Monday, July 31, 2006

Trading Up (Sermon for Proper 12B)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

One day a woman is driving toward home in Northern Arizona when she comes upon a Navajo woman hitchhiking. The trip had been long and quiet, so she stops the car and the Navajo woman climbs in. Hurtling across the barren landscape, they pass the time with small talk. At one point, the hitchhiker’s eye lands on a brown paper bag on the front seat between the two women. “If you’re wondering what’s in the bag,” offers the woman, “it’s a bottle of wine. I got it for my husband.” The Navajo woman remains silent for a while, then nods several times and says, “Good trade.”*

It’s intended as a joke, of course, that anyone would trade a person for a bottle of wine; but I wonder if in our unguarded moments, at times, we might not be tempted to think of it as a good trade. **

Continue reading Trading Up

Our beloved church continues to make headlines in the wake of General Convention. I just wish that more of the really great things that happen were featured, instead of the usual saber-rattling of entrenched interests. But instead, reports exaggerate, missive and counter-missive appear, clandestine meetings are convened, and genuine constructive conversation falls into neglect. It is particularly at tough times like these – no matter your position on the issues – that we might be enticed into looking at another and wishing we didn’t have to deal with them. Heck, with a bottle of wine in the bargain, it might seem like a good deal indeed.

That’s not to say that argument, or debate, or disagreements are themselves bad signs. In fact, these moments can often be the occasion of great and long lasting growth. But when our differences become entrenched and intractable, and when we fail to love those with whom we disagree, it becomes a problem.

But I suspect there’s another reason why community might be so elusive in the church. It seems a very human thing to get caught up in peripheral concerns, to become distracted by relatively minor disputes. In the scheme of things, they might not be very important, but they can feel safe and predictable. But the upshot of this is that – consciously or unconsciously – we avoid encountering God. It can feel safer to stay in a mundane, predictable quarrel than to be open to new life, and the changes it brings. God’s deep, searching love, can seem a dangerous thing; it can be frightening to acknowledge a God who is closer to each us of than we are even to our own selves.*** And so, perhaps, in our fear, we feel more secure in quibbling with each other and trying our best to elude God’s honest love. It sounds a little crazy, I know, but for whatever reason it seems to us like a good trade. ****

The apostle Paul knew something about this sort of situation, too.***** Only he was beset by a church composed of both Jewish and Gentile Christians. Most of us here have Gentile backgrounds, I would guess, and it has been thousands of years since the church has been mixed like this.

Imagine a multi-ethnic church – actually, that would be a great thing to imagine, wouldn’t it? – imagine a multi-ethnic church, but with the challenges taken to the next level. Jewish Christians could look at the Gentiles, whom they were accustomed to thinking of as benighted and lost, and look down their noses at them. After all, who were these Johnny-come-latelys? They didn’t bear the marks of the covenant. They weren’t born into the chosen people. Jesus hadn’t been a Gentile, and he focused his mission on Israel. The Gentiles didn’t worship at the temple, didn’t make the proper sacrifices, didn’t eat the right food, didn’t follow much of the law – how could the Jewish Christians not look down on them?

And so what about the Gentile Christians? You could imagine what it felt like. Fine, so their families hadn’t been a part of the chosen people, does that mean they had to be second class citizens? Jew or Gentile, they followed Christ not because of their birth but because of God’s grace -- so who could boast? The Jewish Christians wrestled with whether and how much of the law to follow in their lives, and so those of Gentile background might well have thought the Jewish Christians were sacrificing their freedom in Christ. Besides, it probably hadn’t been lost on the Gentile Christians that there were more of them than there were Christians of Jewish background. They might even have been tempted to start thinking that they were the ones who were special, and that God had abandoned his earlier covenant people for greener pastures.

And so within one church in Ephesus, as well as in the broader church around the Mediterranean, there was this great dispute about status in the church. It is easy to imagine that no matter what side you were on, trading in those ‘others’ for a bottle of wine would have been tempting. Of course, whether the wine needed to be kosher or not depended on which group you were in!

So Paul has been discussing this tension throughout the letter, but his message really comes to a head in the reading for today. To start, he draws together all of what he has been saying to this point: be patient with each other, bear with one another in love, make every effort to maintain unity. And then, in a few brief, profound sentences, he makes plain why.

First, he repeats with emphasis: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all. No doubt, these are familiar words to us. We use them at the beginning of our baptismal service in the prayer book. Sometimes, we use them for conventions or other gatherings of the church. And once a friend of mine humourously riffed on them when he was complaining about what he thought was a long church service, saying “One God, one church, one hour”!******

What Paul does with this refrain of one is interesting, though. In what he says, he moves back and forth between God and the church. What he means to say, seemingly, is that the body, the church – the whole church – is one because God is one. We’re not one because we happen to be such great folks and we all can’t get enough of each other. We’re not one because we’ve got it all together down pat, no questions, no doubts, no problems. We, the church, are one because the God who called us and formed us and sends us out into the world is one God.

That’s one thing that Paul says: because there’s one God, there’s one church. And friends, this can sound good, but it starts to feel a little scandalous – at least it does to me – when we consider that this doesn’t just mean we are one with other Episcopalians, or even other Anglicans in the world, but also fundamentalists, evangelicals, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Baptists, Congregationalists, nondenominational Christians – even the snake handlers and holy rollers. What a bewilderingly huge family. And, yes, we can be pretty good at hurting and hating each other. But the fact is, because God is one, we are one.

That was the first thing. I think it is fascinating what Paul does next. After stressing the oneness of God and the church, he then says ‘each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift’. So the church is one, but each member, each part of the church is different. More than that, the parts aren’t different because of inconsistency or sloppiness, nor even just because each part likes being different. Paul makes clear that each part is different because of Christ, because God wants it that way. And the differences are gifts, not just burdens to bear. They are grace given by God. And as if that weren’t enough, each person receives these gifts not for themselves, to build themselves up, but for the sake of other people, to build them up.

What does this mean? One thing it means is that everyone has something to contribute in the body of the church, to the well being of the church. And here’s the really subversive thing: it doesn’t matter what your identity is outside of the church. You might be a CEO or you might be jobless; you might live in a mansion or you might be homeless; you might be an old hand at this church thing, or you might be just checking it out for the first time, or after being away for a while. Your status in the world doesn’t matter, because here you are valued and needed and important, because each of us is given a gift by God. Your gift might need some formation, some discernment, or some refining, but it is a real gift – and not a gift for you, to build you up, but a gift for those around you, to be a blessing to them, to build them up, to give them life.

And perhaps the surprising thing is that this point relies on the nature of God, too. When we talk about the Trinity: Father Son and Holy Spirit all being one God, this is a way of saying that we worship one God, but that there is difference at the heart of God. And this difference isn’t just a matter of different persons competing against each other and scrabbling for existence, but the three within God all love each other completely and serve each other completely: each builds up the other. And together the three have created, redeemed, and are sanctifying the world.

And so when we think about the church, we can say that we are one, because the God who called the church into existence is one. And we can also say that this one church has a great diversity of gifts from God, because although God is one, there is also a loving, mutually blessing difference at he heart of God.

It’s my prayer this morning that we would be able to embrace the oneness that is the universal church, even when that means the discomfort of drawing near to our distant and rather different sisters and brothers in the faith. And I pray that in encountering the diversity of gifts throughout the church and within this parish, we would continue growing to love and value one another, as we seek to bless and build each other up. In that way, may God transform us to see friends and co-labourers, where once we saw only adversaries. My friends, now that would be a good trade. Amen.

*Story found on the internet, but the exact site eludes me.
** Astute readers of Gower Street may recognize this story (indeed, a number of stories used this summer) from an earlier sermon. I should say that I never re-use a sermon, on principle. On the other hand, I may re-use a story or illustration if I am preaching in a different context, I see no good reason not to do; of course, I try at all costs to avoid repeating a story if I am preaching in the same setting. I craft my sermons for certain hearers, usually congregations, at certain times, usually Sunday morning worship: that means that there is an oddness to you, gentle reader (whoever you may be) reading the sermon in whatever context you find yourself in. There are a number of oddities, actual and potential, to reading in unimagined (to the writer) contexts what was meant to be heard in a specific context -- and one of them is that you may get to read a story more than once. And if you don't mind that oddness, I won't either.
*** The phrase is Augustine’s, I believe.

**** By this, I don't mean to jape at either 'conservatives' or 'liberals' (How I wish the world were more complex!) and say that one or the other group as a class is neglecting God for the sake of their arguments: my point is that many of us on any side of any issue might very well find more security in this settled dispute than in the rather dangerous (and exciting) following of God. None of this sermon is meant to be issue-specific, but to challenge us all (myself included).
***** I realize that many (perhaps most) scholars hold the Ephesians is most likely a ‘deutero-Pauline’ epistle. I originally incorporated a phrase mentioning this, but the more I worked with the themes of the passage, the more genuinely Pauline the sentiments seemed to me. But much more than that, who cares? The point of a sermon is not to hash out authorship, and I usually think such remarks are rather distracting.
****** This was a parishioner at Church of the Mediator in Chicago, perhaps 10 years ago. I have no idea if this is commonplace or original with him.


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