This page includes a selection of sermons for the Saint James School community. Each has been chosen by Father Dunnan. Enjoy.
- April 1, 2018: A Sermon for Easter by Father Keyes
- October 8, 2017: Homily for Parents' Weekend by Father Dunnan
- September 3, 2017 : Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost by Father Keyes
- May 29, 2016: Last Mass of the School Year by Father Keyes
- April 2016: A Homily for Saint James by the Revd. Andrew Mead
- March 27, 2016: A Sermon for Easter by Father Dunnan
- February 2016: Memorial Service (Headmasters' Assoc.) by Father Dunnan
- December 24, 2015: A Sermon for Christmas Eve by Father Dunnan
- November 15, 2015: Proper 28 (Pentecost 25) by Father Keyes
“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Happy Easter. Time for some terror and amazement. We don’t often hear Mark’s version of the resurrection, because it doesn’t fit very well with our idea of what Easter is supposed to be about. Easter is, after all, about new life, and joy, and spring — at least sometimes it is about spring — and rabbits and eggs and so on. If you walked into this chapel not knowing what Easter is you might just take a look at things and guess that Easter must be some kind of explosion of flowers and candles (and you’d have a point). And even if we know something about the resurrection of Jesus, and believe in it, we assume that it is a Good Thing, a happy thing.
And it is all that. But it is also, as the scriptures tell us, a moment of terror and amazement. The women in the story do not respond with big smiles and hugs and preparation of a welcome back party for Jesus. No: they flee for their lives, afraid even to tell anyone about what they have seen. And if you think about it, this is maybe a little bit closer to reality, maybe a bit closer to what most of us would have done in the same situation.
So this is the rather sobering point that I want to make: If we think that Easter is just obviously 100% happy, this story of fear and terror gives us a hint that maybe we’re not understanding it correctly.
So how should we understand it? Let me suggest three things to take home this morning.
One, the resurrection of Jesus is real. Every year around this time you hear people all over the place talk about the lovely idea of resurrection. Oh, they say, Easter isn’t so much about a dead man actually coming back to life, it’s about love winning the day, about all the ways that we find new life springing up in unexpected places. And again, that’s nice. Really nice. It’s not, in other words, terrifying. I have never seen anyone run in terror because they saw flowers popping up again in the spring. I do not flee campus and cower in fear when I see a D- student turn into a B student. Because what the Bible describes in the resurrection of Jesus is not a lovely idea, but the physical fact of a dead man having new life. If you want to doubt the bodily resurrection, fine. It is unlikely. It is crazy. But it is central to the story. The story doesn’t make sense unless Jesus actually comes back from the dead.
Two, the reason that the resurrection of Jesus is scary, in addition to wonderful, is I think quite simple: if it’s true, we have to change. In other words, if the resurrection actually happened, it’s not just a nice idea that symbolizes some generic human value. If Jesus is really and truly alive, what he said and did is much more than a nice idea to like on Instagram or share on Pinterest or reference in passing every now and then on a Snap because you want to seem like a vaguely spiritual person. If Jesus is alive:
When he said love your neighbor as yourself, he meant it.
When he said that we should take up our cross and follow him, he meant it.
When he said, the kingdom of God is within you, he meant it.
If Jesus is alive, what we do in this life matters, which for some of us may be terrifying, because we convince ourselves that it doesn’t — that you can just do whatever you want and learn to play the game wherever you are. So, for example — and I know there are students who think this way — at Saint James, we’re not supposed to hook up or get high or cheat, but nobody else cares about that, so when you leave here you just learn the new rules for wherever you are. But if Jesus is alive, good and evil aren’t just a matter of local opinion, a question of how to play the game. They are real. Evil was real on the cross. Good was more real in the resurrection. If Jesus is alive, he wants us to pick a side. You don’t get to be neutral.
Three, thinking on the empty tomb in Mark, and the fear and amazement of the women: isn’t this the world we live in? The angels say, “He is going ahead of you.” So here we are in this gap between the empty tomb and the end of the story. Which is to say: we live by faith. At this moment in the story, the women at the tomb are very much like us: we have not actually seen Jesus in the flesh. We have seen his body the Church. We have seen his body the sacrament. But we have not seen him either in the way that he was seen prior to his death or in the way that we will see him in heaven. And this is a hard place to be, a place where it is easy to become afraid and cowardly, because, to be honest, faith is just hard. We don’t always know where we are going. Whether that’s where we’re going in the life of faith, where we’re going to college, or where we’re going to lunch.
At the same time, the empty tomb itself is a way of hope. Jesus is not absent in a passive way. He’s not missing. “He is going ahead of you.” He is busy, in other words. He has better things to do than wait around in the tomb. As another one of the angels asks, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” And what I take from this is that the resurrection is not, as we often think of it, the end of the story. It is in many ways the beginning of the story that we are now living. We may not always know where we are going, but, in the end, we don’t need to be afraid, because Jesus is going ahead of us. We may not always know where we are going, but in his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus showed us that how we go matters. It’s all real. Nothing is lost. But also: nothing is beyond hope. However bad you’ve been, however much you’ve rejected God’s goodness, there’s always a way forward.
But part of the way forward is always going to be that kind of terror and amazement at the resurrection. Because all of us need that moment when it all just suddenly gets real. Like when you get called in front of the DC for the first time. Or when you get your first A, or your first C… or F, or when you become a starter for your team. Or when you realize that you do actually have to come up with a plan for after high school, or after college. Or when you realize you’re going to have a baby. In all of these situations, and so many more, there is an element of fear. And in each, the point is, what do you do with it? You can run, and act like nothing is different, or you can confront the unknown future, and live in a new way.
If Jesus is raised from the dead, the terror and amazement at what is new and unknown can and should give way, for us, to new life, his life, which is available for us today and every day.
A Homily for Parents’ Weekend
By the Revd. Dr. D. Stuart Dunnan
Saint James School
Sunday Oct. 8, 2017
“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:” (Isaiah 5.1)
In nomine . . .
The readings appointed for this Sunday place before us Isaiah’s image of the vineyard, which he used so powerfully to explain to his people the true nature of their ingratitude and disloyalty to God. God has planted his vineyard, and it is the whole nation of Israel, in the land that he had promised them. Indeed, the southern kingdom of Judah with its capital Jerusalem is the best part of this vineyard, “his pleasant planting,” where the most fruitful vines have been planted, which should produce the finest wine.
But instead, his vineyard has yielded “wild grapes,” and there is a reason for this. The people of Judah have forgotten that the vineyard is God’s, and so now treat it as their own, forgetting that they are themselves his vines, so producing as a result their own grapes, not his, their own works of greed and self-indulgence instead of his works of love, compassion, and mercy: “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
So, understandably, God has decided to destroy what he has planted: “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” (5.1-7)
Later Jesus returns to Isaiah’s image of the vineyard, making very much the same point that the prophet had made before him. In his telling, however, the vineyard is fruitful, and the people of Judah are not the vines, but the tenants who tend them. But they also forget that they work for God who is the owner of the vineyard and not just for themselves. So when the owner sends his servants to collect the harvest, “the tenants seize his servants and beat one, kill another, and stone another. Again he sends other servants, more than the first; and they treat them in the same way.” His servants are the prophets, including Isaiah and most recently John the Baptist, whose message of repentance they reject.
So the owner then sends his son, whom he assumes they will respect more, but “when the tenants see the son, they say to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come let us kill him and get his inheritance.” And the son of course is Jesus, and his death is the cross.
So we end up in the same place, but Jesus turns Isaiah’s prophecy into a question, which challenges us still today in our time of even greater selfishness and entitlement: “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (Matt. 21.33-40) What will he do to us, we who so constantly ignore him and pretend so willfully that everything that surrounds us and all that we accomplish is ours?
What then is our vineyard? For parents, is it your work, your family, your children, your reputation, your wealth, your house or houses, your possessions? For students, is it your academic, athletic, musical, artistic, or social success? Is it your reputation and popularity, your relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend, your college placement? For teachers and coaches, is it your skill and advancement? For me as headmaster and for all of us who love Saint James, is it the fame and glory of this school?
What do we really care about, work for, and dream about? What do we seek to preserve, build, and improve? Because in each of these goals and dreams of ours, however “necessary” or “noble”, there is always the temptation of idolatry and the inclination towards self-worship – to make the vineyard ours.
And let’s be honest: there is a great deal of ambition at this school, because Saint James is a very achieving place, a place for growth and accomplishment. We are a school after all, and a very good one too, bursting with the promise of eager and talented youth. So parents are ambitious for their children, teachers for their students, coaches and players for their teams, but all of us, if we are honest, really mostly just ambitious for ourselves. And herein lies the danger: our temptation to believe that we can achieve our own happiness, earn our own triumphs, control our own futures, and use just for ourselves without any sense of gratitude or responsibility all the gifts that God has given us – in short, to steal the harvest.
But here is the truth which Isaiah and Jesus remind us: the vineyard is not ours, so just because we work in it, we should never make the mistake of believing that we own it, or even that we built it. We did not plant the vines; we did not build the watchtower and set the hedges around it. Neither did we create the soil, or cause the rain to fall or not to fall, or set the sun in the heavens to shine upon it. God did all of these things. He still does.
And this is the truth we do not forget at Saint James and therefore teach at Saint James, which is most often neglected, forgotten, or even just ignored at other schools.
This is why we gather so regularly and purposefully in this chapel, every morning before school, and at the end of the day in smaller numbers in the Mary Chapel voluntarily. And this is why we come to this altar as a school on Wednesdays and Sundays: we come to give thanks. We come to remember and to acknowledge that no matter how hard we work or how carefully we plan or how cleverly we manipulate, we achieve nothing by ourselves or for ourselves alone.
Because the truth is that there are many others who have helped and are helping us: our parents and teachers, our friends and neighbors, our classmates, teammates, and rivals – all who inspire, support, and challenge us to work hard and to succeed. And there are also all those who have gone in this life before us who have given us the freedoms, privileges, and opportunities that we enjoy and use, but take, if we are honest, almost always for granted.
And yes, we know some of their names, but not all of them, because the vineyard of this school, the vineyard of this country, and the vineyard of our world, all of which we share, did not belong to any of them anymore than it belongs to us. We are all of us just passing through, as St. Paul reminds us. Like him, we “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3.14) For nothing we acquire and hoard in this life stays with us; nothing we achieve is permanent; and none of us lives as we do now forever.
Even we ourselves, each of us and all of us, in our physical bodies and in this physical world which we now share, are created by the hand of God for his divine purpose. Everything and everyone is given to us, and we are given as well. We have not made and we cannot make ourselves. We can only improve ourselves by giving ourselves to others, as Christ himself has taught and shown us how to do.
So this is the truth that all the prophets and Jesus still teach us: take nothing for granted; be grateful for all that God has given you; and be his gift yourself.
And yes, this is a hard truth for greatly privileged, healthy, clever young adults to receive at the prime of their lives with all the glory of their particular achievements before them, which is why I suspect that some might think that our worship of God in this chapel is such a waste of their time, time better spent on themselves surely: in bed sleeping or with their friends “fooling around”, or even more productively, studying for a test or “working out.”
One can see them in chapel looking bored and disinterested, staring into the distance or discreetly sleeping, with no interest in singing a hymn or saying a prayer or listening to any words read or offered that might suggest to them that they are not the creator and center of the universe. They are just “too into themselves,” as we say these days, too confident in their ownership of their own particular vineyard to realize that they own neither the vineyard nor the harvest. I pray that they will grow up, and that they will do this soon - before they cause too much disappointment and suffering to themselves and to others.
Just listen at the end of this mass when the deacon says the dismissal: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” The answer is “Thanks be to God!”, and I hope that you will say it. But many will not, which begs the question why. Perhaps they do not believe in God or have become too anonymous and passive during the liturgy to speak, but the biggest reason I suspect is that they cannot be bothered to say thank you, like spoiled children who “forget” to say the “magic words” after they get what they want.
But impressively, there are many who can hear the truths that are taught here and are humble enough to embrace them, and so ready to live their lives with a greater sense of gratitude and a deeper understanding of their particular, God-given vocation and purpose. As a result, they are more open to Christ’s call to live their lives gratefully, and thus generously and bravely, never quite perfectly of course, but always willing to challenge themselves and to try.
Because here is the deepest truth that Isaiah and Our Lord would teach us with their image of the vineyard: we are the vine, not the fruit; the tenant, not the owner: the work is ours, not the harvest. But in the work is our salvation, our chance to grow into the image of Christ, to love and serve each other, to build God’s kingdom amongst us.
Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Just last week in the gospel we heard about how great Peter is. “You are Peter,” Jesus says, “and on this rock I will build my Church.” That famous verse underlines all the history and legend surrounding St. Peter, who goes on to lead the church in Rome, and who is claimed by the Catholic Church today as the first in a long line of popes. Peter is special because he recognizes who Jesus is before anybody else. And when Catholics speak about papal primacy and supremacy and universality – all of those big words for what developed into a very grand office — the real point of it all is that Peter, and by extension Rome, has the ability to see Jesus for who he is. Peter’s the one who says “yes” while everyone else is still saying “maybe.”
But despite all that, the story we hear today has Peter falling flat on his face. Last week Jesus is singing his praises, this week Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” This one guy either gets it very right or very wrong. When you read the gospels, Peter is always like this. He’s the guy who can either fix everything or ruin everything. He’s the one who can walk into a room and instantly change the atmosphere. He’s never worried about what people think. He isn’t waiting in the corner, anxiously looking at his phone screen, trying to decide when to make a move. He is the natural leader.
Some of you are like that, I think. In that way high school is not that different from the rest of life. There’s always going to be the person that everybody wants to sit with at lunch, the person you want to like you, the person who can convince you to do something you wouldn’t have really wanted to do otherwise. And you’ve probably heard this before, but those natural leaders can be wonderful, or they can be horrible, because if they lead people into something good, they improve things for everyone; if they lead people into something bad, they lead everyone to disaster.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is giving Peter a lesson in good leadership. Maybe the problem is that Peter doesn’t yet understand — and in this he’s like some teenagers I’ve known — he doesn’t yet understand the effect he can have on people. And this is a wake up call.
What’s interesting is what Jesus says next: He doesn’t tell Peter to pay more attention to what he says; he doesn’t tell him to be more perfect; he says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Which is pretty strange, when you think, about it, because Jesus has not yet died on the cross. We hear this line and we think it’s perfectly natural because we know that Jesus died on a cross. But at this moment it probably makes very little sense to the people hearing it.
I think it’s especially a message for Peter. You see, Peter got right the part about who Jesus is — the Messiah, the son of the living God. But he missed what followed: he thought, if Jesus is the Son of God, he certainly cannot be involved in suffering. He cannot die. He’s too important for that kind of thing.
And that’s exactly wrong. For Jesus, it is exactly because he is the Son of God that he must suffer and die. It is exactly because he is so important that he must be involved in the worst side of human existence: sin and evil and death. And it is exactly because he goes to these dark places that is able to be our savior and Lord, that he is worthy of our praise and worship, that he is worth following.
So the message for Peter is this: You don’t get to lead people unless you’re willing to suffer with them. And you don’t get to follow Jesus without sharing somehow in his passion and death. It’s not an easy path, but it’s the way of life; it’s the way that will build the kingdom of God in this world.
Put in another way, a real leader for good is willing to fail. That doesn’t mean you seek failure, or that you seek suffering for the sake of suffering. But a passion for goodness means that what matters is the good, not your personal reputation or your comfort.
And in the end this doesn’t have to be all about big dramatic contests of good vs. evil. Leadership is always risky, but it doesn’t always mean risking your life. It could be just risking your image by sitting with that awkward kid who needs a friend, or refusing to go along with a stupid idea that someone came up with at 11:55 p.m.
Friday night at game night in Kemp I couldn’t help but note the hesitancy with which many student approached the board games. No one wanted to act too excited. Because obviously no one under 40 would willingly spend their Friday night playing Monopoly or Risk or whatever. And it seems to me that there’s a kind of leadership in admitting that you can have fun doing something that doesn’t involve your phone. It’s a risk. I understand that. But what good thing isn’t?
So that’s my image of Peter. Picture a group of disciples lurking in Kemp on a Friday night, each doing their own thing on their phones, and then Peter stands up and suggests that they do something else. Maybe a few of the disciples roll their eyes and ignore him. But he’s found something important, something worth looking foolish.
The historical Peter does just that. He leads the early Church. He makes mistakes, but they’re the right kind of mistakes, the mistakes that show the right priorities, his willingness to sacrifice everything for Jesus. And when he dies in Rome, crucified upside down, his life and his martyrdom have inspired a whole generation of Christians who go on to transform history, spreading the message of God’s love to the whole world. May we go and do likewise.
Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost
Delivered by Father Keyes on May 29, 2016
"How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him." (1 Kings 18:20)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I'm conscious that this is the last normal Sunday mass we'll have in this Chapel until August — and of course, the last Sunday mass here that some number of you will attend for quite some time, maybe ever.
It's also the end of my first year here at the School, and so, like many of our seniors, I have been thinking about what I've learned. Three things pretty quickly come to mind.
1. Despite all sorts of changes in the sixteen years since I graduated high school, teenagers are still teenagers—they like to stay up late and sleep late, they are emotionally unpredictable, and they eat a lot of food. Those things, among others that I won't mention, remind me of my own youth, which is both comforting and weird.
2. Students at Saint James seem to learn much earlier than I did that you can be friends with people who are very different from you. I hope people here understand what a gift that is. For me, it wasn't until my final months of high school that I realized that some football players are actually nice people. Similarly, it wasn't until college that it occurred to me that I might actually be good friends with non-Christians. And while there are certainly cliques here, and nobody's perfect, I do not imagine that either of those scenarios would make sense to any of you. And that is really wonderful.
3. Being a Church school is no guarantee of, well, anything. I would love to think that our students have a fuller experience of life for having attended chapel five or six times a week, but I do not fool myself into thinking that this translates into more knowledge of religion, or theology, or morality, or even basic Bible stories. In some cases it does, but regular chapel attendance doesn't convey religious knowledge any more than showing up to French class conveys an ability to speak French. You have to make a choice to participate, to practice, to allow yourself to be tested and challenged.
Perhaps what Saint James does, with all our churchy requirements, is force you at some point to consider that choice for what it is. And this is what I really want to talk about today: choosing God. It may be tempting to think of God as a comforting hobby, or a curious aspect of history and tradition; it may be tempting, in other words, to think of God not as an immediately necessary choice, a fundamental point of decision, but of one more theoretical possibility out there like whether you should order chocolate, vanilla, or pistachio next time you go to Nutter's—something, in other words, that has no real effect on anything else (unless maybe you have a nut allergy), and that can be changed, or not, depending on one's mood.
"How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him." (1 Kings 18:20)
We heard in 1 Kings that rather long but, I think, fascinating story of Elijah's showdown with the prophets of Baal. It probably strikes us as very strange, because we cannot really imagine anyone today cutting themselves and dancing in frenzy before the sacrificial altar of a pagan god. That is the stuff of horror movies, not real life, right?
And yet... and yet. Baal was, is, an idol, which is to say: a false god, a god of appearance and not reality, and Baal was, in the imagination of the Hebrew prophets, the great representative idolatry, the great representative choice of something other than God. And, when we put it in those terms... we are surrounded by the priests and prophets and disciples of Baal. For who is Baal today? Baal is us. We worship ourselves. We worship our bodies. We worship our minds. We worship our success. We worship our our self-described identities, our self-defined goods, our sense of personal progress. And for this Baal we offer sacrifices, mutilate our bodies, sing songs, create services of meaningless worship. And it is meaningless because there is no god there—only us, in our frail mortality, caught up in a world beyond our control or comprehension.
I've probably said this before, but I think it's an incredibly important theme: Human beings become like what they worship. If we worship God, then the Lord's goodness and truth and justice and beauty can fill us and radiate from us wherever we go. If we worship ourselves, we become like... nothing. We shrink, parasites of our own identity, becoming even less than what we are.
And make no mistake: This is the choice. God or Baal. The way the world works has not fundamentally changed in the 2900 years since Elijah. To worship is to ascribe worth, to say, in a formal way: here is what is important, here is what matters, here is what I value. It's not a choice between worshiping God and worshiping nothing. Or rather, it is exactly that choice: To become like God, or to become like nothing. Either something matters, or it doesn't. And if it doesn't, then there can be no "leaders for good" in the world, there can only be leaders for "whatever I happen to say is good," or leaders for "whatever I feel at the moment," or leaders for "this issue that seems really popular right now on social media."
I am a Christian priest, and I make no apology for the truth of what we profess in the Nicene Creed. I believe that our Lord Jesus Christ is really and truly present in the Holy Eucharist. I believe that I am a sinner saved by grace. I do not think that any of this is optional, or one truth among many, or any other such anti-intellectual gibberish. It's either true or it isn't. And like any rational person, I have to keep in mind that second, negative possibility: the possibility that I am wrong, or even deluded, which is, by the way, not an option for the worshippers of Baal, because if truth is merely "my personal opinion," it can never be wrong. It is precisely because I do not think that truth is a matter of opinion that I do not expect every person at this School to be a Christian, much less to be an Episcopalian or Anglican or Catholic. I know you've heard from Fr. Dunnan, and I hope the point is clear from me as well, how much we value the diverse religious perspectives on this campus. It is incredibly useful and humbling to live among people who disagree with you. But useful, productive disagreement about the good requires a common belief in the good — that there is a good, in other words, that is good whether or not you or I think it is good.
And so if I have a message especially for our 6th formers, it's this: Being a leader for good requires you to seek the good. Don't imagine that the good is whatever feels right, or whatever is popular, or whatever makes you happy. Don't imagine that it is somehow easier to know what is good than it is to make all 5s on the APs, or to flawlessly play a concerto, or to pitch a no-hitter, or to make every free throw or complete every pass. Like any good thing, goodness itself, and leadership in goodness, won't be handed to you on a silver plate. You have to want it, and seek it, and fight for it, and practice it. And if you do so you will be well on the way to worshiping the true God and displaying his glory in the world.
St. James School Chapel homily April 2016
Commemorating founder Dr. William Augustus Muhlenberg
Lessons: Ephesians 4:11-16; St. Matthew 21:12-16
In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Thank you, Father Dunnan, for the invitation to preach here today; and thank the rest of you for your presence. This gives me the chance to thank your Headmaster in front of you for the gift he gave some years ago to Saint Thomas Church and Choir School, when he spoke at the Choir School’s Prize Day and then preached at the final Choral Eucharist for our graduating eighth graders. I’ve retired as Saint Thomas’s Rector since then, and Fr. Dunnan tells me there are two of our old boys here today in the choir loft. Bravo.
My wife Nancy is a devoted gardener. I’m not. She gardens, and I schlep for her. [Do you what schlep means?] I admire and pay attention. I notice what it is that makes plants of all kinds grow – flowers, vegetables, trees, bushes, annuals and perennials. They all have their place in the yard and the garden. But all of them need care at the roots. They need decent soil, they certainly require water, some need fertilizing. Some need special care. Last fall, a little weeping cherry tree which was a gift needed help; it looked sick, and it was. A tree doctor came and said it was stressed at the roots because of the way it was planted, and that a scale was growing on it. So I washed the scale off the bark and dug around the base so the roots could breathe a little. We’ll see this spring if these efforts are working. I hope the little cherry tree doesn’t die.
Now I do like cut, dry flowers. You can hang them up, and they have an aesthetically pleasing appeal, in a way. But eventually they crumble. They are pretty for a while, but in fact they are dead. They have no roots anymore. They will eventually dry up, crumble and blow away.
The principles of plants apply to schools and to students as well. The basic Christian truths – the worship of God in Christ, the presentation of the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus – these are the soil, the water, the fertilizer, the air of the root culture of a living institution and of a living person. The institution (the school) and the person (young or old) need to attend to these basic things. That’s why the apostle in our first lesson speaks of growing up to maturity in the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be tossed to and fro by every wind that blows; blown away like a cut flower. We are to grow up in Christ. To do that requires “root culture.” We starve or die of thirst in the soul if we neglect these primary truths.
Today we are remembering one of St. James School’s founders in 1842, the great William Augustus Muhlenberg. Dr. Muhlenberg did a great deal of pioneering foundation work, not least in New York City. He worked tirelessly to make Church worship beautiful and inspiring, to bring the gospel of Jesus and the ministry to the young, the old, the poor and the homeless, the sick and the lonely. Like Jesus throwing out the moneychangers in the temple, he wanted the church to be a house of prayer for all people, especially those who couldn’t afford to buy seats. [They used to have pew rents (!) to finance many Episcopal churches; free seats were unusual in Dr. Muhlenberg’s day.]
There are many, many schools and colleges in our country that were founded by Christians like Dr. Muhlenberg, of many types and flavors of Christianity. But quite a number, perhaps most, of these schools and colleges have drifted from their foundations. They may still be very good schools in the opinion of the world. They may be hard to get into because of the competition and the status of being a graduate. But there is often something missing. Could it be that they have not attended to their roots? That they are like cut flowers – still lovely to look at but actually dead and dry?
What happens or doesn’t happen in Chapel is an indicator, because the Chapel was intended as the place where the roots of the school and its students are cultivated; not the only place, but the central place whose life nourishes the school’s other places. The life of the chapel may be disconnected from the life of the rest of the school. Or Chapel, if it is connected, may lack the sense of the presence of the living God.
But not here! You are very blessed to be led by a Headmaster and faculty who embrace the principles of life in a Church school. They are not in the business of producing cut flowers! What I want to say to you therefore are two things: Remember, and give thanks. 1) Remember how you have been fed here – in the chapel, the classrooms, the fellowship and camaraderie. 2) And give thanks for what you have been given as you remember. And keep on feeding your soul as you go along.
Never will I forget an old boy from Saint Thomas Choir School introducing himself to me. He was older than I but still full of enthusiasm as he said, “Anything I can do to help, let me know. Best years of my life.” He then half-joked: “It was all downhill after that.” He had gone on to a well-known prep school and an Ivy League college (both founded by churches, though you would hardly know that now). “They were good,” he said, “but nothing like what I had here.”
That’s what I hope you’ll feel about St. James.
In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
preached at the Great Vigil of Easter
St. Thomas’, Hancock
by the Revd. Dr. D. Stuart Dunnan
“And behold, Jesus met them and said, ‘Hail!”” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them. “Do not be afraid.” (Mt.28.9-10a)
In nomine . . .
On Thursday, January 28, I drove a senior down to Georgetown University for a college visit and took him and our students there out to lunch. After lunch, I drove him back just before the traffic and snuck into my office to get some work done. After supper, when I was back at my house and getting ready to settle in for the evening, I checked my IPhone and saw that I had a text from Billy Pennington, in which he said that his wife Denise, who had fought valiantly against Leukemia for seven years, was in the Emergency Room at Meritus, dying.
So, I did what priests do, I jumped in my car and drove over to the hospital. Once there, I took my purple stole out of the glove compartment of my car, and my oil and my prayer book, and hastened to her side, where I anointed her and said that ancient prayer which so beautifully expresses the promise of our faith, the promise that we celebrate this night:
Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world; in the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you; in the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you; in the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you. May your rest be this day in peace, and dwelling place in the Paradise of God.
And then again:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Denise. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.
And then, in the company of her husband, her youngest daughter, her priest, and two very kind and gentle nurses, this good Christian woman, this faithful wife, loving mother, and generous friend left her suffering behind.
And we were all of us upset, her husband and daughter especially, but there was no fear in the room. There was grief, and there was bewilderment, a profound sense of shock and loss, exhaustion and confusion, but there was no fear, no fear at least for her. She had fought enough and suffered enough; the time had certainly come.
But that next morning, I claimed a moment at the end of chapel to speak to the school, to announce to the students what had happened the night before to one of their schoolmates, something which most of them through the constant connection of social media had already heard: Mrs. Pennington had died, or more specifically, their friend Carter’s mother had died; a woman whom they actually knew, a woman who had been kind to them, had died.
And that was when I saw it: fear. Death had entered their lives.
Now, for some of our students death was not new. Many had lost a grandparent or two, some even a parent, some even a sibling, so this news reminded them of a reality which they had experienced, but done their best to set aside. Some had never really experienced death at all, and the reality of death, its sudden closeness, especially the death of a mother, was truly terrifying.
And if ours were a secular school, a public school or a private day school, for instance, we would have a protocol in place to protect our students from this “trauma,” this unwelcomed intrusion into the comfort of their lives. We would bring in grief counselors, take some time off class, and “process” it, send death safely away again, and get back to “normal.”
But since we are a Church school, this is not our approach at all, because our concern is for those who are really grieving, not so much those who are “rattled” or “upset,” but for Carter, her sisters, and their father. So this is what I spoke to our students and our teachers about, how to support a friend who is grieving, how to respect her grief and to give her the space to grieve, how to understand that she will be upset, distracted, and unpredictable, and how to adjust to that. This is her grief, I told them, not yours; keep it about her; don’t make it about you.
And we had work to do, a liturgy to prepare for, a great gathering of family and friends who would come to our school, to the chapel where she had worshiped regularly to celebrate God’s gift of a person to us and to commend that person to God. And I told them that they were welcome to come, and many of them did, and many were in the service: choristers, acolytes, sacristans, and ushers.
And they knew what to do: they knew how to gather in prayer, to enter into the life of God as Trinity in the Eucharist, to give thanks, to join in the purpose of Christ as he reveals himself in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, to experience his resurrection, and to feel the comfort, power, and direction of the Holy Spirit.
Because we are not afraid of death; we can handle its reality in our lives. Indeed, we have a whole philosophy of life which includes death, and a story to tell about it, the story we heard tonight.
I remember when my predecessor Father Owens died, Bishop Montgomery called to tell me that I would be preaching his Requiem. Gently, I asked Bishop Montgomery who would be celebrant. “I will,” he said. “Will that be too difficult?” I asked. “What do you mean?” he responded.
“Well,” I ventured, “you and Father have been best friends for almost seventy years and have lived together now in your retirement for 29 years. This is a huge loss for you.”
There was not even a pause on the other end of the telephone line: “I’m a Christian. I buried my mother.”
And yes, Bishop Montgomery celebrated the Requiem for his friend, and he celebrated beautifully at the age of 90. And two weeks later when we did not have a bishop for Confirmation in the school chapel, I called to ask if he could come and save us.
“When is the confirmation?” he asked. “Tomorrow morning,” I answered. “OK. I will drive up this afternoon and spent the night in the rectory.” And so he did. And when I took him out to the Airport Inn for dinner, he ordered a martini and a steak, and asked about Saint James and about me, and we talked about life.
And we also talked about the war a bit, how Father Owens had served as a captain of an infantry unit during the campaign in France, and how Bishop Montgomery had served on a battle ship at D Day, and how being in the war had helped him to build the parishes he had served as a young priest. “I had a natural connection with the other men my age,” he said, “a shared experience to talk about,” the experience in fact of death, present, threatening, frequent death, an experience, I suspect, which deepened them profoundly and made them much more aware of their blessings and “of the shortness and uncertainty of life.”
And then, the next morning, as he presided with great dignity and evident joy at the Confirmation, he made no mention of his friend, who had been headmaster of Saint James for 29 years. He said only this at the Offertory: “We offer the Sacrifice of the Mass with a special intention for these young people now confirmed, that they may be faithful witnesses of Christ Our Lord in the world, and for those who have served Christ in this, his school.”
And in those words there was such a wonderful sense of the fuller, Christian understanding of life, of those before and these becoming, of all of us, alive in the love of Christ.
St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (6.2-4)
You see, this is why Easter is so hard for so many these days, at least in our culture, country, and time. Everything has to be easy, pleasant and fun. I have a relative who has an email address that expresses this perfectly: “blueskygreatday.” Every time I use it to write to him, it concerns me, because I know him, and I know that he avoids visiting people in the hospital, going to funerals, or indeed “bad news” in general. To my mind, this diminishes his experience of life, because he lives a life avoiding death.
And let’s face it, there are many people like this these days, fools in search of a “no stress, no loss” lifestyle. But there is no such life, at least no such life with love in it.
I used to say that to live like this was to live an Easter life without Holy Week, but it is now I fear just life without Easter, this pagan life which so many live these days with lazy Sunday mornings lingering in bed and noon time brunches with chosen friends, of staying young and beautiful forever, of living “happily, ever after.”
And they say we believe in “fairy tales,” . . .
There is a wonderful detail in the passage I cited from St. Matthew’s Gospel which is, I think, very important. The women when they see the resurrected Jesus “take hold of his feet and worship him.”
Now obviously they do this as an act of humility and devotion, just as he did when he washed his disciples’ feet, but they also focus on his wounds, where the Roman soldiers had driven the nail to gather his feet and to hammer them to the wood of the cross. In this way they register his resurrected presence just as St. Thomas will in that upper room when he places his finger on Jesus’ hand, his hand in Jesus’ side. They know him by the evidence of his suffering, because it is his suffering which proves his love for them, and thus his personal, inspiring presence.
I was reminded of this on Friday in Chapel when I was holding the crucifix for the veneration of the cross. The chaplain preached a particularly moving homily in which he encouraged the congregation to come forward to see and touch the crucifix, even explaining to them the tradition of kissing the feet of the crucified.
Impressively, many students and faculty chose to come forward, knelt and touched the cross, and several of them kissed the feet of Christ pierced by the nail, and this was incredibly moving for me as I stood there holding the crucifix for them: these young people, full of life and full of promise, finding the courage and humility to see and to touch the wound of Christ – to embrace the death which leads to life.
And I wondered as I stood there, awed by their openness: how will their faith change their lives? And what is the suffering which their faith will bring to them?
I always remember and often quote a line from the Queen’s letter to the people of New York after 9/11. It was read at St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue, where the British community had gathered to mourn their countrymen who died in that attack, if memory serves, some 67 of them.
“Grief,” she said, “is the price we pay for love.”
So this is the truth which we believe and which this great feast would teach us: we must be brave to love, because love requires grief; and we must die to live, because life requires death.
We must kiss the feet of Christ.
Remarks for the Memorial Service
at The 123rd Annual Meeting of
The Headmasters’ Association
by the Revd. Dr. D. Stuart Dunnan
Headmaster, Saint James School
If you were at this service two years ago, you will recall that I had the honor of remembering before you The Revd. John Owens, my very distinguished predecessor, who served for 29 years as Headmaster and Rector of Saint James.
You will recall that Father Owens was in many ways a very unlikely head of school. A hero of the Second World War who was profoundly influenced by his experience in that great struggle, a shy and reserved man and a humble and prayerful priest, he was not by nature an administrator or fundraiser or an academic even. He was not very ambitious for his school, let alone for himself, and when he spoke he was brief and to the point, so not a natural host or a great orator.
You may also recall his advice to me when I became headmaster: “Don’t worry whether it is popular or not; just worry whether it is right or wrong.” Now, if you are at all like me, this is very difficult advice to follow.
But because this is what he did and this is who he was, he was greatly revered, even loved, but loved at a distance in the way that heads of that generation so often were.
Now, Father Owens retired in l984 and he died when he was 92 years old, so I was not sure what to expect when we celebrated his life with us and commended his soul to God with a Requiem Mass in our chapel, because his students were now older themselves and almost all of them would have to travel some distance to journey back to school.
But the Chapel was full, and there was a wonderful moment for me during the Mass at the Peace when I faced the congregation properly and could see that his students were crying: a whole chapel of men in their 50’s and 60’s and 70’s were crying, and their wives were crying with them, really for them in their grief. To me, it was a wonderful display of grace, of love given and love returned, and I found myself wondering selfishly, will this happen for me?
And I was overwhelmed with just the thought of this. How will my students remember me? And will they love me too?
In his recent book The Road to Character with which you are all, I am sure, familiar and which John McCardell referenced this morning, David Brooks makes a powerful distinction in his introduction between “resumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues” and makes the point that parents these days (and we who serve them) overstress resumé virtues in our schools and do not properly stress the eulogy ones. His point is that we care more about building the college resumé with good scores and good grades and leadership roles and impressive talents than about the goodness and resilience of our students. Worse, we encourage them to care about success too much, more specifically their own success, to avoid and even deny failure. To paraphrase his argument in my own words, we run the risk of producing talented and successful “prima donnas” and “jerks” who are not equipped for adversity in life, not genuinely empathetic, and certainly in no way self-denying, self-giving, or humble.
In one particularly good essay, he asks if Eisenhower could have saved the free world if his mother had not taught him to suppress his pride. Just think about it: how could he have handled Churchill and Montgomery and Patton if she had not taught him that important lesson?
But what can we do about this? Really. After all, we run our schools in response to a market, where placement at a highly selective, let alone a “most selective” college or university is more and more difficult, and where there is real anxiety that our students need to achieve at a higher level than their parents did. And they need to be “happy” all the time, and everyone is “wonderful” even when they aren’t.
And let’s be honest, Community Service requirements and a required class on ethics are not going to redress the balance.
But this service today reminds us of a powerful truth: we make a difference, not so much in the ways in which we administer our schools because we are in truth much more “responsive” in that role than we would like to admit, but in who we are, or more importantly, who we are for our students, and for our faculty and staff, for what we stand for and for the lives we model.
So, here are the questions which we should place before us this evening: do we really care about our students and our colleagues as we should? Or is it just a job? And how much do we care about the salary and the “package”, the car and the house? Just what are the priorities that we are modeling for those we lead and serve?
Do we show enough humility and gratitude in our personal, professional, and highly visible lives? Enough honesty and courage, loyalty and generosity for our students all to see and to emulate? For we know they are watching and listening much more closely than we are always willing to acknowledge.
I remember my own headmaster, Canon Martin’s funeral. His service filled the nave of the National Cathedral, and what I remember especially is what one of his boys, Vernon Holleman, then a distinguished financier in his 50’s, said in his eulogy. It went something like this: “I told my friend Guy Steuart, [also a very successful businessman], that next to our fathers, Canon Martin was the most important man in our lives, and he said to me, ‘What are you talking about? He was much more important than our fathers. He was with us; our fathers were working all the time.’”
To be honest, that was true for me as well, and I always remember what Canon Martin would often tell us, and more importantly modeled for us: “Choose the hard right over the easy wrong,” which is of course exactly what Father Owens told me when I became Headmaster of what was still very much his school.
All of our schools have these stories, of giants in their time before us with their powerful, enduring example and their jewels of advice which still shine brightly in our firmament. Surely you all know Miss Madeira’s famous advice to her girls: “Function in disaster; finish in style.” What wonderful advice for us all to follow and to model.
And who knows what they will remember about us? What bits of advice they will quote? But they will remember us for what we have said and done, and they will grieve for us if we have loved them.
Allow me to end with a passage from the New Testament, from the Gospel according to Saint John, because I think it speaks to all of us, whatever our religious faith or tradition, of the nature of our commission and of our calling as headmasters and headmistresses, principals, superintendents, and heads of school to push against our culture a bit, maybe even more than we used to, to speak for and to live those “eulogy virtues” and not just the “resumé virtues,” so that when we are “at rest from our labors” and celebrated in our schools and in this company, it won’t just be because of the buildings we have built or the programs we have established or the endowments we have raised, but because of who we were and what we stood for, and just what it was that we taught them.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
A Sermon for Christmas Eve
By the Revd. Dr. D. Stuart Dunnan
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.’” Luke 2.13-14
In nomine . . .
Last Saturday, I was enjoying lunch with a Saint James family in Washington when the hostess, who is a good friend of mine, turned to me and asked a surprisingly challenging question: “So, are you ready for Christmas?”
My immediate response was of course, “no,” because my mind was racing over all the tasks I had yet to accomplish: I had not sent my Christmas cards; I was behind on my presents; I had people I needed to visit; I had not written this homily; I had scheduled a trip to see my nieces in New York; and I was feeling the return of my cold. No, I was not ready!
But then I had the sense to calm down and to ask myself whether she was asking the question “spiritually” and not just “practically,” which is to say, “was I in the mood for Christmas?” or even “was I ready for Christ to come into my heart this Christmas?” And the answer to this, if I am honest, was probably “no” as well.
For priests and headmasters, hosts and hostesses, and most of all parents, indeed for “grown-ups” generally, there is much to do in this season, much to buy, prepare, cook, wrap, post, assemble, and arrange for, and all of this makes us very busy, so the risk is that we become overwhelmed by our lists and distracted by our busy-ness, demoralized even, and thereby lose our spiritual focus, and thus the point of Christmas.
Do you remember that story about Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, that Luke tells later in his gospel? Jesus visits Mary and Martha in their home. True to form, Martha does all the work, serving Jesus and his disciples, and Mary just sits at his feet and listens. When Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to stop just sitting there and to help her, he gives her a puzzling and challenging response: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” (10.41-42)
And this, of course, is our trap at Christmas. We run around and “do stuff” for weeks getting ready, and before we know it, we have missed it. Christ has come to visit us, and we have been too busy, and too important if we are honest, to have noticed. And like Martha, we think that we are doing the important part, but it is her sister Mary who has it right.
At the root of the problem is of course our attitude, maybe even our whole approach to life, this assumption that we are in charge. It is up to us to make Christmas happen. This explains my first response to my friend’s question: no, I was not ready for Christmas, because I had not done everything which I needed to do to make Christmas happen.
But the reality is this: I do not make Christmas happen; neither do you. None of us do.
If none of us buys any presents, puts up any decorations, or hosts any gatherings, it is still Christmas. It is indeed just as much Christmas for the homeless family enjoying a free meal at the shelter as it is for the busy volunteers preparing and serving it. Maybe even more so. And we all know that there is certainly more excitement for the children receiving their presents on Christmas morning than for their parents who bought and wrapped them, and now watch exhausted on the couch, worrying about the trash and the Christmas brunch to come.
No. Christmas is something that comes to us: the Good News of God coming into the world where and when we least expect him, in poverty and obscurity in Bethlehem to a forgotten people in an oppressed land. Consider Mary, the Mother of Our Lord, who was overwhelmed by the visit of the Archangel Gabriel, the shepherds surprised by an angel and then the whole heavenly host, the wise men puzzled by a star in the East which they had never seen before. Mary certainly was not planning this; the shepherds were probably have asleep; and the wise men were confronted with a phenomenon which confounded all of their wisdom.
A friend of mine sent me a video of a group of shoppers interrupted at a food court in a mall by an impromptu performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Without any warning, an anonymous “shopper” appearing to be talking on her cellphone stands up to sing: “Hallelujah!” and more and more join her. And everyone eating and chatting is startled and awed and forced to listen.
Now what makes this performance of the Hallelujah Chorus so much more meaningful and powerful is that it is not a performance for which those shoppers had prepared either as singers or as listeners, not a performance they went to hear in a concert hall or a church for Christmas; it came rather as a complete surprise, and the secular setting of the food court makes the words of the chorus dramatically and boldly jarring: “For God is Christ! King of Kings and Lord of Lords! And He shall reign forever!” Surely, these were not the words to the songs playing on the Mall’s “Christmas track,” and this was not the message which those shoppers were thinking about when that one woman stood up to interrupt their hurried lunch.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!’”
“And suddenly.” When did we lose “suddenly” in our experience of Christmas, and plan and work so hard for it? I suspect that it was when we tried to take charge of Christmas, when we usurped the role of the angels, made it all earthly, and lost the “heavenly” part.
In the early days of the Church, it was the message of Easter which inspired those first believers to follow Christ: the miracle and promise of his Resurrection in a brutal and violent place and time. This of course is why they were so brave, so willing to be martyred at the hands of the Romans: they were not afraid of death and were not intimidated by suffering; they believed in the power of Christ to save them and by their witness to save us all.
But for us who now live in a more comfortable and less fearful time, at least in America, it is perhaps the message of Christmas which provides the greater challenge: the message of the Incarnation, the promise of the angels that God in Christ is with us.
For we have lost, I fear, the courage of those first believers, their willingness, even their eagerness to be different, let alone to suffer in faith for others, even to lose their lives; and this is why we may not truly be ready for Christmas, for Christ to come and change us.
Because for Christ to be with us, truly to be with us, we must welcome him, stop what we are “doing,” and lay our “busyness” and our selfishness aside, and we must be willing to follow him wherever he may lead us.
So let this be our prayer this Christmas: not that Christ will come to us; he has; and not that Christ will do for us, but that we will do for Christ. Not “my will be done on earth, but thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” For this is the night when heaven and earth combine.
Proper 28 (Pentecost 25), November 15, 2015
Daniel 12:1-3 | Psalm 16 | Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25 | Mark 13:1-8
We are hastening towards the end of the Church year, which also happens to land on Fall Break of the school year. And as we near Advent, and then, really, as we begin Advent, the focus turns towards the end of all things, and in particular on those four big “last things”: death, judgment, heaven, and hell.
We don’t really like talking about those things anymore in the West, even though they loomed large in our cultural imagination for most of history. We don’t mind hearing people speak about the end of the world, provided they are (1) in an action movie, or (2) standing on a bucket on some urban street corner where no one takes them seriously, or (3) safely ensconced in some foreign country where we don’t need to worry about them because we have assigned “religion” to the category of irrelevant personal opinion.
But then, something happens like the attacks in Paris on Friday, and suddenly these “last things” which seem to be such a big deal for those people “over there” burst into our safely guarded imaginations. When Paris gets hit, the Western world notices. Hardly anybody noticed when, earlier last week, forty people were killed in Beirut by the same organization. This kind of violence, sad to say, is normal for many people in the world, which is one reason why, for most people in the world, these questions of last things — death, judgment, heaven, hell — are questions that really matter; they are not the private concern of personal “religion,” but urgent questions that need answers.
You know, whenever some big catastrophe happens, you can be sure that someone will start talking about the “end times.” But what Christians today often forget is that the Church has been talking about the “end times” since AD 33, when humanity crucified the Son of God. Jesus’s death and resurrection was the beginning of the end, the sudden unveiling of God’s final purpose for his creation. From a Biblical point of view, we have been living in the end times for the last two thousand years.
And there are really two points that I want to leave you with this morning concerning the end times.
First, the drama is real; the last things are real: death, judgment, heaven, hell. Sin and evil are real. There are worse problems in the world, deeper and more substantial problems, than the fact that you need to study for an exam that you don’t want to take, or the fact that that teacher gave you demerits when you think you didn’t deserve them. And, frankly, most people in the world understand that, because most people in the world have to face sin and evil every day in the form of suffering, of poverty, of hunger, of violence, of simple lack of meaning. When I was in college and spent time with kids in the inner city of Richmond, none of them had any problems accepting Christian teaching about sin and evil: they saw it every day in their mothers who did drugs, their brothers who went to prison, their fathers who may or may not be around, their friends who got killed. And this is just scratching the surface. Evil is real, and it is much more incoherent and villainous and monstrous than we could possibly imagine. It is not the sort of thing that can be solved “if everybody just works a little harder.” It is not the sort of thing that can be solved by ever-increasing scientific knowledge. It is not the sort of thing that can be safely relegated to something over there, in far parts of the world, and that is partly because this evil runs right through the middle of every single one of us. The Islamic State is not some otherworldly, alien invader: it is what we, you and I, look like when we allow our tendency to selfishness and violence to expand and encompass our whole reality. We will never understand it if we cannot acknowledge that fact.
We live in the end times. There is nothing new about this. We killed our God. Anything can happen. We should not be surprised.
The drama is real, but so is the salvation. And this is my second point this morning. Evil is real, but so is good. In fact, the good is more real, in Christian teaching, because evil is always destructive, always negative, always corrupting. The good builds, grows, nurtures, comforts, enhances, heals.
The gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of Jesus Christ, is that evil does not triumph, cannot triumph. And so we do not have to fear. We can look in the face of evil — as so many Christians and Muslims in the Middle East have been doing — and persevere in loving the good.
This is an incredibly hard thing to say and do. You know, like so many parents, when I look at the horrible things happening in the world, I wonder what kind of future my children will have; I wonder what evils they may have to face. And, if I’m honest, thinking about it makes me afraid. I do not want my children to face violence; I do not want them to be hurt. But my role as a parent is not to save my children from all harm; it is to teach them how to live courageously in a world full of evil, to teach them how to be good even when it hurts.
And that is my hope for you also. If we go all our lives thinking that being good is easy, that truth and beauty are just things we can take for granted, we will crumple in the face of the world’s evil. I challenge you: go on thinking that all would be well if everybody just acted a little nicer, or if everybody just respected the beliefs of others; go on thinking that the real truth is only what can be proved by empirical science. See if those convictions prepare you for the friend who gets pancreatic cancer in her 30s, for the sudden loss of your first child at 12 weeks, for the mean person who hates you whatever you do, for the fanatic across the world who wants to kill your whole culture.
We live in the end times. The drama is real. But so is the salvation. As the writer of Hebrews says, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”