Calvary Episcopal ChurchPhoto of Doug Bailey
Memphis, Tennessee
December 2, 2001
The First Sunday in Advent

Faith Rise!
The Rev. Dr. Douglass M. Bailey

Gospel: Matthew 24:36-44
(This sermon is also available in audio.)

Our lives today are filled with lots of emotions--a kaleidoscope of emotions--as we think of this parish and our interface with this city and the world. So, let me quickly move to an image. It's one that you will remember well, for it became, I believe, almost an icon for the last century.

On July 20, 1969, two astronauts landed on the moon. They disembarked from their lunar spacecraft and began to clumsily walk and bounce along the surface of the moon. Then, just like tourists, one of them took out a camera and began to photograph the surface of the moon. In one of those photographs, an incredible, wonderful accident happened.

The camera was aimed at the jagged horizon of the moon's surface. Just as the astronaut was about to flip the shutter, up from beneath the moon, thousands of miles away, rose the planet Earth. Surprised and awed, he waited until the earth came up halfway, and then took the photograph. It had risen like a huge ball, in all of the hues of the Mother Earth's colors of blue and white and green and brown, like a diamond shimmering there in the blackness of outer space. This incredible photograph of our planet Earth from the surface of the moon, has given us a perspective from which I hope we will never recover. The photograph is titled "Earth Rise."

In many respects, that splendid photograph is one of the images that began to persuade us to take seriously the nuclear arms issue that we were involved in at that time. It became a forceful messenger for peace because there, thousands of miles away, one does not see the divisions that we see here day-by-day--the divisions between races, the divisions between worldviews or faith traditions or economic structures or sexual identities, or whatever. There are no boundaries out there thousands of miles away as you look at "this fragile Earth, our island home;" there is only…Us! You and me…and all of Us. The peace movement took on new perspectives. The environmental movement took on deeper perspectives. The human movement took on richer perspectives. We are still pondering the meaning of "Earth Rise."

For twenty-three years it has been my deep privilege to be with you in mutual ministry--Rector and congregation. Twenty-three years-- almost a quarter of a century--of sermons and sacraments and songs and scriptures and jubilee and justice and issues of the city and issues of the world and issues of our parish. The nurture of the soul and the nurture of the body, nurtures of hope, caring, pastoring and praying, moments of mission and ministry.

After thirty-seven years in parish ministry, twenty-three of them here, I'm beginning to develop a kind of "Earth Rise" posture, which I call "Faith Rise." So, on this Advent Sunday, my farewell Sunday with you, I would like to reflect on three images of "Faith Rise" with you.

The first is that faith rises up predominantly in our weaknesses, in our needs, in our desperation, in our hunger, in our thirsts, in our losses, in our pains, in our droughts. Yes, faith is mostly born in our weakness and inadequacy. That's where faith rises. Maybe it's because our need is so great. Maybe it's because we've acknowledged our inadequacies. Whatever it is, in the words of Dr. Walter Brueggemann, I believe it's "terribly Biblical." I know that is counter to much that is true for Western Christianity and Western Spirituality. But, just where in the world did we get the idea that faith rises up in strength? I'm convinced that faith rises up most in our weakness, in our need, in our poverty, in crisis, and in our pain.

Ask a Biblical character like Moses who is called to do a tremendous role of leadership, and he says, "I am inadequate. I can't speak. I don't have the words. I don't know how to do this. I don't even know your name." And Yahweh sends Aaron to be his mouthpiece; and Moses, in his need, in his weakness becomes the messenger and the leader. Look at Jeremiah, the Great Prophet of the return of Israel from exile, who feels like he's too young--he doesn't know the ropes, he doesn't have the tools, he's just inadequate. In that deep inadequacy God says, "You're the person I can use."

Notice Mary, the mother of our Lord, chosen to be the bearer of Emmanuel. Her response to the angel is, "This is impossible. I can't do it. I'm a peasant. I'm of no repute." God answers her, "You're the very one I'm choosing." Paul, the great missionary apostle declares, "When I am weak, then I am strong." Look at the first step of the AA recovery program of those who are addicted to alcohol and drugs. The very first step is the admission that one is powerless over the effects of alcohol and drugs, and in their weakness they go to a Higher Power, surrendering everything in their life to the power of God.

You've heard me tell this story before, but I want to tell it one more time. Thomas Dorsey is the one who took the great "field music" of African-Americans and mixed it with African-American church music to create the enormously, wonderful gift of Gospel music for American spirituality. "Precious Lord, take my hand," written by Thomas Dorsey, is one of the most excruciatingly beautiful pieces of Gospel music ever written. But, Thomas Dorsey was in great weakness, great despair at the time that he composed it. He had left his home in Chicago to do a revival in St. Louis. While there he received a telegram that his wife, who was expecting their first child, had died overnight. He returned and found her just as he had left her, sleeping in bed, but now she was sleeping eternally. They buried his wife and his child in the same casket. In his great grief and in his need, in his deep darkness and despair, in his hurting, in his weakness, Dorsey proclaimed that the words and the music came like great drops of water off of a ledge above him, landing in his heart and on the piano keys. Thus, was born:

Precious Lord, take my hand.
Lead me on. Help me stand.
I am tired. I am weak. I am worn.
Through the storm, through the night,
lead me on to the light.
Take my hand, precious Lord lead me home.

Wow! That's the Gospel truth! It's in our weaknesses that faith rises, and faith rises for one purpose only: to set us on a journey. A second image then of "Faith Rise" that I want to share with you today is that one's faith is a journey, a journey of the soul, and sometimes it's geographic as well.

It was geographic for me twenty-three years ago, bringing me from a church that I loved in Maryland to Memphis, to this downtown congregation that was feeling it's own deep need and some of its own despair, as was the downtown City of Memphis at that time. You may not remember, you may not have been here over twenty years ago, but most buildings were boarded up on Front Street, Second Street, Third Street and the Mid-America Mall. Calvary Church had lost many members. Then we began our new mission to swim against the current, doing things that others said would not give growth to a church. It felt at times as if we were swimming upstream against the mighty Mississippi River. We were even swimming against the current of our own culture. We were swimming against the current sometimes of things that had gone on for generations here in the Old South, and Calvary Church began to symbolize the New South--you, me and downtown Memphis.

Yes, the movement of faith is a geographic journey many times, but it's mostly a journey of the soul. Where did we ever get the idea that it means climbing upward, ever upward, and arriving eventually at a mountaintop? That's not the experience in the Bible, and that's not the experience of faith. We never arrive. We're always in motion--going up and then falling back, moving sideways, moving backwards and then moving forward--moving in companionship with others and then moving another way. Faith is movement. Faith is a process, journeying together, always fluid, always changing, always staying vibrantly alive. Faith is an awesome adventure. It ought to be great adventure. It is a sacred, powerful journey.

This past month we baptized seventeen persons. In each baptism we used the scallop shell, which is the symbol of the sacred journey. In Baptism, water is poured on our heads, over our own souls--Living water for faith's pilgrimage, the journey of the soul. The soul is not confined to the Episcopal Church, and the soul is not confined to the Christian Church. The soul is not confined to just one or two or three world religions. We all are part of God's soul. One of the children that we baptized this past month was the child of a Muslim father and a Christian mother, who is a member of this parish. I baptized their child in the name of Allah, because that is my God's name, too. When one calls on the God of the Jewish tradition, yes, it's Yahweh. And, we remember our Shemah: "Here, O Israel, the Lord our God is one God."

God pours soul into every single one of you. So, for God's sake, let's make it an adventure. We do a terrible thing to the Christian experience when we don't see it as The Journey. It is the most exciting way to live in the world today. Because Emmanuel is with us. God is our companion.

Faith rises up in our weakness and inadequacy, and puts us on a soul journey. Forever! But faith is not just a soul journey. It is also a social journey. That brings me to my third image of "Faith Rise." Our faith is also a social justice journey. It must be! The whole intent, the whole mission of one's faith, the deepest understanding of the Gospel of God is that faith is meant to be lived out in the world. Where did we ever get the understanding that a priest is to be a chaplain for a private club? Where does any church ever get a private club kind of image? We are to minister beyond ourselves. The legendary Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, used to say, "The church is the only institution in the world that is in business for those outside of itself." That is Calvary Church's business: to be on mission to this city and our world, and to the world's bruises and to its hurts and to its needs and to listen to the world for the mission of the church.

To rise up in faith is to be about a social justice ministry. Look at Jesus: Jesus did spend some time in the synagogues, but he spent most of his ministry with the needs of his world. If we are to follow Jesus, then we must follow Jesus into God's contemporary world. As some of you know, I have accepted a part-time teaching position on the faculty of the new Divinity School at Wake Forest University. I begin to teach my first course in January. The title of the course is "Jesus and Justice." The two are inseparable. This social justice ministry, to which the church is called, is always going to be against the grain. It's always going to be tough. It's always going to be demanding. It's going to get you in trouble--expect it and even welcome it.

Archbishop Rembert Weakland, a Roman Catholic leader of the Diocese of Milwaukee, has become a hero figure of mine. He was out there on the edge leading the people of his Diocese in doing amazingly different things. They were being the church in the world, the church in business for those outside of itself, the church for others as Jesus is "the Man for others." Bishop Weakland promoted the idea of marriage for male priests. He encouraged the idea of female priests in the Catholic Church. He took on other great causes that made him renowned among many of us: the cause of racial injustice, religious injustice, sexual identity injustice. He promoted the rights, r-i-g-h-t, and the rites, r-i-t-e, of gay and lesbian persons. He took on the issues of the environment, to which we must pay attention. And, sure enough, he got himself in trouble. Word came that the Pope was about to silence him. So he imposed on himself his own month-long silence in which he did not do any public speaking. He would remain silent in prayer and study and deep meditation.

On Advent Sunday, 1991, ten years ago today, he broke his silence. He spoke his first sermon after this silence at the downtown Catholic Cathedral in Milwaukee. In that sermon he said:

I want to tell you three things I've relearned in my silence. The first is that to be a Christian in the world today is to be absurdly joyful, joyful even in deep pain. That, by the grace of God, I am. Secondly, I've relearned that to be a Christian in the world today, you must be entirely fearless. Afraid of nothing, willing to go against the grain, willing to go to the edge, willing to go over the edge to follow the Christ. Teach me, (he said to the congregation) because, by the grace of God, I want to learn to become entirely fearless. The third thing I've relearned is that to be a Christian today is to be always in trouble for Christ's sake.

With that, the entire three thousand people in the congregation that day rose spontaneously to their feet and gave him a standing ovation. I would only add to that story: If I were going to be Rector of Calvary Church much longer, we would be in a lot more trouble--for Christ's sake.

We, the people of God in Calvary Church, we ought to always be in trouble, for Christ's sake. We ought to always be out there in the world, in the adventure of the soul journey and social justice ministry, because it's about changing the world as our own lives become changed. Faith rises, I'm convinced, in weakness and thrives in our inadequacies. "Faith Rise" is a soul journey, forever! And, "Faith Rise" is a world social justice journey.

You've been hearing me speak these last weeks about the Kabbalah tradition of Jewish mysticism. According to Kabbalah, prior to creation, the Holy was together as one. But at the time of Creation, and ongoing since then, the Holy has been continually breaking itself up into millions and millions of sparks of the Holy. The sparks of the Divine get planted in you and me, and all living things, with our creation.

The Hindu and Buddhist traditions use this image also. They greet one another on the streets with the Indian word "nameste:" "I greet the Holy spark in you." If they are particularly close to you, they raise their palms and blow across them, almost like blowing you a kiss. This is to say, "May the wind rise up inside of you, that the fire of the Holy will grow in you." As I leave you this day, that is my prayer for you. That is my Blessing. That is my Benediction. "Nameste!"

Copyright 2001 Calvary Episcopal Church

Gospel: Matthew 24:36-44
"But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. NRSV

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