Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Modern Seminarian Reflects on the Ministry of a Martyr

Jonathan Myrick Daniels was the future of the Church. A seminarian at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was in 1965 just one year from graduation and embarking on his vocation in the ordained ministry. But the times in which he lived were anything but ordinary, and in the face of continued oppression of blacks - the denying of voting rights or equality of any kind, from opportunities for better jobs to access to better housing - something happened.

In those extra-ordinary times, Daniels took an extraordinary step: he left what could have been an easy and comfortable time at ETS and voluntarily joined thousands of others - black and white, young and old, ordained and laity, rich and poor, known and unknown - on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. In the final year of his life, he put his seminary studies on hold and devoted his time and energy to fighting for equality in Alabama. He took part in the voting rights struggle in Selma. He worked for the integration of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in that city - the church where, 31 years later, I would be married. He lived in the Selma homes of the very men, women and children who were enduring the worst segregation and injustice imaginable. And he joined in protests against stores in Fort Deposit, Alabama that were operating under strict "Whites Only" policies. Sadly, it was this final act of non-violent protest that resulted in his death in the most violent of ways.

Now, 51 years later, I myself am a seminarian. I am less than one year from graduation from Virginia Theological Seminary and (God willing and the people consenting) taking the next big steps into the vocation of ordained ministry. But even with the passage of time, and while things have improved somewhat, you need only open the newspaper or turn on the television news to see that we as a country still have a long way to go. Housing and economic inequality still burdens far too many individuals and families. Too many men, women and children still face segregation and racial inequality. Too many lives are being lost to the bullets and gunfire that ravage cities and towns across this country. We are losing far too many of our young people to violence, and far too many of those sworn to protect us are falling in the line of duty.

Five decades after our black brothers and sisters were given equal rights, what should be the joyful shouts of modern-day equality are sadly silent. In the 1960s, Jonathan Daniels recognized that black lives matter, and he followed a personal journey in answer to a call from Dr. King to work for an understanding of that fact. Today, parts of this nation still struggle with understanding that black lives do matter. They do not matter to the exclusion of any other segment of this nation's population, despite what some think when they see banners and social media hash tags. Black lives matter because they have been - and sadly, continue to be - demeaned and offered fewer opportunities to achieve their American dream. Black lives matter because they are the lives of the men, women and children who have been ignored. Black lives matter because when one part of our body is hurt, the entire body suffers. And when our brothers and sisters suffer continued subjugation and victimization, the entire body of humanity is hurt.

In the midst of all of this, the pain and grief that still holds this nation in its terrible grip, I think about Jonathan Myrick Daniels. I think about the man and the priest. I think about that time when as a young man of 26 he was the future of the Church. And as I reflect on the tragedy of his death, I rejoice in the fact that he wasn't just the future of the Church. He was - and is - the Church. To look at the example of Daniels' life is to look at what the Church that I love stands for. Loving all, and praying for our enemies. Respecting the dignity of every human being. Working to ensure that those without are given opportunities to live their lives with. Seeing that the face of God isn't reflected in the faces of a select few, but is seen in the faces of all of God's children.

I think about Jonathan Daniels and how God was reflected in his face. I think about the courage he displayed and the life he led. And I pray that I can emulate his work and continue what he started - being one small part of the best of what the Church is and what it can be in the future.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Who are Our Neighbors? Just Look Around...

A Sermon Preached at St. George's Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 10, 2017
Gospel Reading - Luke 10:25-37

Who is my neighbor?

When this unnamed lawyer posed this question to Jesus, I don’t think he had any idea what he was opening himself up for. And certainly the Gospel writer may not have known just how important this parable would become to generations of Christians around the world. On the surface, this question – like many others posed to and by Jesus during his ministry – seems like it would have a simple answer. But it doesn’t. Our neighbors are ones we think of often – and in recent days, we have thought of our neighbors not out of a sense of curiosity, but out of a feeling of pain and loss.   

Several years ago, our youngest daughter was upset when one of her neighborhood playmates moved to another part of town. As she was talking to me about it, she asked, “Will she still be our neighbor?” I said that they would – and she seemed relieved. Two years ago, she and her sister both felt the heartache of having a friend with whom they had grown up in the church move out of state. Our youngest again asked, “Are we still neighbors, even though they live in Alabama now?” I said that we were – and again, you could see the relief on her face.

For our children, being a neighbor is something related to distance. In their minds, the greater concern is about where you live – whether it’s two blocks up the street or 12 hours down the interstate. Often, that’s true for a lot of people. We often think of neighbors as those we see regularly – at the community picnic or out mowing their lawns on Saturday morning or walking down the sidewalk with the kids on a cool evening. It’s a comforting thing, really – walking out the front door in the morning and seeing some folks headed to work and others headed to the bus stop. Those can be moments of stability, of reassurance.

But being a neighbor is also about relationship – who we are to one another rather than where we are in relation to one another. More importantly, it’s about how we are to one another, and that was ultimately the point of the parable shared by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. The neighbor – in this case, a Samaritan, part of a group that often found itself cast to the margins in the Israel of Jesus’ day – was the one who saw someone in need and stopped to care for him. It didn’t matter that they were from different segments of society. In his response, we see that the Samaritan didn’t see himself as a Samaritan, but as a human being – and in this moment on this lonely wilderness road, he didn’t see the man lying wounded as a Jewish traveler in need of help, but as a fellow human in trouble.

What’s truly remarkable is that the Samaritan didn’t just offer immediate help; he provided ongoing care. He demonstrated a love that wasn’t offered just out of a sense of obligation; it was a love that was extravagant. He binds his wounds and pours oil and wine on them. He gives up his seat so that the injured man will not have to walk. He takes him to an inn and pays in advance for his care. He even announces he will pass back through and pay for any care above and beyond the money he has already provided.

Jesus often tells stories and shares lessons of what it means to give extravagantly from our love. Does someone sue for your shirt? Give them your cloak, too. Love your enemies. Learn from the vineyard owner who paid the last hired as much as the first. Watch the joyful giving of the father who throws an elaborate banquet and gives all he has to a son who had abandoned his home, his family and his heritage. In each of these instances, just as we see in today’s Gospel, people act as they do towards others – towards their neighbors – not because they have to, but because they want to.

Over the past few weeks, these lessons of extravagant love have been lost in the echo of the senseless deaths that have taken place around the country. Orlando. Baton Rouge. Falcon Heights. Dallas. A list of communities growing longer, seemingly by the day, in which dreams of living as neighbors have been shattered by the reality of gunfire. Some of the tragedies, like Orlando, are of such a large scale that the names themselves are lost in an endless stream of the photos of the dead. Others, such as those we’ve witnessed this week, result in our learning the names of those taken.

Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. Brent Thompson. Patrick Zamarripa. Michael Krol. Lorne Ahrens. Michael Smith.

Every one a life cut tragically short. Every one a neighbor - separated from us by distance, yes, but joined with us as part of God's creation.

A roll call of senseless loss – and from these losses, an ever-increasing sense of anxiety and tension. Rather than feeling like the Samaritan who offers help and healing, these days have left me feeling like the one who was beaten and abandoned on the side of the road. And for all of the emotion I have been feeling, it in no way comes close to the hurt, anger, grief and marginalization being felt and expressed by the families and friends of the young black men, police officers and perpetrators who lost their lives this week.

So in the midst of this tragedy, as witnesses to the racism, fear, hostility and division that still hold the country in its terrible grip, we are all undoubtedly trying to find something. Where, we ask, is the good news?

I want you to do something. Turn and look at the person next to you, or behind you. Don’t say anything – just look.

There is the good news. The faces of the people next to us – our friends and family, our guests, our fellow St. Georgians – are the collective face of the good news we are seeking. Yours are the faces of those welcoming the stranger, comforting the poor, reaching out to the marginalized. It is your hands that throw open the doors of this place and extend an invitation to the world, and it is your desire to take the church beyond these four walls that offers a glimpse of humanity’s best to those who have only experienced its worst.

One of my heroes, the civil rights leader and current congressman John Lewis, gave one of the most powerful statements I have ever heard. He said, “We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters. If not, we will perish as fools.” The people of this city, this nation, this world are all brothers and sisters. We may have different beliefs, different traditions, and different languages, and we may live with different goals and dreams. But at the end of the day, we are all part of the same creation.

Who are our neighbors? As a writer of a commentary on this passage wrote, “Love … must know no limits of race and ask no enquiry. Who needs me is my neighbor. Whom at the given time and place I can help with my active love, they are my neighbor and I am theirs.”


Saturday, March 26, 2016

We are the Nails: A Good Friday Sermon

A Sermon Preached at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Delaplane, Virginia
Good Friday, March 25, 2016
Gospel reading - John 18:1-19:42

In the name of one God, the Father who created us, the Son who sacrificed for us, and the Holy Spirit that strengthens and sustains us. Amen.

The lectionary from which we take our Lessons and Gospel readings throughout the church year provides preachers with some outstanding material. We get to experience anew the beauty and wonder of the creation of this Earth and the universe in which we find ourselves. We can rejoice with the Israelites as they at long last, after 40 years of wandering and struggling in the wilderness, reach the Promised Land.

There are the spectacular moments such as when Jesus taps 12 ordinary men – fisherman and tax collectors – to leave their nets and counting tables and follow him to do extraordinary things. And we can see through the eyes of those whom Jesus fed and healed and freed from the possession of demons and the dark hopelessness of their lives.

Without question, the Bible is filled with stories of wonder, beauty and magnificence. But it is also full of moments of hardship and tragedy and obstacles that seemingly cannot be overcome. And that is where we find ourselves this evening, at the close of the day on which we recall and reflect on the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made for each of us: the sacrifice of himself.

The passion narrative that we just heard is powerful and dark and – for many – extremely emotional. And for me, that’s a great challenge as I stand in the pulpit: how does one preach on good news when faced with such a painful moment?

Throughout his ministry, and especially the week between Palm Sunday and today, Jesus was followed by large crowds. An untold number of people crowded around him as he rode on the back of a donkey through the gates of Jerusalem.

They undoubtedly hung on his every word as he spent his final days preaching and speaking against the corruption of the authorities of the Temple and the Roman occupiers. And as we know from his trial, a large crowd gathered to cry for the release of Barabbas and the condemnation of Jesus to death.

Despite the near-constant presence of crowds, however, the Gospel reading for today only identifies a few people gathered at the foot of the cross: three women, including Jesus’ mother; the anonymous beloved disciple; and some soldiers – far fewer than were at the arrest in Gethsemane, for I think in the mind of the authorities it would have been much easier to try and escape a garden than to escape the cross.

But I think that the same crowds that had rejoiced at his arrival and then condemned him to death were also there on this day. And I think they were standing off to the side, watching the nails being driven into Jesus’ wrists and feet, listening as he cried out to his Father, and looking on silently as he drew his last breath.

Yes, I think the crowd was at the cross – but I think they were feeling shame, and embarrassment, and fear. After following his ministry and sharing in his journey, they were now uncomfortable and quiet and afraid. They had to have been wondering, “What have we done?”

In these last hours, they had discovered for themselves the limits of just how far they were willing to follow Jesus. They followed him to the cross, but they were not at the cross.

And somewhere deep inside, I think that as they listened to the sound of the hammer, they may have even thought to themselves, “We are the nails.”

How often in our own lives might we ourselves have been nails, being driven into others through our words and actions? Perhaps there have been words spoken in haste and anger, without consideration for the feelings of those receiving them. Maybe we allowed ourselves to forget someone else who might need a bit of love or attention at a particular moment in their own life, sacrificing our work as disciples for something we thought was more important.

There may have even been a time when we have felt the nails being driven into us as the priorities and distractions of our lives step in and separate us a bit from the God who loves us. The stress of making sure there’s enough in the bank to pay the bills. Wondering if a damaged relationship with a treasured friend can be mended. A health issue that, despite doctors’ visits and constant treatment, won’t seem to go away. Times when everyday life brings sadness and fear rather than joy and hopeful expectation.

In our own journeys, there are individual moments when we may find ourselves standing a distance away from the cross. And these are the times when we see glimpses of the good news. For it is in these moments that we have the opportunity to take Jesus down from that cross.

In opposition to that crowd 2,000 years ago that clamored for the crucifixion of Jesus and then stood by as the nails were driven in, we have a chance to un-nail Christ – and in so doing, to free ourselves to be un-nailed and redeemed by Jesus.

Sometimes when I am working on sermons, I will take time to look at various icons on the Gospel readings and see how different artists portrayed these events. While working on this one, I ran across a photograph of an icon from an Orthodox Church in Town and Country, Missouri. In this instance, the artist had depicted the moment when Jesus was taken down from the cross. This rendering shows the women and the beloved disciple had been joined by others – several other people, in fact, who were carefully and lovingly taking him down.

In the artist’s mind, where did these people come from? There’s no way of knowing. We just heard that, with Pilate’s permission, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took the body – but I don’t think they did it alone. There’s no proof for this, but I can’t help but wonder if some from the crowd – perhaps two or three men and women – experienced something that brought them from standing near the cross over to the foot of the cross, to bring down the body of the one sacrificed for their sins. Two or three more joined with a small group that removed the nails, embraced the body, and wrapped it for burial.

We are this small group. On this Good Friday, and throughout the year, we can take out the nails and bring Jesus down from the cross – and in so doing, open ourselves to the healing that we can and do receive from him.

I often think of Henri Nouwen, who himself struggled with his own understanding of what this day means. As he wrote, "Jesus was broken on the cross. He lived his suffering and death not as an evil to avoid at all costs, but as a mission to embrace. We too are broken. We live with broken bodies, broken hearts, broken minds or broken spirits. We suffer from broken relationships. How can we live our brokenness? Jesus invites us to embrace our brokenness as he embraced the cross and live it as part of our mission. He asks us not to reject our brokenness as a curse from God that reminds us of our sinfulness but to accept it and put it under God's blessing for our purification and sanctification. Thus our brokenness can become a gateway to new life."

Let us remove the nails from ourselves and others. Let us be the ones who takes Jesus down off the cross. And let us allow our brokenness to be healed, so that we ourselves may be agents of healing.