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

Baggage

Sermon on Mark 6:14-29 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be heard here.

When it comes to cultural influence, few films compare with The Godfather. From lines like “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” to iconic scenes like the one where a movie executive finds a severed horse head in his bed, references to The Godfather abound in every aspect of popular culture. imgresPerhaps the most well-traveled trope from this genre defining gangster film comes from the opening sequence of the movie, in which Marlon Brando’s character is hearing requests and dispensing advice on the day of his daughter’s wedding. Robert Duvall’s character explains: “No Sicilian can refuse any request on his daughter’s wedding day.” Though this idea has been thoroughly parodied, this statement sets up an important dynamic for the rest of the film: though this family is engaged in criminal activity, honor and reputation are very important to them. For the godfather, keeping one’s word is the highest good, trumping law, morality, even the preservation of life.

This morning, Mark’s gospel tells us a story about how keeping one’s word can lead to trouble. The first thing to notice about this story is its length. Of the three gospels that describe the execution of John the Baptist, Mark devotes the most space to the telling of the story. While this may not seem significant, Mark tends to be incredibly economical with his language. The fact that this story takes up as many verses as it does, in other words, means we’re supposed to pay particular attention to it. And this is surprising, because while this story is ostensibly about John the Baptist, a pivotally important figure in the gospel, all of the action centers around King Herod. Now, this is not the Herod from the Christmas pageant. This is, rather, his son, a client of the Roman Empire who has been given titular authority in Judea in exchange for his loyalty and obeisance to the emperor. King Herod is an empty shirt who can only exercise authority with the permission of his Roman masters. But Herod desperately wants to project the image of power and authority, as we see in the scene that Mark sets this morning. The king is throwing a lavish birthday party, to which he has invited all the leading citizens. He’s hobnobbing with the beautiful people, eating fancy food, and in all likelihood, drinking too much wine. As part of the entertainment, his step daughter dances provocatively for the assembled guests, leading Herod to promise that he will give her even half of his kingdom. Notice that he can’t keep this promise: remember, it’s not his kingdom; at best he’s a steward, at worst he’s an impotent puppet. Now Herod is hamstrung by a promise he should not have made and might not be able to keep. This leads to Herodias’ grisly request; in a Gothic twist, John doesn’t enter his own martyrdom story until his severed head appears on a platter.

CaravaggioSalomeLondonWhile Herodias’ gruesome demand for the head of John the Baptist may sound like a horrifying overreaction, it’s important to remember that first-century despots would kill people for even perceived slights. What is actually more surprising is Herod’s reluctance to execute John. The reason for his hesitancy is unclear; perhaps he was compelled by John’s charismatic authority, perhaps he feared a revolt among the people, as Matthew’s gospel implies. Regardless of the reason for his disquiet, it should have been enough to save John. It is striking that Herod, who wants people to think he is the master of everything around him, gets played like a fiddle by the people in his court. He is so concerned about saving face, about “having regard for his oaths,” about keeping up appearances, that he is willing to send an innocent man to his death. He could have very easily refused Herodias’ request; indeed, he could have easily released John. Instead, he abdicates his power in order to preserve the appearance of authority. This story is recapitulated when Jesus is brought before Pilate, who is also more interested in projecting the image of authority than he is in actually exercising authority.

In some ways, this story of John’s death feels like a non sequitur. After all, this salacious, tabloid-ready account of John’s grisly execution is sandwiched between two fairly straightforward and seemingly unrelated passages about the triumphant mission of Jesus’ disciples. But this abrupt narrative transition is not clumsy storytelling; it actually illustrates an important theme that runs through Mark’s gospel. For Mark, the death of John the Baptist and the mission of the disciples are deeply related. Indeed, by juxtaposing these two stories, Mark is making a profound statement about the nature of discipleship. Of course, his most obvious point is that being a follower of Jesus has a cost. Even as we hear about the dazzling successes of the disciples, we are reminded that the forerunner of Jesus was executed for zealously proclaiming God’s righteousness. But in addition to this observation about the cost of discipleship, Mark is making a subtler and more important point. You’ll remember from last week that when Jesus sent out the disciples, “he ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics” Moreover, he gave them no instructions about what they should preach, except repentance. When Jesus sends out the disciples, in other words, they are completely unencumbered by possessions or expectations. This stands in sharp contrast to Herod, who is imprisoned by the trappings of wealth, enslaved by the illusion of power, and hamstrung by his own vain promises. Even as he nurses doubts about killing John, Herod succumbs to the worst kind of legalism: he keeps his word only so that he can say he kept his word. Like Pilate after him, Herod is rendered powerless by his desperate desire to retain power. Mark’s point is clear: while Herod was weighed down by his oaths and kingly baggage, the disciples are free to go out into the world carrying nothing except Jesus’ proclamation of repentance.

imagesThis week, the South Carolina legislature voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state house in Columbia. While this is yet another important step as our country continues to respond to the gruesome massacre at Mother Emanuel in Charleston, it’s important for us not to let the removal of the flag be the end of this story. We must continue the conversation about privilege and systemic racism. All too often I and people who look like me are too embarrassed to talk about race, too preoccupied with maintaining appearances, too ashamed to admit that we still benefit from a system that has historically excluded people who do not look like me. But Jesus’ proclamation of repentance calls us to look past our own embarrassment and acknowledge that we do not have to say or do anything explicitly racist in order to benefit from a racist system. This is an unsettling place to be, because the world we live in requires us to present a carefully curated and idealized self-image designed to be as inoffensive and “likeable” as possible. Admitting there is a racist system shatters this scrupulously cultivated persona. Normally, because of this pathological need to maintain appearances, we shy away from real conversations and refrain from asking difficult questions. But ultimately, this Herod’s way of looking at the world. Our preoccupation with the way that we appear to those around us leads us to dodge authentic conversations and avoid real relationships. Jesus calls us to something greater. Jesus calls us to repentance. Repentance requires us to leave everything behind, including our expectations of those around us and our preconceived notions about who we are. Our authentic proclamation of the gospel asks us to engage with the world unencumbered by the trappings of our idealized self-image. We are called to leave behind our attachment to power and privilege and proclaim Jesus’ message of repentance and transformation to a broken and hurting world.

The Unimportance of being Earnest

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 and Mark 5:21-43 offered to the people of Marsh Chapel in Boston, Massachusetts. A recording of the sermon and the service where it was preached may be heard here.

In 1935, Thomas P. O’Neill, the legendary Massachusetts politician and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, ran for a seat on the City Council in Cambridge. In what was to be the only electoral defeat in his long political career, O’Neill lost the race by 228 votes. Though imgres-1Tip was understandably disappointed, he derived two important lessons from the experience of losing that city council race. One came from his father, a local legend in his own right who advised O’Neill that he did not spend enough time campaigning in his own neighborhood. “All politics is local,” he counseled with a phrase that was to become O’Neill’s trademark. The other lesson came from Mrs. Elizabeth O’Brien, a neighbor whom Tip had known since childhood. On Election Day, Mrs. O’Brien somewhat haughtily told her young neighbor, “Tom, I’m going to vote for you even though you didn’t ask me.” O’Neill was taken aback: “Mrs. O’Brien,” he protested, “I’ve lived across the street from you for eighteen years. I cut your grass in the summer and shovel your walk in the winter. I didn’t think I had to ask for your vote.” “Tom, let me tell you something,” she replied. “People like to be asked.” Tip got a lot of mileage out of this story; when O’Neill became Majority Whip in Congress, Hale Boggs of Louisiana heard the Mrs. O’Brien story so frequently that he would roll his eyes at the first hint of its coming. Even though it became a cliche, this story reveals an important truth, not only about politics, but about the human condition. No matter how earnest and talented we may be, it is our participation in the community that is most important. While assumptions and good intentions have their place, there is no substitute for reaching outside of ourselves and remembering that people like to be asked.

This morning we hear two passages from Scripture that would have met with Mrs. O’Brien’s approval. As you probably remember, we have been reading through Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians for the past several weeks. Second Corinthians has some of Paul’s most eloquent language, from “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” to “ We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive.” In the first seven chapters of Second Corinthians, Paul is firing on all cylinders, affirming the power of the resurrection and the endurance of the Christian community. Today, however, Paul shifts gears a little bit, and begins to address some practical concerns, namely fundraising. You see, apart from proclaiming the gospel, the primary objective of Paul’s ministry is to raise money for the church in Jerusalem. It is one of the few directives he received from the other apostles, and he takes the responsibility very seriously. As such, almost every Pauline letter has at least some reference to the needs of the saints in Jerusalem: either thanking the community for its support or encouraging them to open their pocketbooks. Second Corinthians falls into the latter category. Paul tells the Corinthians how impressed he is with their enthusiasm for the gospel and the work of the Church, and further explains that their zeal ought to be matched by material support: “it is appropriate for you who began last year…to desire to do something– now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.” It sounds remarkably like an NPR pledge drive, doesn’t it? But Paul is not simply asking for money. Notice the way he frames his request: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Paul is not encouraging a mere redistribution of resources; he is framing financial generosity, as he frames everything, within the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of God’s love; it’s the affirmation that God’s love truly bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things, even death. And it is the resurrection that Paul has in mind when he says, “I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.” Far from simply soliciting a contribution to the needs of the saints in Jerusalem, Paul is suggesting that the Corinthians’ financial gift makes a profound statement about the way they look at the world. Yes, Paul is asking the members of the congregation to put their money where their mouth is, but he is also drawing a subtle, but crucial distinction between earnestness and genuineness, between the desire to help and the will to help, between assuming and asking. Just as God’s love was revealed to be genuine in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Paul implies that our love is revealed to be genuine when we reach outside of ourselves.

imgres
New Testament scholarship can make one hungry.

This is also the implication of today’s gospel reading. This passage from Mark’s gospel is a great example of an intercalation, known more colloquially as a “Markan sandwich.” A Markan sandwich is composed of two stories, which, when read together, reveal a larger truth. In this case, the “filling” for the sandwich is the story about the hemorrhaging woman, while the “bread” is the story about Jairus’ daughter. The similarities between these stories are obvious: both depict women who have their health restored, both feature the number “twelve” prominently (probably a reference to the twelve tribes of Israel), and both celebrate the power of faith. But the most interesting similarity between these stories is that they depict people reaching outside of themselves across social boundaries. Jairus is a leader of the synagogue; he comes from a caste that naturally distrusts Jesus and other upstarts. Jairus, however, reaches out to Jesus in spite of the social implications. Mark uses the imperfect tense to describe this interaction, indicating that Jairus kept asking Jesus, repeatedly violating social norms on behalf of his sick daughter. The hemorrhaging woman crosses an even more formidable boundary than Jairus. Not only is she a woman reaching out to a man in a patriarchal culture, her condition renders her unclean according to the Jewish Law. By reaching out to Jesus, she violates not only social convention but the Law of Moses itself. Nevertheless, she reaches out to Jesus, aware that her earnestness will only take her so far. Both Jairus and the woman Jesus heals understand that love is only revealed to be genuine when we reach outside of ourselves. With this intercalation, Mark illustrates the subtle but crucial distinction between earnestness and genuineness, between desire and will, between assuming and asking.

Those of you who have spent any amount of time in the Church know that it tends to be a hotbed of earnestness. When faced with an issue, our impulse is to create a committee to discuss it and to conceive of possible solutions, all while assuming that we know best. Then, if we fail or do not achieve the desired result, we are inclined to give up, saying something to the effect of, “Well, at least we tried.” Earnestness has an incredibly short shelf-life. It is suited to the quick fix, to the cause celebre, to the armchair activist, to the easy answer. The gospel, however, does not call us to earnestness; it calls us to genuine love. Genuine love asks us to reach outside of ourselves, it asks us to violate social conventions, it asks us to acknowledge we do not have all the answers. And even when our efforts at communication and bridge-building fail, genuine love asks that we, like Jairus, keep asking, keep striving to be in relationship, keep forging the bonds of affection that build up the body of Christ. Above all, genuine love asks us to recognize what we share in common with the people around us. While earnestness demands that we see the world as a collection of causes, genuine love invites us to see the people of this world as sisters and brothers, as members of the same body, as those for whom Christ died.

Ten days ago, this country was appalled, angered, and saddened to hear about the murder of nine Black Christians at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Everything about this terrorist act was horrifying: the fact that it took place in a house of worship, the fact that the murderer exploited the hospitality of those he murdered, the fact that he left someone alive to repeat his hateful message. Naturally, people from every walk of life have expressed their outrage at this atrocity. They have clamored for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from public buildings and for a dramatic reevaluation of our gun laws. There is no question that these are necessary steps to take: symbols of bygone rebellions have no place in the halls of government and our nation must examine its idolatrous preoccupation with firearms. Ultimately, however, these steps are symbolic. The problems that led to this massacre will not be solved when the stars and bars are taken down from outside the South Carolina state house, nor will they disappear when it is harder to purchase a deadly weapon. For all of our earnest desire to “do something” in the wake of this tragedy, we must adopt a perspective of genuine love, recognizing that the sin of racism cannot be undone through symbolic and legislative acts. Genuine love requires us to reach outside of ourselves across the walls that separate us. It requires that we be willing to ask our sisters and brothers about their experience of the world, recognizing that their answers may make us uncomfortable. All the while, we must trust in the God who is reconciling all things to himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In short, our response to the tragedy in Charleston requires us to recognize the crucial distinction between earnestness and genuineness, between desire and will, between assuming and asking. Earnestness assumes that systemic racism is confined to one part of the country. Genuine love recognizes that all of us are complicit in a racist system of oppression. Earnestness looks for quick fixes. Genuine love recognizes that the problems we face do not have easy answers. Earnestness is a solitary endeavor. Genuine love works toward Dr. King’s dream of the Beloved Community. Earnestness says “somebody ought to do something about this.” Genuine love asks if that “somebody” might be me. Most importantly, earnestness tells us to give up every time we fall short. Genuine love encourages us to keep asking, keep striving, keep working, keep trusting that the walls that separate us can and will be dismantled, because God has renewed creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we are called to be more than earnest and well-intentioned; we are called to be genuine: we are called to build up the Beloved Community, to ask our sisters and brothers to share in the new creation, and to reach outside of ourselves with genuine and reconciling love.