Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent – March 4, 2018
“Others, tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven. But he, knowing their thoughts, said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against a house falleth. If Satan also be divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand?”
DO WE CHOOSE sides, or are we chosen? To do battle in thought, in word, even in deed against others we know are the bad guys—it’s our purpose, our defining moment, our side that’s making us what we are over and against them, for they are defined by what they think and feel and believe. The others. The enemy. The foe. Our shadow.
What do people seek and in their heart of hearts desire to make our world into, if they had everything their way? I think the great majority in our nation all want a peaceful life, safe streets, cooperation and courtesy, the ability to raise our children decently, with enough of this world’s goods to get us by, and occupations that dignify our efforts, reasonable medical help, schools where we can send children without fear, churches filled with hopeful and loving voices, and the truth told to us all. We all want such things. Most of us. Then there is the Exception.
The Exception speaks up and wants all of that, but with a twist. He cries and appeals to ‘one side’ and the war begins. That twist, that change in the ideal, sets one average person against another, and they take sides while the Exception receives benefit from the imbalance, from peace disturbed, from inequality objected to, from passion and heat and struggle and so little light. In this way, the Exception wins. It’s unfair, he says, until no one is happy anymore.
Into this argument comes Unity. Unity is angry. Unity wants equilibrium again, insists on it, no matter what point the pendulum comes to rest. Unity is peace. Unity, we are told, is love. We read bumper-stickers spelling TOLERANCE in religious symbols, implying that it’s religion’s fault that we are at each other’s throats. Is it religion that’s doing this? Unity! is called for, and everyone must lay down his arms and circle around and say it’s alright, must espouse that none of it matters, so long as Unity is restored and Unity is insured.
I don’t remember a more disunified society than what I hear today. At least that’s what I hear. People are angry. People take sides. Top down, bottom up, fractures and divisions and sides taken on Facebook. ‘Share this and like if you agree.’ Watch the news feed you agree with and we’ll be sure you stay angry, angry like you want to be. It feels great, because you are assured that it’s all the other guys’ fault. Unity is only possible if our side wins. Then we will insist on it, and silence all opposition.
Religious unity was a momentary dream in the mid-60s after the Roman Church held its Vatican II Council, establishing recognition of Protestant Christians and making a way to approach Rome, a center of world Christian unity. In answer, mainline Protestant churches joined an informal conversation titled COCU, Consultation on Church Union. The idea was to seek out the differences between Methodists, Episcopalians, Disciples, Presbyterians and Congregationalists, talking them out and seeing what distinctions could be given up in the name of Unity. If you’re playing a unity game against the huge Church of Rome, you strengthen your hand by banding together; strength in numbers. These conversations went on for decades. They changed their name, but not their anagram, to Church of Christ Uniting, which of course it was not at all. The problem for folk like us was that bishops were the odd piece on the board, an embarrassment for the Episcopalians. While nothing substantive ever came of the talks at COCU, the Episcopal Church actually did disavow its necessity for bishops when forming a Concordat with the Evangelical Lutherans. Unity won over historic form. Unity over belief. Unity over all.
What is unity? And if we understand what it is, can we subscribe to it? And under whose terms can we agree to unify? Unity is a state of being one, a whole brought together from separate parts. It’s an agreement to create oneness, a singularity of purpose. In national unity, we all used to feel unified in standing and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, singing the Star Spangled Banner, offering the Lord’s Prayer. Those acts brought tears to our eyes, made us one people forged out of many other nations, burned in our hearts, and let us know that the stars and stripes constitute a symbol of unity we might give our lives to defend. Unity in love of country is a beautiful thing.
The symbol of the Anglican Province of Christ the King contains a white cross on a red field, at the head of which is a golden crown. Christ the King. Above it on a white field is a golden mitre bearing a white dove, signifying the office of bishop, under the Holy Spirit. Around these are words saying: Province of Christ the King + Of His Kingdom there shall be no end. St. Luke 1:33. We have it out in the hall, with some other versions for the dioceses, altar guild, and lay reader shields. The design was by Thomas Barnes in its original, who asked me to lay it out, finalize the design: and if I only had a nickel for every time it’s showed up since 1980… Anyway, it means the APCK. In Anglican circles, we’ve been accused of disunity. And after the years, with notches on our swords, our battle scars, and our frightening experiences, we’re proud of it.
Christian schism, fractured fellowships, broken vows, competition, denominational distraction, anathemas and outright heresies have made the Christian witness in our world crippled, defamed, and irrelevant. The world looks at the many churches, hears the varied offers and insults and claims and accusations, and they want no part of us. They ask us, “Are you Christian or Catholic?” and we don’t know where to begin our answer. But this splitting of hairs and drawing lines in the sand has been going on since the start.
Cain was the firstborn human son of earth, first born fallen, and became the first murderer, killing his brother because of religious practice differing from his own. The world followed suit and only Noah knew God by his time, taking his family on the survival ship. God spoke to Abraham and a new path to faith was forged, yet immediately: not one but two sons were born, Ishmael father of Arabs and Isaac of the Jews. They’ve not been friends now for 4,000 years. Jacob took his brother’s birthright and blessing, setting enmity in that generation, and his sons battled with each other, especially against Joseph, who they sent into slavery. Nice people. When those sons became tribes, it was against one another they strived, chafing at the tribe of Levi for having an advantage with God. The tribal territories formed a disunited nation of Israel, even falling to genocide against Benjamin at one point.
For one brief moment a union was formed. A flawed king, Saul, was selected and anointed, but couldn’t hold the nation together except by disobeying God’s commands. Finally, David united the people under his war record, and the nation gained peace through war against its neighbors. Such peace through war is always fragile, and his son, Solomon, enjoyed peace by marrying every eligible princess from every surrounding country, embracing their gods and destroying the very premise of Israel. A united kingdom lasted scarcely a century, then fell to warring again.
Later, one Christian Church existed in the Roman Empire, and became the religion of the realm. One Church worldwide, from English shores to distant Persia and beyond, the Germanic tribes in the north to northern Africa. It couldn’t last. By the 11th century, a rift long growing ended our unity, and today we still hear its causes listed by the Orthodox against us in the West. The 16th century brought the unity of Roman Catholicism into schism, in order to save us from a Babel-like unity around error and power. In the best example of factions in the balance, England held the best chance at finding a unity with a Catholic Church freed from Roman innovations and all sides coming to the table, with blood in their eye for sure, but wanting a purified, true and historic Church at last.
While the tensions between catholic and puritan elements in Anglican theology have never eased much, one bright concept was borne out of the fracas. At the death of Elizabeth, her successor, James I from Scotland, took the throne and was immediately accosted by bishops of the Church of England, and puritans who claimed the same church as theirs, both demanding sanctions against the others. While James refuted all other demands, the puritans’ request for a new translation of the Bible was met with the new king’s approval, and he forced them all together to hammer it out with the best of scholarship. It was a genius stroke. While the Anglo-Catholics brought their own Bishop’s Bible as the framework to work upon, the Puritans brought their simplicity of purpose, and respect for the Word of God. Factionalized from the outset, both parties worked toward a rare goal: the most historically correct and accurate English version of Holy Scriptures ever attempted. 407 years ago, the 47 scholars finished 7 years of solid work, and every word was reviewed by them all, the very words they worked on were working on them to form a unity around what God had said. The product of their labor: the Authorized Version, more commonly called the King James Bible.
No other book has had such worldwide impact since St. Jerome’s Vulgate gave a Latin translation to the West, and the King James was reproduced by printing press, made available to all. You couldn’t argue about what the Bible said anymore, for the AV settled it. Both sides in the bitter contest for the Church of England signed off on it, and both sides had their Bible. And it’s still the closest translation to the original languages of Greek and Hebrew that we have in our tongue. That’s why we still use it in our service.
If you leave it to mankind to unify, that Unity will look like Soviet Russia, Mao’s China, Hitler’s Third Reich. Unity under penalty and state sanction is slavery. Forging unity by force is to create a tyrant. Sometimes doing the right thing will of necessity bring division, as when Abraham Lincoln was elected the first Republican President, and immediately the South seceded, for a plank in his party platform insisted on the end of slavery in all the states. Unity alone is not a value to fight for. We seek a higher road than that.
People find reasons to fight and squabble when they have no common cause. The scholars who fought bitterly against each other and found unity in the task of creating a better English Bible were united by God’s word, over which they toiled. Americans who suffered class struggles and ethnic competitions during peacetime, unified when the Axis powers threatened the end of our world as we knew it. Then they were brothers. A great and noble task unifies us and we get over our differences, and the greatest cause is God Himself.
Every Church meets, most of them on Sunday mornings. They sing songs meant to appeal to God and themselves, an offering of worship in music. They read Scriptures, address the needs of the community, teach the meaning of Christian living, and offer the prayers of the congregation. We can find common elements in all Christian worship. We can also find fault with others forms, as we ourselves must be the best. Everybody thinks and says that. So, how are we to really face the rest of Christianity and hold up the ideal of unity when there could be so much to fight over?
One of the bones of contention others would have with us is our liturgical worship. What is liturgy? The Greek word ‘leitourgia’ means a public act, dutifully performed. It means our common work. Applied to worship, then, liturgy is a pre-determined act of speech and body language, as in a stage play, where we move and speak our parts together. And together, our actions and words mean something as they do in drama. There is another Player in the room, we believe, and He is receiving worship by our bowing and kneeling and saying His Name. We do this in obedience, not just our own contrivance. I have been in services that were written by committees of unity seekers and they leave me feeling empty and manipulated. I believe that the original Anglican liturgy was as inspired as the King James Bible, and is in many ways the Word of God, the Bible in worship form. By comparison, our own words, contrived to make points of our own, lack all that grace and fill the world with empty noise.
Jesus brought health and spiritual cleansing to people beset with devils, and was accused of demonism himself. He spoke of Satan’s kingdom never having such conflicts, that the devils don’t drive other devils out, but work in concert. Drive one out, and he will bring his friends next time, that is, if the void is not filled with a better Spirit.
Our stabs at unity, church unity, societal unity, political unity, are all doomed to fail if done in our own ideas and our ways and means to achieve them. While we may all want a peaceful world, the little differences become large when we fall to competition. Only God, only Jesus, only One Mind is great enough to unify us. Only Love incarnate has that power. I can’t do it, bishop though I am. But we know the One who can bring us together in a common cause, around His divine Word. Let us seek Him now, together.