Ecce, quam bonum!

The opening verse of Psalm 133, as we have heard it this morning is, “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!”

Sometimes it may actually feel as if we are living this way – in unity with our sisters and brothers. At other times it may feel more like an aspirational statement – something to be longed for.

How we see it – as reality or aspiration – may reveal a lot about the state of our personal and communal relationships. For example, today we’ve heard the story of Joseph’s reunification with his brothers. In isolation this story seems to reveal a tearful and long-sought reunion among brothers, but if we recall last week’s story of threatened murder and ultimately enslavement, we know this story had a beginning filled with resentment and hate.

Frankly, Joseph was a spoiled and pesky little brother, the only son of Rachel – Jacob’s favorite wife. Thus there was probably some jealousy on the part of his older half-brothers, and there was certainly hate on the part of those half-brothers whom he had ratted out to Jacob because Joseph didn’t approve of how they handled the flock.

What may seem to be minor insults or annoyances escalated in his half-brothers’ un-brotherly imaginations into resentments that cried out for violent retribution. Acts of violence were only narrowly averted by the intervention of the two oldest brothers; the result was Joseph’s enslavement first to his second cousins the Ishmaelites and then to the Egyptians.

Yes, Joseph was able to transcend the circumstance of his slavery, and ascend to power by his God-given wits and ability to interpret dreams; but he also seems to have retained his natural and nettlesome inclination to mess with his brothers in their distress during the famine. It’s a wonder that his brothers weren’t ready to throw him in the pit all over again once he revealed his identity. Perhaps their restraint speaks to their own maturity and growth over the intervening years as they wrestled with the nagging guilt of their behavior. Or perhaps it speaks to the potential for healing and restoration over time, which in this case it may have been about ten years. Whatever the case, a loss that seemed unrecoverable and unforgivable is redeemed and made whole again through the aspirational desire for God’s love in human affairs.

There is similar story of insult and injury that with time and aspirational persistence also resulted in reunification and reconciliation. It is the story of an institution, whose motto is the name of the 133rd Psalm, Ecce, quam bonum! In 1857, the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision, which in essence sought to legitimize the institution of slavery, Sewanee: The University of the South was founded by clergy and lay delegates from Episcopal dioceses across the south as the fabric of brotherly unity within the United States was being torn asunder over the issue of slavery. Thus, it seems ironic that the university’s motto invokes the ideal of brothers living together in unity.

Perhaps, in the founders’ narrow thinking, they thought of their union in small and select terms, as is often the case when human beings come together. We are too often exclusive rather than inclusive. Yet when, at the end of the Civil War, Sewanee lay in ruins with little prospect of realizing its once imagined glory, the seed of reconciliation came from an unexpected place when it was planted by their brothers from the north. The Episcopal Church extended the hand of peace to its southern brethren reunifying the Church, and through the quiet philanthropy of northern Episcopalians Sewanee survived. But this isn’t the end of the story.

For the next 150 years, Sewanee – like much of the south – struggled to reconcile its reality with the aspiration of, “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!” For much of that history it was only realized as a rather isolated and incomplete reality; for the most part it remained aspirational. Yet with time and periodic acts of intentional courage by determined followers of Christ, Sewanee began to transcend the bonds of culture and began to reveal its potential for healing and reconciliation. It is not yet fully realized, but it has moved forward from entrenched resistance to intentional aspiration seeking reconciliation.

Both Joseph’s story and Sewanee’s story reveal that healing and reconciliation don’t come naturally or easily but take time and intentionality in pursuing the way of the cross. To the extent that unity is opposed by any party it is very difficult to achieve, and opposition must be met with non-violent pursuit of the way of the cross if we are, with God’s help, to affect a change in the opponent that makes room for naming the hurt and listening to each others’ stories.

This just happens to be the story of Jesus’ journey to the district of Tyre and Sidon, a region and people traditionally hostile to Israelites; a place where an abundance of mistrust and the demons of prejudice abide. What a wonderful place to teach his disciples the expansiveness and inclusivity of God’s mercy for all people.

It is in this place of mistrust and prejudice, that a woman recognizes Jesus’ ability to heal, to drive out demons, and restore her daughter to wholeness. It is the other – someone unlike us – who recognizes the possibility for something new and different. Courageously, in the face of mistrust, this woman calls out to Jesus. Unfortunately it is the disciples, Jesus’ followers who, like us, think too narrowly – who can’t imagine something new and different. The disciples would have her go away. Then, as if mimicking the disciples’ disdain, Jesus seems to rebuke the woman, but I like to think he is delivering a slow pitch that he knows she will hit out of the park. And boy does she!

The Canaanite woman, in her need and desire for compassion is able to see across the divide of mistrust and prejudice and recognize the possibility of mercy and healing on the other side of the divide. For a moment, aspiration yields to reality and this woman has the courage to ask for what she wants and is not disappointed. The divide between the other and the disciples is not healed, but in its breach – in this act of faith – they begin to see each other in a different light and room is made for other non-violent breaches.

For us, as disciples – the followers of the cross – the challenge of these stories is for us to name our biases, our presumptions, and prejudices; to be open to seeing in them something about ourselves we haven’t noticed before. This may be hard to do, but we must try because the present reality of hostility and hate will not begin to change unless we risk breaching the barricades that divide us by pursuing the love of Christ and trusting in God’s mercy.

What demons hold us back from taking such risks? Be they fear, be they harm or hurt that we have suffered in the past, offer them in sacrifice as you come to this altar to be fed and healed by Jesus Christ, and recall that your baptismal covenant calls you, with God’s help, to “… strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

Expanding the circle of our unity is not an aspiration, it is part of our baptismal call.

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Troubled Waters

It’s been a hell of a few weeks! In addition to the “normal” and recurring barrage of fearful, violent and hateful acts perpetrated by individuals against one another, which according to our local media outlets are normal; these past few weeks, it seems, we have been treated to an escalation of fearful, violent and hateful acts beyond individual acts to community, national, and even international levels.

To name just a few: the President of United States and North Korea are escalating threats of nuclear warfare. The government of Venezuela is usurping the democratic authority of its own citizens to preserve the power of its President. And the sleepy college town of Charlottesville, Virginia has erupted in violence and death over the removal of a statue of a man, who for some represents another period of hate and violence over 150 years ago.

The latter incident reminds us that hate and violence are nothing new. They have always been with us, and always will be with us on this side of the kingdom of heaven. But when we are surrounded by such fearful events we are prone to slip deeper into fearfulness and isolation. It is understandable that in our fatigue that we want to get away from it – to stick our heads into the sand, if you will.

“As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.”

The story of Jesus walking on the water is set in a similar circumstance of fearfulness and violence, yet there is no overt expression of hate, only demonstrations of compassion for those who are foundering.

The back-story for Jesus’ walk on the lake is his hearing the horrific news that Herod has beheaded his cousin John in a foolish and fearful act of violence. Foolish because Herod puts himself in an embarrassing situation by trying to simultaneously impress his cunning stepdaughter and his dinner guests. Rather than admit his folly – his mistake – Herod kills the man who both fascinates him and threatens his political power. Rather than living with the tension of his relationship with John, Herod chooses violence.

Upset by this news, Jesus attempts to withdraw – to go into isolation to pray, but he is thwarted by the fearful who are hungry for the peace and healing he has to offer. Jesus knows he needs time away with his father, but his compassion for the crowd outweighs his personal need – at least for now.

Jesus meets the crowd’s need for healing, but more than that, he demonstrates for his disciples and the crowd the ability of compassion to provide abundance and to trump fear. When the disciples are exhausted, hungry and in need of rest themselves they ask Jesus to send the crowd away. But Jesus responds, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” In essence Jesus is telling the disciples, I know you are exhausted, but I also know that you have not yet explored the depths and power of compassion to satisfy an abundance of need.

It is after this astounding lesson of compassion that Jesus finally sends the disciples to the other side of the lake, dismisses the crowd, and gets his time away with his Father.

The disciples’ journey across the lake would not normally be challenging, after all a number of them are watermen – accomplished fishermen – for whom this lake is their own back yard. Being battered by the waves is not normally of consequence, but today has been a long and exhausting day, their reserves are spent and their fatigue is playing tricks with their imagination in the dark – and besides, how often do you see someone walking across the water? So, it is understandable that their bewildered minds get the better of them and they see a bogeyman rather than a friend and loved-one.

It is our impulsive and unguarded friend Peter who is not satisfied with Jesus’ assurance; nonetheless, Jesus is only too happy to offer Peter another demonstration of compassion in the face of denial, but it is Peter who can’t handle it. Stepping out of the boat, Peter steps out of his comfort zone and into the real world where he, like us, quickly loses sight of the compassion offered him and founders in fear. Yet even in the face of fear, Jesus is there with outstretched hand to catch us in the midst of turbulent times to steady us and remind us that as his disciples he is always present to us so that in turn we can be fully present as bearers of compassion to others in the midst of the turbulence of fear, violence and hate. This is what you and I are called to do in this nave – in this boat. Week in and week out we are fed here by the presence of Christ and sent out on the water and into the world as faithful witnesses of Christ’s compassion for those who are suffering and to satisfy an abundance of need.

Tomorrow, August 14th, we observe a lesser feast of the Episcopal Church. This feast commemorates the murder 52 years ago of an Episcopal Seminarian named Jonathan Myrick Daniels.

Jonathan, after hearing a speech given by the Rev. Martin Luther King, joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the Civil Rights movement. In 1965 Jonathan travelled to Alabama to join the work of SNCC alongside his peers. On August 14, while picketing in Fort Deposit, Alabama, Jonathan and his fellow picketers were arrested and transported to the jail in Hayneville, Alabama. I have visited this old jail in August and experienced the squalid conditions which are terribly hot, and afford no privacy for personal hygiene. They were incarcerated in this miserable jail for six days before they were released.

Upon their release, Jonathan and a small group that included a 17-year old college student named Ruby Sales walked a few blocks to a general store to buy something to drink and eat. As they prepared to enter the store led by Ruby Sales, they were met at the door by a shotgun wielding part-time sheriff’s deputy, who barred their entry and threatened them. Jonathan was killed instantly as he pushed Ruby aside and took the full blast of the shotgun in his chest.

Jonathan was murdered because as a follower of Jesus Christ he chose to confront hate and violence with compassion and nonviolent resistance. He was not alone, throughout the Civil Rights Movement there were many others, too many to enumerate here, who were wounded and killed because they too chose the path of nonviolent resistance to hatred and violent confrontation.

In the intervening 52 years too many of us have forgotten the lessons of the martyrs and saints of the Civil Rights Movement. We are too quick to react to demonstrations of violence and hatred with our own intolerance and vitriol. In doing so we throw fuel on the fire of hatred rather than extinguishing it with the compassion and presence of Christ.

As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to leave this safe place and to take a stand upon the turbulent and fearful waters that roil with hate, extending the life-saving hand of compassion and presence of Christ to those foundering amid waves of hate.

We are called to explore the depths and power of compassion to meet the abundant need of those who are hungry. We are called to see not a bogeyman but to seek the face of Jesus Christ in the other. Where Christ is not, there we are called to stand in the void.

Go in peace into a world that is starving for the compassion and presence of Christ.