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Sermon: Values of the Sacred Fabric Unfold

Sermon preached at Christ Church, MD in La Plata & Newburg, MD on September 10, 2017
14th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18) Year A, RCL: Exodus 12:1-14; Ps. 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
always acceptable to you, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

          This past Thursday, I was at the Washington National Cathedral, where I volunteer once a month as a Nave chaplain. I was there to attend the noonday Eucharist, and afterward, join other volunteer chaplains for a luncheon with the Cathedral’s Dean, Provost, Canon for Worship, and two Cathedral vergers.
          As I walked through the Nave, I overheard that ‘the windows had been taken out and moved to an undisclosed location.’
          In 2015, following the tragic mass shooting at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC, the Dean at that time called for the removal of two Cathedral stained glass windows that honor Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
          It was then that the Cathedral began a process to engage in deep questions of racial justice, the legacy of slavery, and God’s call to us in the 21st century. Over the past two years, there were many passionate voices who engaged Cathedral leadership and held them accountable to the process.
          Programs that were hosted, conversations within the Cathedral community, and events around the nation brought greater focus to a key question: Are the Lee-Jackson windows, installed in 1953, appropriate to the sacred fabric of a spiritual home for the nation?
          As you probably heard, the Cathedral Chapter decided Tuesday to immediately remove the windows. Their understanding is that the windows are inconsistent with the Cathedral’s mission to serve as a house of prayer for ALL people, and represented a barrier to important work on social justice and racial reconciliation. The Chapter determined the association with racial oppression, human subjugation, and white supremacy does not belong in the sacred fabric of the Washington National Cathedral.
          As I watched, stonemasons were tending to the openings where the windows had been, readying the window bay to be covered. The night before, a short quiet liturgy was offered as the windows were deconsecrated, and later removed; they are being conserved and stored until a more appropriate future for them is determined.
          The windows have been taken out and moved to an undisclosed location.
          In the lectionary readings designated for this Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
    • Israel remembers its deliverance from slavery in Egypt by celebrating the festival of Passover. This festival featured the Passover lamb, whose blood was used as a sign to protect God’s people from the threat of death. The early church described the Lord’s supper using imagery from the Passover, especially in portraying Jesus as The Lamb who delivers God’s people from slavery to sin and death.
    • Paul writes to the Romans about the obligation of Christians to love one another and so fulfill the heart and goal of the law. If “clothes make the person,” we are to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” and live today considering the future God has in store for us, and finally,
    • Only in Matthew’s gospel does Jesus offer practical advice to his disciples on how individuals – and the church as a whole – should show wrongdoers their need for repentance.
          Conflict is a part of relationship and life in community: Jesus’ words in today’s gospel acknowledge this fact of humanity and his directives are often used in situations having to do with church discipline. Jesus calls us to approach sinners in love repeatedly, and Paul reminds us that Love is the fulfilling of the law. As Christians, we gather in the name of Christ, assured that he is present among us with gifts of peace and reconciliation.
           Paul is trying to help the Romans then, and us now, to know what public life should look like. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Paul is at his poetic best when he writes, “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Paul calls us to wake up; the day has come; get dressed, wearing Christ; for today there might be a battle. In his mixing of metaphors, Paul blends the robe of baptism with the armor of a warrior. It’s a dangerous world out there, everywhere affected by human sin!
            In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says that a church member who sins and refuses efforts to correction and reconciliation is to be regarded as a “Gentile and a tax collector.” Tax collectors, who were despised as Roman collaborators who were notorious for cheating Jews while profiting themselves, and Gentiles as outsiders, were treated by Jesus as welcome guests in the kingdom of God. Such inclusion would seem to indicate that God’s efforts to restore relationship never end, but rather welcome with even greater hospitality those who have estranged themselves from the community. How might such hospitality extend (and be increased) even to those who have cut themselves off from God’s kingdom?
          When we gather as the Church, whether for worship, discipleship, fellowship, or mission, Jesus is there! [It is not lost on me, that today, Sunday School starts up again, and the Vestry is meeting after the 11:00 a.m. service.] Conflict is inevitable in Christian community – it is a part of our life and part of our faith. Jesus is on the side of the vulnerable, the least, the lost, and the marginalized. We are called to engage in “care-frontations” rather than confrontations.
          Themes of reconciliation are prominent in the texts today, and thought might be given to the difference between confession and reconciliation, terms that are not mutually exclusive but can – in an intentional way – enrich one another. In our own Protestant mindset, confessions all too often seem to be between the believer and God alone, while reconciliation implies a restoration of relationship between the individual and God, and between the individual and the community – a triangle of sorts. How do these terms play off one another and deepen our understanding of what it means to “return to the Lord, your God”? (Joel 2:13)
          I found a few quotes about stained glass windows to share with you:
          “Many a doctrine is like a window pane. We see truth through it but it divides us from truth.” ~ Khalil Gibran, a Lebanese writer, poet, and visual artist.
          “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.” ~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the Swiss-American psychiatrist who was a pioneer in near-death studies and author of the groundbreaking book, “On Death and Dying.”
          “We must shine with hope, stained glass windows that shape light into icons, glow like lanterns borne before a procession. Who can bear hope back into the world but us...” ~ Marge Piercy, American poet, novelist, and social activist.
          I submit that reconciliation in our nation is the “care-frontation” of the truths regarding the Lee-Jackson windows:
    • Whatever their origins, the Cathedral recognizes the windows are more than “benign markers” of history. For many of the beloved children of God, the windows are an obstacle to worship in a sacred space; for some, these and other Confederate memorials serve as lampposts on the path back to racial suppression and oppression. If we, as Christians, consider ourselves heirs to the Israelites God delivered out of slavery in Egypt – we must find ways to eliminate all forms of slavery around the world.
    • A central consideration asks all through the process is what narratives are shared within the sacred fabric of the Cathedral, and which are yet untold. Cathedral leadership concluded these stained-glass windows tell an incomplete, misleading account of our history. The commitment going forward is to find ways to offer a richer, more balanced expression of the nation’s history. As Paul reminds us in his poetic call to love – “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”
    • To be clear, this is not an attempt to remove history, rather it is removal of artifacts that do not represent the Cathedral Chapter’s values. It is expected the windows will yet have a second life as an effective teaching tool in a location and framework yet to be determined. We might consider this part of how Jesus calls the church together to address sin. Our community loves best when we rest in Christ’s presence.
    • You may have guessed that the violent events in Charlottesville, VA brought urgency to the discernment process. Compelled by the witness of others, moved by the presence of God in our midst, and convicted by the Holy Spirit, an answer was determined. The continued presence of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hate in this nation cannot be overlooked, and they will not be solved with the removal of “stained” windows or other monuments. The racial unrest imbedded in the fabric of this nation requires action to renew the commitment to building God’s beloved community through love and reconciliation.
          The tougher task now that ‘the windows have been taken out and moved to an undisclosed location’ is work toward racial justice, challenging intolerance, to foster reconciliation that must continue with new resolve.
          It is understood that people of goodwill may disagree with these actions, while others may have been wounded or confused by the time taken to reach this decision. With hopes that trusting in that which unites us in Christ is greater than our difference, I would ask that you continue to pray: for the Cathedral, our Church, and this nation as we strive always, in all ways, to see one another as beloved children of God.
          Yes, ‘the windows had been taken out and moved to an undisclosed location.’ But we have work ahead us. This is part of our call as followers of Jesus Christ that we do our part to build the Kingdom of God, here on earth as it is in heaven.
          In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.