Sunday, February 17, 2013

Homily: The First Sunday in Lent [February 17, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

            As Lent begins, I’d like to give you a small window into the sinful consciousness of the Dean.  Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, and it featured services at which we imposed ashes on parishioners’ foreheads accompanied by the phrase, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We impose these ashes by making the sign of the cross.
            About half-way through the service, I felt my eyes wandering over to the side of the church where I had made the ash crosses on people’s foreheads, and I began to admire my own handiwork.  My, I thought to myself, those crosses are pretty good looking and symmetrical at that.  Then I looked over to the side where Gina had made the crosses, and my pride turned to envy.  Gosh, I observed, Gina’s crosses are better looking than mine. How did she get so good at this?  Then I looked over at Elizabeth Gardner’s ash crosses, and hers were even better still.  How did this happen?  I’ve been a priest for 36 years, and Elizabeth has been ordained for about 15 minutes. It just isn’t fair.
            So here I was in the middle of a Lenten liturgy focused on sin, and I found my own mental processes descending irretrievably into my own sinful, self-involved musings.  It all began with a plausible moment of self-congratulation and turned into a self-flagellating spectacle of envy and despair.
            Well, not really.  Actually, I was more amused at my own folly than depressed by the state of my ash crosses.  But you get the point.  How easily these bad ideas can grow, without our noticing, from fleeting thoughts into all-engrossing obsessions. And that leads me to something that dominated last week’s news.
            The dramatic story of Christopher Dorner—the former Los Angeles policeman who went on a murderous rampage against his former colleagues and was finally killed in a firefight in the San Bernardino mountains last week—is a compelling one. What intrigues me most about this story is the way Dorner was able to go through an interior process by which he could justify, to himself, outrageous and hateful actions.  How does a person who has served both in the military and the police get themselves to a place where they can contemplate and carry out killings in such a calculated way?  The process must have started, surely, with the real grievance he had against a department known to be still troubled by personal and institutional racism.  From the real grievance, Dorner went on to write a manifesto outlining the department’s patterns of racism and abuse.  And then he found a way to use his own manifesto as a warrant to begin killing police officers and, potentially, their families.  As we all know, the story ended last Tuesday when Dorner was cornered and finally killed in a cabin near Big Bear.
            How does someone move from being a pillar of society to its sworn enemy?  I think the process involves our innate, human ability to believe what New Testament scholar N.T. Wright calls the “plausible lie”.  Just as I momentarily got myself to believing that the quality of the ash crosses was what Wednesday’s  liturgy was about, so Christopher Dorner got himself to a place where he could justify his rampage as a “necessary evil” that he must perform both to eliminate racism in the Police Department and to clear his own name. 
            As we all begin to engage the Lenten season of self-examination, it is good to remember how many “plausible lies” we have each told ourselves over the course of our moral lives. One way to understand the Gospel for today, Luke’s account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness by Satan, is to see it as a meditation on the plausible lie.  Jesus goes alone into the desert, and a voice there—from Luke’s account, it could be an external or an internal voice--asks him to consider three things. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” “If you, then, will worship me, [all the kingdoms of the world] will be yours.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from [the pinnacle of the Temple].”
            To you and me, these may sound like exotic temptations, enticements not very likely to sway us.  But to Jesus, who has just been baptized and told by a voice from above that he was “God’s Son, the beloved”, they are extremely dangerous.  And they’re dangerous precisely because they’re so plausible. Surely God would not want his Son, the beloved, to suffer hunger.  Surely God wants the entire world to know and love God’s Son, the beloved.  Surely the quickest way to prove he was God’s Son, the beloved, would be by means of a spectacular, death-defying miracle. [Luke 4:1-14]
            Because you and I inhabit a culture that continually overstimulates us, we tend to think of “sin” as the kind of high voltage excess you would see in a red-light district or an adult video.  But the Bible understands sin as something much more subtle than a weekend in Las Vegas.  We human beings are wonderfully made, created in God’s own image.  But we have free minds that can imagine things as other than as they actually are.  The problem with sin isn’t that it’s so lurid.  The problem with sin is that it seems so plausible.
            My friend Harvey Guthrie tells the story of hearing Desmond Tutu interviewed once by a rather plain-minded journalist during the days of the South African struggle against apartheid.  The journalist asked Tutu if he was afraid of being killed, and the Archbishop responded by saying that there are things worse than death.  The journalist was stunned by this answer, and asked, “What, possibly, could be worse than death?”  Desmond Tutu responded, “If I were to get up some morning and say to myself, you know, Desmond, apartheid really isn’t so bad: that would be worse than death.”
            Here, turn this rock into a loaf of bread. Throw yourself off the top of the Temple.  Apartheid isn’t so bad.  It is these plausible lies, and not the more obvious temptations we face, that are the root causes of our problem.  And just as Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days to consider and reject the plausible lies in his life, so you and I have this forty-day Lenten season in which to examine the plausible lies in ours.
            As we begin this shared walk toward Easter, the question for each of us is this: what are the plausible lies that can claim and direct your life?  One big plausible lie in our culture is that we will never have enough and so must keep everything we get to ourselves.  Another plausible lie is that we are somehow more special than others.  Still another plausible lie is that we should give over the entirety of our waking lives to our work. Yet another is that I will be truly happy once I have X. (Fill in the blank.)  A big plausible lie for us religious people is that we should hand over our intellects to some magisterial system that will tell us what to think and how to live. Each of us receives hundreds, perhaps thousands, of messages packed with plausible lies every day.  That’s the curse of expanding information technology.  Jesus only had to wrestle with three plausible lies.  Now, thanks to your iPhone, you can battle 60 per hour.
            Jesus could say “No” to the plausible lies because he knew who he was:  God’s Son, the beloved.  You and I will never be able to say “No” to those lies until we know who we are, too.  Lent is not about feeling guilty or sinful. Lent is about coming to terms with who you really, finally are.  You too are God’s child.  You too are beloved.  We have this forty day season as a time to turn our attention away from the world’s plausible lies and to fix our eyes on Jesus, the one who models for us what authentic, meaningful, joyous human life can be. We have Lent as a time live into our authentic selves.   It doesn’t matter who makes the most perfect ash crosses.  There really still are some things worse than death.  Not living is one of them.  Not living as who you are is another.  Let us use these 40 precious days to clear our heads, open our hearts, and say “Yes” to who God really calls us to be.  Amen.

The Temptation of Jesus

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Homily: The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [February 3, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

Today is the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, a day commonly observed as Peace Sunday in the Episcopal Church.  That's because our collect for today addresses God as the One who governs “all things both in heaven and earth” and asks that we be granted God’s peace in God’s time.
Talking about peace in church may seem like a no-brainer, but actually to do so is a challenging task. For example, although we Episcopalians are a peaceful lot, it's probably a bad idea to try to preach about peace in church on Super Bowl Sunday.  And as the 49ers face off against the Ravens, it's probably an even worse idea for a Californian to do so in the presence of a large number of mid-Atlantic football fans.  But before you jump to conclusions, please remember that I'm from Los Angeles, not San Francisco, and we Angelenos have never happily rooted for Bay Area teams especially since the Raiders hightailed it back to Oakland in 1994.  The only way I'd pull for the 49ers, Raiders, Giants, or Athletics is if they were playing the Taliban.  And I assume Washingtonians would say much the same about Baltimore and the Ravens, especially since they’re really still the Cleveland Browns in disguise.
We all probably agree that there will never be peace on the gridiron.  In fact, peace on the playing field is the last thing we want. Something about us loves loyalties, rivalries, and contests.  I can’t imagine a satisfactory way in which the playing of the Super Bowl could end with a group hug and the singing of “Kumbayah”.  But as closely as sports mirror reality, they are not the thing itself.  Some atavistic part of us yearns for blood on the playing field. But another part of us yearns for an end to war in all of its forms. Even as we prepare to watch the Super Bowl, on this Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, the church urgently prays for God’s peace to obtain in the world.
            What does it mean for us to pray and stand for peace?  As an Episcopalian, I start by admitting that we inhabit a comprehensive church, one characterized by a wide range of views on the subject.  There are Episcopalian pacifists.  There are Episcopalians in uniform.  As the inheritors of the Church of England’s established church tradition, American Episcopalians have long understood the important role of the military in our national life and have supported ministries to men and women in uniform since the nation’s founding.  At the same time, we have consistently raised up leaders who have opposed war in some or all its forms, many sharing the pacifist views of our Quaker brothers and sisters.  Anglicanism will never be of one mind on questions of war and peace.  But that does not mean we have nothing to say on the subject.
            One way in to thinking about peace is to attend to what Jesus says as he returns to his hometown of Nazareth in this morning’s Gospel.  As Luke tells the story, Jesus has gone home to Nazareth after an early series of amazing public healings around Galilee.  As he reads and speaks in the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus is challenged by his former neighbors. Luke tells us that “they were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth,” and asked, “Is this not Joseph’s son?”  Translation:  We know this man. Others may think him a powerful healer and teacher, but we know that he’s really just little Jesus from the carpenter’s shop.  Who does he think he is?
            Jesus responds with one of his most famous sayings:  “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown.”  And then he goes on to say something which sounds pretty benign to us but actually enrages his listeners:
But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian. [Luke 4:21-30]

Jesus’s reference to the Sidonian widow and the Syrian leper makes the people of Nazareth so angry that they drive him out of town to the brow of a hill so that they might hurl him off a cliff. “Sidonian” and “Syrian” don’t sound like fighting words to me. What is the big deal with those names?
The big deal, of course, is that Jesus is speaking positively about people the Israelites have identified as “the enemy”.  The prophet Elijah came to the widow of Zaretphath in Sidon, the home town of the Philistines.  Elijah’s successor, Elisha, cured Naaman of leprosy, and he was a General in the Syrian army.  The Philistines oppressed Israel in its early days, the Syrians later on. For the Israelites, both the Philistines and the Syrians were the enemy, the oppressor, the collective representation of evil. To say that God accepted them was an insult.  To say that God might have preferred them was an outrage.
Jesus then compounds the offense by tacitly comparing himself to the prophet Elijah, whose ministry was seen as a pattern for the Messiah, the hoped-for king who many believed would return and restore Israel to its greatness and banish Israel’s enemies—Philistines and Syrians then, Romans now--forever.  Here was Jesus telling them that the real Messiah would exercise compassion, not vengeance, that messianic ministry might even include reaching out to and embracing the enemy. It’s a short step from saying “God loves Philistines” to “God loves Romans” to who knows what that would be today.
Jesus’s experience in Nazareth has much to teach us about our own attitudes to war and peace. For those of us who follow Jesus, the primary problem is neither with the technology nor the tactics of warfare.  For those of us who follow Jesus, the real problem is our human tendency to define others as our “enemies”.  For Christian people, there can never be an “us” and a “them”. For Christian people, even the people who oppose us and our values continue to share our humanity.  We are under orders never to stigmatize them as evil or less than human.  We are under orders to love them as we love our neighbors and ourselves.
 The great Reinhold Niebuhr once observed that in questions of justice and mercy, we tend to ask God for mercy for ourselves and justice for others. We can hear in Jesus’s synagogue remarks a similar critique of human folly.  The popular messianic hope of his day expected the intervention of a God who would be merciful to Israel and cruel to everybody else.  Before we smugly nod in knowing judgment of them, couldn’t we say the same thing about ourselves?  The basic tribal loyalties that bind us together as human beings—religious, ethnic, racial, class—are the same ones that betray us in our larger social connections.  Niebuhr also said that human beings are better in their intimate relationships than they are in their social ones.  I’m a lot more compassionate with my family and friends than I am with the people “out there”.  We empathize with those we know.  We distrust those we don’t.
As followers of Jesus, you and I will always be called to stand for peace.  For some of us that will mean questioning, perhaps opposing, war in its many forms.  For others of us that will mean faithful military service.  The real question for all of us who follow Jesus is this:  how do we live expansively into Jesus’s vision of God’s love and mercy and grace?  As Jesus implied in the synagogue, so he proclaims today:  God’s love and mercy and grace are for everybody.  You may have an adversary on the playing field, but there are no real “enemies” in life.  God loves Israelite, Philistine, Syrian, and Roman alike.  God loves American, Taliban, Palestinian, and Israeli alike.  There are no special categories of human being, good or bad.  The root of our war and peace problem lies in our tendency to try to put people into categories in the first place. But no category ultimately describes the complexity of any human being.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” says Paul. [Romans 3.23]  And all are precious, created in God’s image and redeemed on the cross.  Only the vision of divine love and grace as lived and proclaimed by Jesus has room to accommodate what seems to us a paradox. We’re all sinners and we’re all beloved.  One statement can be true only if both are true. That is the case without exception.
Later today many of us will watch what happens on the playing field.  Right now we prepare to share this meal, the Eucharist.  It is the sign and symbol of something deeper going on in the world than what we see on a surface of labels and categories.  At his table, Jesus gathers everyone in unquestioning, radical hospitality.  As we come together around Jesus’s table, let’s remember that the one who calls us to this meal is the same one who forgave those who took him to the cross.  God’s mercy and grace are finally bigger than our ability to comprehend them.  All we can do in response is resolve to accept and extend them, and then gather at this table to give thanks. Amen.