Yankee folk wisdom says, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Each of the issues the recent Presidential Executive Orders seeks to fix deserves a considered, bi-partisan conversation, combined with a measure of humility from all sides. Blunt force can make matters worse.
The Executive Order tightly restricting immigration and refugee resettlement based on religious identity has done very little but intensify global tensions while worsening human suffering among those who honor and admire this nation. What is called for is competent diplomacy, informed statesmanship, and a clear commitment to the biblically informed ideals of hospitality to the stranger and the oppressed. That these values are being so cavalierly rejected in favor of rash and fear-based edicts not only violates the dignity of those immediately affected, but also damages our own reputation. This is not what gaining respect in the community of nations looks like.
We appear to be descending quickly from the Republican vision, as held up by President Ronald Reagan, of America as 'the shining city on the hill.' It is worth noting that President Reagan was quoting John Winthrop, a Puritan who was himself, like so many refugees of our day, fleeing sectarian persecution and tyranny.
--A. Robert Hirschfeld, Bishop, January 30, 2017
Sermon for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Concord, NH, on the Occasion of their Bicentennial Celebration
By The Right Reverend A. Robert Hirschfeld, 10th Bishop, Episcopal Church of New Hampshire
delivered January 8, 2017
“And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehendeth it not.”
So, the newspaper reports that we can’t help talking about fires around here. That may be so. The fire I want to talk about this evening is the fire of God's love that kindled the hearts of the several souls who decided to build a church in the Anglican tradition in Concord. More than that, I want to talk about the fire of God that couldn't be contained within the boundaries of heaven itself. It is the fire of love that burns so wildly and urgently that it came down from heaven and took the form of a human being in Jesus.
As we celebrate the beginning of this parish community, I can't help but first talk about the very beginning, the beginning of creation. The prayer for this Sunday speaks of how God wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature. And, granted us grace to share the divine life of the One who shared our humanity: Jesus Christ our Savior.
The early church spoke of the relationship between God and Humankind as a fire intermingling with its medium. In a fourth century Christmas-Epiphany sermon, Basil the Great, the bishop of Caesarea, spoke of the mystery of God becoming human and shedding light into the world using fire and an analogy:
How, then will you say, did the light come everywhere, through one sole person? In what manner is the Godhead in the flesh? Like fire and iron: not by moving about, but by spreading itself. The fire, indeed, does thrust itself toward the iron, but remaining where it is, it distributes its own power to it. In doing so, the fire is in no way diminished, but it completely fills the iron, into which it spreads.
In other words, we are to see ourselves on fire, our own bodies, minds, souls, utterly consumed by a God who choses to be ablaze in our lives, but who also promises never to incinerate us. Because the papers say we can’t help but talk about a fire, let us always keep in mind that wonderful showing up of God who calls Moses to free the people of Israel from their oppression by Pharaoh. Remember the burning bush by which the God of all history, the one who stated his name as “I who am, who was, and who will be,” burns wildly when being revealed to us, but is not destroyed. Thus it is to be with us.
This is the image of our life in Christ, in a God who is indeed suffering, is crucified, and yet who lives. That same God lived and inspired the first men and women who founded a church first named for one is famous for doubting, and then was reformed into a church named for one who is famous for his preaching to the religious and ethnic outsiders: St. Paul. They were aflame with love for God’s mission, for over 200 years, and yet this congregation was never incinerated.
I’ve been thinking of the second law of thermodynamics in the light of the today’s gospel, the construction, and the continual reconstruction, renewal, and re-creation of St. Paul’s. I’ve consulted with some physicists, and this is what they tell me the law says in terms a scientific layperson like me can understand.
Things fall apart. Indeed, everything falls apart. Energy, when converted into motion or work, eventually expends.
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, in a recent column in the Wall Street Journal wrote:
The Second Law deepens that discovery: Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses [churches] burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail. Matter doesn’t spontaneously arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things don’t jump onto our plates to become our food. What needs to be explained is not poverty but wealth.
In summary: poverty, social decline, the disintegration of values in our political and social spheres…all can be seen as analogies, parallels, of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It’s worth noting, by the way, that the Second Law was postulated, as it happens 200 years ago, just as Messrs. Albert Cady, Hill, Greenleaf and their colleagues chose to organize themselves as church and to worship according to the order, not the disorder, of the Book of Common Prayer. Presumably, they found, like I do, that one’s soul is strengthened and equipped better to confront the entropy of life when one reads the daily office, is nourished by the sacraments together, and seeks to build a commonwealth of good under the benevolent auspices of a God who gives and forgives,
Here’s what saves us from being a collection of Debbie Downers or Bob Bummers: “In the beginning is the Word. And the light that enlightens everyone has come into the world.”
You and I, empowered by the Holy Spirit, are being continually remade, rebuilt, re-inspired, re-ignited, reconverted, re-born again, to our original Godly glow. Though the original founders of St. Thomas Chapel encountered some kind of failure in their beginning, and though St. Paul’s has encountered episodes that might have led to its undoing, including fires, conflicts both within and outside its walls, not to mention a civil war, World Wars, and national political upheavals that would have shaken its confidence, the Second Law doesn’t really apply to us.
We are not a closed system. The power of God’s love continually infuses new energy, new vision, new confidence, indeed new joy and delight in our worship of God and each other. It’s not that we have to generate the power and energy to come here every day to offer our prayers for the world and our prayers of thanksgiving. Rather, God is praying us, continually drawing us into God’s eternal and infinitely life-giving presence.
God is heating the cold iron of our hearts, aglow with God’s loving, justice seeking, peacemaking Spirit, so that the world may see the Incarnate Christ, God’s very presence, in our bodies, in our actions, in our thoughts and words, in the hands that reach out in service to those in need and to find reconciliation, even with those who have hurt us or seek to cause harm.
Otherwise, we’d be nothing but burned out, unforgiving, grumpy and tired. Instead, God calls us to into a warm strengthening fellowship without which life can indeed be as Thomas Hobbes describing in the 17th century “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Here, we partakers of the Jesus movement, indeed people of all descriptions of belief and unbelief, have found the peace that surpasseth understanding, and therein the power, the fire, to bring light to this fallen world where for many life is very dark indeed.
My wood stove…the embers burn…even after several days of what looks like cold and ash, there is still light within the pile. So I take a piece of kindling, blow on it, watch the kindling ignite, then a dry log or a piece of birch bark, and behold, the thing is set ablaze again. All from a small, wafer-sized ember.
So it is with us. Our embers seem totally extinguished, from exhaustion, despair, frustration. Sometimes, driving around Concord or the highways and byways of New Hampshire, seeing very hostile stickers from the left or from the right, I can fall into despair at what the cover of Time magazine referred to as the Divided States of America.
But then I come to a church like St. Paul’s. To see the light pass through the faces of these persons on these reconstructed windows, essentially the light of Christ enlightens them all, faces that cannot be separated from the light that fills them. So, let us welcome the light, the fire of Jesus’ love for you and for this broken world. Let us welcome it. And, may it burn continually in our lives, which we offer in God’s service to the world.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:5-6)
Tramping boots and blood-drenched garments. These images herald the birth of the Messiah: the words we hear on Christmas Eve. We’ve read them for years on that night, but perhaps have tuned them out of our hearing. Even Handel’s Messiah skips over them. But this year we might notice them as though for the first time.
Despite all our attempts and desires to make Christmas warm and cozy--chestnuts roasting on an open fire, St. Nick softly landing on snow-blanketed roofs--the Biblical witness does not shy from the real and stark context of Christ’s appearing. To the prophet Isaiah, God’s people lived under the very near and present danger of oppression, and even deportation after a hostile invasion by Assyria. Jumping ahead to Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, we learn that the Holy Family is compelled to leave their hometown of Nazareth because the Emperor Augustus decreed a census--presumably to prepare for a tax that would help defray the exorbitant expense of Rome’s military expansion and occupation throughout the known world. Even further on, “on the Fourth Day of Christmas,” those who are keeping to the liturgical calendar will hear, not of four calling birds, but of the slaughter by Herod of the Innocents, the brutal massacre of all the first-born males of Bethlehem on the orders of a thin-skinned and insecure tyrant who is afraid of being usurped by a mere newborn.
These are the settings into which God chooses to enter the world. And these are the settings into which God chooses, in our own time, to continually take on our frail, broken, selfish, injured and fearful human condition.
Still ringing in our ears are the shouts of rallies, even in our own country, calling for the execution of a political adversary. Deeply disturbing to our hearts are the images of young children so traumatized by the destruction and displacement of their families in Aleppo that they cannot even cry. Beyond our conception is the laughter of a young man confessing his murder of nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlestown, South Carolina. Heartbreaking are the senseless deaths of hundreds, here in New Hampshire, caused by a scourge of opioid addiction that has touched families of every race and class.
Despite, indeed because of, all these facts and realities, I look forward more than ever to this Christmas, and I cherish even closer the joy and privilege of being a disciple of the Christ child. In the midst of our perennial divisions and conflicts, I need to see and know that Holy Presence that is the “US’ that binds me together, however uncomfortably, with those with whom I may disagree, dislike, and even fear. Jesus is the deep compassion of God-made-flesh that links all humankind with each other, that binds us to God’s creation, indeed to God’s own heart. The Bible tells us that God’s compassion in Jesus is the path toward peace, justice, love, and eternal life itself. God chooses what is weak in the world to put the powerful and cruel in their place and to make all things new.
Richard Wilbur in his poem “A stable lamp is lighted” captures the essence of God’s taking-on our flesh so that all human flesh can have means to God’s peace and glory. The poem was set to Hymn #102 in our Hymnal 1982. I always look forward to hearing it, even more so this year. The final stanza reads:
Yet now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high.
The stars shall bend their voices
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
In praises of the Child
By Whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.
May we enter anew the life of the one who came among us so that we may be reconciled with God and each other in Jesus, Immanuel, God-with-us. And may our Christmas be filled with the steadfast hope and joy that God is still at work within us, doing things that we cannot even ask or imagine. (Ephesians 3:20)
“Almighty God, we give you thanks for the gift of water.” These are the words that open our prayer over water when we baptize your children into a life of freedom and life in your risen Son Jesus. It was over water that you initiated the Creation. Water is the source of life and is needed for the health of all we know of health. And yet, O God, in our sin and brokenness, we have polluted this gift for so many, turning the blessing of water into a curse, and into an occasion for painful division, oppression, and the demeaning of the indigenous peoples of this land. Send your Spirit, O God, to your people, turn the hearts of those would threaten the health and safety of his sacred gift at Standing Rock. Re-knit us together in bonds of love, a vision of justice, and deep peace that we have yet to know but we yearn for with a longing you have placed into our hearts, in the name of Jesus.
As I walked on the streets of Concord this morning, the sense of division in our society was very clear, as some citizens rejoiced and others looked profoundly dejected. We all knew that no matter who won the election yesterday, that person would preside over a nation that is deeply fractured and hurting. We also knew how afraid and angry so many of our fellow citizens are. If half of us were tempted to deny that fear and rage, we all have to admit it now.
At such a delicate and vulnerable moment such as this, I take strength in remembering that, for followers of Jesus, such fractious and anxious, even dangerous, times as these are not unusual or even strange. Sure, times like these may seem strange for a certain class or segment of American Christians, who have for many decades enjoyed access to privilege, wealth, and power. But, nervous times as these were not at all strange for the first disciples of Jesus and certainly not for the vast numbers of saints who have come before us. They are not strange for a majority of Christians in the Holy Land, in China, and in many other places on the planet. They were not strange even for generations of Americans who have faced sacrifice, war, and economic hardship. Even Jesus, on the night before he died, told his followers to find their true peace in him and, in the midst of persecutions, to take courage for he has already conquered the world with his love. (John 16:32-33)
Recognizing me as a member of the Church, someone stopped me this morning to introduce herself. She was feeling quite distraught this morning about the change in direction our country is taking, especially for refugees, girls, and religious and racial minorities. She asked, "What are we to do now?" She was a stranger, someone I've never met before, and it seemed that maybe such unplanned encounters will be a hidden blessing of these times. The only words that came to me were:
Walk humbly with your God.
Pray some more.
Love your neighbor.
Don't go it alone. There's been enough of that.
Never has there been a time in my life or ministry when this short list seemed such a high and urgent calling as it does now.
Now is the acceptable time, says the Apostle Paul. (2 Corinthians 6:2) Now.
Faithfully Yours in Christ,
We thank you for the great resources of this nation. They
make us rich, though we often exploit them.
We thank you for the men and women who have made this
country strong. They are models for us, though we often fall
short of them.
We thank you for the torch of liberty which has been lit in
this land. It has drawn people from every nation, though we
have often hidden from its light.
We thank you for the faith we have inherited in all its rich
variety. It sustains our life, though we have been faithless
again and again.
We pray for our own needs, and those of others (pause)
We pray for those who have entered into life (pause)
Help us, O Lord, to finish the good work here begun.
Strengthen our efforts to blot out ignorance and prejudice,
and to abolish poverty and crime. And hasten the day when
all our people, with many voices in one united chorus, will
glorify your holy Name. Amen.