Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christ the King Sunday: Changing the culture of sexual violence at the University of Virginia

Credit: Rolling Stone magazine
Today is Christ the King Sunday, a day preachers (including me) usually spend time explaining why Jesus, this anti-monarchial Jewish rabbi, is the "king of kings."

The big time hint comes in the gospel lesson from Matthew 25:31-46 when Jesus says he is the one who is hungry, naked, thirsty, and in prison. He is the king who is with those who are in despair and in the low places.

We are in one of those low places now here in Charlottesville. Rolling Stone magazine published this week a lengthy article about the culture of sexual violence at the University of Virginia, and it has sparked a long overdue reaction. We've posted a lot of the statements and reactions on our St. Paul's Facebook page, and I won't post that here. But I want to share with you my sermon from this morning, which is my public statement on this.

+ + +

Last week broke very cold, and not just the temperature outside.

This was among the most challenging, and chilling, weeks I’ve experienced in the nearly seven years since you’ve called me here.

This is not an easy sermon today.

As you may know by now, our community was rocked by a Rolling Stone magazine article detailing a culture of sexual violence and alcohol abuse in fraternities that are only a few yards from this church.

The article is a very tough read, and I had to put it down several times. The details are shocking – horrific – and I cannot comprehend how any human being can treat another human being this way.

Then, later in the week, came news of another student suicide, Peter D’Agostino, the second student to die this way in a semester that was already marked by the murder of Hannah Graham.

Good Lord, enough already.

I must confess I have struggled to find the words to present you this morning in this pulpit. You may rightfully ask, why talk about this at all in church? I’ve asked myself that. My answer is, this parish was founded a century ago with the specific mission of serving and ministering to the students of the University of Virginia. We have an obligation to talk about it. And the gospel today – the Word of God – compels us to talk about this.

So I begin with this gospel lesson from Matthew that maybe captures some of the feelings of helplessness right now in our community:

“I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Like you, I have struggled to know how to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and protect the most vulnerable among us – especially our kids who come here as students.

All week, there was much conversation among students, faculty and staff, and in the wider community, and among those of us who work here in this church.

University officials have clearly struggled to find their feet, and respond in an appropriate and caring way.

The Charlottesville clergy is also struggling, especially those of us who pastor to our students.

Nearly all of the campus chaplains, of many faith traditions, will gather here at St. Paul’s tomorrow for a special meeting to try to figure this out together.

There are many questions for all of us, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. How do we clothe those who are vulnerable and violated? How do we bring them out of whatever prisons of despair and depression they may dwell? How do we see that justice is done?

And how do we turn our anger into making sure that no young woman will ever be attacked again? How do we declare “No more of this” and make it stick?

The Gospel of Matthew takes us today into a very low place, but then brings us to high place, and reaches beyond despair.

Today is also called by the Church, “Christ the King Sunday,” when the Church proclaims that Jesus is the Lord, the king of all.

Here in this gospel lesson, we find out what kind of king of kings he truly is – the king who goes into the places of hunger, and fear, abuse, violence – prison itself – to heal us – and proclaim no more of this.

If we look, we will see this already happening right here.

Start with the students themselves – they are living beacons of hope, and they have much to teach us if we are open and listening.

On Friday, something extraordinary happened at St. Paul’s. A diverse group of students organized what they called “Turkey-pa-looza.”

They gathered up unused food from the UVA dining halls, brought it here, and then cooked and packaged meals in green bags for needy families in the community. If you go to our website or Facebook page, you will see photos of them in our kitchen.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

I want to give you another example: We are supporting a group of students who are launching “Buddies on Call.”

These students will be stationed in our church late on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights to escort other students who are trouble and need help getting home.

Meanwhile, student leaders have stood up and demanded to be heard. They have built a website with resources for students, and links to give University officials their wisdom on how to change this culture.

Let me quote from the student letter:

“It is easy to hate, to cast whole communities in doubt, to deny, or to hide. But if we respond to hard times with hard work, if we respond to division with unity, if we respond to efforts to tear us down by building each other up, then we'll look back on this moment as the time we stood up to answer the call.”

And there is something more.

Today we are baptizing a baby, Christian, into God’s One Holy and Apostolic Church.

Christian, you may not have quite thought of this yet, but you and your parents have been waiting since the day of your birth, four months and 14 days ago, for this day to arrive: The day of your baptism.

But God has been waiting since the foundation of the world for this day to arrive. That means this is a way bigger day for God than it is even for you or your parents. The world is never going to be the same again because you are being baptized today – and God rejoices and takes delight in you.

We need you here. We can’t wait to see you baptized, and we can’t wait to see what you will bring into our world.

We pray you will have a long and healthy life. We know you will certainly go your own way on many things, and you probably will put a few gray hairs on your parents’ heads.

But today is yours. Today you will be marked as “Christ’s own forever,” and that is no small claim.

Christ will never let go of you, not ever.

And you are stuck with us, and we welcome you to the deep end of the baptismal pool.

Christian you already have much to teach us. What we do for the least among us we do to Jesus. Help us to figure out how to do that with you.

We can start with our hands outstretched in thanksgiving – and give thanks for the gift of our life, thanks for the people we love, and thanks for the time we are given on this earth to make a difference.

We can show our thanks with our grateful giving, and we can show our thanks with our service to each other.

It is right that we begin every prayer with thanks, and ground our life in the sharing of bread and wine in our Holy Eucharist – words that mean “the Great Thanksgiving.”

God has very ambitious dreams for us – serving our community, serving each other –and here in this place by making our university community not only a vibrant center of learning, but also a safe environment so that everyone who comes here can thrive.

When we care for the most vulnerable among us, we are caring for Jesus himself. In the gospel lesson today, Jesus proclaims that when we care for the most vulnerable, we will see the very face of the Risen Christ in the face of each other.

Those moments are truly holy moments.

One of these moments comes right now, when we baptize Christian. We will renew our baptismal covenant to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” and we will pledge to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

And then let us go from here to make our promises real in our lives, with our prayers, with our service, with our giving, and with our actions. Welcome to this extraordinary life, Christian. AMEN

No comments: