Sunday, January 29, 2017

Homily: The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [January 29, 2017] St. Luke's, Monrovia CA

It is a great pleasure to return to St. Luke’s this morning. Those of you who have been around for a while may remember that in the summer of 1979 I spent a month here as the vacation replacement for your then-rector Ev Simson. A parish family generously loaned us their spacious house in Arcadia and a car to go with it. As a native Angeleo, I found it hard to return to Michigan when August was over that year. It’s good to be back.
And of course it is great to reconnect with Neil Tadken, your rector. I’ve known Neil since our time together at All Saints, Pasadena over 25 years ago. He still looks like he did then. Me, not so much.
Our gospel for this morning is the passage which begins Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount—the 10 sayings commonly called “The Beatitudes” [Matthew 5: 1-12]. Sitting in the chapel of St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue in New York City several years ago, I noticed that there were ten stained glass windows in the chapel, each depicting one of these sayings. As my eye moved along the row of windows, it stopped at the third, arrested in disbelief. Instead of the words, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” I found the phrase rendered, “Blessed are the debonair . . .” I was probably not the first pewsitter who snickered at the way a Park Avenue church had made Jesus sound like someone right out of the Social Register. Where else would the New Testament appear to equate meekness with savoir faire?
Knowing a bit of French, I went home and looked up debonair in my French-English Dictionary. The preferred modern meaning of debonair in French is the one we’d expect, “of a nonchalant elegance”(very much like your rector). But there are older meanings of debonair that the French translators of the Bible must have had in mind. When Jesus says in our English Bible, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” it is rendered in French as, “Happy are the debonair, for they shall inherit the earth.” In this context, debonair means something like, “of good manner”. This doesn’t mean that the “debonair” are fashion forward (again, like your rector). It suggests that they are humble, gracious, and self-effacing. And that, says Jesus, is a pretty good way to go through life.
These opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount are commonly called "The Beatitudes" because of the repeated use of the word we translate as "blessed". That same Greek word can also mean something like "happy". For many of us who seek to follow Jesus, The Beatitudes serve as a warrant for action. When Jesus says that the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are "blessed" or "happy", many of us hear those words as a to-do list for our ministries. If we want to follow Jesus, we say, we need to be about serving the poor, being peacemakers, and hungering for righteousness.
That understanding is a good one. But let me suggest another that might stand beside it. Jesus's Beatitudes are not only, or even primarily, a set of marching orders for setting the world right. They are an announcement of what Christians have always called “the gospel”. They are a proclamation of the good news. In the Beatitudes Jesus is not so much telling us what we ought to do as he is telling us what God is already doing. These verses are an announcement of what God is up to in the world. This "kingdom of heaven" that Jesus talks about is not some future blessed state up in the clouds someplace. The kingdom of heaven is breaking in on us even now in the ministry of Jesus and in the community that gathers around him. The kingdom of heaven is made up of people quietly, humbly, sometimes even subversively living as Jesus would in the here and now.
In Jesus’s day, as now, human values were massively messed up. First century Jewish Palestine was an occupied territory, and people were taxed and starved beyond the breaking point to support the imperial Roman state. Into that culture of oppression and scarcity, Jesus came and announced that people could have lives that were both free and abundant if they would gather together in community. People followed Jesus not only because he was a great teacher but primarily because he was a healer and liberator who embodied the freedom and generosity of God.
In other words, in stepping into the Jesus community, you stepped into a space or place or zone where life is lived as God intends that it be. Jesus did not come to found an institution called "the church". In fact, the word we render as church—ekklesia—is a Greek term which means "the called". It's a newly coined word for the New Testament because the older words-synagogue, assembly, temple— couldn't quite name the reality of what the Jesus movement was about. The church, the ekklesia, the called, is the body of those called into the Jesus community to make real in their lives and the world what Jesus calls the reign of heaven. The church is the gathering of those who want to live life on God's, not Caesar's, terms.
Living life on God’s terms means, of course, that we will try to live out those Beatitude values in the world. Living life on God's terms means standing with the people Jesus names in these verses—the poor, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the mourners. Living life on God's terms means naming Caesar and all Caesar's successors as impostors, pretending to an authority that belongs only and finally to God. But we will be neither authentic advocates for those up against it nor credible critics of empire if we can't love and accept and forgive and celebrate each other right here first.
As we gather this morning in a divided and confused nation and world, Jesus's Beatitudes call us to rekindle our awareness of what it is we're doing when we get together in church. We are coming together, as did those gathered around Jesus, to step into that zone where life is lived on God's terms. We are coming together, as did those gathered around Jesus, to share in the good news that we can critique and change the world only to the extent that we can love it and each other first.
The French Beatitude I saw in Manhattan is but one of many translations of Jesus’s words. One of the most interesting versions occurs in the New English Bible.  Here is how that Bible renders the first saying:
How blest are those who know their need of God;
the kingdom of Heaven is theirs. [Matthew 5:3 NEB]

There is a lot of wisdom in these words. Perhaps the truest thing you can say about us Christians is that we, whatever you call us--the Jesus community, the church, the communion of saints,—are the people who know our need of God.  Caesar does not know his need of God, nor do those who organize their lives around power, achievement, success, or money.  You might say there are two kinds of people in the world:  those who know they need God, and those who think they don’t. The most pervasive lie our culture promotes is the idea that you are or should be totally independent of others, that you can somehow be both self-sufficient and self-made.
Those of us who seek to follow Jesus know that we all finally need each other.  Those of us who make our way into the Jesus movement are united not by what we think about theological or social issues. We are united in our shared knowledge of our need for God.  We are all mortal, dependent creatures.  True wisdom lies in accepting and celebrating the fact that we are finite and human, and in finding ways, together, to make life better and richer and deeper or maybe even just bearable not only for ourselves but for each other and the world.
“Blessed are the debonair, for they shall inherit the earth.” “How blest are those who know their need of God; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” What is God up to in the world and in your life? If we believe Jesus, God is making a world in which each of us can find true joy and meaning in life by accepting our need for God and each other. True admission of our shared need makes us “debonair” in its deepest sense—it makes us humble and gracious and self-effacing. Given everything that’s going on in our world right now, being humble and gracious and self-effacing is a pretty good way to go through life.
We often make being a Christian or following Jesus harder than it really is. If we look to Jesus as a setter of impossible standards, we will feel defeated before we begin. But if we look to Jesus as one who knows his need of God and finds life’s fulfillment in making common cause with others, we will see him as our brother and companion on a journey of generosity, compassion, and joy. So, for this morning, let’s forget those impossible standards. Let’s begin by admitting our need for God. Let us gather around God’s table and be fed and blessed and assured that God knows and responds to our need. Let us come together to love and support each other. And then let us go out of here together, intent on sharing this love and support with our neighbors. If we can give all that a try, we may none of us become perfect, but we will each and all of us, become truly debonair.  Amen.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Washington's National Cathedral should not bestow a blessing on Donald Trump [Religion News Service] January 17, 2017

(RNS) Washington National Cathedral was founded in 1907 and envisioned as a “Westminster Abbey for America,” which, in part, is why it finds itself at the center of controversy about its role in President-elect Donald J. Trump’s impending inauguration.
For more than a century, the cathedral has tried to stand in two worlds at once, attempting to be both a practicing Christian church and a gathering place for American civic expression. As the cathedral’s former dean, I believe that fidelity to the former role now requires rejecting the latter.
For much of its life, the cathedral experienced the tension inherent in playing two roles as creative but not potentially destructive.
But much has changed in American religious life over the past 110 years, and the cathedral has found it increasingly difficult to have it both ways.
After World War II, Christians began seriously to reflect on their relations with the prevailing culture. How could our religion square its validation of oppressive regimes (Protestants and Catholics in Nazi Germany, mainline Christians supporting segregation in the American South) with the principles of love and justice exemplified and articulated by Jesus?
Over the course of the past 75 years, it became impossible to see the church’s mission as compatible with its traditional role of endorsing the status quo. We began to see ourselves less as “Christendom” and more like the early church that stood up to Rome.
In the same way, American public and religious life has changed dramatically over the course of the cathedral’s life.
The Episcopal Church, once a powerhouse of American religious leadership, now comprises less than 2 percent of the population. At the same time, the increasing ethnic and racial diversification of America has brought with it a growing religious pluralism.
In light of the multifaith community we Americans all now inhabit, does it not seem anachronistic for one Christian cathedral (albeit a distinguished and beautiful one) to presume to call itself the “spiritual home of the nation”?
I believe Trump’s election has proved that the cathedral’s attempt to continue this religious/civic balancing act is no longer tenable.
In his words and actions, Trump has shown himself to be outside the bounds of all mainstream norms of Christian faith and practice. His often-expressed xenophobia and misogyny, not to mention his mocking of the disabled and admission of abusive behavior, place him well outside the values of compassion and respect for human dignity that mark historic Christianity at its best. It is simply inappropriate to use a precious institution such as Washington National Cathedral to suggest that the church bestows its blessing on a leader so obviously beyond the pale of Christian thought.
The cathedral’s dilemma exemplifies this watershed moment in the Christian church’s role in American public life. The community that claims to follow Jesus must choose between its role as what our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls “the Jesus Movement” and its long-standing practice as the validator of the status quo. With Trump’s election we cannot, with any integrity, be both.
If the church is going to be faithful to Jesus, we must (as he did) stand as a force of resistance to unjust and oppressive civil authority. We cannot use the words, symbols and images of our faith to provide a religious gloss to an autocrat.
Although it is considered by some an extraordinary step for the former leader of an institution to criticize a decision made by its current leaders, I am doing so because I believe that the cathedral’s decisions to host this service and to allow its choir to sing at the inauguration itself have provoked a crisis within not only the Episcopal Church but the entire American Christian community. I hope that the depth and extent of the reaction will occasion some extended reflection about what it means to be “a great church for national purposes.”
To deny Trump’s right to be feted in Washington National Cathedral is not to say “he is not our president,” nor is it to say “we should not pray for him.” I pray for the president- and vice president-elect every day. I will continue to do so during their terms in office. I simply do not believe that the most visible symbol of compassionate faith in America should lend itself to endorsing or espousing their shrunken, fearful vision of our national life.
I hope that the cathedral will soon return to its primary role: proclaiming an inviting, inclusive, just and liberating vision of the gospel to all Americans and the world.
(The Rev. Gary Hall served as the 10th dean of Washington National Cathedral from 2012-2015)
(Editor’s note: The Washington National Cathedral declined to provide a response to this commentary)