Saturday, January 21, 2017

putting the powerful to shame

St. Thomas' Women's Retreat homily

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God's alone. Amen.

Today we are celebrating the feast of St. Agnes of Rome. Agnes lived in Rome in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. This was a time of major persecution by the Roman emperor, Diocletian, who was no friend to Christianity. Under his command, churches and scriptures were destroyed, and Christians were brutally tortured and killed.

We don’t know a whole lot about Agnes, but we do know her name means “pure” in Greek and “lamb” in Latin. This is fitting, because Agnes was only 12 or 13 when she was executed for her faith. As you can imagine, her young age caused people to question the leadership of Rome. Was the emperor so weak that he felt a little girl was a threat? Killing a virgin was against the law; therefore, it was hypocritical for Rome to say Christians were destroying the old ways when they themselves were ignoring old ways to kill them. And finally, if a little girl was able to face her death without fear, then maybe there was something powerful about Christianity.

Agnes’ martyrdom in 304 shook the empire and helped to bring about the end of the Diocletian Persecution. Within 9 years of her death, Rome’s new emperor, Constantine, had declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire.  

We celebrate martyrs like St. Agnes because their witness to Christ inspires us to face the troubles of our own day with courage and faith. In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those who have the humility of children. Through the life and death of young Agnes and martyrs like her, as the collect says, God has used “those whom the world deems powerless to put the powerful to shame.

Throughout history, women have been deemed powerless. We have had to work and fight and negotiate and protest just to have our voices heard. In this work, we have had strong women and girls to guide us: Mary, the teenaged, unwed mother of Jesus who spoke of God’s incarnation as the catalyst of flipping the world order; Joan of Arc, whose visions and courage inspired the French during the 100 Year’s War; Sojourner Truth, who fought for civil rights and women’s suffrage; and more recently Saint Mother Teresa, whose life spent living among and caring for the poorest of the poor in India earned her the Nobel Peace Prize and eventually sainthood. These women and millions more have bravely stood up to “put the powerful to shame.”

You and I will most likely not achieve what these women did in their lifetimes, but we find courage in their devotion and witness to Christ. And we find strength when we gather (like we are today) to hear of God’s love and mercy and justice, and then take and eat and become the Body of Christ. The Good News is that, as Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, we can take heart because God resides within each one of us (2 Cor 6:16). God makes God’s self at home in our hearts. With that knowledge, we can face whatever comes our way.

Fourth Century Icon of St. Agnes in Rome
image found here

Monday, January 16, 2017

come. see. follow.

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Epiphany 2, Year A, 2017

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

While I call Boone, North Carolina, my hometown, I actually spent the first 12 years of my life further south in Alabama. My classes went on the usual field trips: to the state capital in Montgomery and to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. I know I had fun and I’m sure I learned a lot of interesting things at the time, but I’m afraid I can’t recall them now. However, there is another trip that is imprinted in my memory, that remains with me to this day. You see, I grew up in Birmingham, and so it was only natural that the other field trip was to the recently opened Civil Rights Institute. We walked around the building, learning about the civil rights era and the particular events that took place in Birmingham. All of a sudden, we turned a corner and came face-to-face with what was left of a Greyhound Bus. To jog your memory, this was a replica of the bus the Freedom Riders had ridden in May of 1961 from D.C. on their way to New Orleans to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the signing of Brown vs. Board. On the way, they had been stopping in different southern cities, trying to bring attention to segregation by entering “whites-only” places on the interstates. The first incident happened in South Carolina when three of the Freedom Riders were attacked at a “whites-only” waiting area. Despite their injuries, they continued on their journey. Two days later, the Greyhound ended up in Anniston, Alabama, where they were met by a mob of 200 people. The bus driver kept going past their stop, but the mob followed, and when the tires eventually gave out, someone threw a bomb onto the bus. The riders made it off the bus, but were beaten as they escaped the flames. The freedom rides continued six days later with different people, and over the next few months, hundreds more joined the cause. In the fall, after mounting pressure both nationally and internationally, segregation in interstate transit terminals was finally prohibited.*

I had studied about the Civil Rights movement in school, but it wasn’t until I saw the blown-out windows and charred frame of the Greyhound that it became real, became more than just something that would show up later on a test. I had known that people could be mean to one another (I had siblings, after all) but this was the moment when I understood—when I became aware—that humans were capable of doing truly evil things. 
Today’s gospel reading is filled with examples of seeing, looking, watching— of becoming aware. John the Baptist sees Jesus coming toward him and recognizes for the first time that this man is not just his cousin, but the Son of God (John 1:29, 31, 34). I don’t know how much time they had spent together growing up, but according to Luke’s Gospel account Mary and Elizabeth seemed pretty close, so I imagine they met up at least once in a while (Luke 1:39-46). John has most likely seen Jesus countless times, has probably heard the stories of his and Jesus’ miraculous births, but it isn’t until he sees the Spirit “descending from heaven like a dove…and remain” on Jesus that he realizes Jesus is God’s Son (John 1:33-34).

What happens next is important. John doesn’t just notice and continue along as if nothing has changed. He tells others—his own followers, no less—that this is the one for whom he has been preparing the way. His life’s work has been to baptize and call for repentance, pointing toward someone greater than he. And now he is literally pointing to Jesus. Two of John’s disciples decide to follow Jesus after the second time that John testifies about him.  

Jesus notices them following him and then we have this exchange: He asks them what they are seeking, what they are looking for, and they respond with another question, “where are you staying?” (v. 38). On the surface, it appears as if they are asking him his address. But it’s really more like they’re asking him “what are you about? Where do you pitch your tent? What’s your deal?” Jesus replies, “Come and see” (v. 39). And they do.

Out of this, Andrew becomes the first disciple, and he returns bringing his brother, Simon. Simon is renamed Peter (meaning rock, because he eventually becomes the spiritual head of the Church). The disciples not only come and see, but follow. Awareness leads to action. They don’t remain observers on the sidelines, but get involved, devoting their entire lives to following Jesus.

To follow Jesus is not an easy thing. Note that John refers to Jesus twice as the Lamb of God. Jesus, the sacrificial lamb, dies on a cross for our sins, and all but one of his disciples end up being martyred just as he is.  

To follow Jesus is costly. It is uncomfortable. The way of love and compassion requires us to step outside of ourselves, our family units, and our communities, and to take not only notice of the suffering of others, but to then do something about it. When we become aware of injustice, it is our duty as Christians to get involved.

After the 10 am service, you are invited to join in our fourth annual pack-a-thon, where we will be packing food for over 20,000 people worldwide. While this is going on, the youth group will be cooking for Church of the Advocate’s soup kitchen and then serving the meal tomorrow.

But our work doesn’t stop there. We can’t only be Christians on Sunday morning or during Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. To follow Jesus means we have to be aware and get involved on a regular basis. To notice people in need and give up some of what we have so that others can have enough. To be aware of where we participate or are complicit in the mistreatment of others. Sometimes it may even mean standing up not just to people in power, but also to friends or family members. Like I said, it’s not easy to act on our faith.

It will take practice, and we’ll inevitably make mistakes. But the Good News is that despite our shortcomings, "God is faithful" (1 Cor 1:9). So come and see—and then follow—Jesus.

May 14, 1961 (Mother's Day)
Burning Greyhound bus that the Freedom Riders rode
image found here

Model of the Greyhound bus
image found here

*information on the Freedom Riders found here:

Monday, November 28, 2016

wake up!

St. Thomas' Church, Whitemarsh
Advent 1, Year A, 2016

We find ourselves once again at the beginning of the church year. Advent is such a lovely time: the twinkling lights adorning the streets, the chill in the air, the glorious carols. For many of us, our hearts are full from time spent with friends and/or family, and we are still trying to digest all that we ate for Thanksgiving.

But then we get to church this morning and hear the readings: keep awake! The day is near! Be ready! One will be taken and one will be left! And finally a reminder of all the people left behind when Noah and his family entered their ark. 

After stuffing our faces, watching football, and shopping till we drop, these readings can be a bit of a buzzkill. They’re jarring, but Advent readings are meant to rattle us, to shake us out of our complacency. 

Romans is Paul’s longest and probably his final letter. It is written when Nero was emperor of Rome—the same Nero who famously “fiddled while Rome burned.” In his letter, Paul is urging believers to return to holy living. The letter emphasizes God’s faithfulness in opposition to our faithlessness, something for which we are accountable to God. 

Romans is a perfect choice for Advent, because Advent is a season of introspection, an opportunity to reassess our choices and views to see if they align with the gospel. Just as we make our homes ready to welcome guests by sweeping, cleaning, and taking out the trash, so in Advent we make our hearts ready to welcome Christ. We do this by sweeping away the cobwebs from our prayer life, by cleaning up our act, and by getting rid of—trashing—the things that distract us from our relationship with God and one another. 

Lest we walk around with blinders on, heads down, just trying to make it from one day to the next, know that Advent is also a time of looking outside ourselves. The section in Romans we read today reminds us of our responsibilities to our neighbors. When Paul talks about putting on “the armor of light”, it’s supposed to bring to mind our baptismal clothing, and along with that, our baptismal vows (Romans 13:12). 

At our baptism, we renounce Satan, evil, and our own sinfulness (BCP 302). We also affirm our commitment to Jesus Christ, trusting, following, and obeying him (BCP 302-303). And then we vow to show up to church, to seek out Christ not only at the altar but in each other, to resist evil and repent, to share the Good News, to live a life of loving service, and to work for justice and peace, all the while acknowledging that we can only accomplish this with the help of God (BCP 304-305). 

We model our behavior on the behavior of the king for whose birth and eventual return we are preparing. What Jesus demonstrates in his short life is that people are not meant to simply coexist. We are meant to recognize the humanity in every one of us, to acknowledge that every one of us is made in God’s image and therefore has value in the eyes of God. Paul informs us that just as we are accountable to God, we are accountable to one another. Love God and love one another: that’s our call. 

God doesn’t just feel love for us as an emotion; God showed us how to love by sending Jesus--Emmanuel, God with us--to live among us, teach us, and wipe away our sins. Following that example, we must show our love for our neighbors through our actions. “To love someone is actively to pursue that person’s good, however we may feel about him or her emotionally” (Achtemeier*, p. 17). 

This means that when we see people treating others differently because of their religion, race, sexual orientation, gender, ability, age, nationality, or income level, we must call them out. When we have a choice between profit and people, we must always choose people. We cannot remain silent; remember, we have vowed to resist evil, and that is not a passive action. We are called to make this world ready for the return of Christ. To ignore the concerns of the world is, like Nero, to fiddle while Rome burns. 

Both Romans and the Gospel reading talk about the idea of waking up from sleep, to be informed, to be aware of what is going on around us. In the past few weeks, there have been at least 700 incidents of “hateful harassment” in our country, most of them occurring in elementary, middle, and high schools. But waking up does not only have to mean waking up to the reality of a broken world; it can also mean waking up to instances of goodness in the world, where we see glimpses of God’s kingdom in the midst of the world’s brokenness. For example, in the last few weeks, charitable giving has increased dramatically. 

We are called to educate ourselves on the issues of the day, to face the darkness and brokenness we will always find in the world, but not be overcome by it. When we encounter these things we don’t act defeated, but act as if we have already won, because we have through Christ! We live in hope, because we know that evil does not have the last word. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “Don’t give up! Don’t get discouraged! I’ve read the end of the book. We win!” We stay awake because any day now Christ will return to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. O come, o come Emmanuel! 

image found here

*Achtemeier, Paul J. "Exegetical Perspective." Advent through Transfiguration, 2010, pp. 15-19. Feasting on the Word, edited by David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A, Vol. 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 12 vols.