no guarantee of sanctity.

Anyone who has read the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5 through 7 of Matthew’s Gospel, has struggled with the stark kind of morality pictured there. All the most perplexing sayings of Jesus seem to be lumped into one convenient place: turn the other cheek, love your enemy, judge not lest you be judged. How do we make our way through this moral and ethical thicket?

Now when I face into the Sermon on the Mount, I begin with a radical presumption: Jesus actually means what he says. For centuries, Christian scholars have tried to domesticate these teachings with various explanations, most of which amount simply to watering them down. They say that either Jesus proposed these radical ideas as an “interim ethic” for a close-knit group of followers to obey until the Second Coming, or that Jesus proposed these strict precepts simply to show you how hard it is follow God’s absolute justice and so throw you back on your need for grace.

While I’m attracted to both ideas, I’m not so sure. When I’m honest with myself—that is when I’m most open to Jesus and the God he reveals in his teachings—I think that, yes, God really does want me to turn the other cheek, to forgive my enemies, to give all I have to the poor and follow Jesus. As a worldly person trying to follow Jesus, I have made all kinds of accommodations so as to say that I’m living a Christ-like life. “Sure, I’ll follow you, Jesus. I’ve given up everything and followed Jesus--to Malibu, Pasadena, Bryn Mawr, and Bloomfield Hills. Those were tough places to serve, but somebody had to go there! And I may love my enemies, but I certainly don’t like them. And if I turn the other cheek it is only, as my father used to say, in order to avoid getting hit a second time. Here I am, a professional follower of Jesus, and I discover a rather large distance between God’s will and my behavior. Who am I kidding? Certainly not God. Probably only myself.

So I start from the presumption that God really does want us to be loving, compassionate, peaceful forgiving people. And I add to that the corollary that we are usually not. Here we have the starkest of contrasts: God’s pure love and justice over against our self-justifying self-serving behavior. Why on earth would Jesus teach like this and put us in this place?

In answer to that question, I remember a terrible argument I had with a colleague when I was Upper School Principal at Oakwood School in North Hollywood, California. The upper school dean came back from a workshop at another school where they had baskets of condoms available in the dean’s office. In the school’s attempt to prevent pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, students were encouraged to take as many condoms as they wished, no questions asked. The dean told me she wanted to do the same in her office, and she was flabbergasted when I said “no”.

I said “no” for two reasons: first, our students could afford to buy their own condoms, now easily obtainable at any drug store. Second, I felt that turning the school into the Johnny Appleseed of condoms would send the wrong message. It would say that we were giving kids permission to have genital sex at an age when they were not emotionally or psychologically ready for it. As much as I wanted the kids not to become pregnant or infected, I also did not want them thinking that adults they trusted and looked to for guidance were telling them to have teenage sex.

My friend the dean was horrified by my attitude, and we argued about it for weeks on end. I never gave in, and neither did she. But I was the boss, so I ultimately won. And the discussion helped me sharpen my ethical reasoning. What I finally said to her was this: “Look, I know that kids are going to experiment, that they are going to explore sex, drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. I do not want to give them permission to do that, but I want them to know that I will love them when they do.” It may sound counterintuitive, but I felt that the strongest message we could send to teenagers was this: on the one hand, here is the absolute standard (no sex, drugs, alcohol), and on the other hand, here is the reality of relationship: if you mess up, we will love and accept and forgive you when you do. To weaken the standard would be to throw the kids into a moral funhouse; to withhold love and forgiveness would dishonor the relationship.

That is where I came out, and that is where I still am about all kinds of moral issues. And that is where I think Jesus is, too. There are high standards—what Jesus would call “higher righteousness”. And then there is God’s love for and commitment to us. God does not have a basket of condoms on his desk. God does hold out the Ten Commandments to us as the best way we have of discerning right from wrong. And God is committed to us even when we break those rules. God will hold us up when we fall. So the moral truth of the matter is this: God offers us both an absolute standard and total forgiveness. That doesn’t mean that we have license to do anything we want to do because we know we can get away with it. It does mean that, as we strive to attain the “higher righteousness” that Jesus calls us to, we will be in the embrace of some One who will continue to hold us when we fail.

This kind of paradoxical creative tension--between love and justice, purity and mercy, is at the center of God’s relationship with you and me finite, fragile creatures. It’s harder to take in than the rules of cricket or curling. But that’s why we have this meal we share together this morning. We bring all that we are—our hopes, our needs, our fears, our failings, our glories-- to the table, and God reaches out to feed us. In doing that God blesses what we offer and heals what is broken. That complex relationship is a gift, and it’s more precious than any set of rules you can imagine or devise. And it is for the depth and beauty of that gift that we now proceed in the Eucharist to give thanks. Amen.