Friday, September 27, 2013

We Stand on Holy Ground

We Stand on Holy Ground:
A Reflection on the Feast of Michael and All Angels

Lectionary Texts:  Genesis 28.10-17; Psalm 103.19-22; Revelation 12.7-12; John 1.47-51

            In 1977 I had what I can only describe as a mystical experience.  I was sitting in the choir loft of my home parish of Saint Michael the Archangel in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  We were celebrating our patronal festival and Bishop Frey, our diocesan bishop, was present to preside and preach.  I remember him beginning his sermon and then I found myself somewhere else.

            My sense of vocation to the ordained ministry began in its most conscious dimension when I was in high school.  During university I followed the advice then being offered by the Episcopal Church that potential ordinands not study theology or philosophy but undertake a solid arts degree.  So I majored in modern languages at the University of Denver and completed a degree in German with minor areas in French and secondary education.  My diocese had a policy of not sending recent university graduates to seminary, preferring that we get some experience of the ‘real’ world before entering seminary.  So I worked for a year at J. C. Penney, then a year as a teaching assistant at the University of Denver and, in 1977, began teaching German and French at Regis High School in Denver.

            But on that Sunday a clear voice spoke to me and said, “Time to go.  Start the process.”  When I returned to Denver, I began the application process and told the Principal of the high school that I would not be accepting his offer of a multi-year contract. The rest, as they say, is history and now, some thirty-six years later, I can still hear the same voice and remember almost every detail of that moment in my life.

            Since that day I have had other experiences when I was deeply aware of being on holy ground.  All have been fleeting; I was aware that trying to hold on to them would be fruitless.  All have been both comforting and disturbing.  One such experience, while I was attending General Synod in Ottawa in 1995, led me to set aside my previous views about the place of gay and lesbian disciples of Christ in the life of the church and to become an advocate for the full inclusion of these my sisters and brothers in the life of the community of faith.  That moment has led me on a path I would never have imagined and has surprised many of my oldest friends, especially those who knew me in seminary.

            I do not intend today to explore whether or not there are angels.  It seems to me that this is a pointless argument.  The word ‘angel’ comes from the Greek word ‘angelos’ which means ‘messenger’.  I cannot imagine any religious believer who cannot affirm her or his conviction that God does indeed communicate with us in many and varied ways, often using messengers, some ‘with skin on’ and some without, to share wisdom with us.  Richard Hooker, the great Anglican theologian during the reign of Elizabeth I, wrote that God has many ways of conveying wisdom to us and that it would be sheer ingratitude not to thank God for all of them.

            What I do want to explore is the notion of ‘holy ground’.  The environmental crises of the twentieth century and the continuing crisis in these early decades of the twenty-first have spiritual dimensions as well as natural and economic.  We are becoming increasingly aware of the precious gift of this planet and, as a sign of this growing awareness and concern, the General Synod of 2013 added a sixth promise to the baptismal covenant committing us to care for the earth and to be stewards of God’s natural bounty.  But ‘holy ground’ also implies a place of encounter with God, a ‘thin place’ to use an ancient Celtic term that describes a place where the material world and the world beyond meet.

            In today’s reading from Genesis we meet our old devious friend Jacob who has just cheated his older brother, Esau, by stealing their father’s blessing and is now on the way to find a bride.  Jacob finds a place to stop for the evening, not a very hospitable spot from the description, but perhaps secure from night marauders.  We all know what happens next:  he dreams and learns that God has bigger plans for him than Jacob can imagine.  In this desolate spot, far from any religious shrines, Jacob discovers ‘holy ground’ and his understanding of the future is changed forever.  One can imagine his feelings as he continued his journey:  Will this night bring another revelation?  Will this place also be holy ground?

            We then hear the words of John the mystic whose writings we know as ‘the revelation to John’.  These words, written during a time when the persecution of the Christian people was beginning in earnest, are filled with images of war and violence, pestilence and divine retribution.  Some Christians delight in the image of non-believers suffering the torments of hell, while others take today’s reading as a justification for viewing the world as belonging to the devil.  It is this belief, prevalent among some Christians, that I want to challenge.

            If I were to describe two competing visions of the earth held by Christians, I would begin by saying that some Christians believe that the world is in the hands of the devil and that any good we experience comes only as divine intervention, an occasional surprise attack on the devil’s stronghold.  On the other hand, there are Christians who believe that this world is good, precious in God’s sight, and that evil is a disruption.  I cheerfully affirm the latter belief rather than the former.  This world is good and humanity, redeemed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, has been restored to our right relationship with our Creator.  Whatever evil we experience in this world is not because the world is in thrall to the devil.  Evil is the consequence of human choice and often human inaction.

            To believe that this ‘fragile earth, our island home’ is not holy ground is the foundation of a theology of human powerlessness.  Although the phrase, ‘the devil made me do it,’ began its life as a joke on an American television programme from the 1960’s, it can be used to excuse human beings from being who we are, creatures made in the image of God and called to become like God in our actions and relationships.  Knowing that I inhabit ‘holy ground’ creates a moral obligation to use my God-given knowledge and skills to create rather than destroy, to re-build rather than tear down, to embrace rather than cast away.  Whatever power evil has, it is a persuasive power not a coercive one.  And each day I have the opportunity to choose to tend this garden rather than pillage it.

            One of my ‘desert island’ texts, my personal canon of Scripture, are these verses from 1 John:  “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.  The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.  Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.  And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”  (3.1-3)  We are God’s children now.  This is holy ground now.  What it will be is in God’s hands --- and in ours, if we choose our better natures.

            As I write these words, we are living in the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks in Kenya and Pakistan, the latter an attack on a congregation of my own religious tradition.  These attacks are evil, but they are not the result of living in an evil world where we long for release into some ‘better’ world beyond this life.  These attacks are the result of people who, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack of one, cannot see this world as holy ground and other human beings as children of God.  While the perpetrators of such actions cannot escape responsibility for their actions, we are all challenged to ask ourselves how we might live today so that some of the conditions that give rise to such anger, such hate, such disregard will cease to exert their influence on our sisters and brothers, whether at home or abroad.

            The voice that spoke to me thirty-three years ago was a voice that continues to speak throughout this world through the witness of religious communities, Christian and non-Christian, and through the witness of non-religious communities who share our commitments to the earth and its creatures.  To all of us God sends messengers, some of them prophetic human voices, some non-human voices whose message we struggle to comprehend.  But I know this:  God is not silent and this world is not the devil’s possession.

            Let us give thanks for God’s messengers.  Let us reaffirm our commitment to live the faith we proclaim.  Let us resist evil confident in the hope that God sets before us.  For we shall see angels ascending and descending upon Son of Man and we shall join them in celebrating the new heaven and the new earth God is already bringing into being.  Amen.

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