This evening, I had the privilege of worshiping with the community at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. They asked me to preach and I have included my sermon, which responds to the readings and recent developments in the world. Gun violence has made the news in many forms, but particularly in questions of race and violence and in an armed standoff in Oregon. The news also includes today’s decision by Anglican Primates (heads of churches) to sanction The Episcopal Church and remove them from groups that represent the Anglican Communion (a group of churches that works together and is descended from the Church of England) to the larger world. Thus, I felt a need to respond to major tensions in world and church.
I’ve included a little more on the scripture passages than usual as they are odd and troubling. I always hope people will read them in full, but summaries can show you what’s going on. Note that Episcopalians have chosen to read through the whole Bible (or most of it) every two years. I didn’t pick the readings.
I Samuel 4:1c-11 (The Israelites and Philistines are at war. The Israelites bring forth the Ark of the Covenant in hopes that it’s power will save them, as it has in the past. The Philistines win, kill the high priest and steal the Ark.)
Psalm 44:7-14, 23-26 (Easiest to sum up with 44:6 “For I do not rely on my bow and my sword does not give me victory.)
Mark 1:40-45 (“A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”)
Where do you keep your covenant? The Reverend Matthew Simpson, Methodist Bishop of Philadelphia, related this story at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral. - To a minister who said he hoped the Lord was on our side, [President Lincoln] replied that it gave him no concern whether the Lord was on our side or not “For,” he added, “I know the Lord is always on the side of right;” and with deep feeling added, “But God is my witness that it is my constant anxiety and prayer that both myself and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.” Our reading from Samuel is a troubling one. The Philistines defeat the Israelites, they slaughtered the army, including the High Priest and stole away the Ark of the Covenant. It would be easy to interpret this as a just end for wickedness among the Israelites and particularly for wickedness committed by Phineas and his brother Hophni. Many commentators have taken exactly that approach. I’ve never thought God worked that way; Christians say that God gives us better than we deserve, and so I hope. Still, the story presents us with a very interesting question. Where do we place our trust? This is not simply a matter of trusting God – easy to say, hard to do – it is a matter of asking how we trust God and how we view our relationship with justice and mercy and the hope of life to come. The Israelites, when faced with loss, brought forth the Ark of the Covenant as a talisman and as a sign of God’s grace and as God’s seat on Earth. Inside the Ark were the stone tablets holding the Law given at Sinai. The Ark went before them through the Jordan river and around the city of Jericho, when they circled and the walls came tumbling down. Eventually it would be placed in the Holy of Holies, in the Temple of Jerusalem. Many, if not all, of you here have placed your trust in God, but I will ask you this: Where have you placed your Covenant? And where do you turn, when things don’t turn out as planned? Where do you go when your agreement with God doesn't seem to be working out? No doubt you, as I, have misunderstood the terms, once or twice, or wished to renegotiate. What do you do when the Covenant is not what you thought it was? That’s what this story is about. And that’s where the Good News is, as well. Where do you keep your covenant? We live in troubled and troubling times. Humans, perhaps, always do. We certainly did at the time of Samuel, and Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, whom we celebrate next week. Mary was perplexed and, I suspect troubled, when Gabriel came to her. And many of us face this challenge; sometimes it is that very thing God calls us to that most troubles us. It is the deepest darkness that requires light. So let us look at the world, and at our troubling times. Gun violence threatens the lives of all Americans, and disproportionately threatens the lives of the last and least. Worse yet, the fear this feeds for many a greater emotional dependence on guns. The police arm themselves more heavily and become more afraid of the people they want to protect; and so the people become afraid of the police – a vicious cycle. Our cities are beset by violence, and, so too, the countryside, as even in rural Oregon we face armed rebellion. Within the Anglican communion, we are all waiting, some more patiently than others, for the results of a meeting, premised on the threat of schism. Can we really say that the fear of division leads us, rather than the hope of unity? I will not dwell on sickness, either the sickness of our bodies as we struggle with bacteria and viruses, or the sickness of our souls as we struggle with a culture so focused on personal economic gain that we are blind to the consequences, both social and environmental. These are troubling times. Where do we keep our Covenant? Let me suggest that the Christian answer iss, and always has been, “within our hearts, written in letters of flame.” For God made of humanity a Temple, in that first breath of the Holy Spirit stirring up the dust; and in the incarnation of Christ, fully human and fully divine; and in the Spirit which descended upon the Church at Pentecost. And Jesus, a temple of flesh and blood replaced the Temple of stone. And we, as the Body of Christ, marked in baptism and joined in this meal, are that temple; Neither the Church of doctrine and creed – though that is important – Nor the church of constitution and canon – though that is important as well – Nor the church of stone. It is the living, breathing body of Christ, the image of God, seen in the eyes of neighbor; indeed when we respect the dignity of every human being, though we strive in the Church to be the best examples of that worldwide humanity. It’s not a complicated message, but I think it needs saying, for I need to hear it today. I must not put my trust in guns. I am a pacifist, but I know many conscientious activists, and neither I nor they will find safety or salvation in guns, nor in legislation about guns, though I think that step in the right direction. Guns and laws do not save God saves. And God saves through people. We must reach out to people, to bind ourselves together in communities of love, that may not end the violence in our lifetimes. To be honest I must say that. It is not an end to violence that will be our salvation, though I earnestly pray for that. It is an end to fear. Our hope for salvation lies in hope for a time when hearts are shaped by the Divine law of love, When we recognize God, as wild as a lion, as unpredictable as a hurricane, as baffling and deep as the depths of the sea and the depths of space. This God is more powerful than the weapons and the law, and more powerful than the fear, and this God has chosen love. This God has chosen healing. This God has chosen us. There is a fear in that; there is a Godly fear, of what such a God will wreak in the world and in our lives, there is a fear to be had for that author who writes in our hearts. It is a fear to wipe out all other fear, for God can change us more than all other forces. Were it power alone that made our choice, this would be a terrifying world. But is not power alone. It is love. It is a God who says to us, “look for me in the whirlwind, and in the deep, but above all in the face of this man Jesus, and in the face of your neighbor.” “Look for me in the eyes of the frightened child and the frightened gunman. “Look for me in the eyes of the starving mother and the banker. “Look for me in your heart and you will find me there.” Guns don’t save people; And laws don’t save people; And money doesn’t save people; And medicine doesn’t save people; People save people. People with guns and laws and money and medicine. It’s not about these things being good or evil – and I have my opinions; as do you – It’s about keeping our eyes on the prize, and on that law which is written in our hearts. We must bare them for all to see. Where do I keep my Covenant with God? Not in my heart, surely. It is neither constant enough or pure enough to bear those words, at least not today; at least not yet. No, I keep my Covenant in your hearts, in your eyes, in your faces, Where I read it and meditate on it and seek it out. I keep my Covenant in the words of friends, the love of Christians, the knowledge of academics, the discipline of students, the care of teachers. I get the Covenant wrong, because I have not yet read all of it. My heart is not pure and constant – yet Because it is not the full story; It is not the full agreement; It is not enough. It will not be made complete until it has been stitched together from the hearts of the world. And so I spend my days in contemplation of humanity, and of nature, and in meeting new parts of Creation, in the hopes of coming one step closer to that fulfillment. I hope I never have to face someone over the barrel of a gun, but I have been threatened with the law, and with the establishment, and with sickness, and with violence. I hope I always have the courage to look at whoever threatens me and love them. I hope that in this way, God’s purpose is working out, no matter the signs of the times or the present fear. I hope that I can look into their eyes with the love of Jesus. And I hope that when they look into my eyes, and ask for healing, I, too, will choose to help.
I often think in terms of sung theology and this service wrapped up with “God of Grace and God of Glory,” which I recommend as a particularly fitting capstone. If you think this way too, please check it out. (It’s H82 594 for the Episcopalians.)