Thursday, October 16, 2014

Fear and Unchecked Power

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
October 16, 2014

On Broad Street in London, this cross marks the site
of the burning of the Oxford Martyrs.
The Oxford Martyrs—Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer—were burned at the stake for the heresy of participating in the Protestant Reformation in England. This occurred under “Bloody” Queen Mary in 1555 and 1556.

Latimer and Ridley were burned first, resolute and unflinching. An eyewitness named John Foxe wrote: “Dr. Ridley, the night before execution, was very facetious, had himself shaved, and called his supper a marriage feast; he remarked upon seeing Mrs. Irish (the keeper’s wife) weep, ‘Though my breakfast will be somewhat sharp, my supper will be more pleasant and sweet.’”

Of the execution itself, Foxe wrote: “A lighted [timber] was now laid at Dr. Ridley’s feet, which caused Mr. Latimer to say, ‘Be of good cheer, Ridley; and play the man. We shall this day, by God’s grace, light up such a candle in England, as, I trust, will never be put out.’ When Dr. Ridley saw the flame approaching him, he exclaimed, ‘Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit!’ and repeated often, ‘Lord receive my spirit!’ Mr. Latimer, too, ceased not to say, ‘O Father of heaven receive my soul!’”

Thomas Cranmer was not martyred that day because he had signed a document recanting his Protestant theology. Cranmer, the chief architect of our Book of Common Prayer, strikes me as a man who would have had no patience with the kind of violence that results from ignorance. Perhaps at first, he felt that a recantation would not have to be a betrayal. But he found his conscience tortured, and eventually he recanted his 
The Burning of Thomas Cranmer
recantation. Cranmer was sent to the stake five months after Ridley and Latimer. At Cranmer’s final speech just before his execution, he said, “Forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished.” And so he put his writing hand into the fire first, before the flames engulfed his entire body.

Clearly, our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was very carefully chosen for this occasion. "The work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done." All three of these martyrs were burned at the stake for teaching certain things about God, things that were contrary to the church’s official teaching. But these ideas fanned the flames of the Reformation, the results of which include the birth of all the Protestant denominations, in addition to a Counter-Reformation within the Roman Catholic Church.

Paul described Christianity as a building constructed on the foundation of Jesus: “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it." In taking the story of Jesus to the Gentiles, Paul was among the first to build on the foundation Jesus had laid. And what are the qualities of this foundation? The Gospels give us a panoramic view of the foundation, centered on love for God and love for each other. We are to walk through our lives transforming hate into love, and that will not happen without resistance, because two of the biggest enemies of love are fear and unchecked power.

No religion exists or operates in a vacuum, but is conditioned by the culture and the power structures around it. I want to stress that what Jesus came up against was not Judaism itself, but fearful, besieged Jewish individuals conspiring with the unchecked power of Rome. That combination quite often turns deadly. What Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer came up against was not Roman Catholicism itself, but a fearful, besieged Vatican conspiring with the unchecked power of the English monarchy. In Syria and Iraq today, Christians and other religious minorities are not coming up against Islam itself, but against certain fearful, besieged Muslims conspiring with the unchecked power of military weaponry. And in a much less deadly example, Mark Driscoll stepped down this week as the lead pastor of Mars Hill Church. He strikes me as a very fearful person who was given way too much unchecked power and chose to keep taking more.

The problem with religions is that they are made up of flawed, fearful human beings who experience power as a way to gain control over their fear. The deadly combination of fear plus power can turn deadly with or without religion. And we, too, are vulnerable to participation in this toxic combination. It can happen on a very small, local level. It can happen in local governments, in schools, in churches, and even in our own families. Fear … plus power … minus accountability.

How are you handling your fear these days? Every angel appears with the words “Fear not,” and at the heart of the Christian message is the good news that we have no cause for fear. This does not magically remove the existential fear that is part of our human condition. But that is why spreading the good news is so important, so that people the world over may come closer to living without fear.

I saw a meme on Facebook today that said, “Relax—nothing is under control.” And a classmate reminded me of something our liturgics professor had told us at exam time: “If you can change it, why worry? If you can’t change it, why worry?”

I am reminded of Jesus’ words in Luke’s gospel: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

As for power, how are you holding yourself accountable for the power you have? Perhaps more importantly, how are you asking others to hold you accountable? When life feels out of control, it can be easy to grasp tightly to whatever power we may have to influence others. But what if we didn’t? What if we abdicated power instead? What if we assumed we didn’t know everything? What if we really trusted that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, breathing newness and renewal and opening possibilities we haven’t yet imagined?

Paul cautions us today: “Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”

To this day, we keep building the Church. Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer were among those who launched the Reformation in England that would eventually lead to our Episcopal Church, and you and I are builders, too. How will we adapt the Church going forward, never losing sight of our foundation in Jesus?


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