Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Rector's Monday Message: May 28, 2012

Thoughts on Memorial Day
“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country,” said the Roman poet Horace.  In the Latin original, the phrase went, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”  This Horatian phrase was on the lips of many young European men as they went off to fight the First World War.  The realities of trench warfare turned out to be quite different from the sweet and decorous battles they had imagined.
The great English poet of that war, Wilfred Owen, took Horace’s phrase and made it the ironic title of his anti-war poem, “Dulce et decorum est.”  The poem details the horrors of trench warfare and the indignities to which battlefield soldiers are exposed. It memorably ends with these lines, addressed to someone who seemingly still thinks that 20th century war is sweet and decorous:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Memorial Day, which we observe today, had its origins during the American Civil War, the first “modern” war, which was also notable for its horrific battlefield conditions.  Decoration Day, as the holiday was first known, began when women in the South and North decorated the graves of soldiers on the last weekend in May as a time of remembrance.  Over the years, Decoration Day turned into Memorial Day and became a national holiday.  It is the day on which we rightly remember all those who have given their lives in the service of their country.
When I was rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, I used to marvel at how old the graves were in our churchyard.  The oldest were graves contained veterans of a conflict that preceded the Revolution, the French and Indian War.  Over the course of our history, Americans have been involved in numerous wars:  the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican American War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, the two Iraq Wars, and now the longest conflict in American history, the War in Afghanistan.  Young American men and women have repeatedly gone off to serve their country, and they have done so often under horrifyingly inhumane conditions.  So on Memorial Day it is important not only to remember the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for their country.  It is also essential that we remember the sacrifice of those who have endured much even as they have survived the battlefield.
Many in our congregation have experienced war.  Many more have known and lost relatives and friends in warfare. Every one of us understands the tragedy of lives cut short in battle.  We also understand the tragedy of lives broken and altered by the stresses of the kind of warfare our contemporary soldiers must now endure.
Wilfred Owen died in battle just a week before the Armistice in 1918. His poems have stood as a reminder that, given the mechanized, hi tech efficiency with which we now can kill each other, modern warfare will be exponentially ever more grisly both to participate and behold.  Our notions of heroism must evolve with the evolution of warfare.  We should correspondingly praise and thank those who engage in military service on our behalf.
If Memorial Day means anything to us as followers of Jesus, we must see it as an occasion to renew our commitment to stand and work for peace, to help build a world in which the youth of our country will be able to live the fullness of their lives in the blessings of peace.  As we celebrate this day, let us give thanks for those who have given their lives, let us honor those who continue to serve, and let us dedicate ourselves to being agents of blessing and peace.
Please join me in using this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, in whose hands are the living and the dead:  We give you thanks for all your servants who have laid down their lives in the service of our country. Grant to them your mercy and the light of your presence; and give us such a lively sense of your righteous will, that the work which you have begun in them may be perfected; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.  Amen.
Gary Hall

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Communicant, Christ Church Cranbrook [May 27, 2012]

Merry Whitsunday!  Happy Pentecost!

This Sunday is the Feast of Pentecost which is, along with Christmas and Easter, one of the three great festivals of Christian life.  Preachers often talk about Pentecost as “the Church’s birthday”, and to the extent that Pentecost ritualizes the Spirit’s descending on the gathered community, it is that.  But it’s also something more. Something great is happening at Pentecost, and it is this:  in creating the church, a community of people who gather as followers of Jesus, who open themselves to each other and the world,  God is undoing the effects of the avalanche of sin that characterized human life between Eden and the Crucifixion.  In creating the church, God has made a community where people of a variety of backgrounds, classes, races, and cultures come together in true human mutuality and oneness.  In creating the church, God has made a living, loving body of Christ empowered to spread the blessings which began in Jesus and which continue in his name.

Now this is not just fancy religious thinking.  It has real implications for you and me and our lives in the world. We live in a culture which is a monument to self-centeredness.  Our culture promises us in all kinds of ways that we can achieve total human fulfillment entirely on our own as individuals.  It proclaims that we do not need each other,that each of us can and should be entirely self-sufficient. As a friend of mine says:  the great benefit of living in an overly individualistic culture is that it offers us the opportunity of being in hell while we’re still alive.

Pentecost is deeply true in that it reminds us how God has called us each and all into a body, a community, a gathering where we can live out life as God intended it to be in Eden. Human life at its best is interconnected, and true human freedom realizes that it always stands in tension with real obligations—to God, to each other, to the world, and yes, to ourselves.  We cannot be free without love for each other.  Our independence is meaningless without justice.  When we say that “in Christ there is a new Creation,” we mean exactly that.  In the life and death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus, in the giving of the Spirit to the community which follows Jesus and gathers in his name, God is doing a new, radical, creative thing which you and I are part of.  God is beginning the world again, in and through us, and God is calling us to step into that new world of grace and joy and hope and forgiveness and love. 

Pentecost is as important as Christmas and Easter, but we rarely give it the attention it deserves.  As we gather this year, let’s give thanks that God has given us the divine presence in each other.  Merry Whitsunday!  Happy Pentecost!

Gary Hall

The Rector's Monday Message: May 21, 2012

A New Type of Criminal
This spring I have been teaching a senior Religion elective at Cranbrook/Kingswood, a course called “Ethics: The Problem of Evil”.  It’s a class of long standing in the curriculum there, taught for many years by my predecessor as Chaplain, Dave Tidwell. 
“The Problem of Evil” is a major topic in human thought.  As British philosopher/critic Terry Eagleton notes in his 2010 book, On Evil, prior to the twentieth century the problem of evil was primarily a theological topic.  Taking  as example an event like the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, in which somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 people were killed, Western religious thinkers defined evil as cosmic:  how could a good God permit so much innocent suffering in a natural disaster like a plague, earthquake, or other calamity?
In the twentieth century, the problem of evil came to be defined less as a religious problem and more a secular one.  The focusing event this time was Auschwitz, where 1.1 million people were killed between 1942 and 1945.  The question this time:  how could people we define as “human”, who share fundamental qualities and values with us, perpetrate such a massive slaughter of innocent human beings? 
I have to confess that before I read Eagleton’s book and taught this course, I did not think much about the problem of evil.  Don’t get me wrong:  I was, of course, horrified and outraged by innocent suffering on a large scale, but I never found the existence of evil in the universe and society something that shook either my faith in God or my solidarity with fellow human beings.  As God says to Job in the 38th chapter of the Book of Job, the theological problem seems to be what theologian Marilyn McCord Adams calls the “size gap” between God and me.  God is God and I am not.  The disparity between us pains both God and me.  All I can do in the face of suffering is to lament the pain of it in trust that doing so will enable God and me jointly to grieve and heal together. And as for the persistence of sin in human beings:  I have what Robert Frost called enough experience of my own personal, internal “desert places” that I should not be surprised when I encounter them in others.
The last major work we engaged in the Problem of Evil class was Hannah Arendt’s famous 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  Arendt was a noted German Jewish philosopher who emigrated to America at the start of World War II.  Adolf Eichmann was the Nazi bureaucrat put in charge of the “final solution” to “the Jewish problem”, i.e. the planned extermination of all Jews in Germany and its occupied territory. In 1960 he was captured by the Israelis in Argentina and tried in Jerusalem for “crimes against the Jewish people”.   Sent by The New Yorker to report on the trial, Arendt gradually began to become aware that in Eichmann we were seeing  what she called a “new type of criminal”.  The problem with Eichmann was not that he was an inhuman monster; the problem was that he was so “terribly and terrifyingly normal.”  She went on to say that this new type of criminal “commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing something wrong.” [Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 276]
I have found it helpful, in thinking about both Adolf Eichmann and the Lisbon Earthquake, to remember the renunciations in the Prayer Book’s service of Holy Baptism.  As part of that liturgy, the candidates (or their sponsors) renounce evil in the following interchange:
Question    Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Answer      I renounce them.
Question    Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Answer      I renounce them.
Question    Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer      I renounce them.
When we present ourselves for Baptism, we’re asked to renounce evil in three forms:  first cosmic (Satan and the spiritual forces of wickedness), next social (the evil powers of this world), and finally personal (sinful desires).  In America, we tend to think of Evil and Sin as personal attributes or shortcomings.  But long before Hannah Arendt looked at Eichmann and saw “not a monster but a clown” our tradition has understood that before evil is personal it is cosmic and social. 
I draw two implications from all this.  First:  because we are enmeshed in systems, we often do not perceive the many hidden ways in which our actions—innocent in and of themselves—can contribute to the pain or suffering of others.  So we’re guiltier than we think we are.  Second:  as guilty as we may be, we are often caught up in systems that control and govern us.  In other words, we’re more innocent than we think we are.
Teaching this course has helped me see that the problem of evil is finally not an invitation to affix blame.  The problem of evil is instead an opportunity to explore my enmeshment in systems bigger than myself, to investigate the ways I am complicit in others’ pain and suffering even when I think I’m innocent, and to lament with God the pain that causes God, them, and me.  Evil is cosmic, social, and personal in that order.  Let us dedicate ourselves to working with God to heal it in all its forms. 

Gary Hall

Homily: The Seventh Sunday of Easter [May 20, 2012] Christ Church Cranbrook

The month of May is a time of transition. We are entering the part of the calendar that greeting card companies label “Dads and Grads”.  It’s common right now to open a newspaper and see a photo of a college commencement and read an extract from a graduation address.  “Commencement”, of course, means “beginning”.  These ceremonies celebrate a double-edged kind of change. One part of life comes to an end, another one begins.  For the graduates, commencement is a time of liberation and hope.  For parents it may signal both an achievement and a loss.
In the church year, May marks another kind of transition, one that might also be characterized as a mixture of achievement and loss.  Last Thursday was Ascension Day, when the church proclaims that the risen Jesus left the world for good and ascended to be with the Father.  A week from today will be Pentecost, the day on which the church receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, understood as the continuing presence of God in, among, and with us.  For Jesus’s companions, the Ascension was something like a commencement:  Jesus has been vindicated, and he is now at God’s right hand.  But that vindication comes with a price:  he is no longer here.  They are on their own in the world, seemingly bereft of Jesus’s continued presence.
          We have a ten-day period—a stretch of time between Ascension and Pentecost--when Jesus’s companions wait to see what God will do. Jesus is gone. He has promised us that we will not be left alone, but we have no idea of who will be with us next or how. The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth called this ten-day period between Ascension and Pentecost “the significant pause”. God has promised to act, but that promise has yet to be fulfilled. We live life in the pause between promise and fulfillment. It is a time of watching and waiting, a mixture of anxiety and hope. This ten-day pause is an epitome of the life of faith—indeed of all life—itself. We all live in the gap between promise and fulfillment.
So here we are alone with each other in the world.  Our Gospel for today—from the 17th chapter of John—pictures Jesus expressing a rather negative opinion of “the world”.  Here again is part of what Jesus says as he prays to the Father on his companions’ behalf:
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. [John 17: 14-17]

The Greek word “world” used here is the word kosmos, the root of our word “cosmic”.   In Greek, kosmos has several meanings just as “world” has in English:  it can denote the universe, the earth itself, the human family.  It can also mean “the ungodly multitude” of those alienated from God and also “the whole circle of earthly goods which lure us from God.”  So the Greek word kosmos, like the English “world”, points us in two directions:  it’s the whole created order, and it’s also the shallow, false God-denying part of that order.  There are times when John’s Jesus uses “world” in its negative connotation, as in today’s Gospel.  There are times when John shows Jesus using “world” more positively, as in John 3.16, the passage often held up on placards at ballparks:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
We are here on our own in “the world”, and Jesus prays that we may be kept safe as we engage the world in all its many aspects.  And I suppose the first thing that needs saying this morning is yes, there is a lot of bad stuff out there from which we need protection. The world is full of bad values, bad ideas, and yes, even bad people.  Every one of us here has some acquaintance with all that. We make our way through that vain world as best we can, praying for God’s guidance, protection, and judgment.
But it would be a mistake—and many Christians over the centuries have made this mistake—to assume that Jesus is condemning “the world” in all its other senses.  In today’s Gospel, when Jesus says that we do not belong to the world, he is not asking that we disengage from the planet, the human community, or the created order.  Anyone who has followed Jesus’s ministry and teachings can see that he lived his life in full engagement with everyone and everything around him.  So, as we contemplate our ten-day sojourn toward Pentecost in this significant pause, the question remains:  what are we Christians to do about and with “the world”?
And here I need to suggest something that will sound sacrilegious to some and liberating to others I want to say, in the spirit in which I believe Jesus would say it, that it is in fact “the world” that has kept the Christian community honest. When we think of ourselves as the enclosed, protected, world-denying community of the saved who keep themselves clean from outside influences, we can become ingrown, and ingrown communities often turn into hothouses of injustice.  Just think of the way the Roman Catholic hierarchy has handled the priest abuse scandal.  The world rightly has a say in what we believe, do, and proclaim.  Without the world we would be lost.
Think about the great theological movements of the last 50 years:  each of them has, in a sense, been foisted on the church by “the world”.  We were quite content to be a segregated church until the Civil Rights Movement forced us to engage the sin of racism.  We were quite content to be a male-dominated church until the Women’s Movement helped us see that the presence of women in Holy Orders would lead to a life-giving renewal of the church and its ministry.  We were quite content to bless the systematic degradation of the planet (except, of course, our own manicured acres) until the environmental movement invited us to re-read both the scriptures and the tradition in the light of a theology of creation spirituality.  We have been quite content to persist in discrimination against gay and lesbian people until the emergence of an LGBT Christian community demanded its full rights as members both of church and society.  I’m sad to say this, but literally every step in the direction of hope and justice the church has taken in my lifetime has come into it from the outside.  And I’m even sadder to say that every step backward, every retreat from human justice and decency, has been led by those who want to keep us saved Christians pure and protected from “the world”. Left to our own devices, we would still be a white, straight, male-dominated denomination bent on exploitation of the earth and the human community.  “The world”—those outside us-- has opened us up to Jesus and his priorities, just as Jesus and his community opened the Temple cult to God’s priorities. The persistence of the world’s address to us, and our sometimes halting way of opening ourselves to hear and respond to that address, is an ongoing sign of God’s grace.
To say what I’ve just said is not unthinkingly to endorse the culture we live in.  There are a lot of bad ideas abroad in our world, many of them accepted at face value by otherwise thoughtful people.  That is why the church has always seen itself as both a participant in and critic of the culture it inhabits.  Christianity was critical of Roman values, of Medieval values, indeed of all forms of social, political, and economic organization.  It was critical of the Gilded Age and of both the complacent consumerism and state socialism that marked much of the twentieth century.  In any culture in which it finds itself, Christianity always stands for the poor, the weak, the outcast, the lonely, the oppressed.  It always stands against power and the forces of bigotry, hatred, and division.  The relationship between the church and the world has always been something like a dance.  They need us and we ned them. The world needs the church to remind it of the deep values of Jesus and the Gospel; the church needs the world to hold before us the rights and claims of those we would otherwise ignore. 
It is this ongoing dance, this mutual relationship between church and world that has characterized the Episcopal Church and Christ Church Cranbrook at their best.  The reason I have continued to hold up our parish relationship to Detroit arises precisely out of our call to be open to the pains and hopes of the world.  Christ Church Cranbrook has always been unique among affluent suburban churches in America.  We exist not only to care for each other.  We exist to save—and be saved by—the world.  And for us in Southeastern Michigan, the world will always mean Detroit. In this significant pause between Ascension and Pentecost, we Christians find our bearings not by huddling together but by opening our hearts and minds to the world. And here, for us, “world” has to include Detroit.
You and I inhabit a world in which God’s values do not always prevail.  We inhabit a church in which the same thing can often be said.  Only when world and church engage with each other can we truly be made open and alive to what God means and desires for us.  The older I get, the more grateful I am for the church, because its life and witness have kept me from living the meaningless, hollow kind of existence I would no doubt otherwise have led.  And the older I get, the more grateful I am for the world, that it has continually placed in front of me the pained, wounded, oppressed people I could so easily live my life ignoring.  Together, as they’ve done their dance, the church and the world have kept me—and I hope you—open to the possibilities of what the reign of God might actually look like in the here and now. 
            So here we are, together, in the church and in the world.  We are not here on our own.  God is with us, not only in here but out there.  For that presence, for both its assurance and its challenge, we proceed in the Eucharist to give thanks.  Amen.