"That Church"

Celtic Sunday

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Scripture: John 1: 1-5
Rev. Erin Beardhemphl
August 13, 2017

Let us pray:

O God,

In my deeds,

In my words,

In my wishes,

In my reason,

And in the fulfilling of my desires,

In my sleep,

Inmy dreams,

In my repose.

In my thoughts,

In my heart and soul always,

May the blessed Virgin Mary,

And the promised Branch of Glory dwell,

Oh! In my heart and soul always,

May the Blessed Virgin Mary,

And the fragrant Branch of Glory well.

 

In Genesis 1, we read of our world’s creation, a day by day exploration of God’s creativity, with humankind in the middle of it all, created in God’s own image.  In Genesis 2, we read another creation story, telling of how humanity was sculpted from the mud, created from creation.  And in John 1, these stories are rounded out nicely.  In the beginning, when all was water and void, was the Word.  And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  And all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  And my favorite part: What has come into being through him was life, and the life was the light of the people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

God’s creation contains God’s light.  Every single part of creation, be it plant or animal, water or rock, or even human beings.  All contain God’s light.  Further than this, humanity was created in God’s image, meaning all of humanity is good, and has good in them, despite poorer decisions that may be made in a lifetime.

  This is a major and basic tenant of Celtic theology.  Every baby born is born unmarked by sin because they are newly created, and have not fallen to the temptations of evil that also are in creation.  Every part of creation contains God’s light, and if you listen very carefully, you might just hear the heartbeat of the Creator, steady and reassuring, even in the most difficult times.  So central is this to Celtic theology that not one but several clergy people since the dawn of organized Christianity have been excommunicated, defrocked, or simply pushed to the edges, rather than agree with majority or official theory that said that humans were marked by the original sin, even at birth.  So central was this idea that God is somehow in everything that prayers have been collected from Celtic communities, not from churches, blessing everything from the farmer’s cow, to the spinners, weavers, and sewers of cloth, to the cooks, the shepherds, the sheep…  Every moment in life, God could be and was called upon to thank and to ask blessings of.

This is incredible!  But even more incredible is that this concept doesn’t apply only to the more agreeable parts of nature.  You know what I mean, the beautiful soaring vistas, the fields of wildflowers, the spring time baby animals…  It also applies to the earth quakes and volcanoes that tore the ground, the dying plants covered in mold every fall, and the animals that make us shudder at the sight of them.  This idea is what many theologians call an “and, but” or a “both and” idea.  Nature is beautiful, it’s true, but it can also be violent.  It is birth, but also death.  It is tragedy alongside the miraculous.  And God’s light is in all of this.

Most of you know that my family and I were able to travel to Ireland this year, mostly to visit friends, but, let’s be real, who doesn’t want to travel to a place so steeped in beauty, mystery, and folklore?  It wasn’t my first time there, and while we were in Dublin, I wanted to make sure that my family saw something that I had witnessed years before: a sculpture called “Famine” in St. Stephen’s Green.  I know that there are many memorials to the Irish Starving Times, but this one somehow struck me more than the others.  A dog, and two human figures, all sort of faceless, all gaunt in appearance.  One of the human figures holds out a spoon and neither the dog or the other human can reach it.   It isn’t smooth in appearance, it’s not meant to look perfectly lifelike, and yet, staring at it, I had a glimpse of the pain and suffering that forced more than one strand of my not so long ago ancestors to flee to a new world.

All of this, these somber thoughts running through my head, and we turn around, and there, just feet away, is an ice cream seller, surrounded by cheering children.  Not to far from that was a man who rescues injured pigeons and releases them back to the park, teaching people how to hold out birdseed so that the birds will fly to them and sit on their heads.  The Irish population has never recovered since the Starving Time, and yet, there is light.  There is ice cream, and the pigeon man, and pictures of my girls with pigeons all around, and signs to help you get to the play area.  Both and.  And but.

After Dublin, we drove to Cork, the center of the beginning of the Rebellion against British rule.  This is where our friends live, and my goodness, did we get an education there.  The name of Queen Victoria is only uttered in vain there, for she was the monarch during the famine.  Queen’s College is University of Cork City, and Queen’s Street is now Washington Avenue, no kidding.  It is here that one cannot help but notice the history of this country, independent only since 1922.  I had to ask myself, “How can a people who have suffered so much, so recently, be still so…glad?  Where does the music that you hear playing on the various street corners come from?”  I actually wrote to a friend to discuss it and the answer came back just as I was starting to think of it myself: “Everything God created has God’s light in it, doesn’t it?  You might have to separate yourself from parts of that creation to be safe, but there is still God’s light in it.  You can’t give up that light without giving up hope, and without hope, God is unrecognizeable.”  Both and.  And but.

There is a strong temptation to consider the world in binary terms.  Either-or.  Black-white.  Where things are one way only, and there is no room for another perspective.  But I would like to suggest this: In our nation’s current political and social climate, it has never been more important to see God’s light in unlikely places.  Or, at the very least, to allow someone else to point it out to you.

It is difficult for me to say this after the events of the last two days, but there it is.  I want to reach out to those young men in polo shirts, not to firmly point out the light of God in those they are purposely harming, but with a firm fist.  And yet, in my soul, I know that this will beget more hatred, and that it is only my giving in to the temptation to treat them as they have treated others, rather than treat them as I would like to be treated.  No, I know that I must be like those counter protesters, peaceful, though angry, and filled with grace that could only come from God, because God knows that in the moments that car plowed through those people yesterday, no one was thinking of love toward the one driving it.

There’s a story from the midst of the Irish Rebellion, where bands of rebels were roaming from village to village, castle to castle, turning the castle’s occupants out and burning the castle and it’s contents.  The castles’ occupants, after all, were English, and had participated in the oppression of the native Celts from the moment they moved onto the land.  But at one castle, they were stopped from entering the castle grounds by a group of men from the village.  “You can’t burn this one,” they said.  “Why not?  The master of this castle never cared for one of you!”  “That’s true, but before he was a man, his mother saw our father’s starving and out of work, and hired them to build that wall over there.  That wall goes nowhere, it has no purpose on the land.  But she hired our fathers to build it that we might now starve.  She still lives here.  You can’t burn this one.”  They stared at one another, and those with the torches left.

I understand the rebels, they are not a villain in this story.  They were people filled with grief and rage, who have found a way to show those who were on the side of the oppressors, and who, in many cases directly and purposefully added to the struggles, to show them that they weren’t any better, and to force them into the rebels’ own position of being penniless and hungry.  They wanted to visit suffering on these people like what they and their parents and grandparents experienced, wanted to them to feel fear, and maybe in all of this, obtain justice.

But.  But.  This one, this old Englishwoman, she saved our families and allowed our fathers to retain their dignity.  She saw God’s light in us, and the darkness was not overcome.  Justice will not be done by throwing her out on the street.  Or her horrible son.  In all of the injustice these men from the village were forced to bear, they still were striving to see God’s light, even in human nature.

Friday night, the Reverend Traci Blackmon, a member of our denomination’s national staff, shared live on Facebook what she was seeing in Charlottesville.  It was dark, it was hard to see the human figures moving in groups toward the church they were surrounding, but you could see the tiki torches they were carrying.  She described what she could see with her eyes that you couldn’t see with the camera lens: No sheets.  Polo shirts and khakis.  These people were moving out in the open, unafraid, to surround a church filled with people praying for peace, and all dressed like nice young men.

Before the election, these people would likely not have been so bold in their hatred.  They would have hidden behind a veil of politeness.  It’s like a rock was lifted and all of these creatures that were there are now climbing out for the world to see.  They were always there, but now we are forced to reckon with them.  And by we, I mean anyone who hasn’t been forced to recognize it all along.

And here’s the rub, for me anyway.  Even those creatures that climbed out from under that rock were created by God.  Just like me.  And in God’s image, just like me.  And, but.  Both and.  And it angers and grieves me.

I woke up this morning thinking of Martin Luther King.  “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.  Hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love can do that.”  Dr. King, and American Celt, in his theology anyway.  We are called to a massive balancing act, holding on tight to God’s light and grace for balance.  

Believing that God’s light is everywhere, even in the most sinful of humanity is officially heresy, but don’t be fooled.  More than a few clergy have been excommunicated, or defrocked, or pushed to the edges for declaring their belief that God’s light cannot be overcome by darkness.  The torches held by those well dressed young men cannot hold a candle to the light God calls us to.  And we must answer this call.  To stand for justice, to shed our privilege and stand in the crowd that declares love and God’s light in every human.  What happened yesterday was on the other side of the country, but if we believe it can’t happen here, we are fooling ourselves.

After the Celts who were excommunicated or defrocked were thrown aside by the established church, do you know what they did?  They continued their work.  They kept writing, kept declaring, kept loving those they came across.  It’s our turn.  Because what came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light of the people.  The light shines in the darkness, not like feeble tiki torches, but the kind of light only God could give, and the darkness did not overcome it.  We must hold onto that light, stand up as we are called, and cling, not to our fear, grief, or confusion, but to God’s love and grace.  If it’s not to be found in our own being’s, we will find it in the one who created the both and.  Thank God.

Amen.