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Sunday, June 30, 2019


A Sermon Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE
Pentecost III - June 30, 2019

If you close your eyes for a minute, you can see His face.

The words of the gospel of St. Luke draw a picture, sharp and clear, of a man on a mission. Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He’s ready. He knows what is to come. Fully anticipates what is to happen to him. Expects it will, in fact, come to pass. 

And he is resolute. He has even sent messengers ahead of him. He has no time to waste. No time for goodbyes. No time to rest. “Let the dead bury their dead,” he bluntly says to a man who asks that he wait so he may bury his father.

If you close your eyes for a minute, you can see His face.

It must have been absolutely consumed with clarity of purpose. Etched with intention. Carved with deep lines of determination and single-mindedness and a tenacity that anyone could read – even from afar.

Never mind that it meant walking into the city of Jerusalem with shouts of “Hosanna!” which would turn suddenly, coldly, to calls to “Crucify him!” Never mind that it meant marching to Calvary to his death on the hard wood of the cross. He is marching to the tune of his destiny, and everyone can see it on his face.

You can also see determination etched on the faces of Elisha and Elijah. You and also hear the determination in the words of St. Paul as he exhorts the people in Galacia to "stand firm". 

In many ways, the image of the determination on the faces of Elisha, Elijah, Paul and Jesus in this morning’s lessons are a perfect image to summon up the faces of the people in the history of our nation that were set on freedom. Beginning this weekend but especially on Thursday, July 4th, we celebrate the 243rd Anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

There are also faces in our history that were set on freedom in the Civil War – a war which ripped the very fabric of this nation from North to South. Some maintain that our nation is still at war over the same issues of race (specifically white supremacy) the economy (especially tariffs), states rights, and yes, the role and status of women. 

Both our Christian and American heritage are interwoven with the history of the Episcopal church, and emerge in Jamestown, VA, the New World’s first permanent English settlement, which observes its 412th anniversary this year.

So, it is not surprising that the very nature and character of what it means to be an American is being questioned at the same time the definition of being Christian is also being raised and questioned.

Being “Christian” has come to be narrowly defined by televangelists and evangelical Christians. To be a Christian has also come to mean being a patriot; this has come to mean unconditional support for increasingly controversial government policies.

We have all seen the images that have come from our southern border. Heartbreaking images. Horrific images. Images of human suffering. These are people who have set their faces on opportunity and the hope of freedom. You can see the determination etched in their faces just behind the desperation which is also unmistakably there.

Michael Hunn is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rio Grande which holds 40 percent of the border between the United States and Mexico. Bishop Hunn has an essay in this week’s issue of Sojourner Magazine which begins, 
Before the finger pointing and blaming begins let me be clear: This is not a partisan issue. This is not a political issue. This is a moral issue. We have a moral responsibility to ensure that the conditions for every child are not just adequate but are as good as any parent would expect for their own children.”
He continues, 
 “Border Patrol agents and their families are members of our congregations. The Episcopal Church is about half Republican and half Democrat. Yet every Sunday, we pray the same prayers to the same God, and then we get to work together, in spite of our differences, to make the world more like the one God envisions.”
This is a determined bishop who leads a diocese with congregations that bear the same determination which is etched in the face of Jesus. 

Last week Bishop David Reed of the Diocese of West Texas, which shares 500 border miles with Mexico, wrote these words to the people of his diocese:
As the immigration crisis continues to roil and divide our beloved country, we find our souls as stressed as our legal and political systems. Our desire to act wisely and compassionately, to “Walk in love, as Christ loved us,” collides with the enormity and complexity of the issues. What we are experiencing within the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas is only a small piece of the human migration occurring worldwide, a movement of peoples that will likely be with us for many years to come.
A simple solution to this crisis does not exist, but we can be instruments of God's grace and peace. We cannot do everything, but for Christ's sake, we can do something.

A number of our clergy and people are doing something to alleviate the human suffering along the border and farther north. I commend them for the hope and healing they offer, for their persistent love in the face of suffering . . . They are seeking to serve Christ in the person standing in front of them, whether asylum seeker or Border Patrol agent. Our clergy and churches did not go looking for this ministry; they did not rally to "an issue." They are seeking to respond faithfully to those in need arriving in their communities and on their doorstep.
It takes the determination that we see etched on the face of Christ in this morning’s gospel that leads to taking the risk of love for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.   

As Bishop Reed wrote, 
“To be angry and resentful is easy, a reaction that takes little imagination. To become cynical is to reject the hope of Christ. To love and to care is much harder, requiring that we extend grace and mercy to one another and to ourselves, but acting in love and choosing to care is the life into which we've been baptized. To love and to care is the Way of Christ, and the way of the Kingdom.”

Whether we are talking about the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, men and women have set their faces toward freedom just as Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. When men and women took bold risks to ensure “liberty and justice for all,” and soldiers marched off into battle, ready to make the” ultimate sacrifice,” they often did so in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection they knew to be promised them by Christ Jesus.

As you turn the pages of our history books, you can almost see it in their faces.

The moral core of this nation is being challenged. Every. Single. Day. We are daily compelled to examine both our minds and our souls, to clarify both what we think and what we believe, about the basics of democracy and our religion. 

I don’t know about you, but I find this absolutely exhausting. And yet .. and yet, this is not the time to cave. This is not the time to give in or give up. It is not a time for apathy. 

It is a time, as it was for Jesus, and as it was for our forebears in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, as it was – and now is – for all of our men and women in public service and in the armed forces and as public citizens, to stand up, and, seeking the determination of Jesus, set our faces toward the liberation promised in the Gospel and the freedom promised by the principles of our democracy.

One of my favorite hymns of this day does not appear in our Hymnal, interestingly enough, but it is, for me, emblematic of this “heritage made of a fabric woven in prayer,” which we commemorate on July 4th. (Note: It can also be found in the "Lift Every Voice and Sing" Hymnal, which is hopefully also in your pews).

Many think of it as a battle hymn. Indeed, it is called, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was written by Julia Ward Howe, who was a dedicated pacifist and abolitionist who also was the founder of Mother’s Day – a day she envisioned for all mothers everywhere to rise up and protest the loss of their sons to war.

This hymn was born during the American civil war, when Howe visited a Union Army camp on the Potomac River near Washington, D. C in 1861. She heard the soldiers singing the song “John Brown’s Body,” and was taken with the strong marching beat. She wrote the words the next day:
(said) Mine eyes have seen the glory
of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage
where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning
of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
She wrote in an article which appeared in Atlantic Monthly, 1862:
I awoke in the grey of the morning, and as I lay waiting for dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to entwine themselves in my mind, and I said to myself, “I must get up and write these verses, lest I fall asleep and forget them!” So I sprang out of bed and in the dimness found an old stump of a pen, which I remembered using the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.
You can almost see her face, can’t you? You know she had the face of Jesus before her – which bore the faces of all the prophets before Him, especially the young prophet, Jeremiah who wrote: “The Lord will roar from on high and from his holy habitation utter his voice; he will roar mightily against his fold, and shout, like those who tread grapes against all the inhabitants of the earth.” (Jeremiah 25:30)

As chaos swirls around us and we are assaulted with heinous images of children being separated from their parents, and desperate people taking desperate measures for the dream of a good life for themselves and hope for a better life for their children, and yes, even as our beloved church struggles to find our way on the Via Media, the Middle Road of Anglicanism, let us take time during our Fourth of July celebrations, to meditate on the cost of our faith and our freedom.

Let us remember the face of Jesus, his face set toward Jerusalem. Let us see the face of Jesus in others and resolve, with them, to pay the high price of the Gospel. More importantly, let us be the determined face of Jesus in a world that hungers for the bread of freedom and the thirsts for the wine of peace.

As we celebrate this great country on Thursday, the 4th of July, may the words of Julia Howe’s hymn be in our hearts and on our lips, and steel our determination:
(sing) In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom
that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make (us) holy,
let us live to make (all) free;
[originally …let us die to make men free]
While God is marching on.
Sing with me, church:
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
While God is marching on.


Marthe said...

This is also one of my favorite hymns and I get that those who wanted it out of the hymnal meant well in deeming it a triumphalist anthem celebrating war, but, as you know, they were wrong because they did not appreciate its history ... teach the history and the meaning and one finds that Christianity is not about one group "winning" over all others at any and every cost, it is about treating everyone as valuable and worthy of life, worthy of care, worth saving ... too bad that any hymn becomes a tool of those who would use it to trample others.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi,Marthe - Someone has to write an annotated Hymnal. There are hymns we sing that people have no idea about the context of the hymn.