glory of god

glory of god

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Opposing Fascism, Oppression, and Supression: A Sermon for Feast of Christ the King

I feel a little disoriented today. That’s because usually, on this Sunday after Thanksgiving, we are beginning the season of Advent. It’s always a bit of a mad rush—especially for the Altar Guild—as we do the switch over from Thanksgiving to hanging greens. But this year, because Thanksgiving came so early—with five Thursdays in November—we strangely have an extra week, before the Advent transformation.

The wider cultural is already embracing Christmas, of course. On Friday evening one station aired “Frosty the Snowman” and another showed “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” featuring my favorite Christmas villain, the Burgermeister Meisterburger. And I know some of you at home have made the transition already, with pretty Christmas decorations up—I bought an artificial tree on Friday—though, it’s still in its box, hiding behind the living room sofa. But here in church we have another week yet. A chance to pause, take a breath, and reflect on what this faith of ours is all about. In fact, in terms of the liturgical calendar, today—Christ the King Sunday—is the churchy equivalent of New Year’s Eve, when we sum up what we believe and who we believe in.

Two Sundays ago we, with much of the United States, Canada, Europe, and beyond observed the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of 1918, which ended the horrific fighting of World War I, after so many millions died—on battlefields, in makeshift hospitals, from starvation and disease. (Sermon here). Nearly 20 million people in the space of just 4 years. The world had never seemed anything like it. In the months after the war, leaders of governments and ordinary citizens alike hoped that the end of the war would bring a new order and stability.

Only, that’s not quite what happened. Instead, governments were destabilized. Sturdy, venerable old empires were swept away. Kings and emperors were overthrown. The Tsar of Russia was even murdered, along with his family. And in the place of the old world order came chaos, uncertainty, in some cases revolution. Faith, too, was shaken. People wondered where they could find God when so much was lost.

To that point in history, there was among many a belief that humanity was rising on a sort of escalator toward enlightenment and even perfection. With each new invention, each new opportunity, it was believed that humanity was becoming better and better. More enlightened. More rational. Even more God-like. In a way, it was kind of like the story of the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis, which we heard about in our Thursday night adult ed session a couple weeks ago. People thought that they could literally, physically climb up to heaven and see God face to face. It didn’t work in the Book of Genesis and it didn’t work in the early 20th century either. The war happened, millions were killed by machine guns, poison gas, bombs, and disease. Clearly, people were no better in 1918 than they were in 1518 at the start of the Reformation and no better than 2018 BC. We had just figured out how to kill each other with greater efficiency.

Into such a destabilized chaos authoritarian leaders came to prominence, filling a void, and giving people a sense of order, something they could believe in, someone they thought they could trust. Strong hands, strong voices, strong visions. Of course, in most cases where authoritarian regimes came to power, the citizenry had little experience with democracy, whether in Germany, Italy, or Russia. Emperors and dictators were all pretty much the same. Instead of turning to each other, or to God, many turned to dictators, who offered a sense of security, through strong language, through a promise of power and renewed national strength, through armies, and through suppression of difference.        

It was in the midst of this disconcerting post-war new world order that today’s celebration—the Feast of Christ the King—was established, by Pope Pius XI in 1925. He set it as a new feast day  to encourage and embolden the faithful, in light of the secularism, communism, and fascism arising all around them, in that especially tense in-between time between the two world wars.

The Feast of Christ the King was intended to remind Christians that their ultimate allegiance was not to a state, political philosophy, or world leader—whether king, president, or dictator—but instead always and only to God. At the same time, through the observance of Christ the King, Pope Pius urged nations to allow freedom for the exercise of religion and immunity from retribution from the state, while also encouraging the nations and their leaders to reorient themselves away from secularism, communism, and fascism, and instead respect and follow Christian teachings. Christ the King started as a Catholic-only observance, but over time many Protestant churches saw the wisdom in it as well, and now today, its observance is widespread, even as for many it may have lost its most intense meaning—seen so much more clearly in the 1920s and 30s.  

That said, in our time, over 90 years later, the meaning of the day—and even more of the confession of Christ as King of our lives and souls—seems all the more important and even vital. We are reminded that the stuff which takes up so much room in our homes and souls—things people rush out to buy at the best and lowest price on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, can have no claim on us. We are reminded that governments and political leaders—whether we agree with them or not—have no ultimate claim on us, despite what they may think or would like to be the case. Not if we are Christians. Not if Christ is our real and true king.

We are reminded that our truest citizenship is not in the United States or any nation, but in the Kingdom of God. That’s what we claim and state and profess on this Christ the King Sunday. In fact, that’s what we profess every time we say the Nicene Creed on Sunday morning. In a way, it’s like we are saying the Pledge of Allegiance—only instead of pledging to a country or a flag, we are pledging ourselves to God. It doesn’t mean that we have to believe each word unfailingly necessarily. I am well aware that many of us here at Emmanuel have a diverse variety of beliefs and questions and ways of grappling with the meaning of our faith. But what we share is a commitment to God in Christ. We proclaim our spiritual freedom from earthly kingdoms and powers, in favor of a different kind of life and a different kind of commitment—in heart and mind, body and soul.

What’s more, this king that we profess, this Christ, is radically different from the emperors,  kings, and presidents of the world. Just think about his life. He was born in a barn or a cave or a home filled with animals. He and his parents were refugees, who had to flee their home. Like so many immigrants and refugees, they weren’t looking for wealth or prosperity, just the chance to live in safety, away from an oppressive, murderous king. This Christ the King we follow was an ethnic and religious minority empire in which he lived. And he frustrated the authorities of even his own religion by challenging assumptions and questioning long-held practices. Many therefore considered him a heretic—for what he said, for the people he taught and touched, for his vision of a different kind of a kingdom, with a different kind of king.

Most horrifically, this Christ the King we follow was executed as a criminal. As a political revolutionary, a threat to the Roman Empire. H was crucified as an example to others who might believe that they, too, could upset and overturn the social order—by breaking rules, by speaking out, by questioning a system that sought that keep people down and in their place. Of course, what Pontius Pilate didn’t know and what the likes of Caesar and Herod and all those who opposed Jesus didn’t know and couldn’t understand is that killing Jesus didn’t stop him or shut him up. And it didn’t deter his friends and all whose lives he touched.

Instead, it emboldened them to proclaim their faith ever more strongly. With greater power and purpose. Rather than going away, being pushed aside and forgotten as the nothing the authorities thought he was, Jesus rose and he reigned. Not over kingdoms of the world. Not over armies or nations. But over hearts and souls. Over people who came to understand in a deep and profound way that their lives were bound to his. And that his manner of life, and the deepest concerns of his heart should be theirs as well.

When you think about it, there could be no more radical message or pledge than to proclaim Christ as King. Whether in the Roman Empire, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, or even the United Kingdom or the United States—2000 years ago, 80s years ago, or today. The question is for us, though, is how do we live what we profess? How do we put in action what we say in our prayers, sing in our hymns, and confess in our creeds? How do we make Christ the King, over our lives, over our hearts and our souls?

There is no set answer. For each of us it will be different. But how Christ can and should be king is something for each of us to ponder anew, especially as we end one season and begin another. Especially as we move into Advent and hear again the prophets’ calls for justice and mercy, the angels’ song of peace on earth and good news of great joy for all the people, and most especially as we recall the story of the birth of a king, our king, in nothing more than a manger.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Finding God in the Trenches: A Sermon on the Centenary of the Armistice of 1918

Jesus said: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

This morning, we reflect—with much of the western world—on how the First World War, the so-called “war to end all wars,” drew to its close, 100 years ago today. Unfortunately, rather than ensuring a lasting peace, it also set the stage for a century of yet more war—and with each year, the technology to make it ever more deadly. And through it all, we hear stories of men and women willing to lay down their lives for their friends, for their neighbors, for their nation, and for the hope of a still elusive peace.

World War I was so long ago that no one alive today remembers it. We may also not remember, or understand, the reasons for the conflict. Afterall, there was no obvious evil power. There were no Nazis or Holocaust. No Pearl Harbor. No atomic bombs. Just an outdated network of international alliances, concerns about maintaining a nation’s honor, and tired old empires that were fading away.

But as much as we do not have first-hand memory of the Great War, we do remember parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who fought and were shaped by it. We also have letters, letters which describe in stunning detail the horrors and the humanity in the trenches, in the air, in the towns and villages that were torn apart. This morning I’d like to read a few such letters, so that their legacy lives even as that generation is gone. So that we do not forget. So that we begin to understand what war is really like. So that our hearts, souls, and our world can finally turn toward peace.

May 12, 1915, France
My dear Mother,
Have just come through a particularly nasty period. We went into the trenches on Wednesday night and on Sunday morning at 5am our Artillery commenced bombarding the German trenches and after 20 minutes had elapsed we went over the parapet. My goodness what a reception they had in store for us, they simply swept the ground with machine gun fire and shrapnel… It was found impossible to make any advance in our quarter, so I dug myself in and awaited events. It was horrible suspense, as I seemed to be the only man untouched, all around me, and being personally acquainted with each man made matters worse, in fact, it’s all wrong to call them men, as they were mostly mere boys….
As regards the .. [gas masks], all we were served out with were made ‘on the spot’ and consisted of a piece of gauze and tape and were steeped in a solution of bicarbonate of soda, prior to this charge. I lost all my belongings except the Gillette (razor) so should be glad of a few toilet requisites when next you are sending a parcel….
Much love to all. Your affectionate son, Dick. (Full letter here)

May 22, 1915, France…
I am much nearer the front now…. It was a long march and of course done at night, and our present billet is a farm (or the remains of one) in a large village about ¾ mile from the trenches, more north than we were before, and nearer the Belgian frontier. It is an awfully desolate spot and constantly under shell fire. This morning I was trying to get a sleep on the grass, when a shell burst in a tree, not fifty yards away, and sent a shower of leaves to the ground. Fortunately, no one was hit, another burst in the same field ten minutes afterwards, then I thought it was time to shift! So went into a barn. There are a number of dugouts around, but they are so cold, and you might get buried inside.
The farm is a vile place, with a lot of stagnant water around, and a lot of German soldiers are buried here. The barn where we sleep would be improved if a shell struck the roof, and ventilated it, in our absence! As the smell inside is bad, and makes it nearly necessary to wear a respirator! The rats seem to object to our company as they often have a free fight on top of us….
The church here is practically demolished, just some of the walls and tower standing, and the churchyard is in a bad state. Great holes have been made and bones exposed. In these holes is water sufficiently deep to drown anybody. Great stone vaults have been opened, and coffins and bodies can be seen. Of course the place here is not inhabited except by soldiers. I have been through some of the big houses, and plenty of good carved furniture, pictures, fittings etc. still remain in them. I also have been in some of the gardens, and roses just coming into bloom can be seen in great numbers.... Thanking you all for your good wishes.
Sincerely yours, S. Frost (Full letter here.)

April 6, 1916, France:
Thanks very much for your letter which I received a week or two ago, also for the magazine. We are in the trenches just now. In fact we seem to spend about three times as much time in as we do out… it was about here… that the French and German had some of the fiercest fighting of the war. The country around about is a veritable maze of trenches. The fighting at one time was so fierce that there was only time just to bury the dead in the sides of the trenches, and now that the trenches have crumpled one is constantly seeing the bones of men’s legs or their boots, or skulls sticking out from the sides of the trenches…
All times the air is thick with bombs, grenades and trench mortars. These last are pretty hellish sort of toys. They have an explosion like about ten earthquakes rolled into one. But even these are not the worst we have to put up with. The trenches being so close together there is of course any amount of mining going on. So one never knows when the particular lump of earth one is standing on is going to take a trip through the solar regions…. five exploded in this neighbourhood, while others are expected to go up at any time…
How is everything in town? Pretty quiet I suppose…That is about all the news, so will close, kindest regards to everybody, Gilbert Williams. (Full letter here.)

Thankfully the authors of these three letters all survived the war. But from 1914 and 1918, between 9 and 11 million military personnel were killed. The U.S., which entered the war in 1917, suffered 116,000 military deaths. Across the British Empire—including England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—as many as 1.2 million people died. And then there was France: France lost 1.4 million soldiers, and 300,000 civilians, nearly 4.5% of the population. (The contemporary US equivalent of 4.5% would be 14 million people, an astounding and incomprehensible number). Germany and Austria-Hungary each suffered well over a million military deaths, and together over a million civilians, constituting 4% of their populations. 19 million people died in World War I. That pales in comparison to 85 million in World War II, but for France, Belgium, the UK, and Canada, World War I was the more deadly.

And then, after four years of fighting, it was over. The Armistice was signed and the guns, bombs, and poison gas stopped. The soldiers packed up and went home. Little was accomplished, except the breakup of old empires—German, Austrian, Russian, and the Ottoman Empires, all consigned to history. So much loss. So much violence and waste. So many sons who never came home. Others who did, but lost limbs and in some cases their minds. Many found fellowship—bonding in the trenches—only to have those friends taken in a flash. I can’t imagine how the survivors carried that experience with them, every day of their lives.

Here in Wakefield, the town broke into exuberant celebration upon word of the Armistice. I found a report, which I thought you might find interesting:

 “In Wakefield, as in thousands of towns and cities throughout our great country, there was an uncontrolled demonstration of relief and gladness, although it seemed incredible that the awfulness of war was at last to be a thing of the past. Before dawn, Before dawn on this memorable day of the signing of the Armistice, about ten minutes after four o’clock in the morning word was received. Demonstrations began 20 minutes later by the blowing of whistles and clanging of bells, interspersed with the strident sounds of horns, shooting of blank cartridges, and constant shouting and cheering…. The first church bell to sound forth its note of triumph was in the Congregational Church tower, followed… by the Baptist Church bell.
“Girls from the Harvard Knitting Mill led a procession of workers of the various factories of the town, a parade that numbered fully a thousand…. Of course, there was no thought of school that day, the no-school signal sounding at twenty minutes past seven in the morning…. The churches were opened wide in order that people might enter to give thanks, and at the Congregational Church, over two hundred people were present for an inspiring half-hour union service attended by members of the Protestant churches... At a special service at St. Joseph’s Church the Te Deum was sung, and there was the Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament.…
“The parade in the evening was said to have been the finest ever seen in Wakefield… To the brilliant accompaniment of flashing red lights flaring Roman candles, madly ecstatic cannon, and with thousands of appreciative and excited spectators, the procession of over a mile long moved in triumph through the streets of the town, marching up to the Common, down Common Street to Yale Avenue, then on the North Avenue, along Chestnut Street back to Main Street through the Square again.. and returning to the Town Hall, where the Star-Spangled Banner and America were played by the band and sung in mighty chorus by the throng. The honored Veterans of the Civil War, those who were too aged or feeble to march, rode in automobiles that had been loaned by patriotic citizens. The sight of these few old men, suggesting so poignantly the loyalty and sacrifice of the great days of nearly sixty years ago, was one of the most touching pictures of the whole vivid procession.…”   Excerpted and abridged from Emma Florence Eaton and J. Theodore Whitney, WakefieldMassachusetts in the World War, 1917-1920. (Wakefield, MA, 1935), 436-439.

Years of sadness, loss, and cruel inhumanity, ended with jubilant parades of relief and joy. The scenes of celebration here were an ocean away from the gruesome reality on the front. But they reflected the hope that those fighting would soon be home. Five members of this parish gave their lives in the war, 39 others returned home. Then, just 20 years later, more war, more death. 

The irony is not lost on me that a we celebrate this centenary today, this past Friday marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues across Germany were looted, burned, or destroyed. 1,500 people were killed. 30,000 were sent to concentration camps. It was the start of a deadly history we know far better, a war we understand, followed in turn by yet more wars—in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Bosnia, Afganistan.

Today, we are likely not so naïve as to think that any war, however terrible, will be the last. Nor is any treaty or agreement inviolable. History has taught us more times than we can count that one leader’s hard-fought agreement is another’s folly. So, a century later, where is our hope? Where is the Good News when the world seems so hell-bent on war, guns, and death?

Ironically, I think we find that Good News in the trenches. In fact, we find God in the trenches. In the stories of men who cared for and protected each other. We find it in families who longed for their beloved sons and husbands, brothers, and fiancés to come home. We find Good News in the stories of the 1914 Christmas ceasefire, when British and French soldiers shared gifts, sang carols, and played games with their German counterparts, for one holy night.

We experience Good News every time hate and mistrust are overcome with friendship and understanding. When Muslims in Pittsburgh say that they will stand guard outside synagogues to protect their Jewish neighbors as they worship. Or when people of many backgrounds rally against racism and anti-Semitism in our schools. We experience the Good News when straight youth and adults defend their LGBT friends against bullies and discrimination, and celebrate with them when they find love and joy in their lives. We experience Good News when brave souls shield their friends and strangers alike from gunfire at a country music bar in California. None of these may put an end to war and the power of evil. But little by little, person by person, each instance the Gospel lived strengthens and empowers us to stand up not only for what is right, but for what is of God.

I would like to close with one last letter from the front. This one from a Canadian chaplain, Father Lochary, dated September 25, 1916. He writes:  

By the time this letter reaches you, you will no doubt have received official notice of your son’s death. I read the burial services at the grave this morning, and he had a lovely funeral. The band of the 2nd Battalion, accompanied by a large body of soldiers, and officers, marched to the grave, where, after the service was read, the “Last Post” was sounded….
Last Saturday afternoon, your son asked me if I would hear his confession, and Sunday morning he went to Communion. He entered the trenches Sunday night and was killed Friday night.
Your son, I am told, met his death by going over the parapet and rescuing a wounded soldier. On his return with the wounded soldier, a sniper caught him with a bullet, and he died without suffering. “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for a friend.” Captain Maguire died in making the supreme act of charity. (Full letter here.)
And so, a century later, we remember. We pray. And we continue to hope and strive for peace.  

Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Monday, November 5, 2018

Remarks at the Solidary Shabbat, Temple Emmanuel of Wakefield, November 2, 2018

Solidarity Shabbat
Temple Emmanuel of Wakefield
November 2, 2018

Dear friends in faith and community,

It is an honor and a privilege to be with you here on this special, sacred, holy evening, as we remember, pray, and support one another in our grief and shock, and also in our love and resolve.

That so many of us are here from our diverse backgrounds, religious perspectives, and political affiliations proves, I believe, that what unites us—our common faith in the God who created and loves each one of us, our respect and even love for the wondrous diversity in our midst, and our hope for a future less divided—are bright lights shining in a world and nation that some days seem very dark indeed. The world, the nation, and Wakefield itself need this light, the light that God shines on the world through us, together.

A week ago many of us here tonight gathered at the other Emmanuel in town—my own church—to support each other following the devastating loss of the First Baptist Church building. As horrific as the fire was—and it was horrific, standing there with Pastors Norman Bendroth and Glenn Mortimer watching helplessly as the fire consumed the building, and as much as its loss leaves a massive crater in the center of Wakefield—we can be relieved that no one was seriously injured, thanks to our police and firefighters. The fire was contained to just the church building.

Our brothers and sisters at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh can’t say the same. Their loss took beloved family and friends—who were fun and funny, passionate and faithful, lovers of God and lovers of God’s people. These beautiful, unique, wonderful people can never be replaced, and neither should they be forgotten.

As it happens, in Christian churches today, November 2, is traditionally observed as the Feast of All Souls, when we remember and pray for those who have died and now live in the fullness of God’s embrace. The eleven faithful Jewish martyrs killed on Saturday are surely among them—living at the center of God’s heart. And there, from God’s heart, they are urging us to be people of faith and love for each other. I know that because that’s how they lived.

The brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal, were fixtures at the Tree of Life Synagogue. They usually sat at the back and welcomed visitors. They were like ambassadors, friends said. Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz was a well-respected neighborhood family physician who, in the 1980s, was unafraid to treat gay men who had contracted HIV. When others rejected them, including their own families, Dr. Rabinowitz cared for them and showed love and compassion. One former patient said that Dr. Rabinowitz was known to hold patients hands—without gloves—and embrace them when they left his office, providing human touch to people who were often isolated and alone.

Melvin Wax loved his grandson, his religion, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was always full of jokes. He was 87 and regularly the first to arrive for Friday evening and Saturday morning Sabbath services. Friends kidded him that he should have been a rabbi. Rose Malinger was 97, the oldest of those killed, and she loved her family above all else. She was the epitome of the caring grandmother, even at 97 preparing family feasts for the High Holy Days.

That’s just five stories out of eleven. Together, from the other side of eternity, they teach us how to live.

In my sermon on Sunday, preached following the fire at First Baptist Church and the day after the Tree of Life shooting, I said that God doesn’t give us buildings—however majestic they may be. They are the work of our hands and our imaginations. But God does give us each other, friends, family, neighbors, of different races and colors, traditions and backgrounds—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, gay and straight, Democrats and Republicans. God gives us each other to love, to heal, to care for. God gives us each other to hold, to dry each other’s tears, and to make us whole again. We can be that for each other. We need to be that for each other. Right here in this town. This is our time.

May God bless you and us all as we love one another.

Shabbat Shalom. May their memory be a blessing. 

The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD
Chair, Wakefield Interfaith Clergy Association
Rector, Emmanuel Episcopal Church of Wakefield

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Finding Faith, Finding God: A Sermon Following a Fire and a Mass Shooting

If you were here several week ago, you may remember that I preached on the Book of Job, and how God tests Job’s faithfulness. In the book, Job suffers all sorts of afflictions as God waits to see if Job maintains his faith or if instead he curses God. Most of those around Job—his wife and friends—assume that he must have committed some dreadful sin to deserve all that comes his way—deaths of his children, sores all over his body, loss of his wealth and possessions. Through it all, though, Job refuses to curse God, while also refusing to confess to sins he did not commit. By the end of book, which we heard in this morning’s first reading, we discover that God is so impressed with Job that everything he lost is restored and then some—even new and improved children to replace those killed. Ultimately, Job lives happily ever after, for another 140 years.

People of faith study the Book of Job to try to make sense of why tragedy happens, especially loss, illness, and death. Is it punishment for something we may have done, or perhaps part of God’s mysterious plan? Or is it maybe just the random way of the world? To me, Job doesn’t give very satisfactory answers. Because I don’t believe that God sends afflictions and illnesses and the deaths of loved ones our way to test our faithfulness. I guess that’s one way of looking on the world. But it isn’t mine. It just does not sound much like the actions and practices of a God of love.

I think you would agree that the past week has been surreal. When we gathered for worship a week ago, we never would have thought or imagined that the landscape of our town and community would be changed so dramatically in just a matter of hours, by a strike of lightning. That lightning is something that some, like the characters in the Book of Job, might see as an act of God, as part of God’s plan, or perhaps a way to test our faithfulness. But I just can’t believe that. Tuesday afternoon I walked past the Baptist Church twice—to and from a meeting with an alumni officer from my college in Minnesota. As I walked past the large and imposing church I never would have thought that I would be back there again, less than two hours later, seeing it engulfed in flames.

There have been dramatic and cataclysmic church fires in Wakefield before—previous incarnations of the Baptist church burned, twice, in ancient history. And then, most recently at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in 1977. But I had never seen one. As I drove from our parish dinner in Lynnfield toward Wakefield center I saw that the sky was glowing red. And once I reached the town Common, I saw embers jumping in the sky and descending on us. Eventually, the crowd was moved further away in fear that the spire might topple to the ground. Pastor Glenn Mortimer of the Methodist Church and I stood there together, watching in helpless disbelief. Eventually I was able to found the cell number of the Baptist church’s minister and he joined us there, a trio of clergy watching as the roof caved in, as the windows glowed from inside and then shattered, as the flames engulfed this building that for 150 years had been the site of baptisms, weddings, and funerals; of prayers prayed and hymns sung; of meals shared, and education offered to the town’s youngest children.

To me, it looked and felt like the apocalypse. And, of course, I couldn’t help but think that the same fate could have just as easily befallen Emmanuel instead—if the lighting had struck in a different direction. Through it all, for me, the hope that night was the community gathered. The community that gathered to support each other; the community that prayed together. The community of people who held each other in our fear, sadness, and in our disbelief. God doesn’t give us majestic buildings, we create those ourselves. But God does give us each other. God gives us friends, and neighbors, and even sometimes strangers, who hold us, who dry our tears, and help us to see a new day.

The interfaith service we held here at Emmanuel Church on Thursday night was just the start of that important work. It certainly didn’t make it all better for our friends and neighbors who lost so much, in just a matter of hours. But hopefully it helped them, and us all, to feel, to believe, and to know that we do not walk through this life alone. Even in the midst of horrific loss, God sends us friends and neighbors to dry our tears and help us to see the light of new day.

The chief miracle of Tuesday night, I believe, was accomplished by brave firefighters and police, who ensured that the fire was contained to just the church and no one was seriously hurt. In fact, so contained was the fire that even the ornamental trees surrounding the church are still standing, which I marveled at when I walked past the rubble on Friday afternoon. On that same walk, I passed our Canterbury playground, full of kids playing exuberantly in the afternoon sunshine, glowing with the beautiful autumn leaves. That walk and the sound of the kids playing helped me to put everything in perspective. Even in the midst of sadness, we find life and love and joy.   

Thus, in every real way our local tragedy, dramatic and lasting as it is—leaving a physical hole in the center of town—pales in comparison to the loss experienced yesterday at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were murdered. As we heard in the news, the gunman stormed in during the morning Sabbath observance, at which they were holding a dedication ceremony for a new baby—much like our own baptisms—and shouted that he wanted to “kill all Jews.”

Afterward, the head of the FBI’s Pittsburgh Field Office said, “This is the most horrific crime scene I’ve seen in 22 years … Members of the Tree of Life synagogue conducting a peaceful service in their place of worship were brutally murdered by a gunman targeting them simply because of their faith.” The Anti-Defamation League said that it was “likely the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States.” 

The gunman carried an assault-style rifle and three handguns. All legal so far as we know. On some social media site, he said that Jews are children of Satan, and seemed particularly concerned that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was holding Sabbath services and helping to settle refugees in the United States, many in the Pittsburgh area. Just prior to the attack he wrote online: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Minutes later, 11 faithful people—gathered to pray, sing, hear God’s word, and give thanks for a new life—were dead.

We could see this as the action of one extremist maniac. And it was. But I can’t help but reflect on the fact that in my 10 years at Emmanuel Church we have witnessed the largest mass shooting in US history, not once, but twice—in 2016 at the gay nightclub in Orlando, when 50 people were killed; and then a year later, in 2017 when 59 people were killed at the Country Music Concert in Las Vegas. Also in 2017, 27 people were killed in the shooting at the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church in Texas. In 2015, 9 people were killed at a Bible study at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, by a white man who hated African Americans. We have seen the two of the largest school shootings in the past decade, too: at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, when 28 people were killed, and then again earlier this year at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, when 17 people—students and teachers alike—were gunned down. Of the 22 largest mass shootings in US history, 14 occurred in the last 10 years, and 5 in the last 2 years.

And lest we think that it couldn’t happen here, I’d note that on the news last night it was reported that there was yet more swastika graffiti found at the high school in Reading last week. In fact, in 2017 anti-Semitic incidents surged by 60% across the United States. New York had the most, followed by California, New Jersey, and then Massachusetts is fourth with 177 cases. The fifth highest was Florida with 98. Thus we know that hate lives and grows here, too.

These are all individual circumstances—one gunman hated Jews, another African Americans, another the LGBTQ community. Some had unknown motives. But together what they tell us is that something is wrong in our society. Something is wrong in our national life. Something is wrong in our very soul. We are broken people. Broken. Lost. Hurting. And we have to figure out how to make ourselves whole again. Rebuilding won’t be like in the Book of Job, when Job just magically got everything back and lived happily ever after. Instead, it will take work. Hard, human work. What’s more, it will take transformation. A transformation of human hearts.

Yesterday, addressing the carnage at the synagogue, the President reflected that the world is a violent place and that it would be better if places like the Tree of Life Synagogue had armed guards, who could take out would-be gunmen. He has said that about our schools, too. Maybe he’d even say it about us here at Emmanuel.

I remember when I lived in Toronto that many synagogues did have a police detail outside on Saturday mornings for their sabbath services. So, I suppose that’s an option. But what does that say about us as a people, if our churches, synagogues, and mosques, need to be guarded in that way? What does that say about who we are and what we value, if we have to live in a state of perpetual fear and lockdown? How will we share the good news of God’s promise of abundant life for all if those who come through our doors have to pass through metal detectors and armed guards?

Following the shooting yesterday, the Episcopal bishop of Pittsburgh wrote, “Human beings have moral agency. Someone chose to hate, and chose to kill. And now we are faced with a choice as well—to do nothing, or to reject this hatred in the strongest possible words and actions, and to refute in every way, in every forum, the philosophical foundations of anti-Semitism wherever they have gained a foothold in our churches and our society.”

Our own Massachusetts bishops added, “As people of faith, we also decry suggestions that the solution to such violence is further violence. For national leaders to suggest that the solution is for our houses of worship (and by extension our schools, our movie theaters, our shopping centers and our outdoor concert venues) to be armed fortresses is to abdicate responsibility for addressing the root causes of this scourge. We continue to insist that our grief and anger must issue not only in compassion and prayer, not only in increased vigilance and security, but also in continued advocacy for measures which will resist the religious and ethnic bigotry and easy access to lethal weapons which are among those root causes.”

I agree. Our faith can’t be in guns. Our faith has to be in God. And in each other. And you know what, I think we saw the answer on Tuesday night, even as the majestic First Baptist Church building became an inferno. And we saw it again on Thursday night, as we came together, right here in this church, in love and compassion, across our diverse faith traditions.

Among the most powerful moments for me on Thursday evening was Rabbi Greg Hersh reading from Isaiah: “Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” After the reading, he taught us a song in Hebrew, a song meant to heal broken hearts and lift downcast spirits. And so we sang together, in Hebrew. Think, for a second, about the profundity of that moment. Here was a Jewish Rabbi, offering words of healing to a largely Christian congregation, and to the Baptist congregation in particular, here in an Episcopal Church, urging us all to find hope and inspiration in our shared scripture and in our shared humanity. This is what we need. Not more guns. But more love. More understanding. More willingness to reach out beyond our people, to God’s people.

We were reminded on Tuesday evening that God does not give us buildings—even the grandest among them are impermanent. But God does give us each other. Family, friends, and neighbors—of different colors, traditions, and backgrounds—to love, to heal and care for. God gives us each other to hold. To dry our tears. And to make us whole again. So that all may experience full and abundant life. As Christians, as humans, this is our calling.

This is our time.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

"Eating the Children's Crumbs": A Sermon on the Syrophoenician Woman, the Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and God's Heavenly Banquet

It is interesting to me—maybe coincidental, maybe providential—that today, on this day of anniversary celebration this gospel passage, the story of the Syrophoenician woman and her encounter with Jesus, should present itself in the lectionary. I did not pick it, but perhaps it picked us. Despite how unsettling it can sound, it is probably my favorite story in the New Testament. It appears in slightly different forms in Mark, as we’ve just heard, and also in Matthew. So it comes up in the lectionary 2 out of every 3 years. I first preached on it on my third Sunday at Emmanuel, back in August of 2008, and probably 6 or 7 times since.

What more is there to say after 10 years? As it happens, I’ve had something of an exciting new insight after studying several commentaries this week. But before we get there, let’s lay the groundwork again—the context, the characters, what do they say and do, and why?

The first place we encounter this story of Jesus and his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is here in the gospel of Mark—written about 66 to 70 AD, at the height of a Jewish/Gentile conflict that led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and really a total leveling of Jerusalem as anyone knew it. Tensions were especially high, and there was a real belief among faithful people—Jewish and Christian alike—that the end of the world was coming. This end was both fearsome, but also hopeful, as it would usher in a new age under God’s Messiah. The Christians thought that Messiah was Jesus. The Jewish believers were not so sure. But they agreed that in the fulness of time the Roman Empire would not have the upper hand, despite its military and political strength in the present.

Second, we need to remember that Mark, the author of the gospel, was himself Gentile. We know because he doesn’t always have a strong grasp of Jewish religion, culture or customs, even as he believed with every fiber of his being that Jesus was the Son of God. For a long time, it was believed that Mark was written in Rome, and that he was a disciple of Peter or Paul. That’s still possible, but in studying how the gospel is written, his concerns, geography as he understands it, increasingly biblical scholars have come to believe that Mark may have been from Syria, writing for Gentile Christians there. This will be important later, so remember that. The church in Syria grew when Jews and others fled Jerusalem with the Roman siege and went there as refugees—a tragic irony given that so many are fleeing from Syria as refugees in today.

When we meet Jesus in this morning’s story, he seems to be looking for an escape. The most recent action event in the gospel, prior to this passage, is the miracle of the loaves and fish, when Jesus fed 5,000 people. That story is key, too. It happened in a Jewish area, and people are clamoring to see him. He has become a celebrity. He’s no longer just performing a miracle here and there, the occasional healing for someone who needs it, but instead, he’s started reaching people on a massive scale. Jesus has become a religious and cultural rock star.

And as with all rock stars, the crowds and groupies get to be too much. So, he tries to escape—to the region of Tyre, which today is Lebanon. This is an important detail, because it’s a Gentile region. In other words, he trying to go where no one would recognize him. Incognito. Hiding out in a safe house. Unfortunately, his fame has preceded him. Such was the force of his impact that even in a foreign land, filled with people of a different religious and cultural backgrounds, he can’t escape notice.

Enter, then, the Syrophoenician woman. We read that she is a Gentile. In other words, she’s not Jewish. She doesn’t share Jesus’ religious or cultural background. But she knows that he can heal. And, well, she’s desperate. Not for herself, but for her daughter—who is possessed by a demon or an unclean spirit. We don’t know what the medical diagnosis for such a thing might be today, but for her and her daughter it was something awful. Probably beyond awful. And when you are desperate for help, you don’t really care who the doctor is—race or religion or background or whatever—if he or she can heal.

Jesus, unfortunately, is none too interested. Maybe because he was tired and grumpy, on vacation. Or maybe because he really believed that his mission, and God’s mission, was first and foremost to the people of Israel. Whatever it was, his response to the woman’s desperate plea to heal her daughter is, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

There is no getting around the reality that his response was not only a rejection, but also an insult. Jesus called the woman and her daughter dogs—not worthy of the children’s food, not worthy of healing, not worthy of much.

Jesus’ response here reflects, in a sharp and vivid way, the tensions that existed between Jews and Gentiles in the first century, and particularly as Gentiles in the Roman Empire destroyed everything that faithful Jews held sacred. I have long believed that this passage makes Jesus look so bad that it must have really happened. Who on earth would make it up? But, maybe, it reflects even more the tensions of the 30 to 40 years after Jesus lived, tensions that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, and maybe less Jesus’ own words. Ultimately, we can’t know for sure.

But whatever the case, the real drama happens next, when the Syrophoenician woman, desperate to grasp whatever healing she can for her daughter, argues back. Now, notice that she doesn’t get in a shouting match—she is respectful, but also smart. “Sir” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She doesn’t question Jesus’ sense of his mission, she doesn’t say anything negative about his people, she just asks for some healing as well.

As we know, we are in the midst of a Supreme Court nomination battle. Perhaps capitalizing on that, CNN recently aired its documentary titled “RBG” about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I thought it was fantastic—powerful and deeply moving. And to me, here, the Syrophoenician woman reminds me a lot of the “Notorious RBG,” as she’s often called—not so much as a justice, but earlier, when she was a lawyer in the 1970s, arguing cases before the Supreme Court, slowly and steadily chipping away at sexist laws—with her carefully chosen words, cutting like a laser through centuries of sexism and bias. She won 5 out of her 6 cases. Her last case as a lawyer before the Court was in 1978. At the end of her oral argument, Justice William Rehnquist asked her, “You won't settle for putting Susan B. Anthony on the new dollar, then?” Ginsburg later said she considered responding, “We won't settle for tokens”, but instead opted not to answer. Her late friend and much more conservative Supreme Court colleague, Antonin Scalia, said of her: “she became the leading (and very successful) litigator on behalf of women's rights—the Thurgood Marshall of that cause, so to speak.”

And the Syrophoenician woman, is much the same. She’s not asking Jesus to overturn centuries of religious and cultural difference in one fell swoop. And she’s not allowing herself to be offended by the comment about dogs, but instead stays focused. Like a litigator, she’s arguing carefully, precisely, for what she needs. In her case, she was willing to accept tokens or crumbs, so long as they healed her daughter. And they do.

Jesus is so impressed, that he heals the girl from a distance. He doesn’t need to touch or even see her to include her in God’s act of healing, restoration, and salvation. It is the most remarkable story. And it is the only time, that I know of, that Jesus is bested in an argument. Not by a Pharisee. Not by someone who shares his cultural or religious background. Not even by a man. But by a woman. A woman whose daughter has a demon. A woman who is a Gentile. A woman who is desperate.

So, what do we make of that? Well, remember how I stressed the emerging consensus among scholars that Mark was written in Syria? That’s significant because the Syrophoenician woman was, herself, Syrian. She is from Syrian Phoenicia. Thus, it seems to me that she may really be the gospel’s embodiment of Mark and his own community. They know that they are not Jewish. They don’t share the same wonderful history and culture as Jesus and his disciples, going back to David and Moses and Abraham. But, Mark believes, with the Syrophoenician woman, that they are worthy of being included in the new community of faith and discipleship that is growing now. God, they believe, is breaking in, and making all things new.

You’ll remember, too, how I said that this story happens just after the feeding of the 5,000 with the five loaves and two fish. First that multitude was fed. Now, the woman and her daughter have been fed with their crumbs. And soon, in the next chapter, while Jesus is still in a Gentile area, he will perform another miracle, and feed 4,000 more people, this time with seven loaves and a few fish. Seven, notably, is a symbolic number for completeness. And so, the gospel shifts—exclusion falls away and all people, of multiple diverse backgrounds and languages are included as recipients of Christ’s miracles, and more importantly as guests in the heavenly banquet.

The pivotal figure in helping to bring that change is the woman from Syria, a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin, whose daughter had a demon. The healing of her daughter—the crumbs they receive—are really the foretaste of the wider and even more diverse and inclusive banquet that is to come. She is a hero of the Gospel. She’s the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg of the Bible, if you will, helping to bring change, little by little, step by step, chipping away at bias, exclusion, and discrimination.

So, there you have it—one of the most interesting, challenging, perplexing, and also hopeful passages in the Bible. As I said earlier, I used to think that the Syrophoenician woman’s story was included in the gospels because it had to be—it was known to be true, even if it was a little embarrassing to Jesus. Now, I more think that it’s there even more as an encouragement to Mark’s community and also to us. It’s a reminder that even if you sometimes feel left out, or alone, or desperate, even if you feel excluded or discriminated against, whatever it may be, God’s love, God’s embrace, and God’s kingdom includes you, too. Sometimes you may feel that you only get or only deserve crumbs under the table. But you should know that eventually, and even soon, you will feast at God’s banquet table. Whoever you are. Whatever your background—age, race, gender, orientation. All are part of the rainbow dream of God. That’s the good news. In fact, that’s the great news. That’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD