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.      

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Sacrament of Confession
The rite of confession* has fallen in prominence these days in Anglican churches, and to an extent even in the Roman Catholic church.  One Roman priest I spoke with recently mentioned that the vast majority of confessions he hears these days are from children, either from Sunday School or from the parish school.  There are, undoubtedly, good reasons for this.  Confession has not been emphasized of late, certainly not across the Episcopal Church; there is also a dark history of abuse of the privacy of the confessional; and perhaps primarily, we do not, as a culture, focus as much on repentance as much as we do on "community" or "welcome." The great irony is, of course, that living in a community requires repentance and forgiveness.  The issue of abuse is one that cannot be discounted; the desecration and profaning of that sacramental space has caused serious harm, and has caused many to avoid a ministry of the church that is important, even vital, to spiritual health.  

But in our haste to do the right thing in ending the abuses of the church, we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Though there are a variety of reasons it has fallen out of popularity, perhaps the primary one is that the church (and her priests) do not encourage--and in some cases are not familiar with--the rite, its use, and its benefit.  As a result, misperceptions around the sacrament abound. 

There is a common idea, especially among Episcopalians, that one need not go to confession unless one has some grave mortal sin weighing on one's soul.  The thought is that confession may be appropriate for someone who has committed a murder, someone who is guilty of adultery, or perhaps someone who has embezzled funds from their company.  The famous mantra of "All may, some should, none must" becomes something closer to "All may, they probably should, but I certainly don't need to."  And this is a particularly risky place to find oneself.  It is tempting, of course, to pull the mote out of our brother's eye, but we are warned not to do so without first pulling the log out of our own. We all, after all, have fallen short of the glory of God, and we all stand in need of forgiveness and redemption.   

And therein lies the beauty of confession.  There is not one single person who could not benefit from making a confession and hearing God's forgiveness pronounced, not in a general sense to the gathered community, not in the "God forgives everyone's sins" sense, but directly, individually, personally. You, beloved child of God, are loved, reconciled, and made new.

We don't only need to hear that when we're in a state of grievous mortal sin, we don't only need to hear that when we are in extremis as we approach the end of life, we don't only need to hear that before a major threshold.  It is a benefit to each of us, a reminder of God's boundless grace, of God's divinity, and of our own personal, fragile, and precious humanity to hear "I absolve you from all your sins: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."  We are part of a community, part of the body of Christ around the world and throughout time, but we are also individuals in need of the empowering love of God. 

The purpose of confession is exactly that type of restoration and reconciliation.  It is not to beat us over the head with guilt or shame, it is not to make us feel bad about our shortcomings, it is not to mire us in the muck of our own sin, it's to help us be aware of how God moves us from that darkness and trouble into light and peace.  We may say "all may, some should, none must," but the reality is that all may, and all should.  So let me encourage each and every person to make a fearless moral inventory and confess to God and the Church our shortcomings, so that we can hear those comforting words and re-enter the world forgiven, loved, and free. 


*The rite is listed in the Book of Common Prayer as Reconciliation of a Penitent.  Though I am a strong advocate for the rite, I prefer to call it confession.  Reconciliation occurs anytime someone is absolved of their sins, whether corporately or individually.  The Sacrament of Reconciliation does just that, but it does it through an intentional accounting and confession of individual sins one has committed, and much of the pastoral significance of the rite is the opportunity to name before God and the church our sins, to "get it off of our chest" so to speak.  As such, my preference is to continue to refer to the rite as confession as I have done through most of this posting. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Libyan Martyrs: A Call to Martyrdom and Witness.

1 Cor 1:17-31

The Libyan Martyrs: A Call to Martyrdom and Witness.
A Homily Delivered at Evensong for Lent 1, 22 February, 2015

This month 21 men were martyred for the church.  

Their names were: 
Milad Makeen Zaky
Abanub Ayad Atiya
Maged Solaiman Shehata
Yusuf Shukry Yunan
Kirollos Shokry Fawzy
Bishoy Astafanus Kamel
Somaily Astafanus Kamel
Malak Ibrahim Sinweet
Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros
Girgis Milad Sinweet
Mina Fayez Aziz
Hany Abdelmesih Salib
Bishoy Adel Khalaf
Samuel Alham Wilson
Ezat Bishri Naseef
Loqa Nagaty
Gaber Munir Adly
Esam Badir Samir
Malak Farag Abram
Sameh Salah Faruq
and a worker from Awr village whose name remains unknown. 

These men were known Christians who had gone to Libya for work.  The so called Islamic State targeted them because they were Christians.  Their names were on a list because they were Christians. IS went and snatched them from their homes because they were Christians.  They took them to a beach on the Mediterranean Coast and then decapitated them because they were Christians.  The last words of many of them were Ya Rabbi Yasou “… O Lord Jesus.  

“For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we
preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness…But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence.” (1 Cor 1:22-3, 27-9)

As I stand here in this beautiful stone pulpit, worked diligently and faithfully by the hands of skilled artisans, in vestments wrought by the handiwork of deeply faith Christians from South Philadelphia and England to Toungoo in Myanmar, in a gorgeous brick church with Tiffany stained glass and beautiful Marianne Sloane murals, with a painstakingly carved limestone altar under a beautiful slate roof that so many here gave graciously of their hard earned livelihood to install I can’t help but feel as if I am woefully, painfully unworthy to stand here and confess the Gospel of Christ. 

Unworthy though I am, I can hope only channel the words of St. Paul, and point to those who have witnessed to Christ in far greater and braver ways than I. 

We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to jews, and foolishness to the Greek.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to confound the wise.

Truth be told, I don’t know what is more foolish than proclaiming one’s faith in Christ as Lord just before execution.  It isn’t as though that was going to stop the demons from IS from going through with their grim mission.  It isn’t as though saying that was going to grant them some reprieve.  It isn’t as if they thought that would spare them from their fate. 

And yet cry out they did.  And we now have 21 new saints of the church, to shame the wise, to reduce to nothing things that are.  

IS is many things, evil springs to mind, awful, heinous, demonic in the most literal sense… But they are powerful.  They control a great deal of land, oil, money, and weapons.  They are quite mighty.  But God chose what is weak in the world to confound the mighty, God chose what is foolish to confound the wise. 

It isn’t as if we didn’t know prior to these martyrings that IS was evil.  But God chose what was weak not only to confound the mighty, but to inspire others.  The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, says Tertullian, and the witness these men provided, proclaiming Christ even to the point of death, strengthens me in my own considerable weakness.  If those men, regular men, people who left their homes in search of work and a better life, if those weak, powerless, expatriated men can heap shame and scorn upon those who are strong and mighty, then why can’t I?

For all the mysticism around martyrdom, it is simply the Greek word for witness.  We may not all be called to take up our cross in a way quite so literal as these men did, but we are all, each and every single person here, called to be a martyr, to be a witness to Christ in the world.  We are called to proclaim a God who lowered himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.  We are called to name sins, both our own and those of society around us.  We are called to be visibly Christian in the world.

If these men can stand for something for Christ in the face of death itself, why am I so reluctant to cause myself discomfort or inconvenience?  If these men are willing to be proudly Christian in a land where being Christian is risky, why do I catch myself referring to “graduate school” instead of seminary?  If these men are willing to die for their faith in a hostile land, why do I not shout from the rooftops the salvation of Christ in a land more friendly to the Christian faith than nearly any on earth? 

More than that, why do I not call to account the mighty, and the “wise” when they defy the laws of God?  Why do I not struggle mightily to hold to account our community and our nation when we fail to keep God’s commandments  to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God… to feed the poor, welcome the foreigner, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoners.”  My government will not kill me for being Christian, and yet I do not take the risks I know I should take. 

We need no more proof than this to know that St. Paul is speaking the truth when he says God chooses the weak and the foolish to confound and shame the mighty and wise.  Civis Romanus Sum, I am an American citizen, able to traverse the world knowing that my government and its most considerable might protect me. I live in the richest country on the planet, the most powerful state in history, and even my relatively humble life, by American Standards, would be a life of near unimaginable luxury to these men who went to Libya, a country torn by civil war and violence seeking work because their prospects at home were so bleak.  I am mighty, I am strong, and I stand here confounded and shamed by the witness of these men, these martyrs of the church. 

And what is even more shaming is the fact that it takes the martyrdom of these men to shame me when I know full well that there is one who has already been put to torture and martyred in ransom for my life, that it took this reminder to humble me when I celebrate at the altar each week the death and resurrection of our Lord.  That truth written nearly two thousand years ago is no less true today than it was when blessed Paul put his hand to that papyrus telling the church in Corinth that God will cast down the haughty so that those who glory may glory not in their own special, privileged place, not in their wealth, their power, their might, their wisdom, but in the Lord only.

Wednesday we began Lent by marking our heads with ashes, a symbol of repentance and of our own mortality.  To repent is to re-orient yourself towards God, to turn away from sin and temptation and to live more fully in the life into which God is calling you.  That there are people still dying for our faith is a reminder to me that there are many, many ways in which I need to repent, to reorient my life towards God, and I suspect the same is true for most people here.  I invite you therefore into a Holy Lent, that together we may confess and repent of all of our sins, that we may align ourselves with those who, in the name of God, confound the wise and the strong, and that, through our repentance and prayer, we may celebrate with joy the resurrection of our Lord and God’s final victory over sin and death. 

During this period of prayer and fasting, may we also give thanks to God for the lives and deaths of these 21 martyrs, these saints of the church, may we pray for their families, friends and loved ones, and may we pray for ourselves that we may better come to know Christ in order that we too may shame the wise and confound the mighty. 

And may their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Homily for the Martyrs of Japan

Martyrs of Japan

The 1500s was a time of incredible change.  The world was expanding rapidly, people were interacting for the first time, and European powers were beginning to trade with places they’d never known of before.  East Asia, South Asia, the Americas: There was a whole new world out there.  
During time, Francis Xavier, one of the first Jesuits, and some others set off for Japan.   It was, at that time, fertile mission field.  The people of Japan were receptive to Christianity, and the Shogunate welcomed them. 

The Christian Missionaries were welcomed for a couple of reasons.  The Shogunate appreciated the trade benefits that the missionaries brought; allowing the missionaries into the country greased the skids a bit for trade with Spain and Portugal, which was something they wanted.  Additionally, the missionaries and the church provided a check on the Buddhist monks. 

When we think of Buddhists these days, we tend to think of people like the Dali Lama, or perhaps a middle-aged hippy Uncle with a soul patch who treks off to California occasionally to “find himself.”  In reality, they can be quite a force to be reckoned with.  Even today in Myanmar, there are always roughly the same number of Buddhist monks as there are men in the Army, and the two provide a check on each other, not just morally, but in force.  In past uprisings and unrest, it has been the monks that have lead the protests, and in some cases, brutal violence.  The Shogun was more than happy to let in someone who would help check and reduce their power.

Eventually, though, the Shogun started worrying about Imperialism, and he wasn't wrong.  The Spanish especially did tend to send Christian Missionaries into countries partially to undermine the power of the “pagan” governments so that they could come in and take control as the rightful Christian rulers.  Eventually, the Shogunate found a trade ship with some arms on it, which was not kindly received.  They reacted,  well… poorly.  They cracked down on Christians, culminating in a battle where 30, 000 Christians faced off against 100,000 Samurai.  Though there was a great cost to the government, the Christians were crushed.

Japan sealed their borders, and effectively cut off in the early 1600s, and they would not open for more than 200 years.

The thing is, there were still many, many Christians in Japan.  And those Christians needed priests.  And Jesus called us to preach the Gospel in all parts of the world. 
And so priests snuck in and were smuggled in to provide sacramental ministry to the Christians who were in Japan.  Both those martyred at the beginning of the genocide and those who were caught during it faced horrific fates.  

On February 5th, 1597, twenty-six Christians were crucified in Nagasaki.  They were the first of thousands to be killed.  Wives and children of those who were martyred were also ordered to be killed. 

A ships captain who helped sneak two priests into the country who was himself Christian was caught and sentenced to be burned.  He preached on the scaffold before his execution and was ordered to stop.  He asked what greater pain they could inflict on him than they were already, and he continued to preach even as he burned.  His body and those of his officers who met the same fate were left for days where they were.  Christians tried to come and venerate the bodies and take relics, and they were beaten severely. 

Christians were crucified. They were hung upside down into cesspits with slits cut into their foreheads to relieve the pressure in their heads.  They were tied naked to stakes as the tide came in, left to either drown or freeze to death.  Many went to their death singing hymns of praise, on their way to paradise. 

Priest captured would be put where they could hear and see their flock captured with them.  If they did not recant and apostasize, their flock would be tortured and executed in front of them until they did.  Rather than torture and inflict pain, Christians were made to bear the suffering of others, taking on responsibility for the suffering and death of those they loved, a story as old as Christianity itself. 
The whole nation was divided into groups of three families.  If one family was found to be Christian and they were not turned in by o
ne of the two families they were paired with, all three families would be tortured and killed. 

There has perhaps at no point since the death of Christ, including during the Diocletian persecutions or the persecution of Nero, been a time when Christians were more literally forced to take up their cross and follow.  When we pray that God regard not our sins but the faith of the church, this is the faith to which we can only hope to attain. 

This faith in a good and loving God, and incarnate God, a God awash in love in the person of Jesus is all the more remarkable for allowing itself to be proclaimed in the face of forces that can only be described as satanic.

A comparable analogue today would be if priests were sneaking into Nineveh in territory controlled by the Islamic State and were ministering to the Christians there.  The threat they would be under is similar, and the need for Christian witness would be similar. That is the gravity of the situation in which these Christians found themselves. 

And yet, the faith continued.  The light of Christ was not extinguished.  When Japan opened its borders nearly 200 years after sealing itself off, families were found that had crosses and crucifixes carved into the back of their Buddha statues.  

And though there are nearly three times as many Catholics today in Philly as in Japan.  More Catholics in Philly than there are Christians of any stripe in Japan.  There are still Christians in Japan.   Even those forces of Darkness could not be overcome by the forces of Christ.
Though the teachings were imperfect, having been handed down for generations without access to training or clergy, the faith continued, the traditions were passed down, and the church did not fail.

The Persecution in Japan was the most successful, and it forced nearly all Christians to take up their cross and follow, but even in the face of that success, Christianity endured. 

We will never be asked to take up our cross like the martyrs of Japan.  We’ll never be asked to suffer in the same way they did.  But we can draw our inspiration from them, we can remember their witness during our own difficulty, we can be brave enough to share the Gospel with those we encounter.  We can strive to witness as they did.  And by doing so, we can honor the sacrifices they made while tied to stakes, awash in seawater, amidst the flames, hanging in cesspits, and bearing the suffering of others.

May we have even a portion of the bravery and faith those brave men and women had, to give up our lives, take up our crosses, and follow the risen Christ. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Brief Homily on the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas  
Today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican Friar and Priest.  St. Thomas is one of the most influential writers in church history, known as the Doctor Angelicus of the church, and much of our modern philosophy was developed either in conversation or opposition to what Thomas wrote.  It is, I think, very difficult to overestimate the impact Thomas’ writings had on the church.  He is best known for his books the Summa Theologica and the Summa contra Gentiles.  Impressively, his writings were declared whole cloth to be those of the Church, which, when you think about it is an incredible statement.  In what is perhaps the most telling testament to St. Thomas’ wisdom, he was once visited by the Blessed Virgin, to whom Dominicans have a particular devotion, their founder having apparently received the first rosary from St. Mary herself, and she was comforting Thomas with the welcome news that he would never be a Bishop.  

Having read a fair amount of the two Summas I can say, Thomas is a force to be reckoned with.  He writes powerfully and convincingly on the nature of the sacraments, on what happens at the Eucharist, on why we believe what we believe, and his writings have greatly influenced me, especially on my theology of the Eucharist.  In fact, in seminary when taking a liturgics class, I was reading an assignment that was making a particular argument about what actually happens during the canon of the mass, what happens when the priest at the altar is saying and doing certain things.  I have to admit, I didn’t find the argument to be terribly persuasive.  I noticed however, that it had cited St. Thomas’ a couple of times and so I went and read the document that this particular article was arguing against.  Given what I’ve said so far, I don’t think it will be any surprise that after reading through both, I found Thomas’ 750 year old argument to be quite a bit more persuasive than the article written in the last decade.  Even giving someone a three-quarters of a millennium advantage in additional scholarship, Thomas is still an opponent that’s difficult to beat.

And this is actually relevant, because for Thomas, God was knowable by reason.  There’s a joke going around the Episcopal Church that I’ve never been particularly fond of that says “The good thing about being Episcopalian is that you don’t have to check your brain at the door.”  I’d say that by virtue of being a faithful Christian is that you don’t have to check your brain, we certainly have no monopoly, and others certainly have great scholars, but St. Thomas is proof of that par exemplar. He believed deeply that our reasoning intellect that humans alone seem to have been given was given to us for a purpose, and that if God is true, we can learn about the nature of God through statements that must be true.  He teased and toiled those truths out of the world around us, out of our sacred texts, and out of lived experience.  And in doing so Thomas taught us more about the nature of God than perhaps anyone since the end of the Apostolic age.  His writings on God were so incredible and impressive that when his canonization trial was taking place to determine whether he’d be a saint the Devil’s Advocate pointed out he had no miracles (sainthood requires two, unless martyred, then only one).  The reply came: "there are as many miracles (in his life) as articles (in his Summa)", thousands.

And yet, Thomas never lost his reverence for mystery, knowing that even given our powerful intellect and our ability to reason out things about the nature of God, that God is, in the end, beyond our comprehension.  It was from this place of adoration and mystery that Thomas wrote communion hymns, many of which we still use today.  In fact, I believe the only hymn used at both of my ordinations was written by him.   
Humbly I adore thee, Verity unseen,
who thy glory hidest  ‘neath these shadows mean;
lo, to thee surrendered, my whole heart is bowed,
tranced as it beholds thee, shrined within the cloud.

Taste and touch and vision to discern thee fail;
faith, that comes by hearing, pierces through the veil.
I believe whate’er the Son of God hath told;
what the Truth hath spoken, that for truth I hold.

O memorial wondrous of the Lord’s own death;
living Bread that givest all thy creatures breath,
grant my spirit ever by thy life may live,
to my taste thy sweetness never failing give.

Jesus, whom now hidden, I by faith behold,
what my soul doth long for, that thy word foretold;
face to face thy splendor, I at last shall see,
in the glorious vision, blessed Lord, of thee.

As he approached the end of his life and knew he was dying, Thomas had a vision. Meditating before an icon, the crucified Christ said to Thomas, "You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labor?" Thomas responded, "Nothing but you, Lord." After this exchange something happened, but Thomas never spoke of it or wrote it down. Because of what he saw, he abandoned his routine and refused to continue dictation to the person helping him, Reginald of Piperno. When Reginald begged him to get back to work, Thomas replied: "Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me"

His monumental works stand as mountains in the church, the basis for much of our understanding of God, but to Thomas, compared to even a glimpse of Christ, they are but so much straw.  Such is the glory of God, that even those who understand better than most are still reduced to humble awe in the presence of Holy Divinity. 

The motto of the Dominican Order is, translated from Latin, to Praise, to Bless, to Preach.  St. 
Thomas did all of these things with exceptional ability.  He wrote well of Christ.  He, in his humility, loved God well.  May we all be so fortunate as to seek to know God to the best of our ability, to Praise God with our Work, to Bless God with our lives, and to Preach both the reasonable and mysterious glory of God.  And let us today give thanks for the life and work of Saint Thomas Aquinas, that we may one day humbly adore the God who dwells in light alongside him.