Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Homily: December 25, 2012 [Christmas Day] Washington National Cathedral


            Charlie Brown goes to his front door, where Snoopy stands offering him a Christmas present.  “For me?” says Charlie Brown.  “Thank you very much.”  Then he opens the gift card:  “For the rounded-headed kid . . . Merry Christmas.”  As he looks toward the departing Snoopy, Charlie Brown observes, “It would be nice to have a dog who remembered your name.”
I have few secret passions in life, but one of them is Peanuts, the Charles Schultz comic strip featuring Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the gang. I started reading Peanuts in the daily paper in fourth grade, and I have followed the cartoon through all its developments—Linus’s struggles to quit the blanket habit; the birth of Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally; the introduction of Snoopy’s bird friend, Woodstock; the arrival of the first African American member, Franklin; the search by Snoopy’s brothers Andy and Olaf for their desert-dwelling sibling, Spike.
This season my bedtime reading has consisted of working through a book that collects all the comic’s yuletide cartoons, A Peanuts Christmas. The strips are memorable: Linus agonizing over having to recite the Christmas story we heard last night in front of the PTA; Sally writing to Santa and rhapsodizing about the joys not of giving but of getting; Lucy slugging Linus because he shows her up by writing his thank-you notes more quickly than she does; Charlie Brown putting up Snoopy’s Christmas tree in his doghouse and asking if Snoopy would rather unplug the TV set or the clock radio. Peanuts is so much a part of my life that I cannot imagine Christmas without it. “It would be nice to have a dog who remembered your name.”
And part of why I love Peanuts so much lies in the way it combines a sincere appreciation of childhood’s joys with a frank assessment of the pains and struggles of life. It would be nice to have a dog who remembered your name.  I fantasize that our two terriers know who I am, but when I’m realistic about it, I realize they probably think of me only as the big guy with the leash and the treats.  We look for fulfillment where we probably shouldn’t hope to find it. “It would be nice to have a dog who remembered your name.”
Today is Christmas Day, and for most people in our culture the celebration of the season is coming now to a close.  In modern America, Christmas begins on Black Friday and ends at around noon today, when the carols suddenly leave the airwaves to be replaced by pop hits.  For those of us who live by the church’s calendar, though, the Christmas season is just beginning, and the next twelve days will open for us a series of abiding gifts, each one more surprising than the last.  Last night we heard the story of Mary and Joseph giving birth to the baby Jesus in a stable.  Today we hear not that familiar story again but a reflection on what it means.  From the beginning of John’s Gospel:
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the father. [John 1: 14 RSV]
What both of these biblical passages are trying to say is that, in Jesus, God has come right into the midst of human life.  That’s a hard truth for you and me humans to take in.  We are prone to think of God as someone or something remote, distant, far away, removed from human experience.  But for Christians, and for all people of faith, that way of thinking is wrong.  God made human beings in God’s own image and invested us with divine significance.  The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.  The one at the center of creation is born in a Bethlehem stable.  Whether we know it or not, we are steeped in and surrounded by radiant holiness.  That is the perception at the heart of all the world’s religions.  It’s what Christmas is really about.
To burnish my reputation as an intellectual, I’ll add that in addition to reading A Peanuts Christmas, my other bedtime reading has been the poetry of William Blake. (You ought to see my nightstand.  It looks like a used bookstore.) Blake was a visionary 18th century English poet and engraver, and one of his best-known poems (“Auguries of Innocence”) gives voice to this universal perception that we’re steeped in holiness.  It begins,
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour

Anywhere you look, says Blake, anything you pick up is charged with that holiness.  But the poem doesn’t stop there. Here is how it ends:
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night 
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day

Here’s how John’s Gospel puts it: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the father.”  Here’s how William Blake puts it:
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night 
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day
The pain of being human is that we live, as Buddhists tell us, in illusion.  We think too much, and when we think we fall prey to the idea that we are alone, cut off, walking around in darkness.  Worse than that, we fall prey to the illusion that God and we are somehow separate from each other.  Christmas is the antidote to that illusion.  The Word has become flesh and dwells among us.  God displays a human form to those who choose to live in the daylight.  The world is precious.  You are precious.  All your human brothers and sisters, all created beings are precious because they participate in God’s holiness. As a spiritual director of mine once said, “We are holy because God is holy.”
            One of my favorite living poets is a Buddhist woman, Jane Hirschfield, who lived for three years at Tassajara, a Zen monastery in California.  She not only writes poems, she writes about poetry and the spirituality of it.  Here is something she said earlier this year about what her Zen practice has taught her about the holiness, the preciousness of the world:
What is is enough. You don’t have to add anything to reality to feel awe, or to feel respect, or to see the radiance of existence. Radiance simply is. . . . It may seem simplistic, but I truly believe that if you put a person in a prison cell with nothing but the chance and the desire to pay attention, everything they need to know about the radiance of the world is there, available. [Jane Hirschfield, “Think Assailable Thoughts or Be Lonely”, Poetry, February, 2012]
            Everything we need to know about the radiance of the world is there, available.  That’s not only a mystic insight.  That’s the truth at the center of Christianity.  The Word has become flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.  The great gift of Christmas for you and me this morning is a further revealing of what the birth of Jesus means for us.  In John’s words, that birth means that we have been given “power to become children of God”.  To William Blake it means that God now displays a human form.  To Jane Hirschfield it means that radiance simply is. The Word has become flesh and lived among us.  You, your life, your household, your community, your world—all display the meaning and purpose and radiance of God.  The One whom we welcome at Christmas is not a strange visitor from another planet.  The One we welcome at Christmas is us, and we are him. 
            As you go about your life in the next twelve days, try to pay attention to signs of this radiance and blessing as they reveal themselves both within and outside you.  See that radiance when you look in the mirror.  See that radiance when you attend to the creation.  Be open to that blessing when you encounter others, perhaps in surprising and unexpected places and ways.  Christmas opens us up, as Blake says,
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour

The Word has become flesh and has lived among us and lives among us now. You and your world and your life and relationships are holy in ways we can only now begin to imagine.  Snoopy may think of Charlie Brown as the “round headed-kid”, but if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that the God we know in Jesus remembers his name.  Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Homily: The Third Sunday of Advent [December 16, 2012] Washington National Cathedral

            We gather this morning in the aftermath of a national tragedy:  the killing of 28 people—20 of them children—at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  Like you, I am still in the process of sorting out all my emotional responses to this horrifying incident.  In times like this, we all come together seeking not so much answers as a community in which to make sense of the questions.
The only reliable way I know through something like this is to start with my own response, trusting that in many ways it resembles yours, and then holding that response up to the Gospel light, asking God what we should all do next.
            It appears that most of those who died on Friday were first graders. There is nothing like a primary school classroom:  it’s not only the bright colors and the fun things that make it special.  It’s the sense that you’re in a place where children are making an important transition, moving from innocence to experience, engaging the world afresh and anew.  So my first response to Friday’s shooting is a kind of wounded horror at the thought that these emergent children were killed so brutally and that the children around them were terrorized as well.  I grieve, of course, for the adults too.  But it is the loss of the children—the lives not lived, the hopes extinguished—that touches me first.
            My thoughts move next to the parents.  As I remember my own days as the parent of a young child, I recall my own visceral sense that my primary purpose in life was to protect and nurture the life of my son. When you have a child you are emotionally exposed.  Not only can I not fully take in the way the children were traumatized; I cannot even begin to grasp the pain experienced by their parents.
            And then from the parents my thoughts go to the shooter.  While I resist the temptation to speculate about his mental or emotional state, it’s hard to imagine someone carrying out such an act who wasn’t in an awful lot of psychic pain themselves.  We reflexively turn to calling such people “evil”, as if in so doing we mark them as somehow different from us.  Was the shooter “evil”?  In the sense that he caused a lot of innocent suffering, yes I suppose he was.  But can we call him “evil” as a way of excluding him or his actions from the realm of humanity?  No, I don’t believe we can.  We need to understand his action—and the actions of all violent people—as a part of what it means to be human.  Like it or not, we are bound up with each other in a complex matrix of motivations and actions.  To understand is not to excuse.  Let’s not apologize for the shooter, but let’s not try to pretend that he’s someone other than us, either. If he was mentally ill, he was also a member of a family, and we know that existing laws make it very difficult for families to control or institutionalize their violent members.
            And thinking about “us” makes me ask the last, the harder question.  Why do we as a society tolerate these massacres in increasing numbers?  These mass shootings are happening with increasing frequency, and they more and more seem to be targeted directly against children.  What does it say about us as a society that we continue to tolerate so much violence against children? What does it say about us, as a community of human beings, that we are willing to put our children (not to mention their teachers) in so much jeopardy? In every school I know they have lockdown drills, and the threat of invasive gun violence is taken very seriously.  What kind of a society would let itself get to this point, to where teachers and students routinely have to practice what they will do when a shooter comes on campus? If you stand back from it for a minute, you realize that our continued shared tolerance of this violence directed against our children is insane.
            All of which leads me, finally, to ask the Gospel question:  what are we, as people of faith, to do?  As a way into answering that question, I turn to this morning’s Gospel passage, the account of John the Baptist addressing the crowds who are coming to him out of some kind of personal and spiritual and social desperation.  What does he say to them?  “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” What he means is:  stop doing the crazy thing you’re doing and do a new thing, a new thing that will bear fruit, that will bring about the change you seek.
            The crowd asks him, “What then should we do?” And John gives this direct and plain-spoken answer:
"Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages." [Luke 3: 10-14]
Now you don’t have to be a New Testament scholar or an ethicist or a moral philosopher to understand what John is saying here.  He’s saying:  it’s not that complicated.  You already knew the answer when you asked the question.  Share what you have, live honorably, value the well-being of the other person as highly as your own.  We make our ethical dilemmas seem more complicated than they really are.  In today’s Gospel, we’re asked, simply, to repent, to turn around, and then to bear fruits worthy of repentance.  We’re asked to live mutually and honorably and compassionately for the well-being of all.
            Which leads me to say, on behalf of this faith community at least:  enough is enough.  As followers of Jesus, we have the moral obligation to stand for and with the victims of gun violence and to work to end it. We have tolerated school shootings, mall shootings, theater shootings, sniper shootings, workplace shootings, temple and church shootings, urban neighborhood shootings, for far too long.  The massacre of these 28 people in Connecticut is, for me at least, the last straw.  And I believe it is for you. Enough is enough.  The Christian community—indeed the entire American faith community—can no longer tolerate this persistent and escalating gun violence directed against our people.  Enough is enough. 
            For a variety of reasons our political culture has been unwilling and unable to address the question of gun control, but now it is time that you and I, as followers of Jesus, help them to do that.  In his emotional statement on Friday, President Obama called for “meaningful action” in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, and I pledge my and this community’s help in crafting and taking that action.  Our political leaders need to know that there is a group of people in America who will serve as a counterweight to the gun lobby, who will stand together with our leaders and support them as they act to take assault weapons off the streets.  As followers of Jesus, we are led by one who died at the hand of human violence on the cross.  We know something about innocent suffering.  And we know our job is to heal it and stop it wherever we can.
            In my statement on Friday, I said in part, “Washington National Cathedral pledges to pray for the victims, their families, the assailant, and the survivors. And we pledge to work with our national leaders to enact more effective gun control measures.”  To my way of thinking, the best way for us to mourn the Sandy Hook shooting is to mobilize the faith community for gun control. 
In her statement on Friday, Bishop Budde announced that she is
calling on our national leaders to enact more effective gun control measures. We know from experience that such calls go unheeded. But what if this time, you and I took up this issue and wouldn’t put it down until something was done?  . . . Today we grieve, but soon we act.
“What if this time, you and I took up this issue and wouldn’t put it down until something was done?” What would Jesus do?  What would John the Baptist do?  What should you and I do?  You knew the answer even before you asked the question.  “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”  “Today we grieve, but soon we act.”  As people of faith we can no longer tolerate the epidemic of gun violence in America.  If we are truly America’s “National” Cathedral, as we say we are, then we must become the focal point of faithful advocacy of gun control, calling our leaders to courageous action and supporting them as they take it. 
Everyone in this city seems to live in terror of the gun lobby.  But I believe the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby.  I don’t want to take away someone’s hunting rifle, but I can no longer justify a society that allows concealed handguns in schools and on the streets or that allows people other than military and police to buy assault weapons or that lets people get around existing gun laws by selling weapons to people without background checks at gun shows.  As Christians, we are obligated to heal the wounded, protect the vulnerable, and stand for peace.  The cross is the sign and the seal of that obligation.  And we know both from faith and experience that the cross is mightier than the gun.  The gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby.
On this Third Sunday of Advent, we await the birth of the one who will die on that cross at the hands of sinful and violent people. Let us rededicate ourselves as agents of Jesus’s love and justice and healing in the world.  Let us pray for the children and adults who died on Friday.  Let us pray for the parents and the surviving children and the pain they continue to endure.  Let us pray for the shooter and the miasma of sickness and pain he suffered. Let us pray for the mentally ill and their families, and let us help those families more effectively cope with their sickest members.  And let us pray for ourselves, that we may have faithful courage to act, so that the murderous violence done on Friday may never be repeated, and that all God’s children may live lives of wholeness and blessing and peace.  Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Homily: The First Sunday of Advent [December 2, 2012] Washington National Catahedral

             One of the first things I did on coming to the Cathedral was to ask Joe Luebke, our Director of Horticulture and Grounds, to give Kathy and me a tour of our campus.  Many people who come to visit Washington National Cathedral understandably focus their attention on the building.  But the grounds are in many ways as lovingly and carefully crafted as the cathedral church itself, and I wanted to have Joe’s help in understanding the vision behind the landscape design here.
            As you can imagine, it was a wonderful morning, and Kathy and I both learned a lot.  There are all kinds of surprises out and about on the Cathedral Close. But after having seen the Bishop’s Garden, the woods, the amphitheater, and the school playing fields, what engaged me most was the fig tree beside the Herb Cottage.  It’s not much to look at right now, but given that it was flattened in last year’s crane collapse, you’re surprised that it’s there at all.  I asked Joe to give me a rundown on the fig tree’s history, and here is what he said:

It is Ficus carica “Madonna”. . . The fig survived the crane collapse despite being smashed by the boom. I was certain that it would not live through that.  The tree has died down to the ground twice since I've been on staff.  Both were due to extreme cold.  Once was in the early 90's and then again in the later 90's.  We lost many plants that were marginal in those two winters.  We decided to cut the fig down flush to the ground and see if it would re-sprout, and in fact it did.  . . .The fig tree has been at the Herb Cottage for more than 25 years.  I remember it being a large tree when I came as an intern in 1987.—[Joe Luebke, PECF Director of Horticulture and Grounds]

What a story of perseverance!  In spite of all the obstacles thrown in its way--two hard winters that we know of, a crane collapse--the Cathedral's Madonna fig will not be daunted in its mission to produce what I am told are the best-tasting figs in the region.  This story is so impressive that it almost cries out to be a sermon illustration. And now it is.  The Madonna fig naturally came to mind this week as I thought about the following words of Jesus in today's Gospel:

Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things [" signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves"] taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. [Luke 21: 29b-31]

As he addresses a people "faint [with] fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world", Jesus points to a fig tree.  Look at it, he says, and read the signs of the times.  Just as when the tree is in leaf, you know that summer is near, so: when you see astounding signs, you know that God's reign is at hand.
Every generation of human beings has read their own times and events as the signs named in this Gospel passage.  The roaring of the sea and the waves?  Sounds like   Superstorm Sandy to me!  Signs in the sun and moon and stars?  Why that's got to be global warming!  Distress on earth among nations?  Well, when hasn't that been taking place? 
The truth is, it's easy to point to current events, as some television preachers do, and read them as signs of the coming end of the world.  It's a bit harder, with Jesus, to read the world as we might read a fig tree.  God seems to be up to something, and we want to know what it is.
Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the day that inaugurates the season in which we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas.  The Advent season is organized around the mystery of time. It begins at the end and ends at the beginning. As we wait for the coming of God into our lives, we begin the season by thinking about the end of time. You’d think that Advent would be an orderly progression from past to future, but it’s actually the other way around. We start with the future and, over four weeks, work our way back to the past.
The Church's calendar starts the year by directing our focus to the last day rather than the first day.  In so doing, our church year asks that we see this Advent season as a time not only to prepare for Christmas but also as an invitation to pose some larger questions to ourselves. What, really, are we waiting for? What, finally,  is our hope? What, actually, would God’s authentic presence in our lives look and feel like?
One way to start exploring those questions is simply to rest in the season's dual focus on the past and the future. From the past, we get our image of what redeemed, transformed, liberated life looks like by remembering the ministry of Jesus and the community he gathered around him. It's only by looking back to the way God's promise was revealed in Jesus that we can then look forward to expect that promise to be made real in our lives. The Christian hope is not vague and gaseous. It is specific and particular. We hope, when all is said and done, to experience God’s love as those gathered around Jesus did. We look back to the first Christmas so that we can look forward to the final one.
We remember that God was with us in the life and ministry of Jesus.  We experience that presence in fitful, partial ways now.  We hope for a time when we will bask in the complete and final presence of God once for all.
We believe, we hope, that we and all creation will be one in God and Christ. Christian faith orients us in the present by asking that we regard both the future and the past. If we only looked forward, we would do so in fear. If we only looked backward, we would do so with grief. That we can look both ways at once allows us to see the past as the pattern for the future and the future as the completion of a loving process begun in the past.
That brings me back to the fig tree.  When Joe Luebke told me the story of the Cathedral's Madonna fig and its miraculous survival, I saw it first as a story of life's refusal to be defeated.  And it is that.  But in the light of Jesus's suggestion that we read the fig tree for signs of what God is up to, I saw it as something more.  The fig tree refuses to die because it refuses to operate on the world's time scheme.  Instead, it runs on God's clock, not ours.  The Madonna fig still has life to give and fruit to bear. Winters and crane collapses are as nothing when they come up against the working out of a gracious purpose.  If that can be true for a fig, how much more for you and me? As followers of Jesus, our job is to set our internal clocks by God's time.  What finally matters is the Christian hope, and what we can confidently trust is that God will make that hope real. We keep our eyes on Jesus, and we set our clocks by God.  Living that way keeps us grounded and free and hopeful and brave, even when  "signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves" can distract and frighten us.  When you live your life in the hope of Advent, you have nothing to fear.
Here is the good, gospel news this morning. Christmas will come in its own time. It already has. God has been, God is, and God will be with us. This Advent time of waiting is the season’s proper gift. Look to the fig tree.  It lives out its purpose oblivious to human agendas, in touch with God's gracious purposes.  That's how you and I should live now in Advent, as Christmas approaches, and for all time.
Christmas will come, no matter what we do to prepare for it.  It will happen in God's own time. We prepare ourselves not to bring it on but to take it in. To make ourselves ready, let us remember that what we really hope for at Christmas is what we have already seen in the life of Jesus and in the expressions of human compassion and mercy we know now in the fabric of our lives. Look to the fig tree. Jesus is coming toward us. As Christmas approaches, let's use this graceful Advent season to make ourselves ready to receive both Jesus and the One who sent him.  Amen.