Sunday, August 25, 2013

Homily: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [August 25, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

            Today’s Gospel [Luke 13:10-17] tells of Jesus’s healing of a woman who had been “bent over and quite unable to stand up straight” for eighteen years. When he sees her, Jesus calls over to her, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment."  This is a healing story, but it describes healing as an act of setting-free, of liberation.  As Jesus replies to those who criticize his performing a work of mercy on the Sabbath, “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?"

            For us Christians, healing and liberation are inexorably tied together.  For Jesus, healing is always an act of liberation.  For his followers, liberation for some involves healing for all.

            In my own lifetime, the connection between liberation and healing has emerged afresh as every generation has confronted injustice:  from overturning racial segregation, to expanding women’s rights, to establishing LGBT and marriage equality, America has gotten healthier as its oppressed people have become more free.

Fifty years ago next Wednesday, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.  We’re all familiar with the ringing cadences that close the speech—from “I have a dream” to “Let freedom ring”—but we rarely revisit the first part of the address, the section where King describes the perilous situation faced by blacks in America. Fifty years later, of course, “Whites Only” hotels and segregated restaurants are mere memories.  But as you listen again to King’s words today, you’ll note how little has changed:
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. . . . We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. . . . We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
            As we prepare to observe the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, King reminds us both of what has been achieved and of what has yet to be done.  To be sure, America is a better, healthier place for all of us because of the Civil Rights movement and the ensuing legislation of the 1960s.  It is not only African Americans who have benefited from those changes.  White people are better off, too. As a society, we are healthier and more whole because we live in a nation that has begun to face into its contradictions. 
            But we are self-deluded if we think, as some seem to, that we live in a “post-racial America”.  Yes, we do have an African-American president.  But we also have a Supreme Court that overturned the central provision of the Voting Rights Act, and we just witnessed the less-than-zealous prosecution and acquittal of a white man for the unprovoked shooting of an African-American teenager in Florida.  Certain kinds of discrimination are gone, but racial profiling is alive and well.  Even black Americans like our attorney general must teach their sons the risks of “driving while black.” And while de jure school segregation is gone, de facto discrimination still obtains, certainly with regard to access to quality education. I’m sure no one here would claim that our public schools are better today than they were in 1963.
In the 1960s, my great predecessor dean, Frank Sayre, used this pulpit to advance the cause of Civil Rights.  In 1963, Dean Sayre joined the Selma-to-Montgomery march.  In 1968, Dean Sayre invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to preach what would be his final sermon here in this pulpit four days before his assassination.  Over the decades, both the Episcopal Church and this cathedral have advocated for racial justice.  I am grateful for this tradition as I seek to lead this faith community into faithful witness in the 21st century.
            But let us not delude ourselves.  The Episcopal Church, as a denomination, participated in both overt and tacit segregation. Today 86.7% of American Episcopalians are white.  The Washington National Cathedral staff, congregation, and chapter are overwhelmingly white. We are at once the cathedral church for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and the most visible faith community in the nation’s capital.  Yet we have a largely non-existent record of involvement or investment in the other three quadrants of the District of Columbia.  How can we, with integrity, presume to “speak truth to power” about racial justice when we are, in fact, implicated in the very structures of injustice?  How can we call others into righteousness when we are ourselves caught in a web of sin?

            In today’s Old Testament reading, we heard the powerful account of the call of the prophet Jeremiah [Jeremiah 1:4-10]. God puts a hand out and touches Jeremiah’s mouth with these words:

"Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant."

As the prophetic community, we have inherited Jeremiah’s mantle:  with all those who have gone before—with Dr. King, with Dean Sayre, with the countless witnesses and martyrs of the Civil Rights movement—we have been appointed to call our nation and our society into both healing and justice.  But now, fifty years later, we face a new challenge.  We are called not only to shine the spotlight on Congress, the courts, and state legislators.  We are asked not only to examine prosecutors and juries and school boards.  The time has come when we turn the spotlight around and shine it on ourselves.
As a straight white man, I am coming to understand how much of my life has been lived under the protective canopy of privileges I have not earned.  As one who now has led four prestigious Episcopal Church institutions (two large parishes, a seminary, and now this cathedral) I am increasingly aware of how—from our histories to our demographics to our hiring practices and investment policies—we are enmeshed in the institutional racism that we decry so vocally when we observe it in others.  It is meaningless for me to criticize the Supreme Court, the voter identification laws proposed around the country, or the decisions of mostly-white juries when I have not examined, confessed, and changed the sinful practices of the institutions I both lead and serve.
Talk, as they say, is cheap. As Jesus asked, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” [Matthew 7:3] As he goes on to advise, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” [Matthew 7:5] 
Friends, what we have here is a very big log in our eyes. Our problem is not the racism of any one individual, because racism is not only personal.  It is also interpersonal, institutional, and social. This fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech and the march that occasioned it demands that we take an inventory of ourselves yes personally, but also interpersonally, institutionally, and socially.  What does it mean to belong to an 86% white denomination when, by 2040, there will be no one majority race or ethnic group in America?  What does it mean to call ourselves the “National” Cathedral when we confine our ministry to the whitest and most privileged quadrant of the District of Columbia? How can we live into the dream articulated by Dr. King when the evils we face in 2013 are so much more insidious than they were in 1963?  The enemy back then looked and acted like Lester Maddox and Bull Connor.  The enemy today looks and acts very much like you and me.
We here can do little to nothing about the Supreme Court, the Florida legislature, our own Congress.  We can, however, together look to ourselves.  On behalf of Washington National Cathedral, I pledge today to initiate a process of cathedral self-examination, renewal, and reform, seeking to explore the racism inherent in our worship, ministry, staffing, and governance. We will always suffer from the legacy of racism that infects our culture and our relationships.  But we can commit ourselves to act in new ways—ways that reflect the inclusive, gathering, indiscriminate love of God in Christ.
“See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."  “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?"  The word for us today—Jesus’s word, Jeremiah’s word-- is simultaneously a word of judgment and of mercy.  The word for us today is a word of liberation and a word of healing.  God calls us to judge and heal our nation of the ongoing sin of racism, but we can only do that as we judge and heal ourselves.  God calls us into a new and risen life and ministry in which our actions and practices will actually reflect our commitments. I ask that you help and join me in this work. There is nothing more important we have to offer our nation, our city, and our church that to put our own house in order.  It is the best and most fitting way to take up the mantle of Jeremiah, to respond to the call of Jesus, and to honor Dr. Martin Luther King.  Amen.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Homily: The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [August 18, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

            This summer I’ve been reading a lot of eclectic stuff:  fiction, poetry, police procedurals, even theology. One of the books I’m reading is a biography of a singer/songwriter I have long admired who self-destructed early and died relatively young.  As you can imagine, this man’s children bear many of the scars left by their father’s behavior.  As one of his children says, “As a father he had a lot of unforgivable shortcomings that can’t be excused by his music.”
I’m always faintly amused when I hear Christian preachers waxing eloquent about the virtues of the nuclear family.  While it’s true that images of the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph) tend to dominate our celebrations of Christmas, the rest of the biblical tradition is fairly skeptical about the pleasures of family life.  Think of the Old Testament:  Cain kills his brother Abel, Jacob steals the birthright from his brother Esau, Joseph’s eleven brothers sell him into slavery.  And that’s just the book of Genesis.  As the Hebrew Bible unfolds we read tales of consistent squabbling both within and between generations.  Taken as a whole, reading the Bible is like attending a really dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinner, one where the kids at that separate table are fighting over more than who gets the cranberry sauce.
            I used to teach English for a living, and as a life-long reader of both serious and light literature, I can attest that most of the world’s fiction, drama, and poetry also depict the nuclear family as the setting as much for conflict and enmity as for support and love. If you’re tempted to counter the Bible with examples from literature, just think of Oedipus Rex or Hamlet or King Lear or any Jane Austen novel or Tennessee Williams play before you get all gooey about the joys of nuclear family life.  The world’s authors, like the Bible’s writers, see the family for what it is:  a complex arena in which human desires and drives get acted out. 
            Granted, the family is a complex arena.  It’s also the structure we have developed for nurture, mutual support, and the sharing of love and resources.  It can be a transforming place.  But like all systems involving real people, the family contains all the contradictions of what it means to be human.
            Now this is an important issue for Christians, because one of the default metaphors we use for the church is to call it a family.  But just as our cultural celebrations of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can be painful for those whose parents were abusive or absent or self-involved, so the church consistently calling itself a family can present an image more scary than welcoming to those who come toward us.  I don’t want the church to be my family.  I’ve got a family.  I want the church to be a community. We enter our family of origin without being consulted.  We enter a community of our own free will.
            While the family is not a good metaphor to describe the church, it is a very apt comparison for the nation.  You are born into your country, just as you are born into your family. Like members of a family, citizens of a nation help each other in times of crisis; and like relatives, compatriots can squabble with each other over silly, pointless things.
            As the news of the week has developed, all of us have been shocked and saddened by the unfolding events in Egypt.  Violence in that country seems to be omni-directional:  the military against the Islamists, the Islamists against the Christians, the liberal secularists running for cover.  As I have watched the Egypt story unfold I have been reminded of times in our own history—the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, the various Red Scares—when we have turned on each other with equal enmity and vitriol.  There are times when a nation comes together in mutual support and encouragement.  There are times when a nation turns on itself in fear and rage.  Both things can be true at once. Again:  just like a family.
            As much as we like to portray Jesus as a cozy kind of nuclear family guy, the scriptural evidence suggests otherwise.  Though we know the adult Jesus gathered a community around himself, we have no suggestion in the Bible that he had any kind of family life after his childhood with Mary and Joseph. And he really wasn’t much of a patriot either:  he gave his allegiance neither to Caesar nor to Herod but to the one he called his Father. Since Jesus used neither the family nor the nation as his primary identification, we should not be surprised when, in today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus tells us that he has come to bring not peace but division:
From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus goes on to add, “one’s foes will be members of his own household.” [Matthew 10: 36]  Not, to my mind, something you’ll ever see on a greeting card or a party platform.
            In Robert Frost’s poem “The Death of the Hired Man”, the husband and wife Warren and Mary argue about the definition of “home”.  Warren famously defines home as
‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.’

Mary counters with this less well-known response:

‘I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’

            The idea of home—family home, national home—brings with it both obligations and rights.  As family members, as citizens, we need the sharpness of Jesus’s vision to help us see our families and our nations clearly.  Where and to whom do we finally belong?  We ask our families and our country to carry burdens of meaning that are finally too much for them to bear.  If we make our household or our nation into our ultimate good, we will be disappointed when people act the way people always do—out of a variety of motivations and needs.  In his critique of the family, Jesus is directing our allegiance further, beyond the love and security we experience at home onward to their ultimate source.  In calling God his Father, Jesus brings both those roles into a creative tension, a relationship that clarifies our misperceptions of both “Father” and “God”.
            Home is both the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.  It is also something you haven’t to deserve.  You may have grown up in a loving and mutual nuclear family.  You may have grown up in a dangerous household.  Today you may be in a marriage or relationship that grounds your life and gives it meaning.  Or you may be oppressed and abused.  But here’s the point:  for Christians the household, like the nation, is not the source of our final value.  Even as good as it can be, the love you experience at home points beyond itself to something more.  And as bad as it can be, family tension is not all there is. 
            I love my family.  I love my country.  But neither my family nor my country can bear the weight of signifying life’s ultimate meaning.  They are vehicles of that meaning, but they are not the thing itself. Neither, for that matter, is the church. I experience God in them, but they are not God. And the longer I live into the distinction, the more deeply I love them for what they actually are.
Family and nation are givens in human life, but Jesus offers us one thing more:  a community like the one he gathered with his companions.  In Jesus’s terms, you get through life by making common cause with others as you gather around a table where all are both welcome and equal.  Families and nations can pull together, just as they can fight over scarce resources. At Jesus’s table there is always enough to go around. 
            There may be violence in Egypt, strife in our households, and bickering in Congress, but God is up to something that will heal, renew, bless, and forgive us.  It all starts at this table, the meal at which we belong together as equals. As you center yourself at this table, you will come to see and accept yourself, your household, your nation as God means you to see and accept them: as vehicles of God’s meaning and purpose and grace. There is someone behind and before all this whose love and care will always surprise but will never disappoint us.  It is in that one’s name we gather, in that one’s cause we go forth to love and serve our households, our nation, and the world.  Amen.