Thursday, March 26, 2020

Bishop Barbara Harris (1930-2020)

In that great getting’ up morning, fare thee well, fare thee well

Those of us blessed to be at the ordination and consecration of Barbara Harris as a bishop in 1989 were lifted out of our seats as this gospel hymn began and the procession leading Barbara entered the room where 8,000 of us had gathered to participate in history.  That I was able to be there remains one of the great moments of my life.

On February 11, 1989 I was yet to be ordained and I had no notion whatsoever what a personal part of my life Barbara Harris would come to be.  I knew her from her writing in The Witness, of which she was the editor for many years, writing a column every issue called A luta continua, “the struggle continues.”  As a young Episcopalian and then as a seminarian, the columns had helped form my own commitment to social justice as an integral part of the Gospel.

It was 1997 before I met Bishop Harris face to face when I began to represent Integrity on The Consultation, the “collective” of peace and justice ministries working with The Episcopal Church. At that time the meetings of The Consultation were held in Boston, and Bishop Harris was in attendance for at least some of each meeting.

I met there the woman who so many came to meet: the passionate advocate for those oppressed by racism, poverty, sexism, and homophobia; the lover of the Gospel who was clear about her own relationship with Jesus and the clarity of his teachings; the pragmatic politician who understood how things got done in the church even as she was committed to pushing it to an ever new place.
Bishop Barbara came to be a mentor, as she was to so many, at once deeply encouraging and clear in her challenging us to take up the cross and follow the Lord she loved.  Sometimes her challenges had real bite!  But they always also had love.

One moment I remember so well was in 2003 at the General Convention in Minneapolis when the Convention had just given its consent to the consecration of Gene Robinson.  I was President of Integrity at the time, and was planning a service of thanksgiving.  I asked Bishop Harris to preach and she turned me down.  I asked then for her advice in asking another bishop who she thought would rise to the occasion.  “No,” she said, “you do it.”  I confessed that I wasn’t sure I had it in me.  “It’s in there,” she said, “let it out.”  I asked her advice on content.  “The Gospel,” was her only reply.
I did preach at that service and, uncharacteristically, used neither a manuscript nor notes.  I preached in a style and tone I had never done before.

After her retirement in 2002, Bishop Barbara came to the Diocese of Washington where I was serving to assist Bishop John Chane, who was the new Bishop of Washington.  In the couple years she was there my parish—St. George’s, Glenn Dale—never received her for a visitation, but she did come to John and my relationship blessing service in 2004.  Later in 2004, after our move to St. Luke & St. Simon’s in Rochester, New York, she preached at my installation.

When I heard of her death, immediately thought, A luta continua, and thought back to the day of her consecration and the words of that great hymn.  There are many versions of that hymn, but the unique lines from the version sung by Mahalia Jackson read like a sermon from Barbara Harris.

In that great getting’ up morning, fare thee well, fare thee well
Let me tell you ‘bout the coming of the judgment,
There’s a better day a-coming,
God’s goin’ up and speak to Gabriel,
Pick up your silver trumpet,
Blow your trumpet Gabriel,
Lord, how loud should I blow it?
Oh, to wake the children sleepin’.

Fare thee well, Barbara Harris, fare thee well.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Proclamation of Joy

Sermon preached at St. Thomas', Bath on the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, January 26, 2020:  Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23

You can listen to the sermon here.

There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish… The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light . . . You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy.

           The first dog John and I had together was a rescue from the Washington, DC animal shelter.  His name was Cuthbert.  Cuthbert was a good size black and white mutt—probably a mix of black lab and border collie.  In our 12 years together, Cuthbert taught me many things.

           One warm, sunny day in Maryland, I had taken Cuthbert to work with me as I did almost every day.  I let him loose to run in the chapel cemetery, which was, I think, his favorite place in the whole world.  There were plenty of squirrels and rabbits to chase.  Thank God he never caught any of them. Of course, I never thought there was any danger that he would.

           I went in the parish hall to check my messages and make a couple phone calls.  Then I went back out to get him. I stood near the edge of the cemetery and called his name.  No response.  I figured he must have wandered across the street to the post office.  The chapel was on a short dead-end street on one side of the road, and the post office was the only thing on the other side.  Cuthbert was welcome there and known by most of the patrons.  But he wasn’t there.

           I called again. Nothing.  I called again with my “Dad is annoyed” voice.  Ah, there he was on the far end of the cemetery bounding towards me.  He’s got something in his mouth.  It looks like a rock.  Why is the fool running around with a rock in his mouth?

           He reached me and dumped the rock at my feet and looked up at me with great anticipation.  Only it wasn’t a rock. Cuthbert had caught himself a turtle.  I picked it up and the turtle looked way more annoyed than I had been.

           And then I looked back at Cuthbert and he was shaking with pure joy.  It was alive and he had caught it and Dad was pleased.  It was like the moment when his whole dog life had been fulfilled.

           So Cuthbert taught me that what is important in life is taking joy in whatever it is you can accomplish.

           The great Orthodox theologian of the 20th century, Alexander Schmemann once wrote, “From its very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of joy.”  He went on to say

Without the proclamation of this joy Christianity is incomprehensible.  It is only as joy that the Church was victorious in the world, and it lost the world when it lost that joy, and ceased to be a credible witness to it. Of all the accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy.[1]

           I’ve enjoyed having four weeks in a row to preach.  We began with the journey of the magi to the Christ child, and I spoke of how their journey is our journey, trying to find some star to follow, having it take us to a place we were not expecting, finding there a strange scene, but one in which we could see ourselves in a new way and know to go home by a different road.

           The next Sunday we told the story of Jesus’ baptism and we discovered just what it was the magi saw in that strange place, the thing that changed them.  The thing was love, a love that was God’s gift.  That they hadn’t earned and that we haven’t earned, yet it is the great truth:  we are Gods’ beloved daughters and sons.

           Last week Martin Luther King, Jr. helped us see that it is not enough that we are God’s beloved. There is more. We are called to build the beloved community, not wait for it to come in some heaven, but build it here on earth, where we live and where our neighbors live, including those who are so different from us we can barely understand them, and probably have been taught not to.

           And all along this way, the prophet Isaiah has been singing a song in the background, a song about our calling.  “I have given you as a light to the nations.”  “I will give you as a light to the nations.”  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

           We are called to be God’s beloved . . . to build God’s beloved community . . . to follow Jesus . . . and in the words of this morning’s gospel, to fish for people.  And the bait on our hook?  The light we bring in the darkness, the joy we bring in the brokenness.

           What is this joy?                        Joy is the confidence that we are God’s beloved, that, in the words of St. Paul, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God,”[2] or in the words of our baptismal rite, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”[3]

           Schmemann calls the Eucharist, “the sacrament of joy.” What we do here week by week is returning to our true joy again and again.  We have to do it so often because life over and over shakes our confidence in God’s unconditional love.  Our joy is constantly tested, constantly under fire.  But here, together, we can find it again.  And the important word is together.

           Sometimes as an individual, when I’m having a bad time of it, I can’t get that confidence back. Joy is not easily found. It’s going to take longer than a single Sunday to get it back.  But I have the next best thing, I have the comfort and hope that your return to joy gives away.

           The one thing above all others that we cannot let go of is our joy, our delight in God, our delight in the gift of life, our delight in the gift of one another, our delight in God’s call to do justice in the world.

           The Annual Meeting is next week, and it will no doubt bring up worries about the future, worries that are entirely justified.  As the rector of two parishes over twenty-five years, I always wanted to be able to stand up at the Annual Meeting and announce, “No worries.  We do not have to worry about our future anymore.”

           I never got to make that pronouncement.  But despite the challenges we faced in those parishes, and despite the challenges we face at St. Thomas’, I believe that if we keep returning to our joy, we will still be around to meet those challenges.  If we ever are infected with despair as a community, it will mean our end.

           We have been given a vision of God’s beloved people living in beloved community.  People of hope. People of faith. People of love. People of joy. 

           Amidst our worries, let us pray to become more and more light and more and more joy.  Let people experience in us a community that knows it is beloved and wants other to know that as well, that wants to build a beloved community not just inside the safety of these walls, but out there in the world, a community that lives by the light and joy of the good news of Jesus that can never be taken away from us.

           Let it not be said of us that those people know no joy.

[1] “The Proclamation of Joy: An Orthodox View,” in The Living Pulpit, October-December 1996, p. 8. The article is an excerpt from Schmemann’s book For the Life of the World.
[2] Romans 8:39.
[3] BCP, p. 308.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Beloved Community: Large Questions for Large Dreams for Large Actions

Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY on January 19, 2020, Epiphany 2A & Martin Luther King Sunday:  Isaiah 49:1-7

It is too slight a task for you, as my servant, to restore up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the survivors of Israel: I shall appoint you a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach earth’s farthest bounds. (Isiah 49:6, Revised English Bible)

           The servant of God—whose precise identity we do not know—is being given a monumental task.  God’s people have been living in exile in Babylon for seventy years, while Jerusalem lay in ruins, and after seventy years a dim memory.  Discouragement was so intense that the servant wants to beg off the task:  Everything I have tried seems to have been in vain, to have come to nothing.  And yet the servant retains a glimmer of hope—surely my cause is with the Lord and my reward with my God.

But the news is good although the task monumental—the servant will bring the people home. Where there has been desolation there will be restoration.  Where there has been exile, there will be homecoming.

But there is more.  This monumental restoration and homecoming is just the beginning.  There is a larger, endlessly expansive, task.  So large it makes the homecoming seem trivial.  It is not enough for Israel to be liberated—God wants the servant to liberate the world.

The news is good, but there is more.  The “more” is not something else, it is to make larger what already is.

Last week when we celebrated the Feast of Jesus’ Baptism, we heard the good news—the astounding good news—that we, like Jesus, are God’s beloved—unearned, undeserved, unconditional—God’s beloved daughters and sons.

But there is more.  It is not enough that you should know yourselves to be God’s beloved.  Your neighbor is God’s beloved too and that is a message that needs to be proclaimed “by word and example” to the ends of the earth.  It is not enough that we should be God’s beloved.  We are to build God’s beloved community.

The beloved community was a large part of Martin Luther King’s dream.  In 1958 he wrote a piece that appeared in several Christian publications setting forth his vision, which he believed fervently was God’s vsion.  It included a commitment to nonviolence.  He wrote,

[Nonviolence] does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win . . . friendship and understanding.  The nonviolent resister must often voice his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that noncooperation and boycotts are not ends in themselves; they are means to [an end].  The end is redemption and reconciliation.  The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.[1]

           Martin’s primary objective was full civil rights for African-Americans.  But he always knew that was not enough, that the call was larger and inclusive, the creation of beloved community.

           What is beloved community?  It is that for which we pray, as Jesus taught us to pray, for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.  It is a significant part of our baptismal covenant, our promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being.

           There a sense of desolation within the church today.  We spend a lot of time worrying about our future and trying to figure what is wrong so that we can fix it and go back to the way things were.  Personally, I think there is only one thing that matters and that is our dreams are too small.

           We want to restore the church and I believe God wants that also, but alone that is too light a task.  We are called to be light in this broken world.  We are called to be agents of restoration and liberation and salvation in the world.  And, by the way, those three words—restoration, liberation, salvation—are the same word in the Hebrew of the Old Testament.

           The banner out front with a picture of Dr. King says, “Dreams require action.”  And indeed they do.  But they must be large dreams, fueled by an imagination touched by the Holy Spirit, with strong roots in God’s Word and nourishment from God’s Table.

           What would a large dream look like?  I’m going to risk answering that question, but not pretending to have any answers really, but larger questions.  I think that’s where larger dreams come from, by asking larger questions.

           Most of you know I grew up here in Steuben County, and my love for this place is strong.  John will be a witness to that.  But I have no illusions about some realities of growing up and living here.  I was raised in a racist environment.  I had no doubt growing up that I was better than black people.  That’s changed for me and for us some, but there are vestiges of it in my own life and in our immediate world, vestiges strong enough that it requires that we ask, “Why is it still so?”  How can we change our environment so that racial equality is a given?  That’s a large question worthy of a large dream and then worthy of large action.

           I also grew up—and in some ways this was even more pronounced than race—knowing that I was better than poor people, whose dependent on the government for their livelihood was due to the fact that they were lazy and stupid, who did not deserve to use our tax dollars for things they should be earning.  I find this prejudice remains fairly strong.

           The fire at the Shannon Building this past week has reminded me of this.  Many people knew of the dreadful conditions of that place and many others.  Why did we not do anything about it?  Why are three motels in this village nearly full nearly every night with people who are economically challenged, being put up by DSS because there is so little quality low-income housing here?  These are large questions and they are spiritual questions as well as practical and political ones.  Are we committed to human dignity as a right and not a privilege?  That is a very large question indeed.

           Yes, dreams require actions. But first we must dream large and dare to ask large questions that will make many of us uncomfortable or even angry when they are first asked of us.

           What would beloved community look like in Bath, in Steuben County?  To ask such a question is to be open to being the light God calls us to be to the world for the restoration, liberation, and salvation of all God’s beloved.

           And I have to wonder if we dreamed such large dreams and turned those dreams into action, that our worries about ourselves would take care of themselves.

[1] From “The Current Crisis in Race Relations,” found in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. ed. James M. Washington (Harpercollins, 1986), p 87.

Monday, January 13, 2020

God's Beloved: The Dangerous Gospel

Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Jesus, January 12, 2020
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
St. Thomas’ Church, Bath
The Rev. Michael W. Hopkins
30th Anniversary of Ordination as a Priest

 Here is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.  I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as . . . a light to the nations.
(Conflation of Matthew 13:17 & Isaiah 42:6)

           In 2002, as part of a sabbatical, I traveled to Uganda.  I went primarily in my role as President of Integrity.  A few years prior, I had been contacted by an Anglican priest in Uganda who was ministering to a group of gay and lesbian people there.  Needless to say, this was not a ministry supported by the church in Uganda.  In fact, it had to very carefully fly under the radar.

           As part of my time there, I led a retreat for these folks. If I remember right, there were about a dozen of us gathered together.  Many members of the group did not dare to come because the radar had been breached.  My trip had become known to the leadership of the Church of Uganda and the archbishop had warned his bishops and other clergy to stay clear of me.  I was, he said, a dangerous man who preached a false gospel.

           In preparation for the retreat, the priest who led the group asked me to be firm with them.  There is immorality among them, he said, and if they ever had any chance of being accepted by the church they had to be seen as above reproach.

           The morning of the retreat I took Father Erich aside and told him that I was not going to do what he asked.  My hunch was that these folks were unsure about whether God loved them or not, and that certainly was more important than anything else.

           So I talked to them about the reality that they were God’s beloved.  That God loved them first, that God’s love cannot be earned. It can only be accepted.  And I taught them a hymn popular in the US church, that begins, “I come with joy to meet my Lord, forgiven, loved, and free.”

           I remember three responses.  A young woman asked, “Why has no one ever told us this before?”  A young man broke down in tears, and sobbed in the arms of one of his friends for some time.  And the anxiety that was thick in the room as we gathered, disappeared.

           We are told that as Jesus came up out of the water of his baptism  there was a dramatic scene:  the heavens torn open, the descent of a dove, taken to be the Holy Spirit, and a voice proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

           We assume that somehow Jesus had earned these words, especially the “well pleased” part.  He seems to be well into adulthood at this point, perhaps even thirty years old.  So clearly he had gained God’s delight and trust.

           And yet we are given no proof of this.  No one tells any stories about Jesus’ coming of age.  There’s one story in Luke’s Gospel about Jesus as a boy, impressing his elders in the Temple and causing his parents anxiety, but that’s it.  For as much as twenty years of his life there is silence.

           I think this is so because it reflected the experience of the early followers of Jesus, who for a generation or more told these stories to one another before four people, out of four communities, wrote them down.  The experience of the early Christians was that God loved them first, and that their life of following Jesus was a consequence of that love, not an attempt to be good enough to earn it.

           This fits with our own practice of Baptism.  Why do we baptize infants?  It certainly is not because when we do we can predict they will lead a perfect life.  It is because we are convinced that God loves them first and the living out of their baptismal covenant will be a response to that love not a determination of it.

           It is sometimes said that every preacher has but one sermon that they keep trying to preach in different ways.  While this is obviously not true, I am happy to claim this as my one sermon, preached, I pray, continuously and consistently over thirty years.

           You are God’s son. You are God’s daughter.  You are God’s beloved.  But—and this is the only but—so is your neighbor be they friend or stranger or even enemy.  You are God’s beloved first.  Keep letting that great truth sink into your life and live as it were the truth.  Feed on that truth at this Table.  Feed others on this truth in the world.  Do not spend a second of your life worrying about whether God loves you or not.  That is wasted time.

           You are loved. Love others. That is the dangerous Gospel.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

The Journey of the Magi is Our Journey

Sermon preached on the Second Sunday after Christmas, January 5, 2020 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY:  Psalm 84, Matthew 2:1-12.

You can listen to this sermon here.

Happy are the people whose strength is in you; whose hearts are set on the pilgrim’s way. (Psalm 84:4)

           I want to talk this morning about this pilgrim’s way.  I believe we can see it in the story of the magi’s journey to Bethlehem. It is a model for our own spiritual journey.  We are, in many ways, the magi in this story.

           If that is true, then what do we know about these people?  And why did they set out in search of a new-born king?

           We are not told exactly where they were from, only “from the East.”  At the time Jesus was born that could have been many places:  Arabia, Persia, Babylon, we don’t know.  They were, however, people who studied the stars, who believed that studying the stars was a way to know the future.  We might call them astrologers, but they were the astronomers of their day.

           The stars were aligning in such a way that they saw a new king to be born in the West—in Judea was their best guess, and so they traveled to Judea’s capitol, Jerusalem, assuming that a son was to be born of the current king, Herod.

           How are we like the magi?  We are seekers.  We seek the good life, which means many different things to us:  prosperity, contentment, happiness, peace, love, some measure of control over our future, our destiny.  But we are restless, because we are faced too much with mystery, with things outside our control, with the limitations of life.

           So we, too, look for a star, something or someone upon which to hook our fortunes.  Some of these “hook-ups” only provide momentary clarity or relief, although we can get stuck trying them over and over again until they become an addiction.  Some of us want to hook onto the star of a politician or an ideology that promises to bring order and prosperity to our lives.  This, too, can become an addiction.  Sometimes we want to depend on our family for these things, this sense that things are all right and will be all right.

           But none of these things give us any consistency in meeting our needs.  They disappoint or fail us.  We experience frustration and pain.  We experience life falling short of our expectations.  Yet we still search for a star to follow.

           Our grasping for the good life, for a star to follow, inevitably brings us to some Herod.  And when we meet him we have probably arrived there with the best of intentions.  Surely someone with wealth and power can meet our need.  But Herod doesn’t really have much power at all.  He’s a stooge for those with real power—the Romans.  He’s a snake-oil salesman.  The only thing he’s good at is building monuments to himself—oh, and murdering anyone who threatens him, including some of his own children.

           Still, it is tempting to be satisfied with Herod.  He does bring order, even if it is out of fear.  And he does seem to have religious people on his side, and they seem to be most helpful.  They know where the good life lies—in this case, in Bethlehem, a few miles southeast of Jerusalem.  There you will find what you’re looking for, or, rather, what Herod wants you to find.

           So off we go, following the star we have found, but then all kinds of odd things start happening.  The king you’ve sought doesn’t seem very kingly.  He is a helpless baby, born to parents of no particular importance.  Yes, his father is a descendant of King David, but then they tell you the story about how Joseph is not really the child’s father.  The magi must have been confused and not a little embarrassed.  The gifts they brought seem somehow useless in this setting.

           If we follow the star of faith, these things will happen to us.  It may not be what we expected.  It may not be as grand or as clarifying or as obviously life-changing as we hoped or were told it would be.  We come face to face with a strange God, who does not exercise the kind of power we assumed he would, no matter how many times we call him “almighty.”  Who sometimes seems as helpless as we ourselves at times feel.  A God whose light shines through not glittering stuff but ordinary stuff—water and oil, bread and wine.

           We can go away disappointed from religion as well.  I am sure the magi were tempted to go away disappointed.  They had not truly found what they were looking for.

           But then they make a connection that enables them to have an encounter with what is really going on here.  I imagine one of them says something like, “Well this is all very strange.”  And the others shake their heads, sharing his bewilderment.  But then one of them says, “But you have to admit, we’re pretty strange too.”  They realize that they are strangers who have met the stranger.  And the only thing that has passed between them that makes any difference at all is acceptance, love.

           We don’t know if that is how it happened.  All that we do know is that they figure out not to go back to Herod, but to go home by a different road.  And when we have encountered the living God, however that happens, we know it because we find ourselves on a different road than we have been on.  Something changes, and all the stars that have twinkled in our eyes before do not matter anymore.

           What is this different road?  We could say that it is the road of faith, hope, and love, but those words are abstractions.  This road is characterized by actions, things we decide to do because we are motivated by faith, hope, and love.  This road is named acceptance, it is named repentance, it is named hospitality, it is named generosity, it is named forgiveness and reconciliation, it is named justice and peace, acts which uphold the dignity of every human person.

           This is not the easy road.  But it is the road of life.  The road back to Herod is the road of death.  The road back to dependence on ourselves and the ability to control our own future is the road of death.

           The journey of the magi is our journey, and it lays before us the choices we must make, the things we must look for, the love that must change our hearts, the road of life that is open before us.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Way of Peace Lies Through John

Sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent at Trinity Church, Canaseraga:  Isaiah 11:1-10 & Matthew 3:1-12

We begin this morning with another striking image from the prophet Isaiah:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

Isaiah asks us to imagine a peaceable kingdom. It is the dream of God:  a world living as God would have it live, the garden of Eden restored.

This dream was announced by the prophet in a time of war abroad and division at home. It was a time when the kingdom of Judah was relatively prosperous and secure, but the world around it was increasingly dangerous and threatening.

I wonder how Isaiah’s original hearers reacted to this dream. I wonder what their response was to this call to imagine the possibilities for life that God offered them. I suspect they felt a deep desire touched within them, and yet, also, a profound sadness, even despair, that this dream could never be fulfilled.

Deep within us all lies the desire for peace. But I think we often dare not imagine it. To imagine it is, after all, to invite sadness, even despair, because so many things stand in our way of ever getting to that place. So many things which seem out of our control.

Imagine what your kingdom of peace would look like, feel like. Do you have the same voice inside you that is inside me when I try to do that dreaming? “Don't go there!” that voice says. It is, on the one hand, quite practical advice. Be realistic! Don’t be a dreamer! It’s meant to protect us from despair.

On the other hand, it is a kind of capitulation to despair, is it not?  To stifle our imagination, to refuse to dream seemingly impossible dreams.  Isn’t it true that without an “impossible dream” for our future, our present reality is left being all that there is?

We need impossible dreams of peaceable kingdoms to pull us along into the future and encourage us to take risks to make at least small dreams come true.  And we need impossible dreams of a kingdom of peace to struggle against the kingdom of anxiety that surrounds us and infects us.

But the kingdom of anxiety and its influence over us is strong.  Our inner voice says to the dreamer inside us, “Don’t go there!” That voice is loud and persistent. And there is a mountain of evidence that our dreams of peaceable kingdoms are foolishness.

Sometimes we need to be shaken out of our complacency, shaken out of our capitulation to anxiety and violence as a way of life.

And hence, we need John the Baptist.

The pairing of these readings seems very odd at first, doesn’t it?  Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom and John’s screaming at us to repent in the wilderness? But the oddness of the pairing puts before us a great truth.  There is no other way to the peaceable kingdom, no other way to true peace in our lives, but through John.

The way of peace lies through John.

What do I mean?

It is that word he uses, “repent.”  Let’s first get out of the way some of its popular meanings that really have little to do with what John or Jesus mean by it.

Repent does not mean “feel bad about or even hate yourself.” Repent does not mean “feel ashamed for things you’ve done wrong.” Repent does not mean “feel guilty.”

Repent means “turn around.” Repent means “find a new perspective, get a new attitude.”  Repent means, “Don’t just stand there feeling ashamed or guilty, do something.”

“Repent” means “change.” Change your mind, change the path you’re on. And there’s no other road to peace than the road marked “change.”

Now there’s a deep irony here. Change is unsettling. Change is often chaotic. Change takes us off balance. Change seems to bring us anything but “peace.”

But like the word “repent,” our understanding of the word “peace” needs a check-up.

Peace doesn’t mean “complacency.” Peace doesn’t mean capitulation to the kingdom of anxiety and fear that controls so much of our lives.

Peace means “well-being.” Peace means “wholeness.” Peace means being in full relationship with God, full relationship with yourself, and full relationship with your neighbor.  Peace means the absence of anxiety and the absence of fear, and the total acceptance of love.

Is this peace truly an impossible dream? Yes. Unless we dream it with God and unless we dream it with one another. Unless we let go of the notion that we must change ourselves. Unless we start asking God to enter into partnership with us to make change happen and be willing for God to use others to show us the way and walk it with us.

Most of us know within ourselves at least one thing that keeps us from peace. Most of us, in fact, know a whole army of inner stuff that keeps us from peace.

What the Scriptures tell us today is that we must dare to dream our own peaceable kingdom. A dream where the wolf lies down with the lamb. A dream where we forgive someone. A dream where we accept a deep hurt or loss that has kept us in despair or in anger. A dream where we stop judging others—and ourselves—so harshly. A dream removing whatever roadblock that keeps us from peace.

We must dare to dream the impossible dream and then we must face John. Face our true selves in the mirror. Face the need to repent, to change, to get a new perspective, to let go of our own need to save ourselves. Embrace the need to partner with God and let God use others to help show us the way and walk with us, knowing full well that the journey to peace most likely will take us through John’s unquenchable fire. But then, there’s no other way to get rid of the chaff—a metaphor for those roadblocks to peace in our lives. And we can trust that on the other side of the fire is truly a more peaceable kingdom.  That is God’s promise.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Music Like the Grace of God

Homily given at the weekday Service at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY, November 21, 2019, commemorating the musicians Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, and John Merbecke: Revelation 15:1-4

          The visions of the future offered in the Book of Revelation are mostly remembered for their terrifying detail of war and judgment and the end of the world.  What is not so much remembered is how important music plays in the revelations of John.

           Through the entirety of Revelation I count no less than a dozen songs that are sung, including that mentioned in this morning’s reading:  “The Song of Moses . . . and the Lamb. This song is the basis for Canticle 19 in the Prayer Book, with which we began the Service.

           Music is very much the norm in the Bible’s vision of the praise of God.  We often think we have Services in the Prayer Book which may include music, when actually what is true is that we have Services in the Prayer Book, which may include no music.

           Music is so important in our tradition that it is sometimes said that we Anglicans have three theological sources:  the Bible, the Prayer Book, and the Hymnal.  It is why we have always taken great care with our hymnals and have always scrutinized the texts of hymns for their theology.

           We remember today three men who were in many ways the fathers of English church music.

           Thomas Tallis spent most of his life as musician to the Royal Chapels. He was so talented that he survived in this position through the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward IV, Mary I and Elizabeth I, an almost singular achievement.

           William Byrd was his pupil and successor who likewise had the ability to survive religious turmoil, although he was once convicted of heresy, but was saved from burning at the stake by Bishop Stephen Gardiner, who argued that the loss of his talents would be immeasurable.

           John Merbecke is best known for his Service music, originally written for the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, which can still be found in our current hymnal for use with Rite I.

           Many of us find the poetry and music of our hymnals an important part of our spirituality.  St. Augustine famously said that “They who sing, pray twice.”  That is born out in my experience. There is something about music which vitally assists the spiritual truth of the word to sink more deeply into my soul, and to remain there as a source of praise I can call upon at a moment’s notice.  Indeed, I often do not need to call upon it. It just comes when it is needed, like the love and grace of our good God.