Sunday, July 22, 2018

In the Presence of My Enemies

Scripture can be found at this link


Proper 11B, 2018, Track 2

They had been raised to hate each other.

The atheos, the Gentile non-believers, and the Jews.

They had been raised in the same cities but in separate spheres. Both claimed truth. Differing truths. Both claimed righteousness. Both claimed the city.

Some held power. Others longed for it.

The partisan divide served Rome and Rome alone. Because divided, the Jews and Gentiles could never unite to stand against the external pressures of Rome.

Insults were thrown across the aisle. Circumcised and uncircumcised…literally, yes, yet lobbed with a vindictiveness that was not about religious rite but about who was right.

Civility was fragile at best.

The relationships between those referred to with the intentionally insulting term for the godless, atheos, and the Jews was fraught.

And, as these two groups came into community, into Christian community, they found common ground in belief and in oppression.

Drawn together as followers of Christ, they would be persecuted, together, for the same. For upsetting the delicate balance of Roman imperialism. Unity did not serve the empire.

And, the empire was built upon the backs of its citizens. Compulsorily or voluntarily, their bodies fed the machine of Ceaser. The empire thrived in the consumption of those it claimed to serve.

The discord sown between the groups allowed the empire to thrive. Power went unchecked and the tax-collectors coffers, cobbled together from the hands of both Greek and Jew, flowed into the hands of an elite few.

This was the Roman empire and, for every aqueduct, there were countless slaves. For every coliseum, a blood strewn patch of sand.

This was the world into which the words were writ, “he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

There was a wall surrounding the inner court of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The Gentiles were not allowed beyond this wall lest they profane the holy space within.

There was a quite literal divide between belief and disbelief. Between Jew and Greek. Between nations, tribes, languages…

And, in this moment it is broken down.

The divide is broken down in what the Scottish Church historian Andrew Walls would come to call, in light of the very epistle we heard proclaimed today, “the Ephesian moment”.

“The very height of Christ’s full stature is reached only by the coming together of the different cultural entities into the body of Christ. Only “together,” not on our own, can we reach [Christ’s] full stature” (77)...The Ephesian moment, then, brings a church more culturally diverse than it has ever been before; potentially, therefore, nearer to that ’full stature of Christ’ that belongs to his summing up of humanity” (81).

Division serves the empire, unity serves the reign of God—and it is only within the context of the coming together of the divided body that we can reach the full stature of Christ. “Only together, not on our own.” There is so much truth in this.

Jesus as unifier had the potential to undermine the very discord upon which the empire was established.

“As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things…”

And, after he taught them, he fed them...the portion of the Gospel omitted today (which we will hear later in ordinary time) is the feeding of the 5,000.

Gathering together disparate people Jesus unified them through his teachings. Unified them with bread. Unified them through compassion.

 The kind of compassion that saw the collective need of the gathered and responded to that need without question. Citizen and alien—both given “access in one Spirit to the Father”.

To the One who loves, without question, that which was declared good at creation.  

The contrast between the compassion of Christ and the cruelty of empire could not be any sharper.

And, I find myself wondering who benefits from our contemporary discord. Who is it that thrives when our divisions and differences distract us from our shared humanity? What happens when we forget who we, by which I mean ALL of us, are as beloved children of God?

“remember that you were at that time without Christ”..remember you were aliens…remember you were strangers…remember…

“you have been brought near”

Remember, lest you forget, the compassion of the One who saw our pain and responded with unmitigated and unbounded grace.

The One who reconciled us.

When we encounter the term “reconciled” in the Epistles it is important to note that it did not have a religious meaning in the original Greek. It was a term that was used in reference to dispute resolution—the mediation between warring factions. Reconciliation, as it is used in scripture, references the intervention of God into our internecine, our mutually destructive, strife.

God intervened in our mutually destructive strife. Intervened through Christ, whom we call our mediator and advocate.

“he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near”

To those near and those far…the same peace.

Can the empire withstand peace?

Can the empire maintain its power in the face of our reconciliation?

I wonder.

I wonder…

I wonder what will happen when all creation embodies that peace?

In the final stanza of a hymn, written by Cuban-American theologian Justo Gonzalez’ to mark the 500th anniversary of the conquest of the Americas, he writes:

“In all four of earth’s faraway corners
sin is building embittering barriers;
but our faith has no fear of such borders,
we know justice and peace will prevail. To all four of earth’s faraway corners
we’re a people who point to tomorrow,
when the world, living sovereign and peaceful,
is united in bonds of God’s love.”

Our faith has no fear…

Sit with that for a moment,

Our faith has no fear…and we are united in bonds of God’s love.

No fear of the other. No fear of aliens or strangers. No fear of immigrants. No fear of liberals or conservatives. No fear of Republicans or Democrats. No fear. As we are united in bonds of God’s love.

Which brings me to the psalm appointed for today. Psalm 23

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies”. I have always imagined that to mean that God gives us a nice meal while our enemies have to watch us eat.

But, this, is an interpretation that cannot stand in light of the good news of the Gospel.

And, instead, I imagine the psalmist depicting a table where we are seated alongside our enemies. A table where we, reconciled by God, and able to share bread with those we have always understood to be the “atheos” on the other side of the wall.

Brought together, sharing a meal, sharing the table, sharing our lives.

Without fear.

At a shared table…in the presence of each other and within the abiding grace of God.


Monday, July 9, 2018

#GC79; 9B 2018

Lectionary Readings are here (track 2)

Sermon Preached at Church During #GC79

As I read Paul’s second letter to Jesus’ followers in the city of Corinth, I was reminded of a request that Betty Pat Leach made in one of my last visits with her before her death. “When the reader is introducing the reading from the Epistle, could we please have them say, “Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth”? He wasn’t writing to the whole city, he was writing to a small group IN the city.

For those of us who had the privilege of knowing Betty Pat, it’s not particularly surprising that she was thinking about our liturgical framing of scripture upon her deathbed! Because, Betty Pat knew that words matter.

Words matter. What we say here, within the context of our worship, shapes our understanding of who we are, what we believe, and how we enact that belief in our wider communities.
So, difference does it make if we re-frame the reading of the Epistle, changing from “Paul’s letter to the Corinthians” to “Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth”?

Well, for one, it reminds us that the defining characteristic of those to whom Paul wrote was shared adherence to the way of Jesus. It also reminds us that these followers of the way did not represent the majority culture of the day. Finally, it helps us to consider that Paul was writing to a Church.

The Church in Corinth was a Church, just as St. Clement’s Episcopal Church is a Church!

So, given this simple truth, how does St. Clement’s hear the words of Paul within our own context?

St. Clement’s is an Episcopal Church within the Episcopal Church of the United States of America, within the Anglican Communion. We are a part of a much larger whole and as we gather this morning, the 79th triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America also gathers.

At General Convention, #gc79, there is great debate about everything from Prayer Book revision to the presence of nursing babies on the floor of the House of Deputies. There are ongoing arguments about the full inclusion of same-sex couples within the life of the church (there are 8 Bishops in the Episcopal Church who still deny marriage blessings to same-sex couples), as well as resolutions brought forward to address the sexual harassment and exploitation of people within the context of the church. I am quite simply, daunted, by the breadth and scope of legislation being brought to the floor of convention—particularly because I have a vested interest in so much of what is being considered on the floor of convention.

But, as I consider convention within light of the Church in Corinth I am reminded of the words of the Episcopal theologian, lay leader, and advocate for the ministry of the laity, Verna Dozier, "We forget that complexity of differences in the New Testament church. We like to say it's unified, yet we're always romanticizing about the day when the church will speak with one voice. The church has never spoken with one voice, not since time immemorial."

The church in Corinth consisted of both wealthy local converts, and the poor. It consisted of people who were accustomed to having worldly power and influence and those who had long been subject to the whims of the powerful. And, the in-fighting in the community was intense as members of the church tried to navigate the significant differences of race, class and gender. Does this scenario sound familiar? The Episcopal Church in 2018 is not unlike that in Corinth—consisting of people accustomed to having worldly power and influence, and those who have long been denied power in our world. Prayer Book revision arguments coalesce around the question of the inclusion of images of God that reflect the imagio dei of women and the breadth of gender identity; the question of allowing a nursing baby on the floor of convention becomes a question about the inclusion of young parents in the legislative body. And, once again, we find the Church struggling to navigate significant differences of race, class and gender…   

In her book, Authority of the Laity, Verna Dozier wrote that “God came into history to create a people who would change the world, who would make the world a place where every person knows that they are loved, are valued, have a contribution to make, and have just as much right to the riches of the world as every other person. That is what the church is all about, to bring into being that vision, that ideal community of love in which we all are equally valuable and in which we equally share. Every structure of life comes under the judgment of that vision: our politics, our economics, our education, our social structures.  Even the church!”

Ms. Dozier’s words resonate as the church continues to struggle with the tension of God’s call to full inclusion of all people, and our own failures as a Church to live into God’s dream.

I can only imagine how the community in Corinth responded to Paul’s emphasis upon strength in weakness and the importance that the gifts of every member of the church be recognized. However, my imagination is inspired by my awareness of how the Church we have today responds to contemporary voices which echo Paul’s words in our 21st century context.  

One such voice is that the President of the House of Deputies, the reverend Gay Clark Jennings, who enjoins all of us, “to open ourselves to leadership that doesn't look like the leadership we've seen most of our lives”

This was one of the challenges facing the church in Corinth—leadership in the Church does not and should not simply be a mirror of our biases and assumptions about who gets to have power in this world. And, so today we hear Paul remind all of us that power does not emerge from a position of worldly strength, but is instead born of weakness--think of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown, think of the vulnerability of the disciples as they went from place to place with only a walking staff and one tunic for the journey.

It is critical that all of us remember that we are a Church founded by the rejected, the persecuted, and the marginalized…

The power of God is, indeed, made manifest in weakness!  

And, so as I consider the concerns of General Convention and the wider world in which it exists in context, I think it is critical that we prioritize the voices of those who have been rejected, persecuted, and marginalized. I think it is critical, because our scripture and our tradition tell us that it is in the full inclusion of the rejected, persecuted and marginalized voices that God’s dream for all of us will come to fruition.

To appeal once more to Ms. Dozier, the dream of God is that, “all creation will live together in peace and harmony and fulfillment. All parts of creation. And the dream of God is that the good creation that God created -- what the refrain says, 'and God saw that it was good' -- be restored," 

In strength and with grace--let it be so.