the practice of peace

Note: On this 16th anniversary of 9/11, I post the text, in the main, of the sermon, referencing, in the end, John 14.25-29, that I preached at A Service of Healing in a Time of Tragedy, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, on Sunday, September 16, 2001.

I apologize for the length. However, in the course of the days between Tuesday, September 11, 2001 and that following Sunday, there was much on my mind and heart and in my soul and spirit that took shape in many words.

This morning, as I reread and reflected on what I wrote and preached on that day, I discern that much of what I thought and felt and said then about the quest for peace through the active labor of reaching across barriers not only remains true for me, but is at the heart of my life’s calling as a human and as a Christian.

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September 11. Ninth month. Eleventh day.  9-1-1. Emergency. One need not put stock in numerology, the science or pseudo-science of finding sense in or of making sense of numbers, to see a sickening coincidence.

September 11. The day of a massive, coordinated, sophisticated terrorist assault. Targeting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A towering New York City skyline and that ultra-familiar pentagonal shape, both boldly distinctive and unmistakable, in an instant, tragically transformed.

September 11. An assault that targeted, more greatly still, before and beyond buildings, human lives. Thousands killed and injured. Families and communities torn asunder.

September 11. An assault long predicted, long prophesied by military and civil intelligence communities, ethnic fundamentalists and religious zealots the world o’er, homegrown groups of disaffected extremists and insurrectionists. A prediction, a prophecy now terribly fulfilled…

But who could have foreseen its form? Nothing – not the murderous bombings of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the World Trade Center eight years ago, the Oklahoma City federal building, the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S.S. Cole[1] – could have prepared us. Hijacked passenger planes pointed as assassin’s arrows, again, at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, symbols of economic strength and military might. As the targets were symbols, then these were arrows aimed at the heart of a people, perhaps, in an attempt, to strip us of our sense of economic stability and personal and national security.

Although this tragedy is characterized as our national crisis, termed by the news media and others as an “Assault on America” or “America under Assault”, I do not agree. The magnitude of the violence and the breadth of the barbarism make it an assault not on the heart of America alone, but on the soul of humanity. All humanity, whether of good or ill will, is touched by this tragedy.  And all who long to live in that good creation, described by Howard Thurman,[2] and oft quoted by our own beloved Verna Dozier,[3] of “a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky”,[4] by this tragedy, once again, rudely have been roused from a dream of God into a waking, living nightmare. We are left to imagine, at least for us on these American shores, previously unimaginable terrorist possibilities – walk-in individual suicide bombings and biological weaponry. We are left to reflect on our history and to rethink, perhaps, to repent of what we as a nation have done to provoke such unrestrained hostility. Our psyche is wounded deeply. We yearn for healing. We search for peace.

In our quest for a restoration of wholeness, tensions, those simultaneous and powerful counter pulls-and-pushes of thought and feeling within society and within our individual selves, abound.

On one side, anguish and anger will evolve into action. Our President, George W. Bush, in his September 11 address to the nation, directed our national resources “to find those responsible and bring them to justice.” Yesterday, signaling our country’s preparation for retaliation, he said, “We’re at war…and we will respond accordingly.” A normally partisan Congress and much of the country stand in accord with the pursuit and punishment of the perpetrators of this heinous act. On another side, fearing how anger and action can ripen into rage and revenge, how vengeance can perpetuate the very violence we hate, others advocate a different course. Our Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, in a September 11 statement, while affirming that justice must be done, declared that “people of faith…are called to another way…(a way of)…transformation…where swords can become plowshares and spears are changed into pruning hooks.”

In our search for peace, tensions abound.

On one side, we yearn to live in a free society “of the people, by the people, for the people”, where one’s words and actions are not overly circumscribed or overtly constrained by law. On another side, in such a society not only are the just and the righteous free, but also the unjust and the unrighteous. And we have been reminded tragically that terrorism is no longer, if it ever was, only in some land far away, but daily festers and can flare up on our doorstep. Hence, we long to feel safe, to be safe, which, if past responses to tragedy are any indication, often requires the imposition of restrictions on our freedom and perhaps on our privacy.

In our search for peace, tensions abound.

On one side, we desire to get to the other side of our grieving, to reach, once again, that state of normalcy, that sense of personal safety. On another side, we recognize, even now, that when we get there, our senses of normalcy and safety will be illusory. We always are personally vulnerable, our choices notwithstanding, to changing circumstance and uncontrollable chance.

In our search for peace, tensions abound.

On one side, there are those who, in the midst of crisis, seek the sustaining hand of God with a faith that continues to hope in the constancy of divine care in spite of or even because of all appearances to the contrary. On another side, there are those who have no use for God. If religion, a theological enterprise concerned with the relationship between divinity and humanity, can be seen in any way to have been a trigger for this tragedy, as has been proven to be so in multiple tragedies in human history, then one might fairly ask what good can come out of religion?  Indeed, what good is God? Or one may wonder who is this God in whose name such violence is inspired or perhaps what is this very human hubris that fashions so vengeful a face of God?

We search for peace.

Jesus speaks of a peace “not as the world gives.” This is a spiritual peace that points to the end, for it is the peace of eternal salvation, of Jesus’ abiding presence, of an unassailable, inseparable connection between earth and cosmos, humanity and divinity, now and forever. Today, however, I am not looking to eschatological end times, but rather at our now times. Hence, I look for a pathway to this peace.

This peace has nothing to do with the avoidance of trial or the absence of tribulation, but rather with our acknowledgement of our troubles. This peace has nothing to do with our bringing an end to our tensions and a beginning of some sentimental spirit of well being, but rather with our facing and our wrestling with all that torments us, both from without and from within. This peace has everything to do with our reaching constantly around the barriers we erect to keep out all that disturbs us, reaching across boundaries of difference. Around barriers and across boundaries internal and external, between our faith and our fears, between our hunger for security and our acknowledgement of countless circumstances beyond the reach of our control. Around barriers and across boundaries racial and cultural, among black, brown, red, white, and yellow and, yes, between America and the Arab world. Around barriers and across boundaries philosophical and theological, among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others. This peace has everything to do with our constant embrace of “the other” beyond tolerance in a bond of mutual acceptance, understanding, and respect, even celebration. This peace has everything to do with a vision of radical diversity and inclusivity.

This is the peace of God that passes all understanding,[5] for it makes no sense to embrace difference, particularly at times of turmoil and tragedy when our human instinct is not diversity and inclusion, but rather seclusion and exclusion. Is the pathway to this peace comfortable? No. Is it even desirable, in accord with our human druthering? No. Yet, in the words of the hymn, this is “the peace of God (that) is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.” Yet, also in the words of that hymn and in the words of our hearts, “let us pray for but one thing – the marvelous peace of God.”[6]

 

Footnotes:

[1] Occurring in 1988, 1993, 1995, 1998, and 2000, respectively.

[2] Howard Washington Thurman (1899-1981), African American author, civil rights leaders, educator, philosopher, theologian, and mystic

[3] Verna Josephine Dozier (1917-2006), African American biblical scholar, theologian, teacher, and writer.

[4] The Dream of God – A Call to Return (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1991), page 31

[5] Philippians 4.7

[6] From the hymn, They cast their nets in Galilee; words by William Alexander Percy (1885-1942)

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Charlottesville redux: part 2, stepping back from the edge of pessimism’s ledge

thinkingI’ve been struggling…

Since identifying, naming and claiming my abiding, burdening existential angst about American bigotry in my August 22 blog post, Charlottesville redux: America the beautiful?, I’ve been struggling to discern a faithful and hopeful way forward; a way out of the deep valleys and darkened alleys of my quintessential pessimism.[1] For, as I wrote previously, thinking that we, as a nation, have come to another moment in history when a conversation about our communal American identity is absolutely necessary, I believe the dynamism of our current and revivified cultural discord, expressed, in major part, in virulent anti-Semitism and racism, sadly renders such opportunities moot.

I am grateful for my bride, Pontheolla Mack Abernathy, my dear sister, Loretta Anne Woodward Veney, my newfound (though, given my sense of our spiritual simpatico, long-lived) sister, Gayle Fisher-Stewart, and my brother from another mother, Grady Hedgespeth, to a person, buoyantly optimistic souls, through whose sage and stalwart words of counsel and comfort, I have come to a new, renewed place of perceiving, of being.

To wit…

Considering it always important for me to define my terms and declare the ground on which I stand, I am a theist. I believe in God as creator of all life, who, from the formless void brought forth a divine differentiation – in other words, not some, any semblance of holy sameness – and called it all “good”.[2] I am a Christian. I believe in God as revealed through the Holy Spirit in Jesus of Nazareth, whose story is recorded in scripture and conveyed through two millennia of Christian tradition.

From this stance, I summon myself and all people of good will to repent, to turn away from, verily, to step over and beyond the barriers and boundaries of my and our phobias and prejudices, my and our numbing fears and negative judgments of “the other.”

If your, my phobia or prejudice is about or against a person who is:

  • African American
  • agnostic or atheist
  • anti-Semitic
  • Democrat
  • gay or lesbian
  • Hispanic
  • Islamophobic
  • Jewish
  • Muslim
  • Native American
  • racist
  • Republican
  • white
  • white supremacist
  • (or any other categorization of humankind),

then, I bid that you and I seek out and engage in conscious conversation, and with honesty and humility, one who is:

  • African American
  • agnostic or atheist
  • anti-Semitic
  • Democrat
  • gay or lesbian
  • Hispanic
  • Islamophobic
  • Jewish
  • Muslim
  • Native American
  • racist
  • Republican
  • white
  • white supremacist
  • (or any other categorization of humankind).

And I boldly predict that you and I will discover that that wholly different human being is utterly similar to you and me in possessing a personal history and a set of memories, thoughts and feelings, desires and needs, hopes and dreams, fears and failings, phobias and prejudices, struggles and successes and, in these unmistakable, irreducible similarities, that we all have more in common than we may have dared to dream.

My point is this. You and I can think and feel, hope and pray for a better world of comity and concord. But if you and I daily do not do something, anything different than remain secure, self-imprisoned in the towers of our ideological and existential sanctuary from “the other”, then you and I silently are complicit in maintaining the status quo. And given what we all beheld in Charlottesville, that doesn’t look at all good to me.

How about you?

 

Footnotes:

[1] For reasons tracing back to my formative years (the root, I believe, of most of our personal characteristics and ways of being and doing, both good and bad), I tend to assume and await the worst.

[2] See Genesis 1.1-2.3

Dear Sarah

Sarah Cobb is one of the brightest, most earnest, impassioned, and forthright people I, for the past nearly 20 years, have had the privilege of knowing and calling my friend. Sarah is Jewish. She is more than a friend and Jewish or a friend who is Jewish. Sarah, from time to time, serves as…is my external righteous conscience, especially about Christianity’s attitude toward Judaism; in my view, at times, in some lands, and in some sectors of Christendom, rising to the heights or, more accurately, sinking to the depths of antipathy and, historically, largely, I think, characterized by the lethargy of indifference (save, of course, among those Christian evangelists who discern that their primary vocation is to convert all Jews to Christianity).

Over the past few days, Sarah’s various reflections on the so-called “Unite the Right” rally and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, have centered on her searing observation that a particularly putrid element of the platform of white supremacy is blatantly anti-Semitic (who, watching and listening to the news accounts, could have missed the out-in-the-open bearing of the swastika-festooned Nazi flag and the ferociously, transparently intentioned chant of the neo-Nazi demonstrators: “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”?) and her eloquent remonstrations about Christians who, at best, have been slow and, at most, have been silent in their, our, my repudiations of the virulent and vile hatred that is anti-Semitism.

Dear Sarah,

I thank you, once again, for reminding me, summoning me to this aspect of my sacred duty as a Christian, as a follower of the Jesus of unconditional love and justice, to denounce any and all anti-Semitic prejudicial hatred and hostility against my Jewish sisters and brothers and in any and all of its forms, cultural and economic, racial and religious.

As one who wills to do, to be unconditional love and justice, yes, I pray that those who harbor anti-Semitic beliefs repent and renounce them. Yet, whether they do or do not, I will not be silent or slow to speak again in opposition to anti-Semitism.

One final word, Sarah, for now…

I do not excuse, but rather explain my silence or slowness to speak. What happened in Charlottesville terrified me. And, in my fear, I, as an African American, perhaps barely consciously, narrowed my vision, focused my passion primarily, solely on the issue, the reality of white-over-black supremacy. Anxiety, I feel, always stirs the fires of individual (and often selfish) self-interest. Hence, I thank you again, Sarah, for you, in your reminder, your summons to me, illumine and compel me to see anew something I already know. Enlightened, indeed, truest human self-interest embraces the sanctity and the safety of all people.

With deepest love and highest respect,

Paul

persevering hope

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Luke 21.5-19, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, November 13, 2016

Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem, the Holy City. They stand near the temple, God’s House, the most revered site of ancient Judaism. Some look up, marveling at its majesty.

a-model-of-the-temple-of-jerusalem

The temple, history testifies, was magnificent, yet laden with terrible contradiction. King Herod the Great, a despotic puppet of the Roman Empire, spent massive amounts of capital to build and to beautify the temple. Thus, as a testament to the grandeur of God and Herod, the temple, all at once, was hallowed and unholy.

Jesus prophesies its destruction, alarming those who hate Herod, yet revere the temple and, even more, the God it glorifies. In anguish, they ask, “When will this terrible moment be and how will we know?” Jesus breathlessly speaks of natural calamities, political and social chaos, internecine warfare, betrayals, persecutions, martyrdom, and then, strangely, a promise of peace amid the strife…

This last, a reminder of the necessity of perseverance in trying times…

An indispensable message for our day…

This past Tuesday, we, the American people, elected our 45th president. Or did we? Was it not only some of us? For this election was the culmination, perhaps only the next stage of a historically divisive campaign season, distinguished, tarnished by shocking elements of the vilification and demonization of persons and positions, the shattering of relationships among families and friends, neighborhoods and communities, the splintering of any façade of national unity, and perchance, for some, by some, whether in praise or in protest, setting aside our vaunted inauguration traditions of upholding our world-respected peaceful transition of power. Though not on the cosmic scale of Jesus’ prophecy, nevertheless it was, is deeply disturbing, highly destructive with long-lasting (unending?) consequences.

I fret, I fear for America. As I pray for our perseverance and the preservation of our national fabric, I find solace and strength in scripture.

the-destruction-of-the-temple-of-jerusalem-1867-francesco-hayez-1791-1882

Reading on in Luke’s gospel, Jesus continues, speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem, all fleeing in terror, yet imploring his listeners, as God’s faithful people, to lift their heads in expectation of their redemption.[1]

simeons-prophecy-to-mary-1628-rembrandt-harmenszoon-van-rijn-1606-1669

Reflecting on the beginning of Luke’s gospel, I recall that moment, eight days after the birth of Jesus, when a thankful Mary and Joseph, according to custom, brought their infant son to the temple. Two aged souls, Simeon and Anna, having waited long for the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation, witnessed, welcomed the presentation of Jesus as a sign that the time had come.[2]

Throughout human history, Simeon’s and Anna’s faithful, hopeful watching for the coming of the Lord has been emulated, particularly when the horizon was dark with the gloom of disaster, the doom of defeat.

I think of generations of slaves who died longing to breathe free, who left a legacy of hope fulfilled by those who tasted the fruit of the Emancipation Proclamation, and who gave birth to Martin Luther King, Jr., who, on the night before he was assassinated, spoke of his hope for something yet to be; a hope not then, and not yet fully realized: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But…we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! So I’m happy…I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”[3]

I think of generations of our Native American sisters and brothers who for centuries have decried the long-on-the-books liability of the dignity of human equality charged and yet unpaid against the account of American justice. Still, those of this day, continue to hope.

I think of the words of one of my favorite anthems that give glorious voice to the exquisite anguish of waiting in ardent hope for something not yet come: “Lord of feasting and of hunger, give us eyes to see your bread in the miracle of wonder, till all tables will be fed…See the silent ones who wait when the blessing seems too late.”[4]

Whenever the day is dark and the night darker still, Jesus calls us to lift our heads, look around, and see, yes, our fears, yet also that “great cloud of witnesses”[5] who lived and died in hope of beholding their salvation. Thus, we know that we never hope alone!

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustrations:

A model of the Jerusalem Temple

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (1867), Francesco Hayez (1791-1882), Accademia of Venice. Note: In tragic fulfillment of Jesus’ prophesy, in 70 CE, the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman army during the First Jewish-Roman War.

Simeon’s Prophecy to Mary (1628), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669). Note: Mary and Joseph appear surprised when Simeon tells them, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel…” (Luke 2.34). The prophet Anna, “at that moment…began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2.38).

Footnotes:

[1] See Luke 21.20-36, especially verse 28.

[2] See Luke 2.21-38.

[3] From I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, delivered at Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968.

[4] From Lord of Feasting and of Hunger, Herbert F. Brokering (1926-2009)

[5] The Epistle to the Hebrews 12.2, referencing the models of faith, specifically, in the Hebrew Bible (mentioned in Hebrews 11) and, generally, all those of past generations.

anti-Semitism, a “mortal ill prevailing”?

In 2014, Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry, releasing the results of an annual study, has reported a global surge in anti-Semitic acts, both in volume, nearly 800, and in violence, a number involving weaponry and deathly assault, especially in North America and Western Europe. This marks a 38% increase over 2013. Quoting the report, “The overall feeling among many Jewish people is one of living in an intensifying anti-Jewish environment that has become not only insulting and threatening, but outright dangerous.”

Why this fearsome rise in aggression against Judaism and Jewish people?

A key cause is traced to anger, particularly among Western Europeans, in response to this past summer’s Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip. The social media, in our cyber-connected world, often rife with anti-Jewish caricatures and satire, has played an undeniable role.

As a citizen of the world, I believe in peace and the essentiality of negotiation rooted in mutual respect, especially a sine qua non in encounters, however historic, between competing, conflicting interests. Therefore, I do not condone the destruction of communities of the Gaza Strip, and the inevitable displacement and death of innocent people, even in the name of state security and border integrity.

As a Christian, I, with heartfelt love and soul-deep respect, am beholden to Judaism, the culture and faith of Jesus of Nazareth, the One I follow, whose life of incarnate love and justice I pledge to live. Therefore, I consider any anti-Semitism to be an expression of a dangerous pathologic self-denial, verily a delusory and deadly schizophrenic loss of connection with reality. Anti-Semitism, to paraphrase Martin Luther (I realize, an ironic, though, I pray, a redemptive choice, as he is justly accused and condemned for his anti-Jewish beliefs and sentiments, writing and preaching), is a mortal ill that must not prevail.

Luke 15.33f – a Lenten reflection

Luke concludes the Parable of the Prodigals at chapter 15, verse 32 with the father’s continuing plea to his elder son to accept the return of their younger son and brother: “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life.”

Much is unresolved. Something else is alive and unwell. Sibling animosity. The reckless younger brother, through the father’s unconditional forgiveness, has been restored in family favor with all rights and privileges and with no accountability demanded of him. The reliable elder brother bears the double burden of his younger brother’s disdain for responsibility and his father’s seeming indifference to his lifelong diligence and dependability (“Father, for all these years I have worked like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command”).

The father, loving his sons, is the bond that ties the brothers together (or the buffer that shields them from each other!). But what next? One day, the father will die, leaving the brothers to fend for themselves. Thinking of other biblical brothers with stormy relationships (Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob), what will these two do?

Midrash is Judaism’s interpretative methodology, employing creative imagination guided by textual analysis where biblical “blanks” and “gaps” exist, when the scriptural narrative is silent or shines only the faintest light of meaning.

In that spirit, I invite you, dear readers, to go beyond where Luke stopped. Calling it Luke 15.33f, please write “the rest of the story.” How do you imagine the end of the Parable of the Prodigals?