Though my grandma, Marlene, was a force to be reckoned with (and did many good deeds, most unheralded), she is not part of the canon of saints. She was not Mother Teresa, or Hilda of Bingen, or Bridget of Sweden.
It is for people like Marlene that the church gives us All Souls Day.
Today, the 2nd of November, is a day for remembering and honoring “all the faithful departed.”
I do not presume to assert that my grandma, saintly as she was, is worthy of being a canonized saint celebrated the world over throughout time. And I do assert that there are people who are worthy of being remembered throughout time, their stories celebrated the world over.
We approach church tradition with humility and reverence, we recognize the innate wisdom and the Holy-Spirit-gifting of those who have come before us. Personally, I prefer the image of sitting at their feet, rather than standing on their shoulders. We are, all of us, on level ground at the foot of the cross — where gathers the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) — and as St. Paul the Apostle himself says, of sinners, I am the foremost (1 Timothy 1:15).
The only thing we have to boast in is our ignorance and sinfulness — let us not grab titles of wisdom and honor and innovation and freedom for ourselves. It reminds me of the parable of the one who takes a seat much higher than he ought, and is asked to move down the table when the really important people come.
Our relationship to the Communion of Saints and the Souls of all the Faithful Departed, is always one of bowed head and open heart, ready to receive instruction, reproof, revelation, direction, and we pray, grace.
“Don’t worry when the world hates you, when society rejects you, when the woke people cancel you, because they cancelled me first.”
The irony of preaching this to Nashotah House is not lost on me — you all are well-practiced, and indeed, I suspect, by turns even proud (!) to be viewed with suspicion by the world, if not at times, with outright disdain! And that’s just by other Episcopalians.
But speaking more broadly, I’ve been struck recently at how much about Jesus is processed into palatability in our day and age, facets and bits of Jesus Christ are refracted and highlighted, spun into gauzy visions of “peace,” “hope,” “justice” … in our time. I saw a meme last week that said, “Jesus always chose loving the neighbor over loving theology. Jesus always chose sitting with the vulnerable over standing with the powerful. Jesus always chose healing the broken over correcting their brokenness. Jesus always chose empowering the poor over defending the rich.”
Of course the insidious thing here is that some of that is absolutely true, from a certain angle. On the other hand, some of the problems — which are myriad — are that it’s picking and choosing pieces of God incarnate, that it’s obscuring the true nature of God by highlighting snapshots of action, that it’s playing on so many modern assumptions to lead the viewer to a particular funhouse mirror image of who the Son of God is.
I saw a commercial for Amber alerts that opened with a 30-something woman walking along the sidewalk, holding hands with an 8 year old girl. They were maybe skipping, without a care in the world. They saw at the next intersection a white man in black motorcycle leathers, standing tall and looking stern. They turned away and walked a different direction. Soon, they came upon a black man in sweatpants standing by a street lamp, who narrowed his gaze at them, and they picked up their pace as they hurried away.
They are shown coming to a park entrance, with at least those two characters following them, maybe more, and the woman picks up the child and holds her close as she starts to run. In a field in the park, they’re absolutely surrounded. All sorts of forbidding people, frowning ladies with dogs, the big scary looking men, numbers and numbers of them, forming a circle on this innocent little family. Finally a police officer is led to the center of the group by the white man in leathers, who is holding his cell phone, and the view is cut to the screen of the phone, which reads, “AMBER ALERT: Woman with brown hair, 30s, abducted girl 8 years old, long brown hair, pink dress.”
Our assumptions are visceral, they are strong, they seem unassailable. And our assumptions are not just about who is safe and who is not, but our assumptions are shaped by our culture and society, by our education and our families, and there are assumptions in our water in the United States — and of course throughout Western Civilization and the world — about Jesus Christ and about his followers.
Sound bites like the meme I narrated, play on those assumptions, seeking to re-introduce a more palatable Jesus: the true, loving, subversive but peaceable, harmonious, and it-doesn’t-really-matter-if-he’s-divine-or-even-rose-from-the-dead Jesus.
Have you ever betrayed a friend or loved one? Have you ever had to face the person you’ve wronged? We’ve surely all betrayed our beloveds at one time or another, we’ve all struggled with integrity and honesty, with standing firm and graciously in our convictions, with both maintaining community and being faithful to the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Today we celebrate the feast of Saints Simon and Jude.
All martyrs are our friends, our siblings in Christ. They died because they believed so much and so strongly that Jesus is God and that Jesus actually died and actually was raised to life again. To preach less than God incarnate, to chew Jesus up and package him into a sausage casing for easy digestion by the modern masses is not only to put heart-health at risk, but also to betray the witness of our courageous brother and sister martyrs who comprise the communion of saints.
There have been thousands of revolutionaries, both in the first century and today — throughout all time! — who have been put to death by the state. Jesus could have been just one more failed coup attempt. But none other has ever been raised again from the dead.
The ease of our lives today can lull us into imagining a spiritual resurrection, or a figurative raising. Many, as you’re well aware, seek to make palatable the shock of bodily resurrection by chewing it up into a philosophical stance about the abiding power of love.
But this risks forgetting the realities of life in ancient times, it discounts the record and witness, it denies the testimony of our forebears the prophets and martyrs. Life was — and I would argue, is still! — nasty, brutish, and short; death prowls, always. Do we believe that our brothers and sisters in Christ were lying to us? Do we suspect that we know better than those who knew Christ himself in the flesh? Do we deign to put ourselves in a place of authority over the testimony and blood of those who have come before us in faith?
If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then he was just another revolutionary, and who would have continued to follow him? No one. No one would have bothered with him, he would have been forgotten before his body was cold. It wasn’t that his preaching or actions were particularly out of bounds, he wasn’t that radical. There were all kinds of kooks spouting all sorts of strange gospels — not unlike today, really! Something set him apart.
He wasn’t put to death by the state because he broke the social customs and sat with the woman at the well. He wasn’t arrested and tried because he was healing peoples’ brokenness rather than correcting it. He wasn’t spit on and despised and crowned in thorns because he was empowering the poor. Jesus was not sentenced to the most shameful death imaginable — a torture device — because he loved his neighbor more than theology.
Do not forget, beloved brothers and sisters, that our Lord Jesus Christ suffered death, faced the greatest evil known to man and God, passed through it, and came to life again. This is the testimony we have been given, and it is the only word we have to share. Through our adoption and kinship, we are offered the same new life. The risen Christ is the firstborn of the new creation, the Lord and ruler of the kingdom of God. We are members of that kingdom, we are made heirs of eternal life, we belong to an authority and kinship and communion which is not this world. Our kin are the saints, our Lord is Jesus, and that is what will get us killed. Thanks be to God. Amen.
This week I ended my job as a vicar at St. Augustine’s in Dallas, Texas. The most important part of a priest’s work is the leading of worship (it’s the only thing we do that not-ordained people can’t do themselves), and I’m really not sure when I’ll do that again. I don’t have another priest-post lined up, or any guest-gigs at the moment.
What I do have a lot of this week, and, I’m starting to see, in the weeks to come, is still a lot of leading liturgies. I’m leading my little family in the relentless rhythms of our days, and that, in a very tangible (and also, intangible) and big (and also small…) way, is important, orienting, rooting work, very much the way that leading church liturgies is.
That’s the other thing about church to me now: it’s more important than ever, because almost nothing else in my life is the same. It’s even more important to me to show up on Sunday morning and hear the same words, to be reminded who I am and to whom I belong. It’s even more important (though perhaps not as easy, since church will still go on without me!) to be present with the Body of Christ, whoever and where ever I am, to anchor my heart and my week.
While at home I’m creating new liturgies, doing the work of cultivating furrows for new seeds to grow in the lives of my family, moving again and again through the same motions, in trust that they will become second nature and part of the fabric of our lives, I’m eager, too, to continue enjoying and resting into the older liturgies, not only the ones I’ve practiced for longer at church, but that the Body of Christ has practiced for millennia, tying Christians in the 21st century to brothers and sisters in the communion of the saints in the first century, too.
In being required to innovate “new” liturgies for my family in a new place, I’m relieved, indeed, I cling to, the “old” liturgies that are the foundation of Christian worship and belief. In a time and culture that is changing rapidly, there’s even more reason to not-change the liturgies that have sustained faithful Jesus followers for thousands of years already.
I’ve been taking meditation seriously the last few months.
In its most basic sense, meditation is just staying put. It’s not drifting off to sleep (though this sometimes happens, and when it does, it probably means you’re not getting enough sleep), it’s not emptying your mind of all thoughts (this is impossible, in my experience), it’s not even reaching some kind of nirvana or intellectual heaven or bliss.
Meditation is just staying put with where you are right now. And then just staying there.
Meditation is about abiding, about stability, and when things get uncomfortable where you are, noticing that things are uncomfortable, and then staying in that discomfort.
So, meditation isn’t like, allowing yourself to get sunburned — staying put in the discomfort of beating-down-sun — but allowing yourself to get irritated at noises, or get frustrated with the itch on your arm, or get pissed off at the way your mind keeps making that same damned grocery list. And when you feel yourself getting irritated, frustrated, pissed off, distracted, saying to yourself — perhaps even out loud! “I feel pissed off.”
Huh. So, you’ve said it. And what happened? If you decided not to move or change anything about your body in that moment, nothing has happened. You’ve acknowledged the annoyance and just trudged along with what you were doing, you decided not to be defeated by the itch, or the noise, or the grocery list.
And as we do this over and over, day by day, our not-get-defeated muscles get stronger, and they get not as distracted or frustrated by itches or lists or noises.
And what does this mean for our lives?
It means that when there are noises in your home or life (like, living with little kids), they don’t bother you as much. When there are people who make you feel itchy, you aren’t as upset about them and their words and their itchiness. When there are distractions in your work or relationships or travel or life, you’re better able to ignore them and keep on with what you want to be doing.
It also means that when in your life you are tempted to throw up your hands and go home, to cut off a relationship, or to walk out, think again — wonder if you might be leaving just when you’re being taught something, just when you are being asked to sit with something uncomfortable, just when God is about to transform you by your relationships with others.
Listen to the new perspective, be curious about your resistance. Sit with the person who annoys you, wonder where that annoyance comes from in yourself. Spend time with the group who frustrates you, walk in their shoes and look through their eyes.
God in Jesus Christ came and listened, he came and sat, he came and spent time. Humans are made for relationship and we are called to do the same.
Last week on the way to church one morning, I was listening to the radio, and I had a somewhat “1984” experience.
The news went on and on about the invisible killer, warning that any one of us might already have “it.” The disease might already be coursing through our veins, we might be already waging war against our last illness and not even know it. It’s the killer that has stalked the globe, it’s the pandemic with no clear cure, it’s in the air, a simple breath can infect us, it is coming for you!
Though I knew that the announcer was talking about COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, which has changed the face of our world’s society in a matter of months, I was struck by the possibility of attributing all that the newscaster said instead to sin.
That invisible killer, the disease we definitely already have. The illness coursing through our veins, the war that we’re losing, it stalks the globe, it affects every life, it tears apart families and steals loved ones, it sows discord and hatred, it destroys human life and community.
We’re here on a Sunday morning, a Sunday morning that looks almost unrecognizable to the people who were headed to church on Kiest Boulevard on March 8th, 2020. [We’re masked, and distanced, let alone being outside and on the lawn in camp chairs, with just one hymn accompanied by an electric keyboard, and a sort of self-serve communion, with a jarring immediate exit afterwards.] [We’re sitting in our homes, hunched over screens, perhaps wearing pajamas, with bare feet and a cup of coffee balanced on our knees. If I remember to sing the hymn in a few minutes, it will not sound at all like when everyone is together and the organ is playing — who could imagine on March 8th that this is what church would look like in June?]
Of course church isn’t the only change — despite many restrictions being lifted in Dallas and in Texas, I suspect like us, many of you are going to grocery stores much less often, not sauntering around retail areas for something to do, not wandering around stores on a Saturday afternoon, not spending hours at friends’ houses sharing dinner and drinks. Indeed, I wrote this sermon seated in my beloved cloffice, Jordan’s dresser at my left elbow and laundry at my feet. We wear masks outside, we work and eat and spend and travel — which is to say we don’t travel — all differently in order to avoid this virus taking hold in our lives and the lives of those we love. We have changed our habits and our very bodies in order to keep this invisible killer at bay.
I’m not saying that we’re afraid, or that the new habits we’ve undertaken are excessive. I believe they are right and good. I believe they showed me the ways that we as a culture and people value human life. I wonder though, whether I am behaving in a way that makes physical death the greatest evil, the biggest-bad, in my life and world. I do not profess to believe that physical death is the greatest evil, I say that I serve a God who finds death to be an insufficient enemy. I say that Jesus is my Lord, and he is the one who overcame death.
So all my care and thought and new habits and preparations made me wonder: how have I changed my habits or arranged my life in order to avoid that one, true, invisible killer? (SIN).
Part of the overwhelmingness of sin is that it takes so many forms, and there is so much we don’t know.
There’s communal, or societal sin, and racism is one of these that has had a lot of media light shed on it the last weeks. Another is healthcare; the difficult systems that have many cracks for those who are ill, or those who have little money, or are stuck in bad habits called addictions, or suffer under the oppressive evil of mental illness. Our society isn’t perfectly just or true, our society does not always celebrate and reward the good and the truly beautiful. There are wide chasms in our communities, across our nation and world, systems that allow for people to go hungry, or to not keep a job, or to suffer and die from preventable illnesses (malaria, cholera, measles, polio, etc etc).
There’s also individual sin. The breaks in relationships that we ourselves cause by our anger or selfishness, the temptations we give into for numbing ourselves with drink or with food or with scrolling or a screen. The self-hate we perpetuate with our thoughts. The prejudices we teach to our children. The choices we make in where and from who we buy our clothes and our food and where we choose to buy a house if that’s a choice we’re privileged to make. How we spend our money or give our money, with whom we spend our time; when we choose to speak up and use the power and voice that we have, and when we choose to be silent in the face of injustice, oppression, and evil.
Who has time, though, to look into the supply chain of the half-and-half that’s available for purchase at Kroger? Who has enough brain power to do a cost-benefit analysis on the environmental impact of producing hamburgers? How do we know which sources of information we can trust? If we happen to have enough time and brain power for these ethical quandaries, do we have enough money to choose better options?
“Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!”
These are worthwhile questions, and good habits to break and re-make. They will not happen all at once, and the thing is that we’ve been living in sin, breathing in and out the coronavirus-of-evil, for our entire earthly lives. We will not be able to suddenly shed the entire system and habit and inner practices and temptations that we have in a moment as if our sin is like the skin of a snake. But that does not mean that we should give up and let evil run roughshod in our lives and communities either.
“We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
Baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit marks each person’s soul as washed and free. No longer imprisoned by sin, but able to be made into the creature that God has had in mind for his precious creation from the very beginning.
Baptism is being claimed by God, marked as safe from spiritual death, capable, now, of seeing the sin that clings so closely and that tries to continue to blind us with logs and specks and to leech into our hearts and our lives with its smoothness and ease, its go-with-the-flow of the culture of our community or nation or world.
Resistance, though, is not futile. The plodding, continual, transformative work of refusing sin and disentangling oneself, one’s family, one’s culture, one’s community, from the infection of sin is the vital and long-suffering work of the Gospel.
In just 4 months, Texans, as well as people the world over, perhaps especially in the United States, have become disenchanted with COVID-19. We go to bars and restaurants, we see movies and hang out in malls, we have started up long dinners with friends and some — not Episcopalians! but some — churches have started piling people into their pews again.
And, my friends, the wages of non-vigilance are clear: Dallas is suffering a rather dramatic spike in cases, and we have far less an excuse than New York City did in those first days of April; from research, we know a lot more about the novel coronavirus now, and we — Dallasites, Texans, Americans as a whole — choose to ignore the truth, returning to life as normal, resuming our habits that are comfortable, but that are tuned toward death.
“So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Our only life, Brothers and Sisters, is in living away from, out of, in opposition to, sin. Evil, and death, and darkness have no place in God’s resurrection people. You and I are free, we’re made free by the great price of Jesus’ life, by his death on the cross. May we offer the prejudices, the evil, the riches, the power, the relationships, of our lives on the altar of God, and let him give back to us what he would have us use to his glory and the things he’d have us enjoy with his presence.
“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”