Sermon: Sunday, 11 August 2013

Sermon for 11 August 2013, Proper 14, Year C

The Rev. Theo Park

A printable PDF file of this sermon is available here: 20130811 - Proper 14, Year C - The Rev. Theo Park

An audio recording of this sermon is available here:

The Epistle for today includes only a part of the beautiful tribute to our ancestors in faith found in the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. I recommend getting out your Bibles and reading the whole thing! It is not just a tribute to the good deeds of those good men and women of God who have gone before us; what is held up as an example to us is the power of the faith that enabled their actions. By faith, Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice; by faith, Enoch was taken; by faith, Noah, warned by God, respected the warning; by faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called.

Today's reading from the Book of Genesis recounts another part of Abraham's story -- the seemingly impossible promise made to him by God: that his descendants would be as the stars of the heavens. Most of us cannot claim actual, physical descent from Abraham and Sarah, but in a very real sense we name them as our spiritual ancestors. Their stories, and the stories of the other Old Testament heroes and heroines, are part of our heritage. Week by week we read them in our churches, and they continue to inspire us. The Epistles and the Gospels, likewise, provide us with many uplifting examples of faith in action. And as we hear and read the stories of God's dealing with God's people, and their response, they shape our own response to God. They help us to understand what our being Christians in the world involves, what the truths are by which we must live. They provide a framework for all that we do. It is to this framework that Ellery is today joined through baptism.

Shortly after this paean of praise to our ancestors in the faith, the author of Hebrews writes feelingly of the "great cloud of witnesses" by which we are surrounded. Certainly, the biblical heroes are part of this great cloud; and down through the centuries there have been men and women of faith who have added to their number. And have there not been in our own lives, in our own congregations, those whose examples of faith have been used by God to encourage us, to strengthen our own faith?

The Episcopal Church Calendar officially commemorates the lives of many of these witnesses, those saints in light who have gone before us and to whom we are all connected. You can find them all in Lesser Feasts and Fasts: Holy Women, Holy Men, our Church’s record of authorized saints. This week, two of those whom we remember are Mary of Nazareth, mother of Jesus, and Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian and witness for civil rights.

Mary of Nazareth, is, of course, a well-known figure. She needs no further commentary from me. But you may not know that this Thursday is her feast day or that it is a Prayer Book Holy Day for special observance. You probably don’t know about Jonathan Daniels at all; he certainly didn’t set out to be written up in the list of martyrs for the faith. In the early 1960s Jonathan felt called to the priesthood, and so he enrolled as a seminarian. In March of 1965, he heard a televised appeal by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., asking for workers to come to Selma, Alabama, to help in the work of securing the right to vote for all citizens. Jonathan's initial impulse to answer this call was strengthened during the singing at Evensong of the Magnificat, that ancient hymn first raised by Hannah and most familiar to us from the version Luke later ascribes to Mary: "The Lord has cast down the mighty from their seat and has lifted up the lowly. The hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty." "I knew I must go to Selma," Jonathan wrote. "The Virgin's song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead." Here is a living example of faithful witness inspiring faithful witness, though the persons involved were separated in time by 2,000 years.

Jonathan went to Selma, where he lived with the black families among whom he and others worked as they struggled to claim their right to vote. On August 14, Jonathan and several others were jailed for participating in a picket line. Released unexpectedly six days later, the freed civil rights workers walked to a small store where they had previously shopped. The first to reach the door of the store was Ruby Sales, a black teenager. She was met by an armed deputy sheriff—who cursed her. Jonathan pulled her aside to shield her from the twelve-gauge shotgun, and took a blast point-blank in the chest. He died on the spot.

In his collection of reflections on those memorialized in the Anglican calendar of saints, Sam Portaro theorizes that the man who threatened Ruby Sales that day in August had been taught to fear and hate those who differed from him. He had been taught that to grant someone else—especially a black someone else— any entitlement is, in some way, to diminish one's own share. Jonathan Daniels, on the other hand, nourished by Holy Scripture and the sacraments, encouraged by the example of that cloud of faithful witnesses, had learned faith, hope, and love. On that top step of the little store in Selma, Portaro writes, "fear met faith, greed met hope, hatred met love. The outcome could have been predicted."

The forces that were at work in Selma in l965 are at work in the world today. In fact, sisters and brothers, aren't they at work in each of us? Do we not struggle with fear, greed, and hatred, even as we thank God for the gift of faith, hope, and love? These are the same forces that met in the events we commemorate at every Eucharist, that we invoke every time we obey the command both to remember Christ’s death and to proclaim the power of his resurrection, until he comes in glory. And yet we believe--we know--that love is stronger than death.

If we draw strength from the example of that great cloud of witnesses, even more do we draw it from the power of Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one of God. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews calls us to follow Jesus, to hold fast to Jesus. "(...L)et us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings to us so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith."

Here at Gethsemane you have been blessed with our own calendar of saints: from those who built this building and contributed to this household of God throughout its long history, to those examples of faith who sit among you today. Look around. Recognize those saints? In this time of transition and renewal of identity, how will you celebrate that heritage? What stories of faith, hope and love do you tell and retell to build up and inspire the community of believers? What weight, what baggage, must be laid aside in order to run the race before you and live into your inheritance, that the essence of your Christian identity might be handed on in faith to Ellery and your descendants? How will you draw strength from the past yet prepare for the future?

You will hear much on this topic in the months ahead; it is of vital importance to all of us. For now, may the faith of Mary and the convictions of Jonathan Daniel, together with the good example of all the saints, empower us: 8 AM for our work in the world/ 10 AM to keep the promises we are about to make.

This sermon was created by The Rev. Theo Park for The Episcopal Church of Gethsemane, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Sources are credited where applicable.