Thursday, May 25, 2017

Convicted Civility on Mars Hill

1 Peter 3:13-22

In today’s Epistle Reading Saint Peter admonishes us, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.”

Have you noticed that it is becoming increasingly difficult to share our beliefs with people with whom we have strong disagreements? The Lutheran scholar and social commentator Martin Marty has noted, "People who have strong convictions are often not very civil, and people who are civil often do not have strong convictions." 

What he and many others have urged is a “convicted civility.” It is a good and necessary thing to have zeal for the truth. It is a good thing to have strong convictions. But it is equally important and necessary to hold those convictions with gentleness, respect, and reverence for the dignity of those with whom we disagree.

In a culture increasingly fueled by outrage, contempt, and a self-righteous jostling for the moral high ground this is not easy!

Many have looked to our reading from Acts—in which Saint Paul addresses the people of Athens gathered at the Aeropagus—as a model of how Christians should share their own convictions in an irenic way with those who believe differently than they.

When Saint Paul first arrived in Athens he experienced profound culture shock. The culture of the Athenians was offensive to his Jewish and monotheistic sensibilities. He was greatly distressed that the city was full of idols. We are told that he reasoned not only with the Jews in the synagogue but with the Greeks he met in the Market place. 

Many of Paul’s hearers found his beliefs offensive as well. They said, “What is this babbler saying?” Others dismissed him by saying, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange and foreign gods.”  There were others among his hearers, however, who were intrigued by his message. Some of the scholars and Philosophers of the Stoic and Epicurean party began to debate with him. They were interested in learning more, and so they brought him to the Aeropagus or  as the Romans named it, Mars Hill.  This was a place where people gathered to discuss the legal, religious, and philosophical questions of the day.  

Now Saint Paul had very strong convictions. No doubt he wanted to come in with guns blazing denouncing their horrid idolatry and gross immorality, but—although he had very strong feelings—he practiced restraint. Instead he learned from and listened to his opponents. He tried to understand where they were coming from. He listened not only for points of difference but for places of common ground. Although he found their culture and religious practices strange and offensive, he asked himself not only, “Where are they in error?” but, “Where is God at work here? What can I affirm in their system? Where are they bearing witness to the truth?”

Paul looked upon his opponents as fellow seekers after God and truth. While acknowledging the good in his opponents view points, he nevertheless maintained his own convictions. He used what he believed was good in his opponents views to oppose what was bad. He was able to share his own deeply held convictions, and even challenge theirs, while maintaining respect and civility.

What is it that Saint Paul affirms among what he found in the pagans of Athens?

First, he admirers their piety and religious impulse. This is significant admission given how distressed he was by their idolatry. Is it a contradiction to say that Paul was simultaneously impressed by their piety and horrified by the objects of their worship? I don’t think it needs to be. Paul sees in the people of Athens a thirst to know God and to worship him, but he sees this good impulse twisted, perverted, and misdirected. Instead of directing their worship to the true God, the pagans of Athens have become consumed by idolatry and superstition. They didn’t seem to have any idea of the truth of the divine but instead ignorantly paid homage to creations of their own. They had a fear of God, but not according to knowledge. Their fear and superstition were such that—in order to cover all their bases—they created an altar to an “Unknown God.” Paul uses this as an opportunity to inform them about the God that they worship in ignorance. The true God that has been revealed in Jesus Christ.

Although they are ignorant of him, God created everything that is. He has been watching over them and providing for them. He wants to be known by them. “God is not far from them,” he tells them. Here Saint Paul is taking the side of the Stoics above the Epicureans. The Epicureans believed that the gods were distant and unconcerned with the struggles and sorrows of human life. The stoics however were pantheist, believing God to be the very soul of the world, filling all things.

Paul quotes a stoic saying, “In him we live and move and have our being.” Although Paul was neither stoic or pantheist, he affirms that God is all around us and that his power sustains us at every moment. God is intimately involved in our life and cares about the choices we make.

Finally Paul affirms that—even they as pagans—are children of God created in his image in order to reflect his likeness. This is a biblical idea but it is affirmed also by some of their own poets. Saint Paul here quotes the Stoic Cleanthes,

O God most glorious, called by many a name,
Nature's great King, through endless years the same;
Omnipotence, who by your just decree controls all
… Unto you must your creatures in all lands call.
We are your children, we alone, of all
On earth's broad ways that wander to and fro,
Bearing your image wheresoever we go.

While Paul finds much to affirm and admire in the people of Athens, he does not hold back from challenging them to repent either. In former times God was patient with their ignorance and unbelief, but now he is calling them to turn and repent and receive Christ whom he has made the judge of all the world.

Saint Paul shared his belief and hope with both conviction and civility. Can we do the same? Some of the people that day sneered at what Paul had to share, but others were intrigued. We too must accept that not everyone will agree with us. The important thing is to not hide our light under a basket but to share it with gentleness and reverence. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Saint George and the Code of Chivalry

The image of the brave and gallant Saint George rescuing the damsel in distress from the evil dragon has become a ubiquitous cultural symbol. It has been celebrated in countless instances of Christian iconography and art both in the Eastern and Western Church.  He is named as the patron saint of England, Ethiopia, Greece, Palestine, Georgia, and many other countries and provinces. Many churches—including our own—are also under his name and patronage. Despite his widespread fame, his actual history is somewhat hazy. 

Tradition tells us that he was a Roman soldier born in what is now modern-day Turkey in around 280AD and died around 303AD. He served in the retinue of the Emperor Diocletian in a time of intense persecution of the Church. Diocletian ordered that all Christians be forced to renounce their faith and offer traditional pagan sacrifices, but George refused. He was initially bribed with wealth and power, but when he still would not turn his back on Christ, he was tortured and eventually beheaded.

It is, however, the legendary tales of his heroic exploits, brought back by crusaders from the Holy Land, that has captured the imagination of Western Christendom. Saint George has become more of a mythical figure than a historical one. He has become an embodiment of the ideal Christian Knight and the traditional values of chivalry.
What is chivalry anyway? Put simply Chivalry was code of conduct which all honorable Christian knights were expected to embrace. Because they belonged to Jesus Christ and existed to promote and defend the cause of the gospel and the church of God, a Christian knight had to be one set apart, and exemplary in his conduct. He was to be a witness for the faith.

This morning, on our observance of St. George’s Day, I would like to say a bit about what he can teach us about that ancient code of chivalry and why I think it is still relevant for us today.  Particularly I want to focus on three “knightly virtues,” justice, valor, and piety.

The whole concept of chivalry has a bit of an ambivalent reputation these days, especially when it comes to its code of conduct around how men should relate to women. We frequently here the declaration, “Chivalry is dead.” Some say. “Good riddance!” The feminist journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, for instance, has described Chivalry as, “benevolent sexism.” It is benevolent because it flatters women with preferential treatment, but it is sexist because it rests on the premise that women are weak and incapable of helping themselves, while men are strong.
While it may be true that—in our increasingly egalitarian culture—the way men practice chivalry towards women needs to be adapted, when it is abandoned, the vulnerable suffer not the powerful.

Chivalry is not essentially about assuring male superiority, but about assuring justice. It is not about maintaining privilege but letting it go. Chivalry is about the strong and powerful willingly setting limitations upon themselves to protect the vulnerable from being trampled on.

 The code of Chivalry arose in the sometimes violent and barbaric time of the middle ages. It called upon men—and soldiers in particular—to temper their aggression and not to use strength and force to exploit or molest the vulnerable, particularly women and children. It made pillaging and harming non-combatants dishonorable. A Christian Knight must never use violence or power for greedy or selfish ends, but only in order to defend the weak and protect the common good.

Although Saint George was born into a noble family, he willingly identified with the Christian faith—a despised minority among the higher echelons of Roman society. He did not abandon his brothers and sisters in Christ, even when tempted with wealth and power, but laid down his life out of love for them.

Embracing the knightly, chivalrous virtue of Justice, today, means standing up for vulnerable minorities in our own community. It means privileging the needs of the disadvantaged above our own power and comfortability.   
The brave knight in shining armor seems quaint and old fashioned to many today, but our culture has its own romantic depictions of courage and heroism. The increasingly popular genre of Super-Hero stories offers many examples of the chivalrous virtue of valor. A great example comes from the recent blockbuster film, Captain America: Civil War. Cap is an excellent example of valor, not just because he does battle with the bad guys, but because he stays true to his principles even when it is difficult. There is a great quote from the movie,

“Compromise where you can. And where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right, even if the whole world is telling you to move. It is your duty to plant yourself like a tree by the river of truth, look them in the eye and say, no. You move.”

The true Christian Knight must be a person of conviction. Valor is about having the faith as well as strength of mind and spirit to go against the grain when things are running in the wrong direction. It about having the courage to stand up for what is right. It is about planting your feet firmly and facing the dragon with bravery when everyone else is running away.

We admire the fanciful story of Saint George’s courageous battle with the dragon, but his real act of valor was facing down the terrible might of the Roman Empire, staying true to his faith, and giving his life for Christ. Hopefully none of us, will be called to martyrdom it that sense, but we all can be witnesses to the faith by staying true to the principles of the Gospel in a sometimes hostile world.

Our reading this morning from Revelation tells the story Saint Michael the archangel and his own battle with a dragon, Satan the ancient enemy of God’s people. Now angels don’t actually fight with swords and spears, because they don’t have bodies, they fight instead with ideas and principles. The powerful weapon that Satan used to lead God’s people astray was pride. The weapon with which Michael defeated and cast out Satan was humility. His name is a question. It means, “Who is like God?” While Satan put himself above God, Michael—out of devotion to God—put God above himself.

It is this humility and devotion to God that is at the heart of the knightly virtue of piety. It is no accident that the iconography of St. George and Saint Michael are so similar. Both are usually shown towering over a crushed and defeated serpent. These images represent the conquering of the lower nature by the higher, the triumph of good over evil.

The Christian Knight knows that the real battle is not between flesh and blood, but the violence, the cruelty, greed, and the selfishness in his own heart—with his own sinful nature. Like King David, he knows that the real way to defeat this giant is not with the sword, but through the power of God.

Saint George isn’t a saint because of his military prowess or skill with a horse and a spear. He is a Saint because his but his faith in God and shared in the victory of Christ over the power of sin. If we put our faith in God, we too can crush the serpent under our feet through the might of Jesus Christ.

Saint George would be the first one to direct us not to his own justice, valor, and piety, but to his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is Christ who is the true embodiment of Chivalry. He did not see his divine glory as something to be used only for his own advantage, but he emptied himself, and took the form of a servant. Jesus laid down his life for his bride the church. He gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her and present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. He spoke truth to power and drank the cup his father gave him to drink even when it meant torture and crucifixion. He lived the perfect life of obedience to the will of the father and conquered our sinful nature by the cross. He crushed the head of the serpent and the serpent bruised his heal.

All that we admire and seek to emulate in Saint George we find first in our Lord. Like Saint George, let us be true Christian Knights. Let our lives also glorify Christ. Let us love justice. Let us have courage, and let us be devoted to our God!