"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Do not Fear those who kill the body

I apologize for being neglectful.  Classes have begun again and I am settling into a new, and very full, routine.  I have several ideas for entries backed up, but other things are a priority, though I will get to them as soon as I can.  Below is my sermon from last Tuesday nights's community eucharist preached at the seminary.  The occassion was the commemoration of Sts Boris and Gleb, saints in the Orthodox tradition.  Sadly they aren't included in the Episcopal Church's calendar of saints, but as assistant Sacristan I successfully lobbied to include them this year.

The sermon

Boris and Gleb were princes of the Kievan Rus, sons of Vladimir the Great.  The chronicles blame their brother, Sviatopolk the Accursed  for plotting their assassination. Boris learned of his father’s death after he returned from battling eastern invaders.

Boris had been the heir-apparent  And when he learned that his brother had taken the throne, many urged him to replace Sviatopolk, but Boris said, "Be it not for me to raise my hand against my brother.  Now that my father has passed away, let him take the place of my father in my heart." Regardless of having stepped aside though, Sviatopolk insisted on having Boris executed and plotted to kill him.

Gleb, who didn’t know yet that his father had died, was sent for by Sviatopolk who pretended that their father was gravely ill and asking for Gleb.  Gleb rushed to his father's death bed.  On the way, their other brother Yaroslav learned of Sviatopolk's treachery and urged Gleb not to meet him. But that night, while praying, Gleb too was murdered.

In the gospel reading from Luke tonight we hear Jesus say; “do not fear those who kill the body.”  

But if you’ve ever read any Russian history,  you will know that killing your brothers/uncles/cousins/fathers was the, more or less, standard methodology for determining leaders.  I suspect then, that fearing those who might kill you was, generally, a key survival strategy, along with its corollary – kill those who might kill you before they get the chance. 
So, it is not their murders,  but Boris and Gleb’s rejection of this accepted reality that really stands out and marks their martyrdom. 

Boris and Gleb were most likely pagans at birth and into their early childhood at least.  Their father Vladimir had ordered the conversion of his kingdom a couple of decades earlier as part of marriage treaty with the Byzantine emperor. 
And that two princes would have taken their new faith seriously enough to make such consequential decisions in the face of a powerfully conflicting social paradigm is, to me, remarkable.  Over and over again in the story from Luke,  throughout the gospels overall really, is the message to not worry. 

“Do not be afraid”  that could almost be Jesus’ catchphrase. 
(Often followed, of course, by “you of little faith.”) 

But the reason Jesus keeps telling us this  isn’t because belief in God is a magical formula to prevent bad things from happening,  but because this life is full of bad things happening all around us.  
Jesus is reminding us though, that fear is a perversion of the abundance which God gives us, because what mostly drives our fear is loss-loss of perceived security or safety, loss of our illusion of control

I’m pretty sure when Jesus says that the poor and mourners are blessed it isn’t because they’re in the midst of joyous abundance but because in their vulnerability and deprivation their illusions of control are ripped away and they are closest to the realization that in the final analysis all we have is God.  There is nowhere else to place our trust and our hope.
And what we begin to sow here, in this life, is the plant that will be our existence in the next. 
"Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” 
What we do and how we live, here in this life creates the path whose trajectory will carry us, or not, into the new kingdom. 

Boris and Gleb, at least in this one moment as told in their hagiographies, knew this.  To believe in Christ demands that we do as Christ, otherwise we’re just hypocrites.

Do not fear those who kill the body.

We may not believe ourselves to be as bloodthirsty or savage as 11th century Russian nobles, but at the heart of our society and our culture lies the very same fear. 
Generally, I would say that the fear of being killed is a kind of national obsession.  Polls continue to show large majorities of Americans believe that violent crime is out of control even though crime rates have gone down significantly and steadily for three decades;  and fear of terrorism has been a demon goading the national psyche for nearly ten years now, marshalling a massive response that has fundamentally altered our way of life.  I don’t wish to detract from the terrible tragedy of the events of 9/11 or minimize the very real possibility of terrorism, but in truth the potential danger of terrorism isn’t very high – more people will die in automobile accidents this month than were killed on 9/11. 

But we too seem to believe, like those Russians that the best strategy to vanquish our fear is to kill or eliminate our potential enemies before they have a chance to harm us.  Conservative estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands of deaths have resulted from our retaliatory wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

What is the cost of our fear?  

How far are we willing to go to vanquish our fears?

Much like Sviatopolk the Accursed, America maintains a posture of aggressive defense that is psychically unhealthy and spiritually deadening.  And not just as a nation on the international stage, but as individuals as well.   At most school bus stops, parents outnumber kids because of fear.  At the airport, we must tolerate high levels of personal invasiveness because of fear.  Even much of what passes for Christianity in America is fear based.  Drive out of Columbus on any interstate you come across billboards shrilly telling you to REPENT.  Accept Jesus!  Not because Love is the only way, but because if you don’t you’ll be punished!

We are a hard-hearted people.

Do not fear those who kill the body.

I don’t think that God really desires anyone to be a martyr, but martyrdom can be the consequence of the Christian confrontation with Evil.  And our willingness to engage in this conflict, truly understanding what the consequences could be, is at the heart of our calling as Christians, and especially as Christian leaders. 

Now I don’t think too many of us will ever be called upon to lay down our lives for our faith.  But of course one never knows.  Last week we remembered the Martyrs of New Guineau, and one among those missionaries who died was Harry Dott, a student who walked the same halls, sat in the same classrooms and even worshipped in this very chapel – like us.  His memorial plaque is right over there.

Nevertheless, I do think that we are being called at this time to be martyr-like missionaries of God’s love to a fearful people.  What are we willing to give up to take Christ’s message of hope to a fearful people? 

What price are we willing to pay?  Not to set aside our fear, but to embrace hope in the face of fear.

How much of ourselves are we really prepared to give to this calling? 

Martyrs almost always have a chance to escape their martyrdom, if they choose.   They only need abandon their faith and seek the false security the world offers.  Most of us here have discerned a call to priesthood.  And according to the prayer book the ministry of a priest is to represent Christ and his Church. 

To represent Christ and his Church. 

Pondering such a responsibility should give us all pause.  It is easy to forget in the midst of discernment processes and diocesan beauracracy, that we are taking on the staggering responsibilities of being pastors to God’s people.  And that means a great deal more than the ins and outs of daily parish administration.

This calling that we claim is something marvelous and noble.  We are called to make of our lives a sacrament, to be a visible sign of God’s grace.  We are called, like Boris and Gleb, to hold up the norms and expectations of our culture to the light of Christian Truth.
Like Boris and Gleb, it is up to us to take our faith seriously enough to make decisions and take actions in the face of a powerfully conflicting social paradigm.

What we do matters!  What we do and say has consequences.  And those consequences are of cosmic importance, souls literally hang in the balance. 

We must be apostles of hope, of healing, and of peace to a hard-hearted people gripped by fear.  We must grab the hands of any who will offer, bend the ear of any who will listen,  stand firm with any who are oppressed or intimidated and everywhere and in every way proclaim good news.

 Ministry is hard, standing with people in the most emotional moments of their lives is hard, teaching the faith in a doubtful world is hard.  Preaching is hard.  This is no easy task we’ve signed on for.  The best priests I know have a kind of gentleness but also a durable toughness about them that undoubtedly was cultivated in some rough ground.  We too must be willing to work the rough ground.  We must be willing to sacrifice status and standing to do what is right.  We must be willing to choose love and reconciliation when every fiber of our being calls for hatred and revenge.  We must be those people willing to stand before the self righteous crowd and ask “who amongst you will throw the first stone?”

We must not be afraid.

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