Acts 17:22-3, Psalm 66:7-18, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21
Earlier this week a clergy friend commented on how difficult it is to understand John’s Gospel. We hear that difficulty today, as Jesus prepares his disciples for his departure by telling them, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.” So, how do we see him after his ascension?
Peter answers that we see Jesus by accounting for the hope that is in us with gentleness and reverence. In other words, All Saints’makes Jesus visible by the gentleness with which we treat each other and by the way in which we orient our lives with reverence. Gentleness implies respect, forbearance, and forgiveness. Reverence points to faith, love, and hope. In our context, they symbolize how we are to love God and our neighbor.
Last weekend Susan Stanton and I attended a diocesan conference at which young adults told us that what they most want from church is to belong. That is, they are looking for a community of gentleness and reverence. Belonging is more important to the younger generations than outreach, Bible study, or—alas for the preacher—sermons. In fact, during the six-hour conference, no young adult mentioned a priest or rector, not even once. What they spoke about was you, the people of God.
Through today’s lessons God challenges us be a community of belonging by practicing gentleness and reverence. This challenge turns program and projects upside down by making who we are and the quality of our relationships more important that what we do. It also touches the heart of who we are as the Body of Christ. Accounting for the hope that is in us through gentleness and reverence summarizes our baptismal covenant.
It’s easy to fall short of Peter’s ideal. A public school teacher of one of our children decided she wanted to join All Saints’, based on her relationship with that student and her family and the teacher’s previous history with this congregation. She came Sunday morning excited to return to All Saints’, but on her first Sunday, after the service she overheard people complaining in the back of the church. She joined another congregation instead. The teacher’s negative experience reminds us of the importance of being gentle and reverent. On the other hand, our gentleness and reverence have been experienced by many who have joined our parish recently, so we often get it right!
As a nation, this weekend we remember those who laid down their lives for the ideal we call democracy. As you probably know, Memorial Day started as Decoration Day, when our nation remembered the approximate 750,000 who died on both sides of the Civil War. After 250 years of slavery, followed by one hundred years of Jim Crow laws, we finally enacted the Civil Rights Bill fifty years ago this July. As a nation we are making progress in the ideal of equality and justice for all, but fear and prejudice push against the Christian qualities of gentleness and reverence. We only need to read about the recent Donald Sterling/NBA issues to know that progress can sometimes come slowly.
Yesterday Andrea and I watched the newly-released movie Belle. Set in 1769 and based on a true story, the drama unfolds at three different levels. It portrays the tension within a young woman who must decide either to embrace the beauty of her black mother and the true Christian values of England, or—conversely—to accept the shame of having a slave mother and bow to the aristocratic culture of calculated social status and security. The same tension runs through both the noble family who raised her, and the nation caught in the economy of the slave trade. I won’t tell you any more about this beautiful and powerful movie.
Peter’s symbols of gentleness and reverence, by which we respect the dignity of every human being, are also seen in the poignant World War II story of four chaplains on the United States Army transport ship Dorchester. As it passed through “torpedo alley” some hundred miles off the coast of Greenland at about 1 a.m. on February 3, 1943, a German U-boat torpedo hit its midsection.
The four chaplains were among the first on deck, calming the men and handing out life jackets. When they ran out of life jackets, they took off their own and placed them on waiting soldiers without regard to faith or race. The chaplains were last seen standing arm-in-arm on the hull of the ship, each praying in his own way for the men. Almost 700 died in the freezing water, but many others survived because of their selfless heroism.
Chaplains John Washington (Catholic), Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed), Alexander Goode (Jewish) and George Fox (Methodist) responded to a high calling to represent God’s love among men at war. They personified the words of Jesus found elsewhere in John, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” These chaplains were later honored by the Congress and the President, and are memorialized as saints in the Episcopal Church.
In a private conversation at the conference last weekend, James Magness, the Bishop of the Armed Forces, offered to help All Saints’ adopt an Episcopal chaplain. Maybe this is another way we can practice gentleness and reverence. But that would be another outreach project, and however worthy, we need to heed the words of Peter and of the young adults. First and foremost, we make Jesus visible by the way we love and respect each other. We embody Jesus for others by accounting for the hope that is in us with gentleness and reverence.
Collect for Memorial Day
We give you thanks, O God, for all who have died that we may live, for all who endured pain that we might know joy, for all who made sacrifices that we might have plenty, for all who suffered imprisonment that we might know freedom. Turn our deep gratitude into determination, and our determination into deeds, that as others died for peace, we may live for the sake of the Prince of Peace, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Holy God, you inspired the Dorchester chaplains to be models of steadfast sacrificial love in a tragic and terrifying time: Help us to follow their example, that their courageous ministry may inspire chaplains, and all who serve, to recognize your presence in the midst of peril; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Rev. Rick Matters, preached at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Carmel