“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
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Susan Allison-Hatch
“Christmas returns as it always does,” the poet proclaims.
Christmas returns to near-barren fields
in the dark night watches
to shepherds on guard
and wombs long thought empty
in surprising places
with twists in the plot
that confront and give hope
light in the darkness of lives gone unnoticed
A young single mother struggling to raise
two girls on her own
while wrapped in a cloud of trauma-filled gloom
she’s got no money for gifts this year
just barely enough to pay off the rent
And yet she picks out a couple of books
in hopes that somehow she’ll find cash to pay
for the books that she’s layed away
Two days before Christmas she goes to pay for the books
Both those layed away and two newly selected
She stands in line and waits her turn
“I have some books on hold,” she says
to the clerk at the counter.
The clerk turns away,
bends down and picks up a bag.
“How much do I owe?” the young mother asks.
The clerk then replies,
“Just the cost of those books you hold in your hands.”
“What?” “How can that be?” “I didn’t pay in advance.”
“They’re paid for,” the clerk keeps repeating.
“They’re yours. They’re all paid for.”
Again and again on the short ride home
that young mother looks down
on that bag full of books.
Incredulous, puzzled, confused by it all
“How? I don’t get it. How can this be?”
Stunned like those shepherds on that far-away field.
As she picks up her bag and heads to the gate
she turns back and says in a confident way
“A gift of grace.,” that’s what it is.
“Christmas returns again this year.”
A woman of indeterminate age
weathered and wrinkled by time on the streets
announces with considerable pride
“Two sleeping bags.
“I’ve got two sleeping bags and loads of dry socks.”
Alarm bells set off. She’s out on the streets.
“Where do you stay when it gets really cold?”
“Not in the shelter, that’s for sure.
“Folks steal all your things and make lots of noise.”
“But where do you stay,” the question resurfaces.
Pulling her jackets close to her face, she replies,
“I camp out in a really good place.
“A church let’s me stay in their outdoor loft.
“I’m sheltered from snow and the wind and the rain.
“I’m safe and welcome and that’s what I need.”
Christmas returns again this year
With twists in a plot that both gives hope and confronts
The spark of life in a woman
weathered and wrinkled by time on the streets
a beacon of hope from one gone unnoticed
And yet one still wonders,
“Are you really safe? Is that all you need?”
“Is an outdoor loft sufficient for God’s precious child?”
Still Christmas returns
In a hospital room on Christmas Day
A curtain divides one bed from the next
Behind that curtain a tremulous voice
Joins others in prayer—a prayer we know.
A chorus of voices—some trembling, some belting, some gasping for breath:
“Our Father who art in Heaven
“Hallowed be thy name
“Thy Kingdom come
“Thy will be done
“On earth as it is in Heaven….”
A strong voice rises from the hall,
“O holy child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today.
As Christmas returns again and again
year in and year out.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” (Is. 9:2)
This time of year evokes a holiday wrapped in sparkling light, with warm fires, plentiful feasts and abundant presents. Every detail is familiar to us: we know all the carols by heart; family traditions vary little from year to year; and the treasured household decorations are brought out year after year.
Yet in spite of its familiarity, Christmas centers on something actually quite strange: the nativity story itself. Indeed, the gospel narratives go out of their way to insist on the strangeness of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph each receive mysterious visitors who inform them of their new uncanny roles. Angels appear to unsuspecting shepherds. Following an abnormally brilliant star, Wise Men arrive from the mythical East to pay homage. So contrary to the almost unanimous depiction by the carols of Jesus as a babe “meek and mild,” what the gospels actually present to us is Christ as a stranger—someone who is entirely outside of our normal expectations in every way.
So what are the gospels trying to get us to understand, with this insistence on the strangeness of the nativity? Well, we might pay close attention to the overt theme of isolation and marginalization that is evoked throughout the story. Mary and Joseph travel alone to Bethlehem—and there find only a cattle stall as shelter. For the birth itself there is only the mother, father, and child—no one to lend help or support. Indeed, as the gospels tell it, the surrounding world is especially cold and indifferent to their plight. As the poet John Clare put it,
A stranger once didst bless the earth who never caused a heart to mourn,
Whose very voice gave sorrow mirth; and how did earth his worth return?
It spurned him from its lowliest lot: the meanest station owned him not.[*]
This isolation will follow Jesus throughout his life. As he begins his ministry, he will describe himself as the Son of Man who has nowhere to lay his head. He will be driven by the Spirit into the desert to wrestle with Satan. And most significantly, Jesus will be utterly alone as he faces his own death. On the night of his arrest Jesus goes to Gethsemane to pray, as his disciples stay sleepily behind. Like the stable of his birth, Gethsemane is a place of isolation, separation, and solitude—and it leads Jesus the following day to Golgotha, where dying on the cross his lament is that even God has abandoned him.
Yet it is in the loneliness and isolation of these moments that Jesus time after time recommits himself to the work that God has given him to do. What we see in him, therefore, is the paradox that God’s grace is most powerfully at work, where God is also most hidden: whether in the lonely shadows of the stable of Bethlehem, or the solitude of Gethsemane, or the cross of Golgotha. Ironically, we learn through Jesus that when the world is most unaware of or indifferent to God, it is at that moment that God will show himself most powerfully to be utterly committed to the world.[†]
God, you see, is unlike us, in that the more desperate things become, the more God is present. By contrast, the instinct which drives us is to seek safety and security in reaction to adversity, and so we draw back from whatever we find strange or threatening—the refugee, the foreigner, the conservative or liberal, the non-Christian. As a culture we have become caught in just such a reactive pattern, hunkering down within the familiarity of our own thoughts and ways. But the Christmas story reminds us that Jesus himself is a stranger, who shows us that God stakes his loyalty and commitment to the world not in spite of such risks, but because of them. This is the conviction to which the prophets of our time have consistently born witness, whether it was Dorothy Day among the poor of New York, or Martin Luther King on the streets of Selma, or Mother Theresa in the slums of Calcutta. Their confidence was in their conviction that God would be present even in the worst of circumstances—and especially in the worst of circumstances—which gave them the courage to persevere where many of us would have quit. As the prophet Isaiah promised in tonight’s lesson, God shines a great light on those who live in a land of deep darkness.
And perhaps this is the true strangeness of Christmas: that in a world suffused in darkness and human need, a God of light and love should stake his claim of love within it in human form, without limit or reservation, choosing to meet us in the darkest and most lonely places of our lives. As Christina Rossetti’s hymn puts it, “Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine; love to God and neighbor, love for plea and gift and sign.”[‡] We have good reason, then, to have confidence that in the end, nothing can separate us from the sustaining grace of that love, no matter how threatening or violent or grim the situation may be. For in Christ, God has staked his claim with us, and with that assurance we have every reason to take heart and to live lives full of hope and expectation.
So within the recurring refrain of joy and gladness that we hear in the carols we sing this time of year, we should also hear a refrain of courage: courage to see and to engage the world as God does, courage to be confident that despite our world’s violence and corruption, it is still worthy of our greatest resolve and sacrifice, because it was worth God’s greatest resolve and sacrifice. If we make that commitment, then the tidings of this night are indeed glad. For knowing that God meets us where life is at its darkest, empowering us to transform it, is all we really need in order to have the courage to pursue life at its best.
© Joseph Britton, 2015
[*] John Clare, “A stranger once didst bless the earth,” Songs for Liturgy and More Hymns & Spiritual Songs (Walton Music, 1971), Hymn H-56.
[†] Benjamin Myers, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams (T&T Clark, 2012), 27.
[‡] Christina Rossetti, “Love came down at Christmas,” Hymnal 1982, #84.