Saturday, September 15, 2012

Homily: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [September 16, 2012] Christ Church Cranbrook

            There is a Greek proverb: nothing is more permanent than the temporary. I have thought a lot about this saying recently, especially since Kathy and I have spent the last several days sorting, packing, and clearing out the rectory for the move to Washington. Nothing is more permanent than the temporary. We think things are going to stay the way they are forever.  And then, of course, they don’t.
One of the most temporary things of all is the effect one person has on an institution.  It always amazes me that a year or so after I leave a place, I come back to discover that they’re still managing to go on without me.  How can that be?  When you’re deeply immersed in the life of a community, you can’t imagine it continuing without you.  And then, of course, it does.  As Jonathan Sams has said more than once, all life is a preparation for leaving it.  As unthinkable to me as it might be this morning, Christ Church Cranbrook will go on without me when I leave.  Saint Aidan’s, Malibu, All Saints Pasadena, the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, all have managed to face each new day without me.  Heck, Washington National Cathedral has managed to go on without me for 105 years.  And of course, you know what’s next:  the world will be able to go on without me when I die.  The older I get, the more I hear that as good news and not bad.  It really isn’t all about me.  It’s about God’s purpose, which goes forward with and without us.  That thought is ever more comforting to me, especially at partings.
Legacies are funny things. I remember, during my first stay here, that Jerry McMechan organized the parish history around the tenures of the then four rectors:  the Marquis years, the Cadigan years, the Dewitt years, the O’Grady years. One of the quirks of my professional life is that I’ve actually known 5 of my six predecessors here. Each one of them faced challenges.  Each one of them had real accomplishments.
            But as I’ve thought about this legacy business, I came upon a blog post by my friend Tom Anderson, whom many here have met through his help with our stewardship process.  Tom is a long time friend, and he has had a significant career as a consultant to educational and nonprofit institutions about leadership, governance, development, and ethics.  In his most recent blog post, he takes on the question of leaders and their legacies.  And here in part is what he says:
Leadership of a nonprofit institution is a relay race; it is not an individual field event.  Leaders accept the baton of leadership from a predecessor and then spend some period of time trying to improve the institution they serve before handing the baton to a successor.  The hope is that a better institution, department, or program is passed on than was received.  And, that is the legacy of leadership … it belongs to the institution and not to the leader. [Tom Anderson, "Legacy . . . What Legacy?"]

That’s the way Tom put it.  The Greeks might put it this way: Nothing is more permanent than the temporary. Love, admire, and respect my six predecessors here at Christ Church as I do, I have finally to admit that what makes this parish great and unique among large suburban churches in the United States has less to do with them than it does with you in the pews. I’m not just saying this to suck up on my last Sunday. Sure, great rectors here have provided great leadership, but a leader is really only important to the extent that he or she can tap into the deep commitments of a community and bring out the talents and energies of its members.  My former bishop and good friend Fred Borsch used to say that a parish rector is really a coach.  Since my only coaching experience was as a Lamaze coach, and that performance got mixed reviews, I had a bit of trouble with Fred’s metaphor.  But you know what he means.  A parish rector is more like a coach or an orchestra conductor, less like a star athlete or soloist.  The skill lies in understanding the missional priorities of the faith community and organizing its ministry around those priorities.  You already had the vision before I came here.  My real achievement, to the extent I had one, was tapping into it.

What is that vision?  When I say that Christ Church Cranbrook is unique among large suburban churches in the United States, what I mean is this:  if you think back on the history of this parish, it has always been a community that cared both about its own neighborhood and about the larger Detroit metropolitan area.  If you read the parish history, you’ll see that from its very inception, Christ Church Cranbrook was involved in the issues that defined Detroit in the 20th century: racism, poverty, regional concerns, open housing.  Many of our clergy and parishioners were involved in the genesis of nonprofit organizations like Crossroads, the Lighthouse, and FocusHope.  Care for the community—and by community I mean the whole area we’ve come to call “Southeastern Michigan”—has always been a hallmark of Christ Church Cranbrook.  You can’t say that about most parishes in affluent zip codes like this one.  Christ Church is most itself when it lives out its mission as a parish where people from this community can give of their resources, skills, and energies not only to alleviate human suffering but also to make real systemic change in the world.  Our current partnerships with FocusHope and with All Saints Pontiac are in the great tradition of this parish’s deepest commitments. Beth Taylor has developed these partnerships in collaboration with parishioners who are passionate about Christ Church’s leadership role in Detroit.

There’s another part to that vision, and it has to do with children.  This has always been a parish dedicated to the nurture of children in the Christian faith and life. Dianthea Higgins, the great Christian educator who served here for so many years, made this place a national laboratory for Christian Education in the 1950s and 1960s.  She was retired by the time I first joined the staff here in 1978, but I knew her also, and she was really something—the kind of leader who could encourage and inspire.  But in the end she, too, was someone who simply read the community aright and called forth the gifts and energies that were latent in it.  Christ Church Cranbrook is most itself when it cares for the wider community.  And Christ Church Cranbrook is most itself when it cares for and advocates for children.  Our current renaissance in children and youth ministry is due both to the talents of Jessica and Beth and to their ability to bring forth what is already at work in you.

I mention outreach and youth because even though they’re essential to this place’s self-understanding, in times of stress they can fall by the wayside.  So I want to make a pitch that these two missional areas remain high priorities in the years ahead.  In holding up outreach and youth, I don’t mean to slight worship and pastoral care, each one a long-time strength of Christ Church. John Repulski is the most talented church musician I have ever known, period.  Joyce Matthews has outstanding and deep pastoral gifts.  Worship and pastoral care are an essential part of the Christ Church fabric, and their longstanding excellence here is obvious to all observers. But worship and pastoral care will always be strong because they are elemental to all churches.  Outreach and youth will always be more of a stretch.

And there’s one more thing—a kind of rectorly, super-secret priority.  And that’s spiritual depth.  I asked Jonathan Sams to come here because of my intuitive sense that it is spiritual depth—real people praying, reading the Bible, sharing their faith stories together—this is what makes a faith community vibrant and healthy.  Jonathan has already organized daily Morning Prayer here in St. Paul’s Chapel Monday through Thursday.  Beth and the clergy are taking on The Bible in One Year on Sunday mornings at 9:00.  I don’t know this scientifically, but I do know it experientially:  the prayer life of a Christian community is what will sustain it both as an institution and as a source of strength and hope in the lives of its people. If I have one piece of advice to this parish, it is this:  read your Bible and say your prayers.  Everything else will flow from that.

By now, you’re thinking to yourself, “This sounds more like Washington’s Farewell Address than it does like a sermon!”  So lest you drive home feeling bereft of homiletical input, consider this:

In today’s Gospel, there are a lot of things happening.  It has become clear to Jesus’s followers that he’s not just a faith-healing teacher:  he’s something more, the Messiah, the Christ, the incarnate Son of God.  Peter is the first disciple to get this.  And once he does, Jesus feels the need to take them step-by-step into the depth of what it means. 

So he says several things.  But here is the one that stands out to me:

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ [Mark 8: 34b-35]

          What we learn over time in the church is this: life is good and beautiful and holy and true to the extent that we come, with Jesus, to live not for ourselves alone but for others. In a world of anxious individualism, we are schooled by our culture to think that it’s all, finally, about me.  But it’s not about me.  It’s about us.  The real answer to everything we fear—loneliness, alienation, want, loss--lies in reaching out and making common cause with others.  Jesus showed that life is abundant when we band together and share it with others. It is not about me.  It is about us.  If you want to save your life, you should lose it in service to and companionship with those who are like you and those who are not.  That is the teaching of Jesus, and it is the legacy of Christ Church Cranbrook.  I will always treasure this parish, its people, and what it stands for.  Nothing is more permanent than the temporary. I don’t have a legacy.  We all do. Let’s celebrate it.  Let’s give thanks for it.  And even though we’ll be separated geographically, we can still live into it, together. Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.
Our time together, like all human sojourns, has been temporary.  Our places in each others’ hearts will always abide. Amen.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Homily: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [September 1, 2012] Christ Church Cranbrook

             Everybody loves a sale, and earlier this summer a local men’s clothing store made a seemingly irresistible offer:  buy one, get three free!  This offer applied to everything—suits, jackets, slacks, shirts—the whole works.  So being a canny shopper, I went on the Saturday of the sale in search of new clothes.  For good luck (and as an arbiter of taste) I brought Kathy with me.  Being the son of a woman who worked with movie and television costumes, I have a pretty good sense of what I’m looking for in clothing.  But Kathy over the years has saved me from making some major mistakes.
            We got to the store at around 9:30 a.m.  I picked out and tried on four suits and a like number of slacks and sport coats.  Each of them required tailoring, so I submitted to the tape, chalk, and pin ritual.  I went to the cash register and checked out.  I was a little before 10:00 a.m.  The whole process took just under a half hour.
            Needless to say, Kathy Hall was amazed.  “How could you do that so fast?” The store manager, who had waited on us, took it in stride.  “Men are always like this,” he said.  “They shop much faster than women.”
            Now there are all kinds of possible explanations as to why I bought all these clothes in record time.  Kathy would say it is because of my short attention span.  The words, “You have the patience of a gnat!” have been uttered more than once in our household.  But, without confirming or denying rumors of Adult ADD syndrome, I would suggest another explanation.  It’s not so much that I can’t sit still very long.  It’s more that I’m uncomfortable doing anything very long that focuses attention on my body.
            Somehow, when I get in a clothing store with its full-length mirrors and all those tape measures, I become enormously self-conscious.  I don’t want to look at myself in a full-length mirror.  I don’t want to know what my actual waist measurement is.  When trying on clothes I feel like I’m back in junior high school, trying to come to terms with this awkward physical case I carry my brain around in. 
When I think very long about my body, I fall into the Western Civilization trap of mind/body dualism.  Beginning with the philosopher Plato, we westerners have thought of our minds as somehow separate from our bodies.  We tend to think of our “selves” as our mental functions, divorced from our physical beings. The poet William Butler Yeats (a poet I’ve been reading this summer) said that to be human is to be “fastened to a dying animal” [“Sailing to Byzantium”]. Over time, we have come to think of the mind as our essence, our body as its packaging.  Whenever I go to the clothing store, I turn immediately into a Platonist.
Our Bible readings for today come from a different tradition than Plato, and they offer us an alternative way to understand ourselves.  The Israelites did not think of the human body and the human mind as separate things.  They believed not only that mind and body are one.  They believed that both of them are good.
Take, for example, our first reading today.  It’s from the second chapter of the Song of Solomon, and while you may have heard it read every so often at a wedding, you’ve never heard it read on a Sunday morning in church.
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.”
                                                [Song of Solomon 2: 8-13]
What’s going on here?  If this sounds to you like an erotic love poem, that’s because it is.  The Song of Solomon is a short book that describes the attraction of a young woman to a young man, and it talks about human love in expressly physical terms.  The book has had a strange history in Christianity.  It has been studied privately—there are many commentaries written about it over the history of Christian thought—but it has been suppressed publicly.  When Christian writers have thought about it at all, they have understood it as an allegory of the soul’s relation to God:  they cast the woman in the poem as the soul, the man as God.  They have read it in a spiritualized, Platonic way.  Jews, of course, have read the poem much more literally than we have.  They haven’t been infected with mind/body dualism the way we Christians are.  It’s only with the adoption of the new Revised Common Lectionary in the last few years that adult Christians have been considered grown up enough to be exposed to this explosive piece of biblical love poetry.
            The first point I want to make this morning, then, is that finding the Song of Solomon in our Bibles should alert us that God wants us to understand ourselves rather differently than we have.  You and I are products of a Western culture that still thinks of our minds as good and our bodies as bad.  The Bible knows nothing of this division.  It not only accepts our bodies.  It celebrates them.  God created men and women in God’s own image.  God took on human flesh in Jesus.  The physical love of the two people in the Song of Solomon is an image of the function of divine and human love at work in the world.  As Freud knew, the love the Greeks called eros binds us to other people and the world.  Love is not some gaseous, spiritual idea.  It is fleshly and embodied.  And it is good.
            But even though the Jews were not vulnerable to mind/body dualism, they, as we do, often fell into the trap into thinking that real religion was somehow all about being “pure”.  When Jesus criticized the Temple cult of his day, he was primarily attacking the purity codes that had built up over time as a false way of understanding the holy.  It’s not so much that Jesus disagreed with the Jewish idea of clean and unclean.  What he objected to was the way in which that distinction got applied to every aspect of life, including the classification of human beings. 
In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees criticize Jesus’s disciples for eating with “defiled hands”.  Remember that this interchange takes place long before our modern understanding of antisepsis and infection.  The Pharisees call those hands “defiled” not because they carry viruses and bacteria.  They call them “defiled” because they are ritually unclean.  They may have touched the wrong kind of food or the wrong kind of person.  But, like many religious rules they have expanded out of all proportion.  That’s why Jesus says to them,
"Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
'This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.'
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."  [Mark 7: 6-8]
And he goes on to tell them that real defilement, real uncleanness, has more to do with personal intention than it does with physical substances.  In thinking of certain things as dirty and other things as clean, the Pharisees had fallen into the mind/body trap.  By living as one at home in his body and the world, Jesus was calling them back to the tradition of robust physicality expressed in the Song of Solomon.  God made us and the world and called them good.  Heaven is not some spiritual zone in the sky someplace.  Heaven is earth perfected, it is earth made new.  As we say in the Nicene Creed, we believe in the resurrection of the body.  I don’t know how that works, but I do know that Christian faith proclaims that in life and in death the mind and the body are one.
And there’s one more thing to be said.  This is Labor Day weekend, a holiday that has come to be more about the end of summer than about a celebration of human work.  But if we take all that has gone before seriously—if we agree that God made us in the divine image, that God made the world and called it good, that our bodies are as holy as our minds, that redemption is about building a new heaven and a new earth—if we take all that as given, then we cannot help but see that there is something good and holy and necessary about human work.  God made the world and is always making it new.  God is calling us—in Jesus, in baptism, in our own personal vocations—to help in that work of creating and blessing and redeeming the world as well.
The older I get, the fewer things I believe.  But the things I do believe have become the core affirmations of my spiritual, vocational, and personal life.  And one of the things I do believe very deeply is that human work—professional work, volunteer work, work done inside the home or out in the world—all human work matters.  God made us fleshly embodied beings in a real world.  God gave us love to bind us to each other and the world.  God has given us gifts and skills and has called us to tasks that empower us to participate with God in making that new heaven and new earth God promises.
So on this Labor Day, let’s not be like Plato and the Pharisees.  Let’s not confuse the relation of our spirits and our bodies.  Let’s be like the man and the woman in the Song of Solomon, like Jesus with his disciples.  Let’s accept ourselves for who we are and our world for what it is.  Let us allow our love to bind us to each other and the world.  And let us be about the work of making this real, embodied world a new and more perfect place. No matter how you feel about your body, God loves it and so should you.  No matter how you feel about your work, God values it and so should you. No matter how you feel about your relationships, God uses them as a primary way to know and love you.  On this Labor Day weekend, let’s join in our church’s prayer for this holiday:
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. [For Labor Day]