Being Grown-ups in a Room When People Differ

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
– Year C – June 23, 2013
David H. Knight, Priest Associate

Drop thy still dews of quietness, til all our strivings cease;
take from our souls the strain and stress, and let our ordered lives confess
the beauty of thy peace, the beauty of thy peace
                                                              (Hymn 653, Words: John Greenleaf Whittier, 3rd stanza)

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” 
                                                                                                                                              -Galatians 3:27-29

The readings for this Sunday present you and me with a profound question.  It is this: To what extent is our sense of who we are shaped by our baptismal vows and our ongoing commitment to those vows, and to what extent is our sense of who we are determined by other factors that might distract us from these vows?  In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he reminded the Galatians that they were to find their identity in Christ alone. He encourages them to understand themselves as heirs of God’s promise to Abraham, a promise that that in his descendants all the nations of the earth would be blessed.  It was a promise that would ultimately encompass the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is our union with Christ at our baptism that gives us our identity.  At baptism, our sponsors, if we were small, or we ourselves as adults, confessed the lordship of Christ over all creation.   We promised to put our whole trust in his grace and love. We promised to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. The implications of those promises are far reaching into all facets our lives.  It is when you and I live our lives in the context of our baptismal vows that we live ever so much closer to experiencing the promise given to Abraham and his offspring. Daily, you and I are given the opportunity to live according to these promises we made.

 Try as we might, though, there are many distractions that confront us on a daily basis, some of which find their way to us and some of which are the result of our own doing.   How often we become bombarded and even overwhelmed by distractions from many directions clamoring for our attention. Pressures at work, our relationships with others that can be complicated, our worries about things whatever they may be can all be distractions.  We see in so many situations in which people face serious differences how a “we” and “they” dynamic becomes how it works. The nightly news provides us with evidence of how there are factions in government, and among nations, and among people at every turn.  And in the Church over the centuries we recall all the controversies that have taken place.  There are to this present day controversies where different groups within the Church claim to be in the right making it necessary, of course, that others be wrong.  All this is nothing new.

 Paul, in his letter to the Galatians was writing about the various divisions in the early church that were distracting people from the vows they made at their baptism.   He writes to remind them that as they were baptized into Christ, they are all one in Christ.  All differences become subject to Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female for all are one in Christ Jesus.  What he wrote to the Galatians in that day speaks to us in our day. 

Over the years working in this life of parish ministry, with all the goodness I have seen and experienced and the vast majority of what I have seen has been good, it has never ceased to amaze me, however, how on occasion what can divide people in a church and how we can behave, or misbehave, to be closer to the truth. I am reminded of what a Lutheran minister once said about being the pastor of a church.  He said it’s like being a stray dog at a whistlers’ convention—so many voices coming from so many directions.  Those voices at times can be harsh and unyielding, even unkind toward one another. We have seen, for example, controversy over integration, the present prayer book, the ordination of women, sexuality, the exchange of the peace, even the new hymnal when it came out. It seems that people’s views about what happens at worship has often brought out some of the strongest voices of disagreement. I’m reminded of the question once asked, “What is the difference between a liturgist in the Episcopal Church and a terrorist?”  The difference, as you might imagine, is that you can negotiate with a terrorist. 

 And then what comes to mind, of course, is another matter that has had an impact on the life of the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion, one that has caused much painful division over a number of years.  As the litigation draws to a close and property has been rightfully restored to the Diocese of Virginia, we can be grateful for the outcome, yet we are mindful of the tremendous cost and distraction this all has been to our focus on the mission and ministry to which Christ has called us.  I suspect, and I pray that one day we shall look back on the turmoil in the Episcopal Church following the General Convention of 2003 and wonder what it was all about.

 God’s call to us is one of being ever open to transformation, as a culture, as the Church and as individuals, and that process of transformation never stops.

Recently I was drawn to a sermon posted on the website of the Society of St. John the Evangelist which I found helpful. Brother Mark Brown spoke of how roots of social transformation are found throughout the Bible.  The Hebrew Scriptures, he says, remind us that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God (not just “our people”)  God’s compassionate love extends to all the peoples of the earth (not just “our people”). (1)

 That people will differ on virtually every subject at hand is a given.  How we differ will make all the difference in the world in what happens as a result of our differences. St. Paul is calling upon each of us to ask ourselves if we would rather behave as grown-ups in the room when there are differenced among us, or continue to bicker as ones who have not yet become willing to live amid our differences and yet still have respect for those among us who differ.  Paul words to us this morning provide the occasion for asking ourselves whether it is more important to be in the right or to be in a healthy, well boundaried relationship to the body of Christ amid all the differences that exist. It is our oneness in Christ that overcomes the distinctions of race, social class, sexuality and gender, our political views, or whatever may divide us.  How we differ with one another will make all the difference in the world.  Just this Friday, I was having a conversation with our own Paul Pace here at St. Mary’s.  Often before Sundays on which we are scheduled to preach, Paul will often stop by and ask us what our sermon is going to be about. As I was trying to explain what message I was trying to give with regard to this Sunday’ passage, Paul listened quietly and then he simply cut to the chase when he said so simply, “Yes, we may disagree, but we should never become disagreeable.”  I looked at Paul and I said, “Paul, that’s good stuff! You must have gotten up early this morning to come up with that. I wish I’d said that.  Indeed I shall! Indeed I shall.” “We may disagree but we should never become disagreeable.”  I am grateful to Paul Pace, our resident theologian, for his precise interpretation of what I was trying to say all along.

 The cacophony of voices of this world may shout at us distracting us from the promises we made at our baptism, yet these voices do not have the last word.  You and I can choose to listen to the views of others keeping ever in mind that we are called to be one in Christ and to be respectful of our differences.  We can declare that God claims us once again, and always as God’s own beloved, we can be heirs of God’s promise.

 Carol Holtz-Martin, in her commentary on this passage in Galatians, speaks to our own day when she writes about situations we continue to face as a nation and as a culture.  I use her words because she has said it better than I could: “In the midst of complex immigration controversies, ‘There is neither native born nor illegal immigrant.’  In a society dramatically divided by income, ‘There is neither monied nor working class nor poor.’ In a society polarized by race, ‘There are neither people of color or people of no color.’ In the season of elections, ‘There is neither Republican nor Democrat nor Independent…’ for to repeat Paul’s own words, ‘There is neither male nor female’ For you all are one in Christ.” (2)

 St. Paul reminds us that Christ alone matters.  Christ is our source of unity.  Christ is our focus.  Christ is the line of energy along which our relationships with one another are run.  For us, Christ is the beginning and he end, the cause for which we live.  You and I can choose to be mindful of these things as we relate to one another in all that we do. We can choose to be adults in the room even when there is the temptation to act otherwise. We may take with us our own Paul’s words of wisdom, “We may disagree, but we should never become disagreeable.”

 I am drawn back to the words of Brother Mark Brown who closed his sermon with these words:   “And seeing Christ more clearly in each other brings us closer  to what Paul calls the ‘mind of Christ’. Christ is the healer and he would heal our vision—so that in him we may see him. We are worthy; we are his people—even if sometimes we behave as poor sick slaves to our own petty antipathies.

 Are we worthy? He has made us so. Only speak the word and let your servants be healed, that we may see you in one another, and even in ourselves.” (3) Amen.

 (1)   A sermon by Br. Mark Brown published in Cowley Magazine, SSJE,Cambridge,MA, posted on June 2, 2013

(2)   Carol E. Holtz-Martin in her commentary on Galatians 3:23-29, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, page 165

(3)   Also from Br. Mark Brown’s sermon