Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Homily: December 25, 2013 [Christmas Day] Washington National Cathedral

            Late last week a semi-frantic email went out from one of my clergy colleagues here asking if any of us priests on the staff had a copy of a certain book by some New Testament scholars doing an academic analysis of the Christmas stories.  It seemed that this person wanted to do some deep theological reading before attempting to preach on those daunting infancy narratives.  I didn’t respond to this email right away, because it turns out that at the very moment it was sent I was at home ransacking my wife Kathy’s children’s book collection in search of a Christmas Day sermon illustration for myself.  Kathy is a former elementary school librarian, and one big part of our library is crammed with easy readers, picture books, and young adult fiction.  It’s by far the coolest part of our house.

After a couple of hours of intense scrounging, I didn’t find a children’s book that would help, but I did come across one of our many copies of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  I sat down and started, once again, to read this wonderful and quite profound Christmas story.  And what struck me this time was not any of the more familiar moments in the book—“I wear the chains I forged in life!”  “Are there no prisons?” “Mankind was my business!”  “God bless us every one!”  Instead, I was drawn into a little-known moment where the Ghost of Christmas Present comes to visit Scrooge.  You may remember how the ghost shows Scrooge how the Cratchit family can joyfully celebrate Christmas even with their relative poverty and Tiny Tim’s illness.  Right after that the ghost whisks Scrooge off to see how universal the celebration of Christmas is around the world, even under very harsh conditions:  in a coal mine, on a lighthouse, aboard a ship.  As the narrator explains when they get to the ship,

Every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.  [A Christmas Carol “Stave Three”]


And as I reread Dickens’ book I couldn’t help thinking about my own childhood experiences of Christmas.  Over the course of my working life in the church, I have come to love the anecdotes told by my clergy friends about the Christmases they enjoyed growing up.  I’ve worked most of my career in multiple staff situations—large parishes, seminaries, and now a cathedral—and in those places we tend to pass the big holiday preaching duties around.  So it’s safe to say that over the years I’ve heard my share of Christmas sermons with their attendant stories about big holiday dinners, tales of working on the yearly Christmas pageant, and even one or two yarns about dysfunctional family gatherings around the holidays.  There’s even been a small miracle or two. I really have come to love these stories, and not only because they’re usually so well told.

            I had a very different childhood experience than have most clergy.  Not only did I not grow up in the church.  Both my parents worked in show business, and so the early Christmases I remember took place in very different settings than did those of my colleagues.  Instead of country church or blazing fireside, think nightclub or motel room.  Instead of a big family turkey dinner, think Chinese restaurant.  Mind you, I’m not complaining.  All told, it was pretty interesting. But it certainly wasn’t Christmas at Duck Dynasty, either. A little bit of tinsel can do wonders, and as the only kid in the room I was always fussed over.  But I enjoy hearing the anecdotes told by my colleagues because they give me a very different sense of what the holidays felt like in what we used to call “normal” families.

            When I first came into the church, in college, I used to feel a bit sheepish about my lack of a more traditional background.  Sure, it had its good side:  because I first experienced Christianity as an adult, I never had to unlearn the stuff they teach you in Sunday school.  But this lack of early nurture in the faith had its down side as well.  For one thing, I was at a loss for sermon illustrations.  Who wants to hear the preacher tell a heartwarming story about Christmas in Las Vegas?

            You and I live in a culture that celebrates youth and worries about growing old.  But aging has its blessings, too-- at least for me.  One of the effects of hearing the Gospels read aloud so often over so many years is that occasionally some of the deep truths of Christianity actually begin to sink in.  When I was younger I was embarrassed about my upbringing and so tried to hide it. I wasn’t one of those clergy who had gone to prep school, had three last names, or had grown up singing in the church choir.  I was a kid who’d grown up around comics, strippers, and jazz musicians. I’d stumbled out of one kind of life and into another.  As a young man, I was embarrassed about my background. The longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve come to see that it’s OK.

            Here’s what John says at the beginning of his Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1: 1-5]


            That passage tells us the central proclamation of Christmas: God has taken on human flesh in the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. This is perhaps Christianity’s most startling proposition. It has radical consequences.  God became one of us in Jesus.  This means at least two things.  It means that God now knows what it is like to be us.  And it means that who we are and how we live is raised to a new level of divine importance. We matter.  God feels our joy and our pain.  The One we pray to knows what our life feels like.  And more than that:  all human life, all human experience, is important and holy because all human beings are important and holy.  By becoming one of us in Jesus, God blessed and transformed all human life.

            And this blessing and transformation are at the heart of what Christmas means.  Your life, your joys and sorrows, your work and relationships, your story—all of what makes you “you” matters because of what happened that morning in Palestine two thousand plus years ago. When we preachers complain about what Christmas has become in our culture, we do so not because it has become “commercialized” but because it has become “trivialized”.  We have made of it too light a thing.  Sure, the silly ties and the Santa hats are fine, but we also should be out on the street stopping traffic and giving people the good news that God has become one of us in Jesus, that their lives are now charged with divine significance, that it is OK for them to be who they are. 

            It has taken me 40 plus years of living with this story to understand not only its depth but also its implications for you and me.  As John says at the close of today’s gospel, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”[John 1:14]  That life is the light of all people, and it is available to us whoever we are and wherever we come from.  God has taken you into the divine mystery.  You are now part of it.  Who you are, where you are from, your story, your past, your future:  all of them are holy and blessed and good.

            Christmas comes in cathedrals and coal mines, in country churches and aboard ships, in lighthouses and nightclubs.  Whether you have three last names or four first names; whether you grew up in church or on the streets; whether you live in a happy or dysfunctional household; whether you’re at the top of your game or trying to keep it together:  Christmas is for you. In saying yes to Jesus, God has said yes also to you.  It is good and right to be who you are.  Do not let somebody else’s vision of the perfect Christmas get in the way of your taking in the depth and passion of God’s love for you.

In John’s words:  “The word has become flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.”  In Charles Dickens’ words: let each of us have a “kinder word for [one] another on [this] day than on any day in the year”.  In my own words:  God knows, loves, and accepts you as you are. Really:  as you are. Amen.






Sunday, December 15, 2013

Homily: The Third Sunday of Advent [December 15, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

I did not grow up in the church, and up until my first year of college I only went in to churches and synagogues for life events—weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals and the like. The first time I ever went to church on my own was Easter Day, 1968—four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I went for two reasons—first, because I was trying to make sense of Dr. King’s murder, and second because I greatly admired the Yale Chaplain in those days, William Sloane Coffin, Jr.  Bill Coffin had been arrested on the steps of the Pentagon months before—along with poet Robert Lowell and the famous baby book writer Dr. Benjamin Spock—and I had heard Coffin speak on several occasions about the intersection of social and religious issues.  So on Easter Day, 1968, I made my way across Yale’s Old Campus to Battell Chapel to hear what Dr. Coffin might say on Easter that would help me understand the death of Dr. King.

I remember very little about that first church experience, except for two things.  First, they served sherry afterward—a powerful inducement for a college freshman in those days.  And second, Coffin’s sermon entirely surprised me.  He did, of course, use the sermon time to talk about the King assassination, but he didn’t do so in any conventionally comforting way.  “What else,” Coffin asked, “did we think we had a right to expect?”  Comparing King’s murder to the events of Good Friday, Coffin intoned, “We never had a right to think it would be any different” with figures like Jesus and King.

Here I was, an 18 year-old kid looking for consolation, and instead of giving me a security blanket the preacher used the gospel to slap me in the face.  It was an unforgettable moment, and I owe my life in the church to the spiritual wake up I received that morning.  The sherry probably had a little something to do with it, too.

I think about Bill Coffin’s rhetorical question—“What else did we think we had a right to expect?” every time I read or hear today’s gospel.  John the Baptist is in prison, and what he’s hearing about Jesus doesn’t exactly sound like what he expected to hear. He sends words by his disciples to ask of Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" 

John apparently thought that Jesus would be one kind of Messiah, and he is turning out to be another.  John predicted a fiery leader who would use his winnowing fork to separate the wheat from the chaff and then burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.  But Jesus didn’t behave the way John expected he would.  He didn’t scourge people—he healed them.  He didn’t separate people, he brought them together.  He didn’t predict damnation so much as universal peace and forgiveness.  "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" “What else did we think we had a right to expect?”

It has been a year since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and as we observe this anniversary, I find that these two questions frame my perception of the year we have been through.  A year ago, I stood in the pulpit and declared my own and this cathedral’s resolve to stand with and for the victims of gun violence and to use our energies to mobilize the faith community to pressure our legislators for action to curb the epidemic of deaths brought about by guns in America.  In the phrase that will no doubt be the opening line of my obituary, I said, “The gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby.”

A year later, pretty close to nothing has happened.  And just last Friday, we saw yet another school shooting, this time in Colorado—again. By the estimates of the Centers for Disease Control, another 32,000 Americans have died by gun violence since December 14, 2012.  There have been mass shootings around the country, even in our own Washington D.C. Navy Yard.  There has been almost no legislative action in response to these deaths.  "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" “What else did we think we had a right to expect?”

Last September, Bishop Budde and my wife Kathy and I were present at the memorial service for those killed at the Navy Yard.  As with Bill Coffin’s sermon on Easter Day, 1968, I will always remember President Obama’s remarks in the wake of the Navy Yard shooting.  The president said, in part:

So these families have endured a shattering tragedy. It ought to be a shock to us all as a nation and as a people. It ought to obsess us. It ought to lead to some sort of transformation. . . .

We can’t accept this. As Americans bound in grief and love, we must insist here today there is nothing normal about innocent men and women being gunned down where they work. There is nothing normal about our children being gunned down in their classrooms. There is nothing normal about children dying in our streets from stray bullets. [“Remarks by the President at the Memorial Service for the Victims of the Navy Yard Shooting” September 22, 2013]

Just as I will never forget sitting in Battell Chapel on Easter Day in 1968, I will never forget sitting outdoors on a beautiful September Sunday afternoon at the Washington Marine Barracks listening to the president say those words as the American flag fluttered in the breeze behind him. And I will never forget where I was when I heard tell of the Navy Yard shootings, the Sandy Hook shootings, the Aurora shootings, the Oak Creek Wisconsin shootings.  These moments are seared into my memory as I believe they are into yours because, as the president says, “there is nothing normal” about them.

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus responds to John the Baptist’s question with these words:

"Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." [Matthew 11:2-11]

A year after Sandy Hook, I still believe that the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby.  I still believe that you and I people of faith should refuse to tolerate the epidemic of gun violence that is killing our children, our colleagues, our friends.  As the church, as the community that gathers around Jesus, we need to remember what we’re actually here for.  We’re here, with Jesus, to help the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers be cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead be raised, and the poor receive the good news.  "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" “What else did we think we had a right to expect?”

What else did we think we had a right to expect?  Nothing has happened in a year partially because you and I have not cared enough to make something happen.  The passion is all on one side in the gun violence debate.  Oh, sure, we care every time there is a tragedy.  But we quickly lose interest and turn our attention to other things.  We need, my friends, to do better.  We need, as the community that lives out the life and promise of Jesus in the world, to be the people bringing good news to a nation and world in the grips of a death-dealing addiction to violence and guns.

One year after Newtown, I ask, as you do, “Why has nothing happened?”  And in response I hear not an answer but William Sloane Coffin’s question: “What else did we think we had a right to expect?” If we don’t care at least as much as the gun lobby, if we don’t become, in the president’s words, “obsessed” with curbing gun violence, what right do we have to expect that things will be any different, even after the next mass shooting or wave of urban gun deaths?

Christianity is not only about loving Jesus and knowing God.  It is about living out the implications of that love and knowledge.  Human beings are precious; that is why we care when they die.   And that is why Jesus responds to John’s question not with a list of talking points but with the news of human lives made better.  And so for us.  On this Third Sunday of Advent, as we move ever closer to Christmas and its proclamation of good news and great joy for all people, I repeat what I said a year ago:  the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby.  You and I who follow Jesus must continue to stand with and for the victims of gun violence and we must redouble our efforts to help our leaders do the right thing so that our schools, our workplaces, and our streets will be safe places for precious human beings to live out their lives in the fulfillment of Christmas peace and joy. 

As Paul said in 2 Corinthians, “We do not lose heart.” [2 Corinthians 4:1] We will prevail because the cross is finally stronger than the forces set against it.  We will prevail because the love and justice and hope and peace at the center of the universe are more powerful than hatred and fear and oppression and violence. One year after Newtown, nothing has happened yet everything has changed. Together let us walk with Jesus and become with him the ones the world is waiting for. I am not giving up, and I ask that you not give up, either.  Amen.






Sunday, December 1, 2013

Homily: The First Sunday of Advent [December 1, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

            When the modern custom of Black Friday—big retail sales on the day after Thanksgiving-- began several years ago, I thought it was kind of funny.  Sure there were stabbings, shootings, and tramplings then just as there are today; but in the main Black Friday just seemed to be about people behaving badly to get a deal on stuff they didn’t really need anyway.  But as the practice grew, the day itself morphed into an observance less funny than sad.  As shoppers were interviewed, it turned out that many of them braved the dark and the cold on Black Friday morning so they could buy presents and necessities they couldn’t otherwise afford. And once they got inside, of course, the loss-leader items were quickly snatched up, so most shoppers ended up having stood in line for hours for the privilege of paying premium prices anyway.

            This year, though, Black Friday has changed yet again, turning now potentially more pernicious.  Because the door busters began on Thanksgiving Day itself this year, Black Friday has now finally succeed in overtaking the only holiday left that seemed exempt from retail hysteria. As far as commercialization goes, I gave up on Christmas long ago, but I still enjoyed the fantasy that we had one holiday that was about family and community and not about commodification.  But now that I know I can spend my Thanksgiving day over at Target or Best Buy, I won’t have to worry about making small talk over the stuffing. I can spend the whole day first buying a flat screen TV and then watching football, free of any human interaction at all.

            Such was the grumpy state of my post-Thanksgiving meditations until I had the unexpectedly happy experience of reading the news about Pope Francis’ first proclamation, an “apostolic exhortation” Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel”. It’s hard to stay grumpy when the pope warns that we’re in danger of becoming “querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses’”.  (His word, not mine.) Amid all the accounts of Black Friday excesses, amid the stuff that passed for religious news last week—a Wisconsin court’s overturning the clergy housing tax exemption, this cathedral’s announcement of a fixed price entry fee for tourists—there was a story that was actually worth following:  Pope Francis recalled us to the basics of what Christianity is all about.

In today’s readings we are told, rather briskly, to wake up! “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep,” says Paul. [Romans 13:11] And even Jesus gets into the act: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” [Matthew 24:42]  Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the day that begins our four-week watch until Christmas, and the focus today is on waking up.  Our collect today asks that we be given “grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light”.  We get ready for Christmas first by shaking ourselves awake.

         As we reflect on all the silliness, sadness, sorrow, pain, and enmity in the world around us, Pope Francis gives us a wakeup moment.  Most of the time most of us walk through life as if we were half asleep. Francis doesn’t just admonish us about being sourpusses.  He recalls us to why we’re Christians in the first place.  Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus,” he says. “Let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!”

The startling thing about the pope’s document is how it reminds us that following Jesus is a joy.  The press accounts of Evangelii Gaudium have understandably focused on his critiques of the internal squabblings of the church and of the excesses of market capitalism. As Francis has widely been quoted as saying, the church itself has lost its way: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” And so has our economic system lost not only its way but its values: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

Those are important issues, of course, and not just for Roman Catholics.  All churches, not the least our own, have been obsessed these past decades with their own internal workings and disagreements.  And no one can watch the news of escalating national and global income inequality and see anything but disaster coming toward us as its result. But the central question, of course, is “Why do we care about such things?”  And the answer is that we care about them not primarily because we’re angry or depressed. To be a Christian is not to be a vengeful sourpuss.  We care about them because of the promise on offer to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  To be a Christian is to be an ambassador of Jesus’s joy.

The real wakeup story of Evangelii Gaudium is the way it calls us both forward and back to what Christianity is all about. “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus,” says Francis.Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.”  Those are the pope’s words, and I believe he speaks for all of us who seek to follow Jesus, at least for that part of us that is truly awake and alive.

Advent—the four weeks before Christmas—is an interesting season, and it works in a totally counterintuitive way.  On this First Sunday we look not back but forward, to “the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead”.  Jesus comes among us yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We must wake up and be ready to meet him.

What does it mean to be awake and ready to meet Jesus?  In the history of Christian liturgy, the First Sunday of Advent has had every possible liturgical color.  We here at the cathedral use blue because that’s the English Sarum color from Salisbury cathedral, a color traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary.  In many churches they use purple as a penitential color, turning Advent into a mini version of Lent. In the middle ages, though, the color for today was black, because even at its height the imperial church had enough self-understanding to know that the second coming of Jesus would be bad news for the powerful.  And in oppressed communities, in times and places where being a Christian has been dangerous, the Advent color is often white because those up against it know they will readily greet Jesus with joy.

What color does this Advent Sunday hold for you?  The great Swedish bishop and New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl was once asked about the difference between judgment and mercy.  He thought for a minute and replied, “There is no difference.  God acts, and we experience that action as either judgment or mercy depending on where we stand in relation to it.”  Do you need to clean up your act?  Or do you need to pray for liberation?  Whether you experience God’s love as judgment or mercy, this Advent Sunday asks that you wake up and get yourself ready to meet it.

Advent and Christmas present an invitation to encounter Jesus.  As Pope Francis says, “The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.”  This is the season to remember why we follow Jesus in the first place.  Some follow Jesus because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t.  Others follow Jesus because they see him as the champion of their causes. Francis calls us both back and forward to the realization that we follow Jesus because the life he offers is itself a joy.  The Gospel is good news:  the God who made the world made you, and that one loves the world and you in an infinitely deep variety of ways. 

So wake up!  In Francis’ words, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them.” It won’t be Black Friday forever.  Even the holiday season will pass. The joy of the Gospel will remain. Jesus is always coming toward us, ready to meet us as prophet, as teacher, as infant in the manger, as judge.  In that meeting you will know love and justice and hope and peace, forgiveness and blessing, and above all joy.  And that will be an encounter worth staying awake for.  Amen.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Homily: The Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost [November 17, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

            This is a year of anniversaries—in January of the Emancipation Proclamation, last August of the March on Washington, next Friday of the assassination of President Kennedy.  Each of these events both upset and altered our expectations of the established order.  As they happened they appeared to us in one light, in retrospect another. How do we read our past? How do we respond to the present moment?

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’ [Luke 21:5-6]

It is a bit disorienting to gather in this transcendent space on an autumn morning and hear Jesus in today’s Gospel predict the destruction of the temple. We erect buildings like this one because they speak to us of permanence. Beyond that, they represent the good, the just, the holy. In today’s passage from Luke, Jesus seems to be saying that the temple—and here the temple stands for everything we think permanent and hold dear--will be shaken up, torn down, and destroyed. This is probably not what you got out of a warm bed this morning to come out and hear.

How do we read and respond to the present moment? In our Gospel this morning Jesus goes on to make some dire predictions about international events and cosmic calamities:

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. [Luke 21:10]


I’ve never been one of those preachers who gets into the pulpit, holds up the good book, and confidently announces that your Bible is more up to date than today’s newspaper.  It is tempting to hear in a passage like this one a prediction of September 11, 2001, or to connect it to unrest in the Middle East, global warming, or the arrival of Lady Gaga and Honey Boo Boo. There is no current calamity, social problem, or celebrity sighting on display here.  Still, Jesus does seem to be saying something about the situation of his followers then and now in the world:

But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. [Luke 21.12]

Things are bad.  They’re going to get worse.  And everybody is going to blame us for the situation.  That about sums up this morning’s Gospel.  Have a nice weekend!

How do we read and respond to the present moment?  What is our situation?  What will become of us? In times of crisis or calamity, people of faith often look to the Bible.  But what, in this era, can the Bible mean for us? Right now in England BBC 2 is running a series called The Story of the Jews featuring the historian Simon Schama.  In a recent interview, here is what Schama said about the Bibles role in Judaism:

It is a salient characteristic of the endurance of the Jews that when the usual markers and supporters of endurance--namely a territory, an army, the institutions of a state--are completely ripped from them, they invent (beginning with the Bible, much of which was written in the first Babylonian exile) a form of portable narrative.  And a portable narrative does two things:  it actually tells them their own history (part myth, part fable, part accurate); and it also sets down a series of laws and precepts which are specifically about trying to live a Jewish life in a non-Jewish world.  [Simon Schama on Nightwaves, BBC Radio 3, September 13, 2013]

            From Simon Schamas perspective as a 21st century Jew, the Bible is a “portable narrative” setting down “laws and precepts” about “trying to live a Jewish life in a non-Jewish world.” They were exiles.  Their portable narrative gave them a sense of home.

            In some sense, we too gather in this cathedral as exiles. Like all Gothic church buildings, this one stands as a monument to a time when Christianity was the official religion of Western culture. When we gather in places like this today it is easy to pretend that we are still at the center of things and to forget that in the postmodern world a multiplicity of faith traditions and narratives live together collectively to shape our shared experience of the holy. As the philosopher Richard Rorty used to say, there is no longer one, unifying “big picture”. You and I live in a moment when we are emerging from the Western cultural consensus that there was a big picture, and that (conveniently for us) it belonged to Christianity.  Now—in spite of what this building wants to say about our pretensions to cultural power and authority—we Christians make our way with other faith traditions in the world. That’s a bit destabilizing, but it’s the truth.  And it’s also good news.  In a funny way it helps us understand our early Jewish and Christian forbears better than we used to.  Because our situation now is almost exactly like theirs.

Early people of faith needed their Bibles as “portable narratives” to tell them how to be faithful in a world in which they were exiles.  Our parents and grandparents did not need that portable narrative in quite the same way because they were comfortably at home in the “big picture” of the Western world. But just as the early Jews and Christians were exiles, so are you and I.  We need our Bibles the way first century Jews and Christians did. When we read the Bible today, it may not be more up to date than our newspaper, but it speaks to us with a power and relevance it may not have had for our immediate predecessors. It is once again our portable narrative, telling us how to be at home in an increasingly alienated world.

In today's Gospel reading, Jesus points forward to a coming time of calamity.  The seemingly invincible temple will be thrown down. Nation will rise against nation.  Rulers will identify people with Gospel values as the problem. That all sounds like pretty bad news, but Jesus does not stop there.  Jesus is blunt and uncompromising as he describes the situation of Christian exiles abroad in the world.  But he is not hopeless or depressed about it.  Listen to how he concludes:

You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls. [Luke 21: 16-19]


Not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls. How do we read and respond to the present moment?

Those of us who are drawn out of a warm bed on Sunday morning into a place like this are responding to a powerful divine pull that we cannot easily identify or name. As Emily Dickinson said, “it beckons and it baffles”.  We hear something or feel something not apparent to everyone else.  We respond to something good and beautiful and true at the heart of reality, and we feel called to orient our lives around it. Even though things seem to be going to hell, we find life full of meaning and hope and joy.  We share a symbolic meal together as a way of connecting with each other and the source of all that is good and beautiful and true and hopeful and joyous.  Call us crazy.

As Christians, we may no longer own the master big picture narrative of Western culture, but we do have an important truth to tell.  And here it is: 

Let’s not delude ourselves. Buildings like this one are only temporary.  Nations and peoples will continue to fight each other.  People who stand for justice and compassion will be persecuted.  But it will all, finally, be OK.  Not a hair of your head will perish.  As perilous as our situation may be—whether we face public or personal tragedy—we are finally in the embrace of someone who will not let us go. As we make our way through a difficult and often hostile world, we have our portable narrative, our community, our shared meal to remind us that we are loved and precious, and ultimately secure in that one’s embrace. We and our world will continue to suffer.  But in and through that suffering we will be sustained by someone loving and faithful and good.

In this year of anniversaries, things will continue to be complicated and hard.  I doubt that they will get easier or more simple. How do we read and respond to the present moment? We read and respond to the present moment in the light of our portable narrative. And what that portable narrative tells us is that not a hair of your head will perish, that all will finally be well. That news may not be newer than your newspaper, but it is the deep and abiding truth around which we gather, and for which we proceed in this meal to give thanks.  Amen.




Sunday, November 10, 2013

Homily: The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost [November 10, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

One of the great books about the effects of war is Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway, and if you have read it (or seen the film) you will never forget the character of Septimus Warren Smith, a World War I veteran.  Septimus Warren Smith suffers from what they then called “shell shock” and we today call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the course of the novel, Septimus interacts with two physicians—his local Dr. Holmes, who thinks his patient’s disorder is merely a little funk or slight depression, and then a famous London physician, Sir William Bradshaw, who takes PTSD more seriously but only prescribes an extended stay in one of his rest homes.  Neither doctor listens to what Septimus actually says about himself.  He feels that in his military service he has somehow committed a crime or failed to save his comrades during the Great War.  In the evenings, Septimus has what Woolf calls “sudden thunder claps of fear.”  Worse than that, he says that he cannot feel. 

As great as Mrs. Dalloway may be, it is not the last word about veterans and their issues.  So in preparation for Veterans Day weekend, I’ve been reading two books by Washington Post reporter David Finkel:  his classic The Good Soldiers, and this year’s Thank You For Your Service.  The first book followed the Army’s 2-16 Infantry Battalion during the 2007 surge in the Iraq war. The new book shows what became of those soldiers when they came home.  Most veterans return to lead abundant and productive lives, of course, but Finkel’s two books show how the devastation experienced by earlier soldiers like Septimus Warren Smith has become more widespread:  because the medical technology of the 21st century allows more grievously wounded soldiers to survive, many are living now who died on battlefields in prior wars.  And there are major differences between classic wars and contemporary insurgencies.  Then there were actual battlefields.  Now there are potential improvised explosive devices around every corner and beside every road.

In Thank You For Your Service, David Finkel tells us about Sgt. Adam Schumann, who leaves his third deployment in Iraq on a “mental health evacuation.”  Troubled by many of the same mental terrors that plagued Septimus Warren Smith, Mr. Schumann receives much better care when he comes home.  Still, he is capable of both terrors and rages, and his wife Saskia struggles to cope with her own conflicting feelings:  compassion for her husband and his suffering, anger at how his injuries have taken over both their lives.  As in much of the literature of war and its aftermath, so in this: many of the men and women who come home from our modern wars continue to live the experience over and over again. Their lives become a search for ways to bring the chaos into some kind of control. “Every war has its after-war,” says Finkel, “and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some 500,000 mentally wounded American veterans.”


            Today we observe Veterans Day, a holiday that began with the signing of the Armistice ending World War I on November 11, 1918. Armistice Day was soon established as a holiday dedicated both to honoring the service of American veterans of the Great War and to expressing our commitment to a lasting peace. In 1954, Congress changed the holiday’s name to Veterans Day, and here is what President Eisenhower said in his proclamation of its first observance:

On that day let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.

            As we gather this morning to observe this day, let us begin by remembering its original, twin purposes. Veterans Day serves to recognize the service of all America’s veterans.  And it also serves to promote what Eisenhower called “an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”

President Eisenhower’s words remind us that we should distinguish Veterans Day from Memorial Day.  That other holiday, which we observe in May, is properly dedicated solely to honoring those who have given their lives in the service of their country.  Obviously, on any day when we honor veterans, those who have died cannot be very far from our minds.  But today is not primarily about the dead.  Veterans Day was established to honor the living.  It asks that we set aside time not only to praise but also to seek the welfare of those who have served the United States in military service.  Over the years, I have noticed that this holiday has experienced what I would call the “Memorial-Day-ization” of Veterans Day. But remember President Eisenhower’s words. Today is about remembering and reconsecrating. Let us save our elegies and eulogies for May and reach out to the survivors in November. Sometimes it is easier to be sentimental about the dead than it is to be attentive to the living.  But our Gospel for today will not let us get off so easily.

Let us not confuse Veterans Day with Memorial Day.  Honoring our dead is one of the traits that make us human, and honoring our war dead is a basic practice of all civilized people.  But often we build monuments to the fallen when we should be caring for the survivors.  It is perhaps more emotionally satisfying to lay a wreath at a tomb than it is to visit a hospital.  But the Jesus we meet in the Gospels always directs our concern and action toward those who suffer and struggle, to those who are with us here and now.

As Jesus says in today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel, our God “is God not of the dead, but of the living.” [Luke 20:38] And later on in that same Gospel, when the women come to the tomb looking for Jesus, they are told, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” [Luke 24:5] Though we care for and honor the dead, we can do nothing for or about them.  They are in God’s hands. The living are another matter.  It is still within our power to do something for and about them. They are in our hands.

Let us not confuse Veterans Day with Memorial Day.  How do we, as Americans, as followers of Jesus, look to the living?  What might we do, as Christians, as Americans, to honor our veterans and to seek their welfare in the here and now?

If we return to President Eisenhower’s vision of the holiday, we can embrace its two purposes:  recognizing sacrifice, promoting peace.  Here is a modest suggestion about each.

Recognizing sacrifice:  there are nearly 22 million veterans alive in America today.  A little over 3 ½ million of them suffer disabilities connected with their service.  While we should see in those numbers reassurance that most veterans lead flourishing, abundant lives, we should be troubled to know that one out of seven homeless people in America is a veteran. On any given night, 107,000 veterans are homeless, and the Veterans Administration estimates that 1.5 million additional veterans are at constant risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and the shrinking supply of affordable housing.

My first modest suggestion:  these people are not numbers, and they matter to us as Americans.  They matter even more to us as people of faith.  It is important that we remember and honor those who serve.  It is vital that we advocate for their welfare. We need to do more as a country, as a church, than politely thank our veterans for their service.  We need to make sure that public policies are in place to treat, educate, support, house, and employ them.

President Eisenhower’s second purpose for this day was to use it to promote peace.  The veterans of the wars in my lifetime served in conflicts about which there was significant public disagreement: Vietnam, Kuwait, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan—each of these wars occasioned major protest in their own day and ongoing disagreement about their purpose even now. We should never confuse supporting a war with supporting our troops.  And we should never forget that, just as serving in even unjust wars is honorable, so is working to end them. We should not use Veterans Day as a whitewash to obscure our ongoing differences about war and peace.  We should use this day as a time to remember and honor the service of the men and women who fought on our behalf and to give thanks that we live in a country that embraces all those contradictions.

The God we know in Jesus “is God not of the dead, but of the living.” That God is also a God of peace, and the men and women who have served our country know perhaps better than the rest of us just how precious peace is.  Let us honor them.  Let us advocate for their welfare.  And as General (and then President) Eisenhower exhorted us, let us, together, do everything we can to promote an enduring peace, so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.  Amen.




Sunday, November 3, 2013

Homily: The Installation of Canons [October 31, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

            It is a bit daunting to speak at the installation of cathedral canons on the eve of All Saints Day.  We are, after all, installing these people only as canons.  Their sainthood will have to be decided by a higher authority.  Nevertheless, I quail in the face of a reading, from the Wisdom of Solomon, that speaks of the souls of the righteous in these words:

4 For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
5 Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;
6 like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a sacrificial burnt-offering he accepted them.

Anyone who knows Washington National Cathedral well knows that the workload here can be heavy and life can be stressful.  Still, it is hard for me to think of my colleagues as gold for smelting or lambs being led to the slaughter.  In nominating Kim, Gina, Andrew, and Patty to the bishop and chapter, that isn’t precisely what I had in mind.

            One of the drawbacks of having a dean who used to teach Anglican theology and polity is that every once in a while folks around here have to listen to a mini learned disquisition on the finer points of ecclesiology.  (See me afterward for a translation of that sentence into plain English.)  So indulge me for a minute while I talk about canons and what they signify.

            Our English word canon comes from the Greek word kanon, which literally means “reed”.  In the ancient Mediterranean world, Greeks and Romans used reeds for measuring sticks.  So the Greek word kanon came to be applied figuratively as a standard of measurement.  We talk to this day of the “canon of scripture”.  When the Bible was put together, the earliest Christians understood the texts in the Old and New Testaments to be the canon, the measuring stick, by which we would gauge the inspiration and orthodoxy of other texts. 

            Now when cathedral churches developed, the word canon became applied to the clergy who served there.  And the reason that word became the title of cathedral clergy was the same reason it was applied to the texts of Holy Scripture:  just as the books of the Bible were seen as the standard for the measuring of inspired writing, so the clergy of a bishop’s cathedral were held up as the standards, the measuring sticks, for ministerial practice.  In the intervening centuries, the title canon has come to be applied to clergy and now lay people serving on a diocesan or cathedral staff.  And the lexical intention behind that title is this:  it suggests that those people called canon are held up to the church and the world as exemplary.  They are the standards of ministerial excellence.

            Now I say this realizing that my four colleagues might at this moment begin to get swelled heads when I call them exemplary measurements by which the rest of us might take our bearings.  We live in a culture that applies all kinds of standards and metrics from business and academia and even sports to human performance.  Those standards and metrics have their place.  But they are our standards and metrics, not God’s.

            When I say that my four colleagues are exemplary, I do not mean to suggest that they are hyper-competent in worldly terms, though I know for a fact that they are very good at what they do.  Rather, when I call them exemplary I mean that they represent, they exemplify something in the way they do their work and live their lives that can serve as standard for us all.  In the terms of this cathedral and its life, that something is a kind of worldly holiness.  They know a hawk from a handsaw, as Hamlet says.  And they know something else.

            What Kim, Gina, Andrew, and Patty know is expressed a little farther on in that passage from the Wisdom of Solomon:

9 Those who trust in [God] will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with [God] in love,
because grace and mercy are upon [God’s] holy ones,
and [God] watches over [the] elect.

Like all human labor, work in a church can be challenging.  The hours are long, the pay is modest, and ministry is as often as not greeted with resistance as it is with gratitude.  But unlike much of the rest of the working world, those of us who work in the church get to come in here day after day and spend our time carrying out tasks that serve to advance our deepest values.  Most people don’t get to do that. If you stop to think about it, the ability to spend your working life in the service of the Gospel is an enormous privilege, and the people I know for whom ministry is a joy are the ones who have been able to ground themselves in gratitude for that privilege.  They understand that, when all is said and done, they are serving some One who is faithful, loving, and merciful, a God who watches over each one of us and the world.

            As of tonight we have six members of our cathedral staff who are canons of this cathedral:  Kim, Gina, Andrew, and Patty now take their place with Jan and Michael in the leadership of this place and their service as cathedral ministers who set a standard for us all.  That standard reflects not only their worldly competence but something more:  that standard reflects the way they have internalized and so live out what the Wisdom of Solomon calls their continual abiding in God’s love. Tonight’s reading from Revelation [19: 1-10] gives us a picture of the moment to which all our work and prayer and ministry is leading, that day at the end of things when all of us will stand around God’s throne to give thanks that God’s work of love and reconciliation and justice has been finished, and all can cry, “Hallelujah!, Amen!”  That is the day to which all of us move forward together in hope.  And it is in the ongoing service of God’s mission to bring that day about that all of us who serve the church live and work together in hope. 

            And so tonight:  Kim, Gina, Andrew, and Patty. Tonight you take your place as canons of this cathedral along with Jan and Mike.  We look to you now as signs and standards of our own participation in the mighty work that God is doing in and through us all.  My prayer for you and for us this evening, is that you will continue to love and serve God and God’s church in joyous, liberating and transforming ways and so help us all, when everything is finally said and done, to measure up.  Amen.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Homily: installation of Mattew Butterbaugh as Rector of St.Matthew's Kenosha, WI [October 26, 2013]

I want to begin by saying both how pleased I am to be here today and just how old this occasion makes me feel.  Not only did I know your rector when he was a first year seminarian.  I knew your bishop even before he went to seminary.  There are some wonderful blessings inherent in a long career in the ministry, but some days I feel like I'm about 106 years old.

And then there's the anomaly of Matthew Butterbaugh being installed as the 25th rector of St. Matthew's.  I was the seventh rector of Christ Church Cranbrook, the ninth dean of Seabury-Western, and now I'm the tenth dean of Washington National Cathedral.   25 rectors in Kenosha?  You people don't look that mean to me. Since moving to Washington, Kathy and I have come to know and love Mary Garner, the widow of Sanford Garner, a much earlier rector here, and she says you're all lovely people.  But 25 rectors?  Really?  There has to be a story there.

It's probably just as well.  In the Episcopal Church we seem to have a prurience for authority.  The great Ralph Waldo Emerson said that an institution is “the lengthened shadow of one man" [“Self-Reliance”].  True enough, but Emerson was a self-reliant individualistic Transcendentalist.  For us Christians, the church is about community.  Indeed, in today's reading from Romans, Paul describes the church as the body of Christ.  He means that literally.  We are all of us interconnected and part of each other, belonging to something bigger than ourselves.  Yet when we talk about parish churches we seem to confuse the rector with the community itself. And here in Kenosha, it doesn't help that your patron saint and your rector now have the same name.
Listen again to Paul:

For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. [Romans 12: 4-5]

As we hear Paul tell us that we are "members one of another", we need to begin our reflection on this new stage in the ministry of St. Matthew's Church with an admission that today is not primarily about the installation of one--admittedly gifted, energetic, and faithful--man. Today is primarily about the ministry of this body in which all of us are members.  If you have any doubts about that, think back on our first reading, from Numbers. We didn't hear the part that comes right before the start of that passage, when Moses complains to God in a tone that makes him sound like a kindergartner in need of a nap.  He's led the people out of Egypt.  They're in the middle of their 40-year sojourn in the desert.  Half of the Israelites want to give up and go back to slavery.  Moses asks Yahweh for help.  And Yahweh takes some of Moses's spirit and puts it on the 70 elders.  The point: leadership in the church is not a solo sport.  It is a team endeavor.  It’s not just individuals who are leaders.  Communities can be leaders, too.

So how can this community, how can all of you, lead and serve in the spirit of Moses and the 70 elders?   I would begin with the simple thought that self-knowledge is the key to everything.  Moses knew himself well enough to see that he needed help.  He was secure enough in his identity to ask for it. In Baptism, you and I have been given both a ministry and an identity.  Knowing who you are, and knowing that who you are is loved by God and good, is the best place to start.  God made each of us unique in God's image.  Each of us brings something precious and unrepeatable to the world. If the church is to be a living incarnation of God's mission, then it needs the fullness of everyone's call--not just the rector's--as it enacts that mission in the world. The church doesn’t just need Matthew Butterbaugh to be a great and interesting guy.  The church needs all of you to be fully who you are so it can be fully who it is in the world.

In today's reading from Romans, Paul reminds us that God’s Spirit lives in and through us in equal but asymmetrical ways. The Spirit at work in the community is given to everyone, but it is apportioned differently:

We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. [Romans 12:6-8]

In today’s world, knowing who you are and what you can do is no mean achievement.  We are all bombarded by thousands of daily messages claiming our attention, and we inhabit a society that commodifies everything we do, urging us take things produced by others into ourselves rather than give voice to the intuitions that come from within.  A baptismal vision of the church is radically critical of that consumerist vision of society.  It suggests that who you are, what you think, how you feel, what you know about yourself and God—all those intuitions and perceptions are valuable to the common enterprise.  So as you begin this new phase of your shared ministry at St. Matthew’s with Father Matthew my prayer is that you strive to make this parish a place where people can bring all of who they are—their hopes, their fears, their sorrows, their joys—to God’s table so that they can be offered up and given to the world.  We are all members one of another, and we each have unique and differing gifts.  If St. Matthew’s Church—if any church—has a reason for being, it is to celebrate and share those gifts with each other and the world.  The true sign of your success in living both corporately and from within is that both St. Matthew’s and Kenosha itself will be the better for your having done so.
And then there’s today's Gospel:
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. [Luke 10: 1-2]

When we hear this Gospel we are usually so overwhelmed with the news that the seventy appointed by Jesus carried no purse, bag, or sandals—“whoa,  not me, Lord, I’m an executive-level Christian!”—that we tend not to hear the first part of the sentence.  Listen to this:  “he sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” Did you hear that?  “He sent them on ahead of him.” If I hear this right, the Gospel takes the logic of the Numbers reading and carries it one step further. If you and I are the seventy—and I think we are—then it’s not just the case that we’re helping, as that first seventy did Moses.  Rather, you and I have been sent on ahead of Jesus to every town and place where he intends to go.  Translation:  we’re not just helpers.  We represent, we prepare the way for, Jesus and his vision of new, transformed, risen life. We are, individually and together, the body of Christ.  We are God's enfleshments in the world. That news leads me to two final thoughts and charges I would give to both Matthew and St. Matthew’s as you celebrate your new ministry together.
Charge One: together, you and I together in the church represent Jesus.  That means that God has tied up God’s reputation in us.  It is vital that the church live with integrity and compassion and urgency because when people look at us they see Jesus, and what they think of Jesus will largely be a product of what they think of us.  So the first Gospel charge I hear this afternoon is this:  serve each other and the wider community in such a way that when people look at you they will see Jesus.  Serve them in such a way that the Jesus they see is the Jesus you know and love and want them to know and love, too.
Charge Two:  we all have been sent ahead to prepare the way for Jesus.  Our mission is not about us.  Our mission is about Jesus and his quest to love, embrace, forgive, bless, and transform the world.  You have been given a variety of gifts but the same Spirit.  You are called, together, to use those gifts not for the glorification of this parish or its rector but for the glorification of God.
It is God’s mission you and I and your bishop and your rector are about together, and just as it was not all on Moses shoulders to get it right, so it is not all on yours.  The good news we all celebrate together this afternoon is this: for some reason none of us can fathom, God has chosen the fragile likes of you and me as the instruments for the healing and transformation of the world.  Let us bring all of who we are to that mission.  Let us live it with compassion and integrity.  And let us give thanks that, when all is said and done, God’s life and justice and blessing and hope will prevail.  Amen.