Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sermon for Epiphany VII

Trinity, Mattoon--Matthew 5:38-48, I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

It will come as no shock to you when I remind us all of what is all too obvious: that conflict is all around us. You could make a case that conflict is the single most distinctive feature of human experience, from a dictator deploying weapons of mass destruction to organized crime and gang violence to a minor quarrel between an old married couple.

All that is bad enough, of course, but it gets worse. There is conflict among Christians. It has ever been so. We read today from a letter St Paul wrote to a Christian community that was deeply divided on multiple levels. Some of the Corinthians acknowledged Paul’s pastoral authority; others would only acknowledge the authority of somebody else, called Apollos. Over the next four centuries, there would be bitter struggles over the fine points of how Jesus is both human and divine, and over the mystery of the God whom we know as the Holy Trinity, for whom this church is named. About 600 years after that was mostly settled, there was a rupture between the eastern and western sections of the Church, a rupture that has still not been healed, despite good faith efforts on both sides. Five centuries later, within the western church, there was another cataclysmic division, only this time the glass didn’t just break, it shattered and re-shattered into thousands of pieces, some larger and some quite tiny. This accounts for why you can drive around an area of a just a few square blocks in downtown Springfield, among hundreds of other cities and towns, and find a dozen or so old and established Christian congregations that are on polite and friendly terms with one another but who are not able to gather around the same table together to share in the sacred mysteries of the Body and Blood of their common Lord, whose name they profess as the source of unity among all who put their faith in him.

But it gets even worse still. Within particular Christian communions that bear the same brand-name label—Anglican, for instance, just to take one example—there are cracks and crevices, turning into canyons and ravines, that are getting larger by the hour. Many of us have watched in horror as our own Episcopal Church has been torn apart by conflict that is superficially about human sexuality but, underneath, is about the nature of scriptural authority, the Church, and the human person. And if we didn’t have that battle to consume our attention, within local congregations—parishes—there is garden variety conflict over music and other details of worship, control and influence in various programs, and who can capture the ear and attention of the priest.

So, why is it especially tragic when Christians are divided by conflict? Because conflict shines a bright light on our failure. It undermines the central message that is our job to announce to the world: that God wants all people to be reconciled to him and to one another in Christ. So, in our disunity, we’re a scandalously poor advertisement for what we’re trying to sell. How can people in the world take us seriously when we announce to them the “good news” of unity in Christ when we can’t even point to ourselves as an example of such unity? This is kind of a big deal, right?

We’re in Matthew’s gospel today, specifically, in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is inviting and challenging his listeners to go deeper, to take what they think they know about how God wants them to behave in the world—“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”—and to let go of that for the sake of something even more profound, more life-giving: “Do not resist an evildoer. But if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Give more than you are asked for; walk the extra mile. “Turn the other cheek … walk the extra mile”—these sayings have embedded themselves as clichés that even still have some currency in the vocabulary of our culture. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

These are not usually listed among the “hard sayings” of Jesus. In the abstract, Jesus’ advice sounds very noble, even uplifting. But when we try to apply them to our particular enemies—people whose names and faces we know and whose behavior has left us wounded in some way, woundedness from which we may even still be bleeding—when we set out to apply Jesus’ counsel to these persons, his very words sear our hearts like a branding iron. We would much rather invoke some of the cursing Psalms—“Oh Lord, in your goodness, crush my enemies!”—we would rather pray a Psalm like that against those who have inflicted such pain on us than we would pray for them.

[Now, if this were a published essay instead of an orally-delivered sermon, I would have the luxury of inserting an important footnote. But, since I can’t actually do that, here’s what the footnote would say: I’m not talking here about situations of domestic abuse—physical, sexual, or emotional—and Jesus isn’t either. There’s no turning the other cheek or walking the extra mile for an abuser. What we are talking about are relationships within the Christian community and relationships in civil society that might include the non-violent abuse of power by persons in authority. End of footnote.]

My friends, discipleship is the way of the cross, and the way of the cross may ultimately be the way of life and peace, as our Prayer Book puts it, but nobody ever said it was easy. It is, in fact, really hard. You may know that I chair the board of trustees of the seminary that produced me—Nashotah House. It is my great honor and joy to do so. Just this past week, a difficult challenge has arisen for that seminary community and its extended family of stakeholders scattered throughout the church. It would not be appropriate for me to describe the situation in detail here, but let it suffice to say that Nashotah House is a living laboratory for the experience of division and the vocation of reconciliation, because the community of students, faculty, staff, trustees, and alumni include both those who, in the outworking of the conflicts of the last decade or so, have found it necessary to separate from the Episcopal Church, and those who have found it necessary to remain connected to the Episcopal Church. For those who live and work on campus, this means worshiping, eating, teaching, learning, and simply interacting in the mundane details of life together with someone whose bishop may be involved in a civil lawsuit with your bishop. Whenever lawyers get involved, things can become really sticky.

But in the midst of such a potential pressure cooker, something really quite wonderful has emerged that has been given the name ‘Pax Nashotah—the Nashotah peace. There is an agreement—informal, unwritten, but, I would say, very much the work of the Holy Spirit—that all ecclesiastical conflict gets left outside the gates of the seminary. On campus, it’s one community, one community in Christ. Just as Paul counseled the Corinthians to lay aside identity labels—“I am of Paul” / “I am of Apollos” in favor of “I am of Christ”—so the Nashotah community is precariously, but doggedly, laying aside “I am of the Episcopal Church” and “I am of the ANCA” in favor of “I am of Christ.” This latest difficulty might turn out to be a significant challenge to the Pax Nashotah, but I am personally confident that we will weather the storm, and actually come out stronger on the other side.

And so I take heart from this, and I share it with you that you may take heart from it as well. What makes the Pax Nashotah work is the development of a culture where all are expected to set aside their personal agendas for the sake of the greater good, and for the sake of the gospel and of the Kingdom of God. This is difficult, because we all think our personal agendas are for the greater good, right? But in that culture, counter-intuitive behaviors like humility, forbearance, mutual deference, patience, and willingness to be vulnerable in listening and sharing—these behaviors are rewarded. As a result, God gets worshiped, the faith is taught and learned, and relationships are formed that are stronger than the forces that divide us. It’s as if they’re living out that old cliché from the 60s, What if they gave a war and nobody came?

My friends, I’m fairly certain that places like Nashotah House face more powerful divisive forces than we face in the Eucharistic Communities of the Diocese of Springfield. So I lay this invitation before you this morning: People of Trinity Church in Mattoon—be unified! Love one another. Be an example of this to the rest of your diocesan family. Give me a reason to brag on you when I visit the other churches, even as I’ve bragged on Nashotah House as I’ve been with you. Develop a culture that rewards the behavior of leaving conflict—petty or grand, personal or principled—leaving conflict out on the street when you walk through these doors, and enjoy the fruits of God being worshipped, the faith being taught and learned, and relationships being formed that can withstand any of the stresses that we cannot even yet anticipate. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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