Heritage

Sermon on Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 16:21-28 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. You can listen to a recording of this sermon here.

The Federal gunline at Malvern Hill, the battle where my ancestor was killed.

Milton Hyman Boullemet served as a private in the 3rd Alabama Volunteer Regiment and was killed at the Battle of Malvern Hill during the Civil War. He also happened to be an ancestor of mine (my great, great, great, great uncle to be precise). When I was a child, one of my relatives compiled the letters he wrote home to his parents during the war and distributed the collection to members of the family. As a student of history, I was pleased to have this volume on my shelf, but I never took the time to read it until a few weeks ago. For the most part, Milton’s letters are fairly standard wartime correspondence: he reports on the weather, complains about “muddy coffee and stale bread,” and asks after his family. At the same time, there are elements of these letters that are downright shocking. For instance, Milton uses racial epithets casually, as if he doesn’t realize what he is saying, which may very well be the case. Moreover, I was dismayed to read that when it came to the Confederacy, Milton was a true believer. Though he was from the merchant class and had little personal investment in the institution of slavery, he regarded the South’s war effort as holy cause. One could rationalize that he believed he was defending his home or that he simply got caught up in the spirit of the times, but the fact remains that an ancestor of mine fought and died to preserve the right to own other people.

Our lectionary this morning appears to provide two distinct, even competing visions of the Christian life. In the passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus articulates the profound cost of discipleship: “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is dramatic, sacrificial language; the implication is that a truly meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ requires us to abandon everything we hold dear and give up our lives for the sake of the gospel. There’s a nobility in this vision of the Christian life. In fact, it is consistent with some of humanity’s oldest stories: we have always admired those who leave everything behind and devote themselves to a glorious cause. Certainly, this is one of the reasons my Uncle Milton volunteered to fight for the Confederacy. Now, this story has a shadow side: single-minded devotion to anything can lead to division, where we reject those who either aren’t committed to our cause or aren’t committed enough. But it’s easy to rationalize that this is just part of the sacrifice that we are called to make as Christians. In the end, the most important thing is how we have committed to taking up our cross and following Jesus.

The passage we heard from Romans seems to describe the Christian life in ways that are diametrically opposed to this sweeping, sacrificial vision. Instead of a call to martyrdom, Paul offers a series of straightforward and, frankly bland exhortations: “serve the Lord,” “persevere in prayer,” “contribute to the needs of the saints,” and so on. Paul seems less interested in the cost of discipleship than he is in the cost of maintaining the church. It appears that this passage bolsters the familiar narrative that Paul essentially co-opted the message of Jesus for his own purposes. Even if we don’t take it that far, this passage from Romans feels conventional, while the section from Matthew’s gospel feels revolutionary. Paul’s advice seems more focused on behaving correctly than on being who God has called us to be.

This is only a reasonable interpretation if we ignore Paul’s final exhortation: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This concluding remark places the entire passage within a larger context. Paul is not offering practical instructions about life in the church; he is articulating how to overcome the evil powers of this world. It’s noteworthy that Paul argues the way to overcome evil is by nurturing community: rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep, and outdoing one another in showing honor. Paul does not mention taking sides, digging in our heels, or shouting down the opposition. Paradoxically, he implies that overcoming evil is about transcending our divisions and striving to remain in relationship no matter what. In many ways, this vision of the Christian life is just as radical as the one outlined in Matthew’s gospel. While not a call to die for a glorious cause, Paul’s vision is more comprehensive: we are called to live out the gospel every day of our lives. Instead of a momentary, passionate decision, this vision invites a patient commitment to transformation. Moreover, it requires us to trust not in what we can do to advance our cause, but in the grace of God. This is precisely the same point that Jesus makes when he describes what it means to take up one’s cross. When Jesus says, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” he is suggesting that our lives find their meaning, not in anything we accomplish, not in our sacrifice, but in what God has done through Jesus Christ.

In 1862, the year my Uncle Milton was killed in battle, the Episcopal Church held its General Convention in New York City. Though the Civil War was raging, the Convention kept to its usual business as much as possible. In its account of the proceedings, the New York Times reported “it was resolved…that all vacant seats of Dioceses not represented should be assigned to the delegates present.” While this seems like an insignificant piece of parliamentary minutia, it actually speaks volumes. Those “dioceses not present” were the ones in states actively rebelling against the union over the issue of slavery. Remarkably, General Convention made the decision that these rebels would simply be marked absent; it was assumed they would return. Indeed, two bishops from dioceses in the Confederacy were warmly welcomed when they arrived at General Convention in 1865. This is a distinct contrast with many other denominations, which split into northern and southern branches during the Civil War era. We can certainly criticize General Convention for not taking a more righteous stand against the injustice of slavery. And yet, we must also acknowledge that this was an earnest attempt by these representatives “to overcome evil with good,” to stay in relationship no matter what.

More than anything else, this kind of response requires the humility to recognize that sin is never somebody else’s problem. This brings me back to my Uncle Milton. As much as I would like to disavow him completely, he is part of my heritage. I had an ancestor who fought for the right to own people. This is part of who I am, and it is important I acknowledge that it is shameful, as much as I would like to deny it. And yet, if the gospel teaches us anything, it is that we are defined not by what we or our ancestors have done, but by what God has done for us, for all of us. For this reason, the Christian response to hate and bigotry cannot be to destroy those who would advocate such things; it must be to preach repentance even as we acknowledge our own sinfulness, all while putting our trust in the boundless grace of God. This is the “true religion” our Collect refers to: the ability to trust the power of God’s grace to transcend our divisions and transform our lives.

Advertisements

Saving our Lives

Sermon on Mark 8:27-38 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

In 1954, producers Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster had an enviable problem. Put simply, their movies were too successful. Hecht-Lancaster Productions made so much money 1954 that the studio was concerned about the size of its tax bill come April 15th. They came up with an admittedly creative solution to this predicament. They decided toproduce a movie that was guaranteed to flop, so that the production costs could be written off as a capital loss. In theory, the plan was airtight: Hecht hired a relatively unknown writer to adapt his failed TV script into a full length feature, and Lancaster cast what he described as “two ugly people” in the lead roles. The producers were so confident that the movie would fail that the studio had an accountant on the set specifically charged with ensuring that the production lost enough money. When Marty was released, Hecht and Lancaster were sure that they had accurately understood the moviegoing public, that no one would be interested in watching two ordinary people fall in love.

marty-posterAs you probably know (or have at least guessed), the studio could not have been more wrong. Indeed, Marty was adored by both critics and the public. Not only was it a smash hit, it earned an Academy Award for Best Picture and became only the second American film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Marty established Paddy Chayevsky, that unknown screenwriter, as one of the most talented screenwriters in Hollywood and made Ernest Borgnine, one of those two ugly actors, a household name. As it turns out, audiences found Borgnine and his co-star Betsy Blair far more relatable than typical Hollywood stars. Moreover, they were compelled by the film’s ultimate message: true love really is for anyone. Even though the producers thought they understood the public, their expectations were confounded. Even though their plan was, to their minds, foolproof, things turned out precisely the opposite way they anticipated.

Our reading from Mark’s gospel this morning reminds us that ours is a God who confounds expectations. While Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah is an important moment in all the gospels, it is of particular significance in Mark. This is the pivot point of Mark’s gospel: not only is this the moment that the disciples finally recognize Jesus for who he is, it is also the moment that the narrative begins its inexorable progression toward Jesus’ passion and death in Jerusalem. It’s clear that this is not at all what Peter or any of the other disciples expect. When Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter sounds supremely confident: “You are the Messiah.” There’s no hesitancy, there’s no equivocation. Peter is sure that Jesus is the anointed successor of David. So it’s no surprise that Peter bristles when Jesus tells the disciples that the Messiah “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.” Mark tells us that Peter rebukes Jesus, presumably saying something to the effect of, “No no no Jesus; you have it all wrong. The Messiah isn’t supposed to die! What’s the matter with you?” Peter cannot imagine that the redemption of God’s people could come through rejection and death. Peter cannot conceive of a God who would reveal himself on a Roman cross. Peter, in other words, cannot fathom the paradox at the heart of the Christian faith: that an instrument of shameful death has become for us the means of life.

Needless to say, Peter is not the only one who has had difficulty understanding this paradox. Indeed, Christians have wondered for centuries how Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is related to his passion and death. Jesus begins to illuminate this relationship when he says to the crowd, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Now traditionally, this text is read as a call to martyrdom, a proclamation that Christians must be willing to lay down their lives for the gospel. Those who embrace this reading are continually on the lookout for a cross to bear, a burden that they can ascribe to their discipleship. But this interpretation ignores the fact that Jesus Christ is the one who bears the cross for our sake and for the sake of the world, that he has accomplished something that no one else can. Jesus explains what this is in the very next sentence: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” More than calling his disciples to die for their faith, Jesus is affirming that the more we try to control our lives, the more out of control they will feel. The more we try to maintain our conception of what our life ought to be, the more unable we are to live the life that we have. This statement of Jesus recognizes that when we strive to preserve the life we have at all costs, things will turn out precisely the opposite way we anticipate. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have liberated us to appreciate that life is not a commodity to be hoarded, but a gift to be fully experienced.

imgresThis is more than a metaphor. Last year, Atul Gawande, a surgeon and bestselling author, published a book called Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Gawande’s simple, yet powerful thesis is that over the last century, medicine, for all its advances, has failed to prepare people for the reality of death. Too many have ended their lives in agony, undergoing treatments that offer only a sliver’s chance of benefit. In many cases, focusing on survival leads people to forfeit the life they have remaining. To illustrate his point, he cites one study of patients with terminal cancer in which those who went on hospice tended to live longer than those who continued to receive treatment. As he puts it, “the lesson seems almost Zen: you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer.” We might put it another way: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

This gospel is profoundly countercultural. We live in an age and in a culture in which acquisition is of paramount importance. Our culture demands that we accumulate in the name of security, that we always think about what to acquire next, that we see everything in our life as a commodity to be collected. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ call us to recognize that when we live our lives this way, things will turn out precisely the opposite way we anticipate. Rather than preserving our life, our preoccupation with acquisition leads us to squander what is truly important. We are called to let go of those attachments that draw us away from the love of God and live gospel-centered lives. One of the best ways to do this is to be disciplined about focusing on what matters most by making a rule of life that allows us to experience life as a gift. Rules of life can be simple or complex, but they all have the same purpose: to help us stop the endless and ultimately fruitless cycle of striving for whatever comes next. Intentionally making room for God and for what matters most allows us to live our lives more fully than we ever thought possible.

And I mean to be one too…

Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA on the occasion of my daughter’s baptism.  Audio for this sermon may be found here.

In the fall of 1951, Hugh Beaver, an executive at an Irish beer company, was on a hunting trip with some friends.  After missing a particularly speedy bird, Beaver and his companions began to debate which game bird was the fastest in Europe.  Each member of the group had a guess, none were at all certain.  Hoping to settle the question, the hunting party trod off to a library, where they discovered that there was no reference book in which information like this was readily available.  Surmising that questions such as these were probably debated nightly in pubs throughout Ireland and indeed the rest of the world, Beaver decided to compile a compendium of facts and figures that could settle bar bets and other questions once and for all.  Since he published it with the assistance of his employer, Beaver called this guide The Guinness Book of Records.

imgresSince its inception, Guinness has evolved substantially.  While the earliest editions tended to focus on immutable facts and figures, later versions of the guide began to explore the limits of human accomplishment.  These newer records are less about settling bar bets and more about making us marvel at what some people have done, knowing that we would never be capable of such a feat.  The guide now features entries celebrating the world’s most tattooed man, the person who has played Grand Theft Auto for the longest period of time, and of course, the person with the most world records.  To be included in the guide, those who believe they have broken a record or established a new world record submit their proposal to the independent arbitrators at Guinness, who determine the veracity of the claim.  The process is designed to make sure that only worthy people are immortalized in the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records, to ensure that we only remember those who truly have reached the pinnacle of human achievement.

Believe it or not, there are ways in which the process Guinness uses to verify and establish new records is similar to the process by which the Church identifies and celebrates saints.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, for instance, potential saints are put through a rigorous process of investigation.  Church officials examine the lives of the individuals being considered, determining their worthiness.  This vetting process also includes the identification of miracles that can be attributed to the candidate.  Ultimately, the Roman church’s assumption is that saints are people who lead exemplary lives and as a result are able to call upon God to intervene in particular situations.  In the Anglican tradition, the criteria for including a person in the calendar of the saints are not quite as rigid.  In spite of its flexibility, we have tended to ignore even this process.  For the most part, those added to our calendar of holy women and holy men in recent years tend to be people who strike our fancy more than anything else.  They are not necessarily remembered for being conduits of the holy or miraculous, but rather for their impressive accomplishments, for being exceptionally good at what they did while coincidentally being Christian.

This focus on spiritual or vocational accomplishment implies that being a saint means reaching the pinnacle of human achievement in some way.  In one view, a saint is a person so in touch with God that she can literally transcend natural laws.  In the other view, a saint is someone who is so adept at his chosen profession that his work will be remembered well after he is dead and gone.  There is a level of unattainability in both of these understandings of sainthood.  According to these definitions, saints transcend normal human limitations.  Saints have some kind of superhuman ability.  Saints, in other words, are not like you and me.  And if this is the case, why should we take time to celebrate the saints?  If sainthood is unattainable, or attainable for only a very few, it means that reflecting on the lives of the saints is a bit like reading the Guinness Book of World Records: a mildly diverting opportunity to be impressed by what people have done, knowing that there is no way we could ever live up to their example.

While the Church has tended to define sainthood in terms of human achievement, the Scriptural witness frames sainthood within a very different context.  Take, for example, the text we read from Revelation this morning.  In his vision, as John the Divine gazes on the uncountable army of martyrs, an elder comes to him and asks, somewhat rhetorically, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”  On its surface, the answer to this question is fairly obvious: these are martyrs, people who have died for their faith, people whom the early Church considered saints.  Pantocrator and All Saints[1]The answer that John provides, however, is not so straightforward: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  This response is striking, not only for it paradoxical imagery, but more importantly, for the way it characterizes the action of the martyrs.  Instead of saying, “these are they who have sacrificed their lives for the faith,” as one might expect, John uses a far more prosaic image, suggesting that the saints simply washed their robes.  It’s not that John is denigrating martyrdom; in fact, the martyrs are given pride of place in John’s sweeping vision of earth and heaven.  Rather, John is placing the sacrifice of the martyrs within the much larger framework of the Lamb’s sacrifice.  In this vision, the action of the saints derives all its meaning from God’s action in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In the biblical witness, sainthood is less about the limits of human achievement and more about the limitlessness of God’s grace.  In the end, the saints are not saints because they are fundamentally different from you and me, but because they have allowed their lives to be transformed by the grace that is available to each and every one of us.

There is a challenge at the heart of this understanding of sainthood.  I think there’s a level at which we would prefer the saints to be fundamentally different from the rest of us, because if that’s the case, we don’t even have to try following their example.  “There’s no way I could possibly live up to that standard.  I’m good enough; I’m not going to worry too much about how I live my life.”  If, however, the saints are those who have allowed their lives to be transformed by God’s grace, then each and every one of us is called to be a saint.  No matter who we are or where we have been or what we have done, we are called to live lives shaped by the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection.  It’s not as though we have only one chance to do this.  Every day is an opportunity to be more and more shaped by the transforming grace of God.  As we baptize Luke and Cecilia today, we are proclaiming that they have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  At the same time, we are affirming that they are called to be saints, living their lives continually aware of the limitless grace of God.

Witnesses

imagesToday is the day that the Episcopal Church commemorates the martyrdom of Constance and her companions.  Constance was the Superior of the Sisters of St. Mary in Memphis, TN, an order founded in conjunction with that city’s Cathedral and a parochial girl’s school.  The Church, however, commemorates her life not for her academic or liturgical pursuits, but for her response to tragedy.

In 1878, Memphis was ravaged by Yellow Fever, the third such outbreak in ten years.  St. Mary’s Cathedral was located at the epicenter of the epidemic, and while tens of thousands of people fled the city to escape the disease, Constance and her companions remained behind to care for the sick and give comfort to the dying.  All but two of the workers succumbed to Yellow Fever and died.  They are now remembered as “the Martyrs of Memphis” and have memorials dedicated to them at Elmwood Cemetery and St. Mary’s Cathedral.

The gospel lesson appointed for the commemoration of Constance and her companions is John 12:24-28, a passage that is appointed for the feast days of several other martyrs.  The words of this passage are familiar: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  When read in the context of martyrdom, the interpretation of this verse seems obvious: if you are faced with the possibility of dying for your faith, you should take it, because the reward will be eternal life.  This is, however, a rather simplistic and probably erroneous way to read the words of Jesus in John’s gospel.  For John, “eternal life” refers not primarily to “life in heaven” or even “life after death,” but rather to “the eternal kind of life,” a life shaped by an awareness of eternity.  Jesus is saying that if we cling to the notion that our life, that our happiness, that our comfort is the most important thing in the world, than we will lose our ability to focus on the larger realities of life.  If, on the other hand, we realize that we are called to give of ourselves, to “lose” our lives for others, then we can live a life that is shaped by an awareness of eternity.

fever-elmwood-marker_smallThe word “martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness,” and it occurs to me that this is precisely what Constance and her companions did.  Even as a community was ravaged by disease, these martyrs stood by the beds of those who were suffering and bore witness to their humanity.  These martyrs stood in a makeshift hospital and bore witness to the fact that God was present in that place.  These martyrs stood by the beds of the dying and bore witness to the fact that they were loved.

And in this sense, we can all be martyrs.  As our brothers and sisters in poverty struggle to make ends meet, we can bear witness to their humanity.  As war and disease  ravage parts of this world, we can bear witness to the presence of God among us.  As we come face to face with those who have been rejected by society, we can bear witness to the fact that they are loved.  When we bear witness to the love of God made known in Jesus Christ, we are empowered to live an eternal kind of life as we lose ourselves in service to others.

Witness

_66534685_66534683While the major story in ecclesiastical news over the past week has been the selection and installation of Pope Francis as the Bishop of Rome, Anglicans like me have been anticipating the enthronement of Justin Welby as the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The ceremony ended a few minutes ago and included some of the best that our Communion has to offer: the choir sang Britten’s glorious Te Deum in C, the gospel procession featured African dancers chanting about God’s renewing action in the world, and the congregation prayed the wonderful General Thanksgiving that refers to Jesus Christ as “the means of grace and the hope of glory.”  It was, in other words, a thoroughly Anglican experience.

At the same time, the enthronement spoke to all who call themselves Christians.  In his sermon, Archbishop Justin reminded the congregation that there continue to be people in this world who are martyred for their Christian faith.  After the service, a commentator remarked that there were more Christian martyrs in the twentieth century than there had been in all of previous Christian history.  For those of us who have any contact with the Church in places like Sudan or China, we know that being a Christian in certain parts of the world can be a risky proposition.  We also might think that the Archbishop’s mention of martyrdom is not particularly applicable to those of us who live in free societies that value religious toleration.  It’s important to remember, however, that the word “martyr” comes from the Greek for “witness” or “testimony.”  Martyrdom is not just about dying for one’s faith (though this can be an important element of it); martyrdom is about making the world aware of God’s deep love, to which the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ testify.  By highlighting the importance of martyrdom, Archbishop Justin reminded us of the importance of bearing witness to our Christian faith and testifying to what God has done in our lives and in the life of the world.

In some ways, Archbishop Justin is taking the helm of the Anglican Communion at one of the most turbulent times in its history.  The church is deeply divided over issues as diverse as episcopal authority and human sexuality.  Meanwhile, people are increasingly less likely to identify themselves as Anglicans or even Christians, as the number of people with no religious affiliation grows significantly.  For all of the pomp of the enthronement ceremony, the worldly prestige of the Archbishop of Canterbury has eroded in the face of a secularizing society.  Nevertheless, I got the sense that Archbishop Justin as a deep and abiding hope for the Church, because he understands that bearing witness to God’s great love does not require worldly power.  The Archbishop alluded to Paul’s observation that God’s power is made perfect in human weakness.  We have only to look at the example of Jesus Christ to know that this is true: God’s new creation was not inaugurated with a conquering army, but with a man who had been stripped naked, abandoned by his friends, and hung on a cross to die.  At the weakest moment in his life, Jesus Christ bore witness to God’s great love for all of humanity.  During the season of Lent, we too are called to bear witness to God’s great love out of our own vulnerability.  We begin Lent acknowledging our unworthiness and being assured of God’s forgiveness.  And we do not spend the season trying to make ourselves more worthy of God’s love; rather, we engage in disciplines to become more aware that we have received the abundance of God’s grace in spite of our weakness.  When we do this, we bear witness to a God who makes his love known to us not through worldly power, but through weakness.