On this Feast Day of Saint Francis in the year of our Lord 2020, as we gather once more to discern how we can be instruments of peace in a world where peace seems more elusive with every Breaking News alert, let’s begin with these words from the Gospel According to Simon & Garfunkel:
And the people bowed and prayed
to the neon god they made
and the sign flashed out it’s warning
in the words that it was forming
and the sign said the words of the prophets
are written on the subway walls
and tenement halls
and whispered in the sound of silence.
The words of the prophets.
Twenty-seven years ago this fall I was a first-year seminarian – and the first class I was enrolled in was Hebrew Scriptures 101 taught by the inimitable James Sanders and the first book we were assigned was “The Prophets” by Rabbi Abraham Heschel. And it was from Rabbi Heschel … via Jim Sanders … that I learned that the prophet’s job description has two parts: to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.
And in our lessons appointed for this Feast of Saint Francis, that job description is embodied in sharp relief.
Woe to the ruler who builds a house without integrity and its upper rooms with injustice, enslaving the citizenry, not paying for their labor! Woe!and
Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Here you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
The prophet has a both/and job description because we live in a both/and world – and yet we live in a moment when our discourse is dominated by those insisting on simplistic either/or solutions to the complex both/and challenges that face us –
a time where the polarization that divides us is as pandemic as the coronavirus that infects us – a time when science is argued to be antithetical to faith and a time when wearing a mask to prevent the spread of a deadly disease has been polarized into a partisan political statement.
And it is in just such a time as this that we turn to the words of the prophets which can serve as antibodies to the pandemic of polarization by living into the both/and call to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.
It was into that both/and world that Francis was born in the 13th century and it was a both/and life he lived – a life reflected in the prayer famously attributed to him … a prayer we will pray later together in this liturgy … a prayer that many of us know by heart. A prayer that begins: Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Make us people who work to end violence in all its forms and who pray for both victim and perpetrator as we seek healing and wholeness for absolutely every member of the human family.
Make us people who afflict those who are so comfortable in their unexamined white privilege that they are blind to the systemic racism that surrounds us and make us people who amplify the voices of those who have endured generations of oppression, marginalization and discrimination.
Make us people who learn from climate scientists what we must do to be stewards of this fragile earth, our island home and make us people who reject the false narrative that we must choose between science and faith
Make us people who lift up absolutely every single individual infected by COVID19 – let those with ears to hear, listen -- and make us people who speak up to end the politicization of public health policies.
Make us a people who claim your resurrection promise, and give us that peace that passes understanding - trusting that nothing can separate us or those we love from your love; love that is stronger than death.
And make us people who remember that we are not the first generation to have faced these challenges that plague our communities, our nation, and our world.
A personal story in point:
Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away, I had a relative who made a boat ton of money, squirreled it away in offshore bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, got caught by the IRS and got out of the country in literally the dead of night the day before the Feds showed up. He lived the rest of his life as an ex-pat in a country without an extradition treaty.
And the response of the rest of that branch of the family was "Good on you, old chap! Way to take care of Numero Uno!"
I tell this story not to throw shade on a now departed former family member nor on his family. I tell this story to illustrate that there are indeed those among us who live and move and have their being in a worldview where looking out for "number one" is the highest priority, where anyone who does anything else is a sucker and a loser and where if greed and graft are part of the equation then that's just the price of doing business.
And I tell this story partly as a reality check. A reminder that the "Numero Uno" folks didn't just materialize because of one political campaign or election cycle but have always been among us.
They are part of our history in this nation, part of our big fat human family album and part of our scriptural record.
They are who the prophets railed against, who Jesus tossed tables in the temple to protest against and who inspired our forbearers to throw the tea in the Boston Harbor and imagine a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that we're all created equal.
And we who follow in their footsteps haven't come this far on the journey toward that more perfect union – toward that kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven – to let those who would dismantle it win now.
So as challenging as it might be to do so this morning -- and I know it's challenging to me -- take heart.
Remember that greed and graft and corruption have always been with us: but so have truth and beauty; grace and compassion.
Remember that the power behind us is greater than the challenge ahead of us – and that we stand on the shoulders of the likes of John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg … who stood on the shoulders of prophets like Jeremiah and saints like Francis before them … all of whom have paved the way for us that we might continue that work for those who come after us.
I close this morning with words from a latter-day prophet – Bishop Steven Charleston: bishop, pastor, preacher, and poet … and elder of the Choctaw Nation.
They are words of a prophet that deserve to written on subway walls and tenement halls; to be whispered into the sound of silence and – on this Feast Day of Saint Francis in the year of our Lord 2020 – to be boldly proclaimed into the pandemic of polarization:
People of faith, be alert, be awake, be active: for now is the time to live the peace we preach. The high tide of turmoil around us has not yet been reached. Fear and ignorance are out searching for an opening in hearts wherever they can find them. Anger comes as quickly as if people were a box of matches looking for a way to be lit.And now, my brothers and sisters and gender fluid siblings, may the one who has given us the will to do these things give us the grace and power and stamina to faithfully accomplish them.
In this volatile atmosphere let us be a calm voice of reason. Let us speak with courtesy to all whom we encounter. Let us embody the civility we seek to inspire in others. Even if we think we are only whispering into the wind, our presence will be felt.
The people around us are being driven by forces that want a reaction from them.
Let us want something else: let us want their shared humanity, their common sense, their mutual hope for a better day.
As hard as it may be, speak peace into the storm, knowing that with each word you say you help to calm the soul of a troubled nation.
Thanks be to God.
Sermon preached by the Reverend Canon Susan Russell on October 4, 2020 at All Saints Church in Pasadena at the 11:15 a.m. Zoom Service.