Sunday, December 10, 2017

Homily: The Second Sunday of Advent [December 10, 2017] Trinity, Santa Barbara

            Although I’ve lived about half my life in the East and Midwest, I am a native Southern Californian and I thought I was pretty familiar with the seasonal fires we experience here from time to time. I served as the vicar in Malibu in the 1980s, and during my years there we had three very serious fires, two of which almost took out St. Aidan’s Church. But I have to say that this week’s wildfires—here in nearby Ventura, but also in Sylmar, West Los Angeles, Santa Clarita, San Bernardino, and two in San Diego County--these fires seem to be different not in degree but in kind from what we have experienced before. Our very environment is changing before our eyes. The folly of our human exploitation of nature is finally catching up with us. The climate change we have brought about through our selfish activity turns out to have real consequences for real people and the real world in the here and now.
            Today’s gospel passage [Mark 1: 1-8]—the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel—tells us of the preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. The other gospels give us more details about John the Baptist, but all Mark tells us today is that he proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins”. We’ll hear more details about John the Baptist from John’s Gospel next week, but today’s passage asks that we think about the core of his message: “a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins”. With fires and their attendant suffering raging all around us—with the natural world looking and feeling and even smelling apocalyptic everywhere we turn—it is not hard to think about repentance, forgiveness, and sin. Let’s explore what these ideas might mean for us individually and together on this Second Sunday of Advent.
The Gospel of Mark (the gospel we will be reading throughout this liturgical year) begins without any infancy narratives, thrusting us right into the adult life and ministry of Jesus through his baptism at the hands of John. Jesus hears John’s call, submits to his baptism, and immediately goes out into the wilderness to discern his vocation. Jesus then returns to spend his days teaching, preaching, healing, and challenging civic and ecclesiastical authority. Mark’s gospel enacts the implications of baptism in the lives of us, Jesus’s followers. And it even ends in the middle of an incomplete sentence, suggesting that you and I, Mark’s readers and hearers, are to go out and do likewise.
When we think about John the Baptist’s message and our own baptized lives--“a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins”—we are naturally drawn to those two loaded words that church authorities have so misused over the centuries: “repentance” and “sin”. Many people I know—including my own parents—have been driven from the church because of the manipulation and abuse of the ideas of repentance and sin. As a consequence, progressive Christians like you and me are often tempted to say that repentance and sin are outmoded concepts and that contemporary Christianity is now so advanced as no longer to need them. 
It doesn’t quite work that way. The writer Flannery O’Connor—herself a kind of Pre-Vatican II old style Roman Catholic—skewered this idea in her early novel Wise Blood. In this book we meet the radio preacher Onnie Jay Holy—host of the program Soulsease, “a quarter hour of mood, melody, and mentality”—who has founded the Holy Church of Christ without Christ. Reverend Holy is a popular evangelist, and he has tailored his gospel message so as to take all the hard things out of it. He tells people that they are not sinful but naturally sweet. As he says in his sermon,
“Every person that comes onto this earth . . . is born sweet and full of love. A little child loves ever'body, friends, and its nature is sweetness--until something happens. Something happens, friends, I don't need to tell people like you that can think for theirselves. As that little child gets bigger, its sweetness don't show so much, cares and troubles come to perplext it, and all its sweetness is driven inside it. Then it gets miserable and lonesome and sick, friends. It says, 'Where is all my sweetness gone? where are all the friends that loved me?' and all the time, that little beat-up rose of its sweetness is inside, not a petal dropped, and on the outside is just a mean lonesomeness.” [Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood, chapter 9]

O’Connor is of course skewering the kind of optimistic, liberal Christianity you and I might be drawn to—one that finds the ideas of sin and repentance uncomfortable and so wants surgically to extract them from our faith. As Onnie Jay Holy says, “If you want to get anywheres in religion, you got to keep it sweet.”
            As a progressive Christian, I know enough about my fellow travelers to understand this tendency. People have been abused by the idea of sin. Let’s take it out altogether. But sin is not really an abusive, hierarchical concept. Sin is the Bible’s diagnosis of the human problem. Sin is not something we “do”. Sin is something we are caught up in.
            A good way to see how we can’t help being enmeshed in sin is to look at how our prayer book talks about sin in the service for Holy Baptism. When the candidates and sponsors are examined, they are asked to renounce sin in three modes: first the cosmic, then the social, and only third comes the personal:
                        Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces
                        of wickedness that rebel against God?
                        I renounce them. (Cosmic)

                        Do you renounce the evil powers of this world
                        which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
                        I renounce them. (Social)

                        Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you
                        from the love of God?
                        I renounce them. (Personal)

For both the Bible and the prayer book, individual sin is a consequence of social and cosmic evil. Try as we might to live righteous lives, we cannot help but find ourselves implicated in bad dealing and oppression. We can eat local and drive hybrid cars all we like; we still cannot extricate ourselves from the web of political and economic injustice. Many of the very clothes I wear are produced by child labor. None of us has clean hands.
            As old-fashioned and frightening as it sounds, the word “sin” still has meaning for you and me today. The Bible’s idea of sin is less one of a fundamental sickness than it is a kind of wandering in the wrong direction. This is where John the Baptist’s message of “repentance” comes in. The Greek word—metanoia—we translate as “repent” literally means “turn around”. It’s like those red signs you see while passing freeway exits: “Wrong Way”. You and I, our nation and our world, are heading the wrong way. This autumn’s California fires, the devastating hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean are nature’s big red “Wrong Way” signs telling us to turn around and head another way. As in nature, so in our personal lives: the relational disruptions we experience, the sense of aimlessness or despair, serve as signs not that we are unclean or unholy, but that we are often heedlessly, sometimes purposefully, heading in the wrong direction. Wrong way. Turn around. Walk together toward the light.
            For John the Baptist as for Jesus, “repentance” does not mean feeling bad about something. For both of them, as for us, “repentance” means not “remorse” but changing our behavior. God doesn’t want us to feel bad about the selfish or hurtful things we’ve done. God wants us to stop doing them and start living in a new way.
            Listen again to the words of the collect for today:
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer . . .
Advent is a time when God calls us, in a phrase right out of the 1960s, to “clean up our act”. We walk together toward the good news of Christmas, the news of God’s unshakable love for us, of God’s abiding presence with us. We cannot take in that good news unless we first face in to the bad news. In fact, it is part of the good news that we get to hear the bad news at all. Our culture tells us that there is no problem that cannot be solved by buying something. Our Christian faith tells us another story.
I’m sorry to tell you: we are not naturally sweet. I’m happy to say: we are not hopelessly selfish. We are finite, fragile creatures who often get lost. Advent and Christmas proclaim that we are so precious to the one at the center of things that that one is coming to find us. We will miss God’s loving, generous, forgiving action if we persistently head in the wrong direction. We will also miss that one’s blessing if we obsessively dwell in our own guilt and shame.
Let’s listen to John the Baptist as he prepares us to meet Jesus. Wrong way! Turn around! God loves you and is coming to find you. Help God in that redemptive, liberating process by looking yourself full in the face. If you don’t like what you see there, take on a new way of living and acting toward yourself, toward others, toward the world. The blessing of Advent, and the promise of Christmas, is that God will walk with us as we turn around and travel together with Jesus toward the light. Amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Homily: The Last Sunday after Pentecost [November 26, 2017] Trinity, Santa Barbara

            Today, the last Sunday after Pentecost, also goes by another name, the “Feast of Christ the King”. This Sunday takes its title from today’s collect, which names Jesus as God’s “well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords”. To tell the truth, I have never much liked this Sunday or its title. In the twenty-first century, the idea of a king is either a nightmare or a joke. Comparing Jesus to one does not seem to be doing him any particular kind of favor.
            A new production of the play King Charles III recently opened at the Pasadena Playhouse. I haven’t seen it, but a family friend of ours composed the music for it, so I have been following the reviews. The play develops the idea that, after a lifetime of waiting, Prince Charles finally succeeds to the throne. The conflict develops when, to everyone’s chagrin, the new king refuses to act like a puppet but actually asserts himself as a thoughtful, principled monarch. Who, they wonder, does this man think he is? In the present era, kings are something of a joke, a sentimental holdover from a former age. Why would I want to compare Jesus to someone like that?
            If we turn to history, things get even worse. Real, historical kings were a mixed bag. When they had something like real power, kings couldn’t help themselves from abusing it. Just think of all the nasty things our Declaration of Independence says about George III. Calling Christ the king implies either that he is a fool or a tyrant. That’s what happens when we project social analogies onto the cosmos.
            We humans cannot help talking about God in social analogies. Because God is ultimately mysterious and indescribable, we attempt to explain God by using figurative language. Doing so is natural but inherently dangerous. Here is how my late friend, the priest and theologian Marilyn McCord Adams, describes it:
Theology trades in social analogies. God and the people of God form a society. When we try to express who we are to God and who God is to us, we naturally take our own society as a model. . .  [But] the human social systems that we project onto the heavens are inevitably unjust. . .  [Every] human society spawns systemic evils, structures of cruelty that torment and degrade some while privileging others. Casting God in various roles in such societies already represents God as complicit in injustice and cruelty. But there is worse to come. Societies make idols of their own survival, because our lives depend on them. They justify existing social arrangements by representing God as their author and enforcer. Because Divine Wisdom would know what it was doing, the result is to picture God as deliberately sponsoring whatever inequality and cruelty the social system spawns.--Marilyn McCord Adams, “Arguments from Tradition”, Christian Holiness and Human Sexuality.

            We think we’re doing Jesus a favor by calling him “Christ the King”, a term he never uses about himself. We want to say that real authority lies not with earthly rulers but with Jesus. We want to say that we follow Jesus but not Caesar. But calling Jesus the King can’t help but turn him into a kind of Caesar. What can we do?
            Luckily Jesus gives us an image and some language in today’s gospel [Matthew 25: 31-46], the familiar passage from the 25th chapter of Matthew.  The ones included are those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, visited those imprisoned or sick. Those excluded are the ones who failed to do so. This gospel passage suggests two things: that real authority lies not in power but in service, and that God is actually most recognizably present in those who are up against it.
A contemporary thinker I like very much, Terry Eagleton, wrote a small book several years ago with the gigantic title, The Meaning of Life.  And you might be surprised that Eagleton—a British literary theorist and highly secular philosopher and cultural critic—ends his meditation on life’s meaning with a discussion of just this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  For Eagleton, the genius of Matthew’s 25th chapter lies in the way it takes the “meaning-of-life question” out of the hands of philosophers and “returns it to the routine business of everyday existence.”  As he elaborates, “The key to the universe turns out to be not some shattering revelation, but something which a lot of decent people do anyway, with scarcely a thought.” Eagleton muses, “Eternity lies not in a grain of sand but in a glass of water.  The cosmos revolves on comforting the sick.” [The Meaning of Life, pp. 164-165]
            There is a lot to be said for the way Terry Eagleton and many of the secular people with whom I find common cause would read this chapter: whether or not we agree about the big questions, certainly we can all find common cause by alleviating human need.  Jesus himself seems to turn us from a consideration of the big questions to an extended parable about meeting him in the service of those who are up against it.  This is a truism that even Al Franken and Roy Moore, when they’re not otherwise occupied with their own problems, could probably agree on.
            And yet, as a follower of Jesus there is something beyond this truism that nags at me. Sentimentality aside, I want to give a glass of water or a piece of bread to a person in need not because it’s a nice thing to do but because I believe that in doing so I serve and meet Jesus. I don’t totally part company with Terry Eagleton and my liberal friends on any of this, because frankly I believe as they do that serving the suffering is the meaning of life. We Christians don’t feed the hungry or visit the sick only because it’s a nice thing to do.  We feed and visit them because we believe they represent God to us. 
            As we try to make meaning of the universe, we can’t seem to help ourselves. We persist in making Jesus into something like a heavenly version of an earthly monarch. We keep on rationalizing our justice work as some kind of benevolence or charity or, that awful phrase, “giving back”. There is both less and more to it than that.
            The Romans persecuted the early Christians for two reasons. First, Christians were martyred because they refused to worship the image of the emperor and in so doing insisted that someone other than Caesar had the primary claim on their allegiance. Second, Christians were suppressed because in the ministry of the early deacons, they set up something like the world’s first social service network. Rome was a laissez faire society. It didn’t like the idea of do-gooders doing what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel to do: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned. The early Christians violated Roman religion by insisting that real authority lay not in power but in powerlessness. They violated Roman values by finding something valuable in the very people Roman elites wanted to throw away. For early Christians, real patriotism was less about militarism and more about social justice. The poor, the sick, the imprisoned have a claim on our attention because they have inherent human dignity. Following Jesus meant honoring them and not some clownish thug pretending to power.
            I will leave it to you to conclude what Jesus would have us do in the present moment, a time when we are confronted both by human need on a startling world-wide scale and an array of clownish thugs claiming, in our own president’s words, “I’m the only one that matters.” Whether it’s refugees from Syria, the Rohingya in Myanmar, undocumented or falsely imprisoned people of color in the United States; whether it’s children or working poor people without health insurance or those at the mercy of unprecedented environmental disasters; whether it’s people we know who suffer from loss or illness or addiction or discrimination or abuse. There are plenty of suffering people all around us who need a hand and a voice. Real Christian piety is as much about making solidarity with them out there as it is about saying our prayers in here.
            When we call Christ a king, we are trying to do him honor but end up performing a disservice. As Jesus tells us this morning, we meet God not in the powerful but in the powerless. And if powerless people are holy, then that must tell us something about the nature of God. God’s primary attribute is not power but powerlessness. The one we meet in Jesus claims our allegiance not with a crown or a scepter, but on a cross.
            Let us follow the one who says “No” to power and stands with those who do not have it. Let us stand with the ones he stands with, and make common cause with those who in their suffering show us something of the depth and nature of God. Let us follow Jesus, and let us refuse to call him king. On this Last Sunday after Pentecost, let us finally come to know Jesus as our brother, not our monarch. Let us resolve not to kneel before him but to walk with him as together we love and serve the world. Amen.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Homily: The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost [October 29, 2017] Trinity, Santa Barbara

If you have ever worked as a teacher at any level (elementary, secondary, college, graduate school, even seminary) you will recognize today’s gospel (Matthew 22: 34-44) as having all the marks of a bad faculty meeting. Much like the aging tenured faculty, the Pharisees gang up on the new guy and try to pose him a trick question. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” There were 613 commandments in the Torah or Jewish law—248 “dos” and 365 “don’ts”—and being asked to select one from among them qualifies as a first century gotcha question. Like that of their modern academic counterparts, the aggression of the ancient scholars in this story proves that highly educated people are at least no nicer and often a lot meaner than everybody else.
Today’s gospel shows two interactions—the great commandment question posed by the Pharisees, and the one about David asked by Jesus—and as such it gives us the fourth and fifth of the “controversy stories” in this part of Matthew’s gospel. (Last week we heard the back and forth about paying taxes to Caesar. The prior week Jesus told the story of the wedding feast to which nobody came.) Taken together, these “controversy stories” place Jesus at odds with the prevailing religious wisdom of his time. Again, like a bad faculty meeting, we seem to be in the presence of a contest where the smug establishment can’t get the better of this brilliant upstart in their midst.  Though I’m not going to say much about the second interchange—the one where Jesus poses the question about
 David’s relationship to the Messiah—the Pharisees’ inability to answer suggests not only that they are arrogant jerks but that they’re really not very good bible scholars. Some people are authoritarians because they believe in hierarchy. Others rely on structures to protect them because they really are not all that good at what they do.
For me, though, the energy in this morning’s gospel revolves around the first interaction. The Pharisees ask Jesus to name the greatest commandment, and of course like any brilliant student Jesus immediately reframes the question and names not one but two. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”  And then he concludes: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Over the years, this surprising summary has become time-worn and familiar. If you’re as old as I am, you may remember this “summary of the law” as something the priest said every Sunday in the days of the 1928 Prayer Book. It’s familiarity often blunts its moral and intellectual force.
In one sense, there is nothing terribly surprising in this answer. Jesus is in fact quoting scripture here—in one case Deuteronomy, in the other Leviticus. (Deuteronomy 6:5 about loving God, Leviticus 19:18 about loving neighbor.) But in the way he answers the Pharisees’ question, Jesus does say something new: he is the first teacher in the Jewish tradition to say that loving God and loving neighbor are of equal importance. We knew that each commandment was important. We didn’t know that loving others was just as important as loving God. You cannot credibly say you love God if you are cruel or unjust to human beings. Piety without compassion is false.
This fall, we have set these four Sundays aside as a parish community to think and talk together about stewardship and our annual pledge campaign to support Trinity’s operating budget for 2018. The vestry has adopted what some might consider an audacious goal, to increase giving by $165,000 over 2017. The pulpit is not the place to go into all the reasoning behind this goal.  We will leave that to the three house gatherings we’re holding in the next couple of weeks. I will say, however, that as big as the goal sounds, all it does is fully fund the ministry we are doing now. There are no gigantic new programs or hires in this budget. We’re merely catching up to pay the lay staff and the next rector and associate what we think they deserve. This increase will align our compensation with our values, allowing us to work for justice outside with integrity inside.
But as we focus on stewardship, generosity, and our own giving, Jesus’s summary of the law offers us a framework to think about why we need a church in the first place and what you and I owe to its ongoing life and support.
I’ve worked in the church for over 40 years, and I have lived through and survived multiple attempts by churches to construct sophisticated, pithy, ingenious mission statements. (Thankfully, that time is over.) Crafting these slogans is useful in that it forces us to think about what we do and why we do it. But any church school kid could tell you that churches exist essentially to do two things. They exist to worship. They exist to serve. In linking the commandments to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and our neighbor as ourselves, Jesus has given us the only mission statement for the church that makes any sense. Let’s put it on our letterhead and website!
Churches exist to worship. When people tell me that they don’t need church, that they can worship God at the beach or on the golf course, I often want to reply that I understand them: I’ve spent plenty of boring sermons thinking about what it would be like to be outdoors. But more to the point, you and I need the church help focus us on the things that really matter. We come in the church to pray, and prayer is basically about paying attention. We gather not to get God’s attention, but to allow God to get ours. When I’m trying to sink a putt or looking for a shell in the sand, I’m focused on something particular and maybe even important, but I’m not focusing on God. When I come to church, the liturgy, the music, the readings, the sermon point me to reflecting on life’s ultimate questions. There are no other places in our common life where we set everything aside to open ourselves to the big questions of meaning and purpose. If I am going to try to love God with all my heart and soul and mind, I am going to need some place to do it and some other people to do it with.
Churches exist to worship. Churches also exist to serve. And if we are to believe Jesus this morning, the service is at least as important as the worship. Again, if prayer is about God getting our attention, we are asked to understand that we experience God as much through our connections with other human beings as we do through stone and stained glass and song. That is why churches have traditionally seen pastoral care—visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, responding to personal and family crises of all sorts—as core to what they do. It is also why churches have emphasized justice work and community outreach as ways of both helping those who struggle but also of opening ourselves to the good news and judgment embedded in the claims and cries of those beyond our walls.
Kathy and I are interlopers at Trinity. We’re only here for a prescribed time and I’m only here in a narrowly defined role. But in the few months we have been with you we have come to love this place. Who wouldn’t? You do the church’s two core tasks very well. You worship beautifully and with integrity. You serve each other and the community with compassion and commitment. So here’s the good news: if church is about loving God and loving neighbor, Trinity Church is already doing what Jesus told his legalistic interrogators and the rest of us to do.
And the logic of Jesus’s charge to us carries us one step further. It is time now to align our piety and compassion with our values. It is time for each of us to take seriously the claims of God’s mission on us and our resources. Something is not right if I say that I love God and my neighbor and then spend almost all my money on myself. If I value the worship of God, if I value the love of my neighbor as I say I do, then I will allow God to open up my heart to a spirit of generosity that will allow me to align the way I use my money with my spiritual priorities. If I’m spending more on my cable and cellphone bills each month than I’m giving to support God’s mission, something is seriously out of whack.
When he gave a serious answer to a gotcha question, Jesus called his inquisitors and us toward a higher righteousness than most people usually live by. It is easy to follow 613 rules. It is harder to organize one’s life around two big and challenging principles. As in my spiritual and moral lives, so in my personal philanthropy: what is a gift that reflects what I say I believe? What is a gift that aligns my resources with what I value both in the church and in the world?
In framing the questions this way, Jesus both simplified and complicated our spiritual and moral lives. In giving himself to us and for us, he set a standard of personal generosity that few of us will ever be asked to match. That is why we call this process a “journey to generosity”. Some of us are there now. Most of us are on the way. As we take this spiritual, moral, and financial road trip together, let us start by thanking God for what we already have: a beautiful place to worship, a committed and joyful parish community with which to serve, a wider community and world in desperate need of what we have to offer. 
May God’s generosity become the pattern for our own. And may we continue to grow in loving God and loving our neighbor in real and tangible ways as we make our way together down this road of faith and life. Amen.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Homily: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [September 24, 2017] Trinity, Santa Barbara

            The great Leonard Cohen—singer, songwriter, poet--died at age 82 last year on November 7, one day before the presidential election. Whether it was out of grief at his passing or terror of the election results, I spent most of November re-listening to the Leonard Cohen songs I have loved all my adult life. In the bleak days of November 2016 and beyond, I have found his particular combination of biblical allusion, Zen practice, and mordant wit somehow deeply comforting. 
One of my favorite of Leonard Cohen’s songs is “Everybody Knows”, released in the dystopian late Cold War Iran-Contra year 1988. When introducing “Everybody Knows”, Cohen said, "Here's a terrible new song. Yes, it embodies all my darkest thoughts...”

Here is one verse that’s suitable for reading aloud in church:
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
Everybody knows
            Something about this song captures the double-whammy of our shared human senses of feeling both guilty and aggrieved at the same time. It’s not only that we’re often selfish and self-serving; it’s also that we’re enraged that there are others in the world who are better at being selfish and self-serving than we are.
            A sense of the doubleness of our moral dilemma emerges in today’s gospel reading as well (Matthew 20: 1-16), the tale Jesus tells we conventionally call the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. A landowner hires laborers at five different times during the day: early and mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon, late afternoon. When it is time to pay up, the last receive their wages first. And when the first—those who had “borne the burden in the heat of the day”—come to collect their pay, they receive the same pay as everybody else. The first laborers are understandably angry: the landowner has treated the long-timers and the newcomers equally. When they complain, the landowner replies, “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Are you envious because I am generous?”
Those who write biblical commentaries will say first that this parable is really about the equality of Jews (those who have been faithful for centuries) and gentiles (those who have just recently joined up) in the church. While I’m sure there is some truth in this analysis, I don’t find the longtimer/newcomer tension the most interesting aspect of the story. To my mind, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard tells us many things about ourselves, most importantly something about the layers of self-deception which keep us from seeing ourselves and others clearly. We all manage somehow to feel both guilty and aggrieved. We all talk into our pockets. We all want a box of chocolates and a long-stemmed rose.
It is not an accident that Jesus uses the idea of money here to reveal and diagnose our spiritual problem. Money is the medium our culture has invented to represent value. As the poet Wallace Stevens said, “Money is a kind of poetry.” These vineyard workers are upset about their wages because their wages represent their time, and time (and remember, “Time is money”) is something we value. The landowner messes with the workers’ usual equations by assigning the same value to differing stretches of time: 3, 6, 9, 12 hours all receive the same pay. Hey, I gave you more of my valuable time. Don’t I deserve more than those others? Everyone thinks they have good reason to feel aggrieved.
I thought about this parable and the paradox it embodies earlier this year when I read a provocative op-ed piece in the New York Times [Richard V. Reeves, “Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich”, New York Times, 6/10/17] by Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution. It was called, “Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich”, and it was one of the few things I’ve read recently that made me stop and re-examine my own social and economic situation in relation to others. Like many fellow progressives, I have bought into the 1% versus 99% language used to describe economic inequality. But Reeves’s point is that the true measure of wealth disparity in America is not between the top 1 and the bottom 99 but rather between the top 20 and bottom the 80. As he says,
This favored fifth at the top of the income distribution . . . has been separating from the 80 percent below. Collectively, this top fifth has seen a $4 trillion-plus increase in pretax income since 1979, compared to just over $3 trillion for everyone else. Some of those gains went to the top 1 percent. But most went to the 19 percent just beneath them.
Reeves goes on:
The rhetoric of “We are the 99 percent” has in fact been dangerously self-serving, allowing people with healthy . . . incomes to convince themselves that they are somehow in the same economic boat as ordinary Americans, and that it is just the so-called super rich who are to blame for inequality.
Youch! If Reeves is right (and I think he is), I have a perceptual problem. Here I have been spending all that energy blaming Bezos, Gates, Buffett, and Zuckerberg (the 1%) and their superwealth and imagining myself in the same boat with those who are really up against it (the 99%). My perceptual problem turns then into a moral problem. It turns out that I really have more in common with the fat cats than I’d like to imagine. And not only that: as one of the top 20% I can continue to reap the benefits of affluence and still complain about not being in the heady reaches of the top 1%. As Reeves concludes,
There’s a kind of class double-think going on here. On the one hand, upper-middle-class Americans believe they are operating in a meritocracy (a belief that allows them to feel entitled to their winnings); on the other hand, they constantly engage in antimeritocratic behavior in order to give their own children a leg up. . . . For the upper middle classes, regardless of their professed political preferences, zoning, wealth, tax deductions and educational opportunity reinforce one another in a virtuous cycle.

Thus, like the laborers in the vineyard, I manage to have it both ways: I am guilty and aggrieved. I benefit from all kinds of generosity which I confuse with my own achievement. As the late great Ann Richards once said of the first President Bush, “He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, (1 Corinthians 4:7) “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” As my friend Harvey Guthrie says, “We’re all on cosmic welfare.”
            Jesus’s use of the symbols of money and time in this parable points us to a profound truth about ourselves. Whether we’re in the one percent, the top 20 percent, we are all recipients of enormous cosmic and social generosity. This is not a story only about the longevity of church membership. It is a story about our awareness of our own privilege and our need to extend that privilege to others. As long as we allow ourselves to claim a false solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed we will continue to do more to advance our own interests than to help realize theirs. As a white, straight, relatively affluent male, it is always tempting for me to put myself in the same discriminatory boat with people of color, women, gays and lesbians, and the poor. As a follower of Jesus, my job is not to claim membership in the community of the oppressed. My job is to make common cause with them and work together to undo the structures of oppression that have given me the leg up that I think I so richly deserve.
            Going through life feeling both guilty and aggrieved is not an attractive stance toward life. We are all the recipients of so much more generosity on the part of others and God than we usually acknowledge. It is easy to find yourself born on third base and think you hit a triple. It is easier still to lament that the triple should have been a home run. In our gospel for this morning, Jesus invites us to see ourselves and others in a new way. All of us have been given so much more than we could have earned on our own. We should not confuse our own good fortune with moral worth.
            In Leonard Cohen’s words, each of us wants a box of chocolates and a long-stemmed rose. In God’s economy, we cannot hoard life’s blessings to ourselves. In God’s economy, we must strive to make chocolates and roses available to all. Very few of us are the super-rich; very few are the real poor. Affluent or struggling as we may be, we are called to do what we can to extend our unacknowledged privileges to those who have few or none.
It is no accident that Jesus begins his Beatitudes by saying, “Blessed are the poor.” God’s justice is broader and more expansive than any so-called fairness you and I could concoct. We need to stop fooling ourselves, finding shelter in self-serving ideas of fairness. This is the way Jesus’s universe works: we all--the innocent and the guilty—finally deserve and receive the same reward. Are we willing to work to make our world like Jesus’s? Or will we remain envious because God is generous? Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Homily: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [September 10, 2017] Trinity, Santa Barbara

            I will turn 68 later this month—don’t worry, to aid in your birthday shopping, I’ll place a full list of my sizes in Parish Notes—and earlier this year I celebrated 40 years of priestly ministry. On the whole, these make a couple of nice milestones. As happy as I am in my personal and professional life, I am sad to say that, as I look back over my life and ministry, I have never experienced a national mood as distressing and depressing as the one we’re in right now.
            That’s not to say living in America has always been smooth sailing. The tensions over the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War were significant, and the ongoing struggles for gender and sexual orientation equality have taken their toll on all of us. But something about this moment feels different. America has always been torn between two competing visions of our national purpose—one expansive and communitarian, the other narrow and individualistic—but we now have a president who seems intent not only on systematically undoing the expansive policies of his predecessor but also on inflaming the nation and world in the process. It has gotten so bad that I’m not sure both sides of our national divide could agree on the weather outside or even the time of day.
            After a seemingly endless stream of presidential enormities, this week saw the administration’s “rescinding” the DACA (“Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals”) program. Around 800,000 undocumented young Americans brought to this country as children are now at risk of being deported to countries they’ve never seen. America is the only home they know. The bad news here is not only the ugliness of this action. The worse news is that millions of otherwise rational Americans think ending DACA is a good idea.
            As followers of Jesus, how do we make our way through such a national time of enmity, distrust, and bad faith? How do we deal with a president who violates virtually every norm of Christian faith and practice? We are dealing here with real wounds, real injuries, real betrayals—again, not the kinds of problems easily or swiftly resolved. In today’s gospel [Matthew 18: 15-20], Jesus tells us this:
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector

Jesus is speaking to us here not as a nation or a family but as a church. It is not very likely I could get an appointment with the president to tell him my concerns face to face, so I doubt I can follow Jesus’s prescription to the letter. But the principle seems a sound one: speak directly to the offender, bring others in to help you out, take it public if there is no response. Robert Mueller, I hope you’re listening.
You and I live in a society where neither side can trust or even engage the other. We are dealing with leaders who disregard or betray Christian and humane values at every turn. How do we make our way through this time with integrity?
When I served as dean of a seminary I taught a course on the theology of Shakespeare’s late plays. The older I get, the more I find that Shakespeare has an answer for almost every serious question we can pose. The play that comes to mind is Shakespeare’s late play The Winter’s Tale, a play that is neither a comedy (though it plays like one) nor a tragedy (though it feels like one) but a romance—a genre somewhere in between the two. It concerns a king named Leontes who becomes so insanely jealous of his wife Hermione that his violent and erratic behavior leads to the death of their son, the loss of their daughter, and what appears to be the death of Hermione herself. This is a play in which people do unspeakably bad things to each other, and those actions have tragic—or near tragic consequences.
            Yet all is not lost. The end of the play brings not only life; it brings forgiveness—real forgiveness for real wrongs enacted—and with it the possibility of a new community built now, in W.H. Auden’s words, “on trust instead of threats.”
            If I am not under the illusion that I could arrange a sit-down with the president, I’m certainly sure that I have no magic up my sleeve that would turn his heart of stone into a heart of flesh. So I am not really interested in attempting reconciliation with the 45th president of the United States, a man who has said he has no need of confession. But I am interested in how we can, together, restore our national community to life.
I don’t know about you, but I have let the 45th President of the United States and his shrinking base of aggrieved followers take up far too much space in my mental world. If I am going to be open to any kind of reconciliation or renewal, I need not only to stop obsessing about both his obstreperous tweets and his cruel and heartless actions. I need to turn my attention instead to those injured and at risk from his words and his policies. I need to make common cause with those who are in literal, material, spiritual danger: undocumented immigrants, especially the dreamers; the poor, especially those without healthcare or housing; people of color, especially those menaced by white supremacist groups blasphemously calling themselves Christian; the LGBT community, especially right now the transgender soldiers who seek only to serve their country; and of course the millions of women and children and all who are regularly placed in jeopardy by the callous policies regarding reproductive rights and education put forth by this White House and Congress.
You and I in the Christian community are called to work toward reconciliation with those whose values and actions violate and betray the values of compassion, justice, and peace—the values of Jesus. Real life is not a situation comedy. We do not reconcile with people by getting into a group hug with them. We reconcile with them when they repent—literally “turn around” and behave justly and nobly. But we do not, we cannot, wait around for them to change.  We begin by making common cause with those who really are in jeopardy. As followers of Jesus, our job is not to make peace with oppressors.  It is to make common cause with the oppressed. Solidarity must come first. Reconciliation will come in God’s own time. Right now, we have our own work to do.
There are plenty of urgent tasks to choose from, but president’s heartless, cruel, and mendacious ending of DACA calls for a response from the entire faith community now. We need to respond with words first, but shortly thereafter with actions. And making our church and community a sanctuary for those in danger of deportation seems like me the clearest and most obvious place to start. There are already many dedicated people in Santa Barbara at work on the sanctuary movement, many of them in this parish. I believe it is time for Trinity Church to build on this individual and work and to step in, as an entire parish community, to the ecumenical and interfaith work of standing with and for those in this community at risk of deportation. I believe it is time for us to give (yes) our dollars, but also our time, our energy, and maybe even our church space to serve as a support and sanctuary for the dreamers, their families, and all undocumented people who live and work in this city.
Today is “Welcome Back” Sunday. It is the day when our full range of parish ministries and programs swings back into life. What better way is there for us to come back to church than to get back to work? It is not enough for us to think good thoughts on behalf of the oppressed. It is not enough even for us personally to confront intolerance, bigotry, and oppression. We must do that together as church. We must corporately stand with and for those who are up against it. We must publicly speak to those who would oppress and abuse them.
We are all, in a sense, like Hermione—the dead or near-dead heroine of The Winter’s Tale.  We are so stupefied by the cruelty on display in Washington that we’re almost as good as dead. We desperately crave new life. But there is no ingenious dramatic ending that will give it to us. Instead, there are the hearts and hands and minds of people like you and me who want to follow Jesus and serve those he would serve in this place and moment. Together we can do this. Together we can join with people of faith and good will to help strengthen a sanctuary movement here that will serve as love’s counterforce to this administration’s callous malevolence. Then perhaps we will get their attention. The outcome is not in our hands. We may never reconcile with those who want to deport our friends and children. But as we draw closer to the undocumented, we can do something greater. We can, together, build a new community built on trust instead of threats. And that, I believe, is what Jesus is calling us right here and right now, in this place and in this time, together to do. Amen.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Homily: The Transfiguration [August 6, 2017] Trinity, Santa Barbara

Every winter I lead a retreat at our diocesan camp, Camp Stevens, in the mountains outside of Julian, California. Loving those hills as I do, I have never been big on “mountaintop experiences”. They rarely seem to last. The Rocky Mountain High we get on the hilltop often disappears once we near the ground   I don’t really trust the mountaintop experience. Give me the epiphanies on offer at sea level.
I routinely distrusted mountaintop experiences until a couple of weeks ago, when I unexpectedly had the opportunity to spend a Saturday riding up one with two friends from high school. These two guys—Owen and Phil--were in town for the wedding of another classmate’s daughter, and they called me up out of the blue to see if I wanted to go bike riding in Griffith Park with them. Though I usually see them both at our every-ten-year reunions (the next, the fiftieth, comes this October) I hadn’t known them all that well in high school. But I always liked them both a lot, and I’m still spry enough to pedal 50 miles or so, so I said, “Sure, why not?”
We met for breakfast at a coffee shop in Burbank (where we all grew up) and then made our way over to the park. Phil, the buffest of the bunch, suggested we ride the steep back road past Travel Town and the water tower up to the Griffith Park Observatory. Owen and I agreed. As we began our ride, we started talking about our own home lives in high school and the home lives of some of our friends. I was not prepared for what I learned.
We began by sharing some of the family traumas we had ourselves experienced in high school. Even though none of us grew up in Dick and Jane, Ozzie and Harriet households, the three of us came through routine family dysfunctions pretty well. All six of our parents were a bit crazy, but they loved us as best they could.
Then we began talking about our other classmates, people we each knew and admired. I was shocked by what I did not know about them. One boy had been routinely beaten by his father every other day or so. One girl had been serially molested by her father. A girl we all knew turned out to have been living in an almost Dickensian style of poverty. As we named and discussed these friends and others, we began to see that we had all gone through high school without knowing very much about each other at all.
Because all adolescents are perpetually self-involved, it appears that during our high school years we had come to school each day so obsessed with ourselves that we had not really seen each other. The more we pedaled up the hill, the more we began to realize the enormity of the unseen burdens that our friends had carried with them to school each day. As we pulled up finally to the observatory to take selfies by the bronze bust of James Dean, I saw myself and my classmates in a new and surprising way. Not only had I not known them. I hadn’t even known myself very well. I wasn’t as empathetic and compassionate as I had thought myself. The kids I had known and sometimes envied had been struggling with challenges that made mine seem small by comparison.
Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus. In Luke’s account of this event, Peter, James, and John suddenly see Jesus in a new and surprising light. Their understanding of him, like my understanding of my high school classmates, is changed in an instant. As I think about this story in the light of my own recent mountain experience, two ideas emerge. One of them concerns Jesus’s companions, the other Jesus himself.
What actually happens in the Transfiguration story? Luke tells us that, as Jesus was praying, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white”. When I was younger I often had a difficult time with this gospel because it seemed at best supernatural, at worst like a bad laundry detergent commercial. But over the years I have come to see—especially with the help of some conversation with colleagues—that the miracle occurs not so much to Jesus as to his companions. If we read this story with some care, it becomes clear that it is not Jesus who changes; it is his companions’ perception of Jesus that changes.
People followed Jesus for various and sometimes contradictory reasons. Some saw him as a healer, others as a teacher. Some saw him as a nationalist revolutionary who would kick the occupying Romans out of Israel. Some regarded Jesus as a teacher, others as a mere magician. No doubt Peter, James, and John brought various perceptions of Jesus and his mission up the mountain with them that day. What happened in that moment was indeed a transfiguration, but it was a transfiguration of their perception. They suddenly saw—and the presence of the Old Testament heroes Moses and Elijah helped in this—that Jesus was up to bigger things than personal wellness and regime change. They saw that Jesus’s life and ministry were about a cosmic process of redemption, renewal, and hope. Their understanding of Jesus had been too narrow. This mountaintop experience opened their eyes to see Jesus in a new and transfigured way. The one they traveled with was more than a teacher, healer, or revolutionary. He was one whose life and ministry would begin a new age of universal justice, liberation, and peace.
So the first idea asks that we reconsider and perhaps expand our own conception of what Jesus is up to. If that first idea says something about who Jesus is, the second invites us to contemplate both his destiny and ours.
In the second part of the Transfiguration story, a cloud comes and overshadows them. They all enter the cloud, and a voice comes from within it and says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” As when we read a poem or a story, so when we read the Bible we have to ask ourselves some basic questions. What is this cloud doing here, anyway? What is it supposed to represent?
There are a number of possible answers, but to me the most obvious one is that the cloud has something to do with God. The divine voice issues out of that cloud. Jesus and his companions are drawn into it. Everyone is gathered into this cloudy divine presence. And then we hear God’s voice endorsing Jesus and his purpose.
The story’s first idea helps us see Jesus in a new light. The second idea suggests how he and God and we are all connected in this transformative process. In being drawn into and covered by the cloud, Jesus is taken up into God and God’s life. The teacher, healer, and revolutionary now lives and represents something of God’s own purpose. And what’s true for Jesus is also true for Jesus’s friends: Peter, James, and John are taken up into the cloud as well. Their lives now shine with a purpose beyond themselves. They, too, are part of what God is doing in the world. Their stories have meaning and significance not only in themselves but in the ways they exemplify and enact God’s purposes. Everyone leaves the mountaintop with both a new self-understanding and a new meaning. We are more than the sum of our parts. We are part of who God is and what God is doing in the here and now and in the future.
On a July Saturday this year I went up a hill with my friends and experienced a transfiguration of sorts. I saw them, my classmates, and myself in a new and transfigured way. On a similar day a couple of millennia ago, Jesus and his companions went up another hill and saw themselves, their world, and their God with similar newness. They saw that God was up to something big cosmically, socially, and personally. They understood that God’s purposes are bigger and deeper and more universal than they had previously thought. And they understood that God’s purposes extended even to them. Their lives were no longer only about themselves. Their lives now had meaning and significance and purpose because they, with Jesus, had now been taken up into God’s own life. Their ultimate destiny was assured. They could begin to risk themselves for the transformation of the world.
We come now to gather with Jesus and his companions at God’s table. Just as our lives become more than we thought they were, so do this bread and wine. There is more going on than we usually know. For all our self-reflection, you and I still rarely see ourselves or others very well. Every once in a while, our eyes and our minds are opened to see them as God does. You and I, along with Jesus, his companions, and every person with a sad or painful story, add up to more than we think we do. God is doing something in and through us that will both bring us fulfillment and lead to the redemption of the world. Just as Jesus was transfigured, just as his companions’ understanding of him was transfigured, so let our lives and minds and hearts be opened to the holiness of everything and everyone as we gather together with Jesus and take in the bread that is now more than bread, the wine that is now more than wine. As we do that, God’s gracious purpose will work itself in us, and over time we will become more than just what we thought was ourselves. Amen.