Today is my last day as a seminarian intern here at Trinity Episcopal Church, and I want to express my deepest gratitude to all of you for having me this summer. I have had the opportunity to shadow Fr. John as he went about each day’s unique ministries and activities. We made hospital visits and brought the Eucharist to the home-bound, we planned all of music for 9:30 worship service all the way through Advent, we’ve been to vestry meetings and diocesan meetings, we have planned funeral liturgies, we pray the office and have Mass on feast days, and Bible studies on Monday evenings. We even give the occasional lesson on operating a smart phone! In all of these things, and in many more, I am very blessed to have had the opportunity to be with you through it all this summer.
In addition to all of those specific ministry experiences, I also got to have coffee and conversation with Fr. John every morning right after morning prayer. (Side note – Fr. John loves it when people are able to join him for morning prayer!) During or morning coffee I had the opportunity simply to talk with Fr. John about so many things, and there was ample time as we always had more than one cup! I had the chance to talk at length with Fr. John about the liturgy, theology, the teachings of the Episcopal Church. Our discussions were always freeflowing, and sometimes veered off into other equally important topics like why I haven’t watched or read The Lord of the Rings, and how it should be assigned reading. In any case, when I sat down to write this final sermon for Trinity Church, I decided to reflect back on one of our conversations over coffee in light of today’s reading from the letter to the Ephesians.
Perhaps you remember few weeks ago when Fr. John mentioned how every preacher has at least one hobby horse. Well we had a conversation where one of my hobby horses and one of his met. We were talking about how the culture of the Episcopal affects the way we see the mission of the church. (this is my hobby horse, and poor Fr. John and to endure hours of me bringing this topic up in various ways!).
We know that we are to serve the world in Christ’s name, but what work are we to be doing in exactly? What is our primary struggle? How do we, as a church, engage the world? On a societal level, there is a spectrum of belief as to how much the Church should be involved with issues of the state. One the one hand is the church’s complete disengagement from public life; the view that mixing religion and politics is bad for everyone. Religions faith is something completely personal, and then separate from that is the rational civic self, and this is the self that votes and has policy views. One the one extreme is a state church, where the church and the state are a single entity, and religious doctrine and secular law are one and the same. Whenever is a case of extremes, the tendency is always to veer too far in one direction or the other. Given our heritage as coming from the Church of England, the Episcopal Church has often seen itself as a quasi “established” Church of the United States. And although the privileged position the Episcopal Church once held in the country has waned over the past several decades, it seems that the cultural memory of it still leads are quite a few Episcopalians to see political activism as the primary “work” of the church. The mission of the church is racial reconciliation! Or the mission of the church is to end gun violence! Or the mission of the church is care for the environment! Our primary struggle is against racism, it’s against violence, or it’s against pollution! Those may all be good Christian causes, but none of this is THE mission of the church.
Luckily for us in this case, we do not need to rely solely on tradition and church teaching here, because it is laid out for us in today passage from the letter to the Ephesians: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Our primary struggle as Christians are against the spiritual forces of darkness. (This, of course, is one of Fr. John’s hobby horses). As a Church culture, particularly as a Church that has historically been a state church, it is has been our tendency to talk the most, think the most, and pray the most about issues of the state, rather than issues of soul. “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” There is evil in the world, and it’s something that as a culture we have a hard time grappling with. The devil need not be imagined as a man in a red jump suit with horns and a pitch fork. Evil is the unholy, the absence of God’s presence. God is the creator and life giver, and yet within the world there is a force which draws us toward division, to discord, and to undoing ourselves, either slowly, piece by piece, or all at once in the ultimate act of will to non-being. Part of this is psychology, and part of it is sociology. But science always has its limits. Cosmology tells us about the formation of galaxies and biology, how life evolved on this planet, but they can never explain why there is something rather than nothing. Ultimately God the Father stands behind all that is. Likewise, there is evil, whether personal or abstract, there is something we can call the “devil” that is active both in the world and in our hearts.
All of the secular causes that laid out earlier (anti-racism, environmentalism, an end to gun violence, etc.) are things that I believe the Christian church has an obligation to engage those issues AS THE CHURCH and in the name of Christ. But our primary struggle is against evil as such, just as there are many goods in the world, but God is the primary and first Good above all others. So let us work for good causes in order to care for our neighbor and for the stranger among us, but let us do so only after fervent prayer, seeking first to banish the darkness from our own hearts. For all of the beautiful work that Christians do for people across the country and around the world, we must never mistake the church as being primarily an organization for social services or political activism, even while we do engage in these activities in the name of our faith. The mission of the church is spelled out on pg. 855 in the prayer book:
Q: What is the mission of the Church?
A: The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
Promoting justice is part of what it means to restore all people to unity with each other, and there is overlap and cooperation in that work between the church and secular charities. But only the Church can restore people to unity with God in Christ, so let us not fail to remember our duty.