God of grace, and God of glory, on thy people pour thy power. Crown thine ancient Church's story; bring her bud to glorious flower. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour. For the facing of this hour.
If you don't already know the story about the Christians in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in 1940s Nazi-occupied France, please take some time to learn about them, starting with this link. Years ago, when I was still a young campus minister, I came across the extraordinary documentary by Pierre Sauvage, entitled "Weapons of the Spirit" which (according to this website) is being re-released. Check it out. A clip from the film can be found here which I am sure will whet your appetite to learn more.
I've been thinking a lot lately about a "conspiracy of goodness." My boss, the Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher, likes to remind groups across our diocese about the meaning of the word conspiracy, literally, from the Latin, "to breathe with." He asks the congregation to breathe in and breathe out - and then says, "you've just breathed with one another, and breathed in God. You are now part of a conspiracy."
If you Google "conspiracy" (as I just did) you will find that he is right (he usually is) about this root meaning. But you may also notice that the word has been hijacked (as so many words are) in a negative sense. The primary meanings have become negative, including "to make secret plans jointly to commit an unlawful or harmful act."
But what if the law itself is unlawful, and harmful? You can study this kind of question in an Ethics class at seminary. But it is a question that most people of privilege like myself (a mainline, straight, white, male pastor) have only needed to entertain in an abstract way - at least until pretty recently. Now, it's starting to feel real.
I remember being in Amsterdam and walking through the Anne Frank House and literally asking myself: would I have had the courage to make my house a sanctuary to such a family? If I were the pastor of a congregation in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the 1940s, would I have had the courage to risk preaching a sermon which might lead a parishioner to walk out because I'd gotten too "political?" Even more scary, they might be walking out not only with their pledge, but to report me to the authorities.
More recently, I attended the Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage in Hayneville, Alabama in 2015, fifty years after Jonathan's death. If you click on this link and watch the video you will see some cardboard icons of martyrs who, along with Jonathan, gave their life to be part of a "conspiracy of goodness" during the Civil Rights Movement. I got to carry one of those icons as we marched through the streets of Hayneville and then into the "roll call of martyrs" during worship. (That video is also in the article; it's the third video down. If you watch the Roll Call. you will learn about ordinary people, men and women, black and white, young and old, who were part of that conspiracy of goodness. At 9 minutes and 10 seconds you will see me announcing the Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Minister from Massachusetts, as "present" in the great cloud of witnesses, shining in glory as we continue to feebly struggle.)
It was a powerful experience that I will never forget. But right up there with it, just a day earlier, I sat at a table at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Selma with a man who was a member of the vestry who conspired with Jonathan Daniels and others to integrate that church at a time when 11 a.m on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. (How much has this changed?) He kept bringing it up at vestry meetings and it was voted down but he kept at it, month after month, until (like the persistent widow in Jesus' parable) he wore that vestry down and they finally voted yes. I can't remember how many months it took, but I found myself wondering as I heard this story about if I had been the rector at that time, in that place. Would I have persisted with this vestry member, or tried to "keep the peace" with those who counseled, "these things take time?" Would I have had the stamina as each month passed, and my spouse politely asked, "how was work?" to not lose heart when the honest answer would have been, "well, we had the same vestry meeting, again, but we're no where!" Or after it did finally pass and then the biggest pledger walked out, taking his pledge with him and creating a budget deficit. What then? (That part of the story is true also, of course, but anyone who's ever been involved in congregational life already knew that part of the story was coming.)
I've been ruminating on all of these things as I begin to lean into a sabbatical that will begin on April 1. If you've been reading this blog lately, you will know I've been reflecting on what it means to be the church in this time and place. The fancy theological word for that is "ecclesiology." You can Google that one on your own but it's interesting to me that Blogspot insists I've misspelled the word and suggests anesthesiology instead! I think this may be the problem; a Church that is too often asleep. It is time for Sleepers to Awake and to be the Church; to be part of a conspiracy of goodness.
This morning as I worked out on the elliptical at the YMCA, I watched a piece on CNN about people preparing safe, hidden, sanctuary spaces in their homes for their neighbors and friends who may not have all the paperwork our government now requires of them. This has all become very real very quickly. And I thought about the Biblical mandate to care for the stranger in our land, to love that person, no exceptions. And I thought about the people who hid Anne Frank, and the people of that congregation in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, and Jonathan Daniels and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Rev. James Reeb and that vestry member at St. Paul's in Selma. And the rector there at the time. And the biggest pledger who walked out, too.
And I breathed in, and breathed out. Trying to be part of a conspiracy of goodness, with God's help.