Sunday, March 22, 2015

Homily: The Fifth Sunday in Lent [March 22, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

One of the first books I ever bought for myself was the paperback Pocket Books edition of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, the narrative of the Jewish teenager and her family who spent the years 1942 to l944 in hiding from the Nazis in a house in Amsterdam. It was published in the fifties and cost, I think, 35 cents.  I was in sixth grade when I got it, and I quickly read it from cover to cover.  I think it spoke to me then for a couple of reasons.  It was written by someone close to me in age.  And the elementary school I attended in Beverly Hills, California was almost entirely Jewish.  So the account of a Jewish teenager's hiding from the Nazis was bound to be a compelling read when World War II was still a fresh memory.

Last week Kathy and I were in Amsterdam for a couple of days on our way back from visiting some cathedrals in England.  We spent Thursday morning at the Anne Frank house and museum and found the experience both sobering and ennobling.  How could any regime declare someone like Anne Frank its enemy?  And how could a young woman who loved movies and theater and the outdoors spend two years locked away from them and still declare that she found hope for humanity? The Anne Frank house raises more questions than any museum can answer.

And then there is the fact of the confinement itself.  As we were leaving, Kathy admitted that she had begun to feel claustrophobic after about a half an hour in that small, narrow, blacked-out space. I agreed. The Frank family couldn't look out a window in daytime. They couldn't make any noise.  They were packed in like sardines.  The whole place gave me the creeps.

And yet I found myself cheered by some of the house’s human touches.  There were decorations on the walls and magazine photos of movie stars in Anne's bedroom. There was a ladder leading to an attic skylight through which the children could look at the treetops, the birds, and the sky. A place like the Anne Frank house sends two contradictory messages at once:  people are no good, and people are better than you could ever think they might be.

As we make our way through Lent toward Holy Week and Easter, those two messages assert themselves today in our scriptures.  We human beings are a mess. And yet we witness moments of human depth and compassion that show us what we might be on our way, with God's help, to becoming.  A bit about each.

Our Old Testament reading from Jeremiah [Jeremiah 31:31-34] expresses both the prophet's and God's frustrations with the human community. Yet for Jeremiah, God’s solution to human cussedness is not destruction but rather a total remaking of the human person. As Jeremiah puts it,


I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. [Jeremiah 31:33]


You and I resist God's will for us because we see it as something external to ourselves, something imposed on us from the outside. Human nature is broken.  We fall for things we should avoid, and we shun the ones that give us life. God's solution to our resistance is a compassionate one.  God isn't going to muscle us into obedience.  God is going to remake us so that we will love what is good and true and right.  As another prophet, Ezekiel, says, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” [Ezekiel 36: 26] God will put a new heart and a new spirit within us. God will heal and remake us into the people we were created to be.

In today's Gospel [John 12: 20-3] Jesus gives us an inkling of how this might work:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. [John 12:24]


Jesus often used agricultural figures to express spiritual truths. In this instance he turned to the seed, that mysterious package of life and energy at which the ancients marveled.  How could such a tiny thing produce a mustard plant or a tree?  And why did you have to bury them in the ground in order for them to fulfill their purpose and spring to life?

For Jesus, the seed was the perfect image of the way that new heart and new spirit worked in the human person.  We must die in order to live.  We must experience pain and loss and grief in order to be open to the full radiance of what God offers us.  The mysterious connection of suffering, death, and rebirth is central to all great religions.  It is the enigma that confounds our intelligence yet confirms our experience.  We never fully live until we have died.  We never know what grace and love and acceptance and forgiveness are until we have found ourselves in need of them.

This Gospel passage about the seed dying was the text for Oscar Romero's final sermon, delivered just moments before he was shot by Salvadoran death squads on March 24, 1980--twenty-five years ago this Tuesday.  Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador who was grieved by the government's violence against the people and abuses of human rights. Toward the end of the sermon he said this:


Those who surrender to the service of the poor through the love of Christ will live like the grain of wheat that dies. . . The harvest comes because of the grain that dies. . . . We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us. [Oscar Romero, March 24, 1980]


Earlier this year, Pope Francis declared Archbishop Romero a martyr for the faith, clearing the way for his beatification and possible sainthood. Oscar Romero died resisting tyranny and standing with the poor and oppressed. Anne Frank died an anonymous Holocaust victim. Both of them have become symbols of the depth and power of human hope.  The harvest of which Jesus speaks is the fulfillment of that new heart the prophets promise.  It's not only that we have to die to ourselves to be open to the liberating love and forgiveness of God.  It's also that in taking on the plight and suffering of others we become like that grain of wheat that dies so that all may be born.


Toward the end of her Diary, Anne Frank says this:


Its a wonder I havent abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. . . . I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more-- July 15, 1944


People are no good.  People are better than you could ever think they might be. Anne Frank and Oscar Romero suffered and died at the hands of human beings, and yet they are witnesses to the power of human goodness and hope.  They are like the seed that dies so that we all might be reborn.  Their lives and stories enact the depth of what Lent, Holy Week, and Easter are all about.  Jesus gives himself that we may have life, and he empowers us to do the same.

If the Christian religion means anything at all, we see it on offer this morning.  God really does intend to write the law on our hearts.  God really does mean to remake us into those who love what God commands and desire what God promises.  God really does help us make sense of our world and our suffering by showing us what those new hearts will mean for us. God does that by sending us witnesses--a German teenager in Holland finding her voice and her spirit in captivity, a formerly carreerist archbishop becoming a martyr for compassion and justice--witnesses who show us the heights of what we are capable.

I pray that no one in this cathedral this morning ever has to face what Anne Frank, or Oscar Romero, or Jesus himself faced.  But I know that life will dole out its challenges and traumas, its gifts and blessings, to all of us in one way or another before we depart.  May we face into those challenges and blessings with the new heart the prophets promise, so that we may, like Jesus, become seeds of life in a harvest that will bear the fruit that can change both us and the world.  Amen.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Homily: The Third Sunday in Lent [March 8, 2015] Salisbury Cathedral

I cannot overstate the pleasure and honor of being with you this morning.  I have long admired the ministry of your dean, June Osborne, and Salisbury Cathedral is for me the home of everything best in Anglican worship. I am a lifelong adherent of the Sarum liturgical style, —an English tradition and color scheme developed here in Salisbury and still the standard in Anglican churches around the world. In the 1980s I served as the Vicar of St. Aidan’s Church in Malibu, California--it was a rough placement, somebody had to go there!--and it may please you to learn that St. Aidan’s Malibu is one of a handful of Sarum parishes in America. So I bring greetings from a wide range of Anglicans in the US: from snowy Washington all the way to sunny California, and I hope, on this late winter morning, that your souls will be warmed by the knowledge that even today, in far off Malibu, movie stars and surfers are waking up to worship using Salisbury’s Lenten array.
The pulpit at Washington National Cathedral where I serve is called the “Canterbury pulpit”, and it is so named because it is made of stone given to us in 1904 by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He gave the pulpit in memory of his predecessor Stephen Langton, who led the barons when they demanded Magna Carta from King John.  Right in the center of the pulpit as you face it is a large carving of King John and Archbishop Langton, and so aside from the many missional connections our two cathedrals share, we are united in our joint heritage of common prayer and common law. (You, however, have the real Magna Carta here in Salisbury.  We only have an artist’s rendering.) So it means a lot to me and to my cathedral that I am with you here representing Washington National Cathedral as you begin your observance of Magna Carta’s role in the English-speaking world. Neither the United Kingdom, the United States, nor  Anglicanism itself would be what they are were it not for the human rights and civil traditions set forth in Magna Carta. The document may be 800 years old, but it remains a living force in our civic and church lives.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, an apt scriptural context for us to think about Magna Carta from a Christian perspective.  You live in a country with an established church.  I live in a country that separates church and state.  The anniversary of this great charter poses for us a central question: what is the proper role of religion in society? Or to put it slightly differently, what it does it mean to be a faithful citizen?
First, to today’s scripture:  every time we read the Decalogue together in church, I can’t help thinking about the way the Ten Commandments have unwittingly become a flash point for the culture wars in American politics. When he came down the mountain with the tablets, could Moses possibly have thought that he was starting a process that would lead to endless American litigation? It seems as if every time you turn around in the U.S. there is a controversy somewhere about the display of the Ten Commandments in a public space—usually a city hall, a courthouse, or a state capitol building.  The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In the Constitution’s 18th century context, that means two things: the United States, unlike the United Kingdom, will not have an established “official” church. And all Americans will be free to pray or not to as their consciences dictate.
You’d think the intent of this amendment was pretty clear on its face, but we Americans have been arguing about what it really means almost since our country’s inception. In recent years, the dispute has become much more divisive. Civil libertarians have claimed that any public display of religious teaching violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the separation of church and state. Others have countered that America’s founders meant our country to be what they call a “Christian nation”.
As an American and as a Christian I have to admit that I am a bit conflicted about this issue. On the one hand, my inner civil libertarian agrees that in America no one religion should be given preference over another. On the other hand, though, as a Christian I’m deeply troubled by the knee-jerk secularism unintentionally ushered in by the First Amendment. We seem, in Western Culture, to stand at the intersection of two contradictory trends: increasing secularism on the one hand, deepening spirituality on the other. People distrust the institutions that have historically mediated religious experience, but they don’t distrust the experience itself. Fewer people go to church, but more people use religious language to understand the world and their lives.
Here is where the Ten Commandments and Magna Carta become relevant. The Ten Commandments are the sign of God’s covenant with Israel. Magna Carta reintroduced the biblical idea of covenant and its role in government into Western society.  Kings may rule by divine right, but they can exercise that right only in covenant with the people they govern.  The relation of a ruler and the people is modeled on this biblical ideal. The Bible employs the idea of covenant to express the relationship of God with God’s people. Israel’s God is not a tyrant. He is a companion. His power exists not abstractly but in relationship. When Moses ascends Mount Sinai he is given the Ten Commandments as the terms of God’s covenant with Israel. They are the conditions on which Israel is called to live if it wants to be God’s people. Israel is free to accept or reject them.  They are not imposed.  For these commandments to be binding, both God and Israel have to consent.
So if society and its laws are formed in a covenant—a covenant we people of faith believe to be not only between ourselves but with God--what then does it mean to be a faithful citizen?  How, in an increasingly secular society, can a person of faith participate? When, in an increasingly pluralistic society, should a Christian raise a voice?
I have two quick thoughts about these questions. Briefly, here they are.
Thought one: though we no longer live in the world of shared cultural assumptions that built cathedrals like this one, we people of faith are nevertheless called to bring our voices and values into the public arena. All our faith traditions have a stake in our public life. Our churches, synagogues, and mosques are more than simple aggregations of like-minded citizens.  Our faith communities are part of the fabric of civil society and therefore essential to the common good.  We no longer have the right—if we ever did—to impose our values on society.  But we do have the right—and the obligation—to express those values in the civic debate. Who but we will stand for the values expressed in the scriptures—justice, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, love? If our shared public life is to remain humane and decent, then an increasingly secular society will need even more to hear what we have to say about a host of public issues:  war and peace, climate change, violence, income inequality and poverty, human trafficking, gender, sexuality, and race relations. Let's not forget that yesterday, in Selma, Alabama, Americans observed the 50th anniversary of the walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge--a signal event in the struggle for American Civil Rights. Our Bible and our traditions give us a point of view on these matters, and we are obligated to bring our convictions to bear on public policy debates.  The Bible knows no distinction between religion and politics, and neither should we.
That’s thought one. Here’s thought two: We are called specifically to be Christians in a religiously pluralistic society. The terms of the deal are extended to those who have agreed to the covenant. The Ten Commandments are never presented as universal laws. They are presented as Israel’s laws. Like Israel, the church is a covenanted community. You are in it or out of it because you choose to be. Our truth does not pretend to be a general, universal truth. Our truth claims to be a particular, personal truth.
The Ten Commandments are the rules that you and I have agreed to live by. They are absolutely binding on us. They are our truth because the One who speaks them is our God. But nowhere in the Bible do we read that God gives us the right to impose our truth on someone else. God didn’t say, “Here are the Ten Commandments. Make sure the Egyptians obey them.” God said, “Here are the Ten Commandments. You obey them. You live them out, and, by your example, draw others into your life and witness.”
We’re gathered on this Third Sunday in Lent to reaffirm both the right we have to be faithful citizens and the precious gift we have Christianity as one great faith tradition among many. All we can do is proclaim and live by our truth. We cannot impose it on others. The Ten Commandments are the sign of our covenant with the One who has called us to be a particular set of God’s people in the world.  And in its way, Magna Carta stands as the other sign of the public covenant under which we live with our rulers.  Whether you believe that kings rule by divine right or the consent of the governed, Magna Carta proclaims that the bond between a ruler and a people will always stand as a covenant of mutual obligation modeled on Israel’s relationship with God. Yahweh rules not by power but by consent. Earthly kings and presidents can do no less.
I am thankful for the Ten Commandments as the sign of our covenant with God.  The Ten Commandments are our commandments because they are given to us by the One whom Jesus called his Father. They are no less true for being ours. I am thankful for Magna Carta as the sign of our covenant with those who govern.  These two living documents are our shared warrant for a civic life together even when our ultimate affirmations differ. May we so live out the truths enshrined in both Decalogue and charter that we and our society will be transformed by God’s love and blessed by our shared participation in our work for the common good. We cannot dictate, but we must not abdicate.  The One we call our God loves not only us us and all the others with whom we share this blessed world. Magna Carta serves as a civic witness to that divine love and compassion.  In its next 800 years, may Magna Carta continue to serve as the terms on which we together in civil society value our own traditions, respect others, and thereby witness to God’s transforming love.  Amen.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Homily: The Second Sunday in Lent [March 1, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

We’re now well into Lent, a season of self-examination.  We vary our church practices in this time so that we may refocus our attention. If you listen carefully, youll notice that our words are more penitential, our music less celebratory, our floral decorations more muted than during what we call “ordinary time”. In a similar way, the focus of our scripture readings shifts during Lent. During the rest of the year, the Gospel is our principal Sunday reading. On Lenten Sundays, the prayer book asks that we pay particular attention to our passages from the Old Testament.


This shift helps us take in the long-haul drama of salvation. While Holy Week and Easter will revolve entirely around Jesus and his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection, we use the six weeks leading up to Holy Week to help us understand how Jesuss ministry and passion flow from what has come before. Therefore in this season we move through a weekly succession of stories about Gods evolving relationship with the human community. Last week we heard the story of Noah, next week we’ll hear about Moses at Mount Sinai. Step by step, week by week, we immerse ourselves in the incremental deepening of the divine-human relationship, preparing ourselves to take in the dramatic and transformative events of Holy Week and Easter in all their majesty and mystery, all their pain and wonder.


Today we move from Noah to Abraham, from Gods covenant with the entire human community to Gods covenant with Israel, a people chosen for reasons known only in the divine heart [Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16]. This covenant centers entirely around one family, that of Abram and Sarai, a pair of obscure Mesopotamian nomads. For no reason that we are ever let in on, God chooses this one household and tells them that they and their offspring will be the bearers of the divine promise—in the storys words, “I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.” And not only that; God says, “And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.” Now this is a great and beautiful pair of promises—offspring and a land. But in its context its entirely ridiculous. Because weve heard this story so often, we have become dulled to this almost overpowering absurdity. Abram is 99 years old. His wife, Sarai, is 90. Nonagenarians do not routinely conceive and give birth to children. Obscure nomads do not normally take possession of arable farmland.


Abrams name changes to Abraham, Sarais to Sarah. Their story comes at us out of nowhere. We meet them as if by chance. We hear that the future of a people and a world is tied up in their willingness to respond to Gods mysterious offer. We learn that the fulfillment of the promise is linked to the crazy idea that 90 year olds will become new parents. It is small wonder that the story ends with Abrahams laughter:


Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?[Genesis 17.17]


Abrahams response ends in laughter. The laugh motif gives us the name of his son, Isaac. The word Yitzhak in Hebrew means “laughter”. So theres a bit of wordplay here. But beyond that, Abrahams laughing response strikes me as the truest thing in the story. God has just made him an absurd promise. His laughter is the laughter of anyone who has found themselves at the conjunction of the possible and the impossible. Abrahams laugh is a two-fold response. It is the laugh of faithfulness. It is the laugh of doubt.


Pico Iyer is a British writer of Indian descent who grew up both in England and in California. Iyer has developed a lifelong fascination with the novels of another British writer, Graham Greene, and he wrote a book about reading Greene called The Man Within My Head. Though Greene was Roman Catholic, he shared many attitudes with us Episcopalians.  He was, in Pico Iyers words, “a skeptic who suddenly felt himself surrounded by mystery and realized that skepticism couldnt answer all his questions even though he couldnt subscribe to faith”. [Studio 360, 3/2/12] Himself also a rationalist who is also drawn to mystery, Iyer has carried on a lifetime conversation with Graham Greene through his writings, a conversation held entirely within his own mind.


As I reflect on Pico Iyer’s intriguing meditation on how one writer can inhabit another’s mind, I hear something of the doubleness of Abrahams laugh in Greene’s “skeptical mysticism”. I hear the life-affirming laugh of one who knows both the boundless depth of God and the worlds abundant goodness. I hear also the rueful, sardonic laugh of one who also thinks it all might be too good to be true.


Graham Greene wrote about people--like Abraham in todays story, like himself as he traveled, or like you and me when were honest with ourselves—who know the doubleness of Abrahams laugh. We laugh with Abraham because we know both the heights to which we aspire and the depths of which we are capable. And we laugh with Abraham because we realize theres no way out of the paradoxes of faith and doubt, hope and despair. And in realizing the persistence of paradox, we know that, fallen and compromised as we are, there is still hope for us.


Graham Greenes greatest novel, The Power and the Glory, tells of a failed priest, a fallen, drunken, fearful man who nevertheless finds himself called by God in spite of his failings and serves almost against his will as an instrument of Gods purpose in dangerous times. What Greenes great characters lack in moral elegance they make up in compassion. As Richard Holloway, former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh says of them, “There was human solidarity in weakness, fellowship in failure.” As we come to accept our own failings, we learn to forgive the failings of others. As the novels priest puts it, “Hate was just a failure of imagination."


Or, as Richard Holloway says, “In Greeneland, in the end, everyone is forgiven because everyone is understood.” [Richard Holloway, “My Hero: Graham Greene”, The Guardian 2/24/12]


In today’s Lenten Old Testament reading, Abraham is given a beautiful and absurd promise. He does not make an institution or an ideology out of the promise. Instead, Abraham laughs. He laughs because it seems so impossible. But he does not stop with laughter. Even though the promise is impossible, he trusts it anyway. After laughing, he follows. Abrahams life exemplifies the doubleness of absurdity and hope, faith and doubt. God chose Abraham for no discernible reason and invested the worlds future in him. Abraham laughed because he knew that there was nothing he could have done to deserve this great abundance. He laughed because he was chosen in spite of himself. He laughed because he knew himself to be loved in all his fullness, even in light of his considerable failings. He laughed because he saw that if he was both fallible and lovable, then everybody else was, too.


Lent is a season of ongoing self-examination. Its a time to take stock of ourselves as we are. Today we hear that were all Abraham and Sarah, people chosen by God and pushed forward by Gods hand out of a divine love that is both boundless and unreasonable. God knows you intimately and chooses you still. When you finally take this in, who wouldnt laugh?

As we walk together through Lent toward Easter, lets try to enter Abraham’s world. Richard Holloway says that, when we encounter the characters in Graham Greene novels, we know “somewhere inside that it was our failures that kept us human.” Your achievements don’t keep you human.  Your possessions don’t keep you human.  Your power and privilege don’t keep you human. What keeps you human is the knowledge that God loves and accepts you not in spite of but because of your laughable frailty.

With Abraham and Sarah, with Pico Iyer and Graham Greene, with Jesus and his companions, with all of Gods loved creatures both within this community and without: we have solidarity in weakness, fellowship in failure. God calls us as and beyond ourselves to become something more than we are. The call is not only a call to laugh.  It is a call to laugh and then, in spite of the absurdity, to follow, If we answer that call and follow we will become a bit more the people God wants us to be.  If we answer that call and follow we may find grace to forgive otherstrespasses as we ask forgiveness for our own.  If we answer that call and follow we may finally understand that hate is just a failure of imagination. Amen.