Keep Vigil & Celebrate
Julia Macy Stroud
All Saints' Park Slope
November 20, 2016
In the name of one God, our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Amen.
Last Thursday, Father Steve and I were working in the office and a reporter called. He asked if the church was planning to hold a vigil in response to the election.
In fact, we had had an evening prayer service and town hall the night before -- the day after the election. But in terms of future vigils, as Father Steve explained to him, we do them every week. Every Sunday. And we have been holding them continuously for 149 years.
At a vigil, we keep watch. We keep watch for God breaking in. And we do it together, for which I am very glad this morning, because it can be hard to see where God is when we are trying to do it on our own.
And I loved Father Steve’s response to the reporter -- we do a vigil every week at All Saints’ Church -- because it calls attention to the ways in which church is specifically suited to the times when the world feels it needs to come together.
But I think his response points to something else that church is good at, as well, which is living in contradiction, in paradox -- living in the reality of what we can call BOTH/AND thinking as opposed to EITHER/OR thinking.
Because we are here to keep vigil and we are also here to celebrate. Today we celebrate the harvest -- the abundance in the world that surrounds us -- food from the ground, beauty in the skies, the abundance that keeps peeking through no matter the despair or fear we feel at the hand of stately authority. And on Harvest Sunday we celebrate the stewardship campaign at All Saints’ Church. Stewardship is, by definition, "the activity or job of protecting and being responsible for something."
At times when we feel that we need to come together -- when the world feels very broken, we are stewards of our own spiritual selves. So when you put your pledge card into the plate today as we celebrate the harvest, you are pledging to care for yourself through this unending vigil.
And today we also celebrate Christ the King Sunday, a paradox in itself, at the very core of the religion we practice -- that God is both King -- a divine and perfect ruler -- and also Christ -- anointed to save us through death. Our God is both supreme and entirely vulnerable. Thus we do both: We keep vigil AND we celebrate.
This is the paradox of the cross -- the both/and of God’s death and resurrection. The very story that we hear this morning when we celebrate both Harvest and also Christ the King is of Jesus’s crucifixion: Jesus, put to death by the state, surrounded by criminals, promising to the lowliest person not ONLY that there will be paradise but that in paradise there will be reunion and that it will be TODAY. “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus promises this to us.
It is absurd. What is this paradise that Jesus promises to a people who continue to murder each other through political power? Where is this paradise? It is a question you can certainly ask yourself today.
And you would not be the first to wonder. The philosopher Nietzsche could not understand a religion that elevated the weak over the strong, exalting pitied and poor people at the expense of vitality, of life, of success.
Nietzsche’s disdain for weakness as embodied in Christianity has been picked up today by the amorphous mob that reporters are calling the Alt Right -- but which is more accurately an underground network of white supremacist men who use the internet to organize their hatred against women, against people of color, immigrants, Jewish people, and Muslim people, and who distort Christianity into a religion of political power. They are currently sniffing out weakness in order to grab this power, including power in the highest offices of our country, where self-identified leaders of this movement have now gotten jobs in the president-elect’s incoming administration.
This is frightening. I know that whatever our own skin tones or families of origin or political proclivities, we all share fear at the prospect of white supremacists in charge of our country’s legislation. As Father Steve said last week, in our vigil at All Saints’ Church: “We will be watching. We will be vigilant. And if we see harm, abuse, or intimidation of ANY of God’s children, All Saints’ Church will be a point of resistance.”
But we have to come together in order to do this. You, every single one of you here today, is the All Saints’ Church that will be this beacon in the midst of fear.
And we absolutely cannot keep our vigil and celebration each week without being careful stewards of its building, of its finances, and of its people, of ourselves.
Before the election, we had an Evensong with music by our parishioner Arturo O’Farrill, and he talked about how coming to church is like the practice of playing scales. You play scales every day and you don’t necessarily see a change, but you practice anyway. And then you are ready for making music.
We are blessed to have kept the practice of vigil and celebration for all of these years in order to come together in these moments -- when we are confronted not yet with resurrection, but only with the cross, only with Jesus’s execution.
Where is God breaking through today? I urge you to look around you, to look at the faces that surround you. Please take a moment to notice the children in our church -- squawking a bit during the sermon, perhaps, and racing up in a few moments with their abundant offerings. God breaks through in us, in each one of us.
There is another promise in Christ the King, this weird holiday we celebrate every year: it is always the last Sunday before Advent starts, the four weeks we wait for the birth of Jesus at Christmas. These two truths of Jesus always rub up against each other at this time of year -- Jesus on the cross and Jesus as a baby -- the tiniest and most vulnerable creature, yet full of all of our hopes and possibilities.
It is in this way that year after year when we turn from the last page of the book to the first page of the book -- from Christ the King to the first Sunday of Advent -- we mix up the tragedy of death with the promise of life. The blood and water of Jesus’s wounds mix with the blood and water of birth. Both are painful. And both are sacrificial.
But still we celebrate. Because we do not let despair change us.
On the day after the election, faith leaders gathered in prayer. A sikh lawyer and activist named Valarie Kaur gave a benediction which I would like to share with you today:
“In our tears and agony, we hold our children close and confront the truth: The future is dark.
But my faith dares me to ask: What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?
What if our America is not dead but a country still waiting to be born?
What if the story of America is one long labor?
What if all the mothers who came before us, who survived genocide and occupation, slavery and Jim Crow, racism and xenophobia, political oppression and sexual assault, are standing behind us now, whispering in our ear: You are brave!
What if this is our Great Contraction before we birth a new future?
Remember the wisdom of the midwife: "Breathe," she says. Then: "Push."
Now it is time to breathe. But soon it will be time to push; soon it will be time to fight - for those we love -- Muslim father, Sikh son, trans daughter, indigenous brother, immigrant sister, white worker, the poor and forgotten, and the ones who cast their vote out of resentment and fear.
Let us make an oath to fight for the soul of America with Love and Optimism:
As Langston Hughes called it: "The land that never has been yet- And yet must be" (Langston Hughes)
And so I pray this Sikh prayer:
"In the name of the Divine within us and around us, we find everlasting optimism.””
We Christians are not alone in our optimism when we believe Jesus when he says, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Though we may find ourselves at the place of the skull, still we keep watch. And still, we celebrate. Amen.
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