Sunday, March 31, 2013

Homily: Easter Day [March 31, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

            Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, a day of mixed  festivity and sorrow.  It began with the festival procession recreating Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  It ended with the reading of the Passion Gospel telling of Jesus’s trial, execution, and death.
            During the happy part of the liturgy we entered, as we always do, singing the familiar hymn, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor”:
               All glory, laud, and honor,
               to thee, Redeemer, King,
               to whom the lips of children
               made sweet hosannas ring.

As I looked out at the congregation, though, I noticed that my wife Kathy was in tears.  After church I asked her about it: “You were crying during the happy part of the service. Why was that?”
               She replied, “Palm Sunday always makes me sad.  But when we were singing that hymn with the line about the lips of little children, all I could think about was Newtown.  This will be the first Easter for those families without their children.”
               In the hundred or so days since December 14, we here at Washington National Cathedral and most of the whole American faith community have walked in solidarity with the families of the children and teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We have made our way through the church year—Christmas, of course, then Lent and Holy Week—thinking and praying about those children, the teachers, and their families.  Now here we are at Easter, Christianity’s most joyful and holiest day. What in the world does Easter have to say to the families of Newtown?  What in the world does Easter have to say to us?
               As we pose these questions together, let me share a bit of how I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in Lent. Because the new pope, Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, took the name Francis I when he was elected earlier this month, and because up to then  I knew very little  about Saint Francis of Assisi (after whom he named himself), I decided to give myself a Lenten crash course on Saint Francis.  There are many wonderful and stirring stories about Francis--some of them probably even true!—but the one that has moved me the most took place as Saint Francis lay dying.  He was sick with a number of ailments: he was in constant pain, malnourished and bedridden. He was totally blind. And yet as he lay in his sickbed he composed one of the few great texts attributed to him that we know without doubt to be authentic:  “The Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon”. In the midst of his powerful physical suffering, Saint Francis of Assisi responded not with a lament for his suffering but with a hymn expressing the deepest joy and praise of the God he encountered in the created world. It says in part,

Praised be You my Lord through those who grant pardon for love of You and bear sickness and trial.

Blessed are those who endure in peace, By You Most High, they will be crowned.

What in the world does Easter have to say to those who suffer and grieve?  In answer to that question, it helps to keep St. Francis in mind as we reflect on the Gospel story we have just heard.  Outside the empty tomb, Jesus reveals himself to Mary Magdalene, and he tells her to “go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" [John 20: 17b]
At first pass, this command may not sound like much.  But it marks a turning point in the divine-human encounter.  Up to this moment, Jesus has referred to God as his Father. Now, at the empty tomb, the language has changed:  the One Jesus previously called his Father is now “my Father and your Father, my God and your God”.
What happens here is as subtle and yet as startling as what takes place when any relationship moves to a new level of intimacy.  Before Easter, God was the One Jesus was trying to introduce (or reintroduce) to us.  After Easter, God is One who belongs not only to Jesus but now to us and the world.  How can that be?
That can be because in the events leading up to today God has taken on what it means to be us.  As Christians, we believe and proclaim that God was somehow uniquely present in the Palestinian Jewish peasant from Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels tell the story of how Jesus came among us, taught us, healed us, called us into new life and community with each other.  The life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth show that we can live an abundant life even in the midst of social, political, and personal suffering.  We partake of that abundance not by holding on to what we have but by letting it go—by  coming together in community to love, support, and bless each other. In the days leading up to Easter, Jesus lived that message so faithfully that the power structures of church and state couldn’t stand it, so they took him to the cross.  And now here we are, at the empty tomb, and his first word to Mary and to us is one of solidarity: “Go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"
At Easter, God belongs to us and the world.  Our fear, our aggression, our selfishness could not stop God’s relentless quest to be connected to us.  Easter is about many things, but perhaps its deepest meaning has to do with this divine persistence in search of you and me.  Do what we will to avoid, betray, even kill the One who comes toward us in Jesus, that One will not be stopped even by our rage, denial, and fear.  Jesus is alive at Easter not as some kind of cosmic magic trick.  Jesus is alive at Easter as a sign and symbol and witness of the relentless persistence of a divine love for us that refuses to let us go.
               What in the world does Easter have to say to the families of Newtown?  What in the world does Easter have to say to us?  Speaking as a preacher, I would be lying to you if I said that Easter erases the loss of the precious innocents who died there, or that it makes our shared human suffering go away. Speaking as a husband, a father, a teacher myself, I know that pulpit consolations come cheap, especially when you are on the other side of them. 
               But speaking as one who, with Mary Magdalene and with Peter and the beloved disciple comes to this empty tomb to encounter the risen Jesus, I am telling God’s truth when I say that Easter is about the luminous beauty God can make out of human failing, stupidity, and evil.  We human beings can’t seem to help ourselves:  we will always manage to get in our own way.  But in that relentless, divine persistence that searches for us even in spite of us, God will continue to seek us out and find us.  This search will not erase or undo our suffering and loss.  But it will take us to a new place:  a place of life and hope and wholeness and peace where we now live the risen life of Jesus with each other and with God.
            Easter is about the life that emerges from death.  It is about the joy that emerges from sorrow.  It is about the courage that comes forth from fear. Easter can be about all those things because it is finally about the One who greets Mary at the tomb and tells her, “Go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"
With Jesus we have not only a new life; we have a new community. As Saint Francis said,
Praised be You my Lord through those who grant pardon for love of You and bear sickness and trial.
Blessed are those who endure in peace, By You Most High, they will be crowned.

God and God’s life belong now to Jesus, to you to me, to everyone, living, dead, and yet to be born. That is what Easter can and does say to each and all of us:  Go to my brothers and sisters and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." Amen.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Meditation: Good Friday [March 29, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

           During the season of Lent this year I have been thinking about the life of St. Francis of Assisi.  When Cardinal Bergoglio became pope and took the name of Francis I earlier this year, I realized that I didn’t know very much about St. Francis at all.  I have been grateful for the opportunity to learn more about this extraordinary saint.
         St. Francis is by now a cultural fixture—famous for his love for animals, his solidarity with the poor, his identification with the sufferings of Jesus.  But it wasn’t always this way.  Early in his ministry, Francis was viewed with suspicion and ridicule.  He and his brothers in the order owned no property or money, and they begged for their meals.  Even more shockingly, Francis did not shun lepers but would embrace them and kiss their sores.  The first responses to St. Francis were fearful and hostile.  He was considered a dangerous madman before he was revered as a saint.
         The great Italian director Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 film, The Flowers of Saint Francis, dramatizes this early negative response to Francis and his community.  In one vignette, a character called Brother Ginepero sets off on a preaching mission and wanders into the camp of a group of barbarian warriors.  They seize him and violently play with him, at one point using him as a human jump rope.  Ginepero is finally taken to the tent of the tyrant Nicolaio, who plans to execute the little monk.
         During the private audience between the warrior and Franciscan brother, it becomes clear that Nicolaio has never seen anyone like Ginepero. He is peaceful, trusting, and kind.  The barbarian is ultimately shamed and conquered by Ginepero’s humility and lets him go.
         Although this episode is probably not historical, there is a deep truth in this vignette from The Flowers of St. Francis.  Nicolaio and his warriors want first to mock, then to kill Brother Ginepero. And so with us: when we meet absolute purity, innocence, and humility in one person, something in us wants to destroy them. You don’t need to read very far in the Gospels before you see this same reaction to Jesus.  Though many—especially the sick, the poor, the outcast-- are drawn to Jesus’s holiness, others—particularly those with power—see his innocence as a threat.  In the words of today’s reading from the Wisdom of Solomon
Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange.  [The Wisdom of Solomon, 2]

         Philosophers and theologians have studied endlessly to define the concept of evil.  Nobody ever agrees entirely about what evil is, but all seem to start from the idea that it has to do somehow with the suffering of the innocent.  The evil on display at the cross is like the evil that confronts St. Francis and his brothers. The pain of Good Friday lies in the way it shows us our (usually unconscious) complicity with those who cause the innocent to suffer. You and I respond to people like Jesus, like Francis, like the holy women and men among us, with aggression before we do so with admiration.  We respond to them that way because something in them reminds us of the parts of our selves we would rather not acknowledge.  It is a sign of God’s forbearance, mercy, and grace toward us that these holy fools keep showing up in our lives.  Like the tyrant Nicolaio, we would like to kill or at best humiliate them.  Like brother Ginepero, like Francis, like Jesus himself they ultimately prevail despite our worst intentions.
         As we gather at the cross of Jesus this afternoon, let us ask ourselves: what is it about him that we cannot stand?  What is it about Jesus that shows up the part of ourselves that we cannot accept?  In the words of scripture, “the righteous man is a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us.” We will continue to take Jesus and people like him to the cross so long as we ignore and disown the dark places in our own hearts.
         Today as we gather at the cross, let us remember that Holy Week and Easter are a redemptive process.  God is in search of us.  The first step on the road to Easter involves naming and loving even those aspects of our life and behavior that we ourselves want to deny.   God loves you as you are—even those places you neither know nor love yourself. God is in search of us.  As we open ourselves to God’s healing light, we will no longer need to bring Jesus and his brothers and sisters to the cross.  Amen.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Homily: Maundy Thursday [March 28, 2011] Washington National Cathedral

Like many of you, I am quite taken with the new Pope, Francis I.  As a lifelong skeptic about Vaticanal things, I find my fascination to be a bit of a surprise.  All of his recent gestures—moving into a smaller apartment where he can be part of a community, refusing to wear ermine capes and Prada shoes, paying his own hotel bill and canceling his newspaper subscription—seem to strike just the right note of personal humility. 
Perhaps the most striking thing he’s done, though, occurred today. As part of his first Holy Week observance, Pope Francis travelled to Casal del Marmo youth detention center in Rome to wash the feet of twelve young prisoners there.  This isn’t a new papal gesture—Pope Benedict did it in 2007—but it is nevertheless in keeping with the new Pope’s care of and advocacy for the poor and the marginalized.
Still, I wonder.  Will the Pope, or any of his attendants, ask the twelve young Italian prisoners to return the gesture and wash their feet? I raise the question because, when I’m honest about it, I realize that for me washing your feet is easy.  The harder part is letting you wash mine.
This difficulty arises not only from my reservations about revealing my feet in all their imperfection.  It arises also from my innate sense that I owe God and you a lot more than you or God owe me. This sense of one-way obligation is broadly shared in our church culture. About a decade or so ago I attended a clergy conference led by Martin Smith, a priest and monk and writer, who told a story about a question he often poses to clergy coming to the monastery on retreat. On the first night he tells them to go back to their rooms and ask themselves what they would like Jesus to do for them. Without fail, he said, the next day the clergy always show up with long lists of what they are supposed to do for Jesus. No, Smith said, you didn’t hear me right. I didn’t want you to list what Jesus wants you to do for him; I asked you to think about what you want Jesus to do for you. Not surprisingly, when the question is put that way, his retreatants have a very hard time coming up with any ideas at all. Jesus do something for me? Isn’t that backwards?
That’s the way it is in this Gospel for Maundy Thursday. When Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, Peter becomes distraught.

"Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." [John 13]

Though we are tempted to think of Peter as they guy who never quite gets it, in tonight’s Gospel it looks to me as if he responds as any one of us might. Jesus is the teacher, the disciples are his students. The normal order of things in a hierarchical culture is for them to serve him. Jesus calmly but radically turns that hierarchy upside down. He establishes the primary obligation as being on his part, not theirs. He serves them.
Tonight let’s sit with Martin Smith’s question as we think about the events we witness tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday. What would you like Jesus to do for you? In our liturgy last Sunday we all shouted “Crucify him!” as part of the dramatized Palm Sunday reading of the Passion Gospel. If you’re anything like me, you’ve thought a lot this Lent about the many and myriad ways in which you regularly let God and Jesus down. Fair enough.
But it’s too simple to say that we are only the crowd in that Gospel. It’s more true to say that we are both the crowd and Jesu—betrayers and betrayed. And tonight Jesus’s act of washing his companions’ feet asks us to think about why God and Jesus are going through this whole experience of betrayal, crucifixion, and death in the first place. They are going through it for you and me. They are going through it because you and I are worth something to them. They are going through it because we’re precious enough in Jesus’s sight for it to be worth his while to wash our feet.
Maundy Thursday is both a penitential and joyous occasion: we gather both to lament Judas’s betrayal of Jesus and to give thanks for Jesus’s gift to us of the Eucharist as the way to be together in the world. As you enter into these three days of betrayal and death and resurrection, what is it that you want God to do for you? What is your need for God right now at this moment in your life? What would grace look like for you now? How do you want God to act toward and for you? How have you been betrayed or misunderstood or mocked, yourself? How would God heal and restore you in the light of that? What would new, risen life look like for you if you dared to ask for it?
"Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” If you’re like me, you’d probably rather remain in your seat than come forward and have your feet washed.  If you’re like me, you are powerfully more conscious of how much you owe than you are of what God wants you to have.  I will come forward both to wash and be washed because in so doing I am allowing both God and you to do something for me.  And letting that happen is the first step on the road to acknowledging that someone other than me is in charge of the universe.
"Unless I wash you, you have no share with me," Jesus replied to Peter. In one sense we should hear that as judgment. But, in the context of the infinite love which undergirds the mighty acts of these three great days, we should hear that as a promise, too. Jesus washed his companions’ feet; God hears our prayers not because we grovel but because we are loved. Use the time between Maundy Thursday and Easter to ask yourself and God what you need Jesus to do for you. And then do your best to live-- creatively and joyously and maybe even with a little bit of risk and a lot of love-- into the answer you hear. Amen.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Homily: The Fifth Sunday in Lent [March 17, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

            Our Gospel for today [John 12: 1-8] tells the story of a party where things went horribly wrong.  In this account, Jesus goes to the house of Mary and Martha of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus.  Lazarus is the man Jesus raised from the dead.  His sisters have personalities remarkably different from each other.  In the most well-known story [Luke 10: 38-42], Martha works slavishly in the kitchen while Mary sits at Jesus’s feet and listens to his teaching. Surprisingly to many of us, that encounter ends better for Mary than in does for Martha.  Jesus says: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” [Luke 10: 41] But that’s another sermon.
            In today’s passage, Jesus is attending a dinner at the Bethany house when Mary, seemingly for no reason at all, takes a jar of expensive ointment and uses it to anoint his feet.  The fragrance of the perfume fills the room, but the smell does not quiet the attendant passions.  Judas—the zealot who will ultimately betray Jesus—loses his temper. "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" Just as Jesus had admonished Martha in the earlier story when she complained that Mary was not helping her serve the meal, so in this moment Jesus steps in and chastises Judas: "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me." Like the Smothers Brothers’ mom, Jesus always seems to like Mary best.
            Let’s try to imagine the dysfunction of this dinner party.  Martha is slaving away in the kitchen, her sister Mary is anointing Jesus’s feet, and Judas is pitching a fit because he disagrees with Mary’s fiscal priorities. Then the authority figure steps in and sides with one of them against the other.  This is like the worst Thanksgiving dinner you can imagine. I get a stomach ache every time I read this story.  Before you know it, the perfect evening has gone all to hell.
            So that’s one bad party. I want to talk now about another one where things went even worse. It happened not in Bible times but in 1993 in the Park La Brea section of Los Angeles.  Adam Scott, a 27-year old man, had recently graduated from USC Law School and had just begun work at a downtown law firm.  He was at a party at a friend’s house when the host invited a group of guests into his bedroom to see his gun collection.  The host wanted to show off his new 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun, and he first pointed it at another guest, saying it wasn’t loaded.  Then he pointed the shotgun at Adam Scott.  The gun went off. The young lawyer, hit once in the head, died within minutes.
            According to witnesses, immediately before his shooting, Adam Scott had said “I don’t even think I could fire a gun in self-defense.”[“Slayings Put Educator on Crusade for Gun Control”, Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1993]
            I didn’t know Adam Scott, but I did and still do know his parents, Jack and Lacreta, quite well.  At the time of his son’s death, Jack was president of Pasadena City College, and the Scotts were active, faithful members of All Saints Church in Pasadena, where I served at the time of Adam’s death. Not long after the shooting, Jack resigned his college job and committed the rest of his working life to curbing gun violence. He spent the next 16 years in the California State Assembly and State Senate working tirelessly in that effort.
            The events of the past year—the mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado, the avalanche of daily killings in Chicago and elsewhere—have rightly galvanized the faith community to speak and act in pastoral response to these tragedies.  People die daily in America as a result of human malevolence. But today’s Gospel and the story of Adam Scott point us toward another reality: people die not only because of evil intentions.  People die because we are not always in control of our own behavior.  Despite our best efforts, we are always in danger of finding ourselves at an event where things suddenly and tragically go wrong.
None of us is in control of the actions of others.  None of us is entirely in control of our own actions. The problem is what our prayer book calls “the unruly wills and affections of sinners”, and our prayer for today asks that God not only bring order to that seemingly uncontrollable part of us; it also pleads that God grant us grace to love what God commands and desire what God promises. 
I don’t know about you, but I recognize myself in that prayer.  My wills and affections are unruly.  And though I may strive to obey God’s commands, I don’t always love them.  And if that’s true for me, it’s probably true for all of us.  We’re like the guests at the Bethany dinner with Jesus:  we’re out of control, selfish, and prone to make mistakes.  In the words of the late Rodney King, “Can we all just get along?”
            Here at Washington National Cathedral we have spent the last several days observing a Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend.  We are doing this in collaboration with our partner organization, Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence and with over 200 faith communities across America.  Since Thursday night, we have gathered to pray, reflect, listen, learn, and commit ourselves to action that will help bring this epidemic to an end.
            Taken together, today’s Gospel and the story of Adam Scott sketch the outlines of gun violence as a religious problem.  Like all violence, gun violence will plague us as long as the wills and affections of sinners continue to be unruly. Mary and Martha and Judas turn a dinner with Jesus into a family argument.  A young man goes to a party and ends up dead.  These things don’t happen only because of human ill-will. They happen because none of us is, finally, in control of ourselves.  Our wills and affections are unruly.  We neither love what God commands nor desire what God promises.  That is the human condition:  we may think we’re in charge, but when we’re honest with ourselves we know that much of the time we’re out of control both personally and socially.  In the Christian tradition, we call that condition “sin”, and we give over the season of Lent to lamenting it, examining it and working together to find new ways to live with it even as we move, with Jesus, into God’s future. 
Gun violence will continue to be a religious problem as long as people like you and me are sinners.  When we say that we’re sinners, we do not say that in a negative or judgmental way.  We say it in recognition of the way things are. I don’t always know what’s best for myself.  I want what I want, often regardless of the consequences.  My judgment is limited and finite and partial.   Real spiritual and psychological health begins with an acknowledgement of my situation. “All we like sheep have gone astray.”[Isaiah 53:6] That’s what the Bible means when it calls us sinners:  not that we’re bad, merely that we’re cosmically accident-prone.  God doesn’t love us in spite of our sinfulness.  God loves us in full knowledge of who we are and of what we are capable.
When Martha and Judas complain about Mary’s contemplative attention to Jesus, they are not being evil, merely mistaken.  We need to work together to lessen the occurrence of gun deaths not because people are evil but because we’re neither as smart nor invulnerable as we like to think ourselves.  We need each other to make our way through life.  That’s what society, that’s what the church, is all about. And that's why we at Washington National Cathedral are in this gun violence work for the long haul. We won't give up until our streets and our schools and our children are safe. We owe at least that much to our children, our neighbors, ourselves.
 As perfect as we try to make them, our dinners, our parties, all our efforts will always contain within them the possibility of going horribly wrong. At first, that may sound like bad news.  But there is good news, too. As dysfunctional as our gatherings may be Jesus will still always manage to come to them.  We may go astray, but we are not abandoned in our confusion, our sinfulness, our vulnerability.  Jesus is here among us now as we gather at his table.  He calls us not only to love and forgive and accept ourselves and each other.  He calls us also to help him make a world where all God’s precious children will be safe from violence in all its forms.  All we like sheep have gone astray, are going astray, will continue to go astray. But we do have a shepherd in Jesus, and for that one’s loving gracious care for each and all of us we gather at his table to give thanks.  Amen.