Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Rector's Monday Message: March 19, 2012

A Lenten Rest Stop

Yesterday (the Fourth Sunday in Lent) is known in some parts of the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions as “Refreshment Sunday”. It’s a day on which Lenten liturgical rules are relaxed a bit: flowers may be placed on the altar, more celebratory music may be played, things like that. Many Anglo-Catholic churches have a special set of rose-colored vestments for this day. The idea behind Refreshment Sunday is that it is good for everyone to rest and take stock of their Lenten progress now that Easter is within sight.

The journey is a metaphor for spiritual process with deep roots in our tradition. The Exodus—the forty-year journey made by the Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land—is the major, formative story of Israel’s life. It is paired with a later journey, the Exile of the Jews into captivity in Babylon. Jesus traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem. Saul became Paul on the road to Damascus. The first name of the Christian movement was “the Way”[Acts 9:2]. Paul traversed the Mediterranean world. In the early church and Medieval period, ordinary Christians made pilgrimages to holy places as an analogue of their spiritual progress.

The 16th century Protestant Reformers (Luther, Calvin etc.) did not much like the idea of pilgrimage. What had begun as a reflective journey had become, in the Roman Catholic penitential system, a “good work” that would provide credit against sins committed. The Reformers wanted to expunge all notions of good works as a way of remitting sins. So the pilgrimage had to go—and when it went, it took with it all its positive associations, too.

If you think about it, Anglicanism is one of the Christian traditions with no holy place. (Pre-Reformation English Catholics made pilgrimages to Canterbury because it housed the relics of Thomas a Becket, the 12th century English archbishop martyr.) If you wanted to make an Anglican pilgrimage, where would you go? England has many beautiful churches and cathedrals, but not even Canterbury can claim to be our Jerusalem or Rome. Anglicans don’t ritually bathe themselves in the waters of the Stour.

Now I’m enough of a Protestant to agree that literal (or even metaphorical) journeys won’t save me. But I’m also enough of a Bible reader to realize that one way we make sense of God’s activity in our lives is to stop, look back, and reflect on where we have been. When you are in the middle of the journey, it can all seem so dark and confusing. When you get a bit farther on, you can look back and see what was really going on. That’s the way the great sweep of the Bible’s stories (what critics call “Salvation History”) works. In the middle of the desert, it feels like it’s all drought and snakes. When you get down the road, you realize that someone was sending you quail and manna, too.

The Epistle reading for Refreshment Sunday yesterday was a passage from the letter to the Ephesians (2: 1-10). Ephesians is a second generation Christian letter, written by a brilliant follower of Paul. It is a profound and beautiful meditation on the life of the church as a community on a baptismal pilgrimage. The early, authentic letters of Paul are addressed primarily to Jewish Christians, and they make the argument that the new Gentile converts (the ancestors of you and me) are real Christians even without being Jewish first. Now in the second generation, the author of Ephesians is writing to a primarily Gentile audience, and he reminds them of where they have come from:

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-- by grace you have been saved-- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. [Ephesians 2: 1-10]

When you think of your life as a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey, an excursion on the Way, you realize, in the words of Ephesians, “no one may boast”. We all were dead and have been made “alive together with Christ”. As the Promised Land nears, the Jews realize that they have not gotten here by their own efforts. As Easter nears, we begin to understand that someone has been with us all the way.

As we enter the Fourth Week in Lent, let us pause for refreshment, look back, and take stock. We’re on a pilgrimage not of our own making to a place we cannot even entirely imagine. Lent is not about Lent. It is about Easter. Looking back, you might just see signs of new and risen life appearing where you thought there was nothing but desert dust. Stopping, looking around, and taking in are the ways you and I can share in God’s abundant refreshment.

Gary Hall

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Rector's Monday Message: March 12, 2012

The Ceremony of Innocence

We begin the season of Lent thinking, generally, about how our habits and distractions close us off from continuous awareness of God’s loving presence. As the season moves along, it becomes increasingly apparent that the experience of God’s absence may in fact be a merciful blessing. The more deeply we look into ourselves, the more we begin to see the negative forces that battle there with what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

As we move more fully into Lent, our scripture readings probe more deeply into the mysteries of human motivation. For some reason, Jesus seems to arouse as much enmity as he does reverence. In yesterday’s Gospel reading, Jesus drove the moneychangers from the Temple and announced, “"Destroy this temple [his body], and in three days I will raise it up." [John 2] The Sunday before, Jesus told his companions, “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” [Mark 8] Next Sunday we will hear Jesus say, “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” [John 3]

Jesus radiates the divine presence. He is loving, compassionate, and gentle. Yet many people—some of them decent people—hate him. How can that be?

This semester I’m teaching a class at Cranbrook in which we’ve read, among other texts, Shakespeare’s Othello and Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. In the Shakespeare play, the villain Iago hates almost everybody in the play, but he exhibits a particularly virulent antipathy for the Lieutenant Cassio, of whom he says,

He hath a daily beauty in his life
That makes me ugly. [Othello 5.1]

Iago never reveals his motivations for all the havoc he unleashes, but this one remark suggests that there is something in Cassio’s very goodness (“daily beauty in his life”) that shows Iago up by comparison to be the opposite.  He hates Cassio not despite but because of his moral excellence. Iago dislikes goodness because it shows up his own deficiencies in relief. 
Herman Melville’s Billy Budd tells the story of a sailor persecuted by the ship’s Master-at-Arms, a man named Claggart.  As Iago hates Cassio, so Claggart hates Billy.  Claggart is a “man of the world” who knows how to navigate the politics of a nautical/military establishment.  Billy is a complete innocent.  Claggart is offended rather than charmed by Billy’s naïveté. Something in Billy’s innocence offends the man of the world.  As Melville tells us, 
If askance [Claggart] eyed the good looks, cheery health and frank enjoyment of young life in Billy Budd, it was because these went along with a nature that, as Claggart magnetically felt, had in its simplicity never willed malice or experienced the reactionary bite of that serpent. To him, the spirit lodged within Billy, and looking out from his welkin eyes as from windows, that ineffability it was which made the dimple in his dyed cheek, suppled his joints, and dancing in his yellow curls made him preeminently the Handsome Sailor. One person excepted, the Master-at-arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd. And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that of cynic disdain--disdain of innocence. To be nothing more than innocent! [Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Chapter 12]

Over the course of reading both Othello and Billy Budd, the reader attuned to the nuances of Christian faith comes to see that the victims of hatred (Desdemona in the play, Billy in the novel) take on the characteristics of Christ figures. Both die in total innocence. Both are killed as the result of a chain of events brought about by deep and inexplicable malevolence. Something in their persecutors rebels at the notion of pure, uncorrupted innocence. Something in that innocence shows up their guilt sharply in relief.

One of the reasons we respond so powerfully to figures like Iago and Claggart is that we see something of ourselves in them. If you’re like me, you have probably nourished the fond fantasy that, had you been there at the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, you would have raised a lone voice in opposition. But the longer I live, the more I have to acknowledge that at best I probably would have gone along with the crowd. Following the exploits of these literary villains, we are surprised into a recognition of our own complicity. It’s easier for me to acknowledge my inner Iago or inner Claggart than it is to admit that I carry an inner Judas around inside me, too.

As we move toward Holy Week, we will all be asked to stand in the at times unbearable tension between the knowledge of Jesus’s holiness and a corresponding awareness of our own sin. The good news of this season lies in its constant assurance that God knows and loves us not in spite of but because of our complications. We are, each and all, partly Judas. And we’re partly Jesus, too. Iago and Claggart never had the grace to see that. Living and praying together, you and I just might. That is why Easter is so radically hopeful.

Gary Hall

Homily: The Third Sunday in Lent [March 11, 2012] Christ Church Cranbrook

Every time we read the Decalogue in church, I can’t help thinking about the way the Ten Commandments have unwittingly become a flash point for the culture wars in American politics. When he came down the mountain with the tablets, could Moses possibly have thought that he was starting a process that could lead to endless litigation? It seems as if every time you turn around there is a controversy somewhere in this country about the display of the Ten Commandments in a public space—usually a city hall, a courthouse, or a state capitol building. Just this past month lawsuits have been brought in North Carolina and New Mexico. State senators in Alabama are even now debating an amendment to their state’s Constitution that would legalize such displays.

The Supreme Court has long held that the government may not take any action—displaying the Ten Commandments or the the Nativity Scene on public property, teaching Creationism or mandating organized prayer in public schools—that endorses a particular religion. The Constitution’s First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In its 18th century context, that means two things: the United States, unlike European nations, will not have an established “official” church. And all Americans will be free to pray or not to as their conscience dictates.

You’d think the intent of that amendment was pretty clear on its face, but we Americans have been arguing about what it really means almost since our country’s inception. In recent years, that argument has become much more divisive. Civil libertarians have claimed that any public display of religious teaching violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the separation of church and state. Others have countered that America’s founders meant this country to be what they call a “Christian nation”.

The most recent volley in this battle comes from the publication of a new book just arriving on the best-seller lists: Indivisible: Restoring Faith, Family, and Freedom Before It’s Too Late. Authors James Robison and Jay W. Richards maintain that such diverse and divisive issues as abortion, stem cell research, marriage, education, economics, health care, the environment, terrorism, and even free trade can be settled if America will adopt the Ten Commandments as its prevailing set of cultural and ethical norms. To support this argument, they claim that the authors of the Constitution, as believing Christians, would have taken the Ten Commandments as their moral starting point. And, they insist, even non-Christians should agree that the Ten Commandments are an indispensible part of our cultural and legal heritage.

As an American and as a Christian I have to admit that I am a bit conflicted about this issue. On the one hand, my inner civil libertarian agrees that in America no one religion should be given preference over another. I’m sorry to disabuse those who want to portray the Founders as Evangelical Christians, but they just weren’t; in fact those who weren’t Deists like Jefferson were Episcopalians like Hamilton, and neither of those traditions could be described as biblically literalist about religious faith. So we need to take the Founders at their word: all religious traditions—including atheism—are absolutely equal in our national self-understanding.

On the other hand, though, as a Christian I’m deeply troubled by the knee-jerk secularism unintentionally ushered in by the First Amendment. In 1953, the late bishop Stephen Bayne wrote a book called The Optional God in which he lamented the way American culture, in not establishing any religion, made all religion a “personal” choice and thereby optional: As he says,

There is a belief, held commonly enough in our world, that religion is a side issue. We do not readily deny God’s existence . . . but we look at the possibility of God as at best a helpful supplement to the real dynamics of life. It makes no fundamental difference whether He exists or not. . . . In the words I uses as a title, God is optional. [Stephen F. Bayne, The Optional God, 1980, p. xii.]

When Bishop Bayne wrote those words he was making a case that, while God may have been optional for us as Americans, God is definitely not optional for us as Christians. He was not arguing that we lobby to put religious displays in courthouses. He was insisting that we take our faith and its implications into the public square. Putting a crèche scene in a city hall is easy compared to standing up for justice in a civic dispute.

A lot has changed since 1953. The poet Alicia Ostriker wrote a piece in which she asked last month,

Isn’t it clear that our culture is in a post-secular age? Poets—and novelists and playwrights (think Angels in America)—everywhere in America are struggling with matters of the spirit. Matters of spiritual experience, I should say, outside of churches and synagogues, outside of doctrines and dogmas. This renaissance of spirituality has nothing to do with the right wing fundamentalisms that play such a destructive part in our political life. [Poetry, February 2012, pp. 464-465]

In 1953 Bishop Bayne lamented the way the culture pays lip service to Christian values and at the same time relegates them to the private sphere. In 2012, a poet raised by atheist Jews proclaims that we are in a post-secular age. What has happened in the interim?

A lot has changed, but perhaps the most important thing missing from today’s arguments about the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn is our emerging understanding of the biblical idea of covenant. Over and over and over again, the Bible employs the idea of covenant to express the relationship of God with God’s people. The Ten Commandments are the terms of God’s covenant with Israel. They are not presented in Exodus as immutable laws given for all time. They are given as the conditions on which we are called to live if we want to be God’s people.

We’re now in the Third Sunday in Lent, and our Bible readings these Sundays have all centered around the idea of covenant. Two weeks ago we heard the story of Noah, which ends with God announcing his covenant with all creation. After the flood, God hangs his bow in the sky as a reminder to himself that he will let the world continue, even in the presence of great sin. Last week we heard the story of Abraham’s call to follow God, and the making of a covenant between God and a particular people, the Jews. Now this week we hear what happens when, in the middle of the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, God delivers the Ten Commandments as the terms of this new arrangement. God promises to be Israel’s God and to be with them in their history and experience. What God exacts for that promise is a commitment that Israel will live on God’s terms. The Ten Commandments are the conditions of the covenant that God makes with Israel. If you want to be my people, says God, then you will have to live this way.

Now there are two really interesting points here. Point one is that the transaction is a moral one. Unlike all the other gods out there, Israel’s God does not ask for elaborate rituals or sacrifices. Israel’s God asks for a commitment to living life on God’s terms—loving God, loving others. In the context of its time and place, this is a radically different set of demands. Don’t build me a monument, says Yahweh. Live thankfully, generously, and honestly with me and with each other. Those are the terms of the deal.

Point two is this: the terms of the deal are extended to those who have agreed to the covenant. The Ten Commandments are never presented as universal laws. They are presented as Israel’s laws. Like the church, Israel is a covenanted community. You are in it or out of it because you choose to be. Its truth does not pretend to be a general, universal truth. Its truth claims to be a particular, personal truth.

Here then is how I understand what is happening with the Ten Commandments. As a Christian person, as one who through Baptism has joined this covenant community, these Ten Commandments are the rules that I and my community have agreed to live by. They are absolutely binding to me. Although Jesus summarizes them in two—love God and love your neighbor—these ten precepts give shape and content and meaning to what it means to be in covenant with God and a follower of Jesus. They are my truth because the One who speaks them to me is my God. But nowhere in the Bible do I read that God gives me the right to impose my truth on someone else. God didn’t say, “Here are the 10 Commandments. Make sure the Egyptians obey them.” God said, “Here are the 10 Commandments. You obey them. You live them out, and, by your example, draw others into your fellowship.”

On this Third Sunday in Lent, we have recommitted ourselves to the Decalogue and have asked God for mercy, in the words of the old Prayer Book, to “incline our hearts to keep this law,” to “write all these thy laws in our hearts.” All we can do is proclaim and live by our truth. We cannot impose it on others. So how about this for a solution: as Americans, let’s display the Bill of Rights on the courthouse lawn. And as Christians, let’s engrave the 10 Commandments in our hearts. The Ten Commandments are our commandments because they are given to us by One whom we know to be our God. They are no less true for being ours. May we have grace to live them out in such a way that others will be drawn to our witness, so that our God may be their God, too. Amen.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Rector's Monday Message: March 5, 2012

Living With Contradictions

Last month, Kathy and I made our first (and I hope our last) visit to the Apple Store in Troy. Don’t misunderstand me: I love Apple products. At home we have two Apple laptop computers, two iPads, two iPods, an Apple TV web-streaming device, and one iPhone. We might qualify for Apple Consumers-of-the-Year. But the visit to the Apple Store disturbed me.

Part of what disturbed me was the sheer attractiveness of what they have on offer there. The walls are alive with beautiful, high resolution computer screens. Adults stand at tables playing with the computers, phones, and tablets. Children sit in comfortable chairs playing games displayed on kid-sized screens . In some ways, the Apple Store is a vision of the future: everyone isolated in their own space, connecting with devices rather than other people.

I know there’s another side to this argument: while they may seem to isolate us, these devices also help us communicate with other human beings. But the other thing that bothered me was the contradiction I observed between the glossy, hi-tech machinery on display and one of the conversations I heard as I wandered the store. Two people who were in the process of purchasing a large, expensive computer system were talking about how they were going to use this display as a way of promoting their belief in Creationism. I found it odd to hear people who deny the implications of science on the one hand but who want to live with its productions on the other. A Creationist with a iPad? The vision is a contradiction in terms.

This past month we’ve all heard a good deal about the Roman Catholic bishops’ desire not to have their institutions pay for health insurance that covers benefits (i.e. contraception) of which they disapprove. The same health insurance, of course, covers drugs like Viagra that may be taken by unmarried men. The bishops object to one benefit (for women) while allowing another (for men). Both practices would seem to violate strict Catholic teaching, yet the bishops reject one and accept the other. When they talk this way, they sound to me like those who reject science when it discusses evolution and climate change but accept it when it offers modern medicine and information technology.

Those of us who love the church should have some compassion with the contradictions with which contemporary Christian faith contends. Before we laugh too heartily at science-denying consumers of scientific devices, we should think about the contradictions implicit in our own tradition, especially the way we main line churches have made an institution out of the life and teachings of Jesus. We have taken a Gospel that is prophetic, compassionate and gracious and have embedded it in an institution that has managed, over time, to discriminate against everybody who is not white, heterosexual, and male. In trying to have it both ways, we Christians have embodied some profound and deadly contradictions ourselves.

This past week I’ve been following the publication, in England, of Richard Holloway’s autobiographical memoir, Leaving Alexandria. Holloway is the former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh. He resigned in 2000 largely because he became disillusioned and disgusted with the church after the disastrous Lambeth Conference of 1998, a moment when an international gathering of Anglican bishops condemned both the ordination of women as bishops and all expressions of homosexuality. The Lambeth Conference has no standing in Anglican polity; it is an advisory, ad hoc gathering. Nevertheless, the spectacle of Anglicanism’s bishops attacking both women and gays was too much for many, especially in first world churches. In the words of one reviewer Holloway left the church’s ministry because to him institutional Christianity stands at the center of an “intolerable tension”:

What he loves about the [Christian] narrative is its central figure, who possesses endless pity for human beings and is endlessly subversive, in preferring compassion to rules. What he came to hate about the church is its insistence on rules, which turns it to cruelty, not pity. The attitude of the church towards women and homosexuals, which Holloway in the end could stand no more, illustrates the way the supposed rules drive out love. [Mary Warnock, “Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway, Review”, The Observer, 2/18/12]

I think Richard Holloway is saying something that you and I as Christians need to hear. In a world characterized by intolerable tensions, we need acknowledge our own contradictions, repent them, let them go, and learn to embrace Jesus’s call always to value compassion over rules. Whenever we try to impose our own identity and morality on others and call ourselves Christians while we do it, we are living out Holloway’s “intolerable tension”, becoming unwitting embodiments of a contradiction in terms.

A Christian with an inflexible rule book is like a Creationist with an iPad. As we walk together through Lent toward Easter, may our shared immersion in the compassionate teaching and healing of Jesus free us both into noticing our own impossible tensions and also becoming people who consistently and faithfully do our best to stand with God against those forces that diminish and oppress God’s creatures.

Gary Hall

Homily: The Second Sunday in Lent [March 4, 2012] Christ Church Cranbrook

Lent is a season of self-examination, and so the church does things differently during Lent as a way of refocusing our attention. If you listen carefully, you’ll notice that our words are more penitential, our music less celebratory, our altar flowers more muted than during what we call “ordinary time”. In a similar way, the focus of our scripture readings shifts slightly. During the rest of the year, the Gospel is our principal Sunday reading. On Lenten Sundays, the lectionary focuses on the selection from the Old Testament.

This shift is partly just a shift in our focus and it is partly an attempt to have us take in the long haul drama of salvation. While Holy Week and Easter will revolve entirely around Jesus and his challenge to secular and religious authority, the church uses the six weeks of Lent to help us understand how Jesus’s ministry and passion derive their meaning from what comes before. Therefore in this season we move through a weekly succession of stories about God’s evolving relationship with the human community. Last week we heard the story of Noah and God’s making the sign of the rainbow as a mark of the covenant with all creation. Next week we will hear about the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Two Sundays from now we’ll experience Israel’s tribulations as they wander 40 years in the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. One week later we’ll hear Jeremiah proclaim God’s desire that the covenant be written on the human heart. Step by step, week by week, we immerse ourselves in the incremental deepening of the divine human relationship, preparing ourselves to take in the dramatic and transformative events of Holy Week and Easter in all their majesty and mystery.

Today we move from Noah to Abraham, from God’s covenant with the entire human community to God’s covenant with Israel, a people chosen for reasons known only in the divine heart. This covenant centers entirely around one family, that of Abram and Sarai, a pair of obscure Mesopotamian nomads. For no reason that we are ever let in on, God chooses this one household and tells them that they and their offspring will be the bearers of the divine promise—in the story’s words, “I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.” And not only that; God says, “And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.” Now this is a great and beautiful pair of promises—offspring and a land. But in its context it’s entirely ridiculous. Because we’ve heard this story so often, we have become dulled to this almost overpowering absurdity. Abram is 99 years old. His wife, Sarai, is 90. Nonagenarians do not routinely conceive and give birth to children. Obscure nomads do not normally take possession of arable farmland.

Abram’s name changes to Abraham, Sarai’s to Sarah. Their story comes at us out of nowhere. We meet them as if by chance. We hear that the future of a people and a world is tied up in their willingness to respond to God’s mysterious offer. We learn that the fulfillment of that promise is tied up with the almost insane idea that 90 year olds will become new parents. It is small wonder that the story ends with Abraham’s laughter:

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ [Genesis 17.17]

What interests me most about Abraham’s response is that it ends in laughter. The laugh motif relates to the name of his son, Isaac. The word Yitzhak in Hebrew means “laughter”. So there’s a bit of wordplay here. But beyond that, Abraham’s laughing response strikes me as the realest thing in the story. God has just made him an absurd promise. His laughter is the laughter of anyone who has found themselves at the conjunction of the possible and the impossible. Abraham’s laugh is a two-fold response. It is the laugh of faithfulness. It is the laugh of doubt.

This past week I’ve begun reading a new book by Pico Iyer, The Man Within My Head. Iyer is a British writer of Indian descent who grew up both in England and in California. As a kind of culturally bifurcated person, he has developed a lifelong fascination with the the novels of another British writer, Graham Greene. Like many who frequent the Episcopal Church, Greene was, in Pico Iyer’s words, “a skeptic who suddenly felt himself surrounded by mystery and realized that skepticism couldn’t answer all his questions even though he couldn’t subscribe to faith”. [Studio 360, 3/2/12] A rationalist who is also drawn to mystery, Iyer has found himself having a lifetime conversation with Graham Greene entirely within his own mind.

As I’ve made my way into this intriguing meditation on how one writer can inhabit one’s head, I hear something in that “skeptical mysticism” of the doubleness of Abraham’s laugh. I hear the hearty life affirming laugh of one who feels the boundless depth of God and the world’s abundant goodness. I hear also the rueful, sardonic laugh of one who at least partly thinks it might just be too good to be true.

A Roman Catholic, Graham Greene wrote about people--like Abraham in today’s story, like himself as he traveled, or like you and me when we’re honest with ourselves—who know the doubleness of Abraham’s laugh. We laugh with Abraham because we know both the heights to which we aspire and the depths of which we are capable. And we laugh with Abraham because we realize there’s no way out of the paradoxes of faith and doubt, hope and despair. And in realizing the persistence of paradox, we know that, fallen and compromised as we are, there is still hope for us.

Graham Greene’s greatest novel, The Power and the Glory, is about a failed priest, a fallen, drunken, fearful man who nevertheless finds himself called by God in spite of his failings and serving as an instrument of God’s purpose in dangerous times. What Greene’s great characters lack in moral elegance they make up in compassion. As Richard Holloway, former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh says of them, “There was human solidarity in weakness, fellowship in failure.” As we come to accept our own failings, we learn to forgive the failings of others. As the novel’s priest puts it, “Hate was just a failure of imagination."

Or, as Richard Holloway says, “In Greeneland, in the end, everyone is forgiven because everyone is understood.” [Richard Holloway, “My Hero: Graham Greene”, The Guardian 2/24/12]

In this morning’s Lenten Old Testament reading, Abraham is given a beautiful but absurd promise. Rather than making an institution or an ideology out of it, Abraham laughs. He laughs because it seems so impossible. But his action does not stop there. Even though it’s impossible, he obeys. After laughing, he follows. Abraham’s life exemplified the doubleness of absurdity and hope, faith and doubt. God chose Abraham for no discernible reason and invested the world’s future in him. Abraham laughed because he knew that there was nothing he could have done to deserve this incredible investment. He laughed because he was chosen in spite of himself. He laughed because he knew himself to be loved in all his fullness, even in light of his considerable failings. He laughed because he saw that if he was both fallible and lovable, then everybody else was, too.

I said at the outset that Lent is a season of self-examination. It’s a time to take stock of ourselves as we are. Last week we learned, in the Noah story, that God puts priority on loving us in all our complications before insisting on our perfection. That’s why God hangs the rainbow in the sky, as a reminder not to destroy a sinful world. Today we hear that we’re all Abraham and Sarah, people chosen by God and pushed forward by God’s hand in a divine love that is both boundless and unreasonable. On learning this, who wouldn’t laugh?

As we walk together toward Easter, let’s try to take all this in. As Richard Holloway says of what happens when we encounter the characters in Graham Greene novels, we know “somewhere inside that it was our failures that kept us human.” With Abraham and Sarah, with Pico Iyer and Graham Greene, with Jesus and his companions, with all of God’s loved creatures both within this community and without: we have solidarity in weakness, fellowship in failure. If we laugh with them, we may just be given grace to forgive others’ trespasses as we ask forgiveness for our own, to understand, finally that hate is just a failure of imagination. Amen.