It’s a St Michael’s Day unlike any other! I so wish they had video back in 1919 so we could see what the church looked like on this day that year, in the throes of that pandemic. But I think they’d be proud to see how we’re navigating this in our own time. Our resilience as a community is here on display: our light is shining despite all that has happened. If we could all sing out lustily I’d have us break into a verse of ‘This Little Light of Mine’: Don’t let Satan blow it out! NO! I’m gonna let it shine! [Instead, sing it in your head – we haven’t advanced to congregational singing quite yet.] To quote that other gospel song I’m humming these days, Our little light is shining here today – here, meaning not just ‘here’ in the building, but ‘here’ in our shared worship – shining for everyone down in the valley to see. Come on home, everyone!
How glorious to step into this worship today on this Feast of St Michael. Doesn’t your heart just soar hearing the story of the great Michael the Archangel and all his army of angels, throwing down the devil and all his minions? Good triumphs. God is victorious. All shall be well. All shall be well! Oh my God, do we need those words today, more than ever.
All the heavy weight of these last six months – the fear, the hate, the paranoia, the loneliness, the anger, the grief – lay it down here. God is big enough to hold it all. And all shall be well.
I know you are weary, friends. I know you are scared and angry too. I know how hard this time has been, and continues to be. There are days when it is really, really hard to get up and face it all again. And yet you’re doing it.
And even though we’re weary, I’m afraid I’ve got marching orders for us today, everyone. We have work to do. There’s work to do to make this country and this city great again. There’s work to do to care for our neighbors. There’s work to do to recommit our time, our money, our skills to God’s work and mission in our lives.
And to do all that, first there’s work to do on ourselves. We can’t keep living in fear. We can’t descend into anger. We have to find our hope.
In our Sacred Ground conversation groups this year we have been blessed to read a book by the great Howard Thurman, a Black theologian from the middle of the last century, called Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman is the theologian who helped shape and support the deep well of strength that fueled Dr. King and the leaders of the civil rights movement, a movement that was founded in faith and prayer, the only place to truly find hope. (Our movements today need this same well; without it, they are descending into anger and nihilism.)
Thurman wrote that Jesus stands always in solidarity with the disinherited, those who, as he put it, have their backs against the wall. Jesus, a Jew from a poor family living in an oppressive empire, was himself one of those with their backs against the wall. That God would be incarnate in such a one, and not in a person of power, reveals something fundamental about God’s nature and God’s engagement in this world. This is the essence of what is called liberation theology, a theology that has been born of Black men and women living in the Jim Crow South; the poor exploited in Latin American dictatorships; women in the early days of the feminist and womanist movements; and so many more. But Thurman had strong counsel for those living under the weight of oppression. There are three temptations, he said, that it is easy to succumb to: the temptations of fear, of deception and hypocrisy, and of hatred. And the only antidote to this is love – to claim that one is a beloved child of God, and must live in love with all God’s other beloved children. This, says Thurman, is the essence of the religion of Jesus. And I say, Amen.
The temptation to fear is an obvious one. Fear is at the root of so much in our country these days – and from long before recent times, as even a quick review of history will tell you. A country founded on slavery cannot claim to be free from fear, both the fear of those enslaved and the fear of their enslavers. And we are afraid now, of the real things there are to be afraid of: of sickness and death and the loss of loved ones. Of the threats to our democracy and the losses of freedom and dignity in our country. Of the violence endemic in our culture. Of the effects of a broken climate. And so much more.
And to all of these fears, we know that over and over again, we hear the words in scripture: do not be afraid. Fear not, the angels say. Listen to them.
Hypocrisy is more of a slippery temptation. Thurman writes of the use of deception by those who are oppressed, as a way to get by within a system they did not create, that is designed to oppress and exploit them. But I would also add the hypocrisy of those who profit from the system, and the self-deception required to live with that hypocrisy. Those in power bend over backward to stay in power. We know that our lives depend on the exploitation of other people and creation, and yet we go along with it. This hypocrisy bedevils all of us.
And to that temptation, over and over again in scripture, we hear calls to integrity and a pure heart. How hard it is to heed those calls.
And then there is hatred, something that our political system seems to thrive on in this day and age. Everyone is finding it all too easy to hate those who we disagree with. We marvel at the story of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s friendship with Antonin Scalia, as a rare curiosity – because we have lost the art of such a friendship. Thurman talks about hatred on may levels: the indifference born of the impersonal and unfriendly interactions we have every day, the resentments we feel, and the active hatred we sustain in our hearts and minds. There is no better way to feed the great Enemy than to hate. Others become less than human, and it is permissible to do as we like to them. It is dangerous to nourish our contempt, and our country is suffering from this terribly.
Every one of these temptations shrinks our soul. Every one makes us less than human too.
The cure, of course, the work we must do, is to love, to recognize ourselves as a child of God and others as children of God as well. To love our enemy – the one who has done us personal harm, or the one whom we despise for their behavior or their category of person. Jesus calls us to love, not as a general feel-good rosy attitude to the world, but as an exercise of will and action towards actual individual people. We are called to seek the welfare of others – our enemies, our friends, strangers, all. This is the power that changes the world. This is the power of light that God shines, here and everywhere.
In times such as these, St Michael’s, we have work to do. Are you weary and scared and lonely and angry? Of course, at least sometimes. Give it to God and ask for healing. Are you also at other times grateful and heartened and loving and glad to be alive? Yes. Nourish that: as St Paul writes, whatever is good, think on these things. Do not give way to those temptations of fear and hypocrisy and hatred. Watch yourself. The world can’t afford you that luxury: it needs God’s light, and we have it to shine, in spades. Shine it! Let’s shine that light together – let’s lift each other up so we can do just that. It’s work, being Christian. That’s why we need this community: to strengthen and set us anew on the right path – and to bring each of our little lights together to burn brighter than we can alone. With God’s help, we can shine.
But for the times when those marching orders seem too hard to carry forward, I leave you with these words, from Thomas Merton’s famous prayer,
O Lord our God,
we have no idea where we are going.
We do not see the road ahead of us.
We cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do we really know ourselves,
and the fact that we think we are following your will
does not mean that we are actually doing so.
But we believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And we hope we have that desire in all that we are doing.
We hope that we will never do anything apart from that desire.
And we know that if we do this you will lead us by the right road,
though we may know nothing about it.
Therefore will we trust you always though
we may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
We will not fear, for you are ever with us,
and you will never leave us to face our perils alone.
Shine on, St Michael’s. Amen.