Monday, February 06, 2023

The Meaning of Righteousness

 Sermon preached on February 5, 2023, the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY:  Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112, Matthew 5:13-20

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

           What are we to make of this proclamation of Jesus?  It comes down to what the biblical witness means by righteousness.  What does it mean to be righteous?

           Luckily, both Isaiah and the psalmist give us clues.  Let’s start with Psalm 112.

           We might call Psalm 112 a “lifestyle psalm.”  It begins with a beatitude, “Happy [or Blessed] are they who fear the Lord.”

           That phrase—fear the Lord—is used frequently in the Old Testament.  It is often misunderstood.  “Fear of the Lord” doesn’t have anything to do with being afraid or living in terror. God does not want us to be intimidated by him.

           “Fear of the Lord” has to do with what the second half of that first verse says. Happy are they who “have great delight in God’s commandments.” “fear” and “delight” may sound like two very different things, but in the biblical way of thinking they are not.

           Biblical fear has to do with putting God first, holding God in reverence and awe, knowing that God is greater than me, and, therefore, I am accountable to God.

           The rest of Psalm 112 lays out what this lifestyle entails.  It drops the word “fear” and uses the term “righteous” or “righteousness.”  And what does the psalm tell us about righteousness:

 The righteous are merciful and full of compassion.

·       They are generous and just.

·       They trust God.

·       They have a certain stability about them.

·       They give freely to the poor.

           To be fair, the psalm also claims the righteous will be rich. It is not clear that the psalmist means the righteous will have loads of money.  It is clear that they will have a certain contentment about them, know that life is a gift, and are committed to share that gift with others.

           Righteousness in Psalm 112 has nothing to do with being sinless, which is how the word “righteous” first rings in our ears.  No, the righteous person knows they are in a community of responsibility. In other words, they seek to live out the commandment to love their neighbors.  They seek to make a difference for good.

           On to Isaiah 58. The context of this passage is the return from the exile in Babylon and the re-building of Jerusalem and indeed the entire society.  Questions were being asked about worship, perhaps even arguments occurring. Imagine fighting over worship!

           God speaks through the prophet what must have been an astounding word.  I don’t care about how you worship. I care about how your worship changes your life.

 Is this the fast that I choose [asks God]:

          to loose the bonds of injustice,

          to undo the thongs of the yoke,

          to let the oppressed go free,

          and to break every yoke?

           Here is how you practice righteousness, God says:  share your bread with those who do not have enough, find homes for those without them, clothe those who are naked.  It is a thoroughly social and economic message:  it is about bread, and clothing, and housing.

           If round about now, we (and I do mean we) feel some resistance to this text, that is actually a good thing.  It means God is getting our attention.  God does not want us to stop worshipping, but he doesn’t want our worship to end when we leave the building.  Worship begets righteousness or it is meaningless.

           To use words form the prophet Micah from last week, God expects our worship to result in our walking humbly with God, doing justice in God’s world and loving the way of neighborly kindness.

           So, what does Jesus mean by righteousness?  I believe he meant just what Isaiah said, and I partly say that because the latter part of Isaiah seems to have been a rich resource for Jesus in his understanding of both who God is and what God means for our life.

           To live a righteous life is to live in the covenant of loving God and loving neighbor, a covenant which seeks always the common good.

           Back to the word “fear.”  Too much we are taught, encouraged, not to love our neighbors but to fear them, and not to trust them, because their need may be their own fault, and their attempt to take from us what is ours.

           The Bible dares us to leave behind, to turn our backs on any fear we have of one another and instead fear only God, to take delight in God’s commandments and to seek to live a life that is part of the common good.

           It isn’t easy to make this turn. It is, in fact, hard to do so.  But if we want a fulfilling life, it is what we have to do.

Monday, January 09, 2023

Getting Into the River with Us

 Sermon preached at St. Thomas Church, Bath, NY on the First Sunday after the Epiphany (the Baptism of Jesus). January 8, 2023: Matthew 3:13-17

You can listen to the sermon here.

          Imagine with me that scene at the Jordan River.  The Jordan isn’t much bigger than the Cohocton, so you can imagine it. There’s this guy named John who has set up camp there. We’d probably call him a religious fanatic. I suppose many people of his day also thought of him that way.

           John spends his time telling people how awful they are—that they’re not right with God. They are destined for God’s wrath, he says, and he calls them things like “you brood of vipers.”

           Despite this message, people are attracted to John. Who knows why?  Is it just curiosity? He is certainly eccentric, even, perhaps, exotic.  Or is it because he’s telling people the truth?  Maybe.

           But maybe not just that. He’s telling people the harsh truth about their lives, but he’s also offering them a second chance.  You can turn your lives around, he says.  That’s what he means by the Greek word metanoia, which gets translated into English, “repent.”  And he’s giving them a way to act this out, by baptism.

           John didn’t invent baptism, as some Christians erroneously think. He was following a Jewish tradition of immersion in water as a ritual purification. It was called Tvilah and it had to take place in naturally moving water, called a mikveh, and it was repeatable.

           We’re told that crowds went out to John. They didn’t just wander by.  It is about twenty miles from Jerusalem to the Jordan.  No, they meant to be there.  So imagine a mass of people on the banks of the river, they quite possibly come from all sorts and conditions of people.

           Some of them probably thought they were basically good people. Others knew their life needed changing. Some of them carried the label unclean or sinner.  But John called them all sinners.  He neither cared about labels or about the degrees of sin that religious people tend to devise. They were all equally guilty before God as far as he was concerned.

           Now one day into this mass of people walks Jesus.  It is tempting to imagine a hush falling over the crowd, and their parting the way for this obviously holy person.  Don’t go there.  Imagine instead, that Jesus just gets in line.  Nobody knows who he is yet and he is perfectly content joining the crowd in its need, to be identified as one of them.

           We make a big deal about Jesus being without sin, and we don’t have any reason to doubt that was the truth about him.  But in a sense that doesn’t much matter, because Jesus chose to identify with all those John called sinners.

           And his identification with sinners did not stop at his baptism.  It was his lifestyle.  It was what he did, and it was controversial, especially among the religious leaders of his day. They ask his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt 9:10-11). And they say about him, “Look! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (11:19).

           If he never sinned, he was certainly more comfortable among sinners than the religious of his day.  And it gave him a bad reputation, and eventually it was among the reasons they had him done away with.

           We have just gone through our annual celebration of Emmanuel, “God with us.”  And today, sort of at the tail end of that celebration, we get clear about just how radical an act that was and is—God with us.

           God with us in the needy, messy mass of us; God with us in the river; God with us struggling and often failing to be better people; God with us when we are feeling better than others; God with us when we are labeled sinner by others.

           A teenager in my first congregation, not long after my ordination—which will be 33 years ago on Tuesday—took me aside one Sunday morning, looking troubled.  A friend of hers, she said, had told her that her pastor was a sinner. She was embarrassed that she had not know what to say.

            I suggested she engage her friend on the topic again and when her friend delivered the judgment that her pastor was a sinner she reply, “Of course he is. Isn’t yours?”

           She did that.  “Not as bad as yours,” was the reply she got.

           I smiled when she told me that, and we had a talk about who Jesus kept company with.

           There are two different ways of understanding how and why we are saved.  Actually, there are many, but they basically fall into one of two categories.

           One is that our relationship with Jesus saves us from sin, and we are no longer sinners. Oh, we sin from time to time, and then we have to repent, but that moment when we first asked for forgiveness separates us from the mass of unrepentant sinners.  We are “the saved.”

           The second is that Jesus’ relationship with us saves us because he identifies with us in our sinfulness, in the brokenness and messiness of our lives, he loves us as we are, first, and then calls us to be more, and out of gratitude and a renewed sense of purpose that is what we do.

           But he does not call us to be better than other people.  That’s not a category with which he has any concern.  And he does not call us to separate ourselves from other people.  He himself steadfastly refused to do so even when it caused scandal.

          Jesus calls us to be more, calls us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, to find God in the neighbor, and not just our neighbors who have their acts together.  And he calls us to be committed to his cause—the God-given dignity of human beings, which means making peace and doing justice in our daily lives.

           You may recognize those callings to be part of our Baptismal Covenant, which we will re-affirm in a few moments.  They are not ways to be better than others.  They are ways to follow God into the messiness of human life and once there, be loved and love and love again.

           At Jesus’ baptism, we are told a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We might assume that God said those words because Jesus had lived an exemplary life, and came to the Jordan, at around thirty years of age unlike the rest of us, without sin.

           I do not think so.  What if God’s pleasure in his beloved Son was because he did what he did at that river—he chose to be identified with sinners, to be one of them, whether he deserved to be or not?

           John wanted Jesus to baptize him, as he recognized him as the sinless one.  Jesus’ reply amounts to this:  “No, John, this is the right thing to do.  The only way for me to help people to be righteous is to get into the river with them.”

Tuesday, January 03, 2023

Holding God in Our Arms

 Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY on Holy Name Day, January 1, 2023:  Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 2:15-21

Sculpture by Guy Reid
St. Matthew's, Westminster, UK

          I love this image of Mary and Jesus. It is so different from most depictions of Mary and Jesus, with the two focused entirely on each other.

           Here both Jesus and Mary are looking outward. If the picture were head on, you would see them both staring straight at you.

           And the pose. The first time I saw it I instantly thought, she’s wanting you to hold him. Like so many mothers with their newborns, at least to people they trust:  Would you like to hold him?

           As Episcopal priest Martin Smith says about a similar statue, that question—Do you want to hold him?—gets at the very heart of Christmas.  It is as though Mary were saying, “My baby is as much yours as he is mine.  He belongs to you as much as me. Let me hand him over to you.”

           But it is not easy, is it, to imagine taking Jesus into our arms, especially if he is who he says he is. If he is the Word made flesh, God incarnate, well, that would put us in the ridiculous position of holding God in our arms.

           But this is absurd, is it not? God is all-powerful, to be feared in dreadful majesty.

           And that gets at the point. We can’t hold the baby Jesus in our arms and hold onto our fear of God.  We are so attached to our fear of God. We are so convinced that God is menacing, even though we sometimes bravely say he is love. We are so sure that God’s closeness would be overwhelming, somehow dangerous, that we are glad we can keep our distance.

           But that sentiment comes under judgment when Mary says, “Here is the God you are so afraid of. Will you hold him?”  We can only do so if we let go of our fear.

           Remember, what are the first words spoken directly by humanity to God in the Bible?  In the Garden of Eden, God calls out to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?”  And Adam replies, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid . . .”  The consequence of the first sin is to fear God.

           Now, you will say, the Bible tells us to fear God, frequently.  Yes, yes it does.  But then, when God speaks either directly or through an angel, or through Jesus himself, how does that speech so often begin?  “Do not be afraid.”

           It is what the angel Gabriel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid, I come with good news.”  The same is said to the shepherds.  And Mary, as pictured in this statue, is giving that same message to us, “Would you like to hold him? Do not be afraid.”

           What if the fear God wants from us turns out to be love? That love which one of our post-communion prayers calls “gladness and singleness of heart.”

           So we come to this Eucharist on this New Year’s Day, the 8th Day of Christmas, celebrating, in the words of St. Paul, the self-emptying of God. We confess together with some embarrassment and, hopefully, some relief, that once again we have gotten God all wrong.

           The word comes to us through the ages, “Do not be afraid!”  And when we get to Easter in a few months we will hear it again, as was said to the women at the tomb, “Do not be afraid.”

           Will we believe them?  Will we say “yes” to Mary when she hands us our God to hold? She says to us, “This is the one of whom you are afraid.  Here, hold him.”

           And isn’t this precisely what I will do in a few minutes? Hand him over to you, in a bit of bread.  Take him, it really is him, but in a form that makes our fear absurd.

           We come together as Christmas continues, doing the thing we always do, remembering that day more than two thousand years ago when being afraid of God itself became absurd.

 With grateful thanks to The Rev. Martin Smith’s sermon, “Would you Like to Hold Him?” found in Nativities and Passions: Words for Transformation (Boston: Cowley Press, 1995, pp. 3-7.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Broken Words, Broken Lives (It's a Good Thing)

 Sermon preached at St. John's Church, Catherine, and St. James' Church, Watkins Glen on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, often called "Christ the King Sunday," November 20, 2022.  Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43

          Christ the King.  This is the only Sunday of the church year celebrating a metaphor.  Christ the King.

           It’s a good Sunday to remember the limits of human language and how we use it when we talk about God.

           We use human language to describe God. We have to, it’s the only tool we have.  But it is good for us to remember the difference between description and definition.  When it comes to God, description we can do; definition we cannot.

           Remember the third of the ten commandments:  You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

           We take this to mean that we should not use “God” or “Jesus” as a curse word.  But the commandment is deeper than that.  It is about control—how we attempt to control God by definition.  The commandment is about protecting the freedom and mystery of God.

           The truth is that human attempts to define God always go awry.  We attempt to describe God in many ways:  Almighty, Eternal, Shepherd, Lord, King, even Father, just to name a few.  Each of these does help us understand God, but God also has a tendency to break them open.

           Take the title King.  It helps us speak about the God who is the ultimate ruler of all things.  But when we use the title for Jesus—Christ the King—we have to come to terms with how Jesus broke open the title.

           First of all, he did not use it for himself.  He speaks frequently of the kingdom of God, but never calls himself its king.  In John’s Gospel at one point he slips out of town because he feared the people were going to try to declare him king (John 6:15).  When Pilate accuses him of wanting to be king, he says his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:33-37). In other words, Jesus is saying that you may call me a king, but you have no idea what you are talking about.

           The soldiers then mock Jesus as a king, with a bloody cloak and a crown of thorns, and Pilate has affixed to the cross the accusation against Jesus, “This is the King of the Jews.”

           And yet we call him King.  But he breaks open our human language, our human description—King—from the cross.  He is not a King who sits on a royal throne in a royal palace and has the power of life and death over others. His throne is the cross and he uses his power to accept his own death on behalf of others. And while accepting death, he asks God to forgive those who made his death happen and offers mercy to his fellow sufferers.

           He takes the title “King,” breaks it, and offers it back to us infused with new meaning.  You can take any title we give him and find that he does the same thing:  breaks it, and gives it new meaning.

           This is how God works. And it is not only our human language that God breaks. It is also us, if we let him.

           Think about that time in the Eucharist where we break something.  The breaking of bread.  “The fraction,” we call it.  It is only one of two places in The Book of Common Prayer that insists on silence.  The rubric says, “Silence is kept.”

           It is one of the least followed Prayer Book rubric because we are uncomfortable with silence.  If there’s too much silence, we think something is wrong. Somebody’s forgetting something!

           But the silence is there because what we have just done—break the bread—is the whole point.  God wishes to break us open and make us new people to send out into the world.  We are asked to keep silence before the mystery of that great truth.

           St. Augustine said it well. He said that if it is true what St. Paul says, that we are the Body of Christ, then behold its mystery on the Altar.  He said,

 If, therefore, you are the Body and the members of Christ, your mystery is placed on the Lord’s table; you receive your own mystery.

           It is your body, your life, which is broken.  So, he says, when you come to receive the broken body,

 Respond, “Amen,” to what you are, and by responding give your assent. You hear, “The Body of Christ,” and you respond, “Amen.” Be a member of Christ’s Body so that your Amen may be true.

           God wants each one of us to describe ourselves in the same way we describe God, knowing that what we say about ourselves is always in need of being broke, so that even more truth about ourselves can be revealed. It is how, as St. Paul says, we are enabled “to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light,” and be “transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

           “Broken” has become a bad word.  We don’t want to be “broken people.”  But we do not need to fear being broken by God, because it is the way God makes us a new creation, and leads us into ever new life.

Monday, October 17, 2022

What is Truth?

 What is Truth?

The Rev. Michael W. Hopkins

October 17, 2022

 Pontius Pilate’s famous question for Jesus is often taken as a parody of his actual ignorance.  At the very least, it was dripping with cynicism.

 But what if it was a good question?  And what if it is a good question for us to ask ourselves?

 Every age of history can be seen as a struggle for the truth. Ours is no different. The battle lines are being sharply drawn, and those of us who consider ourselves progressive Christians may have a much more important role to play than we have gotten used to over the past 50 years as our numbers and influence has dwindled.

 In my first congregation’s little chapel (seating about 30 people), the east wall was dominated by an over-sized round window, probably five feet across. In the middle was a sword superimposed over a Bible with the citation:  Ephesians 6:17. “The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”  This verse is part of the “put on the whole armor of God” passage (6:10-17), which includes “fasten the belt of truth around your waist.”  The author wants us to be ready for spiritual battle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

 It's a passage that sounds tailor-made for those who espouse conservative and nationalistic views.  But it begs several questions:  Who are the rulers, authorities, cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil?  How does the word of God function like a sword?  And, yes, What is truth?

 A friend from church and I sat through a “Rally for Truth” recently in the village square just down the street (aptly named “Liberty Street”) from our church.  We went because we weren’t certain exactly what was going on. We feared that Christian Nationalism would be front and center.  It wasn’t, at least not explicitly, but the “talk” which was part of the program did have the topic of “Truth.”

 The speaker used a blizzard of analogies, peppered with biblical references (mostly from John’s Gospel), to prove that the world was run by Absolute Truth, and we had a decision to make, whether to follow and adhere to that Truth or not.  He said one thing that particularly struck me:  “We have a choice about where to get our Truth from.  Does it come from the mind of man or the word of God?”

 My friend and I looked at each other and said “What?”  The distinction did not track for us.  I’ll come to why that’s the case in a moment, but first it must be said that the speaker was expressing both an old Truth for a significant part of Protestantism, and a very contemporary way of interpreting our contemporary world and understanding the state of politics in (at least) the United States.

 At a recent meeting of the National Conservatism Conference, there was a great deal of talk about the nature of the current divisions in US politics, and a lot of that talk was explicitly religious.  Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri declared, “Without the Bible there is no America.”  It was a statement that could be reasonably debated.  But he went on to accuse the “left,” especially in its social agenda, of having as their “real target . . . the inheritance of the Bible.”  “What they particularly dislike about America is our dependence on biblical teaching and tradition.”

 Of course, this statement is a politician’s setting up of a “they” scarecrow, a caricature of their opponents, obviously wrong and easily knocked down.  The problem is in its description of themselves.  Just who is this “our?”  And what is this “biblical teaching and tradition” upon which they depend?  And what does it mean for those of us in Christian traditions that have a very different understanding of and belief in “biblical teaching and tradition?”

 Another speaker answered that question.  We who have a different Christian perspective have become captives of “woke” religion.  Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, “argued the divide in the country was one between Christian theology and a ‘woke religion that is raising itself up as the official state ideology,’ adding that ‘insofar as conservatism as a movement has a future, it is a future that is going to be increasingly tied to explicit theological claims.’”

 Now it is clear from the context of this quote that “woke religion” does not directly refer to progressive Christianity, but to a general “left,” a “new age secularism” that is increasingly speaking in religious (i.e., absolutist) language.  Said one speaker, “Progressivism has taken on increasingly religious overtones.”  One shouldn’t entertain any doubt, however, that these folks consider progressive religious traditions in the same way.

 So, back to Pilate’s question and the notion that Truth is both absolute and comes either from the “mind of man” or “from God.”

 Of course, the reason my friend and I reacted to that distinction the way we did was that we are both traditional Episcopalians, schooled in an understanding that revelation (aka, “the Truth”) is given, yes, through the Bible, but also through the tradition of Christian experience through the ages, and the God-given ability for men and women to reason.  This means we can never use a word about the Bible that the speaker on the village square did that day: “inerrant.”

 And it may be even more simple and fundamental than that.  I don’t much like using the term “fundamentalism” as a negative, for we all have our fundamentals that shape the rest of our faith and action.  I agree with John Booty, that for Episcopalians/Anglicans our fundamental is wholeness. And as a way of understanding what he means, he quotes Richard Hooker, perhaps the greatest of early Anglican theologians:

 God hath created nothing simply for it selfe: but ech thing in all things of everie thing ech part in other hath such interest that in the whole world nothing is found whereunto anie thing created can saie, I need thee not. (Sermon on Pride)

 Hooker’s insight was that we participate in God and God in us, we participate in one another, we participate in the creation and the creation in us.  God’s most basic desire is for relationship, and not just for God’s own self, but for the community of humankind and the community of creation. In short, love.

 If wholeness is our fundamental than what is truth?  Whatever brings us into and keeps us in relationship with God is true.  Whatever brings us into relationship with one another and keeps us in it is true. Whatever brings us into and keeps us in relationship with the creation is true.

 My friend and I and the speaker at that rally in the square could agree that Jesus is the Truth, and being in relationship with him is the ultimate spiritual goal of the Christian.  But I fear we would soon part company.  For us, when Jesus says he is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), he does not mean three separate things.  The way, truth, and life are the same thing.  Which means the truth is something you do. You do the truth as you follow the way and live the life that Jesus asks of us.  The truth can only be rightly understood as a verb. That is the only thing that can keep it from being just another absolutist idol that we use in our human project to divide us from them.

 So we do the truth when we love our neighbors as ourselves.  We do the truth when we strive to honor and uphold the inherent dignity of every human person (full stop, no exceptions). We do the truth when we work tirelessly for justice and peace in our world.  Those are our values. Call them biblical, call them Christian, call them “moral,” if you want but we may never call them anything that ends up with a world divided instead of whole.

 Some will say this is the easy path.  To which I can only say as someone who strives to practice it, “Are you kidding me?”  It is the hardest thing in the world.  Division is always easier than wholeness. Always.

 The “sword of the Spirit” is not an altogether helpful metaphor because it is easily seen as a metaphor of division.  That is what swords do when they are swung. They divide things.  And this seems to be the intent of a similar use of the image in the Letter to the Hebrews (4:12):  “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword . . . it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”  But what is being divided/judged?  “The thoughts and intentions of the heart” sound to me like primarily relational matters.  The word of God helps me discern the rightness or wrongness, the helpfulness or unhelpfulness, of my own thoughts and intentions.  Yes, first mine before I take a crack at yours.  Take the log out of your own eye, you’ll remember Jesus saying, before you take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye (Matt. 7:3, Luke 8:21).

 I do not believe that we can know anything approaching absolute truth this side of death.  It may be our goal, but it is something we only glimpse, as that same Letter to the Hebrews says was true of all our ancestors in the faith.  “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them” (11:13).  This lines up with Paul’s statement:  “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, only then will we see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).  We “know only in part,” he says.

 I like the adjective “ultimate” better than “absolute” for truth because it carries a future orientation.  And in that future orientation, I also like the word “true” better than “truth.”  “What is true?” seems to me a question for the journey.  “What is truth?” is a question for the destination.  “What is true?” is a question we can experience, disagree about, struggle to answer, with both the word of God and our God-given brains (including our God-given emotions) as partners in the conversation.  “What is truth?” is something we will finally rest in together in the future that belongs to God.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Francis & Jeremiah: Rebuild My Church, Rebuild My Earth

 Sermon preached on Sunday, October 9, 2022 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, also celebrated as St. Francis' Day:  Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Luke 17:11-19

          The man we know as St. Francis was like many young men of his social class at the turn of the 13th century. His father was a prosperous merchant and Francis had all the fun he could have off that wealth. When his city went to war with the neighboring city of Perugia, he signed up for the glory of it.

           Only he did not find glory there.  Instead, he was captured and imprisoned. Eventually his father paid his ransom, but something had begun to happen to Francis.  He developed compassion for the poor of Assisi and especially the lepers who lived outside the city gate, people who were perpetual outcasts, feared and detested.

           One day, still trying to figure himself out, Francis Was wandering around the countryside. He came across an abandoned church, St. Damiano.  Inside the church, he heard a voice say “Rebuild my church.”.  Francis took this quite literally and set about repairing that church building.

           It wasn’t long after that Francis heard another voice in another church, St. Mary of the Angels, it was called. This time it was the voice of Jesus speaking through the Gospel that was read that day:

 As you go proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near”. . . . Take no gold or silver or copper in your wallet, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics or sandals or staff.

           Francis knew he was being called to this life.  He was called not only to serve the poor, but to live as one of them.  And not just to live as one of them but see God in them and help them see God in themselves.  He gave up everything of his father’s wealth, renounced all possessions and lived as a beggar the rest of his life.

           The command to “rebuild my church,” became for Francis something more than stone and mortar.  It became about bringing the life of faith outside the walls of churches and into the streets, indeed, into the whole creation, to learn to call all living things—all the things of creation—brothers and sisters.

           His message was simple, but also very demanding:  find Christ and serve Christ where you are.

           1800 years before Francis there was a prophet named Jeremiah.  Jeremiah warned the people of Judah of what was coming—the conquest of Judea by the Babylonians from the east.  He lived through that conquest; he watched Jerusalem be destroyed and a large number of the people taken into exile in Babylon.  He and his companion Baruch were among those left behind.

           The very pressing question to those in exile was, “What do we do now?”  There were choices, much like the choices we all have to make when trouble comes upon us.

           One option, the choice of denial:  they could pretend that this wasn’t so bad and would soon end.  Or another option, the choice of anger:  Spend your life in perpetual resentment and sabotage your oppressors whenever possible.  Or a third option, the choice of assimilation:  When in Babylon do as the Babylonians do.  Let the past go, including the God you thought was on your side.

          From afar Jeremiah knew that his people were wrestling with these questions, and he came to believe that there was another option, an alternative which was a gift from God.  So, he wrote a letter to the exiles, a portion of which we heard this morning.

           The letter urges the exiles to remain who they are in that foreign place, implying that they were going to be there a long time.  Build houses, plant gardens, marry, raise children.  “Multiply there,” he writes, “and do not decrease.”

           And then he says a most astounding thing.  He says,

 Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

           No denial. No resentment. No assimilation.  Be who you are, remain who you are.  But also be where you are and seek its good.

           Now you must remember how tied Israel was to the land, the land of the promise.  The land they believed God gave them in which to prosper and to be his people.  Now that land was gone.  They were in a foreign land, for all intensive purposes, permanently.

           Psalm 137 catches the anguish they felt: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.  How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”  It’s a sad but beautiful psalm, although it takes a sudden turn of anger, desiring Babylon itself to be destroyed as Jerusalem was.

           But Jeremiah says, “Wait.  No.”  Sing the Lord’s song where you are.  Seek the foreign land’s good as if it were your own land.

           So we have this morning Jeremiah and Francis.  Two people living in very different times and contexts, but with a remarkably similar message.  Find God where you are. Expect God where you are. And do the works of God where you are.  Seek the well-being of where you are. Don’t forget who you are!  Keep nurturing who you are!  But seek to do good where you are, however strange that place and its people may be.

           That may be enough of a sermon, but I’ve got to bring it into the situation we find ourselves in today.  Church, we are in a troubled time.  Troubles without and troubles within.  The troubles are too many to name, but I’ll name just one obvious one, the one we are sitting in right now.

           We are not in exile, not exactly. We’re still in our comfortable home.  But to be perfectly honest, there aren’t many of us left here.  Yet God keeps saying to us, “Rebuild my Church.”  And God keeps saying to us, “Be who you are, strengthen who you are.  And keep doing the mission, keep seeking the welfare of where you are, yes, even if there doesn’t seem to be much return for your faithfulness.”

           How do we do those things?  First, I submit, check your anxiety. Learn from Francis and from Jeremiah. Do not make the obvious choices.

 ·      Do not choose denial.  Do not pretend that everything’s going to be all right.  They’ll come back, after all we have a beautiful building and a beautiful liturgy. No.

 ·      Do not choose resentment.  Do not blame the pandemic. Do not blame the loss of Sunday as our time and no one else’s. Do not blame the church fights over gender and race and sexuality.  No.

 ·      Do not choose assimilation.  Do not give up.  Do not take the spiritual but not religious route. Do not close the doors and get on with life.  No.

           God says no to all those things.  God says, Don’t panic.  Don’t be in denial. But don’t panic.  Don’t dwell on the past. Honor it and learn from it, but let it go as a measure of the present.  And above all don’t give up.

           Be who you are.  Continue to be faithful.  Do what I have given you to do.  Follow Jesus.

           Francis gives us the message, “Rebuild my Church.”  Jeremiah gives us the message, “Multiply, do not decrease.”  If we take those directions literally it’s easy to despair.  But I think what Francis learned about rebuilding the church, and what Jeremiah was encouraging those exiles to do, was stay clear about who you are and keep doing what God would have you do to serve the world, even the world that no longer cares whether you exist or not.

           A good place to start is in our outward gratitude for life—for the whole of creation—because it is a gift. Care for the creation in which we find ourselves.

           What if our witness to the world as God’s gift that we must care for was so bold that people driving past our red doors would say, “Those people really care about the earth.”  It is not everything we must do to rebuild the church, but we must commit ourselves to the larger imperative of rebuilding the earth. Because in its welfare we will find our own welfare.

           Rebuild my Church and Rebuild my Earth must go hand in hand in our own time of troubles.

Monday, August 15, 2022

The Great Cloud of WItnesses (Jonathan Myrick Daniels)

 Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY on August 14, 2022:  Hebrews 11:29--12:2; Luke 12:49-56.

          We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us.  This is that truth that we claim in the Apostles’ Creed:  I believe in the communion of saints.

           Today I am thinking of one of those witnesses in particular.  His name is Jonathan Myrick Daniels, whose day of remembrance on our church’s calendar happens to be today.  His story is one that all Episcopalians should know.

           Jonathan was born in 1939 in Keene, New Hampshire.  When he was in high school he was attracted to The Episcopal Church.  He surprised everyone when he chose to attend the Virginia Military Institute for college.  He said he thought he needed discipline in his life.  He found life hard there but eventually graduated as the class valedictorian.

          He went to Harvard to do graduate work in literature. By this time his faith had waned.  But on Easter Day 1962 he went to the Eucharist at Church of the Advent in Boston and found faith again.  In his high school years he had toyed with the idea of ordained ministry, and now it became a calling he could not ignore.

           He enrolled in what was then the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  There he began to awaken to what was happening in the South—the civil rights struggle was reaching its apex.

           He, with so many other Americans, was appalled by what happened in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, the march that was so brutally turned back.  Later that month he heard Dr. Martin Luther King’s plea for northern whites to come to Alabama to help secure the right of blacks to vote.

           He was tempted to go. He had developed a passion for standing up for the poor and the oppressed.  Later that day at Evensong in the seminary chapel, while singing the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, he decided he must go.  He had sung,

 He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.

 He wrote later in his journal, “I knew that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead.”

           Jonathan went to Selma and joined in the work. The racism he experienced shook him to his core, including the complicity of the Episcopal Church.  He lived with a black family—the West family—and he took them to church on Palm Sunday.  They were made to sit in the back of the church and receive communion last of all.

           He briefly went back to Cambridge to complete his seminary exams, but was back in Selma by the beginning of June.  He joined an effort to register black voters in a nearby county, one of the most rigidly segregated counties in all of the South, where not a single black person had been allowed to register.  Among those he worked with there was Stokely Carmichael.

           They were all heartened when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965.  But on August 14th they were arrested and spent several days in jail.  They were released on August 20th, and the group went to the one local store that would serve blacks as well as whites to get something cold to drink.

           A man by the name of Tom Coleman was waiting for them in the shop doorway. He pointed a shotgun at them and told them to leave.  Jonathan stepped in front of a sixteen-year-old named Ruby Sales.  Coleman fired and Jonathan was killed.

           In 1991, Jonathan was officially added to the Church’s calendar. At first he was characterized simply as a “seminarian.” Later editions of the calendar would use the term “martyr.”

           Jonathan’s death was in many ways not unique.  Countless more blacks died during the civil rights struggle, including Dr. King.  Several other white volunteers were killed also.  Jonathan was the only Episcopalian, at least of which I am aware.

           His death was part of gradual awakening in The Episcopal Church.  Fighting injustice gradually became a commitment asked of every Episcopalian.  In 1976, we would adopt a new Book of Common Prayer which included as part of the Baptismal Covenant the promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

           We heard Jesus say this morning a very hard thing.  “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”  This is not what we expect to hear from one we call “The Prince of Peace.”

           But Jesus knows that following his way of life will not always make people happy, even people of our own household.  And sometimes practicing our faith will take great sacrifice.

           I’ve been mulling over the paragraph we all say together in the Eucharistic Prayer we are currently using.

 Now gathered at your table, O God of all creation, and remembering Christ, crucified and risen, who was and is and is to come, we offer to you our gifts of bread and wine, and ourselves, a living sacrifice.

           “We offer ourselves, a living sacrifice.” Those words can slip off the tongue without much thought.  The story of Jonathan Daniels, however, might give us pause over them.  Not that we are called to martyrdom.  But short of death, what does it mean be “a living sacrifice.”

           It means always to be open to God’s call, and ready, even expecting, for that call to sometimes take us to an uncomfortable place, perhaps a place of conflict, even, as Jesus says, with members of our own family.

           But this openness does not mean the readiness to make enemies.  Jonathan Daniels learned this in Alabama.  After being there several weeks he wrote that he suddenly experienced a new sense of freedom, and that was the freedom to love the enemy.

           It is a life ruled by a love whose source is God that is to be a living sacrifice.  That is love that is not withheld from anyone, and that kind of love will get us into trouble, as we seek to love those the world around us sees as unlovable.

           To be a living sacrifice is the willingness to put others’ needs before our own. Not, let me be swift to say, instead of our own, and not in order to save them.  There is only one Messiah, and it isn’t us.

           Finally, to be a living sacrifice is to take this as one’s rule of life:  to have faith in God. Faith that is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).

           This faith is not the assurance of belief or conviction based on the evidence.  No one gets that, as the Letter to the Hebrews so eloquently and movingly says,

 Yet all these [great followers of the way of God], though they were commended for their faith, did not received what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

           This is the communion of saints at its very core, the reality that in the plan of God we are saved together. We are not individual actors in our own personal drama. We are made perfect before God together, and not just with those we know and love, but with all those who have gone before us and all those who will come after us, those who have offered themselves as a living sacrifice in faith, in hope, in love.

           That means, among other things, that those we call saints and whose deeds we remember, like Jonathan Myrick Daniels, were not perfect. Perfection does not make one a saint. We are only made perfect together, and only in the fullness of time.  Perhaps that is the great truth that people like Jonathan teach us.  Any one of us will not stand before the judgment seat of God alone.  Jonathan and that great cloud of witnesses will be with us.  God will see our perfection, our righteousness, the worthiness of our lives in union with theirs.

           That, my friends, is the best news I have to give you.