Sunday, July 26, 2015

Homily: The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost [July 26, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

            If you grew up in the 1950s and 60s as I did, and if you watched The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights, then you probably saw a lot of tap dancing.  Performers have their own lingo, and one of my favorite phrases that tap dancers use is “the B.S. Chorus”, their name for that easy, repetitive dance step that never fails to get sustained response from an audience. It is the easiest step that dancers ever do, but for some reason the audience always seems to fall for it.  Hence the term “B.S.” which, we’re told, does not stand for “Boy Scout”.

            In some sense, miracles are the “B.S. Chorus” of Jesus’s ministry.  In today’s Gospel, we hear tell of two of them:  in the first, Jesus feeds five thousand people with only five loaves and two fish. In the second, he walks on the water, crossing a rough lake to calm the fears of his companions in a boat. 

            It must have really rankled Jesus that, for all the time he spent talking about love, faith, compassion, and justice, the crowds always loved those big miracles.  In fact we know it rankled him, because a little later in this sixth chapter of John we hear him say, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”[John 6:26] “Do it again, Jesus!” However much we preachers want to be appreciated for the nuanced subtleties of our ministries, the crowd always seems to hanker for another rendition of the B.S. Chorus.

                        The two miracle stories we heard today are separated in John’s gospel by this intriguing verse:

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. [John 6:15]


            I will bet that walking on water and feeding five thousand people with mere scraps were real crowd-pleasers.  Some biblical scholars assert that many in the crowds followed Jesus not so much because of his teaching and healing but because he appeared to be something of a first-century magician.

            John 6:15 suggests that Jesus himself was aware of this problem. "When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself." He knew that, as much as his vision of life offered a new way to live as compassionate comrades in a community of liberation and justice, the crowds would be happier if he dropped the philosophy and just kept on doing the old B.S. Chorus. In this intriguing moment we see Jesus going apart to recover himself and remember what he came out to do in the first place. Lots of folks will love you when you hand out free food and entertain them with magic in the bargain.  But playing to the adulation of the crowd only takes one so far; and when your fans pull you away from your core reason for being, then it is time to take stock and move on.

I know a great priest in Boston named Ed Rodman--a man who has lived his life as both activist and seminary professor.  After a lifetime of social justice work and teaching, Ed formulated some sayings he codified as "Rodman's Rules".  My favorite is the first one: “Never believe your own propaganda.”


Never believe your own propaganda.  You could say that this morning's Gospel--with its brief glimpse into the interior life of Jesus--exemplifies the wisdom of Ed Rodman's first rule.  Never believe your own propaganda. Just because you project an image outward to the world, there's no reason that you have to fall for it yourself.


This year I've been reading and studying a lot about the great Roman Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton.  Merton was a brilliant and complex man who wrote about many issues, but I am most deeply engaged by his reflections on what it means to be an authentic human being.  Following many Jungian thinkers, Merton believed that in childhood and adolescence one develops a "false self"--an identity that will please our various authority figures.  That false self helps us leave home and enter adulthood, but there comes a time when it is no longer adequate to the challenges of our situation.  What we often call the "mid-life crisis" is, for Merton and others, a time when our false self breaks up, and we receive the opportunity to discover and live out of our true one. In Merton's words,


It is true to say that for me sanctity consists in being myself and for you sanctity consists in being your self and that, in the last analysis, your sanctity will never be mine and mine will never be yours, except in the communism of charity and grace.

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. ["Things in Their Identity", New Seeds of Contemplation]

Following Thomas Merton's analysis, we might think of Jesus's withdrawal to the mountain as an attempt to reconnect with his true, authentic self. Jesus knew who he was, and in the Gospels we repeatedly see him behaving not as a traditional holy man is expected to act but as a grounded, compassionate human being would. In the face of human need, Jesus breaks rules.  In spite of a restrictive purity code, he embraces those who are ritually unclean.  Faced with spiritual practices that pretend in themselves to guarantee sanctity, Jesus points us instead to examine the state of our own hearts.

Jesus lived coherently and transparently, and he invites us into the same kind of living. The way Thomas Merton frames this is as a choice between our true or false selves.  A priest friend of mine who is also a therapist puts the alternatives this way:  are we going to persist in the actions that satisfy our ego--that projection of who we are to others; or are we going to engage in work that grows and nurtures our self?  The columnist David Brooks has framed this choice as between the résumé self--the version of me that I list on my résumé--and "eulogy self"--the version of me I would like the preacher to expound on at my funeral.  However you understand this tension--true versus false self, ego versus self, résumé versus eulogy--it's clear that human life is always lived under the opportunity to choose between projecting an identity outward and living an identity from within.

And what we see in the Gospel this morning is how Jesus--an authentic, grounded human being--navigates this tension.  The crowds loved the first, loaves and fishes, trick--in fact they loved it so much they wanted to make him king.  They are hungry for another big event.  Jesus withdraws, regroups, and then comes back for an encore—this time waling on the water.  So it’s not as if he totally abandons his public persona. He bows to the ego’s demands and satisfies the crowd's hunger for a holy magician.  But we are led to believe that, in that centering pause between miraculous feeding and magical walking, Jesus went apart long enough to remember and rediscover who he actually was. And as the gospel story plays itself out for the rest of his ministry, we see Jesus letting the crowd-pleasing side of him decline so that his deeper, more authentic aspects might emerge.

You and I--especially the older ones among us--are familiar with this ongoing struggle between ego and self.  The rewards of the ego—power, status, money, fame--may satisfy in youth, but later in life they pall. As we age, life invites us to let go of the transitory pleasures of the ego and seek the satisfactions that abide. As we shed the false self, the true one begins to emerge. One might say that moving out of ego and into self is the primary work of old age.  The career-topping achievement that meant so much to you at thirty means less when you're sixty-five.  Those relationships you took for granted when younger now seem to be the only things deserving your time and attention.  The world rewards the ego. There are no public celebrations for the virtues of the true self. But who we are matters, and these are the choices always on offer for us human beings. In this as in so many life areas, the Gospel shows us how Jesus himself could make them. And his making them empowers us to make them, too.

Never believe your own propaganda.  For you to be a saint means to be yourself.  Jesus withdrew to the mountain by himself.  As we face into the challenges of any given moment, it is always tempting just to give them another version of the old B.S. Chorus. But life is not a tap dance; and when you’re honest with yourself you know the difference between what is bogus about you from what is real. So let go of your false self. Encourage your true one. Join Jesus on life’s journey into peace and wholeness and authenticity.  As we gather this morning at God's table, may the bread and wine of this sacred meal strengthen us to go forward on that journey, to move away from the claims of ego and toward the growth of the self, and to discover--with Jesus and each other--who we really are.  Amen.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Homily: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost [July 19, 2015] All Saints, Pasadena

"Public and Private"

Kathy and I have lived in Washington DC  for three years now, yet the locals never cease asking me how I'm adjusting to life in the District after having grown up in Los Angeles. "It's really not a problem," I  answer.  “Hollywood and Washington are exactly the same culture. So I’m very much at home here.”

As you can imagine, this is not a popular answer inside the Beltway, but it is a true one. Washingtonians may think of themselves as civil servants and diplomats, but from what I’ve seen they behave pretty much like network executives and theatrical agents. Both Hollywood and Washington are one-industry towns.  Indeed, both cities refer to themselves as “this town”—as in “you’ll never do lunch in this town again,” or “seasoned politicos see trouble brewing for policy analysts in this town”.  And, when you think about it, show business and politics are really twin branches of one enterprise. They’re both about packaging a person and projecting an image.  Everything in one city is about glitz and hype.  You could also say the same of Los Angeles.

So growing up in L.A. and around Hollywood people has actually been an asset for me, especially when it comes to reading people.  Well-known Washingtonians resemble their Hollywood cousins especially in their personal hidden-ness. In public they are often nothing like they in private.  My father was an actor, and his public and private personae could not have been more different from each other.  Politicians are pretty much the same. They project a public image that has almost nothing in common with how they are when the microphones and cameras disappear.

In some sense, politicians and actors only read back to us the public-private discontinuity that we all inhabit. Who are we in company, and who are we when alone? I've thought about this public-private disjunction a lot, especially as I've contemplated the Gospel for this morning [Mark 6:30-34, 53-56] because it is perhaps our greatest spiritual problem, especially in this social media age. But we humans were this way even before the advent of Twitter. We expect actors and politicians to wear masks. That’s what they do for a living, and at least they know the benefits and the risks they’re taking.  But what about the rest of us?
In today’s reading, Mark’s gospel tells us how, after a whirlwind of teaching and healing, Jesus and his companions decide to come away to a deserted place and rest for a while. But the crowd sees them and they follow the Jesus group to their refuge. Jesus is tired, and he is entitled to be cranky. But here is the difference between Jesus and the rest of us—or at least between Jesus and me.  Jesus does not throw a hissy fit. When cornered in private, Jesus responds as he had in public--not in anger but in love.  He doesn’t tell them to come back during office hours.  He has compassion on the crowd because they seem to him “like sheep without a shepherd”. So he teaches and heals them. He does, in private, what he was doing in public.

For Jesus, there is no Garbo-like "I want to be alone" moment here.  Jesus is who he is.  He’ll heal you in public. He’ll heal you in private. He is a unified self in both arenas. He does not have a public act and a private one.  He is one coherent human being who actually knows who he is and behaves consistently all the time and with everyone. This doesn’t mean that he is always happy or cheerful.  But he is never bogus.  He knows who he is and invites you into a zone of compassion and love, a space of healing and peace—a space where you can know and be who you are, too.

Now you'd think that knowing who you are and being that person consistently would be pretty easy.  But it is actually one of the hardest things we ever attempt to do. Growing up in the hothouse of the family, school, and peer groups, as infants and children we often develop a false self in response to the rewards and punishments we receive from parents and other authority figures.  This false self has its place: it helps us navigate the rapids of adolescence and early adulthood and eventually to get out of the house.  But there comes a time later in life—a personal, relationship, or professional crisis—when that false self is no longer adequate to the demands of the situation.  And what we call the “mid-life crisis” is often simply the breaking up of that false self and the opportunity to discover our real identity.  
By being who he was in both public and private, Jesus exemplifies for us his followers what it means to be a fully realized human being.  The Roman Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton [who I will discuss/did discuss at the Forum this morning] puts it this way:
We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them. If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it! [New Seeds of Contemplation, Chapter 5]

            It is no accident that Thomas Merton learned about true and false selves while living in a monastery.  Monastic community may look peaceful from the outside, but it is the most intense kind of living there is; and there’s no place to hide when you’re with your brothers (or sisters) 24 hours a day.  But monasteries don’t only offer intense communities; they also have what we call a “Rule of Life”, a monastic commitment to balancing prayer, study, work, rest, and play in a holistic structure that allows one to experience the fullness of God’s presence in the routine round of the everyday.  You can’t survive in a monastery very long if you’re always wearing a mask. The pressure is too intense. So one of the ways you learn to live monastically is to relax and accept your identity within a shared structure. As a contemporary monk and writer, Curtis Almquist of the Cowley Fathers, says:
Benedict's [monastic] Rule is for a “24-7” living experience, nothing pie-in-the-sky. If this is what you say you believe and value, how do you live this out in the course of the day, i.e., what’s your praxis? The end of Benedictine spirituality is to develop a transparent personality. [SSJE website]

            What Curtis Almquist says of the Benedictine Rule for monks and nuns could be said of the Christian life itself:  the end of following Jesus is “to develop a transparent personality”. Jesus went into the wilderness seeking rest and found people there who needed him. In his most private moment, he was who he was, and he responded with the compassion he exhibited in public. He was one unified, seamless person.  Jesus had what Almquist would call “a transparent personality”.
You and I can have a transparent personality, too.  But to get it we have to work at it.  We can start by adopting a Rule of Life—a commitment to working, playing, resting, praying in a definable rhythm.  We can continue by deciding, in Thomas Merton’s words, no longer to lie to ourselves or to others.  That decision is one LGBT people have shown straight people like me how to make. It’s a decision that people of color and women and oppressed people have shown white men like me to make.  The step into liberation is the same whatever social location you’re in.  It’s the central act of following Jesus:  I am no longer going to lie to myself or to others.  I am going to be who I am, in all environments, regardless of the discomfort that may cause.  The decision no longer to lie to ourselves or to others is one that each of us faces on a daily basis. It is a choice we can put off but can never finally avoid. It’s one we can be strengthened to make only in community with Jesus and each other.
And that’s why we need the church. Christianity is not a solo act, and the church is really a kind of laboratory for authentic living. We need to come in and hear the stories of how Jesus lived and what Jesus stood for.  We need to come into this place and try on being our authentic selves with each other.  We need to come in and remember that we, like Jesus, are called to love and transform the world.  We need to come in so that we may go out. You don’t have to be two or five or sixteen people to get through life.  You only have to be one:  the precious, fragile person created in God’s image and loved and redeemed by Jesus. 

We come in to go out.  It will be time, soon enough, to navigate the rapids of “this town”. But for now, we are here with divine permission to be who we are. And we come now to this table. May the grace and acceptance we find here empower us to try on being who we really are so that, with practice, we can offer our true selves to the world.  Trust what happens here. The world needs the real you. Nobody needs your public relations version of you. Everyone needs you as you are. This is not the conventional wisdom of Washington, Hollywood, or anyplace else.  But it is the truth. And for it we now proceed together to give thanks.  Amen.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Homily: The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost/Independence Day [July 5, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

            I'm probably one of the very few people in America who loves Elaine May's 1987 movie Ishtar, one of the great box office flops of all time. Its a comedy starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman about two loser songwriters adrift in the Middle East.  The film is full of the terrible songs they write, and here are the lyrics to my all-time favorite among them:


Telling the truth can be dangerous business; 

Honest and popular don't go hand in hand.

If you admit that you play the accordion,

No one will hire you in a rock 'n' roll band.


            Truer words were ne'er spoke.  "Telling the truth can be dangerous business."  Or, as Jesus tells us today, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." [Mark 6] We seem only to want to hear the truth when it flatters us.  And we don't particularly like it when people tell us what we really don't want to hear.


            A perhaps more high-toned example than Ishtar is Shakespeares King Lear, a tragedy with a famous opening scene: the aging King announces his decision to retire and split his realm three ways among his daughters, giving the largest share to the daughter who can answer this question best:  Which of you shall we say doth love us most?

            The first two daughters, Regan and Goneril, are practiced bureaucratic infighters, and they outdo each other in fulsome expressions of love for the old man.  When it comes time for Cordelia, the third daughter, to speak, she declines to answer this crazy question, saying:


            We all know what happens.  Lear becomes enraged, and disowns Cordelia saying: thy truth, then, be thy dower. [King Lear, Act I Scene I] She is banished from the kingdom and disinherited to boot.

Whenever I read or see King Lear, I remember what Jonathan Lear [no relation], a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, said about it.  Jonathan Lear is also a Freudian psychoanalyst, and he writes intriguingly about the connections between philosophy and psychology.  In his book Open Minded Lear tells the story of a dream he used to have about his nameLearand its connection to the Shakespeare play.   He realized that in his dreams he was not King Lear so much as he was Cordelia, the daughter who refused to tell the king what he wanted to hear.  Jonathan Lears flash of insight came when he realized that Cordelias problem was his problem too.  Here is what he says:

To identify with Cordelia is to want to be blunt, to avoid embellishment, flattery, or hypocrisy-and to want to be loved for doing just that.  This is not a set of desires which get satisfied often.  By and large, people prefer to be flattered.  They find it hard to recognize love in a blunt appraisal; and they find it even harder to reciprocate such love.  Cordelia's strategy is not the route to massive popularity. -- Jonathan Lear, Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul, p. 3


We want to tell the truth, and we want to be loved for doing it.  That was Cordelias problem.  That was Jonathan Lears problem. In going home to Nazareth and preaching in the synagogue, that may have been Jesuss problem.  I cant speak for you, but I realize that often its my problem, too.

Yesterday was the Fourth of July--Independence Day--and we're gathered this morning both to celebrate America and to think theologically about it.  Like King Lear, Nations and empiresfrom ancient Rome to 19th century Britain, to 21st century America--are better at praising themselves than they are at opening up to judgment.  We love our boosters more than we do our critics.  Jesus's journey to his hometown synagogue and that congregation's rejection of him raise some important questions for us about what it means for religious people to tell (or hear) the truth.  Telling the truth can, indeed, be dangerous business.  Sometimes prophets can feel like the accordion player who showed up at a heavy metal concert.

Of course, truth-tellers often make things hard on themselves. On occasion, we wrap ourselves in the slogan, "speaking truth to power", a phrase I have never liked.  Here is what the great progressive intellectual Noam Chomsky says about speaking truth to power:

I dont agree with the slogan [speak truth to power]. First of all, you dont have to speak truth to power, because they know it already. And secondly, you dont speak truth to anybody, thats too arrogant. What you do is join with people and try to find the truth, so you listen to them and tell them what you think and so on, and you try to encourage people to think for themselves. [Noam Chomsky]



            So what is a prophet, or a prophetic community, to do?  We want to speak the truth, we want to hold power accountable, and we want, if possible, to avoid being crushed. Many of the people we call saints today were those who stood up for Christianity against the oppressive claims of empire.  They were martyrsliterally witnesses”—to the truth of the Gospel, and they did indeed speak truth to power.  So martyrdomwitnessis an ancient and honorable tradition in Christianity.  And there are times when we need to risk martyrdom in the service of what is right.  But Ive been around the movement world a long time, and a lot of what we call prophecy is simply self-dramatization.  There is another ancient tradition, a more pragmatic one, a tradition that counsels working with power to achieve good ends. Of course, there are times when imperial power is intractable, when you have to speak. But there are also times to work with power to bring about a good result for everybody.  The trick, of course, is to be able to tell the difference.

            Today's Epistle from the Letter to the Hebrews [Hebrews 11:8-16] is one of my very favorite passages in scripture.  The writer lists all the great patriarchs and matriarchs who lived their lives in faith and died without seeing God's promises fulfilled.  He concludes with these words:

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. [Hebrews 11]

            Like our Israelite forbears, we contemporary Christians also "desire a better country".  We know that we are "strangers and foreigners here on earth".  We too seek a homeland.  Christians will always be caught in the gap between the country we desire and the country we have.  Christianity is always countercultural in every era and civilization. Gospel values can never be perfectly realized in any earthly nation state. Even as great as we may think America is, it will always fall short of our longings for the divine standard.  Like the Israel of Bible times, America will espouse values to which it cannot always live up.  As great as our accomplishments may be, the list of our shortcomings is long.  We are deluding ourselves if we think it can ever be otherwise.

            And so God sends us truth-tellers, call them prophets or idealists, who dare to speak what we often do not wish to hear.  Sometimes they're Civil Rights demonstrators, sometimes anti-war activists.  Sometimes they advocate for the homeless and the poor.  Sometimes they blow whistles and expose secrecy or wrongdoing in high places. 

            Jonathan Lear was right: if we want to be blunt, to avoid embellishment, flattery, or hypocrisy, then we're probably not going to be loved for doing so.  Noam Chomsky was right: power already knows the truth, and they dont need to hear it from you. We need to talk not to but with each other to find a new truth. Jesus was rejected in his hometown, but many who denied him eventually became his followers.  His truth-telling always served Gods greater purpose of love.

            On this Independence Day weekend, let us rededicate ourselves to building that heavenly country that we continue to want America to be.  Let us acknowledge that we will inevitably fall short of the better country God holds out to us as the divine standard. But let us never give up trying to make it real for ourselves, our households, our communities, and all the special recipients of Gods care:  the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the lonely, the lost.  And let us continue to give thanks for the prophets, the truth-tellers, the blunt talkers who help us identify and close up the distance between Gods hope for us and the lived reality of how things are.


            Honest and popular don't go hand in hand.

            If you admit that you play the accordion,

            No one will hire you in a rock 'n' roll band.


            So then: Power knows the truth. Gods better country awaits. If we persist in talking respectfully with each other in truth and in love, one day we just might find an accordion somewhere out there in the mosh pit.  Amen.