Sunday, November 17, 2013

Homily: The Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost [November 17, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

            This is a year of anniversaries—in January of the Emancipation Proclamation, last August of the March on Washington, next Friday of the assassination of President Kennedy.  Each of these events both upset and altered our expectations of the established order.  As they happened they appeared to us in one light, in retrospect another. How do we read our past? How do we respond to the present moment?

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’ [Luke 21:5-6]

It is a bit disorienting to gather in this transcendent space on an autumn morning and hear Jesus in today’s Gospel predict the destruction of the temple. We erect buildings like this one because they speak to us of permanence. Beyond that, they represent the good, the just, the holy. In today’s passage from Luke, Jesus seems to be saying that the temple—and here the temple stands for everything we think permanent and hold dear--will be shaken up, torn down, and destroyed. This is probably not what you got out of a warm bed this morning to come out and hear.

How do we read and respond to the present moment? In our Gospel this morning Jesus goes on to make some dire predictions about international events and cosmic calamities:

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. [Luke 21:10]


I’ve never been one of those preachers who gets into the pulpit, holds up the good book, and confidently announces that your Bible is more up to date than today’s newspaper.  It is tempting to hear in a passage like this one a prediction of September 11, 2001, or to connect it to unrest in the Middle East, global warming, or the arrival of Lady Gaga and Honey Boo Boo. There is no current calamity, social problem, or celebrity sighting on display here.  Still, Jesus does seem to be saying something about the situation of his followers then and now in the world:

But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. [Luke 21.12]

Things are bad.  They’re going to get worse.  And everybody is going to blame us for the situation.  That about sums up this morning’s Gospel.  Have a nice weekend!

How do we read and respond to the present moment?  What is our situation?  What will become of us? In times of crisis or calamity, people of faith often look to the Bible.  But what, in this era, can the Bible mean for us? Right now in England BBC 2 is running a series called The Story of the Jews featuring the historian Simon Schama.  In a recent interview, here is what Schama said about the Bibles role in Judaism:

It is a salient characteristic of the endurance of the Jews that when the usual markers and supporters of endurance--namely a territory, an army, the institutions of a state--are completely ripped from them, they invent (beginning with the Bible, much of which was written in the first Babylonian exile) a form of portable narrative.  And a portable narrative does two things:  it actually tells them their own history (part myth, part fable, part accurate); and it also sets down a series of laws and precepts which are specifically about trying to live a Jewish life in a non-Jewish world.  [Simon Schama on Nightwaves, BBC Radio 3, September 13, 2013]

            From Simon Schamas perspective as a 21st century Jew, the Bible is a “portable narrative” setting down “laws and precepts” about “trying to live a Jewish life in a non-Jewish world.” They were exiles.  Their portable narrative gave them a sense of home.

            In some sense, we too gather in this cathedral as exiles. Like all Gothic church buildings, this one stands as a monument to a time when Christianity was the official religion of Western culture. When we gather in places like this today it is easy to pretend that we are still at the center of things and to forget that in the postmodern world a multiplicity of faith traditions and narratives live together collectively to shape our shared experience of the holy. As the philosopher Richard Rorty used to say, there is no longer one, unifying “big picture”. You and I live in a moment when we are emerging from the Western cultural consensus that there was a big picture, and that (conveniently for us) it belonged to Christianity.  Now—in spite of what this building wants to say about our pretensions to cultural power and authority—we Christians make our way with other faith traditions in the world. That’s a bit destabilizing, but it’s the truth.  And it’s also good news.  In a funny way it helps us understand our early Jewish and Christian forbears better than we used to.  Because our situation now is almost exactly like theirs.

Early people of faith needed their Bibles as “portable narratives” to tell them how to be faithful in a world in which they were exiles.  Our parents and grandparents did not need that portable narrative in quite the same way because they were comfortably at home in the “big picture” of the Western world. But just as the early Jews and Christians were exiles, so are you and I.  We need our Bibles the way first century Jews and Christians did. When we read the Bible today, it may not be more up to date than our newspaper, but it speaks to us with a power and relevance it may not have had for our immediate predecessors. It is once again our portable narrative, telling us how to be at home in an increasingly alienated world.

In today's Gospel reading, Jesus points forward to a coming time of calamity.  The seemingly invincible temple will be thrown down. Nation will rise against nation.  Rulers will identify people with Gospel values as the problem. That all sounds like pretty bad news, but Jesus does not stop there.  Jesus is blunt and uncompromising as he describes the situation of Christian exiles abroad in the world.  But he is not hopeless or depressed about it.  Listen to how he concludes:

You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls. [Luke 21: 16-19]


Not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls. How do we read and respond to the present moment?

Those of us who are drawn out of a warm bed on Sunday morning into a place like this are responding to a powerful divine pull that we cannot easily identify or name. As Emily Dickinson said, “it beckons and it baffles”.  We hear something or feel something not apparent to everyone else.  We respond to something good and beautiful and true at the heart of reality, and we feel called to orient our lives around it. Even though things seem to be going to hell, we find life full of meaning and hope and joy.  We share a symbolic meal together as a way of connecting with each other and the source of all that is good and beautiful and true and hopeful and joyous.  Call us crazy.

As Christians, we may no longer own the master big picture narrative of Western culture, but we do have an important truth to tell.  And here it is: 

Let’s not delude ourselves. Buildings like this one are only temporary.  Nations and peoples will continue to fight each other.  People who stand for justice and compassion will be persecuted.  But it will all, finally, be OK.  Not a hair of your head will perish.  As perilous as our situation may be—whether we face public or personal tragedy—we are finally in the embrace of someone who will not let us go. As we make our way through a difficult and often hostile world, we have our portable narrative, our community, our shared meal to remind us that we are loved and precious, and ultimately secure in that one’s embrace. We and our world will continue to suffer.  But in and through that suffering we will be sustained by someone loving and faithful and good.

In this year of anniversaries, things will continue to be complicated and hard.  I doubt that they will get easier or more simple. How do we read and respond to the present moment? We read and respond to the present moment in the light of our portable narrative. And what that portable narrative tells us is that not a hair of your head will perish, that all will finally be well. That news may not be newer than your newspaper, but it is the deep and abiding truth around which we gather, and for which we proceed in this meal to give thanks.  Amen.




Sunday, November 10, 2013

Homily: The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost [November 10, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

One of the great books about the effects of war is Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway, and if you have read it (or seen the film) you will never forget the character of Septimus Warren Smith, a World War I veteran.  Septimus Warren Smith suffers from what they then called “shell shock” and we today call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the course of the novel, Septimus interacts with two physicians—his local Dr. Holmes, who thinks his patient’s disorder is merely a little funk or slight depression, and then a famous London physician, Sir William Bradshaw, who takes PTSD more seriously but only prescribes an extended stay in one of his rest homes.  Neither doctor listens to what Septimus actually says about himself.  He feels that in his military service he has somehow committed a crime or failed to save his comrades during the Great War.  In the evenings, Septimus has what Woolf calls “sudden thunder claps of fear.”  Worse than that, he says that he cannot feel. 

As great as Mrs. Dalloway may be, it is not the last word about veterans and their issues.  So in preparation for Veterans Day weekend, I’ve been reading two books by Washington Post reporter David Finkel:  his classic The Good Soldiers, and this year’s Thank You For Your Service.  The first book followed the Army’s 2-16 Infantry Battalion during the 2007 surge in the Iraq war. The new book shows what became of those soldiers when they came home.  Most veterans return to lead abundant and productive lives, of course, but Finkel’s two books show how the devastation experienced by earlier soldiers like Septimus Warren Smith has become more widespread:  because the medical technology of the 21st century allows more grievously wounded soldiers to survive, many are living now who died on battlefields in prior wars.  And there are major differences between classic wars and contemporary insurgencies.  Then there were actual battlefields.  Now there are potential improvised explosive devices around every corner and beside every road.

In Thank You For Your Service, David Finkel tells us about Sgt. Adam Schumann, who leaves his third deployment in Iraq on a “mental health evacuation.”  Troubled by many of the same mental terrors that plagued Septimus Warren Smith, Mr. Schumann receives much better care when he comes home.  Still, he is capable of both terrors and rages, and his wife Saskia struggles to cope with her own conflicting feelings:  compassion for her husband and his suffering, anger at how his injuries have taken over both their lives.  As in much of the literature of war and its aftermath, so in this: many of the men and women who come home from our modern wars continue to live the experience over and over again. Their lives become a search for ways to bring the chaos into some kind of control. “Every war has its after-war,” says Finkel, “and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some 500,000 mentally wounded American veterans.”


            Today we observe Veterans Day, a holiday that began with the signing of the Armistice ending World War I on November 11, 1918. Armistice Day was soon established as a holiday dedicated both to honoring the service of American veterans of the Great War and to expressing our commitment to a lasting peace. In 1954, Congress changed the holiday’s name to Veterans Day, and here is what President Eisenhower said in his proclamation of its first observance:

On that day let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.

            As we gather this morning to observe this day, let us begin by remembering its original, twin purposes. Veterans Day serves to recognize the service of all America’s veterans.  And it also serves to promote what Eisenhower called “an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”

President Eisenhower’s words remind us that we should distinguish Veterans Day from Memorial Day.  That other holiday, which we observe in May, is properly dedicated solely to honoring those who have given their lives in the service of their country.  Obviously, on any day when we honor veterans, those who have died cannot be very far from our minds.  But today is not primarily about the dead.  Veterans Day was established to honor the living.  It asks that we set aside time not only to praise but also to seek the welfare of those who have served the United States in military service.  Over the years, I have noticed that this holiday has experienced what I would call the “Memorial-Day-ization” of Veterans Day. But remember President Eisenhower’s words. Today is about remembering and reconsecrating. Let us save our elegies and eulogies for May and reach out to the survivors in November. Sometimes it is easier to be sentimental about the dead than it is to be attentive to the living.  But our Gospel for today will not let us get off so easily.

Let us not confuse Veterans Day with Memorial Day.  Honoring our dead is one of the traits that make us human, and honoring our war dead is a basic practice of all civilized people.  But often we build monuments to the fallen when we should be caring for the survivors.  It is perhaps more emotionally satisfying to lay a wreath at a tomb than it is to visit a hospital.  But the Jesus we meet in the Gospels always directs our concern and action toward those who suffer and struggle, to those who are with us here and now.

As Jesus says in today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel, our God “is God not of the dead, but of the living.” [Luke 20:38] And later on in that same Gospel, when the women come to the tomb looking for Jesus, they are told, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” [Luke 24:5] Though we care for and honor the dead, we can do nothing for or about them.  They are in God’s hands. The living are another matter.  It is still within our power to do something for and about them. They are in our hands.

Let us not confuse Veterans Day with Memorial Day.  How do we, as Americans, as followers of Jesus, look to the living?  What might we do, as Christians, as Americans, to honor our veterans and to seek their welfare in the here and now?

If we return to President Eisenhower’s vision of the holiday, we can embrace its two purposes:  recognizing sacrifice, promoting peace.  Here is a modest suggestion about each.

Recognizing sacrifice:  there are nearly 22 million veterans alive in America today.  A little over 3 ½ million of them suffer disabilities connected with their service.  While we should see in those numbers reassurance that most veterans lead flourishing, abundant lives, we should be troubled to know that one out of seven homeless people in America is a veteran. On any given night, 107,000 veterans are homeless, and the Veterans Administration estimates that 1.5 million additional veterans are at constant risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and the shrinking supply of affordable housing.

My first modest suggestion:  these people are not numbers, and they matter to us as Americans.  They matter even more to us as people of faith.  It is important that we remember and honor those who serve.  It is vital that we advocate for their welfare. We need to do more as a country, as a church, than politely thank our veterans for their service.  We need to make sure that public policies are in place to treat, educate, support, house, and employ them.

President Eisenhower’s second purpose for this day was to use it to promote peace.  The veterans of the wars in my lifetime served in conflicts about which there was significant public disagreement: Vietnam, Kuwait, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan—each of these wars occasioned major protest in their own day and ongoing disagreement about their purpose even now. We should never confuse supporting a war with supporting our troops.  And we should never forget that, just as serving in even unjust wars is honorable, so is working to end them. We should not use Veterans Day as a whitewash to obscure our ongoing differences about war and peace.  We should use this day as a time to remember and honor the service of the men and women who fought on our behalf and to give thanks that we live in a country that embraces all those contradictions.

The God we know in Jesus “is God not of the dead, but of the living.” That God is also a God of peace, and the men and women who have served our country know perhaps better than the rest of us just how precious peace is.  Let us honor them.  Let us advocate for their welfare.  And as General (and then President) Eisenhower exhorted us, let us, together, do everything we can to promote an enduring peace, so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.  Amen.




Sunday, November 3, 2013

Homily: The Installation of Canons [October 31, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

            It is a bit daunting to speak at the installation of cathedral canons on the eve of All Saints Day.  We are, after all, installing these people only as canons.  Their sainthood will have to be decided by a higher authority.  Nevertheless, I quail in the face of a reading, from the Wisdom of Solomon, that speaks of the souls of the righteous in these words:

4 For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
5 Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;
6 like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a sacrificial burnt-offering he accepted them.

Anyone who knows Washington National Cathedral well knows that the workload here can be heavy and life can be stressful.  Still, it is hard for me to think of my colleagues as gold for smelting or lambs being led to the slaughter.  In nominating Kim, Gina, Andrew, and Patty to the bishop and chapter, that isn’t precisely what I had in mind.

            One of the drawbacks of having a dean who used to teach Anglican theology and polity is that every once in a while folks around here have to listen to a mini learned disquisition on the finer points of ecclesiology.  (See me afterward for a translation of that sentence into plain English.)  So indulge me for a minute while I talk about canons and what they signify.

            Our English word canon comes from the Greek word kanon, which literally means “reed”.  In the ancient Mediterranean world, Greeks and Romans used reeds for measuring sticks.  So the Greek word kanon came to be applied figuratively as a standard of measurement.  We talk to this day of the “canon of scripture”.  When the Bible was put together, the earliest Christians understood the texts in the Old and New Testaments to be the canon, the measuring stick, by which we would gauge the inspiration and orthodoxy of other texts. 

            Now when cathedral churches developed, the word canon became applied to the clergy who served there.  And the reason that word became the title of cathedral clergy was the same reason it was applied to the texts of Holy Scripture:  just as the books of the Bible were seen as the standard for the measuring of inspired writing, so the clergy of a bishop’s cathedral were held up as the standards, the measuring sticks, for ministerial practice.  In the intervening centuries, the title canon has come to be applied to clergy and now lay people serving on a diocesan or cathedral staff.  And the lexical intention behind that title is this:  it suggests that those people called canon are held up to the church and the world as exemplary.  They are the standards of ministerial excellence.

            Now I say this realizing that my four colleagues might at this moment begin to get swelled heads when I call them exemplary measurements by which the rest of us might take our bearings.  We live in a culture that applies all kinds of standards and metrics from business and academia and even sports to human performance.  Those standards and metrics have their place.  But they are our standards and metrics, not God’s.

            When I say that my four colleagues are exemplary, I do not mean to suggest that they are hyper-competent in worldly terms, though I know for a fact that they are very good at what they do.  Rather, when I call them exemplary I mean that they represent, they exemplify something in the way they do their work and live their lives that can serve as standard for us all.  In the terms of this cathedral and its life, that something is a kind of worldly holiness.  They know a hawk from a handsaw, as Hamlet says.  And they know something else.

            What Kim, Gina, Andrew, and Patty know is expressed a little farther on in that passage from the Wisdom of Solomon:

9 Those who trust in [God] will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with [God] in love,
because grace and mercy are upon [God’s] holy ones,
and [God] watches over [the] elect.

Like all human labor, work in a church can be challenging.  The hours are long, the pay is modest, and ministry is as often as not greeted with resistance as it is with gratitude.  But unlike much of the rest of the working world, those of us who work in the church get to come in here day after day and spend our time carrying out tasks that serve to advance our deepest values.  Most people don’t get to do that. If you stop to think about it, the ability to spend your working life in the service of the Gospel is an enormous privilege, and the people I know for whom ministry is a joy are the ones who have been able to ground themselves in gratitude for that privilege.  They understand that, when all is said and done, they are serving some One who is faithful, loving, and merciful, a God who watches over each one of us and the world.

            As of tonight we have six members of our cathedral staff who are canons of this cathedral:  Kim, Gina, Andrew, and Patty now take their place with Jan and Michael in the leadership of this place and their service as cathedral ministers who set a standard for us all.  That standard reflects not only their worldly competence but something more:  that standard reflects the way they have internalized and so live out what the Wisdom of Solomon calls their continual abiding in God’s love. Tonight’s reading from Revelation [19: 1-10] gives us a picture of the moment to which all our work and prayer and ministry is leading, that day at the end of things when all of us will stand around God’s throne to give thanks that God’s work of love and reconciliation and justice has been finished, and all can cry, “Hallelujah!, Amen!”  That is the day to which all of us move forward together in hope.  And it is in the ongoing service of God’s mission to bring that day about that all of us who serve the church live and work together in hope. 

            And so tonight:  Kim, Gina, Andrew, and Patty. Tonight you take your place as canons of this cathedral along with Jan and Mike.  We look to you now as signs and standards of our own participation in the mighty work that God is doing in and through us all.  My prayer for you and for us this evening, is that you will continue to love and serve God and God’s church in joyous, liberating and transforming ways and so help us all, when everything is finally said and done, to measure up.  Amen.