Sunday, September 29, 2013

Homily: Cathedral Day/St. Michael and All Angels [September 29, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

            I know that for most people in America, today is the day we finally find out what happens to Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in the series finale of Breaking Bad, but in the cathedral’s liturgical life, today is “Cathedral Day” because on September 29, 1907 the Bishop of Washington, the Cathedral Chapter, the Canons, and a host of supporters and well-wishers laid the foundation stone of Washington National Cathedral.  If you’re a church junkie, you know that September 29 is also the feast of St. Michael and All Angeles, called “Michaelmas” by the English and Anglophile Americans.  This holiday is unique. Most feast days celebrate something that has already happened or someone who has already lived.  St. Michael and All Angels differs from other holidays in that it celebrates something that hasn’t happened yet—God’s final victory over the forces of evil.  Cathedral Day commemorates a historical event—the laying of a foundation stone—that has ongoing consequences. St. Michael and All Angels is observed not in memory but in hope—proclaiming, in the language of today’s reading from the Book of Revelation, something to which we look forward: Now have come the salvation and the powerand the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah,for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down . . .[Revelation 12:10]

            Revelation is a weird book, and sometimes its language gets in our way.  But today it describes a reality with which we’re all too familiar. When we hear the first words of today’s Epistle—“War broke out in heaven”—we’re in a territory we know something about.  As fanciful as this language about angels and dragons might sound, it nevertheless depicts a conflict that you and I know we are caught up in ourselves—the ongoing lifelong conflict between good and evil. 

            War breaks out in heaven.  The good angels take on the bad angels. This is mythological language, but it describes a deep truth: there is a fundamental opposition in the cosmos between God and the forces that resist God.  Because you and I are in the real world and not some fairy tale universe, that cosmic conflict between good and evil cannot help but catch us up into it.  One way to think of evil is as that which resists or rejects the good.  Evil always results in the suffering of the innocent, and—whether it’s accidents or cancer or war or human enmity or lust for power or just plain selfishness—the persistence of evil in the cosmos means that God’s victory over evil has not quite happened yet.  We know and believe that all will be well and that God will prevail, but not yet. Hence the need to celebrate St. Michael and All Angels as a hopeful and not triumphal observance.

            War has broken out in heaven.  War has broken out on earth.  I cannot hear these words from Revelation without thinking about current events in our common life.  Almost two weeks ago 12 people were shot to death at the Washington Navy Yard.  Just last week, terrorists killed 62 people in a siege at Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall. The United States Congress is right now arguing about whether to defund universal health care and supplemental nutritional assistance for the poor.  The United Nations study released this week described a growing and deepening crisis of global warming and changing weather patterns, all brought on by human beings.  The list could go on and on, but I’m not sure we have the stomach to hear much more of it. So you get the idea.

            We live in the real world and not in some fairy tale universe.  The scriptures we read describe that real world and its connection to the divine.  In today’s Old Testament reading Jacob dreams of a ladder between heaven and earth on which the angels of God ascend and descend constantly. [Genesis 28:12]  In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." [John 1:51]  Because we know that the world we live in is the real world, we know very well that this world is caught up in the struggle between good and evil.  And because we know that the world the scriptures describe is the real world too, when we hear all this angel language, at least some of us pause.  So what’s the deal with all these angels?
            Our popular culture is crawling with angels—TV shows like Highway to Heaven, Touched by an Angel, movies like Angels in the Outfield, Angels in the Infield, and (my favorite), Angels in the Endzone.  (I guess angels really like sports.) There’s everybody’s favorite angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful , not to mention the angels in I Married an Angel, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and Heaven Can Wait.  If you watch TV or movies with any regularity, you’ve seen these angels:  cheerful, benign, heavenly beings who come into our reality from the outside and make everything right. But as cute and cuddly as these angels are, they don’t seem to be the same kind of beings our scriptures describe.  TV and movie angels solve your problems and help you get a base hit.  Bible angels are concerned with ultimate questions of good and evil.  Who are we to believe?
            I am not entirely sure what I think about the angels so present in our popular culture.  But I am certain that I know something about the angels the scriptures describe.  In Biblical Greek, the world angelos means “messenger, envoy, one who is sent, a messenger from God”.  Another way to think of an biblical angel is as a “manifestation” of God.  An angel is someone who represents God, someone who speaks God’s message and tells God’s truth.  In terms of today’s reading from Revelation, an angel is someone who takes God’s side in the ongoing battle between good and evil.
            War has broken out in heaven.  War has broken out on earth.  As we gather this morning to celebrate Cathedral Day, let us rededicate ourselves to becoming the only kind of angels our scriptures know:  a community of people who speak God’s message and tell God’s truth.  Even as a lifelong baseball fan, I have to tell you that God does not care who wins the World Series.  But as someone caught up, as you are, in the personal, social, and cosmic struggle between good and evil, I know that God cares very deeply about who prevails in the earthly struggle between God’s values and those who oppose them.  God cares about the victims of violence.  God cares about the hungry and poor.  God cares about the planet we seem to be hell-bent on destroying.
            War has broken out in heaven, and war has broken out on earth.  Following Jesus is about becoming an angel of God, stepping into that struggle and taking a stand on God’s side.  The only angels our scriptures know about are the vulnerable, fallible, fragile likes of you and me.  And the God we manifest on earth will only prevail in that cosmic conflict as you and I take our parts in that earthly struggle we know in our personal and civic lives. 
            The founders of Washington National Cathedral laid its foundation stone 106 years ago today.  As we renew our commitment to being, in the language of that day, “a great church for national purposes”, let us take our place on God’s side in the battle between good and evil.  Let us stand for peace, for healing.  Let us stand with the hungry and poor.  Let us stand up for the planet and all its creatures.  Every time we think of St. Michael and All Angels, let us remember that we, together, are the angels in that title, the ones who are God’s true agents in the world. If we are faithful in standing with God and for God’s values we will, as Jesus promises Nathanael, “see greater things than these." Amen.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Homily: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [September 15, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

            I have several idiosyncratic habits, all of them I hope pretty benign. As a former English teacher, I read almost nothing but fiction and poetry.  And when it comes to reading fiction, I always have at least one 19th century English novel going all the time.
            Although it’s not my subject area, I have come to love 19th century English fiction.  It’s literary comfort food, like a big plate of mashed potatoes.  In my younger years it was all Jane Austen all the time.  These days I rotate between Dickens, Trollope, and George Eliot. Right now I’m reading George Eliot’s early novel, Adam Bede.  My current reading comes to mind because in today’s Gospel—the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin—Jesus talks to us about loss, and loss is never far from the minds of 19th century writers.  Prior to the 20th century, death was a more personal and familiar experience than it is for us today.  Diseases like tuberculosis, scarlet fever, and peritonitis often took people in the prime of life.  And in those days the dead were not immediately whisked away to the crematorium but lovingly viewed and attended at home until burial in the local churchyard.
            I’m not giving away any plot secrets when I say that a character dies early on in Adam Bede, and this death has ramifications for the novel’s major characters.  As I thought about today’s parables, this paragraph from George Eliot’s novel caught my attention:

Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them: they can be injured by us, they can be wounded; they know all our penitence, all our aching sense that their place is empty, all the kisses we bestow on the smallest relic of their presence. --George Eliot, Adam Bede, Chapter 10

            One of the things that George Eliot “gets” there is the precise way people we love and lose are precious to us.  When someone close to us dies, we share an “aching sense that their place is empty”, and we revere even “the smallest relic of their presence”.
            In hearing two stories from Jesus today about the loss of something precious—a sheep and a coin—we have first to perform an act of imagination.  None of us are shepherds, and few of us remember the days when coins had real value.  In these stories, though, people at the margins of society lose something that makes up a significant portion of their worldly goods.  Shepherds were low on the social scale, and whether they owned the sheep or merely managed them, losing one would be an economic catastrophe.  Similarly, a woman with only 10 silver coins had a total wealth equivalent to 10 days’ living expenses.  The loss of one day’s wage would be a disaster.
            The protagonists of Jesus’s stories are people who have lost something precious, and they move heaven and earth to find it.  But we should remember that Jesus tells parables not just to while away the time but to say something revelatory about the nature of God.  He tells these particular stories because he is criticized for welcoming sinners and eating with them.  And he concludes by saying, pretty explicitly, that the stories show how God feels about us.  Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” [Luke 15] 
            In one way, this entire passage is a story about sinners and saints.  Jesus directs his attention to the lost rather than the saved.  We who are regular habitu├ęs of religious institutions can tend to think of ourselves as somehow more favored of God than those who spend Friday night or Sunday morning at the mall or with the newspaper.  Jesus clearly makes the case here for the depth of concern God has for all God’s creatures, arguing that special attention needs to be given especially to those who are not in the fold.  Indeed, the Gospel of Thomas makes the point even more strongly, when Jesus has the shepherd say to the lost sheep who is found, "I care for you more than the other 99." [Thomas 107]
            Remember:  these are not stories about anxious shepherds and poor women.  They are stories about God.  The God whom Jesus calls his Father is not an abstract philosophical idea.  The God Jesus knows is one who feels with and for humanity.  Just as sheep and coins are precious to human beings, so sinners and saints, but—if we are to believe Jesus-- especially sinners are precious the God who feels the pain of losing us just as the shepherd and the woman feel the pain of losing a sheep and a coin. 
As you try to make these stories real to your own experience, instead of picturing a sheep or a coin, think about someone you have lost and what they mean to you:  a parent, a spouse, a friend, maybe even a child.  Think about the aching sense you have that their place is empty.  Remember how you come to treasure the smallest relic of their presence.  We all know or will come to know grief, and when you know grief you know how devastating and disorienting it can be.  Not only that:  when you come to know grief, you come to know something about God.
            Here is what I hear Jesus saying to you and me this morning:  the best analogy for the depth of pain and longing God feels for you and me when we are lost—and by “lost” I mean the whole range of things from cruel and self-destructive behavior to loneliness, alienation, and sorrow—the best analogy for how God feels about us is the pain and longing we feel when we lose someone we desperately and deeply love.  Just as sheep and coins are valuable to their owners, just as the dead are precious to the bereaved, so you and I are worth something to God beyond what we can measure.  That is true whether you are an upstanding citizen or the town drunk.  All of us are precious in ways we have not even yet begun to understand.  And true human wisdom comes when we begin to treat each other—and ourselves—in the light of our true and abiding value.
            One of the great ironies of Jesus’s life and ministry is the way in which we have used his vision of the divine in the service of a theology which portrays Jesus and God as an all-powerful cosmic king and prince.  If you don’t believe me, look at the figure of Christ the King above the cathedral’s high altar behind me.  To Jesus, the one he called his Father was not to be compared to Caesar.  That one is both passionate and compassionate, deeply invested in and caring about the joys and sorrows, victories and struggles, of what it means to be a regular human being.  Fairly early on in the Christian journey we turned Jesus and his Father into religious versions of Caesar, resulting in a perceived distance between God and us. But nothing could be less faithful to Jesus and farther from the truth.
            The stories Jesus tells in today’s Gospel subvert Christianity’s institutional ambitions.  Try as we might to think of God as a powerful, divine monarch, Jesus continues to represent God as grief-stricken shepherd and poor woman in search of what they have lost.  The point here is pretty obvious, but needs nevertheless constantly to be re-stated.  God is not a king and you are not a subject.  God is instead poor woman or an anxious shepherd. What God cares about is not running the universe.  What God cares about is you. You are precious to God.  More than that:  you are worth everything to God.  Live your life in the light of that truth. Because just as you and I are precious, so is every human being and creature in God’s world.
            In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine the novelist Alice McDermott wrote an end-piece about returning to the town on Long Island where she and her family spent their vacations in childhood.  She ended her piece [Alice McDermott, “The Old Haunts”, New York Times Magazine 9/8/13] with a poem written by a character in story by Vladimir Nabokov [“Forgotten Poet”].
If metal is immortal, then somewhere
there lies the burnished button I lost
upon my seventh birthday in a garden.
Find me that button and my soul will know
that every soul is saved and stored and treasured.
We love and grieve what we lose, and so does God.  The difference between us is this:  unlike us, God will not rest until that which is precious will be restored, until what is lost will be found.  That is the Christian promise.  And for it we proceed to give thanks. Amen.