Sermon for May 8th, 2016
The first time I ever attended Mass in an Anglican Church, and the first time I ever received communion, was in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. It was one of those life changing moments that you never forget. I can remember clearly the beginning of the priest’s sermon as well. He got into the pulpit and began by saying:
God can change all things, but history….historians, however, can and perhaps that is the only reason why he tolerates them.
Now mind you, I was a history major in college at the time, so his point hit home. Sometimes it does seem like historians are changing history, with their at times wildly different interpretations of what actually happened. Now we know, of course, that historians can’t actually change history. Facts are facts. You can interpret or misinterpret them, you can like or dislike events that happened, there may be large gaps between what you know and what you don’t know, but you cannot change what actually happened.
I was reminded of that priest’s opening line this week, when I was reviewing this morning’s readings. I can’t change the Bible, but obviously the committee that devised our lectionary feels that they can. Our second reading this morning, the one from the Book of Revelation has been shortened…twice. Now by now, I am sure that y’all know how I feel about the cutting and pasting that sometimes happens in our readings. It is one thing if it is just a list of names that is being cut out to make the passage shorter, but that isn’t what is happening this morning. This morning there are verses that are cut out because someone either didn’t understand them, or they made them uncomfortable. Let’s take a look:
At verse 14 in Revelation chapter 22 we read:
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.
That is all well and good. It is a nice image of heaven with people washed clean of sin, welcomed into the city and given access to the Tree of Life. But then it goes on. Here is the first verse that our reading skips this morning:
Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
We don’t want to talk about people getting left out of heaven (and no, for the record I do not think the author literally means that dogs are left out…at least I hope not). It seems so much nicer just to talk about all those blessed people and not to think about the idolaters…so this verse gets skipped over.
We continue on with:
“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”The Spirit and the bride say, “come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
That is the sort of passage we like: very welcoming and encouraging. We get that verse, but then it goes on and this is the next verse that is skipped:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
Now I hope you appreciate the irony here: Here we have a verse giving a very clear and explicit command NOT to add to or take away from what is written in the book, on pain of losing eternal life, and it gets cut out! Whoever made that decision has a lot more self-confidence than I do.
Here is my point in all this: The Bible is a huge book, written by many different individuals, in different times and places and for different reasons. We believe that each one of these individuals was inspired in some way by God and that the writings they left us are worthy of respect and are to be taken seriously. But sometimes the things that are written there don’t make complete sense to us. Or maybe they do make sense and we disagree with something that is said. Maybe the authors don’t see things exactly the way we do, but I believe that it is exactly for that reason that we need to hear what they say. The Bible is meant to challenge us. Our faith is meant to stretch us and make us grow. If we are only exposed to things that make sense, or that we immediately agree with, how are we supposed to ever be better than we currently are? You don’t have to like everything you read in the Bible; you don’t have to agree with everything; you don’t have to accept every interpretation either, but maybe, just maybe you do need to hear it. Maybe a vital part of growing in the faith is to be challenged by it. How are we ever gonna be challenged if we simply cut out, skip over and ignore, the passages we don’t like or don’t understand?
Now everything that I have just said about how we treat the scriptures in the church could also be said about how we treat the people in the church. The scriptures are really just people on paper. There are some people in the church, and I don’t mean this parish, I mean the whole church of Christ, there are some people in the church that it is just hard to understand, there are some people that you may not agree with, and there are some people that you may not like. That’s ok, you don’t have to. But it just might be important to hear them. If scriptures are really just people on paper then there is the temptation to treat God’s people the way we treat his words: ignoring those that we don’t understand, don’t agree with or don’t like. But we need those voices.
Our own Anglican Communion has been squabbling with itself for some time now over one issue or another. In that sense it is just like every other Christian church. Whenever confronted with someone that we don’t understand, don’t agree with or don’t like, there is always going to be the temptation to silence them, ignore them or exclude them like a Bible verse you don’t want to read. People on both sides do it, liberal and conservative, but we do it at our own peril. We loose a significant part of our own faith formation when we do that, but we aren’t the only ones that loose though.
Our Lord’s great prayer before he was crucified and died was that all of his followers should be one. He didn’t say that we all had to understand each other, or agree with each other or like each other. He said that he wanted us to be one, just as he and the Father are one. Not just one within our parish or our denomination, but one across every single division we have set up out of our own stubbornness. One across race and language, one whether we are high or low church, one whether we are catholic or protestant. Jesus’s prayer is that we should be one. Belonging to Jesus Christ should be more important in our eyes than anything else. And it’s not just for our own sake…it is so that the world may know and believe. If we expect the world to take us seriously when we claim that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that salvation can be found by calling upon his name, then we need to show the world that no other name by which we may be called is more important to us than the name Christian. Ever since that first communion in Saint Paul’s Cathedral years ago I have been devoted to the Anglican tradition and I am loyal to the Episcopal Church through which I practice that tradition on a daily basis, but I also remember that it is through being a Christian that I am one with Christ and the Father in heaven, and one with everyone else who follows him and calls themselves by his name, and that is far more important to me, than any other division here on earth.