Proper 6A — June 12, 2005
Grace Church, Utica
In a recent church publication one of our bishops was quoted as saying that the Church today is more divided than a cut-up birthday cake. He went on to say that the various groups of people represented by each slice are all convinced that they and their cause, whatever it is, speak for God. The result, of course, is a great deal of turmoil, with a host of opposing forces all claiming to represent the cause of righteousness. It’s the work of one of the demons that has always plagued people of faith, a demon that gives us the desire to change everybody else into our image of what being a real Christian is all about.
A few examples....
You have the so-called pro-life people, versus the pro-choice people. The “pro-lifers” carry on vehement demonstrations against those they consider to be murderers and God-less heathens. The pro-choice group opposes those they regard as religious bigots who want to make their anti-abortion stand the only choice available.
There are the advocates of gay rights, in favor of the ordination of gay and lesbian people, who also believe that the Church should bless marriages or commitments between people of the same-sex. They tend to look scornfully on those whom they would characterize as narrow-minded biblical literalists who are still stuck in their homophobia. Then you have the people who continue to embrace the traditional arguments against homosexual behavior, who look at gays and those who take up their cause as shameful and immoral people who could not possibly know anything of God or of God’s will.
There are the Charismatic folks who think that the best way to glorify God is to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer and otherwise let them fly-around at will accompanied by spontaneous utterances of various kinds. They tend to get disgusted with the stiff and formal worship of traditionalists, particularly their stained-glass music, seeing them as people whose spiritual lives are stunted and whose minds and souls have been hopelessly warped by professional musicians. On the other side of the spectrum you have the people who are moved and inspired by classical music, who view all those “turned-on Christians” as folks who have more than a few loose screws and whose musical taste has been forever ruined by “renewal music junkies.” However, they remain confidant that when we all get to heaven there will be no more sounds of “Kumbaya,” but only the glorious strains of Bach and Buxtehude, and Solemn High Mass with plainsong that never ends. After all, if God had wanted Folk Masses or Jazz Masses or contemporary Christian music, Jesus would have had a guitar and an electronic keyboard at the Last Supper.
And then, of course, there are the feminists, who want to change all the words we’ve ever used to talk about God, and drive most of the men in the Church over a cliff— following the example of Jesus when he healed a man who was possessed and sent all the demons into a herd of pigs. The arch-nemesis of every feminist is the traditionalist who is convinced that God can only be imaged and represented in male terms, can only be worshiped with the proper Elizabethan “thees” and “thous,” and the misogynists among them who believe that Adam would have been just fine in the garden if God hadn’t blown it by creating Eve.
And so it goes. If you think I’ve exaggerated things to the point of being ridiculous then I’d have to say you’ve been insulated from a great deal that’s going on in the Church today— for which you should probably be very grateful. But there’s an underlying issue here, and it can surface almost anywhere— within a parish, a family, in the work-place, for that matter in any situation in which we must live and work with other people. I’ll put it to you in the form of a question: How do we develop our own sense of values, have a commitment to them, and yet remain open to other people who may not share them? Can we be comfortable with ourselves and our own perspective on things, without feeling compelled to declare everybody else “wrong?” And an even more basic issue, are we often so concerned about being “right” that we are forgetting how to respond to people with love and respect?
These are serious questions, and they are becoming very critical for the Church as it attempts to respond to issues in our common life. I suspect that many of them are issues that will never be resolved once and for all, because no matter what decisions are made somebody or a group of somebodies is going to be dissatisfied and convinced that there’s been a big mistake.
Given the fact that there may never be unanimous agreement on some things, how do we, with so many diverse points of view, have any real sense of community? How do we continue to believe and give witness to the fact that we are one in Christ? We might take a clue from today’s second lesson, in which St. Paul writes to the Romans:
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person— though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
The point is this: the only way we’re going to have any peace with God is to recognize and accept our reliance upon God’s grace and to let go of any silly notions of becoming virtuous through our commitments to the right things or right causes. It is not correctness— not political correctness, not religious or liturgical or theological correctness— that will make us worthy to receive the blessings of life in Christ; they always come as God’s gift, given to us freely, even though we are not worthy or deserving of them.
Let’s be honest. By the standards of the Sermon on the Mount there isn’t a single saint who ever lived who was free from sin. One commentator has written that: our self-derived morality is like the silhouette of a giraffe— lofty in the front, but far lower in the rear. And it’s true for every one of us. There isn’t a single Christian, living or dead, who has any room to boast. We all have our flaws.
The Gospel truth is that at the foot of the cross we all stand on level ground, and God has acted on our behalf in spite of our ungodliness. That means we stand on the same ground as those we oppose on any issue. It’s a truth that ought to keep us humble— humble enough to accept ourselves and each other despite our deep-seated differences. It should remind us that no human virtue entitles us to Christ’s healing, sacrificial love; and no human flaw is great enough to put us beyond the Lord’s reach.
If we believe that Jesus lived and died “for us and for our salvation,” then we need to come to grips with the truth that he did it for the pro-choicer and the pro-lifer alike; he did it for those of us who are straight and those who are gay; he did it for the traditionalist and also for those who live on the edge. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. May he give us the grace to see that we are all lost, and that he is the only one who can show us the way.
© James M. Jensen