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From the President

On Our Anglican Ethos

♦ January 16, 2016 ♦

During Martin Luther King week I will be in Columbus teaching an intensive course in Anglican Ethos and Spirituality. I always look forward to teaching this course. Our readings are rich, running the gamut from Cranmer and Hooker to Hannah More and Jeremy Taylor, from William Stringfellow to Lakshman Wickremasinghe to Stephanie Spellers. If this course goes as it has before, the conversations will be provocative and ecumenical (especially with the several LPrimates2016 Evensongutherans enrolled), the worship varied and globally inflected, the attention to art and music both challenging and rewarding.

But given the news from the Primates’ meeting in Canterbury yesterday, a course with the phrase “Anglican ethos” in its title may seem distressingly ironic. The assembled primates of the Anglican Communion, convened for conversations in Canterbury by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, voted by a two-thirds majority to suspend the Episcopal Church for three years from any voting privileges on both ecumenical and intrachurch bodies. This was, of course, a reaction to the General Convention’s vote last summer to authorize the blessing of same-sex unions.

In the past 24 hours, several of my seminary colleagues have already issued thoughtful and cogent reflections on these developments, correcting the early press accounts that seemed to imply that the Episcopal Church had been placed under some kind of medieval interdict. The primates do not have that kind of power, and neither does the Archbishop of Canterbury. I especially urge you to hear Presiding Bishop Curry′s eirenic response to what must have been a painful experience for him, and Dean Andrew McGowan′s brilliant analysis of what these measures mean for us as Episcopalians, and what they do not.

Once again, the primates have assumed a kind of papal authority well beyond anything ever granted them by our loosely ordered member provinces. Perhaps the suspension of voting rights was a diplomatic compromise aimed at avoiding the outright expulsion of the Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion (the Anglican version of excommunication, I suppose). But in effect, the Primates′ vote once again denied to more representative bodies of the church—whether the Anglican Consultative Council or our own General Convention—their equal right to weigh in on a matter which in many sectors of the African church is a matter of life and death for LGBT people and those parents, friends and clergy who love them.

For me personally, the Primates’ action comes as no surprise, as it is consistent with the narrow Biblical hermeneutic and ill-suppressed homophobia that has haunted these gatherings since at least Lambeth 1988, and even long before. My early ministry was in Pittsburgh, where I witnessed the unfolding of this sad story at first hand, at a time when a well-financed dissident wing of the Diocese hijacked words like “Anglican” and “orthodox” for their own schismatic purposes. They eventually hijacked the entire diocese, to the lasting pain of many faithful people. It is doubly painful that the leader of the resulting breakaway polity, first formed in Pittsburgh—the Anglican Church in North America—was for the first time offered seat and voice at this Primates’ gathering.

For better or worse, it must now be admitted that such narrow Biblicism and punitive theology are as much a hallmark of our contemporary Anglican ethos as any perspectives more generous and benign that you might find reflected in my course syllabus. I will be sure to include some conversation about this—the shadow side of Anglican ethos—in my course next week. How can I not?

But I will take comfort—and trust my students will as well—in the fact that the cramped reading of doctrine, one that reduces faithful people to racial, gender or sexual stereotypes, comprises only a short chapter in the ongoing story of the Anglican ethos—an ethos marked more by Jesus’s full embrace of human dignity than by the petty exclusions of small-minded, frightened churchmen.

Turn Around

WaterAbstract UnsplashbyJemeryBishop WEB

SERMON GIVEN December 13, 2015 

♦ Advent III, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Worthington, Ohio ♦

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3: 7-18

This third Sunday in Advent has two names in the tradition. I always need to check the Advent wreath to see which one the parish knows about. If you light the rose-colored candle today, you are marking Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin word for Rejoice, the first word of the opening ancient Roman prayer assigned to this day, and the opening word of the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Church in Philippi, which we just heard:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

We will get back to Paul in a few minutes, I hope, but there’s another name for this gathering. This is “Stir Up Sunday,” a name that echoes the opening prayer we heard this morning:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.

I suspect that John the Baptist wouldn’t have much patience with all that rejoicing stuff. If anything could stir us up, it would be John the Baptist at the riverbank, standing at the crossroads, forcing us to a place of decision. His language is uncompromising, like a pruning ax lying at the root of the trees:

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor,” for I tell you, God is able to from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

“We have Abraham for our ancestor.” To John, that meant nothing. Taking refuge in your illustrious ancestors, or in your own familiar traditions, is no defense, neither in his day nor in ours. It’s not really fair, I suppose. I don’t see a brood of vipers out there. I mean, we are among the steadily decreasing numbers of American Christians who show up to church on Sundays. Some of us come from long lines of churchgoers, “cradle Episcopalians” even.

As president of Bexley Seabury, a federation of Bexley Hall and Seabury-Western seminaries, two of the oldest institutions in the Episcopal Church, I feel immensely privileged to be preaching from the founder’s pulpit, in Philander Chase’s olde parish. Here we are, gathered in an historic building that is something of a shrine to the spread of Anglicanism in the old Northwest. We might not claim Abraham as our ancestor, but it’s not that hard to make a claim that’s equivalent, certainly in this sacred space, and especially as Americans, who have tended always to consider ourselves rooted in something special, a people set apart.

John the Baptist would have had no patience with us. It’s painful to hear. This morning’s gospel stirs us up, and not in a good way. When standing in the clear light of this gospel, there’s no use our appealing to our distinguished family trees, or our illustrious founders, or our inheritors’ rights, or for that matter, to that deep-rooted assumption that we Americans are somehow different or better or wiser than other people, or that we Episcopalians have somehow got it all together, gathering in historic churches like this to worship God as our forbears did, in decency and order.

As far this gospel is concerned, nothing about who we’ve been or what we’ve been or who we know or what we’ve claimed about ourselves really matters. What matters is only who we are prepared to be here and now, how we act toward ourselves and others here and now, how we exhibit and share here and now what he calls the “fruits of repentance.”

Bear fruits worthy of repentance, John tells the crowd. As John uses the word, to repent means to make a turn-around, re-orient your life, to learn to negotiate the world with a new compass, with a fresh map of things, to recognize that the world God creates and loves is larger than the world we are used to, or the world as we want it to be, and that we can only begin to bear fruit in our lives if we pause, stop in our tracks, turn around and see things new.

It’s not that the world will be different. That’s the irony of this repentance thing. The world is what it is. What changes is you and me. What’s different is us. What matters is how we act in the light of this Gospel, how we respond to the challenges of a world grown more treacherous by the day. What risks are we willing to take? What fruits can we bear worthy of such a turn-around?

That’s the question the crowds asked him. And he didn’t hesitate to answer: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise…Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you…Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations.” I’m sure he could have gone on, depending on who was asking the questions. All of these answers made sense to the seekers and the soldiers and the tax collectors of his day.

But that was then. This is now. What would he say to us, in this time, in this place, when danger seems all around us, when vipers propagate more vipers, whether in Paris or Beirut, in Colorado Springs or San Bernardino, and there seems to be no one whom we can trust?

The past several weeks have been cruel ones. Advent is supposed to be a time of joyous expectation. Instead these past several weeks have been weeks of unremitting anxiety, weeks of unresolved fear. How many of us have had second thoughts in the past few weeks about visiting public places. How many of us have found ourselves newly wary of strangers, of people with foreign accents, of the Muslims in our neighborhoods and schools and shopping malls, of police equipped like soldiers or of angry young men in our streets?

And let us not forget anxiety and fear is a two-way street. As The New York Times reports, young Muslim Americans are feeling increasingly isolated and alienated, as anti-Muslim rhetoric mounts, extending the “chronic trauma” they have felt since 9/11.

To respond in fear to a world grown treacherous is nothing to be ashamed of. Fear is real, and it’s invidious. Fear affects our comings and goings when we least expect it, in ways we are barely conscious of. But we need not be defined by fear. It was a remarkable thing to see the way the Canadians welcomed the first small stream of Syrian refugees to Toronto yesterday, people who have lived in fear for months and months, people who could hardly believe their good fortune. “Welcome home,” said the Prime Minister, “You are at home now.” I was reminded of the promise of the prophet Zephaniah that we heard a few moments ago:

I will deal with all your oppressors…I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise…I will bring you home.

In this time of fear and anxiety, can we turn it around, can we risk the harvest of repentance, the fruits of our own great turn-around in Christ? We all must work out our salvation in these days, as Paul puts it, in fear and trembling, each in our own way. But it must be in a spirit of love, and not of fear. Jesus says it time and again in these gospels: I would not have you be afraid.

I can only speak for myself in this, but I pray that we as Christians can be granted the grace to turn around and gather the outcasts and the exiles—those upon whom we can so easily project both our present fears and our ancient prejudices. May we find the grace to accept insight, wisdom, even salvation from the most unlikely places and from the most unlikely people: from a scruffy John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness; from a refugee couple forced from Nazareth—or Damascus—seeking lodging in a hostile town. May we find the courage of the Magi, carrying a fresh map and following a new compass, one that points East toward a manger in Bethlehem, a cross on Calvary, and an empty tomb. May we know and feel, even in these unsettled days, that death and the fear of death can have no dominion over us. On this Gaudete Sunday, may we stir up the courage to rejoice, as Paul this morning urges us:

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.

In these violent, polarized and ungentle days, may your gentleness be known to everyone. And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Amen. The Lord is near.

God's Risky Invitation


Unsplash Bryce Canyon Natl Park Drew Hays WEB

Sermon deliver by Roger Ferlo
St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral

Minneapolis, Minn.

♦ December 6, 2015

Every valley shall be filled,
And every mountain and hill shall be made low.

I don’t think I am the only person who upon hearing this Scripture text will spend the rest of the day with the tenor solo in Handel’s Messiah burrowing like an earworm into the deepest part of my brain. But Handel’s librettist was not the first person to quote these lines from the book of Isaiah. It helps to remember that Jesus quotes Isaiah more than any other Scripture. Luke makes sure we get the point right at the start:

Every valley shall be filled,
And every mountain and hill shall be made low,
And the crooked shall be made straight,
And the rough ways made smooth,
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

As familiar as these metaphors may be to people who love Handel’s Messiah, I wonder if any of this strikes you as odd. What’s wrong with mountains and hills, really? One of the most important moments of my life was a hike down the winding mule path that hugs the wall of the Grand Canyon. It was like a hike into Deep Time, each different colored stratum of rock face separated from the next by perhaps a million slow years of storm and erosion. Who would want to fill that valley?

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I visited my daughter in Portland, Oregon, on one of the clearest fall days in memory. From the top of the cliff near the medical center we had clear views of not one but two mountains in the Cascade range—Mount Hood in all its snowy glory, and Mount St. Helens, squatting there with truncated peak. Who would have wanted to see that mountain completely leveled when the volcano blew not that many years ago? Who would trade the glories of Cascadia for the boring flatness of a dusty prairie?

Every valley shall be filled,
And every mountain and hill shall be made low.

Well, Palestine is not western Oregon or central Arizona. In the days of the prophets, hills and valleys were dangerous places, rugged, harsh, places where the enemy could hide, places where false gods could be worshipped, rugged terrain to be conquered in or to escape from. But it was not only the physical danger that preoccupied Isaiah. What was at issue here was human solidarity, human unity, what the prophet calls shalom—the peace that passeth all understanding uniting otherwise wildly different peoples but also uniting wildly different peoples with the one loving and creating God.

For Isaiah, to fill every valley and to level every mountain, to make the crooked path straight and the rough ways smooth, was to create a level playing field, to break down the barriers that divide us, to unite all the peoples of the earth, every family, language, tribe and nation, in a community of faithfulness to a God who liberates us from all oppression, including our own oppressive selves.

And it’s that vision of human community in diversity that animates Luke’s Gospel, and Luke’s memories of Jesus. In Luke’s vision of Jesus’ Gospel, the Spirit of God levels the differences that divide us—the valleys of the oppressors are made plain, the mountains of the marauders are made low, the crooked paths of the wanderers are made straight. In other words, everyone—all God’s creation—is invited to come home to God in safety, everyone has equal access to the throne of grace, if only we would open our eyes, if only we would repent, turn around, and see.

But what happens if, like me, you like mountains and valleys? What happens when you have an aversion to sameness? What happens if you’re a Mariners fan and you find yourself stuck in Minneapolis? What happens if you, in fact, like or prize who you are. If you do not or cannot separate yourself from the particulars that define the given-ness of you—your ethnic heritage, your sexuality, your family history, your deepest sense of self? Is it sinful to hang on to these? Is there a tension, a contradiction, between the universal inclusiveness of the Spirit that transforms us, and the tangible immediacy, the once-and-once-only whatness of who I am? To accept John’s call to repentance, do I have to repent of me?

I don’t think so, although many Christians and so-called Christians have sought to preach this bad news over the centuries. Repentance does not mean denying who we are. Repentance means acknowledging—accepting—who we are, so that God might restore the image of God in us. To acknowledge and accept who we are, I admit, can be painful, and always risky. It is to acknowledge our weaknesses and sinfulness as well as our strengths, our power to hurt others as well as our power to heal. But to take that risk is what we mean when we celebrate an incarnate God, a God-made-flesh, a God-among-us and God-with-us. God cares about human particularities, cares enough, in fact, to share them. God’s grace is not an abstraction. It has a local habitation and a name. It is to be found in the what and when, the light and the shadows of our lives as we live them.

This is the Gospel’s deepest paradox. God will seek us out, leveling every mountain, filling every valley, making every crooked path straight and plain, and in this brave new world all are welcome, as we are, in all our sinfulness and stubbornness. What is universal can only be made visible in the particular—in the flesh and blood Christian for whom there is no cause to become someone or something else.

In Christ we are invited to become our true selves again, and in so doing to become as Christ was and is, living not for ourselves alone but for all God’s beloved creatures, in all their diversity and difference from us. Who you are and what you are, now, here, in the flesh, is enough for God to work with—God who took flesh in a particular place and in a particular time, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.

It is no different now, in this particular place, in this particular time, in the seventh year of the Obama administration, Mark Dayton being the governor of Minnesota, and Paul Ryan being the Speaker of the House, and Betsy Hodges the Mayor of Minneapolis, during the high priesthood of Michael Curry as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, and Brian Prior his brother in Christ as bishop of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. Here, even here, God’s incarnation in Jesus the baptized and anointed one, son of Joseph and Mary, brother of James—even here God’s incarnation can be seen and felt and tasted, not only at this altar, but also in who we are and above all in who we are for others—for the poor and the weak, the orphan and the homeless, the refugee and the captive, even, as Jesus teaches us, even for our enemies and those who wish us harm.

In perilous days like ours, these are not just pious words. Some of the new would-be powers-that-be—some by vile rhetoric, some at gunpoint—insist on our accepting an oppressively homogeneous definition of cultural normalcy, tempting us to embrace a divisive, self-protecting fragmentation of the common good along the lines of race or sex or social class or ethnic loyalty or fanatical belief.

So repent. Accept God’s grace in you and in the world around you. See clearly the Christ who seeks embodiment in you. Do not let the mountains obscure the view. Do not get lost on the crooked path. Do not drop from sight in the valley. Our redemption is at hand. Prepare the way of the Lord: in our hearts, in our lives, in the lives our lives will touch. May the Divine Image be restored in all of us. May all flesh see it together—see the salvation of God in the glory of Jesus Christ.

Repent, and prepare the Way.

What is Truth?

SERMON GIVEN November 22, 2015 ♦
The Feast of Christ the King

The Church of the Holy Spirit
Lake Forest, Illinois

♦ John 18:33-37 ♦

I once was a candidate for rector in an Episcopal parish in Berkeley, California, sometimes known as the People’s Republic of Berkeley. I was scheduled to preach a trial sermon on the Feast of Christ the King. At this parish, they told me, only half in jest I think, that they didn’t much like the phrase “Christ the King.” It felt too hierarchical, too patriarchal. They would much rather I referred to something more politically correct, like “Christ in Charge.”

Welcome to the Feast of Christ in Charge.

Of course, worrying about the language here is a bit silly. When the gospels talk of Jesus as King, they undercut every notion of what kingship is, every assumption we make about what it is to be “in charge.” To call Jesus a King was as counterintuitive then as it is now. The Jesus who stands before Pilate today, “testifying to the truth,” is nowhere near in charge, at least not in the way that people like Pilate would understand what that phrase means.

This morning’s reading, in fact, is incomplete. “Everyone who belongs to the truth,” Jesus says, “listens to my voice.” That’s how this morning’s reading ends. But that’s not the last word in the episode. For some reason the lectionary writers left off the last line. The last word belongs to Pilate:

“So Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’”

I’m not sure why the lectionary writers omitted that line. Perhaps they were trying to protect us. Perhaps they were afraid that those of us listening might suddenly feel some sympathy for Pilate.

“What is truth?” is a question I find myself asking a lot these days. I don’t think I am alone in this. We live in violent times, when one person’s truth is another person’s lie, in times when a fanatic’s conviction of what God’s truth demands becomes the rationale for the slaughter of innocent people gathered in a concert hall or sitting at a restaurant.

And here in this country, in reaction to such wanton violence, all kinds of people who should know better claim now to be speaking “home truths”—asserting that they and only they are in a position “to tell it like it is.” What an ignorant thing to say. The phrase is not only grammatically incorrect. It’s also ethically deplorable. When someone insists that they are “telling it like it is,” my instinct is to believe just the opposite, to grab for my wallet and head for the exit. Again, I don’t think I am alone in this. It’s not just lately in American history that “telling it like it is” all too often amounts to telling it as you want it to be, telling it in a way that serves your own personal or tribal interests. Telling it like it is often amounts to nothing more than mouthing the most vulgar and hateful racial or ethnic prejudices—home truths that are not truths at all.  

So how, in these perilous times, do we really tell it as it is? Or, as Pilate might have put it, in times as confusing as these, What is truth?

You can’t really blame Pilate for asking. For a Roman governor, all religious truth is relative. Truth is what’s necessary to believe in order to get by. That was the irony of Rome’s imperial policy toward the variety of religious beliefs and customs in its occupied territories. It was a policy at once oddly tolerant and utterly brutal. As far as people like Pilate were concerned, you could practice whatever religion you wanted, as long as you worshipped the Emperor first, which meant, in effect, as long as you recognized the Emperor’s absolute power. Power determines what is truth and what is not. Power creates its own truth. That’s how Pilate might have answered his own question. It was an oppressive kind of tolerance the Romans practiced. One person’s religious truth was as absurd as the next person’s, but the only truth that really mattered was the fact of Roman power. Only if you understood that, would you ever get by. The alternative was crucifixion. What Jesus was saying must have left Pilate completely flummoxed. No wonder Jesus insisted—at cost of his life—that his kingdom could never be from that world.

So then, what is truth—truth as Jesus saw it?

I counted it up. The word “truth” occurs twenty times in John’s gospel, at least twice as often as it occurs in the other three gospels combined. It’s the one word, along with the word “light,” that he most closely associates with Jesus. Truth and light. But as with so many words in John’s gospel, our translation of the word “truth” is for the most part inadequate.

Ancient Greek can be a much more nuanced language than modern English. The word that John uses for “truth” might better be translated not simply as “truth” but as “uncovering,” as “disclosure,” an “unforgetting,” an “opening,” a “coming into light.” It announces less an abstract concept or a provable proposition than a divine unveiling, the disclosure of a divine openness, a divine availability that gathers all humanity, indeed all creation, into a loving embrace.

No wonder Pilate was flummoxed. Truth in John’s gospel, the truth to which Jesus testifies before Pilate, the truth that brings us here to this altar week by week, is not a proposition to be proved or disproved like quantum theory or a Euclidian postulate.

Even less is Jesus’ truth a form of ideology, a claim to truth that trumps all other claims, an absolutist claim that entertains no alternative viewpoints, that assumes that anyone who doubts or dissents or insists on nuance is not just wrong but to be shamed or shunned or worse. How many times have otherwise decent religious-minded people fallen into that trap? Ideology is the worst form of idolatry. No wonder so many millennials distrust religious people. As Christians we need to make clear that Jesus’ truth uncovers idolatry—exposes idolatry for the coercive sham that it is. That absolute claim to the truth that trumps any evidence to the contrary lies at the root of the bigotry and demagoguery that has become all too evident in our public life—bigotry and demagoguery amplified in the vicious anonymity that social media makes all too available. The toxicity of our public rhetoric has much to answer for. Like Jesus, truth is the victim.

What’s more, we now know all too well that, at its worst, the idolatrous claim to absolute truth finds its most toxic expression in that distortion of religious belief that reduces non-believers to non-persons, to be mowed down by indiscriminate gunfire—the violence of word and deed that we witnessed these past few weeks in Paris, Beirut, Mali and the Sinai desert; violence that innocent people in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are fleeing by the hundreds of thousands.

And Pilate said, “What is truth?”

I have a suggestion to make the next time you listen to or reread this gospel, or the next time you find yourself having to answer to some tinhorn Pilate who wants to tell you like it is. When you hear or say the word “truth,” hear it or pronounce it as “troth.” “Troth.” It’s an old-fashioned word, a word you might remember from the traditional Anglican wedding ceremony, when the couple publicly pledge each other their troth. Troth is not a concept. Troth is not a proposition. Troth is not an abstraction. Troth is an action, an act of trust, an open-ended promise of commitment, a promise to be true, a promise based upon the intention fully to disclose each other’s lives one to another—to be for each other as God has been and continues to be for us in Jesus Christ. That is why we call Holy Matrimony “holy.” Troth is the unveiling of divine mystery in the mystery of human love. It is that kind of trusting disclosure—that kind of risk-taking for the sake of another—that the Pilates of this world could never be made to understand.

In these coming difficult days, may we find the strength and courage to plight our troth to each other and to all God’s creation, to plight our troth to all who are in danger, to asylum seekers and refugees, to the victims of war and violence, whether in the desert of Sinai or the borderlands of Europe or the streets of Chicago’s South Side, to plight our troth to the victims of prejudice and oppression whatever religion they profess or whatever language they speak.

And equally important, may we find the courage to set aside false fear; to act publicly as if we meant what we say about Jesus; to act publicly for the relief of refugees and neighborhoods oppressed by violence and hatred, especially the relief of children, and to do so because we are religious people, because we are Christians; to do so not hiding in fear or shame but in full voice, in the full light of day.

May we find the strength to testify boldly before the fearful and brutal Pilates of this world; to testify to our faith in Christ our King, our faith in Christ in Charge: to Christ as the Way, the Truth—the Troth—and the Life, to Christ as Love Uncovered, Christ as Love Disclosed.

Wars and Rumors of Wars

Sermon given November 15, 2015 ♦
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and University Center, Columbus

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.

Until I lived south of the Mason Dixon line, I had never heard much about the Rapture. Having grown up Catholic, I barely knew what an altar call was, much less anything so apocalyptic as the Rapture. But when you hear apocalyptic talk from Christians who really believe it, it is truly disturbing and powerful stuff. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of North American Christians could hear this passage from Mark’s Gospel, put it together with some even more vivid passages from John’s Revelation, and all in all know for sure that when Jesus comes again, and come he will soon, just before the final battle between the East and the West, to take place probably somewhere in the Middle East, the select few, the super-Christians will meet their Lord in the air, be rescued from the great Tribulation and reap their reward as the rest of the world collapses in the mire of its apostasy and infidelity.

Refugees  migrants Lesbos Greece 2 Reuters photo by Dmitri Michalakis

It is a crazy, scary vision, and you can hear it in the oddest places, at the oddest moments, from the most unlikely people, people in other respects just like you and me. You hear it a lot during primary election season. And if you wear a white collar around your neck, you can expect to hear it more often than most.

It happened to me once when I was standing at the church door after a Eucharist much like this, as the days got shorter and the Gospel readings got more apocalyptic in the run-up to Advent. I was doing what clergy normally do at the church door, talking about the weather, doing what my Italian grandmother would call “making nice.” Suddenly a strange face came through the receiving line, its owner turned to me, shook my hand, said something polite about how “I enjoyed your message, preacher.” Then, out of nowhere, she looked me straight in the eye and assured me that I was right, that Jesus would be coming soon. She knew these were the birthpangs, she testified, and that those of us who were among Jesus’ elect would be taken up to meet him in the air. She said this with both urgency and intensity in her voice, and the moment became tense with my anxiety.

Of course, I thought I had said no such thing, or at least I didn’t think I had. She left me speechless. They always do, these apocalyptic bolts from the blue: otherwise respectable, ordinary people secretly living their religious lives in a first-century universe. A universe where Biblical language, like the language we heard this morning—language that we think of as either metaphorical or otherwise translatable—means, in fact, what it says it means, and leaves you facing the person opposite you as if across an abyss.

 Refugees  migrants Lesbos Greece 1 Reuters photo by Dmitri Michalakis

Encounters like this over the years have taught me something. Apocalyptic talk is dangerously comforting. Everything is worked out. There are no surprises. Salvation means rescue from a world that has no place for you. Apocalyptic imagery has always been the comfort of the marginal, the threatened and the displaced. That certainly was the case for the first-century Jews and Christians who treasured such talk. For a Christian to see herself as a member of the elect, taken up in the end-time rapture, is to kick the dust of earth from your heels, truly to become the pure spirit that you were always meant to be, and the devil take the rest.

So when it comes to interpreting passages like the passages from Daniel and Mark that we heard today, I usually wax allegorical. When it comes to tough passages in the Bible, I find myself in Emily Dickinson’s corner.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

I am convinced that there is Truth to be heard in all this talk of apocalypse and last things, Truth that, like the Second Coming itself, will take us by “superb surprise.” I’d like to think that we heard the Truth in this morning’s gospel, but that we heard it “slant”—in metaphor, or as Dickinson would say, “in Circuit.”

But don’t get too comfortable. As my friend in the receiving line could rightly insist all those years ago, there is no denying it—the language of apocalypse is central to the Biblical expression of God’s triumph in the world. In this run-up to the Advent season, as we feel our way toward the celebration of the Lord’s first coming among us, the lectionary readings are relentless in holding before us the image not of the First but of the Second Coming, images of tumult and judgment, the archangel’s trumpet sounding in a darkened sky, images of God in Christ transforming the world before our very eyes.

And those early Christians believed it would happen just as Scripture describes, “in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye.” This kind of language is everywhere in the New Testament, no getting around it, no editing it out, even in as proper and contained a Eucharist service as this one. What we do as we gather at this altar is “but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

Apocalyptic thinking can comforting. But it is nonethelessdangerous. Its dangers became all too evident in Paris Friday night. The evil unleashed on the people of that cosmopolitan city was engendered by many things, but not least by the wanton distortion of apocalyptic thinking, the kind of apocalyptic fanaticism that would embolden self-righteous and suicidal young assassins to slaughter innocent people at a rock concert or at a restaurant, all in the name of a false and bloodthirsty God who bears no resemblance to the Allah of Islam, the Yahweh of the Hebrew prophets, or the long-expected Savior whose praises we will sing in Advent. Violence is violence. No religious conviction will ever justify it.

A father who had brought his son to his first soccer game, only to experience the terror of the suicide bombing just outside the stadium gate, was clear and eloquent on this topic when approached by a reporter:

“I just want to protect my son. There are many people out there who are fighting in the name of God, but no god could authorize such a thing.” And more than one witness to the carnage on the neighborhood streets called what they had witnessed “apocalyptic,” as if the world had ended.

This morning we stand with all Parisians. God bless the people of Paris, God bless the wounded, God bless the dying and the dead, God bless those who mourn.

What then, of these readings? What can possibly be their appeal in the aftermath of Friday’s apocalyptic slaughter?

The answer is not simple. As I say, apocalyptic thinking is always dangerous. But what is dangerous is not necessarily destructive. For us to live under the shadow of apocalypse—to live as Jesus’ followers lived, to live as Paul’s congregations lived, to live in full expectation, as we say in the Creed week by week, “until his coming again”—is to live not violently but prophetically. It is to proclaim that the way things are in the world, the way things are structured, the way we sometimes feel that we have been taken by the powers and principalities that hem us in, by fanatic and demonic powers that deny the fact of human solidarity and human dignity—it is to proclaim that all that makes for oppression and domination in the world will in the fullness of time be uncovered for the evil that it is. That in fact, is what the word “apocalypse” means. It is an uncovering, a tearing asunder of the veil, a revelation of things as they really are, an unleashing of God’s mystery and a freeing up of love.

So what does it mean for a Christian to live apocalyptically? How do we live in the meantime? What does it mean for us to live our lives, as one of our Eucharistic prayers puts it, “in these last days”?

I think it frees us to be who we are, knowing that life is not ours to control, but that the life we have, short as it is, is ours to live as Jesus would have us live—lives shaped by compassion. What does such compassion look like?

Saturday’s editorial in The New York Times described it this way:

“[A]s the carnage unfolded, Parisians took to social media, using the hashtag #porteouverte, or ‘open door’ to offer sanctuary in their homes for people fleeing the mayhem. By morning, hundreds of Paris residents were lining up to donate blood and looking for other ways to help.”

You don’t have to be a Christian to act this way. Paris is after all probably among the most secular of cities. You can’t really blame the Parisian who objected to a reporter’s question: “No! We don’t want more religion in this country; we want life, love, joy…”

But if you are a Christian you know that, in the end, you must act the way Paris acted Friday night—with immediate and unconditioned compassion in a world run amok. To do so in Christ’s name is to reveal the steady unleashing of God’s mystery, the breaking-through of the Kingdom, the very birthpangs of a world restored, even in the face of evil and horror.

Should such a horrific event unfold here, may we too declare porte ouverte!—declare that our doors are open, and say so loud and clear even in a political climate that is all about building walls and stoking nativist fears. May we be clear that what our tradition calls “true religion” is about life, love, joy. In the coming dark days, may we find the grace to equal the compassionate, apocalyptic courage of the people of Paris.

Toward a World Transformed

October 26, 2016 ♦

UFO sky by Michel Hull web

Image by Michel Hull

Bexley Seabury continues to attract and form leaders for a 21st century church—called to engage the world as it is, with a vision for the just world it might become, a world transformed by the Spirit of God blowing in our midst.

I am delighted to announce that, this past summer, the Association of Theological Schools, our accrediting body, recognized the value of what we are about by granting Bexley Seabury a full seven-year accreditation as a single institution.

Building on the strength of that ATS decision, our Board of Directors has planned some bold initiatives for increasing the affordability and accessibility of a Bexley Seabury theological education. I look forward to sharing news of these new initiatives with you very soon.

Meanwhile, I invite you to join me in supporting the mission of Bexley Seabury, both by your prayers and by your support for our Annual Fund. Please take time to contribute online now.

Your contribution—in whatever amount—will have an immediate positive impact in the lives of our students and program participants, and will make a lasting difference in the formation of vibrant leadership for the 21st century church. That formation occurs in our classrooms and in the community.

The September calendar included three inspiring visits with Professor Walter Brueggemann that we cosponsored with St. Chrysostom’s Church in Chicago to launch our Faith in the City series. In addition, we convened our Columbus Convocation 2015, Faith After #Ferguson with keynoter Mike Kinman, in partnership with St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, and began the redemptive work we need to do to repent the sin of racism, reconcile with those we have harmed, and fight for racial justice.

In October, we participated in a forum of Episcopal seminaries, convened by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby as part of his visit to Virginia Theological Seminary to assist in consecrating VTS’ Immanuel Chapel. Junior faculty members from three of our seminaries, including our own Jason Fout, were invited to present what they are hear from students about their formation needs and their views on the future of the church.

Ten days later we cohosted our second Faith in the City series. Episcopal priest and former U.S. Senator John Danforth, an eloquent proponent of faith in the public square, drew more than 120 Chicago-area leaders into conversation about the urgent need to bring religious values to bear on political discourse.

It is events like these, and the creative partnerships that make such events possible, that underscore Bexley Seabury’s commitment to model a generous and articulate public theology and nurture a habit of lifelong learning for clergy and laity alike.

Thank you for all the ways you help Bexley Seabury seek and share wisdom beyond walls.

Peace, be still

unsplash reflected stars landscape by kazu end SMALL WEBSeptember 25, 2015 ♦

Remembering the Emanuel AME Nine ♦

A sermon preached on Pentecost IV (June 21, 2015) at
Christ Church Cranbrook, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
by the Rev. Roger Ferlo

Texts: 1 Samuel 17:32-39 and Mark 4:35-41

I

We don′t often hear the David and Goliath story in church, especially as we just did, in such lavish and entertaining detail. It feels almost like an episode from Game of Thrones.

You will be hearing about the aftermath of this story all through the summer. Listen closely. It′s a rare opportunity to hear one of the great epics of ancient storytelling. It′s a story of increasing complexity, full of dramatic irony and acute psychological insight. By the time we get to the tragic story of David and the death of Absalom, you will get the sense that Game of Thrones has somehow morphed into a version of Wolf Hall.

But the great succession narrative—Saul to David to Solomon—is not the only story you will hear in this summer season. In the next several weeks, you will also hear Mark′s Gospel read aloud, almost in its entirety.

Mark by comparison occupies a completely different thought-world than the sophisticated writer of the great succession narrative in Samuel and Kings. Mark’s narrative is brief, curt, rough-hewn. His two favorite words are “again” and “immediately,” words that drive the story breathlessly forward, episode by episode. Mark′s world is haunted by demons. His story is peppered with exorcisms and miraculous cures; its plot careens mercilessly toward Jesus′ execution in Jerusalem, and then shunts to an abrupt halt, as the women flee in terror from the empty tomb. The ending is so abrupt that within one generation of its first telling people started adding awkward epilogues of Jesus-sightings, stories designed to diminish the combination of fear and awe that those women felt when all they expected was news of death but instead were confronted with the fact of resurrection.

Giant-killing—young David slaying burly Goliath with a single shot from his sling—well, that′s something we can get. It′s the story where the little guy is the good guy, and the good guy always wins. But there′s no predicting how we will respond to the script Mark offers us. Jesus is no giant-killer. The story Mark tells us about Jesus is open-ended, unpredictable, dangerous, shadowed by betrayal, very much like a calm sea erupting in sudden storm. The ending of Mark′s gospel threatens to careen out of control (just like the storm in today′s reading), with the body of the executed Messiah nowhere to be found, and the women who had sought to embalm the corpse instead running away in fear from the angel who haunts the open and empty tomb.

II

From this morning’s gospel:

On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.

As you listen to this story, think about this room where are gathered, under this great vaulted Gothic nave. That word “nave” comes from the same root as the word “navy.” So, if you can, imagine this room upended, its gabled ceiling becoming the floor of a vast ship. Churches like this were designed to suggest such a shape, evoking a place of safety for all who attempt to sail the chaotic waters of this life, for all who seek safe harbor in Jesus. Or to put it succinctly, when we gather in church, we are all in the same boat.

So on this somber morning, I want us to imagine ourselves in another ship, a ship smaller than this one perhaps, but just as much created as a place of safety. I am thinking of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where this past Wednesday evening 12 ordinary people boarded ship as usual—gathering there for Bible study, as they might have put it, with Jesus resting comfortably in the stern. They welcomed a young stranger to share the peace of Jesus’ presence among them.

And then all hell broke loose.

How many people in Charleston today are asking the question that the disciples put to Jesus in the midst of that storm:

“Teacher, do you not care that they are perishing?”

The question resonates throughout the country this morning, as it always does at moments of senseless violence and deep hatred. When that young stranger shot those nine innocent people in cold blood this week, mouthing hateful propaganda, when that sea of racist hatred engulfed that chapel, was Jesus still asleep, his head resting on a comfortable cushion in the stern of the boat, oblivious to the violence, oblivious to the chaos that will forever mark Emanuel AME Church of Charleston, the chaos that will forever mark and mar that place of peace?

Perhaps at least a partial answer to that question might lie in Friday’s news report.

Nadine Collier is the daughter of the 70-year-old Ethel Lance, one of the victims of Wednesday’s shooter. At the shooter’s bond hearing on Friday, she addressed him face to face. Here’s what she said to him: You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Myra Thompson’s grandson Anthony, also in that courtroom, was even more direct: “I forgive you. My family forgives you. We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Do that and you will be better off than you are now.”

It’s easy for us to picture ourselves as David mowing down Goliath. But how many of us could picture ourselves as Anthony Thompson, speaking on behalf of his sorrowing family? How many of us could picture ourselves as Nadine Collier, bravely facing down her mother’s murderer, and offering him not hatred but forgiveness? They are like Jesus rebuking the storm, cutting through the bloodshed and chaos with a clarity that stunned every person in that courtroom into astonished silence:

He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

I have a sense that it was that same dead calm that fell on that South Carolina courtroom on Friday, the dead calm of people’s stunned disbelief as they heard and witnessed the relatives of the Emanuel victims, one after the other, speaking not of vengeance but of justice, not of retribution but of forgiveness, as they heard and witnessed those brave Christian people saying to that young man what God was saying in their own hearts:

Peace, be still, and know that I am God.

III

The great African American theologian and mystic, Howard Thurman, mentor of Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as scores of Americans, black and white, who strove for justice and civil rights, had this to say about God’s healing stillness, a stillness that can calm even the most tumultuous storms experienced in what Thurman describes as every person’s “inward sea”:

There is in every person an inward sea, and in that sea there is an island and on that island there is an altar and standing guard before that altar is the "angel with the flaming sword." Nothing can get by that angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the mark of inner authority.

It was that mark of inner authority that allowed Reverend Pinckney to invite that strange young white man to sit beside him and to study with him and to pray with him on that ordinary evening in Charleston this past week. It was that mark of inner authority that allowed Nadine Collier to confront her mother’s murderer and treat him like a human being rather than a senseless monster, to forgive him. Nadine Collier’s act of forgiveness confirmed the peace in her own Christian soul, calmed the stormy waves in her own inward sea.

Peace, be still. And the wind ceased.

Peace, be still. There’s a way of hearing those two words—whether in English or the original Greek—as somehow enacting what they express. It’s as if the sea is calmed by the intake of breath that occurs between the utterance of the first word and the answer of the second. Try it with me, say it aloud, but take a deep breath between the first word and the closing phrase:

Peace. [Breath] Be still.

Let us pray in solidarity with those who died and with those who mourn, responding to every petition with the phrase “Peace, be still.”

Pray for those who have died in Charleston—Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr., Reverend Sharonda Coleman Singleton, Reverend Clementa Pinckney.

Peace. Be still.

Pray for those who survived.

Peace. Be still.

Pray for the families of the slain, and give thanks for their Christian witness.

Peace. Be still.

As Jesus taught us, pray for Dylann Roof, whose racist ignorance and racist hatred continues to contort his soul.

Peace. Be still.

Pray that God may lift the burden of our history—the lasting legacy of racist hatred that continues to afflict us all.

Peace. Be still.

Amen.

Pursuing Wisdom Beyond Walls

August 17, 2015 ♦

forest overhead WEB

 

THIS WEEK...the Bexley Seabury faculty meets for its annual overnight retreat. Once again we are gathering in Indianapolis—the halfway point between Chicago and Columbus—which obviates our need to choose one of our host cities over the other! (And of course, driving to Indy is cheaper than flying into either O’Hare or Port Columbus.)

We are a small faculty, and so we know each other well, even though we function professionally several hundred miles apart. My colleagues have a clear sense of their mission as teachers and researchers, a love for the Episcopal Church, a love what they do to train and strengthen its leaders, and an excitement about what the future might hold not just for Bexley Seabury, but for theological education more generally. It is a privilege to work with such wonderful and dedicated people.

To be sure, their excitement about the future—and mine—is tempered by an undercurrent of anxiety—an anxiety shared not just by theological educators, but by almost anyone involved in American higher education. We live in political and cultural times not overly friendly toward the pursuit of wisdom, whether secular or godly. The church has changed, and so of course have Bexley Hall and Seabury Western, which exist now as a single entity. We enjoy almost 300 years of history between us, but only three years of shared experience as a new institution.

I am delighted to report that this new/old institution reached a milestone this summer, when the Association of Theological Schools granted us a seven-year accreditation as a “seminary beyond walls,” embracing new forms of online and hybrid pedagogy while maintaining a deep commitment to face-to-face formation in communities of worship and mutual support. The visiting team was deeply impressed by the progress we have made since our two schools federated three years ago, as we rebooted our academic and formation programs in creative response to the changing needs and diverse learning styles of the students attracted to a seminary like ours.

In effect, with this renewed accreditation in hand, we are now at Square One of our new joint venture. As the faculty gathers in Indianapolis, a special Beyond Walls Task Force of our Board of Directors is preparing its recommendations about the seminary’s future direction, with a report to be presented to the full Board when it meets in Chicago in mid-October.

  • Should we continue in two sites and two cities?
  • How can we reshape the MDiv to be more accessible and affordable?
  • In doing so, how best to leverage the considerable financial resources that have been generated from the sale of the Evanston buildings and the continued legacies of our now combined endowments?
  • Are there better ways to recruit and shape future leadership for the church than the ways to which the church has grown accustomed over the last several generations, especially among younger people who might never have considered lay or ordained ministry an option in a consumer-driven world?
  • What partnerships can we forge with our most vibrant congregations in shaping the future of ordained and lay leaders?
  • What can we do to recruit African American and Latino/a candidates for lay and ordained ministry, as well as African American and Latino/a faculty? How can we rethink what we teach and the way we teach to honor their history in the church and to empower them for leadership?
  • What should an Episcopal seminary look like in a post-Christendom America—an America pluralist in belief, suspicious of religious authority, and haunted by intense consumerism in all things—including matters of the Spirit—and a defensive and often stridently xenophobic exceptionalism?
  • And most to the point, where is Jesus in all this?

All these questions, especially this last one, are now on the table. Encouraged by our renewed accreditation, and guided by a gifted and generous Board, we can now ask these kinds of searching questions from a position of relative institutional strength—with no buildings to maintain, no debt to service, talented teachers, a dedicated board, a unique cohort of students (and the scholarship funds to attract even more), and most of all, a clear mission that encourages bold inquiry, resilient leadership and a thirst for Gospel justice.

No wonder our faculty gathers this week in Indianapolis with such good will and such enthusiasm, in spite of all anxieties. It promises to be another signal year for Bexley Seabury. We will keep you posted. Watch this space.

Connect the Dots

July 13, 2015 ♦


connect the dotsIt’s been quite an eventful few weeks since my last report. The rapid swings between good news and not-so-good news both in the church and in the public square have given many of us an acute case of spiritual whiplash. 

As regards good news, General Convention elected our first black presiding bishop, and added its voice to the recent Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality by adjusting the language of the Prayer Book accordingly. 

But on the not-so-good counter-swing, Donald Trump’s racist announcement of his candidacy for president has given xenophobia a new lease on life, and drawn only mealy-mouthed responses from other candidates who should know better.

But then, Pope Francis embarked on a homecoming tour of Latin America, denouncing the ravages of global capitalism among the poorest of the poor in a way that does honor to the saint’s name he has chosen as his own. 

It is a good thing, too, that South Carolina has retired the Confederate battle flag at last.  But few if any politicians have connected the dots between the racist massacre that finally forced the argument and the steady increase of gun violence in this country, abetted by the radical right’s continued stretching and distortion of the Second Amendment.

It’s time for faithful people to connect the dots. 

Hard to believe, but we will soon mark the one-year anniversary of the events in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting death of Michael Brown. To mark that anniversary, Bexley Seabury will welcome Dean Mike Kinman from Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis as the keynote speaker for our Convocation Columbus 2015 on Wednesday, September 23. Mike has been a powerful voice in promoting racial justice in St. Louis in the aftermath of Ferguson. His working title for his time with us is “Faith After #Ferguson: We Have Nothing to Lose but Our Chains.” Mike will join the Bexley Seabury community—students, alumni, and friends of the seminary—on the 23rd for 10 a.m. Eucharist, the student I-group (the weekly small group discussion integrating faith and practice), a plenary address and workshop in the afternoon, and a reception that evening. If you will be anywhere near Columbus on that date, mark your calendars now.

And for those of you in the Chicago area, you should know that earlier that week the seminary will be partnering with St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church, in Chicago’s Near North neighborhood, to host Professor Walter Brueggemann, renowned scholar of the Hebrew Bible and passionate teacher and advocate for a renewed sense of Biblical justice.  Professor Brueggemann will preach at Sunday Evensong at St. Chrysostom’s on September 20, and present a public lecture on Monday morning, September 21.

In the strident cacophony of our public square, it is a privilege for Bexley Seabury to host such powerful voices for reason, Biblical integrity, and racial justice. More details to follow.  But I hope you will spread the word about these two important events, and join us in Columbus and Chicago this fall.

God’s Healing Stillness

June 22, 2015 ♦ Yesterday’s gospel reading was Mark’s account of Jesus calming a great windstorm at sea. Perhaps you heard it yesterday, as I did, under a great vaulted Gothic nave.

That word “nave” comes from the same root as the word “navy.” As you read the passage from Mark, included below, imagine a great vaulted Gothic nave room upended, its gabled ceiling becoming the interior hull of a vast ship. Churches like this were designed to suggest such a shape, evoking a place of safety for all who attempt to sail the chaotic waters of this life, for all who seek safe harbor in Jesus.

Or to put it succinctly, when we gather in church, we are all in the same boat.

Mark 4: 35-41
On that day, when evening had come, Jesus said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be Still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Now, imagine another ship, also created as a place of safety. I am thinking of Mother Emanuel, Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where this past Wednesday evening 12 ordinary people boarded ship as usual, gathering there for Bible study—as they might have put it, with Jesus resting comfortably in the stern. They welcomed a young stranger to share the peace of Jesus’ presence among them.

And then all hell broke loose.

How many people in Charleston today are asking the question that the disciples put to Jesus in the midst of that storm:

Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

The question resonates throughout the country this morning, as it always does at moments of senseless violence and deep hatred. When that young stranger shot those nine innocent people in cold blood, mouthing hateful propaganda, when that sea of racist hatred engulfed that chapel, was Jesus still asleep, his head resting on a comfortable cushion in the stern of the boat, oblivious to the violence, oblivious to the chaos that will forever mark Emanuel AME Church of Charleston, the chaos that will forever mark and mar that place of peace?

Perhaps at least a partial answer to that question might lie in last Friday’s news report.

Nadine Collier is the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, one of the victims of Wednesday’s self-confessed shooter. At the bond hearing on Friday, Nadine Collier addressed the shooter face-to-face. Here’s what she said to him: “You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Myra Thompson’s grandson Anthony, also in that courtroom, was even more direct: “I forgive you. My family forgives you. We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Do that and you will be better off than you are now."

How many of us could picture ourselves as Anthony Thompson, speaking on behalf of his sorrowing family? How many of us could picture ourselves as Nadine Collier, bravely facing down her mother’s murderer, and offering him not hatred but forgiveness? They are like Jesus rebuking the storm, cutting through the bloodshed and chaos with a clarity that stunned every person in that room into astonished silence:

He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

I have a sense that it was that same dead calm that fell on that South Carolina courtroom on Friday, the dead calm of people’s stunned disbelief as they heard and witnessed the relatives of the Emmanuel victims, one after the other, speaking not of vengeance but of justice, not of retribution but of forgiveness, heard and witnessed those brave Christian people saying to that young man what God was saying in their own hearts:

Peace, be still, and know that I am God.

The great African American theologian and mystic, Howard Thurman, mentor of Martin Luther King as well as scores of Americans, black and white, who strove for justice and civil rights, had this to say about God’s healing stillness, a stillness that can calm even the most tumultuous storms experienced in what Thurman describes as every person’s “inward sea:”

There is in every person an inward sea, and in that sea there is an island and on that island there is an altar and standing guard before that altar is the "angel with the flaming sword." Nothing can get by that angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the mark of inner authority.

It was that mark of inner authority that allowed Reverend Pinckney to invite that strange young white man to sit beside him and to study with him and to pray with him on that extraordinary evening in Charleston this past week. It was that mark of inner authority that allowed Nadine Collier to confront her mother’s murderer and treat him like a human being rather than a senseless monster, to forgive him. Nadine Collier’s act of forgiveness confirmed the peace in her own Christian soul, calmed the stormy waves in her own inward sea.

Peace, be still. And the wind ceased.

Peace, be still. There’s a way of hearing those words—whether in English or the original Greek—as somehow enacting what they express. It’s as if the sea is calmed by the intake of breath that occurs between the utterance of the first word and the answer of the next two. Try it with me, say it aloud, but take a deep breath between the first word and the closing phrase:

Peace. [Breath] Be still.

Let us pray in solidarity with those who died and with those who mourn, responding to every petition with the phrase “Peace. Be still.”

Pray for those who have died in Charleston: Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr., Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson.

Peace. Be still.

Pray for those who survived.

Peace. Be still.

Pray for the families of the slain, and give thanks for their Christian witness.

Peace. Be still.

As Jesus taught us, pray for the Dylann Roof, whose racist ignorance and racist hatred continues to contort his soul.

Peace. Be still.

Pray that God may lift the burden of our history—the lasting legacy of racist hatred that continues to afflict us all.

Peace. Be still.

Amen.

__________

Adapted from a sermon preached Pentecost IV (June 21, 2015) at Christ Church Cranbrook, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan by the Rev. Roger Ferlo

President Roger Ferlo

Roger Ferlo

Roger A. Ferlo is the president of the Bexley Seabury Federation and professor of biblical interpretation and the practice of ministry. Ferlo came to Bexley Seabury in 2012 from Virginia Theological Seminary where he was associate dean and director of the Institute of Christian Formation and Leadership and also served as professor of religion and culture. 

Earlier, Ferlo, spent 19 years in parish ministry, in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New York City. He trained for the priesthood at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. He has more than 15 years of teaching experience at the university and seminary levels; 15 years of service on the board of the National Association of Episcopal schools, including a term as president; and nine years of service on the board of trustees of his alma mater, Colgate University ('73, summa cum laude), where in 2010 he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

Ferlo holds a Ph.D. from Yale University ('79) and has authored and edited three books and numerous published essays, sermons and reflections.