Sermon April 25, 2010
Lately I’ve been reading in the paper the heartbreaking stories of abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. Once again, we are forced to hear horrible stories about the worst kind of crime – a crime of abuse by a predator posing as a priest of God – but also of the cover-ups by the bishops and archbishops and possibly even the Vatican itself.
All this makes me wonder – how is it that a church can be both things at once – both a sacred institution where God is found; and a sick institution that sometimes does unspeakable harm to its children?
How can it be both? Because it is both. I say that because there is a natural tendency in each of us toward either-or thinking: either the church is a sacred institution that we must defend and praise; or it’s a sick and corrupt institution that needs to be completely condemned. Many people want to be on one side or the other of that equation; but the truth is that it’s both.
How can that be? How can a church be a vessel of God, and also be such a vessel for woundedness? How is that possible?
The same question rises in me when I’m reading John’s gospel. This morning, our reading from John’s gospel presents us with “the Jews,” who are often portrayed in John’s gospel, as unbelieving and even hostile to Jesus.
So we have the same thing going on. On the one hand, the Gospel of John is one of the most profound and divinely inspired books of scripture ever written. And on the other hand, John’s gospel is flawed because it was written by an ordinary person – a person who was deeply wounded, and who could not help but pass that woundedness along, even as he also spread an inspired message grace and salvation.
We’ve talked about this before, and I don’t want to belabor the point, but it perhaps cannot be said often enough that John’s gospel was written in a time, considerably later than the other gospels, when the early Christians were in the middle of a very bitter divorce from the Jewish community that gave them their birth.
So in fact, in John’s gospel, we find that bitter divorce taking on the flesh of the scriptures themselves; we find the term “the Jews” 55 times; whereas in the 3 other gospels combined “the Jews” are mentioned only twice – and in both cases, the phrase seems to have been inserted parenthetically, by a later editor. [This is not counting the times when Jesus is mentioned as “the King of the Jews.]
In the synoptic gospels – that is, in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – it’s assumed that just about everyone is Jewish. Jesus is Jewish, all the disciples are Jewish, everyone is Jewish unless identified otherwise. But in John’s Gospel, because it was written in a time when the followers of Jesus were being run out of the Synagogues as heretics, “the Jews” are identified as a separate group from Jesus and his disciples; they are portrayed in John’s gospel as skeptical, narrow-minded, eventually hostile to Jesus, and ultimately murderous, first trying to stone him themselves, and then handing Jesus over to be killed.
So just like the Roman Catholic Church, John’s gospel is a mixed bag, both the inspired Word of God, capable of lifting us to the spiritual heights of salvation itself; and an instrument for woundedness.
And it is our job, as proclaimers of the Gospel, to admit our own flaws. It is our job, as Christians, to understand the church, and the Bible, both with the eyes of faith, and with a critical eye, so that we use the gospels for the purposes that Jesus intended, which is to heal a broken world and bring us into relationship with God through Christ; and so, to the best of our ability, we don’t pass on the woundedness that comes with it.
My mother was deeply wounded; she was abused by her own father when she was a child. And one of the best things she did – and she did many, many wonderful things – is that she did not pass that woundedness on to her own children. The cycle stopped with her. I praise God for that. And just so, we are called to do the same.
Some people don’t want to admit that the Scriptures can be both/and – both a vehicle for salvation, and a flawed instrument of oppression. They fight for Scripture to be one thing or another – because it’s more comfortable to think like that. Just as many people don’t want to admit that the Roman Catholic Church is a both/and institution – they want it to be either hopelessly corrupt, or divinely inspired.
But the fact is, it’s both. Just as we are living both in the Kingdom of God, where people are healed and transformed by Christ, and in a world of brokenness, where people are actually harmed in the name of Christ. If our eyes are not open to both realities, we are in danger of perpetrating the very same crimes ourselves.
Which is why it is important for us to be honest about our church as well. It’s not just the Roman Catholic Church that has committed abuse. 25 years ago, we had a priest here at Church of the Incarnation who abused several teen-aged boys. His name was Alan Papworth. As far as we know, that abuse did not happen here, in this sanctuary or anywhere on campus, but rather at his home in Windsor, with boys who lived in his neighborhood. But he did commit some unspeakable crimes; our church, and the Diocese, was sued for several millions of dollars – as we should have been; and he was defrocked and sent to jail.
So once again, we have a both/and situation. It turns out that that priest was a very sick and wounded man – even as it is also true that he did some good things while he was here: he ministered to the sick, he tended his flock as best he could; he proclaimed the gospel with sincerity.
We have no choice, if we’re going to be grown-ups, but to accept this hard reality, that we live in a both/and world.
But we do have a choice. We can live in a world of brokenness and woundedness, and see everything through that lens; or we can live in a world of rose-colored glasses, and be blind to the realities of life; or we can live in both worlds simultaneously; we can be both, in Jesus’ words, “wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.” (Mt. 10:16)
Which is why it’s so important that we need to do everything in our power to be make our community as safe a community as we can possibly make it, for all of our children and all of us, together. Which is why it is so important for all our leaders and everyone we can get, to go to the training we conduct periodically, to help us keep this community safe.
But this is also true that when we enter into this space – this sacred sanctuary – there is only one thing that needs to be on our minds. Because when we step into this sacred space, we are stepping into the Kingdom of heaven.
A few months ago, there was a man – not a member of our parish – he came by, asked to speak with a priest. This happens quite often, actually. He told me that he had just learned that his wife was leaving him. I listened to his whole story and then I asked him if he wanted to go into the church to be alone and to pray and he said Yes; so we went into this church. And the moment when we stepped through that side door there into the Marian Chapel, he stopped, and he began to sob. He when he recovered himself, he said, “It’s just so beautiful here.”
Another person, who had just experienced a terrible tragedy in her family, stepped into this building for the first time and said, “You can just feel the energy in this place.”
There are people we know who feel that this whole campus radiates the grace of God; they say they can feel it; it’s all around us here. And I believe that, because I feel it as well.
I believe that this place has absorbed God’s sacred energy – the energy of lives in transformation and healing. There has been so much healing and so much love in this place that this building has become a container of grace. And the more healing that happens in here, the more healing that will happen here for others who enter this place.
Just as our Eucharistic elements absorb the grace of God when we pray over them, so this building absorbs all the healing, all that love, all that good will that happens here; all the good things that happen here; all the God that happens here. These walls, these pews, this brass, this stained glass – this is a hallowed place.
So sure, we live in a both/and world. But in here, there is only one reality: that is the Kingdom of heaven, alive and well, saturating us with divine grace, healing us and making us whole.
Whenever we open our hearts to that grace; without hesitation; fully, completely giving ourselves to God – no need for ambivalence here - we are fully giving ourselves to God.
It’s not easy living in a both-and world. But that’s what we’re called to do as Christians: Jesus, fully divine, and fully human; Kingdom of Heaven, both here, and not yet here; scripture, both inspired by God, and yet flawed; this church, both an instrument of healing and grace, and not perfect.
But we here, now, enter into that which is perfect, and beyond all understanding; the grace of God, alive here, in our hearts and in this room. We open our hearts to this grace; we give ourselves to God’s love, completely.
And we say, AMEN.