Monday, February 23, 2015

Homily: The First Sunday in Lent [February 22, 2015] St. Margaret's, Palm Desert CA

            Good morning.  I’m Gary Hall, and I work at Washington National Cathedral.  We had to cancel our first two services this morning because of weather, so believe me when I say that I am really happy to be here in Palm Desert today.  Indeed, it is a joy to be here with you at St. Margaret’s this weekend for many reasons.  As a Californian temporarily marooned in the east, it is always personally renewing to be back in God’s country, and the desert is a place I have always loved. I’m old enough to remember coming to Palm Springs with my parents, staying at the El Mirador Hotel, going to the Racquet Club, and taking in dinner shows at the Chi Chi in the 1950s.  But enough geriatric reminiscence.
            It’s also a pleasure to spend some time with my friend Lane Hensley, your rector.  Lane and I have known each other for about a decade.  As a graduate of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, Lane served on the school’s board during my time as dean, and he was a great personal and professional support to me and to the school community when we went through a hard but visionary change process several years ago.  I am so glad that he and this great parish found each other.  And Kathleen Dale has been a close friend of my wife Kathy’s and mine since our clerical collars were brand new.  I still regularly rely on Kathleen’s insight and wisdom as I continue to surf on the wave of a late life career in the church.
            And finally:  it’s great to be here because today we all celebrate the ministry of David Rhodes, your new vocational deacon.  In what follows I won’t say much about the diaconate, but as we begin Lent together it’s important to remember just how vitally deacons make Jesus real for us in our worship and ministry.  Deacons represent Jesus by reading the Gospel, visiting the sick, and serving the world.  The best thing that could happen to us this Lent is for some of David’s diaconate to rub off on all of us.
            Today is the First Sunday in Lent, and our Gospel for this morning pushes us right out into the moving flow of the season:
And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. [Mark 1: 12-13]
            The word our Bible renders as “wilderness” is the Greek word ρημον an adjective meaning “lonely” or “solitary”, and when used as a noun it can also be translated “desert”.  So, we’re in luck.  Here we are, on the First Sunday in Lent, imitating Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness.  And, like him, we are also in the desert!  Hey, we’re already half-way there!  We’ve got this Lent thing licked.  Just go to the desert, spend 40 days there, and you’ll be ready for Easter!  It’s a snowbird’s spiritual paradise.
            But not so fast.  The desert in Jesus time was anything but a restful retreat. So far as we know, there was no El Paseo in Galilee—no spa treatments, mud baths, outlet shopping, or rounds of golf.  The desert in Jesus’s day was indeed a wilderness—a scary place.  Unlike you and me, ancient people did not love nature in its rawest form.  They loved the city because it was a place where nature’s chaos had been brought into order.  For them the desert, the wilderness, was a zone of disorder, a place whose outer chaos mirrored the inner turmoil marked by the confusion of human drives and passions.
            In 2015 you and I come to the desert to find renewal in the hills, the cholla, and the sunsets.  In 30 A.D. people like Jesus went into the desert to confront something wild and dangerous in themselves. “He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
            From its earliest days, the Christian community has seen Lent—the forty days before Easter—as a time patterned on Jesus’s forty days in the desert.  It’s a time, as our Ash Wednesday liturgy reminds us, of “self-examination and repentance”; a time of “prayer, fasting, and self-denial”; a time for “reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
            So, we might put this morning’s questions this way:  what, for us, is Lent in our personal, modern desert about?  How might we use this time as Jesus used it, to go where he has gone?
            Year-in and year-out I return each Lent to Thomas Merton’s great collection of desert father and mother sayings, The Wisdom of the Desert.  In the first days of Christianity, men and women imitated Jesus by moving out from the safety of the city to the solitude of the deserts in Palestine, Syria, and Egypt.  They went as he did on a wilderness journey of self-discovery.  If you know only the civilized part of yourself; if you pretend your unconscious, with all its conflicting desires and drives, does not exist; then you never really come to know yourself.  And if you don’t know yourself, you cannot accept yourself; worse, you cannot accept the depth of God’s love for you.  So, as Thomas Merton tells us,
What [they] sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ. And in order to do this, they had to reject the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion in “the world.” They sought a way to God that was uncharted and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand. They sought a God whom they alone could find, not one who was “given” in a set, stereotyped form by somebody else. (Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert. New York: New Directions, 1960, pp. 5-7)
Jesus went out in the wilderness, the desert, on a forty-day journey of self-discovery.  The desert fathers and mothers did likewise.  The point of their journeys was not only to come to know and accept themselves; the point of their journeys was also to come to know and experience something that they uniquely had to learn through themselves and tell us all about God.
As Merton says, "There was nothing to which they had to “conform” except the secret, hidden, inscrutable will of God which might differ very notably from one cell to another!” They came to learn not only their own truth but the particular truth that God had to tell them.  Like us, they lived in a culture of conformity and received wisdom.  Unlike us, they were not battered by thousands of messages a day telling them what to purchase, how to think, and what to desire. Their time of self- and divine-discovery in the wilderness empowered them to see themselves  as they were, flawed, fragile, chaotic, yes, but also loved accepted and uniquely precious in the sight of the God who was continually making, loving, and sustaining them even in the internal chaos of their personal deert.
In his great and terrifying poem, “Desert Places”, Robert Frost meditates on coming to know yourself in the experience of emptiness. He talks of “Snow falling and night falling fast, oh fast” and the way snow creates real loneliness, what he calls a “blanker whiteness of benighted snow/With no expression, nothing to express.” He sees in that outward loneliness something that reflects his inner desert back to him.  And then he tells us in a final, chilling stanza:
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars - on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
            A great and scary poem, true, but here’s the difference. Skeptic that he is, Robert Frost looks at the empty, snowy field and sees nothing but his own internal emptiness.  Jesus goes out into the desert wilderness and, as we hear it told, “the angels waited on him.” How can two people have such a different experience of the desert?  They can, because they had radically different interior lives. Jesus knew who he was and who he belonged to.  As Mark’s Gospel tells us, before Jesus went out there he heard God say this: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” [Mark 1:11]
            So here we are, starting our forty days in the desert wilderness, embarked on a journey of self- and divine-discovery.  What will we see look in there:  an empty field reflecting back our own internal absence? Or the angels waiting on us?  As we set forth on this journey, let’s each and together remember the words that Jesus heard said to him by his Father:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 
By all means, uses this forty days to know and love and accept even those parts of yourself you don’t know or think you want to know.  But as you examine yourself in all your complexity, remember God’s words to Jesus:  ”You are my child, the beloved.  With you I am well pleased.”  God shows us to ourselves so that we can know and love ourselves, and in knowing and loving ourselves we can thereby come to know and love others and the world.
So , this season, let’s all make the  only Lenten journey we can authentically make, the pilgrimage within.  Let’s go into that interior desert knowing what Jesus knew, that we are God’s beloved, God’s children.  With you and me God is well pleased.  Let’s go in there both in solitude and community, with Jesus and each other, aware that both blessings and surprises await.  And remember, as that guy used to say each week on Hill Street Blues, “Let’s be careful out there.”  Amen.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Homily: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [February 8, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

            Like many of my generation, I had the measles in elementary school. Why anyone would not want to spare their child this harsh and dangerous illness (especially when a vaccine is available) is beyond me. Nevertheless, we seem to be in a moment when questions of the common good and personal choice are once again at odds with each other.  This tension is nothing new in human history.  We’ve been there before.  Unfortunately, the resolutions of it are never easy.


One way into thinking about public and private health is to look to Jesus as both a personal and social healer. Each of our four gospels shows a different picture of Jesus.  We’re reading Mark’s gospel this year, and Mark shows us a Jesus who is at once more stark and yet to my mind more credible than the other three versions. The Jesus of Mark’s gospel is a no-nonsense Jesus.  His message is brief, brisk, and clear. He is, to use a Washington idiom, a “one-issue candidate”, and here is his mission statement: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” [Mark 1:15]


The passage we just heard now portrays Jesus in this brisk and clear manner.  It tells a familiar yet fascinating story.  After making that missional announcement, Jesus visits Peter’s house, and once there he learns that Peter’s mother-in-law is ill with a fever.  Jesus heals her, and not surprisingly the news of that miracle spreads.  Soon Jesus can get no peace. Everyone in town comes to Peter’s house bringing their sick and demon-possessed for healing at Jesus’s hands.

            The next morning, Jesus does his best to get away from the house, so he goes to a deserted place to pray. But Peter pursues him into his solitude, and he urges Jesus to come back to the house because everyone is looking for him.  Apparently he wants Jesus to settle down, stay put, and open a kind of first-century urgent care center. Jesus declines that invitation, and says instead, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” [Mark 1: 38]  Mark concludes the story by telling us that Jesus “went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” [Mark 1:39] And what is the message?  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”

            I find Mark’s account this morning interesting for two reasons.  First, and probably foremost on all our minds, what’s the deal with demons? How do we understand demon possession in the 21st century? Second, what’s wrong with Peter’s idea?  What would be so bad about setting up an emporium that would serve all your one-stop healing needs? In the gospels Peter always seems to come up with one bad idea after another, but this one strikes Jesus as probably his worst.

            First, about demons: we know, of course, that pre-modern people believed that evil spirits made people both physically and mentally ill. We also know that the earliest followers of Jesus were attracted perhaps more by his ability to heal than by his ability to teach. But when we think about any aspect of Jesus’s ministry, we should remember that he was, at least in Mark’s eyes, a one-issue candidate. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”  His message is as much a social and political message as it is a personal and spiritual one.  The time has come. God’s kingdom is at hand.  It’s time to kick out the demons.  And for a first-century Palestinian Jew, the biggest demon of them all is Caesar.

            Physical healing is an important figure for political wellness in the Bible because the human body provides the most common analogy to the social structure.  We talk about “the body politic”, and we call the leader the “head of state”.  It is understandable, then, that premodern people would have seen a relation between the possession of a person by a demon and the occupation of Israel by the Roman Empire.  As one biblical scholar explains,

The physical body is a microcosm of the social body.  There is a dialectic between the personal and the social, the individual and the corporate. . . . Roman imperialism meant that God’s people were possessed by demons on the social level.  . . . [Demon possession] indicates a power admittedly greater than oneself, admittedly “inside” oneself, but that one declares to be evil and therefore beyond any collusion or cooperation.  [John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus, pp. 313-314]


            Peter’s mother-in-law was sick because she was possessed by the demon of a fever. Israel was sick because it was possessed by the demon of Rome.  Jesus could make his way back and forth between the personal and the social aspects of his ministry because he saw them as essentially the same thing. Personal suffering and social suffering are not unrelated.  They are part of one unified fabric of injustice and pain. It’s not that Jesus chooses to address one over the other.  It’s that he knows he must pay attention to both.

            Many years ago I had the privilege of spending some time with Kenneth Leech, an English priest who wrote many books on prayer and who also ran a parish in the roughest part of East London.  Leech gave a talk where he focused almost entirely on the community justice work he was doing and not much about spiritual practices.  After his address, a woman came up to him and asked, “Are you ever amazed by the coincidence?”

            “What coincidence?” Leech asked.  The woman replied, “You’re such an activist. There’s a man with exactly your name who writes about prayer. Can you believe the coincidence?”

            Kenneth Leech looked at her and very kindly told her that there was no coincidence; he was the same person who both prayed and organized. The woman was stunned.  She had no way to conceive how someone could be both at the same time.

            And that inability to hold the personal and the social together is apparent in the second aspect of this morning’s gospel.  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”   “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” Jesus declines Peter’s invitation to set up shop so that he can instead go out among the people he came to serve.  Peter offers Jesus the temptation of a settled, entrepreneurial life. Jesus responds with a personal recommitment to a life on the road.  He didn’t come to be only a personal healer.  He came to be a social healer as well.  He cannot announce the kingdom of God merely by assuaging personal pain.  He must make that kingdom real by addressing social pain as well.

            Each of us here knows something of personal pain:  illness, depression, grief, loss.  Life can be so hectic, so stressful, that we may come into sacred places like this wanting them to be restful oases that will shield us from the storms raging outside.  The church, we say, should be personal, not political, dispensing healing for me and my loved ones, leaving the world to itself.  But each of us here knows something of social pain as well.  Religious extremism, political dysfunction, racial injustice, poverty, environmental degradation, violence of every shape and description.  Jesus would heal us both personally and socially. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”   “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

If we are to follow Jesus, if we are to be faithful to his mission, we will remember that he cast out both social and personal demons. Our bodies and spirits will never be well until our body politic and our social spirit is well.  There is a deep analogy between social and personal pain. As Jesus’s companions in the journey of faith, our job is to love and serve each other and the world. There is an obvious, but not an easy, answer to the vaccination question. Our individual wellness is a function of the common good.

            Can you believe the coincidence?  A Christian person must actually care about both prayer and justice.  A Christian community must actually care about the health of its own members and that of the world.  We are here, as Jesus was here, to cast out the demons of illness, pain, and sorrow.  We are here, as Jesus was here, to cast out the demons of hatred, oppression, and violence.  There is no contradiction.  God wants to free us all from those forces that infect and oppress us.  Measles is but one aspect of a larger problem. Healing and liberation, justice and hope, are on the way.  In the end it all comes down to one pure unified message. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”   Amen.