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

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            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.


           

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Homily: Roger Kirk Memorial Service [July 29, 2017] St. Paul's, Oregon, Ohio



            I’m Gary Hall, a priest in the church, and I’m here because I’m married to Kathy, who is Betty Kirk’s sister. It has been my peculiar destiny to marry into a family where the men are all expected to be super-nice. I’m not sure I inherited the same “niceness” gene shared by Norman Matheson, Roger Kirk, and Harry Zymaris, but I count it both a great sadness and a great privilege to be presiding at this memorial service for a wonderful and in his own way extraordinary man.
I met Roger Kirk for the first time on the day after Christmas in 1975. I remember this so clearly because I had just driven straight from Boston to Toledo to stay for a few days with Kathy and her family. I had met Betty and the Mathesons in Cambridge a year before, but this trip was my first meeting with Roger. I remember coming into the house on Luverne and seeing Roger, Manhattan in hand, standing by the fireplace in his Harvard sweatshirt. I was ragged and tired from the drive, and Roger offered me a Manhattan. It was the first of many acts of kindness I received at his hands.
            Tim, Joe, and Andy have spoken beautifully about their grandfather and his presence in their lives. I don’t have many stories to add about Roger, but I do have some images:  Roger with a Manhattan in hand by the fire, Roger looking out at the lake, Roger at a baseball game, Roger singing his heart out in church, Roger sitting in the Adirondack chair he helped me assemble in our back yard and reading a book about birds in California, walking with Roger on the beach in Carmel looking at the Hale-Bopp comet in the night sky after Easter in 1997. I know that Roger worked incredibly hard most of his life, but I got to see and know him principally in his rare moments of relaxation. Although we belonged to different political parties, the only serious argument he and I ever had concerned the designated hitter rule. But Roger’s values were solid and pure. He loved his family. He loved nature. He loved baseball. If that version of the Trinity was good enough for Roger, it’s good enough for me.
            We’re gathered this afternoon both to remember Roger Kirk and to give thanks for his life. We have three scripture readings to help us do that.
            Our first reading was from the Wisdom of Solomon. [Wisdom 3: 1-5, 9] “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,” it goes. “Those who trust in God will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with God in love.” The first thing we should acknowledge about Roger was that he was faithful. Speaking as a priest, I might be misunderstood to be talking about Roger’s religious ideas. But in calling him “faithful” I am thinking more of his behavior than his beliefs. Roger was faithful to all of his commitments. He was faithful in his family relationships, in his business practices, in his civic commitments. He gave himself over to the people and the things that he treasured. This kind of faithfulness—personal, relational, practical—is on the decline these days in our culture. Our loyalties today seem to shift with the winds. But Roger was perhaps one of the last of a generation who committed themselves early in life and then stayed with the people and the causes they had given themselves to. I have been working in the church for almost as long as I knew Roger, and it’s hard for me to express how precious a faithful man like Roger is in the work I do. He is there when you need him and even when you don’t. He keeps his promises. He takes on important yet unrewarding work for the sake of the cause.
            The Wisdom of Solomon tells us, “the faithful will abide with God in love.”  Faithfulness is one of the attributes we prize so highly in God, and it is one of the attributes God prizes so highly in us. Whatever else we might have to say about Roger Kirk, the first thing we need to acknowledge is this: the steady, committed, generous faithfulness that Roger exemplified cannot be overvalued. His life of service to the people and the causes he loved shows us the very definition of what the Bible would call a “good life”: family, nature, baseball; and, of course, friends, community, and church, and work. This is not a glamorous list of commitments, but they’re at the center of the Bible’s description of what it means to be a faithful and righteous human being.
            But it is one of the mysteries of existence that righteous, faithful lives do not always run smoothly. Roger celebrated the joys of family, nature, and community even in the midst of business difficulties and personal suffering. The last decade of his life was overshadowed by his experience of Parkinson’s disease, and those of us who knew and loved Roger felt the cruelty of an affliction that took away some of the basic joys that meant so much to him.  In our second scripture reading from Romans, [Romans 8:14-19, 34-35, 37-39], Paul speaks to an early generation of Christians who also experienced suffering, and while Paul does not attempt to answer the question we all pose (Why?) he does get at what suffering reveals to us about ourselves and God. At the end of our passage, he asks:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
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.

Nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”. Not even illness. Not even death. One of the things a long, faithful life reveals to us is the way God’s universe actually works. Over the course of his life, Roger’s faithfulness was not paid back in good luck or “earthly rewards”. But over the course of his life Roger’s steadfast commitments revealed the depth and extent to which his love of God had patterned his life. Roger’s love and faithfulness revealed both to him and us something about how things finally are.
We spend our lives in the psalm’s words living “in the valley of the shadow of death”. We fear death as the worst thing that can happen to us. But as the 23rd psalm and Paul’s letter remind us, there is always someone alongside of us as we traverse that valley. That one is committed to us. That one is faithful. Roger’s lifelong faithfulness is for each and all of us a sign of God’s unbreakable commitment to us. We are precious to that one, and not even the thing we fear most can alter or cancel that commitment. From our vantage, death looks like a defeat. From God’s vantage, death is just one point on a journey in faith and love and hope.
And that, finally, is where the third reading, our gospel [John 11:21-27], comes in.  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 God’s future. And if read the scriptures aright, I also know that nothing—not even his death and separation from us and not even the pain of his final days—can separate Roger Kirk from the love of the God that he knew and served all his life.
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 Roger comes along who shows you what resurrection actually means. When we’re lucky enough to know someone who lives as Roger lived, we get a sense of resurrection not only as a future promise but also as a lived reality now. In all this I am not trying to make Roger holier or nicer or better than he was. I am not saying that Roger was perfect or anything like that. But I am saying that his steadfast, faithful, righteous qualities add up to something like an image of life as it can be lived on God’s terms in the here and now.  Jesus’s resurrection means not only liberation from the fear of death. Jesus’s resurrection means freedom to live as risen people in the midst of life now. Roger Kirk showed at least me what a life lived on God’s terms might look like. And I’ll bet he showed you that, too. For this gift, we will always be grateful.
            We come now to the Eucharist, the meal of bread and wine which Jesus gave us as a way to remember both himself and the kind of living he calls us into. As we gather around God’s table with each other, with Jesus and with Roger (and with Harry Zymaris who was a blood brother with Roger in faithfulness and generosity) let us remember and recommit ourselves to the things in life that really matter. Family. Nature. Community. And, yes, even baseball. If the rules of the church would let me, instead of the wine I would fill the chalice with Manhattans. But you get the idea.
            Roger, we love you. We miss you. We have learned so much from you. And we commit ourselves, each in our own way, to living the faithful, steadfast, generous life that you and your son-in-law Harry have shown us.  Amen.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Homily: The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [July 9, 2017] Trinity, Santa Barbara



            I begin this morning by quoting a couple of experts. The first is none other than Michael Corleone in Godfather Three, who said when called out of retirement, “Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.” There aren’t a lot of ways in which I identify with the Godfather, but surprise at suddenly finding oneself back in action might be one of them.
            The second is from a real local noteworthy, our mutual friend Anne Howard, who last week looked me in the eye and said to me—with all the love and empathy and pastoral care at her command—“Don’t mess up.”
            “Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.” “Don’t mess up.” These are the two watchwords as we gather this morning. I’m very glad to be with you here at Trinity for the next while, and I will do my best not to mess up.
            My wife Kathy and I moved back to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C. When I retired a year ago last February, and for my sermon at the farewell Evensong at the cathedral there I chose as my text a passage from Chapter 17 of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. If you remember that book, you probably recall the episode where Tom and Huck sneak into their own funeral—which is kind of how I felt preaching at my own farewell service.  As Mark Twain says,
The minister related many a touching incident in the lives of the departed, too, which illustrated their sweet, generous natures, and the people could easily see, now, how noble and beautiful those episodes were, and remembered with grief that at the time they occurred they had seemed rank rascalities, well deserving of the cowhide.

            My own “rank rascalities” aside, I have always found that as we look in history’s rear-view mirror we sentimentalize things that drove us crazy at the time. To tell the truth, I was a bit edgy for the National Cathedral—performing the first same-sex weddings there, working with the White House on gun violence, calling for the Confederate flags to come out of the building and its windows, marching with Black Lives Matter—and if I was edgy there, I’ll probably be a bit stodgy for you. (I can actually say the Nicene Creed all the way through without once crossing my fingers.) But relations between clergy and a congregation are about much more than issues or ideology. They are about the commitment to live and work together in love and mutuality to advance and enact God’s mission in the world. I have long admired Trinity Church for its inclusivity, its outreach, and its joyous spirit, and I consider it a great privilege to join you in your life and worship and work for the next indeterminate interim time.
So I ended one ministry with some words from Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer. Let me begin another one with an even more familiar episode from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the famous whitewashing story in Chapter two. You may remember that Aunt Polly caught Tom sneaking back into the house in the middle of the night, and she punished him by assigning him to whitewash the fence on a beautiful Saturday morning. Tom quickly figures that the way to get out of this onerous task is to pretend to his friends that it is so much fun that they will actually pay him to let them do it for him.  Mark Twain concludes this chapter by observing:
Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.

            Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” Though he was a skeptic in religious matters, Mark Twain might be channeling Jesus here who says, in this morning’s gospel,
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. [Matthew 11: 28-30]

Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” I have been a priest for over 40 years now, and one of the things I have learned over time from living and working in the church is that following Jesus is actually fun. The language we use to talk about ministry and discipleship is dark, gloomy, sacrificial language, and it therefore obscures a deep truth about what it means to be a Christian person. Caring for each other, working for justice, praying and advocating for the sick, the oppressed, sitting with the dying—these are not the bitter pills that we swallow as some kind of passport to eternal life. They are eternal life itself. The work we share together as church—praying, celebrating, mourning, serving—this work is life itself distilled into its primary elements. The yoke of Jesus is easy. His burden is light. 
When I was younger, one of my heroes in the ministry was the late Bishop Daniel Corrigan, known I’m sure to many of you. In the 1980s I used to come up from Malibu on Friday mornings once a month to Mount Calvary where Bishop Corrigan would preach and preside at the Eucharist. I was talking with my friend Harvey Guthrie about Dan Corrigan last week, and Harvey told me that he once was part of a conference on the theology of work where Dan was the speaker, and Dan began his remarks by wrapping his lanky form around the lectern, leaning in, and observing, “I haven’t done a lick of work since I was 27.” I think he was in his 60s at the time.
            Now Dan Corrigan lived a very long life, so for him to say, even into his 80s, that he hadn’t done a lick of work for fifty plus years must have said something about what it meant to him to be a follower of Jesus. And when you think about the life that Jesus lived and called others into, it was a life distilled into its primary elements. You and I, as educated first-worlders, often think of Jesus first as a teacher, which of course he was. But if you read the gospels, you’ll see that the people who followed Jesus did so not so much because of what he said as because of how he lived. In a world of political oppression, Jesus lived as a free person. In a world of economic privation, Jesus lived as one blessed with abundance. In a world that drove people into shaming and competition, Jesus lived in mutuality and compassion. In a world that suffered physical and mental illness, Jesus offered healing and renewal. So for Jesus to tell us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light is for him to say something about how we get through the stresses and strains and complexities of what it means to be human in a complicated and sometimes frightening world.
            I don’t know about you, but when I read the New Testament what I find there is a world that looks pretty much like the world I inhabit today. Instead of the Roman Empire we have a political order that seems at worst malevolent and at best out of control. We inhabit a society where people are still persecuted and shamed because of their racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identity. And, as did our first century forbears, we face the complications and stresses of ordinary human life. Relationships—then as now—can be conflictual. People we love leave us or die. Making a living and raising children and caring for aging relatives—all of these take energy and patience and love. And sometimes we’re just too frazzed to be gracious about it.
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.” Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” “I haven’t done a lick of work since I was 27.” Life will always offer us challenges and threats, but it will always give opportunities and blessings, too. We don’t find life’s meaning by searching for complicated abstract truths. We find it in shared prayer and faithful action. We meet it as we gather around the table where Jesus presides.
I cannot promise that everything will go smoothly in our time together. I cannot promise that life won’t intervene with its challenges and stresses as we seek, in community, to follow Jesus, love each other, and serve the world. But I can promise that we will find joy and meaning together in our common life. Following Jesus is actually fun. Following Jesus with others is even more than fun—it is what life is finally about.
“Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.” I am so looking forward to being with you as together we serve Jesus with energy, with compassion, with boldness and without doing even a lick of work. And I swear I will do my best, in our time together, not to mess up. Or at least to do so in interesting ways. Thanks so much for this opportunity to spend this interim time with you. Amen.     

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Homily: Feast of St. Alban [June 25, 2017] St. Alban's, Westwood



            I spent the final years of my professional life living and working on Mount Saint Alban in Washington, D.C., so when the opportunity came around to say something about Alban the Christian saint and martyr on his feast day I couldn’t pass it by. Mount Saint Alban in D.C. is the home to Washington National Cathedral and its three sister institutions—National Cathedral School for girls, Beauvoir [elementary] School, and of course St Albans School for boys.  If you do a Google search for St. Alban, it is this latter institution (including the astronomical tuition it now commands) that gets most of the mentions.
            The historical St. Alban was, of course, the first British martyr. But in the way we tend to trivialize all saints (St. Francis loved domestic pets, St. Valentine flowers and chocolate, St. Christopher surfing), St. Alban seems to be revered mostly because he died on a hill.  The slightly elevated place near London where St. Alban was killed is known as Mount Saint Alban, and its Washington descendant got its name when Joseph Nourse—the first Register of the United States Treasury under four presidents and a renowned nepotist and social climber—bought the farm at the corner of Wisconsin and Massachusetts Avenues and christened it “Mount Alban”. The rest, of course, is history. Except that everybody around the cathedral at least seems to have forgotten the life and witness Saint Alban himself.
            You here in Westwood have not, so let’s spend the next few minutes reminding ourselves why we honor Saint Alban and then reflecting on what his witness might mean for us today.
            We don’t know a lot about the historical Alban, but the Venerable Bede says that he died in the third or fourth century during a Roman persecution. According to Bede, Alban converted to Christianity after witnessing the extraordinary piety of a priest whom he eventually sheltered. When the soldiers came to his house seeking the priest, Alban put on the priest’s cloak and offered himself to the soldiers in the priest’s place. After a series of trials, Alban was beheaded. They say his head rolled downhill and a well sprung up where it landed, but that will have to wait for another sermon.
            There are other supposedly miraculous things that happened during Alban’s execution, but when we strip them away here is what we have: a story of hospitality and sacrifice. Alban got in trouble when he offered shelter to a Christian priest who was being hunted. And he stayed in trouble when he continued to profess belief in the Christian God and not in the Roman Emperor. Hospitality and sacrifice. How do these virtues of the third century speak to us in the twenty-first?
            Listen again to these words of Jesus from today’s gospel [Matthew 10: 34-42]:
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

            The story of Alban is important for all of us—cathedral denizens, Westwood parishioners-- because it reminds us of what a Christian person is supposed to be and do. I think in twenty-first century America we have become confused about that. In the American public imagination, Christians are seen as people who tell others how they should live—a kind of super aggregation of Dana Carvey church ladies. Within the church itself, we seem to be a group that wants to argue about what we think Christianity is supposed to mean. Public Christianity has become a hyper-virtuous scolding. In-house Christianity has turned into an endless series of theological litmus tests.
            At its best, however, Christianity has never been about telling other people how to live or what to think. Indeed, at its best Christianity has never been much about “meaning” at all. The gospel is not about thought. It is about action. In a pragmatic tradition like ours (Anglicanism), following Jesus has always been less about theology and more about behavior. We imitate Jesus not by trying to think like him. We imitate Jesus in trying to act like him. It’s the same with those exemplary Christians, the saints. We trivialize saints by downplaying their witness and emphasizing the cute things associated with them. We trivialize Jesus by turning his community into an academy, a debating society, or an association of scolds.
            In the tenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus does not tell his companions what to think or what to tell others to think. Instead, he tells his companions what to do; and there are only two things. He tells them to welcome others as they would welcome him. He tells them that if they want to save their lives they must lose them.  He talks about hospitality. He talks about sacrifice.
            Hospitality and sacrifice: plain and simple yet hard to pull off. No doubt it is easier to argue about the creed, the Trinity, the virgin birth, the resurrection or to lecture others about their reproductive lives than it is to practice hospitality and exemplify sacrifice. But these two practices—and not speculation about them—are what Jesus commands. Give a cup of cold water to these little ones. Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  Plain, simple, yet hard to do.
            It is easier to name a mountain after a saint than it is to pattern your life by him. Because their examples are so challenging, we will always treat saints as mascots rather than examples. But the fact that you all give one day a year to celebrate Saint Alban says something about the nature of this faith community; it says that you remain committed to patterning yourselves as a parish after the example of his witness. And just as Jesus advises us in the gospel, so did St. Alban live his life in the service of these two virtues. Give a cup of cold water to these little ones: hospitality. Those who lose their life for my sake will find it: sacrifice. These are fitting virtues for an urban faith community, especially today.
            First there is hospitality. Alban sheltered a person who was being unjustly pursued by the state. In third century Roman Britain, Christian clergy were the hunted. In twenty-first century nativist America there are a host of people in jeopardy, but in our place and moment it is undocumented immigrants and the refugees who need our sheltering care. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” Under Susan’s leadership, you here at St. Alban’s have begun the work of collaborating with others to offer sanctuary to those who are now the targets of our own government. In so doing you are following the example of Alban, your patron saint. The sanctuary movement has both scriptural and saintly warrant. There is nothing else you all can do together as important as this. Offering sanctuary to the undocumented is not only good scriptural and spiritual practice. It is a witness to a confused church and world of what Christianity is actually about.
            And then there is sacrifice. Somewhere along the line we Americans turned Christianity into a philosophy of happiness and success. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with being happy or successful. It’s when we turn happiness and success into Christian virtues that we get into trouble.  Happiness and success are fine, but they are at best accidents, and they are not the point of the Christian life. The point of the Christian life is in losing oneself on behalf of others, and in so doing finding not only oneself but finally getting what it’s all about. We talk about sacrifice as if it’s the bitter pill we must swallow as part of all this Jesus business. In doing so we miss the joy of what the Jesus movement is all about. In spite of what you might see on TV or hear from our national leaders, generosity and compassion are not only virtues—they are pleasures. A lifetime of being kind and other-directed actually turns you into somebody you might want to be. Not the kind of news you’re going to get from an early morning presidential tweet, but there you are.
            Your patron, St. Alban, knew all that. He offered hospitality to one in danger and finally gave his life as a witness to the generous and embracing love he found in donning the priest’s cloak. You and I will probably not be called to martyrdom, but we are called, as was Alban, to lives of hospitality and sacrifice. As followers of Jesus and companions of Alban, our job is neither to make it to the top nor to tell others how to live. As followers of Jesus and companions of Alban, our job is to welcome others and lose ourselves in their service. It’s a simple calling, and a noble one. As we gather now around God’s table, to that calling we once again commit ourselves, and for that calling we continue as always to give thanks. Amen.