Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Next Big Argument

Sermon preached August 18, 2013
The Very Rev. Dr. Matthew Lawrence, Rector
Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa, CA

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three…

The other day I was sitting with some parishioners and we were talking generally about how things are going around the church these days, and I was deeply glad to hear each person reflect on how nice it is not to have any big fights going on in the church these days.  Everyone seems to be pretty happy, knock on wood.  Not that we all agree with one another on much of anything – sitting around that table were a healthy assortment of Republicans and Democrats, gay, straight, male, female, 8 o’clockers and 9:15ers, and 11:15ers – but everyone agreed we didn’t see any big issue dividing us right now – and we all kind of breathed that in and gave ourselves permission to enjoy it.  

I had the same experience with the bishop a few months ago.  We were talking about the state of the diocese and making plans for Diocesan Convention, and I told him how great it was to go to Convention and not spend the whole time arguing about sex.  Great… but also kind of disorienting.  I mean, I’ve been a priest since 1990 and until very recently every single Diocesan Convention was consumed with arguments about homosexuality.  

I asked the bishop, “What are we going to do, now that we don’t need to argue about sex?”

And he smiled the smile of a wise and experienced bishop and he said, “Enjoy it while it lasts.”

And that’s just what I’ve been doing.  It’s been nice, hasn’t it?

But it does make you wonder:  What’s next?  What’s the next big fight going to be about?  

It’s almost like Jesus gave us this list, 2,000 years ago, of Arguments We Need to Have; and we’ve been going down this list, checking things off as we go along.  Let’s see: first we had to fight with our Jewish brothers and sisters because they didn’t want us preaching in the synagogue; okay, well we gave that our best shot…  and then, let’s see, we had to fight over whether or not to let Greeks into our company; then we had to settle the Arian heresy; and then there were the Pelagians; and the Manichees, and all those other heresies; and then we had our fight over indulgences; and we finally got the Bible and the prayer book translated into English, that was a big one and it looks like it’s pretty settled; and then there was slavery; and Prohibition; and the Vietnam War; and Civil Rights – which is still an issue but at least Black people aren’t being stopped from registering at universities by men with guns, so that’s progress; and then there were women wanting to become priests, and now, gay people!  So: that’s it, right?   Are we done? 

I’d really like to think that we’re done.  That we’ve settled every big controversy.  I mean, what’s next?  I really have a hard time imagining what the next big church-splitting argument is going to be over.  Dogs marrying cats?  What?   I have no idea.

When Jesus said, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” – boy, was he right.  I wonder if he had any idea how long we’d be fighting our very own brothers and sisters in his name.  

And truthfully – which one of those issues do we wish we hadn’t had a fight over?  I, for one, am glad the Bible’s in English; I’m grateful we no longer have legalized slavery in the United States; and I’m proud we are a church that tackled the gay issue so courageously, and, I might add, so prayerfully.

So it turns out Jesus was right when he said his message would bring division.  And when he said, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but [you don’t know] how to interpret the present time," he was right about that, too.  Because we have no idea what the next big storm is going to be about.

Whatever the issue will be, we know it’s going to start with some self-aggrandizing, self-appointed spokesperson for justice, probably some young person going on about sour grapes, like Isaiah in today’s lesson.  I know this because I have been that self-aggrandizing, self-appointed spokesperson for justice.  Many of us have.  We have seen the same cycle take place every generation since the beginning of time: some kid in his 20’s or 30’s will stand up, just like I used to do 30 years ago, and he will make some kind of uncomfortable speech that no one wants to hear, and we will try to shush him up; maybe even drive him from the church.  And our first objection to him is not going to be that we disagree with him on the merits of his argument; no, we might even agree with him, secretly, but our biggest objection will be that he’s divisive; that he’s too blunt; that he’s hurting the feelings of good people who think differently from him.  And so we will call the police and we will have him arrested for Disturbing the Peace.  Because we love this peace so much; we know how hard-won this peace is; and we who have been through a war or two already will want to just rest, and enjoy the peace, because we will feel that we’ve earned it. 

About ten years ago – I think it was the first Clergy Conference that I had been to here in this Diocese – we were engaging the issue of gay priests, and it was turning into one of those rancorous, difficult debates; I had just made my speech about my brother, who was gay, and about how he had attempted suicide as a young man because he had been taught to hate himself, and I did my usual thing which was to challenge the other clergy in the room to tell me which side of my brother’s life God was on – was he on the side of self-hatred and all the forces in our society that were telling him he was better off dead, or was God on the side of my brother coming out of the closet, and healing from all the self-hate that he had learned, and finally embracing himself as God had created him to be.  I had given the same speech a few times before, but this was the first time in this Diocese.  And then this older priest, who was about five years from retirement, got up.  He started by reviewing all the battles that he had fought while he was a priest; about how he had gone into the South to march with Dr. King; and how he had opposed the Vietnam War and gotten beat up for it; and how he had been a good soldier over the revisions to the Prayer Book, even though he lost a third of his congregation over it; and then how he had come to accept and support and fight for the rights of women to be ordained.  And now he was being asked to take up another banner and fight another war and lose more parishioners and he started weeping and said, “I’m just tired!  I’m tired of all of it!  And I’m just not going to fight any more!”

At the time, I remember I wasn’t very sympathetic to him.  I mean, I could see the pain he was in, and I felt sorry for him, but I remember thinking, Jesus doesn’t give us a pass on these things.  In fact, we make a promise in our Baptismal Vows, that we will strive for justice and peace among all people; and we will persevere in resisting evil.   We don’t say that we’ll strive for justice and peace as long as we feel like it; or as long as we don’t offend somebody; or as long as we don’t lose members.

This is the bad news that comes with the good news of new life in Christ – that we are expected to put justice ahead of peace, and all of it ahead of our own feelings of comfort, even our own well-deserved desire for rest.

But I have to admit that, now that my issue has been settled, more or less; now that my righteous anger has been mollified, I understand that older priest completely.  I can honestly say I dread the next conflict; I want to extend this period of peace and tranquility as long as I can; I’m so old and self-satisfied right now I can’t even imagine what the next big conflict is going to be about.  And I’m far more likely, when the next big conflict comes around, to be on the side of the conservatives, opposing change simply because I prefer things the way they are.  

I say this out loud, so that you can hold me accountable, should you find me digging in my heels against change.  If you see me preferring peace over justice; if you ever hear me say, “But we just can’t take on any more divisive issues right now,” please: do me a favor.  Remind me of my baptismal vows; which today we say out loud for everyone to hear.

In our Baptism, we don’t say we will persevere in resisting evil, as long as we feel like it; we don’t say we will strive for justice and peace among just certain people, as long as they don’t ask too much of us.  That’s the bad news of life in Christ.  We are called to speak the truth, and work for justice, and step out on faith into new unchartered territory, every day, whether we like it or not, whether it serves our interests or not, whether it makes us feel uncomfortable or not.  

But until that next big conflict comes along, threatening to split our church, I propose that we follow our bishop's advice, and just enjoy the peace that we have now.  After all, it’s almost the end of summer.  Some of us haven’t even been to a baseball game this year yet.  Let’s be good to ourselves; let’s enjoy this season of peace.  Life doesn’t have to be all conflict, all of the time.  Even God rested from his labors once in a while.  And so shall we, I pray, and give thanks to God along the way.     

Somebody say…. AMEN.