Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Homily: Tuesday in the Third Week in Advent [December 13, 2016] Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati

For many of us in my aging generational cohort, the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan served as one bit of good news in an otherwise grim year. Last Saturday morning, the great Patti Smith showed up in Stockholm to sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” on Bob Dylan’s behalf. There has been some controversy over the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan, voiced mainly by those who think Dylan is not in the same literary league with fellow American Nobelists Sinclair Lewis and Pearl S. Buck. Other disgruntled critics are probably big, big fans of more recent laureates like Elias Canetti and Dario Fo. (When all this Dylan controversy started, a friend and fellow Dylan fan asked rhetorically if the Nobel Committee had run out of obscure, central European essayists to recognize.) Nevertheless, there can be no dispute that Patti Smith’s performance of Bob Dylan’s dystopian lament will stand as one of the great moments in performance history. It’s available on YouTube, and I encourage you to check it out.

            Part of the reason I found Patti Smith’s performance so riveting is that she forgets the words midway through and asks to start over. She is clearly overwhelmed by the moment. Another part of the reason is that the song itself speaks to the current cultural moment as if it were written this morning:

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

            As the song goes on the blue-eyed, darling young one describes a vision of a cruel and callous world: poets die in the gutter, clowns cry in the alley, people are wounded by both love and hatred. The emotional process described in “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” exactly mirrors what many of us have been through over the past several weeks, especially since November 8. Like time or space travelers, we look around and find ourselves marooned a culture and world that seem alien and inhospitable. A lot of people seem to be getting away with behaving badly and expressing ideas aloud that I wouldn’t want to hold in private. The humane values espoused by us mainline Christians have been brushed aside in favor of a new, harsher set of attitudes. The foxes seem to be taking over the henhouse.

            As I read over the readings to prepare for today, I could not get Bob Dylan’s song out of my mind. Zephaniah [Zephaniah 3:1–2,9–13] addresses a “soiled, defiled, oppressing city”:
Ah, soiled, defiled,
   oppressing city!
 It has listened to no voice;
   it has accepted no correction.
It has not trusted in the Lord;
   it has not drawn near to its God.
            (As a former resident of the District of Columbia, I couldn’t tell if he was describing Jerusalem or Washington.) In Matthew’s gospel, [Matthew 21:28–32] Jesus tells a story of two brothers asked to work in the vineyard. One says no and then goes, one says yes and stays home. “Which of the two,” asks Jesus, “did the will of his father?” But the news is not all bad. Something or someone else is afoot. In the first reading, Zephaniah proclaims that the speech of the defiled city will be changed “to a pure speech”. In the second reading, Matthew’s Jesus announces, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
            We have, then, two scripture readings today which offer us a mixed grill of judgment and hope. The city has lost its bearings. The respectable people have turned callous and self-satisfied. But that’s not the end of the story. Someone is coming who will set all that right. That’s how it is in Advent. We are asked to look our predicament square in the face. And in doing so we are shown a light and a path and a future.
            Last week a friend of mine posted this on Facebook:

With the death of John Glenn falling so closely after the deaths of Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, et al, I'm beginning to think The Rapture has occurred, leaving the rest of us schmucks stuck here with Trump. [Judd Parkin]
Though I echo the feeling of his post, the gospel never holds out to us the false hope of divine intervention. Nevertheless, Advent is about seeing a light and a path and a future even as we stand huddled together in the very darkness and alienation of an ugly moment. Where might we find them?
            My own quest for the light and the path and the future take me back to the words of Bob Dylan.  In the final verse of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” the speaker, that blue-eyed son/darling young one is asked, “Oh what’ll you do now?” We wouldn’t be surprised if the answer to that question was, “retreat into my own alienation.” But here, instead is the stirring and startling reply:
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

            Advent announces both judgment and hope. It shows us the hard truth of our situation and offers a light and a path and a future. Jesus shows us the light and the future in the willingness of the truculent son to get up and go out to the vineyard. The path to our future lies ahead in our individual and shared willingness to go where the speaker in Bob Dylan’s song goes: to stand with and for those who are most vulnerable in this new, scary moment. The hope for our nation, our church, and ourselves lies in our willingness to sing a song of judgment and hope even in a time of oppressive darkness.
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it

            Advent announces the coming of one who will transcend and outlast all the forces unleashed against him. In this current moment, we bear witness to that one by telling and thinking and speaking and breathing and reflecting, so all souls can see it, the judgment and hope on offer this season. Let us find our meaning and purpose as a force for resistance and blessing in a broken yet beloved world. A hard rain is a-gonna fall. We can survive and outlast it in solidarity and compassion, together. Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Homily: The Second Sunday of Advent [December 4, 2016] Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati

            I want to begin by thanking Dean Greenwell for inviting me to spend Advent with you exploring what the mission of Christ Church Cathedral might look like, and Canon Zacharia for organizing the details of my time here. As a former parish priest, cathedral and seminary professor and dean, I know how important it is to take time to reflect theologically on what we’re doing. And as one who has worked in the church for over 40 years, I know how seldom it is we actually take the time to do that.
            I have been very fortunate in the communities I have been called to serve—from Malibu and Pasadena in California, to Evanston, Illinois, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, all the way east to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and finally the northwest part of Washington, D.C. Hey, somebody had to be in all those nice places, right? Nevertheless, one thing I’ve learned about serving affluent communities and their churches is that they can become a little, well, shall we say, “entitled”.  Indeed, all “establishment” church institutions—urban or suburban--can become a little self-satisfied if they’re not careful.
One of the parishes I served still has to this day numbers on all its pews. Though they had stopped charging pew rents 50 years before I got there, parishioners still treated certain pews as their own and would ask visitors to vacate them if they happened to sit there. I thought of that parish and your challenge here at Christ Church Cathedral when I first read through the gospel for this morning. On this Second Sunday of Advent, we focus on John the Baptist, his strange habits, and his prediction of the coming of Jesus. But as I read the gospel this time around here’s the part of the passage that leapt right out at me.
Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. [Matthew 3: 9-10]
John the Baptist directs his challenge precisely at the people we might today call “entitled”. But let’s not be too hard on them, shall we? The Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’s day were pretty much the “good Episcopalians” of today. I always try to resist the preacher’s tendency to beat up on the Bible’s entitled, establishment folks because my greatest personal spiritual battle has to do with taming my own inner Pharisee. Those of us who keep the church going—giving to support it, showing up every week, volunteering to do its many thankless tasks—we are pretty much just trying to get through life with faithfulness and grace. You could say the same for the Pharisees.
Yet here is John the Baptist calling us a “brood of vipers”. “Even now”, he says, “the axe is lying at the root of the trees”. He calls us to “bear fruit worthy of repentance”.  Hey, John, give us a break! We’re just trying to hand out church bulletins here. Why pick on those of us who year in and year out keep the place going?
The answer to that question brings me back to the image of those numbered church pews. It’s one thing, says John (and later, Jesus) to live a faithful and pious life. It’s quite another to think that doing so confers on you a special status. What we Pharisees and good Episcopalians get right is our acknowledged need to experience and respond to God in this kind of setting. What we get wrong is the all-too-human tendency to confuse what we perform out of our own need to do it with being better than those who don’t.  As John says,
Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Today is the Second Sunday of Advent, a day on which we move closer to Christmas by hearing John’s prophetic critique [Matthew 3: 1-12] so that we may open ourselves to the grace and glory of God’s presence in and with us at Christmas in the birth of Jesus. “Repent”, says John. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” How do we make sense of this language today? How do we move out of our own Episcopalian entitlement into something like bearing fruit worthy of repentance?
One thing I hear in John’s prophetic critique is a call to step out of the illusion of my own privilege and entitlement and into the truth of the human vulnerability I share with others. You and I live in a pretty scary moment in time. Early last week a young Ohio State student attacked his fellow students with his car and a butcher knife. The incoming administration in Washington seems determined to destroy even the minimal social safety net we have established for seniors, the sick, and the poor. The wildfires in Tennessee and the tornadoes throughout the south serve as yet another reminder (as does the ongoing drought in California where I live) that climate change is moving even faster than we thought. And the continuing spike in hate speech both during and after the election calls in question our shared sense of what it means to be an American.
What is all this but an axe lying at the root of our trees? You don’t have to be a religious nut or a seasoned preacher to hear God addressing us in this dangerous and frightening moment. When John the Baptist compares us to snakes slithering away from a fire, I know what he’s talking about. We humans are destroying our environment, rending our social fabric, and in danger of losing whatever we had left of empathy and compassion in America. If, as good Episcopalians—the Pharisees and Sadducees of our own day—we are to respond to this current moment, the least helpful thing we could do is to assert our own entitlement. We are the ones who have kept the flame going for so many generations. That is no small achievement. But what is our role now as we prepare for the advent of Jesus in the wake of the wrath not only coming but here at work among us now?
One of the ways our Anglican tradition has tried to tame its inner Pharisee is through the very heart of our established church heritage. We Episcopalians began life as the Church of England, and for the first several hundred years of our existence we were the established church of a nation state. Though we present-day Episcopalians can still behave as if we’re the ones in charge—believe me, I lived and worked in Washington, D.C--, we know that in America there is no one official religion. Nevertheless, from our established church days we carry within us a profound sense of our shared investment in the common good. Our great 16th century theologian Richard Hooker called that idea “commonwealth”, and he articulated a vision of the church which understood itself empowered by God to advocate for and act on a notion of what was best not just for us but for the entire community.
You and I here not only at Christ Church Cathedral but those of us who follow Jesus in this Episcopalian mode around the country—we have a shared calling and mission to speak for, to act for, to care for the common good. Even now, the axe is lying at the root of the trees. Even now we face together into the wrath to come. God calls us to bear fruit worthy of repentance. The way we tame our entitled, inner Pharisee is to empower our shared commitment to the common good. Who else will speak for an inclusive, generous, compassionate vision of America if we don’t? Who else will announce that entitlement also involves responsibilities if we don’t? Who else will represent Jesus with some kind of faithfulness to his actual message if we don’t? Jesus and his followers stood up to and outlasted Rome. You and I can be a force for resistance and transformation in this dangerous hour.
Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Those of us who worship God in places like this can be silly and fussy and entitled. But we are also the bearers of a vision of God’s approaching kingdom made real in a nation and church dedicated to advancing the common good and standing with and for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the vulnerable. On this Second Sunday of Advent, let us prepare for the good news of Christmas by getting ourselves ready to offer a creative and hopeful vision to an angry and hurting nation and world. Let’s stand up, together, now for gospel values. If that’s not a mission statement for a cathedral church in the 21st century, I don’t know what is.  Amen.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Remembrance: Leslie Wright Hall 1925-2016 [December 1, 2016] All Saints, Pasadena

For much of her adult life, my mother Leslie Hall was best known as the wife (then ex-wife) of Huntz Hall, my father. Happily, for about 30 years (the 1960s through the 1980s) she was well-known in her own right as the Motion Picture Costumer responsible for three iconic television “looks”:  Elizabeth Montgomery in “Bewitched”, Barbara Feldon in “Get Smart”, and Mary Tyler Moore in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. They didn’t give Emmys in those days as they do now for costuming, but she would likely have taken home several during her long run as the commonly acknowledged best in the business in her time. At one point she had several shows going at once:  in addition to Mary’s show she also supervised “Rhoda”, “Phyllis”, and “The Bob Newhart Show”. When all those folded she went on to do “Lou Grant” and then the second “Newhart” show, after which she called it quits. The look she developed for Mary Tyler Moore had a major impact on working women’s fashion in the 1970s.

Leslie Hall was born in 1925 in Chicago. After high school she worked as a model and was first runner-up for “Miss Chicago” of 1946, losing (ironically) to Cloris Leachman with whom she later worked for so many years. In the same year she came out west to Los Angeles and became an Earl Carroll showgirl, and it was during those years that she met and married my father. They moved from Hollywood to Toluca Lake in the early fifties after my birth and divorced in 1953. A couple of years later, my mother decided to go back to work.

She originally wanted to be a set designer, and got a job at CBS Television City as a “set decorator”, working on an eclectic range of shows: “Playhouse 90”, “Art Linkletter’s House Party”, “Climax”, “The Bob Crosby Show”, and others. 1950s Hollywood sexism asserted itself, and it became clear to her that she would probably never graduate from prop shopper to set designer, so in the late 1950s she switched over to costuming, where her aesthetic and organizational abilities were more quickly recognized. At Warner Brothers she worked on all the television shows which dominated prime time in the late ‘50s: “77 Sunset Strip”, “Hawaiian Eye”, “Surfside Six”, “The Roaring Twenties”, “Maverick”, “Laramie”, and the rest. As a chubby, unpopular sixth grader I basked in her reflected glory when Troy Donahue showed up once with her at my school to pick me up at the end of the day. The twelve-year-old girls at Beverly Vista School couldn’t believe that someone like me could have a connection with such a dreamboat. My reputation soared for nearly a week, then settled back to its customary level.

Leslie Hall married three times: to Huntz Hall, my father, to Ben Kadish, a producer, and to Myron Healey, a character actor. After the third marriage ended in divorce she made the wise decision that marriage was not for her.  That was good news for me. In my teen years I tended to get along better with her boyfriends than I had with her husbands.

The final 20 or so years of my mother’s life were not happy ones. After retirement she became somewhat reclusive and phobic, with dementia and physical incapacity finally taking over her mind and body. For the final ten years of her life she lived at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills where she received wonderful care.

As you can tell, I am fiercely proud of my mother. She overcame a horrendous childhood in Chicago: her parents were a pair of Jazz Age Scott and Zelda wannabes who failed every parenting test imaginable. After high school she wanted to go to college, but her father forbade it. So she moved out west instead. Perhaps her greatest achievement in my mind was her challenge to the structure of the Motion Picture Costumers’ union: when she began work in costuming, men’s cards were numbered 1, 2, and 3; women’s were 4, 5, and 6. The highest card a woman could hold was 4.  Leslie Hall challenged that system and won. She became the first woman costumer to hold a number 1 card. Her perseverance meant that women and men—at least in this one area of below-the-line Hollywood work would have pay equity in the years ahead.

You don’t survive a childhood like my mother’s without some scars. Let’s just say that as a parent she could be complicated. But she gave me exponentially better parenting than she received, and my friends always marveled at how cool and funny my mother was and how better we got along with each other than they did with their parents. At my school open houses a couple of teachers actually accused me of trying to pull something over on them by bringing my sister instead of my mother. She was enormously devoted to me, and she loved Kathy and Oliver and my first wife Michelle too. Dementia really took her away over a decade ago, so much of our grieving has been done along the way. As saddened as I am by her passing, I am even more grateful for her generosity and her courage as a single parent in a time when raising an equally complicated kid didn’t come with a lot of social support. I hope someday she will get her due in the history of television fashion. And I trust that she now knows the depth of a divine love which she longed for all her remarkable life.