Sunday, January 20, 2013

Homily: The Third Sunday after the Epiphany [January 20, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

For Zion's sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.[ Isaiah 62.1]

There are eight steps that lead up into this pulpit.  Every time I ascend these steps I remember that, on March 31, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached his final sermon from this very place. Four days after he preached here at Washington National Cathedral, Dr. King was killed by an assassin wielding a gun.
The sermon Dr. King preached that morning was a call to the faith community to wake up to the world around us.  He titled the sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”, and he asked that all Christians join in the ongoing struggles against racism, poverty, and especially violence.   As he said, ”It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.” He also said, “We must find an alternative to war and bloodshed.” As a student of Gandhi and a follower of Jesus, Dr. King had made nonviolence central to both his theology and his practice as a Civil Rights leader.  Four days before he died by means of gunfire, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in this pulpit and asked that we all reject violence.
I remember King’s assassination very well.  It happened in Holy Week, and it’s one of the events that first compelled me, as a college freshman, to go to church at Easter to try and make sense of it.  I’ve always had an aversion to guns, even though I have been pretty much sheltered from them and no real sense of what it feels like to be faced with one.  As I was driving to a meeting last week, I heard NPR’s Terry Gross interview the actor Dustin Hoffman, and I was surprised to learn that Hoffman has refused for a very long time to carry a gun on screen.  His refusal comes as a result of having been threatened at gunpoint when he was a younger man.  Here is part of what he said:
I don’t think people understand what it’s like to have a gun pointed at you.  I remember when it happened to me . . . Every split second you’re feeling the bullet go right through you.. . . I was aware of how easy that finger is to just touch this thing called a trigger and it’s all over.  [Fresh Air January 17, 2013]
            As I listened to Hoffman talk about his experience at the wrong end of a gun, I thought of this season of Epiphany and our gospel reading for today.  The season of Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of God’s glory in the world. Today’s Gospel is the story of Jesus’s changing water into wine at a marriage feast in Cana of Galilee.  There are many possible ways to interpret this story, but to me it has always been about the way everyday stuff can reveal the transcendent glory of the divine hidden within it.  In the presence of Jesus, water becomes wine.  The ordinary becomes a window in to the extraordinary. Here’s how John puts it at the end of the passage: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” [John 2.11]
            The point of our Gospel today is not that Jesus is a magician.  The point is that the glory that Jesus reveals in himself is God’s glory, and the big truth on offer here is that not only Jesus but all God’s precious human creatures similarly reflect and reveal that divine glory.  Like water being transformed into wine, we are all, all of us, windows into the glory of God.  That’s what we mean when we say that human beings are created in God’s image.  That’s what we mean when we say that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  What Jesus reveals to us is that we are each particular incarnations, enfleshments of the divine.  And so one thing today’s Gospel leads me to understand is the way in which every abuse or terrorization or threat or assault on a human being is also an attack on God. 
We Christians follow someone who incarnated God perfectly on earth.  We follow that same one who died at human hands by means of violence.  The first thing I get as a preacher occupying Dr. King’s pulpit space on this Sunday is the link between Jesus and Dr. King and Newtown and you and me.  Jesus was precious and he died because of violence.  Dr. King was precious and he died because of violence.  The first graders and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School were precious and they died because of violence.  The urban kids who shoot each other on our streets are precious and they die by means of violence every day. You and I are precious, too, and we have the opportunity to resist violence, to stand with its victims and say “No more,”to call others into work and action to stop it, and to help heal the wounds of a nation that has already suffered too much because of it. 
            So in the spirit of Dr. King, I want to say that opposing gun violence may have political implications, but it is not primarily a political issue.  It is a religious issue, a theological issue.  Human beings are precious, unique, unrepeatable icons of God. We stand with God and for God’s values when we stand with and for the human beings who bear God’s glory into the world. And one of the ways we stand with and for them is to proclaim their dignity and worth and oppose all forces that threaten or oppress them.  And right now one of the chief oppressive threats to human dignity in our world is the obscene proliferation of guns in America. If we want to stand with Jesus and with Martin Luther King, we’ve also got to stand with those who, like them, die by means of violence.  And that means we who follow Jesus and stand with King have to stand against guns. That may sound like a hard truth, but for a Christian, there’s no way around it.
Christianity is not primarily about thinking good thoughts about God or admiring Jesus.  It’s about loving God and following Jesus.  And that means that as Christians we have not only blessings but obligations.  If you don’t believe me, listen again to what Dr. King said right here:
Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.  . . . Nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion. And it will be the kind of soul force brought into being as a result of this confrontation that I believe will make the difference. [Martin Luther King, Jr. “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”, WNC 3/31/68]
We at Washington National Cathedral have come to the end of the first part of our work, the preaching part; and that’s the easy part.  Now we are entering the next phase of our work, the organizing part; and that’s the harder part.  Bishop Budde and I and our staff colleagues have spent the last month getting connected to other faith community and gun control leaders, many of whom have been doing this work far longer than we have.  We have learned a lot from them.  We also have something to contribute.
I believe we at the Cathedral need to get behind the President and Vice President’s recommendations on gun control legislation, supporting a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, supporting universal background checks, and supporting stiffer criminal penalties for those engaged in gun trafficking. We are joining with our interfaith partners to shape a strategy by which all of us can bring pressure to bear on legislators around the country to support these three common sense, consensual, middle of the road goals.  As that strategy emerges, we will ask that you join in that work of moving the legislation forward.  As President Obama said last week,
This will not happen unless the American people demand it.  If parents and teachers, police officers and pastors, if hunters and sportsmen, if responsible gun owners, if Americans of every background stand up and say, enough; we’ve suffered too much pain and care too much about our children to allow this to continue — then change will come.  That’s what it’s going to take. . . .The only way we can change is if the American people demand it. [Presidential Press Conference on Gun Control 1/16/13]

As the National Cathedral, we are a visible faith community in a symbolic building.  We have a unique role in American religious life.  We represent what is best in American civic life—we stand at the intersection of faithful and civic values.  It is vital that we use our visibility and our symbolic role to keep the need for gun control squarely in the public eye.  As the leader of this wonderful place, I commit myself to that work and ask you to join me as the legislative process moves forward.  We can make Washington National Cathedral a visible focus of our shared commitment and so help end our national tragic scourge of gun violence.
Tomorrow is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  It is also the day on which we inaugurate the president and vice president.  The day after tomorrow the Cathedral will host the 57th Inaugural Prayer Service.  As President Obama begins his second term, I can think of no better way for this Cathedral to support him in this work than to reaffirm our commitment to Dr. King’s vision of an America characterized by justice, equality, and peace.

For Zion's sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.[ Isaiah 62.1]


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Homily: The Epiphany [January 6, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

             The older I get, the more I love art museums.  A few years ago a clergy group I was taking part in did a get-to-know-you exercise.  We were asked to complete the sentence, “I never saw a blank I didn’t like.” I had to go first, so I said, “museum”.  As we went around the room, everyone else said something really pious like “church” or “icon” or “sacrament” or “book of the Bible”.  It didn’t take long to figure out who was the secular humanist in the room.

One of the delights of living in Washington is its museums.  When I have a day off, you can usually find me at one of them. And one of my very favorite paintings hangs in the National Gallery of Art here in Washington.  When you walk down the hallways of the first floor there, you can't help but see it. It’s a huge circular painting, called in Italian a tondo, and it rests inside an ornate gold-painted frame: Fra Angelico’s and Fra Filippo Lippi’s 15th century depiction of The Adoration of the Magi.  It pictures the event we celebrate today, the feast of the Epiphany. On this day, we hear the story, told in Matthew’s Gospel, that tells us how wise men came from the east bearing symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the cradle of the infant Jesus.
When you go to the National Gallery, I hope you will stop and look at this remarkable painting. What arrests me most about The Adoration of the Magi is the startling profusion of human beings who come to adore the infant Jesus. They seem to be streaming in from all over the place.  But standing atop a wall apart from the crowds is a line of five pale men wearing loincloths. These men are emaciated and gaunt.  Yet they raise their hands in a gesture of astonishment and praise.  That they are nearly naked suggests that they are probably beggars. That their skin is so whitishly pale suggests that they are lepers. Whoever they are, they are cut off from the rest of the people, therefore excluded from society. Yet as lonely and miserable as they must be, they cannot help but be caught up in the joy of the moment. As do the Magi and the crowd around them, these leprous paupers look toward the infant Jesus with expectation and respond to him with praise.
One of the ways to understand the Epiphany is to listen to what the writer of the letter to the Ephesians tells us this morning. He suggests that, in Jesus, something previously hidden is now being revealed. As he says,
In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.  [Ephesians 3: 5-6]

In other words: there are no longer any insiders or outsiders. Even Gentiles can become Christians! In the life and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus, a divine mystery is being worked out.  The categories “Jew” and “Gentile” no longer make any sense. The human family and its divisions are being healed. We are, all of us, on a path from our separate places into a new way of being.
The Magi’s pilgrimage reminds us how important journeys are in the life of faith. In the earliest days of the Jesus movement, the group simply called itself hodos, the Way.  (See Acts 9.2)  In Greek, hodos means “way” in the sense of a travelled way, a road.  But like all words, hodos soon took on metaphorical connotations.  Just as today we talk of the "spiritual path or journey", so then "The Way" meant a faith process, a course of conduct, a manner of thinking or feeling or acting or deciding. In the very earliest days Christians got it right:  they thought of themselves not as a religious system but as a group of people on a shared journey, a path with ethical and spiritual and behavioral implications. 
So here we have the confluence of a couple of ideas.  One of them is represented in the Fra Angelico/Fra Lippo Lippi painting:  the whole human community--from oriental potentates to leprous beggars and everybody in between--joins in praise of the one born in the stable.  The second involves our talk of ways and roads and paths and journeys.  The whole world is drawn to this human manifestation of what God is up to.  And they respond not with a doctrine but with a pilgrimage. Taken together, they lead me to say—and this may sound strange at first--that Christianity is not a religion. It is a Way; it is a mode of being toward the world, toward others, toward God.
“Christianity is not a religion?” says the preacher.  If Christianity (and Islam and Buddhism and Judaism) are not religions, what are they?
Well, what do we mean by the word, “religion”? I think what we mean these days by “religion” is a set of propositions about the universe to which its adherents assent. That’s the way we use the term, but it is a very recent notion. In a Fresh Air interview a few years ago, Terry Gross asked the writer Karen Armstrong, "what do you think religion is for?"  Here is how Armstrong answered:
Religion is about helping us to deal with the sorrow that we see in life, helping us to find meaning in life, and helping us to live in relation to . . .  transcendence. . . . Religious people are ambitious. They want to feel enhanced. They want to feel at peace within themselves. They want to live generous lives. They want to live beyond selfishness, beyond ego.

For Karen Armstrong, who lived a good part of her life in a monastic community, the life of faith is about living in a new way--a way that involves not only self-awareness but making common cause with others.  Here's how she concludes:
All the world religions say that the way to find what we call God or Brahman, Nirvana, or Tao is to get beyond the prism of egotism, of selfishness which holds us in a little deadlock and limits our vision. That if we can get beyond that, especially in the practice of compassion, when we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, we live much more richly and intensely. [Fresh Air 9/21/09]

As I think about The Adoration of the Magi in the National Gallery and what it represents, as I think about the Letter to the Ephesians and its declaration that we're in the middle of a great mystery working itself out, as I think about those Magi making their way to Bethlehem from the east surrounded at the stable by the fullness of the human community, I believe something big and hopeful and universal and deep is going on here.  God is bringing together categories of people you normally wouldn't mention in the same breath.  And in bringing people together beyond category, God is destroying the idea of all human categories, forever.  To say that we are all one in Christ is neither aspirationally sentimental nor triumphalistically arrogant.  To say that we are all one in Christ transcends all ideas of race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or gender or class.  To say that we are all one in Christ transcends even the idea of religion.  It’s not just us Christians who are all one.  It is everybody.
Following Jesus is not about getting it right.  Being in relationship with God is not about others being damned so that I can be saved.  Living the life of faith is not about one exclusivistic way to be holy.  All of us--the Magi, the lepers, the Gentiles, the Jews, those who have followed Jesus from the earliest days, those who don’t know Jesus at all yet--are on a journey.  So are the countless women and children and men from other cultures who follow different teachers.  As followers of Jesus, the crucial issues for us are the same issues that people everywhere in the world have to confront.  In Karen Armstrong's words, "Religion is about helping us to deal with the sorrow that we see in life, helping us to find meaning in life, and helping us to live in relation to . . .  transcendence."  It's about dethroning ourselves from the center of our worlds and engaging in practices of generosity and compassion as the cosmic mystery unfolds.
Today is the Epiphany. On this day when we proclaim and enjoy the manifestation of God's glory in Jesus, let us, like the Magi, commit ourselves to being his companions.  The Way that Jesus walked is the way of hope and blessing and peace.  If you are anxious or nervous or depressed or grieving or sick; if you are enraged about the persistence of violence and suffering in the world; if you are eager for a life of abundance and peace:  join the Magi and the disciples and your brother and sister Christians and make common cause with your fellow Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims and Jews to take on practices of generosity and compassion.  We don’t think our way into holiness.  We take up holy practices and discover that the big mystery works itself out in us over time.
The Wise Men and lepers and crowds who make their way to Bethlehem remind us that Christianity is not a religion and that salvation is not about who wins and who loses.  Like all great faith traditions, Christianity is a way.  It is my way.  It is our way.  It is a call into prayer and action.  But there are other ways, too, and our job is to walk with others in the shared direction of God’s future. God is up to something big, something bigger even than religion itself.  The Magi pursued it and so can you. As we walk that road with the Magi and with Jesus, you and I can become wise people, too. Amen.