Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Killing Perpetuates Killing

Killing Perpetuates Killing

A sermon given in St. John’s Episcopal Church, Williamstown, MA
December 31, 2006
The Rev. Peter Elvin
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
--John 1:1

Each time I have the privilege of reading that Gospel portion, the opening verses of the Gospel of John, our patron saint, I feel lifted off the floor, transported into the cosmos. It’s as if my eyes meet John’s words, my vocal chords vibrate with his thought, and I am released from the moment into a timeless realm where infinitely important things are happening.

I read those opening words, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” and I’m floating in the primeval stew of dust and gases that represent—however you picture it—the beginning, the creation of a living universe. And dancing there in this limitless nursery brilliant with light are God and the Word, the primary players, birthing the universe with the sparks of their passion.

What a distinctly different way to begin a Gospel—by comparison, say to Luke, who tells the story of the holy nativity that we heard on Christmas Eve, a story that expects us to look up to see sparks flying in the heavens, but to have our feet firmly planted on those hills where shepherds were keeping watch over their flock by night. That’s a flight of imagination we can handle. But John’s Prologue is extra-terrestrial, his opening shot has us on a space walk, weightless. Luke introduces us to Jesus, causing us to feel awe and face mystery; but John lifts us out of history, way beyond the influence of Quirinius, Governor of Syria, and Herod, Tetrarch of Galilee.

After a brush with the daily news, we may want to be lifted out of history. But we understand also the urging of Swiss theologian Karl Barth: Read your Bible with your daily newspaper, read the news with your eyes of faith. This weekend, history has been made with the execution of Saddam Hussein, a tyrant much in the mold of those Herods we encounter in the Gospels, dictators who never hesitated to use violence as their chief political tool.

As I preach today, I need to keep the Bible and the newspaper side by side.

In these past three years our country has overthrown Saddam’s regime, hunted him down, kept him in American custody until the very end rather than remand him to an international war crimes tribunal, and instead coached and supported an Iraqi court to administer Iraqi justice.

I wonder if you think that his execution is a good outcome?

When the verdict was announced, I was relieved. It stirred my heart to hear the words that he was being held responsible for the murder of innocent civilians in brutal retaliation for some expression of opposition he could not tolerate. Thank God, I thought. This says that vicious intimidation must end. They’re choosing to stop the spiraling by which an eye for an eye escalates to whole villages and neighborhoods being slaughtered.

Then, when I heard the sentence of death, I lost heart. It felt to me as if the moment had been lost. Couldn’t something new and stunningly counter-cultural in that land of revenge have been uttered, other than a death sentence? Could this have been a moment when the grinding routine of bloodlust was interrupted by some finer impulse that might have caught the attention of Shiites and Sunnis alike? Could some word have been made flesh, other than retribution?

Perhaps I’m showing how naïve I can be. Iraq is not South Africa. What took so long to happen in that crazy courtroom in Baghdad was decidedly not what happened in so many courtrooms across the long seasons of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings. There, under the eye of Archbishop Tutu, mature wisdom required that all parties in the nation willingly suffer openly and non-violently by daring to tell their truth to one another in heartwrenching exorcism of a nation’s demons, victims and victimizers telling their stories, hearing one another, addressing one another. They worked out their anguished history by allowing the word to become flesh among them, one painful story at a time. By comparison to what we are seeing in Iraq, what we saw in Desmond Tutu’s courtrooms was grace and truth.

Saddam Hussein was a villain. By his choice of violence as a political tool, intimidating everyone around him, he deserved being vilified. What he did to the Iraqi people was vile.

But to vilify someone can be a perilous thing. The aim is to disgrace and degrade this person in order to make of him an object lesson to all who come after: Saddam was wrong, wrong to use killing as his constant answer to opposition and offense, and wrong in thinking that he could get away with it without one day answering for it. He deserved to be vilified.

And when someone stands vilified, it is a very short step indeed to get rid of him. Why allow someone that morally vile to live? Why not kill him? That would show what is deserved by one who behaves as he did, what the penalty is for such wrong. And one hopes to prevent that wrong from happening again.

But to vilify someone can be a perilous thing. We may demonize the villain, locate every trace of evil in him; we may isolate his responsibility for evil and then we may be tempted to stop paying attention to all other evils that have contributed to what we find so vile. We may be deluded by the thought that only the villain has evil about him, only he has responsibility. He’s bad, we’re good. That’s an appealingly simpler world than the actual complicated one we inhabit.

Archbishop Tutu recognized this danger, that to let Lady Justice keep her blindfold on, to press for the full extent of justice deserved, could have tempted South Africans to choose a brutal future. He prevented that. He led his people to a mature grasp of evil, then to a rediscovery of the personal power of mercy and pardon, and on to the reconciling of victims and victimizers who must learn to live together in one land. He also understood that the heritage of decades of oppression is a great blurring of the boundaries between victims and victimizers. In the face of tyranny, all may be victims and all may become victimizers.

To all who receive such wisdom, such truth, is given power to become—to see and treat one another as—children of God, born not just of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

The Episcopal Church has consistently expressed opposition to capital punishment. While it is an ancient choice, and by custom a familiar choice, our Church teaches that it is the wrong choice to put anyone to death as a form of punishment. Killing perpetuates killing.

Those three words could be the epitaph on the tombstone of the nation of Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s execution may incise those words yet more deeply.

God has given into our constant care the making-flesh of his Word. We must read the Bible and the newspaper, faith seeing the world, the world asking of faith “What is the Word? How does God speak to us now?”

The nations know how Herods and Saddams rule by death. How shall the nations see such vindication as we heard the prophet Isaiah promise, to show all kings a glory worthy of life?

All are imprisoned and guarded under the law, said the apostle Paul today, until faith is revealed by God’s making-flesh of such love in human hearts as will teach all people to know God as Abba, Father, Ammi, Mother. How do we show this love and assert its primacy over law?

Luke’s familiar Christmas story helps us appreciate who Jesus the Son of Man is. John’s cosmic Christmas story shows us what it means to call this Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. In this opening portion of his first chapter, John tells why he writes his Gospel: To all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God.

Isn’t that wonderful, that to tell his version of the coming of Christ John shoots us to the stars to gain the big picture of what God is about, then showers stardust on us, returns the story to the universe of our own hearts, and invites us to receive Jesus Christ, to believe in his name, to take our place in the nursery of light as children of God so that we may grow into the full stature of Christ.
Let’s stay up among the stars long enough to take a good look at this fragile earth, our island home, a precious gift that the human race does not know how to share with justice and peace. Long enough to keep alive the image of one miracle, this planet shimmering with life, and to make room for another miracle, the new light of God’s incarnate Word kindled in our hearts to shine clearly in our lives, the power within us to care for the precious gift of our lives, and all life, the power to make-flesh God’s Word to God’s world.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Power Resolving to Light

A sermon given in St. John’s Episcopal Church, Williamstown, MA
January 7, 2007
The Rev. Peter Elvin

The twelve days of Christmas do feel short when the calendar gives us just one Sunday between the nativity and the epiphany. Then, once January 6 comes and goes, the Book of Common Prayer shifts our attention from the star and the arrival of the magi to—ta da—the baptism of Jesus as a grown man. That’s fast-forwarding the story, isn’t it? You’ll notice we’ve dug our heels in and kept the crèche and wreaths up for their last hurrah…

Making this sense of woosh more dramatic this time around was a truncated Advent, that fourth Sunday buried in the avalance we call Christmas Eve.

This is almost enough to persuade me that our Eastern Orthodox friends do it right, saying that it isn’t fully Christmas until the twelve days end and the magi arrive and the story is full.

But, then again, the story isn’t full and complete until the fat angel sings on Easter Day… even then, the Gospels go on to tell of stunning appearances of our risen Jesus, then his ascension into heaven. And Luke is so full of story that he needs a second volume to tell it, the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, to tell the coming of the Holy Spirit upon all the believers (quite like she came down today on Jesus at his baptism), the birth of the Church, her early exploits and startling growth, the adventures of the action hero St. Paul and his sidekicks Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, and other stars of faith like Sapphira, Stephen, Tabitha, Peter, Lydia, Mark… In other words, Jesus’s story isn’t complete until it gets down to including you and me, and all his people today. St. John our patron ends his Gospel by saying, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

So I should stop kvetching about the whizzing-by of time, about feeling just a bit disoriented by this rollicking procession of stories that takes us from Bethlehem to the Jordan, from our Lord’s infancy to his adult public ministry, in just thirteen short days. Like whirlwind tours of Europe, if it’s day 13 this year we’re standing in the muddy Jordan. We are where we are. In the grip of winter. Williams students are completing their first week of April study, shorts and tee shirts greet 70-degree conditions, and those white balls on your neighbors lawn are… golf balls. We are not disoriented. Just adaptable.

So is our Lord Jesus. Today, we see him stripped of clothing, standing knee-deep in the murky waters of the Jordan River, being baptized by John the Baptist. To appreciate what you’re seeing, remember last Sunday’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

From that resplendent font of being, from those realms of heaven’s glory, the Word has been made flesh in Jesus, the Christ of God present at the Big Bang is yoked to Jesus born of Mary. George Herbert turns this story to verse:

Hast thou not heard, that my Lord JESUS died?
Then let me tell thee a strange story.
The God of power, as he did ride
In his majestic robes of glory,
Resolv’d to light; and so one day
He did descend, undressing all the way.

Isn’t that wonderful? The full poem appears at the end of this sermon, for your pleasure.

Undressed he is, to be baptized today. Right, that isn’t baptism as we know it today, not Christian baptism, not yet. John’s baptism was a Jewish rite of moral-spiritual recommitment to God’s reign of justice and peace, and to this revival John called all people, poor and rich, urban and rural, educated and illiterate—and that’s the point. Jesus hasn’t undressed just to stand in simplest flesh and blood: he has done this to stand with you and me, available to us, identified with us, committed to us, us all, all sorts and conditions.

Let me read you the next stanza in Herbert’s poem:

The stars his tiara of light and rings obtain’d,
The cloud his bow, the lightning his spear,
The sky his azure mantle gain’d.
And when they ask’d, what he would wear;
He smil’d and said as he did go,
He had new clothes amaking here below.

In the first-century Church that wrote and kept Luke’s story of our Lord’s baptism, adult baptism was the norm because Christianity was a revival movement (at first within Judaism) that called adults, called them to commit their lives to God known in the Jewish ways of Creator and Spirit, and also in the new way of Jesus the Christ, the Word made flesh. And people indeed fully undressed to be baptized, and were fully submerged three times in a lake or river, each time in the name of one of those three ways God is known and loved, and then would be brought to shore and clothed in a plain white linen tunic, the same kind of garment for every person united to Christ, his new clothes amaking, and would be given milk and honey to drink, sign of entering the promised land, the kingdom of God. In those days, the Church’s semi-sacramental refreshment wasn’t coffee, but milk and honey.

“Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” St. Paul urges us in his Letter to the Romans. Jesus’s last words to his disciples, in Luke’s Gospel, are “Stay where you are until you have been clothed with power from on high.” The early Church knew that his new clothes are for us. They are a symbol of unqualified love, love without conditions, the embrace that Jesus heard and felt at his baptism and which he gives to us: “You are my son, my daughter, beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The Christian Way calls people through baptism to enter a community committed to the calling of the Law and the Prophets, which we know Jesus has fulfilled in his life. By union with
his life through baptism, believers have his spiritual moral power to love, to do justice, to make peace: we seek to do it his way, let him do it through us, with us. This is baptism beyond John’s; John called people to do good, to be good. There is still about this too much of the old belief that we must earn the approval of God by good works of our own. Christian baptism calls people to let the good embrace them, fill them, own them, direct them—and unite them in a body, his body, of which he is head and heart and mind and soul and strength.

As we walk in a new year, there’s much to disorient us. “Disorient” is a great word to understand: Dis-, to cut apart from. Orient, east. To be cut apart from a sense of where east is—in the thought of ancient cultures, to be cut off from God. “Disaster” is a related word: to cut apart from “-aster”, star, to be cut off from the orderly movement of the stars, to be ill-starred. Ancient thoughts preceding Christianity, before Judaism.

These times are out of joint, and we are full of questions. Is our balmy winter the result of an innocent El Nino or a foretaste of disaster to befall our planet?

In the war we are fighting against terror, are we convinced that we’re fighting the right enemy, the one that threatens us most? War is disaster, a failure of diplomacy, a failure of imagination, a failure to try alternatives. How do we regain direction, set course by the right star, turn around this disastrous war? We’ll hear about that this week. Whether we believe what we hear is another matter.

George Herbert describes the epiphany in a poet’s few words rivaling volumes of theology:

The God of power, as he did ride
In his majestic robes of glory,
Resolv’d to light; and so one day
He did descend, undressing all the way.

Power resolving to light, shedding its prerogatives to complete its mission. How might this country’s power resolve to light? Could it be by embracing the science it now fears and silences, keeping knowledge from guiding our governance and leadership in the world? Imagine the power of this nation focused on subduing global warming and helping the world prepare for what cannot be prevented. Imagine the resources of our country invested in global attack on poverty.

Epiphany: the revealing of how the God of power resolves to light, a season when God teaches this skill to kings—let’s hope, also, to presidents, and governors. A time for all to be open to reorienting grace, for all of us to pay attention, wherever and however grace chooses to appear.

George Herbert’s poem “The Bag”

Away despair; my gracious Lord doth hear.
Though winds and waves assault my keel,
He doth preserve it: he doth steer,
Ev'n when the boat seems most to reel.
Storms are the triumph of his art:
Well may he close his eyes, but not his heart.

Hast thou not heard, that my Lord JESUS died?
Then let me tell thee a strange story.
The God of power, as he did ride
In his majestic robes of glory,
Resolv’d to light; and so one day
He did descend, undressing all the way.

The stars his tiara of light and rings obtain’d,
The cloud his bow, lightning his spear,
The sky his azure mantle gain’d.
And when they ask’d, what he would wear;
He smil’d and said as he did go,
He had new clothes amaking here below.

When he was come, as travelers are wont,
He did repair unto an inn.
Both then, and after, many a brunt
He did endure to cancel sin:
And having giv’n the rest before,
Here he gave up his life to pay our score.

But as he was returning, there came one
That ran upon him with a spear.
He, who came hither all alone,
Bringing nor man, nor arms, nor fear,
Receiv’d the blow upon the side,
And straight he turn’d, and to his brethren cried,

If ye have anything to send or write,
(I have no bag, but here is room)
Unto my father’s hands and sight
(Believe me) it shall safely come.
That I shall mind, what you impart;
Look, you may put it very near my heart.

Or, if hereafter any of my friends
Will use me in this kind, the door
Shall still be open; what he sends
I will present, and somewhat more,
Not to his hurt. Sighs will convey
Anything to me. Hark despair, away.