18 Nov 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Today is Ingathering Sunday, when we offer our pledges of financial support for God’s mission in this parish in the coming year. It is also the Sunday before Thanksgiving, which encourages us to express our gratitude for the blessings large and small that give us the life we have to live.
It is, therefore, also a time to reflect on the rather basic question of why church? And are there blessings that we uniquely receive through it?
A number of years ago, a political scientist named Glenn Tinder wrote a book entitled, Can We Be Good without God? He didn’t just mean, can we do good things like feed the hungry or vote on election day without God—obviously we can. But rather, he was asking the question of whether human beings can fulfill their destiny to be wholly oriented toward the Other, if we lack any sense of dependence and accountability toward an origin larger than ourselves—call it God, or a higher power, or simply the mystery of the universe. His answer, in short, was no. We cannot be good without God, because otherwise we inevitably fall into self-centered and self-justifying behavior.
When his book appeared in essay form in The Atlantic, it raised quite a ruckus. There were angry letters to the editors objecting to their having let some theist into the pages of a secular magazine. Some letters went so far as to cancel their authors’ subscription, all of which had a way of legitimating Tinder’s contention that without God, we become inwardly focused, unwilling to hear anything that might challenge our own self-righteousness.
In a rather different vein, Rowan Williams (then Archbishop of Canterbury) was asked to speak in 2012 at a gathering of the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church on the subject of “The New Evangelization,” that is, how the gospel is to be presented in an secularized era when even thoughtful people (such as those angry readers of The Atlantic) are predisposed not even to entertain the idea of God.
You know me well enough not to be surprised by my turning to Williams for inspiration. He’s the kind of person who, without pretension, nevertheless always seems to be the smartest person in the room. His speech to the gathered bishops was no exception.
What I most appreciate in what Williams has to say, is that he has a way of taking a topic that we thought we understood pretty well, and taking it in a direction we had never thought of before. So in addressing the topic of evangelization, instead of talking about how to convince people to believe in God, he talked instead about how to convince people to believe in humanity.
That is, in an era when we are so quick to divide the human community into opposing camps, so ready to reassert the borders that divide us, so ready to scapegoat someone else for the problems of our own making—how do we reassert a fundamental belief in the inherent dignity and value of the human person, every human person? How do we believe in humanity as a whole, and not just our tribal affiliation?
Well, this is where Williams turns back to God, arguing that faith leads us to what he calls a “true humanism,” or the “confidence that we [as Christians] have a distinctive human destiny to show and share with the world” which is nothing less than an “endless growth towards love.” As is typical for him, he grounds this idea in the relationship between God and Jesus: Jesus is the one who “translates” the relationship of loving and adoring self-giving that is God’s relationship to him, a pouring out of life towards the Other. As God loves Jesus, so Jesus loves the world, giving himself fully and completely for our sake so that we might glimpse through him our destiny to be recreated in the image of his humanity. Not the distorted humanity of self-preoccupation and division, but the fully alive humanity of self-giving and unity.
The goal, he says, is to learn to see other people not as they are related to ourselves, but as they are related to God. When we look at other people, we instinctively start to size them up, in reference to ourselves. Are they friend or foe? Democrat or Republican? Educated or uninformed? Citizen or immigrant? On and on it goes.
But when God looks at those same other people, God sees only an object of divine adoration and love. “And it is here,” Williams says, “that true justice as well as true love has its roots.” For if I can really, truly accept that even persons completely unlike myself have the same dignity as God’s beloved as do I, then how I treat them, and the destiny I imagine for them, is completely changed. It is, says Williams, “a deeply revolutionary matter.”
We have before us today some pretty odd readings from scripture. They are visionary passages, anticipating the end of time. And since we really know nothing about the end of time, they are pretty opaque. But even so, I do hear running through them this theme of destiny—and in Jesus’ warning that there will be many who will lead us astray, I hear a warning against any voice that tries to distort or to subjugate the fundamental dignity of all humanity that is given in God’s love for it, for all of us, for each of us.
In the forum today on “The New Monasticism,” we have been looking at some recently formed Christian communities that try to embody God’s vision for the destiny of humanity in the way they live out their common life together: Communities such as Sant’Egidio in Rome, whose motto is “Prayer. Poor. Peace.” Or the Community of Jerusalem in Paris, which aspires to be “Deep in the heart of the city, deep in the heart of God.” Or The Simple Way in Philadelphia, committed to rebuilding the Kensington neighborhood (where our asylum family now lives) through community involvement and celebration. As Williams says of these communities, “They make space for a profounder vision because in their various ways all of them offer a discipline of personal and common life that is about letting the reality of Jesus come alive in us.”
Similarly, we at St. Michael’s are also a community committed in our own way to the evangelization of the world by sharing God’s vision for humanity, “letting the reality of Jesus come alive in us.” In a few moments, we will take some time on this Ingathering Sunday to read and reflect on a summary of the responses you have made over the last few weeks to a few simple questions about our life together—responses which now hang as the fruits on the vine that stretches around the church. As you read those responses, hold in your mind the vision that in God’s eyes, our destiny as human beings is an endless growth toward love, becoming more and more in ourselves a living image of Christ’s humanity. Being part of this parish is nothing more—and nothing less—than that. Amen.
11 November 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29)
So I have a little quiz to give you today. Listen to these words, and then I’m going to ask you to identity where they come from. Here they are:
“May barriers which divide us crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace.”
So do you think those words come from (a) Lincoln’s second inaugural, (b) Washington’s farewell address, (c) the armistice signed 100 years ago today, or (d) the Book of Common Prayer.
If you answered “d, the Book of Common Prayer,” you would be correct. Who knew that the Prayer Book could be so visionary? The reason I ask, is that last Tuesday morning, as a number of us gathered here in the church to offer prayers for the nation as it went to the polls, we read several prayers just like this from the Prayer Book. What struck us as we did so, is that cumulatively they sketched out quite an amazing vision for what a just democracy looks like. If you want to read them for yourselves, they are in the two sections “Prayers for National Life,” and “Prayers for the Social Order,” beginning on page 820.
They talk about aspirations toward such goals as “honorable industry, sound learning and pure manners.” They ask that God will “fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues.” They pray for “sound government,” or “courage, wisdom, and foresight” for our leaders, or “understanding and integrity [among us all], that human rights may be safeguarded and justice served.” Most striking to me was a prayer “For those who suffer for the sake of Conscience,” where we asked that God would give “to us your servants, grace to respect their witness and to discern the truth.”
But even more striking was how strange these lofty sentiments and high ideals sounded to our ears as we read those prayers, trained as our ears have become to expect discord, accusation, aggression, and distortion in anything related to our civic life. And so I have to say that it felt good, at the dawn of an election day, to be reminded by our own Prayer Book that our nation has thrived most, when there have been leaders of vision and imagination, rather than those who rely on a rhetoric of division and antagonism. As the prophet reminds us today in our reading from Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
This Veterans Day might remind us of the fundamental importance of vision in the shaping all human affairs. As you probably know, Veterans Day had its origins in commemorating the signing of the armistice that ended World War I, at precisely 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918 (100 years ago today).
At the end of World War I, the war that was to end all wars, there were some (like then president Woodrow Wilson), who had the courage to imagine a world order that could be reshaped in a new direction toward integration and collaboration. As we all know, however, that vision quickly gave way on the world stage to the retributive Peace of Versailles, which was so punitive toward the defeated Germans that they soon rebelled in the form of a fascist dictatorship, which set about making Germany great again, leading directly to yet another world war. As Omar Bradley, one of the generals in that later conflict put it, in World War I “we won the war, but lost the peace.” How differently things might have turned out, had there been a truly shared vision for waging peace.
The good news, however, is that although we may not always have a vision for ourselves, God does. And the Christian life is all about realizing God’s vision for the human community. And what’s more--you don’t even have to look very hard to find it. Jesus articulates it pretty clearly: we are not to lead lives centered on our self, but on one another—even when it means (as in today’s gospel) respecting our enemies. Like the Good Samaritan, we are to regard every human being as endowed with equal dignity. Like the Prodigal Son’s father, we are to extend mercy and compassion, even when it seems undeserved. Like the Sermon on the Mount, we are to be healers and peacemakers. And like Jesus himself, we are to discover our greatest freedom in giving our self to God’s ways of relationship and community, for in so doing we put our own life into cosmic alignment with the underlying principle of the universe.
But our reading from Proverbs has still more to teach us. “Wrath stirs up strife,” the writer goes on to say, or as Paul puts it in his letter to the Galations, “Be not deceived: God is not mocked, for we reap what we sow” (Gal 6:7). These are days in our country when each of us would do well to be reminded that what we say and do, whether as individuals or as public figures, is not isolated. Every word that we say, every thing that we do, plants a seed whose harvest is far beyond our immediate intent—for good or for ill.
William Shakespeare, in the play All’s Well that Ends Well, wrote that "The more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war." His words remind us that who we are, and what we do, reaches far beyond the immediacy of today and into the future. When those words and deeds are aligned with God’s vision for us, they contribute to the building of God’s kingdom. When on the other hand they are aligned with self centered and partisan motives, they contribute not only to the inhibition of the reign of God, but the erosion of the human capital—the dignity of the human spirit—which is the essence of that kingdom.
Today in the forum, we are talking about recently founded communities of hope known as the new monasticism. They tend to distill the Christian message down to its basics—like one community known as The Simple Way in North Philadelphia, which is all about rebuilding a forgotten neighborhood that had even been abandoned by the church. Their understanding of God’s vision is simply this: “Love God. Love People. Follow Jesus.”
They explain the origins of their community like this: “In 1995, dozens of homeless families had moved into an abandoned Catholic church building in North Philadelphia. They were told by the Archdiocese that they had 48 hours to move out, or they could be arrested. With nowhere to go, these courageous mothers and children hung a banner on the front of the building that said, “How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday, and ignore one on Monday?” The families held their own press conference and announced that they had talked with the real “Owner” of the building (the Lord Almighty!) – and God said they could stay until they found somewhere else to go. That was the spark that that lit the fire of The Simple Way.
If you want to know more, come join us at the Forum. But even if you are not able to be there, may I suggest that you take away with you this morning those few simple words that give one community’s understanding of God’s vision for human life, and think on what they have to say about God’s vision for our life together, and for your life in particular: “Love God. Love people. Follow Jesus.” It’s as simple—and as difficult—as that. Amen.