Several years ago columnist David Brooks wrote a clever book about one slice of life in America these days. It was called Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Bobos is a word Brooks invented for “bourgeois bohemians,” the name he gave to a strange mentality in our time.
A lot of the big spending in American life these days, he said, is driven by people who see themselves as bohemian, countercultural, in touch with the earth, with simplicity, good values, and good taste. The older ones picked a lot of that up in the 1960’s hippie culture, the younger ones are fresh out of their irreverent college years. Now a good many of these people are making money, some of them a lot of money, and they are spending like mad, only in what you might call an earthier way.
You are a Bobo, Brooks said, “if you believe that spending $15,000 on a home media center is vulgar, but that spending $15,000 on a slate shower stall is a sign that you are at one with the Zen-like rhythms of nature, or if your newly renovated kitchen looks like an aircraft hangar with plumbing, or if you will spend a little more for socially conscious toothpaste—the kind that doesn’t actually kill germs, just asks them to leave, or if you work for a hip, visionary software company where everybody comes to work in hiking boots and glacier glasses, as if a 400 foot wall of ice were about to come sliding through the parking lot.”
A Bobo might reason that a $60,000 Range Rover Sport Utility Vehicle makes sense for those backwoods treks to pick up the kids at school, but spending $40,000 on a Corvette is wasteful and silly.
There’s a whole chapter on Bobo spirituality. Bobos are much more interested in religious experiences than in committing themselves to a single demanding approach to truth. They will go to Montana, or Aspen, or Marin County in an effort to collect more peak experiences. They have little interest in orthodoxy, an ancient tradition of spiritual wisdom; theirs is the way of flexidoxy, picking up ideas here and there. They are engaged in what Brooks calls “an endless moving about in search of more and more lightly held ideas, none of which solves essential questions.”
The problem with Bobos is that they don’t see the conflict between the ideals of simplicity they want to live by and the way they are living. They love to think of themselves a certain way, but when it comes down to it, they can’t bring themselves actually to do it.
The gospel lesson today shows Jesus in a moment of tough confrontation. It’s near the end of his ministry. The tension is rising, and his opponents, powerful religious leaders, are doing what they can to entrap him. And the real question they are asking is, Who do you think you are? “By what authority are you doing the things you’re doing, and who gave you the right to tell us what to do?”
And Jesus responds in his typical way—he tells them a story. It couldn’t be simpler. A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today,” and the son answered, “I will not.” But later the son changed his mind and went. The father also went to the second son and told him the same thing, and this one said, “I go, sir,” but he didn’t go. “Now which brother did the will of his father?” Jesus asked.
Of course, the answer is obvious. It was the first. It wasn’t what the boys said, it was what they did that counted. And then Jesus got himself in real trouble by telling the chief priests and elders which son they were like—the second one, the one who claimed to be doing the right thing, who maybe even intended to, but never actually did it.
These prominent leaders clearly thought that they had been doing the right things, but they had become so convinced of their own virtue, and so convinced that their way of doing things must of course be the right ones, that it was hard for them to face the gap between word and deed, between what they thought their life was and the way they were actually living.
In fact Jesus never seemed all that interested in people’s words or ideas. He wouldn’t say to them, “What do you think?” or “Do you agree with me?” Instead it would be, “Come and follow me, feed my sheep, love your neighbor.” Those are action words. We can’t pick up Christianity by sitting in an armchair and thinking about it. Of course we need to worship, to hear and experience the faith together. But then we have to live it, and it’s the living of our faith that will make us real Christians.
The 19th century Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard kept saying that Jesus was looking for followers, not admirers, people who would walk with him, and do his work, and serve in his name.
In one of Kierkegaard’s own parables he told of a man who was walking down a city street when the man saw a big sign in the window that said, “Pants pressed here.” Delighted to see the sign he went home and gathered up all of his wrinkled laundry, carried it into the shop and put it on the counter. “What are you doing?” the shopkeeper demanded. “I brought my clothes here to be pressed,” he said, “just like your sign said.”
“Oh, you’ve got it all wrong,” the owner said. “We don’t actually do that here. We’re in the business of making signs.” We don’t do these things, he was saying. We just talk about them.
And that, Kierkegaard said, is often the problem in the church. We announce ourselves as a place that is living Christ’s love, doing Christ’s work. But too often when people show up looking for the real thing, they don’t see it. They just see people talking about it.
It’s safer, of course, to keep Christianity on the level of interesting ideas and intellectual questions. I’ve heard people through the years say that what they hope for in a sermon is fresh ideas and new insights, sermons that engage the mind and send people home with something to think about. For years that sounded right to me. But now I’m increasingly skeptical. If we keep Christianity in the realm of ideas, then we’re all safe. We don’t really have to do much of anything. The whole thing becomes an intellectual question—Do I agree this with this? Can I buy what’s being said?
But Jesus was interested in making disciples, not philosophers. He spent his ministry creating a community of disciples, people who heard what he had to say and then did it, who put word and deed together. That’s what the church was meant to be.
I remember some years ago as a young priest presumptuously asking my boss the rector how his diet was coming along. His answer to me was, “Well, it’s a good diet. And if I would just keep at it I think it would do me some good. But I haven’t gotten that far with it yet.” He just needed to do it.
Have you ever told yourself you’re going to write someone a letter? You may even have written it eloquently—in your head. But somehow it never makes it to paper.
I know people deeply committed to the quality of their family life, who somehow stay too busy to see much of their families at all.
Have you ever decided, after a disaster like, say 9/ll, or even Hurricane Katrina, that life is too short to waste on insignificant things? That you wanted to get started on a spiritual life, develop a pattern of prayer, find some fellow Christians to support you along the way? But then a few weeks pass, and the pressures of regular life return, and somehow the good intentions disappear into the air.
I know people deeply committed to the environment—as they drive their gas guzzling cars all over town.
I don’t believe any of this is intentional. After all, life is jammed with pressures of all kinds, and there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to a life better than the one we’re living. But Jesus is saying that we need both word and deed. It’s too easy to say Yes with our good intentions, and never quite get around to living Christ’s way.
Today launches a new programmatic year here at the National Cathedral, and if I had a banner to hang out front with our theme for the year it would say, “Under Construction.” You may have noticed a construction site outside with fences all around it, and if you glimpsed inside you would seen a big hole in the ground. If you were wondering what it is, I’ll tell you. It’s a massive act of hospitality taking shape. Actually, we call it a parking garage. But in fact it is our way of saying to the city that we want you here in your Cathedral badly enough to dig this ugly hole in order to make for you a fine place to park your car.
So for now we’re under construction, and construction takes time. And we’re under construction in many other parts of our life here. This will be a year of planning for the Cathedral’s future, to discern and begin to create the programs and classes and events that will offer this city and beyond an open-minded, generous-spirited, intellectually inquiring, passionately held Christian faith.
We’re building a new future for this Cathedral as a place eager to offer to this city as well as the nation a profound encounter with the living Christ—through grand Sunday worship and quiet, candlelit services, through the best speakers and thinkers in the land, and through small groups ready to explore what it means to follow Christ.
You’ll see some new things this fall—starting with a pot of coffee after every 9 and 11 o’clock service. You know, coffee is the second sacrament of Sunday, the sacrament that says we’re glad to have gone into the presence of God together, that we care about each other even if we’ve never met before, that we need each other’s support in following Christ.
There will be courses on learning the Christian faith, there will be the launch of a monthly newsletter to tell people what’s happening here in this Cathedral community and how they can get involved.
And all of this is to help us not just say, “I will go,” or “I will follow,” but actually to do it.
And here’s the irony of it all. Most of us come to church because we are seeking God—to connect with God, to know God’s power and peace for ourselves. But what Jesus kept saying is that to know that love for yourself, you have to follow, you have to spend time with him and his friends, you have to learn his way by living it with others. You have to serve your neighbor, forgive your enemies, share what you have. Those aren’t the extras you add on at the end. They are the way to know God for ourselves.
We will meet the God we worship not only here for an hour on Sunday, but out where we’re doing God’s work—in the office, at home, in tutoring a Cambodian woman newly arrived in this country, in caring for a shut-in neighbor, in advocating for affordable housing and decent schools for the two-thirds of our fellow Washingtonians who are poor.
I want to leave you with a homely, old-fashioned piece of verse that floated around in the church a century or so ago that went like this:
I’d rather see a sermon than to hear one any day,
I’d rather that one walk with me than merely point the way.
The eye’s a better pupil and more willing than the ear
Fine counsel is often confusing but example’s always clear.
I may misunderstand you and the fine advice you give,
But there’s no misunderstanding how you act and how you live.
There’s the challenge for you, for me, for Christians everywhere, and for this National Cathedral. What does our life say? My guess is that people will read our lives pretty well.
Well, that’s the sermon for today. The real question, of course, isn’t whether you found some interesting ideas in it. It’s what we will do with what we say and sing today. That’s the test. “Follow me,” Jesus said. Discipleship, Jesus called it.
It’s a matter of word and deed.