Sunday, July 19, 2015

"That They Might Be One": a sermon Proper 11, July 19, 2015

Proper 11, July 19, 2015
St. Thomas Episcopal, Richmond, VA
“That They Might Be One”

I want to take off the top of my head and let you know where my mind is coming from today before I jump into my sermon.  I, like many of us, are swirling from the recent headlines: Supreme Court decisions, treaties with Iran, the beginning of the end for the Confederate Battle flag.  All this milieu is swirling, and like many a book lover, this week I have been pre-occupied with ignoring comments while I read Harper Lee’s old new book, Go Set A Watchman.  I finished it last night, and the old, familiar territory of the inner battles over the social ills of racism and misuse of power were trudged through again by Ms. Lee.  While it was nowhere near the classic To Kill A Mockingbird, it does round out characters.  It is more of a prequel really, in that Scout and Ms. Lee needed to excise the ghosts Go Set A Watchman so that we could get to the gold that is To Kill A Mockingbird.

One passage struck me and led directly to my mindset coming to the sermon today.  At the beginning of Chapter Nine there is a paragraph encapsulating the icon that is Atticus Finch.  Despite what the headlines have declared about this book, this, I think, is more in line with a character I hold so dear.

“Atticus Finch’s secret of living was so simple it was deeply complex: where most men had codes and tried to live up to them, Atticus lived his to the letter with no fuss. no fanfare, and no soul-searching.  His private character was his public character.  His code was simple New Testament ethic, its reward were the respect and devotion of all who knew him.  Even his enemies loved him, because Atticus never acknowledged that they were his enemies.  He was never a rich man, but he was the richest man his children ever knew.”
Today, we are going to talk about changing our enemies to our friends.  Why?  Because Jesus told us to do so.  Matthew 5:44b-45a “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

After that long premise, my apologies, let us embark.

There is a narrative that we have allowed to play out in our society and in our lives.  We hear it on the playground, between the bickering children.

“We hate them.  They want to take our things.”

The problem with the Us and Them mentality is that we have to tear Them down to build Us up.  We have to challenge their very humanity, to maintain our power and self-understanding.

Do the children see it this way?  No.  They are the badguys.  We are the goodguys.  “They are the Cowboys; we are the Indians.  We are the Cops; they are the Robbers.  They are the Aliens; we are the Astronauts.”  It has been part of human nature since the very beginning.  Caan felt he was becoming an outsider, and his brother Abel became the Other to him, so Caan killed Abel.  

It is much easier to kill an Other than it is to kill a Brother.

Philip Jenkins in his fascinating book, The Great and Holy War, about the religious arguments used to justify the atrocities of the First World War, details the rhetoric that helped dehumanize the enemies, on both sides mind you, and turn a battle of nation states into a battle of Good vs. Evil.  There was a reason they called this the War to End All Wars. A battle of the Godly versus the forces of Satan, BOTH sides proclaimed.  The problem is once you open the bottle of rhetoric like this, you cannot get it back in.  Like in Ghostbusters when the spooks and haunts they caught are suddenly released, the city goes amuck.  It has happened since time immemorial and it happens still today.  

Look at the political pages, if you cannot attack the argument, attack your opponent’s character or his right to serve.  Even in our denominational woes of the last decade, people argue that they are the True Christians, and their opponents have “lost their way,” or that they have “departed the true faith.”  Over and over and over and over, this same story is told, and, God help us, we have to find another way.  We have to tell a different story.

Think of how the world would be different if we moved from an Us and Them narrative, and moved to a We narrative.  Everyone is us.  We are Everyone.

It was a struggle in the early Church, and it is a struggle in this Church, too.  Whenever you have people there is a struggle. I am not belittling anyone here, please believe me.  But watch your language, watch the third person plurals, They and Them.  Watch the euphemisms, our fill-in-the-blank-with-whatever friends or fill-in-the-blank neighbors.  This is just a nicer way to draw a line.  It may be dotted, but it is still a line.

Paul was tackling the Us and Them divisions in the Church at Ephesus.  Now put it in context, Paul, when he was called Saul, used to go around and kill people who were in the Church for having departed the True Faith, the faith and practices of Pharisaical Judaism.  In the stoning of Stephen which he helped orchestrate, he saw himself as doing the Lord’s work.  

Sidenote, be very wary of the the people claiming they are doing the Lord’s work as they can justify and rationalize anything.  The scriptures and the headlines back that up repeatedly.  This is why Communities of Faith are imperative, to hold us all accountable.  Back to Paul!

He has come as far from his former self as can be.  Before he “saw the Light,” both literally and figuratively, he fought and killed for that Us and Them narrative.  In Ephesians he looks at those that were Uncircumcised and therefore outside the Abrahamic Covenant, and he brings them into the very household of God.  I love today’s reading from Ephesians 2.  

Three verses really stick out, though, that drew my mind to today’s sermon.

2:14 For he [Jesus] 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. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.

Those that were Them are now Us, and those that are Us are joined to and reconciled those we considered Them.  The Us cannot be saved without the Them.  We, Us and Them, need each other.

Or, as Paul put it in his letter to the Church in Galatia, 3:28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

In the conversations taking place in our coffee shops and protest marches, in our conservative churches and our liberal ones, in our living rooms and around our kitchen tables, and in heart of hearts in the dark of night, we wrestle still with who is Us, and therefore Good, and who is Them, and therefore Not Good.  Who is In?  And, Who is Out?

If we change the narrative to the one Paul is arguing for with the Ephesians, we can stop worrying about Them.  And we can see all God’s Children as the We, and if we cannot take it that far, I would argue, we can at least begin to see others as a possible We Becoming.

It is so hard, though.  So hard.

When someone reduces me to the Them, it is almost impossible to begin the process of moving toward the We.  But it can happen, it is long and hard, but it can happen.

Doing research for today, I learned of a letter that Gandhi wrote to Hitler, asking for an end to the violence of war.

December 24 1940.

“Dear Friend,
We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents, but your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity, especially in the estimation of men like me who believe in universal friendliness.”

Naive?  It can easily be seen that way.  So could Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the their approach with the Truth and Reconciliation Committee after Apartheid South Africa.   Tell the truth and you will be forgiven, officially and permanently.  Or as Jesus said, “The truth shall set you free.”  Naive, or a different way of being?  I choose the latter.

It would be very easy to get down.  To be discouraged.  There are so many who are doing so much for so many, and often it feels like we have barely turned the ship of our state, and to those we have the comforting words of Jesus to his disciples today.  Jesus knows what he is asking of us.  Jesus knows what it means to love one’s enemies, because Jesus loved his enemies.  Jesus knows what it means to turn the other cheek, because he had to turn the other cheek.  We follow a Lord who is asking of us what he himself did.  

He had sent out his followers to teach, heal and cast out evil.  They returned and shared their adventures and triumphs, and I am sure he saw in their eyes how exhausted they were.  
Mark 6: 31"Come away to a deserted place,” Jesus said, “all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

Now our reading for the day does not show it, but tucked between verses 34 and 53 is the feeding of the 5,000 [Men].  Not a small tale, or a simple event.  But the lectionary chose to emphasize the coming to Jesus and finding our peace.  When the days are dark, and the way forward is unclear, I can give no better advice than that.  

Let us come away with Jesus and rest awhile.  Jesus did it.  He taught his disciples to do it.  We need to do it, too.  Especially as we are the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World, helping all God’s Children tear down the walls that divide and use those bricks to build up the very Household of God.

Commodore Perry writing to General William Henry Harrison said, “We have seen the enemy, and he is ours.”  Many years later the Pungo cartoon from the early 70s reframed the question and pointed toward a solution with the misquote, “We have seen the enemy, and he is us!”  As I spoke about with the Desert Fathers and Mothers a few weeks ago, before we go looking for the Enemy Without, let us first route out the enemy that is within, “For we have seen the enemy, and he is us.”

As we see those that hate us and persecute and seek to destroy us, may we see with Jesus’ eyes, and St. Paul’s eyes, may we see our brothers and our sisters no longer as Them, but as the We becoming.  In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus “had compassion for [the crowd], because they were like sheep without a shepherd…” Mark 6:34  

As we draw closer to Jesus, may he give us the strength to hold all with the gaze of compassion, and may he Shepherd us all to the We we hopefully are Becoming.  Amen.

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Blessings, Rock