Thursday, November 22, 2012

Homily: Thanksgiving Day [November 22, 2012] Washington National Cathedral

            Today is not only Thanksgiving Day; it’s also November 22, and nobody my age can hear the words “November 22” without thinking of the day in 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated.  That event happened just before Thanksgiving that year, and I remember even as a 9th grader the painful irony of reading the late president’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in the newspaper a mere six days after he had been killed.  As he gave voice to the many reasons Americans have to be thankful, President Kennedy also articulated the many challenges confronting the nation.  And then he said this: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them. [“Proclamation 3560 - Thanksgiving Day, 1963”, November 5, 1963]
 “The highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.”  In framing the Thanksgiving holiday as a dialogue between words and deeds, President Kennedy was expressing one of the great creative tensions faced by all people of faith.  As Christians, we are the custodians of inspiring words about hope, peace, love, and compassion.  As Americans, we are the inheritors of a national vision encompassing liberty, justice, and opportunity.  On both sacred and national holidays, we tend to talk in large beautiful abstractions.  But President Kennedy’s Thanksgiving remarks call us back to our central task as both followers of Jesus and citizens of the United States: not only to proclaim ideals but to enact them. “The highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.”
As Christians, as Americans, we face these creative tensions anew in 2012. What does it mean not only to give thanks but to live thankfully in the 21st century?
Last week, WAMU, the local NPR station, ran an extraordinary series on homelessness in the District of Columbia.  One episode described the surprising number of homeless college students who find themselves back on the street during school holidays.  Another noted how on any given night there are 67,000 homeless veterans in America.  The story that arrested my attention, though, told of a 22 year-old mother of four named Ebony who walks or (on cold nights rides the bus) endlessly with her two month-old son, Khyla.  According to the story [“Homeless Mother Waits In The Cold For Spot In Shelter”, WAMU, November 14, 2012] there has been a 73 percent increase in demand for emergency shelter since the onset of the recession. Ebony and Khyla are one of about 600 families on the waiting list for shelter in the District. 
Ebony is both hopeful about her prospects and realistic about her plight. "I'm hoping I'll find something within the night," she says. "A lot of times me and him will just walk around late, just pass time at night. I don't trust sleeping out there, 'cause there's a lot going on. You hear gunshots, you know, people running red lights."  As I listened to this story, I felt at once moved and ashamed.  How can I live in a country that lets its veterans and young mothers and children go without shelter?  How can I give thanks for the abundant and comfortable life I enjoy while Ebony and Khyla and 599 other local families spend their nights looking for someplace to stay?
My dilemma is probably your dilemma. I’m thankful, and I’m also chagrined. I continue to hear President Kennedy’s admonition: “The highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.”  The most authentic way for a Christian person to give thanks goes beyond the eloquent prayers we will utter at our tables.  The most authentic way for a Christian person to give thanks involves standing for and with those who do not share in the abundance for which we are so understandably grateful.
This morning we have heard two passages of scripture that can help us face into this dilemma.  One is Psalm 126; the other is from the sixth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.
Psalm 126 is my favorite of all the Psalms.  It comes from the time when Israel’s leaders were held in captivity in Babylon.  They were in exile, cut off from home and land and culture.  And yet they fashioned a remarkable song of thanksgiving and trust.
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
The LORD has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.

On first hearing Psalm 126, you might say, what’s the big deal here?  It’s a typical song of thanksgiving.  But when you read it carefully and mull it over for a while, you realize that the psalm gives thanks for something that hasn’t even happened yet.  It treats a hoped-for reality as an accomplished fact. Only after the initial proclamation that “the Lord has done great things for us and we are glad indeed” does Israel then go on to ask God to do the great things they’re already thankful for: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses of the Negev. “ 
What I take from Pslam 126 is a clue about how to live in the tension between what I know to be true and what I hope will be true.  The life of faith is ultimately about what we all, together and individually, hope for.  As Christians, as Americans, we organize our lives around a vision of life that we hope will be true, a vision symbolized by the abundance of the table to which Jesus gathers us, a vision symbolized by the cornucopia of our harvest celebrations.  God offers us an abundant future, even in moments of personal and social deprivation.  They key to abundant living, to living on Jesus’s terms, is to choose to live as if what you hope for is already true now.  If you’re a Jew in Babylonian exile, live as though you’re already free.  If you’re a person of faith in 21st century America, live as if the abundant, mutual, generous society you hope for were already here. Even though the blessings of material prosperity are not available to all, we can work to make them so, we can start by extending the circumference of our own family tables and strive to widen the circle of abundance. “The highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.”  We give thanks by working to make our tables and our society hospitable to the Ebonys and Khylas of this world and all those whom God wants to draw inside that circle of abundance and plenty with us now.
So one way to give thanks this year is to live as though the world we hope for was already here.  Another way is to remember what Jesus says to us in the sixth chapter of Matthew:
"I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? . . .Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you . . .?” [Matthew 6:25, 28b-29]

“Do not worry about your life,” says Jesus.  God feeds the birds and clothes the lilies.  God will feed and clothe you.  The key to abundant living is not only to live thankfully in advance.  The key is also to remember that the source of our ultimate security is not ourselves.  The source of that security is God, who even now is looking out for you in ways you can’t even begin to know about.  God cares about Ebony and Khyla and the homeless veterans and all those who are hungry or homeless or cold this night.  God cares about you and your household and the fears and challenges you face.  Don’t let those fears and challenges control your life.  Let Jesus’s hopeful vision of shared mutual abundance, of a world where not only lilies and birds but human beings are lovingly provided for—let that be the truth that gives shape to your life. Let us all live as if everything we hope for and believe about God and America were true.  And once we’re  living in that truth ourselves, we can act together to make it real for everyone.
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
The LORD has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.
“The highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.” Happy Thanksgiving. Amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Homily: The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost [November 11, 2012; Veterans Day] Washington National Cathedral

“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.”  So begins the title story in Tim O’Brien’s book about American soldiers in Vietnam, The Things They Carried. Published 22 years ago, The Things They Carried lists the objects soldiers bring with them into and away from war, and then uses them to represent both the soldiers’ own internal burdens and the larger ones we Americans place on them.  The title story begins with a matter-of-fact list of what might be found on a soldier’s person during the Vietnam War:
The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending on a man’s habits or rate of metabolism.  [Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried, p.2]

Over the course of The Things They Carried the list expands.  As the tale evolves we learn that the soldiers carry with them more than their personal items, weapons, or supplies.  The list of “the things they carried” grows to include all sorts of meanings:  their own hopes and fears, the history and ideals of the nation they represent, the unresolved conflicts of the people back home.  As we move more deeply into the narrative, the soldiers are seen to carry not only their own burdens.  They carry along with them the burdens of an entire people as well.
            Today, November 11, is Veterans Day. Though it’s not a church holiday, Veterans Day is an important occasion in our national life.  Even though veterans and the wars they fought were not part of the recent electoral discussion, I’ve been thinking a lot about veterans this fall. Late last month, the great George McGovern, presidential candidate and decorated World War II bomber pilot, died, and many obituaries reprinted his most memorable quote, said at the height of the Vietnam War:  “I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”
            In today’s Gospel, Jesus also appears fed up with those who place burdens on others they’re not willing to take up themselves.  Listen to him again:
"Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation." [Mark 12: 38-40]
Jesus is “fed up to the ears” with religious functionaries dreaming up obligations for others.  The scribes—religious bureaucrats of Jesus’s day—live off the sacrifices of others.  In that sense they are like the old folks who send young soldiers into battles they’re not willing to fight themselves.
The longer I live, the fewer soldiers I know.  This distance is not only a function of my age.  It is a result of my social location.  We have just concluded a presidential campaign in which the ongoing war in Afghanistan was rarely if ever mentioned. Our 21st century wars have been largely hidden from people like me.  The wars we fight today are wars that we and those with our privileges have dreamed up for others to die in.
            We are gathered on Veterans Day not only to acknowledge our veterans but to express our gratitude for what they have given us. But how best do we do that? One way to express our thanks for those who have served in our recent and ongoing wars is to try to understand the reality of what they face on a daily basis.  I have recently finished reading a powerful new novel about the war in Iraq.  It’s called The Yellow Birds, and it’s by Kevin Powers, an Iraq war veteran. The Yellow Birds is a great novel on its own terms, and it’s also an important way for people like me to understand a combat experience that carries challenges most of us never think of. All war is hard, but contemporary soldiers are being asked to do things we haven’t asked them to do before.  As New Yorker writer George Packer explains,
The nature of [the Iraq] war is particularly hard on the psyche because of the complete opposites that have to be held together in one person’s head.  A soldier said to me, “You cannot turn on and off the switch in these guys.  It’s just tearing them apart to have to be nation builders and good guys and walk through villages and sit and drink tea and fighters who have to go out and shoot people and protect themselves.  What we need is two armies, one army of tea drinkers and one army of shooters.”  [George Packer, “The New Yorker Out Loud” Podcast, October 29, 2012]
In recent wars, our soldiers have had to serve as both nation-builders and fighters.  They have to drink tea with people they may also need to shoot. The resulting internal conflict can be soul-destroying.  As Bartle, the machine-gunner narrator of The Yellow Birds says,
I feel like I’m being eaten from the inside out and I can’t tell anyone what’s going on because everyone is so grateful to me all the time and I’ll feel like I’m ungrateful or something.  Or like I’ll give away that I don’t deserve anyone’s gratitude and really they should all hate me for what I’ve done but everyone loves me for it and it’s driving me crazy. [The Yellow Birds, p. 144]
As Christians, as people of faith, how do we make sense of the burdens borne by the modern soldier? When we think about the things they carry, about the burdens we place on the men and women who go to war on our behalf, we should think as well about someone else who carried a burden for us, about another young man who walked up a hill carrying not a rifle but a cross. I am not trying to turn soldiers and veterans into Christ figures.  I realize that they’re real, complicated people like you and me. But I am suggesting that they are important to us because, as they symbolize both our aspirations and our pains, they remind us of someone else.  As Christians, we know something about sacramental sacrifice. As Christians we know what it is to project our dreams and our enmities onto another. As Christians, we know on Good Friday what going to the cross cost Jesus, and as his followers we know after Easter what it means to live life in gratitude for the sacrifice made by another. “Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.” [Isaiah 53.4] “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to his own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” [Isaiah 53.6]  As Christians we find life’s purpose as thanksgiving for the gift for us of Jesus’s life on the cross.  As Americans we can never be too far away from the knowledge that we can live our lives in peace because soldiers from Valley Forge to Gettysburg, to the Somme and D-Day, to Pork Chop Hill and the Tet Offensive to Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan have been willing to take up a burden on our behalf.
Today’s Gospel takes place as Jesus teaches in the Temple, and in it Jesus follows his attack on the scribes by pointing to a widow—the poorest of the poor in his day—as she quietly makes an offering of two copper coins, “all she had to live on”.  The widow’s quiet, sacrificial offering shames the pretensions of those who make a show of their flamboyant benevolence.  At the center of Jesus’s teaching there is always a dual call to outward compassion and inward humility.  He calls us, by example, to be both generous and humble, to be less like the scribes and more like the widow, because that’s the way God is. In loving us in Christ, God offers us “all she had to live on”. 
As we gather around Jesus’s table on this Sunday, we’re invited by God to know ourselves as people loved not because of our outward appearance but because of who we authentically are. In knowing ourselves that way, we are asked to be less like the scribes and more like the widow.  As we gather around Jesus’s table on Veterans Day, let us do so giving thanks for the men and women who have served our country not only by carrying our burdens and living into new and challenging ways of fighting our wars.  Let us give thanks that in their lives and service we glimpse an image of what it means to offer everything you have to live on so that someone else might thrive.  We cannot all replicate that offering.  But we can all acknowledge it and respond by helping our soldiers and veterans shoulder the things they carry.  Amen.