Sunday, July 28, 2013

Homily: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [July 28, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

            In the late 1980s I was a member of a clergy group who regularly went rock climbing together at Joshua Tree National Monument in the California desert.  We undertook this as a kind of low-rent outward bound program for ourselves.  Under the guidance of a camp director friend, we would travel to the desert, camp for two or three nights, and spend our days attempting easy, then moderate, then difficult rock climbs.  At night, after dinner, we would reflect together about the experience.
            Now I know this doesn’t sound like the most exciting possible way to spend a week in the autumn, but for me at least the rock-climbing was revelatory.  The camaraderie we experienced was perhaps the most important gift of that time. And extended visits to the desert always help me better understand the desert ethos of Christianity.  But what has stayed with me the most over the years was the spirituality of what we together learned there about ministry and leadership.
            When you try to climb a rock you learn several important lessons.  Here are two of them.  Lesson one:  there is always a way to climb even the most baffling and intractable rock.  Lesson two:  if you want to do that, you’ve got to deal with the actual rock you’ve got, not the rock you wish you had.
            Anyone who has done any rock climbing (or, I suppose, engaged in a sport like sailing or golf that uses the natural world) could tell you the same thing.  The truth is that, if you are attentive and patient enough, there is always a way to get up that rock.  The corollary is that the rock itself has no intention of changing or adapting to your wishes.  It is, as they say, what it is.  The first step to achieving your goal is to accommodate yourself to things as they are.  Mysteriously, once you let go of your fantasies of the ideal rock you’d like to climb and pay attention to the one you’re standing on, you can usually figure out a way to get to the top.
            You can see why this kind of exercise would be helpful for clergy.  When a priest is called to lead a congregation, the first thing she or he has to learn to do is appreciate is the actual reality of that congregation in its setting as it is.  A lot of clergy make mistakes through a simple inability to read the parish and the community they serve.  They bring ideas and programs that worked someplace else and try to establish them in their new place.  They are stunned and chagrined when their new parishioners don’t behave like their former ones.  Rock climbing helps one adapt to a real challenge in a real setting.  You’ve got to size up the situation you’re in and operate effectively in it.  That’s as true for climbing a rock as it is for running a church or taking on any kind of new work.
            But you can also see how a group of prayerful people (or people who aspire to being prayerful people) would find rock climbing of some deep spiritual import, too.  When people ask me what spirituality is all about, my first answer is always, “It’s about paying attention.”  Learning to read a rock—a piece of God’s creation—is very much like the life of prayer itself.  No matter how firmly we tend to believe the contrary, prayer is not about getting God to change God’s mind.  Prayer is about accommodating ourselves to what God is doing in and through us and the world.
            And this discussion of prayer and rock climbing helps me at least understand what Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel, a section of Luke’s account of the “Sermon on the Plain” in which Jesus responds to his companions’ request that he teach them to pray.  The prayer that Jesus teaches them is the prayer we have come to call “The Lord’s Prayer”, and Luke’s version of it is very simple:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
Think, for a minute, about the culture in which Jesus and his companions lived and operated.  The political culture was that of Imperial Rome, and in the official religion, Caesar was a god.  So the Roman religion embodied a series of rituals that were designed, essentially, to placate Caesar.  Prayer in that world was what we would call “supplication”:  please, Caesar, don’t mess with me or my family or my crops.  I’m your slave.  I’ll honor you if you’ll just leave me alone.
The local religious culture was that of Israel’s Temple, and while the God worshipped in the Temple was more benevolent than Rome’s gods, prayer with that God was essentially a protracted series of negotiations.  As the Psalms demonstrate, you could pray to Israel’s God with passion and authenticity, but at bottom the relationship was still somewhat distant and formalized.
Without wanting to sound presumptuous or blasphemous about it, we might say that the Lord’s Prayer is the spiritual equivalent of rock climbing.  Unlike Roman religion, this is not abasement before a royal power figure.  After all, the prayer begins with the word, “Father”.  And unlike the Temple cult, Jesus’s prayer is not a negotiation.  In some ways it forms us more than it instructs God, asking that God’s purposes be fulfilled, that we might have enough to meet our needs, and encouraging us to exemplify two of God’s greatest attributes, forgiveness and compassion. 
When he has finished teaching his companions to pray, Jesus leaves them empowered to understand what God is up to in the world and their lives.  God’s purposes are going forward.  Help us love those purposes, not what we want for ourselves.  Give us the bread we need to make it through this one day.  Help us forgive others and ourselves.  And save us from things that we cannot endure.  This is a prayer about accommodating ourselves to what is.  Once we have seen and attended to what is, we can turn our attention to what should and might be, always recognizing that just as the rock is what it is, so are God and God’s world.
Prayer is like rock climbing.  God will help us make it up life’s rock. Our task is to attend to life and accept it on God’s terms. It’s a struggle when we want that rock to be something other than what it is.  It’s a struggle when we want life to be something other than what it is. It goes a whole lot easier when we learn to want what God wants us to want.
Jesus ends his teaching on prayer in today’s Gospel with these words:
Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then . . . know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
When Jesus calls God “Father” he is letting us know that prayer is essentially a relationship.  You wouldn’t give your own kid a lizard when he asked for a sandwich, so you can expect that God will forgive and bless you when you bring your pains and sorrows and hopes and joys to the table.  “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” No matter how recalcitrant it seems, that rock will always give you a way to climb it. No matter how scarce your life and surroundings might seem, there is bread at least for this one day. No matter how many mistakes you and those around you have made, all are forgiven.  That’s the way God and God’s world finally are. So let’s learn to pray as Jesus prays. If we accommodate ourselves to God’s way of seeing things, life will be radiant, and there will always be more than enough. Amen.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Homily: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost [July 14, 2013] All Saints, Pasadena

"Just Who Is That Lying in the Road?"

I'm Gary Hall, and I used to work here.  I now live and work in Washington, D.C.  And I must say that it's a great comfort to me to live in a city that is so much like Hollywood. Some of you who remember me from the years I was on the staff here (a steadily decreasing percentage of you, I'm sorry to say) may recall that I started off my adult life wanting to be a comedy writer. It won't surprise you when I say that, to me today’s Gospel, the Good Samaritan story [Luke 10: 25-37], has always had the structure of a joke--you know one of those "a priest, a minister, and a rabbi go into a bar" kind of jokes; except that in this one it's a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan.  A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan are playing golf.  A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan are in a boat.  A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan are shooting pool.  You get the idea.

When I was in seminary in the 1970s, the idea of seeing Jesus as a stand-up comedian was in vogue among New Testament scholars for about 15 minutes.  Even though I loved both Jesus and comedy, I was never really attracted to this idea.  But I must admit that some of the sayings would make more sense if punctuated by a rim shot.  Just as comedy gives us a new perspective by throwing us off base, Jesus's parables often work the same way. You think you understand the way God works?  Listen to this story . . .

A Levite (that is, a person trained in interpretation of the scripture), a priest (that is, a person who presides at holy rituals), and a Samaritan (that is, a foreigner, not much higher than a leper in Israel’s social structure) are walking down the road.  They see a man who has been beaten up and robbed lying in the middle of it.  The priest crosses to the other side of the street and keeps going. The Levite does the same.  The Samaritan stops, attends to his wounds, takes him to an inn, and provides for his lodging until he gets better.  What makes this story sound like a joke on its own terms, of course, is that the "outsider" does the right thing.  When confronted with an actual suffering person, the two religious professionals act like they've never even heard of the Bible.  It's only the outsider--the Samaritan, a person with the wrong social pedigree and religious ideas--who acts like--well, like a Christian person.

Jesus's closing question ("Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?") has made generations of preachers and commentators talk about the story as if it's essentially about the choices made by the three people walking on the road.  I don’t think Jesus wants us to think about the three passers-by. I think he wants us to think about the man lying helpless in the road.

Like the priest and the Levite, most of us don't want to regard the person in the road for very long. We will do anything to make this parable about an ethical dilemma so that we won't have to contemplate what it means to be sick and near dead, lying helpless. Preachers love to talk about the three passers-by, and we love to identify with those men, because we all want to think of ourselves as people in control, as men and women with choices. But our being in control, our having choices, is always at best a temporary condition.  When you're an infant or a child, you are not in control. When you are aged or sick or disabled or incapacitated you don't have a lot of choices. When you are oppressed, depressed, lost and alone you don't have many options.

None of us wants to think of ourselves that way for very long. We want to live our lives confident that we will always be in the driver's seat. So when we hear this story our thoughts immediately turn to the people who can do something, and they turn away from the one who is totally dependent on "the kindness of strangers". But if we are listening to Jesus attentively, if we think about this story more like patrons in a comedy club and less like pew-sitters in a church, we just might get that the story really is about the one person in it who cannot do anything to help himself at all. He's a man beaten up, left for dead, and lying in the road.  After all, the story begins, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers." As uncomfortable as he makes us, this man is the main character in the Good Samaritan story. We should think, if only for a nervous minute, about him.

So just who is this person?  I have two thoughts about who he might be and how things might really be for him.

Thought one is that the man lying in the road is you and me. Now I don't like to think of myself this way.  Doing so certainly does not flatter my best image of myself.  Hey, I'm a cathedral dean!  I hold advanced degrees.  What do you mean, saying I'm helpless?  How can Jesus be comparing me to a man lying near dead in the road?  Couldn't he at least be a man with a Ph.D. lying near dead in the road?

The first truth is that, despite our many illusions about ourselves, all of us are vulnerable, fragile creatures.  No matter how affluent, how accomplished, how healthy, how comfortable we might be, each of us is potentially that person lying in the road.  An illness, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the ending of a relationship, taking the wrong side in an argument--any of these events can land us in what my friend the writer Nora Gallagher (who has herself experienced serious illness) in her new book Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic calls "Oz", a place you enter when you get sick or lost, a zone where you realize you are up against it and that the priests and Levites of this world really don't want to have very much to do with you now. Most of us get through life keeping the idea of our vulnerability at bay, and because we can't entertain the thoughts of our own potential disability, we don't want very much to do with people who remind us that we too might end up in a wheelchair, on chemotherapy, in prison, on the street.

Therefore, thought one is that in directing our attention to the man lying in the road, Jesus is asking us to see ourselves as we are:  fragile, vulnerable creatures who are always just a step away from losing it all.  We have come to think of health and freedom and agency as our basic condition.  Jesus knew better.  Even at the height of his popularity as a healer and a teacher, he knew that Calvary was just around the corner.  It was partly that knowledge that made him open to the suffering of the outsiders, the sick, the bereaved, and the lost. Only when you acknowledge your own vulnerability can you respond to it authentically in others.

That's thought one. And here's thought two:  Just as the one lying in the road is vulnerable, so also is that person loved. If our individualism prevents us from seeing our fragility, so does it also keep us from grasping our real worth.  In the culture of late Capitalism which we all inhabit together, you only have value commensurate with your purchasing power. One reason why so many Americans are so insecure is that at bottom we think our worth is a function of our relative affluence. Nevertheless:  even though most ignore the one lying near dead, there still is One who sees and cares and acts.  As dire as his situation may be, the one in the road is not alone.  His value has nothing to do with his net worth. There is someone in the story who is with him and for him.  In this tale that one is the Good Samaritan, a parabolic stand-in for God. Do you want to know what we are like?  Look to the wounded person in the street.  Do you want to know what God is like?  Look to the Good Samaritan.

Like all of his parables, the story of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’s way of showing us our real situation in the universe.  We are both worse and better off than we think. This story asks that you see yourself as you really are, and that you love yourself as you really are. You have real value. There is some One who knows and loves and values you beyond any human frame of reference. Realize that in your fragility and vulnerability you are like everybody else. They have real value, too. Reach out in compassion and forgiveness and humility and you will meet the One whose love and justice and grace sustains the creation.

You do not have to be healthy or powerful or successful to be loved.  There is someone who knows you and loves you as you are. That one loves you always, even and maybe especially when you are lonely and broken and lost. There is someone who is ready to see you, pick you up, and help you on to the next stage of love and life.  That one is here and available now in this community among us as we gather at this table.  That one loves you.  That one loves me.  That one loves us all.  That's the Gospel truth.  And I'm here to tell you it's no joke.  Amen.