Sunday, June 28, 2015

Homily: The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [June 28, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

Today's Gospel--the entwined stories of the raising of Jairus's daughter and the healing of the woman with the flow of blood [Mark 5: 21-43]--comes in what some biblical scholars call a "Markan sandwich".  There are several places in the second Gospel where Mark enfolds one story within another, thereby allowing each to comment on and amplify the other. The raising of Jairus’s daughter gives us the bread, the woman’s healing the filling.


Today's two stories are related on several levels.  They both feature desperate people--a man whose daughter is near death, a woman who cannot stop bleeding.  They both tell of miraculous healings--Jairus's daughter is restored to life, the woman's blood flow is stopped.  But to my mind, the most important feature these stories share is that everyone in them takes a risk.


What's so risky about this Gospel?  An establishment figure dares to seek help from someone outside the official religious system. In going to Jesus, Jairus risks both his position and his reputation. Then, a person who is ritually unclean dares to touch the garment of a holy person.  In touching Jesus, the woman risks punishment for violating the boundaries of Israel's purity laws. 


But they're not the only ones taking risks here.  Jesus has no choice about the woman's petition--she touches him and he feels the healing power leave him.  But he does have a choice about Jairus's daughter, and in choosing to restore her to life Jesus risks the rejection of those around him.  "The child is not dead but sleeping," he says.  They respond by laughing at him. But when he tells her to get up, and she does, they respond not in derision but with amazement.


Healing and resurrection, derision and amazement. And now to the windows. Many of you probably know that I have called for Washington National Cathedral to remove two windows on the south side of the nave that depict the lives of Confederate Generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee and display the Confederate battle flag. 

These windows (along with their inscriptions) seek to reframe the Civil War and present the two generals as saintly, exemplary Christians.  Let me say a word about each issue.


First, the battle flag.  It is a common image in American culture, but in the wake of the shootings in Charleston the week before last we have all become aware of how deeply offensive this image is, especially to African Americans.  Like it or not, the Confederate battle flag has become the symbol of white supremacy in America.  There are many white southerners who will say that they intend no disrespect when displaying it.  But as a preacher I know a lot about the difference between intent and impact.  I may not intend you to hear something when I say it, but if you do hear it, I am still responsible for what you hear.  And so it is with the flag: as benign as the intentions of some may be in displaying the Confederate battle flag, the fact that many find it offensive should be enough of a reason to fold it up and put it away.


There simply is no excuse for the nation's most visible church to display a symbol of racism, slavery, and oppression.  None. I believe all representations of this flag should go from our public spaces. In saying that, I do not want to whitewash history.  But I don't want to celebrate a cause whose primary reason for being was the preservation and extension of slavery in America.


As President Obama said on Friday at the funeral for Clementa Pinckney,


Removing the flag from this state's capital would not be an act of political correctness.  It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers.  It would simply be acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong.


Second, the windows themselves.  Some have suggested that we merely excise the flag images from the windows and leave the rest of them intact.  But if you go look at them after the service, and I encourage you to do so—they’re on the south side of the nave, just this side of President Wilson’s tomb--you'll see that the flags are only part of the problem.  The Lee-Jackson bay was installed in 1953 after a long campaign by the United Daughters of the Confederacy both to fund and approve them. The United Daughters of the Confederacy is a group mainly concerned with fostering respect for southern heritage.  But in proposing these windows they went beyond heritage and created a memorial that puts a decidedly saintly spin on two leaders of the Confederate Army.  The inscriptions portray them as exemplary Christian gentlemen.  But the windows contain no reference to the sin of slavery which both men fought---and one died--to uphold.


Some have accused me of wanting to whitewash history.  I do not seek to whitewash history.  I seek to celebrate history in all its fullness and complexity.  In calling for the windows to be removed, I am asking not to rewrite the past but to tell the story of the past honestly--in a way that honors not just one side but everyone involved in a painful time whose effects are with us yet.  The great southern American writer William Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." America’s cathedral should represent America in all its fullness and tell our story without trying to make saints of men who served an unjust cause. 


We can live with some contradictions until we can't.  I'm not unaware that the dean who installed these windows--Francis Sayre--was one of the great activist civil rights clergy of the 1950s and 1960s. Apparently he saw no contradiction between supporting the Lee-Jackson windows in 1953 and Brown versus Board of Education one year later.  He could live in that tension, but I cannot, and I believe this cathedral cannot.  It is time for those windows to go and live elsewhere in our buildings as part of a historical display.  It is time for us to commission new ones for the nave that will tell the full, painful, yet hopeful story of race and justice in America.


And that brings me back to today's Gospel--two entwined stories about faithful people taking risks. Like Mark's Gospel, America itself tells two interlocking tales--one of equality and liberty and freedom, another of oppression and violence and segregation.  We will never live into the fullness of our destiny as a people until we live into the fullness of the interconnectedness of these two stories.  In 1865 we ended a war over slavery and began, as blacks and whites, to live together as full equal citizens of our shared land.  150 years later we still have not completed the work begun in that war’s end.  Washington Nation Cathedral is called, as our nation's most visible church, to lead the faith community and our nation in healing America by facing into racism, its history, and its encampment in our own hearts.  We cannot do that if our building only tells one side of the story. We cannot do that while the Confederate battle flag shines in our windows. All our artworks, like our scriptures and those who preach on them, must always strive to tell the truth. And sadly, our understanding of truth emerges only over time.


Jairus dared to risk by seeking out an itinerant preacher for help.  The woman dared to risk by touching a holy man when she was sick.  Jesus dared to risk by promising he could bring a dead girl to life.  Everyone laughed, and then they were overcome with amazement.


We can live with some contradictions until we can't. Here is the question the Gospel poses for us today, and we could not find a clearer sharper moral problem if we tried.  In light of the risks taken by Jesus and these others, do you and I have the courage to do something risky as well?  Can Washington National Cathedral--this great, glorious, temple of our nation's religious establishment--can this cathedral dare to risk on behalf of our best shared vision of America? Do we have the courage to revisit our assumptions and admit when they are inadequate or false? Can we risk admitting that we can no longer live with the contradiction between justice and oppression, that we can no longer celebrate both slavery and freedom in the same space?


"The past is never dead. It's not even past." This cathedral will continue to honor all sides of the American story. What it can no longer do is pretend that slavery was a value worth fighting for. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee were men of courage and valor.  They fought for their homeland with courage. But in choosing to serve a nation founded on slavery they were wrong, and they fought under a flag that many across America equate with racism, bigotry and hatred.  It is time for our cathedral to replace their memorial with one that does justice to the sacrifices of all involved in that terrible and bloody conflict. It is time for this cathedral, like the Jesus we follow, to dare and risk.  People may laugh, but if we are faithful and persistent, they will be "overcome with amazement" at the loving, forgiving, and liberating grace of the God whom we struggle, by fits and starts, to follow.  Amen.




Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sunday Statement on Shootings at Emmanuel AME Church [June 21, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

Sunday Statement on Shootings at Emmanuel AME Church
We gather this morning in the wake of last Wednesday night’s shootings at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  As many of you know, Bishop Budde and I issued a statement on Thursday morning which read, in part:
We and all people of good will are compelled to name this tragedy for what it is: the [result of the] conjoined sins of racism and violence. For too long, our African-American sisters and brothers have lived in the shadow of a reign of terror that has targeted churches, homes and businesses in the false notion of white supremacy. Such a visceral hatred for people of color has no place in our country, our homes or our hearts.
The bishop and I also attended (along with cathedral colleagues Stuart Kenworthy, Ruth Frey, Patty Johnson, and my wife Kathy) a community prayer vigil Friday afternoon at Metropolitan AME Church here in Washington. And Preston Hannibal, Stuart, and I represented the cathedral at a diocesan prayer vigil at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Friday night. The response of the black church in America has been, for me, the purest expression of authentic Christianity I have seen in my life as a priest. Their powerful expressions of forgiveness and love remind us all of what it means really to follow Jesus.
Many people have asked me, “How is the cathedral going to respond?”  I want to say that we are going to respond in three ways:  first, we respond by standing with our African American brothers and sisters in this moment and by showing up to mourn with them.  Second, we respond by joining with them in naming this murder for what it is:  a hateful expression of racist white supremacy.  This hate crime is not about mental illness, or drugs, or the persecution of Christians.  This killing was an act of terrorism designed to intimidate and silence people of color in the United States. We need vocally to resist all attempts to explain the shootings away as anything other than a race crime.
Third, we respond by moving the cathedral’s work on racial justice to the very top of our missional agenda.  As the most visible Christian institution in the United States, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to gather the faith community in calling America come to terms with its history of racism, violence, and segregation.  There are many issues—each of them serious and worthwhile—that claim the cathedral’s attention. But nothing is more important in this moment than for us to lead American people of faith not only to healing and repentance but to the hard and freeing work of taking the lid off a past we would rather ignore, exploring that past’s ongoing effects in the present, and working together with men and women and children of good will across the ethnic and racial spectrum of America to build a future in which racism, violence, and false notions of supremacy will cease to have a place.
The shooting of nine Christian martyrs in Charleston calls each of us to examine our own participation in systemic and cultural racism.  It calls all of us to forge real relationships outside the comfort zones of our own racial identities.  And it demands that we, as a cathedral community and as a great church for national purposes, act to lead church and society into a new way of being together in America.
It is time for America to face into the open wound of race relations in our nation.  It is time for Washington National Cathedral to reach out to our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques to build a new community of love and justice that can help all of us do right by the nine who died in Charleston and for our nation, finally, to do the right thing. I will dedicate the rest of my time here as your dean to that purpose. I ask that all of you join me and my cathedral colleagues in this work.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Homily: Cathedral Staff Eucharist [June 18, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

            We woke up this morning to the horrific news of the shooting deaths of 9 people at Emmanuel AME Church, a historic African American congregation in Charleston, South Carolina.  It seems painfully and uncomfortably fitting that a cathedral community like ours—one that has identified gun violence and racial injustice as our two highest missional concerns—should find them both conjoined in this terrible incident. I’ll come back to it later, but for right now let’s hold the people of Emmanuel Church and Charleston in our hearts as we think together about our scripture readings.

            The first lesson, from 2 Corinthians, [2 Corinthians 11: 1-11] sounds like a memo from a boss who has gone totally off the rails. When Paul asks that the Corinthians bear with him in a little foolishness, he is being sarcastic rather than playful. In warning this congregation about the false prophets who have come after him, Paul winds up into an exhortation that is at once hostile, defensive, self-justifying, and—well—paranoid.  Just like the memos that I draft in my head but never send.  It’s too bad Paul didn’t have someone like Tish at his side who could gently talk him down before he pressed “send”.

            As cringe-worthy as his performance is, though, Paul still has a point. He’s telling the Corinthians that he did not take any money in support from them because he wanted them to be able to give to the “home office” in Jerusalem. Always robust in his own self-estimation, Paul will continue to boast about his ongoing generosity.  And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!”

            Now this sounds a bit like the contemporary slogan, “Beatings will continue until morale improves,” but it does have a certain logic. Paul had founded the Corinthian church, but after he moved on he discovered that they had come under the influence of some bogus preachers.  He is angry and hurt, but more than either he is worried.  He’s fearful that the church he founded will be corrupted by dangerous influences.

            So here’s point one:  those of us who serve the church do so because we love it.  That’s true whether you serve a big cathedral like this or a small congregation in the inner city or the countryside.  But sometimes our love for the church can blur the boundaries between appropriate engagement and obsessive overfunctioning.  When reading this passage from 2 Corinthians, I want to shout back at Paul, “Hey, buddy, I know you love the Corinthians.  But take a couple weeks off, OK?”

            As important as it is that we work hard, it is perhaps even a bit more important that we “step back onto our side of the line” as a former colleague of mine used to say.  We all have wonderful, important, and fulfilling jobs.  But they are, after all, only jobs.  When we get our whole identity from our workplace, we run the risk of forgetting who we really are.  And frankly, if we don’t know who we really are we are of limited use in the living and working out of God’s purposes for us.

            We have just gone through an incredibly productive and exhausting year at the cathedral.  I am deeply grateful for the way in which each one of you has sacrificially given of yourself to make this ministry not only possible but also excellent and worthy of the transcendent space and role we occupy in Washington and in the nation’s life.  But Paul’s little hissy fit reminds us that we can all get overly engaged.  It’s time, as the kindergarten teachers say, for a time-out. We all need to find some time this summer to disengage, to rest, and to recover a sense of who we are when we’re not in the cathedral building or on the grounds.

            That’s point one. Matthew’s Gospel steers us to point two. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his hearers how they ought to pray:

‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. [Matthew 6: 7-15]

He then goes on to give them the Lord’s Prayer as the model for how we all ought to address God.  It’s simple; it’s direct; and it’s rooted in our need both to praise God and to seek forgiveness for ourselves, each other, and the world.

            I don’t know how to make sense of the Charleston shootings. I don’t know how to make sense of all the injustice, suffering, and pain I see in the world.  But I do know that if a place like this has any final reason for being, it’s rooted in what Jesus offers us in the simple prayer we will say together as we gather around God’s table.

            Washington National Cathedral exists to hallow God’s name, pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, call for the abundance of daily bread for all, and to seek and offer forgiveness.  The shootings last night in Charleston call us back to remembering what the church—even and especially a great church like this—is here for.  It’s a simple and a noble purpose, and sometimes the tyranny of the urgent can distract us from it.  But what we are up to together is the most important and ennobling work there is.  It is God’s work, and we do it in this blessed but imperfect community where sometimes we lose our tempers or our patience, but where we always deeply value, respect, and (yes) love each other.

            I am grateful for this work we do together.  I am grateful for this beautiful place in which to do it.  But more importantly, I am grateful for you as my companions on this journey. I guess Paul said it best. And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!”

            Let’s love and support each other so that we can love and support the Charlestons and Newtowns and Fergusons of the world. God knows what we need before we ask. For today, that assurance is enough.  Amen.