Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Proper of the Day: Epiphany III

On this Sunday we in the Church continue to make Jesus manifest in the world. Today we heard how Jesus called the first four disciples, Peter, Andrew, James, and John (at least in Matthew's account). We also heard a disquieting prophesy from Amos directed at Israel, and St. Paul's concern over divisions (scismata in the Greek) in the community at Corinth. And, as always, we celebrated the presence of Christ in the world anyway in the Holy Communion.

I continued my stint of supply at St. Thomas's in Vernon, NJ, and here's my sermon. I welcome your comments and feedback:

St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church, Vernon

Epiphany III 2008 (BCP)

Amos 3:1-8; Ps 139:1-17; I Cor 1:10-17; Matt 4:12-23

The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr.

In the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Amen.

As some of you might know, this past Friday and Saturday the Diocese of Newark held its 134th Annual Convention in Parsipanny. We do it every year around this time, and all the clergy of the Diocese plus three members elected from every congregation compose the Convention. That means over 400 voting members, plus staff and exhibits and all the rest, so it’s a pretty big thing. This year, the biggest item on our agenda seemed to be the election of deputies to the General Convention, which is held every three years and is the highest decision-making body of our church. It took 8 ballots to get a full slate of the four clergy and four lay deputies, plus alternates, that each diocese is entitled to send. We cast the final ballot about 3:45 PM or so, and immediately adjourned. We won’t even know what the final tally is until it’s announced, but by that time we were all a little tired and perhaps a bit cranky as well. I think the high point for me was that I was privileged to sit with the delegation from St. Thomas’s and to enjoy some good table fellowship with another St. Thomas, the one in Lyndhurst. Bishop Mark reminded us that the early celebrations of the Eucharist were done in table fellowship. We did that at both Eucharists that were offered. Bishop Mark and the convention Chaplain offered a few words of reflection on the readings of the day, and then each table took ten to fifteen minutes to discuss the readings in fellowship with one another. I found it a great experience in meeting other people and helping to be be built up as the Body of Christ. I hope we do more of that.

There was another part of the Convention that I have to admit I remember with not as much good feeling. Most of an annual convention is spent in hearing reports from various committees and task forces. We then debate and vote on various resolutions that may be presented by these committees. Sometimes it’s interesting and sometimes it’s tedious. Some of it is substantive, like the passing of the annual budget for the Diocese. At other times it seems like it doesn’t matter too much at all. But there was one time yesterday afternoon when we were debating a resolution that I felt fairly strongly about. The specific topic isn’t really important now. I recall being lined up at one of the microphones waiting my turn to speak. We’d been talking about this resolution for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes. Not too much time, it seemed to me. But wouldn’t you know it, someone made a motion that debate be cut off and that we proceed to vote on the resolution itself. Well, I voted against that motion, let me tell you, because not only I but at least one or two other people wanted to speak as well. However, the rest of the Convention agreed that we had talked enough – it takes a two-thirds vote to cut off debate – and so we voted on the resolution. I think it passed as I recall, and handily too.

But as I was driving here to Vernon, I reflected at how put out I was over that motion. I still had something to say, and someone else was telling me essentially to sit down and be quiet. I didn’t take that well. I thought it was an offense against Christian charity not to allow a fellow believer to say what was on one’s mind. And of course what I had to say was of course so important that I knew the entire Convention would agree with me once I said it! I found myself stewing a bit about the entire situation and wondering what I might do. Write a personal letter? Accost the other person in the lobby and give him a piece of my mind? Do nothing and let I fester in my mind?

Maybe some of you have been, or are, in similar situations. Maybe it was a disagreement at work. Or a spouse or partner and you can’t agree on something. Maybe it’s far more significant than a mere contretemps. It could be a very real hurt from the past from a loved one. Or perhaps an unfortunate accident, or some incident in your life that has left you hurting, perhaps physically, or not, but emotionally or spiritually as well. Little or big, the hurts of the past are part of who we are, and we can’t escape them.

Or maybe it was something that was said last week at our own annual meeting her at St. Thomas’s. There were times when it got pretty heated. If you were there, you know at times words were said, tempers flared, and emotions ran pretty high. I imagine that afterward, perhaps some of you felt like I did after the Convention – hurt, angry perhaps, put out, wondering how could someone say what they said. There were some pretty serious divisions in the room. There were times, I have to tell you in my role as your chaplain, when not everyone acted at their best. Christian charity was stretched almost to its breaking point at times. I’ imagine it was as painful to experience as it was to watch.

My friends, as difficult as those moments were, the first thing I want to assure you is that this isn’t new in the annals of the church. Ever since Our Lord ascended on the fourtieth day, there have been disagreements and divisions in the church. In fact, a significant reason for writing the First Letter to the Christians at Corinth, which we heard part of today, is because of very serious discrepancies in that community. The apostle Paul, who founded the community at Corinth, wrote this to them sometime in the 50s or so:

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.

And this is just nine verses after the opening. Last week, if you remember, we heard how full the Corinthians were of every spiritual gift and knowledge. Paul is a pretty good psychologist. First he tells them how great they are, and then lets them have it with the reason he’s writing to them. He’s so concerned by what he hard from his associate Chloe that at great expense he writes a real live letter. Remember that most people couldn’t write and so they had to hire a scribe. Even Paul, in another of his letters, admits that his own handwriting isn’t very good. And there was no Imperial Roman Post Office, either, so you sent letters by personal courier - and it could take months for a letter to get where it was going. But it was critical for Paul to try to head off what he feared was happening at Corinth – division and disagreement that would split the community and hurt its members in the process and perhaps cause them to loose their faith and fall away.

Now I know you haven’t been to seminary and so I assume most of you haven’t studied Greek, which is what most of the New Testament was written in. And I’m not one usually to give a grammar lesson in a sermon. But all of you are already Biblical scholars! You already know some Greek. You know the Greek word for “division” from verse 10: schism. Yup. Schism. (σχίσματα ) Paul says to the community at Corinth, “please don’t let your schisms get the better of you.” We get our word for the worst, the deepest, the most painful controversies we know of from Paul’s plea to his brothers and sisters. And of course our word schism nearly always means a religious controversy so severe it causes people to split from one another. A schism is when one group so can’t agree with another group that it leaves it. The Reformation of which we in the Episcopal Church are a part, was a schism. There have been others as well, and in fact, we’re living through one right now in some dioceses in the Episcopal Church.

When you read the entire First Letter to the Corinthians, it’s interesting what Paul does and does not do. What Paul does well is talk about why schisms are bad, even wrong. They’re wrong because we are, as you’ve heard me say, already brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s eternal and cannot in this life ever be undone. And Paul talks about how we are all part of the one Body of Christ and individually members of it. In fact, Paul spends a great deal of time not only in this letter but in others addressing this very issue. It’s one of Paul’s central themes, this idea of the essential oneness of Christian believers gathered around the Font and the Table in community. He comes back to it again and again in his letters, and I could do whole series just on this idea.

For all his wisdom though, Paul neglects one key thing in my mind. He’s really good at telling believers that we are one in the Spirit, but he’s not so good about helping people repair divisions once they’ve started. And my friends, divisions are quite literally tears in the fabric of a community. They can be tiny littler tears that are easily sewn up without too much effort. But if not noticed quickly, they can rip and rip until an entire piece of the community is literally torn completely from the other. Fixing that takes a great deal more time and effort and prayer.

I want to be very clear that I do not think that anything that was heard or said last week is a lasting tear in the fabric here at St. Thomas’s. I don’t know you very well, but as I said at the annual meeting, I can tell you that I did not sense in that meeting a feeling of disengagement or lack of care. I sense that everyone cares deeply about this worshipping community and wants it to be healthy and vibrant. But I also do not want to lightly dismiss the real hurt that was inflicted and received at various times. Tears did occur, I saw it, and I imagine many of you saw it too, or unfortunately felt it. When we have been wronged we feel it and God feels it too. And that, my friend is where Paul leaves something to be desired. How do you sew up a tear, how do you right a wrong, how do you heal a division or worse, yet a schism?

My friends, it’s a simple three syllable word that is quite possibly the most fraught with meaning in all of Christian thought. And that word is “forgiveness.” The way we heal the wrongs that have occurred between each other is by forgiving them.

And what is forgivenesss anyway? We pray for it every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Is it simply sweeping past hurts and wrongs under a rug? No, because that’s a denial of the very hurt we feel, and a denial of our humanity, the humanity that Jesus shared with us. And it’s not usually simply a case of, “well she didn’t mean it” or “it really wasn’t all that bad.” Sometimes it is simply that, of course. But I’m talking about the real wrongs we’ve experienced, the wounds we’ve incurred, the losses we’ve felt in our lives. How do we deal with that? What’s forgiveness look like then?

There’s no one single definition of forgiveness. I like to think of forgiveness as looking to the future in relationship with someone that is not bound be past or circumstance. It’s saying, “I know what you did. It hurt, and you need to know that that. But in God’s grace I can see a future with you that acknowledges that hurt anyway.”

Forgiveness is powerful. It’s also subversive. It can turn enemies into friends and it’s perhaps the central way we Christians can effect reconciliation in the world. After all, the Good News is that we are forgiven. We can’t forgive God back, of course, but we can forgive others. It takes time and effort and intentionality to do that though. Just because most of us learned the word in the very first prayer we memorized as children doesn’t mean we automatically know how to do it. And so although Paul misses the boat on this one too, there are still some things we can do to understand forgiveness and put into practice right here in our relationships in St. Thomas’s.

Let me offer five concrete suggestions you can practice on the path to forgiveness. (I have taken the first four from William Countryman’s book, Forgiven and Forgiving, on p. 55-56 of the Morehouse paperback edition.)

First, I invite you to pray regarding those who have wronged you. You don’t have to pray anything in particular. In fact, notice I didn’t suggest to “pray for” people in particular. You may find, specially at first, that you can’t do that. If all you can pray is curses – and if you read the Psalms you’ll see they do a lot of that – at least you are still keeping them in your world. You have taken the first step toward forgiveness by not casting them out of your life entirely. Eventually you may be able to pray positively for those who you need to forgive, but even if all you can ever do is name them before God and let God take care of it, it’s a worthy prayer.

Second, I suggest you think about the universality of God’s forgiveness. Remember that Good News? God forgives everyone though the Cross of Jesus.. Absolutely everyone. At various times each of us may find that incredible gift hard to accept, but it’s always there nonetheless. The Season of Epiphany is really the embodiment of this idea, that God loves everybody, in all times and places and conditions.

The next one is a little harder. Think about God’s forgiveness of you specifically. Remember that you are part of what “everyone” means! Remember those old recruiting signs? They said “Uncle Same Wants You” with a big finger pointed you at you. Well, just think of a sign that says “God Forgives You In Jesus” with a big heavenly finger pointed right at you and you’ll get the right idea. Can you accept the gift of grace God is offering? Can you forgive yourself the way God does? You will have a difficult time forgiving others if you’re unable to accept God’s forgiveness of you.

And the fourth step: pray for God to lead you into the future. Forgiveness is all about living into a future that acknowledges the past but is not bound by it. You may not be able to see the future. But God can, and wants to lead you into that future.

These four practices: praying regarding those who have wronged you; reflecting on God’s universal forgiveness; considering God’s forgiveness of you personally, and praying for God to lead you into the future, can help approach actually forgiving others who have done us wrong. It can take time; true growth in the mind of Christ is not an instantaneous thing. Our poor human brains and hearts simply can’t take it all at once. But this work is ultimately the very reason we all are followers of Jesus the Christ in the first place. You and I are forgiven, no longer separated from God. And that means you and I can do the same for others. We can forgive them and thereby announce the Gospel of Jesus Christ to our families, our friends and even each other here at St. Thomas’s.

There’s one more thing we all can do right here and right now, to begin the task of forgiveness as our Lord forgives us: I think it’s actually the most important thing. Come often to this Table. Don’t allow yourself to get cut off from this congregation. It’s much more difficult to practice the work of forgiving others if you are missing God’s forgiveness promised through the very presence of Jesus himself. As a community united around the Word and the Font and the Table, what better way to begin the hard, uncomfortable, perhaps distasteful, but ultimately joyful work of forgivensss than right here among our true brothers and sisters?

Each of us can begin to mend the tears in the fabric of our common life in what we are about to celebrate at this very altar: Remember the hymn we sung? (No. 315 in The Hymnal – RFSJ] Kind of odd for an opening hymn, huh? Hear again what it says:

For all thy Church, O Lord, we intercede;

Make thou our sad divisions soon to cease;

Draw us the nearer each to each, we plead;

By drawing all to thee, O Prince of peace;

Thus may we all one bread, one Body be;

through this blest sacrament of unity.

I’m going to get over the incident I felt at Convention. That’s a relatively easy one. There are other wrongs in my life, perhaps in your lives, that are harder, perhaps insurmountable to our eyes and hearts. This Lent, I invite you to take these five spiritual practices, perhaps one a week, and make them part of your preparation for Easter. There may be a specific person, perhaps here, perhaps elsewhere, you have in mind that you need to forgive. If you’re new to this, I suggest you don’t pick something that is a deep wound to your soul. You can work up to that in time. But forgiveness, like anything else, takes practice. Start small. User those four reflections as places to start. You will find your own live more happy and more vibrant as you begin to experience the true joys of forgiveness. And those little tears that each of suffer every day, perhaps even at the Annual Meeting? They will, by God’s grace and your intention, be mended.

My friends, I appeal to you, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For we are one bread, one body, in Christ’s body, in Christ’s Bread. We can start on the path to forgiveness, right here and now, in the central act of unity that renders all divisions healed, all schisms moot.



PS - Kudos to anyone who can identify the pic....


Troglodyteus said...

“Can you forgive yourself the way God does?”
Now that is a question!

There are times when I hold myself to a higher standard.

Ben Rockwell said...

The pic is from the cover of Pink Floyd's "The Division Bell". I found your blog while looking for "the proper of the day", and look what shows up! I'll look forward to reading more of it!



RFSJ said...

Ben - You're right. Kudos to you! I was trying to find something other than religious art for this week's entry, and when I googled "division" I got the Pink Floyd cover. Excellent - well done!

Trog - and that is the crux of it, isn't it? There's admittedly a fine line between being a libertine, which Paul does not condone, and the natural disquietude at our own failings that makes us engage in self-flagellation when God does not do so. Keep working and praying, and pray for me, a sinner.


randy said...

Too easy. Click on the pic and the url says "Pink Floyd's "The Division Bell".

Enjoy the Blog.

RFSJ said...


Who knew? The wonders of Blogger. Now I have to think of some other way to do quizzes!