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.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Homily: Trinity Sunday [June 11, 2017] St. Edmund's, San Marino

            What a week we’ve had: The Senate Intelligence Committee hearings! The UK election! The NBA Finals! The French Open! The Stanley Cup! What’s a preacher to choose? I know: let’s talk about the Trinity.
As you all probably know by now, Trinity Sunday is the preacher’s graveyard. I cannot begin even to number, much less recall, the horrible sermons I have endured on this day—some of them delivered by me. I used to be a seminary professor and dean, and when I had that job I rarely gave advice. But one thing I regularly used to say to graduating students was that, when they got ordained, they should avoid this Sunday like the plague. Talk about anything on Trinity Sunday—baseball, the weather, even if you have to politics, but please do not try to explain the Trinity in fifteen minutes.
            Of course, being students, they regularly disregarded my advice, figuring that they alone had the homiletical key to unlocking the mystery that has preoccupied theologians and philosophers for 1600 years. So they ascended pulpit steps and gave little lectures that, for all the good they did, could have been talking about Fermat’s last theorem or Schroedinger’s cat. Their auditors smiled politely and then avoided eye contact and greeting them at the door. The new preachers left their churches realizing that, like mountaineers, they had assaulted Everest and had had to turn back.
            So yes, today is Trinity Sunday. It is the First Sunday after Pentecost, the first Sunday in what we call “ordinary time”, and in setting aside this Sunday to give thanks for the doctrine of the Trinity, the church calendar is naming this doctrine as one of the principal gifts of the Spirit given to us at Pentecost. Now I did not tell my students to avoid trying to explain the Trinity out of any doubt about it myself. I have been a priest for 40 years now, and while my intellectual understanding of God as revealed to us in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit---has grown gradually over the years, my lived experience of the Trinity is exponentially deeper than it was when I was in seminary. So the doctrine of the Trinity is one I both publicly affirm and personally believe. But the doctrine of the Trinity is, like all things we receive from the Spirit, a gift. And when you receive a gift you don’t try to explain it. You give thanks for it. And you try to figure out what to do with it.
            Happily, one of the other gifts we have this morning is a gospel passage from the very end of Matthew [Matthew 28: 16-20], chosen I suppose because it’s the one place in the New Testament where Jesus actually mentions the members of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—by name. This passage also goes by the name of “the Great Commission”, because in it Jesus commands his apostles to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Over the centuries of the church’s life, the Great Commission has been read as our warrant for evangelism. When Jesus mentions the Trinity, he does so not an abstract idea but a missional command.
            This is a jam-packed little passage, and there is so much to say about it. So let me just tick off four quick aspects that might help us all live into what it means to know, love, and serve God in what our proper preface today calls “trinity of persons and unity of being”.
            It’s brief, so let’s hear this gospel passage again:
The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28: 16-20]
            One thing to notice about today’s gospel is its setting. Jesus’ core followers gather on a mountain, and we hear that “when they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” Some doubted. The first point about living into the mystery of the Trinity is that some are always going to doubt it. I worked for many years at All Saints Pasadena, and in the days when they used to say the Nicene Creed there, parishioners would opt in and out of reciting it as their personal faith permitted. We would begin, “I believe in God,” and then half the congregation would drop out, unable I guess to go the next step and affirm the divinity of Jesus. Many would chime back in when we mentioned the Spirit, though “holy catholic church” always gave them trouble. The first point: even the disciples doubted, so it’s OK if you do too. Following Jesus is not brainwashing, and the church is not a Maoist re-education camp. Following Jesus is less about what we think and more about what we do. I’m not saying that belief is not important. I am saying that it’s not as important as we usually think it is. And that’s where the other three points come in.
            After they have gathered on the mountain, Jesus’s followers hear him specifically tell them to do three things: make disciples of all nations, baptize them, and teach them. The Holy Trinity in this passage is a trinity less of ideas than it is a trinity of actions. Jesus’s final earthly words to his followers tell us not what to believe but what to do.
            Jesus tells us first to “make disciples of all nations”. This is a hard one for Episcopalians, but there is no way around it. Polite and reticent as we are, you and I have been commissioned to tell others about our faith and invite them into the community which nurtures it. This does not mean that we are supposed to be storm troopers of intolerance. We can respect the faith of others while telling them about our own. In witnessing to our own faith these days we are more likely to encounter those who have no religion rather than those who practice Judaism, Buddhism, or Islam. So the issue here is not cultural imperialism; it is simple hospitality. There are a lot of people in our world whose lives would be better if they knew a church like ours not only existed but also welcomed them. Following Jesus on Trinity Sunday means first that we let other people know that he is important to us we welcome them into his community.
            Jesus’s second imperative: that we baptize. There are two great sacraments in our church, and because Eucharist has become so central in our lives we tend to neglect Baptism. Over the course of the last 60 or so years, Christians around the world have rediscovered the importance of Baptism in the early church and its radical implications for us. In Baptism we get both an identity (a name) and a commission. We are claimed as God’s own and we are authorized to serve each other and the world in God’s name. Easter and Pentecost are about many things, but at their heart they are festivals of freedom, celebrations of the way you and I and all creation have been set free by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Part of this new Easter life is the opportunity to tell other people about it. Part of this new Easter life is the opportunity to free ourselves, each other, and the world from the imprisoning chains of oppression in all its forms—social, cultural, relational, and yes, political. Baptism empowers us to be agents of God’s love, justice, healing, and liberation in the world. Jesus commands us not only to live as free people ourselves but also to offer that freedom to others.
            And then, finally, there is this teaching thing. In his Great Commission, Jesus makes us not only liberators but teachers. One of the gifts of being a Christian in America derives from the First Amendment—there is no established religion in the United States, and we all rightly respect everyone’s religious principles (or lack of them). But respect for everyone’s religion does not mean that all religious ideas are created equal. There are a lot of bad religious ideas abroad in America right now—some of them horribly repressive, others laughably wifty and vague. A priest friend of mine says the problem is not that people don’t believe anything; it’s that people believe everything: a little bit of Jesus, a little bit of Buddha, throw in some rabbinical stories and maybe some yoga, and you’ve got the patchwork quilt of 21st century American religion. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about. I served as the vicar in Malibu. Am I a fool to believe that it is possible to be both multicultural and sound? That we can share the love and compassion and justice and forgiveness of Jesus without sounding either like schoolmarms or airheads? Following Jesus implies both gifts and obligations. Teaching with both soundness and respect for others means, in the words of Emerson, that we will say less “thou shalt” and more “I ought.”
            As they gathered one last time on the Galilean mountain with Jesus, his companions met him with a mixture of faith and doubt. The life of faith will always work this way. Some of us will have total faith, some of us will have no faith, most of us will have some mixture of one and the other. The late Bishop Fred Borsch used to say that the creed, like all doctrines of the church, is the faith of the whole church, and sometimes it takes the whole church to believe it. Jesus’s Great Commission doesn’t obligate us to think or believe anything. All it requires of us is that we act in love, compassion, healing, and forgiveness towards ourselves and others. Believing in the Trinity is the whole church’s job. All you and I are required to do is give thanks for this mysterious gift and then do what we can to live out its gracious implications in our lives, for each other, and the world. Amen.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Homily: Frederick Houk Borsch Memorial Service [June 10, 2017] St. Augustine's, Santa Monica

Gary Hall
St. Augustine’s, Santa Monica
June 10, 2017 [Frederick Borsch]

All of us see Fred Borsch from a different perspective. For most of us he was our bishop or seminary or college dean. For some an irreplaceable family member. For others a mentor and friend. For many a New Testament scholar and teacher. For others yet a civic leader and public intellectual. Maybe even a tennis partner.
            To me, Fred was many of those things and something else. In my experience of him, Fred Borsch was primarily a poet and a lover of poetry. I didn’t know this at first about him. My early experiences of Fred were of a rather distant public figure—my bishop. Early on, Fred was a man I admired from a distance and listened to with respect. It was only as I was fortunate enough to get to know him as we worked together—first here, then in New Haven and Philadelphia and finally in Washington-- that I began to realize what an enormous heart and soul he had. And his heart and soul found their best expression in reading, talking about, and writing poetry.
            I found that out one night when, after a long and contentious meeting with a priest accused of sexual misconduct, Fred went to his desk and pulled out an essay he had written on George Herbert’s poem, “Artillery”. Herbert’s poem compares the life of prayer to an ongoing battle between the speaker and God, describing both God and the speaker as “shooters”. It concludes with the speaker’s admission that we and God live with each other in tension and an uneasy peace:
“Then we are shooters both, and thou dost deign
To enter combat with us, and contest
With thine own clay. . .
                            There is no articling with thee:
I am but finite, yet thine infinitely.”

Fred knew that I had been an English teacher, and it appeared he wanted to redeem what was left of a painful and conflictual evening by thinking about prayer and words and how we use them, about how God can take even human aggression and pain and turn them into something beautiful and true. We talked that night for probably an hour about George Herbert’s beautiful and vexing poem, and in that moment I saw a side of this public man that I didn’t know existed. Fred said that Herbert was right: we and God are “shooters both”, each assaulting the other with our various weapons of complaint and love. I saw my bishop in a way I hadn’t seen him before, and being let into this aspect of his life and thought was both a revelation and a privilege.
            I will come back to Fred’s poetic side in a bit, but I don’t want us to forget that he was also a public figure. Fred made his living first as an interpreter and expositor of the New Testament, then as a public articulator of Jesus and his priorities to the wider community. Fred Borsch was a very American type of exemplary English bishop, a kind of bishop we don’t see that much in the U.S.—one who acts both as shepherd to the gathered church and to the wider public within his diocese. Fred wrote books, sermons and op-ed pieces, and he used all these forms to articulate a gospel vision of what a just society might look like.
In the gospel reading we just heard, the Beatitudes, Jesus gives his strongest expression of the gap between God’s priorities and ours. “Blessed are the poor,” he says. There is a connection between Jesus’s words and those of George Herbert. If we are “shooters both”, then the Beatitudes are God’s opening volley in an ongoing contest about our social and personal values. We want to live for ourselves. God wants us to live for the greater good. Our culture equates blessedness and prosperity. God’s values endorse something else: poverty, meekness, righteousness, mercy, purity in heart, peacemaking. God’s values always rile us just a bit, and so the life of prayer, like the life of the church itself, is often full of conflict. To Fred’s mind, it was the job of the church to hold out the gospel vision to a beautiful yet confused world. In Fred’s practice, a bishop spoke both to the church and to the world about how we might, together, bridge the gap between is and ought, between God’s vision and ours.
            Fred spoke to us during his career first as a scholar and teacher, then as a preacher and public figure, finally as a novelist and poet. In retirement, Fred produced a dizzying number of books—essay collections, meditations, poems, a history of religion at Princeton, and even a couple of novels. In his final novel, My Life for Yours, Fred created a character very much like himself, a retired school head and English teacher named Harold Barnes, who dies during a gym workout and then finds himself alive in the body of a much younger (and very different) man. It is a wonderfully inventive and entertaining book, and part of its fascination lies in the way Fred imagined both a different career path (he could have been a great teacher and schoolmaster) and how those of us who have lost him might react and carry on after his departure. The novel shows Harold’s widow and children first grieving, then accepting, then making their way in the world anew. When I first read My Life for Yours a couple of years ago I thought of it as merely the counterfactual imaginings of a vigorous man in his seventies. Now I see it as Fred’s extended meditation on his own death and how those of us who loved him can make our way through grief, in John Milton’s phrase, “To-morrow to fresh woods and pastures new.” To be sure, Fred was a scholar and a thinker and a leader. He was also, to the end, a pastor, seeking to lead both himself and us through life’s deep woods into the open spaces of God’s love.
            Earlier in this service, Fred’s son Matthew read the title poem from Fred’s collection, Parade: 
“I want to see, I want to see,”
my little grandson pulls on me.
I lift Jack up that he may point
to firemen smiling from their truck,
hooting when they whoop its horn.
Next horses and a marching band,
and, by God, an elephant thumps ahead
of open cars and pretty girls, I notice,
waving to a squad of cyclists,
black and red and white and blue
in the parade that’s passing through.

It’s then I see I want to see
new poets, next musicians, scouts,
explorers of the quarks and stars,
even global warming, if more caring,
undoing of some old diseases:
all he may see this century,
seeing he cannot shoulder me.]

Like My Life for Yours, the poem “Parade” is a witty yet poignant reflection on life’s finitude. The speaker hoists his grandson on his shoulders to see the literal parade, realizing that a figurative parade of future events is coming, that his grandson will not be able to return the favor, and that little Jack will have to be his eyes and ears for the coming century. The book Parade ends with a similar poem, “As Well”:
As Well
Of course we die alone,
marked by loss and brokenhearted,
even doctors say so,
and eternity seems vast,
while there is love, as well, my gratitude,
and where go these unless you—
as I am parted?

This poem, “As Well”, gives voice to the same kind of love of life and longing for connection after death. If all we knew about Fred Borsch was these two poems, we would think of him as a rather witty (if mordant) observer of life and death and their respective ironies. But Fred was not only a poet. He was a pastor and preacher. He probably never became an English teacher for the same reason he never played Major League Baseball: as satisfying as those career choices might have been on one level, they would not have enabled him to express the depth and extent of his faith. Fred not only believed what we proclaim today in this liturgy. He lived it and wanted to make it accessible to the rest of us. And that is why there is yet one more thing to say.
Several years ago, Fred sent me the text of an Easter hymn he had written, and though I don’t believe it has yet been set to music, the text of “Easter Now” should be in whatever incarnation of our Hymnal that comes next. Fred Borsch the poetic ironist knew we die alone and that we will not see the parade ahead of us, but the Fred Borsch the Christian person knew something more. He knew that the love and hope and compassion and goodness we meet in Jesus and in each other will outlast and finally transform all those other things that oppress and frighten us—even (in some mysterious way we cannot entirely grasp) death.
I’m thankful for so many things about Fred Borsch, but today I’m perhaps most thankful that a man like Fred could hold together such a sharply questioning critical intelligence and such a deep and compelling faith in one complex human identity. On more than one occasion I heard Fred say, at a funeral like this one, that the mystery is not, “Why did God take him from us?” but rather, “Why did we get to have him in the first place?”
Easter is God’s answer to both questions, taking the pain and the joy of death and life and somehow making them into a new way for us to be together in the world. Here, finally is how Fred announces Easter in his hymn text, “Easter Now”:

Now to broken-hearted yearning,                                  
Now for love such love returning                                   
In upper room, light from a tomb.                                 
The wounds, his voice, again bread broken,
Rabounni, Jesus, from death woken.   [Alleluias]                      

His Spirit’s peace upon us breathing,
Our hoping, hearing hearts for healing
That we might see how it could be,
And now does daystar’s courage dawn,
And now can be our morning song. [Alleluias]

            Thank you, God, for the gift of Easter. Thank you for this community that celebrates and proclaims it. And thank you today most of all for the gift of the life and ministry and witness of Frederick Houk Borsch. Amen.