Christians are Pirates

Last Saturday I was here at St. Matthew’s for an ordination service, a great day with five new deacons. I am grateful for that, and as always for the hospitality of this congregation. But I am in fact grateful for one other thing. When we were lining up to go into church, Father Joe Dewey’s four year old, saw me at the head of the line, and shouted out, ‘Mom, Dad, look, it’s a pirate!’ Not sure why, the hat maybe, or the cape, or the grey beard….or maybe the swashbuckling demeanor! A highlight of liturgical 2022 for me! I’m a pirate!  So in appreciation of this great honor, I have named this sermon, for our confirmands- three reasons you all too are pirates, as far as Jesus is concerned! 

My verse from the Gospel is this- there is no one born of woman who was greater than John, but the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.  John was obviously an intensely holy man, and the pinnacle of the prophets, but from the kingdom point of view nothing.  We’ll get to that…but first, three ways that you are pirates!

First, buccaneers are rascals.  They are scoff-laws, rule breakers.   That’s you.  I am not saying that you don’t have good qualities. I am not saying you are not of unimaginable worth to God. But I am saying that you are not worthy in yourself to stand before God. In the prayer book tradition, before receiving communion,  you would say that you are not worthy so much to gather up the crumbs under the table.  This is not adding an un-necessary load of guilt and shame…it is simply honesty.  Now you might respond that we were made by God and pronounced to be ‘good,’- so we were, but since then we have acquired a crack running through us.  We have not loved God and our neighbor as we should, and even when we seem to do so, it has an alloy.   When I was a youth minister, the priest I worked for was killed. I appreciated him, and it was a grievous loss, but upon hearing of his death, another question ran through my head- ‘what will this mean for me?” that self-referentiality runs deep. Living for God is something, as we were meant to, is something we approach at times, but cannot hold onto.  And there is a side of us that just resists at times, our of orneriness- for reasons we don’t understand. Why?  To that great question of the early church, are we a gathering of saints, or a school for sinners, the answer is, like it or not, the latter.  And as for the idea of sin adding to our shame, on the contrary, honesty about ourselves is the beginning of the road out of shame.    

Which leads me to ‘why we are pirates’ part 2.  While we were yet sinners, at the right moment, Christ died for us.  That’s the Gospel. We are here as the gratefully undeserving.  But we have to see the right moment is here, and we have to be open to that moment.   In fact, according to the Gospel we have to be decisive, bold, full of chutzpah, nervy. Pirates aren’t big on extended deliberations.  Pirates seize the day.  This is an important theme in the parables of Jesus. For example, he praises the corrupt administrator, stealing money, who gets caught, and, before sentencing, goes and makes side deal with his clients so that they will help him down the road.  What? It is meant to be shocking, of course you aren’t to do any such thing. But this one thing you are to do, says Jesus, know how short the time is, and act decisively. Grab hold of grace like a buccaneer.

That is related to our Gospel verse. John has achievements of holiness and spirituality, but all that counts for nothing in the kingdom of grace, where pride of place goes to the dying thief who says ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom”. A different calculus, his.  The kingdom is worth everything, the treasure buried in a field for which you would sell everything to have it- we are focusing on the decisiveness to see, sell, and claim. What in your life impedes your way to the one for whom you were made?

The sinner as pirate, the bold and forgiven as pirate- got it, but what is number three?  Well, this one has to do with being a disciple, a missionary, for Jesus. And it requires that some recall from your reading of the Book of Exodus. Remember how, leaving Egypt, the Israelites were allowed to take gold, silver, and jewels from their captors. It is called ‘despoiling the Egyptians,’ and it was an important idea for St. Augustine, four hundred years after Jesus. It described how Christians were to borrow, as to the metaphor, we would say plunder ideas from their neighbors, pagan, secular, whatever, so as to use those ideas on behalf of the sharing of the Gospel.  What would that look like? Maybe a scholar using the idea of black holes to describe what happened in the resurrection. Or maybe something as simple as borrowing tunes learned in the pub in order now to extoll the Gospel.  Or maybe using the discipline of family systems to understand how churches succeed and fail!  Another way to say the same thing has been the idea of taking captivity captive- found in the Psalms and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. How can you take captive for Christ parts of the world around you, or parts of your own life, repurposing, since everything is ultimately meant to subserve him and his kingdom. 

Those outside might think that the Christian faith is a compromise, a retreat from life, as if the boldness were in self-adventure and rebellion.  But the opposite is true, since the world around us would have us settle for the its own predictable obsessions, and too often we indeed settle for the wider menu back in Egypt. But to live toward God, since it means first hard honesty about ourselves, and then taking the risk of faith, and then wading into the godless world for a different kind of plunder, well, those indeed are really piratical, the living so is truly to steer the vessel into the open sea.  Bon voyage.

Let the last word belong to one of the greatest of our tradition, the poet John Donne. He passed through romantic and artistic and political love, and the life of a buccaneer, literally!, on the way to that which he was seeking all along, the love of God.

    ‘hear us, o hear us Lord, to thee

A sinner is more music, when he prays,

Than spheres’ or angels’ praises be,

In panegyric alleluias,

Hear us for till thou hear us Lord

We know not what to say

Thine ear to our sighs tears thoughts, give voice and word

O thou who satan heard in Job’s sick day,

Hear thyself now for thou in us dost pray. Amen.

 Bon voyage. Amen.


Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.