Sunday, July 15, 2012

Homily: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost [July 15, 2012] All Saints Pasadena

“Going Against the Grain”

            I think I should probably re-introduce myself.  I’m Gary Hall, and I worked here for eleven years, from 1990 to 2001.  I’ve been away from All Saints now for the same number of years I was on the staff, so I’m sure a declining percentage of people here remember me.  I’m now rector of Christ Church Cranbrook, a parish in Michigan.  I come back here every summer to see if the place is still getting along without me and to receive a new infusion of progressive movement spirit.
            When you hang around with progressive movement types, one of the phrases you hear continually is “speaking truth to power”.  Today’s Gospel tells us the story of what happens when you try to do that.  If you’re John the Baptist, you get your head cut off.  Many of us who are drawn to peace and justice have—how do I put this politely?—we have big mouths.  A parishioner of mine from my Malibu days used to tell me, “My dear boy, you will never be a bishop.  You can’t help saying the first thing that comes into your head.”   So there’s speaking truth to power, and then there’s having a big mouth.  I seem to fall into both categories. I suppose that’s why I fit in so well for eleven years here at All Saints.
            The great progressive intellectual Noam Chomsky is skeptical about “speaking truth to power”.  Here’s what he says:
I don’t agree with the slogan [speak truth to power]. First of all, you don’t have to speak truth to power, because they know it already. And secondly, you don’t speak truth to anybody, that’s too arrogant. What you do is join with people and try to find the truth, so you listen to them and tell them what you think and so on, and you try to encourage people to think for themselves. –Noam Chomsky

Chomsky’s words remind me of one of the best scenes in the movie Casablanca.  It’s night at Rick’s place, and the German soldiers start singing a military drinking song.  In response, the great freedom fighter Victor Laszlo goes up to the band leader and tells him to play “La Marseillaise”.  All the French patriots sing a stirring rendition of their national anthem, drowning out the Germans.  And what does it get them? At the end of the song, Colonel Strasser tells Captain Renault to shut down the bar for good.  The patriots spoke—or rather sung—truth to power, and power did what it does.  It crushed them.
            That is very much what we see in today’s Gospel reading from Mark.  What made John the Baptist think it was a strategically good idea to criticize Herod for committing adultery with his brother’s wife?  Herod was kind of a touchy guy.  He was a puppet king of Israel serving the interests of Rome.  He thought himself the Messiah—the Jewish king who would bring back the throne of David, even if as a puppet satellite state.  So John’s message that there was another Messiah coming—Jesus, an anti-king—was not precisely calculated to win friends and influence people.  We know from the contemporary historian Josephus that Herod was already afraid that John the Baptist would lead an insurrection against him. So getting up in public and accusing a nervous king of adultery was not a smooth move.  It was like asking for “La Marseillaise” squared.
One of my favorite contemporary writers is a philosopher named Jonathan Lear, who teaches at the University of Chicago.  Lear is also a Freudian psychoanalyst, and he writes intriguingly about the connections between philosophy and psychology.  In his book Open Minded he tells the story of a dream he used to have about his name—Lear—and its connection to the Shakespeare play.   He realized that in his dreams he was not King Lear so much as he was Cordelia, Lear’s daughter who refused to tell the king what he wanted to hear and is banished for her refusal.  Jonathan Lear’s flash of insight came when he realized that Cordelia’s problem was his problem.  Here is what he says:
To identify with Cordelia is to want to be blunt, to avoid embellishment, flattery, or hypocrisy-and to want to be loved for doing just that.  This is not a set of desires which get satisfied often.  By and large, people prefer to be flattered.  They find it hard to recognize love in a blunt appraisal; and they find it even harder to reciprocate such love.  Cordelia's strategy is not the route to massive popularity. -- Jonathan Lear, Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul, p. 3
We want to tell the truth, and we want to be loved for doing it.  That was Cordelia’s problem.  That was Jonathan Lear’s problem.  That was John the Baptist’s problem.  I can’t speak for you, but I realize that often it’s my problem, too.
            So what is a prophet, or a prophetic community, to do?  We want to speak the truth, we want to hold power accountable, and we want, if possible, to avoid being beheaded. Many of the people we call saints today were those who stood up for Christianity against the oppressive claims of empire.  They were martyrs—literally “witnesses”—to the truth of the Gospel who did indeed speak truth to power.  So martyrdom—witness—is an ancient and honorable tradition in Christianity.  And there are times when we need to risk it in the service of what is right.  But I’ve been around the movement world a long time, and a lot of what we call prophecy is simply self-dramatization.  There is another ancient tradition, a more pragmatic one, a tradition that counsels working with power to achieve good ends. Of course, there are times when imperial power is intractable, when you have to stand up and demand that the band play “La Marseillaise”, even though you know they’ll shut down the bar.  But there are also times to work with power to bring about a good result for everybody.  The trick, of course, is to be able to tell the difference.
            Listen again to the last part of what Noam Chomsky says:
And secondly, you don’t speak truth to anybody, that’s too arrogant. What you do is join with people and try to find the truth, so you listen to them and tell them what you think and so on, and you try to encourage people to think for themselves.

One of the things I’ve learned as a preacher is that anybody can get up in a pulpit, point their finger at somebody, and tell them what is wrong with them.  The harder thing is to build the kind of relationships that will make for real change.
The story of John the Baptist’s execution for speaking truth to power leads me to make two points about its implications.  One point is about our national life.  The other is about our personal lives.
            First, about our national life:  if you’re anything like me, you’re already sick of the presidential election, and it’s only July.  [Am I in danger of putting All Saints’ tax-exempt status at risk here?] Speaking as both a liberal and as an American, I am increasingly troubled by the ideological polarization of our nation.  One of the insights of American Pragmatism (espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, John Dewey, Cornell West and others) is that arguing over principles will never get you anywhere.  The late philosopher Richard Rorty, a great pragmatist thinker, said,
When I first went into philosophy, I was looking for first principles. I thought that if you could get the right principles, everything else would fall into place. I was wrong. I gradually realized that it is only when things have already fallen into place that you can figure out what principles you want. A political left needs agreement on projects much more than principles.  [Richard Rorty, “First Projects, Then Principles” The Nation, December 22, 1997, pp. 18-21]

Rorty was speaking to the left here, but he might have been talking to the nation as a whole.  We Americans will never agree about principles.  Some of us will continue to believe that America is most itself when it is generous and compassionate; others will see America as primarily a home for untrammeled individual liberty and the main chance.  As a people, we will never completely agree about what America means.  But we can find common ground about what America does. As Rorty says: first projects, then principles.  I believe we in the faith community have a role that goes beyond the mere speaking of truth to power.  I believe we can be the ones who convene a national conversation that transcends ideology, a conversation about what we as Americans can do to improve the quality of life for everyone.  As Chomsky says, we can join with people to find the truth.  As Rorty says, we’ll derive new principles once we’ve worked together on projects that advance the common good.
            So my first point is aimed at us liberal, progressive Christians.  We need less to speak truth to power and more to find common ground with those we have stigmatized as our adversaries.  For the most part, they want what we want. Common projects—and maybe sharing a meal together—will take us all to a new, shared place.  So this summer, try taking a Tea Partier to lunch. But don’t be na├»ve about it.  Get them to pick up the check.
            Second:  we should hear what Chomsky and Rorty have to say in its relevance to our personal lives.  How many arguments have I been in where I wanted to be right more than I wanted to be reconciled?  Households are political communities.  The people in them may disagree about principles, but in the end they all want the same things.  I know that I have failed as a husband, as father, as a son when I have insisted on my own rightness over against the needs of the family community.  It’s one thing to end an argument by slamming the door with a great exit line.  It’s another to open yourself to the other’s point of view and make a new truth together.  First projects, then principles works as a mantra not only in the public square.  It also works at home, on the job, and in all areas of our lives.  I’ve been abstractly right and relationally wrong about as much in my life as I want to be.  Join with people to find the truth.  First projects, then principles.
The Gospel will always be countercultural.  Rome, Medieval Europe, contemporary America all fall short of God’s vision for human life.  In the same way, every family can be more loving and just.  But too often we use the countercultural nature of the Gospel as a club with which to beat each other.  Either mercy or justice, we cry.  Either compassion or freedom.  Instead of that tired drumbeat, how about this:  from now on, no more false choices.  No more speaking truth to power.  First projects, then principles.  Let’s join with each other—at home, at work, in the community--and make a new, shared truth.  Let us eat and work together to build that truth into a living reality of mutuality and justice and freedom and compassion.  And then let us have the grace and forbearance to live that new truth and walk together into the abundant life God always offers us, made real now around this table at which we dine together with each other and with Jesus.  Amen.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Homily: The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [July 1, 2012] Christ Church Cranbrook

            As do many in this community, every year Kathy and I go to Stratford, Ontario for a couple of days to see some Shakespeare plays.  We made our yearly trek this past week, and as we were driving along in the heavy morning traffic on M-59 we saw something bizarre.  It was a man, about my age, serenely riding a recumbent bicycle in the middle of all that traffic as if he were alone on a country road. I looked over and kind of admired the guy.  I, too, am a cyclist, but I tend to avoid traffic like that, or when in it I appear kind of like an anxious ferret, looking all around me for distracted or aggressive motorists.  Not this guy:  he was a real cool customer.

The literally and figuratively laid-back recumbent biker did not impress my wife, however. Kathy Hall, ever the voice of warm pastoral acceptance, called out, “Oh that’s real safe!”  And then, to as if to emphasize the point, she added, “What an idiot!”  “Oh, I don’t know,” I said.  “He seems to be enjoying himself.”  Not good enough for Kathy.  “He’s a moron! He’s going to get himself killed!” If you’ve ever wondered, now you know.  This is how pastors and their wives talk to each other when we’re away from church. But sometimes the roles are reversed.

Kathy and I never did come to a consensus about the recumbent M-59 cyclist, but both the vision of him and the interchange between us got me to thinking about safety.  As a preacher always on the lookout for metaphors and symbols in daily life (and for sermon illustrations), I saw this bike rider as a perfect image of the human condition.  We’re all kind of like someone trying to ride a bicycle through the heavy traffic of life.  We can only get through it by fostering the illusion that we’re safe, that we are immune from accident or chance or even worse.  But a dispassionate observer like my wife or God (Kathy always likes it when I compare her to the Almighty in a sermon) might see things differently.  It is in fact the case that life is full of real dangers, both to us and to those we care about.  We are all finite, mortal, fragile.  We get through our days telling ourselves otherwise, but life manages, before we’re through with it, to teach all of us one way or another that we are all vulnerable.

This lesson is in some sense what two people learn in their encounter with Jesus in today’s Gospel.  Perhaps it’s because we’re just back from Stratford, but this account, from Mark, has always struck me as a bit Shakespearean:  it’s a story within a story, a modulation between plot and subplot.  The big story, the plot, tells of the illness and raising of Jairus’s daughter.  The little story, the subplot, recounts the healing of a woman with a twelve-year flow of blood.  These two stories seem entirely unrelated, yet as in a Shakespeare play Mark has combined them because each story helps us better understand the other. 

The big story is the account of the illness and raising of Jairus’s daughter.  As Jonathan said last week, in this part of Mark’s Gospel there’s a lot of coming and going across the lake, and when Jesus returns to his home base from the other side he is approached by Jairus, a leader of the synagogue.  Jairus is presumably the kind of important man who would have had nothing to do with an itinerant healer like Jesus, but now he is desperate.  His daughter is dying.  He begs Jesus repeatedly, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live."  Jesus complies and accompanies Jairus to his house.  On the way there, we learn that the girl has died.  Jesus gets to the house (surrounded with weeping and wailing mourners) and asks, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping."  They laugh derisively, but he takes the girl by the hand, says "Little girl, get up!" and she revives. In the story’s best detail, Jesus tells them to get her something to eat.

Folded in to this story is another one, the brief account of a woman with a twelve-year hemorrhage.  Unlike Jairus, she does not approach Jesus directly.  She comes up behind him, touches his cloak, and says, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well."  She is immediately healed, but Jesus knows that something has happened.  The woman comes forward, “in fear and trembling”, and confesses that she’s the one who touched him.  Jesus replies, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."
What is going on here?  Why does Mark tell us one story wrapped around another one?
Think first about what the woman and Jairus have in common.  They are both paralyzed with fear.  Jairus fears he will lose his little girl.  The woman fears that she will die of her hemorrhage.  On one level, they are like you and me when we get a bad diagnosis.  They fear for their physical safety.  They are afraid of death.
But they have more to fear than death.  They also fear the shame of a religious purity system that told them they were unclean. The woman’s hemorrhage made her personally unclean.  Jesus’s disciples try to stop him from going to a house with a dead body because touching a dead person would make Jesus ritually unclean.  So the two main figures in these stories both face the same twin challenges.  They are afraid for their (or their child’s) life.  They are afraid of becoming outcasts because of their ritual impurity. 
So Jairus and the woman are united in fear.  But they are united in one other important way as well.  They both acknowledge their fear.  They each have gotten to a place where polite denial will no longer work for them.  Jairus breaks out of the synagogue’s purity code to reach out to an itinerant healer.  The woman dares to touch the hem of that healer’s garment.  Things are desperate enough for each of them to know they need to get help.  They move from living in the illusion of safety to an acknowledgment of their need for something else.  And when they reach out to touch that something else in the person of Jesus, they find it to be trustworthy.
What touches me so about these stories is that Jairus and the woman have been brought to the point where they can acknowledge that they are not safe.  You and I who live in communities like this one—beautiful places with good schools and lovely houses and imposing churches—people like us gravitate to neighborhoods like this because they help us maintain the illusion that we can, by our own efforts, keep ourselves and our loved ones safe from life’s chances.  We all expect cancer, substance abuse, broken relationships, and accidental death to stay outside the bounds of our gated communities.  We go through life thinking that we can keep ourselves healthy and happy and whole by means of our own will, our own efforts.  We buy into a vision of a life that is supposed to be immune from suffering and conflict and loss.
And then something happens:  an illness; the death of a parent or spouse or child.  We realize that the beautiful gated world we have made for ourselves is an illusion.  We come to the acknowledgment that we need something, some One else.  That is the moment we see in these two stories this morning, and that is a moment that happens at least once in the life of every mature person of faith.  It’s the realization that the things in which I have put my trust—my achievements, my good taste, my status—none of those things will finally save me.  It’s the realization that I have mistaken my good luck for a cosmic King’s X.  It’s the moment when I come to see that I am, like the people in the story, like poor people and sick people and prisoners and mourners—that I too am vulnerable.  It’s the moment when I reach out for something bigger and deeper and real.
 And what today’s Gospel shows us is a moment when I see that the thing I’m reaching out for is actually there. Though the things I have given myself over to have shown themselves mostly to be fake, the one thing I can finally hold on to is the hem of Jesus’s garment.  Jairus and the woman, you and I, make the journey from illusion to truth when we let go of our false sense of security and latch on to the One in whom our real safety rests.  We are all like the man riding the recumbent bicycle on M-59.  We’re vulnerable to the changes and chances of life just like everybody else.  The point of these two Gospel stories this morning is that there is something and some One real in whom we can put our trust.  When you get to the place where Jairus was, where the woman was, where all of us will eventually be, you’ll have no other choice but to reach out and grab for Jesus.
And the good news for each and all of us this morning is that when you do get there and you do reach out, Jesus, and the One he calls his Father, will be there to love and bless and heal and restore you in ways you can’t even now begin to imagine or expect.  I know it because I’ve seen it. I know it because I’ve lived it. We’re all in imminent danger.  And we’re all ultimately safe.   That’s what this whole Christian enterprise is finally about.  And that’s why we all gather now around God’s table to give thanks.  Amen.