Monday, August 24, 2015

My General Convention Sermon: "For a Single, Beautiful Word"

Salt Lake City, July 2, 2015

“The general remembers the tiny green sprigs/ men of his village wore in their capes/ to honor the birth of a son. He will/ order many, this time, to be killed/ for a single, beautiful word.” Thus concludes the poem “Parsley” by Rita Dove, a piece remembering the so-called Parsley Massacre of 1937.

That was a year of economic struggle for the Dominican Republic as sugar prices plummeted.  Neighboring Haitians struggled too, and thousands crossed the porous border to work the cane fields for American conglomerates.  In response, the Dominican Republic’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo, instituted harsh deportation policies that didn’t seem to be working -- for the demand for cheap labor on the fields remained.  In the face of growing unrest, scapegoats were needed to maintain control.  In September of that year Trujillo welcomed a Nazi delegation and publicly accepted the gift of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  Trujillo’s dream of whitening the skin of Dominicans to bolster national pride at the expense of their darker-skinned Haitian neighbors had found its justification.

Just weeks later, while drunk at a party, Trujillo ordered the deaths of thousands of Haitian immigrants along the border.  When it wasn’t clear by skin color alone who was of Haitian descent and who was not, Trujillo’s men would ask the terrified detainee to pronounce the word “parsley” in Spanish: perejil.  Haitians could not roll their “r”s, and thus spoke “pelejil.” And so they were destroyed, their bodies dumped into the aptly-named Massacre River.  

To be killed for a single word: a shibboleth, a word designed to distinguish us from them, first employed by the Gileadites at the fords of the Jordan River to murder 42,000 Ephraimites in the Book of Judges.

To be killed -- and remembered -- for a single, beautiful word.

The Rev. Charles Barnes arrived in the Dominican Republic at the age of 42, five years into the reign of Trujillo.  Charles’ church in the capital, Santo Domingo, had been rebuilt in the poor part of town, and his congregation included many struggling West Indian immigrants.  As he came to know their plight, which was related to the blackness of their skin and the fact that they only spoke English, his eyes began to open to the racialized world in which he lived.  This searing realization enabled him to believe and investigate the rumors of the Parsley massacre, and make the decision to write to his American contacts about Trujillo’s crime.  

I wonder what making that terrible decision was like. How long after Charles had heard of the massacre did it take him to write his first letter?  Did he know that he was scratching out his own death sentence?  Did he agonize over the sealing of the envelope?  It was a Gethsemane moment, I imagine, for Charles Barnes.  He had been invited into Christ’s sacrifice for us, and, picking up his cross, he gave himself up and into its deep love.

To be killed -- and remembered -- for a single, beautiful string of words, words that stood courageously in the face of the powers of this world.  These words were struck down, and the Church resurrects them.

There is a single, eternal, and glorious Word whom we worship here today: the Word of God made flesh who dwelt among us, died on the cross of shame, and rose victorious.  Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection form the basis of a story that has changed each of us in this room.  God is the author of this Christian story, and we are its bearers and its witnesses and its tellers.  We take up its well-worn pages in awe and gratitude as the saints and martyrs have for centuries before us.  Even as we tell this saving tale to the world we are shaped by its grammar of grace and its language of love.  And as its words settle into our bones it can inspire us to act, like Father Barnes, in quite beautiful ways.

During the announcements the Sunday before I left for Salt Lake, I asked the Latino congregation with whom I serve to bless my travels.  The guest preacher said a blessing after everyone gathered around me in the center of the sanctuary. Then he marked the sign of the cross on my forehead, and, surprisingly, invited everyone to do the same.  One parishioner after another, beginning with the kids, came up to me as I knelt down and they looked into my eyes and blessed me with their hands and with their words.  I have never felt so loved by a community.  There is no us and them in God’s gracious story.

I wonder how well Charles Barnes spoke Spanish.  I’m not sure it really matters.  His actions, as did the tender blessings offered by my congregation, drew from a deeper language at the heart of the great Christian story to which we owe our lives.  This is the wellspring of mission.

To be killed for a single, beautiful word, a string of words that comprise the story that has captivated us so -- reminds us that the powers of this world have little patience for truth and scarce use for history that cannot be molded to meet the immediate needs of kings on their thrones.  In the Dominican Republic, nearly 80 years after the Parsley Massacre, the government has begun a new program of Haitian deportations, including even those who have lived their entire lives on Dominican soil.  Once again, language is used to separate and destroy.  And the Dominican Episcopal Church, strong and growing stronger each year, stands as a truth teller in the gap between racial justice and political expediency.  Our memory of the saints and martyrs show us this way.  Indeed, every Sunday the congregants of the Episcopal Cathedral of the Epiphany in Santo Domingo take communion above the tomb of Charles Barnes.

In such moments of remembrance history cannot help but be pulled into the present, where God’s Spirit of truth and love can minister to the still-weeping wounds of violence, and send us out as bearers of the story to tell again and again the singular, beautiful, and loving words of God.

With grateful thanks to: Richard Bonacci, The Rev. Dr. William Brosend, The Rev. Brooks Cato, The Very Rev. Thomas Chesterman, The Rev. Dr. Julia Gatta, The Rev. John Koenig, The Rev. David Marshall, The Rt. Rev. James Mathes, The Rev. Laurel Mathewson, Penny Mathewson, Gary Owen, The Rev. Remington Rose-Crossley, and Hannah Wilder

Monday, January 26, 2015

Glorifying God in My Body

Second Sunday after Epiphany
January 18, 2014

1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20) 
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
 John 1:43-51 

I’m conducting an informal poll this morning and am wondering if anyone has recently woken up, rubbed their eyes, and looked into the mirror and thought, “Wow, I am marvelously made!” Hmm. Not many. There probably will be more folks at the 10:30 service… 

Today’s psalm does push the bounds of hyperbole for our 21st-century ears unused to such flattering compliments about these bodies our minds happen to be lugging around. What do you think about your body? Do you think about your body? I think about my body in chiefly two ways: when will my body be ready to eat next -- because I really love to eat -- and how can my body avoid brain damage by ducking in a timely fashion as I walk through doorways. But what about you? As more of our occupations require less and less physical movement, our bodies can be dismissed and largely ignored as irrelevant to daily life For some, bodies are annoying animals we’re forced to sustain that always seem to be hungry or need to go to the bathroom or receive medical treatment; indeed, bodies can be sources of discomfort, pain, and suffering -- reminders of our limits, of times gone by, of aging and death. Or bodies can be triggers of feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment; they can be punished and controlled, pressed up and down and in and prodded and enhanced and starved. Alternatively, bodies themselves can be worshipped and sexualized and objectified and thus become temptations for vanity, addiction, self-obsession, and sexual impropriety. Then, of course, there is all that our bodies may be delightfully fit to do: to dance and to dive, to run and to crab crawl, to reach and to give, to fight and to love. Certainly the usefulness and worth of our bodies are interpreted by ourselves and others in a variety of ways.

Science tells us that our bodies are spectacularly complex systems enlivened by chemical interactions we still struggle to comprehend, made up of organs made up of cells made up of protein polymers made up of amino acid molecules made up of atoms made up of protons and neutrons and electrons made up of quarks made up of . . . well, stardust. Hmmm. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing, or . . . ? 
But what does God think about our bodies? What does God think of our bodies? God thinks we’re marvelously made. We have been blessed by a marvelous Creator, an artist who knew us before our mothers did, who handcrafted our 37 trillion cells with attention and grace, and who had the humor and audacity to toss in personality quirks and bodily imperfections that would shape us into who we are today. Our bodies are good enough and worthy just the way they have been created, and they are as tightly tied to our identities as our political views and family trees. Our bodies, our stardust, are tied inextricably with God’s loving and skilled and artistic hands. Our bodies not only consist of material, but also of loving relationship. 

St. Paul explains in today’s reading: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit! Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, not just any spirit, not a shared piece of a larger spirit, no -- the Holy Spirit. Are we hearing what St. Paul is telling us?! Our bodies are lovingly crafted gifts to us that speak of God’s love for us, gifts which house God’s wild presence here on earth. The idea of our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit is deep, deep mystery; wonderfully encouraging; and quite terrifying. 

Because what if we’re not sure we’re up for the responsibility of housing the Holy Spirit in our embodied abodes? What if our bodies don’t work the way they’re supposed to, or the way they used to -- can the Holy Spirit still reside within, or would She even want to? (It’s helpful to remember that St. Paul himself had a debilitating bodily infirmity, a “thorn in the flesh,” that caused him great suffering but still could not hinder his enthusiasm for these bodies of ours that aren’t really ours, but God’s.) Our bodies’ purpose, like a temple, is to glorify God. So what does it mean to glorify God in our bodies? 

It means employing our vocal cords to sing with joy and energy alongside our magnificent choir; it means holding out our hands to receive Christ’s body sacrificed for us; it means kneeling in humility and thanksgiving; it means showing a sign of peace to a stranger. 

It means looking in the mirror and seeing God’s grace and gift; it means allowing ourselves not to be perfect and knowing that the Holy Spirit is with us all the same; it means taking care of our bodies because we’re already loved by God, not so that we’ll be loved by God or anyone else. 
Glorifying God in our bodies means picking up the phone to call a lonely neighbor, driving the kids to soccer practice, massaging our partner’s feet at the end of a long day, and taking the dog for a walk while we pray. 

Glorifying God in our bodies means participating in an Arts Committee gathering, attending the Cathedral’s annual meeting (get your free lunch at noon today!), bringing communion to a congregant in a nursing home, ironing the linens in the sacristy. 

Glorifying God in our bodies means marching our way down the streets of Paris along with a million others to demonstrate that violence cannot rule the day. It means serving alongside dozens of others to clean up Balboa Park this Monday as our nation celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. (The Cathedral, led by our Simpler Living ministry, will participate in this interfaith day of service, and you’re invited! Check out the bulletin announcements for details.) 

Glorifying God in our bodies means heading south out of Selma, Alabama on Highway 80 on March 7, 1965 with 600 members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Southern Christian Leadership Conference; it means crowning the Edmund Pettus bridge that spans the Alabama River and taking in the mass of mounted state troopers and just-deputized white males waiting for them on the other side with clubs and tear gas; it means a world shocked by the televised images of nonviolent resistance in the face of unthinking brutality; it means hospitalization; it means presenting our bodies as living sacrifices for a cause greater than ourselves, the cause of equality before the law, the cause of human dignity, the cause of justice. 

I wonder if those marchers knew what they were getting into before they crowned that bridge that day, before they took in the menacing threat before them? I wonder if we know what we’re getting into when we get out of bed each morning as we profess to follow this peasant teacher, this rabble rouser, on his dusty, meandering march to Jerusalem? I can’t help thinking that we enjoy the same human bodies as those Selma marchers -- there wasn’t anything different about their flesh and blood and bones -- and we profess to follow the same Jesus, the same Christ, whose body was broken by the powers of his day, and whose body was glorified in that rock-hewn tomb. Jesus has invited us to follow him. Follow where? Toward justice. Toward brokenness. Toward glory.