Sunday, January 19, 2014

Homily: The Second Sunday after the Epiphany [January 19, 2014] Washington National Cathedral


            When I first walked into the nave this morning, I had to suppress a wave of disappointment.  “The chairs are back.”  This past week we took the chairs out of the central expanse of the cathedral, an experiment we called “Seeing Deeper”.  For five days the center aisle was entirely cleared of chairs, and we used the space to try out a wide array of different offerings: Tai Chi on Monday, a cappella polyphonic choral music on Wednesday and Friday, Muslim noon prayer, the labyrinth and healing prayers on Thursday, an all-night vigil Friday night into Saturday.  And we used the space in a combination of ways.  We moved the musicians around the space in the evening concerts and held our regular Daily Offices in a chapel we rarely use, St. John’s Chapel over here behind me to your right.  And there was plenty of time for walking around in the open, empty nave.

            “Seeing Deeper” was a powerful experience for everyone who entered it.  We allowed the building to do its work in us simply as a transcendent space. But for those of us who regularly serve here, much of the power of the week lay in the way people responded to it.  As the week went on the crowds grew, and especially in the evenings the cathedral was filled with people who were obviously moved by the sheer beauty and elegance of the building.  And as the week went on I found myself increasingly moved by the depth of the spiritual search that so many people in our world find themselves on.

            In this morning’s Gospel [John 1:29-42], Jesus encounters two of John the Baptist’s disciples and asks them what they are looking for.  They respond with the Hebrew word, “Rabbi”, which means teacher.  Do they mean that they’re looking for a rabbi?  Or do they mean that they recognize Jesus as their rabbi?  It’s hard to know.  But Jesus’s next statement changes the terms of the discussion.  He says, “Come and see”.  We know that they have been looking for him. It turns out that he has also been looking for them.

As the passage unfolds, one of the two (Andrew) goes and gets his brother, Simon (who will become Peter).  He tells him, “We have found the Messiah.” As we think together about this little story, it’s clear that what we have here is a parable of the spiritual search that all of us are on. Whether we come to church week after week, or wander in because we’ve heard about something mysterious and beautiful, each of us is looking for something.  We may not use the words “rabbi” or “Messiah” to describe it.  But by whatever name we call it, we are drawn to the possibility that something ineffable lies beyond.

            In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus poses a simple question: "What are you looking for?" This story asks that we acknowledge a truth about the relations between God and us.  All the time we have been searching for God, God has been searching for us.  Christians have come to name that search “the call”.  God calls to us, as in this story when Jesus invites Andrew and his friend to “come and see”.  Jesus not only calls this first pair.  He calls Simon and changes his name to Peter.  In this encounter Jesus’s followers not only get a life; they get a community. And more than that, they find their true identity.  The one we have been looking for turns out all the time to have been looking for us.  That one knows that we need life and purpose and meaning.  They have always been on offer and are ready, any time, for the taking.

            Today’s Gospel prompts two thoughts.  One concerns this story’s mysterious, gracious implication that God has called each and all of us into fellowship with Jesus and each other. Just as we sometimes take the givenness of this cathedral building for granted and miss the transcendence that is always present, so we find ourselves strenuously looking for one who is seeking us at the same time. The other thought has to do with Martin Luther King, Jr. whose national holiday we celebrate tomorrow.

Because Dr. King preached his final Sunday sermon in this pulpit, we here at Washington National Cathedral feel a special connection to him. Yet I think he remains a misunderstood figure in American life. I love King’s writing, and I’ve taught several of his pieces to high school and college students. As great as the “I Have a Dream” speech is, though, its over-exposure tends to obscure the sharpness of King’s theological intelligence and make him sound like a bit like a greeting card. The great Cornell West refers to this process as the “Santa-Claus-ification of Martin Luther King”.

Sentimentalizing King blunts some of his force; he had, after all, one of the great, analytical minds in the history of the Christian tradition. If one point this morning is God’s search for us and the call to follow, the other point is that God is always leading us toward some place specific. Yes, God is looking for us, but God is looking for us with a deeper purpose than only to love and bless us.  God is looking for us to be disciples, witnesses, agents of love and blessing ourselves. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and witness give us a good image of that specific place toward which Jesus asked Andrew and Peter to go then and you and me to follow today.

One of King’s greatest achievements was the letter he wrote to the Birmingham, Alabama clergy when he was imprisoned in the Birmingham Jail in April of 1963. The white clergy had criticized his practice of civil disobedience, calling him that favorite phrase of the 1960s, an “outside agitator”, and he replied with a defense of civil disobedience grounded in a profound analysis of Christian history. The letter is usually referred to as “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Here is one bit of what he says near its end:

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. . . . We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. . . . If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. [Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, April 16, 1963]


            Like Jesus, like Andrew and Peter, Martin Luther King, Jr. answered God’s call to follow. Like them, King understood that the call was not only to follow but to go with God toward a specific place—the place Jesus called the “Kingdom of God”, a zone of blessedness, peace, compassion, and health, a place where we experience the world on God’s terms, a place where the blind see, the lame walk, the prisoners go free, and the poor have good news preached to them. King knew that the Kingdom of God was less about his own personal salvation than it was about building a world where wrongs are set right and all of God’s precious children can share in the abundant blessings God holds out to everyone.

            If you are here in church this morning, I will bet that you, too, are searching for the one who is behind and in this transcendent space, the one we come to know in word and sacrament, music and liturgy, fellowship and service.  That one is already searching for you, and that one holds out to you the gift of life, of identity, of community, of meaning and purpose. That one calls you into a life in which you can become not only a seeker of God but a seeker with God of others, a life in which you serve as an agent of love and justice, healing and hope in the world. This search and call are not only about being found and saved.  They are about a new life in which we, as Jesus did, offer life and hope to others.  That new life takes as many shapes as there are people, but this weekend we honor one unique life and witness that transformed our nation and our world.

God called Martin Luther King, Jr., and in answering he gave himself up to a vision of America and humanity that continues to inspire and bless us today--a vision of justice, equality, compassion, and love. This vision is more than a dream. It’s the destiny God holds out to all of us.  It’s a picture of how the world and the universe finally are. God’s search for us has led us first into this cathedral and now out into the world. “What are you looking for?” “Come and see.”  Amen.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Homily: The First Sunday after the Epiphany [January 12, 2014] Evensong


            I am a city boy, and I when the Bible talks in agricultural images I am pretty much at a loss.  So in this evening’s Gospel, when John the Baptist looks at Jesus and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”—my first association with lambs is, of course, the recalcitrant sheep in the movie Babe.  Who can ever forget “Baa, ram, ewe. To your fleece be true. Baa, ram, ewe?”

            Aggressive sheep and sheepherding pigs aside, John’s identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God feels, in this context, pretty startling.  In the version of Jesus’s baptism from Matthew’s gospel we heard in church this morning, John the Baptist confines his opinions to a simple expression of his own unworthiness when compared with Jesus:  "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" [Matthew 3:14]  But in tonight’s account from the Fourth Gospel, John calls Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. For city folk like you and me, what can that statement possibly mean?

            In the religion of Israel, as in many world religions, animals were used as sacrificial victims.  Especially if I wanted to atone for a wrong I had committed, I would bring the best animal I could find (and afford) to the Temple and sacrifice it in the belief that my own guilt would be transferred to the animal.  Poor people sacrificed pigeons.  The more affluent sacrificed higher quality victims.  A perfect lamb was considered the best possible offering.

            So when John sees Jesus and calls him “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” he is referring to a whole tradition which the people who followed him would understand.  Even at this opening moment of his ministry, Jesus is identified as someone whose death will have consequences for the human community.  He is more than a teacher and a healer.  He is more than a prophet.  He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.

            I have always been interested in the way Christian symbols have developed over time.  In the earliest days, of course, the Christian symbol was the ikthus, the fish.  Christianity was an underground movement, and the Greek word ikthus served as an acronym for the Greek words “Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior.”   The fish symbol was like a secret handshake, a way of identifying yourself as a Christian in a hidden, subversive way. 

A bit later on, as the Christian community emerged into public life, its primary symbol became the lamb.  If you think about lambs, you realize that they are not only spotless and pure.  They are also innocent.  They are not a threat.  As the church emerged into a suspicious Roman world, it wanted to show how peace loving and non-threatening it could be.  “We may not worship Caesar as a god, but we’re not going to overthrow the established order either.”  What better symbol than “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”? When you look at early Christian archaeological sites, you see symbolic lambs all over the place. 

But in the fourth century, after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity not only legal but the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church rather quickly moved to a new symbol by which to represent itself.  Being a dedicated viewer of the series Mad Men, I can imagine the decision-making process as a Madison Avenue-style exercise in marketing.  The fish?  Too mysterious.  The lamb?  Too wimpy.  We’re not skulking around the catacombs anymore!  We’re the official religion of the civilized world! We need an image that subtly projects power and influence. How about using the cross?

That version of imperial Christianity’s marketing strategy may sound a bit sarcastic, but I actually believe that the disappearance of the Lamb of God and the emergence of the cross signaled the church’s transition from a movement to an institution.  A world historical religion couldn’t possibly use an innocent victim to symbolize itself.  It needed a visual representation of an instrument of state power to show who was really now in charge.

The great Lenny Bruce once observed, “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.” As snarky as that observation sounds, it reminds us that Jesus died at the hands of state power, and it suggests that we Christians should always approach power—the power of the state, the power of business, power of our own--with a huge dose of skepticism. 

In coming to John the Baptist and submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus was saying a couple of things that we his followers need to hear today.  The first is that he submitted himself to someone else.  Jesus’s first public act is not an exertion of power but an act of submission.  Religious people like to talk about God using the language of power and authority:  “Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might.” But this first moment of Jesus’s ministry suggests that Jesus understands God rather differently than you and I do.  Just as Jesus submits to John, so the God we know in Jesus is manifested more in weakness than in power.  “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus demonstrates his credibility not by a miraculous demonstration but by an act of submission. We who follow Jesus are called to a similar kind of humility. Before it was the cross, our symbol was the lamb.

That’s the first thing we need to hear.  And here is the second:  Jesus begins his ministry the way you and I begin ours, by being baptized.  It is not an accident that Jesus goes through the same act of initiation that you and I experience as his followers.  One of the ways we talk about the church is to call it the “Body of Christ”, and what we mean is that in baptism you and I become one with each other and with Jesus.  Baptism is an act of commissioning, and it’s also an act of solidarity.  You and I, together, are Christ in the here and now.  On my own I am not Christ, and on your own you are not Christ.  But together, we are. In submitting to John’s baptism Jesus not only demonstrated God’s powerless humility.  In submitting to John’s baptism Jesus showed himself to be one of us, our brother in the struggle.

“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  On this, the First Sunday after the Epiphany, Jesus comes to John for baptism.  In submitting himself to that washing, Jesus has both humbled himself and dignified us.  If he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, by virtue of our baptism you and I are, too. You and I, together, are Christ in the world.  You and I, together, are the ones called to empty ourselves in love for the service of those who hunger, who suffer, who mourn.  You and I together, are the ones who will bear forth God’s transforming love to the world. 

Jesus’s baptism is our baptism.  His ministry is now ours.  The best image for that ministry is neither the secret fish nor the tortuous cross.  As John the Baptist saw when he said it, the best image for our shared ministry is the lamb.  “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus was baptized and so are we.  So:  “Baa, ram, ewe. To your fleece be true. Baa, ram, ewe!”

Let us, together, live the baptized life taken on by Jesus, so that all humanity and all creation may be transformed into the image of the heavenly city toward which we are walking with the Lamb of God.  Amen.