Sunday, May 26, 2013

Homily: Trinity Sunday [May 26, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a holiday first known as "Decoration Day" in the 19th century and then “Memorial Day” in the 20th. In the first years of Decoration Day, families and friends would visit cemeteries and decorate the graves of all the departed.  After the Civil War killed over 750,000 soldiers from both North and South—more than the total dead from all other American wars before or since-- the holiday changed to a day of remembering those who had died in that war, and, as Americans became involved in more wars in the 20th century, the observance gradually expanded to include those who had died in all wars fought on our behalf.

Today is also Trinity Sunday, the day on which we Christians give thanks for God’s self-revelation to us. As we reflect together on the readings for this Sunday, the sacrifice and example of those who have died in the service of our country--from Bunker Hill to Afghanistan--will be ever present in our hearts and minds, and we will more formally give voice to our observance in the prayers.
At the end of the week following Easter, Kathy and I attended our first gathering of the Conference of North American Cathedral Deans.  This year the group met in Toronto, and an advertised highlight of the Deans’ Conference was a lecture by a Canadian theologian which promised a solution to the divisions between conservative and liberal Christians.
            A solution to the conservative/liberal religious divide?  Sign me up! You can imagine that I was all ears as the speaker launched into his topic.  Who wouldn’t want once and for all to solve this problem?  But as the talk developed, it turned out that his definition of the liberal/conservative Christian problem differed pretty radically from mine.  He defined “liberal” Christians as those who place primacy on the doctrine of the incarnation, that is God’s coming into human flesh in the person of Jesus. And by his lights, “conservative” Christians are those who emphasize the doctrine of the atonement, that is the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross.  After several minutes of intellectual gobbledygook, the speaker proved at least to himself that both doctrines actually were the same, and so ended by happily announcing that there really were no disagreements between liberal and conservative Christians at all.  Problem solved, case closed.
            Immediately I raised my hand.  “Your discussion, “I said, “does not take into account a whole other category of Christians whom I see in church every Sunday.”
            With great curiosity the speaker leaned forward and regarded me.  “Really? Who are those?” he asked.
            I replied that in every church I have served there is a third group of people.  They are not sure they believe that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God.  They are not sure that Jesus’s death on the cross and resurrection ever happened.   When and if they say the Creed they do so with their fingers crossed. Yet they are drawn to Jesus and his life and teachings and they want to follow him in worship and ministry.  “Where,” I asked, “would you place them?”
            The speaker looked at me for a minute as if I had been speaking to him in Swedish.  Finally he replied.  “Why do I have to place them anywhere?  If they don’t believe in the virgin birth and resurrection, and if they can’t say the Creed, then they’re not Christians.” 
            To call what happened next a rumble would be a bit excessive, but the response of the urban cathedral deans in the room was electric.  One  after another took to the microphone and spoke to the expanding, pluralistic reality of the belief patterns of contemporary church-goers.  The theological academics on the panel seemed really to be taken aback. They couldn’t seem to imagine the reality of a contemporary, urban North American church.   We didn’t fit into their system.
            Today is Trinity Sunday, and I am not, in the words of a priest friend of mine, going put us all through the “mental root canal” of trying to explain the Trinity in sound bites.  But this is a good occasion to ask the question implied by my experience at the Deans’ Conference:  what do you have to believe to call yourself a Christian?  Or to put it another way, is there a particular set of ideas a follower of Jesus needs to assent to at all?
            As we ponder that question, today’s Gospel gives us a good place to start.  In Jesus’s words, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” [John 16.13]  It has taken me a lifetime of living in and with the Christian tradition to begin to understand that Christianity is not a fixed set of unchanging, timeless truths; it is always growing, evolving, changing .  The more I study and look back at the early church and the centuries following it, the more I begin to understand how widely various Christian believing has always been.  In the words of the great British historian of Christianity Diarmaid MacCulloch, “Christians who think of doctrine as ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’ don’t know their history.” [“One Enormous Room”, London Review of Books, May 9, 2013]
            “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”  In John’s Gospel account, what Jesus offers his companions is not a timeless set of rigid doctrines.  What Jesus offers his companions is a relationship. In his earthly life, that relationship was lived out as Jesus and his friends gathered around an inclusive and welcoming table to celebrate the abundance of life and God’s creation.  In his ongoing and risen life, Jesus offers us a new relationship, now with the one he calls the “Spirit of truth”, the one we call the Holy Spirit.  And that Spirit is not some gaseous, aerosol spray divine presence floating around the air someplace.  The Holy Spirit is the ongoing presence of God in and among and with us as we live and work and struggle and suffer and love together.  God is in and with and among us.  That Spirit of truth is embodied in us and will help us figure it out.
            So theological truth is not about a mental formula that you have to get right in order to belong.  It’s about an evolving, growing experience of God’s presence as we make our way in the world. In Paul’s words from today’s brief reading from Romans, we
boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  [Romans 5:3-5]
            Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope. The Christian faith is not a set of abstract propositions.  It is a lived reality.  What we believe about God, ourselves, and the world changes over time because we change and the world changes and even God changes over time. “Christians who think of doctrine as ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’ don’t know their history.” Jesus did not come to give us a rule book.  He came that we might live with him and each other and in so doing let that Spirit of truth guide us into all the truth:  the truth that comes out of each person’s own, unique life experience.  Only you can tell your truth, and only I can tell mine; but in community, you and I can share our particular truths as we live together into the big truth toward which the Spirit guides us.
            Now this will sound like a shocking thing for someone like me to say, but I say it with a growing conviction that I’m right.  The answer to the question, “What do you have to believe to call yourself a Christian?” is not found in any set doctrinal or dogmatic formula.  The answer to that question is found in Jesus’s promise of a Spirit of truth who will lead us, together, into all the truth.  To put it bluntly, you don’t have to believe anything to call yourself a Christian.  All you have to do, if you want to call yourself a Christian, is to follow Jesus.  Following Jesus may sound easier than saying the Creed or signing the Westminster Confession, but in fact it’s a lot more demanding.   Christianity isn’t about what you think.  It’s about what you do. Following Jesus means coming together with similar pilgrim souls to listen and discern what God is up to in the present moment.  Following Jesus means praying for others, yourself, and the world.  Following Jesus means living compassionately with yourself and those around you.  Following Jesus means working to make God's world the joyous, abundant, blessed place God intends it to be.  Following Jesus means being open to the perpetual, ongoing newness continually offered to us as the Spirit of truth leads us, with gradually deepening insight, into all the truth. To be a Christian means simply to live like a Christian, as Jesus and his companions did.  If we do that, the Spirit will help us figure it out.
            Today is Trinity Sunday.  Let us give thanks on this day for the truth we know personally and together.  Let us remember that truth discloses itself to us gradually over time.  And let us together call ourselves Christians not by saying what we think about God but by showing how we live with God:  as free, loved, forgiven people who love and accept and bless each other and the world. That’s how Jesus lived, that’s how his companions lived, and his promise on Trinity Sundays is that you and I can live that way, too.  Amen.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Homily: The Sixth Sunday of Easter [May 5, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

Last week I made a brief trip to Philadelphia for a speaking engagement, and on the drive up and back I had little else to listen to than NPR.  Now I love NPR, but for some reason every news story and interview I heard on both legs of this trip was more depressing than the last. Over a two-day period, all they seemed to talk about was either the Boston Marathon bombings and the suspects, the collapse of the factory in Bangladesh, the assassination of the Pakistani prosecutor, the hunger strike by and force-feeding of the detainees in Guantanamo.  Every news story seemed to be about some aspect of human violence.
I had some free time before the event, so I made my way over to a place I have always loved, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What better place than an art museum to escape news stories about human ill-will? But as soon as I got there, I realized that even here there was no escape.
Try as I might to find relief from the events of the week, as I walked around the museum, I could not stop thinking about the persistence of violence in human life.  Believe me, an art museum is not a place where you want to go on a treasure hunt for images of human aggression.  They were everywhere: suits of armor, crucifixion scenes, depictions of land and sea battles, executions.  You name it, somebody has painted or sculpted it.  To be sure, there’s a lot of love and beauty in a museum, too.  But looking at the visual record of human history, the persistence of violence in our personal and social relations is pretty hard to ignore. Where can we find healing from this persistent curse?  And if we could find healing, would we actually take it?
Today’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus healing a man who had been ill for 38 years.  As John tells it, Jesus encounters him at the pool of Bethzatha:
When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be made well?" The sick man answered him, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me." Jesus said to him, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." [John 5: 5-9]
It is hard to imagine lying by a pool for 38 years without finding a way to get yourself into its healing waters.  The arch tone of Jesus’s question (“Do you want to be made well?”) suggests that even he might be a little bit impatient with this guy.  Like our seemingly endless tolerance for the violence in our natures and our society, this man’s ability to live with a bad situation appears almost baffling.  Why do we continue to tolerate aggression and enmity?  Why do we live with ailments when the cure is only a few steps away?
I was once in an extremely tense conversation where I was trying to help resolve an interpersonal dispute between two colleagues. One of them believed that she had been offended and disrespected by the other, and though the other repeatedly apologized she refused to accept his regret as sincere. In the middle of this back and forth rehearsal of grudges, the second turned to the first and said, “You know, I believe you have made a shrine of your wound.” It was such a startling remark that, though it initially offended the first person, eventually it opened the logjam of our conversation and allowed us to move forward to a new way of being with each other. I have never forgotten it.
“You have made a shrine of your wound.” I can’t speak for you, but I know that there are many times in my life where I have made not only a shrine of my wound. I’ve built a temple for it and regularly worshipped at it and checked regularly to be sure that my grievances are maintained in top working order. In today’s Gospel, the man by the pool has made a shrine of his wound. The news stories of violence and aggression, the artworks depicting human violence, all of these are only more extreme versions of the poison that we spread when we worship at the shrine of our wounds as we work night and day to keep our grudges alive.
As people and as a society, I believe we have all made a shrine of the wound of violence in our human  nature and in our world.  In saying that I do not in any way intend to disparage the victims of violence or to suggest that they somehow bring it on themselves.  I would never say that. But I do mean to say that we seem to have accepted violence as a natural fact of life and so we  tolerate violence and aggression much more than we should.  
And one of the reasons we tolerate violence is that we are in denial about the depth of its roots in our being.  After September 11, 2001, do you remember all the talk about how those bombings signaled the end of American innocence?  Really?  I’m as patriotic as the next person, but as a student of American history, I’d say that “innocence” is about the last trait we have exhibited as a people.  Just think of slavery, Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears, the Mexican War, and the World War II internments for starters. How could we presume to be “innocent” in any meaningful definition of that word?  We have many wonderful enduring achievements and characteristics as a nation, but we are not “innocent”. And, more importantly, why do we want to think of ourselves as “innocent”? In this, we Americans are not alone.  Every culture justifies itself and blames others.  We are peace-loving; only the “others” are violent. We have made a shrine of our wound.
The artists whose works hang in our museums know something deeply true about us.  Each of us carries the possibility of violence within our own heart.  Only when we acknowledge that possibility, only when we accept that part of us Jungians call “the shadow”, only when we stop pretending that we are somehow better and purer than everybody else, only then will we be open to the healing that can happen when we acknowledge that we actually need it.
"Do you want to be made well?" That is Jesus’s question to the man by the pool of Bethzatha, and that is Jesus’s question to you and me today. "Do you want to be made well?" Do you want socially to be made well?  Do you want personally to be made well?  Do you want your world, your society, your relationships, even your body to be healed?  If so, then start by seeing things as they are.  When I build a shrine to my own wound, I perpetrate the fiction that you are guilty and I am innocent.  All of us are somewhat guilty.  None of us is perfectly innocent.  Only as we accept the parts of ourselves we would turn from and deny, only then will we be open to the healing that Jesus offers the man by the pool in the story, to our nation and our world, to you and me today.
Preachers are often asked to summarize the Good News, to give a Reader’s Digest version of what Christianity is all about.   Some people can do that, but I’ve never been very good at this exercise.  Today’s collect—the prayer appointed for this Sunday, the Sixth Sunday of Easter— does it as well as it can be done.  This prayer is, for me, a perfect summary of what the Gospel is all about.  I use it regularly in my own devotional life.  I offer it as a concise expression of the Christian hope:
O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire . . .
The man by the pool didn’t quite know what he wanted.  He had made a shrine of his wound.  Jesus came to remind him that God’s promises exceed even what we can want; God’s future for and with us is greater than anything we can ask for or even imagine.  If we orient ourselves away from our wounds and toward those promises, we will be able to step into the healing waters where our hopes will be realized and our wounds will be healed.  Our task, with Jesus, is to love God in all things and above all things so that we may receive those good things that surpass our understanding. "Do you want to be made well?" If you do, walk away from the shrine of your wound, accept yourself in the fullness and complexity of who you really are, and come to this table. As we feed each other and are fed by Jesus, our rage and our pain, our sorrow and our violence will be transmuted into love and hope and peace and joy.  Amen.