Thursday, October 22, 2015

Homily: EDS Board Meeting Community Eucharist [October 22, 2015] St. Johns Chapel

We’re gathered today at the beginning of our annual three-day October board meeting, and I begin with the less than shocking observation that in our time together here a great deal will be at stake. At last year’s fall meeting we celebrated the school’s fortieth anniversary. Yet even though the community was undergoing a good deal of trauma at the time, not one public mention of that fact was made over the course of the three days.  As a brand new board member, it felt a bit crazy to me at the time.
A year later, almost everything has changed.  We have a new cast of leadership characters. The on-campus community has gone through a process of reconciliation and renewal. The board both in self-study and retreat has come to terms with its own performance, and we are perched now on the possibility of a new era in what we might call collaborative functionality.  Though each constituency maintains its own unique roles and responsibilities, I believe we have set the stage for taking account of the past and charting a visionary course for the school’s future.
I have had a lot of jobs in my career—parish priest, cathedral and seminary dean, school chaplain and administrator.  The one I think most about these days as I approach retirement is the one I was probably best suited for: college and high school English teacher. Over the course of my teaching life I taught mostly American literature, but because English teachers of my generation were expected to be polymaths, I also worked up a good deal of Shakespeare. In the last few years I have returned to Shakespeare as a kind of touchstone. Working in Washington has been a bit like inhabiting a Shakespeare history play:  everything there is about power and what people will do both to obtain and keep it. And when reflecting on the larger issues of life—suffering, redemption, forgiveness, hope—I find that Shakespeare’s late plays give a fuller expression than do abstract theology or—dare I say it—our liturgy itself.
Shakespeare’s late plays are pretty much about the horrible things people do to each other. Husbands betray their wives. Brothers sell out their brothers. In plays like The Winter’s Tale or The Tempest, evil is not a cosmic abstraction.  It is a lived, human reality. There are no witches or ghosts in these plays.  The action springs from simple human malevolence. And yet watching or reading them is a great, ennobling experience. Because as they unfold, a process takes place that allows for real complaint, real repentance, real forgiveness, and finally real reconciliation to be accomplished. At the end of Shakespeare’s late plays, the stage is set for a new community, one based in W.H. Auden’s great phrase, on “trust instead of threats”.
Shakespeare comes to mind this morning not only because of our own community need for mutual complaint, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation but also because of our Gospel reading for today.  When Jesus says
From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
   and son against father,
mother against daughter
   and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
   and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’ [Luke 12:52-53]
he is not making an esoteric prediction.  He is describing the functional dynamics of human life.
In the church we can become so Romantic about community that we forget the hard work that living and working with other people actually entails. Because of our innate tendency to put our own needs, wants, and aspirations ahead of others, all human communities (from the family to the classroom to the workplace to society itself) need to find ways to manage the inevitable conflict that ensues from just bumping up against one another. And that’s true just about ordinary communities. When you take a place like EDS (or the church at large) which has a high ideological expression of its own values, the stage is set for us to club each other to death using the weapon of our great, liberal commitments. There’s nothing like being assaulted in the name of virtue. As Bob Dylan says, “it happens every day”.
It’s at this point, I think that God calls us back to the values that were there before our values. In the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans [Romans 6:19-23], Paul argues that his emphasis on grace is not an excuse to go ahead and sin. It all depends, says Paul, on what you give yourself over to. You can serve iniquity or you can serve righteousness. Again, to quote Bob Dylan, “You’ve got to serve somebody.” Paul’s point is that now we are freed from sin and bound to God we are becoming sanctified, literally holy.  That doesn’t mean that every thought or impulse we have is pure. But it does mean that we are part of something bigger and deeper and more inclusive than simply our personal wills or egos.
Many of you will know Shakespeare’s King Lear, an almost unrelieved tragedy which sees two families—those of Lear and Gloucester—turn against themselves. A father banishes a daughter. Sisters vie for power. A son turns against a father. At the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of heroes and villains. And then one character steps forth and says this:
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. [King Lear 5.3]

I don’t normally think of Shakespeare as a guy who went through a lot of group process. Nevertheless, he understood the dynamics of human relationships. Without being Romantic about this or any other community, I would suggest that EDS and what it stands for are worth speaking the truth to each other about. My truth will not always align with your truth, but if we speak them to and with each other, we might just find ourselves making a new truth—one built on trust, instead of threats.
No human community will ever be free of conflict. In this as in any other society, we will all need to find ways to stand both for ourselves and with each other. In Paul’s words, “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We can hang back and nurture our mutual resentments, or we can come together, hear each other’s truth, and work in community to build a new truth that does justice to all our partial perspectives.  I hope in these three days we will find ways to be both frank and charitable with each other. What we’re up to is too important for either defensiveness or self-dramatization. This work will no doubt be hard, but it will also be joyful and liberating as we open ourselves to it.  And the best place to start that work is here and now, as we gather around Jesus’s table to give thanks.  Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Homily: The Twenty-first Sunday afer Pentecost [October 18, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

Do you think Jesus was happy?  Would you describe his earliest followers as happy? Do you think Christianity is about being happy? Are you happy yourself?

These questions arise as I find myself approaching retirement at the end of the year. Many people ask me what my plans are. What will make me happy? Am I going to rest and relax, do something new, or become a Howard Hughes-like weirdo walking around the house with Kleenex boxes on my feet instead of shoes?

Do I think I’ll be happy? Is that the right question in the first place? Is retirement about being happy? Is working about being happy? Is life itself about being happy? Or is it all about something more?  One of the thinkers I depend on to help me navigate these kinds of questions is Rebecca Solnit, a San Francisco-based writer who engages a range of issues--the environment, contemporary culture, and social justice questions to name a few.

Rebecca Solnit wrote about happiness in recent essay in Harper's Magazine. Listen to a bit of what she said:



Maybe part of the problem [with happiness] is that we have learned to ask the wrong things of ourselves. Our culture is steeped in a kind of pop psychology whose obsessive question is: Are you happy? . . .


Questions about happiness generally assume that we know what a happy life looks like. Happiness is understood to be a matter of having a great many ducks lined up in a row — spouse, offspring, private property, erotic experiences — even though a millisecond of reflection will bring to mind countless people who have all those things and are still miserable.


We are constantly given one-size-fits-all recipes, but those recipes fail, often and hard. Nevertheless, we are given them again. And again and again. They become prisons and punishments; the prison of the imagination traps many in the prison of a life that is correctly aligned with the recipes and yet is entirely miserable.  [Rebecca Solnit, "The Mother of All Questions", Harper's, October, 2015]



            As I understand her argument, Rebecca Solnit is suggesting that our tendency to equate the good life with the happy life boxes us into defining a good, meaningful life in far too narrow terms. As she says later in her essay, we need “better language to describe” what a fully realized life might look like. “There are entirely different criteria for a good life that might matter more to a person [than happiness]-- honor, meaning, depth, engagement, hope.”

            I begin this morning asking questions about happiness and the good life because I think they are central to the problem this morning’s Gospel poses for us. Today we heard the well-known story of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who ask that Jesus do for them “whatever we ask of you”, that is “to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” [Mark 10: 35-45] This request does not come out of thin air. It has a context. In the passage immediately preceding this one, Jesus has just told them, 

See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again. [Mark 10: 33-34]


James and John ask Jesus to sit at his right and left hand in glory after he has just told them about what awaits them in Jerusalem. Jesus will die on the cross. Their request is a response to this prediction. When talking about James and John preachers customarily tee off on the brothers and accuse them of self-serving careerism. I have even been known to do this myself on occasion.

But as I read the story anew this year, it seems to me that James and John are not guilty of ambition or self-promotion.  Their request is not to be the executive vice presidents of the Jesus movement. Their request is to put a happy ending on what Jesus has just named a tragedy.  The problem here is not ambition. No, it’s something much more insidious.  The problem here is the conventional wisdom of wishful thinking. James and John want Jesus to be happy. If they can just get through that crucifixion, everything will be all right.  And then they can be happy, too.

When Jesus predicts his own suffering and death, he talks about it with his companions in very matter-of-fact language.  He does not give them this news in order to frighten them.  He tells them so that they may be prepared for the consequences of a life lived on God’s terms—a life that cannot help but come in conflict with the powers of his day. If we have defined the good life as the “happy” life, then Jesus’s persistence in his way of living seems at best perverse and at worst suicidal.  If we define the good life using Rebecca Solnit’s terms—“honor, meaning, depth, engagement, hope”—then Jesus’s decisions begin to make sense.

The English art critic and writer John Berger talks about our need for “another way of telling”. We need, not only as Christians but as citizens and fellow human beings, to reach for new language to describe what a meaningful, honorable, deep, engaged, hopeful life might look like.  One place to look for such language is in the life and story of Jesus. He came into a culture where the good life was defined in terms of power. Those who had it were deemed to be favored. Those without it were seen as condemned. In the second part of today’s Gospel, Jesus talks about the good life in language that turns power relationships upside down:

You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. [Mark 10: 42-45]


Jesus did not let his culture’s definition of the good life determine how he himself would live.  He did not organize his own life around getting and wielding power over others. He did not spend his life pursuing achievements and possessions. Instead, he gave of himself to others. He built a community of mutuality, compassion, and justice. He consorted with and healed the people whom his own society defined as outcasts.  For Jesus, the good life was the life built not on power but on service. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

When he told his companions that he came not to be served but to serve, Jesus knew he was being counter-cultural. The values of the Gospel will always stand just slightly apart from those of the world. As followers of Jesus, you and I need to do some thinking on our own and together about what it is we want from life.  We need another way of telling ourselves and the world what finally matters. We inhabit a culture that will always define the good life in unimaginative, consensual ways. In Rebecca Solnit’s words, we are always “getting clobbered by the same old ways of telling”, and we cannot help but find that continual pummeling “disheartening”.  Following Jesus gives us not only new life but another way to live this one: a way that might include such elusive and overlooked principles as “honor, meaning, depth, engagement, hope”.

I don’t know if I would say that Jesus was “happy”. In the terms our culture to define happiness, probably not. But he did life a life characterized by those elusive and overlooked principles so often lacking in human existence.  Honor, meaning, depth, engagement, hope: these are the qualities that defined Jesus’s life and ministry. They are the qualities that have given shape to the best of the church’s efforts to follow Jesus.  They are the qualities that you and I can embrace, allowing us to be something more than happy. They can help us live lives that are real and true and deep and faithful.

You can lead a good life free from the way our culture defines one. As long as we continue to describe the good life as the successful, powerful, affluent, healthy life, then we are destined to think only very few among us as having lived one. Jesus calls us to expand our horizons. What is it you so deeply value that you would be willing to give your life over in service to it? Who is it that deserves your empathy compassion, and trust? These commitments, and not how many monuments that you leave behind, are what really matter. Jesus said the same to James and John, but they could not help hoping that the cross would only be a bump in the road on the way to worldly glory. They didn’t get it, but you and I just might. Whoever among us wishes to be great must be a servant. Not exactly great career advice, but a principle worth organizing your life around.  Amen.




Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Homily: Altar Guild Evensong/Linda Roecklein's 50 Yeas [October 13, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

             We’re gathered this evening to do two things, one of them ordinary and the other extraordinary.  The first thing is to say thanks to the Altar Guild, something churches do fairly regularly.  The second is to recognize Linda Roeckelein for fifty years of service. (She started here when she was five years old—you probably read about it in the papers.) Fifty years of doing anything in a sustained way is out of the ordinary.  Fifty years of working with sacred vessels, floral arrangements, and the people who maintain and create them is really unheard of. So let me say a word first about the Guild and its work and then second a word about Linda.

            I’m a preacher, and we preachers like to speak about the biblical texts we’re given for an occasion.  I’m sorry to say that tonight the church’s lectionary hasn’t given me very much to work with.  The story of Jonah’s call to prophecy and his flight from his task and subsequent swallowing by a great fish [Jonah 1:1-17a] is a wonderful tale, but it’s not much help when praising those who serve the church. And Jesus’s warning that we will all be hated because of his name [Matthew 10:16-23] doesn’t really speak to the occasion either. Yet because of my abiding faith that, if you hang with it long enough, the lectionary will always give you something to work with, I have found these words from Psalm 11 that might just do when recognizing members of an altar guild:

                         For the Lord is righteous;

     he delights in righteous deeds; *

                    and the just shall see his face. [Psalm 11:8]


                    Because we call ourselves the “national cathedral”, and because we inhabit Washington D.C., in all our language around here we tend to define “righteousness” as “doing important stuff”:  inaugurating presidents, hosting public policy summits, standing up for this or that public issue.  All those endeavors qualify as “important stuff”, but a night like this one calls us to remember what cathedrals are here for in the first place. The word cathedral is shorthand for cathedral church, and the most important of the many things all churches do is to pray. And because we are a cathedral church in the Anglican tradition, the central way we pray is to pray liturgically.  To be sure, we encourage private devotion and other forms of worship, but central to our life together are the church’s two dominical sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism and then all the other liturgical actions related to them:  marriage, ordination, confirmation, burial, not to mention our regular round of daily offices. 

                    Worshipping liturgically is hard work.  It requires not just sitting and thinking but getting up, moving around, and, well, working with a lot of hardware:  patens, chalices, pyxes, ciboria, pitchers, lavabo bowls, and the like. And because we are who we are we want that hardware to be not only useful; we want it to be beautiful.  And we want not only hardware:  we want what we might call the “software” of vestments and linens, and the even softer ware of flowers. To be sure, we could praise God authentically without all these things, but we couldn’t do that in our own particular way if we didn’t have silver and silk and linen and the bold and gracious floral arrangements that consistently decorate all the altars of this cathedral church.

                    So when Psalm 11 reminds us that,

     . . . the Lord is righteous;

     he delights in righteous deeds; *

                    and the just shall see his face. [Psalm 11:8]


we should hear this word as one deep form of thanks and affirmation for what the members of our Altar Guild do.  Maintaining all the hard- and soft-ware of a big operation like this is serious work. We could not pray liturgically the way we do without that work.  Those of us who stand up and perform in this space usually get all the attention.  But those of us who do so know to whom really all the attention belongs:  the women and men of the Altar Guild who make the rest of what happens here possible in the first place.  Speaking for all of us who preside and preach in this place:  thank you for the generous, selfless ways in which you serve the cathedral and beautify our common space.  We literally could not do it without you.

                    That’s my word to the Guild as a whole.  And now to Linda.  You know, searching tonight’s scriptures I finally did find a verse that might say something about Linda Roeckelein’s fifty years here:

See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. [Matthew 10:16]

                    When you behold someone as sweet and gracious as Linda, the idea of being as canny as a snake doesn’t immediately come to mind.  But in recognizing Linda Roeckelein we honor not only her extraordinary ability to arrange flowers and take care of the vessels we use in the service.  We honor Linda for her ability to pull this whole enterprise off not in an artistic vacuum but with the likes of flesh and blood human beings.  Arranging flowers and caring for linens and silver requires managing the people who work with them. And as I’ve observed Linda at work in my time here, I’ve been impressed with more than her aesthetic abilities.  I’ve seen the way she guides and inspires the women who work with her to aspire to new heights of creativity in their flower arranging, the way she supports those who care for the vessels of the altar.  Leading an Altar Guild requires more than good taste.  It requires great interpersonal skill, the ability to guide and motivate the people you work with.  It means that to do Linda’s work you have to be wise as a servant and innocent as a dove.

                    There is no place I know of in America or in all of the Anglican Communion that manages the accouterments of liturgical worship as well as we do here. The beauty and dignity of our flowers and linen and silver are no accident:  they derive from visionary, dedicated work by all the members of the Altar Guild and especially from the leadership of the faithful, brilliant woman who leads them. So how do you say thank you to a woman like that—one who leads others in doing righteous deeds, one who is herself as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove?

                    The only way I could think for the cathedral community to honor Linda and the women and men who work so closely with her tonight is to do what I have done, and what I am pleased to announce tonight. On my recommendation to the bishop, and our joint recommendation to the chapter, and the chapter’s enthusiastic approval, I am pleased tonight to name Linda Roeckelein as an Honorary Canon of the Cathedral Church of Saints Peter and Paul. Linda, our liturgical prayer in this space and the space itself would not be the same without you. Please know of our high admiration and deep gratitude for all you and your companions do.  May God continue to bless you and to bless us through you, and may tonight be not just a summation but the commencement of another generous span of time in wise, righteous service in the house of God.  Amen.