Soon after I joined the staff of the Holocaust Museum here in
Washington, I decided to train as a guide, feeling that I could be a
better writer about the lessons of the Holocaust if on a regular basis I
witnessed the deep impression our exhibition can make on visitors. It is
not easy to live day by day directly under the shadow of humanity’s
greatest crime. Each person brings different vulnerabilities to this
searing exposure of the human capacity for evil, and there are moments
when my heart is very sore because I am a priest. One of them is when we
arrive at a photograph of the bishop whom Hitler installed as head of
the amalgamated Protestant Church. There is the bishop with arm upraised
not in blessing but in the salute of loyalty—‘Heil

There are many stories of Christian heroism and resistance but they never
offset the crushing weight of evidence that the traditional Christianity
entrenched in Germany had ancient flaws rotting its very core. I think of
the research being conducted this year on Hitler’s “brown
priests”, the Roman Catholic clergy who were passionately pro-Nazi. I
think of the famous theologians who justified antisemitism and described
Hitler as “the man sent from God.” I think of the sickening
impotence of other-worldly piety. (There is a beautiful monastery
overlooking the Danube where one can ask to look at the guest registers of
those who were on retreat there in the early thirties. In one entry there is
a lovely motto written by one of the devout retreatants, “From
faithfulness to faithfulness”; the signature is Adolf Eichmann, the
future technocrat of genocide.)

Perhaps I can be forgiven for wishing that the readings from Holy
Scripture that the Church gives us this Sunday were not the ones we have
just heard. Perhaps you found them both serious “downers.” The
prophet Micah delivers in the name of God a searing indictment of corrupt
religious leaders. Prophets and priests who are in it for the money. Bogus
seers. Spiritual guides on the make. Judges taking bribes. And then the
teaching of Jesus: Jesus warns those around him of the hypocrisy that is
endemic among the religious professionals of his day. They hide their own
fatal flaws behind an elaborate front of religious piety. They are addicted
to status and demand deference. Their moralistic attitudes and authoritarian
judgments are deeply ironic. Their judgmental preaching is meant to imply
their own moral superiority, yet it serves as a smokescreen to conceal their
own spiritual emptiness.

This sounds like one big downer. We have had plenty of opportunity to be
disillusioned in our own time. The recent exposure of a corrupt clerical
culture that placed thousands at risk by protecting pedophiles. The
prosperity preachers pumping out their religious propaganda over cable TV.
The terrifying ayatollahs, mullahs, and Christian fundamentalist
neo-Crusaders. All of them piling on more painful evidence of the way
religious leaders betray and exploit for ends that are in polar opposition
to the life-giving Spirit of God. It is depressing to come to church to be
lifted up, only to hear scriptures that seem to tell us the worst again of
how religiosity can turn into organized resistance to the love of God.

One big downer. But the Eucharist has at its very heart, the invitation
“Lift up your hearts.” And we reply “We lift them up to
the Lord.” How do these scriptures summon us out of disillusionment
and depression into a place of creativity and hope? How are we going to lift
up our hearts this morning?

May I suggest first that we turn our eyes towards the Capitol, where the
body of Rosa Parks is lying in state? Perhaps if we learn from her, our
hearts will not only be lifted up, they may soar…

In that single defining moment when Rosa Parks refused to give up her
seat we can see how God’s judgment actually works. It is all about
place. Conventional religion serves as a buttress for human systems of power
that put people in their place. The system underlying most human societies
over the last ten thousand years could be modeled on the familiar motto of
the tidy householder. “A place for everyone, and everyone in their
place.” Religion serves as the ideal justification for maintaining
systems of class, privilege and power. It can claim that the gods have
created the castes, the privileged clans, that the difference between rulers
and the ruled is of divine origin, that the balance of the sacred cosmos
depends on everyone knowing their place in the hierarchy and staying within

Jesus came to undermine that most entrenched of human myths. Tradition
decreed that he should be a carpenter like his father and have a family. He
didn’t. He uprooted himself from his place and deliberately became a
wanderer—the Son of Man who has nowhere to lay his head. He uprooted
others from their places. Businessmen left their fish supply businesses. Tax
collectors unplugged from their dependency on the imperial Roman officials.
Wealthy women abandoned their husbands and families and joined peasants in
Jesus’ band of wanderers. Prostitutes uprooted themselves from their
pimps. He wove this motley crew into a band of good news announcers with a
single message. Everyone who was prepared to lose the place that society
dictated, could find a new place in a new order that was suddenly becoming
real among them. The code name for this new order was “God’s
reign.” And not only could anyone have a place in it, everyone could
have the same place in it. In fact the feature of this society was there was
only one place for each and for all, making all equals. And that place was
the heart of God. Everyone had a place indeed. We all need one. But that
place was at home with God in intimacy. Jesus had the power to initiate
everyone into the same place that he had with God. And that place was, as he
fully realized at this baptism in the Jordan, as God’s beloved in whom
God is well-pleased. That was our place too.

There is a common idea that the heart of Jesus’ message was that
God loves us. That is absurd. No one has ever been crucified for saying that
God loves us. But Jesus’ actual message of a new order in which all
are equal by virtue of their union and intimacy with God made it inevitable
that he would be crucified. What could be more dangerous to conventional
religion and the standard model of human society than the message that all
could become equal by claiming a new gift of intimacy with God? How could
you get people to stay in their allotted places if they got hold of this
dangerous message about equality with one another and equal intimacy with

How could you get them to stay down where they belong if they rose up in
the power of this new dignity and freedom bestowed by God acting through his

What would happen to society if people got the idea that their status was
not something dictated by their birth or the powers that be but was a divine
endowment, glorious in its potential?

What could society bestow that was more glorious than union with God?

And how could you control and suppress a dynamic community of people so
diverse that their only common feature was that they all experienced the
gift of intimacy with God?

There was no place in the old established order for Jesus or his band, so
he was driven out of it quickly. Leaders of the best religion and the most
advanced empire conspired to crush him. They weren’t fools. They knew
how subversive his message really was.

And after his resurrection, so did those who responded by spreading it
more and more, constantly enlarging the new community. The dynamic remained
the same, a powerful feed-back loop. The more people accepted the gift of
oneness with God in Christ, the more detached and free they became in
relation to gender, race, social status, nationality. The more they took
their cue from Jesus and unplugged from the rigid systems of family
heritage, and a traditional religiosity that revolved around ritual purity,
the freer they were to innovate and invent the Church, a community based on
love in which there was room for everyone. “There is no longer Jew or
Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

Who can doubt then the gospel is the secret of that subversive act by
which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat? Those who know their place in
the heart of God have the freedom to refuse the place dictated by society
and choose to shape their own destinies out of an inner conviction of their
dignity and worth.

Notice that Jesus proclaimed that the meek would inherit the earth. He
did not counsel them to wait for an afterlife. So the meekness of Rosa
Parks, far from being resignation, was a meekness that claimed equality on
the earth in the here and the now. No doubt the authorities scorned her for
asking for the earth, in insisting on equality. Well, in a way she was
asking for the earth. And it worked…just like the Beatitudes

So by looking across the city to the Capitol, we can find fresh
inspiration for lifting up our hearts. The gospel is as potent today as when
it was set ablaze by Jesus who said that he came to cast fire onto the
earth. Perhaps what we most need is a fresh attitude to our history. It can
seem like an awful long time since the community of the gospel gathered
after Jesus’s resurrection. We can become oppressed by the weight of
history and the terrible failures of what congealed into the form of
Christendom. Constantine’s cooption of the Church, the Crusades, the
Inquisition, the grotesque religious wars, the sickening failures that
allowed the Holocaust…

But Archbishop William Temple, one of the most admired Anglican leaders
of the last century, used to say. “We are the early Christians.”
I was asked by a parish in the year 2000 to help design an educational
program to celebrate two thousand years of Christian history. I suggested
that a group of parishioners train to present in turn dramatic
representations of successive lifetimes since the resurrection. It was as
surprise that only thirty were needed!

The gospel has already profoundly shaped the world, and alternatives to
the gospel have been discrediting themselves quite spectacularly. As soon as
we courageously turn to the mystical core of our religion, the actual offer
of intimacy and intimacy with God through Jesus here and now, its fire can
blaze up again in all its immediacy and freshness. We can be completely
undeterred by the failures of past Christianities, if we realize that our
authority comes from the future. God sets us free from the burdens of the
past by summoning us to be co-creators of his future.

Lift up your hearts. Come now to communion, communion with God in
intimacy through the sacramental indwelling of Christ in your bodies,
communion with all the saints, including the newly arrived sister of Christ
Rosa Parks, who offered herself to bring God’s future into our present