Sunday, April 19, 2015

Homily: The Third Sunday of Easter [April 19, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

            There are several occupational hazards that go with being an ordained minister. Whenever people swear in your presence they immediately feel they have to apologize. The actors who play clergymen on TV shows are best described as wimpy, bookish nerds. And then there are all those questions you get regularly about the afterlife.

            I can’t tell you how many people over the course of my career have asked me some variant of this question: “What happens to us when we die?”  I don’t know how to say this politely, but the best answer is probably, “How would I know?”  I can tell you what Christians hope happens when we die, but I cannot tell you what we know about life after death.  No matter how worn out and frail I may look to you, I’m still alive.  I haven’t died yet.  I have no first-hand knowledge of what it is to die. I have met a few people who have had near-death experiences, and they talk very persuasively about how peaceful and transcendent they felt on the way out.  But I haven’t had those experiences myself.  So I cannot tell you what I know.  I can only tell you what I hope.

            With regard to the beyond, all of us live in a contradiction.  We think and hope that there is more to life than the here and now, but we do not know what that “more” might be. Emily Dickinson, our great poet of faith and doubt, has a poem that gets at this conundrum. (#373)

This World is not Conclusion.

A Species stands beyond - 

Invisible, as Music -

But positive, as Sound -

It beckons, and it baffles - 

Philosophy, dont know - 

And through a Riddle, at the last - 

Sagacity, must go –



As Dickinson says, something calls to us from beyond this world.  “It beckons, and it baffles.”  It is invisible, as music.  And we’ll only finally know it firsthand when we go through our own death at the last.  We sense that a larger life is out there, and we desire assurance that it is available to us and to those we have lost.  But all the pulpit thumping in the world will never satisfy our longing.  Each will have to live with this riddle until we finally get the answer.  As Emily Dickinson says,

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit -

Strong Hallelujahs roll - 

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth

That nibbles at the soul -


Something of this riddling curiosity about what might be next is on the minds of Jesus’s companions in this morning’s Gospel (Luke 24: 36b-48). The disciples are frightened when Jesus appears.  Who wouldn’t be?  They think they have seen a ghost or a disembodied spirit. The Greek word (pneuma) we translate “ghost” here can also be rendered as “spirit”. But the risen Jesus is not a spirit. He is a flesh-and-blood human being. When we talk about death or heaven in our popular culture or theology, we tend to think of a life beyond this one as something gaseous.  But when Jesus appears to his friends he is not a translucent apparition. He is a concrete physical person. He shows them his hands.  He shows them his feet.  He eats a piece of broiled fish. They may think him a spirit, but he is a person with a body.

            “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have. . . . They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” What do we know about life after death?  Very little.  What do we hope about the resurrection?  A fair amount. It all comes down to hands, feet, and a piece of broiled fish.

            Why are hands, feet and, fish so important?  They’re important because they stand for what we might call the earthly part of the resurrection.  Popular culture has turned the afterlife into a kind of immediate transportation to the beyond. (“Beam me up, Scotty!”) But for real Christian faith the resurrection of Jesus has always symbolized more than his survival of death.  It has always signified a new life.  And not only a new life: Jesus’s resurrection stands for a whole new creation.  In Jesus’s new and risen life, both spirit and body are renewed.  His resurrection is not just about life after death.  It signifies a new heaven and a new earth.

            This hope for a new creation is deeply embedded in our scriptures. Our Bible tells us how, with Adam and Eve in the Garden, we blew it the first time around.  The scriptures tell a sorry story of God’s attempt to transform human enmity, selfishness and sin into love, compassion, and faithfulness. The story culminates in our taking Jesus, the one who perfectly embodies God’s attributes, to the cross.  But the story doesn’t end there.  God will not let us rest in our sinfulness.  Jesus comes back in a new and transformed life. God will not leave us to our own devices. God will not be stopped until everything and everyone is renewed. With Jesus and the empty tomb, God is enlisting us in a process that will heal all the pain and suffering and sin and death we know in this old creation and make us new people in the bargain.

            As we do with so many other religious experiences, we make of resurrection too light a thing.  We have personalized it, turning resurrection into an individualized consumer experience. “I’ll take one resurrection, please.” But resurrection is not only about you or me or the people we love.  Resurrection is about a new heaven and a new earth.  In raising Jesus, God has taken the first step in the remaking of creation.  Not just Jesus and not only his friends, but the whole world is being renewed.  When it is all over, creation will resemble what God originally intended.   A new heaven and a new earth are on their way.  Jesus’s new life is our first sign of this divine renewal of God’s world. If we only hope for our own individual survival, we are not hoping for enough.  We need to start hoping for what God actually promises: a world that will reflect God’s love, justice, compassion, and mercy. We can be the new people who inhabit God’s new world. There is new and risen life for us, too. But only as the whole creation is renewed.

            When I come down from the pulpit we will all stand together and say the Nicene Creed, one of the church’s primary faith statements.  When we say it you’ll notice that there is nothing in there about going to heaven. Instead we say, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” I am sorry to say that I do not know what happens when we die.  But the resurrection of Jesus gives me the courage to say that a new world is coming and that you and I can be part of that new world now.  Resurrection is about body and spirit, heaven and earth.  Jesus’s new life brings new life to all of us.  It means, here and now, we are part of something that will transcend our losses and our fears and calls us to new, visionary, and courageous life.

            We make of resurrection too light a thing.  As long as we confine its meaning to “going to heaven when we die”, all the world’s suffering, injustice, and pain can continue unabated.  As long as I will be OK, what’s the difference?  But when we dare to allow Easter to expand to its fullness, resurrection takes on real implications for us in the here and now.  When the disciples finally “got it” that Jesus was neither a spirit nor a ghost but a new creation, they didn’t go out and buy columbarium niches or cemetery plots.  When the disciples finally got what Easter meant, they dropped what they were doing and began working to change the world.  They spread the Gospel.  They fed the hungry, cared for the sick, visited the prisoners, and gave up their own possessions to share what they had with the poor.  Resurrection changed them, and it changed their world.  Because they knew they would be part of God’s new creation they became fearless advocates for peace and compassion and love. 

            When asked, “What happens when we die?” I have no pat, easy answer.  All I can do is point to Jesus who showed us his hands and his feet and ate a piece of broiled fish in our presence.  Resurrection is more than life after death. It is about a new heaven and a new earth. It is about a new life today. “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Resurrection has implications.  As we look for our resurrection, let us build God’s new world.  The justice and peace we hope for in heaven can be true for everyone now on earth—including us. As we work together with God to bring on the new world we long for, we’ll know that, like Jesus, we are for once and all truly alive.  Amen.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Reflection: Good Friday Evening [April 3, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

This Lent I’ve been reading Helen Macdonald’s wonderful new book—part memoir, part nature-essay—H is for Hawk. Helen Macdonald is a writer and a scholar of the history of science at Cambridge in England. In H is for Hawk she tells a double story—one strand recounts her grief at the sudden death of her father, the other her deepening relationship with a female goshawk named Mabel.  It’s a deeply engaging book, and it lets you look into a process of loss, recovery and personal transformation that is both surprising and undeniably true.

Here is how Helen Macdonald describes the unlikely connection between knowing a wild animal and surviving a human loss:

I repeatedly dreamed of goshawks after my father died and some unconscious compulsion told me that training a goshawk was necessary. You can’t tame grief, but you can tame hawks. And the goshawk, as I explain in the book, wasn’t just a deep distraction. It was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed and free from human emotions. I didn’t want to be me anymore. I wanted to be something like a hawk: fierce, living entirely in the present and untouched by loss.—[Helen Macdonald, Salon interview, March 9, 2015]


            “Fierce, living entirely in the present and untouched by loss”—those words pretty well sum up our fantasies of human independence.  Yet tonight, as we gather in the wake of the cross, we experience ourselves as the antitheses of those wishes.  We are, if anything, humanly dependent.  When we grieve, we live not in the present but in the remembered dream of the past.  We are anything but fierce.  We are overwhelmed by loss.

            The book of Job is the biblical text that gives the fullest expression to the shared human experience of grief and loss.  At one point in his sorrow and pain, Job says this to God:


A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last. Since their days are determined, and the number of their months is known to you, and you have appointed the bounds that they cannot pass, look away from them, and desist, that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days. [Job 14:1–2; 5–6]


“Look away from them,” Job demands.  Since our life is already short and we cannot do anything to extend the days you have allotted us, perhaps it would be just as well if you left us alone.  This sounds blasphemous. We are always tempted to upbraid Job for his impiety.  But we cannot blame him for his truth.  Who but a deeply faithful person could talk to God so rudely?

            One of the drawbacks of our polite and learned style of Christianity is our tendency to make our religion too intellectual.  Because we value ideas, we make Jesus into more of a teacher than he probably was.  Those who followed him came and stayed because they knew him as their healer and friend.  It was his teaching and preaching that got Jesus into trouble with the Romans.  It was his healing and compassion that built the community that gathered around him in life and continued after his death.

            Tonight we--who are Jesus’s companions as much as his Galilean friends were—we gather to move with Jesus to the tomb in the reality of his death. We acknowledge that we have lost not a philosopher but a brother, not a guru but a friend.  But before we ask what the death of Jesus means for us, we have to ask what it means for me. When we lose someone close and important to us, we experience the loss as personal and private. As Helen Macdonald reminds us, “Shocking loss isn't to be shared, no matter how hard you try.” As George Herbert asks in his great poem “The Sacrifice”, “Was ever grief like mine?” Jesus is speaking in this poem, but his question could be posed by each of us.  “Was ever grief like mine?”

            In the evening after the events of Friday afternoon, each of us must come to terms with Jesus’s question.  “Was ever grief like mine?”  Our bereavement drives us apart.  Yet clearly our own loneliness cannot be our final destination. Again, my guide here is Helen Macdonald:

What happens to the mind after bereavement makes no sense until later. . . . What I should have realised, too . . . is that what the mind does after losing one’s father isn’t just to pick new fathers from the world, but pick new selves to love them with.


            Tonight, as we move with Jesus to the tomb, we move more deeply into the experience of bereavement, and the loss of Jesus helps us know and claim what it is to lose those others in our lives—parents, spouses, partners, friends, and God help us, even children. “Shocking loss isn't to be shared, no matter how hard you try.”  You don’t really know what it means to lose somebody until you experience the loneliness yourself.  We may all gather in the same physical space, but in relation to the death of Jesus, we are each of us alone.

            And only in that loneliness can we begin to imagine a new and deeper form of human connection.  As we move through our losses we begin to reach out to “pick new fathers from the world” and “pick new selves to love them with”.  Because we know our own losses, we can begin to feel the pain of others. Because we have been changed by grief, we can engage each other and the world in new and empathic ways.  What you know after you lose someone close to you is that you emerge from grief a different person than you entered it.  Before Jesus died, his companions were a pretty sorry bunch of customers.  After Easter they changed the world. They were made into new people who could love and serve others not in spite of but because of their loss.

            But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  It is enough tonight to rest, with Jesus, where he lies. As we sit in our loneliness, let us remember what it is about Jesus we will miss the most.  Again, from Helen Macdonald:

We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all of the lives we have lost. [Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk]


                        Jesus has died, just as many we love have died.  Jesus has died, just as one day we will die. We cannot truly live with ourselves and others until we take this in. We cannot become the people God is making us into unless we let down our guards and accept that life is precious precisely because it is so fragile. Acknowledging our vulnerability can drive us into isolation, or it can bind us together in new and life-giving ways. If we let it, our time tonight alone, with Jesus, and each other will do God’s work within us to heal and remake us and those we have lost.

The last word belongs to Job: 

A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last. Since their days are determined, and the number of their months is known to you, and you have appointed the bounds that they cannot pass, look away from them, and desist, that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days. [Job 14:1–2; 5–6]

Medittation: Good Friday Noon [April 3, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

            Karen Armstrong begins her new book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, recalling the way our religious forbears ritualized the transfer of their sins on to sacrificial animals:

Every year in ancient Israel the high priest brought two goats into the Jerusalem temple on the Day of Atonement.  He sacrificed one to expiate the sins of the community and then laid his hands on the other, transferring all the people’s misdeeds onto its head, and sent the sin-laden animal out of the city, literally placing the blame elsewhere.  In this way, Moses, explained, ‘the goat will bear all their faults away with it into a desert place.” [Leviticus 16: 21-22] [Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, p. 3]


            The first animal was the sacrificial victim.  The second was what we have come to call the scapegoat. In the Christian history of Good Friday meditations there is a lot of talk of Jesus as the human symbol of the first but not as much about how we relate to him as the second.  We seem to be more comfortable thinking of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away, by his death, the sins of the world.  We’re a bit more uneasy acknowledging the way we use him, in Armstrong’s words, to place the blame elsewhere.

            Today’s reading from the Book of Wisdom closely parallels the Suffering Servant Songs of Isaiah, and it rather uncomfortably reminds us that Jesus is not only the exalted Saving Victim dying for our sins but also the one on whom we have projected the parts of ourselves we cannot bear:                                      

Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. . . . Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture, so that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. [Wisdom 2: 1, 12-24]


By his or her very existence, the righteous person reminds us that we are not righteous.  We want him not so much to die for our sins as just to go away. 

            Jesus was not the first scapegoat in human history, and he certainly was not the last.  As T.S. Eliot reminds us, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” We look at Jesus and, though a large part of us responds to him, another part cannot stand what we see.  And so, in what feels from a distance like a perverse process, we come to hate him for the way he shows, or refuses to show, ourselves back to us.  In many ways Jesus is a clarifying mirror of human nature.  We see in him what we aspire to.  We see in him what we are and what we are not.  It would all be so much easier if he would just go away.

            As we gather on Good Friday, our experience with Jesus asks us to ponder a couple of questions about what is going on here.  What are we doing with Jesus?  What is God doing with us?

            When I think about it honestly, the ritual of the scapegoat makes a lot of sense.  It would really be nice if I could find someone else to take on all the negative stuff about being human.  I love life and I love all the good things about it.  Indeed, the culture I inhabit tells me I deserve all those good things and that, if I do things right, I can limit my experience of life only to the enjoyable part.  The image of the good life offered us by late Capitalist consumer society is a picture of healthy, fulfilled, happy prosperity.  Happiness is presented as the norm. If you’re not happy, if you’re not healthy, if you’re not prosperous—well, there’s just something wrong with you.  It would be best for all of us if you just went away.

            One of the things we learn from following Jesus through Holy Week is how deeply false this consumerist vision of life really is.  The fantasy of a human existence without suffering, loss, and pain is just that—a fantasy.  The hard truth that some of us never own up to is just how fragile and finite we people really are.  Like it or not, we are all mortal.  Like it or not, we are not in control of the universe.  Like it or not, we are subject to events and forces beyond our control.  If my vision of the good life implies that I must always be happy, I will leave this world thinking myself a failure and wanting to project the things I can’t accept about me onto someone else. If my vision of the good life acknowledges that a full life involves loss and gain, sickness and health, failure and success then I might just have a chance of being a real and rounded person.  I might become a bit like Jesus.

            So what, on Good Friday, are we doing with Jesus?  In Karen Armstrong’s words, we’re making him a scapegoat, “transferring all the people’s misdeeds onto [his] head . . . literally placing the blame elsewhere.  In so doing we’re vainly trying to forget, deny, and reject our own finitude.  By making Jesus the scapegoat, we are expressing the sad and childish hope that all the pain, suffering, and loss of life will come to him and not us.

            That’s what we’re doing today with Jesus.  What is God doing with us?

            Last month, the great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer—winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature—died after years of incapacitation.  In 1990 Tranströmer suffered a massive stroke which left him partially paralyzed and totally unable to speak.  Yet he continued to write and publish poems of stark and transcendent beauty. In his poem “Out in the Open” he says this:


The sun is scorching. The plane comes in low,
throwing a shadow in the shape of a giant cross, rushing over the ground.
A man crouches over something in the field.
The shadow reaches him.
For a split-second he is in the middle of the cross.

I have seen the cross that hangs from cool church arches.
Sometimes it seems like a snapshot
of frenzy.

—Tomas Tranströmer “Out in the Open,” from The Deleted World


Something—represented in this poem by an airplane, but standing for what, God? the world?—something throws the shape and shadow of the cross over the form of a human life.  We are in the middle of that cross.  It is not only the shape of Jesus’s life.  It is also the shape of ours.

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” We would all rather that shadow passed us by.  We would all rather send the scapegoat out of the city.  We would all prefer not to be reminded that a full human life must comprehend both suffering and abundance.  So here’s what God is doing today with Jesus: God is refusing to let us make him our scapegoat. Because we cannot stand at the cross very long and deny or forget or reject our own vulnerability, weakness, and mortality.  In the crucifixion of Jesus we see the fullness of human frailty and the depth of divine love.  You cannot stand at the cross and come away thinking that life is only what we see in advertising.  You have to come away having looked into some of that reality that we human beings cannot stand.

It always perplexes that we call this Friday “Good”.  Yet if we let it, our forced engagement with the reality we cannot stand can be a transforming experience.  We have brought Jesus to the cross much in the way ancient priests transferred the people’s sins to the scapegoat.  In showing us ourselves to ourselves in the ugliness and pain of this moment, God has put away forever the wish and fantasy of the scapegoat.  There is no scapegoat. Each of us must bear our own burdens.  Each of us must acknowledge our own sins.  Each of us must accept that as we crouch over something in the field, the shadow of the cross above us will put us at some point in its center.  God, the world, and we are cruciform.  We are made in the shape of a cross.

And so this Friday is Good Friday.  God has shown us ourselves in all our fullness. We can no longer pretend that the hard things in life happen only to other, less deserving, people.  We now must admit that they happen also to us.  And if they happen both to them and to us, then we have the possibility of a new kind of community. I no longer need to shun the poor, the sick, the sorrowful, the defeated because I now can see something of myself in them and something of them in me.  Good Friday opens the door not only to the fullness of being human; Good Friday also opens the door to a new possibility of community and compassion with each other and the world.  That is why we call this Friday “Good”. And that is why, together, we proceed to give thanks.  Amen.