Sunday, August 31, 2014

Homily: The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost [August 31, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

Over the course of my working life in the church I have had the privilege of knowing some wonderful people.  One of them was my friend, the late Bishop George Barrett.  George was a great leader on justice issues in the church, and he once told me the story of being interviewed on television.  This was in TV’s early days, when guests were asked to wear lavaliere microphones, the kind you hang around your neck. During a commercial break the sound technician came to adjust his microphone: it was banging up against the large, pectoral cross the bishop wore on his chest. The technician said, “The problem is the cross. It’s causing interference.” George Barrett looked up at him and replied, “It always does.”

The cross always causes interference. In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus tells his companions that the journey they are on will end in his death on the cross at the hands of the Roman Empire. Peter cannot abide this.  “God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you.” [Matthew 16: 22]  Those who follow Jesus have not reckoned on the reality of the cross as part of the transaction. Jesus knows that his critique of the empire and the religious system that colludes with it will result in his being brought to a political prisoner’s death on the cross. Those who accompany Jesus think that following him will be all about sitting at his feet and copying down his pithy sayings. But Jesus knows that following him means being called into a life at odds with the forces of empire, a conflict that will result for many of his followers in persecution, martyrdom, and death. “The problem is the cross. It’s causing interference.” “It always does.”

            After he rebukes Peter, Jesus says these memorable words:

"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? [Matthew 16: 24b-26]

To be a Christian, to live under the sign of the cross, is to be a perpetual voice for interference. It means that we will always bring the Gospel’s values to bear upon social, ethical, and cultural problems. Because the imperial presumptions with which we are called to interfere are always centered on power, the Gospel critique of those presumptions will always promote the voices and concerns of the powerless. In Jesus’s day and ours, the consequences of that cultural critique will not always be pretty. The cross always causes interference, because in signing on to be followers of Jesus we are signing on to be fellow travelers with him on the way of the cross. And while walking that way with Jesus promises ultimate joy and peace, in the near term it often delivers suffering and loss.

            Jesus’s insistence on the way of the cross as the way of life is, for us first-world privileged Christians, profoundly counter-cultural.  The message our culture sends us is a message of grasping after something: you preserve your life by beating out the other guy. For Jesus and his followers, you preserve your life by what the theologian Sallie McFague calls “cruciform living.”

            The philosopher Aristotle posed life’s basic question: “How, then, shall we live?” Many today ask Aristotle’s question.  They ask it about our wider society. They ask it about their own individual lives.  One of my favorite theological reflections on how to live is Sallie McFague’s book, Life Abundant. Here in part is what she says:

We cannot, in good conscience “love the world”–its snowcapped mountains and panda bears–while at the same time destroying it and allowing our less well-off sisters and brothers to sink into deeper poverty.  Hence, I believe Christian discipleship for twenty-first-century North American Christians means “cruciform living,” an alternative notion of the abundant life, which will involve a philosophy of “enoughness,” limitations on energy use, and sacrifice for the sake of others.  For us privileged Christians a “cross-shaped life” will not be primarily what Christ does for us, but what we can do for others.” [McFague, Life Abundant, p. 14]


            A philosophy of “enoughness”, though, is a hard bargain for the likes of you and me. Speaking only for myself, with relation to things I am like a morbidly obese person who no longer know when he is full.  I do not have trustworthy judgment when it comes to knowing how much is enough.  And I’m a person who reads the Bible and goes to church every day!  So if we Christians don’t ever quite know what “enough” is, imagine how hard it is for the others in our culture who have been led to believe that one is satisfied only when one is stuffed.

            When Jesus tells us, this morning, to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him our first response is always to think about sacrifice and martyrdom. But, starting from our place of relative affluence, perhaps the first image of self-denial might lie in what Sallie McFague calls “enoughness.”  Can I live trying to regain a trustworthy sense of what is enough–enough food, enough money, enough energy use, enough houses and cars and the like?  For us first world Christians, taking up the cross begins in a diagnosis of “enough”. Jesus lived an abundant life in the midst of deprivation, and he called others to share that life.  “Cruciform living” means walking in such a generosity of spirit and practice that allows the underlying abundance of God’s creation to shine through us. Denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus begins when we realize we already have enough.

            But following Jesus doesn’t end there. Speaking as a native Californian, I know how easy it is to fall into the self-satisfied smugness of the so-called sustainable lifestyle.  “Hey, I’m driving a hybrid, eating locally-sourced food, and I’m composting. I’m saving the planet!” When you live in beautiful, expensive surroundings it is easy to feel virtuous by paying a little bit more for environmentally-friendly luxuries that poor people can’t afford in the first place.

            Two years ago, Kathy and I moved to Washington from the Detroit area, and if you follow the news you know how many economic and social challenges that city faces today.  Another of my favorite contemporary writers, Rebecca Solnit, has visited Detroit and written thoughtfully about what the change there might mean for all of us in post-industrial America. [Rebecca Solnit, “Detroit Arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape.” Harper’s July, 2007] In her writing, Solnit describes both the industrial deterioration of Detroit and the surprising rebirth of local agriculture in the vacant blocks of open land left by the razed and burnt-out buildings.  Here is one of the more provocative things she observes as she watches the painful but inspiring new life which can follow economic devastation:

The free-range chickens and Priuses are great, but they alone aren’t adequate tools for creating a truly different society and ecology. The future, at least the sustainable one, the one in which we will survive, isn’t going to be invented by people who are happily surrendering selective bits and pieces of environmentally unsound privilege.   It’s going to be made by those who had all that taken away from them or never had it in the first place. [Harper’s, July 2007, p. 73]


            In other words, if we’re really talking about “cruciform living,” then as a friend of mine observes, “something has to die” before this rebirth can begin.  That something is obviously the exploitive consumerist fantasy in which all of us seem to live and move and have our being.  Detroit is coming to life precisely because it exhibits what Rebecca Solnit calls “the first signs of an unsettling of the very premises of colonial expansion.” [p.73] As she says, we cannot live out the logic of the cross only by “happily surrendering selective bits and pieces of environmentally unsound privilege.”  So our walking the way of the cross must point us beyond self-congratulatory abstinence. We walk the way of the cross not only as individuals. We do so as a community. Only as Christians witness, separately and together, to a truly sacrificial, communitarian and abundant way of living can we be truly said to be living a cruciform life.

            Bishop Barrett was right.  The cross will always cause interference.  It will get in the way of our culture’s shallow vision of the abundant life. It will continue to frustrate our fantasies of our own virtue. We will join God in making God’s future as we walk the way of the cross with “those who had [privilege] taken away from them or never had it in the first place.” We will save our lives by losing them in community with those who know what real deprivation looks and feels like.

            May the One who walked to the cross with his companions then walk with us now in our strivings toward “cruciform living.” May that One sustain us to accept that we really do have enough.  May that One bring us all together across the social, racial, and economic boundaries that divide us in common purpose to the end that all God’s creatures may know the true abundance of life lived together in the way of the cross. Amen.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Homily: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [August 24, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

“In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life.” So begins Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Divinity School Address”.  As in 1838, so in 2014, “the grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers” [Ralph Waldo Emerson “Divinity School Address”, 1838]. At least around here, the weather of summer, 2014 has been extraordinarily mild. I cannot recall a lovelier time to be alive.

In all other respects than the weather, though, this has been a horrible summer.  The murder of US journalist James Foley by ISIS was only the latest humanitarian disaster:  the Israel-Hamas conflict, resulting in thousands of deaths by non-combatants in Gaza; the ongoing crisis of Central American children at the US-Mexico border; the attacks on Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria.  I have enjoyed the outdoors this summer both for the weather and as an escape from the pain I encounter in the news.

But speaking as an American, the most painful story for me of all this year has been the ongoing situation in Ferguson, Missouri.  It’s a hard story in so many respects. It involves yet another shooting of an unarmed African American by a white person.  It exposed the multiple conflicting ways in which whites and blacks understand and respond to events.  It showed a local government and police force more concerned with justifying themselves than getting at the truth.  And it reminded us all that the hopes of racial justice, articulated 45 years ago in this pulpit by Dr. King, have yet to be fulfilled. 

At the center of the Ferguson tragedy, of course, lies the body of Michael Brown, a young man perched between high school and college, dead of six shots—four to the body, two to the head.  For some reason I don’t understand, my white clergy colleagues have been slower than our sisters and brothers of color to respond to Michael Brown’s death, just as it took us awhile to grasp the implications of Trayvon Martin’s or Emmett Till’s.

But the concerns of Ferguson are the concerns of Northwest Washington.  As William Sloane Coffin, Jr. used to tell his congregation at Yale in the 1960s, “New Haven cannot be a safe haven.” So how do we, as Americans and as Christians, begin not only to understand it but respond to it? Today’s readings give us some help.

 This morning’s Old Testament story turns on a stunning act of civil disobedience. Pharaoh lives in fear of the growing Hebrew population in Egypt and orders that all male Hebrew babies be killed. We are told that two Egyptian midwives—brave women named Shiphrah and Puah— “feared the Lord”, and so they disobeyed Pharaoh’s orders.  They let male Hebrew babies live, and this act of disobedience eventually allowed the baby Moses to escape infanticide and grow up to be one who would lead Israel out of slavery in the Exodus.  [Exodus 1:8-2:10]

It is no accident that African American religious leaders have historically looked to the story of Moses and seen parallels between Egypt and America.  The Exodus story points those of us in the “dominant” culture to an uncomfortable parallel with the Bible’s Egyptians.  We are told that the motivation for Pharaoh’s actions was fear. As Pharaoh says, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land."  Egyptian ruthlessness begins from a sense of vulnerability.  There is an “other” in the land, and if we don’t watch out that “other” will take us over.

In the Bible’s diagnosis, human oppression and cruelty start with fear.  And fear starts in ignorance. As our Exodus story begins, “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” We fear what we do not know.  And if we have power we find it easier to control and contain what we do not know than to make the effort to understand it.  That was true in the Egypt of 1400 B.C.E.  It was true in the Roman-occupied Jewish Palestine of Jesus’s day.  It was true in the days of slavery and Jim Crow. And it is true in our day, too.

This morning’s Gospel tells the story that we Christians call “the confession of Peter.” When Jesus asks his companions who others say he is, only Peter gets it right: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." [Matthew 16:13-20] Now “Messiah” means “anointed”.  It is the Hebrew word we render in Greek as “Christ”.  Both terms signify kingly authority.  King David was anointed.  So is Jesus. The term has radical political implications, especially in an occupied territory.  The Romans denied the Jews their own royal authority.  The Jews looked for a Messiah, a Christ, an anointed king to bring it back.

When Peter realizes that Jesus is “the Messiah”, the anointed, the Christ, he is recognizing something deep and powerful about God and about us.  Most of us are impressed by shows of strength—royal pomp, a display of weapons—as signs of power and authority.  But Jesus is for us “the Christ”, the Messiah, the anointed one because he is effectively an anti-king.  Jesus is not Caesar, nor does he pretend to be.  What Caesar offers is a grotesque parody of authentic authority.  What Jesus offers is the real deal.  He brings compassion instead of hatred, healing instead of abuse, trust instead of threats.  In this story of Peter’s confession, we see at least one person finally getting it.  Real kings don’t look and act like Caesar.  They look and act like Jesus. What Jesus represents is what the power at the center of the universe really looks like. 

And it’s in response to his dramatic recognition that Jesus makes this surprising gift to Peter.  He says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In our context this morning, what Jesus clearly means by “binding and loosing” is the power either to imprison or set free.  When you get it, as Peter did, that Jesus is the Messiah; when you get it that real power lies in love rather than force; when you get it that the other whom you fear is really your brother or sister on this earthly pilgrimage; when you get all that then you, like Peter, have been given the power not only to set others free, but to be set free yourself.

Speaking as a white, American, Christian man this morning I want to say that it is time that we, with Peter, claim the power Jesus gives us to set each other and ourselves free.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Jesus here gives us a choice:  we can stay locked in the prison of our own fear, or we can loosen the chains and step towards the marginalized and oppressed people of our nation and the world.  We can move toward the other in riot gear or we can move with open arms. We have a choice, and in giving those keys to Peter, Jesus gives us the power to make it.

We can make that choice first by deciding to stand with the people of Ferguson not only in their grief but in their anger.  We can make that choice next by calling for a true accounting of Michael Brown’s killing and a legal process of justice.  And we can make that choice by moving personally and corporately out of our comfort zones into actual engagement and with people we fear because we do not know.  In empowering Peter to bind and loose, to imprison or to set free, Jesus has given us the power to liberate our brothers, our sisters, and ourselves. 

It is a sad truth that the deaths of poor young people of color--in DC, in Ferguson, in Gaza, at the border-- don't seem to matter to the wider world very much. We no longer have the luxury of refusing to care when unarmed African Americans are killed by fearful whites. Trayvon Martin, shot while George Zimmerman was standing his Florida ground; Eric Garner, killed by a New York police chokehold for selling loose cigarettes; Renisha McBride, shot by a Michigan homeowner when she asked for help; Ezell Ford, a 25-year old mentally-ill man shot by California police; Michael Brown, shot by a Ferguson, Missouri officer for reasons yet to be discovered. Those of us not directly affected by this violence no longer have the luxury of staying safely in our own hidey-holes of ignorance. As Bill Coffin said, “New Haven cannot be a safe haven.” As Martin Luther King said, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

There is nothing more important for us American Christians at this moment in history than facing into our own fear and its implications.  We no longer have the luxury of refusing to understand.  Racial justice will only come about as we join with others to demand it.  And when we do that—when we do the work to move with Jesus and with Moses and with Peter out of our fear and into self-knowledge and compassion--then we will loosen all the chains that bind us. And it will truly be, in this refulgent summer, a luxury to draw the breath of life.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Michael Brown, Ferguson, and the Faith Community [On Faith August 21, 2014]

Much has been written and said about the disturbances in Ferguson, MO, following the shooting  of Michael Brown, a young African American man, by a police officer on Saturday, August 9.  Some of those statements concern Mr. Brown's activity prior to the shooting.  Others reveal the number of shots (six, two to the head) he received while himself unarmed.

In the days of protest and response, a lot of the discourse has seemed to serve ideology and create a narrative.  We are told that the Michael Brown shooting and the subsequent unrest are about unfinished American racial business, the militarization of policing, the changing demographics of our neighborhoods.

Some of these pronouncements are well-intentioned.  Others (particularly those that seek to justify the shooting) are obviously self-serving.  For those of us who are trying to understand "what Ferguson means" from a faith perspective, almost all of them are useless at best. Every time a young black man is shot in America, a number of voices rise to claim the narrative--witness the long and ongoing argument over Trayvon Martin's shooting.  It's always about something other than what it's really about.

So how do we understand Michael Brown and Ferguson from the point of view of faith?  Speaking as a Christian, I would begin with the premise that any attempt to understand the Michael Brown story must start from respect for him, his body, and his story.  In the baptismal service of the prayer book of my church (the Episcopal Church) we promise to "strive for peace and justice among all people" and to "respect the dignity of every human being." As a Christian, I am bound to start with respect for Michael Brown and the hope that he be given justice. The story is about nothing else than that.

When I first heard the news of Michael Brown's death, I could not help remembering a song written by Oscar Brown, Jr. in 1961 and later made famous by Nina Simone and Diana Ross. Brown's song was written in the middle of the most hopeful and violent moments of the Civil Rights movement, and you can feel the mixture of hope, anger, and fear as the black parent addresses the newborn child:

Brown Baby Brown Baby
As you grow up I want you to drink from the plenty cup
I want you to stand up tall and proud
And I want you to speak up clear and loud
Brown Baby Brown Baby Brown Baby

As years go by I want you to go with your head up high
I want you to live by the justice code
And I want you to walk down freedom's road
You little Brown Baby

Because all faith traditions hold human life (both individually and collectively) sacred, the religious questions raised by Michael Brown's death begin as they must in grief for the cutting off of a young human life by violence, whatever its cause.  When we look at video images of Mr. Brown lying dead in a Ferguson street, it is hard not to think back to Oscar Brown Jr.'s hope that his child would "stand up tall and proud" and "drink from the plenty cup".  Before it is anything else, Michael Brown's death is a human tragedy.
But for people of faith, human tragedies are also social and cosmic tragedies.  We believe that human beings matter not only to each other but to God.  So the injustice and oppression inherent in any American inter-racial killing becomes a theological concern.  For Jews, Muslims, and Christians, God is invested in the health and rightness of human social relations.  The killing of anyone is a human tragedy.  The killing of anyone because of racial, economic, political, or social injustice is a matter of urgent theological concern.  As "Brown Baby"'s hopeful parent sang, "I want you to live by the justice code/And I want you to walk down freedom's road." The betrayal of that hope is an affront to the vision of human freedom and justice to which all our religious traditions aspire.

I serve as Dean of Washington National Cathedral, and because we are both a faith community and a place where religion and public life naturally come together, I addressed our response to Michael Brown's death and the subsequent unrest during last Sunday morning's services.  I said, in part,

“This morning I do want to say, speaking for myself and I believe for the cathedral, that given this nation’s history of racial injustice, the issues and concerns in Ferguson really ought to be at the top of our prayer list and action agenda as a faith community. We here at the cathedral are quick to point people to the Canterbury pulpit and remind them that Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his final Sunday sermon here. We’re quick to appeal to Dr. King’s legacy and to claim a piece of it for ourselves. If we’re really serious about claiming that legacy, it seems to me, we will not only pray for peace in Ferguson, but we’ll also pray for justice. And so, as we go forward as a nation, I add my voice to the many faith leaders who are saying, ‘Yes, we appeal for peace, we appeal for calm, we appeal for healing in Ferguson, but we also appeal for answers’—so that the killing of Michael Brown and its aftermath will not be just forgotten in the next sweep of events, but will call us all into facing continually into God’s invitation to us to break down human boundaries and to ensure that all people find life safe, meaningful and abundant.

“So on behalf of the cathedral and on behalf of all who serve and worship here, I call everyone to prayer and action for not only the people of Ferguson, but for our nation as we continue to live into trying to understand what these events mean, and we pray that justice will be done and that peace will prevail."

For the faith community, Michael Brown's life and death matter.  For the faith community, addressing the social, political, and racial dynamics of his death matter, too.  The "post-racial America" which so many announced still has yet to arrive.  If we are going to live in the America that really exists, we need to face into the racial history that is ours and in which our churches have had such a complicated role.  Michael Brown's killing reminds us, if of nothing else, that the hopes of "Brown Baby" have yet to be realized:

When out of men's heart all hate is hurled
Sweetie you gonna live in a better world
Brown Baby Brown Baby Brown Baby

Our churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples need to be about the work of helping God bring that better world into being.

The Very Reverend Gary Hall is Dean of Washington National Cathedral.