Sunday, June 10, 2012

Homily: The Second Sunday after Pentecost [June 10, 2012] Christ Church Cranbrook

            One of the arguments for regular, repeated reading of the Bible is the way you keep coming across sayings and phrases you’d swear you’d never heard or seen before.  This morning’s Gospel—Mark’s account of Jesus’s family’s attempts to restrain him and the ensuing uproar about where his power comes from—this is a passage I have preached on at least a dozen times over the course of my career.  As I sat down to work on today’s sermon, I thought I had read and talked about this bit of scripture as much as I could and would not be able to find anything new in it. 
            Then, as I read and reflected on it, I discovered this saying of Jesus that I had never really taken in before:
But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.—Mark 3.27
When I began to think about this saying, it troubled me.  What does it have to do with anything that has come before it?  In these early chapters of Mark’s Gospel, the Jesus movement has really taken off.  As he goes around Galilee preaching, teaching, healing, and casting out demons, the crowds keep coming toward Jesus for more.  He appoints the 12 apostles to help him do his work.  Still the crowds keep coming.  In the Gospel for today, even more people have besieged him for help.  His family comes to restrain him, thinking that he is out of his mind.  The scribes come up from the Jerusalem home office and accuse Jesus of being in league with the Devil. They say, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons."
What interests me today is the nugget he slips in here in the middle of all this, a little gem of a saying I had previously overlooked:
But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.—Mark 3.27
Who is the strong man here?  And who is the one who can tie him up and plunder his house? What is going on?
As Jesus begins his ministry in Mark’s Gospel, the first words we hear from him are these: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” [Mark 1.15] In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has really only one message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” In this political season, we might call him a “one-issue candidate”. 
Jesus used the phrase “kingdom of God” as a way to describe what was happening all around him.  For Jesus, the kingdom of God is a space or place or zone where all is as God intended it to be:  the sick become well, the poor are fed, the mighty are cast down, demons are cast out.  Wherever Jesus is, God’s kingdom is, too.  Normally, we live our lives in the kingdom of this world:  for Jesus that kingdom was ruled by Caesar, for the Jews it was ruled by Beelzebul, the prince of demons. The whole point of Jesus’s ministry is the proclamation of the kingdom of God.  It is at hand!  Caesar’s days, Beelzebul’s days, are numbered.  The kingdom of this world keeps us oppressed and depressed. The kingdom of God liberates us.  People are getting healthy, compassionate, and joyful. What’s beginning in Jesus will not be stopped until it frees and transforms the whole world.
Now that’s good or bad news depending on where you stand in relation to it.  If you’re poor, sick, oppressed, or lonely, the kingdom of God is good, freeing news.  But if you’re on Caesar’s or Beelzebul’s team, or if their name is on your paycheck, then it’s very bad news indeed.  You’ll have to find another gig.  Those in league with life’s oppressive forces might find the promise of liberation somewhat threatening.  Hence the resistance to Jesus from the establishment.  Hence the confusion about Jesus even in his own family.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The point, at least for me, is this:  those who live out and enact God’s kingdom are God’s true messengers.  Those who stand in opposition to God’s kingdom are, perhaps unknowingly, in the service of Caesar or Beelzebul.  Hence the saying about the strong man.  “No one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man.”  Caesar is the strong man.  Beelzebul is the strong man.  Jesus is the seemingly weak man who can confound the strong man.  He has knotted Caesar and Beelzebul up in chains of their own making.  By living a compassionate, joyful life, by spreading health and justice, by casting out demons, Jesus is using the powers of evil against themselves. 
As I’ve thought about this passage this past week, I’ve done so against the backdrop of what, for me, has been a pretty ugly story:  the attack the Vatican is making on a major group of American Catholic nuns, the Leadership Group of Women Religious.  Through a group of theological thought police, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican has charged American nuns with spending too much time on the issues of poverty and economic justice and not enough condemning abortion and same-sex marriage. This past week they condemned a book by an American nun who is also a world-class scholar.  The book is Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, and the scholar is Sister Margaret Farley, a 77-year-old professor emerita at Yale Divinity School and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.  The ironies in all this would be funny if they weren’t so tragic. As Maureen Dowd said in her column last week:
The denunciation of Sister Farley’s book is based on the fact that she deals with the modern world as it is. She refuses to fall in line with a Vatican rigidly clinging to an inbred, illusory world where men rule with no backtalk from women, gays are deviants, the divorced can’t remarry, men and women can’t use contraception, masturbation is a grave disorder and celibacy is enshrined, even as a global pedophilia scandal rages. [Maureen Dowd, “Is Pleasure a Sin?” NY Times 6/6/2012]
If I can name any group of people in the world who do Jesus’s work on earth, it is women religious, the nuns.  If I can name any group of people who both announce and enact the kingdom of God on earth, it is the nuns.  They give themselves sacrificially, they live joyfully, they bring healing and grace and hope to blighted areas that you and I would never dare even visit ourselves, let alone live in.  And for all that they find themselves upbraided by their hierarchy, just as Jesus was upbraided by the scribes.  The nuns of America are casting out demons in their own way here, among us, in the 21st century.  Jesus did that in his day and was misunderstood by his family and understood all too well by the religious and political elite.  He was the one binding the strong man in his day.  Nuns are doing that work in ours.
The poet William Blake said of the great John Milton regarding Paradise Lost that Milton “was of the Devil’s party without knowing it”.  Christianity is finally about announcing and enacting the kingdom of God.  Oppressive systems want to make Christianity into a set of ideas and then define a person’s orthodoxy by their assent to or refusal of those ideas. Imperial hierarchies tend to think the Christian’s job is to become the strong man.  From the Gospel point of view, from the nuns’ point of view, the Christian’s job is to help Jesus bind the strong man. Christianity is not about the exercise of power.  It is about how we treat people. Not strong or famous people.  It’s about how we treat weak and powerless people. Anyone can suck up to the strong man.  Only a real Christian can confound and bind him.
What’s true for the Roman Catholics, of course, is true for us.  A true Christian is someone who does today the work that Jesus did then.  A true Christian casts out the demons of hate and fear.  A true Christian is an agent of healing and blessing and hope.  A true Christian is compassionate and joyful.  There are many angry, judgmental, hateful people abroad today who call themselves Christians and presume to tell the rest of us what real Christians ought to think and believe.  I say, with Blake, that they are of the Devil’s party without knowing it.  I say, with Jesus, that the kingdom of God is at hand.  The strong man is being bound by all kinds of people—even and especially by faithful women religious who bring good news to the poor, and also by countless others who seek to make life better for all those with whom they come into contact.  Doing that, and perhaps only that, is the church’s real business. Don’t confuse what some people say they believe with how they actually behave.  And don’t forget that even Jesus’s relatives thought he was crazy.
Sometimes we don’t recognize Jesus, even when he is right there in front of us.  Look around you. Even now, the pains and griefs of the world are being borne by those who sense the breaking in upon us of a new and hopeful age. Let us support them, thank them, and strive to be like them.“ The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Amen.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Rector's Monday Message: June 4, 2012

Table or Altar?

At the east end of Christ Church stands a beautiful wooden piece of furniture, usually decorated with a cross, flowers, a fair linen, and a silk frontal.  Some people call this structure an altar.  Some call it a table. The longer I am in the church, the more I see this choice of names as fundamental to understanding what it is we do when we gather together as the church.

I was raised to call this structure the altar. It was the place where the priest stood and supplicated God on the people’s behalf.  The idea of an altar is one with a long history in Christianity and Judaism, not to mention polytheistic religions. In the cult of the Jerusalem Temple, people gained entry to the building by bringing an animal to sacrifice.  When the early church began as a Jewish movement, it understood Jesus’s death much in the way Judaism had understood Temple sacrifice.  God was pictured as a wrathful, vengeful deity who needed to be “propitiated” (in the words of the old Prayer Book) or placated by the sacrifice of an animal or, in Jesus’s case, a human being. 

To think of the central edifice of Christian worship as an altar is to say something about God and about us.  A theology based on sacrifice is one that holds up purity as both the goal of human life and as something finally unattainable by imperfect human beings.  Jesus was a once-for-all sacrifice for human sin.  Nothing human beings can do will ever deserve such a transaction. Since we can never be fully pure, we need regularly to make a sacrificial offering at God’s altar as a way of asking for God’s continual mercy and forgiveness.

That, essentially, is the altar theology, and there is much to recommend it.  It takes our weakness and finitude seriously.  It represents the “size gap” between God and us dramatically.  It honors my need to worship the One at the center of creation with reverence and dignity. But this theology has drawbacks, too.  It pictures God as a divine monarch, and it makes my relationship with God very much like that of a subject petitioning a stern (but forgiving) king.  It assumes that the central dynamic between God and me is based primarily on power.

As a complement to the altar theology, there is another way to think of this piece of furniture at the east end of the church.  Rather than seeing it as an edifice on which to enact a ritual sacrifice (even one of “praise and thanksgiving”), we might, following Jesus’s lead in the Gospels, think of it as a table. 

Jesus spent a lot of his time in table fellowship.  He gathered people inclusively, generously, compassionately for meals at his table.  On the night before he died he gathered his companions and told them to eat bread and wine together in his memory until he comes again.  The ritual that Jesus instituted—the Eucharist—was really a meal.  And in making a meal the central act of Christian worship, Jesus was suggesting that fellowship with God and other people is all about mutuality, sharing, hospitality, and grace. 

It is significant that the Book of Common Prayer in all its iterations—1549, 1552, 1662, 1789, 1892, 1928, 1979—has consistently used the word “table” to name the place where this ritual meal takes place.  Most of the time it’s called “the Table”.  Sometimes it’s named “The Lord’s Table”.  In the most recent prayer book it’s called “the Holy Table”.  As far as I can tell by a quick perusal of all the prayer books, the Book of Common Prayer never uses the word “altar” in reference to the Lord’s Holy Table.  “Altar” is a word that came into common usage in our church during the 19th century Oxford Movement.  In its time it was an important term that recalled us of the seriousness and transcendence of the Eucharistic liturgy.  But its use has snuck into our common consciousness in such a way that we have become disconnected from the basic, grounded humanness of what we are doing when we gather together for Communion.

When the early Christians proclaimed that Jesus was present with them in the Eucharist, they weren’t talking about the transubstantiation of the bread and wine.  What they meant was that, when they gathered together around the Lord’s Table to give thanks, Jesus was present with them in the room.  As the great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker said, the Eucharist is about the transformation of persons, not substances.  Holy Communion is not a magic act performed in a royal temple.  It is a meal in which we experience God’s presence among and with us as we break bread and drink wine with each other.

To see Communion this way may, for some, diminish its mystery and holiness.  Perhaps.  But from my perspective, the invitation to dine with Jesus and each other magnifies the depth and power of what we are doing together as we gather at the table.  God values us enough to gather us as guests at Jesus’s table.  God gathers us without reference to class, social, racial, ethnic, sexual, or ideological status or orientation.  The inclusiveness of the invitation is an indication of the kind of God we’re dealing with in Jesus.  Everyone is welcome. Everyone is accepted. Everyone is loved.

Summer is a time when many of us will have occasion for a variety of meals in a range of settings.  As you gather at your various tables this summer, try to see them as Eucharistic meals in which, when two or three are gathered together, Jesus is present, too.  Let the tables at which we gather in this season be Holy Tables, the Lord’s Tables. The love and welcome we offer and experience are expressions of the ultimate love behind what God in Jesus is all about. This experience of table fellowship is (or should be) what we know in our churchgoing as well.

And, of course:  wherever you are this summer, don’t forget to go to church!
Gary Hall

With this issue, “The Rector’s Monday Message” goes on summer hiatus until Homecoming in September.  The next issue will appear on Monday, September 10. 

Homily: June 3, 2012 [Trinity Sunday] Christ Church Cranbrook

            There are many intriguing news stories abroad these days, but the one that interests me the most right now concerns the scandal of secret Vatican documents allegedly stolen and copied by Paolo Gabriele, the Pope’s butler.  The heart of the scandal involves mismanagement of the Vatican bank, including charges of malfeasance and cronyism.  But to me perhaps the greatest mystery is this:  the Pope has a butler?  Really?
            If the Pope has a butler, I ask myself, shouldn’t all Christian clergy have butlers?  More to the point, shouldn’t I have a butler? Once I open myself to these questions, all kinds of other queries cascade into my mind.  If I had a butler, what would he do?  I don’t have any secret correspondence, so there’d be no Top Secret documents for him to steal and photocopy.  And Christ Church Cranbrook doesn’t have a bank, so the only cronyism he could uncover might involve sweetheart deals around the treats at Vacation Bible School.  Where, precisely, do all those Goldfish and Graham crackers really come from?  Are the fruit punch providers getting kickbacks?
            Questions and mysteries abound.  Today is Trinity Sunday, the day I have always called “the preacher’s graveyard”.  Everybody has questions about the Trinity, and the mistake that many preachers make is to try to answer them in a fifteen-minute sermon.  As I used to say when I taught seminary students, “It took the early church 400 years to develop this doctrine.  Do you think you can make sense of it in a sound bite?”
The convergence of the papal butler banking scandal and Trinity Sunday suggests that many—perhaps most—of us come to church with big questions on our minds.   In this we are not alone.  Today’s Gospel [John 3: 1-17] tells us the story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee who comes to Jesus by night with his questions.  Jesus tells him, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus replies, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”  Jesus responds, “You must be born from above. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  In a fit of exasperation so violent you can hear it rise from the page, Nicodemus asks, “‘How can these things be?”
            How can these things be? When you and I think about the big religious questions—the Holy Trinity, the meaning of suffering, the persistence of evil and injustice in the world, life after death—Nicodemus speaks for us. How can these things be?  Jesus has told him he must be born again from above, by water and the Holy Spirit.  Nicodemus is flummoxed, as frankly you and I would be flummoxed, too. How can these things be?
            In some sense, the life of faith is offered to us as an invitation to step into a mystery.  It’s very much like the experience of going to a museum or gallery and looking at abstract paintings or contemporary works of art.  Whenever I go to a big museum show, I always notice the people who rent the audio guides.  They amble from point to point holding the devices to their ears.  They are looking at a painting and trying to make sense of it by listening to what an intelligent person says about it.  The problem, though, is that the primary thing about the painting is the experience of looking at it.  When you’ve got the audio guide to your head, you’re in danger of confusing someone else’s experience of the painting for your own.  I say, turn off the audio guide and look at the picture.
            You and I are all products of Western culture and its inheritance of rationalism.  A painting, like a poem or any other work of art, is not primarily a cognitive, mental experience.  A work of art is an invitation into a new way of being or seeing or hearing.  One of my favorite writers, the great Flannery O’Connor, says that most of us approach art “as if it were a problem in algebra.  Find x.” O’Connor believes that we regularly mistake the process of thinking about something for the experience of the thing itself. She goes on to say this:
Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction. [Flannery O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”]

Flannery O’Connor is talking about fiction here, but she could be talking about visual art or theology.  A priest scholar friend of mine has called this way of looking at religious problems, “the meaning heresy”.  What he means is that, since the Reformation and the Enlightenment, we Western people have tended to think that the most important thing about something is what it “means” as a mental experience.  People walk around art museums listening to curators talk on audio guides rather than looking at the pictures.  Readers pull apart stories solving for x rather than taking in the story as an emotional, mental, physical event.  Churchgoers take the bread and wine of communion and worry that they’re not “getting it” correctly because they don’t know precisely what the Eucharist is supposed to “mean”.
            When we put the problem this way, our friend Nicodemus doesn’t seem so different from you and me.  Nicodemus is in the grips of an early version of the meaning heresy.  He goes to Jesus by night, puzzled by what Jesus “means”.  Jesus replies not with an intellectual discourse but by talking about being born from above.  A similar interaction occurs in Matthew’s Gospel. John the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus and ask him if he’s the one they’re waiting for.  He replies,
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. [Matthew 11. 4-5]

Jesus answers John’s disciples the same way he answers Nicodemus.  Christianity is not an idea.  It is an event, an experience, a relationship. Nicodemus and John’s disciples are looking for meaning.  Jesus gives them life.  
            When I read these stories I see something of myself.  As an educated Western person I so much want God to be a manageable, explainable, intellectual concept that I can take hold of and understand.  That I can’t quite understand God frustrates me, because I have been raised to expect that hard mental work will unlock all secrets.  But God’s mystery refuses to yield even to my exhaustive attempts to make sense of it.  As Saint Augustine said,”Since it is God we are speaking of, you do not understand it.  If you could understand it, it would not be God.” [Sermons 117.5]  
Today, Trinity Sunday, is the first Sunday after Pentecost.  By honoring the Trinity on the Sunday after the Holy Spirit comes, the church is saying that the first gift of the Spirit to the church is the revelation that we know God in three modes:  as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, as source of being, personal savior, and ongoing presence among us.  But the main point, if we need one this Sunday, is this:  the doctrine of the Trinity is a gift. It’s not an intellectual question or a problem to be solved.  It is an invitation to know and experience God not just as someone “out there” but as someone among us, “in here”.
            People go to museums and often come away having heard someone else’s ideas about the artworks rather than having entered the experience the painting or sculpture offered.  People read books the same way.  Nicodemus went to Jesus asking for an executive summary and was offered instead a new life, an invitation to be born again from above. Many people come to church thinking that what a preacher says about what we’re doing together is the most important thing about it.  As James Thurber once said, "Leave your mind alone".  Even people like me who think they understand the Trinity don't really understand it.  It's a mystery and a gift.  Like a beautiful painting, a poem, a symphony, or a dance, the Trinity is something we're invited to experience rather than interpret. It’s not an idea.  It’s a new way of being.
            The Trinity, like the Eucharist, is a gift.  In this gift, God offers you a new way of living and being.  Don’t mistake what it means for what it is.  It’s God we’re talking about, and if you think you understand it, then it isn’t God.  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it but you don’t know where it comes from.  We are all here, together, in the presence of a deep and wonderful mystery.  Don’t let your intelligence get in the way of it. Receive it as God’s gift. Step into it.  Let it embrace and transform you.  Doing that, for this morning at least, will be enough.  Amen.