Sunday, February 16, 2014

Homily: The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany [February 16, 2014] Washington National Cathedral


            When I hear Jesus talk about anger in this morning’s Gospel, my mind immediately goes to the great scene in the movie Network. Nightly news anchor Howard Beale goes into a rant live on the air, and finally shouts to the camera,

“I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’”-- Howard Beale, Network, 1976


And immediately we see apartment windows opening up and people leaning out them shouting Beale’s phrase to anyone who will listen.  What they’re mad about, and who they are mad at remains, of course, mysterious.

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Network came out in 1976. The 1970s were full of other memorable phrases as well:  “May the Force be with you.” “If it feels good, do it.”  “Have a nice day.” All these continue to resound inside my brain along with one I heard regularly in my 1970s seminary days:  “Get in touch with your feelings.”

            Back then I thought the admonition to get in touch with my feelings was just so much psychobabble—another 1970s expression, by the way. (I’m full of ‘em.)  Yet, as the years have passed, I have come to see the wisdom inherent in the idea that you might actually be present to an emotion as you are experiencing it.  The shouters in Network were funny of course because they weren’t really mad.  They were just doing what a celebrity told them to do.  But often in life we real people are in the grip of emotions we neither acknowledge nor understand. The older I get, the more I aspire to knowing what it is I’m feeling when I’m actually feeling it.

            Now this may sound like a strange ambition, but you and I live in a culture that privileges thought over feeling and good manners over authenticity.  Those of us who have thrived by suppressing our feelings and soldiering on in spite of them have paid a certain price for doing so.  It’s not only that we don’t know what’s actually going on inside us.  It’s more that, when we are out of touch with our feelings, we behave in ways that isolate and estrange us from others.

            When you start trying to access your own feelings, the first one to come up is usually anger. But because expressing anger is not a socially acceptable in polite society, it presents itself in different kinds of behaviors and poses:  we become distant, sarcastic, irritated, or skeptical [VISIONS feeling wheel].  These attitudes, though socially permitted, become toxic over time both at work and at home.  You may not want to hear someone tell you they’re angry very often, but you’ll like dealing for very long with people who are distant, sarcastic, irritated, and skeptical even less. Trust me.

            Now I raise the issue of anger this morning not because I’m turning into Doctor Phil but because of what Jesus tells us in this morning’s Gospel reading:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. [Matthew 5:21-22]


This passage is from the Sermon on the Mount, the seemingly impossible series of ethical teachings that Jesus gives in chapters 5 through 7 of Matthew’s Gospel.  You’ve heard it said don’t kill anybody.  I say to you, don’t even be angry. Jesus then emphasizes this point by giving an absurd exaggeration as an example:  if you’re making your offering of a goat, a lamb, a pigeon, at the Temple altar in Jerusalem and you realize that you have unresolved enmity with someone else at home, leave your animal to wander around the Temple courtyard and go home—perhaps to Galilee, far in the north--be reconciled to the other person, and then come back and make your offering, hoping all the while that your goat, lamb or pigeon hasn’t wandered away.  If we did that here on Sunday mornings, people would storm the exits every time we passed the peace. Imagine the traffic jam in the garage.

Is Jesus really telling us not to be angry?  Or is he telling us that there is not a lot of moral difference between the feeling and the action it leads to? I’m not exactly sure, but one of the people who has helped me understand what Jesus might be saying is the Roman Catholic monk Richard Rohr, who writes and teaches about Christian spirituality.  For all of us, part of the problem with being in touch with your feelings is that sometimes anger isn’t even anger:  it’s really grief.  Rohr wrote this about men, but what he says is also increasingly true about women in our society. Here is how he puts it:

But how else would a man be expected to act if he does not know how to identify, much less know how to share, his sadness, his anger, or his endless grief—often about his own love and losses, or the world that he once dreamed would happen? . . . Much male anger is actually male sadness. Men often have no way to know this themselves, and many probably even think of themselves as “angry men.” They are often very sad men, but they have no differentiated feeling world, no vocabulary, no safe male friends, no inner space or outer setting in which to open up such a chasm of feeling—not even in their churches or with their partners. [Richard Rohr "Boys Don't Cry" Sojourners July 2010]



            In the language of spirituality, anger is really grief.  It is sadness over a loss.  All of our lives are filled with loss every day—from the absences and deaths of those we love to the escalating pace of change in our world to the waning of our own power and privilege over time. To live is to lose, and learning to live well means learning to lose well.  But if your self-image in wrapped up in holding on to and projecting power and control, admitting any kind of diminishment is very difficult to do.  Hence the grief.  Hence the anger.

If anger is grief, in the language of psychology, anger is a response to a violation—of our dignity, of our boundaries, of our selves.  We get angry not only because we’re not in control.  We get angry because other people violate us. What we need when we’re angry is not to hit or kill somebody.  What we need is to set limits or reestablish boundaries and expectations. A priest friend of mine in California has the best of all responses when he experiences a personal violation:  “I invite you,” he says, “to step back over to your side of the line.”

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. [Matthew 5:21-22]

How would life be different if, instead of yelling and screaming at each other, we asked those who violate us to step back over to their side of the line?  How would life be different if, instead of calling people abusive names, blaming them for our troubles, or peppering our talk with hostile or sarcastic phrases, we admitted the sorrow and fear occasioned by our losses?  How much social and family and personal violence could we avoid simply by knowing what we feel when we feel it and reaching out to each other not in anger but in humble acknowledgment of our vulnerability?

To be human is to live in community, and Jesus would remind us that we have been given each other not as punching bags but for support. Even religious obligation is less important than mutual love and reconciliation:

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. [Matthew 5:23-24]


The people we love, we work with, we live with will always cross over our boundaries. The things and people we love will always be passing away.  Our own powers and privileges will inevitably diminish.  These are the givens of life, and our choice is to live it either by constantly sticking our heads out our windows and shaking our fists, or to live it by reaching out to each other in forgiveness, acceptance, and love. 

It’s easier to be angry than it is to grieve.  It’s more acceptable to be snarky than it is to be hurt.  Jesus calls us into the hard emotional work of growing up, knowing what we really feel, and acting accordingly.  We are not alone in this process.  We have each other as companions on this lifelong journey.  It won’t be easy, but it will be real.  And when we are real we are who God means us to be.  So forget about being mad as hell.  Get in touch with your feelings.  May the Force be with you.  And have a nice day.  Amen.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Homily: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [February 9, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

            When my wife Kathy and I were first dating, we would often argue in a playful way about figures of speech we didn’t quite understand.  (Not, perhaps these days, a thrilling hookup strategy, but it worked for us then.  Washington’s perfect power couple:  a priest and a librarian.)

            Anyway, each of us had a cliché we just couldn’t figure out.  For Kathy it was “It is an ill wind that blows nobody good”. Does that mean that an ill wind does no good for anybody?  Or does it mean that even an ill wind does good for somebody?  We would go round and round about these questions late into the night, in conversations fueled by cigarettes and Gallo Hearty Burgundy.  My cliché was the term, “salt of the earth”.  When my relatives used this phrase they usually meant by it someone who was solid and totally unremarkable.  I never heard it used to describe someone who might be, well, interesting. But when I would come upon it in Matthew’s Gospel, “salt of the earth” seemed to mean something entirely different.

            Though Kathy and I still battle about figures of speech we do so during daylight hours and over decaf coffee. Kathy still expresses dismay about ill winds that blow nobody good, and I still throw up my hands when I hear someone described as salt of the earth.  And don’t get me started on “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth”.

            Today’s Gospel is from Matthew, and it gives us part of the Sermon on the Mount just after the Beatitudes.  Our passage begins with this inscrutable observation from Jesus:

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. [Matthew 5:13]

Now when you hear this, forget for a moment what your grandmother meant when she called someone the “salt of the earth”.  What, here, can Jesus actually mean?  It’s easier to answer this question if you’re at all familiar with Mark Kurlansky’s fascinating 2003 book, Salt:  A World History.  Salt (formally known as sodium chloride) does several things.  It preserves.  It adds flavor. And it has other, less obvious, uses.  Salt is necessary for the life of our animal cells. In pre-modern cultures salt was used as currency. More than that, salt has religious significance.  According to Kurlansky,

Salt was to the ancient Hebrews, and still is to modern Jews, the symbol of the eternal nature of God’s covenant with Israel.  In the Torah, the Book of Numbers, is written, “it is a covenant of salt forever, before the Lord,” and later in Chronicles, “The Lord God of Israel gave the kingdom over Israel to David forever, even to him, and to his sons, by a covenant of salt.” [Mark Kurlansky, Salt, “Introduction”]

            When we hear Jesus tell his followers, “you are the salt of the earth,” we need to understand the many associations that salt has for them.  Salt is at once a preservative, a spice, a life-giving mineral, and a sign of the holy.  To call someone “salt of the earth” is to say something much more powerful than merely to call them reliable if rather dull.  To call someone “salt of the earth” is to remind them just how important in the scheme of things they really are.

            The Sermon on the Mount has always been a challenge for Christians.  In it Jesus says so many things that go against our conventional wisdom:  blessed are the poor, turn the other cheek, love your enemy.  It is in the context of this sermon that Jesus tells us we are the salt of the earth.  If we are to hear this saying as more than a backhanded compliment, what can he possibly mean? Let’s listen again:

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. [Matthew 5:13]

            One way to get at this inscrutable phrase is to ask whether Jesus is speaking to us as individuals or as a community.  Does he mean that you, personally, are the salt of the earth?  Or does he mean that we, together, are?

            Let’s start with the idea that he might be speaking to us as a group.  After all, he does use the plural pronoun “you” here.  We, Jesus’s followers, are the salt of the earth.  Translation:  we, together, are necessary for the world’s life.  We are its preservative.  And more than that:  as the salt of the earth, we are the ones who seal the covenant between God and the world.  The church—not the institutional church necessarily, but the company of those who follow Jesus—is necessary to the world’s flourishing and survival on God’s terms.  And “saltiness”—our taste, our zest—is central to who we are.  We bring a perspective, an attitude that enlivens the human community.  Without us, everything would spoil.

When we hear “salt of the earth” applied to the Christian community, we get a fresh understanding of what we’re here for.  Many people think that the church exists to bless and reinforce the status quo.  We’re the ones who are supposed to tell you to eat your vegetables, pay your taxes, and floss.  Many people want to confine religion to the realm of ethics and appoint us the hall monitors of human behavior.

But when Jesus calls us the salt of the earth he is reminding us of what religious communities actually do.  Just as salt flavors your food, so we bring out the deep essential meaning of life.  Just as salt keeps things from spoiling, so through our prayers and witness we keep the world from turning solely to its own devices and desires.  Just as salt seals covenants, so we remind both God and the world of why we need each other.  When we hear Jesus call us, collectively, the salt of the earth we remember why we’re here: to show the world what it means to be fully human and fully alive on God’s terms.

But there is another, personal, aspect to being called the salt of the earth.  When Jesus addresses us together, he also addresses us as individual people. You are the salt of the earth. I am the salt of the earth. Hear that in all its power and depth.

You are the salt of the earth.  You are salty in the sense that you have a flavor, a taste, a point of view, a perspective that is unique.  Part of your job as a human being, as a follower of Jesus, is to bring the fullness of yourself into all you do.  Human beings sin both through arrogance and through self-doubt.  We all know what it is to make too much of ourselves—you can’t live in Washington for five minutes without seeing multiple examples of inflated self-regard.  But we forget that we can also make too little of ourselves.  The world needs your saltiness.  As Jesus says, “If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” [Matthew 5:13]

But your saltiness consists of more than the gift of your individuality. You are salt of the earth in other ways.  You are vital to the life and preservation of the world. You are a sign of God’s covenant with us.  When we hear Jesus call us salt, we should take in the holy and precious essence of who we are.  God has become one of us in Jesus.  Human life—your life—is endowed with a meaning and purpose beyond what you can see on its surface.  As a follower of Jesus, you are a sign of what God is doing in the world.

As nice as that is to hear, we should remember that Christianity is not merely a self-esteem workshop.  Christianity is about the ongoing redemption and blessing and transformation of the world.  Each of us is unique and precious not only for our own sake.  We have been given gifts—symbolized by salt and light in Jesus’s language—so that we may bring God’s life and healing to each other and the human community.

You are the salt of the earth.  You are unique.  You are precious.  You are a walking sign of God’s covenant with the world.  Your job—my job—is to bring all that  you are—your saltiness, your zest, your unique perspective-- into your life with others so that God’s purpose can be worked out in and through everything you do. 

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. [Matthew 5:13]

I’m not sure that I will ever completely understand this phrase, but I do know this.  The great gift of following Jesus is the opportunity to try and live life on God’s terms.  Of course we don’t always make it and usually fall short.  But there is a beautiful and crazy nobility in the attempt. Don’t sell yourself short. Live into the fullness of God’s vision of who you can be.  That is a high calling.  But it’s a calling we are up to, because before we were Jesus is, and he is the true salt for us all. Amen.