Easter 7A, May 28, 2017
St. Paul’s San Diego
Community is the essence of living in residential seminary. Some have said it is like living in a fishbowl. You get thrown into this place from your previously secular life with all these other people who are very different from you and then you are expected to be formed into a new life with them, go through ups and downs with them, forge new values with them, be formed by them, give of yourself, risking enough to help form others but also learning how not to impose yourself or your privilege, and all without killing each other. It is a crucible of learning how to live together in difference. It is church times ten.
My own experience of seminary was particularly difficult, as I entered seminary at a time when the Church was still in a period of conflict, adjusting to the idea that openly LGBT people could enter ordained life in the aftermath of the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson. I was the first openly gay man to finish my M.Div. in my seminary, although I was certainly not the first gay man to go through the program. So I felt vulnerable being completely authentic in community, having that authenticity questioned as others offered their own genuine questions about the place of LGBT people in the church. I had little exposure to that kind of difference in the place I came from.
So my bias, entering seminary, was that the one must resist the whole. The lone voice crying out must hold the group accountable. My experience is that this is not an uncommon value or belief in our progressive Christian tradition. And it can be true. Especially in the current political climate, we see a massed crowd all too ready to persecute anyone who dares to be different– even if that difference comes from simply driving while black, or as an immigrant, or as a transgender person.
But at least for me, seminary taught me something else. It was hard, but I also got to know people I would have otherwise dismissed out of hand. And they got to know me– some of whom would have initially preferred that I had been refused entry into seminary at all. And those turned into good lifelong friendships. And that is Church.
For me, it took going through that crucible of seminary, getting to know my community, to be formed by my neighbors, and having to live day in and day out until the preconceptions were wiped away, to realize something. There is certainly a place for the lone voice crying in the wilderness, particularly when human rights are at stake. But if everybody believes they are a lone voice crying in the wilderness, then nobody can be held accountable for anything. We deteriorate into an endless cycle of consumerism, based on personal tastes and preferences, and lose our sense of community.
As an example, one recent article on this problem noted that parents increasingly demand teachers prove that their children have done anything wrong before they will believe them. Parents increasingly throw out homework assigned to children because they don’t agree with the assignments. Teachers and schools are the oppressors, parents the lone voice in the wilderness speaking up for the poor child. It may be that there are legitimately bad teachers to be protected from, but rather than making that determination in a community setting with due process, each parent is judge and jury. Take it one step further, and privileged parents demand choice for their children’s schools, withdrawing their children from the opportunity to be educated in diverse communities and learning how to navigate difference. A fundamental building block of community, public schools, is now at risk; because trust in the community has faltered. Trust in the self is all that is left.
This is not a sermon on school choice. But whether you look to the EPA or to school choice or to gun control you find a society that is left with truth being defined only by each individual person, each consumer with the power of the almighty dollar, trained to withdraw it if we don’t like what we see, each one a lone voice crying in the wilderness, each of us intent that we know how it needs to be.
Before we get too smug about it let’s acknowledge that we are not immune. I just want to get real for a minute. In the church, it takes continuous work to resist being a part of this outside culture and claim something different. I myself sometimes fall into these patterns, and hear them from others occasionally: “If I don’t get what I want, I will speak louder. If I don’t get what I think is right, I will revoke my pledge. If I don’t get what I want, I will leave.” But that is not what the Church is meant to be.
In the gospel this week we see Jesus praying to God, a farewell prayer on behalf of us who are left behind after his departure. Jesus’ prayer is that the knowledge and love of God made known in Jesus to the disciples is made possible only by the continued protection of the unity, of the community of believers. Community, not lone rangers, are what makes the love of God known once Jesus has departed– that they may be one.
That’s what the precious gift of being a part of the body of Christ, a member of the Church is, don’t you see? It is to be swept up in the protection of community, to be made one in this prayer of Jesus. That was what I had to learn or unlearn in seminary: that to be one in community does not mean to be uniform. That unity does not mean uniformity. Because the body consists of many members as Paul would say, this glorious body of Christ, the church, with all of its colors and textures, and voices, and opinions- do we have opinions!
No, the unity of the Church is not a monolithic block, not an imposing hegemonic burden– but it is a moving, changing, dynamic dance as one commenter put it; one with many dancers; a song with many voices. It is authentic community that, at its best, values and protects difference.
As Henri Nouwen says, “we are cast into communities of people that we would never, in all our life, choose for ourselves.” Think about that for a minute. The community found in Church is an intentional community, made of different voices, some of whom we might not be in relationship with anywhere else.
The beauty of this whole project, you see, is that the knowledge and love of God is made known in the messiness of this unity thing. The lie given to us in the world around us is that freedom, our highly valued possession, is the ability to have an unlimited number of choices. To have the most number of personal choices, frankly you have to cut yourself off from your neighbor, so that he also may have the most number of choices – to avoid limiting the freedom of individual choice. But the truth of the love of God is that freedom is living in love, and frankly you can’t live love by yourself. Love isn’t the freedom of being able to do whatever you want. That’s a benefit that only comes with privilege. It’s a drug that’s hard to give up.
Love is a relationship. Love is living into community and diving deeper than you can go by yourself. It is being challenged by someone who has seen a different perspective than you have seen so that together you can find a fuller story of the whole than your individual pieces separately can tell– even- and especially- when you are convinced that you already have the whole story yourself.
That looks so many different ways in the church, this living out of Jesus’ prayer that we all may be one. We who are many are one bread, one body, for we all share in one bread, one cup. The whole liturgy is an act of coming together from our different places and lives to be one, sharing ourselves with each other before we go out into the world again.
But it doesn’t stop there. The church is a place for the whole world to witness what it means to have the love of God bind up difference in community. Here at St. Paul’s, we have people who live outside talking about their faith with people who live in million dollar homes. We have straight cisgender people and transpeople and lesbians and gay people and genderqueer people, working together to discern how love pulls us all in the same direction without detracting from the very real differences between us. We have Democrats and Republicans, and even in these politically challenging times- especially in these politically challenging times- the church is the place where we look to the prayer of Jesus for unity in community, not for my opinion or your opinion to win, but instead for the knowledge and love of God to be made whole in community as we struggle with each other in love to figure out how that looks without tearing apart our relationships– which are the point of the whole thing anyway.
That doesn’t happen by itself. Jesus ascended into the clouds. He isn’t here to do the work for us. It takes each of us, every single member of the body of Christ working in harmony in this dance to be a part of this movement of love. We focus at St. Paul’s on being out in the world, because the world needs it. But if we don’t keep practiced on the difference between the way the world works and the unity that makes love possible, then we can forget what we are out there to do.
It also means staying involved with what makes the lifeblood of the church tick, with the very places where we cultivate the skills to live in difference, to breed the humility to keep our own privilege and bias in check and to remember time and time again that the unity of our very humanity may require giving something up to be able to participate in this love project of God.
Without you it can’t happen! I frequently tell new members that Church is not a spectator sport. Coming to worship is a good start. Sometimes people in their first year at St. Paul’s need to spend their first months quietly healing in the pews, and that’s absolutely fine. But to truly cultivate this kind of authenticity, this kind of unity, where relationships are born across difference, where we are thrown into communities that are not our choosing, it takes involvement. We have great volunteers here. But we need all of us, and I think all of us need each other too. Getting the work done is a side benefit. The main task is to participate in this ongoing project of Jesus’ farewell prayer: that we may all be one, by finding ways to be engaged with each other, with people we otherwise wouldn’t be. If you look in your bulletin today, you will see a list of all the different places you can volunteer to be a deeper part of this love project at St. Paul’s. It is who we are. If you are not already a volunteer, I hope you will express interest in serving by completing the form and putting it in the offering plate today. If you have questions, call me. It’s why I’m here.
I was talking to a colleague recently who was having a similar experience to the one I had in seminary, learning about this dance of unity in the church. As a gay man, he had just began a position at a church that had several folks who were outspoken against having a gay clergy person.
One of them wanted to speak to him, and he got worried. He braced himself for an argument.
But what he received was something far different: he received a genuine inquiry about his life, what his spouse was like, and how he was adjusting to the new parish. When he was ordained to the priesthood, this would-be adversary gave him a family heirloom as an ordination gift, a Bible that had been in his family for generations
My brothers and sisters, the Church has been entrusted with a gift- that we may be one- in a way that is barely recognizable to the world around us. Treasure that gift! Deepen your relationships across every beautiful difference that we have among us. And please don’t ever forget that you are a very special people, a gift entrusted to us, each of us. Without you, we wouldn’t exist! So take care with each other, take interest in each other, and remember why we are here.