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: America the beautiful?

thinking

I haven’t slept well since those days of August 11-12. As one who daily gives attention to the events and cycles of life in the world, glorying in the good news and bemoaning the bad, I have felt, verily, embodied in my belly the national anxiety stirred by the conflagration in Charlottesville fomented by torch-bearing, chant-shouting, anti-Semitism-and-racism-live-streaming demonstrators. The more I think and feel and pray about Charlottesville, the more I behold a microcosmic expression, indeed, a tragic realization of a distinctly American conversation that we, as a nation, are not engaging.

It is a conversation, yes, about race and religion, history and heritage, nationalism and immigration, yet bigger. It is a conversation, I think, I feel about our national identity. Who are we?

It’s the sort of question that arises for us as a nation founded on an ideal, indeed, an idea of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” at pressing historical moments, as, I believe, exist today, when it is clear that all of us are not reading from or reciting lines from the same proverbial page nor with a common understanding of the meaning of the words.

And here’s my fear. We won’t have the conversation.

For a number of reasons.

Chief among them, I do not believe that Donald Trump, as President of the United States, occupying that iconic position and, even more, symbol of national leadership and unity, has expressed a desire or exhibited the disposition to call the American people, all of the American people to the table of mutual and respectful dialogue.

An equally chief, no, perhaps the chiefest reason is what I consider our profoundly polarized national religious and political climate; the bitter fruit of seeds planted and nurtured long before President Trump took office. We live in a time of fleet retreat and determined retrenchment behind the impenetrable walls of our differing, often competing and, at times, conflicting perspectives. A time where the act of communal converse in which we intentionally seek out other points of view in the quest for truth has become an unpracticed, unpleasant, even unknown art.

In this, I believe that we, as a nation, have forgotten that whenever we, whether as individual persons or families, communities or congregations, regions or parties talk about what we believe, our core values, our fundamental truths, we, by necessity, must use words, which, at best, are symbols that point to what is inarticulable in its fullness. In a real sense, then, we always only point at what we believe, value, and hold true.

In this, there is an inherent epistemological (having to do with our ways of knowing) and existential (having to do with our way of living, being) danger. That we are tempted and oft blindly fall prey into the pit of temptation to invest too much power or authority in the words, even the actions or rituals that we design to point to our truths. The danger is in thinking, believing that the word, action, or ritual is the truth itself. That’s when we make difference dangerous. That’s when difference is no longer a lens through which we might behold a vision of greater truth, but only the stuff of which swords and spears are made. That’s when we won’t, can’t talk with one another.

And when that happens, indeed, I believe, as it hath happened, then our petitions and intercessions for America enshrined in one of our beloved national songs – praying God “mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law” and “crown thy good with brotherhood form sea to shining sea”[1] – won’t, can’t happen.

 

Footnote:

[1] Words by Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929)

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

On politics, religion, and presidential elections (subtitle: fill in the blank; sub-subtitle: WWJD?[1])

The American socio-political climate is as sizzling and sweltering as a South Carolina spring morning when long before noon the temperature and humidity climb to the high-80s (or higher!). The unrest, characteristic of the 2016 presidential campaign (which was, I think, in part, a bitter fruit of the rising, roiling ideological conservative-liberal tensions of the prior decade), pestilentially persists. Those who voted for _______,[2] some of whom rather would have voted for _______,[3] with the election of Donald Trump, are _______, _______, and _______ .[4]

In the light of this heat, here, in the South, I hear political speech with religious undertones (or is it religious speech with political overtones?). To wit (with each successive declarative or interrogative statement, from whatever side of the political spectrum, uttered with increasing certainty and stridency):

“Jesus would have voted for _______.”

“Jesus told me to vote for _______.”

“How in God’s name could you vote for _______?”

“How can you call yourself a Christian and vote for _______?”

I am a Christian. I love and follow Jesus. I strive, praying the strength of the Holy Spirit, to obey his one commandment: to love unconditionally.[5] Daily, I try. Daily, I fail. Daily, I pray the Spirit’s presence and guidance to try again.

Given my existential and spiritual orientation, at first, I was taken aback by what I deem unabashed and unbridled hypercritical politico-religio language.[6] Then, catching myself (or, rather, the Spirit catching me) falling prey to judging others, I stepped back from the precipice of that pit so to look and to listen with the eyes and ears of love. What or rather who I see and hear are my sisters and brothers, some of whose expressions correspond with mine and some not. Yet my agreement or disagreement does not, must not affect my ability and willingness to tolerate, even more, to accept, and still more, to honor their thoughts and feelings, their wants and needs, their hopes and fears that are the ground, the heart from which spring their words. And in that tolerance, acceptance, verily, reverence for their God-given human dignity, I can “lay down my life” – my preferences and prejudices – for their sake.

 

Footnotes:

[1] What would Jesus do?

[2] Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump

[3] In the case of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or, in the case of Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Lindsay Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobbly Jindal, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, or Scott Walker or, with the choice of voting for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, did not vote.

[4] happy, hopeful, and compliant or sorrowful, fearful, and defiant

[5] Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13.34-35) and “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.12-13).

[6] During my many years of living and laboring in and around Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, where the lingua franca is über-partisan, self-authenticating, other-vilifying speech, I do not recall hearing anything like this.

the penance of penitence

thinking

I closed my most recent blog post (February 21, 2017: to bear or not to bear) with these words – Lent is my life…My life is Lent – by which I meant that the penitential character of this annual pre-Easter season resounds within my soul, boring down to the core of my viscera. Since then, I’ve been given, called by some inner urging to ponder why. Today, reflecting on some aspects of my life that I believe I have known and some new insights, which arose as I pushed, punished myself through at least one sleepless night to discern something, anything new, I write…

I was raised in a household encompassed about by the expanse and limitations of American history (true, of course, for any person or family, though each and all, by necessity, I think, need define the nature and range of each)…

lolita-william-c-1940

My father, William John Abernathy, discouraged by a society and his family, each and both constrained by racism, to pursue his dream of becoming a mathematician (as he was possessed of a highly analytical mind), for the sake of providing for his family, settled for being a postal clerk. Moreover, his father, my paternal grandfather, Pedro Silva, was Cuban; that identification, evidenced outwardly in my father’s dark complexion and straight black hair added to his exclusion from circles white and black. My father lived a frustrated, melancholy, and angry life; his essential and volatile ire fueled by his alcoholism (also a symptom of his essential ire). He also was a deeply religious man, given to daily Bible study and prayer (his pietism and alcoholism being, for me, two contrary dimensions of existence that were difficult, well-nigh impossible for me, as a child, to comprehend; though, as an adult, I can conceive and, in my own life, perceive a similar discomfiting coalescence of contradictory elements of human ontology)…

My mother, Clara Lolita Roberts, raised in an austere Baptist household, a schoolteacher by vocation and by avocation, under the strict tutelage of her mother, my grandmother, Audia Hoard Roberts, always to be a saint-on-earth-in-training, was, in her quiet and reserved, but no less demonstrative way, a puritanical disciplinarian.

To these two folk, I was born. Each, in his and her abiding care and near constant reminders that I be upright in my behavior, my doing (though, in my view, much less, indeed, seemingly little concerned for who  I was, my being) held for me a certain awe, in reverence and in fear.

My father, raised a Methodist, and my mother, believing the adage that “a family that prays together stays together”, determined that the Episcopal Church, with its ordered liturgy built on a biblical foundation, was a fair, middle-way compromise.[1] All Saints’, St. Louis, was our parish home; during my youth, a vibrant community and the largest African American Episcopal Church west of the Mississippi River. There, I was tutored in The Book of Common Prayer 1928, through which I was steeped in the annual custom of a 70-not-40-day Lenten season beginning not on Ash Wednesday, but including the three prior Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima,[2] by which, my parents having instilled in me that I was defined by my good-doing (which never would amount to enough that I might become good), I found an oddly discomfiting solace, indeed, likeness. Penitence was my life. My life was penitence.

soren-aabye-kierkegaard-unfinished-sketch-by-his-cousin-niels-christian-kierkegaard-c-1840

As I reflect, long possessed of (by!) a brooding spirit, it is little surprise to me that I, seeking to see and to know myself as a self, gravitated toward the discipline of existentialism with its central concern for the meaning of existence and its core questions of identity (Who am I?) and destiny (Where am I going?). It surprises me less that, in my ongoing pilgrimage toward my understanding of life and myself, one of my chosen companions, verily, champions is Søren Kierkegaard;[3] philosopher, poet, theologian, considered the Father of Existentialism (and, along with Hamlet, a melancholy Dane!) whose life’s vocation was his apprehension of individual truth and whose life’s journey was that of always becoming a Christian.

I am a follower of Jesus through the story of his life and ministry, death and resurrection. A story made my own, revealed to me and incarnate in me through the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. A story I daily strive and fail to live fully, for which I am grateful for the grace of the correction and the consolation of penitence.

 

Illustration: Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, unfinished sketch by his cousin, Niels Christian Kierkegaard, c. 1840

Footnotes:

[1] Earlier and during my parent’s era, The Episcopal Church, historically the church of many of America’s “founding fathers”, also for some middle class (both aspiring and having arrived) black folk was “a destination church” (long before that term became popular to describe a religious community’s raison d’être to fill a particular cultural/societal or theological/liturgical niche).

[2] Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, derived from the Latin meaning “seventieth”, “sixtieth”, and “fiftieth”, respectively, were the names given to the Sundays coming seventy, sixty, and fifty days before Easter Day. Because of this, for most, esoteric knowledge, I recall handily winning an elementary school Spelling Bee when the final word was Quinquagesima!

[3] Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

summum bonum

preaching-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Micah 6.1-8, Matthew 5.1-12, and 1 Corinthians 1.18-31, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, January 29, 2017

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?”

micah-exhorting-the-israelites-to-repentance-gustave-dore-1832-1883

This word of the prophet Micah is the Hebrew Bible’s magna carta, great charter of life, supreme expression of the summum bonum, “the highest good” of human living.

Amazingly, though scriptural, it’s not especially religious; as religion may be conceived as the creedal declaration or ceremonial possession embodied by (or, worse, entombed in) some sacred institution.

Not for Micah. A “good” life, a “good” religion always involves action, therefore, is always less about what we confess with our lips or symbolize in our ceremonies and always more, in accord with our confession and our rituals, what we profess with our lives.

We “do justice.” Knowing our human longing for fairness, we act equitably toward others. We “love kindness.” Knowing the nature, the reality of human suffering, we act compassionately with others amidst their travails. We “walk humbly with God.” Knowing our personal strengths and weaknesses, our bright lights and dark shadows, we act humbly, with little sense of privilege, even less entitlement, striving to live at one with our Creator, the creation, and all creatures.

At the heart of Micah’s prophecy, this idea of moral instruction as fruit, not seed; in other words, as the articulation of what already is, not the expression of an ambition for what ought be is a lens through which we can view the Beatitudes – Jesus’ description of blessedness, the Christian magna carta, charter of life, summum bonum, verily, the Christian way to fulfill, to do Micah’s word…

the-sermon-of-the-beatitudes-la-sermon-des-beatitudes-1886-james-tissot-1836-1902

To be poor in spirit is to recognize the nature of life in this world – so fundamental that it is the first state of blessedness from which all else flows – that there is little to nothing of circumstance, chance, even our choices (always in response to circumstance and chance) that we command or control. Thus, we, knowing our constant need for God, walking humbly with God, act; mourning with others who grieve, for always with someone, sometimes ourselves there is grief, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for always somewhere there is evil and within us, the temptation to do evil, making peace, for always, both without and within us, there is conflict, even being persecuted on the side of the suffering against the will of the strong, for always someplace there is oppression.

But back to Micah. For grander epiphanies await us!

This great teaching, “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God”, is set within the context of conflict. A trial. God calls the people to answer for their failings of disobedience, which are so severe that God summons “the mountains…and (the) foundations of the earth”, creation itself, to listen.

Yet God, in making this divine case against the people, is not wrathful, wanting to punish them. Verily, in a stunning reversal, God is not the plaintiff, but the defendant raising a question about divine conduct, asking the people to voice their complaints, “What have I done to you? How have I wearied you?”

This is a God who, in calling the people to account, wants, wills to be held accountable. This is a God as judge who wants, who wills to be judged.

This is a disruption, a destruction of all legal tradition, all juridical convention! This is beyond any traditional, conventional institutionalized, religious understanding of God’s nature, God’s being and behaving. This, therefore, is outside of any customary conception of the divine-human relationship.

What is “this”? God rises to the summum bonum, telling us, showing us the highest good! God does justice, loves kindness, walks humbly with us! The chiefest epiphany, revelation of which, as Paul proclaims, is “Christ crucified.” Our God ascends to the summum bonum by being raised on a self-sacrificial cross of crucifixion and death for us.

It is this God, our astounding, worldly-wisdom-defying-and-destroying God to whom we in the awe of gratitude would make offerings, the greater, the better – from a “burnt-offering of one young calf” to “thousands of rams” and “tens of thousands of rivers of oil” to “my firstborn.” And our God answers, “No, I don’t want your gifts. I want you.”

So, then let us do justice, love kindness, walk humbly, which is Micah’s way of echoing Jesus, indeed, Micah’s way of our fulfilling, doing, being poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungering and thirsting for God’s righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking.

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This was the original end of this sermon…until a sleepless late last night into this morning as I pondered President Trump’s executive order banning travel to American shores of folk from seven Muslim-majority nations – an act that heartened his supporters and horrified his detractors and sparked protests at airports around the nation of many proclaiming welcome to immigrants and refugees and provoked judicial temporary restraining orders to stay the implementation of the ban; this last, ensuring legal jostling and jousting for some time to come.

I recognize and accept the risk of saying anything that, for some of us, may cross the line from spiritual to political matters. However, I believe that politics, from the Greek polis, city, and, by extension, the human community, is concerned with how we, in the words of the prayer, “live and move and have our being” – think and feel, intend and act – together. Moreover, as a Christian pastor and preacher, as your pastor and preacher, I also recognize and accept my responsibility to share counsel with you from God’s Word of how we “live and move and have our being” in this world.

Now, I never will tell you what to think. I entrust that to your individual, inner spiritual and ethical bearings as guided by the illumination of God’s Spirit. I will share with you a view, a vision of how to think.

And based on this day’s scriptural passages, I submit to you that the tension has heightened excruciatingly between border security and national safety and our anthemic American identity as “the land of the free and the home of the brave”; a land and home, from inception, save for our Native American sisters and brothers, populated by immigrants; some arriving of their free will and others brought captive.

And though here in Laurens, South Carolina, for most of us, the subject of immigration and the concerns of refugees may not rise to the apex of our lists of daily pressing issues, perhaps even of our mildest interest, the values, the virtues of justice as unconditional equality and honoring the God-given dignity of every human being as our Baptismal Covenant bears witness always call us to act wherever we are with whatever we have and however we can for the least, the last, and the left out.

How you, I, and we do that is for your, my, and our discernment. But, in the spirit of Micah, do it, we must.

 

Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy

Illustrations:

Micah exhorting the Israelites to repentance, Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

The Sermon of the Beatitudes (La sermon des béatitudes) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

My Dearest Readers…

In the wake of another terror-inspired attack on American soil, I share excerpts of the sermon, The Practice of Peace, A Service of Healing in a Time of Tragedy, that I preached whilst rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, on September 16, 2001, the Sunday immediately following 9/11.

As I review and reflect on the words I uttered then, they continue to resonate within me as expressive of what I believe to be God’s way and will in what I perceive to be our increasingly dangerously wildly woolly world – replete, generally I see, with violence of all sorts in all places at all times and, particularly I think, with an American presidential campaign laden with elements of isolationism and nationalism of a prejudicial kind.

At the least, these words bespeak how I strive to live, which, in the truest sense, is always the most I daily can do.

Love, Paul

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…In our quest for a restoration of wholeness, tensions – those simultaneous, powerful counter pulls and pushes of thought and feeling within society and within our individual selves – 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…in some land far away, but daily festers and can flare up on our very 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…

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…

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 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 what is this human hubris that fashions a vengeful face of God?

We search for peace.

Jesus speaks of a peace “not as the world gives.” [1] 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 look not to eschatological end times, but rather at our now times, looking 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…internal and external between our faith and our fears, our hunger for security and our acknowledgement of countless circumstances beyond…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,[2] 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.”[3]

 

Footnotes:

[1] John 14.27

[2] Philippians 4.7

[3] From the hymn, They cast their nets in Galilee, The Hymnal 1982, #661, verse 4.

breathing new life into old words

preaching a sermon, referencing Psalm 8, Romans 5.1-5, John 16.12-15, and Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31,  preached with the people of Trinity Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, on Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016

Since the 10th century in western Christendom (which is to say, from Rome and toward the west as opposed to Constantinople or now Istanbul and toward the east), the Sunday following the Day of Pentecost is Trinity Sunday. The only day of the church year devoted to a doctrine, an articulation of belief. Concerning the Trinity, the nature of God. The God who is transcendent, above, beyond us, as the psalmist sings of the Lord, our Governor, whose Name is exalted, immanent, with us in Jesus through whom Paul declares, “we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand…hav(ing) peace with God,” and within us through the Spirit who John describes as source and speaker of truth and, according to Proverbs, the wisdom of creation.

Adoration of the Trinity (1511), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Trinity, the word, not found in the Bible, was first used in the third century by the African Carthaginian scholar Tertullian.[1] In the fourth century, the belief “in one God, one Lord, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit” was codified in the Nicene Creed; which, honesty compels the confession, was the product of a political process at the Council of Nicaea, involving majority vote. Therefore, some beliefs about God, Jesus, and Spirit were not included! Nevertheless, the doctrine of the Trinity helps us comprehend and communicate the nature of God.

But how?

How does the doctrine of the Trinity, by necessity using human language, help us grasp the exalted majesty, the ineffable mystery of God?

Even more, how can our words, which, as symbols, point beyond themselves, help us to conceptualize and convey with any adequacy and clarity the reality of the wonder that is God’s nature? To wit, hear again the words of this morning’s Collect: “Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity…” This is the sort of prayer that I, after having recited it, feel compelled to exclaim: “What?”

Still more, how can a nearly 1700-year old doctrine help us post-modernists who, in every aspect of our lives, are schooled and shaped by scientific inquiry and analysis, Enlightenment rationalism, astrophysics, cybernetics, quantum mechanics; all expanding our horizons of understanding, all exploding ancient, traditional categories of meaning?

It seems to me that we have some choices. We can ignore the Trinity as nonsense, unworthy of consideration. We can consider it an archaism and consign it to the proverbial dustbin of the dim past. Or, as true of all present-time wrestling with history’s inheritance, we can strive to breathe new life into old words, re-envisioning the Trinity so it becomes anew what we profess as the heart of our belief and confess as the truth of our hearts.

To do this, I heed the counsel of the 20th century French philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,[2] who believed we are not human beings in search of spiritual experience, but spiritual beings, created by God who is Spirit,[3] immersed in human experience. So, I bid that we contemplate what the doctrine of the Trinity says about God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and about us.

Each of us has a religious impulse. Surely, we have heard or, from time to time, may have said of ourselves, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” When folk say that, I think they mean that they seek spiritual enlightenment, spiritual growth, or spiritual depth, but not via institutional religion. Fair enough. Nevertheless, I believe, again, that each of us, by virtue of being alive, is embarked on a religious quest. For the word “religion” is derived from the Latin, religare, meaning “to bind” (which, by the way, produces the word “ligament”, which ties our bones together). We all need to formulate principles to hold things together. We all desire to make sense of this seemingly often random experience called “existence”. And this need, this desire, at its core, is religious.

Why do we need, desire to do this? Because we were conceived without our choice or control, born within boundless time and fathomless space, and brought into the grand continuum of history, with much coming before us, and, given our mortality, much coming after us. Perforce we must believe in something greater than we.

Speaking always, only for myself, I choose not something, but rather Someone: God. To paraphrase Voltaire, if God didn’t exist, I’d have to invent God[4] or some idea to express my unerring sense of the enormity of existence and my gratitude, with the psalmist, for how fearfully and wonderfully we are made.[5]

Now, once ushered into life in this world, we were launched on that universal existential quest for identity, each of us asking repeatedly, in one way or another: Who am I? Given my family of origin, later, my life’s vocation, and daily profession as a Christian, I chose and choose to follow Jesus. For I behold in him and his love, especially for the least, the last, the lost, his courageous commitment to his cause unto death, his redemptive resurrection, the incarnation of a righteous life that fulfills God’s intention from the dawn of creation.

But how do we follow him? How can we embody his love so that our lives, our words and our deeds, answer our question of identity? For Jesus embodies an unconditional love that humbles us. For we, even in our deepest desires to love others, if we are honest, must confess that our preferences, our affections and disaffections, our likes and dislikes, verily, our prejudices get in our way.

As for me, I’m intolerant of intolerance. If there is one thing I cannot understand it is our human incapacity to comprehend another, divergent point of view and, thus, our inability to accept the reality of those who are different. Yet, in this admission, I reveal my bias that with no subtle irony rejects those I deem biased!

So, how is it possible for us to reconcile our unrighteousness (I just shared one aspect of mine and I know y’all [that’s the Southern influence!] got some!) with the righteousness of Jesus who welcomes us without condition, to paraphrase the hymn, “just as we are without one plea”?

With gratitude, giving thanks for our creation by God as spirits enfleshed in human experience. That spirit, given the One by faith we follow is the Spirit of Jesus. His Spirit, who, greater than our preferences and prejudices, speaks to our conscience; challenging and confronting us, correcting and converting us. His Spirit, as Paul counsels us, who pours God’s love into our hearts,[6] empowering us to fulfill the hope of our hearts to do, to be love.

There is an ancient story told of a rabbi, who, in the manner of Jesus, taught whilst walking down the road, his disciples figuratively and literally following him. He asked, “How do you know when darkness hath given way to light?” The first disciple answered, “Rabbi, you know that darkness gives way to light when you can look in the distance and see a tree and know whether it is a fig tree or an olive tree.” The rabbi answered, “No”, and continued walking. After a while, he stopped, asking again, “How do you know when darkness hath given way to light?” The second disciple, secretly delighted that his brother disciple had failed in his attempt to answer correctly, and now pleased with his opportunity to prove his acumen, responded, “Rabbi, you know that darkness gives way to light when you can look in the distance and see an animal and know whether it is a sheep or a goat.” The rabbi answered, “No”, and continued walking. After a long while, he stopped and said, “You know when darkness hath given way to light when in the distance you see any man, woman, or child and there behold one whom God hath sent to you for you to love. Until you can do that, even at high noon, you dwell in darkness.”

By the presence and power of God and Jesus through the Holy Spirit, let us love. For that is how we breathe new life into old words!

 

Illustration: Adoration of the Trinity (1511), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The oil on panel painting (for it originally was affixed over an altar in a chapel) depicts the Trinity; God the Father wearing an imperial crown and a wide gilt cloak, lined in green and supported by angels, and holding a crucifix with a still-alive Jesus, above, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove in a cloud of light surrounded by cherubim.

A host of heavenly saints are gathered, led by John the Baptist, cloaked in brown and green on the right, and the Virgin Mary, adorned in blue, on the left.

Below them, earthly multitudes of religious, led by the pope (on the left), secular authorities, led by the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (on the right), and the mass of humanity (in the middle).

On the lower right, a self-portrait of Dürer holding a banner with the signature and date inscription: ALBERTUS DURER NORICUS FACIEBAT ANNO A VIRIGINIS PARTU 1511

Footnotes:

[1] Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus (anglicized as Tertullian), 160-225

[2] French philosopher and Jesuit priest, paleontologist and geologist (May 1, 1881-April 10, 1955). The quote, a paraphrase taken from The Phenomenon of Man (Le Phénomène Humain, 1955).

[3] “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4.24)

[4] Voltaire, nom de plume of the French Enlightenment philosopher François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778). The quote, taken from “An Epistle to the author of The Three Imposters”, a poem in which Voltaire defends the idea of God’s existence as necessary for the maintenance of social order.

[5] Psalm 139.14

[6] Romans 5.5