Sermon: I Wish I Knew Anna’s Song

Preached today at Churchwide Chapel.

You can read it here:

“You are Anna. I am Anna. Her song is our song.

Her song is,
“Lift every voice and sing, till Earth and Heaven ring…”

Her song is,
“Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim…”

Her song is the Psalm Jesus uttered from the cross. Her song is the cries of anger and desperation and pain on the streets of Memphis, of Minneapolis, of St. Louis, of the girls in Iran, of children in our schools, of the teenage Mary predicting that the world was about to turn.

Is about to turn. About to turn, turn, turn, to every season turn, turn, turn…

Justice is not the Gospel, but the Gospel calls for justice, forgiveness, and a powerless love triumphing over loveless power.

We are all empowered to sing the Gospel song of powerless love triumphing over loveless power that we hear and know and have written on our heads, our tender hands, our hearts as this Jesus is presented to us over and over again in the face of the stranger, in the face in the mirror, in the face of those the world refuses to look in the face…”

On the Forms We Fill

He asked me to fill out the form.

He wanted his child to go to a very conservative Christian school, and the school required that their pastor fill out a form.

Two of the questions had to do with an eternal hell for unbelievers. Another had to do with the exclusiveness of Christianity as whole truth.

I filled it out honestly. It came back with “red flags.” I was asked to fill it out differently…which I would not.

A month later they left the congregation and joined one where the pastor could fill out the form without any “red flags.” No reason given. No goodbye.

Just gone.

On How We Don’t Have to Put Up With Bad Behavior

She came every month with a copy of the mailed newsletter in her hand, marked up with red ink. The office admin answered the door graciously every month, as she had been doing since before I arrived. She took the bloodied copy, said thank you, and put it on her desk, slumping down in her chair.

“Who was that?” I asked. I’d caught a glimpse of the woman out the window, and had never seen them before.

“Oh,” the admin said, “she comes every month to show me all the mistakes in the newsletter. She doesn’t go here anymore, but she used to I guess. She stopped coming because she said it’s too hard for her to get here…”

“But she can get here to critique the newsletter monthly? That makes no sense,” I said, shaking my head.

I looked at the copy. The editorial corrections she was suggesting (demanding?) were from an outdated form of writing, anyway. Her edits weren’t actual edits, just grammatical preferences.

“Why do we allow this?” I asked, honestly. “This is just bad behavior.”

A month went by, and one day I saw the car drive up. The woman stepped out, ink dripped copy in her hand. The admin sighed and got ready to head down to answer the door. “Let’s go together,” I said.

I opened the door before she rang, and she looked at me, surprised. “You must be the new guy,” she said, smirking at me.

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” I said extending my hand. “No, you won’t see me on Sundays. But I know the newsletter has a lot of issues and people care about that sort of thing, so I still edit it for you so, you know, you can see your mistakes.”

She held out the document.

“No thank you,” I said. “We don’t need you to edit it anymore.”

“You know,” she went on, “I used to be an editor for this church’s newsletter…”

“When was that?” I asked.

“I left in 1982,” she said.

“That’s a while ago. Why did you stop?” I asked, genuinely interested.

“I got mad,” she said with a smile, “you know how these things go…”

“I do,” I said, “which is why I’m not interested in letting it go on. You’re welcome here any time. But we won’t be accepting any more of your newsletter edits. Please do not show up here with this kind of thing ever again.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“I bet you have a family, don’t you?” she said with a smirk. “When you go home tonight, you tell your wife that today you met a WOW.”

“A WOW?” I repeated.

“Yes. A Wicked Old Woman,” she said, turning and walking back to her idling sedan.

She drove off. We never saw her again.

And we were better for it.

Don’t Be Dazzled

When it comes to the Transfiguration, Beloved, don’t be distracted by the dazzling clothes.

God who holds the law (Moses) in a hand that will be scarred will rule with justice tempered by mercy, not the other way around.

God who holds prophecy (Elijah) in a hand to be scarred will proclaim truth from behind the picket line, within the ranks of the needy and poor, from the place of poverty, not power.

Don’t be distracted by the dazzling clothes…that’s not where the miracle is.

The miracle is in the fact that God holds mercy over retribution and stands with the poor, not the powerful.

That’s dazzling.

Convert the Churches

Today the church honors not a saint, but rather an event: The Conversion of Saint Paul.

This conversion story is thrice told (I just wanted to use the word “thrice”) in the Scriptures, and Paul also references it three times in his letters. This repetition actually makes it one of the most oft-repeated events in the stories of the early church.

Paul, a zealous persecutor of Christians in ancient Palestine, is struck by a blinding vision and, reportedly, the voice of God, which leads him to become a follower of Christ.

This event may be the most influential event for the early church because Paul’s active conversion work (and theology) spread like wildfire throughout the ancient world, especially amongst Gentile communities.

It’s worth noting that this Feast Day also marks the end of the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” It is not an accident that the “Week of Prayer” starts with the Confession of St. Peter and ends with the Conversion of St. Paul, as the two of them did not get along at all. They had different ideas of what the faith should be and do, who should be included in the circle of believers, and yes, it appears they even had different working theologies (of which, I would argue, St. Paul’s ideas won out, for better or for worse).

The one thing they did agree on? To continue working on behalf of the poor.

The church longed for these two pillars of the faith to be reconciled so much that they put them on the same feast day, believing that if they couldn’t be friends in life, they would be companions in death.

The conversion of St. Paul is honestly a feast day I struggle with, mostly due to a long history of colonialism and forced conversions winding through the church’s past. Yet, there is something honest about the fact that Paul, on his own, had an experience with the Divine that made a shift in him, and that can be a force for good, by God.

Christian unity feels a bit like a dream most days. This feast day isn’t even celebrated in the Eastern Church. But, perhaps if we all had a conversion we all might just agree to do that one thing that Paul and Peter agreed on: work on behalf of the poor.

For that to be the case, a lot of the church will have to be converted in the process…

-historical pieces from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

-icon written by He Qi

Everyone Has a Holy Book

Everyone has a holy book.

I’ve seen people clutch their Bibles, but worship their checkbooks, counting and covering zero after zero. Retirement plans speak louder than God most days, right?

I’ve seen people clutch their scriptures, but bow to their partisan tract, carefully edited Twitter feed, their internet-assembled philosophic convictions shared in group emails people try to opt out of but can’t because “that’s just Uncle Bob,” and sure he’s xenophobic and racist, but he’s “from a different time” as if the past is an excuse for a prejudiced present.

I’ve watched people go straight from closing their New Testaments to complaining at the diner because the waiter has too many piercings, or balking at the short-staffed reality while in their back pocket their MAGA hat pads the seat of their unvaccinated butt, confused why more people aren’t at brunch in a pandemic.

Everyone has a holy writing that they live out. Some are emblazoned on hats.

I’ve seen people pray the prayers of the church but hold Marx as their true Messiah.

I’ve seen people walk from the Mosque, but all the while they have been calculating how much they’ll pocket next year with that big tax break.

I’ve seen people humbly exit the temple and enter the sacred Holy of Holies: the Jaguar dealer, where they haggle on saving more on a sleek purchase than most cars cost outright.

They say they trust in God’s grace, but throw an extra twenty in “just in case” because checkbooks are more tangible than forgiveness.

Everyone has a Holy Book, Holy Writings, words they hold at the center of their life and being.

And it’s often not the one they claim they follow.

All Life Begins in the Shadows

It’s an odd juxtaposition that happens when the secular and the sacred collide in these early Advent days. So many of us (at least, in America) are rushing to get that tree put up, the most ancient pre-Christian solstice symbol, and haul out the red and green decorations.

Meanwhile, the church is singing a bluer song and calling everything to hush for a bit, like you would when a baby is sleeping nearby.

Both responses to this time of year in this hemisphere is appropriate, of course. The ancient Celts would spend this time cozying up their indoor spaces, knowing they’ll be in the shadow of the fireplace for many hours in the coming months. They’d tie greenery to their door as an air freshener, and they’d make warm clothes, tell stories, and play indoor games. In this way, they’re not unlike all of us in our rush to decorate for the Christmas season.

But they’d do this other thing, too: they’d slow down. Their work would stop for a while, except for those necessary things needed to survive the winter. They’d rest longer, going to bed no long after night fell and waking late with the lazy solstice sun. They’d light candles in the morning and the evening, their new sun stolen from their fireplace outfitted with a huge log that, God willing, would last a good while.

They’d cozy and they’d slow.

The secular world is begging you to cozy at this moment. The sacred world is calling you to slow.

And, honestly, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as “secular” or “sacred.” Holiness pulsates through everything if our heartbeat is in rhythm with the Divine. So perhaps it shouldn’t be so much the “secular is calling you to cozy,” and the “sacred is calling you to slow,” but rather that the tensions pulling and pushing us in this world are felt forcefully in this moment, which is not a surprise.

We’re in a moment of change, evidenced by those last leaves falling to the ground.

Here’s a deep truth that all of these pushes and pulls point to: life begins in the shadows.

I don’t use “darkness” on purpose, by the way. As prophet and poet Nayyirah Waheed wrote in her collection _Nejma_,

“there is dark
and
there is anti light
these are not the same things”

Language has evolved to the point where we can be careful and choosy with our words (as imperfect as it might be).

Shadows, like that in the Valley of Death that the Psalmist sings of, is a more appropriate description, I think. We’re not talking about a color, we’re talking about an absence of illumination.

All life starts with an absence of illumination.

The Big Bang began with a deep vacuum bereft of light.

The womb which was our first home pulsated with life, but no light.

The seed trying to do what it is meant to do in this moment is buried under the weight of too much earth, and yet it lives.

Life begins in the shadows.

This is why the readings in the church here at the beginning of Advent aren’t of Mary or Joseph or a baby in a manger, but ones of foreboding and nighttime (Luke 21:25-36 kicks off this Advent cycle, and it’s a doozy!).

The church knows, as does the Earth, as has humanity from ancient days, that life begins in the shadows, so if we’re going to talk about redemption and salvation and resurrection and new life, we have to start here.

There is an 8th Century hymn that often kicks off Advent in many spaces, “Creator of the stars of night.” The Latin version of this text is most beautiful, “Conditor alme siderum…” the chorister sings in simple chant tone.

Sidus, where we get siderum can mean just “stars,” and certainly it does mean that. But in this usage it also means all the cosmic bodies: planets, meteors, stars, galaxies.

The church sings to the creator who filled up the vacuum of space and, like the Luke text, invites us to gaze up at the shadows of space in awe and wonder. In the night times of life we ponder such mysteries. Who hasn’t stayed awake in bed with their mind racing?

The shadows are meant for such pondering, for from such ponderings comes imagination and new life and all sorts of things never before seen, as frightening as those moments can be sometimes.

And, as it is, we’re again plunged into such a night time of life in this Advent season.

Change happens in the shadows. Newness starts in the shadows.

Life starts in the shadows.

So Advent must start in the shadows.

So, Beloved, cozy up and slow a bit. Ponder the mysteries with the ancients.

New life is starting.

When the Church Fought Nationalism

Today the church honors one of our moveable feast days, Christ the King Sunday, also known as Reign of Christ Sunday.

In 1922 the world was still reeling from World War I. Pope Pius XI, in his first official encyclical, said that while war hostilities had stopped, global tension was ever present. He decried the rise of nationalism across the globe.

Gonna say that louder for people in the back: the rise of nationalism across the world was seen as a real and present danger.

So Pope Pius XI, as a call for the church to take a stand against nationalism and extremism, instituted the last Sunday of the liturgical year to be a reminder for the world that our private ideologies and personal saviors will not, in the end, accomplish the peace necessary for humanity to thrive.

Only Divine peace can do that.

Now, I’m not a fan of this particular Sunday. To tag it on at the end of the liturgical year feels forced in many ways, and the readings are totally non-sequitur (though they fit with the theme of the day).

However, when seen through the lens of the original intent, especially in these days, it can be a corrective day for a humanity that is once again in the throes of nationalism, much of it housed in the pews of the church.

Nationalism is anti-Christ. There is no work around here; it just is. It puts hope in nativist ideology and not shared peacemaking.

Christ the King Sunday is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that there was a time when the church took on the rise of nationalism with a full throat.

And it could again.

-icon written by Vasilije Minić