“Courage Under Fire”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
All Saints Day
November 2, 2014
University Baptist Church
My friend from Seminary, Ann Keeler Evans puts out a daily blog. Here is her poetic offering for today:
Most of us have known more than a few –
People who turn our worlds upside down.
People who taught us to be kind,
To be brave, to be daring.
People who risked all things for Love.
People who taught us
That caring for another soul
Would transform not only that life
But also our own.
I’m not sure I believe Saints
Ever rest from their labors.
No, I believe they are always there
To inspire us to Peace and its making.
The bells ring the names of loved ones. We remember their laughter, their faces, their hopes, their dreams, their rages, their madness, their passion, their support, their love. And we remember how we hold a piece of that in our lives for good or for ill. We are intimately connected with those who have gone before. We are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses. We are surrounded externally and internally. For they are us.
Think of the people who have gone before us. In a few minutes we will celebrate communion around this table, imagining that we are eating with them. Think about those meals shared. The smells emanating from the kitchen, the raucous laughter around the table, the jokes hurled, the stories shared.
I watched the PBS series on the Roosevelts last month. It was a riveting telling of history that I did not know. Especially about Teddy Roosevelt. In one memorable scene, he and his rough riders were fighting in Cuba and he was on a horse taking heavy fire. The rough riders won the day even though they sustained heavy casualties. Roosevelt regretted that in that battle he did not receive an obvious wound as a talisman of the battle. Was that courage or was that foolishness? Decades later, when his own son was killed in World War I, he became a broken man, like most of us would be if we were to ever lose a child. On All Saints Day, we remember courage and vulnerability—twin sisters.
One of the things that Justin Martyr was impressed by was the early church’s non-conscription in the armed forces. They refused to lift up sword against their neighbor. And when the going got tough they faced their deaths with dignity and courage. There must be something to this movement for them to have such courage under fire, Justin imagined.
I think about this as I consider all of the early Christians who laid down their arms and accepted their deaths at the hands of the Romans or as entertainment in the coliseum, because they would not renounce their religion. It occurs to me that in this day and age when we switch congregations quickly, forsake denominations and openly shop for churches, that it doesn’t take anywhere near as much courage to be a Christian than in the days of old.
That is unless you are a different kind of Christian. I was speaking with a former seminary professor last week. After we were done getting caught up on the perfunctory things she said, “so have you gotten in much trouble over there at UBC?” The implication being that we haven’t embraced the Gospel if we haven’t gotten in trouble. I was tempted to mention that when I first arrived here, some people called me “Dangerous Doug”. Of course, we can all answer that question. We have gotten in trouble with our region and our denomination for our stances on behalf of the LGBT community. We have been activists against wars and historic building demolitions. We have advocated for reproductive justice and have fed the hungry and housed the homeless. But none of these things have been overly dangerous.
Then there are the internal struggles. One of my colleagues said when he had been pastor of his church for 11 years that it was long enough to disappoint most members of the church. So, I guess since I’ve been here for more than 13 years, I have had the opportunity to disappoint many of you several times over. But has it gotten me in trouble? What would a truly dangerous stance be?
When I think of courage under fire I think of life and death struggles. And I also remember that when the going gets tough, you can’t stand up alone. Your courage comes from something else, from a cloud of witnesses holding you up. It comes from a prayerful stance that you know in your heart is right. It’s not stubbornness. It’s conviction. And it’s a commitment to a cause greater than our own selfish needs. I saw Lynn Welton stand up in courage as she defended her faith at her ordination council 10 years ago in this very room. I saw that great courage a few months later when our former region questioned the calling of anyone openly gay or lesbian. She stood with quiet dignity as people discussed her like she wasn’t there. But she knew who had her back.
As we speak, original American and their allies are gathering at Many Nations Plaza in front of TCF stadium. They are there to encourage the ownership of the Washington team to dismiss the name of their football team. “Redskins” harkens to the skins of Native Americans dripping with blood after being scalped. Holding that name is the kind of triumphalism that conquering forces do to their vanquished foes. And as solemn as the face is on the helmet, it does not fit the derogatory name. So, under fire, courageous people are taking a stand against racism. And they are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, all of the ancestors who died on this Ojibwe land so that teams could play. Blond Vikings again defeating feather-headed caricatures of a dignified people. It’s not just a game. It’s people’s lives. Imagine calling a team the decapitated Christians. Or the burned witches. Or the lynched Negroes. Boy, that name offends on several levels, doesn’t it? That’s what this name means. And it needs to stop. Washington needs a better moniker than celebrating a bloody defeat of a proud people. I’m glad for the courageous people gathering at TCF today.
It's like the psalmist says:
5 How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep!
6 The dullard cannot know, the stupid cannot understand this:
7 though the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish, they are doomed to destruction forever,
8 but you, O Lord, are on high forever.
11 My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies; my ears have heard the doom of my evil assailants.
12 The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
13 They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God.
14 In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap,
15 showing that the Lord is upright; God is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in God.
Cleaving ourselves to that righteous courage, that’s what we need. That’s what clears our fuzzy minds. God’s uniform is justice, mercy, love and compassion. Anything that doesn’t wear those colors is not of God. We needs wisdom to discern this and courage to defend God’s ways.
Think of the people who have influenced you. Whom do you hold in your bones? What proclivities do you have that have their roots in someone who is on this bell banner? Who is in our cloud of witnesses? What is their courage that you tap when you are under fire?
I think of my years in San Francisco at the height of the AIDS crisis. Our church and several others catered to the often transplanted LGBT constituency. Our congregations experienced more funerals than anyone could count. When I arrived there in the mid-90’s there was a generation missing, succumbing to the scourge of AIDS and receiving at most church doorsteps a stiff-armed closed door and closed heart. At the MCC church in the Castro, when they sang “We are standing on holy ground and I know that there are angels all around.” They meant it. You could see the angels. You could hear their clear tenor and booming bass voices. You could see them in the gap virtually holding up a surviving partner.
We too feel that here, maybe not as immediate but equally intense. We think of those who have gone before. We hear their names spoken, their bell rung. And we are standing on holy ground and we know that there are angels all around.
In my drives around town over the past month, I have been listening to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. There’s a scene toward the end of the book when the main character needs to face his mortal fate against his worst enemy. But he had one piece of magic left. It is a resurrection stone, once hidden in a ring and now revealed. It brings back the dead. Well, not really the dead, for they are not fully of this world. But Harry can see them and they root him on, giving him the courage that he doesn’t think he has. No one else can see them and they whisper encouragement to him as he faces is worst nightmare.
We readers remember that we are all surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. They are the ones we conjure in the dark night of our souls, to stand by us when the going is the toughest. When we don’t believe in ourselves. When we are convinced that we can’t do it. The truth is that we can’t do it alone. And so we take out the stone, turn it thrice in hand and call back those heroes and sheroes of our lives. We remember their courage, their wisdom, their lives. No one else can see them but us. We imagine them right by our side. And they see the big picture of our lives. And all of a sudden the daunting task is a bit more manageable.
And so we remember those saints. We ring these bells and we give thanks for the courage of our ancestors. And we channel that courage when we feel under fire. When we don’t think we have the power or capacity to take another step. To say the word that needs to be said. We pause, take out the stone in our imagination and hold onto that courage for dear life. And when we do that, we live as the psalmist said: “The righteous flourish like a palm tree, and grow like the cedars of Lebanon.” We live with courage, because we are never alone. We are always connected with those who have gone before. And we are connected with those who follow us who will be inspired by our courage. And we go on. It’s how God makes a path through the deepest bleakest jungle. Another word for it is resurrection. So be rooted in the courage of the saints. May their lives and the lives we share be evidence of the Grace that sustains us.