Sermon for Year A, The Third Sunday After the Epiphany
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
January 26, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Here’s a joke that Emo Phillips told almost thirty years ago.
“I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.
I said, ‘Don't do it! Don't do it!’
He said, ‘Why not? Nobody loves me.’
I said, ‘Well, God loves you. Do you believe in God?’
He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘I do, too... Are you a Christian or a Jew?’
He said, ‘I'm a Christian.’ I said, ‘Me, too! ... Protestant; or Catholic?’
He said, ‘Protestant.’ I said, ‘Me, too! ... What franchise?’
He said, ‘Baptist.’ I said, ‘Me, too! ... Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?’
He said, ‘Northern Baptist.’
I said, ‘Me, too! ... Northern Conservative Baptist, or Northern Liberal Baptist?’
He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist.’
I said, ‘Me, too! ... Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region;
Or Northern Conservative Baptist, Eastern Region?’
He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region.’
I said, ‘Me, too! ... Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879;
Or Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?’
He said, ‘Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912.’
I said, ‘Die, heretic!’ And I pushed him over.”
It seems appropriate to begin with that this morning
Partly because I have been witness lately to a lot of what you’d call splitting of hairs
In the matter of religion.
This division has not really been within the world of St. Thomas of late,
Though I know it’s in the DNA of just about any congregation;
And I’m sure that with just a few simple questions or theological thought-grenades
We could kick up that dust if we wanted to. I’ve seen it happen before.
The question is why we would ever want to do such a thing.
I don’t mean that Christtians don’t have robust or thorough conversations.
I don’t mean we should never have conflict or talk about what matters.
No, what I have seen lately -- again, outside our walls for the time-being --
Is something different altogether -- something I pray to guard against.
What I have seen is unnecessary stomach acid being expended over who is right and who is wrong
When it comes to whether and how people choose to believe in, or worship, or follow God.
Along with this hair-splitting
Has come a deeply cutting passive-aggression ... disorientation ...
Misunderstandings, wrong assumptions ... quiet judgments ... and spilled tears.
All of which, again, raises the question -- Why? What’s the use of splitting these hairs?
If we are of one mind on 99.95% of the particulars about Jesus Christ,
And seeing as how the Constitution guarantees that you and I are free to worship as we see fit,
Then we had better approach our conflicts in the deepest spirit of charity and love and respect,
And we had better ensure that the .05% is actually worth spending time on.
Saint Paul was dealing with precisely these issues
When he wrote to the church he had established in the Roman city of Corinth.
His letter, written around the year 54, was to a group Jesus-followers
Living in a culturally diverse situation with a lot of people
(Though in all likelihood there weren’t all that many in the church itself).
Yet what they lacked in numbers they made up in being ugly to each other;
They were deeply divided in many ways and they had become embittered.
So Paul wrote to give them counsel about how to patch up their differences
Without simply papering over the conflict.
There were factions and parties aligned within the Corinthians against one another.
For a church built on the redeeming love of God as shown in Christ,
They sure weren’t very loving to each other.
Each one, of course, claimed the exclusive path, or at least the better path, to the truth about God.
They organized and called themselves by the names of their favorite teachers:
I’m with Paul! I’m with Cephas! I’m with Apollos!
This, though, is really just the tip of the iceberg.
These little camps were the presenting symptoms of a much sicker family system.
The church that Paul gives us a glimpse of in his letter --
It almost can’t get along at all; they’re having a five-alarm fire.
There’s crazy stuff happening with sexual immorality and marriage.
Fellow Christians are suing each other, dragging one another into civil court.
Food that has been sacrificed to idols is being eaten by some believers in the sight of others.
They’re arguing about whether a woman’s head should be covered in worship.
They can’t agree on the basics of how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper -- what we call Eucharist.
Some have attained a higher level of education, and they lord it over the others.
Some speak in tongues while some prefer to prophesy; still others don’t approve of any of it.
And finally, there’s a hot argument going about whether resurrection is really real --
Some say yes, some say no, but they all say it a little too loud,
With a little too much pride in their positions.
Boy. I wonder if, while he was hashing all this out, Paul ever asked himself,
Can the church at Corinth be saved?
We can only conjecture;
In his letter, he is strong, and with them and for them, and he wants to see them move ahead.
Sometimes, though, it’s hard to be as strong as Paul.
We all know people who have had enough conflict in church
And who called a pox on the whole thing and walked away.
Truth is, no matter what we do, no matter how much we disregard the other,
In the end we still can’t escape ourselves, or God, and the beloved community suffers.
A man was stranded on a deserted island for years.
One day a boat came sailing into view.
The boat came near and a sailor got out to collect the survivor.
“Boy, am I glad to see you fellas,” he said.
“We’re happy to see you!” the sailor said.
“But say, if it's just you stuck on this island, then why are there three huts?”
“Well, that’s my house there.”
“Okay. And that next hut over?”
“That's where I go to church.”
“Oh, okay. It’s lovely. What about that last hut?”
“Oh, that? That’s where I USED to go to church.”
Church splits are painful. Division creates disorder in the Body of Christ.
It helps, though, not to be alone, on a spiritual island of our own making;
It helps to have folks rooting for us, believing in us, telling us they love us no matter what --
Not giving up on us, even if we should find ourselves in some kind of exile.
In his letter to Corinth, Paul took pains to explain his position on everything,
Going very patiently over all the conflict, item by item,
Urging people to simply think of one another before they acted out of selfishness --
Urging them to love one another above all.
If he couldn’t be there with them right then, they could be there for each other;
And that would be even better.
And right from the beginning, he had the best answer to the whole mess of conflict --
The answer that, if they took it seriously, would have settled them down enough
So that they could at least see each other and not be so quick to respond.
He asked them, simply, “Has Christ been divided?”
The implication was that there is some danger in following the branches of a divided Christ
Wherever they might take us -- free to believe or do or practice anything
So long as it fit within our own conscience and framework,
And any other brother or sister be damned.
Paul saw this -- saw where these arguments had taken the Corinthians in their factions --
And he called them babies.
He said they were barely fit for milk, much less solid food.
He said, in so many words, “Do I have to come and sit between you?”
And then, like a good parent, he did not merely admonish them to grow up:
He proceeded to show them what an undivided church,
Following the one and undivided Christ,
Should look like -- how it should behave and believe and seek after God.
Paul knew that as nice as it is to be together, it takes work to stay together.
My dear brothers and sisters, when a church is at one with itself, in Christ,
It’s just amazing what it can do.
We have for some time been wrestling and dealing with issues and questions
Of how to get along financially,
But the interesting thing is that in the process, we have learned a bit more
About just generally how to get along with each other:
How to talk and relate and live and work together, even better.
There is less a question of division in my mind --
More of an excitement about what we have done and will be able to do
So long as we walk undivided in Christ.
I’m asking the St. Thomas Vestry, and I’m asking you, over this coming year
To consider some key questions around our identity and our activity:
... What can you imagine St. Thomas being and doing
If it can genuinely turn its vision from merely surviving, to being the church of Christ?
... What does it mean to be a mission-shaped congregation in Sioux City in 2014?
... What forms of discernment, formation, and leadership development
Should we undertake to get there?
... And what is the underlying mission and vision of this parish --
Or in other words, what would God have us to be and to do?
These questions are in the Rector’s Report, in the Annual Report you’ll receive today.
My prayer is that they’ll start to lead us toward some courageous conversations.
Maybe those questions, together with everything else we’ve done --
A recalibrated Vestry, the Recasting of Building Assets program work,
Our new entrepreneurial spirit, our reading of the Changing the Conversation book,
Our decision-making processes from this past year,
And all our many wonderful ministries --
Perhaps these things might begin to coalesce
And God the Holy Spirit will do a new thing yet again.
Let us pray to be open to God’s grace, and of one mind, one heart.
In the name of God -- one, holy, and undivided. Amen.