Sunday, April 24, 2011

Homily: Easter Day [April 24, 2011] Christ Church Cranbrook

Do you ever have the feeling that you are going through life asleep? I worked for many years with a priest I admire greatly, George Regas, Rector of All Saints, Pasadena. He used to talk regularly of people having “gone to sleep on life.” This wasn’t just a generalization. It got very specific. He would say this about people at large and specifically to you whenever you did not share his enthusiasm for a movie, an idea, a meal, or a piece of music. I can still hear him, grabbing me by the stole or the lapel or whatever I was wearing and saying, “Gary, if you didn’t love that, then you’ve gone to sleep on life!”

These days I regularly hear George’s voice in the back of my mind as I think about the world today. We’ve gone to sleep on life! How else can you explain the persistence of downers we have decided to live with both socially and interpersonally? We’ve been lulled to sleep—a half-waking sleep, no doubt, but sleep nonetheless. Every Lent I reread as much of Walden as I can, and this year I’m particularly struck by a couple of things that Henry David Thoreau said about sleep and wakefulness. Here’s one: "I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” Here’s another: “I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”

We’ve gone to sleep on life. We have anesthetized ourselves from social injustice and from personal pain. The problem with shutting out the lows, though, is that you soon cease to feel the highs. In order to shut out my own suffering or the suffering of others, I have to dull myself down to a point where I don’t let in the transcendent joys either. As a consequence, we’ve settled for a middling state, one where we exchange being distracted for being fully alive.

There is so much pain in the world. And there is so much beauty there, too. Is it really worth the protection from one to shut out the other? We cannot engage the world in all its fullness unless we are truly awake. God made us and placed us in a beautiful, hideous, complicated world. God made us to become involved with all of it, in all the depths and the heights of its fullness. Most of us have chosen, often for very good reasons, to live with a dimmed down version of what God means by life. But that means going to sleep on life. As the late writer David Foster Wallace once wrote, “Try to stay awake.”

Now we can blame our distraction and our dullness on the stresses of modern life and its soporific technologies, but if you read the New Testament you’ll see that Jesus’s message to his contemporaries could be summarized in David Foster Wallace’s advice: “Try to stay awake.” First century Palestine was a hard place to live. The Romans occupied it. They took all the money and the food. They took the social and cultural dignity of the Jewish population. And so in Jesus’s day, as in ours, people got through life by going to sleep on it. In order not to feel the pain of hunger, poverty, leprosy, political oppression, they pretended that those things didn’t exist.

And then into their midst came Jesus, a fully alive, fully awake human being. He touched the sick, sat at table with the outcast, fed the hungry. And he also got an enormous amount of pleasure out of just being alive. He celebrated life and told stories about the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. He gathered around himself a community of men and women who soon began to wake up and be fully present to the world around them. And this community became a place, a space, a zone where human life was lived as it was intended to be—compassionate and joyful.

Jesus’s term for this zone was “The kingdom of God”. He used it to distinguish it from the kingdom of Caesar, the realm of the sleepwalkers. And if you walked the Holy Week journey this week you know what happened: this way of being truly awake made the sleepwalkers of Caesar’s kingdom anxious. As Henry Thoreau said, “I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?” When the guardians of Caesar’s kingdom got a good look at wide-awake life inside the kingdom of God, they couldn’t look that in the face, either. So they decided to crush that life, obliterate that space, put men and women to sleep for good. They arrested, tried, and crucified Jesus, the one wide-awake person they had ever seen. Yet even at the cross, he did not distract himself from the pain of his experience. He did not fall asleep. He reached out to those being crucified with him. He forgave his crucifiers for what they had done.

And so today we’ve arrived at Easter, and our story begins in the words of Matthew’s Gospel, “as the first day of the week was dawning.” The Easter story begins at the first hour on the first day. It is a story about what happens to the one truly awake person at the first hour on the first day of the week. The two Marys go to the tomb and meet an angel who tells them.” "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.” The One whom we thought was dead is alive. The One whom they tried to put to sleep is awake. In raising Jesus, God has said “Yes” both to him and to the way he lived. In raising Jesus, God has validated a life both of joy and compassion. In raising Jesus, God has announced what human life is finally all about. God wants us to be not only alive but awake. God wants us to feel the joy and wonder of Easter, and the hard beautiful truth of this day is that we cannot feel Easter joy unless we also open ourselves to Good Friday pain. Easter is about being alive. Christianity is not an ode to dejection. It is an ode to joy, to wakeful, hopeful, risen life. Easter is about being awake. You’ve gone to sleep on life! Try to stay awake.

Among our Bible readings for today, one always claims my attention in a unique way. It’s the reading from the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Listen to this part of it again:

You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. [Colossians 3: 3-4]

Easter is about Jesus, but it’s also about us. If Easter were only about Jesus, then we wouldn’t have all this—these flowers, this music, the new clothes and festive meals and egg hunts for the children. Easter is about Jesus, and it’s also about us. From the very earliest days Christians have understood that Jesus’s new life was a foretaste, a “coming attraction,” of our resurrection, too. It’s not insignificant that we heard the phrase, “Do not be afraid” twice in this morning’s Gospel. The promise and hope of Easter are that we need no longer be afraid. And if we don’t need to be afraid, we don’t need to go to sleep on life. We can wake up. We no longer need to insulate ourselves from the pain or the joy of life. We can experience and celebrate life in all its wonderful complicated fullness because Jesus has done that before us, and he has been raised to life. And if he is raised, we shall be, too.

Resurrection means many things, but one thing it means for us this morning is this: God calls you to new, risen, wide-awake life. You can face that life without a sleep mask because Jesus has shown you that all will be well. You do not need to be afraid. In Paul’s language, “your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you will also be revealed with him in glory.”

“Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Jesus lived a life of joy and sorrow, generosity and compassion. What always undergirded that life, though, was a profound depth of trust. Jesus dared to stay awake even through his hours on the cross because he knew, finally, that the One he called his Father would be with him and those with whose joys and sorrows he felt. And that is what Easter means for you and me, too. “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” What is true for Jesus is also true for you. You can live, as he did, without fear. You can live, as he did, open to the needs and sorrows of the world. You can live, as he did, as one who fully experiences the joy and beauty and possibility of being alive. You can do that because he did it. And your life is now enfolded with his in God. His life can be your life. His destiny can be your destiny. He is risen, and you can be, too.

Jesus gathered a company of women and men around him who loved him, loved each other, and even loved the people who tried to do them in. Easter is your invitation to be part of the community of people truly awake and truly alive. The only thing God asks is that we not go to sleep on life. Thoreau may never have met a man who was fully awake, but I have, and his name is Jesus. And I can look Jesus in the face because he first looked me in the face and called me into a new way of being. He makes that same offer now to you. His invitation to you today is the gift of new and risen and wide-awake life that you can step into now. Open yourself to the beauty, grace, and abundance of God’s world, made for you and me and all whom God loves. Don’t go to sleep on life. Try to stay awake. Amen.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Homily: Good Friday [April 22, 2011] Christ Church Cranbrook

Today, Good Friday we gather literally and figuratively at the cross. We have just taken part in a dramatic, liturgical reading of John’s account of the Passion story. We have been with Jesus through his betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, and now death. Though prior experience tells us the story will have a good and surprising end, for now Jesus is simply dead. He has come up against the imperial systems of state and religion, and he has been crushed by them.

For those of us who live in the 21st century—especially in the time of so much unrest in various parts of the world—the spectacle of a person being obliterated by oppressive, powerful forces should feel familiar. Systems organized around power are essentially reactive: when they are threatened, they respond aggressively. Jesus’s offense seems not to have been anything overtly political or theological. He did not challenge established government or religious orthodoxy. His offense was more subtle, and therefore more dangerous. He taught people how to live under oppressive authority without giving themselves over to it. The system knows what to do to freedom fighters. It does not know what to do to people who simply choose to live freely. So it kills them.

When the earliest Christians reflected on the passion of Jesus, they turned to the Hebrew Bible and borrowed these words from Isaiah:

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,

and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. [Isaiah 53.6]

The earliest Christians saw in the betrayal, arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus something that succeeding generations have understood as well: they saw that even though you and I were not literally present at the scene, we might as well have been. They saw that, like it or not, you and I are implicated in what went on there. If we see this as a story only about a good person being crushed by a bunch of bad guys, we will have missed the point. In the dramatic reading of the Passion Gospel, I have long thought that the congregation should read the parts of both the crowd and of Jesus. This is a story about us—about the ways we combine innocence and guilt within ourselves. In this story we are both Jesus and the ones who betray him. The reason it speaks to us so deeply and so powerfully is that it gets at the complex duality of our nature as human beings. All of us are a mixture of both sinner and saint. You and I are not only the crowd in this story. We are Jesus, too.

One of the hardest things about Good Friday is to hear again the details about how they treat Jesus physically, in that they desecrate his body:

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face.’ . . . So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew* is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. . . . After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. . . .But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. [John 19]

Good Friday always catches us up short because it enacts not just the rejection of a person’s ideas but the destruction of his body. We tend, as modern or post-modern rationalistic people to think of religion as a story of ideas. But the Bible comes to us from a pre-modern world, a place and a time when people saw that, to use Emerson’s words, “Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.” [Nature, Chapter IV, “Language”] The betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus are events acted out in a real, physical, human life. You and I are right to see ourselves figured not only in that One’s betrayers, but also in that One himself.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,

and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. [Isaiah 53.6]

Christianity proclaims the inseparable connection between God and human beings. With the Jews, we believe that God made human beings in God’s image. We take that one step further, though, in our assertion that God was uniquely present in the life and ministry of Jesus. In other words, we believe that God became one of us in Jesus. And if God became one of us in Jesus, that means that, in Jesus’s passion—in his betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death—God has experienced what you and I experience in the pains and struggles of life. After the events of Good Friday, God knows what it is like to be us. And if God knows what it is like to be us, then that knowledge changes the relationship between us and God dramatically. We can no longer picture God either as a divine monarch or a gaseous abstraction. We can only picture God now as someone embodied, someone who has lived and died as one of us.

This Lent I have been revisiting one of my favorite theological books, The Body of God, by Sallie McFague. It is a book in which she asserts, “The world is our meeting place with God . . .as the body of God, it is wondrously, awesomely, divinely mysterious.” [p. vii] If Jesus is God for us localized in a particular human being, then McFague wants us to see the world itself—physical material creation, the planet, matter, all of the world’s creatures—as the physical embodiment of God. Seen this way, we are all embodiments of mind and spirit. The world is the embodiment of God. Therefore: when we mistreat or desecrate others or ourselves, we mistreat and desecrate God. And when we mistreat and desecrate the world and its creatures, we desecrate God. Sallie McFague thinks, and I agree with her, that our confusion about our relationship to our own bodies leads to a similar confusion about the world. She says,

The ambivalence and at times abhorrence that we see . . . in regard to the body—in all its manifestations—indicates a deep sickness in our culture: self-hatred. To the extent we do not like bodies, we do not like ourselves. Whatever more or other we may be, we are bodies, made up of the same stuff as all other life-forms on our planet . . .[p. 16]

Jesus got into trouble with the authorities not because he preached rebellion but because he questioned the fundamental self-hatred on which all oppressive systems are built. In his day, this self-hatred was manifested in appeals to various kinds of religious, political, or ethnic exclusivity: Roman is better than Jew, Jew is better than Samaritan, Pharisee is better than Sadducee, and so on. In our day, this self-hatred is manifested in appeals to ethnic and racial superiority and also in all forms of commercialism. Don’t like yourself? At least you’re better than those other people from that strange place who believe and behave differently than you do. And you’ll be better still if you buy Brand X. Self-hatred is attitude exploited by all oppressive systems, political and economic. It holds out a false vision of what an acceptable person looks, sounds, dresses, and acts like. It always holds out the false hope that you can be acceptable only by becoming someone other than who you actually are.

So what would happen, if like Jesus, we actually didn’t hate ourselves? What if, like Jesus, we actually loved and accepted ourselves? What if we saw the totality of who we are—our gifts, abilities, weird habits, personal tics, shortcomings—what if we saw ourselves as worthy of love and blessing and acceptance? If we did that, we’d probably stop stigmatizing or blaming other people for our problems. If we did that, we would treat others and ourselves more respectfully. If we did that, we would not be sitting ducks for every new gadget, cosmetic, or deodorant that comes along. If we lived as Jesus did we would be happy, peaceful, and fulfilled. And we’d also be a threat to all the world’s systems that continue to operate by appealing to self-hatred in all its devious disguises.

Gathering with Jesus at the cross today can be a meaningless exercise in self-flagellation, or it can be a call into new life. Jesus goes to the cross not so you will feel bad about what happened there. This is, after all, called GOOD Friday. Jesus goes to the cross because he was perhaps the first person in human history—perhaps the only person in human history—who fully accepted himself as he was, who was not willing to sign on to a bad program or idea simply to assuage his sense of personal inferiority. Jesus lived robustly, fully, authentically. The human political and religious systems in which we are all enmeshed responded reactively. But they were not able to make him become someone other than who he was.

In a coincidence of the calendar, today, Good Friday, April 22, is also Earth Day. Christianity dares to proclaim two radical, powerful truths. God is embodied in us. God is embodied in the world. As those who bring Jesus to the cross, we know ourselves to be capable of all kinds of aggression, sin, enmity, and hatred. As those who are brought to the cross, we also know ourselves to be capable of compassion, nobility, and grace. That is the mixed bag of who we are. Our life does not go on only in our heads. It goes on in our bodies. Just as our minds and spirits are embodied in our physical beings, so God is embodied in us. And just as God is embodied in us, so God is embodied in the world.

Our task, therefore, as those who gather at the cross with Jesus, is to live as he did, as those who know and love and accept ourselves and God’s world, as those who refuse to give in to the world’s siren song of self-hatred. The oppressive forces of the life—imperial, political, commercial—beckon to you to escape yourself by trying to become someone you’re not. The love and compassion of God in Christ beckon you to a different song: a song of love for yourself as you are, acceptance of yourself as you are, a song of empathy with and compassion for all God’s lovable and blessed creatures. If you respond to that song, you will become secure in that knowledge and begin to commit yourself to loving and blessing God as God is made manifest in the world and all its bodies—the planet itself, other people, all the non-human creatures with whom we share creation, and that most particular and wonderful body of them all, your own.

Today, Good Friday, we and people like us defiled and desecrated Jesus in his person and his body. Today, Good Friday, we too were defiled and desecrated as Jesus stood for us. As we take in and mourn how we did this to Jesus, let us also take in and mourn how we did this to ourselves. Jesus gave his body and his life that you might love and respect yours. And loving yourself now as he loves you, you are free to love and embrace your brother and sister human beings, our plant and animal siblings, and God’s world.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,

and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. [Isaiah 53.6]


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Homily: The Fifth Sunday in Lent [April 10, 2011] Christ Church Cranbrook

I have spent a good part of my working life as a classroom teacher, so when the collect for today speaks of “the unruly wills and affections of sinners” my mind immediately goes to the two years I spent teaching 8th grade English. You have to be a particular kind of person to teach middle school, and actually I think I was pretty well suited for it. But you can only do it if you’re a bit of an eighth-grader yourself. Depending on what hour of the day you have them, middle schoolers can be grown up or immature or perhaps both at the same time. Teaching middle school is for you if you like being in a room with people who act like ten-year-olds one minute and forty-year olds the next. If you want to survive in that classroom, you need to be able to adjust to their moods as quickly as they come and go. It’s not unlike trying to surf in a tsunami.

When I think about teaching English to middle, high school, or even college students, I always think first of two common experiences, one shared by all teachers, the other limited mostly to those who teach literature. The first is the student who misses class or comes in late and asks you, “Did I miss anything important?” When asked this question, I often replied, “No, we all sat around in frozen silence awaiting your return.” A professor of mine once observed that education is the only thing people will pay for and then willingly forego. There is no substitute for being there.

The other teaching experience more peculiar to literature teachers is explaining what we call “figurative language” (metaphors, similes, symbols, other methods of comparison) by which all human perception works. We human beings seem to be designed to understand something only when it is placed in comparison with something else: love is a rose, no man is an island, war is hell, Christ is King. We only grasp things by analogy. In my experience, kids first resist this idea and then go overboard (another metaphor) once they get it. I’ve had students who refused to see Christ figures in anything and then suddenly saw them lurking behind every telephone pole.

Today’s collect and the reading from Ezekiel remind me of my days teaching middle school. They make me think of those days first because the “unruly wills and affections of sinners” applies to all our inner eighth graders. They make me think of those days second because Ezekiel uses an outlandish metaphorical comparison—saying Israel is like a valley of dry bones coming back to life—as a way of helping us understand something else. A word about each.

As Ezekiel understands the human problem, there is something awry in our very makeup. In the chapter before the one we heard today, he speaks of God putting a new heart and a new spirit within us.

26A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. 28 [Ezekiel 36-26-27]

Our problem is not that we don’t obey the law. Our problem is that we don’t love the law. I know the Ten Commandments are good; I know that I’m supposed to obey them; but I don’t really love them—to be honest, I don’t even like them all that much. They come to me from outside myself. I have not made them my own. There is distance between God’s will and mine. My “unruly will and affections” get in the way of my taking in God’s will and making it my own. And, as our collect today says, the way for me to obtain what God promises is to love what God commands. I’ll do my best to DO what God commands. But LOVE it? That’s an extremely tall order. As a student might say, “Can I get an extension?”

One way to describe our problem is to say that we are all spiritual eighth graders. We are all in the process of being shaped into the people we are designed to be. As with all education, the goal is that we internalize the values to which we aspire. Just as we want a kid to learn certain values and virtues through experience, so God wants us to grow into the depth and compassion we see enacted in the life and ministry of Jesus. Just as school shapes children, so our relationship with God shapes us. The goal of the Christian life is not to be one who slavishly obeys all the rules. The goal of the Christian life is to become more internally God-like, which means to take into ourselves the characteristics of Jesus and to learn, over time, to live them out.

This is hard work. It goes against our very nature, our “unruly wills and affections.” God wants me to want justice and peace and righteousness at least as much as I want professional advancement, romantic fulfillment, and a new car. How on earth do I become that kind of person?

It’s in answer to that question that our readings speak to our spiritual condition in a second way: by means of an extended comparison. When Ezekiel envisions God’s transformation of Israel, he sees what looks like a battlefield, a plain covered with dry bones. The spirit of God announces that God will remake those bones into people by putting sinews (ligaments and tendonsand muscles) and flesh on them. The spirit of God announces that the four winds will breathe breath and life into those new bodies and make them live.

What we have here, of course, is a picture of human transformation. You were dead and now you are alive. For Israel that means the Babylonian exile, life cut off from the promised land and lived without access to the Temple. In this beautiful and dramatic reading, God announces that though they are as dead now, they will once again live. They will live because God will remake these dry dead bones into living breathing human beings. And they will love what God commands because God will turn their hearts of stone into hearts of flesh and put a new heart and a new spirit within them. Obeying the law will no longer seem like an onerous duty. It will be the greatest experience we can imagine.

We make the life of faith more complicated than it is. Ezekiel would remind us that the life of faith is finally about one thing: it is about transformation. The life of faith is not about learning a set of rules or about getting cosmic credit in the sky. It is not really about getting to heaven or avoiding hell. The life of faith is about being remade into our authentic selves, into someone who can love what God loves, who can love AS God loves, who has made God’s priorities of compassion and justice and wholeness and peace their own priorities. And because Jesus is what theologians call the “human face of God”, the Christian practice has been to keep our eyes focused on Jesus so that, as we steep ourselves in his love and forgiveness and healing and blessing we will be transformed into his likeness, both internally and in our actions.

“Did I miss anything important?” Just as you can’t learn a musical instrument or a language or an athletic skill without practice, so you can’t open yourself up to personal transformation without showing up. I have heard a lot of clergy make the case for church attendance in my life, and usually they do it as some kind of sly or submerged guilt trip. I want to make the case for church attendance from the opposite point of view: you will never be the person you and God want you to be unless you open yourself up to God’s creative work in your life. And, like it or not, God’s creative activity takes place more reliably in the practice of Word and Sacrament than it does in the very important and good things that otherwise claim our attention. When you are not here, God does not mark you absent. But you do miss something important. And what you miss is the formative shaping power of the word and sacrament to breathe a new life and new spirit into your drying bones.

A week from today is Palm Sunday, the day that initiates Holy Week. In Holy Week we walk with Jesus through the last days of his life, from triumphal entry into Jerusalem through his betrayal, arrest, crucifixion and death, and then on to the surprising gift of the resurrection. Easter will come whether we’re all here for Holy Week or not. But our ability to take it in and let it accomplish God’s transforming work in us is proportional to the extent to which we steep ourselves in the process by going with Jesus on that journey. So I’m asking you to be here for all of Holy Week. You and I will become our true selves--that is become more like Jesus--the more we live and share in his life-changing journey. Easter will come whether we prepare for it or not. But it will be little more than a spring festival unless we first walk the way of the cross.

So don’t miss anything important. God wants to put flesh on your bones and breathe breath into your being. Let God remake your heart and your spirit. Allow God to transform you into one who will obtain God’s promises. Be here in Holy Week with your brothers and sisters who want, as you do, to obtain God’s promises of joy and peace and hope and new life. If you do that, you will discover that you are becoming someone new: one who knows the fulfillment of God’s promises because you now, perhaps even to your own deep surprise, love what God commands. Amen.