The Covenant We Make

In yet another week after yet another devastating school shooting, news and social media are abuzz, as they have been so many times before, about the 17 lives taken by a military-grade assault rifle that made its way into the hands of a teenager.

How long, O Lord? How long, O lord, we ask again and again and again.

This latest shooting, just days after I baptized my five-month-old twins, leaves me yet again worrying about the day I will send them to school, fearing for their safety, wondering whether they will be among those who make it safely to graduation.

You see, I’m not under any illusion that there is anywhere it could not happen. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, here in our own state, rid many of us of that illusion. But for me it had already happened nine months earlier, when a man carrying an assault rifle walked onto the campus of the Episcopal School of Jacksonville, where I attended middle and high school, and killed the headmaster of the school, a woman I had known since I was 12 years old. It’s unlikely you even heard a news story about it. School shootings had already become too common, and the death count wasn’t high enough for much national coverage. But this place that formed me over so many years was changed forever that day, almost six years ago, the way the community of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida was changed this week.

The Parkland shooting happened on Ash Wednesday, and some of you may have seen the powerful photograph of a woman bearing ashes on her forehead clutching a child and crying. A reminder of her mortality, just like everything that was happening right before her eyes.

The violence that pervades our society reminds us of this so often that we sometimes grow hardened by it, rather than letting it grieve us, the way that violence grieves God with every single life that is lost.

Violence has been a part of our human story since soon after we were banished from Eden. Cain killed his brother Abel, and the violence continued to spread across the generations, We learn in the book of Genesis that over the course of a few generations it had spiraled out of control until, according to Genesis, “the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5)

And God declares, “‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence…I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created…for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Gen. 6:13 & 6:7)

God is so appalled by the violence that has consumed humanity that he regrets ever having made us and wishes he could start over.

There is on earth only one man whose family has eluded this plague of violence, and so God directs him to build an ark, to take himself, his family, and two of every kind of animal upon it so that they might be spared when God destroyed the earth. That man’s name, of course, was Noah.

Noah builds the ark, as God commanded, and he and his family and all the beasts of the earth remain in the ark while it rains for forty days and nights. After the rains stop, Noah sends out a dove over the waters every seven days until it does not return, and Noah knows it had found land.

When the waters recede, Noah and his family and the animals leave the ark, and God commands them to be fruitful and multiply, just as before, and then makes a promise:

“I establish my covenant with you, that…never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Gen. 9:11)

This is the first covenant that God makes in all of scripture, and to show us that he means it, God sets his bow in the sky as a sign of the promise. When we read this, our minds may jump immediately to the beautiful colors of a rainbow, but it’s not just the colors but also the shape that is important—for a bow is a weapon.

There’s no way around the fact that flooding the earth to kill everything that has breath is an act of violence, but when God makes the covenant with the ones who have just narrowly escaped divine wrath, he hangs up his bow and says never again. And when that bow appears in the sky, it does not point down at us, as a threat. It remains where God hung it in the sky, pointing upward, reminding us of God’s promise.

It is a sign that God chooses not to participate in the cycle of violence, that instead God chooses to remain in relationship with us, no matter what. God makes this promise with the full knowledge that things may well spiral out of control and descend into violence once more. And they certainly do.

So God gives the law to the people of Israel to show them how they could live as a community not governed by violence but by justice and love, how they could live and thrive rather than fight and die. God invites them again and again into relationship with him so that they might know the way of abundant life.

But even when God’s people continue to ignore his pleas, continue their violence and destruction, God remains true to the promise made at the end of the flood. God does not destroy the earth.

Instead, God comes to earth. Not to destroy humanity, but to destroy death itself, to show how love can triumph over the violence of this world.

And the ministry that leads Jesus to the victory of the resurrection begins at the same place our own ministries begin—at baptism.

The story of Jesus’s baptism is connected to the story of Noah in so many ways. The symbols of water and doves, 40 days spent among the beasts, but the waters of baptism do not bring death to humanity. They bring new life.

Surely there are things that die when we are baptized. For in the waters of baptism we die to all of our violent, destructive ways, and out of the water we are born to a new life.

Through our baptism we make our own covenant, and we make it on behalf of little children until they are ready to affirm it for themselves.

God makes a covenant with us in the hanging up of his bow, and in baptism we make a covenant with God, promising a new way of living that is governed by love, following the example of Jesus. We make promises about how we will participate in the work that Jesus began on earth, the work of transforming the world from within the world.

Our baptismal covenant firmly roots our faith in action. We promise to resist evil and strive for justice and peace. We can’t stop at thoughts and prayers, though they are important as well. As the Jesuit priest James Martin said, “If your thoughts and prayers are truly with somebody, it means you are going to do something to help them. Jesus prayed. But he prays and then he acts. We also have to act.” (Quoted in the Washington Post)

If you’re not sure what you can do to help, look to resources such as Bishops United Against Gun Violence, a group my own bishop, The Rt. Rev. Ian Douglas, helped to found after the shootings in Newtown in 2012. Participate in conversations with legislators and community leaders about the problem. Talk to someone who may not share your views and find common ground. And be the one to teach the people around you about a life governed by love and not violence. Pay attention to the people who are in need of love. Teach children and grandchildren not just disaster preparedness, but teach them to be the voice of love to those who are excluded and alone.

As believers in a savior whose love overcame the violence and brutality of the cross, we know that love has the final victory. But we break the promise we made at our baptism if we think our role as Christians is to wait around until that’s all worked out.

The violence we have seen this week will not change unless we all do the work of our baptismal covenant and make the change. God has promised that he will not destroy the world again. It’s time to make sure we don’t do that on our own.

Stories and Hope

Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19

It was in a meeting with the leaders of our military ministry that I first learned the story of Lt. Parker Vanamee, The Rev. Parker Vanamee, who came from New York to serve as the rector of St. John’s Essex one hundred years ago, in 1916. World War I had broken out in Europe in 1914, and in 1917, just one year after arriving at St. John’s, Father Vanamee’s commitment to freedom and peace led him to leave St. John’s and volunteer for military service.  

He did not become a chaplain as one might have expected, but instead was commissioned a First Lieutenant in an army machine gun company.  

To give you a sense of what this meant for Father Vanamee, I’ll share a part of an article written by my parishioner Jack Sikora:

“Machine guns were fearful new weapons. Sir Martin Gilbert, a British historian, reports [that] “It could fire up to seven hundred bullets a minute, in short, lethal bursts…. Because the Machine Gun Corps did such destructive work, it quickly became the target of every weapon on the battlefield. For this reason its members were known as the Suicide Club” (Martin Gilbert, The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War (New York: Henry Holt, 2006), p. 8-9). 

Parker’s regiment sailed for France in September, 1917. From March until May of 1918 the unit remained near Rangieres and was engaged in training and some actions until May when the 2nd Division was ordered to replace a French unit at the front near Chateau Thierry at Vaux and Belleau Woods where they fought to successfully repel a major German advance. It was here that Parker Vanamee endured the horrors of trench warfare.”

A brief account of his experience was captured in a condolence letter he wrote to the father of his friend, Lieutenant Jack Battle, who died in combat in July of 1918. After describing the events that took place, Lieutenant Vanamee, Father Vanamee, said this: “Wounded and suffering, his fortitude and unselfishness was splendid. He was every inch a soldier, a gentleman, and a man, and the idol of all those who served under and with him” (Letter from First Lieutenant Parker Vanamee, 23rd Infantry, A.E.F. to Mr. Gaston Battle, in University of North Carolina, Alumni Review (Vol. 7, No. 1, October, 1918).

Not long after writing this letter in which his pastoral voice can be heard, Father Vanamee was injured in battle, and died as a result of these wounds shortly thereafter.

He remained the rector of St. John’s Essex until his death, on leave for his military service, from which he did not return.

From the altar to the trenches, Father Vanamee’s example shows us what it means to live with conviction, with faith that is more than casual assent to a set of ideas, faith that is vibrant and willing to act.

It is fitting that we remember Father Vanamee on this Veterans’ Sunday, our observation of Veterans’ Day, which we celebrated on November 11. This date that we now celebrate as Veterans’ Day was first celebrated in 1919 as Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I, at 11:11 a.m. on November 11, 1918. It served as a day of remembrance for all who died in that conflict, including Father Vanamee, who died just weeks before the Armistice. The name of Armistice Day was changed after World War 2 to include veterans who had served in all wars, and at this time became known as Veterans’ Day.

But I learned this week that the date chosen for Armistice Day, November 11, was significant for more than the symmetry of its date: 11/11. Dean Andrew McGowan, who preached from this pulpit a few weeks ago, explained in a recent blog post that the drafters of the Armistice chose to sign it on this date for a very specific reason–it was the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of soldiers. So we remember today a priest who became a soldier, on a date chosen for St. Martin, a soldier who became a priest. 

St. Martin’s conversion took place during his military service in the middle of the fourth century. Upon seeing a beggar shivering by the side of the road, he ripped off half his cloak and gave it to the man. That night he had a vision of Jesus wearing that very half-cloak saying “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized, he has clothed me,” words that are evocative of the words from gospel of Matthew, “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” Martin ended his military service not long after his conversion, but his commitment to service became a defining characteristic of his life. Martin established the first known monastery in Europe, eventually became a bishop, and he and his students spread the good news of the gospel across Europe.

St. Martin and Father Vanamee shared many of the same convictions because of the gospel, and a desire to live their lives in response to these convictions. But it took them in opposite directions–priest to soldier, and soldier to priest. 

The same faith that led Fr. Vanamee into military service, led St. Martin away from it. These two figures taken together are a stunning testament to the complexity of living according to our faith, to the fact that we don’t have to agree to both participate in the building of the kingdom. Both St. Martin and Fr. Vanamee sought to create freedom and peace for others, and though their paths were different, what’s important in our remembrance of them is to recognize how their faith led to action. We can hold both in our remembrances and be inspired by the witness of both men to live as people of the kingdom of God in our own time.

Remembering stories like the stories of Fr. Vanamee and St. Martin are important during times like these that we are facing this week. Stories like these are important, regardless of political affiliation or candidate supported.

For those who are feeling hopeful, they can serve to uplift that hope.

The author Rebecca Solnit writes that remembrances and stories like these are the in fact the most essential ingredient of hope. They help us to see what others have done before us, and inspire us to work toward greatness.

And in her book, Hope in the Dark, she explains that for those who are in need of hope, who are having trouble hoping, remembrances have the power to create hope for them as well.  Solnit differentiates hope from optimism, or a Pollyannish sense that everything will work out fine. When things feel uncertain, “hope locates itself in the premise that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes” (Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Stories, Wild Possibility (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), xiv).  

St. Martin and Father Vanamee were not resigned to a pessimistic belief that there was nothing anyone could do. They recognized what work was theirs to do, and they did it. Reading and hearing stories from the past of others who have acted in difficult circumstances can help us find hope, and this hope, in turn, gives us courage to act.

This morning, this church is filled with different opinions about the result of last Tuesday’s election. And when it comes to policy or economics, people of faith can diverge significantly. But one thing that people of faith must agree on is their concern for those who feel marginalized and afraid.

The results of a Gallup Poll released on Friday showed that 42% of Americans are feeling afraid–it’s a significant number, and one we cannot ignore. Many of these people felt marginalized by the rhetoric of this election. We’ve seen the news of hate-filled acts being done in the name of our new leader, and we’ve seen news of the protests breaking out all over the country, by people who are afraid and are doing whatever they can to make their voices heard.

We don’t accept these hate crimes, and at the same time do not condone the violence that has broken out during protests.

But we cannot ignore the real pain that many of our fellow Americans are experiencing right now, especially among those who were pushed to the margins this election season.

As followers of Jesus, who stood with and for the people his society refused to see, you are called to see them, to listen to them, to be with them. And to recognize that these people of whom I speak, are not just out there somewhere far away. There are people in this room who are afraid, just as there are people who are optimistic. 

There is a lot of uncertainty right now about what the future will hold, but as Rebecca Solnit reminds us, that’s where hope happens, because we can be the ones to act, to bring light and love into an uncertain time. 

In the end, no matter who our president is, we are kingdom people. One thing we hold in common as Christians, is the example of a God who took on the form of a poor carpenter, who surrounded himself with people on the margins of his society, and proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was in their midst.

We hear a glimpse of what that kingdom will be like from the prophet Isaiah this morning, who tells us about the new heaven and the new earth, in which all will delight. The wolf and the lamb will feed together, no one will labor in vain, they will live long years and build and plant. There will be no weeping or distress, and no one will hurt or destroy one another.

This is our kingdom.  

And no matter our political affiliation we, as Christians, have the privilege and the responsibility to participate in bringing about this kingdom here on earth.

Jesus tells us in the gospel that the work is risky and it may be dangerous, but he assures us that when the time comes, he will give us words and wisdom. And when we face challenges along the way, they are an opportunity to testify to the goodness and love to be found in our true kingdom.  

St. Martin of Tours and Father Parker Vanamee testified to this kingdom as they served to promote freedom, justice, and peace for others. And they are both reminders that the things we do matter far beyond ourselves.

Let their stories inspire hope in you, and let hope guide your actions. Be light. Be love. Be there for one another. Be kingdom people.