Sermon – November 27, 2016 (First Sunday of Advent)

Homily 1st Advent 2016
Isaiah 2: 1-5; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 36-44
John M Hayes

Today is the first day of Advent, the ancient cycle of the Church’s liturgical year begins with four weeks of spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas. Every year we hear again the scriptures remind us of the preciousness of time, that what we do with the time we are allotted and how we use our freedom will determine who we become and how we stand in God’s eyes. Again, it is time to wake up.

All of the ancients in every culture cultivated a kind of stoic wisdom about time, about the great cycle of life, the great chain of being linked across the decades and centuries. They meditated on the passage of time, the changing of the seasons, the inevitability of change, contingency and loss, and the inevitability of death. Biblical time overturns that vision. Christ disrupts that stoic dream of time. Time doesn’t just go in a circle; rather history is mysteriously hurtling towards a conclusion. Time begins in Christ and will culminate in Christ.

In A Time To Keep, Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner alludes to the Great Transition – the radical transformation of life as lived just a century or two ago in many lands, more recently in some, and still continuing unchanged in others –  when life had a universal and  predictable shape: one married in late teens or very early twenties, worked most often in oppressive, insecure and dangerous jobs to survive and support one’s children, and if one was lucky perhaps lived to see the first of one’s grandchildren before departing this life before the age of fifty. For the vast majority of humanity for eons before, life was nasty, brutish and mercifully brief. Wander around any 19th century graveyard and note the scores of young women who died in childbirth and the many, many children dead long before maturity. Life was fragile. Disease and war insured that death’s shadow was always near and sharply felt. Death’s shadow marked life with an acute awareness of the existential fact that we are creatures who live for a brief moment in time.

The Great Transition effected great changes  in human life: people count on living twice as long, and with reliable supplies of nutritious food and competent medical care live well; people universally have access to more than rudimentary education, can travel great distances with relative ease, communicate instantaneously with people all over the globe. These undeniably good things make for a more creative and fulfilling life. But Dr. Radner asserts the Great Transition has lulled us into forgetfulness of death. Having many more years, we now live as if our days are not finite and numbered. Death has become a distant possibility too conveniently evaded.  This creates a toxic spiritual distortion.

We have a distorted obliviousness to the most basic existential fact that we are finite creatures who live in time and owe that fragile finite existence entirely to the graciousness of God.  This Great Transition creates a great illusion: that our lives are our own and we are free to shape them as our wills dictate, without any accountability beyond our own satisfaction. Lost is the awareness that we are created from nothing and that nothing about our lives had to be. As unflattering as it sounds we are all ontologically unnecessary. Lost is the acute sense certainly many of our grandparents and great grandparents knew well: that life is pure gratuitous gift that must be surrendered at a moment’s notice and we will be called to account for how we used our gifts and our freedom in the time given us. How we live and how we chose shapes the person we become.

The great enlightenment that is The Great Transition can be that sleep that St. Paul warns us to shake off: the sleep of illusion and idolatry, the ego’s dream that we creates ourselves and have no one to answer to for how we live our lives. We need to wake up to the core reality of our existence for as the scripture tells “the night is far gone and the day is near: lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light… put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” We are called in our baptism to live with acute awareness that we are children and creatures of God, and that our lives are not our own but God’s, and that we are called to use our lives not for our own pleasures and ambitions, but responsibly in love and service of others.

There are some who misunderstand today’s gospel as a description of the Rapture: that Christ’s second coming will mean that the good souls are whisked away from this vale of tears and the bad folks will stay behind. They are not reading very carefully.

The kingdom of God is not an escape hatch to some unearthly place; that’s actually Gnosticism not Christianity, and there has always been plenty of Gnosticism masquerading as Christianity for the simple reason that it appeals to the ego’s elitist wishes and it doesn’t demand much. The kingdom of God realized will be this good earth restored to what God intended it to be, a human community at last living in right relationship to God and in peace with one another,. This is the vision of the prophet Isaiah: that time when humans “ will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”. For this Christ came and took on humanity’s burden, for this Christ gave his own life in love for the life of this world.

Jesus alludes to tides and being swept away. The tide that carries men and women away is too often the tide of mob violence and scapegoating hatred. Our history is rife with it. Jesus describes people doing the ordinary business of human life – eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage and then suddenly they are swept up in that fatal tide. As suddenly as that all too human contagion ignites, as suddenly as violence takes over human affairs yet again, just that suddenly comes the Son of Man, the Prince of Peace. We cannot break that cycle on our own. The ages longed for the coming of Christ for just this reason.

Jesus does not get swept away in that tide. Ironically Jesus is the one left behind in the tide of violence. Jesus is left behind and crucified and abandoned in the rising tide of violence. No rapture, no escape-hatch. Indeed we heard in last week’s gospel that on the cross Jesus is taunted by the crowd when no heavenly rescue mission is being launched on his behalf, no show of righteous divine vengeance. Rather it is in the mystery of the resurrection, our non-violent God  affirms Jesus as truly Christ, and inaugurates a new age of God’s kingdom on earth.

We are all very aware that we may very well be about to enter a very dark time in the history of our nation. Our government is for all appearances falling into the hands of those whose rhetoric has appealed to mob violence and scapegoating hatred. We cannot now know exactly what will mean or what will be required of us. We do know this. We are called to follow Jesus to the cross, to stand outside whatever rising tide of violence may come, to stand with those who would be victimized, and to witness and suffer for truth.

This must begin again as always with honest wrestling and confrontation with ourselves. We need openness to searching often demanding light of the Holy Spirit’s direction. We may need to change our ways and re-order our priorities. The gospel says the Spirit comes like a thief in the night, to steal away our dreams and illusions, but also to lead us to truth and open the possibilities of prophetic holiness. Conversion is a hard long slough of radical honesty with ourselves: about who we are, how we fall short of our greatness, how we evade the truth of our lives and our place in history. God is always with us in that work, giving us the grace to know rightly, the wisdom to see clearly, and the courage to act. We are never alone.

Most of you know that I was in Cape Town, South Africa the last couple of weeks. South Africa is in many ways a mirror of our own country: a place of astounding beauty and great natural resources and wealth, and an horrific violent history of oppression, exploitation and injustice. Twenty-six years after apartheid’s end, Cape Town is just slightly altered contrast in obscene opposites, first-world white wealth on high security and most of its black population living in the worst of third world poverty.  There as here, whites and blacks mostly live at opposite sides of the Great Transition.

Robben Island is the Alcatraz of Cape Town, the island prison where Nelson Mandela spent 26 years in a small cell. Now a museum Robben Island accusingly faces the gleaming corporate towers of Cape Town and confronts South Africa with its violent history, its suppression of the human spirit and truth, and its betrayal of its Christianity.

Mandela’s time that cell was a time of soul work. A transformed man emerged from those decades of inner work, a man worthy and ready to start the work of healing his nation, a man whose authentic spiritual authority was grounded in his long confrontation with his own reality. Mandela said:

“…the first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself… Great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, but humility.”

Our lives will soon be taken up in the annual frenzy of shopping and parties, and much of that is a good thing to be enjoyed. But it is vital that we live Advent also on another level, beginning again the hard work of turning our minds and hearts to God, to begin again to become more deeply people of integrity, honesty and humility, to have the wisdom and courage to resist evil and to be that peace that the world yearns for.

Sermon – November 6, 2016 (All Saint’s Day)

All Saint’s 2016
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess


Readings: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

“Don’t call me a saint.  I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”  So said the great anti-poverty activist and champion of social justice, Dorothy Day.  The legendary co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, a network of houses of hospitality that reach out to those on the margins of society, Day became famous for her commitment to live among the poor in the lower east side of Manhattan and for her vocal stand on many the most important issues of her day, from worker’s rights to her pacifist position on war.  She did not live on a fixed income, but relied on the charitable contributions of others; she did not own private property but held property in common.  She spent most of her days practicing the corporal works of mercy, acts of direct service to those in need, which included feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, sheltering the homeless, visiting prisoners, and burying the dead.

Living like this, it is no surprise that her contemporaries were inclined to call her a saint.  She fits the image well.  When most people think of saints, they think of those individuals who have given up everything—their livelihood, their ambitions, their career prospects—to make themselves wholly available to a broken world.  They think of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Vincent de Paul, and Mother Teresa, individuals who directly immersed themselves in the lives of the suffering, extending a gentle touch to the leper, the shut-in, and impoverished.  Day is certainly identifiable within this tradition.  During the Great Depression, it was her soup kitchen that fed thousands of hungry, unemployed workers.  And countless more poured through her doors in subsequent years looking for shelter and sustenance.  Day even provided hospice care to the wife of her former common law husband.  If that is not saintly, I don’t know what it is.

Still, she protested.  “Don’t call me a saint.  I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”  At first glance, her comment is puzzling.  We call people saints as a sign of our esteem.  It is our way of recognizing individuals who have distinguished themselves by their goodness and their willingness to follow the Gospel to the letter.  But that, I think, is just it.  This is what Day feared: that in extoling her as a saint, we would re-instantiate that ancient division between the spiritual all-stars, who sell all they have and give to the poor, and the rest of us, who have to go on with the business of earning an income and raising a family.  Day knew that the very praise that we confer upon the saints can also function as a subtle form of dismissal.  We hold the saints up and honor them knowing that we can never be like them. The saints are special, spiritually great, and extraordinary; we are normal, spiritually mediocre, and all too ordinary. How could we possibly be like Dorothy Day or Francis of Assisi?  How could we apply anything they did to our own lives?  So in the very act of honoring them, we dismiss them as irrelevant.

Or dismissal could take another form.  We can ask, “What would happen if all of us sold everything we have and actually gave it to the poor?  Or what would happen if we all became celibate monks?  How would anything get done?  How would people work?  How would the economy grow?  How would the human race continue?”  From this angle, a saint is easy to dismiss as unrealistic, an outlier, a model of goodness that may be inspiring in individual cases, but hardly sustainable as a broader ethic for a community or country.  This connects to a similar objection that attaches to the saint’s emphasis upon direct service to those in need.  Sure, it is remarkable to see Mother Teresa humbly dwelling among the poor in Calcutta, but how did those throngs of people become poor in the first place?  What society-wide practices sustain their misery?  What systems are in place that reproduce their poverty?  What structural changes are required nationally and internationally to ease their burden and begin to construct a more equitable society?  The worry with the saint who is serving soup in the breadline is that his or her aid may very well perpetuate the cycle of poverty, instead of alleviate it, content as the saint is to deal with symptoms instead of root causes.  Day knew that sometimes when we call people saints, we do so with a subtle air of condescension, as if we are patting them on the head and saying, “Good job.  That is very noble.  Now if you only knew what was really required to deal with this issue, you’d get out of the breadline and get on with the real business of social change.”

So no, for these and other reasons, Day did not want to be called a saint.  She did not want to be dismissed as a spiritual all-star whose moral excellence has no relevance to ordinary Christians, and she did not want to be dismissed as a do-gooder ignorant of wider forces of structural injustice.  Day was, in fact, one of 20th century Christianity’s most eloquent critics of structural injustice, and she always saw her commitment to the works of mercy as a window into these wider forces.  She was first arrested in the 1930s for marching for women’s rights; she was later arrested several more times for protesting the Vietnam War.  She attended multiple draft card burnings, carried placards that called out American’s marriage of industry and militarism, and decried her country’s environmental degradation long before being green was popular.  She was, above all, a passionate defender of worker’s rights.  She knew a thing or two about labor unions and had read her Marx.  She was well acquainted with the often-acrimonious world of negotiations, strikes, and collective bargaining.  Meeting the unemployed worker in the breadline may have been direct service, but it was also for Day a tangible point at which structural economic forces become real and palpable.  It was where she learned to become passionate about changing these broader structures.

The choice between direct service and structural change was thus, in her view, bad economics, but it was also bad theology.  I suspect Day would have been pleased hearing Luke’s version of the beatitudes read aloud this morning.  Luke provides a much shorter list of beatitudes than the one we find in Matthew, and he places a much more unequivocal accent on the material and economic.  Instead of the poor in spirit, here Luke’s Jesus simply says, “Blessed are the poor” (6:20).  This is followed by the blessing of the hungry, those who weep, and those who have become unpopular on account of their fidelity to Jesus.  Again, unlike Matthew, who keeps the focus on those who are being blessed, Luke’s Jesus turns in prophetic mode to those who are responsible for the poor’s plight and issues a series of judgments or “woes”: woe to you who are rich, who are full, who laugh, and who enjoy a good reputation (6:24-26).  So there you have it, a succinct structural analysis of the economic climate of the day, much in the mode of prophets such as Amos and Isaiah, who called out economic injustice and heralded a coming judgment which would vindicate the poor and bring about a more just order, which Jesus took to calling the kingdom of God.

This coming kingdom, already breaking in with the ministry of Jesus, is displayed in the way that his followers behave in the world.  And this is precisely the point where Jesus pivots in Luke’s Gospel to counsel about interpersonal behavior, or what we might call direct service.  “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (6:27).  Our interactions with others are supposed to be defined by what we believe about the Kingdom.  So now in our everyday interactions with enemies, we are to show love, not hate.  If someone strikes us, we turn the other check.  If someone takes our coat, we give them our shirt.  If someone begs, we don’t ask if they are deserving or what they will do with it, we give it to them (6:30).  And if there is any confusion about questions Jesus does not address, he gives us a memorable maxim to cover all the grey area: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (6:31).  The broader structural picture of verses 20-26 frames the face-to-face relations of verses 27-31, and likewise, the face-to-face relations visibly display what disciples believe about the future order, the kingdom coming.  Direct service and structural change are not conceived in the Gospel as a choice, but as two correlative parts of kingdom living.  This was the aspect of Day’s ministry, I think, that she did not want her admirers to dismiss so easily.  She did not think she was simply doing good.  She was proclaiming a new order.  She was declaring the coming of the kingdom of God, the long awaited social reversal, God making good on his promise to vindicate the vanquished and bring justice to an unjust world.  She was, in a word, testifying to the truth of the Gospel.  Day could afford to be dismissed herself, but what she could not stomach was the dismissal of the Gospel.  And she was perceptive enough to note that in dismissing the saints, what we are often doing is dismissing the deepest truths of the Gospel.

As with the false choice between direct service and structural change, so too with the division between spiritual all-stars and ordinary Christians.  The most important phrase in this morning’s Gospel comes in line 27: “But I say to you that listen.”  Jesus is not addressing a select group of morally superior disciples; he is addressing all who have ears to listen.  And his teaching is not meant as a counsel of perfection for a spiritual elite (supererogatory duties for the monks and nuns), but a way of life for all who aspire to follow him.  It is an ethic for Christians.  How disappointing it must have been for Day to hear what was intended as praise instead function to reinforce the practice of reserving Jesus’s most rigorous teaching for a select few.  Again, this was more than a misinterpretation of what she was up to.  It was for her a denial of the Gospel’s claim on every Christian.  For her, the Catholic Worker was one interpretation of what that Gospel means for Christian living.  What is so unsettling, and yet so generative, about the Catholic Worker is that it asks us to take the movement seriously as an understanding of what Christ requires of us all.  To call it radical, to call it edgy, to call it anything but Christian is to miss its challenge for each of us.  To appreciate this isn’t to say it is the only interpretation of the Gospel, but it is to take it seriously as one interpretation, one to be put into conversation with many other forms of faithfulness, fuelling our own discernment of the shape that the Gospel should take in our lives.  This is the discernment, the searching, the striving that she did not want her own example to short-circuit.  This is the challenge she did not want us to dismiss.

Let’s be clear.  Dorothy Day was a saint.  She will in all likelihood receive that official designation in the coming years.  What she rejected was a certain understanding of what it means to be a saint, and more deeply, our habit of praising others in a way that prevents us from taking ourselves seriously as men and women called upon by God to live out the Gospel in our diverse settings and circumstances.  Are all of us called to celibacy?  No, but all of us are called to chastity.  Are all of us called to a life of voluntary poverty?  No, but all of us are called to dispossession.  Are all of us called to open shelters and serve soup in breadlines?  No, but all of us are called to hospitality.  Maybe what Day was really getting at was the widespread tendency to see saints as individuals, as isolated agents of moral perfection, instead of members of one fellowship, called to holiness as one corporate body of Christ.  It’s possible that in denying the honorary title of saint, she wanted to redirect our attention to the communion of saints.

“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,” says Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (1:11).  We have “been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplished all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory” (1:12).  I suspect Day’s prayer was similar to Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe” (1:15-19).  Anything Dorothy Day was able to accomplish was enabled through this power of Christ, a power she believed God extended to all who believe.  And her example has been given to us so that we, in a spirit of wisdom, might discern how God is empowering us to more fully realize his kingdom among us, and to live in a way that proclaims the reality that we are not individuals alone, but members of a fellowship, a communion that transcends age or generation, that includes the living and the dead, a communion of believers united in their pursuit of the living God, a communion of saints—a communion that includes you and me.  Amen.