Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Homily: December 25, 2013 [Christmas Day] Washington National Cathedral

            Late last week a semi-frantic email went out from one of my clergy colleagues here asking if any of us priests on the staff had a copy of a certain book by some New Testament scholars doing an academic analysis of the Christmas stories.  It seemed that this person wanted to do some deep theological reading before attempting to preach on those daunting infancy narratives.  I didn’t respond to this email right away, because it turns out that at the very moment it was sent I was at home ransacking my wife Kathy’s children’s book collection in search of a Christmas Day sermon illustration for myself.  Kathy is a former elementary school librarian, and one big part of our library is crammed with easy readers, picture books, and young adult fiction.  It’s by far the coolest part of our house.

After a couple of hours of intense scrounging, I didn’t find a children’s book that would help, but I did come across one of our many copies of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  I sat down and started, once again, to read this wonderful and quite profound Christmas story.  And what struck me this time was not any of the more familiar moments in the book—“I wear the chains I forged in life!”  “Are there no prisons?” “Mankind was my business!”  “God bless us every one!”  Instead, I was drawn into a little-known moment where the Ghost of Christmas Present comes to visit Scrooge.  You may remember how the ghost shows Scrooge how the Cratchit family can joyfully celebrate Christmas even with their relative poverty and Tiny Tim’s illness.  Right after that the ghost whisks Scrooge off to see how universal the celebration of Christmas is around the world, even under very harsh conditions:  in a coal mine, on a lighthouse, aboard a ship.  As the narrator explains when they get to the ship,

Every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.  [A Christmas Carol “Stave Three”]


And as I reread Dickens’ book I couldn’t help thinking about my own childhood experiences of Christmas.  Over the course of my working life in the church, I have come to love the anecdotes told by my clergy friends about the Christmases they enjoyed growing up.  I’ve worked most of my career in multiple staff situations—large parishes, seminaries, and now a cathedral—and in those places we tend to pass the big holiday preaching duties around.  So it’s safe to say that over the years I’ve heard my share of Christmas sermons with their attendant stories about big holiday dinners, tales of working on the yearly Christmas pageant, and even one or two yarns about dysfunctional family gatherings around the holidays.  There’s even been a small miracle or two. I really have come to love these stories, and not only because they’re usually so well told.

            I had a very different childhood experience than have most clergy.  Not only did I not grow up in the church.  Both my parents worked in show business, and so the early Christmases I remember took place in very different settings than did those of my colleagues.  Instead of country church or blazing fireside, think nightclub or motel room.  Instead of a big family turkey dinner, think Chinese restaurant.  Mind you, I’m not complaining.  All told, it was pretty interesting. But it certainly wasn’t Christmas at Duck Dynasty, either. A little bit of tinsel can do wonders, and as the only kid in the room I was always fussed over.  But I enjoy hearing the anecdotes told by my colleagues because they give me a very different sense of what the holidays felt like in what we used to call “normal” families.

            When I first came into the church, in college, I used to feel a bit sheepish about my lack of a more traditional background.  Sure, it had its good side:  because I first experienced Christianity as an adult, I never had to unlearn the stuff they teach you in Sunday school.  But this lack of early nurture in the faith had its down side as well.  For one thing, I was at a loss for sermon illustrations.  Who wants to hear the preacher tell a heartwarming story about Christmas in Las Vegas?

            You and I live in a culture that celebrates youth and worries about growing old.  But aging has its blessings, too-- at least for me.  One of the effects of hearing the Gospels read aloud so often over so many years is that occasionally some of the deep truths of Christianity actually begin to sink in.  When I was younger I was embarrassed about my upbringing and so tried to hide it. I wasn’t one of those clergy who had gone to prep school, had three last names, or had grown up singing in the church choir.  I was a kid who’d grown up around comics, strippers, and jazz musicians. I’d stumbled out of one kind of life and into another.  As a young man, I was embarrassed about my background. The longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve come to see that it’s OK.

            Here’s what John says at the beginning of his Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1: 1-5]


            That passage tells us the central proclamation of Christmas: God has taken on human flesh in the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. This is perhaps Christianity’s most startling proposition. It has radical consequences.  God became one of us in Jesus.  This means at least two things.  It means that God now knows what it is like to be us.  And it means that who we are and how we live is raised to a new level of divine importance. We matter.  God feels our joy and our pain.  The One we pray to knows what our life feels like.  And more than that:  all human life, all human experience, is important and holy because all human beings are important and holy.  By becoming one of us in Jesus, God blessed and transformed all human life.

            And this blessing and transformation are at the heart of what Christmas means.  Your life, your joys and sorrows, your work and relationships, your story—all of what makes you “you” matters because of what happened that morning in Palestine two thousand plus years ago. When we preachers complain about what Christmas has become in our culture, we do so not because it has become “commercialized” but because it has become “trivialized”.  We have made of it too light a thing.  Sure, the silly ties and the Santa hats are fine, but we also should be out on the street stopping traffic and giving people the good news that God has become one of us in Jesus, that their lives are now charged with divine significance, that it is OK for them to be who they are. 

            It has taken me 40 plus years of living with this story to understand not only its depth but also its implications for you and me.  As John says at the close of today’s gospel, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”[John 1:14]  That life is the light of all people, and it is available to us whoever we are and wherever we come from.  God has taken you into the divine mystery.  You are now part of it.  Who you are, where you are from, your story, your past, your future:  all of them are holy and blessed and good.

            Christmas comes in cathedrals and coal mines, in country churches and aboard ships, in lighthouses and nightclubs.  Whether you have three last names or four first names; whether you grew up in church or on the streets; whether you live in a happy or dysfunctional household; whether you’re at the top of your game or trying to keep it together:  Christmas is for you. In saying yes to Jesus, God has said yes also to you.  It is good and right to be who you are.  Do not let somebody else’s vision of the perfect Christmas get in the way of your taking in the depth and passion of God’s love for you.

In John’s words:  “The word has become flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.”  In Charles Dickens’ words: let each of us have a “kinder word for [one] another on [this] day than on any day in the year”.  In my own words:  God knows, loves, and accepts you as you are. Really:  as you are. Amen.






Sunday, December 15, 2013

Homily: The Third Sunday of Advent [December 15, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

I did not grow up in the church, and up until my first year of college I only went in to churches and synagogues for life events—weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals and the like. The first time I ever went to church on my own was Easter Day, 1968—four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I went for two reasons—first, because I was trying to make sense of Dr. King’s murder, and second because I greatly admired the Yale Chaplain in those days, William Sloane Coffin, Jr.  Bill Coffin had been arrested on the steps of the Pentagon months before—along with poet Robert Lowell and the famous baby book writer Dr. Benjamin Spock—and I had heard Coffin speak on several occasions about the intersection of social and religious issues.  So on Easter Day, 1968, I made my way across Yale’s Old Campus to Battell Chapel to hear what Dr. Coffin might say on Easter that would help me understand the death of Dr. King.

I remember very little about that first church experience, except for two things.  First, they served sherry afterward—a powerful inducement for a college freshman in those days.  And second, Coffin’s sermon entirely surprised me.  He did, of course, use the sermon time to talk about the King assassination, but he didn’t do so in any conventionally comforting way.  “What else,” Coffin asked, “did we think we had a right to expect?”  Comparing King’s murder to the events of Good Friday, Coffin intoned, “We never had a right to think it would be any different” with figures like Jesus and King.

Here I was, an 18 year-old kid looking for consolation, and instead of giving me a security blanket the preacher used the gospel to slap me in the face.  It was an unforgettable moment, and I owe my life in the church to the spiritual wake up I received that morning.  The sherry probably had a little something to do with it, too.

I think about Bill Coffin’s rhetorical question—“What else did we think we had a right to expect?” every time I read or hear today’s gospel.  John the Baptist is in prison, and what he’s hearing about Jesus doesn’t exactly sound like what he expected to hear. He sends words by his disciples to ask of Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" 

John apparently thought that Jesus would be one kind of Messiah, and he is turning out to be another.  John predicted a fiery leader who would use his winnowing fork to separate the wheat from the chaff and then burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.  But Jesus didn’t behave the way John expected he would.  He didn’t scourge people—he healed them.  He didn’t separate people, he brought them together.  He didn’t predict damnation so much as universal peace and forgiveness.  "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" “What else did we think we had a right to expect?”

It has been a year since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and as we observe this anniversary, I find that these two questions frame my perception of the year we have been through.  A year ago, I stood in the pulpit and declared my own and this cathedral’s resolve to stand with and for the victims of gun violence and to use our energies to mobilize the faith community to pressure our legislators for action to curb the epidemic of deaths brought about by guns in America.  In the phrase that will no doubt be the opening line of my obituary, I said, “The gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby.”

A year later, pretty close to nothing has happened.  And just last Friday, we saw yet another school shooting, this time in Colorado—again. By the estimates of the Centers for Disease Control, another 32,000 Americans have died by gun violence since December 14, 2012.  There have been mass shootings around the country, even in our own Washington D.C. Navy Yard.  There has been almost no legislative action in response to these deaths.  "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" “What else did we think we had a right to expect?”

Last September, Bishop Budde and my wife Kathy and I were present at the memorial service for those killed at the Navy Yard.  As with Bill Coffin’s sermon on Easter Day, 1968, I will always remember President Obama’s remarks in the wake of the Navy Yard shooting.  The president said, in part:

So these families have endured a shattering tragedy. It ought to be a shock to us all as a nation and as a people. It ought to obsess us. It ought to lead to some sort of transformation. . . .

We can’t accept this. As Americans bound in grief and love, we must insist here today there is nothing normal about innocent men and women being gunned down where they work. There is nothing normal about our children being gunned down in their classrooms. There is nothing normal about children dying in our streets from stray bullets. [“Remarks by the President at the Memorial Service for the Victims of the Navy Yard Shooting” September 22, 2013]

Just as I will never forget sitting in Battell Chapel on Easter Day in 1968, I will never forget sitting outdoors on a beautiful September Sunday afternoon at the Washington Marine Barracks listening to the president say those words as the American flag fluttered in the breeze behind him. And I will never forget where I was when I heard tell of the Navy Yard shootings, the Sandy Hook shootings, the Aurora shootings, the Oak Creek Wisconsin shootings.  These moments are seared into my memory as I believe they are into yours because, as the president says, “there is nothing normal” about them.

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus responds to John the Baptist’s question with these words:

"Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." [Matthew 11:2-11]

A year after Sandy Hook, I still believe that the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby.  I still believe that you and I people of faith should refuse to tolerate the epidemic of gun violence that is killing our children, our colleagues, our friends.  As the church, as the community that gathers around Jesus, we need to remember what we’re actually here for.  We’re here, with Jesus, to help the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers be cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead be raised, and the poor receive the good news.  "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" “What else did we think we had a right to expect?”

What else did we think we had a right to expect?  Nothing has happened in a year partially because you and I have not cared enough to make something happen.  The passion is all on one side in the gun violence debate.  Oh, sure, we care every time there is a tragedy.  But we quickly lose interest and turn our attention to other things.  We need, my friends, to do better.  We need, as the community that lives out the life and promise of Jesus in the world, to be the people bringing good news to a nation and world in the grips of a death-dealing addiction to violence and guns.

One year after Newtown, I ask, as you do, “Why has nothing happened?”  And in response I hear not an answer but William Sloane Coffin’s question: “What else did we think we had a right to expect?” If we don’t care at least as much as the gun lobby, if we don’t become, in the president’s words, “obsessed” with curbing gun violence, what right do we have to expect that things will be any different, even after the next mass shooting or wave of urban gun deaths?

Christianity is not only about loving Jesus and knowing God.  It is about living out the implications of that love and knowledge.  Human beings are precious; that is why we care when they die.   And that is why Jesus responds to John’s question not with a list of talking points but with the news of human lives made better.  And so for us.  On this Third Sunday of Advent, as we move ever closer to Christmas and its proclamation of good news and great joy for all people, I repeat what I said a year ago:  the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby.  You and I who follow Jesus must continue to stand with and for the victims of gun violence and we must redouble our efforts to help our leaders do the right thing so that our schools, our workplaces, and our streets will be safe places for precious human beings to live out their lives in the fulfillment of Christmas peace and joy. 

As Paul said in 2 Corinthians, “We do not lose heart.” [2 Corinthians 4:1] We will prevail because the cross is finally stronger than the forces set against it.  We will prevail because the love and justice and hope and peace at the center of the universe are more powerful than hatred and fear and oppression and violence. One year after Newtown, nothing has happened yet everything has changed. Together let us walk with Jesus and become with him the ones the world is waiting for. I am not giving up, and I ask that you not give up, either.  Amen.






Sunday, December 1, 2013

Homily: The First Sunday of Advent [December 1, 2013] Washington National Cathedral

            When the modern custom of Black Friday—big retail sales on the day after Thanksgiving-- began several years ago, I thought it was kind of funny.  Sure there were stabbings, shootings, and tramplings then just as there are today; but in the main Black Friday just seemed to be about people behaving badly to get a deal on stuff they didn’t really need anyway.  But as the practice grew, the day itself morphed into an observance less funny than sad.  As shoppers were interviewed, it turned out that many of them braved the dark and the cold on Black Friday morning so they could buy presents and necessities they couldn’t otherwise afford. And once they got inside, of course, the loss-leader items were quickly snatched up, so most shoppers ended up having stood in line for hours for the privilege of paying premium prices anyway.

            This year, though, Black Friday has changed yet again, turning now potentially more pernicious.  Because the door busters began on Thanksgiving Day itself this year, Black Friday has now finally succeed in overtaking the only holiday left that seemed exempt from retail hysteria. As far as commercialization goes, I gave up on Christmas long ago, but I still enjoyed the fantasy that we had one holiday that was about family and community and not about commodification.  But now that I know I can spend my Thanksgiving day over at Target or Best Buy, I won’t have to worry about making small talk over the stuffing. I can spend the whole day first buying a flat screen TV and then watching football, free of any human interaction at all.

            Such was the grumpy state of my post-Thanksgiving meditations until I had the unexpectedly happy experience of reading the news about Pope Francis’ first proclamation, an “apostolic exhortation” Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel”. It’s hard to stay grumpy when the pope warns that we’re in danger of becoming “querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses’”.  (His word, not mine.) Amid all the accounts of Black Friday excesses, amid the stuff that passed for religious news last week—a Wisconsin court’s overturning the clergy housing tax exemption, this cathedral’s announcement of a fixed price entry fee for tourists—there was a story that was actually worth following:  Pope Francis recalled us to the basics of what Christianity is all about.

In today’s readings we are told, rather briskly, to wake up! “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep,” says Paul. [Romans 13:11] And even Jesus gets into the act: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” [Matthew 24:42]  Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the day that begins our four-week watch until Christmas, and the focus today is on waking up.  Our collect today asks that we be given “grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light”.  We get ready for Christmas first by shaking ourselves awake.

         As we reflect on all the silliness, sadness, sorrow, pain, and enmity in the world around us, Pope Francis gives us a wakeup moment.  Most of the time most of us walk through life as if we were half asleep. Francis doesn’t just admonish us about being sourpusses.  He recalls us to why we’re Christians in the first place.  Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus,” he says. “Let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!”

The startling thing about the pope’s document is how it reminds us that following Jesus is a joy.  The press accounts of Evangelii Gaudium have understandably focused on his critiques of the internal squabblings of the church and of the excesses of market capitalism. As Francis has widely been quoted as saying, the church itself has lost its way: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” And so has our economic system lost not only its way but its values: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

Those are important issues, of course, and not just for Roman Catholics.  All churches, not the least our own, have been obsessed these past decades with their own internal workings and disagreements.  And no one can watch the news of escalating national and global income inequality and see anything but disaster coming toward us as its result. But the central question, of course, is “Why do we care about such things?”  And the answer is that we care about them not primarily because we’re angry or depressed. To be a Christian is not to be a vengeful sourpuss.  We care about them because of the promise on offer to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  To be a Christian is to be an ambassador of Jesus’s joy.

The real wakeup story of Evangelii Gaudium is the way it calls us both forward and back to what Christianity is all about. “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus,” says Francis.Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.”  Those are the pope’s words, and I believe he speaks for all of us who seek to follow Jesus, at least for that part of us that is truly awake and alive.

Advent—the four weeks before Christmas—is an interesting season, and it works in a totally counterintuitive way.  On this First Sunday we look not back but forward, to “the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead”.  Jesus comes among us yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We must wake up and be ready to meet him.

What does it mean to be awake and ready to meet Jesus?  In the history of Christian liturgy, the First Sunday of Advent has had every possible liturgical color.  We here at the cathedral use blue because that’s the English Sarum color from Salisbury cathedral, a color traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary.  In many churches they use purple as a penitential color, turning Advent into a mini version of Lent. In the middle ages, though, the color for today was black, because even at its height the imperial church had enough self-understanding to know that the second coming of Jesus would be bad news for the powerful.  And in oppressed communities, in times and places where being a Christian has been dangerous, the Advent color is often white because those up against it know they will readily greet Jesus with joy.

What color does this Advent Sunday hold for you?  The great Swedish bishop and New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl was once asked about the difference between judgment and mercy.  He thought for a minute and replied, “There is no difference.  God acts, and we experience that action as either judgment or mercy depending on where we stand in relation to it.”  Do you need to clean up your act?  Or do you need to pray for liberation?  Whether you experience God’s love as judgment or mercy, this Advent Sunday asks that you wake up and get yourself ready to meet it.

Advent and Christmas present an invitation to encounter Jesus.  As Pope Francis says, “The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.”  This is the season to remember why we follow Jesus in the first place.  Some follow Jesus because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t.  Others follow Jesus because they see him as the champion of their causes. Francis calls us both back and forward to the realization that we follow Jesus because the life he offers is itself a joy.  The Gospel is good news:  the God who made the world made you, and that one loves the world and you in an infinitely deep variety of ways. 

So wake up!  In Francis’ words, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them.” It won’t be Black Friday forever.  Even the holiday season will pass. The joy of the Gospel will remain. Jesus is always coming toward us, ready to meet us as prophet, as teacher, as infant in the manger, as judge.  In that meeting you will know love and justice and hope and peace, forgiveness and blessing, and above all joy.  And that will be an encounter worth staying awake for.  Amen.