Surely it is easier to just say the words rather than trying to move our voices to some melody, and yet singing has almost always been an important way in which God’s people have demonstrated their love for him. In scripture we find the “Song of Moses,” the “Song of Miriam,” the “Song of Hannah,” the “Song of Solomon,” and of course the Psalms themselves, all poetry that we believe was originally sung to God, just like our hymns or praise songs are sung today. Why do we sing? We sing because we believe that it gives glory and honor and praise to God in ways that surpass the spoken word. One could probably make the argument that music was invented for worship, and there aren’t many religious traditions that don’t include it in some form. But of course, music and song are not the only ancient ways in which we worship God; there is another way that is equally, if not more, ancient: incense.
Whenever I hear a priest explain the use of incense in Catholic worship I invariably hear one of the following arguments or statements:
Incense symbolizes our prayers rising to heaven
Incense is fragrant and engages our sense of smell in worship
Incense was used in the ancient times to mask bad odors
While all of these arguments have some truth to them (and I must admit I have used them myself at times), they all fall short of identifying the primary, and most important, reason that incense is used in worship: We offer incense to glorify God.
Incense is quite simply burned as an offering to God. The rising smoke of the incense fills the air with something beautiful in the same way that our voices fill the air when we sing. They are both ways in which God’s faithful people have sought to honor and worship their creator from the earliest biblical times. We don’t talk about singing as if it were symbolic of worship; it is worship. Music in church is not there to entertain the congregation; it is there to glorify God. We need to start thinking of incense in the same way.
From the Book of Exodus, wherein Aaron is instructed to build an altar of incense in front of the ark of the covenant (Exodus 30: 1-9), to the Book of Revelation, where an angel stands before the throne of God, offering God “a great quantity of incense” along with the prayers of all the saints (Revelation 8:3), incense is routinely offered in the worship of God. In Psalm 141, the psalmist writes:
I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me;
Give ear to my voice when I call to you.
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.
The psalmist is assuming that the burning incense and the evening sacrifice are acceptable to God, and he is praying that his prayers, however feeble our faulty they may be, may be as acceptable. Nowhere does the psalmist imply that the incense is merely symbolic of true worship; he actually implores God that his prayers may be as truly worshipful as offering incense.
In fact, the one time in which scripture comes down very hard on the burning of incense is when it is treated as just a symbol. The prophet Isaiah famously describes offerings as “futile” and incense as an “abomination” when he is excoriating Israel for divorcing the external forms of worship from true conversion of the heart (Isaiah 1:13). Worship is not meant to be an empty symbol or ritual, but an outpouring of the internal love we have for God, an outpouring which should also manifest itself in a desire to do good and resist evil. The problem here is not the incense or the offerings; the problem is when our rituals become disconnected from our devotion.
I know plenty of churches that value music in worship, but not incense. I cannot think of any churches that value incense, but not music. I do not think it is any accident that the churches that use incense most liberally are also the churches most inclined to sing large portions of the service. Perhaps we appreciate (even if only subconsciously) that both the smoke and the song are solemn offerings to God. They are lifted into the air, not primarily for our entertainment, but as an offering for the worship and glorification of the Almighty.
Sure, all sorts of symbols abound in our worship, and music and incense can (hopefully) be pleasing to the ear or the nose, but please, let’s stop telling people that that is why we are using them. Our primary purpose should always be the praise and adoration of God. Everything else is just gravy.
If you were to enter almost any Catholic Church (either Roman Catholic of Anglo-Catholic) before the 1960s you would almost certainly have seen the clergy vested in a white linen garment known as an alb. Very often these albs were decorated with an extensive amount of lace. The lace in an alb served two important functions: first on a very practical level, the lace makes the garment lighter and more breathable (and saying mass in several layers of robes in churches before the invention of air-conditioning this was a welcome introduction indeed); second, and far more importantly, lace was symbolic of the amount of effort and care being put into the worship of God.
Before machines could make lace quickly and cheaply, it represented something of a luxury. Lace was expensive and very hard to make. Its intricate patterns were woven by hand and represented countless hours of toil and care. When lace first became available and fashionable, its use was not considered a sign of femininity, but of nobility, so it was quite natural that in seeking to worship the King of Kings, the church would very often employ lace in its linens and vestments to symbolize the supreme transcendence of God.
Of course, lace was not the only sign of nobility used in the worship of God. Chalices were to be ornate and made of the finest metal. Vestments and robes needed to be beautiful and splendid. Churches had altars that were intricately carved and windows that colorfully illustrated the stories of our faith. The worship of God was not something incidental: time, effort and treasure were devoted to make going to church the most awe-inspiring experience that most people ever had.
How far we have come. This past week I have twice encountered prejudice within the church against priests who still find great value in maintaining and wearing traditional vestments. It has happened plenty of times before, but enough is enough. So here are a few things I want everyone to know about traditional vestments and the priests who wear them:
Femininity has nothing to do with it. Wearing traditional vestments has nothing to do with having a lace fetish and wanting to wear frilly things (not that there is anything wrong with that). Indeed, I sometimes wonder about the implied misogyny that seems to exist in so many put-downs about traditional vestments looking feminine. So what if they do? We need to recognize that our ideas about what is masculine and/or feminine have changed over time (just look at portraits of kings and queens through the ages if you don’t believe me). The church’s vestments evolved long before trousers became a thing, so maybe we should stop trying to assign them a gender. And while we are on this subject, it is worthwhile to state: not every priest that wears and values traditional vestments is opposed to the ordination of women! I, for one, love a good lace alb, and fully support women wearing them too.
The vestments are not there to make me look special. The robes are not worn to glorify the priest, they are worn to glorify Christ. As a priest, I am a sinner in need of redemption just like everyone else. During the mass, I act in the person of Christ, to say his words of institution over the bread and wine and distribute his body and blood to his faithful people. It is a moment that is supremely not about me at all, but about Christ and what he has done. The time, effort and expense put into beautiful vestments is not done to make me look special, but rather to remind all of us how special Christ is and how glorious this meal is that he has invited us to.
We are not trying to turn back time. I love patristic theology, early mass settings, medieval architecture, baroque vestments and altar furnishings, and even the occasional modern praise song (gasp!). My standard when evaluating church things is not “is it new?” or “is it old?” but “is it good?” What I have found, time and time again, is that things that have managed to stand the test of time have usually done so because they have lasting value from one generation to the next. I have no desire to go back to the days before civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights or air-conditioning, but I do believe that the people that lived before and through those times still probably have a lot to teach me. Just because we find timeless wisdom and value in things that are traditional does not mean that we fail to see the importance of the progress that has been made along the way as well. For the record, most priests that I know that have strong preferences for traditional worship are actually quite young, and much of the laity that are attracted to this type of worship are fairly young as well. This isn’t about catering to the blue-haired ladies in our congregations as much as it is looking to what is resonating with children and youth.
This is not about some secret desire to be Roman Catholic. On many occasions people have visited my church and commented “This is just like Roman Catholic” to which I would like to reply “When is the last time you visited a Roman Catholic Church?” Traditional vestments were a hallmark of both Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic churches up until the 1960s, when after the reforms of Vatican II, the Roman church began moving toward more modern vestments (and by modern I mean reflecting style, material and color trends of the 1960s and 70s). Today very few Roman Catholic parishes worship in traditional vestments or follow the older Tridentine form of the mass. The fact is that Episcopal priests that wear cassock-albs, modern-styled vestments and worship at West-facing altars have far more in common with their Roman Catholic colleagues than those of us that have a preference for fiddle-back chasubles, and that is fine, it really is. I have no problem with priests and churches that can feel connected to Christ through newer rites and modern aesthetics. As long as it is faithful to the gospel and works for the community, great. Go with it. What I do have a problem with is the notion that those of us who connect with traditional worship in all its forms and finery on some level do not belong in the mainstream church and are just waiting for an excuse to leave. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am a mainstream Anglican in the Episcopal Church and that is right where I intend to stay, but if we say that our church has room for a variety of styles in worship, then we should live that out by not trying to force traditional worshipers off to the margins, or even worse, out of the picture altogether.
Ultimately the lace may not matter, but style does. Style and substance go hand in hand. We need to get that. People pay more attention to what we do than what we say. If we put more effort into setting a nice table for a dinner party than we do preparing ourselves for worshiping at Christ’s altar, what does that say about our priorities? Say what you will about traditional worship, it is seldom sloppy or irreverent. It takes Christ seriously.This is not some show that we are putting on week after week, it is the worship of God, and it is that very same worship that has led many a faithful Anglo-Catholic to serve Christ in the streets and in the hearts and bodies of those in need, as well as at his high altar. Maybe a Solemn High Mass isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I get that, but please stop suggesting that we are going through all of this effort for any other reason than to glorify God.
The next time you see a priest wearing a lace alb consider this: he or she has probably done so as a conscious choice, but it may not be for the reason you think. He might not be trying to make a statement about his stance on some political issue in the church. He might not be trying to dress like a historical figure from ages past. He might not be trying to draw attention to himself by wearing something grand our outlandish. He might, just might, have seen something very beautiful and thought “surely this is worthy of God.”
Sirach 10:12-18 Psalm 112 Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 Luke 14:1, 7-14
On Thursday, September the 29th, for the Feast of Michaelmas, Bishop Geralyn Wolf will be with us to bless and dedicate our new front entrance, including and especially the new stained glass windows in our doors.
Now if you haven’t had the chance to stop and look closely at these windows, I urge you to do so at some point. Particularly the four archangels who are depicted on the four doors on either side of the two center doors. Now some of these archangels are probably familiar to you. I am sure you have heard of Michael the archangel, patron of police officers and those in law enforcement: soldiers. No doubt you have heard of the Archangel Gabriel, the one who announced to the Virgin Mary that she was with child. And you may have heard of the Archangel Raphael, who is the patron of healing; some hospitals, in fact, are dedicated to or named after Raphael. But I would venture to say that the archangel you know the least about, is the one that is featured on the Northernmost door, which is Uriel.
You may not have even heard of Uriel before, and the reason for that is that the scripture that Uriel comes from is in the part of the Bible that we know as the Apocrypha or the deutero-canonical books, which we don’t read all that often. You actually got a snippet of one of those books this morning in our first reading: the Book of Ecclesiasticus, but there are others and some of them are quite wonderful. This particular book that Uriel is in called Esdras (2nd Esdras to be specific), is fascinating and it is a shame that we don’t read it more often. In the Book of Esdras, there is the prophet Ezra and he is lamenting the state of his people. He is lamenting that the Hebrews have been hauled off into exile and he is beating his head against all of the inhumanity in the world. Ezra is perplexed at how people can be so cruel to one another and why they have to suffer so much. He is questioning God: Why God, why is there so much suffering in the world? Why are my people (your people) suffering? Why are you forcing them into exile?
As Ezra is questioning God, suddenly there appears to him this angel Uriel. And Uriel says to Ezra: I’ll answer your questions, but first you have to tell me three things: how much does fire weigh? how do you measure the wind? how do you bring back a day that has passed?
And Ezra stands back and is perplexed and says: who on earth, what human on earth could answer those questions? There is no way I could possibly answer those questions for you! And Uriel says to him: If you cannot understand the things of this world, of which you have experience, how do you possibly think that you could understand the things of God?
I love that story. In part, because I have so often found myself in the place of Ezra, questioning God and wondering why things are happening to certain people and why people are suffering and why the world is the way it is. And here is this story with this angel of God coming to remind Ezra, and the rest of us, that God is so much more mysterious than we can imagine. We as humans are very limited in our understanding of the world. We like to congratulate ourselves and convince ourselves that we are brighter and more clever than we are and that we have actually figured a lot more out than we really have. But if we are honest with ourselves as humans we will recognize that there is so much in the material world that we don’t understand and don’t appreciate. we can’t even look at the bottom of the ocean; it remains completely mysterious to us and we are still finding new animals on this planet, and yet with our limited understanding of the material world we think that we are going to comprehend all of the mysteries of God’s world? I think not.
This story reminds us of our limitations as humans. We are not nearly as bright and as clever as we think we are. God is more powerful and mysterious than our minds could ever conceive. If we can’t even fully understand or appreciate the world around us that we can see and touch, what makes us think that our individual minds can fully understand God?
Now Uriel goes on to explain and reveal quite a lot to Ezra, and he is the patron of divine revelation and inspiration, but more importantly he makes him understand the importance of approaching God with humility.
Humility is the key to having faith. Humility allows us to recognize that we are not as smart, as righteous, as good, as glorified as we might wish that we were.
As long as God exists, there will always be a standard higher than our own. There will always be someone or something greater than us: a higher authority than our own judgment. If we try to eliminate God from our lives, then we become the standard by which we measure the world.
Christians often get blamed for being self-righteous, and sometimes we are. People of faith in general get accused of being self-righteous, and sometimes that is true. But if you really want to be with someone who is truly self-righteous, go and hang out with an avowed atheist. I’m not talking about your casual atheists: people that question God or are not sure what they believe, or have doubts. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about your professional atheists: the people who publish books about God not being great, or God being dead. I’m talking about these people: people that make their career by claiming that there is no other higher power; that there is no other standard other than the standard that they set, and only the absolute truth which they proclaim. That is true self-righteousness: believing that there is no other higher power and believing that you are really in control of the world around you, and that you completely understand the world around you. That is true self-righteousness.
Faith begins by acknowledging that we are not the ultimate authority in this world, that we do not understand and know everything, that we cannot understand and know everything. That doesn’t mean we don’t have beliefs. We absolutely do. It doesn’t mean that we don’t hold onto things that we believe have been revealed to us, we absolutely do. I am a very traditional person as you all know, because I believe that tradition is there as a help and a guide to us, but I believe that tradition has to be approached with humility. My personal philosophy is that unless I have a good reason to depart from tradition (a very, very good reason) that I will default to whatever the traditional stance is. It is because I don’t trust myself. It isn’t because I am convinced that I am right; it is quite the opposite actually. I am convinced and I know very well that I can be wrong. I don’t trust myself to make all of the right liturgical choices or scriptural choices. I believe that God and our tradition is so much larger than me, or one priest, or one generation of priests. Therefore I am going to look to those things that have lasted generation after generation after generation, because there I find that perhaps God is revealing something to us that is lasting, unchanging and worthwhile. But in doing so I recognize that it is always possible to be wrong. Even in adhering to tradition, I recognize that it is possible for me as a human or us as a collective group to make mistakes. We adhere to tradition out of humility, not out of pride or arrogance.
In this morning’s gospel, our Lord’s admonition to always take the lowest place at the table is actually quite practical advice, but it also points to a deeper spiritual reality: pride and vainglory are not to be dismissed as minor sins; they are in fact symptoms of a deep spiritual sickness. The one who has to assume the highest place at the table on their own is someone who probably doesn’t have a right view of themselves in relation to God, their neighbors and the rest of the world.
That sort of pride and vainglory is not left to humans alone though. We are not the only ones that suffer from it. I would point out to you that while we talk about the four archangels in our windows in the front, that there are actually five angels depicted in
those windows. You probably haven’t thought about that, but there are five angels depicted in those windows. One of those angels, was one who traditional tells us was very proud. He sought to assert himself over God. He thought that he was equal with God, if not better than God. That angel was cast down. If you are looking for that angel he is at the feet of Saint Michael. We know him as the serpent, as Satan or as Lucifer, but the tradition says that what he was was an angel that sought to glorify himself, rather than allow God to glorify him. If we wonder what happens to those who glorify themselves it is spelled out for us very clearly in our first reading this morning:
The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord;
the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.
For the beginning of pride is sin,
and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.
Therefore the Lord brings upon them unheard-of calamities,
and destroys them completely.
The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers,
and enthrones the lowly in their place.
The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations,
and plants the humble in their place.
The Lord lays waste the lands of the nations,
and destroys them to the foundations of the earth.
He removes some of them and destroys them,
and erases the memory of them from the earth.
Pride was not created for human beings,
or violent anger for those born of women.
If we can acknowledge and see the truth in the statement that the beginning of pride is sin, then may we also acknowledge, and believe, that the beginning of faith is humility.
Or so asks the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah this morning. What has straw in common with wheat? Jeremiah is railing against false prophets in this passage. He is drawing a comparison between those prophets who truly have the word of the Lord, and those that are just promoting their own agenda. In the middle of this comparison he asks this interesting question: what has straw in common with wheat?
It is an interesting question, because the truth is, straw actually has a lot in common with wheat. Straw and wheat are the same plant. It’s a type of grass. When it grows and becomes ripe it is harvested. The seed, or the grain, is separated from the stalk and the leaves. The seed is wheat, the stalk is straw. So really, between one part of the plant and another there is quite a lot in common: it grows in a common field, it has a common look and smell, a common life really. There is so much in common between wheat and straw, and yet only the wheat has life within it. It is only the wheat, the grain, that can be planted again and create new life, and it is only the wheat, that can be crushed, transformed into flour and worked into bread; bread that can nourish us and sustain our lives. Humans can’t live on straw; horses can, their bodies our built to digest it, but ours aren’t. If we could manage to chew it, it might fill us up, but it can’t nourish us. We need wheat.
So this is how Jeremiah wants us to look at these two types of prophets and two types of prophecies: they may look alike and smell alike, they may in fact have a lot in common, but at the end of the day only one has the power to give life. Only one can nourish us.
So what are these two different types of prophecies or prophets that Jeremiah is talking about? Well the prophets of the true God, and there are many more than just Jeremiah, as he points out, the true prophets challenge God’s people. They preach a word that convicts them, calls them to change, calls them to put aside the false Gods that they have made by their own hands, to put aside idolatry and to return to the one, true, living God, who alone has the power to give life. Those are the true prophets; they may not be a barrel of laughs or much fun at a party, but they are the ones that help us to grow.
The other prophets? Jeremiah points out that God is well aware of them. He hears what they preach and yet can’t remember saying it himself. They are preaching from their own imaginations and dreams. They aren’t challenging the false Gods of the people; the people aren’t being asked to change their ways. Since the people are not being continually redirected to the true and living God, they are gradually turning away from him; moving further and further away, until eventually they even forget his name. Now let’s not kid ourselves here: we like these prophets; we like them because they make us feel good about ourselves, they don’t challenge us to change anything in our lives, we don’t have to examine our motives; they tell us that it is ok to stay just as we are: no need to grow, no need to change, no need to repent. Perfect for a party, but perhaps not so good for growing closer to the true God. Their words are straw: filling perhaps, maybe even comforting, but there is no life in them.
There is so much straw in the church today. Not just our church, not just the Episcopal Church, but in all churches there is straw; different types of straw maybe, but straw nonetheless. We have a lot of false Gods out there that we keep running after. We have made a lot of false Jesus’s, or perhaps not false, but at least incomplete. We cut out the words of scripture that challenge us. We dispense with any image of God that isn’t warm and fuzzy and we create (to quote the old Depeche Mode song) our own personal Jesus. We have liberal Jesus, the guy who only cares about the poor and the environment and convincing the world to take a big group hug. We have conservative Jesus, the Jesus of family values, who lets you keep your money, but makes you feel compelled to spend it on statues of him playing sports with your kids.
The problem with both of these Jesus’ is that they are straw men. They are one-sided caricatures of Jesus that don’t challenge us. They are easy and comforting and they ask very little of us. They aren’t the real Jesus. If you spend enough time reading scripture, and reading all of it, not just the happy parts, not just the warm and fuzzy parts, if you read all of it, at some point you are going to encounter a tough word from God. At some point Jesus is going to say something that you won’t like, and you can choose to either wrestle with it, or you can skip over it, walk away and ignore it and chase after the Jesus that makes you feel righteous without actually having to be better than you are.
This morning we get one of those tough words from Jesus. If you think that Jesus is all about peace, love and happiness: you are in for a surprise. If you think that Jesus is all about family values: you are also in for a surprise. This morning, Our Lord Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, says to us:
Do you think I have come to bring peace to the word? No, I tell you, but rather division.
And it’s not just going to be about one nation against another: it is a division that can separate our very families: the most intimate bonds. That is a tough word to swallow. It isn’t comforting, but if you have lived long enough in this world you will recognize that it is truth. Sometimes following God can mean making choices that you don’t want to make. This is the wheat of our faith. This is wheat because passages that challenge us and make us question our assumptions about ourselves and about God, those passages are the ones that put real life in our faith; those passages are the ones that make us grow. Whenever we read something that makes us question our own righteousness, that is when we are growing in our walk with God. Yes, sometimes we need God to embrace us, to pick us up and to love us in all our brokenness. We believe he does that, and thank you God for doing that, but sometimes we also need a kick in the pants; sometimes we need God to challenge us to do better, to be better. Sometimes we need to be redirected away from the idols of our own making and back to the God who actually saves us. Sometimes we need to be reminded that maybe God doesn’t always make the same choices we do, and just maybe, God doesn’t always vote the way we do. Last time I checked, Jesus was neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but we love to pick and choose his words to make him always agree with us. It is so easy to try to avoid being challenged by God, and it has gotten even easier in a world of Facebook, wherein you can just turn off the voices that say things you disagree with. I’m guilty of that too, I admit it.
The lesson from this morning’s gospel, and from the prophet Jeremiah, is that if you are looking to God for a pat on the back only, you may be sorely disappointed. God loves us, yes, but he is calling us to be better than we are. He is calling us to be more. Recognizing that is to lay hold onto the wheat of our faith; there is new life to be had in that truth.
As Christians we are continually surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses to the faith. Saints, prophets, patriarchs and matriarchs and martyrs, so many individual stories of people who found in God and in Christ a call to follow; a call to grow and to change; a call to forsake sin and to seek the redeeming love of Jesus. That is what our faith is about: not platitudes and sentimentality, but a God that is willing to suffer death in order to save us from ourselves. This isn’t cheap grace. We can’t turn away from the tough words of Jesus, we must embrace them, because there is truth there that we probably need to hear. That cloud of witnesses isn’t filled with people that had it all figured out; it isn’t filled with people that understood every utterance of God, and it isn’t filled with people that made all the right decisions. It is filled with people that knew that they couldn’t get through this life on their own and that turned to God for help whenever the storm clouds formed on the horizon.
We don’t come here to worship a straw man, or a caricature of Jesus: we come here to worship the living God, who sometimes comforts us and sometimes convicts us. Sometimes his words go down like honey, sometimes it is a bitter pill. There always have been and always will be false prophets. There will be ministers and churches that will focus on one aspect of Jesus and not the whole Jesus. There will be ministers that try to explain away miracles and there will be ministers that try to perform fake ones. There will be ministers who choose to skip over any Bible passages where God gets angry, and there will be ministers that revel in God’s anger and direct it at everyone else but themselves. Episcopal, Baptist, Catholic, it doesn’t matter, we all have our share of false prophets who promise you peace, even though Jesus promises us quite the opposite. Beware of them, beware of anyone who tries to over-simplfy God, or cheat you of the life-giving wheat of our faith, because what they are selling you is, to put it bluntly, horse manure, and as someone that has been knee deep in it, both figuratively and literally, I can attest that it is mostly straw.
Sermon delivered at the Requiem Mass for the victims of the Orlando Massacre
Sunday, June 19th, 2016
The early Christian author and apologist Tertullian once wrote that the Blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the church. He was making an argument to the Roman authorities that it was futile to keep persecuting the Christians because it only caused them to grow and become stronger.
The valor, the strength and the witness showed by those who were being put to death only served to strengthen the resolve of the living. Furthermore those that were unconverted, witnessed how these Christians would willingly accept death, rather than deny the Christ they knew, and they marveled at it. This must be some God these Christians are worshipping if they are so convinced of his love for them, that they are content to die rather than betray their God.
What these Christians knew, and what made them so resilient, was that their Lord had conquered death. They had the hope and the promise that because they were united to Christ in his life and death, so too would they be united to him in his resurrection. They knew that those Romans could kill their bodies, but that they could never kill their souls. It was by holding on to Jesus, it was by holding on to a God which they knew to be a God of love and forgiveness that those early martyrs claimed the victory. They had victory over death.
So I have been thinking this week about what it means to be a martyr. Christian martyrs are those who have died or been put to death specifically because of their faith in Jesus Christ, but there are other types of martyrs that deserve to be honored as well. I know very little about the faiths of most of the individuals that were killed last week in Orlando. I know that one young man was a gospel singer in his church, only when they found out through this tragedy that he was gay, declined to do his funeral. I know of another young man, a friend of a friend of mine actually, who was there at the club with his fiancé, both of whom were killed and now their love is being celebrated at a funeral service instead of a wedding. I know of a young man who was there with his girlfriend who was killed trying to save her. I know of a woman who was there with her son who died saving him. I don’t know much about what kind of faith each of those people had, or what their beliefs were, but I do know something about what brought them together that night.
You see I grew up gay in Central Florida, not very far from Orlando. Despite what people think about Disney World being there, Central Florida is a very conservative area. I can honestly tell you that I did not know one person who was openly gay, until I went off to college. There weren’t really any support groups or community organizations back then, at least not around where I lived. People still very much lived their lives in secret. Showing affection in public was very dangerous, you could never know how someone was going to react. I know what it feels like to grow up threatened with violence on a daily basis, just because I was different.
When you live in an environment like that you look for places that are safe. You look for places where you can be yourself, perhaps find love, and hopefully be able to express that love for a few moments before going back out into a world, that despite all of the advances that have been made in recent years, can still be very hostile. Now you might think that a nightclub is just a place for drinking and dancing and debauchery, but when you grow up gay in a conservative area, a nightclub can be one of the few places where you feel safe to express your love. I have been to the Pulse nightclub in Orlando with my friends and we went there to relax, enjoy our lives, enjoy each others company, and maybe, just maybe meet someone special. I have no doubt that that it is the same reason that all of those clubgoers were gathered together last Sunday: to celebrate love, to enjoy love or maybe even find love. It was love that motivated those people to gather at Pulse last Sunday, and it was love that motivated many of their actions to the very end.
To all of those who were killed in last week’s attack, and I believe you can hear me, you have the victory in all of this. You have the victory, not some evil man with a gun. You have the victory, because it was love that motivated you that night not hate. Our Lord was put to death because of the hatred and intolerance of others, he was put to death because he loved when others hated. To the souls of those killed last week, you were put to death because you loved when someone else hated. And it doesn’t really matter in whose name he hated in. I honestly don’t care about what that one man believed, because I know what I believe.
I believe that like the old gospel song says: “Jesus loved me ere I knew him and all my love is due him.” I believe that Jesus loves us before we know him. I believe that love and the act of loving draws us closer to the heart of Christ and of our God. I believe that Christ has won the victory over sin and death and that he offers those of us who unite ourselves to him in love that same victory.
We are here tonight to commend the souls of these 49 individuals to God. An evil man might have taken their bodies from us, but their souls belong to God. Death has no more dominion over them. Those of us who are still on our journey must keep on loving and showing love to others, not just to honor those that were killed for love, but for our sake too. So to build on what the Apostle Paul said, we must be steadfast in love, unmoveable in love, always abounding in the work of the Lord, which is love, foreasmuch as we know that our labour of love is not in vain in the Lord.
So I say this to the forces of evil out there that think that killing us or spilling blood is going to give them some kind of victory: if you think that hatred is ever going to win over love, let me tell you a story about a man I know named Jesus.
Acts 16:16-34 Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21 John 17:20-26
The first time I ever attended Mass in an Anglican Church, and the first time I ever received communion, was in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. It was one of those life changing moments that you never forget. I can remember clearly the beginning of the priest’s sermon as well. He got into the pulpit and began by saying:
God can change all things, but history….historians, however, can and perhaps that is the only reason why he tolerates them.
Now mind you, I was a history major in college at the time, so his point hit home. Sometimes it does seem like historians are changing history, with their at times wildly different interpretations of what actually happened. Now we know, of course, that historians can’t actually change history. Facts are facts. You can interpret or misinterpret them, you can like or dislike events that happened, there may be large gaps between what you know and what you don’t know, but you cannot change what actually happened.
I was reminded of that priest’s opening line this week, when I was reviewing this morning’s readings. I can’t change the Bible, but obviously the committee that devised our lectionary feels that they can. Our second reading this morning, the one from the Book of Revelation has been shortened…twice. Now by now, I am sure that y’all know how I feel about the cutting and pasting that sometimes happens in our readings. It is one thing if it is just a list of names that is being cut out to make the passage shorter, but that isn’t what is happening this morning. This morning there are verses that are cut out because someone either didn’t understand them, or they made them uncomfortable. Let’s take a look:
At verse 14 in Revelation chapter 22 we read:
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.
That is all well and good. It is a nice image of heaven with people washed clean of sin, welcomed into the city and given access to the Tree of Life. But then it goes on. Here is the first verse that our reading skips this morning:
Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
We don’t want to talk about people getting left out of heaven (and no, for the record I do not think the author literally means that dogs are left out…at least I hope not). It seems so much nicer just to talk about all those blessed people and not to think about the idolaters…so this verse gets skipped over.
We continue on with:
“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”The Spirit and the bride say, “come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
That is the sort of passage we like: very welcoming and encouraging. We get that verse, but then it goes on and this is the next verse that is skipped:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
Now I hope you appreciate the irony here: Here we have a verse giving a very clear and explicit command NOT to add to or take away from what is written in the book, on pain of losing eternal life, and it gets cut out! Whoever made that decision has a lot more self-confidence than I do.
Here is my point in all this: The Bible is a huge book, written by many different individuals, in different times and places and for different reasons. We believe that each one of these individuals was inspired in some way by God and that the writings they left us are worthy of respect and are to be taken seriously. But sometimes the things that are written there don’t make complete sense to us. Or maybe they do make sense and we disagree with something that is said. Maybe the authors don’t see things exactly the way we do, but I believe that it is exactly for that reason that we need to hear what they say. The Bible is meant to challenge us. Our faith is meant to stretch us and make us grow. If we are only exposed to things that make sense, or that we immediately agree with, how are we supposed to ever be better than we currently are? You don’t have to like everything you read in the Bible; you don’t have to agree with everything; you don’t have to accept every interpretation either, but maybe, just maybe you do need to hear it. Maybe a vital part of growing in the faith is to be challenged by it. How are we ever gonna be challenged if we simply cut out, skip over and ignore, the passages we don’t like or don’t understand?
Now everything that I have just said about how we treat the scriptures in the church could also be said about how we treat the people in the church. The scriptures are really just people on paper. There are some people in the church, and I don’t mean this parish, I mean the whole church of Christ, there are some people in the church that it is just hard to understand, there are some people that you may not agree with, and there are some people that you may not like. That’s ok, you don’t have to. But it just might be important to hear them. If scriptures are really just people on paper then there is the temptation to treat God’s people the way we treat his words: ignoring those that we don’t understand, don’t agree with or don’t like. But we need those voices.
Our own Anglican Communion has been squabbling with itself for some time now over one issue or another. In that sense it is just like every other Christian church. Whenever confronted with someone that we don’t understand, don’t agree with or don’t like, there is always going to be the temptation to silence them, ignore them or exclude them like a Bible verse you don’t want to read. People on both sides do it, liberal and conservative, but we do it at our own peril. We loose a significant part of our own faith formation when we do that, but we aren’t the only ones that loose though.
Our Lord’s great prayer before he was crucified and died was that all of his followers should be one. He didn’t say that we all had to understand each other, or agree with each other or like each other. He said that he wanted us to be one, just as he and the Father are one. Not just one within our parish or our denomination, but one across every single division we have set up out of our own stubbornness. One across race and language, one whether we are high or low church, one whether we are catholic or protestant. Jesus’s prayer is that we should be one. Belonging to Jesus Christ should be more important in our eyes than anything else. And it’s not just for our own sake…it is so that the world may know and believe. If we expect the world to take us seriously when we claim that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that salvation can be found by calling upon his name, then we need to show the world that no other name by which we may be called is more important to us than the name Christian. Ever since that first communion in Saint Paul’s Cathedral years ago I have been devoted to the Anglican tradition and I am loyal to the Episcopal Church through which I practice that tradition on a daily basis, but I also remember that it is through being a Christian that I am one with Christ and the Father in heaven, and one with everyone else who follows him and calls themselves by his name, and that is far more important to me, than any other division here on earth.
In the 1920s a man by the name of Albert Brumley was picking cotton one day on his family’s farm in Oklahoma. As he was struggling through the heat, and his sweat, and the prickly cotton bushes, he started to sing a song to himself. It was a popular song of the day called the Prisoner’s Song, about a man leaving his girl behind and being sent off to prison, and longing to escape and be with her again:
I’ll be carried to the new jail tomorrow
Leavin’ my poor darlin’ alone
With the cold prison bars all around me
And my head on a pillow of stone
Now if I had wings like an angel
Over these prison walls I would fly
And I’d fly to the arms of my poor darlin’
And there I’d be willin’ to die.
With his back breaking from stooping to pick the cotton, and being surrounded by these dead sharp bushes that poked and tore at his skin, Albert thought to himself: this too is prison. This life with its pains, and struggles and eventual death, this life can be a prison.
Albert reckoned that he was in prison of sorts, just like the author of that popular song, and then he thought: If I could escape the wall of this prison, where would I go? He began to think about his devout Christian faith (being raised in the Church of Christ) and how that faith for him not only offered the promise of eventual freedom, but in fact gave him a sense of freedom right then. So when he got back to the house at the end of his long day of toil he sat down and wrote this song…his version of the Prisoner’s Song:
Some glad morning when this life is o’er,
I’ll fly away;
To a home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away
I’ll fly away, Oh Glory
I’ll fly away;
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I’ll fly away
When the shadows of this life have gone,
I’ll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I’ll fly away
Just a few more weary days and then,
I’ll fly away;
To a land where joy shall never end,
I’ll fly away
That song that Albert wrote would become one of the most popular and most recorded gospel songs of all time. Now, not everyone that ever put pen to paper to write a hymn was inspired by God; some hymns are just awful; but I think that Albert was. Albert was because there is something about singing that hymn that actually sets you free, right when you sing it. It isn’t just about thinking of some future day, but in the realization that our lives belong to God, it makes that future day today. If you have ever had the chance to sing that song at a funeral or when you were really struggling or down, then you might just know what it feels like to have your spirit fly. It isn’t just the person being buried that is flying away, it is us too. The amazing thing about this song is that you don’t have to wait until that glad day when this life is o’er to fly away, the moment you sing it you already begin to fly away, you already begin to experience freedom from the prison of this life and you already begin to experience the joy that shall never end. When you sing that song you too are flying away, you are not merely left behind.
Today is the Feast of the Ascension, a day when we remember that after our Lord’s resurrection from the dead, he ascended into heaven in the sight of his disciples. Now you might expect those disciples to be distressed or heartbroken that their Lord had left them; that he appeared to fly away into the clouds; but that is not what happened. When Jesus died people went home beating their breasts, but when he ascended into heaven they went home rejoicing, with great joy and they dedicated their lives to worship and blessing God. They were not abandoned or left behind, quite the contrary: a part of them ascended with Christ.
Saint Augustine, when he wrote about the Ascension of our Lord said:
Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth.
For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.
If we have committed ourselves to Jesus Christ, if he already has our hearts, then when he ascends into heaven a part of us goes with him. We are not left behind, we are not trapped in prison, because his ascension has set us free. A part of those disciples flew away with Jesus, he didn’t just take their humanity and their human flesh, he took their hearts, and by gathering all those things unto God, he redeemed them.
The life that Jesus ascends to at the right hand of the Father is one of constant praise, worship and adoration and joy. It is that life to which the disciples try to mold their lives as much as possible: imperfectly and in earthen vessels, but still the old Jerusalem seeking after the new Jerusalem.
Today we remember Jesus going to his eternal home on God’s celestial shore, but we are not left behind or abandoned: we go with him. We may have to wait a few more weary days until that glad morning when we will be gathered together with Christ and all his saints, but just like singing Albert’s song, we don’t have to wait until then to fly away and be set free.