We had a wonderful meeting last Tuesday night, when we invited everyone to come talk to the Vestry about whether or not they thought we should join the North Bay Sponsoring Committee.
And as it turns out – surprise, surprise –we actually had differences of opinion! Who woulda thunk it!
At the meeting I could see that some people were uncomfortable with the fact that there were differences of opinion being expressed. But I found it to be inspiring –because it’s not about whether or not we agree on everything – it’s about how we handle our differences.
The Episcopal Church has never been the kind of church that suppresses differences of opinion. In fact, we find the Holy Spirit in the process of exploring our differences. We are not a conformist church that insists that everyone believe the same thing. Sometimes I wish we were – and that I was the pope who could claim some kind of infallibility. Because really, all of this would be so much easier if y’all would just see things my way!
But no; we are a church that honors the authority of each person’s conscience. That can be a tricky thing when we have a church as diverse as ours. We are, after all, a very diverse group of Christians: conservatives and liberals, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, evangelicals, Catholics, neo-pagans – how is it possible that we might speak with one voice about anything?
Some people solve this problem by simply avoiding controversial subjects. Better that we not take a stand on, say, immigration reform, than to take a position that would offend one of our members.
And there’s the rub, isn’t it? Because the Episcopal Church has never been a church that avoided controversy for the sake of keeping the peace. A casual glance through the resolutions passed at General Convention will show anyone that we take positions on all the difficult issues: abortion, women’s rights, civil rights, the environment, immigration reform, health care reform, the war in the Middle East – these issues are all addressed very directly by our church at every General Convention.
And the beauty of it is that I doubt any one here agrees with every resolution passed by General Convention. I certainly don’t. And that’s okay – because we know that it’s not the job of the church to be infallible. Our job is only to be faithful.
In Luke’s gospel this morning (9:51-62), Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” This is the turning point of the gospel. Everything changes once Jesus makes this turn toward the cross. We can sense it now in his whole aspect: he is heavier now; he’s deadly serious; he knows what he has to do.
And on their way they pass through a town of Samaritans. They are about as welcome there as a band of hippies passing through Alabama; or a busload of nuns driving through Las Vegas.
The disciples want to punish them for being so unwelcoming: James and John ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” And the text says, simply, Jesus rebuked them.
We don’t know exactly what Jesus said, but I imagine it was something like, “Are you kidding? You want to punish them - when I am about to go to Jerusalem to die for them?”
And then the text turns into a series of sayings about following Jesus. Someone says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus points out that this is not an easy life – he is about to follow someone who has no place to lay his head. Another person says he will follow Jesus, but asks first, “let me go and bury my father.”
Jesus replies, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Now what do you suppose Jesus is getting at here?
I think it’s fair to say that Jesus has nothing in principle against people burying their parents. It’s one of the ten commandments – to honor one’s father and mother. Jesus is all for that. But Jesus is also aware that something more important is being asked of him. This is not the time to be tending to the everyday concerns of your life. Something bigger is calling to you; something more important is happening right now and you need to be a part of it.
This happens to us all the time. Jesus, I will follow you – but first let me answer this one last email. Jesus, I will follow you – but first let me make sure I have a decent job with health benefits and dental insurance.
Or, as St. Augustine famously prayed, Jesus, make me chaste – but not today.
Throughout our history, we have been presented with opportunities to move forward with Jesus; and every step of the way, we have been saying, Okay, sure, but not today – today is not a good time; how about tomorrow?
When Dr. King led the civil rights marches in the South, most of the white churches were saying the same thing to him: “Sure, we sympathize with your cause – but not today. You have to go more slowly.”
The tension between the Episcopal Church and our larger Anglican Communion has the same quality: “Yes, let’s talk about full inclusion of gays and lesbians into our life – but let’s hold off on actually doing it. Let’s have a moratorium on ordaining any more gay and lesbian bishops; never mind that we’ve been talking about this now for almost forty years; we need to talk some more; and some more; and some more, and indefinitely, until everyone is of one mind.”
Some of us, I know, are extremely wary of this whole business. Many of us have been deeply hurt by church conflicts in the past. We have grown weary of the self-righteous pronouncements, the calls to action, the strident certainties of the activists.
We would rather that everything just stayed the way it is. But I wonder: what kind of church would we be today if we had shied away from women’s ordination, just to pick one issue that felt terribly divisive in its day. There’s no doubt that we would be a much smaller, more shriveled version of ourselves. And we would never have had the wonderful experience of Pat Moore’s priesthood, to name just one shining example.
There is no easy way through this business of following Jesus. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” When we agree to follow Jesus, we can’t expect to live lives of comfort and ease.
But when we take on these issues carefully, exhausting all the necessary cycles of prayer and listening and debate, searching our hearts and searching Scripture together, we might just find enough common ground to move forward together.
These are questions that Paul understood all too well. He came of age in a church at war with itself; indeed, he was one of the shining lieutenants in that war, bringing the battle to those heretics who dared to call Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah, the Son of God.
And then suddenly he was on the other side of the equation; suddenly the purpose of his life switched from tearing down heretical churches, to the much harder work of planting churches and building them up.
And he discovered that he had a problem on his hands: how were they going to be a community, how were they all going to get along, when they had pretty much thrown out the book of laws that governed them? Now that they had had no Torah, what did they believe? How would they live?
Paul addresses this situation in our reading this morning (Galatians 5:1,13-25) by being clear there was one law that had to guide everything they said and did: the law of love. “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
What does that look like in our own church? Exactly the same as in the church in Galatia: we focus on the fruits of the spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”
These are the behaviors that build up a healthy community. In the end, that’s what it means to follow Jesus for Paul, and for us: to be a community of patience and kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Not only to one another, but to those in our community who are not in our immediate circle. The Samaritans and the Romans; the lepers and the prostitutes; the Latinos and the homeless; the elderly and those in prison.
Jesus turned toward Jerusalem so that he would die for all of them and us. To follow Jesus is to be in deep relationship with one another, including our neighbors; to listen to them; to hear their stories; and do those things that build us up together, into a community of justice and peace.
I pray we may have the courage to follow Jesus today, and in the days ahead, practicing always the fruits of the Spirit.