231st Diocesan Convention
Holy Cross Faith Memorial Episcopal Church, Pawleys Island
Sermon given at the Sending Eucharist on November 13, 2021
There is a day I will remember forever.
It began with an early morning short plane ride then a bus ride to a place north of Chang Mai, Thailand where Lek Chailert has made a home for elephants who have been abused. In that home, the elephants lucky enough to be found by Lek are cared for and loved. Our family of four went there on July 22, 2013, the day I will remember forever.
We saw elephants whose eyes had been gauged out, whose ears had been cut and legs had been broken, elephants who had lived their whole lives in fear of physical violence. Often, when Lek found the elephants, they did not want to be with her, or even with the other elephants. They would isolate, hide even, for days or weeks before they would venture out into the clearing to join the rest.
Similarly, the trainers she recruited, called mahouts, often did not want to speak about their former work. Many of them had come from a tourism industry that taught them to use violence and methods of torture to subdue the elephants. They were trained to tie them up in what is called “the crush”, then jab them until they bled with spears, even blinding them, gouging out their eyes.
I’m not sure what attracted these trainers to Lek and Elephant Nature Park. It’s a mystery how a person comes to desire to change the things that harm the soul. Perhaps, it was simply getting a taste of Lek’s vision. Or perhaps it was something they saw in the eyes of the creatures they sought to subdue. Whatever it was, something led these trainers to Elephant Nature Park, to care for elephants who had been abused by the very methods they themselves had used.
With Lek, the elephants and their human caregivers were learning a new way of living, together. It was beautiful to witness the love between the elephants and the mahouts. They easily showed affection to each other. They played together. The trust was obvious.
Our day with Lek and her friends was one of the most beautiful days of my life. All four of us would describe it to you, I think, as a day when time stood still, suspended.
There are moments in life when we just know we are in the center of our purpose. We are fully alive. Fully aligned with love. Those are abiding moments.
In his farewell discourse in the middle of John’s gospel, Jesus’s uses this one word over and over. Abide. Or, in the Greek, meno.
Meno implies something more than just physically staying in a place. It has a deeper sense of connection, companionship, and harmony. It is used to describe how we are knit into God, like a baby is knit into the mother’s womb. John uses it to describe the deep down rootedness of a vine with intertwining branches.
We were made to abide. To dwell with one another and with our God. And from that place of deep connectivity, to live with joy, with generosity, and the kind of uninhibited delight we knew as children.
Episcopalians of South Carolina, I’ve seen how you abide. I can say that with some authority now, because I have visited most of you in your home churches—I have listened to your stories. And those I’ve not yet visited, I am coming soon! By early in the new year, I hope to have been with every community in this diocese.
You know, I’ve walked in to beautiful churches you where you have abided with the saints before you for generations. And, I’ve walked into a bank, into a storefront, into a grove of trees, onto a college campus, into spaces borrowed from other churches—I’ve walked into living rooms and onto porches, into gardens and beside beaches.
In all the places where you are, you share the same story—of how you love one another—how you are tending each other’s souls, how you have opened your eyes to see your neighbor and love them. It’s happening everywhere, this abiding.
That would be enough. Truly. I could stop preaching now, and your witness would be enough. God is smiling on you. But, as we know, the story does not stop there. Your story, our story, has another layer. A very particular layer. You have lived for a decade now with a deep wound. The schism has been costly in more ways than we can ever count or name. I know that.
So, what does it mean, then, to abide in the face of such pain? How do we abide with those from whom we are cut off? In the church…in the world.
There is no easy answer to this question. It looks different in each circumstance. What we know is that God is in the business of bringing all the broken pieces, all the shards of our lives, back into oneness—knitting us back together. Like Lek was knitting back together the community of elephants with the mahouts who trained them.
As I’ve listened, I hear some of the same wisdom Lek had coming from you. You have talked to me about your neighbors, friends, even family, with whom you find yourselves in conflict. I hear your pain and your hope. It might be easier to cut and run from our adversaries. But their wounds, too, Christ calls us to tend. I’ve heard how you are tending not only your wounds, but their wounds, too.
This tending the other, the one who has harmed you, is hard work.
I understand the cost of these past ten years has been great to you. I understand that, even now, we are not finished with that difficult road.
And I think your stamina to continue to see it through comes from the fact that, through the trials you’ve endured, you have realized how important it is to you to stand for what you believe is right. You are crystal clear that when you say all are welcome, you mean all. You are crystal clear about God’s justice. There is nothing naive about your faith.
And, from that non-naive place, I also hear something else. I hear that you believe a heart can change. I hear that you have become adept at finding common ground with those who see things differently than you do.
There is a great temptation in the face of chronic conflict to withdraw, to become cynical—or, worst yet, to begin to think the gospel doesn’t really hold in every situation, that it’s not up to the acid test of real life.
But we know the gospel holds. In every situation.
The gospel holds in every circumstance precisely because God’s love is the strongest force in this world. And that love conquers fear.
Late in the afternoon of July 22, 2013 at Elephant Nature Park, Lek Chalert walked with our family into a field where several elephant families were resting in the afternoon sun. Lek took our sons, George and John, and invited them to sit with her at the feet of one of the young elephants. Lek then crawled under the elephant. It was a moment that could have been fearful for me—in fact, I probably should have, by all accounts been really afraid. Here were my two sons sitting where this elephant could take them out with one stomp.
But, I did not really have an opportunity to engage fear. Because, what happened next was more compelling than fear. Lek began to sing a lullaby. Quietly, to this young elephant, while she was sitting underneath him. There in front of me were our two boys sitting at the feet of this elephant with Lek, singing the lullaby from under the elephant belly. And, somehow, I did not fear for their lives.
I knew, in that moment, I was hearing the song of redemption. Redemption from all the violence, from all the harm these creatures had endured. Redemption from all the shame, from all the burden the mahouts had carried.
When Lek sang her lullaby, she sat under a beast who could have killed her with one movement. Hers was not a sentimental act. It was, rather, an act of resistance against a belief that fear and hatred win. It was an act born of the conviction that love is stronger than any evil. She chose to abide beneath the belly of the elephant.
Such is our calling. To sit beneath the belly of the elephant and dare to sing a lullaby. To abide in the company of the saints and martyrs.
God redeems this world by our abiding in all the places that need love most.
There will come a day when we will lie down under the belly of all we have feared the most. Only, we won’t be afraid anymore. Instead, we will sing the lullaby of redemption, together.
What a day that will be.
A day we will remember forever.