Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Sunday, June 17, 2012
On Mustard Seeds, Episcopalians, and the Kingdom of God: A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost
Monday, April 16, 2012
And as it happens, this gospel passage is a relatively well-known one, especially for its portrayal of the apostle Thomas, often called “Doubting Thomas” because he—at first—found the idea of the resurrection too far fetched to believe in. Thomas, it seems, wasn’t around when Jesus appeared to the other disciples on Easter Day, and so when they told him their fantastic story, he wanted some kind of proof before he could believe. He wanted to see this resurrected Jesus for himself. In that, he’s probably not too different from many of us, who likewise find things that are hard to believe, well, hard to believe.
But you know, as we discovered last week in our Easter morning reading, the women who discovered the empty tomb had the very same trouble. In fact, they ran away from the tomb and the angel’s message of the resurrection because, as the gospel says, they were terrified. They couldn’t believe either, at least not right away. Even Mary Magdalene, who went back to the tomb, had trouble believing in the resurrection story, until she met with the risen Christ, whom she didn't recognize at first and took to be the gardener.
So, that Thomas would have the same troubles, the same questions, the same doubts, should not be too surprising. For most of us, if we are honest, it is much easier to believe in things that verifiable--things that we can see, or touch, or hold. And a lot of the time, we may find that faith and doubt sort of overlap in our lives. Some days it’s easier to believe things, and then other days, it’s a lot harder.
As many of you know, today marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. And even a century later this dramatic, horrific event holds a place in our collective memory and imagination, even if none of us can remember it firsthand. Certainly that’s true for me. The Titanic struck the iceberg in the late hours of April 14 and sank at about 2:20 a.m. on April 15. They say that the night was so dark, and the waters so still that it was only 30 seconds after the iceberg was sighted that it struck. There was no possible way for a ship that large to out-maneuver it.
The Titanic was, of course, a mighty ship, in fact it was the mightiest ship—the largest moveable man-made object on earth at its time, and was so advanced that it was thought to be “practically” unsinkable. Apparently its builders never made that claim for it, but the press did, upon learning of its various safety features. Some even boasted: “God himself couldn’t sink this ship.” Unfortunately, as we know, those safety features didn’t include sufficient life-boats for all of the passengers. In part that’s because the legal regulations were outdated and didn’t require them, in part because the owners didn’t want to clutter up the decks and detract from the ship’s majestic views for the first class passengers, but also in part because the ship’s engineers believed that even if there were a calamity, the ship could float for some time so that passengers could be rescued. Lifeboats were really intended to be used to ferry passengers from one vessel to another, rather than hold passengers as the mighty ship broke apart and sank to the depths of the sea. The thought that it would sink as it did was never even imagined.
I have devoured information about the Titanic this week. I get like that sometimes—a topic will consume me. I told myself I wasn’t going to talk about this morning, but it has been so much on my mind, that I didn’t think how I could avoid it. And perhaps it has been on yours, too. If, this week, you turn on the History channel, or Discovery channel, or even PBS you’ll find any number of documentaries offering new theories on why things turned out as disastrously as they did. Scientists have suggested that the iron rivets used were of poor quality, so that rather than the iceberg slashing a massive gash in the ship, the tops of the rivets simply gave out under pressure. For all of the ship’s advances, they relied on some old technology in terms of how it was built, and it seems that there was at that time a shortage of the best quality iron. There are also suggestions that it was going too fast. It certainly didn’t heed the serious warnings of other ships in the area, which likewise found significant ice. Perhaps the captain and crew also believed that the ship was unsinkable. Whatever the reason, only 710 people were saved out of total of 2,224--just 32%. Over 1500 died. Most didn’t drown, but froze to death, as the salt water was only 28 degrees.
It is this kind of tragedy, on such an epic scale, as well as many of the personal and family struggles that we each have to face in life, that can make faith hard sometimes, especially faith in the promise of the resurrection. Why, we wonder, would God, if God even exists, allow such things to happen? What can be the meaning or purpose in such great losses? In the days and weeks after the Titanic disaster many preachers in the U. S. and across the world suggested that the catastrophe was a sign of God’s punishment over human arrogance, pride, and greed—as if we believed that we somehow had the power, the technology, the wealth—to harness or defeat nature. Some preachers today using that same kind of language suggest that various natural disasters (like hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis) are evidence of God’s anger over whatever the preacher doesn’t like in contemporary society.
Certainly, there’s something to be said for the reminder that human greed and arrogance can and often does end in horrendous consequences. But I would never go so far as to say that it is somehow God’s punishment. Because I don’t believe that God would seek to punish over 1500 people for the greed and arrogance of some. In fact, as you heard me say on Palm Sunday, I don’t even think that God desired the death of one person, Jesus himself. Because I don’t believe that God desires the death of anyone. Rather, God desires life. God always desires, God always works for, and God always creates, life.
That’s what the resurrection is all about. And that’s what faith in the resurrection is all about. It is the belief that even in the midst of death, even in the midst of suffering, God is somehow, in someway, bringing life again. Easter doesn’t erase what happened before—even in the case of Jesus the marks of the crucifixion were there—in fact, Jesus told Thomas to inspect the marks of the nails, so that he could see that it really was him. The resurrection doesn’t rewind the clock or pretend that the horror of Good Friday was an illusion. It was real. But it wasn’t the end of the story.
And more than anything, that’s what we, too, are asked to believe when we profess our faith in resurrection. It can be hard sometimes. It can be hard a lot of the time, when we read stories of tragedies, or when we experience them ourselves. But sometimes, often even, it is just at those moments, when it’s hardest to believe, that God breaks in, that faith breaks in, just as Jesus broke into the disciples’ locked room. Easter is God’s way of reminding us that there’s nothing that the world can dole out, however fearful, however horrific, that God can’t transform into something better. It doesn’t make it go away, or pretend that it didn’t happen—as I said, the wounds of Jesus’ crucifixion are still there, the crumpled wreck of the Titanic with evidence of its thousands of passengers is still at the bottom of the ocean—but God takes it and is able in some mysterious, incomprehensible way to bring new life.
And it’s that new life, that promise that we celebrate today as we baptize Jacob. By baptizing him, what we are really doing is telling him that his life is, in fact, in God’s hands, and that he is marked with the cross as Christ’s own forever. There’s nothing that the world can do to change that. He will forever and always belong to God. The promise of new life, the promise of the resurrection will shine out from his heart and soul. And time and again, God will work through him to bring new life to the world. That’s God’s promise for him, for us, for the whole world. It’s a promise that was fulfilled that first Easter 2,000 years ago when Jesus appeared to the disciples in their locked room, and it’s a promise fulfilled each and every time new life and new hope conquers fear, death, and despair.
To return to the Titanic anniversary for just a moment, we find in that story epic, almost incomprehensible tragedy. But we also find simultaneous glimpses of faith and new life, as passengers gave up their seats on lifeboats for others, as wives refused to leave their husbands, as musicians played the hymns even as the water rose, and as the crew worked in the depths of the ship shoveling coal to keep the lights on and keep it afloat until the very last possible moment, all to ensure that as many people as possible would live, even as the crew knew they wouldn't. Those are real life stories of faith and of hope. They are stories of resurrection, of new life, of Easter.
Sometimes, we may find ourselves doubting how it is all possible. Sometimes we may have trouble wrapping our minds around this illogical faith of ours. We may wonder if it all really is a dream or a fairy tale. But I think that’s because too often for Christians the resurrection is something to believe in because the Bible and the creeds tell us to, but not the life-transforming event that it was for Jesus’ disciples. Ultimately, our Easter faith not really about an intellectual belief, but rather, it is our simple, faithful, trust in the promises of God—a trust that no matter what we may see happening around us, God is always finding a way to bring new life, abundant life, resurrection life.
Jesus said to Thomas: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; put out your hand and place it in my side; do not doubt, but believe.”
May we share in that belief, may we share in that trust, may we experience that Easter life, today and always. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell
Monday, April 9, 2012
It is wonderful to share this Easter celebration of new life with you. It is wonderful to see you all, to be surrounded by beautiful flowers, Easter hats and dresses, to sing such grand music, and to have our hearts filled with joy and hope. And if there are young children in your home, I suspect that there was even more joy and hope this morning as kids tore into Easter treats—jelly beans, marshmallow peeps, and chocolate bunnies.
I always liked getting chocolate bunnies in my Easter baskets, but I don’t think I ever ate them that much, usually just the ears. My mom used to complain all the time that she would find these poor earless bunnies that had turned that chalky shade of white wrapped up in my sock drawer months and months after Easter, often next to equally sad headless chocolate Santas. I could never commit to a whole bunny (or a whole Santa). I liked smaller treats like peanut butter cups, malted milk balls, and my favorite—Russell Stover coconut chocolate nests, with jellybeans for eggs. The Easter bunny usually only brought one per kid in my house and one year my brother Andy stole mine out of my basket, and let’s just say it wasn’t very Eastery around the afterward. But then, I often stole peanut butter cups out of his Christmas stocking--and truth be told, I still do!
But you know, there’s a lot more that Christmas and Easter have in common, besides candy treats, happy kids, full churches and beautiful music. (Not to mention the stress of cleaning the house and having company over for a big dinner). There’s also long ago stories of miracles, stories of things that are hard to believe, stories of people who are amazed, and also stories of angels--angels who appear unexpectedly, who break into ordinary human life and say, “Do not be afraid.”
That’s really how this morning’s Easter gospel begins, too. “Do not be afraid,” the angel says to the women at the tomb. Probably a lot easier said than done, considering all that they had seen and experienced. Remember, these are the same women who had stayed with Jesus in his darkest hours, when the other disciples had fled and were in hiding, locked away in a room somewhere. But these women, they had witnessed it all. They were there. And there’s really no way to pretty up what happened on the Friday we call “Good.” It was humanity at our very, very worst.
And after his life was gone, these faithful, steadfast women had Jesus’ body taken down from the cross and they quickly found a place to bury him before sundown, before the Passover Sabbath began. They couldn’t complete their work of caring for him then because there wasn’t time. It had to wait until after the Sabbath rest. That’s why they were there so early on Sunday morning-- it was their first chance to go back and finish their work of caring for Jesus. I imagine that the intervening time was dreadful, as they replayed in their minds everything that had happened, over and over again. No doubt there were nightmares, if they got any sleep at all.
And after all that, the angel has the nerve to tell them not to be afraid. And not only that, but that the Jesus they seek is not even there where they had left him, but is risen. Risen. It’s unimaginable. They had seen all of it. They knew that Jesus was dead. If they knew anything, they knew that. And so, Mark’s gospel tells us, they were filled with fear. The angel’s message was too far fetched, and they ran off terrified. In the original, earliest version of this gospel, it just ended that way. With the women terrified. Now, that’s not a very satisfactory conclusion to a story—the empty tomb, the angel, and the women running away. It’s dramatic to be sure, but it doesn’t exactly fill you with Easter hope. So, later on, a new ending was added by another author, to try to complete the story, to tie up the loose ends. But it wasn’t there at first. At first, the women were just terrified.
I think that’s because the women at the tomb didn’t understand the angel’s message: “Do not be afraid.” They didn’t have any context for it. If Mary, Jesus’ mother, had been there, she probably would have understood, she would have remembered. Because, of course, when the angel appeared to her many years before he said the same thing: “Do not be afraid Mary, for I bring you good tidings of great joy.” The angels back then said the same thing to the shepherds in the fields, too. It seems that whenever angels appear with good news, of something miraculous and wonderful, but very hard to believe, they preface it with “Do not be afraid.”
We don’t quite know what the women did next. Mark’s gospel says they didn’t tell anyone, while other gospels say that they found Jesus’ male disciples—the ones who had locked themselves away, like Peter and who likewise had a hard time believing in the angel’s message. But maybe, maybe, they also found Jesus’ mother and told her what they had seen and heard. And if they did, I suspect that she would have shared what happened to her some 30 years before, how the angel had appeared and told her, too, not to be afraid. Maybe she encouraged these friends of Jesus to believe in the impossible, as she had learned to do. In John’s version of Easter story we read that Mary Magdalene went back and found Jesus there in the garden; although, she didn’t recognize him at first. She wanted to believe the angel’s message, but she was still afraid and it didn’t make sense.
There’s a lot in life that can be fearsome. There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense. But the good news of Easter, the reason we are here together on this beautiful spring morning, is the promise that whatever happens in life, we do not have to be afraid. We do not have to worry. And we do not have to run away, terrified. Because we remember, we believe, we know that on that first Easter morning so very long ago God broke into our fear. God changed the way things work. God brought new life and joy where once there was death and despair.
That’s what Easter is all about, much more than earless chocolate bunnies, coconut bird nests, colored eggs, and jellybeans, as special as those treats are. Easter is about turning the rules of the world inside out and upside down. It’s about taking what’s broken and making it whole again. It’s about new life, abundant life, resurrection life. The women who went to the tomb early on Sunday morning weren’t expecting that. But perhaps they should have, since Jesus’ whole life, from the very beginning, was about breaking rules, and seeing things differently, and doing things differently. Why should the end be any different?
They weren’t quite yet ready to hear this good news, to have their world turned inside out and upside down once more. But perhaps we are. Perhaps we are ready. Maybe that's why Mark’s gospel concludes in the dramatic, if unexpected way that it does. Not because the women running away is the end of the Jesus story. Not because Mark the Evangelist didn’t believe in the joy of resurrection. It most certainly is not the end. And he most certainly did believe.
But I think it may be written that way because the end of story hasn't been written yet. The good news continues. It continues with us as the evangelists, with us sharing and believing in the power of the resurrection. It is our story to tell today, as much as it was theirs 2,000 years ago. Because we know that when an angel appears and says, “Do not be afraid,” it means that something amazing, something unusual, something world-altering is about to happen. We know that it always means that good news, great news even, is coming.
And so, the Easter story continues with us, with us taking on the starring roles in the great drama of faith that began so long ago. It continues with us sharing the good news, the great joy, for all the people—that Christ is alive, that sin and death have no lasting power over us; and that new life, abundant life, resurrection life, God’s life, will always win out in the end. That’s why we are here this morning. That’s the message of Easter. That’s our story to tell, this beautiful spring day, and always.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. Happy Easter.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell
Saturday, March 17, 2012
I was in the midst of a summer of ministry as a hospital chaplain in a Clinical Pastoral Education program in Boston when the Anglican world learned that Williams, then Archbishop of Wales and a theologian of considerable renown, was announced as the next Archbishop of Canterbury. He was known at the time for his dense theologian mind, but also for his liberal positions on matters of sexuality and the place of women in ministry. Williams’ appointment promised a refreshing change after the more conservative leadership of Archbishop George Carey. I was not alone in thinking that Williams’ theological acumen and more inclusive vision for the church would usher in a new age for the Anglican Communion, which was already showing signs of theological and geographical fracture. He was following, it was hoped, in the footsteps of remarkable theologian archbishops like William Temple and Arthur Michael Ramsey. Williams’ appointment had the potential to lead to a new golden age for Anglicanism.
Just months after Williams’ enthronement at Canterbury in 2003 matters came to a head. First, the Rev. Canon Dr. Jeffrey John was announced as the next Suffragan Bishop for Reading in the Oxford diocese. Dr. John is himself a brilliant theologian and well-regarded. But, he happens to be gay and living in a committed partnership with another man, also an Anglican priest. He maintained, though, that his relationship was by that point celibate. John initially had Williams’ support and was appointed by Queen Elizabeth. However, the outcry from conservatives across the Church of England and the Anglican Communion was so fierce that Williams summoned his friend Dr. John to Lambeth Palace and exhibited considerable pressure to force John to decline the Queen’s appointment. Reluctantly Dr. John did so.
Nearly simultaneously the Diocese of New Hampshire in the Episcopal Church USA elected the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson as its bishop. Robinson, too, is engaged in a same-sex relationship, but without any claim to being celibate. Having succeeded in England, there was again an outcry by conservatives across the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion to find a way to bar Robinson’s consecration. When the Episcopal Church’s General Convention met in Minneapolis and voted to confirm New Hampshire’s election, the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop was pressured to refuse to consecrate, and Robinson himself was pressured to step down for the sake of church unity. He refused and in November 2003 was consecrated as Bishop Coadjutor of New Hampshire.
The outcry against the Episcopal Church’s actions was deafening. It is not an exaggeration to say that the depth of concern, criticism, and outrage was unexpected. Bishops around the Communion declared themselves out of communion with New Hampshire and with the bishops who participated in his consecration. At the same time, the Anglican Church of Canada was liberalizing its position on sexuality. In particular, the Diocese of New Westminster had approved liturgical blessings for same-sex couples. While not the object of the same degree of vitriol as the Episcopal Church, the Canadian church was subject to considerable criticism. Lines were being drawn in the sand.
In retaliation for these liberal actions, global conservatives began to minister to North Americans, establishing missions, sending and consecrating bishops and claiming authority over like-minded congregations when liberal bishops would not denounce their actions and support of Bishop Robinson or same-sex blessings. While many decried these “boundary crossings,” little could be done to halt them. In recent years they have gone so far as to lead to schism and the establishment of the conservative Anglican Church of North America, with majorities in several U.S. dioceses voting to secede from the Episcopal Church, and appealing for official recognition by the Anglican Communion.
It was into this stormy context that the heretofore-liberal Dr. Williams found himself. No longer simply a theologian, diocesan or even national bishop, he was now the spiritual leader of a deeply divided worldwide family of churches, while also leader of the Church of England. Rather than imposing his own theological world-view on the Anglican Communion, he attempted to find a solution that would unite as many of the world’s Anglicans as possible. What began with the Windsor Report, which recommended a number of penalties for those bodies that were perceived to have broken the “bonds of affection” with the Anglican Communion, later developed into the proposal for the Anglican Communion Covenant.
As envisaged by Williams the Covenant would offer a stronger definition of Anglican belief and practice than previously known while also setting forth a process for dealing with conflicts. It is left up to each province to adopt or reject the Covenant. None are compelled to adopt it. However, those provinces that do not sign on could be deemed “second-tier” Anglicans in terms of the life of the Communion situating themselves outside the Communion’s more centralized life. Those provinces that do agree would seek to deepen their connections and commitment to the Communion. Williams has stressed that he would like Anglicans to embrace the meaning of “Communion” in the deepest possible way, rather than pull apart as a looser federation of global churches. Many, with Williams, have embraced the Covenant process as the best chance the Anglican Communion has to weather and survive its current crises. Others have argued that it is either too weak in its enforcement of standards or that it is un-Anglican and potentially draconian in its attempts to limit Anglican comprehensiveness.
The Covenant has found considerable global support, particularly in more conservative provinces; however, it faces a less certain acceptance in the historically liberal churches in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Scotland. In recent months its chances of passage in the Church of England, once thought assured, also has seemed increasingly unlikely, despite pleas by Williams and other bishops and theologians for its support.
Besides his global challenges, Williams has found his leadership questioned in England itself. Just as the churches and society in North America have grappled with more liberal attitudes to sexuality, so too has the U.K. Williams has articulated a position that upholds the church’s historic teaching on marriage and family while trying also to defend the civil rights of sexual minorities. It has proved to be an uncomfortable position, especially for one who has himself ordained openly gay priests in Wales and written positively about the grace of same-sex relationships when a theologian. To his credit he is alone among world Christian leaders in even considering gay rights and finding some place for sexual minorities in the church. In like fashion, Williams has long advocated for the ordination of women and supports legislation that will allow women to serve as English bishops. However, he has tried to accommodate conservatives by suggesting additional male bishops to minister to those opposed to potential women in the episcopate. It was not an ideal proposal, but it was deemed by Williams necessary to preserve church unity. The proposal was rejected by the Church of England’s General Synod as it continues to debate if, how, and when it will open the episcopate to women. Whatever happens, there will be no “shadow” male bishops. Yet, there is no question that aside from these issues of gender and sexuality, Williams is regarded fondly by the Church of England’s faithful and especially its leadership.
Given all of the above, it is no surprise that Williams looks haggard and exhausted. He took on the mantle of Anglican leadership at what is arguably its most difficult time since the Reformation era or the 17th century civil war. Thankfully, he will be able to return to academia and theological scholarship and doesn’t face fates like his predecessors Thomas Cranmer, burned at the stake, and William Laud, beheaded. Indeed, many do now and even more will look on Williams’ tenure as a success in a thankless time. Others, of course, will reflect on the promise and hopes that went unfulfilled.
Personally, I recognize Williams’ difficult and unenviable position. My criticisms are not so much related to his lukewarm support for the liberal positions he once embraced; although, there do seem to be questions of personal integrity, especially in consideration of his treatment of Jeffrey John. Rather, I am especially concerned with Williams’ tendency to call and work for an increasingly centralized authority within global Anglicanism, whether in the Covenant or in the person of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The latter is especially ironic since Williams likes to emphasize his vocation as a priest over his episcopal consecration and presents himself in an especially modest manner.
Perhaps this tendency toward centralization is a result of his wide ecumenical vision. Certainly other traditions, especially Roman Catholicism, have a more efficient polity than the diffuse and varied approach employed by the churches of the Anglican Communion. On more than one occasion Williams has spoken of the “Anglican Church” as if we were a single unified body. I suspect this is because Williams wishes it were so, or perhaps even believes it is so in a profound theological way, if not politically or constitutionally. There is no question that he is deeply pained by the divisions in Anglicanism and would have liked to heal them in his tenure as the Communion’s spiritual leader. To his credit, the permanent fractures under his leadership have been limited (albeit highly publicized) and were starting to form before he took office.
Even before Williams’ announced resignation the future of the Anglican Communion Covenant was in doubt. Unfortunately Williams has seemed to stake his personal leadership and reputation on it. If the Church of England rejects the Covenant, as seems increasingly likely, there will be little to commend it to other Anglican churches of the world. This is probably for the best. While there are some positive aspects to the Covenant, in general it proposes such a stark departure from Anglican precedence and practice in terms of centralization, international powers, and even in the effort to define Anglicanism that it would radically change the character of the Communion. Some obviously see this as an improvement, especially those who would like us to more closely resemble the Roman Catholic Church or other communions. But it is not who we have been, who we are today, and who we should be for the world.
The fact of the matter is, Christian unity cannot be legislated. It cannot be enforced with the threat of exclusion from international bodies and consultations. And it cannot be ensured by narrowly defined shared belief. Christian unity is created by God. It exists already as part of God’s design for the church in all those who are united by baptism into the life of the Body of Christ and, in fact, even before baptism in their creation in God’s image. That unity will not be preserved by the adoption of a global Covenant but can only be recognized for what it is already. We fall into sin when we fail to see that which is already before us, when we fail to recognize who we already are. This point has been argued by such diverse Anglican theologians as Richard Hooker, F. D. Maurice, and Desmond Tutu.
In a very real way, the Anglican vocation is to witness to the wider church and world the unity that already exists among us in the midst of our diversity—global, theological, liturgical. That is our gift in the midst of other churches that are more defined by their doctrinal unity or centralized authority. To extent that we display the love, fellowship, and peace of God toward each other, in spite of our many differences, we witness to the central message of the gospel: God is love, a love as deep and boundless as the universe itself.
Despite predictions regarding Williams’ successor, there is no way of knowing whom the Crown Nominations Commission will recommend to the Prime Minister and Queen. The top candidate has to be a citizen of the United Kingdom, Ireland, or one of the Commonwealth countries. Because the Church of England has yet to approve the consecration of women to the episcopate there is no chance that a woman will be selected. However, we can fairly confidently assume that he will be a supporter of women bishops, as this change is likely to be enacted this summer by the General Synod. In terms of the hot button issue of gay rights, a candidate with a moderate view will likely find himself most successful. Certainly we shouldn’t expect a champion, given the divisions that exist in England and across the Communion. The commission will be looking for a bishop who can heal divisions, not exacerbate them.
My personal hope for the next Archbishop of Canterbury, whoever he may be, is that he will find a way to help us all to recognize the life-giving love, the presence of God, in ourselves and in each other so that we can share it with the world.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell
Monday, January 16, 2012
Remembering Martin Luther King & Raoul Wallenberg: A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany
This week our nation and the world commemorate two of the greatest heroes of the 20th century. The first, of course, is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, King was born 83 years ago today. He was killed when he was just 39 years old—the same age as I am now, in fact, which in itself is sort of a reality check. While in his time Martin Luther King was a controversial figure with his fair share of detractors, history has remembered him as one whose vision and passion for justice and equality helped our country begin to be the kind of place that we should have been all along—a land of freedom and justice for all. Of course, we are not there yet. Even in the year 2012, with an African American president and racial discrimination officially illegal, we are still walking the long, twisty, and rocky path toward justice and equality, sometimes making great strides and at other times stumbling, or even getting lost along the way.
In some ways, I suppose, one could say that Martin Luther King was the right man, in the right place, at the right time. Like other important figures throughout history, he rose to the occasion when circumstances required it. Had he not been there, maybe someone else would have taken up his cause. But then again, maybe not. Certainly there were others—black and white—who struggled for civil rights, and had been doing so long before King was born, but he had that unique ability to inspire, to draw people in, and to help the people of our nation see how we are interconnected and how what happens to some affects us all.
King said, “All I'm saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we're caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
You know, the thing about Martin Luther King that has always inspired me most is how he translated his deep Christian faith into action. He did so with a clarity and power that seems unique. His devotion to the civil rights movement was rooted in and nourished by his Christian faith. And so I imagine that he would have strongly protested against the notion that religion and politics don’t mix. Because for King, as for many of the civil rights leaders, it was their faith in God, their belief in the liberation offered humanity through Jesus Christ and the promise of freedom and equality in him, that led them to fight so bravely for human liberation for themselves, their children and grandchildren, and all the future generations. We, today, regardless of our ethnic background, are the beneficiaries of their bravery, their commitment, and their hopeful and inspiring vision. As we continue their work in our own time and place, King’s words, his actions, and his vision are still providing inspiration and hope, here in the United States and across the world.
Less well known than Martin Luther King, at least here in the United States, is another hero of the twentieth century who is also being remembered this week. His name is Raoul Wallenberg. I wonder, how many of you have heard of Wallenberg? He was a wealthy Swedish businessman (who was educated in the United States) and served as a diplomat from Sweden in World War II. In particular, Wallenberg was a special envoy to Hungary during the later stages of the War, with a purpose of trying to find a way to save Hungary’s Jewish citizens while it was under Nazi occupation. The situation there was so bad that by 1944 as many as 12,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to concentration camps each day. Because Wallenberg had business dealings in Hungary and spoke Hungarian (as well as German, French, English, and Swedish) he was sent there by the War Refugee Board (established by President Roosevelt) to do something about the growing humanitarian crisis.
By the time of Wallenberg’s arrival in Hungary in 1944, over 2/3rds of the Jewish population had been deported to Auschwitz in the space of just a few months. Only 230,000 remained. He quickly got to work and issued protective passes supposedly authorized by the Swedish government to as many of the remaining Jewish citizens as he could. The passes suggested that these people were in fact Swedish citizens. Remember, they were in fact Hungarian Jews, not Swedes. The passes were illegal (Wallenberg produced them on a mimeograph in yellow and blue, with the Swedish three crown symbol in the corner), but they looked official enough to trick the Nazi and Hungarian authorities. He also rented 32 buildings in Budapest, which he established as Swedish extraterritorial safe houses. He hung large Swedish flags from the buildings and placed signs over the doors calling the houses “The Swedish Library” and “Swedish Research Institute.” Jewish citizens lived in these buildings in relative safety.
One of the drivers working for Wallenberg, recounted the Swedish diplomat’s actions upon intercepting a trainload of Jews about to leave for Auschwitz: “[Wallenberg] climbed up on the roof of the train and began handing in protective passes through the doors which were not yet sealed. He ignored orders from the Germans for him to get down, then the Arrow Cross men [the Hungarian fascists working with the Nazis] began shooting and shouting at him to go away. He ignored them and calmly continued handing out passports to the hands that were reaching out for them. I believe the Arrow Cross men deliberately aimed over his head, as not one shot hit him... I think this is what they did because they were so impressed by his courage. After Wallenberg had handed over the last of the passports he ordered all those who had one to leave the train and walk to the caravan of cars parked nearby, all marked in Swedish colours. I don't remember exactly how many, but he saved dozens off that train, and the Germans and Arrow Cross were so dumbfounded they let him get away with it.”
Estimates are that in less than a year Wallenberg may have saved as many as 100,000 people, more people saved than by any other person or institution in Europe during the war. By the end of 1944 the Soviet army had circled Budapest, although the Germans would not surrender. And then on January 17, 1945 (67 years ago this Tuesday), during the height of the German-Russian fighting, Wallenberg was summoned by a Russian general on suspicion of being an American spy. There are no confirmed reports of him after that date; although, many witnesses claimed to have seen and spoken with him. He was just 32 years old at the time of his disappearance.
Hungarian radio announced he died later in 1945 at the hands of the Nazis, while Russian authorities stated that he died in a Soviet Prison in 1947. It’s probable that Wallenberg was sent to a prison in Moscow. Unfortunately the Swedish authorities believed he was killed by the Nazis in 1945 and did little to find him or secure his rescue from the Russians, despite offers of exchange for Russian defectors. The actual circumstances of Wallenberg’s presumed death are still unknown—as late as the 1980s people claim to have seen him in prison. His personal effects were returned to his family by the Soviets in 1989. He was made an honorary citizen of the United States in 1981 (Only the second person so honored; the other was Winston Churchill); he was also made an honorary citizen of Canada, Hungary, and Israel.
Late U.S. Representative Tom Lantos, a Jewish native of Hungary who was saved by Wallenberg, said “During the Nazi occupation, this heroic young diplomat left behind the comfort and safety of Stockholm to rescue his fellow human beings in the hell that was wartime Budapest. He had little in common with them: he was a Lutheran, they were Jewish; he was a Swede, they were Hungarians. And yet with inspired courage and creativity he saved the lives of tens of thousands of men, women and children by placing them under the protection of the Swedish crown. In this age devoid of heroes, Wallenberg is the archetype of a hero – one who risked his life day in and day out, to save the lives of tens of thousands of people he did not know whose religion he did not share.”
What Martin Luther King, a black American Baptist, and Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish Lutheran diplomat, have in common is their belief that ordinary people, people like you and me, can make a difference in human life. They weren’t old, standing in line, waiting to gain more experience. Wallenberg was just 32 when he was captured. Martin Luther King was just 39 when he was killed. And as we know, Jesus was just 33 when he was crucified. And like Jesus, they believed that human life, human dignity, justice, and equality are worth fighting for, and sometimes even worth risking your life for. And so, they were inspired by a belief that this world of ours can be a better place. They believed that all life was interconnected and that what happens to some affects us all. Most especially, they believed that they could make a difference. And that there wasn’t time to waste. But rather that God was urging them to action, right then and there.
Martin Luther King and Raoul Wallenberg wouldn’t accept excuses or take no for an answer. And neither should we. As we remember them and their witness this week, may we likewise be inspired to dream impossible dreams, stand up for justice and equality, and work for the day when, as Martin Luther King dreamed, all God’s people will be free at last.
To whom be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell