Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Homily: The First Sunday after Christmas [December 27, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

The longer I go on living in the Christian tradition, the more I realize the profound truth of a simple idea. For every positive statement we make, we can state its opposite and still be speaking the truth. Paul said, "Justification comes by faith apart from works of law." James said, "Faith without works is dead." Both statements were made by apostles, both appear in the New Testament, and both seemingly contradict each other. And yet: the truth of each does not imply the falsity of its opposite. The longer I go on in the life of faith, the more I realize that two apparently contradictory things can be true at once. Reality is bigger and more complex than I am. The broad, comprehensive nature of Christianity makes all narrow partisan ideology seem shallow and false.

So two things can be true at once. We're saved by grace, yet works matter. God is compassionate, and God is just. We're all sinners, and God loves us. To hold on to one half of any of these statements (without also grasping the other) is to see only part of the picture, and thus to misunderstand the radical nature of grace.

Something along these lines occurs to me whenever I think about Christmas these days, because Christmas is at its core a set of what seem like massive contradictions. It is a celebration of light at the darkest time of the year.  It is an affirmation of peace and blessing in a world of aggression and alienation. It is an occasion when we have to hold two, seemingly opposing, ideas of God in our head. No wonder Mary spent her time after the shepherds' departure treasuring their words and pondering these things in her heart. The King of the Universe has been born in a stable. How paradoxical can you get?

One way of thinking about Christmas is to hold the Hebrew word "Emmanuel", as Mary did, in your heart. "God with us." From the beginning of time, it seems, human beings have lived with two distinct images of God. God is at the same time the Being behind the Universe and my personal Savior. God is far away, powerful, and transcendent. God is also nearby, vulnerable, and immanent. Some religions emphasize God's immensely other holiness. Other religions emphasize God's compassion and concern for me in all my idiosyncratic particularity. The unique thing about Christianity is that it does not choose sides in this game of dueling theological banjos. Christianity says two true things together at the same time: yes, God is other and righteous and holy; and yes, God is familiar and compassionate and nearby. And the way we say that is Christmas.

On Christmas Eve we heard the familiar story of the birth. On the First Sunday after Christmas we hear the less familiar opening verses of John's Gospel. Listen to what they say:

In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the

Word was God. Christ was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Christ, and without Christ not one thing came into being. What has come into being in Christ was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1]


What John announces here is a more poetic way of saying what Matthew's and Luke's birth stories tell us. The God who we thought of as far away is the same God who is right here, passionately and compassionately involved with us. Christmas is about God's willingness to take on what it means to be human, to be with us in our frailty and freedom, to experience what we experience from the inside out. When you really love someone you are concerned with sharing and knowing their interior experience. God loves the way we love—though perhaps with fewer blinders on--and Christmas is God's way of risking the safety and the isolation of perfect transcendence for the vulnerability and community of love and life in and with us.

But the journey does not stop there. Yes, God comes to meet us.  But now we go to meet God. Christmas is a two-way transaction. Because if God shares our experience, now we also can share God's. Listen again to the 61st chapter of Isaiah:

For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
   and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
   to spring up before all the nations. [Isaiah 61:11]

These joyous words come to us from a hard season of personal and social pain. In their historical setting, the last chapters of the book of the prophet Isaiah sit perched on the brink of a great thing God is doing for Israel, but they arise from a time of great suffering. Israel has been nearly demolished and taken into captivity in Babylon. The whole sweep of its life and meaning appears to be over. And then, out of nowhere, in a way no one could have predicted, God acts. Israel is freed from Babylonian captivity. They return home. The story is back on. Isaiah 61 announces a revolution in divine and human experience: in bringing Israel home from Exile, God has done something so unbelievably enormous that it almost defies description. Isaiah cannot be silent because this divine deliverance requires that it be noticed and praised.  God’s truth and justice and love and salvation are going forward. They spring up as naturally from God’s actions as shoots come forth from the earth and as the plants of a garden spring up from the seeds that have been sown within it. God moves towards us in mercy and justice. We move toward God in thanksgiving and praise. We are saved by grace alone. Faith without works is dead.

In other words: yes, God is moving toward us.  And yes, we are moving toward God. In the life of Jesus, God takes on what it means to be a human being. We call God’s movement toward us “the incarnation.” And the incarnation, the enfleshment, is not only about what God does for us. It is just as importantly about what we do for God. After the Jesus event, God understands human life differently than God had before. God now knows what it is like to be us. God experiences our joys and sorrows and hopes and fears not just from the outside but now from within.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. [John 1:14]


When we say that the Word has become flesh and dwelt among us, we are saying that God and we have met each other in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And when we say that, we mean these two things. First, we mean that human life—in all its glory, in all its smallness—has been ennobled by God's choosing to take it on and experience it from the inside. That’s why we do justice work: because in becoming one of us, God has given every human being unique worth and dignity. Second, we mean that the divine life of God—in all its transcendence, in all its immanence--has been irrevocably changed by its encounter with what it means to live and die as a particular human being. That is why we pray, because the one we pray to knows what it is to be us.  God has taken on our experience, and we have taken on God's destiny.

Christmas is about contradictions, about opposites, about two things being true at once. In Jesus Christ, God and humanity meet once and for all. In becoming one of us, God has taken on human mortality. For our part, you and I have been taken up into God's immortality. Two things can be true at once. God knows and loves you more fully than you can imagine and understand. Your life has meaning and depth and purpose beyond the human markers we use to identify it. You are part of something timeless and universal. You now share God's divine life in ways that connect you to the entire human community. Because what is true for you and me is also true for our brothers and sisters of every racial, ethnic, sexual, or class identity.

So Christmas and its season are jam packed with good news. God has come to meet us. We are moving toward God. Both sides are transformed in this encounter. We and God meet, once for all, in Jesus Christ. This meeting is the real gift of Christmas. Two things can be true at once. And it is the work of a lifetime to see, and know, and thank God that they can. Amen.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas Leaflet Message, 2015: Washington National Cathedral

O the magnitude of meekness!

Worth from worth immortal sprung;

O the strength of infant weakness,

If eternal is so young!

                --Christopher Smart, “The Nativity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”


Christmas 2015 arrives at an unusually fraught time in our national and international life. We seem this season to be assaulted by distressing news on an almost daily basis.  Life seems ever more fragile and at risk. Civility seems all but absent from our public discourse. We spend our days alternating between postures of anger and fear.

It is natural in times like these to want to defend ourselves and to strike back at those who either threaten our sense of security or offend our values. Our safety, we believe, resides either in our corporate and personal power or in our superior principles.

As vexing as today’s world can be, it is no more disturbed than the one into which Jesus came two millennia ago. Then as now the arrogant overwhelmed the meek.  Then as now the preciousness of life seemed of no account to those bent on enmity and control. Then as now the answers on offer seemed to revolve around getting more—resources, power, control—with which to overwhelm those who posed a threat either in fact or imagination.

But it has always been the affirmation of the biblical tradition—from the Hebrew prophets to Jesus himself and to his earliest followers—that security resides neither in power nor money nor status. Real safety—the kind that Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul both live out and offer—consists in what might seem like a counterintuitive set of emotions.  Real security consists in trust—trust that reality is finally friendly, trust that the world is actually good, trust that God keeps promises.  The One behind the world—the One who comes into it then and now at Christmas—is ultimately trustworthy. And we are finally safe.

The eighteenth century English poet Christopher Smart understood what Isaiah and Jesus and Paul proclaimed and what Jesus’s mother Mary lived out in her faithful nurture of her infant son.  We normally think of and describe God as ultimate power, but such a construction gets it totally wrong. The truth is really the other way around.  God is not to be seen in ultimate power.  God is on view in ultimate weakness. God comes among us not as a warrior but as a baby. Our image of God is not of a mighty king but a helpless infant. Our fantasies of power are fakes. What Smart calls the “strength of infant weakness” is the real truth about God, the world, and us.

We gather in this cathedral church during the season of infant weakness to celebrate the strength and endurance of those values and virtues that Christopher Smart names “the magnitude of meekness”.  The One born at Christmas will come to stand with and for us humans in ways that will outlast the pretensions and postures of power in all its pompous self-display. The infant Jesus embraces us in his weakness, and beckons us to share that embrace around. The problems of 2015 lose their power to frighten us. We can live, with God and Jesus and our neighbors in gratitude and trust.

May the God we meet in infant weakness bless you in the magnitude of meekness to live in hope and thanksgiving, both now and throughout the year. Welcome to Christmas at Washington National Cathedral.


Gary Hall



Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Homily: Farewell Evensong, Monday in the Third Week of Advent [December 14, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

Anyone who loves American literature will no doubt remember the seventeenth chapter The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – that’s the one in which Tom, Huck, and Joe Harper find themselves somehow attending their own funeral. Here in part is how Mark Twain describes it:


As the service proceeded, the clergyman drew such pictures of the graces, the winning ways, and the rare promise of the lost lads that every soul there, thinking he recognized these pictures, felt a pang in remembering that he had persistently blinded himself to them always before, and had as persistently seen only faults and flaws in the poor boys. The minister related many a touching incident in the lives of the departed, too, which illustrated their sweet, generous natures, and the people could easily see, now, how noble and beautiful those episodes were, and remembered with grief that at the time they occurred they had seemed rank rascalities, well deserving of the cowhide. The congregation became more and more moved, as the pathetic tale went on, till at last the whole company broke down and joined the weeping mourners in a chorus of anguished sobs, the preacher himself giving way to his feelings, and crying in the pulpit. –Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Chapter 17



            I don’t know why, but as I contemplated tonight’s service this passage came to mind. It’s one thing to attend your own funeral.  It’s quite another to find yourself the preacher at it.  But I will leave it to you to discern between the touching incidents and rank rascalities of my tenure here. Of course, this isn’t exactly a funeral, but it does signal the end of both a working life and a pastoral relationship.  Do I address you as the tenth dean of Washington National Cathedral, the seventh rector of Christ Church Cranbrook, the ninth dean of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, the thirteenth rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, or as the fifth vicar of St. Aidan’s Church in Malibu? Kathy and I are entitled to be buried in four churches.  How do we choose? I’ve been doing this work for forty years now, so it’s probably important to say something memorable and summative. Or at least something interesting.  Let’s hope I can at least hit one of those three targets.

            In the past weeks many people have asked me to speculate on my legacy here at the cathedral. (When you come, they ask you about your vision.  When you leave, they ask you about your legacy. While you’re there, you’re just trying to keep the ship afloat.)  I have pondered this question without success on and off since Kathy and I made the decision to retire last August.

            And then a week ago today I found myself attending the community Eucharist at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts—the seminary from which I graduated in 1976 and where I serve now as chair of the Board of Trustees.  EDS is an important place to me. It’s where Kathy and I met, and for that alone it would have a high place in my affections.  There’s no place in the world like Cambridge, Massachusetts when you’re in love and in your 20s.

            Because I arrived late to last Monday’s service I sat in an out-of-the-way corner of St. John’s Chapel, and even though I had been in that building several hundred times over the course of the last 50 years, I saw for the first time a beautiful brass plaque I had never noticed before.  It read:

To the glory of God
And in Memory of
John Seely Stone DD
Born Oct 7 1795
Died Jan 13 1882
First dean of this school
Scholar Teacher
Preacher Pastor
Servant of God
This memorial bears witness
To the Love and reverence of
The graduates for their friend
And teacher.


            Looking at that plaque, I realized I’d forgotten what I ever knew about John Seely Stone.  I have long ago lost the book I had which told the seminary’s history, so I tried googling John Seely Stone.  To no one’s surprise, you can’t seem to find him on the internet.  I did find references to Seely Posturepedic Mattresses and to film star Sharon Stone, but nothing about John Seely Stone, D.D., the first dean of Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge. So much for legacies.
         Aside from a small plaque hidden away in a remote corner of the chapel, John Seely Stone doesn't have much of what we might call a "legacy" at EDS. There is no Stone Hall, Stone Library, Stone Auditorium. His name has no ostentatious memorial. Yet I will bet that when he founded the school, John Seely Stone had no idea that it would some day produce people like Jonathan Daniels—enshrined now in the cathedral’s human rights porch--or that it would be the first theological school to teach scientific biblical criticism, admit women as students, have ordained Anglican women on the faculty, and admit openly gay and lesbian students.  Dean Stone doesn't have much of what you or I might call a legacy at EDS, but his ministry built an institution whose life and work has changed the church and through it the world.

            So perhaps it won’t surprise you when I say that I do not believe in personal, institutional legacies. Working to lead an institution is something like writing in sand or water: it takes all one’s energy when you’re in it, but six months after you leave, the place seems to be doing just fine without you. I very much doubt that you will see a Hall Auditorium, Hall House, or—what I’ve always secretly dreamed of every place I’ve worked—a building named “Gary” Hall anytime soon either here or at Cranbrook, Redeemer, Seabury, or St. Aidan’s. And even if such an unlikely edifice were built, 50 years from now who would really know or care?

            So I don’t believe much in institutional legacies. What do I believe in?

            We are now in the third week of Advent, a season that looks in three directions at once.  In this season we look backward to the coming of Jesus in historical time. We look forward to the coming of Jesus at the end of history.  We look among us for the coming of Jesus into our life and experience now.  Advent reminds us that Christianity is only partially, and not primarily, a historical faith community. Yes, we care about and honor the past, but only insofar as the past can help us size up and operate effectively in the present and build for the future.  We Christians look for God not as someone remembered but as someone expected.  God is coming toward us. That is what this season is about: not only are we preparing for Jesus’s birth at Christmas, we are getting ready for the future to which God and Jesus call us. When he ran for president in his parody campaign of 1968, comedian Pat Paulsen adopted as his slogan, “The Future Lies Ahead”. That’s pretty much always been my eschatology.

So what is a priest’s legacy?  What is any Christian person’s legacy? The season of Advent orients us in the best way to think about answering these questions. Those of us who do this work do not do it in hopes of leaving something behind. We do it in the service of moving ahead.  We do it in preparation to meet the one who comes towards us in Advent.

I began with a book.  Let me end with one.  The last paragraph of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch expresses in ways I cannot this Advent sense of the importance of living in expectation and service and leaving the legacy question behind.  As George Eliot says,

For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.—George Eliot, Middlemarch


            Dean John Seely Stone is all but forgotten, but the school he founded continues to envision and enact transformative change in our church. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are best remembered for their rank rascalities.  George Eliot suggests that Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Middlemarch will be remembered, if at all, in the quality of the lives she touched with her many “unhistoric acts” of charity and grace. In the end, to the extent that they exist at all, institutional legacies don’t count for much. To be concerned with building or maintaining a legacy is to look backward. And if there’s one thing I know after all these years about God, it’s that God is someone out there, ahead of us, calling us toward a future of hope, justice, reconciliation, and love.

In future years we will all be pleased to forget the rascalities and remember good things about each other. But for now, the future lies ahead. It is time for Kathy and me to move on in service of that Advent vision and for others to carry on the work of leading this cathedral church to whatever future God intends for it. And so I leave you with the apposite words of someone you’d never thought I would quote from a pulpit--none other than General Stonewall Jackson, a man whose name and image will no doubt endure in this cathedral at least as long as my own. “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” Amen.

Homily: Installation of Court Williams as Rector of Trinity Church, Highland Park, IL [December 8, 2015]

            It is a great pleasure to be with you tonight as you celebrate the renewal of your ministry here and welcome Court Williams as rector of Trinity Church. Court was a student leader at Seabury when I served there, and Julie was an active member of the spouses group which my wife Kathy convened. How they managed to be so present on campus when they lived all the way up in Mundelein (if I remember correctly) I never quite figured out. And having done some time in what they used to call the wilds of the Pacific slope in Oregon they have come back to God’s country to live and work. And it’s always a joy to be with Jeff Lee, your bishop, who made a similar move back from Washington state when he became Bishop of Chicago. As one who is preparing to move back to my native California early next year, I hope there is not some horrible thing about the west coast that they’re not telling me.

            I’ve been a priest for almost 40 years now, and one of the things I love about the church is collecting all the sayings people think are in the Bible but are not actually there.  You know, adages like “God helps those who help themselves.” “This, too, shall pass.” And, as an Episcopalian, my favorite, “We’ve always done it this way.” This third is perhaps the most widely used in our church, said usually in jest, always meant in earnest.  At Washington National Cathedral I’ve actually had it said to me straightfaced and without any hint of irony at all. “But dean,” they say to some proposed new thing, “we’ve always done it this way.” To which I usually reply, “Isn’t that one of the Beatitudes?”

            The liturgy we do tonight is a new—and to my mind much improved—way of celebrating a new ministry. The rite I have lived most of my working life with came in with the prayer book of 1979, and it was more like a kingly coronation than the installation of a servant of Jesus.  But over the course of my working life we in the church have begun to “get” the radical implications of Baptism, a sacrament also rediscovered in the 1979 prayer book.  In the church I grew up in, we used to think of ordination as the fundamental commissioning to ministry—indeed the people we called “ministers” were the ordained. But all the historical and liturgical scholarship that led to the 1979 prayer book revived our understanding of what Baptism is all about and how it creates and renews the church.  All of us here tonight—from the bishop to the priests and deacons to everyone lay person in the building—are baptized people. Some of us in ordained ministry are called to live out the baptized life in particular ways. But there are no fundamental differences between us.

            So when we celebrate the renewal of ministry and welcome a rector, what we’re really doing is asking Court to live out his Baptism in a way that will help and empower you to live out your Baptism. Court is not coming here as your ministry service provider. (I think we sometimes conceive ministry as akin to going to the butcher—“I’ll take a half a pound of weddings please, and throw in a couple of funerals.”)  Court is coming as one baptized person called to live among you in a priestly way, and his primary job is not to do your ministry for you but to help you live into the Gospel in such a way that you can discover and live out what it means to follow Jesus in the circumstances of your own life.

            As we prepare to welcome Court and renew our own shared sense of what it means to be baptized, we have three readings to consider. Briefly, here’s a thought about each.

            Our first scripture passage [Exodus 3: 1-6] tonight tells of Moses’s encounter with God in the form of a burning bush on Mount Sinai. Maybe it’s because I have been privileged to serve churches with wonderful buildings—Seabury in its days in Evanston, Christ Church Cranbrook in Michigan, and now Washington National Cathedral—that I am particularly attuned to the strangeness of this encounter. Moses meets God by the side of the road in an ordinary bush. True, the bush is on fire, but still. It’s not a Gothic cathedral. It’s just a bush. And yet, as Moses approaches, God says to him, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

            Thought one: if God can speak out of a bush, God can be anywhere. Indeed, God is everywhere. The “we’ve always done it this way” part of us wants to locate God in the sacred space of a building. But a church is not a building. A church—what Paul in the Bible calls the ekklesia—is a community, the group of those called to follow Jesus. If Court and all of you are to emulate Moses, you must be attentive to God’s presence not only inside this sacred space. The ground on which you stand—at work, at home, in school, in the community—that ground is holy ground. And Trinity’s ministry is present there as you are present here.

            In our second Bible reading tonight we heard Paul tell the Romans [Romans 8: 12-17], “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” He then goes on, For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” We who follow Jesus are not slaves to fear. The events of the last several weeks—shootings in Paris and Colorado and California, an overheated presidential campaign, an escalating war in the Middle East, violence on our city streets—are disturbing events, and our natural tendency is to view the church as a place to flee from them for refuge and safety. But as Paul reminds us, we who follow Jesus are no longer slaves to fear. God’s encounter with Moses assures us that all ground is holy ground. Paul’s letter to the Romans asserts that fear is not a Christian category. In his life, death, and resurrection Jesus showed us that the kind of love and compassion  he stood for always outlast the things we fear. In the midst of a culture cringing in terror, the church, the ekklesia, those called to follow Jesus, we are called to remind that culture of a bigger and enduring set of truths. The things that scare us will not last. But the values of the baptized life—the values of love, joy, compassion, forgiveness, justice—those things do last. As a parish community your job is to proclaim God’s abundant fearlessness to a world desperately in need of the things that matter.

            And then we have the third reading, the story of Nicodemus seeking out Jesus by night [John 3: 1-16]. We have come to see Nicodemus as a type of the seeker, someone driven perhaps by the fearful atmosphere of Jewish Palestine under Roman occupation to come to Jesus for answers. Jesus tells Nicodemus a couple of things he has a hard time taking in. ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Nicodemus comes to Jesus for answers and what Jesus gives him is neither refuge nor a set of ideas but rather a community. Jesus gives Nicodemus Baptism. The thing that will help you give shape and meaning to your life, says Jesus, is living into the baptized life. And the baptized life is something you can only achieve in community. Jesus is not a guru. He does not promote an individualistic path to holiness or salvation. Jesus is himself a baptized person, and what he offers finally is something like solidarity with others and with God. We will all get through this, but only as we do it together. Being born from above means being born anew with others. We don’t get through life by hunkering down in fearful isolation. We get through life by making common cause with others. We get through life through compassion and forgiveness, not through power and fear. We get through life by inviting the world onto the holy ground where we already and always stand.

 So to *Court and Julie: I’m sorry we won’t see each other out west, but I rejoice that you have come here and tonight join with the women and children and men of Trinity Church as we all renew our shared commitment to follow Jesus as those who have been given life and identity and ministry in Baptism. The ground on which we stand tonight is holy. A world overcome with enmity and fear longs for the authentic vision of life on offer in the Gospel. May we all be born anew tonight both within and from above, so that the ministry not only of Trinity Church but of each and all of us may offer that vision to others and call everyone to gather around God’s abundant table and give thanks.  Amen.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Homily: The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost [November 8, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

            When Kathy and I were first married, we lived in a tiny New England saltbox house on Sparks Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a funny little house, turned sideways on a small lot, a block or so from the Charles River. It was in that house that we experienced the two great blizzards of 1978—one in January dumping around 28 inches of snow, the second in February, leaving us with 36 inches to shovel away.

            Thirty-six inches of snow is a lot to take care of.  Yet after each blizzard, we would be surprised to see a small army of seemingly frail older women out there with shovels and brooms taking care of business. There must have been a dozen or so of these elegant, scrappy women. As we shoveled snow and cleared out parking places we began to talk to some of them. It turned out that these women were in their 70s and 80s and were widows—some of Harvard professors, some of other kinds of professional men who had died long before them. Up until then I had operated under the notion of a “widow” as a meek, sad, lonely character. But these women were, well, tough. They all knew each other. And they knew a thing or two about how to protect a parking place.

            Today’s Gospel [Mark 12:38-44] tells the familiar story we have come to call “the widow’s mite”.  Of all the stories about money in the New Testament, this is the tale that we preachers love to use when we are hitting you up for dough during the yearly stewardship campaign. On the surface, it seems to be a sentimental story about true generosity contrasted with bogus ostentation, and our response to it derives from that shared cultural picture of the widow as a meek, sad, lonely character. Here’s where the preacher looks at you and declares, “Look, this poor widow put in two copper coins. Can’t you cough up a couple of thousand bucks?” I know about these sermons because, on occasion, I have given them myself.

            But this time around I see the story differently. Remember, this event takes place in the Jerusalem Temple, the center of the official religious system of Jesus’s day. Just before we meet the widow we hear Jesus warn us to “beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes.” Among other things, says Jesus, these scribes “devour widows’ houses”.  Wait a minute: the center of official religion? walking around in long robes?  Isn’t he talking about places like this and people like me?

            One of the problems with using the widow’s mite for a stewardship sermon is that it fits more logically into Jesus’s prophetic critique than it does in a stewardship drive for what we call “organized religion”. Over the course of much of his ministry, Jesus aims his sharpest criticism at the cult of the Jerusalem temple itself precisely because that cult pretends to guarantee and deliver exclusive access to God. He is not critical of temple worship itself. He is critical of the system built up to make that temple what these days we would call “sustainable”. In Jesus’s view, the temple no longer deserves to be sustained. It has commercialized and commodified spiritual transactions, placing most of them out of the reach of the poor. And the people who work in the temple—those wearing long robes—are willing to do anything to keep the institution afloat, even going so far as to “devour widows’ houses”.  This isn’t a story about why you should support institutional religion. This is a story about why you should bring it down.

            When we hear the word “widow” in a biblical story, we should be alert to the category of people the Hebrew Bible calls “widows and orphans”.  These are the poorest people in Israel, those with no economic or social standing. When their husbands died, ancient Near Eastern women were left without a way to support themselves. They were at the bottom of the social structure. They were the least powerful people in the society. The true test of Israel, said the prophets, was how it treated its widows and orphans, people who could do nothing for you in return. By that measure, says Jesus, the temple has failed the widow and orphan test. The scribes gladly feast off the offerings of widows. The temple has become disconnected from its very reason for being.

            Now the plight of “widows and orphans” is not just a first century Bible-land issue. This week many of us were shocked by a story in Monday’s New York Times. Here’s how the story begins:

Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.

That finding was reported Monday by two Princeton economists. . . . Analyzing health and mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from other sources, they concluded that rising annual death rates among this group are being driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids. [“Death Rates Rising for Middle-Aged White Americans, Study Finds”, New York Times, November 2, 2015]

While the Times article did not seek fully to explain the rise in death rates, some causes advanced were: lack of education, overall declines in general health, worsening economic opportunity, and ongoing mental distress. In the period examined by the study, household income for those with only a high school education fell by 19 percent.

            If we’re going to ask who might qualify as this generation’s widows and orphans, we might answer that they are precisely the people like these—those who have been left behind by the expanding market and the tech boom. And if we’re to apply Jesus’s standards to ourselves, the proper measure for both church and society might be how they treat those with little education behind them and less opportunity before them.

            So then: is the tale of the widow’s mite a stewardship story or not? The answer, like so many in the scriptures, is “Yes” and “No”. If we’re talking about religious giving that merely supports those “who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets,” then the answer is probably “No.” The day after the Princeton study came out the Pew Research Center released its findings on the declining religiosity of the American public. When this week’s Pew study tells us that the U.S. public is becoming less religious, they mean that Americans are becoming less interested in official organized religion, what we might call the faith of the scribes. A church that exists only for its own survival is decreasingly interesting or credible to anyone.

            But if we talk about stewardship as giving that reaches out to the widows and orphans of today—not only to middle-aged white people but to what the prayer book calls “the victims of hunger, fear, injustice, and oppression” then the answer is surely “Yes”. A church that exists primarily for others is a city on a hill and a light to the nations. It is, in Jesus’s words, worth “everything we have to live on”.

            And that brings me back to the widows of Sparks Street in Cambridge. They were tough women, but they also had a lot going for them. They were educated. They were privileged.  They had a lot of social support.  But they also knew, from experience, what life was about. No matter what economic class you belong to, losing a spouse is painful—one of the biggest losses that anyone can sustain.  To be on your own at the end of a lifetime is hard, especially if you’ve shared it with someone else. To be widowed at any age is to suffer. And suffering always changes one’s character. It may not make us better, but it does make us tough.

            The widows of Cambridge were tough. And I think the widow in the Jesus saw in the temple was tough, too. And say what you will about tough people, they tend to know what really matters. And they not only know it: they commit themselves to it. So the story of the widow’s mite does tell us something about stewardship after all. 

            It tells us that suffering makes us tough. And toughness teaches us what really matters. Prayer matters. Love matters. Justice matters. A church that prays and loves and works for justice is worth everything we have to live on. The long robes are nice. But serving the widows and orphans is finally what it’s all about. Jesus loved the temple, but he lived and died for you and me.

            At its best, Washington National Cathedral strives both to love God and serve people. May this place, our temple, continue to live out our love for God in ways that will be worthy of your support. May we, like Jesus let life make us into the people God calls us to be.  May we, like the widow, come to know what matters. And like them both, may we give ourselves, our resources, and our lives in ministry to those Jesus came to love and serve.  Amen.



Thursday, October 22, 2015

Homily: EDS Board Meeting Community Eucharist [October 22, 2015] St. Johns Chapel

We’re gathered today at the beginning of our annual three-day October board meeting, and I begin with the less than shocking observation that in our time together here a great deal will be at stake. At last year’s fall meeting we celebrated the school’s fortieth anniversary. Yet even though the community was undergoing a good deal of trauma at the time, not one public mention of that fact was made over the course of the three days.  As a brand new board member, it felt a bit crazy to me at the time.
A year later, almost everything has changed.  We have a new cast of leadership characters. The on-campus community has gone through a process of reconciliation and renewal. The board both in self-study and retreat has come to terms with its own performance, and we are perched now on the possibility of a new era in what we might call collaborative functionality.  Though each constituency maintains its own unique roles and responsibilities, I believe we have set the stage for taking account of the past and charting a visionary course for the school’s future.
I have had a lot of jobs in my career—parish priest, cathedral and seminary dean, school chaplain and administrator.  The one I think most about these days as I approach retirement is the one I was probably best suited for: college and high school English teacher. Over the course of my teaching life I taught mostly American literature, but because English teachers of my generation were expected to be polymaths, I also worked up a good deal of Shakespeare. In the last few years I have returned to Shakespeare as a kind of touchstone. Working in Washington has been a bit like inhabiting a Shakespeare history play:  everything there is about power and what people will do both to obtain and keep it. And when reflecting on the larger issues of life—suffering, redemption, forgiveness, hope—I find that Shakespeare’s late plays give a fuller expression than do abstract theology or—dare I say it—our liturgy itself.
Shakespeare’s late plays are pretty much about the horrible things people do to each other. Husbands betray their wives. Brothers sell out their brothers. In plays like The Winter’s Tale or The Tempest, evil is not a cosmic abstraction.  It is a lived, human reality. There are no witches or ghosts in these plays.  The action springs from simple human malevolence. And yet watching or reading them is a great, ennobling experience. Because as they unfold, a process takes place that allows for real complaint, real repentance, real forgiveness, and finally real reconciliation to be accomplished. At the end of Shakespeare’s late plays, the stage is set for a new community, one based in W.H. Auden’s great phrase, on “trust instead of threats”.
Shakespeare comes to mind this morning not only because of our own community need for mutual complaint, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation but also because of our Gospel reading for today.  When Jesus says
From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
   and son against father,
mother against daughter
   and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
   and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’ [Luke 12:52-53]
he is not making an esoteric prediction.  He is describing the functional dynamics of human life.
In the church we can become so Romantic about community that we forget the hard work that living and working with other people actually entails. Because of our innate tendency to put our own needs, wants, and aspirations ahead of others, all human communities (from the family to the classroom to the workplace to society itself) need to find ways to manage the inevitable conflict that ensues from just bumping up against one another. And that’s true just about ordinary communities. When you take a place like EDS (or the church at large) which has a high ideological expression of its own values, the stage is set for us to club each other to death using the weapon of our great, liberal commitments. There’s nothing like being assaulted in the name of virtue. As Bob Dylan says, “it happens every day”.
It’s at this point, I think that God calls us back to the values that were there before our values. In the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans [Romans 6:19-23], Paul argues that his emphasis on grace is not an excuse to go ahead and sin. It all depends, says Paul, on what you give yourself over to. You can serve iniquity or you can serve righteousness. Again, to quote Bob Dylan, “You’ve got to serve somebody.” Paul’s point is that now we are freed from sin and bound to God we are becoming sanctified, literally holy.  That doesn’t mean that every thought or impulse we have is pure. But it does mean that we are part of something bigger and deeper and more inclusive than simply our personal wills or egos.
Many of you will know Shakespeare’s King Lear, an almost unrelieved tragedy which sees two families—those of Lear and Gloucester—turn against themselves. A father banishes a daughter. Sisters vie for power. A son turns against a father. At the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of heroes and villains. And then one character steps forth and says this:
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. [King Lear 5.3]

I don’t normally think of Shakespeare as a guy who went through a lot of group process. Nevertheless, he understood the dynamics of human relationships. Without being Romantic about this or any other community, I would suggest that EDS and what it stands for are worth speaking the truth to each other about. My truth will not always align with your truth, but if we speak them to and with each other, we might just find ourselves making a new truth—one built on trust, instead of threats.
No human community will ever be free of conflict. In this as in any other society, we will all need to find ways to stand both for ourselves and with each other. In Paul’s words, “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We can hang back and nurture our mutual resentments, or we can come together, hear each other’s truth, and work in community to build a new truth that does justice to all our partial perspectives.  I hope in these three days we will find ways to be both frank and charitable with each other. What we’re up to is too important for either defensiveness or self-dramatization. This work will no doubt be hard, but it will also be joyful and liberating as we open ourselves to it.  And the best place to start that work is here and now, as we gather around Jesus’s table to give thanks.  Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Homily: The Twenty-first Sunday afer Pentecost [October 18, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

Do you think Jesus was happy?  Would you describe his earliest followers as happy? Do you think Christianity is about being happy? Are you happy yourself?

These questions arise as I find myself approaching retirement at the end of the year. Many people ask me what my plans are. What will make me happy? Am I going to rest and relax, do something new, or become a Howard Hughes-like weirdo walking around the house with Kleenex boxes on my feet instead of shoes?

Do I think I’ll be happy? Is that the right question in the first place? Is retirement about being happy? Is working about being happy? Is life itself about being happy? Or is it all about something more?  One of the thinkers I depend on to help me navigate these kinds of questions is Rebecca Solnit, a San Francisco-based writer who engages a range of issues--the environment, contemporary culture, and social justice questions to name a few.

Rebecca Solnit wrote about happiness in recent essay in Harper's Magazine. Listen to a bit of what she said:



Maybe part of the problem [with happiness] is that we have learned to ask the wrong things of ourselves. Our culture is steeped in a kind of pop psychology whose obsessive question is: Are you happy? . . .


Questions about happiness generally assume that we know what a happy life looks like. Happiness is understood to be a matter of having a great many ducks lined up in a row — spouse, offspring, private property, erotic experiences — even though a millisecond of reflection will bring to mind countless people who have all those things and are still miserable.


We are constantly given one-size-fits-all recipes, but those recipes fail, often and hard. Nevertheless, we are given them again. And again and again. They become prisons and punishments; the prison of the imagination traps many in the prison of a life that is correctly aligned with the recipes and yet is entirely miserable.  [Rebecca Solnit, "The Mother of All Questions", Harper's, October, 2015]



            As I understand her argument, Rebecca Solnit is suggesting that our tendency to equate the good life with the happy life boxes us into defining a good, meaningful life in far too narrow terms. As she says later in her essay, we need “better language to describe” what a fully realized life might look like. “There are entirely different criteria for a good life that might matter more to a person [than happiness]-- honor, meaning, depth, engagement, hope.”

            I begin this morning asking questions about happiness and the good life because I think they are central to the problem this morning’s Gospel poses for us. Today we heard the well-known story of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who ask that Jesus do for them “whatever we ask of you”, that is “to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” [Mark 10: 35-45] This request does not come out of thin air. It has a context. In the passage immediately preceding this one, Jesus has just told them, 

See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again. [Mark 10: 33-34]


James and John ask Jesus to sit at his right and left hand in glory after he has just told them about what awaits them in Jerusalem. Jesus will die on the cross. Their request is a response to this prediction. When talking about James and John preachers customarily tee off on the brothers and accuse them of self-serving careerism. I have even been known to do this myself on occasion.

But as I read the story anew this year, it seems to me that James and John are not guilty of ambition or self-promotion.  Their request is not to be the executive vice presidents of the Jesus movement. Their request is to put a happy ending on what Jesus has just named a tragedy.  The problem here is not ambition. No, it’s something much more insidious.  The problem here is the conventional wisdom of wishful thinking. James and John want Jesus to be happy. If they can just get through that crucifixion, everything will be all right.  And then they can be happy, too.

When Jesus predicts his own suffering and death, he talks about it with his companions in very matter-of-fact language.  He does not give them this news in order to frighten them.  He tells them so that they may be prepared for the consequences of a life lived on God’s terms—a life that cannot help but come in conflict with the powers of his day. If we have defined the good life as the “happy” life, then Jesus’s persistence in his way of living seems at best perverse and at worst suicidal.  If we define the good life using Rebecca Solnit’s terms—“honor, meaning, depth, engagement, hope”—then Jesus’s decisions begin to make sense.

The English art critic and writer John Berger talks about our need for “another way of telling”. We need, not only as Christians but as citizens and fellow human beings, to reach for new language to describe what a meaningful, honorable, deep, engaged, hopeful life might look like.  One place to look for such language is in the life and story of Jesus. He came into a culture where the good life was defined in terms of power. Those who had it were deemed to be favored. Those without it were seen as condemned. In the second part of today’s Gospel, Jesus talks about the good life in language that turns power relationships upside down:

You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. [Mark 10: 42-45]


Jesus did not let his culture’s definition of the good life determine how he himself would live.  He did not organize his own life around getting and wielding power over others. He did not spend his life pursuing achievements and possessions. Instead, he gave of himself to others. He built a community of mutuality, compassion, and justice. He consorted with and healed the people whom his own society defined as outcasts.  For Jesus, the good life was the life built not on power but on service. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

When he told his companions that he came not to be served but to serve, Jesus knew he was being counter-cultural. The values of the Gospel will always stand just slightly apart from those of the world. As followers of Jesus, you and I need to do some thinking on our own and together about what it is we want from life.  We need another way of telling ourselves and the world what finally matters. We inhabit a culture that will always define the good life in unimaginative, consensual ways. In Rebecca Solnit’s words, we are always “getting clobbered by the same old ways of telling”, and we cannot help but find that continual pummeling “disheartening”.  Following Jesus gives us not only new life but another way to live this one: a way that might include such elusive and overlooked principles as “honor, meaning, depth, engagement, hope”.

I don’t know if I would say that Jesus was “happy”. In the terms our culture to define happiness, probably not. But he did life a life characterized by those elusive and overlooked principles so often lacking in human existence.  Honor, meaning, depth, engagement, hope: these are the qualities that defined Jesus’s life and ministry. They are the qualities that have given shape to the best of the church’s efforts to follow Jesus.  They are the qualities that you and I can embrace, allowing us to be something more than happy. They can help us live lives that are real and true and deep and faithful.

You can lead a good life free from the way our culture defines one. As long as we continue to describe the good life as the successful, powerful, affluent, healthy life, then we are destined to think only very few among us as having lived one. Jesus calls us to expand our horizons. What is it you so deeply value that you would be willing to give your life over in service to it? Who is it that deserves your empathy compassion, and trust? These commitments, and not how many monuments that you leave behind, are what really matter. Jesus said the same to James and John, but they could not help hoping that the cross would only be a bump in the road on the way to worldly glory. They didn’t get it, but you and I just might. Whoever among us wishes to be great must be a servant. Not exactly great career advice, but a principle worth organizing your life around.  Amen.




Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Homily: Altar Guild Evensong/Linda Roecklein's 50 Yeas [October 13, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

             We’re gathered this evening to do two things, one of them ordinary and the other extraordinary.  The first thing is to say thanks to the Altar Guild, something churches do fairly regularly.  The second is to recognize Linda Roeckelein for fifty years of service. (She started here when she was five years old—you probably read about it in the papers.) Fifty years of doing anything in a sustained way is out of the ordinary.  Fifty years of working with sacred vessels, floral arrangements, and the people who maintain and create them is really unheard of. So let me say a word first about the Guild and its work and then second a word about Linda.

            I’m a preacher, and we preachers like to speak about the biblical texts we’re given for an occasion.  I’m sorry to say that tonight the church’s lectionary hasn’t given me very much to work with.  The story of Jonah’s call to prophecy and his flight from his task and subsequent swallowing by a great fish [Jonah 1:1-17a] is a wonderful tale, but it’s not much help when praising those who serve the church. And Jesus’s warning that we will all be hated because of his name [Matthew 10:16-23] doesn’t really speak to the occasion either. Yet because of my abiding faith that, if you hang with it long enough, the lectionary will always give you something to work with, I have found these words from Psalm 11 that might just do when recognizing members of an altar guild:

                         For the Lord is righteous;

     he delights in righteous deeds; *

                    and the just shall see his face. [Psalm 11:8]


                    Because we call ourselves the “national cathedral”, and because we inhabit Washington D.C., in all our language around here we tend to define “righteousness” as “doing important stuff”:  inaugurating presidents, hosting public policy summits, standing up for this or that public issue.  All those endeavors qualify as “important stuff”, but a night like this one calls us to remember what cathedrals are here for in the first place. The word cathedral is shorthand for cathedral church, and the most important of the many things all churches do is to pray. And because we are a cathedral church in the Anglican tradition, the central way we pray is to pray liturgically.  To be sure, we encourage private devotion and other forms of worship, but central to our life together are the church’s two dominical sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism and then all the other liturgical actions related to them:  marriage, ordination, confirmation, burial, not to mention our regular round of daily offices. 

                    Worshipping liturgically is hard work.  It requires not just sitting and thinking but getting up, moving around, and, well, working with a lot of hardware:  patens, chalices, pyxes, ciboria, pitchers, lavabo bowls, and the like. And because we are who we are we want that hardware to be not only useful; we want it to be beautiful.  And we want not only hardware:  we want what we might call the “software” of vestments and linens, and the even softer ware of flowers. To be sure, we could praise God authentically without all these things, but we couldn’t do that in our own particular way if we didn’t have silver and silk and linen and the bold and gracious floral arrangements that consistently decorate all the altars of this cathedral church.

                    So when Psalm 11 reminds us that,

     . . . the Lord is righteous;

     he delights in righteous deeds; *

                    and the just shall see his face. [Psalm 11:8]


we should hear this word as one deep form of thanks and affirmation for what the members of our Altar Guild do.  Maintaining all the hard- and soft-ware of a big operation like this is serious work. We could not pray liturgically the way we do without that work.  Those of us who stand up and perform in this space usually get all the attention.  But those of us who do so know to whom really all the attention belongs:  the women and men of the Altar Guild who make the rest of what happens here possible in the first place.  Speaking for all of us who preside and preach in this place:  thank you for the generous, selfless ways in which you serve the cathedral and beautify our common space.  We literally could not do it without you.

                    That’s my word to the Guild as a whole.  And now to Linda.  You know, searching tonight’s scriptures I finally did find a verse that might say something about Linda Roeckelein’s fifty years here:

See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. [Matthew 10:16]

                    When you behold someone as sweet and gracious as Linda, the idea of being as canny as a snake doesn’t immediately come to mind.  But in recognizing Linda Roeckelein we honor not only her extraordinary ability to arrange flowers and take care of the vessels we use in the service.  We honor Linda for her ability to pull this whole enterprise off not in an artistic vacuum but with the likes of flesh and blood human beings.  Arranging flowers and caring for linens and silver requires managing the people who work with them. And as I’ve observed Linda at work in my time here, I’ve been impressed with more than her aesthetic abilities.  I’ve seen the way she guides and inspires the women who work with her to aspire to new heights of creativity in their flower arranging, the way she supports those who care for the vessels of the altar.  Leading an Altar Guild requires more than good taste.  It requires great interpersonal skill, the ability to guide and motivate the people you work with.  It means that to do Linda’s work you have to be wise as a servant and innocent as a dove.

                    There is no place I know of in America or in all of the Anglican Communion that manages the accouterments of liturgical worship as well as we do here. The beauty and dignity of our flowers and linen and silver are no accident:  they derive from visionary, dedicated work by all the members of the Altar Guild and especially from the leadership of the faithful, brilliant woman who leads them. So how do you say thank you to a woman like that—one who leads others in doing righteous deeds, one who is herself as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove?

                    The only way I could think for the cathedral community to honor Linda and the women and men who work so closely with her tonight is to do what I have done, and what I am pleased to announce tonight. On my recommendation to the bishop, and our joint recommendation to the chapter, and the chapter’s enthusiastic approval, I am pleased tonight to name Linda Roeckelein as an Honorary Canon of the Cathedral Church of Saints Peter and Paul. Linda, our liturgical prayer in this space and the space itself would not be the same without you. Please know of our high admiration and deep gratitude for all you and your companions do.  May God continue to bless you and to bless us through you, and may tonight be not just a summation but the commencement of another generous span of time in wise, righteous service in the house of God.  Amen.