Sunday, December 28, 2014

Homily: The First Sunday after Christmas [December 28, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

            Earlier this year, the comedian Chris Rock received a lot of press for his Saturday Night Live remarks on the commercialization of Christmas. Here is part of what he said:

It's America, we commercialize everything. Look what we did to Christmas. Christmas is Jesus's birthday! Now I don't know Jesus, but from what I've read, Jesus is the least materialistic person to ever roam the earth. Jesus kept a low profile and we turned his birthday to the most materialistic day of the year. [SNL 11/1/14]


            I don’t think there’s much to disagree with here, except to note that even in its beginnings in the late days of the Roman Empire, Christmas had as much to do with celebrating the prevailing culture as it did the birth of Jesus.  When Christianity became the state religion of Rome in the fourth century, one of the first things the imperial church did was to transform Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival, into Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’s birth. So to be fair, even those of us who want to “Keep Christ in Christmas” must admit we’re rowing up a very determined historical stream.

            Still, some of the wretched excess of the season is hard to defend.  Beyond the ritzy gifts, we all get too many of those seasonal letters detailing the tribulations of affluence. (You know—“Thank God Chip was back at Andover when our yacht sank.”) There is a wonderful New York Times blog post this weekend [“Big City” 12/26/14] called “The Season of the Wealfie” in which Gina Bellafante describes a new holiday trend.  According to Bellafante, a Manhattan advertising executive “recently coined the term [Wealfie] to refer to, as he put it in a column for The New York Observer last month, ‘selfies taken in a luxury context that confirm one has money, status and social currency.’” She goes on to explain:

The paradigmatic wealfie is the image you take of yourself getting on or off a private jet, possibly on your way to New Year’s Eve in Morocco or Anguilla. . . . But to the extent that people so closely identify with the things that they buy and receive, the picture shot of the Herm├Ęs or Chanel or Prada gift “unboxed” and then posted on Instagram is another kind of wealfie. Of course, there are so many ways to broadcast status these days.


You bet. The trend in early admissions to elite colleges makes Christmas a great time for parents to brag. More from Bellafante’s piece:


Two weeks ago, a shipping executive posted a picture on Facebook of two mugs on a counter with a Christmas tree in the distance. One mug said, “Amherst Mom,” the other, “Amherst Dad.” The status update read, “An early Christmas gift from our son upon his acceptance to Amherst College, class of ’19.” This is actually a wealfie that can perform double duty, given that it makes known not only that your child got in, but also that you seem undeterred by the list price of, in the case of Amherst, $60, 400 in tuition, fees, room and board.


Whether we call it the season of commercialism or wealfies, modern Christmas still can’t seem to shake the Roman Empire’s and Christendom’s association of the season with power.  Consciously or not, we continue to use Christmas, as our forbears did, to project an image of God as powerful, victorious, and bold—very like a Roman emperor or medieval king. But when we actually read the New Testament, it doesn’t talk about the birth of Jesus in terms of power at all.  Listen again to these words from Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. [Galatians 4:4-7]

            What Paul is saying has little in common with our ancient or modern triumphal celebrations of Christmas.  God is born to us in Jesus so that all of us might receive adoption as God’s children.  Christmas is not about God defeating enemies or proving who’s boss.  Christmas is about God’s unfolding strategy of gathering and reconciling the whole world in one embrace of love.  After the birth of Jesus, we are no longer God’s slaves.  We are now God’s children.  Slavery is a relationship based on power.  Child-parent status is one based on love.    Christmas changes everything.

It has always struck me as significant that Christmas celebrates God coming among us as a child, the weakest and least powerful expression of human life. Yet we continue to use the season to talk about God’s power and might.  But there are other, pre-imperial, more authentic ways to understand what Jesus’s birth can mean for us today. This year Kathy and I received a Christmas card from our longtime friends Harvey and Doris Guthrie—Harvey is a retired Old Testament scholar, seminary dean, and parish priest who preached here last May—and this card was if anything the opposite of the wealfie.  In it they quoted this verse from a hymn, “The Nativity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” by the 18th century English poet Christopher Smart:

O the magnitude of meekness!

Worth from worth immortal sprung;

O the strength of infant weakness,

If eternal is so young!


It’s clear from these words that Christopher Smart understands something about Christmas that many of our more familiar hymn writers don’t quite get.  Christmas is not a demonstration of divine power.  It is exactly the reverse.  It is a demonstration of divine weakness. 

By coming when and where he did and as whom he did, God shows us something about how things finally are.  We human beings are easily misled and confused.  Glittery things distract us from what is really valuable.  In the end it is not about power.  It is about love.  We often mistake the one for the other.  But real love--divine love, Jesus’s love—is not about power at all.  God knows us as we are—complicated, willful, distracted creatures—and yet God still chooses to be one of us in our most vulnerable state. 

For reasons that I will never fully understand, we human beings are ashamed of weakness.  We think that strength is normative, and that any deviation from strength is a sign of divine disfavor.  But it’s not that way at all.  We humans are by nature finite, limited, fragile creatures.  As infants we are totally dependent on our parents.  As adults we continue to need each other if we are to flourish and survive.  That is the way life is.  That is the way we are.  We don’t like it much, and so we define our frailty as our problem, and we buy into all kinds of bad ideas—political, social, even religious—that promise us a way to escape and transcend our weakness.

Christmas is a time to give up all our pretensions. None of them matter.  Our strength is always temporary at best, and it will never save us. Only our solidarity with each other in our weakness will bring about the peace and reconciliation we all seek. God comes among us in Jesus as one of us. As Harvey and Doris say in their card, this season celebrates the coming of One “in whose infant weakness is the strength this old world needs”. 

I hope that this week between Christmas and New Year’s Day will afford you the time to take in the deepest truths of the season.  Christmas asks that we see ourselves in this Bethlehem infant, weak and vulnerable yet precious and loved. That’s how it is with Jesus; that’s how it is with us.  The coming of God among us in fragile human weakness is the greatest present we receive at Christmas, and this divine gift opens up to us the possibility of accepting ourselves and each other as we really are.

There is so much to be thankful for this season.  Who needs a wealfie when we have the real thing? God has become one of us in Jesus. His infant weakness is in fact the strength this old world needs. Human and divine are closer than we think.  The One at the center of the universe is one of us and with us in our struggles and joys, our hopes and our fears.  God now knows what it is to be us, and that knowledge changes everything.  In the words of Christopher Smart, the hymn-writing poet who got it right:

God all-bounteous, all-creative,

Whom no ills from good dissuade,

Is incarnate, and a native

Of the very world He made. Amen.



Thursday, December 25, 2014

Homily: Christmas Day [December 25, 2014] Washinigton National Cathedral

Gary Hall

Washington National Cathedral

December 25, 2014 [Christmas Day]




            One of the most important spiritual practices I have at this time of year involves a big glossy book by Charles Schulz called, A Peanuts Christmas. It’s a collection of all the Peanuts Christmas cartoons.  Whenever I need to get myself into the spirit of Christmas, I take this book down from the shelf and read it straight through. And if there was ever a December when I needed Charlie Brown and his friends, this has been it.

            I have been reading Peanuts with some regularity since I was in fourth grade. I say this neither apologetically nor proudly.  Something about that comic strip helps me make sense of my experience of the world.  In that sense, Peanuts is a bit like the Bible.  And like my engagement with the Bible, every time I read Peanuts I see something new.  When I was younger I empathized with Charlie Brown, then with Linus.  These days I’m more of a Snoopy kind of guy.  But this year, for some reason, my heart has gone out to Spike.

            Now for those of you who are not current on the Peanuts cast of characters, Spike is Snoopy’s ne’er-do-well brother who lives in the desert. Originally there were four brothers at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm—Snoopy, Andy, Olaf, and Spike. (For you purists, there are also some forgotten siblings:  another brother, Marbles, and a sister, Belle.  Molly and Rover appeared in a TV special, but never in the comic strip. ) This is sounding nerdy, so I’ll move on.

            Anyway:  this year I’ve been thinking a lot about Spike.  He lives in the desert next to a cactus he has named, “Joe Cactus”.  Spike wears a hat and sports a little moustache—he looks a bit like a 1940s racetrack tout.  Every year he decorates Joe Cactus with electric lights, a stocking, and a star. Spike settled on the cactus after other experiments.  As he says, “It’s hard to decorate a rock.”

            Now there are probably lots of hidden reasons why I return to Peanuts at this time every year, but at least one of them is that this comic strip consistently expresses the deepest truths about Christmas. Whether it’s Linus reading Luke’s Christmas Gospel in the pageant, Sally writing acquisitive letters to Santa, or Spike decorating a cactus and a rock, Charles Schulz knew how to represent our experience of the season.  All alone in his hat and his cactus in the desert, Spike shows us that Christmas can be anywhere.

            Today’s Gospel, from the first chapter of John, makes that same point, admittedly in fancier language:

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]

The Prologue to John’s Gospel (as this passage is called) is at once beautiful and confusing.  It is trying to tell us something deeply true about God, us, and the world.  It does so in abstract, poetic, theological language.  And each time I hear it read, I have a dual response to it:  “Gosh, that’s beautiful,” and “Huh?” In that respect, hearing the opening verses of John’s Gospel is like watching Spike put Christmas decorations on a cactus.  It’s compelling and weird at the same time.

But if you hold that image of Snoopy’s brother celebrating Christmas in the desert while you listen to John’s opening verses, you get a sense of what this holiday celebrates.  In lofty language: John is telling us that the One at the center of the universe is present here and among us in the world.  In plain speak: Christmas can be anywhere.

Because I don’t want you to leave the cathedral thinking that cartoon collections make up the sum of all the dean’s  intellectual engagement, I want to add that this Advent I’ve also been reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. Equating God with light is an old Christian habit.  As John says, “The light shines in the darkness.”  But there is an equally ancient Christian tradition of finding God in the dark.  Light is clarity.  Dark is mystery.  As Saint Augustine said, “We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.”  Ever since the Enlightenment, our Western minds have reached for illumination as an aspect of God.  But there is a long Christian tradition of finding the divine in the shadows, a practice Barbara Brown Taylor calls “learning to walk in the dark.” 

“We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.”  When we are honest with ourselves, we acknowledge that there is much of life and the world that we do not understand.  There is much about Christianity that we do not understand.  The Prologue to John’s Gospel, the Nicene Creed, many of Jesus’s sayings and parables—so much of what we profess eludes our understanding.  And yet, year after year, we come back to this moment of Christmas because it says something to us that our minds cannot fathom but our hearts somehow can grasp.

Spike puts ornaments on a cactus in the desert.  Christmas can be anywhere.  “We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.”  Perhaps the Prologue to John’s Gospel sounds mysterious precisely because John is trying to go around our intelligence.  As Barbara Brown Taylor says, the real questions of life and faith are not questions of abstract belief.  The real ones sound like this:  “On what is your heart set?”  “What powers do you most rely on?  What is the hope that gives meaning to your life?” And she adds, “The answers to [those questions] are not written down in any book, and they have a way of shifting in the dark.” [Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 144]

“On what is your heart set?” Spike’s heart is set on a cactus, Snoopy’s on a little bird named Woodstock, Charlie Brown’s on winning at least one baseball game. In his own difficult yet beautiful way, the writer of John’s Gospel is telling us that the answer to what we set our hearts on is the real meaning of Christmas. As he tells us,


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. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. [John 1: 14,18]

“We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.”  When it comes right down to it, I don’t understand the Prologue to John’s Gospel any better than you do, but I do know that something in it speaks to what my heart is set on.  In the birth of Jesus, we have been shown and given everything about God that can be grasped.  God is elusive, mysterious, dark.  We cannot own or control God.  No church can give you an ironclad guarantee that we have God all figured out and packaged in a neat, dependable way.  Yet every Christmas morning we rejoice that this One whom we can neither grasp nor understand became one of us in Jesus and now lives among and in us as “the true light that enlightens everyone” [John 1:9].

If God can be both darkness and light then I really don’t understand it.  And if I don’t understand it, then it just might be God we’re talking about.  And that is good news.  If you’re in a dark confused part of your life right now, the Christmas word today is that God is coming to you right in that dark, confused, possibly grieving or fearful or wounded place. Christmas can be anywhere.

Jesus is born in Bethlehem.  Light shines in the darkness.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  Christmas can be anywhere, even in the parts of yourself and your life you don’t acknowledge or understand. God is in and with and among us.  You, your life, your relationships, your world have divine significance.  That’s the Christmas Gospel, and I can’t quite figure out how it works, either.  But I know it’s the truth, because when we hear it, our hearts know it’s what they are set on.

So go ahead and decorate a rock. Put a star on a cactus. And Merry Christmas.  Amen.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Homily: The Fourth Sunday of Advent [December 21, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

The Annunciation
    Every December, Kathy and I drive up to New York, to spend a few days at Holy Cross Monastery at West Park. We began last Tuesday morning, and as we got in the car we heard the unfolding story of the Taliban siege of the Pakistani school in Peshawar in which 145 people--132 of them school children--were killed.  The day before we had followed the account of the hostage taking in Sydney, Australia in which 3 people were killed.  And the day before that we observed the second anniversary of the Newtown shootings in which 28 people--20 of them children--died. And of course in the weeks before all this we had witnessed the protests over the failure of mostly white Grand Juries to indict white police officers in the killings of unarmed black men.
    It's getting to the point in our world where opening the paper or turning on the news is a courageous act.  Just yesterday we saw the senseless murder of two on-duty NYPD officers. I know that Advent is a time of joyous hope and expectation, but it is hard to keep your mind on the approach of Christmas when there is so much human suffering in the world. 
    So last week felt like a good time to go to a monastery. Kathy and I usually make our way to West Park on the Hudson by way of Manhattan, and we spent part of Tuesday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at MOMA. After a car trip preoccupied with suffering, hatred, and death, it is a healing experience to enter two museum spaces devoted to grace and beauty. At the Met, I wandered into a gallery where the artworks are in cases and you have to press a button to light them up. Intrigued like a kid at a science exhibit, I pressed one such button and came upon Botticelli’s Annunciation.
    Botticelli painted his Annunciation around 1485 in Florence.  It's more a private, devotional image than something to hang on your wall: painted in tempera and gold on wood, it depicts the interchange between Gabriel and Mary we heard read just now in our Gospel for today. In Botticelli's painting, a wall separates the archangel Gabriel from Mary. He is in a waiting room, she in a bed chamber. Both are in poses suggesting anticipation, contemplation, and humility. He is kneeling in preparation to speak, and she is kneeling in preparation to hear. Like many annunciation painting, Botticelli's shows us the moment right before the news is told.  He is just about to tell her that she will conceive and bear a son.  The impossible is about to become possible.
    As you can imagine, I spent my time at Holy Cross Monastery thinking a lot about Botticelli's Annunciation. In fact, I downloaded the image onto my iPad and spent a fair amount of time last week just looking at it. Aside from the obvious beauty of the piece, I continue to be struck by the way it represents three truths that I think are important for all of us to remember on the Sunday before Christmas.  One is the sense of anticipation the painting represents--a sense each of us needs to recover.  Another is the deep interiority we see in the faces of Gabriel and Mary.  A third is the radical importance of Mary for us who strive to follow her son.  A word about each.
    Anticipation.  In this painting, Gabriel and Mary are perched on the verge of something that will come to them.  They wait.  The only work they do in Botticelli’s Annunciation involves preparing to speak and to listen.  In that sense, they show us what Advent is really about.  In our place and time, we seem always to value action over contemplation.  In Botticelli's painting, Gabriel and Mary are still.  They are quiet.  They are waiting to take in big news from outside themselves and consider what it might mean for them and for us.
    Now I'm probably not the best person to deliver this advice.  Kathy Hall regularly reminds me that I have the patience of a gnat.  But we preachers are not known for our consistency, so I’ll say it anyway.  Advent is a time when we are asked to move out of action and into contemplation.  Of course it is important that we take action.  But it's equally important that when we act we don't do something stupid.  The coming of Jesus will happen in God's time, not ours. We are not in control of the universe.  Mary has many things to teach us, but perhaps the first of them is just this:  we need to learn how to wait.
    Interiority. Botticelli's Annunciation makes visually clear what our scripture implies about Mary:  she has a deep interior life. When Gabriel tells her the news about the birth of her son, her first response is a question: "How can this be?"  [Luke 1:34] In the next chapter, near the end of the Christmas story itself, Luke will tell us, "But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart." [Luke 2: 19] Mary is a premodern person.  Her interior life is not on display.  It is hidden in her heart.
    You and I live in a time of self-projection.  But we humans have not always been this way. There was a time before Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, a time before relentless self-promotion. You and I can't stop talking (and when we're talking online, we're usually talking about ourselves). In her quietness, Mary demonstrates personal, interior character rather than outward, performative display. Does everybody need to know what we think about everything all the time? As Christmas approaches, we might consider what a gift such an internal conversion to silence on our part might be not only to ourselves but to the world.
    And then there is the radical fact of Mary herself.  The church has said all kinds of things about Mary over the years, but to me she will always above all be the exemplary Christian person.  When he finally gets around to it, Gabriel tells her big and astounding news.  She will bear a son, Jesus, and he will sit on the throne of his ancestor David.  Jesus will be the "Son of the Most High God”.  When you take this story out of the stained glass we have wrapped around it, you see that Mary is being asked to do something enormous. And how does she respond? "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” [Luke 1:38]
    Mary accepts God's call to bear Jesus, and she does so not as a passive vessel of grace but as an active participant in God's redeeming purpose.  She says yes to a high, hard task. She will not only be Jesus’s mother: she will go on to become both a prophet in her own right and her son’s most faithful companion.
    I spent three days last week in a monastery, taking time to reflect on Luke’s Gospel as portrayed in Botticelli’s Annunciation.  Monasteries end their round of prayer services each night with Compline, a rite that closes with a Gregorian chant called the "Antiphon of the Blessed Virgin Mary". Having prayed and listened together all day, the monks and their guests join once more to sing this simple text, addressed to Jesus's mother on our behalf:
                Gracious Mother of our Redeemer, forever abiding
                Queen of heaven and star of ocean, O pray for your children,
                who, though falling, strive to rise again.
                You, maiden, have borne your holy Creator to the wonder of all nature;
                ever virgin, after as before you received that Ave
                from the mouth of Gabriel; intercede for us sinners.
    [OHC Monastic Breviary, p. 431]
    As you sing this antiphon at the end of a day, you cannot help thinking both about what has already passed and what is yet to come.  Together, we await the birth of one who will scatter the proud in their conceit and fill the hungry with good things.  Together, we try to make sense of the violence in Sydney, Peshawar, and Newtown; in Staten Island, Cleveland, Ferguson, and Brooklyn. Gabriel kneels in preparation. He is poised to announce the birth of one whose life and death and resurrection will give us a way to turn all this violence into redeeming love.
    But not yet.  This is still Advent, not yet Christmas.  We wait, with Gabriel and with Mary, in expectation of divine love being born among us again.  We hold in our minds and in our hearts the suffering of children, the inhumanity of violence, the pains and struggles of everyday people just to get by.  How we can live in a world that has both Botticelli’s Annunciation and school shootings in it is beyond me.  And because it is beyond me, I reach with Gabriel and Mary and all who love her for the child that we have heard will be born.
    Gracious Mother of our Redeemer, forever abiding
    Queen of heaven and star of ocean, O pray for your children,
                who, though falling, strive to rise again.
                            . . . intercede for us sinners.
    Yes, Mary. Pray for your children and intercede for us sinners. Pray for us all.



    Sunday, December 14, 2014

    Remarks: National Vigil for Victims of Gun Violence [Demeber 12, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

    "The gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby."

    The Sandy Hook shootings  of December 14, 2012 came after a seemingly endless spate of mass shootings in America--school shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at a voter forum in Arizona,  a theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, a Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. They also occurred in a year when urban gun violence in Chicago had reached startling proportions. Enough, we said, is enough.


    On the following Sunday, many American clergy stepped into their pulpits and called for a national movement to combat gun violence in our country.  At Washington National Cathedral I made a similar plea, noting the challenges but also the faith resources at our disposal. Referring obliquely to the crucifixion at the heart of Christian response to suffering, I observed, "The gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby."


    As December 14, 2014 approaches, many might question the power of the cross lobby in confronting the gun lobby. In the weeks immediately after the Newtown shootings, many faith leaders and gun violence prevention activists came together around a four-fold consensual legislative agenda:  a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, stiffer penalties for those convicted of gun trafficking, background checks for all gun purchases, greater attention to problems of community mental health.  After an initial flurry of activity, resistance from the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun interest groups rose up to stop the consensual gun violence agenda in its tracks. Six months after Newtown, the prospects for federal legislation were essentially over.


    In the past two years, there have been 95 additional school shootings.  Another 60,000 Americans have died by gun violence.  Despite federal inaction, the vast majority of Americans continue to favor gun violence prevention legislation similar to the agenda the cross lobby put forward two years ago. 


    What happened? Should we turn my earlier statement around?  Is the cross lobby no match for the gun lobby? 


    Clearly, the lack of federal action frustrates all of us who feel that gun violence is an important theological and public health issue.  Congregations around the nation have tirelessly worked, prayed, and organized, and they have at times found themselves overmatched by the gun lobby. Even before the 2014 midterm elections, the composition of Congress appeared massively misaligned with national preferences regarding gun legislation.  Any impartial observer, therefore, would conclude that (at least on the federal level) the cross lobby had been outplayed. Score one for the gun lobby.


    In our statehouses, however, the situation is vastly different.  Across the country legislatures and governors are taking action.  Several states have adopted laws removing access to firearms from domestic abusers. In September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a Gun Violence Restraining Order bill into law. Last month, Washington voters approved a referendum requiring universal background checks on all gun sales. And just this week, a bipartisan group called American State Legislators for Gun Violence Prevention—comprised of more than 200 state legislators from all 50 states and Puerto Rico--announced both its formation and the adoption of a bold agenda for taking up in state legislatures the commonsense gun violence prevention work currently stalled on Capitol Hill.


    Score several for the cross lobby.


    It is painfully ironic that, in a week when hundreds of congregations around the nation are recommitting themselves to faithful action to prevent gun violence, thousands of Americans are in our streets protesting the shooting deaths of young African Americans by white citizens and officers:  Michael Brown of Missouri; Tamir Rice of Ohio; Ezell Ford of California; Renisha McBride of Michigan; Trayvon Martin of Florida. We grieve over all gun deaths, whether in schools, in malls, or on the streets.  And of course there’s Eric Garner.As the cross lobby regroups and reorganizes to reduce the level of gun violence in America, we must broaden our work to address the historic prevalence of racial injustice in our common life. Black lives do matter.


    "The gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby."  There is so much progress.  There is so much left to do.  We owe it to the children of Newtown, the people of Aurora, the children of Chicago, to build on the successes of the recent weeks and months.  We owe it to Michael, Tamir, Ezell, Renisha, and Trayvon to stand with all victims of gun violence, even gun violence done in the name of the law. 


    "The gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby." In the end, we will prevail in this struggle because love and justice always finally win over fear and hate. Let us commit ourselves, today, to stand where God calls us to stand: with and for those who suffer and die from the illegal and immoral use of firearms.  There is no issue more important in our common life.  There is no cause more precious to the heart of God.


    Sunday, November 30, 2014

    Homily: The First Sunday of Advent [November 30, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

                Even though a largely peaceful Thanksgiving intervened, the recent weeks have been hard for anyone who follows current events. In the midst of all the bad news, I found solace in a fake front page of The New York Times (created by someone with the questionable name Joe Velx) circulating among my friends on Facebook. Like all good satire, it’s really funny and somewhat painful to read. Under a banner proclaiming just how awful everything is, the main headlines (hilarious but, I’m sorry to say, unrepeatable in the pulpit) mocked the Ferguson Grand Jury verdict and the Bill Cosby situation.  But some of the lesser headlines were almost as good:  “Study:  Pizza Causes Cancer”; “Obama Found Crying Alone in Bathroom Stall”; and my favorite:  “Weather Alert:  Entire Sky to Catch Fire”.  For some of us who have lived through the past several weeks, everything does seem at times simply awful. There are days when I, too, feel like crying alone in a bathroom stall. What is this world coming to?

                Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the first of four Sundays leading to Christmas.  Advent only looks toward Christmas itself near the end of the season; here, at the beginning, our focus is paradoxically on the last things. So here, today, the Advent season speaks to our apocalyptic dreads. Whenever we sense that the world is ending, it’s good to recall that we’re not the first generation in history to feel this way. In today’s Gospel (Mark 13:24-37) Jesus depicts an apocalyptic moment—the sun darkened, the moon dimming, stars falling from heaven. The people to whom Jesus spoke would soon feel, with the impending destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, that their world would be ending.  Cataclysmic change rarely feels good when we are standing in it. When we have become used to and invested in the way things are, change can indeed feel like the end of the world.

                In the last month we have witnessed a string of events that feel apocalyptic:  the spread of the Ebola virus; the continued beheadings of Americans by ISIS; the Ferguson Grand Jury’s failure to indict a police officer in the shooting death of a young black man and the outrage which resulted from that decision; the dismissal of charges against former Egyptian President Mubarak for the deaths of hundreds of non-violent Arab Spring protesters; and just yesterday, yet another shooting spree, this time in Austin, Texas.  Both abroad and at home, it seems that an established order is ending, bringing with it nothing but bad news.  How are we to make sense of all this change?

                One way to begin might be to think back to Jesus and his contemporaries. The world they inhabited was changing rapidly, too.  The Roman Empire, seemingly at its height under Augustus, was beginning its slow slide into ruin and decay.  In a few decades, the Jewish nation state, organized around the king and the Temple, would be totally destroyed and dispersed by that same empire in its desperate flailing attempts to exert control.  Jesus’s followers would soon experience the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of their leader.  Everything’s awful, indeed.

                When Jesus tells his companions, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”, he is not predicting the end of the world.  He is predicting the end of their world. The order that they have lived with and grown used to, as unjust and oppressive as it might be, is on its way out.  A new order will replace it, and it’s into that new reality that his followers will go when they gather and go forth after Jesus’s resurrection. Even though that old world was marked by suffering and oppression, it was still their world, the reality they had come to accept.  A new world was on its way.  What would it look like? How could they prepare?

                The only way they could prepare, says Jesus, was by watching and waiting to see what God might be up to. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Faced with historical events beyond their control, Jesus’s friends are counseled to watch and wait for signs of how they are to read and adjust to the changes that are coming their way.

    Watching and waiting were just as hard then as they are today. What do you mean, watch and wait?  Can’t we at least do something? We want to be doers, yet Jesus tells us to be watchers.  How can we live with all the dread and anxiety if all we’re going to do is watch and wait?

    Last week I came upon this quotation from the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and resistance leader imprisoned by the Nazis and executed by them in World War II.  Reflecting on the season of Advent from his prison cell, he wrote this:

    “By the way, a prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent: one waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (November 21, 1943, pp. 188-89).


                We wait and hope and watch for the door of our prison cell to be opened from the outside.  Bonhoeffer was a lifelong activist.  He risked his life to resist oppression.  And yet even such a doer as Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized that there were some forces and trends that he was powerless to control.  All he could do, in a seemingly endless prison cell Advent, was watch and wait, keeping awake to signs of God’s hopeful, liberating activity.

                The world wasn’t ending in the first century; their world was ending.  The world wasn’t ending even in the Nazi prison camp:  their world was ending. The world isn’t ending now.  But our world is ending.  Even as they desperately try to exert themselves, certain kinds of violence and privilege are coming to an end.  Whether they like it or not, ISIS represents a kind of intolerance and brutality that the world will always reject.  Whether we like it or not, the privilege that white people, straight people, and men have always counted on is also passing away.  The world isn’t ending.  But our world is.  What will come to replace it?  Will it be better than what we know now? We can only watch and wait.

                Let’s remember, though, that watching and waiting are not passive verbs. Jesus tells us to “keep awake”. Though we hope for the new world as an act of God, we can begin even now to live as if that world was our present reality. Jesus dealt with the oppression and injustice of his day by gathering a community in which life could be lived even now as God intended that it be.  You and I can keep awake for God’s new world today by living life on God’s terms now. We can renounce violence and hatred now.  We can give up our unearned privilege now.  We can empathize and make common cause with those who are marginalized, oppressed, and degraded by the structures of a world on its way out the door, and we can do that now. Our waiting can be active, not passive. We can make common cause with others and strive with them to realize God’s reign of love, justice, and peace now.

    On this first Sunday of Advent, we begin our shared four-week vigil, watching in Bonhoeffer’s words for the prison door of the present moment to be opened from the outside.  Christmas is coming, but let us not get ahead of ourselves.  We live, for now, in an Advent world.  The old world is ending, the new one dawns. We await the coming of one who will set us free not to shore up the old reality but to inhabit the new.  Our world may be ending, but as followers of Jesus we hope and wait for the new one that will replace it—a world more just, more loving, more compassionate.  This new world dawns on us even now.  There are signs of it everywhere.  In the words of today’s collect, let us “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light”. Let us reach out to each other and all creation to help God bring that world to birth. Let us remember the words of Jesus: “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Amen.


    Sunday, November 2, 2014

    Homily: The Sunday after All Saints Day [November 2, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

    Everybody has a pet peeve. Some people can’t stand waiting in line. Others are driven crazy by those unopenable plastic packages that electronic gadgets come wrapped in. Lines and hard plastic packages do annoy me, as do people writing checks for one item at the drug store and folks with extremely complicated drink orders at Starbucks. I mean, a half-caff no foam percent vanilla cream latte? Please, people! It’s just a cup of coffee! Nevertheless, I do nurse one particular pet peeve, and it is one I have pretty much all to myself: Daylight Saving Time.

    I hate Daylight Saving Time. Chances are, you don’t and will agree with my wife, Kathy (who greets the arrival of Daylight Saving Time in spring with regular joyous observations that it’s 8 o’clock and still light out) that this is a weird pet peeve for a rational adult person to have. Whenever we turn our clocks ahead, I stomp around muttering, “The government just took an hour of my life!” She and the dogs cower in the corner until the spring clock-setting ritual is done. So you can see, Daylight Saving Time drives me crazy. As an early to bed and early to rise kind of guy, I want it to be dark when I lie down and light when I get up. Is that too much to ask?

    Luckily, for us Daylight Saving Time resisters there is good news: today we’re on the other side of the best night of the year. Last night, the government gave us back the hour of our lives they took from us last spring. We have restored the cosmic balance the universe so desperately craves. Sure, it will turn to night sometime around noon, but it will actually be light when we’re on our way to work and school. For a few brief shining months we will all live together in the shared Camelot of Eastern Standard Time.

    Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I want to say something about All Saints Day, which always occurs right around this autumnal transition. All Saints Day celebrates the fullness of the community that gathers around Jesus. It proclaims that all of us who follow him—and that includes those present, those who have gone before, and those who are yet to come—are “saints”, that is, we’ve been sanctified by being together with Jesus in this fellowship.  Let’s think together about what today’s Gospel says to us this morning. .

    The opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5:1-12] are commonly called "The Beatitudes" because of the repeated use of the word we translate as "blessed". That same word can also mean something like "happy". For many of us Christians, The Beatitudes serve as a warrant for faithful action. When Jesus says that the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are "blessed" or "happy", many of us hear those words as a to-do list for our ministries. If we want to follow Jesus, we need to be about serving the poor, being peacemakers, and hungering for righteousness.

    That understanding is true as far as it goes. But let me suggest another that might stand beside it. Jesus's Beatitudes are not only, or even primarily, a set of marching orders for setting the world right. They are an announcement of what Christians have always called “the Gospel”. They are a proclamation of the good news. In the Beatitudes Jesus is not so much telling us what we ought to do as he is telling us what God is already doing. These verses are an announcement of what God is up to in the world. This "kingdom of heaven" that Jesus talks about is not some future blessed state up in the clouds someplace. The kingdom of heaven is breaking in even now in the ministry of Jesus and in the community that gathers around him.

    In Jesus’s day as now, human culture and human values were massively messed up. The ruler of the Western world—Caesar—pretended to a kind of authority that was only appropriate to God. That same ruler oppressed and taxed and starved subject peoples like the Palestinian Jews of whom Jesus was one. In Jesus’s day as in ours many suffered because of harsh political, economic, and social conditions. We first world, educated Christians need to remember that people followed Jesus in those days not so much because he was a great teacher but because he was a healer who embodied the freedom and generosity of God.

    So Jesus gathered a community around himself, and in stepping into the Jesus community, you stepped into a space or place or zone where life is lived as God intends that it be. Jesus did not come to found an institution called "the church". In fact, the word we render as church—ekklesia—is a Greek term which means "the called". It's a newly coined word for the New Testament because the older words-synagogue, assembly, temple— couldn't quite name the reality of what the Jesus movement was about. The church, the ekklesia, is the body of those called into the Jesus community to make real in their lives and in the world what Jesus calls the reign of heaven. The church is the gathering of those who want to live life on God's, not Caesar's, terms.

    Living life on God’s terms means, of course, that we will try to live out those Beatitude values in the world. Living life on God's terms means standing with the people Jesus names in these verses—the poor, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the mourners. Living life on God's terms means naming Caesar and all Caesar's successors as impostors whose pomp and pretensions are only a parody of real divine authority. But we will be neither authentic advocates for those up against it nor credible critics of empire if we can't love and accept and forgive and celebrate each other first.

    Jesus's Beatitudes call us always to rekindle our awareness of what it is we're actually doing when we gather in church. We are coming together, as did those gathered around Jesus, to step into that zone where life is lived on God's terms. We are coming together, as did those gathered around Jesus, to share in the good news that we can critique and change the world only to the extent that we can love it and each other first.

    You and I are, together, the church. We are the ekklesia, the called. We are, together, those who have been invited into the zone which Jesus calls the reign of heaven and we might call the place where life is lived on God's terms. We occupy the space where Jesus, not Caesar is in charge. We are, together, those who can find such depth and fulfillment of relationship inside these walls that we can reach out to extend God's reign of love and justice and peace to everyone else.

    One of the most interesting translations of Jesus’s Beatitudes occurs in the New English Bible.  Here is how that Bible renders the third verse:


    How blest are those who know their need of God;

                            the kingdom of Heaven is theirs. [Matthew 5:3 NEB]


                The Jesus community--the church, the communion of saints, whatever we call it—is the group of people who know their need of God.  Caesar does not know his need of God, nor do those who organize their lives around power, accomplishment, success, or money.  You might say there are two kinds of people in the world:  those who believe they are self-sufficient, and those who know they are not.  The most pervasive lie our culture promotes is the idea that you are or should be totally independent of others.  The countervailing truth of the Jesus movement is that we all finally need each other.  Those who make their way into the Jesus movement are united in the knowledge that they need God.  We are finite, mortal, limited creatures.  True wisdom lies in owning and celebrating our finite humanness, not in projecting a fantasy of invulnerability.

                The Jesus movement—the church, the ekklesia, the community of the called—extends through time and space.  Tonight at the Requiem we will remember those who have gone before us.  Today we welcome those who come next.  In Baptism we admit the newest group of those who know their need of God.  In renewing our own Baptismal Covenant, we acknowledge that we need each other to live our lives on God’s, not Caesar’s, terms.

                Today is All Saints Day.  How blest are those who know their need of God. Welcome one and all to the Jesus movement.  This communion of saints is big enough to include everyone—even those who love Daylight Saving and Standard Time.  We are united not by ideas or positions but by a shared acknowledgment of our own dependence on each other and the one in whose name we gather.  For that one—and for the fellowship to which that one calls us—we proceed in both Baptism and Eucharist to give thanks.  Amen.


    Wednesday, October 29, 2014

    Homily: Ben Bradlee Funeral [October 29, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

    I cannot hope to add to the moving chorus of remembrance and praise we have heard this morning in memory of Ben Bradlee.  The range and depth of the remarks offered show the extent to which the nation, the world, his family, his friends loved, admired, and valued this remarkable man. In the role of preacher, there is not a lot I can add to these tributes.

    But because I am a preacher, it falls to me to say a brief word about what Christian faith proclaims in regard to such a long, blessed, and accomplished life.  We heard three readings from scripture today.  We heard the words of Ecclesiastes telling us there is a season and a time for everything.  We heard from Psalm 23 the assurance of God's presence with us as we make our ways through life-- the valley of the shadow of death. We heard Paul's famous discourse to the Corinthians on the nature of love. Each one of these passages reminds us of the final assurance of Biblical religion--Judaism and Christianity in particular, but Islam, too--that human beings matter, that our lives and experiences, our joys and our struggles, are written on the heart of the one at the center of creation.

    As I listened to these readings, though, a single phrase caught my ear.  Near the end of Paul's words on love, we heard this:

    For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. [I Corinthians 13:12]

    Most of us in this room are knowing, worldly types, and we live our lives thinking that we know what’s really going on.  But Paul suggests a deeper mystery about human experience:  in our earthly state, we only see "through a glass darkly".  We know the part, not the whole.  Our day-to-day lives are spent focused on the claims that tell us they are urgent.  We do not normally attend to the things that actually matter.

    So we see things through a glass darkly.  But every once in a while, a person appears among us who allows us to see things more clearly.  In the dim light of day-to-day life, we don't see very well at all.  But then people come along, not very often but just enough, to point us toward what really counts.  These people are not usually conventionally pious, but they help us see things from God’s point of view.  They point us toward justice.  They point us toward compassion.  They point us toward truth.  They point us toward the sheer exuberance of being alive, of the breadth and depth of human existence and all its possibilities.

    Without trying to sound sentimental in a way he would have found painful, I want to suggest that Ben Bradlee was one of these people. In his professional life, in his family life, in his friendships, in his role as a public figure and citizen, Ben Bradlee’s work and values and commitments helped us see through the dim darkness of our present moment into a glimpse of what life is finally all about.  For people of faith, the final truth about life and God and the universe and every one of us is embodied in the word love.  Love is acted out in close relationships as affection and in our social relationships as justice.  When we see through that dark glass we see a universe where power and violence and selfishness will always give way to love and justice and hope.

    In his poem "Blizzard of One", the great American poet (and former Poet Laureate) Mark Strand says this:
    From the shadow of domes in the city of domes,
    A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room
    And made its way to the arm of the chair where you, looking up
    From your book, saw it the moment it landed. That's all
    There was to it. [Mark Strand, “Blizzard of One”]

    When I heard of Ben Bradlee's passing I thought immediately of this poem--not only because it enacts an experience of plainspoken grace in an everyday moment.  I thought of it because, frankly, Ben Bradlee was a blizzard of one. A single human being, like a snowflake precious in his uniqueness, who went through life generating the energy of a snowstorm.  A human blizzard of life, love, energy, work, and charm.

    I thank God for making, redeeming, and sustaining a universe in which love, justice, and compassion are finally the things that matter.  I thank God for sending us messengers who help us see through the dark glass of life into the luminous truth at the heart of the cosmos.  I thank God that our personal, public, and spiritual lives are knit together  in a single continuous fabric of love and justice and hope. In other words, I thank God for Ben Bradlee.  Amen.