Sermons That Work

I Was Born at the Last Possible Moment…, Epiphany 3 (A) – 1996

January 21, 1996


I was born at the last possible moment before the Postwar Baby Boom, and grew up with the Korean War, the Cold War, the A- Bomb, the H-Bomb, Civil Defense Bomb Shelters, classroom drills in how to curl up under our desks to avoid the bomb, and a host of other frightening signs of impending doom. I had no sooner started college, in 1962, than the Cuban Missile Crisis came along, and we sat hour after hour in front of the dormitory television, frozen in terror that all those years of looming threat were about to be fulfilled.

That same year, one of my favorite songs was a sardonic little satire by the Smothers’ Brothers. They sang:

They’re rioting in Africa; they’re starving in Spain;
There’s hurricanes in Florida, and Texas needs rain.
The whole world is festering with unhappy souls:
The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles;
Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch,
And I don’t like anybody very much…..

And it ended:

They’re rioting in Africa; there’s strife in Iran.
What nature doesn’t do to us, will be done by our fellow man.

That song has come back to me off and on over the years, but especially in the most recent past, as the Tutsis and the Hutus of Rwanda butchered one another in a bloodbath of ancient hatreds, and the morass of Bosnia continues to weigh us all down in the same sort of bloodbath, only frozen and even more complicated and tangled.

These past years we’ve been marking and remembering the total world engagement that was World War II, and this year we remembered as well the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, amidst own own concerns for its fragility, its weakness in the face of enemies determined to do in one another and anyone else who gets in their way. And commentators with long memories have fretted over whether the Bosnian conflict, seated as it is at the Balkan flashpoint that set off World War I, might again ignite yet another worldwide conflagration.

As the New Year has come upon us, with the inevitable reviews of the year past, we have revisited the Oklahoma City bombing, in all its homegrown horror, and the threat of escalating domestic terror, stirred up by own version of animosities and hatreds among us in this blessed land of ours. Small wonder the Smothers’ Brothers song has come back to me, in all its irony.

Now, change your view. Set against those images of horror and strife, of threat and assault, of pain and anguish and suspicion and anger, the image of the promised Kingdom of God, the reign of Christ as our Lord. It is the “Peaceable Kingdom,” where the lion lies down with the lamb and ancient enemies are bond friends, where the swords are beaten into plowshares, and where we study war no more. It is the image of the Table, at which all are gathered, welcomed, as equals, equally beloved in the sight of God.

Another song:

In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North,
But one great fellowship of love,
Throughout the whole wide earth.

That’s the kind of unity St. Paul is talking about, as he urges the church at Corinth to unity. That’s the “fellowship of love” that our Lord Jesus taught, when he gave the “New Commandment” at the Last Supper: “I give you a new commandment: That you love one another as I have loved you.” That’s the vision of John the Divine, as he sees “the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven.” It’s the vision of St. Augustine, in his theological masterpiece, “The City of God.” Of Francis, as he kissed the leper. Of St. Ignatius, as he set about his prayer exercises.

In fact, the vision is so commonly shared among the saints that the ascetical theologians have a name for it: they call it “the Unitive Vision.” It is the vision of us coming together as a single people, under the wings of the Holy Spirit, gathered up into the arms of Christ, in the family of God the Father. It is the vision of which we have a foretaste in the Eucharist, as all are gathered, all are welcomed, all are marked by “the Peace of God.”

It is also almost impossible to achieve.

As Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives, looking out over Jerusalem, in his final days, he saw the vision, and how far we were from living it out, and he wept. The Gospel writers record his weeping, saying: “Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you. How often I would have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you were unwilling — you would not come together, in love.”

We are a stiff-necked people, as the Old Testament prophets called us.

And this state of affairs is not limited to secular warfare. We are a stiff-necked people within the church. Old grudges die hard, old differences of interpretation and opinion can divide us for years, even centuries. So many things divide us: how we understand scripture, how we understand the way the church is to be governed, how we understand ministry and priesthood. We argue over the married priesthood, women in priesthood, homosexual people in priesthood. We argue about how to baptize and what words to say in worship. We argue about how often to receive Eucharist, how to pray. And we cling stubbornly to our arguments, because we are bound and determined that we’re right.

The Corinthian church was at odds over the same sorts of things, and St. Paul was trying mightily to persuade them to give up the fights. He of all people recognized that we might not always agree about everything, that we would inevitably see things from different viewpoints and different understandings, according to the variety of gifts with which God has endowed us. But he was equally clear that one thing, one supreme thing, more important than any difference, unites us: Christ. We are one in Christ. Each of us is created by God to be slightly different — in size, in shape, in color, in history, in tradition, in viewpoint, in language, in understanding. But we are united in Christ, in one mind and purpose, as St. Paul says.

This Sunday marks the beginning of the celebration of the week of Christian unity. I have been thinking this past week about how much progress has been made in my lifetime toward making that vision come closer to reality. Though the Smothers’ Brothers song is still too painfully true, and strife may seem endless in the world, somehow in these years we seem to have inched forward ecumenically, toward coming together in Christ.

We are called, as Christians, to carry the light of the manger, the light of new birth, out into the world. Our disagreements and strife cloud the light, impair its ability to shine into the dark corners of pain and grief and struggle. This is a week to remember again the call of Christ to love one another, and of Saint Paul, to be of one mind and one purpose. We are called to be reconcilers — to proclaim the reconciling love of God to the whole world. How will they hear us if we cannot be reconciled among ourselves?

This summer at the great Anglican Evangelism ingathering, the Archbishop of Canterbury told a story, from the early wisdom literature of the church. It seems that when Jesus arrived in heaven after the Ascension, those who were waiting for him asked him how he had left things, how the world was faring. He reported that he had left everything in the hands of the disciples. The angels, knowing all too well how human beings can mishandle things, asked him what sort of backup plan he had set up. “None,” he said. “It’s up to them, or it will not happen.”

It is up to us. There is no backup plan. There is no one who will come along, like a hockey referee, and separate us as we duke it out.

We are called to seek unity, to seek to honor one another, to love one another, in the peace of Christ. Let us pray for one mind, and one heart. Amen.

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