A Sermon Delivered by
The Reverend E. F. Michael Morgan, Ph.D.
Trinity Episcopal Church
Morgantown, West Virginia
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
August 11, 2019
Grant us Lord, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Collect for the Day)
The task of the preacher on any occasion is to proclaim the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. Today is the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost; a day when we continue to reflect on the mystery of our faith, as well as a time when we ponder what is happening in the world about us. As such, I would like to look specifically at the process of what it means to be a Christian today in the Episcopal Church, here in contemporary North America.
At our ecclesiastical core, we are a community of believers, seeking to be grounded with spiritual values of love and justice; and in order to Become a Beloved Community as it has been expressed by the Episcopal Church, two General Conventions approved back-to-back resolutions that established a vision for a long-term commitment to racial and social justice. Those resolutions contained elements of healing, reconciliation, and practicing the way of love. Four goals were set, and they were formulated as follows:
1) Telling the Truth about our churches
2) Repairing the Breach in Society and its cultural institutions
3) Proclaiming the Dream of a Beloved Community …and
4) Practicing the Way of Love – in the pattern and person of Jesus
To date I have preached on the themes of Telling the Truth, and ‘Practicing the Way of Love in the pattern and person of Jesus.’ This morning I intend to address the more immediate theme of Repairing the Breach in society and its cultural institutions.
By focusing on the specific goal and vision of “repairing the breach,” it brings me closer to an understanding of what I have been trying to do here in Morgantown as the Episcopal priest-in-Charge of Trinity Church. I am proud to say that ECUSA, the wider Episcopal Church in America, seems to be taking a lead on a national scale by committing itself legislatively to matters of social and racial reconciliation while seeking to become a beloved religious community in the fullest sense. For example, in the summer of 2018 we held our Triennial General Convention where thousands of Episcopalians convened in Austin, TX. A highlight of that gathering was a joint session of the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops who spent 90 minutes of precious General Convention time focused on how reconciliation might occur in America.
Three speakers were given the podium. One was Arno Michaelis, a former leader of a worldwide racist skinhead organization who now works to get people out of similar hate groups. The second was Catherine Meeks, Director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in Atlanta, GA. And the third was the Rev. Nancy Frausto, the Associate Rector of St. Luke’s Church in Long Beach, CA, a “Dreamer” who came to the United States without documents as a seven-year-old child, and is now working effectively in a local parish.
The discussion following these three presentations represented a series of interrelated commitments around which Episcopalians (or any religious group for that matter) could organize an agenda in order to respond to racial injustice and build-up a viable community of people working for reconciliation and healing. And here’s the key to success: it must come from the bottom-up, not from the top-down - as has been the traditional, if not formally institutionalized, pattern from the past. In other words, using religious language; it’s envisioned as a “new heaven, and new earth” by the scorned, the lost, and the unwelcomed.
Here’s the way it works. It starts with a point of view that must be shared. Proverbs 29:18 states clearly: “where there is no vision, the people perish.” And in order to survive and ‘Become a Beloved Community’ several things are necessary. So let’s look at the anguish we are experiencing right now in our country caught in the grip of sorrow, grief, horror, anger, despair, retribution, and most of all, confusion. All this is a result of indescribable deaths: murders, suicides, and especially senseless killings and massacres of innocent people. As the crowds are shouting: “Do something.” “Do something.” “Do something!” We see that it’s a crucial time for America as it searches for its very soul as a nation.
Therefore; let’s pause, take a deep breath, back-up, and revisit – painfully – what we’ve endured the past two weeks. On the heels of the California food festival mass shooting in Gilroy, CA, two more senseless shootings occurred within roughly twelve hours of each other last weekend in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.
Collectively, these back-to-back murderous acts of gun violence left over 30 people dead and at least 53 injured. Most Americans, grieving across the nation, want to help and “do something” but feel utterly helpless in the aftermath of these shocking events.
A quick perusal of social-media feeds, reveal that countless posts from well-meaning people offered “thoughts and prayers” - a phrase that has become a common condolence used in the public square in the aftermath of mass shootings. Because we are in shock and at a loss for what to say — let alone do — after these tragedies occur, we offer-up and express hollow and forced platitudes, even with the best of intentions.
Yet quite honestly, these verbal bromides seem to have more of a connection with helping ourselves deal with our own fears and discomfort, than they do with helping those who have been impacted.
The phrase “thoughts and prayers” has been used so commonly that there has been backlash and public rebuke - for good reason. The phrase has become a rather stale, empty cliché, especially when no further action is taken by the people offering up these “thoughts and prayers.” The continual recitation of “heartfelt concern” is actually perceived by self-acclaimed authorities, media celebrities, and public figures as an occasion to gain attention. These opportunists and hypocrites deceptively invoke solace, but offer no substance.
So it’s understandable that words like ‘thoughts, prayers, concerns, sympathy,’ and so on, trigger very negative reactions when they come across as nothing more than soothing sound bites. As Christians, perhaps especially as Christians, we are often all too quick to mumble and mutter our own kind of “spiritual-vocabulary” as a churchy testimonial following the latest mass shootings. The problem is our prayerful rhetoric is shallow and flat, and there’s so much more to it than that.
For those individuals struggling to call themselves genuine believers, prayer is greater than a mere afterthought. Think of it this way. Christianity teaches that praying is one of the most powerful ways that people can help. When Christians authentically offer up prayers in the aftermath of a senseless act of gun violence, it’s more than a meaningless gesture. It is a compassionate act of the soul.
Within the Christian tradition, prayer is always a pathway to God. Throughout Scripture, there are countless examples of the faithful calling-out for divine help on behalf of others facing hardship and hurt, … and now LISTEN UP because this is important … God always hears and responds to those prayers. I would even go so far as to contend that it’s not simply “thoughts and prayers” which is the problem — it is how we have prayed our prayers that is the real problem. God wants sincerity in our intentions; compassion in our hearts; intellect in our minds; and purity in our souls. God sees each of us as precious creatures; and God wants us to care for one another.
I struggled with appropriate ways to end this sermon; and I decided that I would do what many people do today when they get stuck and search for ideas. I went online to Google looking for answers, and wound-up on the Home page of Trinity Church’s website. Here’s what you find on our front page; a picture of the street sign at the intersection of Willey & Spruce, along with an image of the cross on the roof of the church pointing heavenward. Underneath is a cryptic quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes stating: “The greatest thing in this world is not so much where you stand, as in what direction you are moving.”
And then after citing our Welcoming Prayer from the Entrance Rite which we use each week, I indicate that in his book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham (the author, who is also a practicing Episcopalian) suggests several approaches that have a bearing on both our church life, as well as our national civic life. There are five axioms.
-Tell the truth about who we are as citizens, and express our opinions.
-Believe in our values, and stick to what is important
-Interact with those who have different opinions than we have.
-Respect every fact, honor truthful information, and deploy reason.
-Find a critical balance, and keep history in mind.
These five recommendations parallel our Christian virtues and values affirmed in the baptismal covenant. As ambassadors of Christ we strive to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship. Furthermore, with God’s help we endeavor to:
- Persevere in resisting evil; and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.
- Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourself.
- Strive for justice and peace among all people, and
- Respect the dignity of every human being.
In light of the increasing amount of hate, violence, bigotry, and dehumanization that persists in today’s world, it is important to pause for a time each week, and simply go to church, pray sincerely, and be in communion with one another – repairing the breach as we strive to become a beloved community of faith.
We ask all this ….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
CREDITS, NOTES, & REFERENCES: available on request.
- Philip Yancy (Religious News Service)