Sunday, March 30, 2014

Homily: The Fourth Sunday in Lent [March 30, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

            Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 vanished on March 8, just over three weeks ago.  The disappearance of a daily routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing is many things at once:  it is a human tragedy, of course.  It is also a mystery.  And, I’m sorry to say, the ongoing coverage has also turned it into something of a farce.  If you watch cable news, particularly CNN, you will have seen probably three solid weeks of wall-to-wall speculation about the fate of the plane.  At one point, a CNN anchor asked if the cause might have been a black hole, the Bermuda Triangle, or the plot of the TV show Lost.  And one day last week, the breaking news headline simply read, “No New Developments.” What’s sadder, of course, is that even without any real information to go on, this spectacle of speculation about flight 370 has doubled CNN’s ratings.  I don’t know why, but we all seem to enjoy watching well-dressed people talk endlessly about nothing at all. Perhaps we’re in training now for 2016 election coverage.

We have three readings this morning, all of them centered on the idea of true perception and the lack of it. Searching for a new king, Samuel naturally looks to the bigger, older brothers rather than the young David.  The Letter to the Ephesians reminds us, “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light-- for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” [Ephesians 5:8] In the seemingly endless Gospel reading for today [John 9: 1-41] Jesus heals a man blind from birth, and this miracle provokes a storm of moral and spiritual misperceiving ignorance in the minds and hearts of the Pharisees.

            We’re now at the Fourth Sunday in Lent, a season dedicated in part at least to getting us all to focus our vision in the right direction.  As one of the traditional Lenten antiphons for Morning and Evening Prayer puts it, in this season we ask that God “Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; * give me life in your ways.”[Psalm 119.37 BCP]  I wouldn’t find the mindless speculation of CNN’s disappearing flight coverage so annoying if it didn’t remind me of my own foolish spiritual tendencies.  I spend most of my waking hours thinking about, attending to, the wrong things. When something important happens, I’m often looking in the opposite direction.

In Shakespeare’s play Othello, one of the Venetian characters refers to the Turkish enemy’s military strategy this way:  “'tis a pageant,/To keep us in false gaze.” [First Senator, Othello, 1.3] If you’re like me, you spend a lot of your time in what Shakespeare called “false gaze”, or in what our antiphon calls “watching what is worthless.” Much of what passes for news in our culture is a similar “pageant,/To keep us in false gaze.” How do we stop “watching what is worthless”? How do we step out of the practice of “false gaze”? These are the questions our scripture readings pose us on this Fourth Sunday in Lent, and I believe they are the spiritual questions that all of us, in some form or another, confront continually in our daily lives.

            Today’s Gospel reading (Don’t worry—I’m not going to reread the whole thing!) ends with this interchange between Jesus and the Pharisees:

Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.’ [John 9: 39-41]


The very length of this morning’s Gospel makes it hard to take in all at once, but essentially it’s John’s ironic account of Jesus giving sight to a blind man and that action becoming the occasion of the Pharisees becoming morally and spiritually sightless themselves. The blind man knows his limitations. The Pharisees are blissfully unaware of their own. For John, Jesus is “the light of the world”, and the tragic part of his story centers on the increasing inability of the religious and secular authorities to perceive the truth he represents. The Pharisees and the Romans think they see quite clearly. But, like Samuel in the David story, they judge with human criteria; they do not see as God sees. They are trapped in their own self-congratulatory narrative. They are not open to what God is doing now in the world around them.

The verse I quoted earlier from the Lenten antiphon actually asks God for two things: to “turn my eyes from watching what is worthless,” and to “give me life in [God’s] ways.” In John’s Gospel, as in the account of Samuel looking for David, we have seen what it means for human beings to watch what is worthless. What might it look like for us to have life in God’s ways?

I once attended a retreat where the leader announced, as the theme of his addresses, the following proposition: “We become what we attend to.” He wasn’t talking precisely about false gaze, but what he said seems connected to what we’re thinking about together this morning. “We become what we attend to.” If we attend solely to the junk and glitter and glitz of 21st century developed world culture, then that’s what we turn into. As Pope Francis says in The Joy of the Gospel, “technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy”. The gadgets that claim our attention keep us addicted and slightly depressed. If we shift our attention to Jesus, we become both joyous and free.  That is because if we keep our eyes on Jesus, we might just over time become like him.

We live in a world where, as in a game of three-card monte, our attention is continually misdirected. And look at the result: a planet full of stressed-out, burned-out, alienated people looking in vain for what, if we could stop for a minute, we’d see we already have. That’s what we become when we attend to what is worthless. What would we become if we attended to what is worth everything, which, for us Christians, means: what would we become if we kept our eyes focused on Jesus?

When Christian people are baptized, one of the promises we make is that we will “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” This is essentially a promise to go to church—to hear the Bible stories read, to participate in the Eucharist on some kind of regular basis. We’ve made this a part of our agreement with each other principally because if we are to become godlier we will need each other to get there. That is what going to church is about: it’s about hearing the story of Jesus and then coming together around his table in a way that gently but forcefully reminds us of what really matters. “We become what we attend to.” The goal of the Christian life is to become like Jesus. For us, Jesus represents the authentic good life that the things we falsely gaze at promise but never deliver. Jesus is just and loving and compassionate. He cares about the poor. He is a healer. His table fellowship gathers everyone—even the outcast and the disreputable—into a community of wholeness and blessing and love. Jesus lives an abundant life in the midst of scarcity. He knows who he is, what he needs, and how to live creatively with other people in God’s world. What we want to be, when we’re honest with ourselves, is like him—joyously alive in the life God offers and intends for us all. And the best way to be like Jesus is to direct our attention toward him—as he is revealed in the Word (our scriptures) and in the sacrament (the bread and wine of communion).  Looking at and listening to Jesus are lifelong endeavors.  Over time, they make us into our authentic selves, the people God made us to be.

I am not sure how long CNN will continue to cover the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 story.  I do know that you and I will always find it difficult to turn our eyes away from the shallow and pointless, and that we will always need the help of God and each other to center our focus on the true and valuable blessings of life.  The way we do that is to keep our eyes on the one who came into the world that we all might see.  For God’s ongoing gift to us of Jesus, for Jesus’s image of what it means to be human on God’s terms, and for grace to so point our gaze in his direction that we become the one we attend to, let us proceed in this meal together to pray and give thanks. Amen.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Homily: The Second Sunday in Lent [March 16, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

Gary Hall
Washington National Cathedral
March 16, 2014 [The Second Sunday in Lent]
I love baseball, and even as winter hangs on, I feel growing joy that spring training season has finally arrived. At least they’re playing now in Florida and Arizona.  Soon they will even be here—no matter that it is supposed to snow tonight.
I have probably spent more hours of my life than I care to count watching the national pastime on TV.  If you have watched baseball on television too, you may remember a time, not so many years ago, when there would regularly be somebody behind home plate holding a sign with the words "John 3:16".
Canny baseball functionaries figured out long ago how to muscle those sign-wielding evangelists away from camera range.  I'm sure there were a lot of people who saw those signs on TV and had no idea what they referred to.  Indeed, if you're watching an athletic contest and you don't know how to read a Bible verse, you might think of "John 3:16" as a partial score. "Some guy named John got 3 but some other guy got 16, so I guess John lost."
If you have always wondered what John 3:16 means, then you’re in luck this morning.  It is a Bible verse, and it's what Jesus says toward the end of today's gospel reading:  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."  Those who are evangelically minded are attracted to that verse, no doubt, because it summarizes Christianity in a nutshell.  It tells you what is behind the Jesus event.  God sent Jesus into the world so that we might not die but live.  God sent Jesus into the world not because God hates the world but because God loves the world.
The world is a complicated place for all of us—it carries a multitude of meanings.  The world is the created order, the planet, the human community, the totality of everything that God has made.  The world is also everything else not us, “out there”.  It’s at once all that is and all we are afraid of.  Jesus uses “the world” in the former sense, our psalm for today in the latter.  If there’s a psalm other than the 23rd which people know and love, it is Psalm 121, the psalm we sang this morning:
I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
from where is my help to come?
My help comes from the LORD, *
the maker of heaven and earth. [Psalm 121]
As deeply as we love that psalm for its depiction of God’s protecting love, many people love it without quite understanding it on the literal level. Psalm 121 portrays the world as a fearful, not a safe place.  I lift up my eyes to the hills not because the hills are beautiful but because that’s where my enemies sit encamped all around me.  I’m like a sentry at a cavalry fort in the old west under attack by warriors on horseback.  Who is going to ride to my rescue?  Only God can get me out of this one!
Those of us who seek to follow Jesus will always find ourselves caught in the tension between these two visions of the world:  it’s a beloved place, and it’s a scary place.  God so loved the world that God sent Jesus to save it.  God knows how dangerous the world can be and so sleeplessly watches over us.  That double vision of the world places us in a profound tension.  How do we live in it together?  How do we live in it personally? On this Second Sunday in Lent, I invite you to join me in thinking about the world and how we, as followers of Jesus, make our way in and through it.  
How do we live in the world together?  This weekend we at Washington National Cathedral are observing our second annual Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath.  Ever since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut in December of 2012, our cathedral and diocesan communities have joined with thousands of congregations around the country to see what we can do to end the epidemic of gun violence in American streets, schools, and public places.  On Tuesday Bishop Budde and I greeted the Team 26 bicycle riders from Newtown as they made their way from Connecticut to Capitol Hill to press for federal legislation that would keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those with mental illness.  On Thursday afternoon we joined other faith leaders as we blessed the two groups of people who know the reality of gun violence up close: the families of victims and the first responders (police, fire, emergency medical teams) as they gathered near our t-shirt display representing the 103 people who died by gunfire in the District of Columbia last year.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  I lift up my eyes to the hills; *from where is my help to come?” As we think about the world and what it means for us as Christians together, two things stand out as powerfully true.  First: Christians care about things like gun violence because we believe God loves the world and wants all of its creatures to live.  Gun violence is like any other threat to life that people of faith have always worked against.  Gun violence and cancer are both threats to human life.  But only gun violence is entirely of human origin. In the same way we have over time lessened the number of yearly deaths due to smoking and car crashes, so can we reduce the number of gun deaths.  We Christians care about any threat to human life and happiness because as God does, so do we also try to love the world and all its creatures.
And there is a second truth that emerges for us about the world.  It can be a scary place. But as dangerous as we feel the world might be, the good news for us together is that we are ultimately safe in the world.  But our safety does not come from our own self-protectiveness.  It does not come from living in a gated community or from the barrel of a gun. It does not come from our career successes, our social position, or our advanced degrees. Our safety comes from God, the maker of heaven and earth.  It is God who watches over us sleeplessly.  It is God who shall preserve us from all evil.  It is God who shall keep us safe.  As spiritual teachers from the Hebrew prophets to Jesus himself, from Pope Francis to the Dalai Lama would remind us, our weapons and castles will always fail us. When we put our trust in our power and strength, we are always disappointed.  The only one who will finally protect us is God, and the only way we will ever really be safe is to live lives of justice, humility, and compassion. 
I don’t doubt that many people believe that guns will keep them safe from the threats and dangers of the unknown in this world.  I do know, from a lifetime of reading the Bible, that this belief is an illusion.  Human life is fragile and finite.  In one sense, we are never safe.  We are all vulnerable.  We are all mortal. If your definition of safety entails living forever without any suffering at all, I’m sorry to tell you you’re out of luck.
But in another sense we are in luck—we are deeply safe, we are all finally OK.  And that is because there is one who watches over us, who is our shade at our right hand, so that the sun shall not strike us by day or the moon by night.  That one watches over our going out and our coming in from this time forth for evermore. That one is with you even in your fragility, your mortality, your loss and your pain.  That one’s love for you is finally more real and more powerful than anything else that might assail you.
Both together and individually, we hold on to those two truths of the Gospel. We will always be vulnerable, and we will always be safe. Our guns will not save us.  Our power will not save us.  Our things will not save us.  The only thing that will save us is the one who came among us in love to assure us that God so loves the world that we all might have eternal life.  You lift up your eyes to the hills:  where does your help come from?  It comes from God, the maker of heaven and earth.
As we move together through Lent, let’s remember that its real destination is Easter, the ultimate celebration of God’s love for the world and for you and me. Let us use this season to let go of clinging to the things that won’t save us and to turn to the one who will.  Easter, like baseball, really will eventually arrive.  And when it does, may we all be ready to begin to take in the depth of our safety in the one who so loved the world that he came among us so that we might not perish but have eternal life.  Amen.