Sunday, June 29, 2014

Homily: The Third Sunday after Pentecost [June 29, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

            Those of us who live in Washington are familiar with spin doctors—political operatives who try to convince you that what you just saw and heard was not really what you saw and heard.  They swarm around after presidential debates and attempt to impose a narrative on the event that flies in the face of common sense. Sometimes candidates can be their own spin doctors, as when Donald Trump rebounded from a humiliating episode by saying, "Today I am very proud of myself because I have accomplished something that nobody else has been able to accomplish.” That’s spin doctoring at a very high level, so please don’t attempt this at home.

            In my day I have also heard a number of what I call “spin preachers”:  clergy who interpret scripture in ways that protect you from the dangerous parts of the Bible.  You know the type. When Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, they find a way to tell you that he actually means something else. This kind of preaching softens the force of Jesus’s admonition about the way wealth can isolate us from each other.  It tames the story to our taste. Spin preachers are not hard to find.  Any one of us can slip into that role whenever we’re given a piece of scripture that puzzles,  frightens, angers, or revolts us.

            Today’s reading from Genesis [Genesis 22: 1-14] is one of those passages. It’s the story Jews call the “binding of Isaac”, and over the course of Jewish and Christian history it has been the occasion of some epic spin preaching, even by the likes of me in my younger days.  It is just an awful story—you heard it read, and I won’t try to retell it—and the temptation a preacher faces is to take the awful weirdness of it away.  God couldn’t seriously have wanted to have Abraham kill his son, could he?  God couldn’t really have done this merely to test Abraham, could he?  We preachers shy away from those questions by reaching for our commentaries and coming up with more ingenious and fanciful readings. Those sermons always fail, because they never explain why God would do such a nasty thing to Abraham and Isaac in the first place. And while we’re at it, why replace a child with a lamb? Why sacrifice any living sentient being at all?

            The older I get, the more allergic I become to spin doctoring and spin preaching.  We’re not crazy. We just saw and heard what we just saw and heard.  There’s no way to make the story of Isaac’s binding easy, simple, or even palatable. So how do we respond to it?

            I have two thoughts:  one of them concerns the weird otherness of God, the other with what this story says about how we treat our children.

            As to the first. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” [Hebrews 10:31] In polite traditions like ours, we tend to want everything to be beautiful and rational.  We want God to be friendly.  We want the stories about God to make sense. Over the years, people like me have done our best to keep the holy at bay, held safely as far away from our hearers as we can.  We don’t think you can take it. But domesticating the holy is an impossible task.  No matter how desperately preachers try their best to insulate you from it, the divine keeps breaking through.  It’s no accident that some backwoods Appalachian Christians call themselves “snake-handlers”.  If you keep messing around with God and Jesus, you’re bound to get bit.

            The writer I know who best explains this phenomenon is Annie Dillard.  This is what she said in her short, sharp, powerful book, Holy the Firm:

I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words that people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.  In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger.  If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked.  But in the low churches you expect it any minute.  [Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm, “Day Three”]


For Annie Dillard, sitting in a church is not like sitting in a concert hall.  It’s like going to a circus where high-wire acrobats are doing something they used to describe as “death-defying”.  You and I go to church as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  But as I read stories like the binding of Isaac, it’s clear that churchgoing isn’t natural at all.  It’s risky business.  It celebrates something powerful, irrational and weird. Most times it should be surprising.  Sometimes it can be downright scary. It’s a testament to human ingenuity that we’ve managed, on occasion, to make it dull.

When we try to homogenize the Bible and domesticate God, we end up talking in sentimental, greeting card language. We turn Jesus into Hello Kitty and God into a Care Bear. Now, for the record, I do believe that God loves us and is friendly toward us. I do believe e are all valued, accepted, and loved. But to say that God loves us is not to say that the holy makes rational sense.  When I read the Bible not through the lens of doctrine but through the eyes I use to examine the world around me, I have to admit that God and Jesus do and say some really strange things there. 

When, in Dillard’s words, we “come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though [we know what we are] doing,” we are kidding ourselves.  God is God and we are not.  I believe I love God. I believe I try to follow God.  But I no longer believe I can understand God or explain God’s behavior with any more authority than you can.  God is God and I am not.  A story like the binding of Isaac, or the Flood, or the Crucifixion, or the story of Job makes me fall silent before it. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

So if I fall silent before the story of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain, is there something I can take away from it?

 Just because a story is hard doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have something to say to us. When I search my own life and heart and the state of the world around me, I believe there is.  We recoil from this story because it tells us a hard truth about ourselves. It asks that we confront our human tendency to do an ugly thing—to sacrifice our children to our own interests.  We live in a culture that is sentimental about children, but that sentimentality masks our shared willingness to sacrifice our children at almost every turn. We send them to dilapidated and dangerous and substandard schools; we subject them to the effects of illness, poverty, and violence far more than we do adults; and we send them off to fight wars that people my age dream up. We talk about children in one way, and we treat them another. If you don’t believe me, just think about the state of the planet we will be handing on to them.  Is my freedom to drive a fossil-fueled car and use an electric toothbrush worth subjecting my grandchildren to rising ocean levels, increasingly chaotic weather patterns, and the cycle of drought, flood, and famine that global warming will bring us by the century’s end?

It’s only when I stop kidding myself about my own selfishness, my own tendency to seek my own wellbeing at the expense of even my children, that I can be open to what Jesus says in this morning’s Gospel:

Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple will not lose their reward." [Matthew 10:42]

Faced with the hard truth about our shared willingness, with Abraham, to bind Isaac over and over again, Jesus points us once more toward the possibility of generosity and compassion. We will always put ourselves before others. That is what “original sin” means.  It is the sad, truth of our nature.  But we’re not stuck there, because we can choose to live not like Abraham but like Jesus. We can reach out—to our children, to each other, to the world--with even a cup of cold water.  We can assuage our children’s suffering, embrace and love them, make possible their nurture and growth.

Today’s readings ask that we get real about how we will treat our children.  Will we lead them up the hill, ready to sacrifice them to keep ourselves safe?  Or will we give up some of our own comfort so that they and the world they inherit might have some relation to the one we enjoy? The choice is ours. Abraham failed that choice, but God saved him from it.  May God save us from bad choices, and may we have the grace to see the wisdom in serving the littlest ones in God’s name.  Amen.



Sunday, June 8, 2014

Homily: June 8, 2014 [Pentecost] Washington National Cathedral

The choir’s singing of Psalm 104 just now reminds me of a bright spring morning in the late 1980s, when I saw my first school of whales:

Yonder is the great and wide sea
with its living things too many to number, *
creatures both small and great.

There move the ships,
and there is that Leviathan, *
which you have made for the sport of it. [Psalm 104.26-27]

In those days I was the Vicar of St. Aidan’s Church in Malibu, California, and the California gray whales make their way south in the winter and north in the spring passing through the Catalina Channel about 100 yards or so off the coast of Point Dume in Malibu. Up until that time I had been a bit dismissive of the popular piety about whales. But my attitude changed on that spring morning as, running on the beach, I saw an enormous herd of gray whales round the turn of Point Dume and swim north. I had never before been in the presence of something so mysterious and so “other”.

            If you’ve ever seen them up close, you’ll agree that whales are impressive creatures. They are huge. But it’s not only their size that is compelling. They are also gracious and stately in their bearing. And there’s one more thing. They come from someplace else. They live in the ocean. They are creatures of the earth, but they dwell in a part of the earth that is mysterious, hidden, removed from us. Looking a whale in the eye as I did that morning is what we at Berkeley in the 1960s used to call a “mind-blowing” experience. When you do that you’re making contact with a creature who inhabits an entirely different reality than you do. When you do that you are connecting with a being from someplace else.

            And recalling that moment reminds me of a related experience just last year. In May 2013, the cicadas took over our world for several days. They reappear every 17 years and make a deafening roar. The first time I heard them I was driving, and I thought that there was something wrong with my car—perhaps the fan belt needed replacing, or I had a cracked block. The sound inside the car was truly disturbing. It was only when I got out that I realized what the sound was—the cicadas had wound themselves up into their full, celebratory screech.

            Now I know there are many who found this sound annoying, but for some reason I found it deeply reassuring and, at times, quite moving. Like the whales off the California coast, the 17-year cicadas I heard came to us from someplace else. Most of the time they inhabit another reality than the one we normally see. And more than that: they are witnesses to a process and a nature that is bigger and deeper than we can easily imagine. This cycle of theirs—17 years underground feeding on the nourishment that tree roots carry to their leaves, 4 to 6 weeks above ground, singing, mating and dying in a relatively short spurt of time—this cycle goes on above us, beneath us, in spite of us. Its rhythms are entirely apart from us humans and the things that usually concern us. As George Harrison said, “Life goes on within you and without you.”

            Whales and cicadas: what could they possibly have to do with Pentecost, today’s festival, literally the “fiftieth day” of Easter. Like the holiday, our fellow creatures remind us that we are part of something bigger, deeper, more wonderful than what we usually perceive. We are in touch, if only for a moment, with the reality of a life from someplace else.

            Let’s look at aspects of Pentecost this morning: the reality hidden, as Gerard Manely Hopkins said, “deep down things”, and the way that reality expresses itself in the here and now.

            First, the big, deep, wonderful reality: if you asked me to summarize what Christianity is “about”, I’d say that it has to do with God’s desire to be connected with us. If you read the Bible straight through, it describes the lengths to which God will go to be in relationship with human beings. God made us in the divine image, and God keeps coming back to us, keeps calling us to live life in the divine light of God’s hopeful promise of joyous and abundant blessing.

            And that’s just the Old Testament. In the New Testament, God takes that mission one step further: Jesus comes to us, lives among us and shows us what an abundant, joyful, compassionate life looks like. Again, we people try to break that connection by taking Jesus to the cross. But once more, God’s drive toward us keeps on coming, and so Jesus returns to us in the resurrection. God comes back again, and again, and again. That is one—perhaps the most important—meaning of Easter.

            But Jesus’s earthly presence could not last forever, and so 40 days later, at Ascension, he returns to the Father and promises us an abiding presence: an Advocate, a Comforter. In receiving the Spirit, the Jesus movement, the community of Jesus’s friends and companions, is first of all taking in the assurance that we are part of some deep, ongoing, loving process that is immensely bigger than we are and which catches us up into it. Just as at Easter, so here today at Pentecost: God has come to us. God has not left us to our own devices. God is in and among and with us. Pentecost is the newest chapter in God’s ongoing drama of the search for a human connection. We matter to God. We matter so much that nothing can remove us from God’s presence. Not death. Not our own faithlessness. Not our worries and fears. Not anything.

            The big, deep reality of Pentecost is that we are not only connected. We are now, like Jesus, taken up into God’s divine life ourselves. The Holy Spirit is not something abstract and gaseous floating around in the sky. The Holy Spirit is the living presence of God in and among us.

            How does that ongoing divinity express itself in us, here and now? I still remember Werner Herzog’s film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a beautiful movie filmed in the caves of southern France where the paintings on the walls are around 30,000 years old. At one point in the movie, Herzog interviews an ethnologist as he tries to understand the creative process of pre-modern people. The ethnologist quotes what an Australian aborigine said to him when asked why he was painting on a rock. The aborigine said, “I am not painting. The hand of the spirit is painting.”

Pentecost is about the hand of the spirit guiding us in our lives. It’s not only the whales and the cicadas who are in touch with life’s rhythms. It’s not only the aboriginal artist who can feel the hand of the spirit at work as he paints.  You and I can do that, too. We now together have been given the gift of the Spirit, and that means that we, like Jesus, have been taken up into God. We are not just watching something from the outside.  We are part of what we proclaim.

As Psalm 104 reminds us,

Yonder is the great and wide sea
with its living things too many to number, *
creatures both small and great.

There move the ships,
and there is that Leviathan, *
which you have made for the sport of it.

            Or, as our Prayer Book antiphon for Morning Prayer says it, “The Spirit of the Lord renews the face of the earth.” The ongoing life of Jesus and his presence among us now are what Pentecost really means. They are God’s ongoing gifts to us. You and I, together, embody God’s life and purpose in the world. Your life is as connected to the depths of reality as are the lives of mysterious creatures who dwell in the deep of the sea or under the earth. Your life is as connected to God as were those of Jesus’s companions who knew firsthand the Spirit’s rushing wind and tongues of fire. Let each of us embrace that presence, feel that wind, and hear those tongues. And then let us together move out in a Pentecost blessing, so that in and with God, Christ, and each other, we may begin to paint the world with the hand of the spirit. Amen.