Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

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

You might have heard the old cliché, “you should disagree without being disagreeable.” It seems like good advice, but perhaps not as strong as it could be, considering how such an approach has been known to lead people into false friendliness and even duplicity, rather than a frank and charitable conversation about differences of opinion.

It seems to me that Paul has something to say about this in today’s epistle? “Putting away all falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors.” Hatefulness, with a saccharin candy-coating of sweetness is not the Christian response to discord, because it doesn’t take into account that, as Christians, “we are members of one another.” We’re in this together, whether we like each other or not. We’re part of the same family, but not just of the same family, but of the same body, and the only way for a body to function is organically, each member in harmony with the other.

And yet, we don’t always do this. We are told by the Apostle only to do and say “what is useful for building up [the body]” yet the history of the Church and of society is riddled with stories of discord and political intrigue and schism. We still have trouble as a society getting over grudges and loving our neighbor, whether we respond aggressively or passive-aggressively. We all have tremendous trouble following Paul’s very practical advice: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”

“Do not leave room for the devil.” There is nothing more diabolical, more devilish, than division in Christ’s Church. That is precisely the work that sin does; it tears brothers and sisters apart from each other, and ultimately it attempts to break apart the very body Christ. We can hide the effects of such evil by being disingenuously sweet to our brother or sister, but that only means that the diabolical program of division is the more insidious.

Now, I have to temper all of this scary stuff with a fact which has been a great encouragement to me and I hope to you who care deeply about the life of the Church. While the story on the national and international levels may be one of division between between political ideologies and religions and races and classes, and while this spirit of divisiveness can and often does infect the church as much as the larger society, I have been so impressed by what I’ve experienced in a handful of congregations I’ve been a part of including this parish. The degree of mutual love and regard with which the members of this parish seem to treat each other is remarkable. The work that we are able to accomplish and the healthiness of our church here is a real gift, it’s more rare than you might think, and it’s largely because there are so many mature people here that seem to genuinely love each other. I don’t think this is a naïve assessment, because I’ve also seen plenty of churches with profound dysfunction. Of course, no group of fallible people is without its internal squabbles, and my spectacles aren’t so rose-tinted that I don’t recognize where some of those are, even among us. Even so, I feel truly blessed to be a part of a congregation that has in many ways already learned to “put away falsehood”, to “be angry but not sin”, to “live in love as Christ loved us.” In a world where people can’t seem to conscientiously disagree with each other while retaining mutual respect and appreciation of each other, the church has, believe it or not, been doing a better job of modeling Christian unity to the larger culture than it has in certain periods of histpry and that we can be the most powerful witness of reconciliation in the world precisely because of our disagreements.

But if I just said “keep up the good work”, that would not be a very compelling charge with which to end a sermon, and it wouldn’t be entirely honest, because each of us has moments in which we need to work at truly loving our neighbor. Many of us have trouble with anger, and do let the sun set on it. Paul said “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you,” but O how much more easily is this said than done. C.S. Lewis said that the way to get there, to start truly loving one’s neighbor, is to act as if one does. “Fake it until you make it.”

It seems to me that the solution is more difficult and requires more reflection, though. I think we need to meditate more carefully and more intentionally on the fact that we have all been baptized into one body, that we are all one family whether we like it or not. Just like a family, our life together as fellow Christians means that we get close enough to see each others’ blemishes; but just like a family we are called to recognize that God has put us all together for a reason. God has thrown us together because God is known in relationship.

In fact, in a sense, God is relationship. God is not a lone person, but three persons living in unity. And even though God has a profound, mystical relationship within the Godhead, he has expanded his love such that we can be in relationship with him too. And even more than that, God has given us gifts like the Sacrament of Marriage so that two people can create a community of love like that between the persons of the Godhead. And even more than that, God has given us the Church, so that all people everywhere may have the opportunity to live in that same love. Ultimately, the Church is not a tool for self-improvement, but a means by which God’s love can be shared. It is a gift, and like any gift it must be cherished. And in recognizing what a great gift it is, I think we can ultimately come to realize our own responsibility in nurturing the life of the Church by truly, genuinely loving each of our brothers and sisters and then leading lives which express that love. In doing so, Paul tells, we become “imitators of God”. God is love, and a godly life is one lived in love. In doing so, in becoming more grateful, faithful, loving people we may like Christ himself, present our own lives as “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

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