Gritty faith

I feel like I need to start this sermon with a bit of an apology.  Here we are.  It’s summer, August in Washington.  Feels like half the city is on vacation, and yet you are here.  You came to church.  And then we had these readings.  Isaiah is trampling vineyards.  The book of Hebrews is in the midst of a big litany that doesn’t really make much sense broken into pieces like we have them.  Then there’s the Gospel.  I mean, Jesus.  It’s August, “I came to bring not peace, but division!?”

My mom recently came to town, and we went up to Baltimore.  We visited the “American Visionary Art Museum” on the inner harbor.  One of their exhibits this summer is by a “visionary artist” who spends most of his time painting his own modern day interpretations of  the end time visions of the New Testament.  My favorite part of the exhibit was the warning on the outside of the gallery.  Outside this gallery of art depicting a vision of the Biblical end times there is a sign that read something like :“WARNING: this exhibit contains graphic violent imagery and may be offensive to some viewers.”  We almost need to hang that sign on Jesus this morning.

There’s a reminder in the Eucharistic Prayer we’ve been praying this summer, prayer C of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.  Just before we come to the table the priest will say: “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only and not for strength, for pardon only and not for renewal.”  I was playing a bit earlier, when I said I needed to apologize for Jesus’ words this morning.  Jesus’ words are a reminder, a necessary reminder, that faith is about more than comfort.  Faith is risky.  Our rector likes to quote the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan on this note: “If you plan to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.”  Being a person of faith will put you at odds with the powers that be.  This is Jesus’ promise today.

This past week the Episcopal Church commemorated one of our modern day saints, someone who stood at odds with his society, someone who saw that Jesus came to bring division.  Jonathan Myrick Daniels was a seminarian at Episcopal Divinity School (then the Episcopal Theological School) in Cambridge, Massachusetts in March of 1965 when he heard news of Dr. Martin Luther King calling students to join him in Selma, Alabama.  At first, Daniels didn’t think much of the call, but something happened during Evening Prayer.  The familiar words of Mary’s song from the Gospel of Luke sounded new to him that night.  He wrote about the experience later:

“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat …Then it came. “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.” I knew then that I must go to Selma.

Jonathan Daniels

Daniels went to Selma and stayed in Alabama through the rest of the Spring Semester.  He returned to Alabama that summer.  Jonathan Daniels made people angry.  He upset the status quo.  He marched with those who were risking their lives each day for civil rights.  Jonathan Daniels took it upon himself that summer to personally integrate an Episcopal church in Selma, by bringing some of his African American friends with him to church each Sunday.  They were seated, but scowled at.  The rector, who believed in integration as a concept, was faced with a seminarian “on a mission” to make civil rights a reality, in the pews of his church.  This young seminarian worked against the unity of the church, the peace that wasn’t really peace but complacency.

Eventually Jonathan Daniels was arrested with some other protesters.  After six days in prison they unexpectedly released Jonathan and a few others.  No one had arranged transportation, so they walked over to a nearby grocery.  As they came up to the front door, a man appeared with a shot gun and pointed it at Ruby Sales, a 16-year-old African American girl.  Jonathan Daniels pulled her out of the way just as the shot was fired.  Daniels died instantly.  His killer was later acquitted by a jury made up of only of white men.

Jonathan Daniels was a divisive young seminarian, and his statue now stands in Westminster Abbey, in a chapel to modern day martyrs.  He is remembered in the calendar of saints of the Episcopal Church.  Jonathan Daniel’s didn’t set out to be a martyr.  Thankfully most people of faith don’t end up martyrs, but Christians are followers Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was put to death for his preaching.  Society hasn’t stopped killing people for standing up for what is right.

Most people of faith don’t end up martyrs.  There was another important feast day for a saint this past week in the church, a saint who lived to a ripe old age, and died surrounded by friends and family.  Thursday was the Feast of St. Mary, the Virgin, mother of Jesus.  Now don’t worry.  I fully realize that I am preaching in a Church building with six inch tall letters on the sign that proclaim that we are “PROTESTANT.”  I’m still going to talk about Mary.

Somehow in the aftermath of the Reformations, the Romans ended up with Mary.  Catholics love Mary, and Protestants are suspicious about her.  I love the bit in “Under the Tuscan Sun” where Diane Lane’s character talks about Mary.  She buys this big villa in Tuscany, and in the master bedroom, the headboard of her bed includes a giant icon of the Virgin Mary.  At first she’s not thrilled about Mary standing watch over her bed, but then one night she is woken by a violent thunderstorm, and finds herself grateful for Mary standing with her, “knowing full well I’m not a Catholic.”

So, if you find yourself drawn to Mary that is okay.  Really.  You don’t have to start praying the rosary if you don’t want to.  But I think Mary is one of the most helpful images of what it means to have faith, risky faith.  Jesus, like most good preachers, probably learned a great deal from his mother.   Somehow a pregnant teenage girl, a girl who could have been stoned to death because she was not yet married and was expecting, somehow this young girl made it through her circumstances.  She even found faith and hope, and sang the song that would later inspire young Jonathan Daniels.  Mary had a faith that wasn’t easy, it wasn’t simple.  Her faith was deep enough that she knew, she knew that the socially unacceptable child she would birth would knock the mighty from their thrones and lift up the humble and the poor.

Icon of Mary by Laura Fisher Smith.Icon of Mary by Laura Fisher Smith.

Laurie Gudim, a lay Episcopalian from Fort Collins, Colorado wrote this week on a blog I follow, the Daily Episcopalian, about Mary.  She wrote out of frustration about the passive, submissive vision of Mary we so often hear.  We don’t need that fake Mary, she wrote:

We need the real Mary. We need her guts, her willingness to turn aside from everything her family had planned for her….We need the Mary who went on to live a multidimensional life: being a wife and raising children in the home of her spouse, a man who also listened well to God. We need to envision her having bad days and screaming at the kids, being terrified and mortified, feeling powerless and enraged. And then we need to envision her moments of wild, exuberant joy… how she hummed as she baked bread early in the morning, how she laughed with her girlfriends and cousins – and how she raised Jesus and his siblings in a boisterous Jewish household, teaching Jesus what she could about love.

Mary lived what was in many ways a very ordinary, very difficult life.  In the midst of that life, her faith allowed her to see God’s hand at work.  For Mary, Jesus was not some benign smiling shepherd.  Jesus was gritty.  She knew.  She changed his diapers.  She was there when they executed him.  I think we need the faith of Mary, gritty faith.

The letter to the Hebrews this morning finishes a long section on the faith of our ancestors.  It includes that great phrase, “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.”  Our faith is the faith of Mary, the gritty faith of a young unwed mother.  Our faith is the faith of Jonathan Daniels, a brash young seminarian who stood up for equality.  Our faith is the faith of Oscar Romero, the faith of Desmond Tutu, the faith of Dorothy Stang, a nun murdered for her activism in trying to save the Amazon.  Our faith is the faith of Dr. King, and Johann Sebastian Bach.  Ours is the faith of James Madison and of Madison’s enslaved servant Paul Jennings, who worked, as a man of faith, to free others.

Karl Marx was not describing these folks when he called faith the “opiate of the masses.”  Their faith is gritty.  Their faith is real.  As St. Augustine said, it should not seem small that we consider ourselves part of one body with people of faith like these.  As theologian Elizabeth Johnson wrote, “their adventure of faith opens a way for us.”  We are surrounded by the faithful lives of so many who gave “not less than everything.” (T.S. Eliot)

Jesus’ words this morning are not simply the grumpy words of a beleaguered prophet.  Jesus words remind us that faith is not only about comfort.  “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only and not for strength, for pardon only and not for renewal.”  I think it is good that the priest prays these words, because often us priests need these words the most.  These words remind us that faith is gritty, that faith is real.  How will your faith be remembered?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

One thought on “Gritty faith

  1. Mike,
    We Pasleys are so happy that you are sharing your sermons. We have been on vacation this week, but even other Sundays when we are attending the service, it is so rewarding to be able to review the sermon and focus on a particular part that is particularly meaningful to us.

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