December 9, 2018, The Second Sunday of Advent, Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Pr. JP Arrossa, Preaching
2 December 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said, “Stand up and raise your heads,
because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21)
“Our society is suffering from a crisis of trust.” Those words might sound as if they were spoken just yesterday, but they come from a series of Lenten talks given more than a decade ago at Canterbury Cathedral. (Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, 2007). Trust has been in short supply for a long time.
The source of mistrust, is that we sense that someone else’s agenda or purpose has nothing to do with my own good, or the good of my community. So nowadays we are mistrustful of government, which seems bound by the self-serving straightjacket of bureaucracy and partisanship. We are mistrustful of corporations, which seem motivated purely for the benefit of their investors. We are mistrustful of institutions like colleges and universities, which seem more oriented to their own self-preservation than to the service of society. So too, we are mistrustful of the institutional church, which seems structured to provide an aura of importance to those in authority, while neglecting structures of accountability for their actions.
I would venture to say, that we are even mistrustful of ourselves, knowing from modern psychology that we are often motivated by deeply rooted prejudices and resentments that obscure our judgment and blunt our goodwill.
This kind of mistrust creeps in to relationships of all kinds, short-circuiting their vitality and sabotaging their effectiveness. I recall, for instance, visiting the St. Nicholas Seminary in Ghana when I was dean of an American seminary, with the goal of establishing an exchange relationship with its students and faculty. Its wary president told me, “Mr. Dean, we have been courted before by other American seminaries, only to be left standing alone at the altar when their priorities changed. So our experience is that Americans are not to be trusted. Can you promise something better?” And in truth, knowing the political vicissitudes of American educational institutions, I found that I could not. I knew that we as a school, when all was said and done, did not value, and were not structured, to make long-term commitments. We were, as an institution, fundamentally untrustworthy.
In today’s gospel, Jesus describes what a world lacking in trust looks like. There is distress and tension among the nations, people are full of fear and foreboding, uncertain of what is coming. Anxiety and anger dominate. Sound familiar?
So how does Jesus respond to this atmosphere of mistrust? Well, as you might expect, he tells a parable: a simple parable of predictability. When the trees sprout their leaves, he says, you know for a fact that summer is near. So too, there are signs that God is near, if we are able to read them.
The implication, of course, is that amidst the uncertainties of the world, Jesus is saying there is at least one thing, which is fully trustworthy: and that thing is God. So, of course, the question arises: how do we know that?
Ironically, it is the very one who asserts the validity of the statement that God is to be trusted, who is himself the validation of it. Jesus is the one whose life shows us what God always means to have happen, what God’s agenda is, if you will. In the mercy that Jesus shows to those around him, in the peaceableness that he teaches, in the turning toward the other with complete openness and acceptance—in all these things, we see enacted God’s way with humanity.
God, you see, doesn’t give us ideas about who God is: God gives us a life, the life of Jesus. And that through our own contemplation of that life, we find that we have enough to go on to be able to say to ourselves, “God can be trusted.” Because, as it turns out, we don’t see anything in Jesus that is not in some way an expression of the love that is at the heart of who God is.
Julian of Norwich, the well-known fourteenth-century hermit and mystic, was asked what was the meaning of the recurring visions she had. Her answer was simple and direct: “Love was his meaning.”
Think, if you can, about someone you have known in your own life who you gradually came to realize acted without any thought for him or her self, without expectation of reward, who was wholly focused on the good of others. In lives like that, we see a reflection of what God is like: someone whose joy comes from sharing in the joy of others; someone whose intentions are always for good; someone who doesn’t need other people (in the sense of figuring out how to take advantage of them), but who delights in them. That is the kind of person you can truly trust, someone in whose hands you would willingly place your own life.
That’s what the disciples found in Jesus: someone who was so unalterably focused on others that they came to trust him without reserve. The climactic test of that trust, of course, comes in Jesus’ death—when at first the disciples thought that, after all, their trust was to be disappointed, because Jesus was defeated. But in his return, they discover a whole new level and reason for trust, because it turns out that the life that he lives is not his own, but God’s. And if God’s, then a life of mercy and peace—the very words Jesus first says to his disciples at Easter: “Peace be with you.”
Today, Advent Sunday, has the purpose of turning our eyes toward the life that is given to us in Jesus, that through it, we might see something of the life of God—not the whole of it, but enough to be able to trust in it. To trust that like Jesus, our challenges will not overcome us; to trust that suffering when it comes will not endure indefinitely; to trust that our efforts toward compassion and peace will not be in vain; to trust that love is at the foundation of it all, and that the source of that love cannot be exhausted.
As Dame Julian reported of her visions, “[Jesus] said not, ‘Thou shalt not be tempted, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be diseased’; but [rather] he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.’” Amen.
18 Nov 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Today is Ingathering Sunday, when we offer our pledges of financial support for God’s mission in this parish in the coming year. It is also the Sunday before Thanksgiving, which encourages us to express our gratitude for the blessings large and small that give us the life we have to live.
It is, therefore, also a time to reflect on the rather basic question of why church? And are there blessings that we uniquely receive through it?
A number of years ago, a political scientist named Glenn Tinder wrote a book entitled, Can We Be Good without God? He didn’t just mean, can we do good things like feed the hungry or vote on election day without God—obviously we can. But rather, he was asking the question of whether human beings can fulfill their destiny to be wholly oriented toward the Other, if we lack any sense of dependence and accountability toward an origin larger than ourselves—call it God, or a higher power, or simply the mystery of the universe. His answer, in short, was no. We cannot be good without God, because otherwise we inevitably fall into self-centered and self-justifying behavior.
When his book appeared in essay form in The Atlantic, it raised quite a ruckus. There were angry letters to the editors objecting to their having let some theist into the pages of a secular magazine. Some letters went so far as to cancel their authors’ subscription, all of which had a way of legitimating Tinder’s contention that without God, we become inwardly focused, unwilling to hear anything that might challenge our own self-righteousness.
In a rather different vein, Rowan Williams (then Archbishop of Canterbury) was asked to speak in 2012 at a gathering of the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church on the subject of “The New Evangelization,” that is, how the gospel is to be presented in an secularized era when even thoughtful people (such as those angry readers of The Atlantic) are predisposed not even to entertain the idea of God.
You know me well enough not to be surprised by my turning to Williams for inspiration. He’s the kind of person who, without pretension, nevertheless always seems to be the smartest person in the room. His speech to the gathered bishops was no exception.
What I most appreciate in what Williams has to say, is that he has a way of taking a topic that we thought we understood pretty well, and taking it in a direction we had never thought of before. So in addressing the topic of evangelization, instead of talking about how to convince people to believe in God, he talked instead about how to convince people to believe in humanity.
That is, in an era when we are so quick to divide the human community into opposing camps, so ready to reassert the borders that divide us, so ready to scapegoat someone else for the problems of our own making—how do we reassert a fundamental belief in the inherent dignity and value of the human person, every human person? How do we believe in humanity as a whole, and not just our tribal affiliation?
Well, this is where Williams turns back to God, arguing that faith leads us to what he calls a “true humanism,” or the “confidence that we [as Christians] have a distinctive human destiny to show and share with the world” which is nothing less than an “endless growth towards love.” As is typical for him, he grounds this idea in the relationship between God and Jesus: Jesus is the one who “translates” the relationship of loving and adoring self-giving that is God’s relationship to him, a pouring out of life towards the Other. As God loves Jesus, so Jesus loves the world, giving himself fully and completely for our sake so that we might glimpse through him our destiny to be recreated in the image of his humanity. Not the distorted humanity of self-preoccupation and division, but the fully alive humanity of self-giving and unity.
The goal, he says, is to learn to see other people not as they are related to ourselves, but as they are related to God. When we look at other people, we instinctively start to size them up, in reference to ourselves. Are they friend or foe? Democrat or Republican? Educated or uninformed? Citizen or immigrant? On and on it goes.
But when God looks at those same other people, God sees only an object of divine adoration and love. “And it is here,” Williams says, “that true justice as well as true love has its roots.” For if I can really, truly accept that even persons completely unlike myself have the same dignity as God’s beloved as do I, then how I treat them, and the destiny I imagine for them, is completely changed. It is, says Williams, “a deeply revolutionary matter.”
We have before us today some pretty odd readings from scripture. They are visionary passages, anticipating the end of time. And since we really know nothing about the end of time, they are pretty opaque. But even so, I do hear running through them this theme of destiny—and in Jesus’ warning that there will be many who will lead us astray, I hear a warning against any voice that tries to distort or to subjugate the fundamental dignity of all humanity that is given in God’s love for it, for all of us, for each of us.
In the forum today on “The New Monasticism,” we have been looking at some recently formed Christian communities that try to embody God’s vision for the destiny of humanity in the way they live out their common life together: Communities such as Sant’Egidio in Rome, whose motto is “Prayer. Poor. Peace.” Or the Community of Jerusalem in Paris, which aspires to be “Deep in the heart of the city, deep in the heart of God.” Or The Simple Way in Philadelphia, committed to rebuilding the Kensington neighborhood (where our asylum family now lives) through community involvement and celebration. As Williams says of these communities, “They make space for a profounder vision because in their various ways all of them offer a discipline of personal and common life that is about letting the reality of Jesus come alive in us.”
Similarly, we at St. Michael’s are also a community committed in our own way to the evangelization of the world by sharing God’s vision for humanity, “letting the reality of Jesus come alive in us.” In a few moments, we will take some time on this Ingathering Sunday to read and reflect on a summary of the responses you have made over the last few weeks to a few simple questions about our life together—responses which now hang as the fruits on the vine that stretches around the church. As you read those responses, hold in your mind the vision that in God’s eyes, our destiny as human beings is an endless growth toward love, becoming more and more in ourselves a living image of Christ’s humanity. Being part of this parish is nothing more—and nothing less—than that. Amen.
11 November 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29)
So I have a little quiz to give you today. Listen to these words, and then I’m going to ask you to identity where they come from. Here they are:
“May barriers which divide us crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace.”
So do you think those words come from (a) Lincoln’s second inaugural, (b) Washington’s farewell address, (c) the armistice signed 100 years ago today, or (d) the Book of Common Prayer.
If you answered “d, the Book of Common Prayer,” you would be correct. Who knew that the Prayer Book could be so visionary? The reason I ask, is that last Tuesday morning, as a number of us gathered here in the church to offer prayers for the nation as it went to the polls, we read several prayers just like this from the Prayer Book. What struck us as we did so, is that cumulatively they sketched out quite an amazing vision for what a just democracy looks like. If you want to read them for yourselves, they are in the two sections “Prayers for National Life,” and “Prayers for the Social Order,” beginning on page 820.
They talk about aspirations toward such goals as “honorable industry, sound learning and pure manners.” They ask that God will “fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues.” They pray for “sound government,” or “courage, wisdom, and foresight” for our leaders, or “understanding and integrity [among us all], that human rights may be safeguarded and justice served.” Most striking to me was a prayer “For those who suffer for the sake of Conscience,” where we asked that God would give “to us your servants, grace to respect their witness and to discern the truth.”
But even more striking was how strange these lofty sentiments and high ideals sounded to our ears as we read those prayers, trained as our ears have become to expect discord, accusation, aggression, and distortion in anything related to our civic life. And so I have to say that it felt good, at the dawn of an election day, to be reminded by our own Prayer Book that our nation has thrived most, when there have been leaders of vision and imagination, rather than those who rely on a rhetoric of division and antagonism. As the prophet reminds us today in our reading from Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
This Veterans Day might remind us of the fundamental importance of vision in the shaping all human affairs. As you probably know, Veterans Day had its origins in commemorating the signing of the armistice that ended World War I, at precisely 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918 (100 years ago today).
At the end of World War I, the war that was to end all wars, there were some (like then president Woodrow Wilson), who had the courage to imagine a world order that could be reshaped in a new direction toward integration and collaboration. As we all know, however, that vision quickly gave way on the world stage to the retributive Peace of Versailles, which was so punitive toward the defeated Germans that they soon rebelled in the form of a fascist dictatorship, which set about making Germany great again, leading directly to yet another world war. As Omar Bradley, one of the generals in that later conflict put it, in World War I “we won the war, but lost the peace.” How differently things might have turned out, had there been a truly shared vision for waging peace.
The good news, however, is that although we may not always have a vision for ourselves, God does. And the Christian life is all about realizing God’s vision for the human community. And what’s more--you don’t even have to look very hard to find it. Jesus articulates it pretty clearly: we are not to lead lives centered on our self, but on one another—even when it means (as in today’s gospel) respecting our enemies. Like the Good Samaritan, we are to regard every human being as endowed with equal dignity. Like the Prodigal Son’s father, we are to extend mercy and compassion, even when it seems undeserved. Like the Sermon on the Mount, we are to be healers and peacemakers. And like Jesus himself, we are to discover our greatest freedom in giving our self to God’s ways of relationship and community, for in so doing we put our own life into cosmic alignment with the underlying principle of the universe.
But our reading from Proverbs has still more to teach us. “Wrath stirs up strife,” the writer goes on to say, or as Paul puts it in his letter to the Galations, “Be not deceived: God is not mocked, for we reap what we sow” (Gal 6:7). These are days in our country when each of us would do well to be reminded that what we say and do, whether as individuals or as public figures, is not isolated. Every word that we say, every thing that we do, plants a seed whose harvest is far beyond our immediate intent—for good or for ill.
William Shakespeare, in the play All’s Well that Ends Well, wrote that "The more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war." His words remind us that who we are, and what we do, reaches far beyond the immediacy of today and into the future. When those words and deeds are aligned with God’s vision for us, they contribute to the building of God’s kingdom. When on the other hand they are aligned with self centered and partisan motives, they contribute not only to the inhibition of the reign of God, but the erosion of the human capital—the dignity of the human spirit—which is the essence of that kingdom.
Today in the forum, we are talking about recently founded communities of hope known as the new monasticism. They tend to distill the Christian message down to its basics—like one community known as The Simple Way in North Philadelphia, which is all about rebuilding a forgotten neighborhood that had even been abandoned by the church. Their understanding of God’s vision is simply this: “Love God. Love People. Follow Jesus.”
They explain the origins of their community like this: “In 1995, dozens of homeless families had moved into an abandoned Catholic church building in North Philadelphia. They were told by the Archdiocese that they had 48 hours to move out, or they could be arrested. With nowhere to go, these courageous mothers and children hung a banner on the front of the building that said, “How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday, and ignore one on Monday?” The families held their own press conference and announced that they had talked with the real “Owner” of the building (the Lord Almighty!) – and God said they could stay until they found somewhere else to go. That was the spark that that lit the fire of The Simple Way.
If you want to know more, come join us at the Forum. But even if you are not able to be there, may I suggest that you take away with you this morning those few simple words that give one community’s understanding of God’s vision for human life, and think on what they have to say about God’s vision for our life together, and for your life in particular: “Love God. Love people. Follow Jesus.” It’s as simple—and as difficult—as that. Amen.
October 30th, 2018: 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Anne Duran (Director of All Angels Day School), preaching
14 October 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing …” (Mark 10)
So we have today a young man who comes to Jesus, seeking to know the path to eternal life. For a story out of Mark’s gospel, this episode has an unusual number of details. Usually, Mark is barebones, giving us only the essentials. But in this story he lingers over every element, as if to signal that something really important is going on in this man’s encounter with Jesus.
One detail we aren’t given the man’s name. We know only that he is a person who has led a truly exemplary life: as he tells Jesus, he has faithfully followed all the commandments. And yet, his coming to kneel before Jesus indicates that he still feels a deep insecurity that despite all his efforts, something is missing. He doesn’t feel complete, somehow it doesn’t all add up. He is like one of those college applicants who has perfect SAT scores, a 4. GPA, is valedictorian of the class, captain of the football team … and yet, doesn’t get admitted to the college of his choice. Something essential is missing.
Jesus is clearly touched by the man’s earnestness, for Mark tells us that looking at him, Jesus loves him. Yet sensing this underlying feeling of incompleteness, Jesus sees that his strict observance of the commandments hasn’t produced any real depth of spirit. It’s like the story of the rabbinical student who came to his teacher, excitedly proclaiming that in his studies he had been through the entire Torah three times! “Yes,” his teacher replied, “but has any of it been through you?”
Considering what might be wrong, Jesus intuits that perhaps it has to with his relationship to his possessions. And so, Jesus advises him that what he needs to do is to sell what he owns, and give his money to the poor. At that, the man turns and goes away, shocked and grieving, for he was, as Mark tells us, a man “who had many possessions.”
Now, this story is often interpreted as a warning against the dangers of wealth. And at some level, I suppose it is. And since most of us, by any measurable standard, are actually quite wealthy compared to most of the world, I suppose we should hear the warning as given to us.
But I personally don’t find that a very satisfying reading, because it glosses over many of the details that Mark provides, which suggest that something deeper is going on. To tell a story only about a rich man who was blocked from true relationship with God because of his wealth could have been done much more simply.
So what other clues does Mark give us to a deeper meaning? Well, the most obvious is Jesus’ own comment to his disciples after the man has departed. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” he says, “than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Now, some of you may be aware, though some of you may not, that the reference here is not to a sewing needle, but rather to a side gate in the city wall of Jerusalem that was known as “the eye of the needle.” It had that name because it was so narrow, being intended only for people to pass through, one at a time. A camel, being a beast of burden, would first have to be unloaded before it could enter the gate.
So in making this illusion, Jesus seems to be saying that in order to enter in God’s kingdom, something has to be unloaded, some baggage laid aside—like a camel trying to go through this gate. And the particular baggage of the wealthy (that is, of us), is that wealth has a tendency to make us feel so self-sufficient, self-reliant, self-contained, and self-absorbed, that we think we have no need of God. If I have wealth, it is by my own hard work. If I am materially successful, it is a sign of my own cleverness and wise investment.
Yet like the rich young man of today’s gospel, at some point we find that that story is not sufficient to our inmost self. It fails us, because it cannot account for the simplest and greatest fact of all: that we have life at all. Our life is not of our own making, not of our own achievement, but something that is given to us. It’s only when we begin to take that into account, that we are led beyond the limitations of our wealth to a greater sense of the mystery of our being.
And how does that happen? Well, again Jesus gives us a clue. When he advises the man to sell what he has a give the money to the poor, I think he is not just asking the man to make a generous charitable donation, and thereby to feel better about himself. Rather, Jesus is aiming at something more significant: for the man to admit to himself his own interior emptiness so that he might allow the space to be created for a true empathy to emerge, an awareness of his own need for true relationship both with God, and with his fellow human beings.
Emptiness is, after all, in some way at the heart of every spiritual tradition. There is, for example, a concept in Jewish mysticism known as Tsim Tsum, which holds that in order to create the world, God first had to pull the divine presence back far enough to allow room for creation to come into being. Even for God, emptiness was the required precursor to the act of creation.
Echoing that creation itself is the result of an antecedent emptiness in God, the Christian monk Thomas Merton, reflecting upon himself, once wrote that, “I am the utter poverty of God. I am His emptiness, littleness, nothingness, lostness. [Yet] the self-emptying of God in me is the fullness of grace.”
So the deeper problem of the rich mans’ wealth in our story today, is that it is a sign that he has no room, no empty space, where he might inwardly encounter the true God—rather than just outwardly obey the commandments. You might say that his spiritual life is choked by his own success, much like that physical feeling you get when you’ve eaten just a bit too much at a big meal: there is simply no room left to take in anything more. He has filled his life with everything, except for a true inward spirituality.
And at this more profound level, the story points us toward one of those paradoxical yet inescapable mysteries of the spiritual life: that the one who created all things, and who is in all things, whose Word was made flesh, is nevertheless to be most vividly encountered in a place of emptiness and silence, lying beyond words. Perhaps the lack of emptiness is what Jesus meant when said the rich man lacked one thing: he had no interior place, where God could enter in. And as Jesus did for him, God also points us away from our own encumbrances (whatever they may be), toward places of poverty and emptiness, not to leave us helpless there, but finally to have room to fill us with the divine presence and grace. Amen.
7 October 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Blessed are the peacemakers.” (Matthew 5)
Francis was a man of his age. He was the son of a successful merchant, and established himself as a gallant warrior. He was well educated and sophisticated. He lived in the most cultured part of Europe.
Except that, he came to realize, that if he was to be a follower of Jesus, it meant turning away from all that, and living his life instead according to a different set of values. In place of wealth, a life of poverty. In place of being the warrior, a commitment to peace. Instead of worldly sophistication, a struggle for spiritual simplicity. He decided, in other words, that to live as a Christian is to live according to Jesus’ Beatitudes that we heard in today’s gospel: as a man of peace, integrity and honesty.
Over the last several months, I have in these sermons taken up a number of subjects over which we, also as followers of Jesus, have distinctly different values from those at play in our society. We have talked about the value of truth, and the corrosive effects of lying. We have talked about the brutality of bullying, and the importance of compassion and mercy. We have talked about defending human dignity, and the universality of God’s image planted in all of us in our creation. We have talked about a false sense of entitlement, and of how it short circuits our common responsibility and accountability to one another by making us live at the expense of, rather than on behalf of, other people. We have talked about the cynicism of exclusion, and remembered that it was Jesus who said that in welcoming the stranger, we welcome him.
Taken together, these values add up to nothing less than an alternative vision of what it means to be part of the human community from that which is espoused in the secular realm. We are, in short, in a time not unlike that of Francis, when to be a follower of Jesus means to commit ourselves to living a way of life that is clearly and unambiguously distinct from the mainstream. The issues we face are not the same as Francis, and so the response we make to them will likewise be unique to our own circumstances. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us, speaking from yet another time when the Christian church had to become a confessing, or dissenting, community, discipleship is costly. It means discerning and then holding onto one’s core values as given in Jesus Christ, and living according to what they demand.
It is ironic, that in our day the radicalness of what Francis stood for and how he lived tends to get so whitewashed as to be almost unrecognizable. Where in his life Francis identified so intensely with the person of Jesus, and his sacrifice on the cross, as to have received Jesus’ wounds into his own flesh, nowadays we make of Francis nothing much more than a sentimental nature lover—with a particular soft spot for animals. Yet he set out to create through his own example of self-denial and sacrifice a community of brothers and sisters who would live a life so focused on Jesus, so committed to the poor and neglected, so willing to go the extra mile for anyone in need, that the world would have to take notice.
As a parish community, we also have long felt an obligation to live our life together in such a way as to offer an alternative vision of what might be called God’s peaceable kingdom. And even more importantly, we have over time grown in the realization that it takes us all working together to do that. We can’t just individually hold certain convictions that we then try to live out as best we can. We need one another to discern what those convictions are. We need the support and encouragement of fellow travelers. We need the amplifying effect of working together toward common goals.
I am mindful, for instance, of how the care and shelter we provided for our asylum family over the past year, could never have been done by just one of us, or even just a few of us. It took a team to cover all the bases—to shop, to arrange schooling for the children, to navigate the labyrinthine immigration laws, to provide health care, even to do laundry. And it took every one of us, offering spiritual and financial support, to make it all possible. But in the end, we had through our efforts offered to the world a vision of what God’s peaceable kingdom is, and how it is not like so much else that we see and experience happening around us.
Today we begin a series of short reflective readings to prepare us to make our individual commitments to the work of God in this place, following the way of Jesus. We did something similar last year, and I especially appreciate the fact that these are not some store-bought stewardship materials, but honest reflections written by members of this congregation, offering their personal insights as they have been shaped by our life together. They are, in a word, honest and forthright—and they bear witness to what Francis himself said about the power of our life together as it extends into our community:
Start by doing what's necessary (he said);
then do what's possible;
and suddenly you are doing the impossible.
How true we have found that to be! So I invite you to pick up the green folder in the pew rack in front of you, and to take a few moments to read and reflect upon today’s offering, entitled, “Inside and Out,” and to answer the question on the slip of paper, “What blessings do I receive at St. Michael’s?” May the Lord add a blessing, to the reading of these words. Amen.
30 September 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“War broke out in heaven,
and Michael and his angels fought against the dragon …” (Rev. 12)
In Apache culture (as in many native societies), place names are of great consequence. In his book Wisdom Sits in Places, the ethnographer Keith Basso documents how Apaches understand themselves to inhabit a landscape whose names are vivid reminders not only of the experience their ancestors had there, but also of the moral lessons they learned and then handed down. Place names like “Two Old Women Are Buried,” or “They Are Grateful for Water,” both teach a respect for tradition, and a gratitude for the creator’s gifts that sustain life.
Christian culture, too, attaches names to places in a way that tells a story. The utopian village of New Harmony, Indiana, for instance; or the Christian mission of San Francisco (St. Francis), California; or the Spanish capital of Santa Fe (Holy Faith), New Mexico. Even here in this church, we ourselves inhabit a place with a name that tells story: the parish of St. Michael and All Angels.
Take the sculpture of Michael that’s there beside the altar. Evoking today’s reading from Revelation, it shows Michael struggling against the dragon, commonly associated with Satan. The story, you may recall, is that Satan, himself one of the angels, grew restless with his place around the throne of God. And so he decided to stage a rebellion, seeking to take God’s place for himself. Michael, wielding the sword of truth and the scales of justice (you can see them right there in his hands), fights again him, not only defeating Satan’s attempted coup but casting him out of heaven and down to earth, [“fallen to Sheol” like the rebel prophesied in our first reading from Isaiah].
So if we take our identity as a church from the name St. Michael’s, what do we learn from it? What do we see as having been at stake in this great mythological conflict? Given the political struggles we as a nation are currently engaged in—and the so-called politics of entitlement that has been on such vivid and distressing display this past week—it seems to me that we might interpret the story as trying to teach us that Satan’s essential error was to have developed a sense of being entitled to more than was his due. What he was entitled to, as one of the angels, was the enjoyment and wonder of God’s glory. What he was not entitled to, was to become like God, trying to establish the supremacy of his own power and influence.
Now, if you think about it, this term “entitlement” is a very peculiar word, for it seems to mean two opposite and contradictory things all at once. On one hand, to be entitled is the positive consequence of some aspect of who we are. As citizens, for example, we are entitled to vote.
Yet on the other hand, being entitled also has the pejorative connotation of believing oneself to be deserving of privileges or special treatment that are not ours to claim. To be wealthy, for instance, does not (or at least should not) exempt anyone from the law. Or simply to have a desire for something or someone, does not entitle us to have it, however much impaired our moral or cognitive faculties may be. (That was the mistake Adam and Eve made in the garden, wasn’t it? To think that since they desired the apple, it was theirs to eat.)
The danger of this distorted sense of entitlement is that it runs afoul of the ordered world that God created for us to live in, where relationships of mutual responsibility and accountability are intended to provide for the flourishing of all. False claims of entitlement upset that order, dividing the human community into opposing groups such as the haves and have-nots, the elite and the ordinary, or any number of other unproductive and false distinctions. These falsehoods, in turn, lead us into selfish behaviors whose consequences everyone bears. Human beings, for instance, were intended in God’s moral order to be stewards and not merely consumers of the earth’s resources, and the cost of feeling entitled to all that we want is increasingly evident all around us. Yet conversely, there are also things in this moral order to which we are entitled: things such as human dignity, basic fairness, and a fundamental equality.
In the story of Satan’s revolt against heaven, however, he refuses these limitations on his own creatureliness, and so like Adam and Eve, wants to possess everything, and on his own terms. That is the sinful side of entitlement, for it presumes an indefensible privilege that may in practice be possible to claim, but is nevertheless undeserved. Worse yet, such a sense of entitlement has a remarkable power to make those who hold it oblivious to the injury they inflict—Satan himself leaves the war-torn heaven sulking (as Milton puts it), that it is “better to rule in hell, than serve in heaven.” One of the bedevilments of our age is that it is rife with just such unwarranted and violent claims to entitlement, whether they are based on education, or age, or race, or gender, or citizenship, or ordination, or whatever.
Yet Jesus was someone who positioned himself precisely at the point of intersection between these two contrary meanings of entitlement—that which we rightly expect, and that which we wrongly claim—so as to defend the one and resist the other. Think of how often he asserted the legitimate claims of those who were denied the dignity and respect to which they were entitled: the leper, the stranger, the cripple, the blind. Then think again of how often he resisted the illegitimate claims of those who presumed that their status entitled them to special privilege: the Pharisee, the Sadducee, the rich young ruler, the unrepentant sinner.
Jesus’ mission was to restore humanity to a rightly ordered community, undistorted by the false sense of entitlement that drove us out of Eden in the first place. In today’s gospel, he offers us a metaphor for this alternative vision. The new creation is a human community where all are woven together into one, with Jesus as the life-giving vine of which we are the branches. The life force of this vine is the love with which God loves us, and with which we are to love—care for—one another. In such a community, there are no false entitlements or special privileges, but only the inescapable fact of belonging to one another. And as long as the vine remains rooted in its source—Jesus himself—it can extend in all directions to embrace the whole human family. That’s the meaning of the image of the vine there around the east end of the church, a vine which will become symbolic of this fall’s stewardship campaign, “Extending Our Reach through Our Life Together.” And it’s the impetus for today’s Ministry Fair, when each of us can find out how our own reach can be extended through the ministries of this parish.
In Milton’s Paradise Lost, just before the fall of Adam and Eve, he has them serve a meal to the archangel Raphael as a sign of their commonality as human beings even with the angels. In that time of innocence, before their sense of entitlement got the better of them, Adam and Eve were able to relish their sense of belonging in the cosmic order. “Freely we serve,” they say, “because freely we love.”
Likewise, to say that our church bears the name of “St. Michael and All Angels,” is to say that we understand ourselves to be a community where God’s free gift of love motivates our service to the world. Michael’s sword of truth and scales of justice are the standard by which we measure the demands of this love. And as we do, we take heart from Jesus who promises that as the vine, he calls us to be the branches of this new community of love so that his joy may be in us, and our joy may be complete. Such joy in caring for and serving one another is, in the end, that to which we are most truly entitled. Amen.