Sunday, November 30, 2014

Homily: The First Sunday of Advent [November 30, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

            Even though a largely peaceful Thanksgiving intervened, the recent weeks have been hard for anyone who follows current events. In the midst of all the bad news, I found solace in a fake front page of The New York Times (created by someone with the questionable name Joe Velx) circulating among my friends on Facebook. Like all good satire, it’s really funny and somewhat painful to read. Under a banner proclaiming just how awful everything is, the main headlines (hilarious but, I’m sorry to say, unrepeatable in the pulpit) mocked the Ferguson Grand Jury verdict and the Bill Cosby situation.  But some of the lesser headlines were almost as good:  “Study:  Pizza Causes Cancer”; “Obama Found Crying Alone in Bathroom Stall”; and my favorite:  “Weather Alert:  Entire Sky to Catch Fire”.  For some of us who have lived through the past several weeks, everything does seem at times simply awful. There are days when I, too, feel like crying alone in a bathroom stall. What is this world coming to?

            Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the first of four Sundays leading to Christmas.  Advent only looks toward Christmas itself near the end of the season; here, at the beginning, our focus is paradoxically on the last things. So here, today, the Advent season speaks to our apocalyptic dreads. Whenever we sense that the world is ending, it’s good to recall that we’re not the first generation in history to feel this way. In today’s Gospel (Mark 13:24-37) Jesus depicts an apocalyptic moment—the sun darkened, the moon dimming, stars falling from heaven. The people to whom Jesus spoke would soon feel, with the impending destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, that their world would be ending.  Cataclysmic change rarely feels good when we are standing in it. When we have become used to and invested in the way things are, change can indeed feel like the end of the world.

            In the last month we have witnessed a string of events that feel apocalyptic:  the spread of the Ebola virus; the continued beheadings of Americans by ISIS; the Ferguson Grand Jury’s failure to indict a police officer in the shooting death of a young black man and the outrage which resulted from that decision; the dismissal of charges against former Egyptian President Mubarak for the deaths of hundreds of non-violent Arab Spring protesters; and just yesterday, yet another shooting spree, this time in Austin, Texas.  Both abroad and at home, it seems that an established order is ending, bringing with it nothing but bad news.  How are we to make sense of all this change?

            One way to begin might be to think back to Jesus and his contemporaries. The world they inhabited was changing rapidly, too.  The Roman Empire, seemingly at its height under Augustus, was beginning its slow slide into ruin and decay.  In a few decades, the Jewish nation state, organized around the king and the Temple, would be totally destroyed and dispersed by that same empire in its desperate flailing attempts to exert control.  Jesus’s followers would soon experience the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of their leader.  Everything’s awful, indeed.

            When Jesus tells his companions, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”, he is not predicting the end of the world.  He is predicting the end of their world. The order that they have lived with and grown used to, as unjust and oppressive as it might be, is on its way out.  A new order will replace it, and it’s into that new reality that his followers will go when they gather and go forth after Jesus’s resurrection. Even though that old world was marked by suffering and oppression, it was still their world, the reality they had come to accept.  A new world was on its way.  What would it look like? How could they prepare?

            The only way they could prepare, says Jesus, was by watching and waiting to see what God might be up to. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Faced with historical events beyond their control, Jesus’s friends are counseled to watch and wait for signs of how they are to read and adjust to the changes that are coming their way.

Watching and waiting were just as hard then as they are today. What do you mean, watch and wait?  Can’t we at least do something? We want to be doers, yet Jesus tells us to be watchers.  How can we live with all the dread and anxiety if all we’re going to do is watch and wait?

Last week I came upon this quotation from the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and resistance leader imprisoned by the Nazis and executed by them in World War II.  Reflecting on the season of Advent from his prison cell, he wrote this:

“By the way, a prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent: one waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (November 21, 1943, pp. 188-89).


            We wait and hope and watch for the door of our prison cell to be opened from the outside.  Bonhoeffer was a lifelong activist.  He risked his life to resist oppression.  And yet even such a doer as Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized that there were some forces and trends that he was powerless to control.  All he could do, in a seemingly endless prison cell Advent, was watch and wait, keeping awake to signs of God’s hopeful, liberating activity.

            The world wasn’t ending in the first century; their world was ending.  The world wasn’t ending even in the Nazi prison camp:  their world was ending. The world isn’t ending now.  But our world is ending.  Even as they desperately try to exert themselves, certain kinds of violence and privilege are coming to an end.  Whether they like it or not, ISIS represents a kind of intolerance and brutality that the world will always reject.  Whether we like it or not, the privilege that white people, straight people, and men have always counted on is also passing away.  The world isn’t ending.  But our world is.  What will come to replace it?  Will it be better than what we know now? We can only watch and wait.

            Let’s remember, though, that watching and waiting are not passive verbs. Jesus tells us to “keep awake”. Though we hope for the new world as an act of God, we can begin even now to live as if that world was our present reality. Jesus dealt with the oppression and injustice of his day by gathering a community in which life could be lived even now as God intended that it be.  You and I can keep awake for God’s new world today by living life on God’s terms now. We can renounce violence and hatred now.  We can give up our unearned privilege now.  We can empathize and make common cause with those who are marginalized, oppressed, and degraded by the structures of a world on its way out the door, and we can do that now. Our waiting can be active, not passive. We can make common cause with others and strive with them to realize God’s reign of love, justice, and peace now.

On this first Sunday of Advent, we begin our shared four-week vigil, watching in Bonhoeffer’s words for the prison door of the present moment to be opened from the outside.  Christmas is coming, but let us not get ahead of ourselves.  We live, for now, in an Advent world.  The old world is ending, the new one dawns. We await the coming of one who will set us free not to shore up the old reality but to inhabit the new.  Our world may be ending, but as followers of Jesus we hope and wait for the new one that will replace it—a world more just, more loving, more compassionate.  This new world dawns on us even now.  There are signs of it everywhere.  In the words of today’s collect, let us “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light”. Let us reach out to each other and all creation to help God bring that world to birth. Let us remember the words of Jesus: “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Amen.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Homily: The Sunday after All Saints Day [November 2, 2014] Washington National Cathedral

Everybody has a pet peeve. Some people can’t stand waiting in line. Others are driven crazy by those unopenable plastic packages that electronic gadgets come wrapped in. Lines and hard plastic packages do annoy me, as do people writing checks for one item at the drug store and folks with extremely complicated drink orders at Starbucks. I mean, a half-caff no foam percent vanilla cream latte? Please, people! It’s just a cup of coffee! Nevertheless, I do nurse one particular pet peeve, and it is one I have pretty much all to myself: Daylight Saving Time.

I hate Daylight Saving Time. Chances are, you don’t and will agree with my wife, Kathy (who greets the arrival of Daylight Saving Time in spring with regular joyous observations that it’s 8 o’clock and still light out) that this is a weird pet peeve for a rational adult person to have. Whenever we turn our clocks ahead, I stomp around muttering, “The government just took an hour of my life!” She and the dogs cower in the corner until the spring clock-setting ritual is done. So you can see, Daylight Saving Time drives me crazy. As an early to bed and early to rise kind of guy, I want it to be dark when I lie down and light when I get up. Is that too much to ask?

Luckily, for us Daylight Saving Time resisters there is good news: today we’re on the other side of the best night of the year. Last night, the government gave us back the hour of our lives they took from us last spring. We have restored the cosmic balance the universe so desperately craves. Sure, it will turn to night sometime around noon, but it will actually be light when we’re on our way to work and school. For a few brief shining months we will all live together in the shared Camelot of Eastern Standard Time.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I want to say something about All Saints Day, which always occurs right around this autumnal transition. All Saints Day celebrates the fullness of the community that gathers around Jesus. It proclaims that all of us who follow him—and that includes those present, those who have gone before, and those who are yet to come—are “saints”, that is, we’ve been sanctified by being together with Jesus in this fellowship.  Let’s think together about what today’s Gospel says to us this morning. .

The opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5:1-12] are commonly called "The Beatitudes" because of the repeated use of the word we translate as "blessed". That same word can also mean something like "happy". For many of us Christians, The Beatitudes serve as a warrant for faithful action. When Jesus says that the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are "blessed" or "happy", many of us hear those words as a to-do list for our ministries. If we want to follow Jesus, we need to be about serving the poor, being peacemakers, and hungering for righteousness.

That understanding is true as far as it goes. But let me suggest another that might stand beside it. Jesus's Beatitudes are not only, or even primarily, a set of marching orders for setting the world right. They are an announcement of what Christians have always called “the Gospel”. They are a proclamation of the good news. In the Beatitudes Jesus is not so much telling us what we ought to do as he is telling us what God is already doing. These verses are an announcement of what God is up to in the world. This "kingdom of heaven" that Jesus talks about is not some future blessed state up in the clouds someplace. The kingdom of heaven is breaking in even now in the ministry of Jesus and in the community that gathers around him.

In Jesus’s day as now, human culture and human values were massively messed up. The ruler of the Western world—Caesar—pretended to a kind of authority that was only appropriate to God. That same ruler oppressed and taxed and starved subject peoples like the Palestinian Jews of whom Jesus was one. In Jesus’s day as in ours many suffered because of harsh political, economic, and social conditions. We first world, educated Christians need to remember that people followed Jesus in those days not so much because he was a great teacher but because he was a healer who embodied the freedom and generosity of God.

So Jesus gathered a community around himself, and in stepping into the Jesus community, you stepped into a space or place or zone where life is lived as God intends that it be. Jesus did not come to found an institution called "the church". In fact, the word we render as church—ekklesia—is a Greek term which means "the called". It's a newly coined word for the New Testament because the older words-synagogue, assembly, temple— couldn't quite name the reality of what the Jesus movement was about. The church, the ekklesia, is the body of those called into the Jesus community to make real in their lives and in the world what Jesus calls the reign of heaven. The church is the gathering of those who want to live life on God's, not Caesar's, terms.

Living life on God’s terms means, of course, that we will try to live out those Beatitude values in the world. Living life on God's terms means standing with the people Jesus names in these verses—the poor, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the mourners. Living life on God's terms means naming Caesar and all Caesar's successors as impostors whose pomp and pretensions are only a parody of real divine authority. But we will be neither authentic advocates for those up against it nor credible critics of empire if we can't love and accept and forgive and celebrate each other first.

Jesus's Beatitudes call us always to rekindle our awareness of what it is we're actually doing when we gather in church. We are coming together, as did those gathered around Jesus, to step into that zone where life is lived on God's terms. We are coming together, as did those gathered around Jesus, to share in the good news that we can critique and change the world only to the extent that we can love it and each other first.

You and I are, together, the church. We are the ekklesia, the called. We are, together, those who have been invited into the zone which Jesus calls the reign of heaven and we might call the place where life is lived on God's terms. We occupy the space where Jesus, not Caesar is in charge. We are, together, those who can find such depth and fulfillment of relationship inside these walls that we can reach out to extend God's reign of love and justice and peace to everyone else.

One of the most interesting translations of Jesus’s Beatitudes occurs in the New English Bible.  Here is how that Bible renders the third verse:


How blest are those who know their need of God;

                        the kingdom of Heaven is theirs. [Matthew 5:3 NEB]


            The Jesus community--the church, the communion of saints, whatever we call it—is the group of people who know their need of God.  Caesar does not know his need of God, nor do those who organize their lives around power, accomplishment, success, or money.  You might say there are two kinds of people in the world:  those who believe they are self-sufficient, and those who know they are not.  The most pervasive lie our culture promotes is the idea that you are or should be totally independent of others.  The countervailing truth of the Jesus movement is that we all finally need each other.  Those who make their way into the Jesus movement are united in the knowledge that they need God.  We are finite, mortal, limited creatures.  True wisdom lies in owning and celebrating our finite humanness, not in projecting a fantasy of invulnerability.

            The Jesus movement—the church, the ekklesia, the community of the called—extends through time and space.  Tonight at the Requiem we will remember those who have gone before us.  Today we welcome those who come next.  In Baptism we admit the newest group of those who know their need of God.  In renewing our own Baptismal Covenant, we acknowledge that we need each other to live our lives on God’s, not Caesar’s, terms.

            Today is All Saints Day.  How blest are those who know their need of God. Welcome one and all to the Jesus movement.  This communion of saints is big enough to include everyone—even those who love Daylight Saving and Standard Time.  We are united not by ideas or positions but by a shared acknowledgment of our own dependence on each other and the one in whose name we gather.  For that one—and for the fellowship to which that one calls us—we proceed in both Baptism and Eucharist to give thanks.  Amen.