Sunday, August 13, 2017

Deliverance from the Storm(front).

I’m going to start with a little bit of an under-the-stole confession here.  A particular preaching pet-peeve of mine is when the priest gets up every week and talks about whatever movie they saw in the last week and maybe, if you’re really lucky, offers some tepid theological reflection upon it.  

Well, I’m not going to inflict that upon you on a regular basis, I promise.  I don’t go to see movies nearly often enough to do it; and secondarily, this sermon isn’t really going to be about a movie, though I am going to mention one briefly in the first part.  And so here it goes:

I went to go see Dunkirk this week.  It was my birthday and we never really go out to the movies or dinner or anything between Charley and our work, and so Lara and I went out for a very fancy, very posh date wherein we watched Dunkirk and then ate some Nando’s which has been a favourite of mine since they opened one near my seminary. Who says I’m not fancy?

Dunkirk is a remarkable movie, and while I’m terribly wary of “endorsing” things from the pulpit, I’d encourage folks to see it.  It manages to show the arbitrary nature of war, the frequent futility of individual struggle in combat, and the tragedy inherent in conflict while simultaneously recognising that even so, there are times in which such tragedy and violence may be the least evil choice; never a good, but the least bad option. 

That it was such a great victory in defeat may not be chalked up merely to the British fortitude and sense of duty, but perhaps also to prayer.  King George called for a national day of prayer as the decision to evacuate was made, and the weather was miraculous indeed, grounding the Luftwaffe for a day, and then granting calm seas to the flotilla of naval ships and little day-sailers that answered the call or were commandeered to get the men off of the beach.  And with all those who responded to King and Country, to duty and to God, and with the protection of the RAF who, though the soldiers on the beach didn’t always recognise it, fought like hell to keep them safe, hundreds of thousands of men made it back to Britain to fight another day and to liberate Europe from the Satanic force of Nazism and Fascism.  

In the end, Dunkirk is a story of Deliverance.  It’s a theme we know well and it’s one that resonates with us; it’s also one of the principal types of story in the Bible.  In fact, this one should be particularly obvious to us.  A group of people driven back to the sea, chased by an army with their chariots, praying for deliverance from what appeared to be a certain fate, and brought through and across the water to freedom.  If that hasn’t rung any bells yet, I have another very good movie for you to watch: Prince of Egypt. 

Deliverance is not brought to us only by brave sailors and pilots, however.  And in today’s gospel we get another story of deliverance.  Jesus has performed a miracle in that he has just fed the masses with loaves and fish, and Jesus sent the disciples along on their way across the lake, while he stayed to dismiss the crowd.  The disciples must have been a bit sulky at their dismissal because they lake is only about four and a half miles across there, but they still hadn’t made it to the other side by the 3:00-6:00am watch.  I’m not sure how much experience any of you have at sea, but suffice it to say, if the men at Dunkirk were waiting for the apostles to come and get them, they’d probably still be waiting.

And while lollygagging their way across, a fierce storm came up, and the disciples were in a bind and afraid for their lives.  And suddenly Jesus comes walking to them across the tumult, striding across the sea as if it were dry land, and if they were scared before, they’re doubly scared now. 

And what does Jesus say? Be not afraid”
To which I hope the disciples said, even if it’s not recorded “Easy for you to say, you’re walking on the water, we’re all about to drown!”

And then Peter, ever skeptical, asks Jesus to call him out onto the water, and to his credit, he manages a step or two before he starts to sink.  But Jesus grabs him and they get into the boat and the wind stops and they recognise him for who he is, that even the wind and the sea obey.

A story of deliverance, of impending doom averted by God’s action in the world.  A story of divine intervention to save us. 

We are, all of us, caught up in the tumult, and it is by Christ stepping into the dangerously broken world, a world in which our lives and souls are at risk, that we are saved from the danger.  In this reading we see the story writ small with the twelve disciples in the boat; in the whole Gospel we see it writ large as God becomes human in the person of Christ to save us from death and the grave.  

But just as importantly, we see here Jesus not just rescuing the disciples as he RNLI rescues people, plucking them out of danger and fighting back to the safety of land.  No, here we see Jesus calm the wind and flatten the sea.  He doesn’t just move them from danger to safety, he conquers the danger, eliminating the storm entirely and leaving behind a place.  

Today (as it is many days lately, it seems), I see my home country on the front page of the BBC's website, and it is once again for horrifying reasons.  While I wish the biggest news of the day had been Chelsea coughing up three goals and picking up two red cards at home to Burnley as it’s always nice for good news to take the day, instead it’s that the same ideology that drove those men onto the beach at Dunkirk is in the midst of a dramatic resurgence which led to one dead and more injured as white supremacists and neo-nazis rally in the states, a rally which many of my former classmates were present with other clergy, in a peaceful and powerful display of Christian witness in opposition to hate.  While I wish I could say such tumultuous and anti-social behaviour was restricted to a tiny group of bigots just in the United States, it is not.  It’s neither a tiny group of bigots, nor is it restricted to just my country.  In fact, we’ve seen the rise of various hate organisations across the west; I had to sign a document before coming attesting that I was not a member of certain organisations here in the UK deemed to be hate groups, and their growth in places like Greece and France has been well documented. 

I find it too appropriate that one of the principal hate magazines in the United States is called “Stormfront” because storm seems to be an appropriate way to describe these movements: unpredictable, complicated, and chaotic.  But no matter how good we get at describing storms, no matter how well we can predict their path, no matter how well we can prepare for them, we cannot stop them.

But Christ can. 

The true answer to this challenge that faces the west, that of extremist ideology of any colour or religion, is the only one who can calm the storm.  God, in whom there is no partiality, is the only one who can do that.  Jesus, who ate with the Samaritan woman, who did not condemn the adulteress to death, in whom there is no slave or free, neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female… God is the one who speaks peace into these situations, and it is by becoming better, more serious followers of Christ, and by praying that others may be converted as well, that we can invite Jesus into this situation. 

And so as we go about our lives (particularly here in this place where mustard gas, one of the most horrifying of our weapons of war from the darkness of the last century, was manufactured) let us pray that we may once again find Christ present in the tempest, taking us by the hand, converting us and those around us, and calming the winds and waves so that we may all come together in that peaceable kingdom that is, in all its beautiful diversity, the body of Christ. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

"How Could They?" Palm Sunday, 2017

As we sit here in the midst of passiontide we cannot help but feel the incredible tensions inherent in this day. Even as the echo of sweet “Hosannas” resound through the church, we can taste the bitter gall of vengeance rising in our throats, our lust for blood and punishment causing our tongues to tax the leashes of our restraint to breaking point as the shouts of “Crucify Him” erupt from within; our impulse to destroy the beautiful overpowering us. 

In this moment, far removed from the event, safe at a distance from the fear and pain and death, we cannot help but be reflective.  “How did we get here?  How did we wind up in this situation?  Who am I that I just called for the death of an innocent man?” 

These are, I think, the right questions to ask, or at least are some of the right questions to ask of ourselves. 

Just now there are about 11 million Syrians who are either Internally Displaced Persons or Refugees (the only distinction between the two being whether they are in UN camps in Syria or whether they made it across the border.

Last year when it was announced by President Obama that the United States would welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees, or 0.0009% of these refugees, 53% of Americans thought we should let in fewer refugees, only 11% thought we should let in more.  

As we awoke on April 4th to videos of injured and sick children gasping for breath, their pupils shrunken to pinpoints and foaming at the mouth, and saw the pictures of the dead, of Abdel Hameed al-Youssef holding his dead 9 month old twins, kids just more than half Charley’s age, and preparing to bury them next to his wife and brothers, we would hear them described as “Children of God” who should “never have to suffer such horror.”

True words, certainly, but words that may ring a bit hollow in light of the fact that both they and those who suffer alongside them were banned from taking refuge in this country, and that most Americans thought that doing so was the right move.

How quickly we turn from hatred and rejection to glorification and adoration.

So let us not wonder how it is that the crowds that greeted Jesus with hymning and palms made the same wild swings in reverse.  If we want to understand how the masses can pivot so quickly we need look no further than the mirror.  If we cannot see the fickle and turbulent nature that dwells in each of us, if we cannot feel the herd mentality and the desire of the hunt that, from time to time, rises in our chest, then we must look more closely.  For just as we are all capable of great wonders, so are we each and every one capable of unfathomable horrors, especially as the aggression of the pack sinks into us its razor sharp talons. 

In these moments it is so tempting to withdraw, to cede our agency to those who are the loudest, the angriest, and the most afraid amongst us; those who mistake force for strength, and violence for victory. It’s tempting to wash our hands of it all and say “See to it yourselves (Matthew 27:24). 

Let us not forget, however, that Pilate is not remembered for his substantial administrative acumen that enabled him to keep his post for more than three times the usual term, but rather is remembered each week by billions who say of Christ that “he suffered under Pontius Pilate.” He is remembered not for his action, but for his abdication of his responsibility to care for one who was innocent before it was too late. 

“On the night before he was betrayed our Lord took bread, and when he had given thanks he brake it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 

Likewise, after supper, he took the cup; and when he had
given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, "Drink ye all of this;
for this is my Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for
you, and for many, for the remission of sins. Do this, as oft as
ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me.” 
There is, I think, no denying that our society has been gripped by incredible and increasing levels of selfishness over the last 60 to 70 years.  While we have made incredible technological progress, it has arrived concurrently with increasing disregard for those who have less, those who are disadvantaged, and those who will come after us. 

This Randian worship of self is satanic in the truest sense; it pulls us inward into our own desires and away from what Jesus commanded us to do: love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  It tears apart and destroys the beloved creations of God. 
Whether through causation or correlation, we have seen throughout society in that same time a decreasing reverence for Christ present in the sacrament.  When asked to keep watch with Christ for an hour, too many too often decide that they’d rather sleep and stay in bed, or play a sport, or do the crossword and have a coffee, or engage in any number of things that bring us fleeting pleasures that pale when compared to God’s majesty. 
Whether it is pure coincidence or one caused the other or vice-versa I do not know, but if one cannot adore Christ on the altar, one cannot meet Christ in the street.  And if one cannot see Christ in our brothers and sisters who are tossed about in turbulent seas at the mercy of those who offer them no regard, then how can one adore Christ on the altar. 

As we consider today Christ’s passion, there are many places in which we can enter into this story.  Perhaps we are the Apostles, called to stand with Christ in the hour of need but unwilling to turn away from our own comfort.  Perhaps we are in the crowd, caught up in the moment until we catch the scent of blood, and then vicious as starved rats.  Perhaps we are Pilate, seeing the brokenness and horror, but washing our hands of our own responsibility. 

Today especially, no matter where we see ourselves in the story, no matter where we land in this scene, we stand convicted.

We have all fallen short of the Kingdom of God.  We have all failed to do those things which we ought to have done, and done those things which we ought not to have done.  We have all, through our own sin, grieved and broken the heart of God.  It is as a result of our sin that we find Christ on the cross.  
And so let us do on this commemoration of his Passion what our Lord calls us to do: turn back to God in prayer and contrition. Take an honest inventory of our failings and confess them.  Reject the idolatry that tells us our own desires are of principal importance, and that our comfort and safety is worth any cost. Return to Christ on the altar, renew the reverent wonder that comes unbidden as we see the same body, blood, soul, and divinity that was nailed to the tree as it comes amongst us hidden under the shadows of bread and wine.  Remember, mortals, that you are dust, and to dust shall you return.  Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near. 
And rejoice. Rejoice that Christ looked into the depths of our depravity, our inordinate cruelty, our unfeeling carelessness and still loved us enough to offer up himself on the cross for our salvation. 


Sunday, January 29, 2017

We Prayed for the Peace of God. Did We Mean It?

Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

On the 30th of September in 1938 a man arrived at the now-long-gone Heston Aerodrome in London having travelled from a hostile country and got off of his plane to make a bold declaration.  He had spent the day before hammering out an agreement with Herr Hitler who promised to be a very good boy and to only invade a little bit of Czechoslovakia, if Britain and France would cede those parts of the Czechoslovakian territory in order to avoid war. 

Neville Chamberlin got off the plane and promised “Peace for our Time,” a line present in
 the public consciousness of the nation because it is part of the prayers of the people in the Book of Common Prayer: “Give peace in our time, O Lord; because there is none other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God.”

The “peace” that Chamberlain brought back to the United Kingdom wound up contributing to the death of millions.  After nearly a year’s worth of the strengthening of the German war machine, war finally came to Europe.  Less than two years later, bombs were falling on London on a nightly basis. 

Chamberlin’s “peace” turned out to be anything but.

Our collect for the day prays that God will mercifully hear our supplications and grant us God’s peace.  It’s a noble sentiment that seems on the surface unobjectionable, but it raises a thorny, painful, and unavoidable question: Do we, in this country, actually want God’s peace? 

It seems obvious, does it not?  Of course we want God’s peace.  God’s peace sounds wonderful.  It sounds fantastic, glorious, spectacular even.  But what exactly is God’s peace.  Does it jibe with that of which we think when we consider our ideas of peace?  

A fellow graduate of the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, William Alexander Percy, was a brilliant writer and poet; he helped to define southern American literature for more than a generation.  He was friends with Langston Hughes and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and a mentor to great southern writers who are perhaps even better known, at least in my parts; writers such as Robert Penn Warren, who wrote All the King’s Men, one of my favorite books.  Percy served in Belgium in the early days of World War I, helping those who were cut off from food supplies by the war until the United States entered, at which point he went on to serve in the Army amidst all the savagery that accompanied that shameful time.  Amongst his works was a poem that has since been set to music and found its way into our hymnal.  If you’d like to read it, it’s hymn 661 in the hymnal, “They Cast Their Nets in Galilee.” 

In it he rather succinctly sums up what the calling of the Christian life is.  Verses two and three: “Contented peaceful fishermen/ before they ever knew/ the peace of God that fill’d their hearts/ brimful, and broke them too.  Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,/ homeless in Patmos died./ Peter who hauled the teeming net,/ head-down was crucified.” 

If we are living our lives the way we are intended, this is where God calls us: from contentment to the cross, from comfort to sacrifice, from safety to risk.  The peace of God not only filled their hearts up to the brim, it broke them.  Those who were nearest to Christ, those who most emulated his life, those who understood best what it meant to be followers of God incarnate did not live lives of comfort.  They were not “hashtag blessed.” They did not ‘put good thoughts out into the universe so that they could be prospered,” their focus was not on “becoming their best self” or getting rich using “positive thinking” or any other popular perversions of the Gospel.  

If you ever look on top of McColl Auditorium you’ll see that there’s a spear and square as a spire.  The wrought iron of the doors in the church have on the handles little spears and squares marked into the metal.  The sconces for the lights outside have little spears and squares across the bottom of them. 

We did not adorn our church with spears and squares because Thomas got rich through his enterprising spear-making business. 

We adorned it with spear and square because for Thomas, following Christ and receiving his blessing meant that he would feel the sting of steel on his flesh as the spear passed through him, martyring him. 

Though it’s tempting to think that the peace of God is going to look like good things happening to us, that it’s going to feel like ease and comfort, the fact is that God’s call is challenging and painful and uncomfortable.  For those of us that live in the United States, particularly in this part of the United States, God’s peace may not be for us any of those things.

So if God’s peace isn’t us in mansions, then what exactly does God’s peace look like? 

Well, the prophet Micah tells us that it is to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God.  Micah tells us nothing about looking after our own safety.  He does not say, protect your own interests first.  He does not say, if there’s any left over after you’ve had all you desire then perhaps you should give a little bit away.  Micah tells us that we must do justice now, love mercy now, and walk humbly now.  This is what the Lord requires. 

We hear from the Blessed Virgin Mary what it looks like: He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.  He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.  He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.  

And we hear from Christ, himself, most clearly in the beatitudes those whom it is that he favored:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

Blessed are the poor, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted.
In other words, blessed are those without power or wealth or prestige.  Reward and blessing and favor are for those who are without: those without help; those without hope; those without home.  

Blessed are the victims of violence. Blessed are those who have lost everything. Blessed are those who flee.  Blessed are those who are given reason to be afraid. 

In spite of our founding fathers’ unequivocal assertions otherwise, we frequently claim to be a Christian nation, and certainly we at the least claim to be a nation that is majority Christian.  We pray for the peace of God.

This asks of us the question: Are we ready for that? 

Are we ready for the peace of God?

Do we mean it when we pray, or are those words just wind across our lips and a manifestation of social obligation? 

The last line of that William Percy hymn is this:

The peace of God, it is no peace, 
but strife closed in the sod; 
yet, brothers, pray, for just one thing 
the marvelous peace of God.

The peace of God is no peace.  The message that Jesus brings is not of gentleness and calm and comfort.  He tells us that we will have a belt fastened about us and that we will be taken where we do not wish to go.  He tells us that the whole order of things will be upended.  He tells us that to follow him is not safety.  He calls us to bear witness to his mercy and love those who have been left behind, pushed to the margins, or suffered violence, with witness with our lives if necessary.  He calls us, like Thomas, like Peter, like Paul, like Andrew, like James, like Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, James, Thaddaeus, and Simon, and countless thousands of others who were martyred and now bear their palms and their incorruptible crowns in heaven to seek and proclaim the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will. 

We will all encounter in our lives many times over situations in which we must choose whether or not to stand with Christ. Situations in which we must ask ourselves if we are going to seek the illusory, deceptive, and superficial comforts and securities of the world, or if we will choose the more difficult, costly, marvelous and lasting peace of God. Will we choose the selfish love of worldly goods and the illusion of safety, or the sacrificial and subversive power that is demonstrated by the love of Christ?

Today in our collect, we prayed that God would in time grant us God’s peace.  The question we must ask of ourselves in this time and this place is this:

Did we mean it?

Did we mean it? 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Christ the King

In our Explorers Bible Study a few weeks ago right after the Wednesday mass, Peg Kringle brought in a new icon that she had gotten recently.  It’s a beautiful icon with a variety of scenes on it, and we together tried to make sure we knew what each scene was depicting.  It isn’t quite as easy at it seems, as in iconography there are sometimes several different things happening all at once, even if they occurred at different points in time.  It’s the same reason that people in icons have unusually shaped heads, thin fingers, and unusual proportions   This is because icons aren’t meant to be photographic depictions of what happened.  

There is a reason for that sort of amorphous dealing with time, and that is because Icons are intended to depict greater truths than a mere image could.  Icons are intended to be “windows to heaven;” they are something revelatory, through which God shows us something of the nature of the divine.  Icons reveal to us the deeper truth of the person or moment they depict.  They are intended to help us see things the way God sees them, to aid us in our prayer and spiritual growth, and they are wonderful tools for that.  

If any of you have ever kept vigil with the blessed sacrament following the Maundy Thursday service, you know how powerful icons can be; an hour spent with St. Augustine of Canterbury, the incredulity of Thomas, and the Blessed Virgin and Child can be transformative through its prayerful contemplation.  

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him.” 

To fall into the trap into which oh-so-many rookie preachers fall, there is an interesting bit of Greek here.  We hear that Jesus is the image of the invisible God.  The word that St. Paul uses here for image is εἰκὼν.  Christ is not a picture of what God looks like sitting on the throne.  Christ is how God revealed to us the deeper reality of God’s innermost nature.  When we look at Christ we see an image not of what God looks like, but who God is.   

As we celebrate today the feast of Christ the King it is instructive, I think, to ponder the nature of the King to whom we are subject, and to whom we owe our allegiance and our lives.  We are after all, subject more to the laws of God than the laws of man and must, in the end, determine where our deepest loyalties lie.  After all, this feast was instituted in the church in the wake of the destruction of World War I, a war that took an entire generation of the best and brightest from across Christendom.  It was intended to serve as a reminder that true sovereignty rested with Christ and was created to stand in opposition to the nationalism, isolationism, and other forms of arrogance that leads us to believe that some people are better, more important, or more worthy than others.  

And how appropriate.  After all, if one hopes to one day find themselves in the kingdom of God, it will be a rather uncomfortable place if one also hopes not to encounter those of different races, nationalities, denominations, or beliefs. 

And we know this to be true, because we have seen the icon of the King to whom our knees bow and our tongues confess.  And what we see is a man who was a member of an ethnic and  religious minority within the empire.  A man who was a refugee, forced to take flight to escape the persecution of the state.  A man who was killed by agents and officers of the state in spite of his innocence, in no small part to inspire fear in those who shared his religion.  A man who was unjustly labeled a terrorist because he called not for violence, but for justice for those who were economically and culturally oppressed minorities, Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles alike.  

It is this outcast, this unwanted and unworthy soul, this subversive and radically inclusive and welcoming monarch whom we worship.  It is this seemingly hopeless victim that we follow.  It is this vision we must claim as our own. It is this crown to which we must offer our obeisance.

Christ the King is a reminder to us yearly that while the Kingdom of God is not of this world, it is very much in it.  It is a reminder that those who sow division and hate, who advocate for supremacy and subjugation, who seek hard power for its own sake do not reflect to us in any way the Kingdom to which we have been called and made subject.  

If our oath, if our allegiance, if our subjection to Christ is to mean anything it must mean that we ourselves, our souls and bodies, have Christ as our first loyalty, even when such a stance comes at a cost.   
There is, it seems, a widespread feeling that the world at this moment is a dry tinderbox that is simply awaiting a spark to turn it into the type of conflagration in which we found ourselves a century ago, and then again seventy years ago.  As the forces of division, aggression, separation, supremacy, and violence around the world seek power (as they always do), we will be asked as all generations have been asked at one time or another, which side we stand on.  

We have seen what happens when we forget who our true King is.  We have seen violence and intimidation.  We have seen the firehoses and dogs.  We have seen the crosses burned in yards.  We have seen the turning away of ships full of those who are fleeing the machinery of death in camps.  We have seen Flanders Field, Ypres, and the Somme.  We have seen our nation rise up against itself to preserve slavery.  We have seen what happens when we forget the message we have been given by our King. 

So let us not forget. 

Let us respond to injustice with justice.  Let us respond to racism, sexism, and all the other -isms and -phobias that plague by building bridges and encouraging diversity.  Let us respond to division with unity.  Let us respond to violence…  in fact, let us respond to all things with love.  

This year let us give particular thanks that Christ reigns over all the powers of the world, and that his supreme reign will, no matter how dire the situation is in which we may find ourselves, will always be triumphant.  

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Vigil Homily.

Flowers on the Altar at St. Thomas' Church, Whitemarsh, Easter Vigil, 2016
In the beginning there was a Garden. And in the Garden, God placed our first parents.  But Satan came in and led us astray, and the stole of immortality worn by our first ancestors was lost, and death and sin entered the world.  We were cast out of Eden, cast out of the presence of God.  We sought to be like God, to know good and evil, to sit in judgement, and brought about all manner of other sins.  

Cain slew able. 

In Babel we strove to supplant God by building a tower into heaven.  

In Egypt, we enslaved the Hebrews. 

After the deliverance from the Red Sea, we rejected the God who brought us through the waters, building an idol of our wealth for worship.  

In Sodom and Gomorra, we failed to welcome the stranger in our midst, we threatened the alien in our lands, and sought to punish the newcomer.
When the Lord set Judges over us, we rejected them and demanded a King, so that we could be like the other nations, like the profane and unholy tribes.  

Time after time after time after time we rejected God’s laws and God’s love, and turned aside to follow our own desires and wishes.  

Time after time after time after time we made ourselves to be greater and more important than God. 

Time after time after time after time we succumbed to sin, and death ruled the world. 

It was into this world that Christ was Born. 

Christ came to what was his own, and his own people rejected him. 
And yet the light shineth out in the darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not. 

God came into the world in the person of Christ. He lived a perfect life, free from the stain of disobedience that marks us all.  He lived as one of us, but without sin.  He lived free from the power death had over us. 

And yet when the hour of judgement came, there he stood, offering up himself to death willingly, offering up his body so that we might be redeemed.  Though death had no claim on him, he went for us to the cross, to satisfy the ancient law, to pay the wages of sin in our stead. 

Death, who had won its victory in Eden and forced its way into the world, took hold of its greatest prize; death took the spotless lamb, the sinless Christ.

O what pain death must have felt.  O the shock it must have received, to have grabbed that which it could not hold.  

So come, all of you and rejoice!  Come and celebrate the resurrection of the lamb!  

Come, all ye who have carried the flame of faith since your childhood, and come all ye who have just arrived!  Come ye of much faith and ye of little.  Come young and old, strong and weak, come and see that the Gates of Hell have been trampled down and stand no more. Come join with saints and angels and sing at the throne of our risen savior!  Come rejoice that death has been vanquished!

For “Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!”*

Quotation from the conclusion of St. John Chrysostom's Easter Vigil Homily c. 400AD

Monday, November 2, 2015

Were They All of Them, Saints of God? A homily for All Saints Day 2015

This homily was delivered at the Sunday 5:00pm Mass on the Feast of All Saints at St. Thomas' Church, Whitemarsh, PA, 2015. 

One day in or about 1929 in Great Britain, a woman named Lesbia Scott set pen to paper and wrote out a poem for children.  Im sure all of you are, whether you know it or not, quite familiar with her creation, which has over time become quite popular on this side of the pond, though it has never quite reached the same heights in her own native country.  If I start the first line, yall would probably be able to finish it: I sing a song of the saints of God. I'm willing to venture a guess that this hymn is sung in the majority of Episcopal Parishes on the day we celebrate the feast of All Hallows, also known as All Saints.

Ive heard a couple of takes on the origin of this particular hymn; one is that the words were written with the intent that the refer to particular saints, (And one was a doctor and one was a queen, for example, were to refer to St. Luke the Physician and St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland), and the other is that the lyrics were intended to help remind us that were all called to sainthood, and that saints have come from all walks of life. 

Alas, I think it is to our detriment that we have over time come to deeply misconstrue the notion of sainthood, in part due to our deep national love of Mrs. Scotts well intended hymn. 

Saints are people who are particularly holy, people who show a remarkable likeness to God.  In our church today, we very much like things that make us feel good, and as a result, over the last few years weve gotten very fond of the idea that we are all saints: me, you, Great-Grandma Jacobs, Uncle Bill, etc. etc. etc.

This is a very sweet idea.  Id love to think that every single one of my family members that went ahead of me were saints, really I would. But yesterday Lara and I went to Gettysburg to watch Laras sister play in a flag football tournament at Luther Seminary.  She goes to VTS, where Lara and I went, and plays on the football team Lara and I played on.  Its becoming something of a family tradition, apparently. 

But my trip to Gettysburg a few years ago to play cornerback for the Fighting Friars was not the first time someone from my family made the trip to the fields in front of Seminary Ridge.  150 years ago, another one of my family members made that charge wearing not the maroon and black of Virginia Seminary, but wearing the grey wool of the Confederacy.  For his troubles, he was captured and held as a prisoner of war for the rest of that unpleasantness.

Now, obviously I never met him and never met anyone who knew him, so I can
t tell you first hand what kind of guy he was.  I dont know if he was funny, or hardworking.  I dont know if he was amiable or stoic.  I have no clue.  Im sure he loved his family and his children, Im sure he wanted what was best for his family, but while North Carolina was the last state to secede, when he answered his states call and took up arms, it wasnt for some sort of noble idealism.  It wasnt to support an amorphous idealism about freedom or states rights for North Carolina. 

No, when he donned that grey uniform and put his musket on his shoulder and lined up across the field from another line of young men in blue wool, it was so that people in North Carolina and Virginia, and South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana could continue to own, beat, and enslave other human beings.  He and hundreds of thousands of others fought for the right to perpetuate a system of incredible and unconscionable violence against human beings so that they could reap greater profit. 

Whatever other admirable qualities the man may have had, whatever courage may have been shown under fire, whatever valor there may have been in answering Carolina when she called, the cause was not just, the sacrifice was not noble, and our country is still suffering painful and open wounds from that bitter and bloody war a century and a half ago, and from the continued romanticizing of the Lost Cause that has gripped the south ever since.That idea that the sacrifice is to be deeply honored has been a major factor in legitimizing Confederate sympathizers and has contributed significantly to our whole nations problem with race, and make no mistake, its not a southern problem, but a national one. 

And one was a soldier, and one was a priest

Along with being a soldier, Im sure he was many things, but one thing he was not is a saint.  Nor were the folks in my family from a generation or two earlier than him who actually owned other human beings.  They werent all of them saints of God. 

On a lighter note, after my own experiences at Gettysburg, as both player and fan, I can tell you definitively that I
m not a saint either, and from what I can tell, neither are any of those other seminarians that were out on the gridiron. 

And this is what drives me a bit nuts about this song.  It makes it seem so easy to be a saint.  It takes away the striving, it takes away the challenge.  It takes the nails off of the cross, it takes the lions out of the Colosseum, it takes the poverty out of the serving, it takes the preaching out of our witness. 

Being a saint is a major challenge.  Its not easy.  Its about more than loving Jesus.  Its even more than loving Jesus and telling other folks about him.  Being a saint is about being willing to provide a witness to the life of Christ on our worst days. Being a saint is about being unwilling to renounce Christ when the torch is to the kindling at the foot of the stake, when one is lined up by ISIS on a beach in Libya, when one is put against the wall in Roseburg, Oregon with a gun in your face. 

Being a saint is about taking risks, and ministering to those with contagious diseases for which there is no cure, about living a life of poverty and simplicity in order to better serve others, about saying yes to God when we really, really don
t want to.  There are as many ways to be a saint as there are people, but the life of a saint is always difficult, always challenging, always a struggle. 

Well.  What a cheery and uplifting sermon for the feast of All Saints, one of the most significant Major Feasts of the Church!
So wheres the hope? 

As much as I like to poke some tongue-in-cheek fun at
I Sing a Song of the Saints of God, Mrs. Scott got something right. They were all of them Saints of God and I mean, God willing to be one too. 

Im not a saint.  In all likelihood you arent either.  But that doesnt mean we arent called to be saints.  Today is such a holy day because its a time for us to give thanks for the witness of the saints, and to be reminded that we should aspire to that kind of witness.  We need the example of the saints to help to guide us.  We need their prayers and intercessions.  We need them whether or not were able to live up to their example. 

And we need them because their vocation is our vocation.  They may have responded more perfectly, they may have listened and lived in a way that we find difficult, but we should not discount, minimize and water-down their achievements to make us feel better about our own failings, to help us to escape our own conviction.

Instead we should take great joy in the success of our sisters and brothers in faith who went where we hope not to trod and took up that which we hope not to take on.  We should take joy in their witness and example, and in the radiant love with which they conducted themselves. 

And lest we feel to down on ourselves for our own shortcomings, we are blessed doubly that tomorrow is the feast of All Souls, or All the Faithful Departed, a feast which we will commemorate next Sunday.  Rather than dwelling in our own shortcomings or struggling with unfavorable comparisons our giants of the faith, we celebrate the fact that even when we may find ourselves unable to take on all that a saint takes on, the abundant mercy and grace of God is waiting with open arms to welcome all the faithful departed: not only those who have tried and succeeded, but also those who have been tried and found wanting.  For even when we fall short in our witness to the glory of God, through the victory of Christ the gate of glory stands open and waiting to greet us at our journey
s end.

So let us dare greatly, let us work diligently, let us strive unceasingly, and let us love unfailingly, to the end that, whether in this life or the next, we too may be perfected in our faith and in the love of God. 

Let us strive, regardless of the likelihood of success, to our vocation as saints in the kingdom of God. 

And then, God willing, maybe I can be one too. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Tears of Rage, Tears of Grief... We're So Low and Life is Brief.
Wednesday morning I went to the 9:00am mass at Church of the Resurrection in Eugene, Oregon, which I am visiting to celebrate my sister's graduation from graduate school at the University of Oregon. It's been a wonderful trip so far, but the service was especially nice, as part of the purpose was for me to receive my father into the Fellowship of St. John on behalf of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. I was particularly impressed by the depth of theological knowledge held by the 10 or so gathered for the service. During the time for the homily the celebrant invited people to share their thoughts or questions about our readings of the day. One of the ladies present had a question about God's anger, and asked whether God actually got angry or whether that was part of our attempt to personify God. It's a good question, and while I don't remember the exact words used, one of the other ladies there offered a thoughtful and excellent response to the question of God's anger. 

I don't think any of us could have known how appropriate that question would become in only a few hours time. 

It is often said that when a beloved child of God dies (and we are all beloved of God) that God is the first to shed a tear. I believe that to be true. What I don't think I believe is that those are always tears of sadness. Sadness does not cause one to blot out the sun for three hours at the death of Christ. Sadness does not lead to the world's destruction by water. Sadness does not lead to the casting down of Satan and his angels for treason, insubordination, and hubris. Sadness is not the appropriate response to the violence done to God's children in Charleston.

I believe when something like this happens that God is the first to shed a tear, but I do not think God’s first tears are tears of sadness, but are instead tears of rage.

Sadness comes, as it always does after these horrific massacres, drop by drop into our hearts, cooling the anger into pain and grief, but when something like this brutal murder of people studying the bible happens, our first reaction is rage.  

We rage at the injustice of it all. We rage at the loss of what we hoped were safe spaces. We rage at the damnable ignorance and hate and malicious evil that leads someone to presume it is their right to murder peaceful people, people who welcomed him in, because their skin cells produce a bit more melanin than his own. We rage at the ignorance of the ideals of our nation, that every person is created equal. 

There are two truths that have become so blindingly obvious over the last few months that they can no longer be denied.  We have in our country a serious issue with the way we handle race and a serious issue with violence, particularly gun violence. 

In spite of the fact that our nation’s gun violence rate is astoundingly high, higher-than-any-other-developed-country high, significantly-higher-even-than-other-developed-countries-that-have-high-rates-of-gun-ownership high, this is not a policy position paper on gun control.  

Rather, this is about rage.  It’s about the rage of the disenfranchised and threatened. It’s about the rage of those who suffer the loss of loved ones, the loss of dignity, the loss of their humanity.  It’s about the rage of those who suffer because their very existence is, in the mind of many, “taking over the country”.  It’s about the rage God feels over our inability to respect the dignity of every human being. 

And for those of us who are white, that rage comes perhaps most of all at the destruction of our ability to pretend that everything is fine.

We like to see ourselves, particularly in the hyper-developed west, as enlightened individuals who live by the ideals of liberty, freedom, and democracy. We like to think not only that all are created equal, but that all are offered equal opportunity, that people are not constantly and systematically discriminated against, and that those who fail do so through their own faults.  We like to think that we are an egalitarian meritocracy, where the good guys win and the bad guys get what’s coming to them.  We like to think that when the police arrest someone, it’s because they deserved to be arrested for something. 

But pretending that is true is why we are in the situation we are in.  Our inability to see our own brokenness, our inability to look in the mirror and see what is wrong with our society is quite literally killing people.  Dylan Roof was arrested while armed in Shelby, NC, without incident, less than 24 hours after brutally murdering nine people who had welcomed him into their Bible study.  Twelve year old Tamir Rice, who was black, was shot and killed less than two seconds after police arrived on the scene, in spite of the fact that he was just a kid playing in a park with a toy gun.  After a massive biker gang shootout in Waco left nine dead and 18 wounded, police made arrests without incident.  Eric Garner, who was black, was strangled to death for selling loose cigarettes.  I went to church on Wednesday and left alive.  Nine of my brothers and sisters in faith did not, and they did not because they were black.   

Our rage at these shootings is not simply over the violence inflicted yet again upon black bodies, but also at the puncturing of our own self identity as people and as a society who are above such mean and petty things such as racial discrimination or gun violence. Events such as this force into our view the fact that, for some reason, we live in the only developed country in the world where shootings like this take place on a regular basis.  It reminds us that we live in a place where one segment of the population bears the disproportionately large brunt of violence inflicted by our society, both violence inflicted by the state and violence inflicted by other citizens. It forces us to confront the fact that 15% of our country live their lives in constant fear that they'll get gunned down for not being polite enough in a traffic stop, for playing in their yard, for walking down the street of their own neighborhood. It reminds us that for all of our ideals, we can't honestly tell a young black man that if he does everything right he’ll be left alone and given the benefit of the doubt by other members of society and by those who enforce order.  

This isn’t about blaming police.  In fact, it is not about the police at all.  It’s about you and me, fellow caucasians. It is about you and me needing to recognize the poison that we breathe in every day but don’t see, this is about us needing to be aware at the water we swim in, needing to recognize that our deeply ingrained, deeply consequential cultural racism, and our deeply ingrained, deeply consequential obsession with violence are very, very real. And most importantly, it’s about recognizing the part we play in fostering those systems.   

If we respond to these constant spree killings, these constant rampages, these patterns of violence with indifference, with numbness, with a simple “Pray for the victims” and move on, then we contribute in a very real way to the systems that ensure that these killings will keep happening.  The only way for us to change this is to channel our rage into something productive.  

Society doesn’t like change.  In fact, we once had to fight a war over whether people who had a certain amount of skin pigment were even human or whether they were property.  Our culture will put everything it has into not changing.  Listen to the news in the wake of these murders.  There are people trying to frame it as an attack on Christianity.  There are people who are saying the killer was a troubled and confused young man.  They are the same people who referred to Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old guilty of nothing more than walking through his own neighborhood, as a thug. Entrenched cultural and societal forces, both conscious and subconscious ones, will do all they can to ensure the paradigm doesn’t shift, particularly since people are realizing more and more just how charged this moment is.

We, especially those of us who are white, are holding a stick of dynamite, and the fuse has been lit.  Option one is to keep doing what we’ve been doing.  We can hold that stick of dynamite and act like the fuse hasn’t been lit and carry on as if the grave sin of racism isn’t real until it blows up in our hands, leaving our souls and spirits too gravely damaged to go on.  This would be an undoing of our own account.  We could continue claiming our supremacy over all others living in “our” country and keep telling people to know their place.  We could keep hurting ourselves by continuing to exclude people of color, women, or other minorities from the table for fear that our place of prominence and privilege may be challenged.  We can maintain our hegemony, but the hate and discrimination we inflict will poison us until we can no longer recognize ourselves in the mirror. We could preserve the status quo, but in the end we harm ourselves almost as much as those against whom we discriminate.

Or we could take all that stick of dynamite, that power, all that energy, all that force, and use it to break ourselves free of the bonds we have placed on ourselves and our society.  We could channel our efforts into justice rather than platitudes.  We could call each other out on our unhealthy tendencies and subtle, even unconscious, racism.  For once we could sit down and listen to our neighbors and friends, sit and listen while people of color talk about what their experience is and allow ourselves to be shocked at how much different it is than ours.  We could allow ourselves to be changed.  We could allow ourselves to be followers of Christ, who himself saw fit to lay down the power he had so that he could live in communion and unity with us.

In that Bible Study I attended Wednesday, everyone agreed that there are times God does get angry.  I’m glad that they saw that, because I think one of the worst tendencies of Christianity is to make God into some sort of cuddly celestial stuffed animal who makes us feel better about ourselves.  But I believe that God gets angry just as we do.  I believe God was wroth as Dylan Roof fired shot after shot after shot into people who had welcomed him in the name of Christ.  And I believe that God will be wroth at our obstinance if we fail to see the roles we play as members of a society in which this was not an isolated incident by a disturbed man, but something that happens more than once a month.

The call of a Christian life is that of sacrifice and love.  It is time for us to sacrifice our positions of safety and privilege.  It is time for us to sacrifice our love of the recreational use of the machinery of death.  And it is time for us to demonstrate our love for our brothers and sisters by getting angry at the violence and discrimination they face, and by harnessing that righteous anger and working alongside them to build a more just and equitable world.