Sermon for 3 Epiphany 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I’ve read a great deal in the news and heard a lot on the radio lately about our national conversation regarding unity amidst the radically divergent worldviews which led to a controversial election and its aftermath. One thing I keep hearing is that the peaceful transfer of power is an inviolable attribute of the American system, and I’m always surprised that nobody seems to have heard about the election of 1860 and the unpleasantness that followed it. Anyway a quick look at my facebook feed would cause one to doubt that a national conversation about unity is taking place. It’s hard to avoid awkward situations in which somebody assumes everybody else agrees with them regarding the issues du’jour when that’s anything but the case.

Friday I had one of those moments from which I was quite literally incapable of extricating myself. I was donating blood and somebody decided that it was a great idea to project the inauguration on the screens of the parish hall in which the blood drive was taking place (I think this stands as an excellent argument against erecting screens and installing sound equipment anywhere on a church campus, but that’s another matter entirely). Anyway, there was one volunteer at this drive who was clearly into it. She applauded at various points. My phlebotomist was clearly on the other side of the political divide, and despite his maintaining a professional affect, I could tell he was getting a bit irritated. Meanwhile, I was having plasma and saline pumped back into my body. I was thus saved by focusing on the weird taste in my throat and tingling lips that the procedure always causes me instead of on the air of political division in the room.

I’m always reminded during moments like this of both the church’s unique potential (indeed, our unique responsibility) to bring about unity in the face of division as well as our historic inability to do so. We are today in the midst of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity while we are, at the same time, in the 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation which, as necessary as it may have been insofar as it responded to real abuses and breaches of trust within the Body of Christ, nevertheless broke that Body apart so severely that Western Christendom remains in a state of schism. I’ve been asked before why we don’t celebrate Reformation Sunday, like some churches within Protestantism. It’s not because the Reformation was unnecessary. I remain ambivalent about that. It’s because that which breaks the people of God apart, the spirit of division is Satan himself and the forces which keep us apart are satanic. I know that’s a name and a concept I don’t ordinarily trot out. Maybe it’s because the stakes are so high in this era seemingly defined by division. Or, maybe it’s because Annie and I just rented and watched the new Ouija movie the other night (which I jokingly told her I was going to make required viewing for the Confirmation class which I’m starting in a few weeks). In any event, creating and encouraging division is quite literally diabolical.

Consider our current reality in light of the situation we see outlined in today’s epistle reading. The Apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth, whose congregation is fraught with controversy and division. The Corinthians were choosing up sides, demanding that their spiritual leader and their ethos be made the norm. “I belong to Paul!” “I belong to Apollos!” “I belong to Cephas!” Why all of this division? If God speaks to us, as we are promised, in a clear, distinct, discernible voice shouldn’t we be able to avoid such divisions in the Church? Should not the same Lord who spoke so clearly to those first disciples beside the Syrian sea, call to us, too, and bring us togather. Were these early Christians in Corinth deaf to the voice of God by their own volition? Are we still?

Well, let’s take a step back, and remember how we got here; first let’s recognize the difference between disagreement and division. It is perfectly normal and acceptable that once I have devoted a great deal of analytic thought and sincere prayer and meditation in the working out of some belief, I have every right to claim that I believe my opinion to be correct. Yet, perhaps, this belief of mine which I now go round purporting as truth may be diametrically opposed to your belief. You have spent just as much time analyzing the ins and outs of the matter, you have spent just as much time in prayer and meditation, and you believe your opinion to be more correct than mine (indeed, you, too, believe that your opinion is quite properly “true”). So far none of this is very controversial.

Sometimes these differences, however, lead to fractures in the church like that we read about in the epistle. For us, though, these fractures are often more insidious. There are certainly arguments taking place in the church today which seem to pose the threat of literal schism, but what I mean to discuss is more the growth of a particular mindset.

There is sometimes a tendency, and this is a tendency to which I am personally disposed, to define our position in the church, first along sectarian and ideological lines, and secondly, and sometimes then only with a great deal of prodding, in terms of our baptism and our shared life with all people through Christ. In other words, we get how we prioritize our connection to Christ’s Church backwards.

That is, we are often quite ready to proclaim that we are active members of Trinity Parish in the Diocese of Ohio, in the Episcopal Church, USA (or that we are progressive Christians or traditional Christians or high-church or low-church). That’s how we define our Christianity, but we fail to first and foremost allow our Christianity to define everything else because we’re uncomfortable with whose company it puts us into. Don’t get me wrong- it is good and proper for one to strongly identify with his or her (lower case ‘c’) church or party within the church; the trick is to do so without falling victim to an ugly form of sectarianism which would claim that a part is greater than the whole (that is, the capital ‘C’ Church).

All of this is to say that our situation is much more like that of the Corinthians than we might like. We cannot, in fact, always expect God to speak to us in easily discernible ways, and this will necessarily lead to some difference among us Christians. We must, nonetheless, struggle to hear the still, small voice of God in our hearts, realizing that others will hear or interpret or act on the same voice in very different ways. Once we think we’ve heard this voice, that is once we believe we have discerned the will of God in our lives, we must also be very careful not to speak as though we know for absolute certain that we have the authority of Almighty God on our side unless we’re willing to stake our lives on it, remembering that these differences exist.

Failing to do so can have dire consequences. For example, so many leaders in history have made the mistake of claiming, and perhaps sincerely believing, that God has sanctioned a war and, indeed, fights on their side. A glance at any history text book will reveal countless examples of such rhetoric suggesting that God fights on both sides of wars- from the Hundred Years War, between the Christian kingdoms of France and England, to today’s Israel-Palestinian conflict. Such actions have led to an increased skepticism about religion and religiosity among countless millions of people to this day. The point is that we must not claim a monopoly on God, even when we believe our cause is righteous.

Let me give a personal example. I might go into confessional mode in the pulpit more than you’re comfortable with, so I apologize, but it’s still good for a priest to put some of his foibles out there so people know they’re not alone. There was some controversy over the National Cathedral Choir’s participation in the inauguration events over the weekend. I could understand the opponents’ misgivings (and I went back and forth about it in my own mind, as often happens for me at that uncomfortable intersection of church and state) but the decision didn’t particularly bother me because whatever the “right” decision in that instance might have been, I believe the decision was made faithfully and prayerfully. The one thing that bothered me personally was that at the pre-inauguration service at St. John’s, Lafayette Square somebody with beliefs well outside the pail of what I happen to believe to be the bounds of Christian orthodoxy and the demands of Christian charity was permitted to preach at a pulpit in an Episcopal Church. Now, the preacher happened to be a Southern Baptist from Dallas, but he could have been a Unitarian Universalist from Boston and I’d have been irritated, so it’s not a conservative/liberal thing. The point is, it elicited in me a feeling of anger and defensiveness. Nobody ever made me the Grand Episcopalian Inquisitor (indeed, there are reasons no such role exists) but there you have it.

But now, 48 hours after the fact, I have to ask myself “to what end am I letting this bother me so much?” Were I the rector of St. John’s, Lafayette Square I wouldn’t have made the decision, and if (God forbid) I were the bishop of Washington, there might be an uncomfortable conversation happening tomorrow. But I’m not, and there’s exactly one reason why it’s still be bothering me so much. I don’t want to be in the Body of Christ along with that Baptist preacher from Texas. I think I’m better or something; my Episcopalian chauvinism is showing.

That, my friends, is my sin. It’s the power of the evil one saying, you don’t need that member, tear it off. He was baptized by Apollos while I belong to Cephas. And the worst thing about it, is that even when I start to pray about it, even when I set out to make the most self-abnegating sorts of prayers about it, I keep coming back to what I want out of it. Lord change his heart. No, Lord, change my heart, so I can put up with such foolishness. Is that second one any better?

It seems to me that the best thing we can do when we see the seeds of division have been sewn between ourselves and a brother or sister – whether it’s because of a different view of some religious claim or politics or just conflicting personalities – is to maintain a holy silence, to listen for what God might be saying to us in the quietness of our hearts. One of the things I love about our Taizé service here every month is that it includes a period of silence. You’ll read in my February newsletter column that I find silent, contemplative prayer especially necessary at this point in my life precisely because I find it to be so challenging. It’s important, because it has nothing to do with me trying to change God’s mind or make somebody else more like me or even my trying to understand somebody else (which itself has just a twinge of selfishness, because it assumes that I need to be able to understand them). Maybe whatever needs to happen in that relationship is better known to God than it is to me, and I just need to be quiet.

There’s a story I like about a Fourth Century church leader named Theophilus. Theophilus was an Archbishop in Alexandria when he had a dispute in his Diocese and traveled to the desert to seek the sage advice of the hermit Abba Pambo. Upon reaching Abba Pambo’s hermitage, the Archbishop was greeted warmly by the brethren, yet Abba Pambo said nothing. The other monks left, leaving Theophilus and Pambo alone, and still Abba Pambo said nothing. After a long while, the Archbishop broke the silence: “Father, say something to me that I might be edified.” Abba Pambo replied “If you are not edified by my silence, you will not be edified by my speech.” Theophilus needed more than sage advice. He needed to quiet down and open himself up to what God was trying to tell him.

And, if we glean nothing else from silent contemplation, even if we are not yet ready or able to hear the still, small voice of God, we can find a greater comfort. We can take comfort that despite our inability to comprehend the mind of God, God still knows us completely. And then, even when we cannot understand why our divisions remain unhealed, we can rest in the heart of the one who knows no division and find in that place the perfect Communion which for all our pettiness and petulance and peevishness cannot permit the dividing walls we’ve constructed to stand. May that spiritual communion then become manifest in our words, in our actions, in our relationships that all our divisions may cease and that Christ may be all in all.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.