Sunday, September 28, 2014

Homily: Cathedral Day [September 28, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

 What is the purpose of a cathedral? In Raymond Carver's well-known 1983 short story "Cathedral" two men--one of them blind--sit in a living room talking when a late-night documentary about cathedrals comes on television. The narrator tries to describe a cathedral to the blind man, but he gradually realizes that, try as he might, he cannot verbally depict the spatial reality of a massive medieval building.  As the narrator explains,


I wasn't getting through to him, I could see that. But he waited for me to go on just the same. He nodded, like he was trying to encourage me. I tried to think what else to say. "They're really big," I said. "They're massive. They're built of stone. Marble, too, sometimes. In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God. In those olden days, God was an important part of everyone's life. You could tell this from their cathedral-building. I'm sorry," I said, "but it looks like that's the best I can do for you. I'm just no good at it."


As the story progresses, the narrator and the blind man join hands and draw a cathedral together. The narrator puts in windows, arches, flying buttresses, and great doors. When they finish, the blind man runs his fingers across the drawing and appears to understand: "Sure. You got it, bub, I can tell. You didn't think you could. But you can, can't you? You're cooking with gas now."

Carver's story has been widely read and taught, in part, because it represents the way one person touches another and so can make both a human and spiritual connection. Great as it is, though the story Cathedral begs an important question: what are cathedrals for?  They mean everything to those of us who love them, but what do they signify for others? As the narrator says, The truth is, cathedrals don't mean anything special to me. Nothing. Cathedrals. They're something to look at on late-night TV. That's all they are. Cathedrals belong to the "olden days" when "God was an important part of everyone's life." [Raymond Carver, "Cathedral", in Raymond Carver, Where Im Calling From: New and Selected Stories, New York: 1989, pp. 356-375.]        

What are cathedrals for?  Today we celebrate Cathedral Day, the yearly anniversary of the founding of Washington National Cathedral on September 29, 1907. As we gather for this observance, we hear two passages of scripture: the first, in which Solomon prays at the dedication of the Jerusalem temple that when Gods people gather in this place the one to whom they pray will hear  . . . heed and forgive.[I Kings 8: 30] The second is Matthews account of Jesus cleansing the same temple.  As Jesus famously says,

It is written,
My house shall be called a house of prayer;
   but you are making it a den of robbers. [Matthew 21: 13]


            We cannot hear the second story without keeping in mind the first.  King David established Jerusalem as Israels capital, and his son Solomon built the temple there.  The temple was meant to be the place where Israelites would find reliable access to God.  It was the building in which both as a people and as individuals, Israelites could call on God to hear, heed, and forgive. Thats what Jesus means when he calls it a house of prayer.

            But why does Jesus accuse the temple leadership of having turned it into a den of robbers?  Certainly the presence of the money-changers seemed at best hypocritical, but the temple had an even worse scandal at the center of its life than mere commercialism.  When Solomon's father David was dreaming of the temple he declared, The blind and the lame shall not come into the house. [2 Samuel 5: 8] Not only had the temple become the living embodiment of a religious system that turned prayer into a financial transaction. Even worse, it had been founded on a principle of segregation, of exclusion. "The blind and the lame shall not come into the house."  Only the able and healthy were welcome.

When we read the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, we are quick to notice the overturning of the money-changers tables but slow to hear the following sentence: The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. [Matthew 21: 14] The temple is a house of prayer.  It is the physical embodiment of Gods love and justice.  Jesus cleanses it by making it truly embracing and inclusive.  His first act of outreach is to let in those excluded for centuries. The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.

Which brings us back to the question, what are cathedrals for?

The best ways to answer that question lie in the two actions of Jesus in this mornings Gospel.  Jesus drives out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he lets in the blind and the lame.  A word about each.

The temple money-changers stand for a lot more than mere commercialism.  They stand for a whole system of religious purity and privilege that goes against the deep truths of God and the Spirit.  This system of false power and authority is common to every religious tradition, even and especially our own.  Christians and Muslims, as well as Jews, have managed over time to build up systems that often subvert the original intention of the religion they serve.  They have tried to bolster their authority by making claims of an exclusive hold on the truth. Jesuss public ministry was, in a sense, an extended critique of the temple cult. It should not be lost on any of us that over 2,000 years, Jesuss followers have built up a religious system almost exactly like the one that he criticized. 

The first point, then, is that a temple, a cathedral, a church is a house of prayer.  It is not the house of prayer. A cathedral is a place where we are invited to be open to God and what God is up to.  It is not the only place where God can be available.  It is a focal point for the holy, but it doesnt have an exclusive patent on the divine.  Money-changers thrive by convincing you that their system is the only way to get to God. Then and now, thats a self-serving lie. As Karl Jung said, bidden or not bidden, God is present”—a statement as true on the street, at home, in the wilderness as it is in here.

And then theres a second point. The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.  The Israelites of Jesuss day were neither the first nor the last to become confused about Gods purposes.  As finite, limited beings, you and I set up all kinds of false divisions and hierarchies within the human community.  We separate people into categories and define some as more desirable than others.  In Jesuss day as now some of those categories were about racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual identity. In Jesuss day as now, other of those categories were about ability and health.

Jesus consorted with notorious sinners--the lepers, the demon-possessed, the lame and the blind--because he knew what you and I need always to learn: that Gods horizon of love and blessing and acceptance and forgiveness and justice is limitless.  Each of us, all of us, are made in Gods image.  Each of us, all of us, are worth everything to God.  Jesus opened the doors of the temple to the blind and the lame because he knew that he was potentially one of them himself.  Ability and health are differences only of degree, not of kind. For those of us who love this cathedral, God extends a similar invitation to drop our pretensions with one another and get real about our mutual need for healing and grace.

On Cathedral Day 2014, we celebrate the 107-year history of Washington National Cathedral, and we rededicate this place and ourselves to the two missional principles at work in todays Gospel.  We seek to be a house of prayer. We seek to extend Gods love and blessing and hope to the human community in all its glorious racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, and cultural fullness. We are not a purity system doling out religious commodities.  We are a living embodiment of grace and gratitude in a world desperately in need of hope and forgiveness.

Near the end of Raymond Carvers story, as they have finished drawing the cathedral together, the blind man says to the narrator, Put some people in there now.  Whats a cathedral without people?  When the narrator finally pauses to consider what they have achieved, all he can say is, Its really something. Putting some people in there and imagining a cathedral is really something.  Opening these doors to all is what Jesus would have us do. Its what cathedrals are for.  Amen.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Homily: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [September 14, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

            Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed, Money, which represents the prose of life, and which is hardly spoken of in parlors without an apology, is, in its effects and laws, as beautiful as roses.  [Nominalist and Realist]  Emerson was an idealist thinker, but he knew a powerful symbol when he saw one.  Money is what our culture has invented to represent value.  Despite our queasiness in talking of it publicly, money is the perfect figure for things of God and the spirit.  Its no wonder that Jesus uses money figuratively in so many of his parables.  Money stands for what we hold precious.  As Wallace Stevens, another great Emersonian thinker, said, Money is a kind of poetry. [Adagia]

            Now this is not a stewardship sermon, so relax:  Im not going to hit you up for a contribution.  That will come next month.  But I begin with these thoughts about money this morning because, in the Gospel reading we just heard [Matthew 18: 21-35], Jesus uses money (precious in itself) to stand for something even more precious:  forgiveness.  Aside from the poetic connotations of cash, why might Jesus have used it to represent something ineffable and divine?

            One reason might be the problem of scale.  How do we finite humans conceive of things on Gods terms?  Gods vantage point is so much different than ours.  I think Jesus came up with money as the only way he could represent the vastness of Gods perspective, and the pettiness of ours.

            In the story which Jesus tells this morning, a king forgives an enormous debt: ten thousand talents is equivalent in Jewish Palestine to several lifetimes worth of income.  Its an absurd figure to begin with.  The slave owes the king, say, $10 million, an amount he could never possibly repay.  When the slave asks the king for forgiveness, he is released from his debt.  His life and his future lie open before him.

            The problem of scale next arises in the amount that the slave then tries to extract from a fellow slave.  The second slave owes the first a hundred denarii, equivalent at most to a weeks wages.  He also begs for forgiveness, but unlike the king, the first slave is merciless and has the second thrown into prison.

            So there we have it.  The king forgives an enormous debt, the slave enforces a petty one. Hmm?  What spiritual condition might all this talk about money be taken to represent?

            When we talk about human sin, we tend to think of it as an act or series of actions.  But sin is really more of a condition, an orientation, than it is something we do.  I am a sinner, not because I eat meat on Fridays but because I'm caught inside the fiction of my own separate identity. I'm more convinced of my own reality than I am of yours. 

            One of the ways this plays out is in my own awareness of the experience of forgiveness.  I am quick to keep an account sheet of the wounds and insults I have received.  I slower to tote up the injuries I have inflicted.  And I am in a near-constant state of oblivion about the grace and forgiveness that are constantly being extended to me by the world, others, and God.  As the recipient of great gifts, I am a miser when it comes to sharing them.

            It is this sinful, willful, forgetful, stingy selfishness that is on Jesus's mind when he tells this parable of forgiveness.  The first slave has received a gift of invaluable worth.  He has been forgiven an incredible, gigantic amount.  But rather than live his life in thanksgiving for that bounty, he in turn extracts repayment of a pittance from another.

            Translation:  I am the beneficiary of enormous cosmic largesse.  I have been given life, love, an abundance of relationships and gifts, none of which I have earned on my own.  As the recipient of so much generosity, why am I still so reticent to extend it to others?

            Matthew tells us that this is a parable about forgiveness.  But with respect to the author's intentions, it is really about more than that.  It is a parable about our orientation to the universe. In this story, God is obviously the king. He has given and forgiven abundantly.  You and I are the first slave in the story.  We have received grace and forgiveness. In every relationship and interaction we have a choice to make. Will we be mindful of the extent of what we have already been given and forgiven, or will be like the guy born on third base who thought he hit a triple?

            Jesus's story of the unforgiving slave helps orient us in the universe and gives us some direction for living our lives in our families, in our communities, in our world.

            The king was able to forgive the first slave because of his empathy and compassion.  He could feel with the slave in all his guilt and sorrow.  The first slave could not extend similar empathy to the second slave because he was devoid of compassion.  When I come into conflict with others, it is usually because I am more concerned with justifying myself than with understanding the other.  That's true for me as a husband, father, colleague, and friend.  It is also true for me as a citizen. 

            The parable of the unforgiving slave asks that I do two things:  it asks that I find ways to remind myself of the extent to which I am the beneficiary of God's abundance, grace, and forgiveness.  The other night, I heard this quotation from the great Roman orator Cicero:  "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others." To the extent that I can root my orientation toward life in gratitude and not resentment I will be open to what someone else feels, thinks, and believes.  I will begin to care about their pain and grief and fear if not as much as my own, at least more than I do now.

            And here's the second thing this parable asks that I do.  It asks that I try to be just a little bit more like the king than I am usually prone to be.  It asks that I be not only reactively grateful but proactively generous. Christianity is a pragmatic and not an ideological religion.  It cares more about how we behave than about what we think.  The best way that I can follow Jesus is not just to agree with him but to act like him.  Over the course of a lifetime of imitating Jesus, I won't become him, but I will eventually turn into the person that God made me to be.     

            You and I were born on third base.  We didn't hit a triple. As we follow and imitate Jesus and the king he describes in our story we will pull our families, friends, and our neighbors along the base paths, so that all of eventually can reach home.  Amen.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Homily: Cathedral Chapter Evensong [September 11, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

When I was on vacation in Los Angeles last summer I had a minor, but really annoying, traffic accident.  My unasked-for upgraded rental car was a Nissan Xterra, a gigantic SUV type assault vehicle. When attempting to parallel park in front of a store on Pico Boulevard in West L.A., I crushed and obliterated the left front fender of a Porsche Carrera.  The accident really was my fault, but it was my misfortune that the car I damaged was owned by an Iranian attorney from Beverly Hills, who was standing next to the vehicle at the time.
After I extracted myself from the series of screeds that ensued, all that day and the next, I berated myself with the phrase, "If only".  If only I had turned down the Xterra upgrade.  If only I had not tried to parallel park on a busy street.  If only I had actually been able to see the Porsche from my rear view mirror when backing up.
I don't want to suggest that I am comparing my "If only" with Martha's remark to Jesus.  "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Crushing a Carrera is not the same as losing a brother. But the human impulse to look back in remorse is universal.  Who among us has not asked this question after a bad event?  If only I had . . . fill in the blank.  We want to take it back.  We want to return to a lost pre-catastrophe past.
This desire to go back before the "if only" is an expression of nostalgia.  As the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says, "Its a kind of nostalgia, not for the past as it was, but for the present that   could have been, if only the past had just been a little bit different." I wouldn't have spent an afternoon being yelled at by an angry lawyer if I hadn't tried to park in front of his car.  Martha would not have had to bury her brother if Jesus had only showed up on time.
One of the mysteries of being human lies in the way we find ourselves caught within the flow of time.  St. Augustine described time as a "concord of past, present, and futurethree dreams which, as [he] said, cross in our minds as in the present of things past, the present of things present, and the present of things future." [Frank Kermode, The Sense of and Ending, p. 50 quoting Confessions Book XI]

We live in a concord of three dreams.  When the dream of the present turns sour, we often retreat to a comforting dream of the past. The life of a faith community, like the life of a person, is a concord of dreams, an interweaving of the streams of past, present, and future. Every parish, seminary, or school I have served can tell you the story of its founding, its glory days, its tribulations.  The robust ones have a vision of their future at least as vibrant as their sense of their past.  The dying ones seem caught in the trap of "if only."

In some respects, Washington National Cathedral finds itself in the same spot as Martha and Mary after the death of Lazarus.  We are often tempted to say, with Martha, "If only":  If only the earthquake hadn't happened, if only trends in American religious giving, membership, and attendance weren't going in the wrong direction, if only younger people loved traditional worship as much as we do, if only our average donor weren't 76 years old.  We find ourselves beset with many challenges, most of them economic and demographic.  Our first response, like Martha's, is often to turn from the bad dream of the present to a happier dream of the past.  If only that past had continued, our present would feel different than it does.

Martha said to Jesus, Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.' . . . Jesus said to her, Your brother will rise again. [John 11: 21, 23]


When Martha says "if only" to Jesus about Lazarus' death, Jesus replies, "Your brother will rise again."  Martha wants to point Jesus toward correcting the past.  Jesus declines to look back but instead invites her to step into a radiant future.  But not only that, when Jesus invites her into that future he shows her how she can live even now as that future is being brought forward into the present. "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." [John 11:25-26] This invitation to live not a life oriented toward the past but toward a future made present now is a move Jesus makes in much of his teaching.  It's a move that God with us makes every time we gather at Gods table in Eucharist.

The singing of Psalm 96 earlier reminded me of St. Augustine's observation that the best model he could use to represent our experience of how past, present, and future intersect lay in the recitation of a Psalm.  We remember God's activity in the past.  We state our situation in the present.  We ask for God's saving activity to bring us into a new future. Christians look to the past not out of nostalgia but for signs of hope.  We look to the future in expectation, not in dread.  We face both past and future so that we may live abundantly in the present, which is the only dream that finally matters.

We gather tonight as a community in a historic liturgy of Evensong and as a cathedral community perched, as always at the intersection of these dreams of time:  our shared past, our lived present, and Gods future.  And we gather as a cathedral chapter community saying goodbye to one member (Rich Bland) and welcoming into its life and ministry two new members, Michele Hagans and Steve Knapp. As we simultaneously bless and welcome, let us give thanks for the great past of this historic institution.  Let us face into the present with all its mixture of opportunities and challenges.  And let us, like Martha, hear Jesuss call to go with him into a future which opens before us even now and transcends all that we can ask for or imagine. The time for if onlys is over.  Gods future breaks in upon us even now.  Amen.