Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
June 1, 2014
In the year 1873, Bishop Cummins of the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky participated in a service of Holy Communion with a group of people who were not Episcopalians. Not a big deal, right? Actually, the backlash against Bishop Cummins was so great that he had to leave the Episcopal Church.
I know of an Episcopal church that had a fight in the 1960s. Was it women’s ordination or what kind of Prayer Book should we use? No. The fight was whether the priest should wear a collar that goes around the neck, or whether should he wear the collar that is only in front.
Whenever I hear these stories I just do the facepalm. Churches have split over how long the sermons should be and, no joke, whose fried chicken should be served at church pot-lucks. Oh heaven help us.
And it’s not just churches either. Human beings have this capability to split ourselves over the smallest issues. We become one another’s opponents at the drop of a hat. Consider our political system. Two opposing parties square off and denounce the other. Or think about our judicial system. Technically, it is called an “adversarial” system because the whole point is to create a situation in which the defense and prosecution are set up as adversaries. My concern is that we have allowed division and distrust to be the name of the game and that we have all lost focus on the bigger picture. My prayer for society and for the church is to leave those divisions behind and become one, just as Jesus prays that we become one.
And this is not some unrealistic, twenty-nine year old, idealism. Even though I may be an idealistic twenty-nine year old, I’m not that naive. But what I do believe is that we are much more likely to squabble and fight amongst ourselves when we have lost sight of the big picture. Lose focus, and it all falls apart. Keep an eye on the ultimate mission, and you get unity. And that’s exactly what draws the first disciples together.
Look back at this passage from the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus has ascended into heaven and commissioned the apostles to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. That is the big picture. Spreading the good news of Jesus Christ is the big picture. And it’s the big picture that brings this motley crew together. Many times we read this list of original disciples and we don’t stop to think about it. But think about it.
We have Matthew. Now Matthew was a tax collector. Tax collectors at the time of the New Testament were even more despised than the IRS is nowadays. Because it was perfectly acceptable, even commendable, for tax collectors to skim money off the top for themselves and then charge more to the people they were taxing. It was all part of the system. And remember, tax collectors were working for the Roman Empire. The same Romans who were brutally oppressing the Jews of the time with other means, like crucifixion. So anybody working for the Romans, including Matthew, would have been very unpopular.
In the same list of disciples, however, we come across Simon the Zealot. Now just a word about Zealots: these were the people who went around stabbing Romans and those who worked for the Roman Empire. No joke – many of them carried long daggers in their cloaks and would knife those who were friendly with the Roman Empire. They were zealous for the Jewish nation, and hated their pagan oppressors.
And yet in this same little group of eleven apostles, you have a tax collector and a Zealot. Two people who should hate each other. On the face of it, Matthew should have been sleeping with one eye open, always wandering when Simon is going to stab him. Simon should have been looking for the best opportunity to kill Matthew because he worked for the Romans.
Look, we get all wound up about that church down the street with the flashy new sign or we squabble about whether it should be “and also with you” or “and with thy spirit.” But that’s small potatoes. These two guys, Simon and Matthew, are supposed to absolutely hate one another. Yet here they are committing themselves to the same, bigger vision. They are willing to put away their differences for the sake of something bigger. Imagine eating, sleeping, learning, and living with your fiercest enemy for three years. That’s exactly what happened to Simon and Matthew. They learned that their political differences were small potatoes – they learned about the big picture.
Not only that, but the passage from Acts throws in a few women. At this time, women weren’t even allowed to testify in court because they were deemed so untrustworthy. But here we have a group of women hanging out and testifying to the risen and ascended Lord. On the face of it, this story looks like it’s totally made up. These people just should not be hanging out together. Because this seems to be unrealistic, twenty-nine year old, idealism. But it’s not.
What the world might call idealism, we call the Kingdom of God. Simon and Matthew and this host of women commit themselves to the Lord and to one another because in the Lord Jesus, all the little stuff doesn’t matter. What does matter is the Kingdom of God. See, if you’re truly committed to the Kingdom of God, then it doesn’t matter if you’re a Catholic or a Methodist or or a Baptist or an Episcopalian. Shocking, I know, that a priest would say that. But we’ve got to get off our high horse and get on board with the bigger vision. And if we’re truly committed to the Kingdom of God, then we shouldn’t get all wound up about if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. Think about it, Simon was out to actually kill people like Matthew for political reasons. If they can work out their differences, I’m pretty sure we can too. It all comes down to this question: are we truly committed to the Kingdom of God or not?
If we are not committed to the bigger thing, the main focus, then, please, by all means, let’s squabble about any number of mole hills. Let’s waste all of our precious time and money arguing about whether the Texans should have taken Johnny Manziel or not. Let’s point fingers at the people on the other side of the political aisle for what we perceive as evil. And in the meantime, what happens? The poor remain without help and the gospel goes unheard. If the devil is at work anywhere in our world, it’s in our lamentable attempts to accuse one another of petty differences. That’s the world in which I can hear Simon sharpening his knife, and I can see Matthew looking over his shoulder.
But that’s not who Jesus calls us to be. Jesus calls us to live as examples to the rest of the world. The Church is supposed to be the one place, in all the world, in which people of different races, ethnicities, nations, languages, and opinions can gather without hint of aggression or distrust. Yes, it’s a tall order, and it requires us to extinguish our most dearly held judgments. Matthew has to stop collecting taxes. Simon has to put away his knife. We have to sacrifice our notions and prejudices and allow the Spirit to work anew in us. But then again, that’s the whole point. It’s no longer us who live, it’s Christ who lives in us.
Holy Comforter Episcopal Church is not going to be a place in which pettiness prevents us from preaching the gospel or serving the poor. We will not let one another’s political opinions or other loyalties get in the way of the Kingdom of God. We simply cannot make mountains out of our mole hills.
Because in the end, I believe, that when I stand before the great judgment seat of Christ, I will not be asked about my opinions on any number of small potatoes. I really don’t think God will care if I had communion with a Lutheran, or if I clapped my hands in church, or which party I supported or not. No. I believe, that in the end, it will all come down to this: was I faithful to the bigger picture? Did I serve the poor? Did I proclaim the gospel? I believe that God will care about this, and this only: Was I faithful to the Kingdom of Christ?