Sunday, October 16, 2016

Homily: Doris Peyton Guthrie [October 15, 2016] Trinity Church, Fillmore

We’re gathered this afternoon to celebrate the life and mourn the loss of Doris Peyton Guthrie, by any measure a remarkable woman. In a long and generous life, Doris had an impact on so many people. As one whose life she touched in so many ways, I am honored and a bit overwhelmed by the invitation to preach today.
Like hundreds of other seminarians, I first met Doris when I came to theological school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Doris had her own professional life away from the seminary, but she was deeply committed to the school community and the lives of the students there. As did many others, I came to know Harvey in the classroom and the chapel. I came to know Doris sitting at her kitchen table and drinking her French Market coffee, bracingly laced with chicory. There were many wonderful things to learn in getting to know Doris, perhaps the most surprising of which was that she turned out to be even more radical than Harvey.
This next doesn’t speak particularly well of me, but I have to confess that one of the first things that came into my head after Harvey told me of Doris’s death was, “I guess this means I’ll never have Doris’s lemon merengue pie again.” I know, a pretty self-centered observation, right? But if you ever had Doris’s lemon merengue pie (or, a close second, her blood orange sorbet) you will know what I’m talking about. It was delicious. It was authentic. It was simple and yet sophisticated. In some ways, Doris’s lemon merengue pie was an epitome of the woman herself. 
What I’m trying to say is that Doris was the total package as a human being. She was fiercely intelligent. She was politically committed. She was empathetic. She was generous. She was prayerful without being pious. She was also a lot of fun to be around. And before her accident on the ice in Michigan many years ago, she was one of the most buffest people I know. Like so many of you, I could talk for hours about Doris and what she means to me. But we’re here in church and we have these Bible readings to think about. So enough from me. Let’s hear what Isaiah, Paul, and Jesus might have to tell us.
Our first reading, from the twenty-fifth chapter of Isaiah [Isaiah 25:5-9], gives us an image of how things will be at the end of time. In this year’s dreary and creepy election season we have been treated to dystopian, apocalyptic visions of our future. But those visions are not the Bible’s vision.  The Bible, in the voice of Isaiah, views the end time as “a feast of rich food” which “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples.” (Here Doris would want us to note the absence of extreme vetting or Trumpian border walls.)  What Martin Luther King called the “arc of the moral universe” bends not only toward justice—it is pointed also toward fullness, abundance, blessing, and peace. When Isaiah says, “Let us be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation”, the us here is not an us versus them. The us for Isaiah is all of us, an us where there is no them.
So the first thing the scriptures ask us to remember this morning is the gospel vision of justice, blessing, and peace in the light of which Doris lived and to which she dedicated her energy.  I’ve known a lot of social activists over the course of my life, and frankly Doris ranks first among them in my heart because she actually cared about people, especially the people who were up against it. Doris generously and tirelessly served the poor, the oppressed, the stigmatized, and she did it quietly and without any egoinvolvement. For Doris Isaiah’s eschatological banquet was a lived reality here and now. She didn’t just pray for people to be fed at the end of things. She herself fed them—both literally and as an advocate—in the here and now.
Our second reading [Romans 8:14-19,34-35,37-39] is a passage often read at funerals, and that is because it concludes with these memorable words:
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

When we think about the list of oppressive forces that might presume to stand between us humans and God’s love, we can’t help but think first of the “principalities and powers” of sexism, racism, homophobia, and selfish affluence which Doris worked against for so longBut oppressive forces can also be personal challenges, such as the extreme pain Doris endured in the last several weeks of her life. In this passage from Romans, Paul wants to remind us that God’s love is the truest thing about us and that there is nothing—not even death—that can separate us from that love: not tyranny, not sexism, not poverty, not extreme pain. God is always in there in all of it with us.
But here’s the thing:  as I read that scripture for the millionth time with Doris Guthrie in mind, I was caught by the phrase that begins that remarkable passage. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” A lesser theologian than Paul would have praised us as conquerors, as victors in the oppressive struggles of life. But Paul has it that we are “more than conquerors”. Our contest with oppression, violence, degradation, and even pain is not a power play. We don’t win and pain doesn’t lose. The God from whose love we cannot be separated does not prevail by crushing the opponents. And if God is not about power, then living with, following, and loving that God is not about power either. God “more than conquers” life’s oppressive forces through transformative justice and love
Doris’s life and witness are a testimony for all of us about what it means to be something more than a conqueror. We stand, as she stood, against violence and oppression not by mimicking them but by living abundantly and generously in the style and image of the God we know in Jesus. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. That is as true in death as it is in life. The truest things to say about Doris are that God loves her and that she knew it. We are more than conquerors. We are missional lovers. God’s love is not a power trip. It is an invitation into universal blessing, wholeness, and peace.
And finally we have the gospel [John 11:21-27] in which Jesus tells Martha as she mourns the death of her brother, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Martha has complained to Jesus that if he had only been there, Lazarus would not have died. Jesus responds that even those who die are part of the resurrection now. 
Those of us who follow Jesus have so gotten used to talking about resurrection in the future tense that we have forgotten to look for signs of it in the here and now. I have no doubt that Jesus’s promise is real, that in and through him and the one he calls his father you and I and all creation will participate in that glorious banquet proclaimed by Isaiah. And if I know anything, it is that nothing—not even death and not even the pain of her final days—can separate Doris Guthrie from the love of God that she knew all her life not only in Jesus but in her marriage and her family and in her friendships and in her ongoing work for justice and peace.
But here is something else I know, and it is something we often miss at occasions like this. I know that every once in a while someone like Doris comes along who shows you what resurrection actually means. When we’re lucky enough to know someone who lives as Doris lived, we get a sense of resurrection not only as a future promise but as a lived reality now. And as painful as it is to lose Doris from the day-to-day experience of this life, it is in a sense easier to hand her off to the next stage because for almost 92 years she was already living the promise she hoped for.  Doris Guthrie lived a risen life in the here and now. And in so doing she made it possible for those of us who knew and loved her to live that life too and to trust that the promises of universal justice, peace, and abundance might just be not only possible but also trustworthy and true.
Today’s scriptures remind us why we so loved and will so miss Doris Guthrie. Her life was a banquet. She loved and was loved by a God who does something more than conquer. She chose to live as a person who knew what resurrection looks like today. We are coming now to the Eucharist—the meal we share with each other, with Jesus, with Doris, with God. This meal is a foretaste of Isaiah’s banquet. It is presided over by Jesus, the one who refused to be a conqueror and in so living showed us something about weakness as it moves into grace. This meal is another moment in our shared journey into what it means to be with Jesus, with Doris, with the saints, and with each other in resurrection and life.  
No, I guess I never will get to have Doris’s lemon merengue pie again. But I can be with her at this meal, as we gather around God’s table, and for right here, right now, this moment, and beyond,that will be enough. Amen.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Homily: St. Francis' Day [October 2, 2016] All Saints, Pasadena

“Francis, We Hardly Knew Ye”

If I look a little tired this morning, I apologize. I’ve been up since 3:20 a.m. tweeting out insults to my detractors.
Today All Saints Church celebrates St. Francis of Assisi, and I was glad when they assigned me to be inside at the service inside rather than with the animals on the lawn. Don’t get me wrong. I love animals. But as the owners of two terriers (one a scotty, the other a cairn) Kathy and I are always mortified by their behavior around other dogs. Our terriers don’t need blessing. They need absolution.
You and I don’t know Saint Francis very well. As with many saints, we have a collective cultural cartoon of him. We tend to see Francis as a kind of blissed-out medieval hippie who walked round Italy picking daisies and smiling at wolves—a monastic version of Doctor Doolittle. Like all cultural cartoons, this version of Saint Francis trivializes him. Yes, he loved animals as he loved all creation. But there was a lot more to him than that.
When the current pope took the name Francis three years ago, I decided to read up on the life of the saint. To be sure, Francis did love animals. But he loved them as part of a larger openness to all of nature—his “Canticle of the Sun” famously praises brother sun, sister moon, brothers wind and air, sister water, brother fire, and sister earth. Francis saw God in all creation, and one of the reasons we respond to him in this moment is that his medieval nature mysticism anticipated our own postmodern love for an endangered earth and its creatures. But Saint Francis saw God not only in animals. He saw God in the poor, and that’s why he gave up a life of affluence for one of prayer and poverty and service to the poor and sick.
         Francis did not live his life of prayer and poverty alone. Like Jesus, he gathered a community around him. Early in his ministry, Francis was viewed with suspicion and ridicule.  His family disowned him. He and his brothers in the order owned no property or money, and they begged for their meals.  Even more shockingly, Francis did not shun lepers but would embrace them and kiss their sores.  The first responses to St. Francis were fearful and hostile.  He was considered a dangerous madman before he was revered as a saint.
         If Cardinal Jose Mario Bergoglio felt the need to call himself Pope Francis in 2013, he must have felt that Francis had something important to say to the 21st century. What can we take from this saint’s example to help us with the living of our lives?
You and I are living through an overheated moment in American society. While the presidential election may be the most visible evidence of the emotional process at work among us, the election is really more of a symptom than a cause. As a compulsive consumer of news, it seems to me that everywhere I turn I see people overwhelmed and overwrought, blaming their problems on scapegoats and behaving badly at every turn. I think this is true at all levels of our society. Our political life is overheated. Our personal lives are overheated. Our friendships and our households are overheated. Even people in churches can get a bit testy. The enmity on view in the election is only the tip of the cultural iceberg.
And then, of course, there is the unfolding of the story Friday’s killing of Reginald (Junior) Thomas at the hands of police here in Pasadena and the attendant protest yesterday. I have cops in my family, so I understand the pressures the police are under. But when is this seemingly endless drumbeat of police killing African American men going to end? The best way we can show that black lives matter is to stop taking them.
I’m not a sociologist, so I won’t hazard a guess as to underlying causes of this overheating. But I will try to put this moment into a religious context. Like the societies that surrounded Jesus and Francis—each one a holy fool who refused to accept the cultural norms of his moment—you and I have bought into some fairly pervasive and pernicious illusions—and that’s a religious problem. We have come to see the world as essentially competitive and not collaborative. We think there is not enough to go around and so we feel compelled to do everything to get ours first. We put our trust in leaders or systems or ideas that promise to make and keep us safe by giving us a leg up on someone else. We think that if we get and hoard enough we will be invulnerable to the risks and depredations of life.
For all its greatness, Western culture has consistently fallen prey to these illusions from Jesus’s day to our own. As these illusions collapse, things become overheated, as they are today. It is a sign of God’s forbearance, mercy, and grace toward us that holy fools like Jesus and Francis keep showing up in our lives to show us a way to bring our own personal and social temperatures back down to normal.
In today’s gospel [Matthew 11: 25-30], Jesus says two things we need to hear this morning. Here’s the first:
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.

         Maybe it’s important that we bless animals because, unlike us, dogs and cats have no intellectual pretensions. Both Pope Francis and Saint Francis have what we could call a “simple” faith, and here “simple” is a good thing.  The more that we live in our heads, the more we make following Jesus more complicated than it needs to be. Francis of Assisi believed in God and Jesus in a way that was simple and yet deep. His life and action were grounded in the basic teachings of Jesus: love God, love people, treat everybody—including animals—with decency, compassion, and respect. When Jesus says that God has “hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and [has] revealed them to infants” he is telling us something simple yet deep about the meaning of life. Really smart people can do really stupid things. Really smart people can do really cruel things. Our intellects can often mislead us. When I have done something incredibly stupid or cruel, I’ve usually done it as part of a carefully-reasoned well-thought-out plan. Jesus and Francis call us to get out of our heads and into our hearts. That’s a lifetime journey for some of us, but Jesus would remind us that only as we approach profound simplicity will we be open to the depth and beauty of life.
         And here’s the second thing Jesus says:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Francis gave up a life of relative affluence for a life of voluntary poverty. He spent that life in solidarity with and service to the poor and sick and outcast. And, like Jesus, he found the life of social solidarity finally easier and more joyful than the life of comfort. To the extent that you and I have bought into the values of an affluent, competitive society we have placed ourselves in comfortable traps.  We strive to attain and keep our culture’s signs of success—an important job, impressive houses and cars, exotic travel—but at what cost? Francis did not give those things up as a way of self-punishment. He gave them up as a way of personal and social liberation. In taking on the yoke of Jesus, Francis discovered that loving and serving the poor, treating others with compassion, regarding the whole creation with reverence and respect—these actions were rewarding in and of themselves. They were not punishments. They were gifts.
In one way or another, each of us is a prisoner of our culture and its values. We are like fish swimming in the water of affluence which we can’t even see. It is part of God’s mercy to us that people like Jesus and Francis, others like Dorothy Day, come among us and show us that there is another way to live. It’s not that we all have to drop our jobs and pick up begging bowls. It is, rather, that we can follow Jesus and Francis at least by questioning the truisms our culture offers. He who dies with the most toys does not necessarily win. She who opens herself to God’s presence in the world, especially in the ones or things the world does not value, can live a life of generosity and joy in the here and now.
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants. . . Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

In this overheated season, let us stop and listen to Jesus and Francis. We can survive and actually flourish in this moment by seeing and living life as it is, not as our culture portrays it. Life is not scary. Life is beautiful. Life is simpler than we make it and easier than it seems. Like Francis, let us see each other as blessings rather than threats. Like Jesus, let us rejoice not in our sophistication but in the elemental values of love, compassion, reverence, and respect. Once again, let’s try to move out of our heads and into our hearts. And if we need some guidance in how to do that, let us turn to brother dog and sister cat, our teachers gathered this morning on the lawn. Amen.