How should Christians fight?

FearCharlesLeBrun1760_wikiSERMON NOTES, PENTECOST 11 (Proper 14, preached August 9, 2015, at Church of the Good Shepherd, Town & Country, Missouri)

Family fights are often the ugliest. They can get nasty fast, and they’re very often over the smallest things. Someone takes offense at a remark; two people disagree over the right way to do things. Grudges can be held for years. When things get really bad, one branch may stop communicating with another for generations.

That’s not just true in families. It can be true in communities. It can be true in the Church. Some of the bitterest fights are over the best ways to honor God.

As Christians, we often think that we shouldn’t argue among ourselves. We shouldn’t fight. We shouldn’t bicker. We tend to think that that we should, instead, always get along, because isn’t that what Jesus expects of us?

The problem is that we’re human, and fighting amongst ourselves is a part of the human condition. When it comes to church matters, we’re going to disagree over the essentials of theology, and we’re going to disagree over how to do coffee hour, and we’re going to disagree over everything in between – and there’s a lot of in between. That’s true at the parish level, and it’s true of the national and international Church.

When these fights blow up and go public, it’s embarrassing to all of us. Non-Christians look on our quarrels as signs of hypocrisy: “See how these Christians love one another.”

We’ve been fighting over a lot of things in recent years. When I was young, I knew people who left the Episcopal Church over changes in language in the liturgy. Then there were people who left over changes in the role of women in the church. More recently, people have left over the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the full life of the church.

The fights have been ugly, with plenty of nastiness on both sides, with little sign of the love we are commanded to have for one another, with little evidence of attempts to understand where our opponents are coming from. It echoes our country’s unfortunate political dialogue today. But as Christians, we are supposed to be better than that.

There have been conservatives who accused liberals of apostasy, and liberals who accused conservatives of bigotry. There was the bishop who told conservatives, from the pulpit, “This isn’t your church any more,” and to leave. There have been lawsuits, from all angles. None of it has enhanced how those outside the church view us. None of it has demonstrated the love of Christ.

It’s not a recent problem. It goes all the way back to the foundation of the Church. You had the party that believed that Gentile Christians should first convert to Judaism, complete with circumcision, and the party that wanted to welcome all regardless. (Fortunately for us, Paul won that one.)

From reading the epistles, we know that disagreement was rife in the early Church. That’s why, in today’s reading, the author of Ephesians tells us how Christians ought to fight.
It’s okay to be angry, he says, but don’t dwell on it. Stick to the facts; don’t exaggerate. Don’t gossip. Work through your anger, and turn it into something useful, something positive. Don’t tear down others; don’t divide. Instead, work to build up the whole community.

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander,” he says, “together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

Well, that’s a lot to ask, isn’t it, when our side is clearly right and the other is wrong? How are we supposed to be kind or forgiving to bigots, or to apostates? Isn’t that a sign of weakness?

No, it’s a sign of paying attention to what Jesus has taught us. The gospels are filled with that lesson. How often are we to forgive? Seventy times seven, as often as it takes. Nobody says it’s easy, but loving our neighbor and forgiving wrongs is a basic part of our faith.

“Be imitators of God,” says the author of Ephesians, “as beloved children, and live in love.” We need to rise above the petty stuff, the coffee-hour disagreements, and put them aside. We need to find ways to reconcile the larger issues, or find ways to part in love and understanding, rather than in bitterness.

“Live in love, as Christ loved us.” That’s the takeaway for this reading, and it applies to every area of our lives: in our families, in our workplaces, in the Church, and in the world outside.

Lord, give us loving and understanding hearts, and the grace to get past our anger and bitterness toward one another when we disagree. Help us to live as you have commanded us, and in the spirit in which you yourself lived among us. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller


Sermon notes: Peter’s confession

Christ_Peter_keys_wikiSermon notes, Confession of Peter (Preached 1/20/13 at St. Peter’s/Ladue; Matthew 16:13-19; Acts 4:8-13)

We have just heard one of the most argued-over passages in the entire Bible – and that’s saying something. Just what, exactly, is going on in today’s gospel reading?

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter, in his capacity as the leader of the apostles, speaks for the rest of the group, making his confession, his statement of faith: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus tells him, “You are Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

We don’t know if Peter was given his nickname – Kephas, Petrus, Rock – before this milestone event, but the confession and Jesus’s play on words certainly cemented it forever. The passage of time has polished it to a high gloss: There is no record of anyone being called Kephas or Petrus before the time of Christ, but there have been untold quantities of Christians given variants on that name in the twenty centuries since.

Jesus goes on to say, “”I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in heaven.”

That phrase is God’s special gift to cartoonists, who can always draw a St. Peter-at-the-pearly-gates gag whenever they’re short of ideas. But what does it mean?

That’s where we get into the arguments. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome, and that in giving Peter the “keys to the kingdom,” Jesus was establishing the papacy. From there, they have progressed to a belief in papal infallibility.

Other branches of the Church, not surprisingly, disagree with that view.

For one thing, there’s not actually any contemporary evidence that Peter ever lived in Rome or died there; that’s a tradition that developed later. Paul, who was in Rome, mentioned a lot of Christian leaders, but he never wrote a word about bumping into Peter. That’s not too surprising: Peter’s work took place in Antioch, in Asia Minor, and Jerusalem. Rome was a long, long way away.

Besides, it’s doubtful Rome even had a bishop in the early years of the Church there. Bishops were a later, post-apostolic development.

St. Augustine of Hippo believed that Christ was giving authority to the Church, not just to Peter. That’s the position of the Orthodox Churches, along with Anglicans and most Protestants. The Orthodox see the Church on Earth as infallible, but “infallible” is not a word with which we Anglicans are particularly comfortable.

The exchange, however, is still significant.

Peter is the most clearly drawn of the apostles, both in the gospels and in the Book of Acts. Frankly, he’s almost the last person you’d expect to get a nickname like “Rock.” On some days, he’s more like “Noodle,” going limp as soon as he hits hot water.

Peter changes his mind at inopportune moments. He starts to walk on water like the Master, and then wimps out and has to be rescued. Peter’s always saying the wrong thing, talking without thinking, even contradicting Jesus when he tells the disciples that he must suffer and die – and getting smacked down for it.

When Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, it’s Peter who pulls out his sword and cuts off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest. Jesus has to fix that one, too. Most famously, after the arrest, Peter denies that he even knows the man he’s been following for the last three years.

In other words, Peter is a kind of stand-in for the rest of us, weak, sinful and eminently fallible. And yet Christ chooses him to provide authority to the fledgling Church.

Peter was always the natural leader of the little group of apostles, but by the time we see him in the reading from Acts, he has grown into the larger role of a spokesman and leader of the Church.

Peter, accompanied by John, has healed a crippled beggar, saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” That draws a crowd, Peter preaches to them, and the Jewish authorities arrest both apostles. The next day, the leaders of the Temple ask them, “By what power or what name did you do this?”

And Peter continues his sermon. An “uneducated and ordinary” man, he has been called forth to speak not only to the crowds but to the teachers of the Law, and we see him doing it with power and eloquence.

In that speech, he identifies the true rock on which the Church is built: Jesus Christ. “The stone that was rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.”

And what is the Church? The Catechism (which you’ll find in the back of the Book of Common Prayer, beginning on page 845) provides the official word. The Church is the community of the New Covenant, the Body of Christ. The Church continues in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, carrying out Christ’s mission, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

The Church is us, connected in faith beyond time and space, a vast throng of believers following Christ. Like Peter, we are imperfect; like Peter, we stumble and fall on a regular basis. Like Peter, we frequently misunderstand just what Jesus is getting at.

But, like Peter, we are called. The Greek word “ekklesia” means “assembly” or “gathering;” it also means “called forth.” We assemble here to hear God’s Word and receive the sacraments; we go forth into the world to share God’s love in every way we can.

We can take courage in the example of Peter; we can confess our faith and live it, too, as Peter did. I can’t think of a more appropriate patron saint, like us flawed and foolish, and, like us, blessed beyond all measure in the power and love of Christ.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Miracle sandwich

Jesus heals the woman with a hemorrhage. (Image from the catacombs of Rome.)

Sermon on Proper 8, Year B (July 1, 2012) Preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd, St. Louis

Most gospel readings that deal with the healings or other miracles of Jesus focus on just one marvel at a time. Today’s reading from the gospel of Mark is a little different: it gives us a sort of healing sandwich, with one miracle enfolded inside another.

By this point in his story, Jesus is a celebrity. He no sooner gets out of the boat than he is mobbed by people who want to see him for themselves, to hear his teachings. Perhaps they hope to witness Jesus work wonders; perhaps they want to be the focus of a miracle, to be fed, or to gain healing for themselves or a loved one.

We meet two particular miracle-seekers in these verses. One is Jairus, an important man, a wealthy man, a leader of the synagogue, begging for his little daughter’s life. The other is a poor woman, a sick woman, not important at all, who decides to take the matter of her healing into her own hands.

Jairus is so desperately concerned about his child that he goes to meet Jesus himself, rather than sending a servant. He falls at Jesus’s feet, and says, “My little girl is dying. Come and lay your hands on her and make her well, let her live.” And Jesus and his disciples – and the crowd, sensing a chance to see or hear something remarkable – go with him.

In the midst of this, the nameless woman sees her own opportunity, and takes it.

In first-century Palestine, life expectancy was short; if you made it out of childhood alive, you might hope to hit your 50s. There were no hospitals, and there were many, many ills, from skin diseases and eye diseases to epilepsy, death in childbirth, parasites to cancers. Too many of them had no cure.

Although there were physicians, the first step in treatments for most illnesses was still incantations and sacrifices. Greek innovations in medicine were much celebrated in Rome, but it’s not clear how deeply those innovations had penetrated in backwater provinces like Palestine.

If conventional treatments didn’t work, you might seek out a magician. Demons were generally thought to be responsible for causing not only madness, but heart trouble and asthma, among a host of other troubles. Or it might be that your sins, or those of your parents, were responsible for your suffering. We see that in the case of the man blind from birth, whose healing, recounted in the gospel of John, so irritated the Pharisees.

The woman in the crowd had suffered from hemorrhages for 12 years – which, interestingly, is the age of Jairus’s daughter – and spent everything she had on physicians. They had not helped her.

Besides being poor, she was probably physically weak from her condition. She was almost certainly a social outcast: Anyone with a flow of blood such as she had was considered ritually impure. Anyone who touched her would be ritually impure as well, and face time-consuming rites, with a seven-day purification period, in order to be clean again. (Who could afford the time to be her friend?)

Imagine suffering all this for so long – and imagine realizing that perhaps someone who could repair your physical brokenness was at hand. She knew about Jesus and his healings, and when he stepped off the boat she saw her chance. In what must have been a mixture of faith and deep-seated desperation, she burrowed through the crowd until she got close enough just to touch his cloak. And she was healed.

And here we get one of those disciple “duh” moments, when the very men who have been traveling with Jesus and listening to his teachings and observing his miracles demonstrate how little they really understand of him. Jesus feels the power going out of him, and asks, “Who touched me?” And the disciples say, “What? Look at this crowd. We can hardly move. Are you kidding?”

But the woman knows what he’s talking about, and kneels in front of him to confess. And Jesus calls the pariah “daughter,” and tells her that her faith has made her well. Probably no one but the two of them and a few disciples even realized what had happened.

Then he is gone, with Jairus and the disciples and the crowd, tells the mourners who have already gathered at Jairus’s house that they are mistaken, that the child is sleeping. He raises the little girl from the dead, and, compassionately, orders that she be brought something to eat.

The way these miracles are juxtaposed shows, in compact form, that Jesus and his love were available to all, of both high rank and low. The important may have had easier access to him, but Jesus never turned his back on those in need.

We see, too, that Jesus put all classes on the same level, that he imposed an unheard-of equality on those he encountered. In this, in his calling an outcast “daughter,” we see the truth of what Paul would later write in the letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

And this radical equality in Jesus is one of the things that sets Christianity apart. Whatever our status in the world outside the Church, within it we are all accounted equal. We all share in Christ’s love to the same extravagant extent, rich, poor, or somewhere in between, status-heavy or status-free.

The world and human nature being what they are, the Church has struggled with staying true to this concept. Right in the very beginning of the movement, the well-to-do would come to the house churches for the common meal, and eat their own dainties without waiting for others, not sharing with those who had less. We only need to glance at the later history of the Church to see even more egregious examples of a class-based structure within it.

But Jesus calls us to step outside social expectations, to recognize and greet our fellow Christians as sisters and brothers. He calls us to help those who are in need, not only with our checkbooks but with our time and energies. Jesus calls us to be as radical and inclusive in our love as he was. If we truly intend to follow him, we can do no less.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: The next morning

SERMON NOTES, CHRISTMAS DAY (10 a.m. December 25, 2011, St. Peter’s/St. Louis)

“But Mary treasured all these words, and pondered them in her heart.”

It is the morning after the most momentous night in human history, an event bearing layer upon layer of symbolism and meaning: the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Jesus did not enter the world in the way foretold in scripture, “in power and great glory.” He was born a helpless baby in the poorest setting imaginable, to humble parents, a member of a subject people living far from the centers of worldly power.

Luke’s gospel doesn’t go into detail about the events of the previous 24 hours, but we can imagine them. Mary, a teenager, was newly married to her husband, Joseph. She was pregnant, and near her time. In spite of that, they undertook a difficult, dangerous journey on the orders of an oppressive government.

They arrived in Bethlehem, but failed to find a place to stay. They had no relatives there to take them in; there was no space to be bought or begged in the town’s guest houses. Instead, they found cover in a shelter for cattle, with a roof and walls to provide some protection, and the heat of the animals around them for warmth.

Perhaps it was the rigors of the journey that brought on Mary’s labor. Luke doesn’t tell us about that. He doesn’t tell us whether Joseph delivered the baby himself, or if – as seems much more likely – women were found in the neighborhood to help with the delivery, to encourage the young mother, to ease the child into the world.

Someone wiped Mary’s face with a moist cloth and brushed her hair from her face; someone held her hand as she struggled through childbirth. Someone cut the umbilicus; someone washed mother and infant when the birth was complete. Someone emptied out a feeding trough to serve as an impromptu cradle. Someone found bands of cloth to swaddle the baby, to ease his adjustment to the cold and colors of this new world outside the womb.

Someone placed him in his mother’s arms, and helped to make both of them comfortable as he nursed for the first time. Someone who had experience imparted womanly wisdom and helpful hints about the best ways to do things, the sort of information that a new mother doesn’t fully appreciate until she is finally looking on the long-imagined face of her child.

The Evangelist is more concerned with the announcement of the birth, and with those who heard that announcement. The hearers weren’t King Herod’s courtiers, let alone members of the Imperial court in Rome. They weren’t scholars or members of the priestly class. They weren’t merchants with connections on the Silk Road. They weren’t even respectable. They were shepherds.

Shepherds occupied a spot on the bottom rung of the social ladder. They were poor workingmen, not renowned for their honesty or for a robust work ethic. They were itinerant, wandering with the flocks they kept, usually for other owners.

And yet it was to shepherds that the angelic messenger appeared; it was to shepherds that the angelic host sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

It was shepherds, members of a despised class, who beat a path to the stable to see the baby, who told Mary and Joseph the things that they had seen and heard that unforgettable night. “And Mary treasured all these words, and pondered them in her heart.”

But the night, with all its excitement, has passed. The angels have disappeared. The shepherds have returned to their work and their flocks. The women are back at their daily routines. Now, in the calm light of day, the little family is adjusting to its new dynamic, its new form, its new life, with a beloved child who will – as we know – grow in strength, learning, and holiness in the years to come.

Last night we celebrated Christ’s birth here, the message of the angels, the witness of the shepherds. It’s a big night, the most festive in the Church year. We observed it with a traditional Christmas pageant, with carols and other special music; there were platoons of acolytes, and crowded pews.

This morning’s service is an altogether quieter affair. The population in the chancel and sanctuary has plummeted from the full ranks of last night – clergy, lectors, choirs, acolytes – to the handful you see before you now. Right now, many of us still have a portion of our brains revolving around questions of preparing Christmas dinner, gift-giving, and of the coming celebrations with our families and friends

With the pageantry over, in the calm light of day, we can take a few moments to consider what all this means: that the Savior of the world should come to us in such humility; that he came for all people, even – or especially – the lowest among us; that God’s love abounds for us, in spite of all our faults. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace and good will.”

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Christians behaving badly

“Oh, God! You’re so strict!

– Father Fyodor, The Twelve Chairs (Mel Brooks, 1970)

Human beings behave badly, on a regular and distressing basis. Christians are human beings. Ergo, Christians behave badly, on a regular and distressing basis, even though – hello! – we’re supposed to hold ourselves to a higher, more heavenly standard.

And when we fail, the rest of the world is watching, with barely restrained glee.

There are evangelists who preach to the poor, collecting their dimes and dollars, and then living in multimillion-dollar compounds filled with luxurious furnishings and accompanied by fleets of luxury cars, enormous boats and private jets. (“I don’t make any more than I’m worth,” one told a reporter here a few years ago. “We’re definitely within IRS guidelines.”) There is the regular – by now predictable but always freshly horrifying – spectacle of sexual predators in positions of sanctified trust, and those who protect them instead of the victims.

This all started early in the Christian era, and it has never let up over two millennia. Today, however, the whole world is keeping tabs, in a very real sense – and the whole world is judging.

Journalists love the smell of hypocrisy in the morning, and the present era has just provided additional grist for the mill. Without saying a single word about the politics involved, we observe the spectacle of a Mormon – someone who has signed on to some decidedly unChristian notions (that men can become gods with their own planets and harems, that women cannot be admitted into the best class of heaven without their husbands’ express consent) – questioning the Christian beliefs and commitment of the President of the United States, for a large and appreciative audience of conservative evangelical  Christians.

Isn’t it rich? Would that it were rare.

In my quarter-century as a professional journalist, I’ve written articles on a host of subjects. From time to time they’ve involved members of officially, tax-deductibly Christian groups who did not always strive to live to the highest standards.

Typically, in these cases, leaderships have behaved badly – lying and engaging in unethical behavior, among other sins – and yet are outspokenly outraged at being questioned beyond the content of their press releases.  Burdened with an excessive sense of entitlement, they apparently feel no compunction about painting the messenger as one of Satan’s busy little worker bees.

But Christians, of whatever stripe, should be open and honest in their dealings. Christians, of all people, should lack any sense of entitlement, and not pretend that the end justifies the means. Christians, of every creed and covenant, should walk humbly with our God, and do our stumbling human best to keep Jesus’s commandments to us, his people. As often and inevitably as we fail, we owe that effort to our Lord.

– Sarah Bryan Miller