Tuesday, January 31, 2017


“I have been half in love with easeful death,”
            the poet John Keats wrote.
“I have been half in love with easeful death.”

It is an honor and a pleasure to speak to seminarians
            to whom we will entrust the future of the Church
            if we choose to have a future.
I am especially pleased the Gospel lesson speaks to
            a subject that is of great importance to us – necrophilia.

“I have been half in love with easeful Death,
 Called him soft names in many a mused rhyme
 To take into the air my quiet breath.
 Now (2017) more than ever seems it rich to die.”

My concern isn’t the sexual kink of intercourse with corpses.
The great psychoanalyst Erich Fromm said that the sexual perversion
            is rooted in a deeper, more widespread, and dangerous
            character disorder that is all too fond of death.
Fromm called it characterological necrophilia.
It corresponds to Freud’s teaching that we are torn
            between the life force of Eros and Thanatos,
the impulse toward death.
My old Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa,
called it “Setting Sun Mentality.”
He meant when you look at a painting of a sun hanging
            half-way over the horizon,
            you assume it is setting instead of rising.
We see this attitude in our Gospel lesson.

Jairus asked Jesus to heal his daughter,
            but the people at Jairus’s house sent Jesus a message,
            “She’s already dead. We don’t need you here.”
Despite them, Jesus insisted on going.
At the house the mourners were weeping and wailing,
Jesus said, “She is not dead. She is only sleeping.”

There are linguistic clues to when Jesus is using a figure of speech
            rather than speaking literally.
The best reading of this text is that when Jesus says,
            “She is not dead. She is sleeping,”
what he actually means is:
            “She is not dead. She is sleeping.”

We might think this would be good news.
But that was not how they took it.
The old translation is stronger and more accurate. It says:
            “They laughed him to scorn.”
These mourners did not want Jesus
            raining any sunshine on their parade of grief.

You may not believe this now.
But after you’ve made a dozen death watches
            and called on enough grieving families,
            you’ll see it’s true.
The friends and neighbors gather to offer consolation.
It is a good and holy thing.

But if you look a 16h of an inch behind their sorrowing features
            you’ll see something in them
that is enjoying this a little too much.

There is a seductive quality to grief.
Remember the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
            when Lancelot’s squire has been shot.
Lancelot launches into a soliloquy about avenging his death,
            but the squire interrupts, “I’m not quite dead yet.”
Lancelot vows to avenge his squire who lies mortally wounded.
But the squire says, “Actually, I’m feeling much better.”

This cultural love of death, according to Freud and Fromm,
            is the psychological breeding ground of racism,
            genocide, war, totalitarianism and a plethora of social ills.
It is a short step from laughing Jesus to scorn
            to nailing him to a cross.
A cultural bias toward death
            leads us into deeply troubled political waters.
Christians -- as followers of the Lord of Life,
            the one who breathed life into Adam,
            who set before Israel the choice of life or death
                        and commanded them to choose life,
            who sent his son that believers should not perish but live –
Christians are on the side of life.
We are against death.

That is what makes our current ecclesiastical necrophilia
            so out of character.
Academics, clergy, and church journalists
            are posting obituaries of the Church on every doorpost.
They persist despite Robert Putnam’s book American Grace
            showing that that their grim statistic are misconstrued.

They write about life cycles of congregations
as if churches are all fated to die in a matter of decades,
            though we know full well the world has churches
            that have been around for centuries,
            having their ups and downs.
but not doomed by any deterministic timeline.
There is a new clergy specialty in euthanizing congregations.
I assure you, any fool can kill a church.
The art, the wisdom, and grace are in stirring up
the energies of life and mission.

More and more parish clergy
            are getting certified as hospice chaplains.
Dispatching dying individuals is simpler
than a nurturing relationship with a living community.
Ministry to the dying is a holy and worthy calling.
But, this is my one appeal to you seminarians,
            if your basic clergy identity is Charon ferrying people
                        across the River Styx,
            then be a hospice chaplain and keep away from the Church.

In Nevada, our urban parishes are growing.
Our rural parishes are holding steady,
            but demographically, they are getting younger.
We are serving those in need and aggressively engaged
            in broad-based community organizing
            for social justice advocacy – important causes we are winning.
I don’t say this to brag – just to show you that Deuteronomy is right.
We have some choice between life and death.
Perhaps we are “half in love with easeful death.”
But Jesus calls us to life – abundant life.

If the Church were just a social club and not the Body of Christ,
            the continuing Incarnation in a broken bleeding world,
            then choosing to die needlessly might be our own business.
But, as it stands, we are feeding the characterological necrophilia,
            the Thanatos Syndrome, the Setting Sun Mentality
                        of our wider culture.
We are doing it at a time when racism, homophobia, xenophobia,
            warmongering, totalitarianism, and all the manifestations
            of the death wish are running amok --
a time when the environment that sustains life
is under radical attack.
We are not choosing death for our Church alone
            but for all those people God loves so much
            he gave his only son that they might live.

So, if you will indulge me, I’ll close with a gospel story
            especially for you.
An old man who loved his Church stopped Jesus on the road and said,
            “My Church is dying. Come lay hands on her and she will live.”
Jesus joined the old man and headed toward the Church.
But those keeping the death watch outside the church door
            sent a journalist who stopped Jesus on the road.
He handed Jesus the obituary – it was a print out from a blog post –
 and said, “Do not come here, Jesus.
The Church is already dead. We don’t need you.”
But Jesus kept on going.

Outside the church door,
            he found some bishops, priests, and a few seminary professors
            all weeping and wailing that the Church was dead.
Jesus said, “Friends, don’t cry. The Church is not dead.
                        She is only sleeping.”
But the bishops, priests, and seminary professors
            laughed Jesus to scorn.

That’s when Jesus looked a 16th of an inch behind
            their sorrowing faces and saw that
            something in them was enjoying the Church’s death
                        a little too much.
So, Jesus turned his back their self-indulgence.

He marched into the church house
            bold as brass, as if he owned the place, and said,
            “Talitha cum! Talitha cum! Talitha cum!”

Friday, January 27, 2017


Jesus didn’t call the disciples to leave their nets
and follow him so they could become holier than thou,
or more enlightened than thou,
or learn 12 steps to highly effective living.
He called them to become fishers of people,
            to catch people up out of the sea of despair
where so many of us are drowning.
Jesus recruited his disciples into a mission “for others.”

World War II martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
            called Jesus “the man for others.”
Bonhoeffer then said, the Church is Christ’s Body,
so, “the Church is the Church only when it exists for others.”

We are not here to save our spiritual skins,
            stay out of Hell and go to Heaven when we die.
We are not here top off our spiritual gas tanks,
or to enjoy the music, architecture, and pageantry.
We are here to become the Body of Christ
ushering God’s Love-Kingdom into a hurting world.

Over a quarter century ago,
            I made a rule for myself.
Don’t preach about the Church.
People don’t come to hear about the Church.
I am going to break that rule today.
I don’t break it lightly.
So, I hope you’ll stay with me on this.
It’s important.

You have undertaken to be our Cathedral.
The most important part of a Cathedral’s mission
            is to model for all our congregations
the true way to be the Church.
Becoming the Cathedral is about being the Church for others
on steroids.

Your new role is to constantly remind our diocese,
            that we all have the same mission,
            we are all on the same team,
            we are all part of one body – the Body of Christ.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
            “Each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’ or ‘I belong to Cephas’
            or ‘I belong to Apollos’ . . . Has Christ been divided?
You are the Body of Christ and each of you is part of it.”
I want to paraphrase Paul.
            “Each of you says, ‘I belong to St. Paul’s’ or ‘I belong to St. Peter’s’
            or ‘I belong to Trinity’ . . .  Has Christ been divided?
            You are the Body of Christ and each of you is part of it.”

Bishops and Cathedrals are ligaments holding the diocese together.
The Cathedral serves the other congregations this way,
modeling life as a church for others.”

That mission flies in the face of spiritual consumerism.
Spiritual consumerism means: we want our spiritual needs met.
But here’s the Catch 22 of that desire.
We can never get our spiritual needs met
            as long as we’re trying to get our spiritual needs met.

The New Testament says it over and over and over.
The way to happiness, wholeness, and completion,
            the way to be born all the way
            is to forget about yourself in the love
of brother, sister, neighbor, and even enemy.
Mohandas Gandhi said,
            “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself
             in the service of others.”

Have you heard people say,
            “I stopped going to Church
            because I wasn’t getting anything out of it”?
If we go to Church to “get something out of it,”
            we may get something but it won’t be the gospel of Jesus Christ,
            because his gospel is about taking up our cross
            and living for the broken, bleeding world.

That can be Mother Theresa stuff, Martin Luther King stuff, or
Dietrich Bonhoeffer stuff.
But it isn’t usually that dramatic.

It’s more like holding a training event for other congregations,
            having something fun for Reno kids whose parents don’t belong here,
            hosting a music event for the community,
            or a blood drive or a 12-step group.
You are already doing a lot of this ministry.
That’s why you are the Cathedral.

But what’s this got to do with each of us individually?
Everything. It makes all the difference for who we are,
            not just at Church on Sunday but wherever we are all week.
Cleopatra’s Shadows is a novel about first century Egypt.
The Egyptian gods were a violent bunch,
and things had turned violent in the earthly palace of Queen Berenice.
The queen’s servant made the theological connection.
She said, “Bloody gods birth bloody people.”//

Nothing shapes our souls more than who we worship
            and the character of our worshiping community.
If our God is a genie in the bottle to support our personal ambitions,
and our Church is a spiritual filling station catering to our preferences,
            it makes us mean-spirited, hard-hearted, and small-spirited.
But when we are a Church for others
worshiping the man for others,
            something gracious seeps into our very souls,
            something at odds with the expectations and demands
                        of me-first consumerism.

Our hearts begin to beat in sync with the heartbeat of God,
            the God who loved the world so much he gave his only son
                        to save it.
We start to think with the mind of Christ,
            who, as Paul said,
            “though he was in the nature of God . . .
            emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant
            being made in human likeness . . . .”
“In human likeness” -- with all its vulnerabilities, frustrations, and sorrows.
Like Jesus, we join the human race.

That sets us free from our essential loneliness.
We call it Communion.
Albert Einstein said we belong to the universe
            but we are deluded into thinking we are separate.
That delusion is, in Einstein’s words,
            “a prison . . . restricting us to our personal desires
             and affection for a few persons nearest us.”
“Our task,” Einstein said, “must be to free ourselves from this prison
            by widening our circle of compassion
            to embrace all living creatures
            and the whole of creation in its beauty.”
That’s Communion.

Anglican priest John Donne explained Communion this way:
            “No man is an island
             Entire of itself
            Every man is a piece of the continent
            A part of the main . . . .
            I am involved in mankind . . . .”//

That’s what it means to be a Christian.
It is to be involved in humankind.

Jesus is God choosing to be involved in humankind.
A Cathedral,
            starting with the other congregations
            and the world right outside your walls,
            is involved in humankind.

Do you see what you get out of that?
Release from the prison of self.
Communion with all living creatures
            and creation in all its beauty.

 Jesus called it “abundant life.”