All this semester our seminary’s blog, Sowing Holy Questions, is featuring stories, poems, songs, and reflections from faculty and students on the work of racial healing. This week I had the opportunity to share a song I wrote for the blog inspired by the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2. I’ve posted a video version of the blog here and you can click the link above to read all the posts from the series.
This morning I preached my senior sermon after Choral Morning Prayer at the Seminary of the Southwest.
Homily, “On this rock I am building the Church”
Ordinary Time, Proper 16, 2020
On Zoom with Santa Fe Episcopal Church
San Antonio, TX
Derek M Larson, TSSF
Today’s Lectionary Readings:
*The above is a video of me preaching and does not include the screen sharing of the basilica or the voices of parishioners sharing who Jesus is to them.
You can find the virtual tour of the basilica here: https://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_pietro/vr_tour/index-en.html
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. “En el nombre del Padre, y el hijo, y el Espíritu Santo. Amén.
I. Introduction: A Visit to Rome
I have not had many opportunities to travel outside of the United States, but a few years ago as a youth minister of a church in Tennessee I was able to take a Franciscan pilgrimage to Italy. Now when most people visit Italy, they spend almost all of their time in Rome and take short day trips to smaller, medieval towns like Florence, Sienna, and Assisi, but since this was a Franciscan pilgrimage, we spent almost all of our time in Assisi where St. Francis grew up, only visiting Rome for a day at the end of our trip. And while most people spend all of their time in museums and gift shops, since this was a pilgrimage, we spent most of our time in tiny little churches like the chapel in a couple’s backyard where St. Francis cared for those with leprosy and the countryside friary where we shared lunch with a gang of belly laughing retired Franciscan friars and their 100 pound Great Pyrenees sheep dogs.
I’ll never forget how jarring it was then to finally visit Rome at the end of the trip. Instead of quiet streets we were in a bustling, never sleeping city. Instead of friendly smiles from the sisters hosting us, our shoulders competed for room in front of paintings. And instead of quiet chapels we found ourselves in noisy and massive cathedrals of gold and stone. The contrast literally made me ill and I spent the last hours in my hotel room alone.
Nowhere highlighted this contrast more than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, one of the most beautiful places in the world, longer than over four football fields and tall enough the Statue of Liberty could fit inside of it. It features statues and mosaics from history’s most famous artists including Michelangelo and Bernini and is visited by 10 million people a year. In fact there is a wonderful website that lets you tour the basilica so I can show you right now. As you can see, its breathtaking. And yet it functions today more like a museum as you can see. There is one side chapel off to the side you can see here designated specifically for prayer. The basilica is also part of Vatican City, the seat of the Pope and the tombs of more than 90 popes are in the church, the most important of which is St. Peter, who many believe to be the first pope. His tomb is marked by Bernini’s bronze baldacchino built over the main altar, as you can see here. That day as I stood there I kept thinking to myself, this feels like a palace, not a church. Don’t get me wrong, its beautiful! But it did not feel like a church to me. What is a church anyway?
It’s amazing to think all of this derives from our gospel reading today.
When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
II. Two Misconceptions of the Church
A. Church as Building
As I think back to my visit to St. Peter’s Basilica and reflect on this passage today, I think there are two all too common assumptions we make about the Church. The first is that when I say “church” most people think of a building. Cuando yo digo la palabra “Iglesia” la mayoría de la gente piensa en un edificio. When I say church, most people think of the place they go to on Sunday mornings—the place with pews and paintings, bell towers and baptismal fonts. Pensamos en un lugar con paredes y puertas, velas y vidrieras. And if that is church, then places like St. Peter’s Basilica ought to be the most prized churches in the world. If a church is a building, can you imagine any church better than St. Peter’s Basilica? We love to think of the church in this way! We love to create these physical, sacred spaces that transport us into another realm. Catholics really do this well, but we do the same in the Episcopal Church. Has anyone ever been to the Washington National Cathedral? It’s massively awe-striking! And a church that has the resources to create such magnificent buildings is looked at differently than smaller churches isn’t it? Sometimes it feels like those churches are somehow more real and legitimate than smaller churches.
But lets take a look again at our gospel passage because there is this really interesting point that I think we often miss. “And on this rock I will build my church.” “Y sobre esta piedra voy a construir mi iglesia.” Esta es la primera vez que se usa la palabra Iglesia en toda la Biblia. It is one of only two times it is mentioned in all of the four gospels. Keep in mind that in the time of Jesus, there was no “church.” There was a Jewish temple and Jewish synagogues for prayer, but the church did not begin until the followers of Jesus started meeting together after the resurrection. So this word is completely new in this religious context. In Greek the word is ekklesia. Es donde recibimos la palabra en español, iglesia. Ekklesia significa asamblea. It literally means an assembly called into being. It means community. Entonces la iglesia no es un edificio magnifico sino una comunidad, un pueblo. Un pueblo llamado por Dios. The Church is not a building, its a community of people. While it is a beautiful symbol that St. Peter’s Basilica is literally built on top of the bones of St. Peter, it’s not what this passage means. Jesus wasn’t so much concerned about constructing buildings as he was forming a community of people.
This is especially important for us during the pandemic, en la pandemia cuando anhelamos volver a los edificios de nuestra iglesia. Our church buildings are a gift to us that helps bring intention and connection to our communities. But we have to remember, they are not the church. The church is not closed. It is right here, living and alive. Blessed are those that remember the Church is not a building but a community. Dichosos los que recuerdan que la iglesia no es un edificio sino una comunidad.
B. Church as Institution
La segunda suposición que hacemos sobre la iglesia de este pasaje es que la iglesia es una institución juntos con sus líderes y cleros. When I say Church, if people don’t think of a building, they think of the organized institution, the denominations, and the pastors, priests, deacons, bishops, archbishops, and popes. This type of thinking comes out of believing that when Jesus calls Peter and says he is giving him the keys to heaven, Jesus is putting Peter in charge of the new institution called the Church. This is why the Pope is such a central figure in Catholicism because he is the successor of Peter as the Bishop of Rome. In the Episcopal Church we take pride as well in being a church in apostolic succession, which means every priest and bishop ordained in the Episcopal Church (cada sacerdote y obispo ordenado en la iglesia episcopal) was ordained by another bishop (fue ordenado por un otro obispo) who was ordained by another bishop (un otro obispo) theoretically leading all the way back to Peter. So when we say “Church” it easy for us to think primarily about clergy, as if they are the Church. As if they are solely the ones who hold power to lead the Church. And to be honest, often times, they think that too! (I have to remember…)
But again, let’s take another look at the gospel. “Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” When Jesus called Simon Peter, Peter was not clergy. In fact he was a poor fishermen living under an oppressive occupation of a foreign government with little power or influence. Jesus did not call Peter because of his status or intellect or talent. In fact often these things failed him. Peter was the one that had little faith when he tried to walk on water. Peter was the one that denied Jesus three times before the crucifixion. We can see from this passage that Jesus called Peter because out of all the competing voices in the world, he listened to God first. Jesús llamó a Pedro porque de todas las voces en competencia en el mundo, él escuchó a Dios primero. Peter is blessed because he heard the voice of God. Some people were saying this, and some people were saying that, but Peter listened to God. So when Jesus says “On Pedro la piedra I will build my church and give the keys of heaven,” I think he is saying (there are a lot interpretations out there) but I think Jesus is saying the church is built upon ALL those who listen to the voice of God, and the keys to heaven are given to ALL those who listen to the voice of God. Blessed are those who listen to the voice of God. Dichosos los que escuchan la voz de Dios.
So the Church is not a building like St. Peter’s Basilica (no es un edificio como la basilica), nor is it an institution and its leaders like all those Popes buried in the basilica (ni una institución con su clero como los papas.) La iglesia es cualquier comunidad que escucha la voz de Dios. The Church is any community that listens to the voice of God. There are millions of voices demanding our attention today, there are millions of claims on truth, but the Church is a community that is able to set aside all of those voices to listen to God.
III. Church as Subversive
Let me also say that being a community that listens to God, is almost always a subversive act. Ser una comunidad que escucha a Dios es casi siempre un acto subversivo. It almost always requires some good and necessary trouble making, as John Lewis has said. Just look our first passage from Exodus. Es una historia sobre el poder subversivo de las mujeres contra uno de los mas poderoso hombres en el mundo, el Faraón. (Mi profesora de español siempre me dice, “no es LA problema. Es EL problema. EL problema es masculino y LA solución es femenina.) Ellas escucharon a Dios, y fue un acto subversivo.
Y también, no es un accidente que nuestro evangelio de hoy comienza con “la región de Cesarea de Filipo,” una ciudad que lleva el nombre de César, el emperador más poderoso del mundo, y Felipe, el rey de Israel y el hijo de Herodes. Pedro declaró que Jesús era el Hijo del Dios Viviente no solo entre las voces en competencia de sus compañeros, sino también bajo la sombra de los poderosos tronos que reclamaron el título de “Hijo de Dios” para sí mismos. Cuando escuchamos a Dios y tenemos el valor de hacer lo que Dios dice, casi siempre es un acto subversivo. Porque la voz de Dios no viene de Egipto o Cesarea de Filipo, the voice of God doesn’t come from Rome or Washington, the voice of God rarely comes from places of power. The voice of God comes from the depths of the soul and the cries of the poor. La voz de Dios viene de lo más profundo del alma y del llanto de los pobres. To listen to God is almost always a subversive act.
IV: Conclusion: Church as YOU
So in closing, I want to ask you the same question that Jesus asked his disciples. Who do YOU say Jesus is? ¿Quién dicen que es Jesús? What is Jesus like to YOU? How have YOU experienced Jesus? Who do YOU say Jesus is? I invite you now to say a word or a sentence that describes who Jesus is to you.
Dichosos ustedes. Dichoso Santa Fe. Blessed are you. Blessed are you because you hear the voice of God. Ustedes escuchan la voz de Dios. The Church is not a building. The Church is not an institution and its clergy. The Church is you, the people of God. La iglesia es ustedes, el pueblo de Dios. The Church is you, Santa Fe, because you are a community that is listening to God. Ustedes son una comunidad que escucha a Dios. And on this rock, sobre esta piedra, God is building the Church. Dios esta construyendo la Iglesia. Amén.
As I mention in today’s sermon, much of the division we see in the world today comes at the hands of the Church, particularly that part of the Church whose members are white.
Slavery and segregation were both defended in large part by the white Church. Even today, we who carry white privilege have a difficult time seeing racism in ourselves and in the world around us. Some of us actively deny it. Others who see it in others can’t see it in ourselves. Having white privilege doesn’t mean we haven’t had challenges, but it does mean those challenges do not come from being part of a historically racially oppressed group of people. We do not carry the generational trauma inherited from those who were enslaved. We do not experience violence, prejudice, suspicion, or micro-aggressions in public spaces for not looking like most of those around us.
Some of us can’t read the paragraphs above without feeling angry and defensive. Our defensiveness is a sign of the need to practice repentance. The practice of repentance is not just for those we have harmed (though it is crucial if we mean to stop harming them), but it is also for the benefit of our own journey with Christ.
I want to offer a few resources to you that might help you work through your feelings of defensiveness and frustration and work towards repentance and justice. Please contact me if you need a dialogue partner to work through some of these. I’m not a person of color or an expert on racial justice but I may be able to help connect you with those who are. Another great idea is to start a book club with some friends to work through these resources.
If we answer the call of Christ to embody the work of the Trinity in our communities, to affirm unity and diversity in loving relationship, it is essential that we as white people do the work of reflection on our own experience of race and privilege and repent when we uncover the ways we have fallen short.
Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing
We are very fortunate in the Diocese of Atlanta to be the home of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing directed by Dr. Catherine Meeks. This is an Episcopal community here in the Diocese of Atlanta which offers trainings and resources for the work of racial justice and healing. All church staff, leadership, and vestry are required to go through its training on Dismantling Racism, but all are welcome and are encouraged to participate in these trainings!
Explore the website: http://www.centerforracialhealing.org/
Dr. Catherine Meeks
Dr. Catherine Meeks, who directs the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing, is a powerful voice for racial healing and justice. Here are a few podcasts and videos from her:
Key Books on White Privilege and the Work of Anti-Racism:
White Fragility: Why its So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DeAngelo
This book is extremely helpful for white people to reflect on what it means to be white in America, something we rarely think about.
How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi
This book is wonderful about clearly defining terms, such as racism, anti-racism, colorism, etc. The major claim of the book is that nothing is ever neutral. It is either racist or anti-racist (either discriminatory/ oppressive or inclusionary/liberative).
me and white supremacy by Layla F. Saad
This is another book for white people to do the work of reflecting on their own racial identity and its role in society. This one, however, includes questions and journaling assingments. It’s a workbook! And it would be excellent to use in a book study with others (that’s what I’ll be doing this summer).
Martin Luther King Jr. on White Moderates
Martin Luther King Jr. has become less of a controversial figure today and is widely praised for his work of racial justice during the civil rights movement. Even then he had much to say to who he called the white moderates. Many of us might even classify ourselves that way today. We are politically moderates or centrists. Some of us may say we are progressives and actually moderates. In any case, here are two things (a letter and a speech) from MLK that give the white community a lot to think about.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”
Today is Trinity Sunday and we hear in our lectionary readings this morning the glimpses of Holy Threeness experienced by the early Church. The Trinity is a tricky thing that baffles most of our minds.
* Drone footage taken at Lakeland Highland Scrubs in Lakeland, FL, just down the road from where Derek grew up.
Some of you may know I belong to a Franciscan religious order called the Third Order, Society of St. Francis. While our order has traditional friars and nuns who make vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Third Order is for folks like me with families and jobs. We still live by a rule of life and take life vows, but they are adapted to our context. After 4 or 5 years of formation, I made my life vows as a Franciscan on July 31, 2016.
Recently a friend of mine was making his life vows in the order and asked me to share some reflections on what it means to be a Franciscan. Here is what I shared:
The Life of a Franciscan
The life of a Franciscan is a life of poverty. I will go so far as to say there are no rich Franciscans, unless by rich we mean the great riches gained in giving up everything.
When I say a life of poverty I mean at least three things:
First, I mean the material poverty that causes us to depend upon God and others for our survival and wellbeing. The poverty that for some of us is imposed by the injustice of society and for others is chosen in the renouncing of all the “things” that compete for our attention. The poverty that forsakes the extravagance of society for the extravagance of God’s creation. Lest we think vows of poverty are solely for first order brothers and sisters, the life of a tertiary is not an exception to poverty but a life of contextual poverty. We adopt an attitude of simplicity which meets the need of our own context, but nothing more.
Second, by life of poverty I mean the poverty we encounter in the communities which we are called to serve. Communities which feel the weight of the world’s social sins: racism, white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, classism, greed, and power. We have always on our minds the world’s increasing wealth inequality, the limits to who can afford healthcare, and the walls which separate refugees from shelter. As Francis embraced the most rejected and forgotten of his society, we dedicate our lives not simply to the work of charity, but to the bonds of relationship and compassion with those forced to the margins, remembering that just as we do for the least of these, we do for Jesus (Mt 25:40).
Finally, by life of poverty I mean the spiritual poverty to which Jesus ascribes blessing in Matthew 5. The poverty that calls us to have the same mind as Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:6-7). As Jesus prayed in the garden, “not my will but your will be done” (Lk 22:42), we seek to let go of our desires for worldly power, affection, and security to foster a spirit of continual praise of the Father and Provider of all.
And yet hidden in each of these things there is a surprise gift.
The first poverty teaches us humility and gives us freedom from the prison of materialism and capitalistic competition. Without a stack of things to defend, Franciscans may be open to experiencing the beauty and gratitude of a world that all belongs to God and has been graciously and hospitably shared with creation. The things we hold become sacred and priceless because their worth comes not from market value but from Divine generosity.
The second poverty teaches us love and gives us authentic friendships and intimacy, for the basis of our relationships comes not from the exchange of material goods but the exchange of mutual affection. Instead of segregation between groups of rich and poor, black and white, American and foreigner, documented and undocumented, we perceive all people as our siblings and fellow children of God.
The third poverty teaches us the meaning of joy by walking us into the very presence of God. It invites us to become participants in the unity of Divine Trinitarian love where we find our deepest and truest self as belonging to God.
Yes, the life of a Franciscan is a life of great wealth. I will go so far as to say there are no poor Franciscans, unless by poor we mean the great riches gained in giving up everything.
Find our more about the Third Order, Society of St. Francis at www.tssf.org.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
What does it mean to want for nothing?
What does it mean to want for nothing in an age of growing economic disparity. Half of Americans own just 2% of the nations wealth and the top 10% own 70% of the nations wealth?