Thursday, August 22, 2013

Where are the words of peace?

Egyptian Muslims protecting
Christian churches
Like everyone, I am saddened at the tragic and violent events in Egypt. As a preacher, I found last Sunday's gospel lesson Luke 12:49-56 difficult to work with, to say the least: Jesus declares he comes not to bring peace but division, to set parents against children, and worse.

It was tempting to skip, to preach on something else. But I did my best. Below is my offering from the pulpit.

In the days ahead, my postings here will be less often. I am deeply immersed in writing the book about my abolitionist ancestor, the Rev. George Richardson, that I began nine years ago and put on hold. He lived in a time of great division: the American Civil War. He fought for justice and the emancipation and education of slaves. Peace without that was a false peace.

My sabbatical allowed me to regain the spirit and the words for this project, and I feel it important to finish. My morning writing time will be mostly devoted to writing the book. I will keep you posted on it, and post other items from time to time. Just not as often.

Here is my sermon from last Sunday:

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Shalom. Salaam. Peace.

The words of peace are very hard to hear in our world right now. Very hard.

Egypt is being torn apart by political and religious strife, and many have died. Syria is in the depths of a seemingly unending civil war.

Our own country remains at war in Afghanistan and there are threats of war with Iran. The words of peace are very hard to hear in our world right now.

And the words of peace are very hard to hear in today’s biblical lessons. Instead of words of peace, we get the Book of Isaiah – and words that echo in the Battle the Hymn of the Republic:

“He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.”

Instead of words of peace, we get the Letter to the Hebrews with descriptions of torture and flogging, and a stern admonition to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Nor to we get a warm, fuzzy, peaceful Jesus today:

“I came to bring fire to the earth,” Jesus thunders, “and how I wish it were already kindled!” Today, the good shepherd seems to be in someone else’s pasture:

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Oh my.

Jesus, most assuredly, is not giving advice on child rearing or solving family dysfunctions. Now, let me pause and tell you I don’t pick these lessons. For those of you unfamiliar with our peculiar way of doing things, these biblical lessons come from what is called “the lectionary,” and the lessons are assigned on a three-year cycle.

You will hear the same lessons today in Lutheran, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches, and many other churches.

Today, whether we like it or not, we get a sword, not a plowshare. No peace, no shalom, no salaam.

Or do we?

There may be another way to hear this. It may be that God’s peace is very different than how the world thinks of it.

It may be that God’s peace is not about power and politics, not about armies, but about justice for those who are oppressed, poor, exploited, wounded, and living in the low places. Sometimes being an agent of God’s peace means going into the heart of conflict because it is precisely in those places where God walks with the lowly.

And it is in precisely those places that God’s kingdom breaks through.

A friend of mine, Craig Klein, a deacon who lives up on the North Coast of California, terms passages like this: “God in the sharp points.”

It is on the sharp points that we are most acutely aware of God breaking open our hearts for others around us.

It is very tempting to avoid the sharp points because they are painful. Conflict is unpleasant and messy and worse.

And Jesus knows us well.

We might be tempted to build walls around ourselves by building walls around the church, and insulate ourselves from the conflicts and heartbreaks of the world.

But those heartbreaks walk right through this door whether we like it or not.

The absence of conflict is not peace, it is not shalom, it is not salaam. Sometimes the absence of conflict is acquiescence in, or wishful thinking about, that which wounds us and others. Sometimes the absence of conflict is acquiescence in evil.

The Gospel calls us to see the sharp points of our time, because it is in the muck of conflict where God finds us and shows us a way to real peace.

Real peace is not letting those who exploit people and pollute the earth get away with it.

We are called to build a world where the wounded are healed, the refugees are rescued, the poor are fed and those held in human bondage are freed.

We are called to make no peace with the forces of oppression.

The sharp points can break open our hearts and allow us to respond to the world in ways we never imagined possible.

Jesus never promised this would be easy. But each of us has the gifts to do our share to bind the wounds of the world.

Each one of us experiences the sharp points some time in our life. And that means each one of us has something to contribute from our own experience.

God gives us everything we need to do this work right here in this place and in our daily lives.

Lives really are changed by the Living Christ through you. People really are freed from what enslaves them, and God’s kingdom really is bursting alive through you.

We are called to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Shalom. Salaam. Peace.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Jeremy Taylor: the saint of practical living for a holy life

I am back from sabbatical, and today seems like a good day to start posting again on the blog. It is the feast day of one of my favorite Anglican saints, Jeremy Taylor. Here is what I wrote about him awhile back...

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Jeremy Taylor

Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), one of the Caroline Divines,  is chiefly known for his masterful work, The Rules and Exercise of Holy Living (1650) which has never gone out of print.

I've mentioned him in this space on other occasions, and I continue to return to his works and wisdom on everything from church politics to prayer. Above all he strived to be practical; theological theory was meaningless to Taylor if he could not touch it, test it, live with it in the real world. Here is a gem from Holy Living:
“Let everything you see represent to your spirit the presence, the excellency, and the power of God; and let your conversation with the creatures lead you unto the Creator; for so shall your actions be done more frequently, with an actual eye to God’s presence, by your often seeing him in the glass of the creation.

In the face of the sun you may see God’s beauty; in the fire you may feel his heat warming; in the water, his gentleness to refresh you: he it is that comforts your spirit when you have taken cordials; it is the dew of heaven that makes your field give you bread; and the breasts of God are the bottles that minister drink to your necessities.”
Taylor should be known for much more, including his Liberty of Prophesying (1647) a book calling for an end to government-backed coercion in support of religion, an idea that would not take root for another century in the Enlightenment.

In his day, Taylor was known as a great preacher and a masterful crafter of prose, including this from a sermon given in 1653:
Prayer is the peace of our spirit, the stillness of our thoughts, the evenness of recollection, the seat of meditation, the rest of our cares and the calm of our tempest; prayer is the issue of a quiet mind, of untroubled thoughts, it is the daughter of charity, and the sister of meekness.
Taylor profoundly influenced his own generation and those who came after him, including Thomas Jefferson who said every educated person should have Taylor on the bookshelf. Many of Taylor's quotes can be found in 19th century "books of days," the forerunner to the contemporary "Forward Day by Day." Taylor's story is worth telling.

Taylor was born and educated in Cambridge, the fourth of six children; eventually coming to the attention of Archbishop William Laud who heard him preach at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Taylor became the protégé of Laud, who secured for him a teaching post at All Souls College, Oxford, in 1635. Taylor was also appointed chaplain to King Charles I. Taylor was on the ecclesiastical fast-track, and seemed destined to become a bishop, perhaps even Archbishop of Canterbury.

Life intervened.

In 1640, Charles I overplayed his hand with the Puritans in Parliament, and civil war erupted between the armies of Parliament and the Royalists. England was ravaged. In 1642, the king was captured along with his chaplain, Taylor. Charles I was beheaded and as he went to the gallows, he gave his ring to Taylor, who was allowed to go into exile in Wales in 1645.

In Wales, Taylor wrote prolifically, taking an attitude that both sides were profoundly wrong and sinful. He took Anglican theological theory and applied it to real life as he experienced it. In his most popular book, Holy Living, Taylor explained a way of practicing a “holy life” in ordinary walks of life. He lived at a time when prayer books were banned, churches burned, and people felt adrift and worse. How could they worship God – be present with God – if not in a church? Taylor explained how, and it made him one of the most popular and oft-printed religious authors well into the early 20th century.

For Taylor, God was everywhere. Contemporary authors have re-discovered that theme, but few have crafted language as soaring as Taylor's:
“So that we imagine God to be as the air and the sea; and we all enclosed in his circle, wrapped up in the lap of his infinite nature, or as infants in the wombs of their pregnant mothers: and we can no more be removed from the presence of God than from our being.”
When Taylor's wife died, he wrote a companion volume to Holy Living, called Holy Dying. It was truly an ode to his wife, and his own way of struggling through his grief. Edmund Gosse, who wrote a biography of Taylor in 1903 that is still quite readable, considers Holy Dying Taylor's most overlooked masterpiece (the engraving at right is an inset on the cover page to Holy Dying; note the skeleton in the mirror). It is a sad book, and a hard read, but within in the book is hope for new life to come.

Eventually, the monarchy was restored. Taylor was made a bishop, but in Northern Ireland (perhaps because the Royalists did not fully trust him). Truthfully, he had a miserable time as a bishop, fought endlessly with the Irish priests, and longed for a return to England that never came.

In Ireland, he began writing yet another long set of works, including a treatise on how bishops have a role in the church only as long as they are promoting ministry. He also developed his own doctrine of "just war" that was stricter than the prevalent doctrine handed down from the Catholic era in Britain. Perhaps we would do well in our day to take a few pages from Taylor.

He outlived most of his children, and died in 1667. From Holy Dying: "When we descend to our graves, we may rest in the bosom of our Lord, till the mansions be prepared where we are shall sing and feast eternally."

May you have a blessed feast day of Jeremy Taylor.

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux