Sunday, August 19, 2012

Homily: The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost [August 19, 2012] Christ Church Cranbrook

            What does it mean to be “wise”?
I have a priest friend who regularly sends emails that always address me as “O Wise One”.  You can hear in that greeting just the tiniest bite of irony.  Yet I think of him and his slight smirk whenever I hear the story of Solomon asking for an understanding mind. Hearing this story, I cannot help but think that Solomon manipulated God pretty well.  Because Solomon asked for wisdom and not for long life or riches, God gave him all three.  Solomon was not only wise but canny. He played the big guy. With good reason, the phrase, “the wisdom of Solomon”, is proverbial to this day.
            Anyone who has read Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will never forget the colloquy between Huck and the runaway slave Jim about this proverbial Solomonic wisdom.  As they travel down the Mississippi on a raft, Huck and Jim get into an argument about the claim that Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived. Huck affirms it, but Jim is not so sure.  He remembers the story of the two women who came to Solomon both claiming to be the mother of the same baby.  Solomon solved the dilemma by ordering that the child be cut in half.  The true mother, of course, objected to the plan, thereby proving her authenticity and gaining custody of the child.  Perhaps she played Solomon the same way Solomon played God.
            Nevertheless, Jim will have none of it.  He says,
I don’t care what the widow says, he wasn’t no wise man neither.  He had some of the dad-fetchetest ways I’ve ever seen. Do you know about the child he was going to chop in two? . . . What use is half a child?  I wouldn’t give a darn for a million of ‘em.” [Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Chapter 14]
            Huck is scandalized by Jim’s seeming inability to understand Solomon’s judgment. "But hang it, Jim, you've clean missed the point—blame it, you've missed it a thousand mile." But has Jim missed the point?  To Jim, a runaway slave separated from his family, children are precious.  Threatening to cut a child in two is about the stupidest thing he can imagine. If he could imagine such a thing, Solomon couldn’t have been all that wise.
            We tend to think of “wisdom” as a depth of character that comes from a long or virtuous life.  Jim seems to understand wisdom as an empathic ability to feel the joys and pains of others.  The Bible seems to use the word “wisdom” in an entirely different sense. What’s with all these different meanings?
            Let’s start with the conversation between Solomon and God.  Over the past several weeks we have been reading the story of King David’s rule—his ascension to power, his sin regarding Uriah and Bathsheba, the revolt of his son Absolom against him.  In today’s Old Testament reading, David has died and his son Solomon ascends the throne.  Solomon shows himself to be a pretty canny politician by travelling around the country, offering sacrifice at all the local sanctuaries, a kind of Bronze Age campaign road trip.  When God asks Solomon what he wants, Solomon is already smart enough to know not to ask for a long life or riches but for wisdom.  God responds by praising the request and granting him all three.
            The term used both by Solomon and God in this dialogue is chokmah, the Hebrew word for wisdom.  There are two words used in the Bible that we translate into English as “wisdom”: one Hebrew, the other Greek. The Greek word is sophia—the root of our word “philosopher”-- and it comes to us from the world of Western philosophy. But the wisdom that Solomon and God are talking about is Near-Eastern pragmatic, not Western, philosophical wisdom.  It is not sophia.  It is Jewish wisdom, chokmah, and Jewish wisdom is a much more practical affair.  Here is how one Old Testament scholar describes it:
The Hebrew word for wisdom (chokmah) carries no theoretical or abstract connotations; nor is it the equivalent of “thought” or “philosophy”. . . Chokmah is used often to denote technical skill, and in other contexts “experience or shrewdness” in practical and political affairs.  [Harvey H. Guthrie, Jr., Israel’s Sacred Songs, p. 171]
            Remember that Solomon has just become a king, and the first thing he’s done in his new role is make strategically important appearances at the holy places in his new realm. He doesn’t particularly want philosophical, reflective wisdom.  What he wants is the skills to do his job, to run his country.  So when Solomon asks for wisdom, and when God grants it to him, what they’re talking about is chokmah, practical shrewdness in managing human affairs.  He wants to be able to navigate the rapids of human relationships, politics, and motivations.  He wants to be able to hold his own in his dealings with other people.
            In this as in so many other ways, the Bible and the faith made real in it are essentially pragmatic.  The Bible is a book about God being known in the stuff of human life and relationships.  It is not idealistic or particularly pious about how human beings behave.  Again and again, God’s work gets done through the complex human matrix of double dealing, bad faith, and aggression.  The miraculous aspect of biblical faith, if there is one, consists in God’s consistent ability to bring love out of hate, goodness out of evil, life out of death.  Today, when people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, I know what they’re saying but I think they’ve got it exactly backwards.  The Bible—and biblical faith—is religious but not particularly spiritual. It understands that there is a decorum to the relationship of people with God, but it is not at all Romantic about it. Solomon and God read each other like a couple of old men playing gin rummy. Each knows what the other is up to.  But they find a way to go forward together because they’re not at all deluded about what’s really going on.
            This morning we said, in Psalm 111, one of the most familiar sayings in scripture:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom [chokmah]; *
     those who act accordingly have a good understanding. [Psalm 111:10] 
From the Bible’s point of view, from Christianity’s point of view, real wisdom begins in an orientation toward God.  Because wisdom is finally about relationship, it appropriately starts with a stance toward God.  You cannot be wise relative to your fellow human beings if you are not first wise toward God.  And you cannot get wise with God casually.  Just as a human relationship takes care and nurture, so a relationship with God needs continual attention.  That’s why people like me talk so much from pulpits like this urging coming to church.  Sure, I want you here so that our numbers look good.  But more than that, I want you here because this is a focused way for God to get your attention.  I don’t doubt that you can meet God on the golf course. But I know that, on the golf course, you’re thinking more about your swing than about the Deity. And while that may be prayerful thinking—God help me not to slice or hook here!—in the moment the ball’s flight and not God are at the center of your attention.  If you want a relationship with God you’ve got to plan to spend some time together.  And the long experience of Christians, Jews, and Muslims is that regular corporate and individual prayer is the only reliable way to do that.
I think that the connection between wisdom and developing a relationship with God is what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel this morning:
"I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." [John 6:51]

This “bread of life” discourse takes up several weeks of our Gospel readings this summer, and because it’s a complex passage there are many smart, ingenious, sophisticated things to be said about it.  But in the terms we’ve been thinking in this morning, Jesus’s talk about the bread of life says something profound to each of us about where real wisdom—real chokmah, real skill in navigating the rapids of life—can be found. 
Jesus is the bread of life.  That is true both literally and figuratively.  Jesus is the bread of life literally because the Eucharist, the bread and wine of thanksgiving, is the ongoing sustenance we need for the work of relating to each other and the world.  If you want to get to know someone, have a meal with them.  When we gather together to share the bread and wine of communion, we are dining not only with each other but with Jesus and God.  Over the course of a lifetime, we become familiar with each other.  Jesus is the bread of life literally because as we eat this bread we become more sensitive and attuned to what God is up to.  We can read God just as Solomon could when he asked for wisdom.
And Jesus is the bread of life figuratively.  Think about how he lived.  He gathered people uncritically and generously around his table.  He healed and taught, blessed and forgave.  Living as Jesus lived—simply and courageously, with grace and compassion—this is real living as God intended it.  Living as Jesus lived is finally what human life and human wisdom are all about.  If you want to be wise in the Bible’s sense of that word, you don’t need to read more books or live to be 150.  All you need to do is to come to church, say your prayers, and keep your eyes on Jesus.  He is the bread of life, and the nourishment of this bread is real wisdom.  And as Solomon knew, once you have that you really have everything else, as well.  Amen.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Homily: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [August 5, 2012] Christ Church Cranbrook

            This morning’s Old Testament reading—the story of King David and the prophet Nathan--makes me think of James Joyce’s great short story, “The Dead”. Without retelling the plot in detail, “The Dead” shows us a man named Gabriel Conroy who, over the course of the story, is allowed to see into himself.  Late in the evening after a party, Gabriel learns something new about his wife, Gretta:  when she was a young woman, a bedridden boy, Michael Furey, loved her so deeply that he got up from his sickbed and walked miles to her house and stood in the rain outside her window the night before she was being sent away to school.  He died within the wee
Gabriel has lived his whole married life with Gretta not knowing that story. At the very end of “The Dead” Gabriel realizes that he has never really known his wife or himself.  He has lived his life emotionally disconnected from other people and his own feelings. When he hears this story of young love, he is opened to a new vision of his wife, himself, and the ultimate connection of all people.  As Joyce describes it,
Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
In this one moment, Gabriel sees both his own selfishness and his ultimate connection to other people.  The power of this sudden realization (Joyce called it an “epiphany”) is similar to what we see in the story of David the king and Nathan the prophet in this morning’s Old Testament reading.  If you were in church last week, you heard the first part of the story.  David is so attracted to the woman Bathsheba that he sends her husband to certain death in battle, his aim being to claim and marry Bathsheba when she is widowed. David’s plan succeeds, and Bathsheba becomes his wife.
In today’s reading, the prophet Nathan comes to David and tells him an allegorical version of his own story.  Instead of using one of his many lambs to feed a traveler he wants to entertain, a rich man takes the one, precious lamb belonging to a poor man.  David hears this tale and is enraged. He says, “The man who has done this deserves to die!”  Nathan says, “You are the man!”
In an instant David realizes the extent of his own wickedness and sin. "I have sinned against the LORD." In the coming weeks, we will hear of the turmoil that descends on David’s family as a result of this selfish act.  But for the moment, let’s stay with depth of David’s sudden view into himself.  Like Gabriel Conroy in Joyce’s story, David has a flash of insight.  He sees himself as he is.  He doesn’t particularly like what he sees.  But there is grace in this revelation.  He can take it in, and because he can take it in he is able to grow and change.
The story of David the King and Nathan the prophet has much to say to us this morning.  I would like to talk with you about it in two of its aspects:  as a personal story of self-understanding, and as a parable of the relation between the faith community and our public life.
As many of you know, the big news this week for the Halls is that Kathy and I will be leaving here next month to move to Washington where I’ve been called as the Dean of Washington National Cathedral.  This has been a surprising piece of news to many, especially as we’ve been here not quite three years.  The responses have been all over the place:  congratulatory, sad, angry, even cynical.  I certainly understand the range of those feelings.  When we came here in late 2009 we were sure that this would be my last job and we’d be here for a good while. 
I have to tell you that I did not go after the position at the Cathedral.  When they asked if I’d be a candidate, my first thought was, “I’m very happy where I am.  I don’t need to do this.”  But as I engaged the search process, it became clear to me that this was something I needed to do.  When I compared the Cathedral’s needs and my gifts, I realized that I have a particular set of skills and experience that the Cathedral needs at this moment in its history.  And because Washington National Cathedral is the public face of the Episcopal Church in America, its recovery from last year’s earthquake and its flourishing as the nation’s church is important work on behalf of the whole church.
The point here is, that like David and like Gabriel I have gone through a time when I have had to look inside, where God has shown me some aspects of myself.  I’ve had to wrestle with the tension between humility and ambition. We all have moments like that. The first idea this morning relates to David’s aha! moment.  “You are the man!” "I have sinned against the LORD."  A big part of what God does in our lives over time is help us mature in the faith to the point where we can accept and acknowledge ourselves as we are.  The monk and writer Thomas Merton defined salvation as claiming our unique identity, living as one’s authentic self.  The longer I’m around, the more I agree with him.

One way to understand sin is to see it as a kind of selfishness.  Another way to understand it is as a form of self-hatred.  We tend to think we are good or loveable or holy only insofar as we line ourselves up against an idealized set of criteria.  As Merton shows us, one deep Gospel truth is that all people, all things, are good in and of themselves.  We get into trouble when we distrust that, when we think we have to be someone or something other than who and what we truly are.  God became human in a real, specific person, Jesus of Nazareth.  By so doing, God blessed each of us in our uniqueness and showed us that living faithful to the logic of our lives as Jesus did is the only thing that ultimately matters about being human.
There’s a second idea in this David-Nathan story, too, and it relates to the work I am going next to do.  Israel was always suspicious of kings.  So as the role of king arose so did the role of prophet.  For every king in Israel there was also a prophet, a person called and appointed to remind the king, both personally and socially, of God’s values.
Now I’m not so bold as to think of myself as Nathan to Obama’s or Romney’s David.  But I do believe that we are at a point in America where the faith community must assert its role as the prophetic community reminding our divided and dysfunctional leaders of God’s values as they relate to our public life.  This is not to be confused with a personal “speaking truth to power”, a phrase I have always disliked.  (As Noam Chomsky says, power already knows the truth and they certainly don’t want to hear it from you.)  It’s not speaking to anybody.  It’s speaking with them.  I believe that the faith community—Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus—I believe the faith community can reassert its relevance in the 21st century by convening a conversation among the polarized and divided constituencies of our national life.  The aim of this conversation is to find common ground for shared work that will advance the common good. Common ground for the common good united in common prayer is a very Anglican way to see the relation of faith and politics.
We are all part of something bigger than ourselves.  From the Puritans to the Civil Rights movement, from the Great Awakening to the Moral Majority, Progressive and Conservative Americans have always seen a religious dimension to our national life.  We in the religious community have retreated of late from our historical role not only as the nation’s conscience but as the people who can stand with those on both sides of the divide and pull them together in the service of a more just, compassionate, and free society.  Nathan’s ministry to David in today’s Old Testament passage reminds us that you and I, as members of this church and as people of faith, are called to be the voice of God’s values in a broken world.
This morning, I ask that you think of yourself as someone God loves enough to tell the truth to, and that you can come from that revelation into empowered to bring your faith into the world.  God loves you in the places you don’t even know about and accept.  God loves other people that way, too. God calls all of us to be agents of love, justice, healing and hope in the world.  God calls all of us to see that the truest thing about all of us is our connection to each other and to God, the source and ground of our being.
It’s all finally about self-acceptance and connection.  That’s what Jesus modeled for us.  That’s how we can live. Here is how James Joyce describes what goes through Gabriel Conroy’s mind at the end of his story, “The Dead”:
Snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills . . . It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. [James Joyce, “The Dead”, Dubliners]

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Op-Ed Article: Washington Post [August 1, 2012]

Washington National Cathedral dean: Talking about the Episcopalian identity crisis
By Rev. Gary Hal
August 1, 2012

Followers of recent developments in the Episcopal Church have felt called to opine about the state, health and future of the church. As the person selected to be the next dean of Washington National Cathedral, it’s fitting that I weigh in.

The Episcopal Church just completed its 77th General Convention in mid-July. The biggest news to come from Indianapolis: After years of study, the church approved a rite for the blessing of same-gender relationships that will be available across the denomination next January.  

So much for the big news from Indianapolis. Other important things happened there as well, however. Most significantly from my perspective, the church actually began talking about the institutional and cultural factors impacting church membership and attendance. The facts are striking. All mainline (so-called liberal and conservative) denominations areexperiencing sharp declines in every marker of institutional vitality: not only membership and attendance, but giving and new church start-ups as well. 

Everyone with an agenda wants to spin these numbers in the service of an ideology. Those who call themselves “traditionalists” claim that church attendance will rise once we return to the high Christendom establishment ways of doing theology and worship. The more progressive types claim that we are facing a crisis of relevance and that only a bolder social profile will draw the unchurched to us in droves.

While I tend toward the progressive side in this controversy, I am not persuaded by either analysis. My own sense is that we face a crisis of credibility. For those especially under 40, the Episcopal Church (and its companion churches and faith traditions) no longer seems a credible place in which to engage God, learn to pray or to give ourselves in ministry. We seem, to those outside us, exclusive and opaque.
Those of us who love the traditions (and habits) of institutional Christianity might feel somewhat wounded by the seeming disinterest in the practices we have come to live by. But if the Episcopal Church is to thrive in the 21st century, it must do three things. It must develop a clear, missional identity. It must project that identity outward and invite people into it. And it must take seriously the needs and concerns of those who come toward us and adapt to the new life and energy they bring.
Does that mean that we will no longer continue to worship in our stately Anglican ways? Of course not. But it does mean that we will need to find new modes of liturgical, musical, and theological expression to complement the great traditional strengths we already have. And this is not new behavior for Anglicans. Queen Elizabeth I forged a pragmatic consensus between Catholics and Protestants in 1559. Bishop William White of Pennsylvania led the first General Convention of the Episcopal Church to a uniquely American way of governance in 1789. The church opened itself up to the sacramental ministries of women bishops, priests and deacons in 1976. We have always been a pragmatic, evolving tradition.

Washington National Cathedral has been thinking about and studying a creative and faithful response to current realities for several years, and its leadership has developed a four-point strategic plan to help it face into the 21st century with vibrancy and hope. The cathedral will continue to be the nation’s church, a place where Americans come together to celebrate and to mourn. It will continue to be a sacred space characterized by beautiful music and liturgy and the continued preservation of an architectural gem. It will increasingly serve as the cathedral for the Diocese and city of Washington, working with congregations and community leaders to reflect the breadth of the area’s diversity. And it will expand its role as a convener of conversations and developer of projects concerning our national and interfaith life. 

The leaders of Washington National Cathedral, in concert with Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, have worked hard to envision a new way forward in worship, ministry and program for this unique faith community. I am honored and excited to join them in work that will help get us closer in solving the church’s identity crisis and strengthen the Cathedral’s national mission.

The Rev. Canon Gary R. Hall is rector of Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and has been selected as the 10th dean of Washington National Cathedral.