Religious Radicals for Welcome, Diversity, and Justice

“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” That last sentence makes me chuckle a bit, given what has come before in our Gospel this morning. “His winnowing fork is in his hand.” “You brood of Vipers.” Don’t brag about Abraham. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.” That is good news?

All this may seem a bit much this week. We are getting close to Christmas after all. This week we light the pink candle on our Advent wreath, the candle of joy. This is joy week. We need a break from all the preparation. We need a pause from all the rush. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us came to church this morning because we needed just a few quiet moments in this busy season. So why today are we dealing with all this extreme rhetoric from John the Baptist?

John the Baptist is a radical, perhaps THE most radical figure in the New Testament. As Canon John Kilgore reminded us last week, in Mark’s Gospel we hear that John lived apart from the community. He covered himself in camel fur and ate locusts and wild honey. John was a little odd. He was all fire and brimstone. I know that some of you at Holy Communion are here to escape fire and brimstone. I know that many people come to the Episcopal church because we eschew such drama. The Episcopal tradition has not historically been a John the Baptist sort of place. Well, I am not hoping to disappoint you, I promise not to start thumping a Bible, but I think our world needs religious radicals.

Our world needs religious radicals, today more than ever. You may be thinking, “Mike, do you know what you’re saying? ISIS is parading across Syria and Iraq abroad. So-called-fundamentalist Christians are attacking civil rights at home. How can you say we need religious radicals?” And I say to you, we need religious radicals, because what passes for radicalism, what passes for religious fundamentalism has almost nothing to do with the faith we share. What passes for religious extremism has nothing to do with the good news, the Gospel.

What we need is the radicalism of John the Baptist. The people ask John, “What should we do?” Listen again to his words: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He tells tax collectors not to steal. He tells soldiers not to extort the people, to be satisfied with their wages. That was John’s radicalism. Treat one another like human beings, treat one another with dignity because all are created in the image and likeness of God.

The word radical comes from the Latin “radix” or root. To be radical is to be rooted, to know what holds us up, to know what gives us life. Over the past several months, your vestry has been leading a process at Holy Communion asking questions about our roots. What are the values and vision we share?

We’ve been asking three questions of parishioners. We’ve done so in small groups in homes, in forums between the services, the youth group and I even shared a lunch in the park. Vestry members have met one on one for coffee or a meal with members of this parish. We’ve been focused on the same three questions:

1) What brought you to Holy Communion?
2) What keeps you at Holy Communion?
3) In five years, what do you want your neighbors to know about Holy Communion.

The questions were simple, almost deceptively simple. The questions helped us get to our common ground. These questions helped us export our identity, our roots. The answers we received have begun to shape a conversation about our mission as a congregation. We have identified three values we heard above all the others:

We are a congregation rooted in the values of Welcome, Diversity, and Justice.

To me, those values are more valuable because we heard them from this community. The vestry didn’t sit in a room and make them up, they came from our conversations together. Welcome, Diversity, and Justice, these are our roots. Friends, those words are radical.

To be a faith community shaped by welcome, diversity, and justice is a radical calling, especially in our world today. In a culture of fear of the other, welcome is radical. In a city that is divided along racial and ethnic lines committing to a church where we meet on common ground with people of diverse skin colors, economic statuses, gender identities, ages, sexual orientations, among other difference, coming together as a diverse community that’s radical. And in a society that stresses individuality, working for justice for our neighbors is radical.

In the weeks and months that come, we will have a chance to continue this process of dialogue. I have just sketched a few of the things I think we mean when we say we are committed to Welcome, Diversity, and Justice, but I don’t have the last word. Holy Communion isn’t that kind of church. We are asking YOU to dream with us. If welcome, diversity, and justice are our roots, what will we grow together? What ministries, programs, and priorities will we bring to life? How will we live these radical commitments?

There’s a story of St. Francis told by the Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff. The year is 1216. The great cathedral of Perugia is the setting. Boff tells us, “Lugubrious Gregorian chants rise [from the choir]…The solemn *Planctum super Innocentium* is being sung.” The body of Pope Innocent III lies in state before the altar. Innocent had risen to become the most powerful monarch in Europe. The Church had become the most powerful institution on the continent, but death catches up with us all.

The pope’s body is clothed in finery “furs, jewels, gold, silver, and every symbol of double power, sacred and secular.” But around midnight, as the deceased pope lies alone in the darkness, thieves break into the cathedral. They strip the pope bare. After they make off with Innocent’s rich clothes, legend tells us, a crumpled figure, rises from a dark corner where he was huddled in prayer. “He takes off his worn and dirty tunic, a tunic of penance that his friend Pope Innocent III had authorized him to wear in 1209… and he covers the naked body of the pope with it.”

Innocent III and Francis were both huge figures in the faith of their time. Innocent was the pope, the most powerful figure the Catholic church had yet known, but save for the medieval scholars in our midst, very few of us could talk about what Innocent valued, what he held dear. What were Innocent III’s roots? I couldn’t tell you. Francis is another story. Children today can talk about his love of animals and his respect of all of creation. People of many faiths today are inspired by his call to care for the poor. Francis was a radical, and his roots speak continue to speak to us today.

When they write the story of Holy Communion, will they write about our silver chalices and our beautiful stone building or will they write about something more radical? Will they tell stories of a community that was rooted in the teachings of Jesus? Will they tell stories of the ways we welcomed the stranger, and even the stranger stranger? Will they laugh as they marvel at the ways we brought such diverse people together to worship and to learn? Will they talk about our work together for justice?

I think our city and our world are hungry for the kind of radical Christianity I have heard described by the people of Holy Communion. We are weary of the visions of religion that are readily available. We are tired of what passes for extremism and fundamentalism. We are hungry for the Good News proclaimed by John the Baptist, proclaimed by Francis, and proclaimed by this unique congregation in University City.

This Advent, how will we be religious radicals?

Jesus, the self-offering way: Jonathan Daniels and Inward Digestion

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and with the comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen

The prayer I just read comes from Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the Prayer book tradition. Those are the words from 1549. In The Episcopal Church, we read a modern version of this Collect, the prayer we pray at the beginning of the service, toward the end of November. But when I read today’s Gospel, today’s very strange Gospel, this prayer came to mind.

I remember the words of this prayer from being a kid serving as an acolyte at church services, because the image is so strong. Let us “inwardly digest” the scriptures, “inwardly digest” them, I thought? As a kid, that struck me as odd. Maybe it strikes our acolytes as odd. The image comes from Scripture. In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet eats a scroll given him by God and licks his fingers afterward. But to twelve-year-old me, that we would ask God to help us “inwardly digest” our scriptures struck me as odd.

Kids can be quite literal. My mother likes to tell the story that when I was three or four years old, my she left me in the car for just a few seconds with a cake she had baked for my grandfather’s birthday. She just needed to run into the house for a moment, having left something behind on the kitchen counter. Everything would have been fine, except that before she went into the house she told me the kind of cake she had baked. The cake was a pineapple upside down cake. By the time she returned to the car, I had turned the upside down cake right side up. My mother has never baked that kind of cake again.

So as a very literal minded child, this image of “inwardly digesting” was strange. The image is powerful, but to get past the “weird,” we have to grow up a bit. We have to see scripture as more than literal.
In the early days of Christianity, rumors spread through the Roman Empire that Christians were cannibals. Christians claimed to gather each week to eat the flesh and drink the blood of their savior. Cannibalism, it turned out, wasn’t popular. You can see where their fellow citizens got the idea, but the accusations came, and fanned the flames of persecution.

John 6, this chapter we find ourself so deep in this week, the chapter we have been reading for so many weeks in the Church, is difficult. It should catch us off-guard, make us pause. Jesus says, “eat me.” Even the disciples, in the next few verses will say simply “This teaching is difficult.”

Still, the invitation, however strange, is profound. Jesus invites us to eat his flesh, to inwardly digest HIM. Jesus OFFERS his flesh for the life of the world. Jesus offers his life to us, that we might have life. The words are gruesome, there’s no way around how gruesome the words are, but at their heart is a profound offer, an offer of life, an offer of sustenance.

It’s such a profound offer, that we remember it each week around this table. “This is my body, given for you.” “This is my blood, shed for you.” Those words, they are still pretty gross if you take them literally. If we’re paying attention, they should still cause us to pause. There’s another phrase that follows in the Eucharistic liturgy. “Do this in remembrance of me.” I think we need to pause with that one a little more as well.

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Maybe you’re like me, and you always assumed that “Do this in remembrance of me” meant, “come to church. Receive the Eucharist.” Before seminary, I really thought that’s what the words meant. Then I had a professor ask, “What is the ‘this’?” My liturgy professor in seminary was a feisty Roman Catholic nun, a sister of St. Joseph. She convinced me there was more at stake in the Eucharist. “What is the this?” she asked.

Sister Koernke wanted all of us priests in training to ask whether Jesus had more in mind when he talked about offering his body and blood. When Jesus said “do this” did he not mean, “I’m offering my life for the world. My followers follow me by offering their lives for the world, just like I do.” It’s a radical vision. That’s what’s at stake when we walk up to this altar rail each and every Sunday. What is the “this” that we do?

Following Jesus can put you at odds with the world. Following Jesus can put you at odds with you friends, and your denomination, and your political party. Following Jesus can get you in trouble. Daniel Berrigan, the famous Jesuit activist, likes to say, “If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.” Christ-following is costly, he wagers.

This week The Episcopal Church remembers the fiftieth anniversary of a martyrdom. When we talk about martyrs in the church, we often mean centuries ago. 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 a service in the seminary chapel. He heard words from Scripture anew. Daniels 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.

Daniels went to Selma and stayed in Alabama through the rest of the Spring Semester, and into the summer. The seminarian made people angry. He upset the status quo. He marched with those who were risking their lives each day for civil rights. You have to know, he wasn’t particularly welcomed by the Episcopal Churches in Selma. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was partly addressed to the Episcopal Bishop of Alabama who wasn’t integrating his churches, and had asked King to quiet down. While he was in Alabama, he tried to integrate one of the parishes, against the will of the rector. Jonathan came to Alabama to march, and to stand with Dr. King.

Eventually Jonathan was arrested with some other protesters. After six days in jail they were released unexpectedly. No one had arranged transportation, so they walked over to a nearby grocery to make a call and wait for a ride. As the protestors came up to the front door, a man appeared with a shotgun and pointed it at Ruby Sales, a 16-year-old black girl. Daniels pulled her out of the way just as the shot was fired. The seminarian died instantly. His killer was later acquitted by a jury made up of only of white men.

Jonathan Daniels in his own day was a divisive young seminarian, and today is face is carved in the ceiling at the National Cathedral in Washington, in a group of 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 of Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was put to death for his preaching.

Jonathan Daniels' bust in the National Cathedral.
Jonathan Daniels’ bust in the National Cathedral.
I don’t think Jesus just wanted all his followers to offer their lives so dramatically. Often “do this” is slower. Sometimes offering our lives means dedicating ourselves to education, or health care, or doing our best to make sure that day in and day out people get a fair shake in our justice system. Often “do this” means making room in your life to volunteer, to engage the political process, to help a neighbor struggling to raise kids on her own. There are a lot of ways of “offering your life.” There are many ways to put your flesh on the line, to have skin in teh game. There are people in this congregation who have put a lot of blood, and sweat, and tears into their work, paid and unpaid. When you make sacrifices for life of the world, that’s following Jesus too. That is also offering your life.

I think this self-offering way of life is what Jesus really has to offer our world. We live in a society that is pretty selfish. We think a lot about ourselves. We take a lot of selfies. We live in a society that is extremely violent. We live in a society that often seems to reward greed. The way of self-offering isn’t popular.

There is an old Cherokee legend about a Grandfather teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” the old man says to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other wolf is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The grandfather simply replied, “The one you feed.”

What will you choose to inwardly digest? Will we feed on anger, greed, division and violence of the world, or do we choose the self-offering way of Christ?

I have to confess, I am still learning this way of Jesus. If my sermon makes this choice seem simple. I can tell you, it’s not. Choosing what to inwardly digest, choosing to “do this” and to offer our lives for the world, really these are decisions we make cumulatively. We choose the way of Jesus in small ways each minute each and every day. I often make the wrong choice. We all do. It’s why I think it is good to come here to church, to confess our sins, to say our prayers, and to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the words of scripture. It’s why I come here, to be fed by the One who offered his life for the world. And I come to hear again and again, his invitation, to offer my life as well.

Marriage Equality, The Supreme Court, and The General Convention

Sometimes the middle ground is the wrong place to stand. As an Episcopalian, that statement, while true, works against my very bones. We like to consider ourselves a people of the via media. When the Church of England split with Rome, we sought to be a middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism. We tend to find a spiritual gift in balancing supposed opposites, but sometimes the middle way is not the way of Jesus. In the case of marriage equality, seeking some middle way at this General Convention would be a mistake.

In today’s Supreme Court ruling we are seeing a testament to movement. As I wrote in an earlier post, the millenial generation has already moved, already embraced marriage equality. But the movement is not simply about public opinion. As a Church we must ask ourselves, do we not see the movement of the Holy Spirit? In the posts from same-sex couples and their heterosexual allies online, in the celebration outside the court, in the joy in the halls of the Salt Palace, do we not discern God’s own Spirit moving us as a people?

Today the Justices handed down a ruling from a divided court to a still divided nation. Some had hoped the Court would rule more narrowly. In the decision, Justice Kennedy writes about this sense of legal “process” for marriage equality:

There may be an initial inclination to await further legislation, litigation, and debate, but…While the Constitution contemplates that democracy is the appropriate process for change, individuals who are harmed need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right.

Justice Kennedy’s words are profound, and should be heard by those Bishops and Deputies charged with deciding The Episcopal Church’s canons. Sometimes when we hold the middle ground, we cause harm. Dr. Martin Luther King said it another way: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” The Supreme Court justices have set a bar. Will The Episcopal Church reach for full marriage equality? Or will we settle for some middle ground?

As the legislation about liturgical marriage equality wends its way through committees toward the Houses of Bishops and Deputies, as a church we have to think about what our actions will say to the wider world. Jesus’ command in Matthew is clear: “Go forth into all the world and preach the Gospel.” We are a people of proclamation. Whether we embrace that identity or not, our legislation will be understood as proclamation. What will we proclaim? Will our General Convention proclaim that we see God moving in the marriages of same-sex couples?

I first served as a priest at St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square. I started there as a seminarian just a few months after the District of Columbia approved marriage equality. St. John’s started offering marriages for same-sex couples the day they were legal. Some were surprised because the rector, the Rev. Dr. Luis Leon hadn’t allowed blessings of “civil-unions” at the church. In explaining his position, Luis said to me, “I don’t know what a ‘civil union’ is theologically. I know what marriage is, and I see signs that God has already called same-sex couples into marriage.” My rector didn’t stand in the middle ground. He worked for full equality.

Many bishops have already stated their opposition to changing the canons on marriage for the sake of procedure. I honestly don’t know where we will end up at the end of this process. My hope is that we do not end up divided between the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops. I was gladdened by the post Bishop Shannon Johnston of Virginia wrote after he received strong pushback for his opposition to a canonical change: “I remain absolutely committed to full marriage equality in the ministry, life, and witness of our Church.” What encourages me more than his statement of openness is his surprise at the reaction to his initial denunciation of the canonical change. I do not think many in The House of Bishops understood the strong desire we have, as a church, for a move to marriage equality. I hope the bishops have simply been bogged down in process, and are waking up to the call of their Church: We are hungry to proclaim some good news on marriage equality.

If we are able to act for marriage equality this Convention, if we are able to make a substantial change to our Canons, if we are able to move toward allowing Prayer Book weddings for same-sex couples, we should proclaim that move boldly. We should proclaim this change isn’t simply about public opinion, marriage equality is about Good News. We will celebrate same-sex marriages in The Episcopal Church because we celebrate where God is leading us as a people. We can’t stand in a middle ground on this one, because God calls us somewhere higher.