Monday, August 20, 2007
Signs of the Times
St. John’s, Ithaca
August 19, 2007
This morning as I was driving here, I saw several deer, some fawns with their spots along side their mothers. I saw a flock of wild turkey, a skunk which I carfully avoided, a raccoon and some trees with the ever so lightly tinged with yellow and orange. The coolness of the morning tells us that fall is just around the corner and summer is almost gone. It is a bittersweet morning for those of us who live in upstate NY. We know that the summer that we wait 9 long months for each year is fading and we know that winter will be with us before long. It is that same kind of feeling that I believe that Jesus was reminding the people in today's reading.
For the last 2 weeks I have complained that the readings are those that the compilers of the lectionary put in August because preachers go on vacation in August and stick the visiting priest with these lessons. And today’s readings take the cake! In a world that would proclaim “Jesus loves you” from t-shirt to bumper sticker, and saccharine sweet images of the Divine dog our every move, this passage sounds remarkably harsh.
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He journeys there to address the misconduct of the religious leadership. He goes to Jerusalem because he is speaking truth to power. He goes there to call the people to repentance. The fire he enjoins upon the people is a cleansing flame—a refiner’s fire. The division he promises is not battle, but the kind of pruning that is necessary for a plant to grow.
This is not the Jesus of our childhood. This is the Christ that calls us to discipleship. This is not Sweet Jesus, meek and mild; this is the Christ who invites us to renewal and change. This is not something we want to hear on a hot August morning.
But there is no time like the present to address this passage. Jesus calls his people to recognize in the crisis of his day the call to change. And I would suggest that it remains the same for us too. If we are to understand the signs of our times and how to meet them in a Christ-like fashion, we must understand what is going on in our world.
Last week I said that I was beginning to see some slight moving toward a sense of compromise in the Episcopal Church in the light of the schism that has been tearing at us for the past 4 years. And that may be true. But I have not dealt with the whole of the issue. I could probably speak for a month on what has happened in various places in the Anglican Communion. But mostly it is an issue that began in the US over the inclusion of gay folk in the Church and in the ordained ministry.
It would be easy to blame us gays for all of this. In fact, that is what many of those who set themselves apart say that this whole crisis is about. But I daresay that if it had not been the election of a gay bishop who was in an open and affirming relationship, there would have been some other kind of crisis conjured by those who are leading the schism. This schism is not about human sexuality! It is about power and authority and who has the right to determine the path that we as Church may go. It has been nothing less than a junta, an attempt to overthrow the basic government of the Episcopal Church by a minority who cannot get their way through normal elective processes.
Underlying this attempt at take over are theologies galore which are alien to the Episcopal ethos: Biblical inerrancy, covenantal professions, fourth-century orthodoxy have all been trotted out to show how wrong the Episcopal Church is and how righteous their segment of the Church is. They are the TRUE Church—the TRUE Anglican Church in the United States, and we are apostate, we are told. But now that the Archbishop of York, the primate of England, protests their “Anglicanicity”, those who would divide the Episcopal Church are now saying that they are holier than the Anglicans and they don’t need the Anglicans either.
In all of this mudslinging, though, there is good that is coming out. And I believe it is this that Jesus is referring to in today’s readings. We as Episcopalians and Anglicans are being forced to differintiate who we are in ways that we have not had to for as long as I have been in the Church. We are being forced to say that we are a denomination of Christianity that is going to be welcoming and open to a wide variety of people. We are saying that we are a place where there is much latitude in faith and that people with widely diverging ideas can meet, discuss their faith, and form community without having to be homogenized. We are not saying that those who disagree must leave. On the contrary we invite them to be with us, to commune with us, to celebrate Christ’s Church in ways that further the broadness of our communion.
It is in this crisis that we as Episcopalians have had to declare who we are, and whose we are. And this is not a bad thing today when the title ‘Christian’ is becoming a word that has been appropriated by right-wing political ideology to mean something remarkably anti-intellectual and strident. For the Episcopal Church, the epitome of what once was described as the “Republican Party at Prayer” is now called upon to articulate itself, without its ideological trappings, without its regard to status. We are having to claim ourselves as open to conservatives AND liberal, open to catholics and evangelicals, and open to those who have often been excluded simply because of who they are. We are being forced not just to SAY we include, we are having to LIVE this out in radical ways that are uncomfortable and perhaps even somewhat embarrassing. We are having to put our money where our mouths are. We are having to live out an inclusivity that we would rather give lip service to, but the crisis now says we must step up to the plate.
Forty-two years ago this past week a young Episcopal seminarian by the name of Jonathan Myreck Daniels forced the Episcopal Church to deal with the inclusion of people of color. The Church had paid lip service to integration, the plurality of membership. But throughout the South, Blacks couldn’t attend a white Episcopal Church. Jonathan Daniels and Judy Upham, now a priest of our diocese who serves St. Mark’s in Candor, went to Selma to stand as witness to white brutality in the Black sections of that city. Their presence brought the inhumanity of racial segregation to the crisis point. Jonathan was gunned down on the streets of a small Alabama town on August 20, 1965 because he was trying to register Black folks for the vote. Last summer Judy and I returned to Selma to participate in the memorial to the Alabama martyrs. Judy carried a picture of Jon while we retraced the journey that Jon and others made that fateful day. They had no understanding then that the crisis that unfolded was to open the Episcopal Church to an acceptance of what we know as a Christian truth: that all are created equal in the sight of the Lord.
The strife in the Episcopal Church today is a crisis from which we are all going to learn. It has been painful; it will continue to be painful. But I do believe that we as Church are going to come away from this schismatic attempt by some, a better and healthier Church. The purpose of the Church is to preach and teach the love of God. And I see the Episcopal Church doing that. Our bishops have made it clear that they will not step back from the ordaining gay folk in open relationships. Our General Convention has shown that it supports the legislation that is open and welcoming. And over this summer I have heard the clearest and most open discussions of who we are as Church and what we proclaim. It is a Church that I can support whole heartedly because it has taken Jesus at his word. It has not shrunk from Jesus’ fire or sword. It has been willing to stand the test. And yes, there has been division. There has not been peace. But there have been good things that have come from this.
Jesus chastises the people of his day for not understanding the signs of the times. In Luke, we hear him say that we can tell when it is going to rain, why can’t we interpret the signs of the coming of the Messiah? I do believe that the “present unpleasantness” as some would call the past four years in the Church, is a sign of God’s work. I do believe that the crisis that we have seen will bring about the kind of change that will allow us to meet the challenges of a new era. I do believe the Christianity is alive and well and not bound by anti-intellectual tomfoolery. And I believe that the Episcopal Church will continue to be a place where all will be welcome no matter what our theological stance. And I believe that what will unite us is what has kept us together for 2000 years—the Eucharist of the Altar.
If we cut ourselves off from that, then we will lose our focus on Jesus and devolve into some kind of group of nay-sayers that provide no substance or sustenance for the people of God. I hurt for those who have separated themselves from us. I hurt for us in losing them. But I will not step back from the place of inclusion to which Christ has led us. For Church is not about how many enter the doors. It is about being faithful to a Christ that would take such crises and bring growth from them. We must be willing to experience the fire. We must be willing to endure the battle. We must be willing to read the signs of our times. We must be willing to recognize Christ’s hand at work among us and rejoice. AMEN