Today on the Church’s calendar we remember three women who were executed during the reign of Elizabeth I for being the hands, feet and heart of Jesus. Margaret Ward, Margaret Clitherow, and Anne Line were arrested and put to death for the crime of providing sanctuary to Roman Catholic priests. They believed that God’s love was such that no person should be put in prison, exiled, or executed for the way they worshiped God. As I read their stories this morning I couldn’t help but think of the story of immigrants in our own nation today. The Church has a millennia old tradition of providing sanctuary for those seeking refuge. In fact the word sanctuary literally means a place of refuge or safety, fitting I believe that the most sacred space in our church is called the Sanctuary, the area where the altar stands.
Today at least 45 churches around the nation are providing sanctuary for immigrants. And while there is no law preventing Immigration and Customs Enforcement from entering churches to arrest immigrants, they have been following their decades old policy, refraining from making immigration arrests in such “sensitive locations.” Margaret Ward, Margaret Clitherow, and Anne Line are remembered for their courage and integrity in standing up to both a government and a Church that were intent on removing those who they feared would taint society, and thus were dangerous. They died as martyrs, doing what I believe Jesus would have done. As followers of Jesus, we continue to struggle to find our appropriate response to a world and a government that fails to see the face of Jesus in the least of these. But as persecution continues, and increases, find it we must! If we are to take serious our baptismal vow to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being, then I think we need to begin having serious conversations about how we, as a faith community, will respond to these trying times. What do we do when our neighbors arrive, grabbing onto God’s altar crying for sanctuary, crying for refuge and safety? I would like for us to consider what St. John the Evangelist might look like as a church with sanctuary space, being willing to be a place of true sanctuary for all God’s people. Remember these most vulnerable amongst us in our prayers and pray for justice and peace to prevail.
This week my heart has been heavy as we find ourselves, yet again, offering our thoughts and prayers to families whose loved ones went shopping at Wal-Mart and never came home, whose children and brothers and sisters went to enjoy a night out in downtown Dayton, Ohio and will never come back to them. I am dismayed by the rise of hatred and violence in our nation that our current political establishment seems to condone and perpetuate. I am sick and tired of offering my thoughts and prayers on days like today. I am sick and tired of looking young people in the eyes and promising them that God really is a God of love, despite the evil that seems to surround us. I am sick and tired of attending senseless funerals, of lighting candles in front of schools and churches and synagogues and now Wal-Marts.
We are a people called to bear witness to God’s love in the world, and that means that we must be willing to speak out against injustice and inhumanity when we see it. We are a people of prayer, who know that prayer is a powerful force, but if we fail to put our faith into action, our prayers are meaningless at the least, and we are complicit in the perpetuation of such violence in the extreme. In the last seven years, 458 people have died in the United States in incidents of mass shootings. Last year alone, 39,773 people died in the United States as the result of gun violence. This past weekend, in the city of Chicago alone 7 people were killed and another 52 people injured in acts of gun violence. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that it is time that we make our voices heard, that we take our anger to the ballot box, and that we speak God’s justice loud and clear. God is love, and does not condone violence of any sort. Any person who calls themselves Christian, and is willing to be complicit in such violence, is lying about their identity, because followers of the way of Jesus Christ cannot stand idly by as grandmothers are being shot in the checkout lane, parents are murdered using their own bodies to shield their children, and our young people are massacred enjoying a night out or while taking a math test.
Again, I don’t know what the answer to all this hatred and violence is, but I do know that we can all call and write our state and federal legislative representatives and let them know that we expect them to do their job to protect all of us from gun violence.
Over the last month or so there has been a lot of conversation around our liturgy and some of the choices that have been made as we seek to find meaningful ways of expressing our worship. The language that we use, influences how we perceive and experience God in our lives, and while we have inherited a rich liturgical tradition, the Church has always been seeking more expressive ways of interacting with the Holy. We can see this through the various versions of the Book of Common Prayer that have evolved over time and across space. Perhaps one of the most beautiful examples of this is the New Zealand Prayer Book. (Check out the Wikipedia page for the Book of Common Prayer for a discussion of Prayer Book Revision over the course of time.) Our General Convention, which is the decision making body of The Episcopal Church, has authorized a number of supplements to our current Book of Common Prayer, some of which are expressed in the five volumes of Enriching Our Worship. A similar journey is taking place with our musical tradition, with the publication of supplemental Episcopal Hymnals and resources such as Lift Every Voice and Sing, II and Enriching Our Music.
So, why is it important that we use these resources, you may ask. First, just as is happening throughout our nation, The Episcopal Church is rapidly becoming more multi-cultural and these resources help us to experience God through expansive and inclusive language. There is movement happening in the Church toward Prayer Book revision, and we need to be familiar with these supplemental resources because, if history holds true, many of them will likely appear in our next Prayer Book.
I understand that change can be challenging, particularly when we are asked to consider new language for something that is as meaningful and personal as our prayers. But the Church has never been static, and as our understanding and experience of God continues to change us as individuals, it only stands to reason that the Church shifts too. So, as we continue to draw on our wealth of historical and new liturgical resources, I am forming a Worship & Liturgy Committee to help guide our practices here at St. John’s. Over the next few weeks I will be inviting individuals to be a part of this work and will announce the members of the Worship & Liturgy Committee soon. This will be a Standing Committee reporting to the Vestry. If you have any questions or input as we move forward in this direction, please feel free to reach out to me, and, please keep our Church and this new Committee in your prayers.
Fr. Jeremy is an Episcopal Priest and a Franciscan Friar. He is a graduate of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida with a Bachelor's in History, and Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia with a Master of Divinity. He currently serves as Rector of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in Flossmoor, IL and is a Friar in the Community of Francis & Clare.