glory of god

glory of god

Sunday, November 15, 2015

My House Shall be Called a House of Prayer for All Peoples: A Sermon after Terrorist Attacks

When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs. 

 Never have Jesus’ words felt more true. And honestly, it is hard to know what to say, with the world in such turmoil and crisis. The Paris terrorist attacks took so many innocent lives—people just doing what people do, attending a concert, a football game, and dining in restaurants, bars, and cafes. They were sons and daughters, husbands and wives, parents, aunts and uncles. They were ordinary people, like you and me, who deserve to mourned, loved, and upheld in our prayer. Not in a flimsy way—with simply words or Facebook posts, but in a real and deep way. Because they were real people. They were people who were beloved by their families and friends, people who were and are beloved by God. 

 It hasn’t registered as much in the news, but there was an attack this week in Beirut, Lebanon, too. Forty-one people were killed and more than 200 wounded by suicide bombers. In recent months major attacks also have been perpetrated in Turkey—100 were killed by two suicide bombers; and in July in Egypt as well. That’s to say nothing of the on-going crisis in Syria, where people live in daily fear for their lives, whether from ISIS or their own government. It is this crisis that leads people to flood into Europe, in search of refuge, safety, and a possibility for peaceful lives for themselves, for their children, and their children’s children. 

We should be clear that what happened in Paris on Friday night could happen anywhere that people live and move and associate freely. And we should emphasize that the vast majority of those killed by ISIS-related terrorist attacks are not Westerners, not Christians or Jews, but Muslims. It’s just that our press seems to focus on the events in countries most like ours. It’s not a plot to keep other news from us, I think, or I hope. It’s just that it’s hard for people with busy lives to focus on happenings everywhere. The world is clearly a mess. But, I believe, it is also in search of some glimmer of hope, some sense of possibility for a better future. That’s true for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and also for Hindus and Buddhists, and people who don’t profess any kind of religious faith, but who want nothing more than to see the world embrace a vision of peace. And not just a vision of peace. But also a reality of peace. 

Most of you know that this summer my family and I took a trip to Sweden. Our plans were that we would stay in Stockholm for a few days, sighting-see and such, until my friend Anders met us several days later for the remainder of our trek across Sweden and into Norway. Before heading out on our trip I researched options for how to get from the airport to the hotel, and learned that the cheapest way, given we were four people, was to take a cab. So, after landing and getting our luggage, I hailed a cab at the airport. Because there were four of us, I had to sit up front with the driver, and everyone else was in the back. At first I spoke to the driver in English, but soon I thought I would try out my rusty Swedish on him. That surprised and delighted him, as his English wasn’t that strong. It was good enough to get people where they need to go, but maybe not so strong for a 40 minute drive. 

It turns out that the driver is from Syria and I think finds Sweden a challenge sometimes—they are very distant and different countries after all. At one point, he asked me about my occupation. After wondering what I should say for a moment, I gave in and told him I am a priest. That led, rather predictably, to a somewhat uncomfortable conversation about religion—I’m a liberal Christian, and he seemed to be a more conservative Muslim. But then, somewhat out of the blue, he started fiddling with his smart phone, until he pressed play on a video file. He held the phone over his shoulder and turned it up as loud as he could, so everyone in the back could hear. Speaking on the video was a Muslim Imam, in Jordan I think, speaking about how faithful Muslims are expected to work for justice and peace, not only for fellow Muslims, but also for Christians and Jews. On the video he also said that faithful Muslims are called to condemn violence and do whatever they can to bring people together. 

Suffice it to say, it was not the cab ride to downtown Stockholm I expected. It might even be the weirdest cab ride ever—probably especially for my family in the back seat, who didn’t have a clue what we were talking about, in Swedish, and why this video was being played at them. But it testifies to the fact that people everywhere, of every religion and race and background are longing for a more peaceful and less divided, violent, and warring world. Even Syrian cab drivers in Stockholm. Maybe especially them. 

Over a year ago, a global coalition of Muslim scholars and leaders—over 120 of them—came together to offer a refutation of the so-called Islamic State. They wrote a letter to ISIS leaders, arguing point by point that their actions are a perversion of the Islamic faith and sacred text, the Qur’an. In fact, what they said sounds a lot like Imam in the video in the Stockhom taxi ride. Here is some: 

  • It is permissible in Islam [for scholars] to differ on any matter, except those fundamentals of religion that all Muslims must know. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to ignore the reality of contemporary times when deriving legal rulings. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to kill the innocent. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to kill emissaries, ambassadors, and diplomats; hence it is forbidden to kill journalists and aid workers. 
  • Jihad in Islam is defensive war. It is not permissible without the right cause, the right purpose and without the right rules of conduct. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat—in any way—Christians or any ‘People of the Scripture’. 
  • The re-introduction of slavery is forbidden in Islam. It was abolished by universal consensus. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to force people to convert. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to deny women their rights. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to deny children their rights. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to enact legal punishments (hudud) without following the correct procedures that ensure justice and mercy. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to torture people. Armed insurrection is forbidden in Islam for any reason other than clear disbelief by the ruler and not allowing people to pray.
  • Loyalty to one’s nation is permissible in Islam.”  

These teachings tell us that what we see in the news around the world is a perversion of Islam, an ancient religion that unfortunately most of us here probably don’t know all that well. In fact, that’s exactly what I said to the taxi driver in Stockholm: many of us in the United States don’t know many or even any Muslims, which makes it all the harder to understand their tradition, and to make the necessary distinction between radical extremists and terrorists and those who are our neighbors. But, I believe, whatever we can do to deepen understanding will benefit not only us, but our whole society and world. 

A powerful example of this deepening understanding, mutuality, and relationship was made manifest over the past few days in Boston. Just as we were learning of the terrorist attacks in Paris, hundreds of Massachusetts Episcopalians gathered for our diocesan convention. On Friday night St. Paul’s Cathedral was rededicated after over a year of renovation, and Bishop Gates officially took his seat. Then, on Saturday, we undertook the business of the convention, including an introduction to the several faith communities that are housed at the cathedral, which in 1913 Bishop William Lawrence called a “House of Prayer for All People.” 

In his time, Bishop Lawrence likely meant all colors and economic backgrounds. Today, it also includes a community of homeless or recently housed residents of Boston who worship alongside the more affluent cathedral parishioners on Sunday mornings, and then have their own service and lunch on Monday afternoons. It also includes a vibrant Chinese congregation that meets for worship on Sunday afternoons and programs on Friday evenings. There’s an inclusive and unusual community of young adults who gather at the cathedral for non-traditional worship on Thursday evenings. And finally, on Friday afternoons as many as 500 Muslims who work downtown flood into the cathedral for their obligatory noon-day prayers. They’ve been coming to St. Paul’s Cathedral to pray every week for 15 years, since 2000. 

A beautiful feature of the cathedral renovation is a foot-washing station downstairs, for the Muslims to use before their prayers. Chiselled in granite above the faucets are the words: “A house of prayer for all people.” Bishop Lawrence brought forward that idea in 1913, but he didn’t make it up. It’s directly from the Bible—Isaiah 56:7. At Saturday’s convention a member of the Muslim community spoke to us of how significant the cathedral, our cathedral, has been in providing welcome in the midst of downtown Boston. With the news of the Paris attacks so much in the forefront of our minds, his testimony was a sign that people of faith can overcome fear and distrust. We can stand together and pray together—for peace, reconciliation, and understanding. Praying together doesn’t mean that they will become Christians or that we will become Muslims, but rather that we will all deepen in our understanding that we are one, we are united, as beloved children of God. 

Politicians will do whatever they can to keep us safe in the face of global violence and religious extremism—doubtless debating, fighting and disagreeing on the best ways to do that. Our job, as Christians, is to pray—for our leaders, for our communities, and for our world. And then, once we’ve prayed, and as we are praying, our job is to do whatever we can to break down the barriers that separate us. We Christians have a model for how to do that in Jesus Christ. Jesus, whose whole life was about drawing people together, in faith and understanding. Jesus, who made himself vulnerable, even to death on the cross, so that we might live barrier free lives. That’s our model. That’s who we are as Christians and what our faith calls us to. 

It’s not assigned for today, but I thought I would close by sharing a passage from the Letter to the Ephesians. To me it’s one of the most powerful and profound passages in scripture, and can perhaps be a guiding influence to us, who follow Jesus, as we work to bring reconciliation in our broken and violent world. 

“So then, remember that at one time you were Gentiles by birth, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near... For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near…. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.” 

 May we be that peace, that reconciliation, that holy temple, and that house of prayer, for all people. 

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

 © The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Singing a Song of the Saints of God: A Sermon for All Saints Day

Despite the autumnal colors outside, with you all here, with the church so full, so buzzing with life, it looks and feels a lot like Easter. But then, today really is a lot like Easter, as we celebrate life, and in particular, the new, abundant, and eternal life in Christ that God offers us all in the power of the resurrection, and today, especially, the abundant, eternal life Wendy and Tristan will be drawn into through baptism. Today they sacramentally join the mystical Body of Christ and the Communion of Saints.

But, this is not always an easy life you are joining, Wendy and Tristan, being united in such a powerful way to people you love. Because on this side of eternity life is transitory, even as it is forever and lasting in God. During our baptismal preparation, Jason—Tristan’s dad—shared that when he and his brother Adam were young they came to the realization that the older ladies here who hosted coffee hour probably wouldn’t live for ever. They wondered, after these ladies died, who would make the delicious lemon cakes they so much enjoyed? That’s why parish cookbooks are important, and even more so, sharing stories and recipes and most of all love, so that it all lives on, even after we have been drawn deeper into God’s life and heart.

Today, we get to share some of those stories. In the last year, 10 Emmanuel parishioners have been drawn into the deeper life of God. I’m not sure if any made lemon cakes, but they were wonderful people: Barbara Smith, Joyce McLeod, Bill Hausrath, Brian Dale, Eveline and Burl Whelchel, Edie Coflan, Bob Bent, Olga Packard, and Ginny Climo. We also said goodbye to John Cook, son of Wallie and Cindy, and we celebrated the life of Bob Russo, husband of Linda.

I wish there were time to reflect on all of them, to remember Edie’s art, Brian’s scientific brilliance, and Ginny’s service as parish secretary. But that would take all day, with so many stories. So for now, I’ll focus on the four I knew best—Barbara and Bill, Olga and Bob—who were most active in the church’s life lately, and were lifted to heaven by the prayers of this community that they so loved, and that so loved them in return.

Sunday mornings always began with Barbara Smith. She was a fixture at the 8:00 am service, sitting in the second row, alongside Midge Roberts. Barbara was part of a group of ladies called “the church mice.” They were behind the scenes leaders, serving on altar guild and Sunday school, hosting events and the like. Her friend Midge’s death was hard on Barbara—even more were those of her daughter Karen and her husband Tom. But, she kept these cherished family and friends, saints of God, alive in pictures and memories all around. On her den wall was a photo of Tom, dashing in his merchant marine uniform, and on the side table a photo of herself and Midge in lawn chairs, smiling just as on Sunday mornings. Most poignantly, a beautiful tree was planted in the backyard to the memory of her daughter Karen, who died so young in an automobile accident.

Unfortunately, the last years were hard for Barbara. She lacked energy and was in and out of the hospital. On one of my hospital visits she really wasn’t having a good day. To help her perk up a little she had a few sips of her favorite beverage: Fresca. She said it was what gave her pep. (I had no idea that at home Barbara actually enjoyed Fresca with vodka!, as her daughter Janet shared at her memorial service). Then we talked some about her life. I asked her specifically about her life as a kindergarten teacher. She so much loved those children—when they were young, and when she ran into them after they had grown. Nothing delighted her more, knowing that she had a lasting and positive impact in people’s lives.

So I asked, “Barbara, did you ever have disciplinary problems with the kids?” “Oh yes,” she said. “If they were misbehaving, they had to leave the fun table, and go read quietly by themselves.” Then she said, “That probably wasn’t such a good idea. Because I wouldn’t want children to think of reading as a punishment.” So many years later, Barbara was still reflecting on how we learn and grow. How wonderful it must have been to have Mrs. Smith not only as a teacher, but as your very first teacher setting you on the path of a lifetime of learning and growing.

Anyone who knew Bill Hausrath, even just a little, soon became aware that he was a product of a bygone era. Bill read, usually history, far more than he watched TV. He walked pretty much everywhere, usually dressed in a jacket and tie, and he understood that we don’t really need to spend each and every minute checking our smart phones. In fact, he probably didn’t know what a smart phone was, since he didn’t even have an answering machine.

Over about 50 years as a parishioner Bill served in nearly every major leadership position here, except, directress of the altar guild. He was superintendent of the Church School, then a vestry member, Senior Warden, treasurer, vestry member again, junior warden, and finally vestry member yet again. Eventually, he retired from the vestry service after 30 years. But only for one year. Because after a few months he missed it so much that wanted back on again. So, we elected him at our first opportunity. Balance returned to the Force (the obligatory Star Wars reference for this sermon).

None of us had even an inkling of Bill’s extraordinary contributions beyond Emmanuel. I knew that he was a faithful alumnus of Clark University in Worcester. But not that he had donated $500,000 to fund a doctoral fellowship for students studying the Armenian genocide, in memory of his beloved wife Agnes, and her family that suffered during the genocide. And although we knew that he occasionally went to the Armenian church in Chelmsford, we definitely had no idea that he was, as the priest there said at Bill’s funeral, “an ABC—Armenian By Choice.” And that when he went to services he took part in processions dressed in fancy vestments. I so much wish we had known, I wish we could have talked to Bill about it, or even gone with him. 

I always felt that Bill was my quiet, wise adviser, a Jedi master of sorts helping me grow into my job, and helping us all grow into the parish that God wants us to be. The latest of Bill’s contributions shine down on us at this very moment, quite literally, in the fancy new lights that now grace the church. He never saw them first hand, but I like to think that through them Bill is still giving us light and helping us to see the possibilities that God holds out before us.

Bob Bent was among the first parishioners I met, as he was on the search committee that called me here—so he’s partly to blame. Once, in my first few months, Bob mustered the courage to tell me that my sermons were too long. (This one probably falls into that category, too—sorry Bob). That was bold, and kind of funny, coming from a guy raised as a Baptist! Sue told me that after several years of attending both Episcopal and Baptist services after they were married, one really long Baptist service—at least two hours long—convinced him that the Episcopal service was where he needed to be.

Bob was never confirmed in the Episcopal Church, though. I suspect so that he couldn’t be elected senior warden (he did serve as Junior Warden, which had fewer requirements). But Bob didn’t need the hands of a bishop to demonstrate the depth of his faith and dedication—not only to Emmanuel, but to the whole people of God—serving meals at the Reading Senior Center and Bread of Life dinners in Malden, and as a crossing guard, helping kids make their way to school. How special to start your school day with a greeting from Bob—a guy whose heart was so big.

On days when Emmanuel hosted the Bread of Life dinner, Bob used to take his truck to a bakery in Woburn to pick up mountains of baked goods—it had to be the truck, because a car would require two trips. That’s, of course, before he got down to the real work making shepherd’s pie for over 100 guests. If you figure that Bob cooked every other month, for thirty years, that’s 180 dinners. Then multiply by 100 people served, and you get to 18,000 meals. What a life of faithful discipleship.

Bob was the general of the Bread of Life kitchen. And his field marshal was most certainly Olga Packard, keeping things organized, assigning tasks and making sure the dinners moved along. In fact, even in the hospital, having just come out of brain surgery hours earlier, Olga was planning new recipes for Bread of Life dinners, while also thinking of the kids in parish, wanting to make this year’s gingerbread house party even more special.

One of the first things I learned about Olga was that she was the first woman to serve as Senior Warden, from 1979 to 1981. And so in the parish archives we have lots of old photographs and many of them include Olga, almost always she surrounded by men in suits—never with the ladies of the parish. Whether it’s pictures of building projects, fundraising committees, or the vestry, Olga is there as a lone, strong woman—one who paved the way for so many others, and always in her signature high heels. 

The night before Olga died I went to her house at about midnight. Tobey, Kimball, Neysa, and I gathered in her bedroom. Olga was unconscious, but surrounded by stories of her life, by Big Band music, and by lots of prayer. After a while, I said, “I think Olga would want us to have tea.” So, we went downstairs, pulled every kind of baked good from the fridge, and at 2:30 am, for about 45 minutes we enjoyed tea, celebrating Olga’s long and wonderful life, and entrusting her into God’s heart. But, you know, Olga always wanted to be in charge. So she waited until about 10:30 in the morning, after church had ended and the congregation she had loved had a chance to lift her up in prayer one last time, finally sending her into God’s arms.

In school, in church, in shops and at tea we meet the saints of God. Nowhere is that more true than right here at Emmanuel. Nowhere more so than in these saints we remember and celebrate this morning, whom we miss, but who are shining on us, as we, like them, strive to be saints of God ourselves—not only in ages past—but here and now, today and always. How fortunate we have been, how blessed to have known them, and to have been loved by them.

And, it is into this very same call to sainthood, into this same life infused in Christ, that we will baptize Wendy and Tristan in a few moments. They are joining their lives to Bill’s and Olga’s, to Bob’s and Barbara’s, to Brian’s, Joyce’s, Edie’s and Ginny’s. They are joining the whole Communion of Saints across time and space, those sitting next us this morning, those we hold in our hearts, and those whose stories we don’t know.

Because in baptism, we are all saints of God—sealed as Christ’s own forever. Not without our mistakes, failings, and limitations, for sure. But, always drawn together into a new, resurrection, Easter life. What’s more, as we have heard this morning in the stories of the saints we have known, there’s no one right way to live into this life. It can be through making dinners or teaching school, through business acumen put in service of others or as a school crossing guard. It can even, as the song says, be as a soldier, a doctor, or a shepherdess on the green. There is room, and a role, for each and everyone of us. What we do is not nearly so important as how we do it—filled with the grace, the love, and the song of God.

They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus' will. You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea; for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.  

May we all be those saints, today and always, and for all eternity. 

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

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD