Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Winners and Losers and the Ship of State

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida
Election Day – November 6, 2012 (Service of Prayers for the Healing and unity of the Nation)
Deuteronomy 6:1 – 9; Matthew 5:1 – 12
Preacher:  The Reverend Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

On Winners and Losers and this Ship of State

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:3)….Though today we should be celebrating the incredible freedom and privilege of voting, and of our democratic system, how could we not be poor in spirit at this moment, all of us…We have been bombarded over the past year or more with an ever increasing assault of political mudslinging and slurs.  Oh, there have been worse things said than the things said in this campaign, though not much, and especially in some of the local contests….
In the 1828 Presidential Campaign, Andrew’s Jackson’s wife was labeled an adulteress and his mother a prostitute.  There was the infamous “Daisy” commercial aired by President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign against Barry Goldwater and the “Swift Boat” attacks against Presidential Candidate John Kerry.  But we have never, in the history of political campaigns in this country, been assaulted by the volume of political attack ads and constant inundation of “robo-calls.” These have insinuated themselves into our lives, into our homes, in virtually every waking hour.  What does this do to our national psyche?  What does it do to us as a people?   It polarizes us, it alienates us one from another.  It dehumanizes us.  Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…
            Chances are, tomorrow, not everyone will be poor in spirit….It is likely that half the population will be in pretty good spirits. Their candidate, or candidates, will have won the election, assuming we are able to confirm the results tonight. Yes, it is likely that about half the citizens of this country will be in good spirits tomorrow…But what about the other half?   What do we do about them?   Many will be deeply hurt.… Many will be frightened and concerned for the welfare of the nation, no matter which political party they are from, no matter which candidate or candidates wins the election.   What do we do about them and for them?  Gloat?  Say, “oh well, so sad, too bad!” and leave it at that?  What will we do?  What ought we to do?  And how will those whose candidates do not win respond? How should they respond?  Should they take a vow of non-cooperation and civil disobedience and plan on obstructing any plan or policies proposed by their opponents on the other side?  Where will that lead us? 
Well, if one party is able to win both the Presidency and both Houses of Congress, some work might get done.  If not, we will find ourselves pretty much in the place we have been for the past four years -  a place of stalemate and grid-lock, where the opposing parties fight like children in a playground and the great needs of the people of this nation are not served.  In either circumstance, it seems likely that the animosity and furor that have marked our national psyche have a very high chance of continuing, unless we do something about it.   
Refrain from anger, leave rage alone, the psalmist says (Ps. 37:9).  We need to take these words to heart…The current climate of American politics, and current mores of our American culture, have, for some reason, appeared to license unbridled anger and incivility.  All too often, in public discourse and in the discourse we share with one another, there has been this very human tendency to conclude that if a person doesn’t agree with me and my political opinion, they are not only unreasonable and wrong, they are stupid, un-American and, even,  an enemy, not only a personal enemy, but an enemy of the country.   This is true of people on both sides of the political aisle.  This is sinful….sinful and shameful.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself” Jesus said in his summary of the Law, “there is no other commandments greater than these.”  These are not divine suggestions from the lips of Jesus, they are commands….
In the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church, which we renew at every baptism, we commit ourselves to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self,”  we promise further, to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.”  In neither case does it say, “seek and serve Christ in all Republicans, or in all Democrats,” or “strive for justice and peace among those of your political persuasion and stripe.”  It doesn’t qualify the promise by saying, seek and serve Christ in all persons who happen to agree with you….” or “strive for justice and peace among all people who happen to be on the same page with you.”  In both instances, the promises are unequivocal:   seek and serve Christ in all persons….strive for justice and peace among all people and love your neighbor as yourself…” all your neighbors!
Too often in the midst of the political season, we allow ourselves to be caught up in the heat of it all.  Yes, there are important questions and issues at stake and we will have disagreements about them. People will feel passionately about these things, there is no avoiding this.  It is part of living in a free and democratic society. 
In all of this, however, it is critically important that we focus on the issues themselves and not be drawn into attacks on the personhood of those who believe differently than we do.  We would do well to follow Joe Friday’s lead in Dragnet, “just the facts, ma’am” when engaging in political and philosophical discourse.  Too often, we stray, and take it personally, and begin to question the motives and the personhood, not only of the candidates and politicians we don’t like, but also of those persons, sometimes friends and family, with whom we disagree, sometimes even demonizing them.  This is just wrong.  And again, for us, who are Christian, it is more than wrong; it is sinful.
There is no question that there are two very different and competing visions for this country right now, represented by the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.  Rarely in our history have the differences in vision been so marked or so clear.  The representative of one of these competing visions is going to win the White House tonight…Other representatives will win one or both Houses of Congress….
Yes, some in our country will find themselves “poor in spirit” tomorrow morning….Other’s will be glad in spirit….There will be a prevailing side in the White House, and perhaps in the Congress….That’s the way Democracy works….We should be mindful that God did not pick the winners, the American people did in the exercise of their God-given freedom.  It may be that God’s Providence is at work in the election, but we will not know that until history proves it to us sometime down the road.  Still, it is a possibility to which we should be sensitive.  No matter what, we should be aware that, as preacher, author and publisher of Sojourners Magazine Jim Wallis regularly reminds us, “God is neither a Democrat or a Republican.” 
We should also be aware, everyone of us, that the people with whom we disagree politically, sometimes, vehemently disagree with, are our brother and sister Americans.  Almost all of us are patriots and love our country with a deep love and affection…. While we may disagree about the methods and means of getting there, we have the highest hopes and dreams for the United States of America and we all, with few exceptions, long to see it be that city on a hill, spoken of by Ronald Reagan, and before him by Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.   It is imperative that we give each other credit for this; that we assume it about one another, even when our understanding and opinions on issues are vastly different.  If we can do this, it will go a long way toward our healing and wholeness.
In his first Inaugural Address, Thomas Jefferson addressed the gathered assembly and the nation and said words that are as true now as they were when he uttered them in 1801…Here’s what Jefferson said, “During the contest of opinion through which we have passed, the animation of the discussion and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good.  All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.  Let us then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind.  Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things…”[1]
If this country is to be healed and be whole, the extreme polarization which has marked our national life; the partisanship and rancor must cease.  Those who prevail in the election will have won their victory and the right of the majority to govern and to make policy under our  democratic system.   Nonetheless, whoever wins cannot, and ought not, to be unmindful of the minority who lose the election this day, and especially as the margin of victory is likely to be narrow.  There will not be, I believe, an overwhelming mandate for either side.  It would do well for those who find themselves on the victorious side tomorrow, to remember it could just as easily have gone the other way.  They might well have found themselves in the shoes of the “poor in spirit.”  Those who find themselves on the victorious side might do well to remember, next time the roles could be reversed, and make an effort to empathize with those whose candidate has lost, to speak with them and strive to understand their very real concerns, fears and anxiety for our nation. 
Prudence and wisdom demand therefore, that whoever the victors are, should feel compelled to reach out a hand of friendship to the loser, and commit to engage with them in meaningful and civil discourse, to act in a spirit of compromise, not in a spirit of triumphalism for their party; but in a spirit of patriotic concern  for the whole nation, seeking to serve, not the interests of Republicans or Democrats, but to serve the Constitution of the United States of America, and we the people, all the people, of this great nation, which is their moral obligation and duty. This is the only healthy way forward. 
I’d like to close by reading Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s classic American poem. The Ship of State written in 1849.[2]

The Ship of State
Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
We know what Master laid thy keel,
What Workmen wrought thy ribs of steel,
Who made each mast, and sail, and rope,
What anvils rang, what hammers beat,
In what a forge and what a heat
Were shaped the anchors of thy hope!
Fear not each sudden sound and shock,
'Tis of the wave and not the rock;
'Tis but the flapping of the sail,
And not a rent made by the gale!
In spite of rock and tempest's roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore,
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!
Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee.
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o'er our fears,
Are all with thee, -are all with thee!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

[1] Jefferson, Thomas “First Inaugural Address” found in Individualism and Commitment in American Life:  Readings on the Themes of Habits of the Heart (New York, Cambridge, etc: Perenial Library:  Harper & Row Publishers, 1987).
[2] Longfellow,  Henry Wadsworth The Ship of State found in The Patriot’s Handbook  ed. Caroline Kennedy (New York:  Hyperion Books, 2003), 48.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

There is another way!

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida
8 Pentecost – Proper 11 – Year B – July 21/22, 2012
Ephesians 2:11 – 22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Preacher:  The Reverend Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

There is another way!

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things…(Mark 6:34).

Once again, we are a nation in grief. The events in Aurora, Colorado are heart-breaking.  12 dead and 58 wounded by 24 year old James Holmes, dressed in black camouflage, protected by a bulletproof vest, and wearing a gas mask to shield him from the two tear gas canisters he exploded to begin the melee.  His victims? A group of people who had gone out to the movies, who wanted to see the premier of the newest Batman Movie – The Dark Knight.  It was a dark night indeed.  Sick, sad, twisted, heartbreaking.
            On Friday, President Obama had a scheduled campaign event in Fort Myers. He made an appearance before campaign supporters and spoke to those gathered, and to the nation, about the Aurora horror. He was also speaking to the victims who survived and to all the families and loved ones of those who were killed. The President spoke movingly and compassionately.[1] So too did Governor Mitt Romney.[2]  Both men suspended most of their campaign activities for the day. I was thankful for that. These gestures were important. They helped us to all stop for a time and reflect on the preciousness of life and on our deepest values and priorities.
            Our sorrow and grief for the victims and families of the Aurora shootings are important. We are a national community. What effects some affects us all. In his address, Governor Romney alluded to the Apostle Paul’s well-known sentiment from Romans 12, concerning community, Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).[3] And so today we are weeping and that is right. But it needs to be said, our tears and sorrow are not sufficient; we should also be concerned about ourselves as a nation…deeply concerned . 
            Of all the industrial nations in the world, our country is the most violent and has, by far, the highest number of gun deaths per year.[4]  I was Rector of this church when the Columbine Massacre took place in April of 1999.  Since that tragic occurrence, there have been at least 28 mass killings in the United States.[5]  8,700 people plus per year have been murdered in firearm  related deaths in this country.  This doesn’t include an additional 11,000 or so who commit suicide each year using firearms.[6]  By way of comparison, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, there were 17 murders by guns in Finland in one year, 39 in England and Wales, 194 in Germany and 200 in Canada.[7]  Approximately 25,000 – 30,000 people a year die from firearm related injuries in the United States and we as a nation don’t do a thing about it.[8] We went to war over the deaths of 3,000 persons on 9/11, but about the deaths of ten times that number of our citizens by firearms each year, we do nothing…
A James Holmes has access not merely to powerful and efficient handguns and abundant ammunition, he also has access to an AR-15 assault rifle.  The AR-15 was not legal to own under the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban[9] but, after intense lobbying by the NRA and gun manufacturers, that law was allowed to sunset in 2004; sales of the AR-15 became legal again, against the overwhelming objections of law enforcement officers and police chiefs around the nation.  It is reported that Holmes bought all his weapons legally at a Ganders and at Pro Bass Sporting Goods store. He purchased 6,000 rounds of ammunition on-line, and his combat gear, legally, without attracting any attention.
Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker Magazine posted a sobering article on-line Friday about the Aurora shooting, writing:

The truth [of the Aurora shooting and its circumstances] is made worse by the reality that no one—really no one—anywhere on the political spectrum has the courage to speak out about the madness of unleashed guns and what they do to American life. That includes the President, whose consoling message managed to avoid the issue of why these killings take place. Of course, we don’t know, and perhaps never will, what exactly ‘made him’ [meaning Holmes] do what he did; but we know how he did it. Those who fight for the right of every madman and every criminal to have as many people-killing weapons as they want share moral responsibility for what happened last night—as they will when it happens again. And it will happen again. The reality is simple: every country struggles with madmen and ideologues with guns, and every country—Canada, Norway, Britain—has had a gun massacre once, or twice. Then people act to stop them, and they do—as over the past few years has happened in Australia. Only in America are gun massacres of this kind routine, expectable, and certain to continue…But nothing changes: the blood lobby still blares out its certainties, including the pretense that the Second Amendment—despite the clear grammar of its first sentence—is designed not to protect citizen militias but to make sure that no lunatic goes unarmed.”[10] 

Gopnik concludes, “In America, it has been, for so long now, the belief that guns designed to kill people indifferently and in great numbers can be widely available and not have it end with people being killed, indifferently and in great numbers. The argument has gotten dully repetitive: How does one argue with someone convinced that the routine massacre of our children is the price we must pay for our freedom to have guns, or rather to have guns that make us feel free?”[11] 
We can no longer pretend shock when these horrific events take place.  28 mass shootings have taken place since Columbine. These kinds of mass shootings have become a grim and predictable norm. Unless we as citizens insist on significant gun law reform, we can merely wait for the next brutal incident to occur. And it will, inevitably. Where will it be?  Who will be its victims?  It could be one of us, or our children, or our grandchildren.  How can we not be concerned? Deeply concerned!    We are in desperate need of healing, but we do nothing….nothing, except mourn and lament, and express our shock and disgust when it happens again.  As a nation, we are sick. We are far too violent. Sadly, too many are in denial of this. What can we do?  An evil spirit needs exorcising from our nation’s soul.
Today’s Gospel reading is a little awkward. The context is not readily apparent to us, so I’ll try ot clarify it.  In the verses just before our Gospel reading began, Jesus sent his disciples out two by two and gave them authority to cast out “unclean spirits.”[12]  Mark tells us, “So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”[13]  They could do it…They could do what Jesus did….They really did have both his authority and his power…and he had given them courage to do so.
Mark interrupts his telling about the disciples and their mission with an account of John the Baptist and his execution by Herod. [14] We heard that story last Sunday.  After the account of John’s death, Mark goes back to the disciples and their return to Jesus following their mission.  That’s where our Gospel picked up today…. The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.[15] 
I can picture them, excited about their success, filled with pride as they tell Jesus of all they had done, of how successful they had been...And Jesus is, no doubt, pleased, and likely lets them know it….But he also knows they need a break, some time and space to rest, pray and reflect on their experiences… So Jesus says to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." Mark adds, “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”[16] 
According to Mark,  “they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.”[17]   But “many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.”[18]  When they get ashore in their boat, Mark tells us that Jesus “saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd…”[19]  So much for rest…Jesus “began to teach them many things.”[20]
This is when our Gospel reading gets a little choppy.  Our reading, as we have it, skips from Mark chapter 6:34 to Mark 6:53. It’s the story of the feeding of the 5,000. We will hear that story next week, only from John’s Gospel instead of Mark’s.  Besides the feeding of the 5,000 something else was omitted from our reading today in the skipped verses. Jesus instructs his disciples to get into a boat and go to the “other side” which means to go to Gentile territory on the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  And they do, but as they go, they find themselves straining at the oars against an adverse wind.  Mark tells us that “Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. Mark writes,  “…when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’  Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded.”[21]
It is immediately after that, that our Gospel reading for today picks up the story…. When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.  When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he wasAnd wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.[22]
So a few observations about all of this.  To begin with, Jesus empowers his disciples to do what he does; to go out into the world,  to heal, to cast out evil spirits; to boldly preach and teach about the Kingdom of God. He gives them courage to do this.   The Kingdom of God represents an alternative reality to the violent and ugly world in which the people of his time lived.  Jesus directs his disciples to invite people to accept his Kingdom reality in place of the lesser realities to which they too often succumb, compromising their souls and bodies.  This is as true for us as Jesus’ modern day disciples today as it was for those who first followed him. Jesus empowers us to go out into the world,  to heal, to cast out evil spirits; like the evil spirits which make our nation so violent, so often ugly, to boldly preach and teach about the Kingdom of God as an alternative reality. He gives us power, authority and courage to do this. 
It is often the task of Jesus’ disciples to row our oars against adverse winds…The construal of the Kingdom of God is often at odds with the dominant modes of being in which we live; modes which dehumanize us, cheapen life and often threaten our very existence.  It is no different for us than it was for Jesus and his followers who posited their vision of the Kingdom of God as an alternative to the kingdom of Caesar and the Roman Empire. At times, our mission as Christians seems impossible and we are easily tempted to give it all up.  But in the midst of the greatest adversities we can count on Jesus’ presence and power with us and in us, saying always, “Take heart; it is I, do  not be afraid.”[23]
Lastly, as the message of Jesus and the Kingdom went forth, people heard it and in hearing it recognized both how sick they were and how much in need of healing, and also how different their lives and their world could be if they accepted Jesus and his vision of the Kingdom, accepted his healing and his words and they went to him; just getting to him to be healed, even if it meant merely touching the hem of his garment.  It is striking in both parts of today’s Gospel how much energy people show in reaching Jesus. The text clearly says, “and all touched it and they were healed.”[24]
Today, a significant obstacle facing the Christian message is indifference and apathy. We live in a nation that, all too often, doesn’t realize its disease. We are a nation in denial, as if, for example, we can continue to ignore the gun violence in our country and believe that there will not be further Auroras and Columbines and Virginia Techs, or accept the false and nonsensical notion that we are powerless to do anything about it.  It is worth noting  that gun deaths, and all murders, in this country are tracked by the Center for Disease Control.
It is our task as faithful Christians to go out in to the world, and especially to the sickest and most hurting places in the world, and wherever we go, wherever we are, to represent Christ and his Church,[25] to proclaim his Kingdom message…to work toward the goal of restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ….
This vision is captured well in today’s reading from Ephesians…. It is a circular letter written to several churches…Its theme is likely the unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, but that theme of unity and oneness in Christ and Christ’s love extends to all people in all times…

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God…(Epheshians 2:19-20).

Our selves, our Church, our nation, our world, as a dwelling place for God; a God who loves, a God who we believe with all our hearts and souls and minds is a God of love and mercy. This is the Kingdom vision. This is the alternative we offer…It is a stark alternative to the awfulness of the world in which we too often live and which we too often accept without protest or push back.  It is a stark alternative to the dark night in Aurora this past Friday.  It is an alternative we should long for, hunger for, thirst for, and work for, with every fiber of our being.  It doesn’t come easily, this alternative vision.  To get there we often have to row hard against adverse winds, against hostility directed against us and against the vision.  Still, how could we desire, work for, or accept anything less? 

There is, indeed,  another way.

[1]  See
[2]  See
[3]  Governor Romney said, "Today we feel not only a sense of grief, but perhaps also of helplessness.  But there is something we can do. We can offer comfort to someone near us who is suffering or heavy laden, and we can mourn with those who mourn in Colorado…”
[4]  See ‘List of countries by firearm related death rates at
[5] See “Timeline:  Mass Killings in U.S. Since Columbine” – Newsmax, Friday, July 20, 2012 at
[6] See  “Gun Crime Statitistics by U.S. state: latest data in The Guardian Datablog at  These statistics appear low.  See “Gun Violence in the United States” at
[7][7][7] See “God bless America” on the Brady Campaign to Prevent  Gun Violence” at
[8] See “Gun Violence in the United States” at
[9] See “Federal Assault Weapons Ban” at
[10] Gopnik, Adam “One More Massacre” The New Yorker On-Line website, Friday, July 20, 2012 at
[11] Gopnik
[12]  Mark 6:7 - 13
[13]  Mark 6:12-12.
[14]  Mark 6:14 – 29.
[15]  Mark 6:30.
[16]  Mark 6:31.
[17]  Mark 6:32.
[18]  Mark 6:33.
[19]  Mark 6:34.
[20]  Mark 6:34.
[21]  Mark 6:45 – 51.
[22]  Mark 6:53-56.
[23] Mark 6:50.
[24] Mark 6:56.
[25] See “The Ministry” in Outline of the Faith – Book of Common Prayer, p. 855. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Forget the church?

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – Delray Beach, Florida
3 Easter – Lectionary Year B (RCL) – April 21/22, 2012
Acts 3:12 – 19; Ps. 4; Luke 24:36b – 48
Preacher:  The Rev. Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

Forget the church?

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you."  They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.  He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  (Luke 24:36 – 38).
            “Forget the church, follow Jesus!”  Those disquieting words were on the cover of the April 2 issue of Newsweek Magazine.  Anyone see or read it? 
Inside the issue was a provocative essay by Andrew Sullivan, British self-described conservative who is the former editor of The New Republic and current author and editor of the blog The Dish.  The Dish, which Sullivan describes as “biased and balanced,” is featured on The Daily Beast website, a partner of Newsweek.[1] 
Sullivan takes Thomas Jefferson and his famous Jefferson Bible, which is currently on exhibit at the National Museum of American History in Washington, as his point of departure.[2]  As Sullivan reports, Jefferson created his Bible himself taking a razor to traditional Bibles.   “Painstakingly removing those passages he thought reflected the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson literally cut and pasted them into a slimmer, different New Testament, and left behind the remnants.”[3] “What did he edit out?”[4]
Sullivan writes, “He removed what he felt were the ‘misconceptions’ of Jesus followers, ‘expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves.”[5]  Sullivan says that it wasn’t hard for Jefferson.  “[Jefferson] described the difference between the real Jesus and the evangelists’ embellishments as ‘diamonds’ in a ‘dunghill,’ glittering as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man…”[6]  Sullivan states, “this pure, precious moral teaching was his religious legacy.”[7]  Sullivan quotes Jefferson as asserting, “I am a real Christian…That is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”[8]
            “What were those doctrines?” Sullivan asks rhetorically, answering, “Not the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, programs, reformations and counterreformations.  Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made.”[9] 
Sullivan continues, writing, “Whether or not you believe, as I do, in Jesus’ divinity and resurrection – and in the importance of celebrating both on Easter Sunday – Jefferson’s point is crucially important.  Because it was Jesus’ point.  What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand?...If we return to what Jesus actually  asked us to do and be – rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was – he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely.”[10]
Disregarding the obvious contradiction of Jefferson definition of “being a Christian” and the fact of his having been a slaveholder and someone who never wealthy person who never gave up his material wealth, it is in this last paragraph that Sullivan’s essay reveals the difficulty and conundrums of both his and Jefferson’s project.  Determining what sayings of Jesus have not been affected in transmission by one of the four evangelists we know as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, all of whom came decades after Jesus, is enormously difficult and challenging.  Biblical scholars and critics have been wrestling with this question since the Enlightenment and before.[11]  Discovering the “real Jesus” or what that term “the real Jesus” even means is no easy task and especially if he is divorced from such key doctrines as the incarnation and the resurrection.
 In the remainder of his essay, Sullivan turns his eye to what he labels “the crisis of the church,”[12] offering a scathing critique of both the Roman Catholic Church and its hierarchy and the current expressions of  Evangelical Protestantism which have become so dominant in the United States.[13]  Interestingly, Sullivan ignores traditional mainline churches, like the Episcopal Church, noting in passing, “For their part, the mainline Protestant churches, which long promoted religious moderation, have rapidly declined in the past 50 years.”[14]  
This past Thursday, a rejoinder piece to Sullivan’s essay titled “Returning to the Sermon on the Mount” was published in the on-line Opinionator section of the New York Times.[15] It was by regular Opinionator columnist Gary Gutting, Chairperson of Philosophy at Notre Dame. 
Gutting observes that Sullivan’s idea of following the moral code of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “freed from dubious theology and corrupting politics that have plagued the history of the institutional church,” is “widely attractive.”[16]   But Gutting also points out the challenges of trying to accomplish this.  “What is this code [of Jesus]?” he asks.[17]   
“There is no doubt,” Gutting writes, “that the core message is love.” “But what does it mean to love someone?” he asks provocatively and appropriately.[18]  He follows up by citing Thomas Aquinas, quoting Aristotle, “to love is to will good for someone; that is, to do what we can, to see that a person has a good life.”[19]   As philosophers are want to do, he then he asks another question, “But what is the good life?”[20]  “We might, thinking of the core message of Jesus, say that it’s a life of loving others.’  “But this response,” Gutting writes, “just takes us in a circle. Jesus tells us that to lead a good life we should love one another, but loving one another requires helping one another lead good lives.  Unless we first know what it is to lead a good life, Jesus’ law of love gives us little guidance in how to live.”[21]
“The Sermon on the Mount…does not offer a clear view of what makes for a good life…” he observes, then continues, “Many seem to think Jesus is saying little more than be nice to everybody.  Others see a call to heroic life of total non-resistance or self-sacrifice.  Still others hear him as requiring little more than an enhanced version of The Ten Commandments (e.g. avoiding not only murder, but also anger, not only adultery, but also lustful desires).”[22]
            “Almost all Christians ignore many of the things Jesus said on the Mount,” Gutting writes.  “Who literally takes no thought for their lives or for tomorrow?  Who never resists evil?  Who gives to anyone who asks?  Who says, ‘Hit me again’ to an unjust attack?’  “There may be ways of integrating such injunctions into our morality without reducing them to banalities,” he notes, “but the bare text of Jesus’ sermon doesn’t tell us how to do this.”[23]
            He later observes, “None of this is to say that the Sermon on the Mount is not a source of profound moral truth.”  “But,” he states, “this truth is accessible only by reading the sermon in light of 2,000 years of interpretation and development.  Much of the history of Christianity consists of trying to develop a viable way of life from Jesus’ puzzling sayings.  These efforts, moreover, had to go far beyond interpreting Jesus’ words in their own terms.  Augustine and Aquinas, for example, used ideas from Plato, Aristotle and other pre-Christian thinkers to help them understand the ‘law of love.’”[24]
Returning to Sullivan, Gutting observes, “Sullivan is right that Christian churches, as fallible human institutions, have often been obstacles to fruitful understanding of Christ’s moral message.”  “But, he writes, “these churches have also been central in sustaining the traditions of thought and practice that transformed Jesus’ passionate but enigmatic teachings into coherent and fruitful moral visions.  They have been the air – however polluted – that has fed the fire of his message.”[25]
            Gutting concludes, “Read alone, the Sermon on the Mount will either confuse or merely reinforce the moral prejudices we bring to it.  To profit from its wisdom we need to understand it through the traditions of thought and practice within or informed by Christianity.  This does not require membership in any church,” he adds, “but it does require immersion in the culture and history of the Christian world.  In this sense, to forget the church, is to forget Jesus.”[26]
            Two essays, both timely…both provocative…both providing lots of grist for the mill and food for thought…Needless to say, I appreciated the challenge of Sullivan’s critique, but, as you might expect, I land with Gutting and his conclusion.
            In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus appears to the disciples who are gathered together, presumably in the same fear-filled locked room in which we saw them last week in John’s Gospel (See John 20:19).  It is one of the stories and scenes that was inconvenient and uncomfortable for Thomas Jefferson and which he excised from his Bible.  
The gathered disciples are being debriefed by two of their number who had just had an encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus (See Luke 24:13 – 35).  While they were they were talking, Jesus stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you”(Luke 24:36).  The text tells us, “They were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost (Luke 24:37).
 There is something compelling about the Christian narrative which doesn’t sugarcoat or gloss over the fear of these disciples…After all, the portrayal could have been cleaned up, made them look much more faithful, much more believing.  But the text doesn’t shield them or sugar coat the portrayal…It preserves their fear and it preserves their doubt…
In fact, the text insists on their doubt…While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?"  They gave him a piece of broiled fish,  and he took it and ate in their presence (Luke 24:41– 43).   With its vignette about Jesus eating a piece of fish, The Oxford Bible Commentary acknowledges that Luke’s account is the most “unashamedly materialistic” of all the resurrection appearances.[27]  It was likely shaped to counter evolving accounts of Easter, especially in Gnostic circles, that suggested the resurrection was merely a vision or a spiritual experience that was absent the “real Jesus,” however you want to grapple with that term.
Today’s gospel reading is about mysterious, enigmatic, things:  the proclamation of the resurrection itself;  the meaning of Jesus’ messiahship; the insistence on his suffering and dying; the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins…  Even those disciples needed continuing explanation, continuing conversation with Jesus; needed Jesus to unfold the scriptures for them. That would not end. 
Jesus would promise the gift of the Holy Spirit so that his message and presence and teaching could continue to be mediated to them and to those who would come after them…At times the Church has been true to the Holy Spirit and done wondrous and sublime things, produced saints, Francis of Assisi (who Sullivan makes reference to in his article[28]), Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu…At other times, it has been sinful and disobedient and been guilty of great sin…
I love Christ and his Church…The Church has nurtured me in my awareness, love and understanding of God…In many ways, I was raised by the Church…The community of parish churches I have been associated with from the time I was a child has held me in its arms all my life, from Barbara Trippel who taught me in Sunday School as a little boy at St. Luke’s Church in Forest Hills, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Delray Beach today…
Without the Church and its role as the repository, the glorious repository, of the story of God in Christ, as a repository of the sacraments, as a repository of the faith, I do not believe I would know or love Christ…
            To be sure, I am not uncritical of the Church, nor am I naive about its history… As I have said already, the Church has been guilty of great evils and great sins throughout its history, and this does continue, as Sullivan made clear in his article… We need to always challenge the church and hold it accountable to the gospel of Jesus Christ, to challenge ourselves and hold ourselves accountable to the gospel of Jesus Christ as the Church, which is, after all, made up of all of us…The Church is always about the business of reformation and will be until the end of time. 
I am also critical in my approach to the scriptures.  A historical/critical approach to the Scriptures has been a gift to us all since the Enlightenment.  I’m thankful that I am part of a church that places a high premium on reason and critical thought
But again, I love Christ and his Church.  The Church provides what to me are essentials for living:  an encounter and experience of the living, risen Christ and an awareness of my story as a Christian.  The church has given me the disciplines and rhythm for regularly engaging in the Christian life which I suspect I might not maintain without the Church’s cycle of worship, prayer and the liturgical year.
            The Church has always provided me with a rich expression of deep community…the generations gathered, praying for and caring for one another…We are, as I have often pointed out before, the only place in society where four generations regularly interact with one another...And there is deep need, and deep hunger, in our culture today for genuine, caring community…
            Through its focus on mission and outreach, the Church provides me with means by which I can try to live out the command of Jesus to love – to care for others – to try and help others have and lead a “good life.”  And so, at St. Paul’s, through Paul’s Place, our after-school program, very at-risk children and youth are given a leg up in a society where the deck is stacked against them. Families who are homeless are provided with shelter and food…A village is being built in Bondeau, Haiti and children are being educated and fed. 
            Today, we are going to commission three new Stephen Ministers…These are people who have given up 50 hours of their lives in the past few months to undergo training in how to offer distinctively Christian care to fellow-parishioners and others who are hurting or grieving…They will sacrifice more of themselves as they give time to meet with those who have lost a loved one; or who are terminally ill, who have lost a job, or divorced, or who are going through some other crisis which life inevitably throws at us…
Why does this Church do this? Why does any Church do these things?  Because Jesus commanded us to love and in our 2000 years of wrestling with his teaching and trying to live it out, we believe these things are important, just as we believe our life together as Church is important, even when the Church screws up, as we all screw up in our lives…But then, this is part of Jesus’ core teaching, isn’t it?

Repentance, and forgiveness of sins is to be preached in my name, Jesus said to those disciples so long ago and says to us today (Luke 24: 47).  God in Christ is always calling us to turn again to him, to turn again to him anew….”You’re not quite there yet,” he always seems to be saying to us, as the Church, and as individuals…
“Keep listening to me….Keep reading what I said and what others think I said…Keep wrestling with it all….Keep trying to figure it out…More important, keep striving to live the life I commanded you to live, my kind of life; the life of love, sacrifice and service…I know you can do it…Remember, you need one another, and you need me…Oh, and remember that promise I made to you…Thomas Jefferson didn’t include it in his Bible, but I said it…
“I am with you always, even to the end of the ages” (Matthew 28:20)…You can count on that!”

[1]  See website at .  Biographical information from Wikipedia “Andrew Sullivan.”
[2]  Sullivan, Andrew  Christianity in Crisis, April 2, 2012 found on the Daily Beast website at
[3]   Sullivan – printer friendly edition (pfe) – p.  1
[4]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1.
[5]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1.
[6]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1.
[7]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1.
[8]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1.
[9]   Sullivan (pfe) p. 1 – 2.
[10]  Sullivan (pfe)  p. 2. 
[11]  The quest for the “historical Jesus” was an Enlightenment project of the 18th century and began in earnest with Hermann Samuel  Reimarus, a German philosopher and Deist.  Albert Schweitzer is a significant figure in detaling the quest in his book The Quest for the Historical Jesus published in 1906.  His modern succesors are members of the so-called “Jesus Seminar” founded in 1985 by scholar Robert Funk and including biblical luminaries John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.   The Jesus Seminar has also been the object of scholarly criticism for its “reductionist” tendencies, tendencies exhibited by Jefferson  and his Jefferson Bible.  This was well artcilulated by Roman Catholic layman and author Gary Willis who wrote,  “This is the new fundamentalism.  It believes in the literal sense of the Bible—it just reduces to what it can take as literal quotation from Jesus. Though some have called the Jesus Seminarists radical, they are actually very conservative. They tame the real radical, Jesus, cutting him down to their own size...the sayings that meet with the Seminar's approval were preserved by the Christian communities whose contribution is discounted.  Jesus as a person does not exist outside of the gospels, and the only reason he exists there is because of their authors' faith in the Resurrection. Trying to find a construct, ‘the historical Jesus,’ is not like finding diamonds in a dunghill, but like finding New York City at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.”  (from Willis, Gary What Jesus Meant, New York: Viking Press, 2006) p. xxv – xxvi – quoted in Wikipedia “The Jesus Seminar”)
[12] Sullivan (pfe) p. 3. 
[13] Sullivan (pfe)  p. 3. 
[14] Sullivan (pfe)  p. 3.  For a thorough, thoughtful and well-research treatment of this decline and theory for the reasons behind it  see Putnam, Robert D. and Campbell, David E. American Grace:  How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York, London, etc:  Simon & Schuster, 2010).   
[15]  See Gutting, Gary “Returning to the Sermon on the Mount”, April19, 2012 Opinionator – The New York Times at 
[16]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[17]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[18]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[19]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[20]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[21]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 1.
[22]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 2.
[23]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 2.
[24]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 2.
[25]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 2 - 3.
[26]  Gutting (pfe)  p. 3. 
[27]   In the oral delivery of this sermon I mispoke and attributed this quote to Fred Craddock.  It was actually written in The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2001). P. 958.  
[28]  Sullivan (pfe) p. 4 ff.