A Sermon for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
by The Reverend Craig Lemming, Associate Rector
Sunday, November 13, 2022 / Proper 28 / Year C / Track 2
Let us pray. Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the flame of your sacred love upon the altar of our hearts. Amen.
After the stressful week we all endured, I’d like to take a moment to engage in a spiritual practice together, relying on the healing wisdom of mystic, theologian, and spiritual father of the Civil Rights Movement, Howard Thurman. Thurman’s collection of Meditations of the Heart begins with a short reflection that leads us to “An Island of Peace within One’s Soul.” So, take a deep, centering breath with me, close your eyes, and allow Howard Thurman to guide our imaginations inward.
The Inward Sea
There is in every person an inward sea, and in that sea there is an island and on that island there is an altar and standing guard before that altar is the “angel with the flaming sword.” Nothing can get by that angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the mark of your inner authority. Nothing passes “the angel with the flaming sword” to be placed upon your altar unless it be a part of “the fluid area of your consent.” This is your crucial link with the Eternal.¹
Take another deep breath with me and remember that sacred place, because, as Thurman writes later in his Meditation, that altar on that island in that inward sea of our souls, is the Temple where God dwells. Doing this quiet spiritual work of tending to the sacred temple deep within our bodies is how we can become living, human sanctuaries of healing and justice for those being destroyed by coloniality.
Have you ever met a person who is so robustly well in their soul, that when you are in their presence your body immediately feels settled, safe, and grateful that they turned up? Howard Thurman was one of those people. And what is remarkable is that despite the unspeakable suffering, violence, and heartbreak he endured in this country as the grandson of enslaved Africans, Thurman cultivated a theology of radical nonviolence that shaped an entire generation of civil rights activists including Martin Luther King, Jr. who carried Thurman’s masterpiece, Jesus and the Disinherited wherever he traveled. As white Americans bombed Black churches, lynched Black bodies, and damaged their own morals and consciences through destructive racist violence, Howard Thurman continued to do the hard quiet spiritual work of going deep within: across that inward sea, to that island, to that sacred sanctuary deep within his soul to commune with the God of Love on the altar of his heart. Like Malachi in this morning’s First Lesson, Howard Thurman taught us not to fret about the arrogant evildoers, but to do the quiet spiritual work: to commune daily with God who dwells on that innermost altar of our being, because as Malachi says, “for those who revere God’s name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”
Where were you on that catastrophic morning of September 11th 2001? Where did you turn for sanctuary and healing? I was 19, a freshman at New England Conservatory, in a rehearsal with the Chamber Singers in Jordan Hall. As we were singing, the serene face of our conductor, Simon Carrington, slowly twisted with shock as his assistant whispered the horrific news from New York City into his ear. Rehearsal ended. But the music kept singing in my terrified soul. Of all the complex memories that haunt me from those first few weeks of my culture-shocked life in Boston, Gioachino Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle – the masterpiece he described as “the last of my sins of old age” – still swirls around that altar, on that island, deep within my inward sea. There is healing medicine in those ancient sacred words and Rossini’s strange tonal textures of two pianos, harmonium and human voices gently pleading, “Lord, have mercy.” [EXCERPT]. Music was my sanctuary on September 11th 2001. In the words of Maya Angelou, “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”
Let us turn to the catastrophe described in today’s Gospel. About 40 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, the Roman Empire’s Siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE resulted in the complete destruction of The Temple: a calamity so cataclysmic it is almost impossible for us to imagine. According to Josephus, 1.1 million people were massacred and 97,000 were captured and enslaved by the Roman Empire.² For the early Christian church, the Roman colonizers’ violent conquest, enslavement, and extermination of Jews and Jewish Christians is placed in the mouth of Jesus in Luke’s apocalyptic description of Rome’s destruction of The Temple. How can this be Good News? It is Good News for those whose lives are destroyed by coloniality because the Word of God tells us that when catastrophes, wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues, arrests, persecutions, betrayals, hatreds, and death sentences occur, we believe in what Jesus promises: “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict… By your endurance you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:5-19).
Even though we may be exhausted from enduring centuries of the colonial destruction of our planet, we all have spiritual work to continue doing individually and together as followers of Jesus. The same spiritual fatigue and restless ennui that plagues us today is addressed in today’s Epistle which states, “For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly… do not be weary in doing what is right” (2 Thessalonians 3:13).
This is why I believe in the quiet, hard work we are doing here at St. John’s and at Circle of the Beloved in North Minneapolis which is so vital to being well in our souls. To connect deeply with one another in communion with God’s Word and Sacraments, to go deep within our bodies to do the hard quiet spiritual work of somatic healing so that we can continue to be Christ’s agents of hope and healing, courage and compassion as we serve others through today’s apocalypse. The word apocalypse or revelation names the fact that we are seeing with new eyes painful truths that have always been there, and now all of us are seeing these devastating truths for the first time. As we face hard truths which can set us all free, Jesus says to us in today’s Gospel “do not be terrified; for these things must take place first.”
The Wisdom Jesus promises to give us in the Gospel to withstand and to endure the destructive powers of coloniality is found upon that altar at the center of the spiritual Temple deep within us. When life becomes overwhelming return, with Howard Thurman, to that sacred place where the God of Love dwells within you.
There is in every person an inward sea, and in that sea there is an island and on that island there is an altar and… This is [our] crucial link with the Eternal.
- Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1953), 15.
- Josephus, The Wars of the Jews VI.9.3.