Sunday, May 20, 2012

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.

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