Sunday, January 18, 2015

Homily: The Second Sunday after the Epiphany [January 18, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

“Hands up! Don’t shoot!” “I can’t breathe.” “Black lives matter.”

For the past several months—beginning with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and culminating with the murders of two police officers in New York, American clergy have talked a good deal about race relations at the present moment and in the history of our nation.  In the past several weeks, the ISIS beheadings, the horrific stories of Islamist violence in France, and a thwarted terror plot in Belgium have overtaken our public discourse, and some have questioned why we preachers have not used our pulpits to condemn terrorism as strongly as we do gun violence or racial profiling in our own land.

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day, and as a response to those queries, I’d like to point us to a new book by TV host and author Tavis Smiley.  It’s called Death of a King, and it chronicles the last year of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. Dr. King was assassinated almost fifty years ago now, and time has burnished our memories of his life.  We have softened and domesticated him.  But, as Smiley tells us, on April 4, 1967—a year to the day before his death—Martin Luther King, Jr. went to The Riverside Church in New York and gave a speech called “Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break the Silence”.  That was a controversial speech, and in his new book, Death of a King, Tavis Smiley describes its impact on the last year of King’s life.  In Smiley’s words,


In his speech King calls the US “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”.  From that day April 4, 1967 to April 4, 1968, King becomes persona non grata in this country. Everyone turns against him.


We have forgotten that when Martin Luther King Jr. died he was no longer welcome at the White House.  The board of his own organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had censured him for speaking out against the war.  So had the leaders of the NAACP and the Urban League.  As Tavis Smiley tells it,

In the last year of his life [King is] talking about the triple threat that’s going to destroy our democracy:  racism, poverty, and militarism. When he died, the last Harris Poll said that ¾ of Americans had turned against him.  57% of blacks had turned against him. He dies not having any idea of the holiday and the monument and the postage stamp. [Tavis Smiley, Book TV Interview C-SPAN 2014 Book Expo]  


            “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” “I can’t breathe.” “Black lives matter.”

Why do preachers persist in talking about violence on American streets and cities rather than about ISIS beheadings or the Charlie Hebdo killings?  We do so because the nature of prophecy has always been about God’s critical judgment of oneself and one’s own community. It is easy to condemn violence done by others. It is harder to look at violence done on one’s own behalf.  The killing of innocent people by terrorists is always a moral outrage. But it is not my moral outrage to address.  The killing of innocent people in my own country is also a moral outrage, and it is our collective moral outrage to address.  To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, the proper response to a moral imperative is not “thou shalt” but rather “I ought”.

If you think I’m playing casuistic games here, turn back to our Old Testament reading for this morning.  In the third chapter of the first book of Samuel we hear the familiar story of the call of Samuel to be a prophet [1 Samuel 3: 1-20]. This is a passage often read at ordinations:  the young boy Samuel, serving in the house of Eli, hears a voice calling him and goes to the old man to respond.  Eli, of course, had not been calling the boy, and so over the course of the story we discover that the voice calling Samuel was in fact God’s voice.  Samuel returns and prepares to hear. We usually end the reading with Samuel’s response to God, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” [1 Samuel 3:9]

Today, though, we hear the rest of the passage, the part normally left out of ordination liturgies. What we hear is a word of judgment delivered against the very household in which Samuel serves:

On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. [1 Samuel 3: 12-13]


Now here’s the interesting part:  you can imagine how Samuel feels, having to go back to old Eli and tell him God’s message of judgment.  To his credit, Eli wants to hear the whole truth even though that truth is spoken against him:  “Do not hide it from me,” he says. So Samuel repeats God’s stern message and hid nothing from him. “ And after this torrent of bad news, Eli responds, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” [1 Samuel 3: 17-18]  By facing into a harsh judgment of his own household, Samuel has established his prophetic credibility.  And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.” [1 Samuel 3: 20]

“It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” “I can’t breathe.” “Black lives matter.”

Would that all America had known or knows now that Martin Luther King was “a trustworthy prophet of the Lord”.  Like the prophet Samuel, King spoke prophetic truth to his own household. Forty-eight years after King’s speech at The Riverside Church, forty-seven years after his murder, we, the people to whom he preached and prophesied have not quite gotten what he came to say.  We often recall that he had a dream, but we don’t look very deeply into what the content of that dream actually was. So in order to open up and get inside Dr. King’s dream, let’s listen again to what he had to say to those gathered in The Riverside Church that day:

I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

And here is how Dr. King concluded that day:

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.  . . . [W]ill there be another message—of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.


“Hands up! Don’t shoot!” “I can’t breathe.” “Black lives matter.” What will we choose:  to be a thing-oriented society or a person-oriented society? Will we opt for “the long and bitter, but beautiful struggle for a new world?” Will we stand with those who suffer violence in our own country? Or will we choose to say, in King’s words, “the odds are too great, “the struggle is too hard?”

In our Gospel for this morning [John 1: 32-51] Jesus spots Nathanael under the fig tree and addresses him as an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.  Flattered and impressed, Nathanael marvels at the miracle of Jesus’s insight. Jesus responds,

“Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” [John 1: 50-51]

Do we believe Dr. King because he told us he had a dream, or do we believe him because he told us the hard things we—his American household--needed (and still need) to hear? The iron triangle of “racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” is still with us.  The message “of longing, of hope, of solidarity with [human] yearnings” has yet to be heard by those suffering violence and oppression done in all our names.

“Hands up! Don’t shoot!” “I can’t breathe.” “Black lives matter.” Forty-seven years after his death, we honor Martin Luther King Jr. by daring to face in to the hard prophetic words he came to tell us. America, our shared household, has some hard work to do if we are seriously to address racism, extreme materialism, and militarism in our own household. There will always be purveyors of violence, but let that no longer be said of us.  On this day, and always, may our response be the one that Eli—under God’s stern judgment himself—gave to the budding prophet Samuel:  “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

“Hands up! Don’t shoot!” “I can’t breathe.” “Black lives matter.” Yes indeed, they do.  Amen.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Homily: The First Sunday after the Epiphany [January 11, 2015] St. John's, Ross CA

Speaking as a native Californian, It's a great pleasure to be here with you this morning, especially since it's around 19 degrees where I now live.  It's also a great pleasure because of my great regard for your rector.  Chris and I served in Los Angeles together for many years--he in Santa Barbara, I in Pasadena.  I'm only a bit surprised that all those years in the southland didn't turn him into a Dodger fan.
In the words of the great Tommy Lasorda, "There are three kinds of people in this world:  people who make it happen, people who watch what happens, and people who wonder what happened. Chris is definitely in the first category--a priest who makes things happen. Even if he roots for the Giants.
How do we become who we are?  How do we become who God calls us to be?  These are the questions posed to us today by the act of baptism on this First Sunday after the Epiphany.  Now that all of the excitement of the Christmas season is past, our church year in early January gets down to business.  At Christmas, God has become one of us in Jesus.  At Epiphany, last Tuesday, God’s glory has been made manifest to the Magi and to the world.  Today our readings ask us to consider what that Incarnation, what that glory, actually mean for you and me.
How do we become who we are?  How do we become who God calls us to be?  On this First Sunday after the Epiphany we see the unfolding manifestation of God’s glory in the life of Jesus.  And as we start the process of watching that glory work itself out in Jesus’s life, the first thing we encounter is Jesus’s going to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist.  Our Gospel this morning is the first 11 verses of Mark’s version of the Jesus story. Mark begins his Gospel not with a birth narrative (that’s Luke) or the Wise Men (that’s Matthew) but with a baptism.  The adult Jesus appears from out of nowhere and is baptized by John.  In Mark’s version, Jesus becomes who he is, Jesus learns who God calls him to be, in the act of baptism. Here’s how Mark puts it:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ [Mark 1:9-11]
So how do we become who we are?  How do we become who God calls us to be?  If we’re to listen to Mark, his Gospel would suggest the answers to those questions have something to do with baptism.  If it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us.
In the break we preachers get after Christmas, I’ve been revisiting a book by the Roman Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton I read many years ago.  The book is No Man Is an Island, and Merton wrote it in 1955.  Over the years, Merton wrote many pieces about discovering who you really are.  For him authentic self-knowledge was not just a personal question:  it was a question of holiness.  As he said in another book [New Seeds of Contemplation, 1961]
For me to be a saint means to be myself.  Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self. [p.31]
So many forces in life ask that we develop and project a false self.  We get a lot of approval—from parents, teachers, even priests—for pretending to be someone other than who we truly are.  We develop our false self as a way to make our way into the world.  Yet there comes a time when we cease to know who we were before we developed the false self.  For Thomas Merton, rediscovering one’s authentic self and then living into the vocation appropriate to your real self defined the call of the Christian life.
How do we rediscover and live into the vocation of our true selves?  For Christians, the answer to that question lies in the sacrament of baptism.  What we are doing here this morning is really about our authentic identity—as individuals, as a people.  Most of those of us who are baptized were baptized as infants, and so the whole experience has receded from memory.  But baptism is the most important thing we do as followers of Jesus.  It initiates us into a community.  It gives us a ministry.  And it tells us who we are.
The community part of baptism is important.  It’s why we do baptism together in church on Sunday and not privately.  We are given a community as a way to start on the Christian journey of self-discovery.  The first way we learn anything, of course, is through imitation.  As Thomas Merton says,
We are instinctively gifted in watching how others experience themselves.  We learn to live by living together with others, and by living like them. [No Man Is an Island p. xii]
Christianity is different from other forms of spirituality in its insistence that identity begins in community. We cannot do it on our own It really does take a village to make a person.  We need a family, we need a society, we need a culture to be fully human. We need the village, but the village can only take us so far. We have to go more deeply on our own. Again, in Merton’s words,
In the last analysis the individual person is responsible for living his own life and for “finding himself.” . . . You cannot tell me who I am, and I cannot tell you who you are.  If you do not know your own identity, who is going to identify you?  Others can give you a name or a number, but they can never tell you who you really are.  That is something you yourself can only discover from within. [Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island, p. xii]
Baptism, then is both about the giving of a community in which to begin and about the celebration of the particular uniqueness of each human person.  First there is us, then there is me.  But still there is more to it than that.
There is us, there is me, then there is what we do together.  There is what we in the church call ministry.  In today’s liturgy, right after I stop talking, we will name our common ministry when we affirm the baptismal covenant.  The families and sponsors of the baptismal candidates will make the basic affirmations on their behalf. Then all of us will renew the commitments and promises that were made for us or which we made ourselves, and we’ll end with five promises.  We’ll promise to come to church, to repent our sins, to tell others about Jesus, to love others as ourselves, and to respect the dignity of every person.
How do we become who we are?  How do we become who God calls us to be?  Baptism answers those questions for us.  We become who we are and who God intends us to be by living out the ministry we see enacted in the life of Jesus.  We become who we are and who God intends us to be “by living together with others, and by living like them”.  We become who we are and who God intends us to be most authentically by striving, first as a community, then as individuals, to be like Jesus.  Baptism is our initiation into a lifelong process of trying to be like Christ.
Thomas Merton calls this imitation of Jesus aspect of our life the quest to “discover God in myself and myself in God.”  I cannot do it, he says, “unless I have the courage to face myself exactly as I am, with all my limitations, and to accept others as they are, with all their limitations.” [No Man Is an Island p. xvi] I discover God in myself and myself in God not just by following Jesus but actually by trying to be like him.  In so doing I will come smack up against all my limitations and those of others.  But over time, if I persist in the attempt, and if I join with others in the attempt, I will live more fully not only into my true self but into the person who God wants me to be. We’ll all help each other in this process. I need you, and you need me. We all need each other.
And this realization brings us back to the question that always perplexes readers of Mark’s Gospel:  why does it start not with the birth but with the baptism of Jesus? I think it starts that way because Mark wants us to see that baptism worked this way for Jesus, too.  In his baptism, Jesus discovered his real community.  In baptism, Jesus discovered his true identity.  In baptism, Jesus discovered his vocation and ministry.  Mark begins the story of Jesus’s life with his baptism because he wants to show us what a baptized life looks like.  It’s a life of compassion.  It’s a life of service.  It’s a life of mutuality.  It’s a life of abundance and joy.  It’s a life that is unique and authentic and blessed. It’s a life lived out in companionship with others.
Jesus knew who he was, and you can too.  In the covenant we are about to reaffirm with God and each other, we are reminded of the things that matter.  Here is the paradox of Christian faith: the more we strive to imitate Jesus, the more we become who we really are.  And the more we persist the more deeply we know that who we really are is precious to God in ways it often takes a lifetime to discover.
We come now to baptism itself--the act and event which will welcome and initiate Sadhbh Evan Kilroy into a life that will be uniquely hers.  May God bless her as this life unfolds, and may God give us the grace not only to support her but to live more deeply into our baptized lives as well. As we gather around this font and God's table, we'll begin to discover who God is, and who we are, too.   Amen.