Sunday, October 21, 2012

Homily: The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost [October 21, 2012] Washington National Cathedral

 Our Gospel reading this morning tells us the story of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approaching Jesus with a request.  They begin, as middle school students might, with a vague preamble.  "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." No fool in these matters, Jesus responds in a general way himself. "What is it you want me to do for you?" Then they come out with it: "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  I’ve heard and preached on this story innumerable times, and as I hear it again this morning I think that most preachers, even me, have largely missed the point.  When we encounter James and John asking for special treatment, our natural tendency is to think of this story as kind of cute.  “Isn’t that adorable,” we say to ourselves. “The two Zebedee boys just don’t get it.” We smile inwardly at how quaint their request appears. 
Hearing the story today in the light of world events, I can’t help but think that something deeply troubling is going on here.  James’s and John’s request to be numbers two and three in the Kingdom of God isn’t cute at all.  Their request is actually a grab for power, an attempt to guarantee their own position in the emerging Jesus movement.  Their mistake—a common one in all religions—is that they have come to think that holiness has something to do with power.
All religions—Western and otherwise—struggle with this problem.  Great buildings like this cathedral stand as monuments to the zenith of Christendom, the period when Christianity was the official religion of Western culture. But Gothic architecture sends us mixed messages.  Overtly, it suggests the transcendent nature of the divine.  Inside a building like this one, or Salisbury or Chartres or St. John the Divine in New York, I feel small but not insignificant.  I have a sense of the scale of myself in relation to the divine.  But Gothic buildings are also about the institutional power of the church.  They project that power outward and suggest that the church, like the state, is a world historical institution.
Some of you may remember Franco Zeffirelli’s film, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a movie about St. Francis of Assisi.  At one point in the story, Pope Innocent III summons Francis to Rome, and the two men encounter each other inside the cavernous spaces of the Vatican.  Imagine the Pope seated up at our high altar accompanied by a large entourage, all decked out in regal splendor.  And then imagine a simple man in robes and sandals walking humbly up the aisle to meet him. The contrast between the two—one the representative of a powerful institution, the other the founder of a movement based on voluntary poverty—could not be more striking.  It’s hard to imagine, as the scene unfolds, that these two men might even practice the same religion.
Something like that is going on in the dialogue between Jesus and the sons of Zebedee this morning, though in this incident the roles are reversed.  Jesus is more like Francis, James and John are flexing their imperial muscles.  They seem to think that the institutional shape of the church will be something like the Roman Empire, and that getting in early on the distribution of power will be the path to heavenly success.  Jesus—the one who gathered the movement in the first place and who exemplifies the Christian life as one of humility, compassion, and mutuality, sets them straight.  "You know,” he says, “that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” [Mark 10:35-45]
On Jesus’s terms, Christianity will not be about imperial rule.  For Jesus, holiness and power are not the same thing.  James and John have misread the situation.  The may have been the first, but they weren’t the last Christians to do so.  For most of our history, we Christians have struggled to get the balance right.  And we are not alone.  The same can be said about other religious traditions.  When we encounter the holy, something in us wants to make our experience mandatory for everybody else.  We think that being faithful to our knowledge of God means imposing it—sometimes through force--on others. It’s a short step from James and John to the Crusades.
Power and holiness are on my mind this morning because, for the past couple of weeks I have followed the events surrounding Malala Yousafzai, the courageous 14-year old Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban because of her opposition to their ban on education for women in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan,.  Since she was 11, Malala has written an anonymous blog for the BBC, “Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl”, in which she described the effects of the ongoing war in the Swat Valley and her sadness at the closing of girls’ schools. She has been interviewed several times on television in Pakistan and has expressed her desire eventually to go to medical school and become a doctor. In reprisal for her vocal advocacy of women’s education in Pakistan, Malala was shot on her way home from school in Mingora. In taking credit for the shooting, a Taliban spokesman called her crusade for women’s education “an obscenity.”  The same spokesman said, “Let this be a lesson.” [“Taliban Gun Down Girl Who Spoke Up for Rights”, The New York Times, October 9, 2012]
As we think about Malala’s shooting as an expression of religiously-motivated violence, notice the way the Taliban spokesman makes an almost unthinking connection between religion and coercive power.  Let this be a lesson?  A lesson in what? The Taliban spokesman talks as if the shooting of a teenager were a “teachable moment” in religious education. From his point of view, deviation from orthodoxy merits a violent response.  In this respect, the spokesman is the direct descendant of James and John when they ask to be seated one at Jesus’s right hand and one at his left in glory.  Their request for status has an ugly underside.  They have equated God with power, and they have volunteered to be God’s agents in wielding that power.  When faithful people try to exert coercive force—be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu—they are making a fundamental mistake not only about themselves but about God.
One of my favorite contemporary theologians is a Roman Catholic, John Caputo.  In his book The Weakness of God, he challenges us to think of God not as ultimate power but as ultimate weakness.  He invites us to consider, in his words
. . . the possibility of a kingdom of the kingdom-less, a kingdom where there is no sovereign and no one reigns--or if they do, they have no power--an un-kingly, anarchic kingdom, a kingdom where the only power that is permitted is the power of powerlessness, where the very condition of power is that it be without power. [John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God, p. 26]
If we learn anything from the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, it is that the One Jesus calls his Father does not dwell in imperial splendor.  Instead, that One became one of us in Jesus, and went to the cross as a victim of the kind of coercive violence that we deplore in the fundamentalist terrorism directed against Malala Yousafzai and all those who simply believe differently than those with power think they are supposed to.
            James and John didn’t get it.  They thought that following Jesus would bring them power in his kingdom.  But the kingdom they imagined is not the one that Jesus offers. The kingdom Jesus invites us all into is organized not like the Roman Empire but like a meal.  It’s a community gathered around a table, a place where 14 year-old aspiring women doctors and all those without imperial status—the sick, the lonely, the bereaved, the oppressed—feed each other and are fed by God.  When we finally see things as God sees them, we’ll know that it is people like Malala and St. Francis who will sit at Jesus’s right hand in glory.  As Malala recovers, let us stand with her in that weakness, even as it grows increasingly into strength.  In standing with Malala, we will stand with Jesus, too.  Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Homily: The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost [October 14, 2012] Washington National Cathedral

            Ever since I was in graduate school I have carried a copy of Henry Thoreau’s Walden in my car. This practice came in handy a couple of weeks ago when I found myself in the line at the District of Columbia Vehicle Inspection Station.  In other places I’ve lived, having your car inspected takes about 15 minutes.  Here in DC the process can last several hours.  Since I’ve already read my car’s owner’s manual and tire warranties more times than I can count, I was glad I had my copy of Walden at my side.
            As I began reading, I remembered the circumstances that led Henry Thoreau to move to Walden Pond in the first place. The year was 1845.  He had recently suffered the loss of his brother John who cut himself and died of lockjaw.  Henry had also had a difficult time holding down a job.  The economy was still recovering from what we would call a Recession, our parents would call a Depression, and Thoreau’s contemporaries called a “Panic”.  Times were hard for everybody, and though he was grief-stricken and broke, Thoreau wanted to show that it was still possible to live abundantly, even through personal and economic crises.
Thoreau’s answer to the question of how to live in the face of adversity, as all readers of Walden know, was to suggest that we give up pursuing luxuries and simplify our wants, so that our energy can go less toward paying for stuff we really don’t need and more toward enjoying life in all its fullness.
            Sitting in the DMV’s vehicle inspection line, it was easy to affirm with Thoreau that life is hard and that there ought to be a better way to live it.  But soon after that realization came another one:  life can be more than merely annoying and frustrating.  It can be really, really hard in more serious ways. When I looked around, I saw all sorts and conditions of cars and people, and I was reminded once again that life can often be painful and unjust. People suffer from both natural and human causes. We can easily feel that we are living in a universe with the deck stacked against us.
Henry Thoreau saw that most people were ground down by life—as he famously said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” [Walden] All of us experience hardship. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that our human spiritual experience often begins with the experience of suffering.  We cry out as an expression of our grief or pain or bewilderment, and what we want in return is not so much an explanation as to be heard.
            The poet (and former Poet Laureate) Robert Hass tells the story of taking his grandchildren to a museum where they saw a statue of the Buddha. Because they didn’t know who the Buddha was, Hass told them a bit about how the Prince Siddhartha became the Buddha.  As he puts it,

I told them the story of Prince Siddhartha, how his father had brought him up in a kingdom of the Himalayan foothills in such a way that he would never see any form of human suffering, how when he was a young man and curious, he snuck out of the palace compound and visited the local village, how he saw there a sick man and a poor man and a beggar and a corpse, and how, overcome with infinite sorrow at human suffering, he vowed to set out on a path that would lead him to overcome the violence in the human heart. [Robert Hass, “Study War No More:  Violence, Literature, and Immanuel Kant”]

Living in contemporary America is much like being raised by Prince Siddhartha’s father.  We have constructed a world in which we increasingly try to insulate ourselves from engagement with all forms of human suffering—including --with alcohol, drugs, overwork, or medication--our own.  But those of us drawn to the life and witness of the spirit, those of us drawn into the mystery of a transcendent space like this Cathedral, we know somewhere inside ourselves that the attempt to deny the reality of human pain is not only impossible; we know that such an attempt runs counter to the whole religious enterprise. 
Like Thoreau, Jesus lived in a time of economic scarcity. And like Thoreau, Jesus upended all conventional thinking by telling people that they can actually live a joyful, free, and abundant life even in the midst of oppressive misery.  For Jesus, the trick to living abundantly in hard times is a simple one.  Acknowledge your frailty. Gather together with others.  Make common cause with them.  Share what you have. When we isolate ourselves behind our possessions, our power, our privilege; when we try to hoard what we have and protect it from the world, the forces we would flee gain power over us.  When we admit that we’re finite and vulnerable, when we band together with others and share what we have, we discover not only the inner resources of God among and within us; we discover also that there is miraculously enough to go around.  And more than that:  we discover that there is joy and hope in a life of compassion and generosity.  In the presence of Jesus, people are healed and hopeful, and there is, simply, enough:  enough food, enough money, enough companionship to get through life.
As we think together about our scriptures for today, we find two implications for us in how Jesus empowers us to live abundantly.  The first has to do with the Gospel reading we just heard, the one in which a rich man comes to Jesus and asks him the key to eternal life.  As Mark tells us,
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."  [Mark 10:21]

The rich man comes to Jesus looking for fulfillment. He has a lot, but he doesn’t have enough. What Jesus says to this man is that he will find fulfillment not by trying to shield himself with his possessions.  He will find that fulfillment by opening himself up to life in all its beauty and ugliness, joy and pain, in fellowship with others.  When Jesus uses the famous comparison of a camel passing through the eye of a needle, he is naming the difficulty we all have in moving from fear into trust.  If I want to get through the eye of a needle, it will be an easier journey if I don’t try to take my Volvo with me. (My wife says her Mini Cooper could make it, but I’m not so sure.) The stuff we trust in turns out to be not an asset but a burden. It doesn’t protect me.  It walls me off from others and the world. Yes, life can be hard, but it can be abundant and joyful, too.  We usually let our fear of life’s pains insulate us from the joy of life’s pleasures.  The rich man in this Gospel story cannot make the transition from fear to hope.  But others can and do and will, and they are the ones who in Jesus’s words “receive a hundredfold now . . . and in the age to come eternal life.” [Mark 10:30]
 I said there were two implications for us in Jesus’s call to abundant living this morning, and here’s the second.   It’s found in a gem of a verse from our passage from Hebrews this morning:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.  [Hebrews 4:15-16]

Jesus shows us how to live abundantly in a world filled with joy and sorrow, happiness and pain. But more than that: Jesus’s experience of human joy and sorrow, happiness and pain, has changed the way God knows and loves us.  God took on human life and experience by coming into human life in Jesus of Nazareth. By becoming one of us in Jesus, God now knows what it is to be you.  God has experienced everything—the good and the bad—that human life has to offer.  God is not some abstract remote being out in space someplace.  God is some One who has gone through human life in all its fullness. When we pray to God—when we complain about our problems, when we give thanks for our blessings—we are praying to some One who gets what it us to be us.  That is the mystery of the Christian life and faith.  God loves accepts and blesses you with full knowledge of what it is to be you.  That’s the miracle of how we “find grace to help in time of need”. 
Reading along in Thoreau’s Walden in the inspection line, I came across another sentence, one not as well-known as the first. Thoreau says, “I think that we may safely trust a good deal more than we do.” [Walden, “Economy”] God knows and loves you.  God made this world and placed you in it so that you might live and thrive in it.  Here’s what God and Jesus want you to do.  Trust the world. Love the world. Engage the world.  Embrace the world.  Weep with the world.  Rejoice with the world.  In so doing you will not only live abundantly.  You will come to know and trust and love God.  And in coming to know and trust and love God, you will come to know and trust and love yourself. And when you know and trust and love yourself, you can serve and heal and bless the world. Amen.