Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Homily: The First Sunday after Christmas [December 27, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

The longer I go on living in the Christian tradition, the more I realize the profound truth of a simple idea. For every positive statement we make, we can state its opposite and still be speaking the truth. Paul said, "Justification comes by faith apart from works of law." James said, "Faith without works is dead." Both statements were made by apostles, both appear in the New Testament, and both seemingly contradict each other. And yet: the truth of each does not imply the falsity of its opposite. The longer I go on in the life of faith, the more I realize that two apparently contradictory things can be true at once. Reality is bigger and more complex than I am. The broad, comprehensive nature of Christianity makes all narrow partisan ideology seem shallow and false.

So two things can be true at once. We're saved by grace, yet works matter. God is compassionate, and God is just. We're all sinners, and God loves us. To hold on to one half of any of these statements (without also grasping the other) is to see only part of the picture, and thus to misunderstand the radical nature of grace.

Something along these lines occurs to me whenever I think about Christmas these days, because Christmas is at its core a set of what seem like massive contradictions. It is a celebration of light at the darkest time of the year.  It is an affirmation of peace and blessing in a world of aggression and alienation. It is an occasion when we have to hold two, seemingly opposing, ideas of God in our head. No wonder Mary spent her time after the shepherds' departure treasuring their words and pondering these things in her heart. The King of the Universe has been born in a stable. How paradoxical can you get?

One way of thinking about Christmas is to hold the Hebrew word "Emmanuel", as Mary did, in your heart. "God with us." From the beginning of time, it seems, human beings have lived with two distinct images of God. God is at the same time the Being behind the Universe and my personal Savior. God is far away, powerful, and transcendent. God is also nearby, vulnerable, and immanent. Some religions emphasize God's immensely other holiness. Other religions emphasize God's compassion and concern for me in all my idiosyncratic particularity. The unique thing about Christianity is that it does not choose sides in this game of dueling theological banjos. Christianity says two true things together at the same time: yes, God is other and righteous and holy; and yes, God is familiar and compassionate and nearby. And the way we say that is Christmas.

On Christmas Eve we heard the familiar story of the birth. On the First Sunday after Christmas we hear the less familiar opening verses of John's Gospel. Listen to what they say:

In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the

Word was God. Christ was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Christ, and without Christ not one thing came into being. What has come into being in Christ was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1]


What John announces here is a more poetic way of saying what Matthew's and Luke's birth stories tell us. The God who we thought of as far away is the same God who is right here, passionately and compassionately involved with us. Christmas is about God's willingness to take on what it means to be human, to be with us in our frailty and freedom, to experience what we experience from the inside out. When you really love someone you are concerned with sharing and knowing their interior experience. God loves the way we love—though perhaps with fewer blinders on--and Christmas is God's way of risking the safety and the isolation of perfect transcendence for the vulnerability and community of love and life in and with us.

But the journey does not stop there. Yes, God comes to meet us.  But now we go to meet God. Christmas is a two-way transaction. Because if God shares our experience, now we also can share God's. Listen again to the 61st chapter of Isaiah:

For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
   and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
   to spring up before all the nations. [Isaiah 61:11]

These joyous words come to us from a hard season of personal and social pain. In their historical setting, the last chapters of the book of the prophet Isaiah sit perched on the brink of a great thing God is doing for Israel, but they arise from a time of great suffering. Israel has been nearly demolished and taken into captivity in Babylon. The whole sweep of its life and meaning appears to be over. And then, out of nowhere, in a way no one could have predicted, God acts. Israel is freed from Babylonian captivity. They return home. The story is back on. Isaiah 61 announces a revolution in divine and human experience: in bringing Israel home from Exile, God has done something so unbelievably enormous that it almost defies description. Isaiah cannot be silent because this divine deliverance requires that it be noticed and praised.  God’s truth and justice and love and salvation are going forward. They spring up as naturally from God’s actions as shoots come forth from the earth and as the plants of a garden spring up from the seeds that have been sown within it. God moves towards us in mercy and justice. We move toward God in thanksgiving and praise. We are saved by grace alone. Faith without works is dead.

In other words: yes, God is moving toward us.  And yes, we are moving toward God. In the life of Jesus, God takes on what it means to be a human being. We call God’s movement toward us “the incarnation.” And the incarnation, the enfleshment, is not only about what God does for us. It is just as importantly about what we do for God. After the Jesus event, God understands human life differently than God had before. God now knows what it is like to be us. God experiences our joys and sorrows and hopes and fears not just from the outside but now from within.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. [John 1:14]


When we say that the Word has become flesh and dwelt among us, we are saying that God and we have met each other in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And when we say that, we mean these two things. First, we mean that human life—in all its glory, in all its smallness—has been ennobled by God's choosing to take it on and experience it from the inside. That’s why we do justice work: because in becoming one of us, God has given every human being unique worth and dignity. Second, we mean that the divine life of God—in all its transcendence, in all its immanence--has been irrevocably changed by its encounter with what it means to live and die as a particular human being. That is why we pray, because the one we pray to knows what it is to be us.  God has taken on our experience, and we have taken on God's destiny.

Christmas is about contradictions, about opposites, about two things being true at once. In Jesus Christ, God and humanity meet once and for all. In becoming one of us, God has taken on human mortality. For our part, you and I have been taken up into God's immortality. Two things can be true at once. God knows and loves you more fully than you can imagine and understand. Your life has meaning and depth and purpose beyond the human markers we use to identify it. You are part of something timeless and universal. You now share God's divine life in ways that connect you to the entire human community. Because what is true for you and me is also true for our brothers and sisters of every racial, ethnic, sexual, or class identity.

So Christmas and its season are jam packed with good news. God has come to meet us. We are moving toward God. Both sides are transformed in this encounter. We and God meet, once for all, in Jesus Christ. This meeting is the real gift of Christmas. Two things can be true at once. And it is the work of a lifetime to see, and know, and thank God that they can. Amen.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas Leaflet Message, 2015: Washington National Cathedral

O the magnitude of meekness!

Worth from worth immortal sprung;

O the strength of infant weakness,

If eternal is so young!

                --Christopher Smart, “The Nativity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”


Christmas 2015 arrives at an unusually fraught time in our national and international life. We seem this season to be assaulted by distressing news on an almost daily basis.  Life seems ever more fragile and at risk. Civility seems all but absent from our public discourse. We spend our days alternating between postures of anger and fear.

It is natural in times like these to want to defend ourselves and to strike back at those who either threaten our sense of security or offend our values. Our safety, we believe, resides either in our corporate and personal power or in our superior principles.

As vexing as today’s world can be, it is no more disturbed than the one into which Jesus came two millennia ago. Then as now the arrogant overwhelmed the meek.  Then as now the preciousness of life seemed of no account to those bent on enmity and control. Then as now the answers on offer seemed to revolve around getting more—resources, power, control—with which to overwhelm those who posed a threat either in fact or imagination.

But it has always been the affirmation of the biblical tradition—from the Hebrew prophets to Jesus himself and to his earliest followers—that security resides neither in power nor money nor status. Real safety—the kind that Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul both live out and offer—consists in what might seem like a counterintuitive set of emotions.  Real security consists in trust—trust that reality is finally friendly, trust that the world is actually good, trust that God keeps promises.  The One behind the world—the One who comes into it then and now at Christmas—is ultimately trustworthy. And we are finally safe.

The eighteenth century English poet Christopher Smart understood what Isaiah and Jesus and Paul proclaimed and what Jesus’s mother Mary lived out in her faithful nurture of her infant son.  We normally think of and describe God as ultimate power, but such a construction gets it totally wrong. The truth is really the other way around.  God is not to be seen in ultimate power.  God is on view in ultimate weakness. God comes among us not as a warrior but as a baby. Our image of God is not of a mighty king but a helpless infant. Our fantasies of power are fakes. What Smart calls the “strength of infant weakness” is the real truth about God, the world, and us.

We gather in this cathedral church during the season of infant weakness to celebrate the strength and endurance of those values and virtues that Christopher Smart names “the magnitude of meekness”.  The One born at Christmas will come to stand with and for us humans in ways that will outlast the pretensions and postures of power in all its pompous self-display. The infant Jesus embraces us in his weakness, and beckons us to share that embrace around. The problems of 2015 lose their power to frighten us. We can live, with God and Jesus and our neighbors in gratitude and trust.

May the God we meet in infant weakness bless you in the magnitude of meekness to live in hope and thanksgiving, both now and throughout the year. Welcome to Christmas at Washington National Cathedral.


Gary Hall



Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Homily: Farewell Evensong, Monday in the Third Week of Advent [December 14, 2015] Washington National Cathedral

Anyone who loves American literature will no doubt remember the seventeenth chapter The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – that’s the one in which Tom, Huck, and Joe Harper find themselves somehow attending their own funeral. Here in part is how Mark Twain describes it:


As the service proceeded, the clergyman drew such pictures of the graces, the winning ways, and the rare promise of the lost lads that every soul there, thinking he recognized these pictures, felt a pang in remembering that he had persistently blinded himself to them always before, and had as persistently seen only faults and flaws in the poor boys. The minister related many a touching incident in the lives of the departed, too, which illustrated their sweet, generous natures, and the people could easily see, now, how noble and beautiful those episodes were, and remembered with grief that at the time they occurred they had seemed rank rascalities, well deserving of the cowhide. The congregation became more and more moved, as the pathetic tale went on, till at last the whole company broke down and joined the weeping mourners in a chorus of anguished sobs, the preacher himself giving way to his feelings, and crying in the pulpit. –Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Chapter 17



            I don’t know why, but as I contemplated tonight’s service this passage came to mind. It’s one thing to attend your own funeral.  It’s quite another to find yourself the preacher at it.  But I will leave it to you to discern between the touching incidents and rank rascalities of my tenure here. Of course, this isn’t exactly a funeral, but it does signal the end of both a working life and a pastoral relationship.  Do I address you as the tenth dean of Washington National Cathedral, the seventh rector of Christ Church Cranbrook, the ninth dean of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, the thirteenth rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, or as the fifth vicar of St. Aidan’s Church in Malibu? Kathy and I are entitled to be buried in four churches.  How do we choose? I’ve been doing this work for forty years now, so it’s probably important to say something memorable and summative. Or at least something interesting.  Let’s hope I can at least hit one of those three targets.

            In the past weeks many people have asked me to speculate on my legacy here at the cathedral. (When you come, they ask you about your vision.  When you leave, they ask you about your legacy. While you’re there, you’re just trying to keep the ship afloat.)  I have pondered this question without success on and off since Kathy and I made the decision to retire last August.

            And then a week ago today I found myself attending the community Eucharist at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts—the seminary from which I graduated in 1976 and where I serve now as chair of the Board of Trustees.  EDS is an important place to me. It’s where Kathy and I met, and for that alone it would have a high place in my affections.  There’s no place in the world like Cambridge, Massachusetts when you’re in love and in your 20s.

            Because I arrived late to last Monday’s service I sat in an out-of-the-way corner of St. John’s Chapel, and even though I had been in that building several hundred times over the course of the last 50 years, I saw for the first time a beautiful brass plaque I had never noticed before.  It read:

To the glory of God
And in Memory of
John Seely Stone DD
Born Oct 7 1795
Died Jan 13 1882
First dean of this school
Scholar Teacher
Preacher Pastor
Servant of God
This memorial bears witness
To the Love and reverence of
The graduates for their friend
And teacher.


            Looking at that plaque, I realized I’d forgotten what I ever knew about John Seely Stone.  I have long ago lost the book I had which told the seminary’s history, so I tried googling John Seely Stone.  To no one’s surprise, you can’t seem to find him on the internet.  I did find references to Seely Posturepedic Mattresses and to film star Sharon Stone, but nothing about John Seely Stone, D.D., the first dean of Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge. So much for legacies.
         Aside from a small plaque hidden away in a remote corner of the chapel, John Seely Stone doesn't have much of what we might call a "legacy" at EDS. There is no Stone Hall, Stone Library, Stone Auditorium. His name has no ostentatious memorial. Yet I will bet that when he founded the school, John Seely Stone had no idea that it would some day produce people like Jonathan Daniels—enshrined now in the cathedral’s human rights porch--or that it would be the first theological school to teach scientific biblical criticism, admit women as students, have ordained Anglican women on the faculty, and admit openly gay and lesbian students.  Dean Stone doesn't have much of what you or I might call a legacy at EDS, but his ministry built an institution whose life and work has changed the church and through it the world.

            So perhaps it won’t surprise you when I say that I do not believe in personal, institutional legacies. Working to lead an institution is something like writing in sand or water: it takes all one’s energy when you’re in it, but six months after you leave, the place seems to be doing just fine without you. I very much doubt that you will see a Hall Auditorium, Hall House, or—what I’ve always secretly dreamed of every place I’ve worked—a building named “Gary” Hall anytime soon either here or at Cranbrook, Redeemer, Seabury, or St. Aidan’s. And even if such an unlikely edifice were built, 50 years from now who would really know or care?

            So I don’t believe much in institutional legacies. What do I believe in?

            We are now in the third week of Advent, a season that looks in three directions at once.  In this season we look backward to the coming of Jesus in historical time. We look forward to the coming of Jesus at the end of history.  We look among us for the coming of Jesus into our life and experience now.  Advent reminds us that Christianity is only partially, and not primarily, a historical faith community. Yes, we care about and honor the past, but only insofar as the past can help us size up and operate effectively in the present and build for the future.  We Christians look for God not as someone remembered but as someone expected.  God is coming toward us. That is what this season is about: not only are we preparing for Jesus’s birth at Christmas, we are getting ready for the future to which God and Jesus call us. When he ran for president in his parody campaign of 1968, comedian Pat Paulsen adopted as his slogan, “The Future Lies Ahead”. That’s pretty much always been my eschatology.

So what is a priest’s legacy?  What is any Christian person’s legacy? The season of Advent orients us in the best way to think about answering these questions. Those of us who do this work do not do it in hopes of leaving something behind. We do it in the service of moving ahead.  We do it in preparation to meet the one who comes towards us in Advent.

I began with a book.  Let me end with one.  The last paragraph of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch expresses in ways I cannot this Advent sense of the importance of living in expectation and service and leaving the legacy question behind.  As George Eliot says,

For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.—George Eliot, Middlemarch


            Dean John Seely Stone is all but forgotten, but the school he founded continues to envision and enact transformative change in our church. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are best remembered for their rank rascalities.  George Eliot suggests that Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Middlemarch will be remembered, if at all, in the quality of the lives she touched with her many “unhistoric acts” of charity and grace. In the end, to the extent that they exist at all, institutional legacies don’t count for much. To be concerned with building or maintaining a legacy is to look backward. And if there’s one thing I know after all these years about God, it’s that God is someone out there, ahead of us, calling us toward a future of hope, justice, reconciliation, and love.

In future years we will all be pleased to forget the rascalities and remember good things about each other. But for now, the future lies ahead. It is time for Kathy and me to move on in service of that Advent vision and for others to carry on the work of leading this cathedral church to whatever future God intends for it. And so I leave you with the apposite words of someone you’d never thought I would quote from a pulpit--none other than General Stonewall Jackson, a man whose name and image will no doubt endure in this cathedral at least as long as my own. “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” Amen.

Homily: Installation of Court Williams as Rector of Trinity Church, Highland Park, IL [December 8, 2015]

            It is a great pleasure to be with you tonight as you celebrate the renewal of your ministry here and welcome Court Williams as rector of Trinity Church. Court was a student leader at Seabury when I served there, and Julie was an active member of the spouses group which my wife Kathy convened. How they managed to be so present on campus when they lived all the way up in Mundelein (if I remember correctly) I never quite figured out. And having done some time in what they used to call the wilds of the Pacific slope in Oregon they have come back to God’s country to live and work. And it’s always a joy to be with Jeff Lee, your bishop, who made a similar move back from Washington state when he became Bishop of Chicago. As one who is preparing to move back to my native California early next year, I hope there is not some horrible thing about the west coast that they’re not telling me.

            I’ve been a priest for almost 40 years now, and one of the things I love about the church is collecting all the sayings people think are in the Bible but are not actually there.  You know, adages like “God helps those who help themselves.” “This, too, shall pass.” And, as an Episcopalian, my favorite, “We’ve always done it this way.” This third is perhaps the most widely used in our church, said usually in jest, always meant in earnest.  At Washington National Cathedral I’ve actually had it said to me straightfaced and without any hint of irony at all. “But dean,” they say to some proposed new thing, “we’ve always done it this way.” To which I usually reply, “Isn’t that one of the Beatitudes?”

            The liturgy we do tonight is a new—and to my mind much improved—way of celebrating a new ministry. The rite I have lived most of my working life with came in with the prayer book of 1979, and it was more like a kingly coronation than the installation of a servant of Jesus.  But over the course of my working life we in the church have begun to “get” the radical implications of Baptism, a sacrament also rediscovered in the 1979 prayer book.  In the church I grew up in, we used to think of ordination as the fundamental commissioning to ministry—indeed the people we called “ministers” were the ordained. But all the historical and liturgical scholarship that led to the 1979 prayer book revived our understanding of what Baptism is all about and how it creates and renews the church.  All of us here tonight—from the bishop to the priests and deacons to everyone lay person in the building—are baptized people. Some of us in ordained ministry are called to live out the baptized life in particular ways. But there are no fundamental differences between us.

            So when we celebrate the renewal of ministry and welcome a rector, what we’re really doing is asking Court to live out his Baptism in a way that will help and empower you to live out your Baptism. Court is not coming here as your ministry service provider. (I think we sometimes conceive ministry as akin to going to the butcher—“I’ll take a half a pound of weddings please, and throw in a couple of funerals.”)  Court is coming as one baptized person called to live among you in a priestly way, and his primary job is not to do your ministry for you but to help you live into the Gospel in such a way that you can discover and live out what it means to follow Jesus in the circumstances of your own life.

            As we prepare to welcome Court and renew our own shared sense of what it means to be baptized, we have three readings to consider. Briefly, here’s a thought about each.

            Our first scripture passage [Exodus 3: 1-6] tonight tells of Moses’s encounter with God in the form of a burning bush on Mount Sinai. Maybe it’s because I have been privileged to serve churches with wonderful buildings—Seabury in its days in Evanston, Christ Church Cranbrook in Michigan, and now Washington National Cathedral—that I am particularly attuned to the strangeness of this encounter. Moses meets God by the side of the road in an ordinary bush. True, the bush is on fire, but still. It’s not a Gothic cathedral. It’s just a bush. And yet, as Moses approaches, God says to him, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

            Thought one: if God can speak out of a bush, God can be anywhere. Indeed, God is everywhere. The “we’ve always done it this way” part of us wants to locate God in the sacred space of a building. But a church is not a building. A church—what Paul in the Bible calls the ekklesia—is a community, the group of those called to follow Jesus. If Court and all of you are to emulate Moses, you must be attentive to God’s presence not only inside this sacred space. The ground on which you stand—at work, at home, in school, in the community—that ground is holy ground. And Trinity’s ministry is present there as you are present here.

            In our second Bible reading tonight we heard Paul tell the Romans [Romans 8: 12-17], “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” He then goes on, For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” We who follow Jesus are not slaves to fear. The events of the last several weeks—shootings in Paris and Colorado and California, an overheated presidential campaign, an escalating war in the Middle East, violence on our city streets—are disturbing events, and our natural tendency is to view the church as a place to flee from them for refuge and safety. But as Paul reminds us, we who follow Jesus are no longer slaves to fear. God’s encounter with Moses assures us that all ground is holy ground. Paul’s letter to the Romans asserts that fear is not a Christian category. In his life, death, and resurrection Jesus showed us that the kind of love and compassion  he stood for always outlast the things we fear. In the midst of a culture cringing in terror, the church, the ekklesia, those called to follow Jesus, we are called to remind that culture of a bigger and enduring set of truths. The things that scare us will not last. But the values of the baptized life—the values of love, joy, compassion, forgiveness, justice—those things do last. As a parish community your job is to proclaim God’s abundant fearlessness to a world desperately in need of the things that matter.

            And then we have the third reading, the story of Nicodemus seeking out Jesus by night [John 3: 1-16]. We have come to see Nicodemus as a type of the seeker, someone driven perhaps by the fearful atmosphere of Jewish Palestine under Roman occupation to come to Jesus for answers. Jesus tells Nicodemus a couple of things he has a hard time taking in. ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Nicodemus comes to Jesus for answers and what Jesus gives him is neither refuge nor a set of ideas but rather a community. Jesus gives Nicodemus Baptism. The thing that will help you give shape and meaning to your life, says Jesus, is living into the baptized life. And the baptized life is something you can only achieve in community. Jesus is not a guru. He does not promote an individualistic path to holiness or salvation. Jesus is himself a baptized person, and what he offers finally is something like solidarity with others and with God. We will all get through this, but only as we do it together. Being born from above means being born anew with others. We don’t get through life by hunkering down in fearful isolation. We get through life by making common cause with others. We get through life through compassion and forgiveness, not through power and fear. We get through life by inviting the world onto the holy ground where we already and always stand.

 So to *Court and Julie: I’m sorry we won’t see each other out west, but I rejoice that you have come here and tonight join with the women and children and men of Trinity Church as we all renew our shared commitment to follow Jesus as those who have been given life and identity and ministry in Baptism. The ground on which we stand tonight is holy. A world overcome with enmity and fear longs for the authentic vision of life on offer in the Gospel. May we all be born anew tonight both within and from above, so that the ministry not only of Trinity Church but of each and all of us may offer that vision to others and call everyone to gather around God’s abundant table and give thanks.  Amen.