The Sixth Sunday in Easter- Fr. Chris- May 21, 2017

Easter 6: On the White Cliffs of Dover They Waited

For a printable version of the sermon, click HERE.

 

Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

On the White Cliffs of Dover, the English people waited for the worst. Napoleon Bonaparte was causing terror throughout mainland Europe and it was only a matter of time until his attention could be fully focused on the United Kingdom. France had invaded Ireland in 1796 with hopes of creating a future jumping point for further attacks. Efforts were later put in place to cross the English Channel in 1798, but Napoleon suddenly demanded the full attention of the army for the campaigns in Egypt against Austria. Finally, in 1802, a peace agreement thwarted Napoleon’s grand plans, but everyone knew this peace was just temporary.

Now the iconic White Cliffs of Dover stand 350 feet directly above the crashing waves of the English Channel. They are truly a natural wonder of the world as they shine out as a beacon due to their chalk composition. The cliffs have great symbolic value because they face continental Europe at the narrowest part of the English Channel. In fact, their white face is visible on clear days from France. It is, therefore, also the place where foreign armies have traditionally crossed to invade the British, going all the way back to Julius Caesar.

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And so, on the White Cliffs of Dover, the English people waited for the worst… They waited for Napoleon to cross the Channel with troops in tow and for a great land battle to ensue. Therefore, a massive rebuilding of Dover Castle took place to garrison troops as a first line of defense. This military detachment stationed on the cliffs of Dover, starting in 1803, had the sole task of looking out for Napoleon… and there they waited!

The author of First Peter writes, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you…”

First Peter was written to Gentile converts to the faith in Asia minor. They found themselves in an area where Paul’s preaching was very successful, but this also brought unwanted attention to the Christian Church, which was not well received by the others. This led to localized persecution and discord. Therefore, the author is encouraging the readers to stand fast to their faith and even amid suffering, continue to share the love of God through Christ Jesus. Just as Christ did not abandon the world, neither should his followers. Instead the letter encourages the reader to help transform the world in the name of and for the sake of Christ. In other words, to continue the work of Christ’s reconciliation in the world. And specifically, in today’s reading, we are reminded of the call to be witnesses of Christ’s love. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you…”

Back on the White Cliffs of Dover, a military detachment was stationed in 1803 for the sole task of looking out for Napoleon. And there they waited… Yes, land and naval battles would occur against Napoleon, but nothing physically on England’s soil. In the end, Napoleon would be defeated in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo in the Netherlands, he would be exiled from France, have a short return, but only to finally die in 1821 exiled and alone. But, back on the White Cliffs of Dover, a military detachment was stationed for the sole task of looking out for Napoleon. And there they waited and waited and waited… In fact, that military detachment was funded by the British government for this purpose until 1927… In other words, for an additional 112 years after Napoleon’s defeat and 106 years after his death.

“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you…” The way we transform the world is by sharing the love of Christ. Many people love to point out the quote attributed to St. Francis that says, “Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words.” The problem with this quote is that there is no record of St. Francis ever saying this and, more importantly, words are necessary. That is what being a witness of Christ’s love means. First we see or experience and then we tell about it.

Back at the seminary I attended, Virginia Theological Seminary, there was a homiletics professor who would assign an off-the-cuff five-minute reflection on this quote, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you…” This whole assignment was a challenge in those ten letters that are almost like a four-letter word to many Episcopalians: evangelism. There I have said it. The cat is out of the bag. But “we will never overcome the reluctance to be Episcopal Evangelist without embracing” this message from First Peter.[i] However, the good news for us Episcopalians are the words that come immediately after this quote. We are encouraged to share our accounts with gentleness and reverence. In other words, this is not the fear based or awkward feeling caricatures of evangelism that often fill our Episcopalian nightmares. Instead, we are to be humble and loving while we are witnesses to the greater love of Christ.

When it comes to Evangelism, I believe the Episcopal Church has taken on a similar strategy as the former British Napoleonic defense on the White Cliffs of Dover. What I mean is that we haven’t changed our strategy even if that strategy is not relevant for today. We continue to run on what I call the 1950’s model of evangelism. Back in the 1950’s a church could expect people to just walk through their doors as long as the church staff remembered to unlock them. But that is not an assumption we can live by anymore. It is no longer simply “If you build it, they will come.” The Church cannot just sit and wait for people to come to us, for us to metaphorically sit on the White Cliffs of Dover for a result that most likely won’t happen… We are called to go to the world, continue Christ’s work of reconciliation, and to be ready to give our account, our story of Christ’s love in our lives. We are to find ways to engage the world in the gospel and be witnesses to the resurrection. Each of us needs to ask ourselves: How can we live into the call of First Peter within the world we live in today? How do we take the message of Christ’s love into the world so that the world will be transformed in the name of and for the sake of Christ?

And so, we are to be courageous for the Gospel, but with gentleness and reverence. Evangelism is not a four-letter word and it is not done best through fear mongering or by just sitting on our hands and waiting. Instead, we are part of a congregation, St. Paul’s, that is an outpost of God’s mission. We go, after being filled in this place with Word and Sacrament, into the world sharing the good news of Christ and meeting people with the love of God where they are, just as Christ meets us still today.

As the author of First Peter writes, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

[i] https://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2017/05/15/an-important-caveat/

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