Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Being a Baker" -- Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Preached by the Rev. Francis X. Walter at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, February 13, 2011

One of the people who formed my life in Christ was Father Michael Scott. I met this spare, gentle, Anglican Priest in 1958, at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. I was 25 years old.

Father Scott was then exercising his ministry in the territory of Southwest Africa---at that time under the punishing rule of the racist Union of South Africa.
Michael Scott was a principal actor in the liberation of Southwest Africa which became the independent nation of Namibia.

Please bear with me: Just a bit more background on Namibia.

After World War One the Treaty of Versailles parcelled out chunks of Africa to the Allies. Great Britain got the former German colony of Southwest Africa. The Brits entrusted it to their colony, the Union of South Africa, which shared a border with it.

Under the Treaty, South Africa was to develop the territory and lead it to independence. South Africa proceeded to plunder its resources and inflict great suffering on its native population. Recourse under international law lay with the United Nations, but South Africa would not allow any subjects of Southwest Africa to leave the Territory to lobby the United Nations.

Michael Scott, as a white subject of Great Britain, living in the Territory, was free to come and go. Which he began to do, petitioning the UN for redress and gaining allies in Great Britain and America.

I met him while he was at the UN because General Seminary, where I was in residence, gave him free room and board.

At this time our government only allowed him to go back and forth on designated streets. He was considered a threat to the United States because he and his father had both served London East End poor parishes and supported the labor organizing efforts of their parishioners.
His slot car paths were laid out by the McCarran/Walter Act of 1952, which rewrote immigration codes and made it possible--I’d say--to label most anybody a security risk.

I was drawn to Father Scott because I needed advice and support, for I was to return to Alabama to confront a segregated diocese of segregated churches under the domination of sly or blinded white men.

During one of our talks Fr. Scott asked me if I would be a gofer for him at the UN when he had to be out of the country. WOULD I! With my UN pass I sat in on committee meetings, and-- to me--most fun of all sat alone in the bowels of the UN Building transcribing material from vinyl 16 1/2 rpm records the size of giant pizzas.

In addition, my name appeared on the invite list of various groups
working for racial and social justice. So I met the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, Langston Hughes, Allen Crite, Carl and Ann Braden. And even heard Miriam Makeba sing right after she was slipped into the country from South Africa.
Me, a Mobile boy! Eating high on the hog.
Thanks be to God who saved me from being a total social justice groupie.
As St. Paul told us, it is God who gives growth, not identifying with luminaries. So I never said, “I belong to Father Scott, or Paul, or Apollos.”
In 1958, Fr. Scott gave me a copy of his autobiography, "A Time to Speak", inscribing it:
“With gratitude and all best wishes for your work in Alabama.”
He told me a story--stories teach, stories form us.
Once in South Africa in a small Boer settlement--late in the evening--he was visiting in the home of a farmer. A farmer with fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes. The farmer could not see black people as truly human.

Fr. Scott struggled to respond; as he hesitated he saw on the wall a picture of Jesus--Jesus with fair skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. What he felt was compassion for the man. No arguments, no anger, no contention. But how difficult it is to see others as unenlightened opponents, not enemies, and find a measure of compassion, not a need to attack.
I thank you God for that story. But how difficult it is to see Jesus in our opponents and feel a measure of compassion, instead of seeing enemies and feelng all-consuming hatred.

Under the line “Best Wishes for your work in Alabama, he copied two lines from T. S. Eliot’s poem, “East Coker:”
“For us there is only the trying.
The rest is not our business.” (Pause)
That complements a quote from Dietrick Boehoeffer hanging by our bedroom door:
“The figure of the crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard.’
Now, those two ideas will take you a long way! Food for wayfarers walking with Christ. (Pause)

All this about Fr. Scott prepares you, I hope, to appreciate a paragraph from "A time to Speak". He is recalling his early work as a Vicar in London’s East End.
“Gradually I was becoming aware that over and above the recognized denominations of Christianity and apart from the innumerable little sects into which Christendom had become divided, there were two kinds of Christianity: There was the religion which was the divine sanction of the status quo, and there was the religion which was the divine instrument of change. No doubt all the truth was not to be found in either exclusively. There was the conception of the salt as the preservative of all that had been accomplished by the human spirit in the past and which also gave it savour, and there was also the idea of the leaven which slowly, imperceptibly, but dramatically, transformed the whole lump. Some of the great persecutions of the Christian era were no doubt due to the deep resentment and resistance of the lump to the process of being leavened and its seeking blindly and ruthlessly to extirpate the cause of change at whatever cost to itself.”

What images!
The preserving, flavor giving Salt. Ours to apply to all that is holy from ages past, and all in the present worth keeping.

And then the Lump. The Lump comes across like a Disney cartoon character: writhing, struggling to expel from itself the transforming yeast. Hating the change going on inside it.

I love Scott’s words about that oppositional lump: BLINDLY, RUTHLESSLY. “At whatever cost to ITSELF.” Fighting the change that will make it a delicious loaf of bread so that maybe, maybe, even someone new, needy and innocent of Jesus Christ, will come in off the street for a taste and stay to feast.

Here we are: salt in one hand, packet of live yeast in the other: (pause)
WHICH to apply, when? How much?

I don’t have to spend time suggesting how to apply salt. The Episcopal Church has got that aced--Give us a ten-year-old tradition, and we’ll salt it down, the more irrelevant the better. Pink candle the third Sunday in Advent? What’s that mean? I don’t know! Let’s make up a tradition! Salt that sucker down! Church supply houses glad to oblige!

But as to bubbly, fermenting yeast? When to add? How much? How to get it in the lump; the lump just sitting there oblivious to the injustice, cruelty and irrelevance it fosters by its inertia.

First, let’s be clear as to where yeast can go. Three places:
1. Into us as individuals--we can grow in Christ by adding yeast to ourselves.
2. Into small to middling groups, like this Cathedral family. Stirred in by its own members--as I know you do.
3. Into great movements of social justice, set to move a nation, the world.
Always these three, never just one or two.
The Gospel reading today is about things not to do. But it has advice all the same for yeast bringers. (From now on let’s call them/us “bakers.”)
Bakers looking to add some yeast should look first into their own hearts before messing with a lump. What motivates us? Are our aims as pure as we can make them? Murder has a forerunner in the heart says the Lord: anger; killing has origins: name calling.

Are rage and dehumanizing our opponents infecting our yeast? Jesus says, “If so, take action:” He uses some semitic hyperbole to say it: If a hand or eye needs to go--CUT IT OFF. In English we can more politely say, “If there are occasions that make you murderous, avoid them.” (Pause)

Bakers won’t find much help from the Deuteronomy Lesson for dealing with tangled social issues.

The children of Israel are at the Jordan River; crossing water is always a decisive act. Moses offers an uncomplicated choice: life and prosperity or death and adversity. The writers of Deuteronomy around 600 BC were given to stark contrasts: It’s black or white, pure or impure, all good or all bad.
(Well, as a culture we’re doing it today. Just look at what some of our politicians say.)

This passage has been beloved of revivalist preachers for over 200 years. They still think there is a big market today for turning hard drinkin’, two
timin’, godless, gamblin’ men into tee-totalling, God fearin’ family men.” Maybe. But I bet most of us in here are baptised, trying, some just a little, some a lot, to follow the Christ who has brought us thus far. So our situation is not black or white, death or life when it comes to the uses of salt and yeast. When it comes to the root causes of social injustice, our social and private demons are not all bad and our angels, social and private, are not all good. It was ever thus. That is why we must pray before we bake and look to the Holy Spirit in the murk of real life.
There is no end of lumps to infuse: racism, violence against minorities, mountain top removal, lack of health care, addiction, exploitation of illegal immigrants, homelessness, on and on.
And over all our efforts to leaven and produce fresh bread hangs the pall of never enough and always the reality of the tragic.

Because our efforts to leaven the lump will never in this world completely succeed, never be fully satisfying, never win the praise of everyone.
We can only look beyond at “The pioneer of our faith,” as the writer of Hebrews puts it, the One who stands complete in eternity.

We can only look to Jesus--the Risen One living in us and to His coming kingdom. And work in hope to approximate that Glory. We have to be like the Lord of love. He’s in us. Why? So we can grow into his likeness. To make a sacramental gesture toward justice, truth, peace and mercy--until Kingdom Come and God is All in All.

“For us there is only the trying-
The rest is not our business."

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