Who we are / What binds us together

Sermon for the Feast of All Saints

Delivered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in St. Joe’s, MI.

Ephesians 1:11-23

Most of us know what it’s like to be in the middle of a conflict.

At first, we might be in a little bit of denial about the whole thing. We say, “Meh, it’s no big deal.” We go for a walk, get a snack, maybe take a nap, and wake up feeling right as rain.

But sometimes, that’s not enough. We wake up and we’re still feeling mad about it. This is a good thing because anger, even though it doesn’t feel pleasant, is our brain’s way of telling us that something is important to us. For example, it’s easy to just let it go when some hothead cuts you off in traffic, but harder when your teenager tells you they want to drop out of high school. Anger is a healthy thing when it reminds us about what’s important, but not so healthy when it festers so long that it turns into resentment and contempt.

In order to stop that from happening, we need to sit down and have those difficult conversations about what really matters. We have to listen to each other’s point of view and try to negotiate a compromise. If that works, great! If not, it can leave feeling pretty hopeless. We throw our hands up and go, “Ugh! I guess that’s it. The yogurt has hit the fan and we’re all headed for Hades in a handbasket. Whaddyagunna do?”

And that, I think, is a very interesting question, if we ask it honestly. What are you going to do? That question, when asked honestly, leads us past the surface level of conflict, opens us up to new possibilities, and reminds us of what is most important: The mystery of who we really are and the reality that binds us together at the deepest level of our existence.

That mystery, that reality, is what the author of the epistle to the Ephesians is talking about in the Scripture reading we just heard.

At the end of the first century, the Church in Ephesus was in a pretty rough place. Only a few decades after its founding, it was already engulfed in a controversy that threatened to tear the community apart from the inside. The controversial issue, in that time and place, was the question of whether a person could really be a Christian without first becoming Jewish. It helps to remember that, at that point in history, Judaism and Christianity were not yet separate religions. Christianity started as a renewal movement within Judaism and only later took on a separate identity of its own.

On one side, conservatives were saying, “Listen! Jesus was Jewish. All of his apostles were Jewish. The Bible clearly states that the Jews are God’s chosen people. Therefore, if a person really wants to be a follower of the way of Jesus, they first have to convert to Judaism and follow the ways of the Torah.”

On the other side, the liberals were saying, “No way! Jesus was an enlightened being. He had no patience for your backward traditions. Therefore, we are going to purge the Church of all that superstitious nonsense and have a truly progressive spirituality.”

(By the way, does any of this sound familiar to anyone who has watched the news lately? It should. Two thousand years later, and we are still having the same fight.)

Enter the author of the Epistle to the Ephesians. This person, writing in the name of their mentor St. Paul, is trying to help the Christians in Ephesus figure out how to be the Church for the long haul. In the first generation after Jesus’ earthly ministry, it seemed to the Church like the end of days was imminent, so they didn’t put much thought into creating an institution that would help people follow Jesus for thousands of years to come. They sincerely believed, at that time, that sustainability was a non-issue. As time wore on, however, it slowly dawned on these Christians that they were going to have to hunker down and figure out a way to live as the people of Jesus in a world that wanted nothing to do with him. So, for the first time, these Christians are asking questions about how to live together as people from different social classes, ethnic groups, languages, ages, and genders. And all of this was happening at the same time as Christians everywhere were being excommunicated from traditional Jewish communities and actively persecuted by the Roman government. Needless to say, it was a very contentious and complicated time to be a Christian. (Much like today.)

In the moment of this letter, the author of Ephesians writes to that Church in the midst of apparent hopelessness, appealing to the deeper truth of who they really are and what really binds them together. The author tells them that they have an “inheritance,” a “destiny,” and “hope” that come from their faith in God. According to the passage we read tonight, the same divine energy that raised Christ from death to new life is now at work in the hearts, minds, and bodies of those who follow the way of Jesus.

In some mysterious way that transcends rational understanding, the very lifeblood of Jesus now flows in our veins and we have become his hands and feet on this Earth. We are, all of us, essentially one person, and that person is not you or me, but Jesus Christ himself. Later in the epistle to the Ephesians, the author writes, concerning the controversy that was tearing their Church apart, “[Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Eph 2:14 NRSV)

Jesus Christ is who we are. All other identifying factors are secondary to that one truth.

The modern theologian who expressed this truth more beautifully than anyone was a French Jesuit priest named Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Fr. Teilhard, writing in the early twentieth century, lived his faith in a time that was every bit as fraught and contentious as the first century. He was a stretcher-bearer on the front lines of World War I. He was, in addition to his vocation as a priest, a paleontologist in a time when the Roman Catholic Church wasn’t yet sure what to think about the writings of Charles Darwin.

For Teilhard, there was no conflict between faith and science. He saw the whole history of the cosmos, from the Big Bang to the formation of stars and planets, from the evolution of life to the emergence of human beings, all 13.8 billion years of cosmic history, as a single story of God’s creation and salvation.

Teilhard’s hope and vision was that, one day, all things would be part of the Body of Christ. By “all things,” he really did mean ALL. THINGS. When Teilhard imagined the Body of Christ, he wasn’t just thinking about all Christians, all humans, or all of planet Earth. He was thinking about the entire universe as the Body of Christ.

The Vatican of that time wasn’t quite ready for a cosmic vision as big as Teilhard’s. They censured his work and forbade him from teaching theology. Teilhard, as a good Jesuit, obeyed the order but continued to write in private. He entrusted his papers to a friend, who published them after his death.

Writing in his private journal, Teilhard struggled with the Vatican’s resistance to his ideas. He looked to God for assurance and prayed, “O God, if in my life I have not been wrong, allow me to die on Easter Sunday.” Shortly after writing that prayer, Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin passed away on April 10, 1955… Easter Sunday.

I think Fr. Teilhard was right, and I think the author of the epistle to the Ephesians would agree with me. God is in the business of reconciliation, but not assimilation. God seeks unification, but without uniformity. We are one, not because of any shared ethnicity, nationality, party, class, or gender, but because God has made us one in Christ. The very lifeblood of the risen Christ flows in our veins, just as it has in all the saints of history, and still does in the atoms of the most distant galaxy. That is the faith that will give us the wisdom and the strength to navigate the many conflicts of our time as faithfully as the Ephesian Christians did in theirs. That is the truth about who we really are and the glue that will bind us together, both now and forevermore.


(Reblog) God Loves Chutzpah

“Jesus doesn’t need any more admirers — he needs disciples willing to get into some Gospel trouble on God’s behalf.”

Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson at All Saints Church, Pasadena
Celebration of Ministries Sunday, September 22, 2013.
Readings: Amos 8:4-7 and Luke 16:1-13.

For more about the work and witness of All Saints Church visit our website: http://www.allsaints-pas.org | Follow us on twitter @ASCpas

A Feast for All People

I grew up on the border between Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  These towns are both major international centers for medical research and educational advancement, but that’s not what they’re known for.  No, the main thing that Durham and Chapel Hill are known for is college basketball.  The college basketball rivalry between the Duke Blue Devils and the UNC Tarheels is one of epic proportions.  Every year, these teams battle each other with bitter ferocity.  No matter the outcome of the game, everyone knew to steer clear of Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill.  The next morning, it would be completely trashed.  Everyone in town had their team, whether they were interested in basketball or not.  You were either a Carolina fan or a Duke fan.  There was no two ways about it.  If we knew a family where one child went to Duke and the other went to UNC, we called it a broken home.  People in Durham and Chapel Hill go crazy over their college basketball.  Even at church, you could always tell when the NCAA Final Four was happening because the place would be empty.  I guess people know where their priorities lie.  It’s kind of crazy when you think about it: two towns divided and their streets trashed, all because one team managed to throw a ball through a hoop more often than the other team.  People divide themselves over the strangest little things.

As many of you know, this Tuesday is Election Day and we can expect a lot of divisive language around that subject as well.  Like many of you, I am looking forward to being rid of all the yard signs, the sloganeering, the attack ads, the mudslinging, and the propaganda trying to convince me that one candidate is a savior while the other one is a demon.  Election season makes me miss those good old days when TV commercials weren’t trying to save the country; they were just trying to get you to spend money you don’t have to buy junk you don’t need.

What bothers me about the rhetoric in these ads is the way it makes us seem so hostile and feel so divided against one another.  If one were to accept everything in these ads at face value, one might think that this country was on the brink of another Civil War.  But we know that’s not the case.  In spite of everything, a rare and remarkable thing will happen this Tuesday: people will line up peacefully and politely to cast their votes and shape the future of this country.  There will be no bombs or rifle fire.  The loser of this presidential election will not face execution.  The supporters of the losing party will not be rounded up, exiled from the country, or imprisoned in forced labor camps.  That isn’t going to happen here on Tuesday.  There are places in this world where such things do happen, even today.  Voting, in some countries, is an exercise in taking your life into your hands.  There are some countries where transitions in government happen only once a generation, when the incumbent president is either arrested or assassinated.  Thankfully, that doesn’t happen here.  We live in a place where political change happens frequently and peacefully.  So, I think we should be careful before using violent and slanderous labels like ‘cult leader and ‘socialist’ when we’re describing a candidate whose views we disagree with.  Jim Jones and David Koresh were cult leaders, Mitt Romney is not.  Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung were socialists, Barack Obama is not.  Real cult leaders and socialists have slaughtered millions in the name of religion and ideology.  Neither of these candidates has done such a thing.  Therefore, it is morally offensive to call them these names.  Whatever your views and however you vote, do it with peace and goodwill in your heart.  Inoculate yourself against the toxin of incivility that poisons our public discourse.  However you vote, vote with love in your heart.  That’s what it means to vote as a Christian.

We human beings seem to have an innate tendency toward division and hostility.  It doesn’t just come out during election years and sporting events.  We divide ourselves over race, religion, gender, nationality, and beer preference.  It seems that there’s something inside each and every one of us that longs to belong to some kind of community.  As they say, “birds of a feather flock together,” so we often organize ourselves into small groups with others who look like us, talk like us, dress like us, think like us, vote like us, and worship like us.  We do this because we feel lost in the cosmos.  We perceive ourselves to be, in some sense, alone in this world.  Above all, we fear the ultimate loneliness of death, which threatens to inevitably swallow us up into dark oblivion.  That’s why, in our time here on earth, part of our survival instinct is a herd instinct.  We want to fight the darkness, death, and loneliness.  So we find some kind of object to rally around as groups: our family, race, sports team, religion, political party, or country.  Each group competes with the others to win, to survive in the great contest of existence.  On the one hand, we experience a great sense of purpose and solidarity from these groups, but on the other hand, they also form the basis for our hostility and hate toward one another.  We think we have to beat the best in order to be the best.  Subconsciously, our primal instincts are telling us that our very survival depends on the victory of our little group over its competitors.  If the others win, so we think, the darkness, death, and loneliness will conquer us all.

The fact that our species has evolved to think this way is understandable, but still wrong, in my opinion.  I think our fear of darkness, death, and loneliness has blinded us to a much deeper and much older truth about who we are and how it is that we’re connected to each other, to the universe, and ultimately to God.  I’d like to share with you what I believe about that truth.

Today, we are celebrating the Feast of All Saints.  This holiday has been celebrated by Christians for over 1,400 years as a festival to remember heroes of the faith from generations past.  In some churches, this remembrance has been limited to a special class of people who have been named “saints” by the ecclesiastical hierarchy.  In churches like ours, we use the term “saint” more broadly.  Presbyterians have always believed that every person is a saint in his or her own way.  Of course, there are always those people who we remember with special fondness and admiration, but we don’t have to wait for some church committee to decide on their spiritual status in heaven.  Moreover, we include ourselves in that number.  Saints don’t have to be dead people.  The Communion of Saints contains all God’s people, living or dead, from every time, place, people, and language.  Most importantly of all, we are not admitted to the Communion of Saints because we’ve led some kind of spiritually or morally heroic life.  No, we believe that everyone is a saint by God’s grace and God’s grace alone.  Not a single one of us has earned our place in the Communion of Saints.  Each of us, from the greatest to the least, from the best to the worst, is a member of this worldwide family as a free gift.  This community, this family that transcends time and space, is the reality that we celebrate on the Feast of All Saints.  This, I believe, is the great and mysterious truth that shows us who we are and how it is that we’re connected to each other, to the universe, and to God.

In our first reading this morning, the prophet Isaiah envisions a time when “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”  Did you get that?  “A feast for all peoples”: an extravagant dinner party where everyone is invited and everyone belongs.  This is the vision in the prophet’s heart that he tells us comes from God.  This is God’s idea for the human race.  Another prophetic soul, writing almost a thousand years after Isaiah, wrote down another, similar vision.  We heard from this person in our second reading this morning: “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”  A little later on, the seer of this vision describes this mystical city in greater detail.  He says, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.”  Did you hear that?  “The nations will walk by its light… Its gates will never be shut… People will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations.”  Friends, this is just like Isaiah’s vision of the feast for all people.  I imagine this city as a multi-ethnic, international dance party.  The gifts and treasures of every tribe and culture are on display.  Billions gather for an abundant feast prepared by God.  In the streets you can hear Swedish and Swahili, you can see white folks and black folks, men and women, Republicans and Democrats, and yes, even Tarheel fans and Duke fans.  This is the true nature of our common humanity.  This is God’s goal for human history.  I see it as a prophetic snapshot of the Communion of Saints.

And there’s more.  There is another element found in each of this morning’s readings that factors very highly in this ultimate vision.  In Isaiah’s vision, the prophet says, “And [God] will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.”  In our reading from the book of Revelation, it says, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.””  In both of these visions, as well as in our gospel reading where Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead, the power of death is being undone by the power of love.  This vision of a city and a feast for all peoples is not some sentimental dream that’s meant to make us feel better, it is the truth that has a power even greater than death itself.  This is the truth in which we find ourselves.  In the Communion of Saints, we are bound to one another by the unbreakable power of God’s free grace.  Not even death can cut those ties.  And, for that matter, neither can any of these stupid and pointless divisions we make among ourselves and defend with such violence and hostility.  The unbreakable bond of grace exposes such foolishness for what it really is, because it’s completely unnecessary.  We team up and fight for “my family/team/party/country/religion” because we falsely believe the notion that fighting for survival will protect us from the darkness and loneliness of death, but we fail to realize that the thing we fear most has already been overcome by bond that can never be broken, a bond that unites us to our enemies and competitors.  By God’s free grace, we are all participants in the great Communion of Saints.  That is the great, liberating truth we celebrate today, on this Feast of All Saints.

If we could just realize and remember this truth more often, our perspective on this life would be transformed.  We could be unfazed and unimpressed by each new hostile attack and defensive reaction.  We could learn the art of letting go of what matters less so that we can hold on to what matters more.  We could be saints rather than survivors.

Sadly, this world, as it is, doesn’t make it easy for us to trust in the reality of this vision.  We need to be reminded of it, which is why we celebrate this holiday once a year, at the beginning of November.  We’re also reminded of this truth every time we celebrate the Eucharist, which we are doing this morning.  This sacramental feast is a foretaste of Isaiah’s great feast for all people.  Gathered around this Eucharistic table with us this morning, present but unseen, are people from every time and place, living and dead, who are bound together in the Communion of Saints by the unbreakable bonds of God’s free grace.  If we only had eyes to see, we would see them sharing this meal with us: Jesus, Isaiah, Peter, Paul, Mary, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Irving Beal, Ruth Jones, Bob Brucker, Dick Mahaffy, and Matt Conway: all here, present but unseen, bound to us forever by a force more powerful than death itself: the grace and the love of God.