Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Homily: The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost [July 20, 2014] St. John's Cathedral, Los Angeles

It is a great pleasure to be with you at St. John's this morning. I have long loved and admired this parish, and I'm grateful to your present dean both for his continuing the great tradition of leadership here and for the invitation to join you this morning.
I understand that you are working your way through Paul's letter to the Romans this summer. When I first heard that, I wasn't sure if I wanted to applaud or weep. This is tough stuff. Jesus tells stories. Paul writes philosophy. I think we preachers stepped away from him because we quail in the face of so powerful a mind working through such sophisticated arguments. It's easier, frankly, to say a few words about weeds and wheat.
          We lose a lot when we stop talking about Paul. Paul was the first Christian to understand all the implications of the Gospel. He was a foundational genius, like Shakespeare or Freud or Darwin. He thought it all through for the first time, and though he got some of it wrong he got so much more right. I wouldn't have delved so deeply into Romans if I hadn't been asked, but the more I've thought about this provocative letter the gladder I am that Mark gave me this assignment. So here is my attempt to add to your summer exploration of what Paul is up to in his letter to the Romans.
          Nevertheless well-meaning people often set up a false opposition between Jesus and Paul. I've heard them say, "I love Jesus but can't stand Paul." Loving Jesus and hating Paul is the scriptural equivalent of being spiritual but not religious.To these folks, Jesus is loving and forgiving while Paul is stern and judgmental. But no matter what you might think of their contrasting personal styles, Jesus and Paul both have a lot to tell us about how to survive living in an empire.
Much has been written in recent years about Jesus and empire. If you think about the world in which Jesus lived and taught, it was dominated by Rome politically, economically, and militarily. Palestinian Jewish peasants, of which Jesus was one, were taxed mercilessly by the Romans to support their empire. Not only that, most of their food went to support Rome's gigantic standing army as well. Jesus's people were both poor and hungry. One way to understand his teaching is to see it as a way to live an abundant life even in the midst of scarcity and oppression. Rather than isolate and hoard what is yours, join with others and share what you have. Radical then and radical now.
The problem, of course is that empires demand absolute loyalty which Jesus (and Paul) think appropriate only to God. Caesar pretends to be divine and demands that you worship him. The empire is like a bad family, treating its subjects abusively and then expecting worship and obedience in return. To Jesus, the emperor's claims are both arrogant and blasphemous. The great New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan sums up Jesus's teaching with this sentence: "In your face, Caesar!"
          Now we tend to accept that vision of Jesus, but we usually think that Paul is more concerned with personal than social morality. If we strip our preconceptions away and just read the passage we have heard this morning from Romans [Romans 8:12-25], it becomes clear that Paul is up to something very similar to the radical, countercultural teachings of Jesus. He describes our former condition as "slavery" and now calls us "heirs with God and joint heirs with Christ". He memorably tells us that the entire creation itself was "subjected to futility" and is in "bondage to decay". Indeed, just as you and I "groan inwardly", so the whole world is "groaning in labor pains" for the new order to be revealed. Contrary to the way many read it, Paul's language here is not the language of personal morality or of rules and regulations. Paul's language here is the language of social justice. It tells us how to survive living in an empire.

           So what? Why does it matter that Jesus and Paul want us to learn how to live in an empire? Well, first, we need to remember that before there was Christianity, there was Judaism, a religion which also got its start as a critique of absolute power. Just as Jesus's followers gathered around a teacher who showed how to live freely even in Roman oppression, the Jews came to being during their escape from slavery in Egypt, an event we call the Exodus. When Paul uses words like "slavery", "bondage", "freedom", and "hope" he is pointing his readers and hearers back to the earlier story of Jewish, Exodus, liberation. Just as the Jews were freed from bondage in Egypt, just as Jesus's disciples found a community that liberated them from slavery to Rome, so the new, dispersed Christian community that Paul addresses can find hope and meaning even under the oppressive conditions of empire. They do that, in Paul's analysis, by coming together in community and compassion. They do that by recognizing Jesus, not Caesar, as their king.

       The earliest Christians were martyred in the Roman world because they were seen as a challenge to the cult of Caesar and therefore politically dangerous. They refused to worship the emperor and proclaimed that Jesus was their lord and king. The Romans understood just how subversive this teaching really was. It held up the world the empire projected as false, and showed its values to be counterfeits of God's values. To Jesus and Paul, Caesar was merely a parody of God— power masquerading as authority, privilege pretending to be justice, aggression calling itself love.

But the good news, for Paul, is that "the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God." When he says that "the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us," he means not only that we will be personally saved. He means also that what we experience in the life and teachings of Jesus and in the community that gathers around him—what we together have in community and compassion--will ultimately free the world. "In your face, Caesar!"

          Why should you and I care about Jesus and Paul and empire? Why should we recall the liberation of Israel from Pharaoh in the Exodus? We should care because we also live in an empire. Oppression is all around us. And in 2014, the empire is as much cultural as it is political. As did the Roman Christians, so do we live in an empire that promises salvation through all kinds of bogus methods, most of them commodities— the right car, the right neighborhood, the right clothes, the right spouse. Our empire suggests that we need to survive by protecting ourselves from each other rather than joining together in community and compassion. This empire wants us to live in fear that can only be assuaged by buying more stuff, exerting power over others, protecting what is ours. It holds out its answers as the real answers. But finally it offers us only customer satisfaction instead of real hope.

As Paul says, "the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us." The good news from Paul this morning is that you and I are on the same Exodus journey from slavery to freedom walked by Moses and Israel, by Jesus and his companions, by all the great visionary leaders from Martin Luther King and Caesar Chavez to Nelson Mandela. Let us join with each other and with everyone who is up against it—those in hospital rooms, in prisons, at the border, the homeless, in our cities, in Gaza—and get on that road with Jesus. Let us hold on to each other, bear one another's burdens, and live the expansive and abundant freedom of life on God's terms.

           The only way to survive living in an empire is to join together and walk toward freedom. So with Paul, with Moses, with Jesus, let's you and I get back out there on that Exodus journey. Liberated resurrection life holds real satisfactions that the tempting values of empire can never deliver. We step into them now as we gather at God's table. "In your face, Caesar!" Jesus and the God he calls his father are the ones who deserve our real allegiance. Amen.

Homily: The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [July 13, 2014] All Saints Pasadena

Hearing today’s parable of the sower just now reminds me of the time, probably 20 years ago now, when I preached in this pulpit about this very same story. It was one of the few sermons I gave here that ever evoked an angry reaction.  I didn’t say anything very inflammatory about the story except to observe that the passage comes in two parts—Jesus’s public parable of the sower and then the private explanation to his companions. Being a bookishly nerdy kind of guy, I observed that most Bible scholars accept the parable as genuine but think the explanation was made up later by the church.  So I announced that I was going to talk only about the story, not about the flimsy allegory tacked on to it.

You would have thought I had spit on the flag.  I stood at the northwest door out there and received nothing but angry accusations.  “Who are you to think that Jesus didn’t say that?” I was stunned.  Remember, this was All Saints, Pasadena, not some Orange County megachurch.  Most of the folks here can’t even say the creed without crossing their fingers.  Yet here they were giving me grief for the merest mention of New Testament criticism.  For weeks I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting villagers with torches to come and ride me out of town on a rail.

I did keep my job—the rector was out of town, and I guess no one wrote him any letters—and I did learn my lesson.  So here goes one more time.  Let’s talk about that parable and only the parable.  I’ll leave scholarly opinions to others.

Here’s another, gentler All Saints story. When I worked here in the 1990s I was fortunate to have shared some of my time with a retired priest I admired very much, Larry Carter. Larry had been the longtime rector of St. John’s Church in downtown Los Angeles, and he was one of my heroes. His ministry at St. John’s had been an expansive peace and justice ministry. He was known to be a fearless advocate for peace, for minorities, and for the poor. He famously closed the doors of St. John’s as a protest for the duration of the Vietnam War.

            My image of Larry was of a fierce prophet. So imagine my surprise, once, in a Bible study I was leading when he said that the opening of today’s Gospel was his favorite passage in the New Testament: “Jesus got in a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.” [Matthew 13.2] Something about that picture of Jesus teaching from a boat while people listened from the shore touched me. Apart from the content of anything Jesus might have to say in his parables, the image this passage gives us of him in the boat teaches us something about what it means to live a centered life, grounded and at home in God’s creation. Hold that thought.

            Today’s Gospel is the familiar parable of the sower. Whenever I hear this parable I see two images in my mind’s eye: with Larry Carter’s help I see Jesus teaching from the boat; with the aid of my memory of Vincent Van Gogh’s great painting, The Sower, a reproduction of which I have on my desk. I see a man striding through the fields, casting seed in every direction. You and I live so much in the modern urban mental world that we have to exercise some imagination to get what sowing and seeds meant to pre-modern people. A seed, after all, is a tiny mysterious miracle. In this compact package lies a hidden something that can produce life itself and can do so abundantly. We put seeds in the ground and, amazingly, plants and trees and shrubs come up as if by magic. It’s not surprising that Jesus would use the seed as a symbol of God’s creative, mysterious abundance. Something big lies hidden within something small, and the way it works is entirely hidden from our view. According to Jesus, God is like that: miraculous, abundant, mysterious.

            Let’s sit with the story of the sower for a second. What might it be saying to us? To you? To me? If you have ears to hear, listen!

            I spent a good part of my adult life before coming here in 1990 studying and teaching American literature, especially the Transcendentalists: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. They too were alive to the power of the seed as an image not only of fertility and abundance but of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Emerson and Thoreau lived and wrote during the nineteenth century, the age of the rise of science, specifically the time of Charles Darwin. They were alert to the complexity of the processes of natural selection at work in the dispersion of seeds. But they lived in an America that was still mostly rural and agricultural. They saw seeds scientifically, but that awareness did not stop their seeing seeds in a more nuanced way, as part of the farming life of planting, cultivating, and harvesting, and therefore as metaphors for life and its processes. Emerson said that the seed was “God manifest in the mind,” “of which the Beauty of the world is the flower and Goodness the fruit” [quoted in Thoreau, Faith in a Seed, “Introduction”, p. 16]. Toward the end of his life, Thoreau became preoccupied with the way plants propagate themselves, and he increasingly saw seeds and their dispersal as a powerful figure of life, death, and rebirth. At the end of the “The Dispersion of Seeds”, Thoreau exclaimed, “The very earth itself is a granary and a seminary,[and the word seminary embeds in it the Latin word for seed] so that to some minds its surface is regarded as the cuticle of one great living creature” [Faith in a Seed, p. 151]. The little miraculous package that makes this holistic vision of life possible is, of course, the seed.

So my question for everyone here this morning goes like this: what, right now, might this story mean for you? What might it mean for you to think of God as someone who is scattering seeds all over the place? What might it mean for you to think of yourself in relation to these seeds? Are you the path, the rocky ground, the thorns, or the good soil? Or might you be all of them at once? What do these seeds represent? How might we let the truth on offer in this story germinate and sprout within us, bringing forth fruit 30, 60, 100 fold?

            I won’t, like Matthew, try to give you an allegoridal interpretation. (You see, I still can’t let that go!) But I will tell you how I hear the story this morning. Instead of thinking of the types of soil as types of people, I hear the story asking me to think of the types of soil as aspects of myself, perhaps as periods in my life. There are times when I seem open to what God is up to in the world and ready to respond to and participate with God in God’s creative, redemptive, healing work in the world around me. Those are the good soil times. Then there are times when I am more closed to God’s promptings and resist seeing myself and others as God sees us. Those are the path, the rock, the thorn times. The point of this story has less to do with characterizing different kinds of believers than it does simply with seeing ourselves as always involved and ongoing process of life, death, and rebirth. There are times when I am alive and open. There are times when I am closed and as good as dead. That cyclical, rhythmic process of life, death, and rebirth goes on all through the course of our lives. And if I’m hearing this story aright, then it seems the Christian experience is more like a cycle or a process or a journey than it is like having a once-for-all conversion moment. Some days I’m good soil. Some days I’m thorny rocky ground. When I take this parable in, I know myself to be converted almost daily, and that’s because I can be thorny rocky ground almost daily. But on the good days I exhibit some qualities of good soil, too. Over time we move with God in the right direction. Over time those seeds do take root, and  mysteriously and graciously, we become the people God created us to be.

            The good news this morning is that God is like the sower as Jesus describes him in today’s parable. God goes out to sow, and God scatters the seed—the miraculous package of mysterious life—God scatters the seed indiscriminately, with almost reckless, joyful abundance. God does not select certain types of people who are privileged to “get it”. God does not select certain moments in your life when you are going to “get it”. God knows that you and I will get it for a while, then we won’t get it, then we’ll get it again. God does what God does: God sows the seed indiscriminately, abundantly, generously. God is always coming toward us, opening up the possibility for us that God’s love and hope and blessing will take root and bloom and bring forth fruit in our lives.

            And that takes me back to the thought I asked you to hold earlier on. The thought was about the opening picture of Jesus, sitting in a boat, teaching his disciples in parables, the image my friend Larry Carter thought the most beautiful picture in the New Testament. Jesus was at home in that boat because he was at home in the world. He lived a centered life, grounded and at peace in God’s creation. You can live that life, too. Summer is the time when we have the possibility of slowing down, moving to a different rhythm, a time when we can, if only for odd moments, rest and relax and open ourselves just enough to let some of those divine seeds come into us and do their transforming work in our bodies and spirits. Remember that Henry James said the two most beautiful words in English are “summer afternoon”.

            As you go about your life this summer, I invite you to picture Jesus teaching his disciples from the boat. And then I invite you to picture God sowing those seeds in your direction. If Jesus could relax, so can you. Let God’s loving, embracing, renewing purpose wash over you as waves lap against a boat. In so doing, you’ll find yourself becoming open to God’s promise and God’s call to you in ways you maybe hadn’t before. If God’s purpose can take root in rocky ground, it can take root in you. The abundance of God’s blessings will germinate, sprout, bloom, and bear fruit not only in your life but through you in the life of the world. Amen.



Sunday, July 27, 2014

Homily: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost [July 27, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

There was a day last week when I looked at the front page of the paper and thought that the world had lost its mind. So much public suffering was on display there: the plane crash in the Ukraine, the Central American refugee children at the border, the crisis in Gaza, the outbreak of Ebola virus in Sierra Leone., the 200 Nigerian girls still missing after their abduction by Boko Haram.  U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon summed up all our feelings when he said, "Too many innocent people are dying." [Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2014]


On Tuesday, July 29 we will mark the one hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I. I'm sure to many observers at the time, the world must have seemed to have lost its mind then as well.  Because an Austro-Hungarian prince had been killed by a Serbian, a series of interlocking alliances triggered the start of what we have come to call "The Great War".  Russia came to the aid of Serbia. France came to the aid of Russia. Austria-Hungary called on Germany for help.  England jumped in on the side of France. The result was a war that lasted 4 years and cost over 20 million wounded and 16 million killed.


It should not be lost on us that the war in 1914 started as a conflict among empires.  England, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans called themselves empires. Germany was an empire in the making. The western world got drawn into a cataclysm because of conflicting imperial ambitions.  Everyone at the time wanted to rule the sea, colonize the developing world, and control both raw materials and the means of production. The European continent was not big enough to accommodate all these expansive visions. Hence the Great War.


To us in the 21st century much of what happened at the dawn of the 20th seems tragically inexplicable.  But a 22nd century person might be excused for looking at a front page of last week’s newspaper and thinking the same about us. The passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 found themselves caught in a conflict between Russia and Ukraine.  Children are showing up on our border fleeing violence caused not only by narco-terrorists but also by the policies of Central American governments.  And Israel, a nation I long admired, has increasingly come to behave like a turn-of-the-last century colonialist power.  Today as then, thoughtful people are perplexed by the problem of empires that aggrandize themselves with no regard to the human consequences.

On Sundays this summer in the church we are reading our way serially through Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Contemporary Bible scholars have found much in this letter to suggest that Paul was concerned with the problem of empire.  Christianity came to being amid the dangers and pretensions of imperial Rome. Jesus was put to death by a Roman imperial state that found his teaching subversive and so politically dangerous. Paul’s first generation of Christian converts was martyred because they acknowledged Jesus, not Caesar, as their king. 

As our summer reading of Romans has proceeded, we’ve seen Paul’s critique of empire reach its full force.  Just last week, Paul compared the situation of Roman Christians to that of Israel in Egypt. As the Jews fled Pharaoh, so Jesus’s followers can be free of Caesar.  As Christians, we prepare for the coming of Jesus, the true ruler of whom Caesar is only a parody. We are on a new Exodus, moving from slavery to freedom.  Paul’s Gospel of liberation finds its ultimate statement in these ringing words that end the passage we heard this morning:

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 37-39)


This is a passage often read at funerals, so we tend to think of Paul’s subject here as personal victory over death.  Certainly we are right to hear that: because so many Christians were dying at the hands of Roman executioners, we must hear reassurance about a life beyond death as part of Paul’s message.  But I believe that he is even more emphatically proclaiming the Jesus community’s coming final victory over Caesar.  “We are more than conquerors.” Neither rulers nor powers will be able to defeat us. 

What does Paul have to tell us on this centennial of the onslaught of the Great War?  What does he have to tell us about the front page of our daily paper?

In many ways, World War I changed the way we think not only about war but also about abstract ideas like heroism, glory, and honor on the battlefield. Warfare in this war was brutal and mechanized. Its engagements could hardly be called “battles”. The poets of previous wars celebrated the mighty deeds of warriors in song. The poets of the Great War—Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and others—told the truth about what they saw and experienced in the trenches. Both combatants and non-combatants suffered and died in unprecedented numbers. The after-effects of what was then called “shell shock” and we now call post-traumatic stress prolonged the suffering and death even after hostilities had long ceased.

So the Great War was a new event in human history, and both poets and theologians tried to respond to its newness as best they could.  Just as the confident poetry of war died away, so did the confident liberal Protestantism of the 19th century seem inadequate to the present moment.  All notions of human progress now seemed to be false.  We weren’t getting better as a species at all. The Great War had revealed a new, mechanized ferocity in us. Christian thinkers like the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth and the American Reinhold Niebuhr turned to Paul’s letter to the Romans precisely to try to understand how a Christian might find meaning in the wake of such tragedy. 

And what those theologians found when they turned to Romans was Paul’s message to an earlier generation of Christians who had also struggled to make sense of human suffering at the hands of a cynical and uncaring imperial state.  The range of forces set against us can seem at times overwhelming, but Paul never gives up hope:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?. . Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . .No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39)



            As deep and painful as the effects of the Great War were, they threw Christians back to the fundamental affirmations of our faith.  After the experience of trenches, of poison gas, of shell shock, we could no longer naively place our faith either in nation states or in a doctrine of human progress.  We were driven back to first things, to the life and witness, the suffering and death, to the resurrection of Jesus.  “If God is for us, who is against us?”  Nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

            Only a faith grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus is adequate to the sufferings of the Great War.  And only a faith so grounded can help us endure and understand subsequent tragedies: the concentration camps, Hiroshima, Vietnam, genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, the new advent of terrorism and oppression. If we want to understand what happened in the trenches, if we want to understand what is happening in Gaza, at our own border today, we need to look to the imperial Roman cross on which Jesus died and at the empty tomb from which he rose.  The God we know in Jesus knows what it is to suffer as we do.  The God we know in Jesus also knows what it is to live a new and risen life on the other side of that suffering.  God is with us because God has been there. We are not alone.  We are loved and known and held by one who continues to go through all of life’s struggles with us.

            What Paul says to the Romans and to the survivors of the Great War, Paul also says to you and me both individually and in community.  People will always be expendable to empires.  We will always be capable of treating each other cruelly.  But even in the midst of experiencing that disregard and that cruelty we can find seeds of hope and grace and compassion. Put not your faith in empires.  Put your faith in the one who triumphed over all that empire could bring to bear. We are not alone:  not in the trenches, not in the camps, not on the border; not in our prisons, our sickbeds, or in the loneliness of our own rooms.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.