Category Archives: Saints

Sermon, August 22

Put on the whole armor of God, so that you can stand your ground on the evil day… 

There’s something so satisfying about a good visual metaphor.

The “armor of God” passage in the final verses of the letter to the Ephesians seems to be based on armor of Roman soldiers, which people would have seen on a daily basis: A belt, a breastplate; shoes or rather, sturdy sandals; a big honking shield; a helmet, and a sword. This author is using a familiar image to invite believers to think about how to equip themselves for the struggles they face as a community. 

While appreciating the image, we might find ourselves tempted to hold the militarism of this passage at arm’s length. The idea of preparing ourselves for battle may not sit well. We’re Midwesterners. We’re nice.

Mennonite pastor and writer Melissa Florer-Bixler writes that one of the dominant ways we respond to conflict is by assuming that people who harm others are simply misunderstood – or maybe doing what seems best to them, in a way we could empathize with if we knew their whole story.  In this approach, writes Florer-Bixler, “The way to overcome our enmity is by creating spaces where the falsehood of being enemies is unmasked [and] we will discover that we all want the same things.”

But what if we don’t all want the same things? What if some of our differences are too consequential to overcome with a friendly chat over coffee, or a unity vigil? 

Florer-Bixler says the OTHER dominant way we respond to conflict is by assuming that anyone different is an enemy, “a threat to that for which I’ve worked and that which I love…Anyone who stands in the way of my commitments must be eliminated.”  If you believe you’ve never had those thoughts or feelings – that you’ve never experienced a flash of blind hatred towards someone who seemed to represent the opposite of all you hold dear and true – then pause and examine your conscience again. Perhaps you are the exception. But most of us, no matter how nice, have been there. 

Either the enemy is just misunderstood… or they’re an existential threat that must be removed. The first approach can lead to a naive and ineffective idealism.The second, to intractable cycles of fear, suspicion, and harm. 

Is there another way?

Florer-Bixler says there is another way. A Christian way. Her book is called How To Have An Enemy. And in it she argues that Christians can have enemies – in fact, should have enemies… but that true Christian enmity is something very particular. 

Enmity, says Florer-Bixler, is “a relationship between people… that recognizes how a person uses their power, actively or passively, to harm or dominate another.” (28) Power isn’t inherently bad; we need power to act, to change, to protect, to improve. But if our calls to unity and mutual respect ignore power and differences in power, they can only ever lead to a false and temporary peace. 

The Christian enmity that Florer-Bixler describes is not a moral failure or a sin against the call to love our neighbors. Rather, it’s a naming of reality as a necessary step towards change. “In Christianity,” she writes, “we do not resolve enmity by destroying our foes or finding middle ground with them. Instead, Jesus ushers in a different system – a new way of living that changes the order of power itself.” (91)

When Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies, that’s not a call to passivity or to accepting a harmful status quo. Nor is it the low-stakes warm and fuzzy spirituality of someone with no skin in the game. Remember, Jesus’ enemies conspired against him and killed him! 

Rather, love of enemy means calling other and self into a new order freed from those entrenched relationships of harm. Florer-Bixler writes, “We love our enemies when we extend an invitation to a form of life where those who have the power to destroy others no longer exercise the self-destruction of hatred, hoarding, and violence.” (41)

Florer-Bixler wonders provocatively whether churches could become places of cultivating shared anger. (63) She points out, “If we lack anger at injustice, we are unable to rightly discern and act in the world.” (69) Might a church hold space for people to study and talk and pray and “discover how to be angry about the same concerns, and then how to bear that anger together as a creative force to build something new”?  

Let’s be clear that none of this is easy. Accurately naming our enmities demands serious discernment – of self, society, and Scripture. The self-work is necessary because it is very easy to think that God hates what we hate.  Each of our hearts and minds have been shaped by forces and ideologies that we despise. Florer-Bixler says that when we undertake this work seriously, “we discover lingering within us our own participation in the destruction of others.” (65)

We can also be pretty bad at discerning the times, and where Jesus’ message calls us to solidarity and action in today’s world. Our judgment is clouded; many things that seem normal to us are likely outrages in God’s eyes. For example: Most of us would probably agree that the Civil Rights movement and its work for desegregation and voting rights were morally right and necessary. But during the 1960s, most American white people opposed the freedom rides and sit-ins. The urgent moral calls of our era may be no more clear to us than they were to white Christians in the 1960s. 

And finding direction in Scripture, while essential, is not easy. The Bible does not offer a clear list of where we should stand on every issue that faces us today. Instead, as Florer-Bixler says, “there is the Holy Spirit, the Bible, and us.” (138)

Discerning and naming our enmities is demanding work – yet Florer-Bixler argues that it’s essential work. Faithfully facing our enmities, she insists, is living the Gospel:  “The good news of Jesus Christ is for the redemption of the world, for victims and victimizers, for oppressed and oppressors, for the way destruction is borne in each of us… We are freed from the logic of death, from the gods of scarcity and violence, from a politics where some prosper at the expense of others, and from the fear behind power, control, and coercion that are the operational center of the old order.” (32)

That passage really resonates with our Ephesians text: “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the Archons, against the Powers, against the Cosmic Rulers of this present darkness…” This author fully realizes that those cosmic forces of evil are manifest in human forces and systems, hearts and minds.  They join Florer-Bixler in acknowledging that the flesh-and-blood people who cause harm are just as bound as those whom they harm – by those gods of scarcity and violence, by the cosmic forces of this present darkness. 

There’s a deep generosity and clarity in suffering persecution, perpetrated by human beings, and being able to say, The true enemy here is something else. Something that also entraps my persecutor, my enemy; something from which both of us need – and deserve – deliverance. 

Jon Daniels would be 82 this year, if he were still alive. He was 26 in 1965, when he heard Dr. King’s call for allies to come to Alabama to stand with the growing civil rights movement. The Magnificat, Mary’s song of courageous hope, drove him from his seminary studies in Cambridge, to Selma, where he joined in organizing and picketing,  and tried to integrate the local Episcopal church. 

Christian enmity was at the heart of the civil rights movement, with its strong commitment to nonviolent protest. That refusal to return violence for violence was a bid for the conversion and transformation of enemies, rather than their destruction. It was an invitation to a whole new form of life where those with the power to destroy others no longer use it to harm or exclude. That movement prepared for battle after the fashion of our Ephesians reading: arming themselves with truth and justice, peace and faith, salvation and the word of God, while their enemies prepared tear gas and dogs, clubs and guns. 

On Aug 13, 1965, Jon Daniels, with about 30 others, went to a small town in Alabama to picket segregated businesses. On Aug 14, they were all arrested, and taken to the nearby Hainesville jail.  On August 20, they were released with no warning – meaning there was no one ready to pick them up and take them to safer territory. 

It was a hot bright August day. A small group – Jon Daniels, a white Roman Catholic priest, and two black protesters – approached a small store there in Haynesville, hoping to buy a cold drink. They were met at the door by Tom Coleman, a white volunteer sheriff’s deputy, wielding a shotgun.

Coleman pointed the gun at one of the black protesters, a young woman named Ruby Sales. Jon Daniels stepped between Ruby and the gun. Coleman fired – and Jon was killed instantly. 

The cosmic powers of this present darkness – the small, bitter gods of scarcity and violence – were manifest in Tom Coleman’s flesh and blood that day. And they won – temporarily. 

Coleman was acquitted by an all-white jury, on the basis of a nakedly absurd claim of self-defense. But Daniels’ death did lead to change. The Episcopal Church had been neutral at best towards the civil rights movement. But Daniels’ martyrdom and Coleman’s acquittal galvanized the church. Presiding Bishop John Hines spoke out in outrage. And a new movement – led in part by Episcopalians – worked to integrate Southern juries, a step away from the all-white juries which had long protected a racist society. 

(Source: https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2015/08/13/remembering-jonathan-daniels-50-years-after-his-martyrdom/) 

It’s important to me to talk about Jon in August, every few years. It’s also important to say that his is not everybody’s path. Most of us are called to live for the Gospel, not die for it. 

Jon Daniels knew his enemies. 

He discerned the times; he heard Dr. King and the Mother of God calling him to solidarity, as part of movement on behalf of others. 

He dwelt deeply with Scripture.

He did the self-work: he kept a journal. In it you can see him grappling with his own motives, mocking himself for white-savior thinking, and striving to come closer and closer to Jesus in the why and how of his presence in Alabama. 

Jon Daniels buckled on the belt of truth and the breastplate of justice, so that on that evil day he would be able to stand. To confront his enemies with the possibility of another way. 

The transformation that Jesus – that God – wants for us is a transformation that liberates oppressor and oppressed, privileged and marginalized. It’s not just flipping the script of domination to put the formerly powerless on top, but a truly new order.  Florer-Bixler writes, “We don’t need new oppressors, new wealth, or new social classes. We need a new world.” (93) 

Let us pray. 

O God of justice and compassion, you put down the proud and mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and the afflicted: we give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression. Help us put on the whole armor of God, that we may stand firm on the evil day; and give us, like Jon, the wisdom to know our enemies, the courage to confront them, and the visionary love to long for a new world for everyone; through Jesus Christ the Just, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sermon, Oct. 4

The man we come to know as the apostle Paul, founder of many churches and author of letters to the first Christians, was born around 5 AD – making him a few years younger than Jesus, whom he never met during his lifetime. He was born to a devout Jewish family in the city of Tarsus.  As he says in today’s reading from the letter to the church in Philippi, he was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.”

Elsewhere he describes himself as “a Pharisee, born of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6) – meaning that both he and his parents were His family were Pharisees, members of a movement within Judaism to recommit to the faith practices of their ancestors.  He was sent as a young child to study with Gamaliel, one of the greatest rabbis of the time – and could easily have become a rabbi himself. 

In addition to his impeccable credentials as a faithful Jew, Paul was also apparently a Roman citizen by birth.The Roman Empire did not have birthright citizenship! If you weren’t actually Roman, citizenship was a privilege that you had to either buy or be given. 

It was unusual but by no means impossible for a Jew to become a citizen. Paul’s parents might have been offered citizenship as a thanks for service to Rome or to gain their favor if they were people of influence. Their citizenship passed on to their son. 

In short, the young Saul – his Hebrew name – or Paulus, his Roman name – had plenty of social and religious standing. Many paths and possibilities were open to him. The one he chose, in his early 30s, was to help stamp out a new religious movement that sounded to him like heresy. People who claimed to be Jews were saying that this rabble-rouser who had been crucified in Jerusalem was somehow God and had risen from the dead. 

Paulus witnessed the stoning to death of a Christian convert named Stephen. He held people’s garments while they committed mob murder, so their clothes would not get bloody. And he approved of the killing. (Acts 8:1) 

In fact, it seemed to inspire him to get involved in the persecution of Christians, raiding homes and dragging people off to prison. As he says about his former life in today’s reading: “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

When he ran out of people to arrest in Jerusalem, he asked the high priest for letters of introduction to the synagogues in the city of Damascus, so that he could hunt down Christians there too. Luke, the eloquent storyteller, describes Paul as “snorting out menaces and slaughter.” He gets his letters and sets out on his journey.

But as he’s approaching Damascus, a light flashes around him. He falls to the ground. A voice said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul stammers out, “Who are you, Lord?” The voice replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Paul’s story unfolds from there. He becomes a Christian; he becomes a preacher and founder of churches. He is despised by those who see his teaching as heresy. He is imprisoned and beaten. He brings to bear all the privileges of his younger life on his new lifework of building the Jesus movement. 

But this, the road to Damascus, is the pivot point. This is the moment when Christ Jesus makes Paul his own. The Greek is more forceful: when Christ seizes Paul, and sets him on a new road. 

Some 11 centuries later, a baby boy was born to a prosperous silk merchant and his wife, in the Italian town of Assisi. The baby was baptized Giovanni, but early on was given the additional name Francesco, perhaps because his father’s business dealings in France were going so well. 

Francis had money, status, and indulgent parents. As a young man he was handsome, popular, and fond of fancy clothes. He loved traveling musicians and performers, and lived a carefree life…  until he joined a military expedition against a nearby town and was taken captive for a year. 

This experience led to a sense of dissatisfaction and re-examination of his former life. He began to pray for spiritual enlightenment. One day as he knelt in the ruined chapel at San Damiano, gazing upon an icon of the crucified Christ, he heard a voice. It said, “Francis, Francis, go and rebuild my house.”

At first Francis thought this spiritual charge meant simply to have the chapel at San Damiano repaired. He stole some cloth from his father and sold it, and gave the money to the priest in charge of the chapel – who refused to take it. Legal and parental wrangling ensued – culminating with Francis renouncing his father and his inheritance, and stripping himself of all his fine garments, walking naked into a new way of life. 

As Paul wrote, eleven centuries earlier, “For [Jesus’] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as garbage, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” 

Francis’ story unfolds from there. My favorite picture book about Francis, by  Brian Wildsmith, the source of these images, sums it up well: “From then on, I sought out the poor. I sought out the sick. I repaired God’s ruined churches. I loved all God’s creatures and called them my sisters and brothers.” 

Francis founded an order of men committed to holy poverty, peacemaking, and service to ordinary people in the name of Christ. He worked with his childhood friend Clare to create a sister order for women.

Francis died on October 3, 1226. His feast day is October 4. We honor and remember him today. 

For both Paul and Francis, life turned on a dime when Jesus spoke to them. It’s an unusual, but by no means unique, shape for a Christian life. There have been many saints, both well-known and long-forgotten, whose life includes a sudden and dramatic call away from their former life and to a new way of living in God. Such experiences are sometimes called a “road to Damascus” moment. I guess “chapel of San Damiano moment” is too much of a mouthful? 

We’re not, exactly, talking about conversion. Neither of these men abandoned the faith they held before their call. Francis was most certainly a Christian before San Damiano, though he may not have been the most devout. Paul’s relationship with the Judaism of his young life is more complex. In today’s text he claims to regard his ancestral faith identity as rubbish. But other passages suggest Paul continued to find value and meaning in his Jewish heritage. He sees Christianity as a new branch grafted onto Judaism, and grieves that his new faith separates him from many members of his first faith-family. 

The lives of the saints – the ones with days on the calendar and portraits in stained glass windows – can inspire us. They may also make us feel small and inadequate. I have heard from God, at particular moments in my life, but I’ve never been thrown off my feet by a blinding light and the voice of Jesus. 

I look at Paul, at Francis, at some of their kin among the communion of saints, and I see people driven by a crystal-clear sense of God-given purpose. My sense of God-given purpose is maybe 40% on a good day, and I’m pretty sure that even that puts me way at one end of the normal distribution. 

Paul and Francis encourage me not because I expect my life to look like theirs… but because for them, it wasn’t all about them. Paul and Francis weren’t the kinds of saints who were called away from the world, to lives of discipline and purity, in a wilderness cave or compound. Instead, Paul and Francis were called INTO the world. Specifically, they were called to gather and form communities – communities oriented around a new, or renewed, understanding of God’s purposes for the world.

After Damascus, Paul committed the rest of his life to founding, teaching, encouraging (and sometimes rebuking) churches in cities all across the ancient world. Franciscans, followers of Francis, didn’t build monasteries; they traveled around, preaching, teaching, and serving.

My life may not be like Paul’s or like Francis’s, let alone like Jesus’. But I can aspire to be – across the millennia – one of the people they called and gathered, encouraged and taught. 

Francis invites us to regard material possessions and wealth lightly; to strive for understanding and, where possible, peace, across differences; to see God in our fellow human beings, and to love God’s creation and creatures. 

Paul invites us – well, he covers a lot of ground in his many letters. But fundamentally I think he calls us to stick with the work of figuring out what difference our faith makes in our lives… and to looking out for one another. 

And both invite us to entrust ourselves to communities of faith…  to find, and be, faithful companions for the challenging work of living this way – and of making this way of living make a difference, for our neighbors and the world.