“Livin’ in these (troubled) times”
IV. Have mercy
“While the son was still far off, his father saw him
and was filled with compassion.” (Luke 15)
Today I want to take up a wholly unoriginal topic: mercy. Not only are we in the midst of what the Catholic Church is observing a Holy Year of Mercy, but Pope Francis has already had quite a lot to say about it as of late.1 And even before Francis, there were already quite a few books written about mercy—the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, just to name a few.
Indeed Francis has called mercy “the beating heart of the gospel,” saying that the core of what the Bible reveals to us is that the very name of God is mercy, or even more pointedly, that “The message of Jesus is mercy.”
The word “mercy” itself comes from the Latin misericordia, which literally means “a heart open to wretchedness,” a phrase which moves us in two directions at once. On one hand, we might say that a person who is aware of a need for mercy is open to the desolation of his or her own heart; but one who extends mercy to another must also have a heart that is open enough to wretchedness to see and respond to another person’s great spiritual need.
Today’s gospel lesson of The Prodigal Son is, of course, the quintessential expression of the centrality of mercy in Jesus’ message. If we had not other parable but this one, we would have the essence of the gospel. You know the story: a son takes his inheritance and squanders it in dissolute living, eventually coming to his senses whereupon he returns to his father to seek forgiveness and at the very least a place among the father’s hired hands. But the father, seeing him returning from afar off, runs to embrace him, welcoming him back not only with open arms, but with feasting and dancing in celebration of the son’s return.
Now, what is most striking to me about this story in the context of “these troubled times” (to allude to the theme of this Lenten sermon series), is the personal cost to the father of the forgiveness he extends to his son. This prodigal child has lost everything the father had worked hard to build up, the inheritance he hoped to leave as his legacy. This son has sullied the family name, alienated himself from his brother, and plunged the family into dysfunctional animosity and distrust. Just think of how dismayed the other son is, at the return of his prodigal sibling.
So of all people, the father has every reason to want to extract a price from his wayward son for his misdoing. Indeed, the demands of justice would seem to require some restitution from this child: isn’t all this his fault, his doing?
But here is where Pope Francis has a really important reminder for us: the very nature of mercy is to go beyond what justice would require, by extending forgiveness and seeking restoration instead. The father does not act justly with his son; he acts mercifully. More important to him than a just reckoning (with its inevitable reprisal and retribution), is restoration.
But the father’s decision is not without cost. He has to give up any claim to what he might feel he is owed by the son, or any sort of payment of damages. To be merciful is costly. Like the prodigal son’s father, it requires an emptying out of our perhaps justifiable claims for recompense and compensation. It requires of us a heart attuned to someone else’s wretchedness, rather than to our own wounded ego; it requires open arms, when our instinct may be more toward an accusatory finger.
Reflecting on this inverse relationship between justice and mercy, Pope Francis says that an appeal to justice alone, can often result in its own destruction: think for example of the effects of mass incarceration in this country, where although a strict form of justice has been rigorously applied, it has resulted in the destruction of countless individual lives and the communities in which they dwell, rather than the restoration of communal wellbeing which is supposedly the goal the pursuit of justice seeks. Justice without mercy, you see, is like faith without works: it is dead, corrupted by its own sterility and rigidity.
How different our national debate about immigration might be, for instance, if instead of arguing about “illegal immigrants” (which is a term that appeals solely to the legal requirements of justice), we had a discussion about the impoverished, fearful migrants on our borders (a description that points in the direction of some form of mercy). Perhaps that is what Francis meant by describing some of the responses people have made in these troubled times as “not Christian”: I think his point was that a truly Christian response will necessarily include a component of mercy, however costly that may be.
And isn’t this exactly what Francis means when he says that the name of God is mercy: the death of Jesus on the cross was not a “paying the price” of our sin in the juridical sense of the term (according to the dictates of justice), but rather it was an acceptance of the cost of extending mercy such that Jesus empties himself entirely, even unto death, in order to reveal to us the depth of God’s willingness to accept, to receive, and to forgive us in his arms of mercy—just like the father of the prodigal son. For as Francis insists, God never tires of forgiving, never! Because to do anything other would be contrary to God’s own nature.
The Pope tells the story of a priest who as a young confessor is afraid that perhaps he has been too lenient with his penitents, giving absolution for more than he should. In a moment that sounds like it is right out of “The Little world of Don Camillo,” the priest goes to a chapel and kneels before a crucifix where he prays, “Lord, forgive me if I have forgiven too much, but you’re the one who gave me a bad example!”
The point of the story, of course, is in the irony: in the calculus of God’s mercy, there is no limit to the forgiveness that can be extended. This is the new creation of which Paul speaks in today’s epistle: the ministry of reconciliation which is given to us in Jesus Christ. All that is necessary is that one realize that one is in need of mercy—to open the heart to one’s own wretchedness—and God will begin the work of healing and restoration.
Troubled times like those in which we live can foster the kind of poisoned atmosphere we have seen so much in display recently, because they cause us to lose heart and therefore to look for scapegoats, when what we really need is to ask for, and to extend, mercy. But that means that these times are more than ever what Francis calls a “kairos of mercy,” an opportune time for the church’s message of mercy and forgiveness to be more confidently and compassionately shared than ever.
To be merciful is hard; it is not something we can do by our selves, any more than we can create something out of nothing. Rather, mercy is something we can only extend, when we know that we are extending it out of the mercy which God extends toward each of us. It is his mercy that we share with the world, his mercy that we extend to one another. We are, as it were, mere conduits of God’s mercy, not generators of it. So though we are “livin’ in these (troubled) times,” we can nevertheless make our song with the psalmist, who sings again and again in the most often repeated verse of the Bible, “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness” )Ps. 108:3, Ps. 145:8, Ps. 86:15).
Like I said in the beginning, so much for originality in today’s sermon… Amen.
1 See The Name of God is Mercy (2015), The Church of Mercy (2014), and The Holy Year of Mercy (2014).
III. In search of wonder
“Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight.’” (Ex. 3)
It is a truism nowadays that the art museum has become a surrogate for religious institutions. Rather than finding the sacred in overtly religious buildings such as churches, mosques, or synagogues—many people now retreat to the art museum in search of an experience of peace, of beauty, and of repose.
I was reminded of this phenomenon last weekend when I took the train up to Santa Fe to spend the day. Going into the Georgia O’Keefe museum, I was immediately aware of the museum’s implied intention to offer the visitor a kind of spiritual retreat. The gallery space is hushed, and speaks of a great reverence for the artist’s aesthetic vision: pictures are hung with a kind of iconic reverence; plaques offer biographical details to express the artist’s inspiringly creative approach to painting; and quotations posted around the walls offer a kind of sacral message for the visitor to ponder—quotations such as:
“If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for a moment.” Or, “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing—and keeping the unknown always beyond you.”
As most of the other museum visitors seemed to do, I enjoyed myself thoroughly, and came away stimulated and with a renewed spirit. Turning aside from the normal routines of life to appreciate something of beauty had, as advertised, been a positive spiritual experience.
In today’s reading from Exodus, Moses himself turns aside from his daily routine when his eye catches something of wonder and beauty. This is the Moses who was born a Hebrew slave in Egypt; adopted as one of pharaoh’s own; sent into exile for killing a slave-driving Egyptian; and now earns his way in life as a quiet sheepherder in the land of Midian. While tending his flocks, he comes upon a strange sight indeed: a bush that is blazing with fire, yet is not consumed. Seeing such a wonder, he stops to gaze—and it is then that the voice of God speaks to him out of the fire, calling him to become the liberator of the Hebrew slaves of Egypt.
Now, perhaps it is the frame of mind into which I was put by my visit to the O’Keefe museum, but what struck me in returning to this passage today is that the call Moses receives comes to him not just out of the blue, but from a very particular experience of something wonderful. There is nothing threatening about this theophany, nothing foreboding or overpowering—but rather a wondrous sight that attracts Moses to it for its sheer beauty.
In the last two weeks, we have—as part of this preaching series on “Livin’ in these (troubled) times”—focused first on avoiding the temptation to sell ourselves short, and then in the second week on the importance of reaching beyond the cynicism of a cynical age. Today, I want to point toward a rather different type of response to these troubled times, which is to seek out and cleave to experiences of beauty, like Moses at the burning bush.
Our psalmist suggests why this might be important: invoking the image of a barren, dry desert, he compares the thirst of his soul for God to the physical thirst one feels under the hot dry sun where there is no water. One symptom of these troubled times may be that like the psalmist, our spirits become dry and cracked by the day in and day out experience of such things as the shrillness of public discourse, or the aesthetic void of having to shop in the placelessness of big box stores, or the barrage of violence in our streets and corruption in our institutions. We need something that can water our souls—and like my visit to the museum suggests, perhaps it is beauty and wonder.
Now of all people, we New Mexicans ought to be keenly aware of the important place beauty has in daily life, surrounded as we are by cultural treasures such as the traditional Spanish colonial arts; the dances, pottery, and weavings of the Indian pueblos and other tribes; and even the drama of the landscape itself. These magnificent reminders of the place that beauty has in ordinary life should encourage each of us to seek out, in our own way, encounters with beauty that draw us into closer proximity with the experience of wonder. It was Abraham Heschel who once said, “We will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation.”1 How prescient he was, back in the 1960s (the “Dark Ages,” as my teenage son calls them), to perceive even before the advent of the computer and smartphone that our human spirit can simply be overcome by an unrelenting deluge of information and images—losing in the process the sense of wonder and amazement that waters our souls.
The trouble is, not only are our spirits overwhelmed by the objects and images that are constantly pressed upon us—we also seem to be hardwired with an instinct toward the negative that only reinforces the effects of this barrage. Several of us were at a retreat this weekend with the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, where we heard Fr. Richard Rohr speak. One thing he talked about is the fact that our psyche seems to be put together in such a way that negative thoughts, images and sensations are like Velcro: we are immediately attracted to them, and they stick. Think about how eagerly we gawk at accidents on the freeway, or how much we have been fascinated by the shouting and name-calling of the recent so-called presidential debates (face it—don’t you find it all rather entertaining, at some level?). Positive thoughts, images, and sensations, on the other hand, are like Teflon: they slide quickly aware from our awareness, if we make room for them at all.
Perhaps we need, in these troubled times, to cultivate a renewed desire to savor the good and the beautiful—and to turn away from the ugly and demeaning. Like our bodies need water, our souls need beauty. We need to irrigate and nurture, for example, the sense of wonder and amazement that comes from taking time just to consider that there is life, rather than nothing at all. We need to give enough attention to the present moment, to savor the sheer existence of something as simple as a bush, a tree, or a spring flower—and to see intimations therein of transcendence that beckon to us. Maybe, we even need to go to an art museum—or concert hall, or nature center, or honky-tonk … wherever you find beauty for yourself.
And then like Moses gazing at the burning bush, we need to sense that something—or someone—calls to us by name out of that sense of wonder, inviting us to become something more than we are, to be more confident and courageous, and to be more present in the present moment. Moses, having turned aside to contemplate what he saw, was called through that awareness to become nothing less than the liberator of his people. What might we each hear out of the fire of our own wonder, if when we too take time to turn aside, we truly contemplate the wonder that is before us? Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016
1 Abraham Heschel, Man is Not Alone (1951), 37.
“Livin’ in these (troubled) times”
II. Beyond Cynicism
Jesus said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
how often I have desired to gather your children.” (Luke 13)
Cynicism is defined by the dictionary as the belief that people are entirely motivated by self-interest. In that sense, we could be said to be living in a very cynical age: it is widely accepted that banks seek only maximum profits; that politicians look only for power and political advantage; that religion is used as a defense against cultural difference; and that even education is primarily about getting ahead in a material and competitive world, rather than seeking understanding and wisdom.
Last week, under the theme of “livin’ in these (troubled) times,” we talked about the anger, fear and impatience of the current political environment as temptations of the spirit that are symptomatic of these days. We pointed to the temptation that we sell ourselves short by giving in to lower aspirations and narrower visions of what life in community might be. Like Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness, we too are tempted to settle for too little when God calls us to lives of mercy, compassion, solidarity, and fraternity.
Today I’d like to take up a related problem, which is the prevalence of cynicism, and the gospel once again provides the context to do so. The setting is this: as Jesus gains more and more of a following by working various signs of healing among the people, the authorities grow increasingly suspicious. Jesus is warned that King Herod is threatening to have him killed, with the implication that he should avoid Jerusalem. Jesus, however, knows that his mission must inevitably take him to the capital city to confront those very powers that threaten him, and so he sets his face toward Jerusalem, knowing that it is most likely leading him toward his death.
The episode reminds me of a scene in the movie Romero, which tells the story of Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of El Salvador. At one point, as Romero visits the site of the murder of one of his closest colleagues in resisting the armed oppression of the poor by the Salvadoran regime, he realizes that he too is on a path toward his own murder—and yet one from which he cannot turn aside without being untrue to himself and the sense of the mission that he has been given by God. It is, he realizes, only a matter of time until he will be eliminated, and indeed he is gunned down at the altar while saying mass soon thereafter.
In either case—Jesus’ turning toward Jerusalem, or Romero’s solidarity with the poor—one might have expected that at some point they would lose heart with such a bleak future before them; that they would give in to the cynical attitude that the powers that be are, after all, selfishly motivated and will never change, especially not just by being confronted with the injustice of their actions by a single man. Both Jesus and Romero had ample reason to lapse into cynicism and abandon their struggle.
But in our gospel passage today, Jesus has something more to say that helps to explain why neither he, nor Romero, did choose to quit: his lament over the city Jerusalem. “O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he says, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” At one level, this is a statement of blinding reality: Jerusalem is indeed a place where God’s prophets have historically been ignored at best and silenced at worst. But a lament is something more than just a statement of despairing realism: it also contains within it a measure of hope, precisely because it is so aware of the gap between what is, and what should be.
Think of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, that prophet of dark despair because of Israel’s apostasy before the Lord. “How lonely sits the city,” his book of Lamentations begins, “that was full of people! … She weeps bitterly in the night, tears on her cheeks.” Yet Jeremiah’s woeful outpouring of lamentation over the city ends with a plea that what God still holds in promise for it may be realized: “Thou, O Lord, dost reign for ever. … Restore us to thyself, O Lord, that we may be restored. Renew our days as of old!”
Lamentation, in other words, expresses both regret—and hope. It expresses the deepest despair, but it does so only in the context of holding on to the expectation that something better is still possible. It releases anguish, but offers consolation.
So Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem is likewise both of those things at once: despair and hope. Despair at the defensive motivations of power and control manifested by King Herod and his court, and yet hope in the continuing promises of God that his kingdom shall prevail in the end.
And herein lies the lesson for us: these troubled times in which we live also give us ample reason to lapse into cynicism, to read the signs of the times as indicative of a society that has become entirely motivated by greed, fear, anger, and bigotry. And while we may lament these signs, our lament must contain within it that longer and larger confidence that these forces are ultimately no match for the holiness and justice of God.
But this motivation to stay beyond cynicism is not just true at a societal level: it is also true in the life that it is ours personally to live. We must guard against letting set backs freeze our spiritual and emotional life into the unproductive stance of the cynic. A bitter breakup of a relationship, for instance, could poison our view of human relationships in general, if we allow an unrelenting sense of regret to set in. Or the loss of a job could hold us captive in a resentful bitterness. Or the sudden violent death of a loved one could stifle our sense of the still open possibilities of life.
Such cynicism, you see, is an emotional and spiritual dead-end, as no less a philosopher than Stephen Colbert has pointed out. “Cynicism,” he said recently, “masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying ‘yes’ begins things. Saying ‘yes’ is how things grow. … So for as long as you have the strength to, say ‘yes’.”
Now, I don’t know whether Colbert was aware of it or not—but his statement noticeably echoes what Paul wrote to the Corinthians, that in Christ, all of God’s promises find their “yes” (II Cor.1). Our life in Christ therefore means remaining open, hopeful, expectant—not closed, despondent, and cynical.
Think of Abram in today’s Old Testament. There he is, having been promised by God that he would be the father of a great nation, but as an old man he is still without an heir. He has every reason to become cynical—even the God who promised him great things seems to be toying with him. But God reiterates the promise, and so Abram checks his temptation to cynicism, opening himself to a renewed confidence in God. And, as the scripture says, “The Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” What God required of Abram, in other words, was to remain open to possibility, to hold onto the expectation of dreams fulfilled, to avoid the spiritual closure that would come from an all-too justifiable yet nevertheless inappropriate lapse into cynicism.
So the response to which we are called in the midst of the these cynical times is a renewal of the confidence and perseverance toward which our faith encourages us. We will be on this Godward side of life, if when we cynically feel like turning inward and shutting out the challenges which face us, we instead open ourselves toward engaging with life as it presents itself to us. We will be on the Godward side of life if when our thoughts are prone to bitterness or regret or resentment, we instead let it all go, and face life openly and expectantly.
As Crystal Gayle sings in that old country-western song that serves as the inspiration for this preaching series, “It takes all the faith that’s in you, takes your heart and it takes min, livin’ in these troubled times.” Isn’t that the call the Pope issued to the people of Mexico this past week as he faced down the death-purveying drug cartels and corrupted civic leaders—that one cannot give in to cynicism. That is true death, for it robs us of hope. Rather, Francis showed us this week how one can lament the evils of the world and yet not lapse into cynicism and vitriol; indeed, his strategy seemed to be to appeal to our highest instincts of mercy and compassion, as the counterpart to our basest emotional reactions of anger and resentment.
So beware of cynicism, both in yourself and in others. Because it knows only the language of “no,” it stifles progress; it blocks relationship; it prohibits partnership; it seeks to tear down rather than build up; it demonizes rather than valuing the other; and worst of all, cynicism robs us of hope, which is what we need most, “livin’ in these (troubled) times.” Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016
“Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days
he was tempted by the devil.” (Luke 4)
Certain seasons lend themselves to dwelling for a bit longer than usual on some train of thought. Lent is one such season: for forty days, we have the opportunity to fix our attention on some problem or issue that we want to get our minds around, in order to gain a perspective that will help us to move forward with our lives. And so, I propose that for the five Sundays of Lent, we follow as a train of thought this question, How can our Christian faith give us some guidance and inspiration for living in these troubled times?
I take as inspiration for this theme an old country western song by Crystal Gayle, “Livin’ in these troubled times,” which dates from her 1982 album, “Hollywood Tennessee.” There is, you know, a great deal of wisdom in country music: think of some of those great song titles like “makin’ love don’t make it love,” or “not all the glitters is gold.” So when Crystal Gayle sings that “It takes all the faith that’s in you, take your heart and it takes mine; it takes love to be forgiven, livin’ in these troubled times,” perhaps she’s really on to something important: troubled times do indeed require faith, and there’s no better time than Lent to inquire into what the shape of that faith might be.
So, let’s begin by asking in what sense might these times in which we live be troubled? Well, you have only to pay attention to the rhetoric of the current political campaigns to have a pretty clear idea. People, we are told, are angry because of inequality and corruption. They are fearful because of perceived threats from terrorism and immigration. They are impatient because of governmental gridlock and partisan division. They are resentful of the impact that solutions to the health care crisis, climate change, and violence may have on their lives. They are defensive because of an emerging world order that raises up new centers of power and influence. All that we know only too well already.
But underneath the anger, the fear, the impatience—is there something more going on? If we could answer that question, it might help us to understand better what it means to be “livin’ in these troubled times.”
Today’s gospel asks us to spend some time thinking about the role of temptation in our lives. Jesus, you remember, is led into the wilderness to be tempted, and at the end of the forty days he is faced with three specific temptations. First, the temptation to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread; second, to acquire power over all the kingdoms of the earth by worshipping the devil; and finally, to demonstrate his own importance by casting himself down from the top of the temple, counting on the angels to bear him up.
The significance of these temptations is that in each case, Jesus is being asked to sell himself short in order to acquire temporary gain. The purpose of the Spirit in leading him into the wilderness in the first place was that it was where he would begin to discover his life’s mission: to preach the kingdom of God, and to bring it into being through his own obedience to God’s will. Now, as he emerges from that intense period of self-examination and discernment, the devil decides to test his resolve.
Yes, he has discovered the direction for his life’s purpose: but is he willing to wager that against his need for something to eat? And yes, he has become aware of the call to submit his life to the power of God for the sake of the world, but would he consider substituting the power of all the kingdoms of the world held in his own hands? And yes, he perceives that the orientation of his life will be as one who serves, but wouldn’t he rather demonstrate his own importance by forcing God’s hand to save him?
These are all what we might call temptations of the spirit: temptations to let one’s immediate desire for physical well-being, power and importance overtake one’s larger commitment to a life’s purpose. It was Will Rogers who said that the road to success is lined with tempting parking spaces: and isn’t that just what the devil is tempting Jesus with? Rather than taking the long road of building the kingdom of God, why not just turn into a comfortable cul-de-sac of self-indulgence.
Perhaps the lesson for us is that like Jesus’s forty days, such temptations of the spirit are also a constant presence in our own lives. At some level, we all have a vision of what we would like to accomplish in life, of the kind of person we would like to become. But then along the way, we gradually give in to the temptation to settle for something less—and I don’t just mean the tempering of youthful idealism that comes with age and experience, but the more burdensome loss of a sense of purpose and value. And perhaps that is the larger issue behind the anger and fear of the current day: we as a nation are in the midst of a collective diminishment of the visions of equality and inclusion which originally united us, having turned off that road into a cul-de-sac of defensive anger.
There’s an old story about a life-saving station that illustrates the point: perhaps you know it. The story goes like this:
On a dangerous sea coast where shipwrecks often occur, there was once a crude little life-saving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. In time, the little lifesaving station grew as new members joined. But some members of the lifesaving station grew unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now, however, the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as sort of a club. And so, fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions. But a
bout this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the remaining crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people, many of whom were dirty and sick. The beautiful new club was in chaos.
At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities, since they were unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station further down the coast.
In these troubled times, when we as a people seem to be prone to losing sight of the founding purposes for which we stand—perhaps the response we as people of faith have to make is raise the bar by pointing once again to that longer trajectory of aspiration toward justice and equality that underlies our common life. Like the Old Testament prophets, perhaps ours has to be a voice recalling our community to its originary vision. As Pope Francis is doing this week in Mexico, perhaps we have to bear the responsibility of speaking the language of mercy, compassion, integrity, inclusion, and fraternity, when there is no one else to do so. The temptation—as we learn from today’s gospel—is to turn away, to become focused on ourselves, and to seek the reassurance of material security, power, and importance.
But as Jesus reminds us in his refusal of the devil’s temptations, God’s call is always to turn in the other direction: to turn outward to God and our neighbor, to remain true to that larger sense of our life’s purpose where the kingdom is not only imagined, but made manifest in the life we live together. Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016
“Your justice, O Lord, is like the great deep.” (Ps. 36)
America celebrates the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend. This week was also the time when Pope Francis issued his book, The Name of God is Mercy; and it was the week in which the primates (or chief bishops) of the Anglican Communion gathered in Canterbury to seek a way forward through the divisions of the global church. These three things (King, Pope, and Primate), are not to my mind unrelated, and so this morning I’d like to say something about each of them.
I remember well the morning after Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis back in 1968. I was in 3rd grade, and had just some downstairs to the breakfast table, where my parents were listening to the morning news on the radio (as they always did). I knew immediately, however, something was terribly wrong that morning, for there was a kind of stunned silence in the room. As a young boy, I didn’t understand much about what had happened, but as I think back to that morning, I realize that my parents sensed that more than the death of one man, a whole vision for America had been attacked—a vision that grasped the fact that for justice to be secured for any one group of people, it has to be secured for all. As King put it in that often quoted line, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And so it was King’s unique ability to be able to link the civil rights movement, with the injustices of the Vietnam War, and with the problem of poverty throughout America. No one of these issues could be solved, he insisted, unless all of them were resolved.
Now, justice is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and usually without much real thought to what the word really means. As a college student, I was a political philosophy major, and was immersed for four years in what amounted to a study of just one word, “justice.” We looked at all types of definitions for it: Plato’s concept of the benevolent Republic, Aristotle’s ideal of the good life, Bentham’s utilitarian call for the greatest good for the greatest number, Marx’s advocacy that workers reap the rewards of their own labor, and so on and so on. My conclusion, by the end of it all, is that no one has ever managed to pin down exactly what justice is. It eludes our best attempts at definition and precision. Rather, it is something that is constructed bit by bit, over time, with a good deal of trial and error, never complete and always demanding out attention.
Justice, in other words, has to be a very capacious concept that requires of us as citizens a breadth of heart and mind such that we never give up on striving to establish it, and at the same time never grow discouraged at how far short we are of succeeding. It requires openness to what is necessary and new, and generosity in making room for one another (what we here at St. Michael’s refer to as “open hands, open hearts, and open minds”). Thinking back to today’s gospel story of Jesus’ sign at the wedding in Cana (turning water into wine), we might see this as one layer of the meaning of that sign: it shows us in vivid terms that his ministry among us is to be one of abundance and excess, not just in the physicality of water and wine, but in the spiritual terms of compassion and mercy. In building the kingdom of God, Jesus seems to indicate, there will be no holding back when it comes to the community of love he has come to establish, and the bounty of good wine that he provides for the wedding is a tangible sign of the excess of that love.
And this brings us to Pope Francis and his new book on mercy. It seems to be Francis’ particular gift to understand that the faith of the church is not primarily expressed through statements of doctrinal orthodoxy, but through acts of compassion, care, concern, sympathy, and understanding—or, in a word, mercy. Francis tells the story, for example, of a woman whose confession he heard when he was a parish priest in Argentina—a woman who had to prostitute herself in order to feed her children. He took it upon himself to help provide for the family, but when the woman came to thank him, it was not for the material assistance he provided, but for the fact that he had never ceased to address her as “Señora,” a term of respect and dignity. You see, to have mercy means never to lose sight of the essential dignity of every human being, no matter their circumstances, no matter their politics, no matter their origin. Mercy is, after all, the way in which God looks upon each of us: loving, forgiving, calling, accepting. Mercy (as the title of the pope’s book alludes to) is the first attribute of God, or as Francis puts it, “mercy is true.” Mercy, therefore, is as much a part of the content of faith as any doctrinal statement or position. And since this is so, the act of showing mercy on our part, is among the most concrete ways that we experience God’s presence in our midst.
And so we come to the primates who gathered this past week in Canterbury. The occasion of this meeting was an attempt by the Archbishop of Canterbury to draw together the chief bishops of each of the 38 provinces (or national churches) of the worldwide Anglican Communion (to which we as Episcopalians belong), to overcome the threat of division over a variety of issues, sexuality in particular. In the end, as you may have heard, they managed to hold together as a body, but issued a statement taking issue with the Episcopal Church’s decision last summer to authorize the same-sex marriages, saying that it was a “fundamental departure from the faith and teaching” of the Communion. The implication is that much of the Communion thinks we have succumbed to secularized cultural influences, at the expense of the traditional teaching of the church.
What seems to be missing in that account, however, is a recognition that we as Americans understand ourselves to have been on a long trajectory of widening the circle of human rights and freedom, from emancipation to women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement to marriage equality. That is the sentiment and national identity captured in that old hymn which we sang today, “We shall overcome”: a sense that there is always more work to be done to establish the cause of justice fully.
Moreover, we as a people have again and again had to confront the hard reality that whenever we have tried to narrow the circle of who is included and who is excluded, we have gotten something terribly wrong. Slavery. The Long Walk. The Trail of Tears. Japanese internment camps. The voyage of the St. Louis, that Jewish refugee ship that was turned away from our shores during World War II. Border fences. Though we may not always be fully conscious of it, we as a people know at a profound level the price of exclusion and the corresponding value of mercy, because there have been so many wounds that we have had to heal. It is inevitable, therefore, that our church, like our society, should be touched by that reality. So yes, it is true that our church has been influenced by the culture—but it is a culture that has over time tried to come to terms with the full implications of that guiding phrase, “liberty and justice for all”—an ambition to which we are committed as a people, in no small part, precisely because of the roots of our founding fathers in the very English Christianity that gave rise to the Anglican Communion. And I think that a part of the legacy, is that it has caused us a church to hear and read in the gospels in a uniquely urgent manner a mandate for mercy and inclusion where others might overlook it. As one commentator put it, we as a church have come to believe that when we are judged by God, it is likely that God will hold us more accountable for those whom we left out, than those whom we let in. That is who we are.
So it’s been quite a week. I’m glad the Anglican Communion is still in one piece, but we still have a long way to go in achieving the real understanding and relationship that can bind together a truly global church. I’m grateful that a man of the compassion and humility of Francis is pope, and that he’s written a book on mercy. And I’m humbled beyond words by the personal sacrifice that Martin Luther King, Jr. offered to us as a nation and people, who understood justice as the pole around which the moral arc of the universe bends. For as today’s psalm reminds us, the justice of the Lord is like the great deep, and we have only begun to plumb its depths. Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016
And in the temple of the Lord, all are crying, ‘Glory!’” (Psalm 29)
Turn, if you will, to the text of today’s psalm, either in the leaflet or on page Today’s psalm, or on page 620 of the Prayer Book: I want to show you something really neat about this particular text. Psalm 29, you see, should really resonate with us New Mexicans, for it is a description of a summer thunderstorm: the kind that blow in from the west here in ABQ, pass over the city, and then disappear over the Sandias. In the case of the psalm, the poem describes a storm moving from in from the waters of the Mediterranean, passing over the land of Israel, and then dissipating over the desert to the east.
So have a look at the text: the psalm begins by ascribing to the Lord glory and strength, in a kind of lull before the storm, acknowledging that the whole creation is a revelation of his strength and beauty. Then in verse 3, “the voice of the Lord” is heard in the distance, far out upon the waters, the sound of thunder beginning to move toward the dry land. As the storm moves closer, its sound grows in intensity: by verse 4 the storm has become truly powerful, a voice of splendor that rattles the earth.
Suddenly the storm is upon us, and even the strong cedar trees are broken by the ferocity of its winds. The mountains themselves are made to skip like terrified animals by the storm’s intensity. Lightening bolts drop down as flames of fire, and the crash of the thunder shakes the wilderness. Now even the sturdy oak trees writhe in the wind and the rain … and the people, contemplating this display of God’s might, can only cry “Glory!, Glory!”, huddled inside the temple against the violence of the storm.
And then, the storm passes, and the psalmist is able to draw courage from the experience, knowing that the Lord who has displayed his power and might through the storm, is also the same Lord who will give strength to his people, and the blessing of peace.
It’s a powerful work of poetry, isn’t it? So what, we may ask, has it to do with us today, and with the occasion of baptism?
Well, I’d like to link it to a single line in the Baptismal Covenant, where we will be asked, “How will you respond to the creation around you?” This is one of the six questions that are part of the Covenant that I like to call the “so what?” questions—questions that help to flesh out the implications of what we affirm as our faith in the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed which makes up the first part of the Covenant. Okay: so you believe in God, in Jesus, and in the Holy Spirit: so what?
What is particularly important about this last question regarding creation, however, is that today is the first time we are including care for creation as one of the “so what” questions: in the past there had been only five questions. The insertion of this sixth question was made at last year’s General Convention, sponsored by my own former Diocese of Connecticut. And given the concern which we have in our day for the environment and the future of the natural world around us, that’s a big addition. But let’s push right past that church talk and get to the larger issue of why one would ask about commitment to the creation, as part of baptism?
Well, in the very first line of the Baptismal Covenant we begin by affirming our faith in a God who is “creator of heaven and earth,” evoking the account in Genesis of God’s creation of all things. You will remember that the last thing God creates in that story is humankind (a.k.a. Adam and Eve), and that in giving them dominion over the earth, God also lays down a limitation: they are not to eat of the fruit of the tree of life.
From the very beginning, in other words, humanity is warned against assuming that everything is simply available for their consumption: the created world has boundaries and restraints that are necessary to protect and sustain the well-ordered world which God created. It is when Adam and Eve fall into thinking that they have a right to anything they want, and they eat of the forbidden fruit, that all the trouble begins.
So back to the question posed to us today: how will we respond to the creation around us? With the inclusion of this question, the baptismal covenant reminds us that at the heart of Christian faith is a keen awareness that we live within a created order that not only sustains us and our needs, but also demands our care and attention. We cannot, in other words, regard nature a if it were simply there for our unlimited use and exploitation. Like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, we have limits, and we disobey them not only at our peril, but at the peril of the well-being of the garden itself.
Jesus’ own baptism, which we celebrate today, is a reminder and renewal of this dimension of our creation. By being baptized, Jesus demonstrates that he is not just a sort of ghostly figure, walking around in our midst but not essentially flesh and blood. No, by engaging in the public rite of baptism—washing with water—he insists upon the full human, bodily nature of who he is, and that through him God is identified with the physical creation. Matter, matters. Nature, matters. Creation, matters. We can’t just ignore the demands that it places upon us.
And so when in our own baptismal covenant we now affirm a care and concern for the created world around us, we acknowledge both the gift that creation is, but also the restraints that it imposes upon us. Like Jesus, we take responsibility for the physicality of our own being, recognizing that it ultimately depends upon the care that we take of the physical world around us.
So next time someone asks you why you have a concern for the environment—however that manifests itself in you—tell them it’s because of your baptism. That’s sure either to be a conversation starter (or perhaps a show stopper), but at least it will put the discussion in the right register: it’s because we believe in God, creator of heaven and earth, whose glory and might and power is like that of a dramatic thunderstorm in the hot, dry desert of New Mexico. Amen.
© Joseph Britton 2016
Have you ever suffered from a case of Funky Brain?1 Funky brain is a not-very-scientific term for that state of mind into which you fall when your thoughts become so preoccupied with concern or anxiety that you lose the ability to think clearly and objectively about what it is that you should do. Funky brain can be brought on by worry, or by grief, or by anger—and it is as if your brain, like an overloaded computer—crashes from the sheer volume of thoughts pouring through its circuits. The result is that you end up making bad choices, bad decisions, and reaching false conclusions.
Most insidious is the fact that the phenomenon of funky brain is not limited to individuals, but can afflict whole communities, and even nations and entire cultures. Indeed, we seem as a nation to be experiencing just such a case of collective funky brain right now, tied in knots as we are about threats—either real or imaginary—that we perceive to be all around us. And as you would expect, it limits our collective capacity to think dispassionately about what real choices there are in front of us—just listen to the volume of the political rhetoric in the press.
Fear is one of the most prevalent causes of funky brain. When we are afraid, our minds become preoccupied with guarding against that of which we are afraid, and so our mental focus becomes narrowed and our capacity to take a longer view becomes limited. We become tempted to say and to do things that, were we in our right frame of mind, we would know to be wrong and contrary to our most deeply held values: we know this lesson all too clearly from history.
How interesting, then, that fear should figure so prominently during this season of Advent and Christmas in the story of Jesus and his birth. In fact, the phrase “Fear not” becomes something of a leitmotiv for this season: when Gabriel first announces to Mary that she shall conceive and bear a son, what does he say? “Fear not.” When an angel appears to Joseph in a dream, encouraging him to accept the condition of his pregnant young betrothed, what does she say? “Fear not.” When the angels appear to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth, bringing glad tidings of great joy, what do they say? “Fear not.” And these admonitions not to be afraid are something more, I think, that just words of reassurance and encouragement: they have the deeper meaning of being a warning against falling through fear into the condition of funky brain, wherein neither Mary nor Joseph nor even the shepherds would be able to fulfill the role they had each been given to play in the world’s redemption.
Take Mary, for instance. More than anyone, she had every reason to be afraid—what with the mysterious angelic visitor, an unexpected pregnancy, the challenge of an arduous journey to Bethlehem, the experience of homelessness on the night of her delivery, and then the urgent flight into Egypt to escape the terror of Herod’s jealousy. One can easily imagine that Mary might have become consumed with a level of worry and anxiety that would push her into funky brain, closing her spirit off from the mystery of what God had called her to be and to do. Yet throughout, she remains poised, focused, and resolutely unafraid—choosing instead to ponder these things carefully in her heart so that she would be able to rise above the moment and persevere in what lay before her.
In today’s gospel, we catch a glimpse of one such episode in Mary’s odyssey: her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, who is herself pregnant with the future John the Baptist. Elizabeth was an elderly woman whose desire for a child—seemingly a futile dream—had now been fulfilled through the promise of God. Perhaps because she too is the recipient of God’s grace, she quickly perceives Mary’s own confidence and quiet dignity in her situation, saying to Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Together, Mary and Elizabeth share an intimate moment of acceptance and mutual reassurance, which enables Mary to respond that her soul “magnifies” the Lord, that is, it extols and lauds God’s graciousness to her. Moving through her fear to a place of quiet confidence, Mary is remarkable for her embodiment of self-confidence and determination.
In rather sharp contrast, the gospels also offer examples of other people close to Jesus who let their fear get the better of them. The disciple Peter is chief among them. Peter, you remember, is notorious for his impetuosity, and that impulsiveness might often be understood as a sign of an underlying case of funky brain. As Jesus is arrested in the garden, for example, Peter’s unthinking fear causes him to react with rather silly violence, reaching for a sword to cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave (an action for which Jesus quickly rebukes him). Then when Jesus most needs Peter’s loyalty as he is tried before Pilate, Peter’s fear causes him instead to deny Jesus three times—a decision he later comes to regret bitterly. Funky brain makes Peter violent, it makes him untrustworthy, it causes him to betray not only Jesus, but his own integrity.
And that is the great danger of fear: it causes us to behave in ways that are not true to ourselves. It causes us to react before thinking. It causes us to find scapegoats, to rationalize injustices, to turn away from the stranger. That’s why when Franklin Delano Roosevelt told the American people in his first inaugural in 1933, during the darkest days of the Great Depression, that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he was not simply trying to evoke their confidence and courage. He was also warning against the fact that if we let ourselves be afraid, that very fear can cause us to lose sight in a time of crisis of what we value most as a nation—namely our commitment to freedom and the common good—and therefore to turn against one another, to lose our sense of compassion, to ostracize the stranger, and to erects walls and barriers rather than to extend a helping hand. Fear, in other words, can be a greater threat to our common life, than that of which we are afraid, for fear attacks us from within, and the resulting mental confusion makes us powerless to guard against it. That is why fear is the ultimate aim of the terrorist: it is a far more effective weapon for undermining an enemy than any bomb or gunfire: as FDR warned, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
This then is the lesson that Advent and Christmas hold for us this year: faced with violence that has the potential to evoke our fear, it would be good instead to take time (like Mary pondering things in her heart) to step back and ask the harder questions, to take time to do the hard work of thinking more carefully about what is at play in the world around us, and to take the time to let the clarity and insight which come from such thoughtful deliberation ward off the debilitating consequences of fear. It would be good, in other words, for us as a people and a nation to head this season’s refrain of “Fear not,” and to realize that it is addressed not just to the actors at Jesus’ birth, but to us as well. That is the message that we as Christian people have to offer to our community in this season of watching and waiting: “Fear not.” As Psalm 37 so astutely warns us, “Do not fret yourself because of evildoers … [but] put your trust in the Lord and do good. … Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; [but] do not fret yourself; [for that] leads only to evil.” Amen.
© Joseph Britton 2015
1 I borrow this phrase from Rob Voyle of the Clergy Leadership Institute and his courses on “Appreciative Inquiry.”
“Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’” (John 18)
A number of years ago, I was invited to share in a Passover Seder with a large Jewish family in New York City. Like many extended families, this particular family included an eccentric and outspoken uncle, who throughout the sacred meal insisted on making rather sarcastic remarks about everything that was said and done.
At the first cup of blessing, for instance, when the words are said, “Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the universe …,” this uncle let out a loud guffaw and blurted, “Why do we say that, anyway? Who believes in kings anymore?”
Now, for all of its insolence, his question is actually quite relevant to us today, for we are celebrating the Feast of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the liturgical year, when we might ask ourselves a similar question: what good does it do us to refer to Jesus as a king, when our whole identity as citizens of the modern world is invested in the values of a democratic, pluralist society? Don’t we regard kings and kingdoms as at best quaint relics of the past; or at worst as tyrannical dictatorships, as in the caliphates and theocracies of today’s Middle East? And so can speaking of Christ as king, really be anything more than an awkward anachronism? A pertinent question, indeed, both for our times and for today’s lessons from scripture, each of which dwells on the theme of kingship and dominion!
Jesus himself gives us a clue of where to start in trying to get our minds around how to approach this issue. Drawing a clear line at his trial before Pilate, he says that “My kingdom is not of this world.” Well, if that is true (that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world), then it immediately puts us on notice that all the pre-conceived ideas we have of what kingship is like, are here made irrelevant. From our historical experience, we naturally bring assumptions that kings rule by edit, enforced by armed authority; that kings represent a hierarchical social structure, with enforced inequalities; or that kings rule by dividing and conquering, holding authority through the exercise of raw power.
Jesus, however, tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, and therefore not of that kind. “If my kingdom were of this world,” he says, “my followers would be fighting,” or in other words, they would be asserting that very kind of coercive power which we associate with the idea of kingship. But, to reiterate, Jesus’ kingdom is not of that sort. So of what type is it?
Well, our reading from the Revelation to John begins to point us in an alternative direction. This imaginary vision, full of symbolism and references whose meaning we can often only guess at, tries to paint a vivid image of how all things ultimately fit together. For example, it describes Christ as the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the one “who is and who was and who is to come.” The terms here may be temporal in form, but their sense is that everything that exists, exists only in and through Christ. The implication is that God did not create a universe through his Word and then step back to watch it run; no, the creative activity of Christ is a metaphysical constant, evident in each and every moment. Were God not creating and sustaining our existence right here and now, at this very moment, we would not be.
The creation we inhabit, therefore, belongs to Christ, because it is only through him that everything that is, lives and moves and has its being. And here we come to the essential point: the kingship of Christ is a kingship that is given its meaning by its comprehensive inclusion of everything that is in one reality, rather than its division into competing and warring factions. All things are gathered together in Christ, because they all share in him both their origin and destiny. And so the division and partitions we associate with the kingdoms of this world, turn out to be the exact opposite—the antithesis—of the kingship of Christ. Their politics of division are signs of a world gone wrong, where a focus on power masks the underlying oneness of creation. So as people of faith, we are called to seek the commonality of humanity and creation, not to exacerbate its points of division and enmity: as our collect led us to pray today, “may the people of this earth, divided and enslaved by sin, be freed and brought together.”
To celebrate the Feast of Christ the King is thus to celebrate the drawing together, the in-gathering, of all people and all things and all people into one divine reality (the dominion of all peoples, nations and languages of which we heard in the reading from Daniel). For us as Christians, the kingship of Christ is the focal point of this oneness. And while we have to say that it seems to be the will of God that in this eon there should be a diversity of religious expressions (as Abraham Heschel once put it), we can assert this fundamental oneness with a confidence that at the end of time, the seeming parallelism of the rails of the variety of religious traditions nevertheless converge, like train tracks that mysteriously meet at the horizon.
So, to bring all this closer to home: when we speak of “building God’s kingdom” in here at St. Michael and All Angels Church (as we have been doing throughout this fall), what we mean is our determination through our communal patterns of hospitality, celebration, prayer, and service to create a visible and tangible experience of the fundamental oneness and interconnectedness of humanity in God—right here on Montano Road, in the northwest quadrant of the city of Albuquerque. By building these connections and relationships, we aim for nothing less than that our life together should be a foretaste of that vision in the book of Daniel, where all people, all races, all classes—all religions—are gathered around the heavenly throne. In every act of kindness, every act of welcome, every act of concern we extend to one another, and to the stranger in our midst, we offer a glimpse of that ultimate unified reality.
To make this Feast of Christ the King also the in-gathering of our financial gifts and pledges, then, takes on a much larger meaning than just an act of fundraising (to which we are always prone to reduce it), for in the offering of our personal gifts, we are engaging in a sacramental action that expresses our deeper convictions about the spiritual reality of the kingship of Christ. Just as we offer at this altar bread and wine, and they are returned to us as Christ’s body and blood; and just as we offer our own bodies and souls, and they are returned to us as Christ’s hands and feet in the world; so too do we offer our gifts of time, talent and treasure, only to have them returned to us in the form of the church, the body of Christ in this place. Our gifts are transformed by the Spirit into that wonderful, loving, daring, caring, dynamic community that we call St. Michael’s: that is a truly sacramental experience.
These interlocking patterns of giving and receiving thus take on the larger meaning of being the means by which we experience in tangible terms the kingship of Christ as a parish community, for they are the way we demonstrate that all things belong to Christ, from the most cosmic and transcendent to the most mundane and ordinary. One of our hymns puts it well, where we sing:
Lord, you make the common holy: “This my body, this my blood.”
Let us all, for earth’s true glory, daily lift life heavenward,
asking that the world around us share your children’s liberty.
With the spirit’s gifts empower us, for the work of ministry. Amen.
(“Lord, you give the Great Commission,” Hymnal 1982 #528;
Words by Jeffery Rowthorn)
© Joseph Britton, 2015
“This widow, out of her poverty, has put in everything she had, her whole living.” (Mark 12:44)
Among the very moving collection of pictures in the All Souls ofrenda here behind the altar, none was more touching to me than a newspaper clipping placed there about the burial of Lilly Garcia. It has been a little over two weeks now since this four-year old girl was shot dead in a road-rage incident on our city’s streets, and while we are surrounded almost daily by such incidents of violence, her death seemed to touch an especially raw nerve for many of us by its shear insanity.
Now I’m skeptical of saying that we live in a particularly violent age, for the record of human history would suggest that violence is endemic to our nature. Yet I’m also skeptical of writing off violence as a problem we can’t engage, simply because it is so pervasive. Violence in all of its forms—physical, mental, and spiritual—is the most fundamental human problem, and we are called to confront it by the simple fact that the crucifix, the image of Christ crucified, reminds us of the price of violence, and its terrible distortion of the human person.
What, then, can we say—holding the image of Christ crucified in our mind, while also turning our attention to a four-year-old girl shot dead for no other reason than uncontrolled anger?
Rowan Williams, in a little book called The Truce of God, offers an extended meditation on the prevalence of violence and how Christians are equipped to respond to it. He first locates violence (among all of its complex causes) in the anger that comes from a loss of a sense of human freedom. When we feel threatened, hemmed in, unable to control our own destiny—our innate response is to react violently against those inhibitors which we perceive to lie at the cause of this restriction of our freedom.
The recent stabbings in Israel are a prime example: faced with a sense that they have no rights, no hope, and no freedom, some Palestinians have turned to random killing as an expression of their despair and frustration.
Similarly, the terrorist turns to violence as means of resistance to a perceived threat from an alien culture, power, or ideology that threatens to encroach on his sense of place in the world.
These more societal manifestations of violence are, in some sense, relatively clear instances of how a perceived loss of freedom is a source for the impulse to violence. But what about the violence we have recently experienced closer to home—the shooting of a school girl, or a city cop? How are we to account for that?
Williams would have us to wrestle with the possibility that such random violence likewise exhibits a reactive response to a perceived threat to individual freedom that manifests itself as anger. But this is not just an issue for certain unbalanced individuals: we can’t absolve ourselves of responsibility by saying “it’s someone else’s problem.” As Abraham Heschel put it, “Some may be guilty, but all are responsible.” For the predilection toward violence has its roots in deeper cultural biases which we all share and nurture within ourselves.
Williams argues that as a culture, we are nourished with a sense of entitled exceptionalism that trains us to think that we are somehow exempted from the patterns of accountability and responsibility that govern an authentically complex and global society. We assume, for instance, that we can consume, whatever we desire. We assume that we have a unique claim on personal safety and security that protects us from the unpredictability and conflict under which most of the world lives. We assume that when another human being gets in our way, we have the right to remove them from our path, whether off the road or across the border. And so goes the list … and it results in a virile perception of individual invincibility and independence that makes us quick to respond angrily and defensively to any threat against us—both as individuals and as a nation.
When a Christian confronts this pattern of angry defensiveness, however, Williams argues that he or she must place it in the context of the self-critical repentance to which Jesus continually calls each of us. The dynamic of such repentance is not just one of feeling guilt—for that would only lead us further into a despairing cynicism. Rather, just as one who grieves must reawaken hope in order to move forward, so too must we who are made to feel helpless in the face of cynical violence learn to rekindle hope. And in the Christian reckoning, the engine for such hope is being able honestly to name first what is wrong, to seek God’s forgiveness for it, and then to be given the possibility (the hope) of doing better. To find hope, in other words, is to reclaim an authentic sense of our ability to influence the course of our own lives.
So naming violence for what it is, and taking responsibility for the place each of us has in perpetuating its cultural roots, is the first step toward resisting its prevalence and reforming its casual acceptance in our society. As Williams puts it, “To resist this destruction is to affirm a faith in a human future; and the Gospel, by driving us to repentance, grounds this affirmation of the future in the loving will of God, remaking us through our conversion.”1
So in the face of the uninhibited violence of our age, the mission of the church becomes nothing less than modeling the conversion of the human heart. We are called, therefore, as a religious community to ask deeper and harder questions than either our power-driven political leaders, or our entertainment-driven media, are capable of. In the church’s own pattern of repentance and renewal—the very thing that we are doing here today—it must represent for society the fundamental process of dismantling the structures of violence through the recovery of freedom and hope. What we are doing around this altar thus becomes of supreme importance: it is nothing less than our answer to the scourge of violence, by proposing an alternative vision of human community.
But conversion to what, you may ask? Here I am put in mind of another powerful little book, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, written by a certain William Hubert Vanstone. Vanstone—who died only a few years ago—was a brilliant theologian who declined numerous academic offers in Britain’s most prestigious universities, to serve instead as a parish priest in the housing developments of Lancashire. Throughout his ministry, he wrestled with the central question which he framed as, what makes the church of “supreme and unconditional importance,” as opposed to the seeming indifference he found toward it in the suburban housing estates in which he ministered? (Or, put more simply, why does the church still matter?)
The answer that he worked out in this little book, published only toward the end of his life after decades of personal struggle, was that above all, the church is the unique channel through which we human beings respond to the reality “that all being depends upon [God’s] love expended in self-giving, wholly expended, without residue or reserve, drained, exhausted, spent.”2 The church in other words makes of itself an offering—its life, its worship, its buildings, its activity … all are offered to God—as the means by which the one inescapable and ultimate reality of divine love is made manifest in the world. Vanstone once compared the church to a swimming pool, “in which all of the noise comes from the shallow end.” To make of ourselves an offering to the divine love, however, is to move to the spiritual deep end, and it is only there that the church’s authentic mission is to be found.
Our conversion as Christian people, then, is to this same pattern of self-giving, self-emptying love as we move from the shallow to the deep end: we must learn to love with the love God has for us, wholly expended, without residue or reserve, drained, exhausted, and spent. For the redirection of our violence-producing anxiety and fear can only be into the self-emptying act of love, which is the corrective antithesis of the self-centered nature of violence. The church offers its life—and by implication, we as members of the body offer our own—as an alternative vision of hope and concern in the midst of anxiety and cynical indifference.
And here we come at last to our gospel story of the widow’s mite. Jesus affirms the value of the gift this poor woman makes of her worldly resources—“everything she had”—because he sees in it an offering not just of two copper coins, but an offering of her whole life as an image of the self-emptying nature of love. She has moved to the deep end, and unlike the scribes and Pharisees who are chattering away in the shallow end, she opens in herself a small space to contribute to the world’s redemption, because through her act of generosity, she has pointed beyond the tragedy of her own poverty, to the triumph of love, wholly expended. It’s the same kind of moment as when two people say to one another in a marriage service, “with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you,” as Bob Bowman and Jack Knight did together here last evening (the first-ever time that we have been able to witness and bless the marriage of a same-sex couple in this church). That is a supreme moment of self-emptying love, and the widow likewise embodies such a moment in exactly what Vanstone names as the ultimate mission of the church: to occupy the meeting point between God and humanity, where God’s most passionate longing evokes and embraces our deepest piety.
I offer these thoughts in memory of Lilly, and all those whose lives have been touched by the scourge of needless violence. May they rest in peace. In the name of the Father … Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2015
1 Rowan Williams, The Truce of God, 2nd ed. (Eerdmans, 2005), 21.
2 W. H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavor, Love’s Expense (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1977), 115.