I just ran across this old sermon which I shared with a congregation a few years ago. As you might imagine, it was a congregation in conflict. The sermon didn't solve it. Things got considerably worse before they got better. But today they are as good as it gets when it comes to fulfilling the hopes I put forth here.
A story about human nature and the mission of Christ.
In my last parish,
we set up a yahoo group to help us form community.
A yahoo group is an on-line discussion fellowship.
Anyone can post what is on their mind.
A few weeks after we started the group,
someone posted that they had been browsing the web
and came upon the web site for Trinity Church, New York City.
He saw they had celebrated a clown Eucharist and said
“Isn’t that interesting? I wonder what that is.”
To which someone replied that when St. Francis does a clown Eucharist
they would leave.
About a dozen folks piled on with the same opinion.
Before long, it went beyond the question of liturgy
to a general discussion of the character of clowns.
It started with someone saying clowns reminded them
of mass murderers.
Another said clowns reminded her of child molesters.
Eventually, someone said that clowns actually are
mass murderers and child molesters.
A young adult posted:
“You folks seem to have some issues about clowns.”
Feeling attacked, the anti-clown voices grew more strident.
At last this provoked a pro-clown response.
After a couple of pro-clown posts,
one veteran church member outed himself,
confessing, “I have been a clown with the Shriners
for 30 years and I have never molested a child
or murdered a mass.”
Then the anti-clown voices charged back in.
Now remember, no one had even hinted
that the church should do a clown Eucharist.
Wes Frensdorff by the way was a great lover of clowns
and would have been all for it.
But it was not an option on the table at that church.
Did we lose Church members over this?
I don’t know -- but within 3 months,
several of the clown combatants were gone.
Now the moral of the story may be: don’t form a yahoo group.
Or it may be to avoid talking about religion, politics, or clowns.
But changing the subject doesn’t change the tone of the conversation.
I have seen folks leave a church over a dispute
concerning where to plant a rose bush.
One Sunday, I was once sitting on a church porch
before the Eucharist with some folks
who were squabbling over the placement
of a new altar rail.
A newcomer walked up and no one spoke to him
because they were too focused on their dispute.
After a few minutes the newcomer shook his head,
walked away, and never returned.
Now this may all just be human nature.
But how we deal with it in the Church
is a matter of profound spiritual importance.
What is the mission of the Church?
Catechism answer: “to restore all people to unity with God
and each other in Christ.”//
That’s what salvation means.
That’s why we can’t be saved alone.
It’s a group project.
There’s a Mormon billboard with a perplexed woman asking,
“Does God have a purpose for my life?”
Well, if we are the Church, the answer is,
“Yes. God has a purpose for our lives.
It is to restore all people to unity with God
and each other in Christ.”
So: how are we doing with that?
The Church in Corinth wasn’t doing so well with it
when Paul wrote 1st Corinthians.
They had found a dozen things to get cross ways about.
In 1st Corinthians, Paul tried to solve all their issues
-- their version of clowns, rose bushes, and altar rails.
By 2nd Corinthians, it had just gotten worse,
so Paul got down to the real issue
– how they were treating each other.
They all accepted the grace of God,
but they were not gracious to each other.
Paul had some strong words about that. He said,
“As we work together with Christ”
-- big reminder there that we are not doing church
the way we do a service club or school board
– we are “working together with Christ”
– that ought to make a difference .
“As we work together with Christ,” Paul wrote,
“we urge you not to accept the grace of God in vain.”
He says we can accept grace, but it doesn’t matter,
it doesn’t save us, unless we live out of it – graciously.
St. John said the same thing in his First Epistle.
“Anyone who claims to love God but hates his neighbor
is a liar,” John says.
We can love Jesus all day long
but God’s not as interested in that
as how we actually treat each other.
Paul says to the Corinthians,
“we are putting no obstacles in anyone’s way,
so that no fault may be found in our ministry.”
Brothers and sisters, we are here to do ministry
– ministry to each other
and ministry to the world.
The first rule of ministry, like medicine, is: do no harm.
Put an obstacle in no one’s way.
I have done a post-mortem on all the dead churches in Nevada.
And I have found someone’s fingerprints on each and every corpse.
Not one died of natural causes like a mine closing.
They all died of people more concerned about getting their own way
than they were about each other’s souls.
That’s what Paul was warning the Corinthians about.
We are saved through our participation in the Body of Christ,
and the Body of Christ happens when we put each other first.
We have yet another General Convention on the horizon.
And already I see signs of liberals and conservatives
maneuvering to get their way.
That is exactly what Paul called a work of the flesh – the opposite
of the works of the Spirit.
I would like just once to see the conservatives worrying
about not putting an obstacle in the way of the liberals.
I would like to see the liberals worrying about not
putting an obstacle in the way of the conservatives.
If we all just switched sides, the issues would be the same
– but the spirit of the conversation would be different
as night and day.
It would be the difference between the way of the world
and the way of Jesus.
After 2,000 years somebody ought to try the way of Jesus,
and it might as well be the Church.
Our shared mission is to restore all persons
– that would be all persons – left and right, straight and gay,
old and young, charming and not so charming
– all persons – to union with God and each other in Christ.
The purpose of life for each and every individual Christian
is precisely the same thing.
So: how are we doing at that?
Most of us do not come naturally equipped for that mission.
Most of us come wired to try to get our own way,
to gather with people who make us feel at ease
and keep our distance from people
who make us uncomfortable.
That’s our human nature.
But we also have a Christ Nature.
We got it at our Baptism.
We just need some practice living into it.
The way to living out of our God Given Christ Nature
is just that practice, practice, practice.
We can also pray.
We pray for each other,
especially people who we are not at ease with.
One church in this diocese that has more veterans than any other,
and observes veterans day with more flare than any other,
also prays for terrorists by name every Sunday.
We practice and we pray.
As today’s Collect says, God will help and govern us,
if we bow our will to him.
It is by God’s grace we can care for each other
beyond the constraints of human nature.
It is by God’s grace, with our active cooperation,
we can carry out the Church’s missionand keep faith with the purpose of our lives.