S0410 – For the Sake of Unity

Sermon 10 April 2016 GEC Muskogee OK
Acts 9:16 (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

For the Sake of Unity

We need to do some teaching, preaching and proclamation today.  We will start with some history of the development of the Nicene Creed and then we will talk about human sexuality.  Somehow we will tie this all together with the abundant haul of fish.

First the creed:  Ancient historians wrote that in the fourth and fifth centuries, you could not go for a haircut on the streets of ancient cities like Rome, Corinth, Alexandria or Jerusalem with getting into a heated discussion with your barber whether Christ was fully human, fully divine or both.  Christianity in its first four centuries was as diverse and divided as it is today.  Each geographical region had its own understanding of the nature of Christ, who Jesus was, why he was crucified, what the crucifixion/resurrection meant and so on.  There were never any outright wars because the occupying army of the Roman Empire kept a firm grip even on local flare ups.  But there were heated disagreements about the nature of Christ and his relationship to God the Father.

Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire with Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313.  Although the Council of Nicaea was convened twelve years later, paganism was legal and flourished throughout the empire.  Four years before Nicaea, Sunday was declared the Empire-wide day of rest in honor of the Roman sun-god, Sol Invictus we maintain that pagan tradition even today although the Christian god has replaced Sol Invictus, the unconquerable sun.

Constantine did not want religious unrest to become civil unrest in his Empire so the Council of Nicaea was called with over 300 bishops attending from all over the Empire.  Constantine paid for the travel expenses and two months of lodging for the hundreds of bishops and their delegations.  He arranged the meeting hall and called the meeting to order saying “Let all contentious disputation be discarded; and let us seek in the divinely-inspired word the solution of the questions at issue.”  He then exhorted the bishops to “unanimity and concord.”

Eventually 315 of the 318 bishops all agreed to the wording of the Creed.  The move was as brilliant politically as it was theologically.  Not everyone was happy with every detail, but the Empire was at least united behind a single doctrinal statement.  Interestingly that ecumenical council took up a number of other topics such as:  separating the date of Easter from the Jewish Passover date, the ordination of eunuchs, the prohibition of kneeling on Sundays, the validity of baptism by heretics and the re acceptance of lapsed Christians.

Why do we take time today to mention this?  Because when the church makes a correction in doctrine, not everyone agrees.  Many of the bishops who originally opposed but later voted for the Creed did so “for the sake of unity.”

Twelve hundred years later, Elizabeth the first will come to the throne and preside over a contentious church in England.  Half the clergy had very Protestant sympathies while the other half leaned in a Roman Catholic direction.  “What will be the church of the realm?” they asked their new queen.  “Catholic or Protestant?”  The queen blinked and said “Both.  We will all worship in one house with one Book of Common Prayer and you will all agree to get along.”  Like Constantine’s creed, the Elizabethan via media  or “middle way” was brilliant politically and theologically.  It served a greater good; for the sake of unity.

When it comes to marriage, weddings and blessings we are bewildered with a confusion of terms.  ONLY the state can marry a couple.  A marriage is a legal contract that bestows certain legal rights on the couple.  When a couple comes to the church for a wedding, the first half of the service involves vows the couple make to one another.  Once the vows are completed, they have done everything the state requires for them to be legally married.  They could leave the church at that point and sign contracts.  A priest or minister acts on behalf of the state up to this point to ensure that they are legally married.  After a wedding, I complete the marriage certificate and mail it to the County Recorder of Deeds.

The ONLY thing a church does sacramentally is to bless the couple.  It is a blessing of their life together and it is an implicit recognition that their love for each other reflects Christ’s love for the church.  When I was interviewing in 2010 with the vestry at Grace for this position as rector someone asked me what I thought about same-gender marriage.  I explained the important distinction between the state marriage and the church’s blessing.  I was tired.  It had been a long two days and I replied, “Let’s put this in perspective.  I have been to Groton Connecticut and seen Episcopal Navy chaplains break a champagne bottle over the bow of a nuclear submarine.  In that commissioning, an Episcopal priest blesses a piece of military hardware that could incinerate a continent.  Most people seem to not have any moral difficulty with that blessing but some do when it comes to blessing two people who love each other!  Which one of those would you be willing to bless?”

In the next two months we will begin discussions around the issue of blessing same-gender couples.  Please leave the issue of marriage out of the discussion because that has been decided by the civil courts of our land.  Please leave the term “wedding” out of the discussion because that is just a term we use for a particular kind of church service.  We are only going to talk about whether this church supports blessing any two people who love each other and who will vow to continue that.

We will also take up the issue of diversity in this church and how people of all social classes are welcome into the full life, ministry and leadership of the church.  Yes, we hold leaders to higher standards, but we also know that none of us are saints and we are never called to judge.  We are called by the Bible to welcome, to accept, to encourage, to teach and to love our leaders and members just like Jesus did.

These two issues of same gender blessings and diversity are little more than speed bumps on our journey.  We have a mountain to climb in front of us that is the very survival of this church.  When we can get past the speed bumps for the sake of unity, then we can begin to encourage, support, accept, teach and love each other like the disciples did.  And when we do that, we will haul in an amazing catch of fish.



Listening to Each Other

Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

We’ve all had those moments.  Our spouse waxes on passionately about a topic he or she is closely following.  The receiving spouse smiles and nods at the appropriate moment and then there is this big thud in the monologue.  The talker stops and says to the listener, “Are you hearing what I am saying? … Are you even listening to me? … Hello in there.”  It’s like when you drive through one of those cell phone blackout zones and you keep talking when the line is dead.

But a faith community listens to each other in love and trust.  Real listening is hard work because it requires that for a moment we set aside who we are with our bias, prejudice, background, social location and emotional baggage.  Real listening requires that we willingly step into the other person’s shoes for a minute and walk in those shoes.  Real listening is never about interpreting what you hear based upon your own situation in life; instead it is about understanding, literally standing under, the other person.

Real listening demands that we hang in there.  Sometimes we are going to hear things that are uncomfortable or challenging.  Before slavery was abolished first in England and later in the United States, Anglican and Episcopal priests taught and preached pro-slavery sermons to their churches for over a century.  Their interpretation of the Bible was all based upon a slave-owning, slavery-is-ok point of view so of course they used the Bible to justify everything about slavery.  When slavery was abolished, the priests, preachers and their congregations on the slave-owning side were forced into some very difficult dialogues.  All of a sudden, everything they had been taught based upon the Bible, was wrong.

Real listening only takes place in real communities.  It is very easy to create a collection of like-minded people.  Set up the single authority as being the pastor.  Establish the pastor’s interpretation of the Bible as the only valid interpretation and then see to it that anyone who disagrees with that interpretation is uninvited.  That is not a community in Christ.  It is a group of people who all like to agree with each other.  There will never be any real listening or difficult dialogues in such a place because that has all been eliminated by the authoritative pastor.

Take a look at our own culture for a minute.  We have subjugated the rights of women since ancient Greece where women were excluded from full citizenship.  Ancient Rome was similar in that women had no public voice or public role although they had some legal protection that did not extend to slaves or foreigners.  By the time we get to the Middle Ages, the Church of England and English culture regarded women as weak, irrational and vulnerable to temptation.  The medieval church promoted the Virgin Mary as a role model for women to emulate by being innocent in sexuality, married to a husband and eventually bearing children.  Women were referred to in conversation as “his daughter” or “his wife.”

By the 17th century in Europe and the American colonies, who can ignore the famous witch trials where at Salem Massachusetts over XX women were crushed or burned to death?  By 1869 an English philosopher commented that “We are continually told that civilization and Christianity have restored to the woman her just rights.”  He goes on to say that in practice the wife is the “bondservant of her husband” no less than that of slaves.

In the United States, women earned the right to vote in 1920, fifty years after many European nations.  Today women in all professional categories still earn less than men performing the same job by 20% or more.

So what does this cultural tour of the history of women’s right mean?  If we were to have a difficult dialogue about the role of women in our society, in combat, in professional work or in the home, I would FIRST need to acknowledge that I am biased by 2500 years of cultural history.  I need to work hard and examine my own cultural baggage before I could even listen to a woman talk about her situation.

The strength of real dialogue and listening in community is that more wisdom and faith emerges from such work than any individual in the group could imagine.  The strength of the whole community is greater than the sum of its parts.  That is why Jesus constantly referred to us as sheep.  A flock of sheep has hundreds of eyes scanning for danger in all directions.  A flock of sheep is far stronger and more resilient than one individual sheep.  A faith community is like that too.  We have hundreds of hearts open not only to the possibility of danger but also to the possibility of opportunity.

Thomas was not just a doubting Thomas, he violated the trust of the community.  He did not listen to his colleagues but instead listened to his own inner voice.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  Whenever we think we have all the answers and whenever we refuse to really understand others in our community with opposing or difficult positions, we become like Thomas depending only on ourselves; listening only to our own voice.

But when we are willing to admit that maybe we don’t know all the facts and we don’t have all the answers and we can sit down to really listen to our community then we are like the other disciples.  We don’t need the physical evidence.  We only need the testimony of our community.  “We have seen the Lord!”