Monday, November 30, 2015

we cannot wait

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Advent 1, Year C, 2015

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

We are fresh from spending time with family or friends, filling our bellies with delicious foods and giving thanks for the many blessings in our lives. The streets of Chestnut Hill and other neighborhoods are lit with lights and the shops and even some of our homes are decorated in preparation for Christmas. Last week radio stations began playing carols and the Philly Christmas Village opened up; it is a festive time of year, a busy time of year, a joyful time of year. 

And then we walk into church this morning and are presented with “distress among nations” and “roaring of the sea and the waves” and people fainting “from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world” (Luke 21:25-26). You might be feeling like there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance between the readings and the cheerful atmosphere. 

But if you’ve been paying attention to the news over the past two weeks, the readings don’t seem that far off target. First there were attacks in Lebanon, Iraq, and France. Then Turkey shot down a Russian plane on their border with Syria. Then there was a mortar attack at a UN base in Mali and an attack at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. In light of all these terrible events, it is very easy to relate to the “distress among nations” and “fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world” mentioned in the readings (ibid.). 

But even though they just so happen to be relevant to today, why do we have these readings? Why not read about Mary and Joseph’s encounters with angels, or at the very least their journey to Bethlehem? Why do we read about how we will see the “Son of Man coming in a cloud,” being on guard, and escaping what is to take place (vv. 27, 34, 36)? 

Advent actually is a penitential season, like Lent; that’s why in many Episcopal churches you’ll see purple or blue vestments instead of green or white. We are preparing ourselves not only for the birth of baby Jesus in the manger, but for the day when Christ returns. And the news of the past few weeks serve as a reminder that we have a lot more preparation to do.  

Speaking of preparation, Daniel and I are obviously getting very close to the arrival of our child. All during the pregnancy we have been doing our best to make ourselves ready, from making regular visits to the doctor, to rearranging our apartment to make a place for the baby to sleep, to packing a go-bag for the hospital. Thanks to the amazing generosity of the people of St. Thomas’, we are much more ready than we would be on our own. But no matter how prepared you try to get, and how ready you think you are, the baby always comes before you’ve got absolutely everything together. 

Christ came into the world the first time before Mary was ready, and certainly before the world was ready.

Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, wrote a poem that spoke to this, called “First Coming”:

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace
He came when the Heavens were unsteady
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He died with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait

till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
He came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

(From The Ordering of Love: The New and Collected Poems of Madeleine L'Engle)

Christ came into the world before it was ready, and Christ will come again before we are ready. Yet even though we can never be fully prepared, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare the way as best we can. We still need to pack our bags, we still need to plan our route to the hospital, we still need to make straight the path of the Lord. 

Amidst the strife in the world that shows we aren’t ready for Christ’s return, we come together each week to fulfill our Baptismal covenant by praying to and worshiping God, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and striving for justice and peace among all people (BCP 305). 

This is what we do in order to prepare ourselves as best we can.  This is our hospital go-bag. This is how we keep on guard so we can celebrate not only the joy of the birth of Christ, but of his second coming.

With all of the terrible things going on in the world, it can be easy to get paralyzed by fear or to sink into hopelessness. But Jesus warns us to “be on guard so that [our] hearts are not weighed down with…the worries of this life” (v. 34). 

Believe it or not, the theme for the first Sunday in Advent is hope. The Good News I see in today’s Gospel is that in the midst of preparation in anticipation of Christ’s birth and return, our life is given meaning, is given purpose. The world will not always remain the way it is now. Evil and suffering and pain will not have the last word. At some point, “the Son of Man [will come] in a cloud with power and great glory” to restore creation (v. 27). Until that time, we must not lose hope or cower in fear but “stand up and raise [our] heads, because [our] redemption is drawing near” (v. 28). 

image found here

Sunday, November 15, 2015

the destruction of the illusion of security

St. Thomas' Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 28, Year B, 2015

Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down" (Mark 13:2).

After the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt and were making their way to the Promised Land, God traveled with them in a tent. When they finally made it to the Promised Land, the Israelites were able to build a proper temple in which God could reside. The temple in Jerusalem was a sign of God’s presence among the Israelites. They believed God dwelt in a sacred space within the temple, called the Holy of Holies. The Israelites felt safe knowing that God was right there with them, that God was on their side. 

Now, the stones that made up the temple were massive. They were not small like those that make up the walls of St. Thomas’, but were several feet long by several feet wide by several feet tall. They weren’t easily moved; God’s dwelling place was secure, and so the people of Israel were also secure.

But in 70 AD, the temple was destroyed by the Roman army in response to a rebellion, and any illusion of God’s divine protection vanished. As Jesus predicted, the stones were thrown down, and it seemed to dash the Israelites’ hopes, as well. I imagine they must have felt abandoned by God.

a mourner at one of the sites in Paris

The past few days have been difficult. On Thursday, 67 people were killed by a truck bomb in Baghdad, Iraq. Also on Thursday, suicide bombers killed 43 people in Beirut, Lebanon. And on Friday night, 132 people were killed in multiple suicide bombings and shootings in Paris, France. The last one, in particular, seems to have struck a chord throughout the world. Like the Israelites in the aftermath of the sacking of Jerusalem, our temple, our illusion of security in the West, has been shattered. We have once again been reminded that just because we are faithful Christians or decent human beings doesn’t mean that we are immune to bad things happening to us and to the people we love. Unfortunately, this is not the way the world works. Like the Israelites, we may be feeling abandoned by God, too.

I can’t tell you why God doesn’t prevent bad things like this from happening. I can’t tell you why God allows us to commit these violent crimes against each other. I do believe with all my heart that God doesn’t want to see us suffer, and indeed that it must tear God up inside to watch us destroy one another this way. After all, God created this world, God “knit [us] together in [our] mother’s womb,” God counts the number of hairs on our heads and calls us each by name (Psalm 139:12; Luke 12:7). But God didn’t create us to be automatons; God wanted us to love freely, and because we are flawed creatures, this means that we are free to make both good and bad decisions, free to love as well as to inflict pain.

God does understand what it means to be human, though. What it means to be faced with difficult decisions and to see people you love treated poorly. To know that for every one person you help, there are 10,000 more who need it just as desperately. How it feels to be betrayed and abandoned and abused and tortured and finally killed.

If we put our faith and hope solely into this world, we will come away disheartened. But as Christians, our hope is not in this world; Jesus spoke of another, greater existence—the kingdom of God. And if we look closely, there are signs of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God—and of God’s presence—all around us, even and perhaps especially in times of tragedy.

The much-loved Mr. Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” When the attacks in Paris happened, a hashtag that translates to “Open Door” began surfacing on twitter, offering people stranded in the city a safe place to escape from the violence. Taxis turned off their meters and drove people to home or to safety free of charge. Yesterday hundreds of Parisians lined up to donate blood to assist the more than 350 people injured in the attacks. And perhaps the best example of all, last Thursday, right after the first suicide bomb went off in Beirut, Adel Termos left his daughter’s side and tackled a second suicide bomber headed for the crowd, saving hundreds of lives by giving up his own.

Love is not merely a feeling; it is an action. Love put into action is a sign of the kingdom of God breaking into our world. The love put into action in Paris and Beirut and the many examples of people all around the world, from India to Israel to Korea to Iran, expressing sorrow in solidarity with Parisians, is where I find hope in the midst of this tragedy.

Jesus warned his disciples, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed…” (Mark 13:7). This is perhaps easier said than done, but I think what he was trying to convey to his disciples is that they should not be “thrown into an emotional uproar,” to be overcome by all the evil that exists in the world. Despite our best efforts, the world will never be a truly peaceful place, and there will never be a time when the world is in complete harmony.

Several of my friends have been sharing this poem by the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered 

We are reminded daily that this world that we live in is not the kingdom of God.

And yet. 

And yet God is calling us to overcome the evil we experience by putting our love into action and helping to bring about the kingdom of God. To be the voices speaking against violence and working to bring about justice and peace. To show compassion for our neighbors, which as much as I hate to admit it, includes our enemies.

If the task seems too great, if the cause seems hopeless, if all of the pain and suffering and death is too overwhelming, remember that we do not walk this road alone. Jesus showed us the way of peace, love, and mercy, and promised that we would never be abandoned on this path, though it may feel that way sometimes.

We are assured of God’s abiding presence in the Old Testament (Psalm 139, 6-9):

Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
    where can I flee from your presence?

If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
    if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning *
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me *
    and your right hand hold me fast.

God is with us.

And we are assured of God’s abiding presence in the New Testament (Romans 8:35-39):

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
    we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God is with us.

All this death and destruction is “but the beginning of the birthpangs” (Mark 13:8). And what follows the birthpangs? A birth, of course! In two short weeks we will begin the season of Advent, in which we prepare for the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. It is also the time of year in which we prepare for Jesus’s second coming, when God and God’s kingdom will once again break into the world, and we will see a new heaven and a new earth, God will make all things new, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and will—once and for all—put an end to suffering (Revelation 21).

Until that day, we carry on, putting love into action, doing our part to bring about the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

answering the call of Christ

The Feast of St. Martin of Tours
November 11, 2015

Lord God of hosts, who didst clothe thy servant Martin the soldier with the spirit of sacrifice, and didst set him as a bishop in thy Church to be a defender of the catholic faith: Give us grace to follow in his holy steps, that at the last we may be found clothed with righteousness in the dwellings of peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Martin of Tours
Martin was born in 330 in what is now roughly Yugoslavia. His dad was in the military; when Martin was 15, his dad enlisted him in the army. Martin saw a beggar one winter’s day who didn’t have clothes for the cold weather. He tore his cloak in half and gave ½ to the beggar. That night, Martin dreamed that he saw Christ wearing ½ of his cloak. He was baptized soon after this. 

Martin asked to be released from his military service after the next campaign: “Hitherto I have faithfully served Caesar. Let me now serve Christ.” The army didn’t take too kindly to this and accused him of cowardice. In response, he offered to stand unarmed between the armies. They jailed him, but released him when the armies signed a peace treaty.

Martin became a student of Hilary of Poitiers, who opposed the Arian denial of the full divinity of Christ. He went back home and argued so effectively against the Arian view that he was chased out of town. He made his way back to France and founded the first monastery there (which remained open until the French Revolution!).

Martin was elected Bishop of Tours in 371. Tours was mostly pagan. There is a legend that the pagans worshiped a large tree in the town center. The pagans offered to cut it down if Martin would volunteer to stand in the path of its fall. He agreed and the tree narrowly missed him. Also in Tours, Martin intervened when the Imperial Guard were going to torture and execute a batch of prisoners. He was able to get them released.

In 384 a man named Priscillian and 6 of his followers were found guilty of heresy. A group of bishops gathered and asked the emperor to execute them. Martin spoke up and said that heretics should not be tried and punished by the government but within the Church; up until that point excommunication had been sufficient, and he argued that this should be their punishment rather than death. Martin waited for the emperor to agree to this and then left. As soon as he left, some remaining bishops convinced the emperor to break his promise; Priscillian and his 6 followers became the first people to be killed for heresy. In turn, Martin excommunicated the bishops that had done this. He eventually brought them back into communion, however, in exchange for a pardon by the emperor for some men who had been sentenced to death and for the emperor’s promise not to kill any more of Priscillian’s followers.

Martin died around November 11th 397. His shrine is a stop along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

November 11th is also Armistice Day, the day when fighting in WWI, the “war to end all wars” ended. It was intended to be a day “dedicated to the cause of world peace.” In 1954, after the horrors of WWII had ended, President Eisenhower changed the holiday to Veteran’s Day, a day to honor veterans of all wars. This is not to be confused with Memorial Day, which honors those who have given the ultimate sacrifice—their lives—in service to our country.

It is appropriate that St. Martin’s Feast Day coincides with Veteran’s Day. As a veteran himself, dedicated to peace and mercy, Martin is emblematic of the original intent of Armistice Day: to focus on world peace.

Martin served his country faithfully and then devoted his life to faithfully serving Christ and the Church. May we be inspired by his example to be dedicated to the cause of Christ and the way of peace, where the focus is on different battles (and I’m not talking about the "war" on Christmas): rather, the war on poverty, war on discrimination and racism, war on mass incarceration. These are the battles of Christ. It is for these causes that we fight.

Today we honor those who answered the call of country. May we, in the same way, be moved to answer the call of Christ. Amen.

My grandmother, a cradle Episcopalian and veteran who served in WWII, 
on her 90th birthday (2012). In her service to both God and country,
she has had and continues to have a profound impact on my faith life. 
(photo credit: Jim Shine)

Here's a picture of my grandma when she served in the psych department during WWII.

Collect and Information on St. Martin: James Kiefer

Information on Armistice/Veteran’s Day: U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs