Sunday, September 14, 2008

Pentecost XVIII: Complexities, Reconiliation, and Forgiveness

Father Pat at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Coeur d'Alene was kind enough to let me deliver the sermon at all four services this weekend. I thought I might repost it here as well, sans a couple of inside jokes. The basic message is this: the Bible and the world are far too complex to allow for arrogance; we must look instead to reconciliation, which I believe is a form of forgiveness (the theme of the readings).


Readings for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year A:
Old Testament: Exodus 14:19-31
Psalm: Psalm 114
New Testament: Romans 14:1-12
Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35

May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Liberator, and Sanctifier.

Good morning. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Nathan Empsall, and the only thing that really matters about me is that I’m John and Glenda’s kid.

We joined this parish after moving here from Texas in 1999, when I was 12. Alas, I haven’t been able to see it much the past three years. I’ve been going to college in New Hampshire, double majoring in Government and Native American Studies, and will start my senior year next week.

What I want to talk about today, and what I see in these lessons, is the complexity of the Bible and why that demands that we as a society set arrogance aside. There is nothing more beautiful about this world is how intricate it can be. What I love most about Scripture is how truly layered it is, that politics aren’t the only thing Christ talked about.

When Father Pat told the 10:30 crowd last week that I would be sharing this weekend, he said he’d try not to let me get too radical. I don’t blame him. Similarly, several friends said at coffee hour that they were looking forward to my take on the election. Well, I’m not going to speak much about politics today, but I don’t blame folks for thinking that I might. Of the 36 months since going off to college, I have spent 23 months working on or writing about the New Hampshire presidential primary, 5 on the 2006 midterms, 6 working in DC, and just 2 stopping to catch my breath. Every job I’ve ever had was either Episcopalian or political in nature - or at least, those that didn’t involve French fries and mops. In fact, for the past three months, it was both faith AND politics. I’ve most recently been interning at the Episcopal Public Policy Network in DC.

The intersection of faith and politics excites me. I hope to build my house on that intersection, and plan to base my career around justice issues. Christ was seen, in His day, as a political figure. Bible verse after Bible verse refers to governments, justice, and poverty.

But if 75% of the sermons I give are political in nature, today has to be that 25%, for there is a danger in focusing too narrowly on one aspect of the Bible, as I am clearly wont to do. While the political implications of Christ’s words are what fire me up most about faith, they are not the most important thing about the Bible. The most important thing about the Bible is its complexity, the fact that it holds so many different messages, not just in the same book but often in the same passages, and that all of those messages are equally true.

Unfortunately, many of us find it easy to get bogged down in just one element of these truths, and part ways with those who get bogged down in another. That’s why I went on for so long about my political involvement, to show I’m as guilty of that, if not even more so, than most. Modern Christianity has so many fractures – evangelicals who look to the Great Commission as perhaps the only commission, knocking on doors to save souls; fundamentalists who talk about personal purity and avoiding the behaviors of the night in Paul’s epistle last week; theologians who use big words like exegesis and metaphysics; social justice advocates like myself. We squabble about which message the Bible actually contains, but here’s the rub – it contains all of them. We argue about which is the focus, but when you look at the whole text, there’s no escaping of any of them; they are all a focus – sometimes, even in the same verse.

When I was in DC this a spring and summer, I tried to attend a different Episcopal church every Sunday. Due to a severe love of sleeping in, I only made it to 8, but in them, I saw a large diversity. I attended two of them on the same Sunday morning, the Sunday when the Gospel was Jesus and the Canaanite woman. The two sermons I heard were radically different from one another. At an African American Episcopal church, St. Mary’s Foggy Bottom, the preacher talked about Jesus growing into his true identity not as the savoir for Jews but the savior for all people, and said we too are being called into larger missions and identities. An hour later at an Anglo-Catholic parish four blocks away, St. Paul’s K Street, the priest literally brought tears to my eyes as he recounted an experience in college when he, an Episcopalian, was turned away from confessional at the Catholic University of America during his darkest hour, just as the Canaanite woman was initially turned away. I would not have thought to preach either sermon, as my take on the lesson was entirely different. One could draw from it lessons of persistence or the power of faith; the recurring theme of the Apostle’s ignorance; or gender relations and the way Christ tried to change them. I had a friend in Texas who told me way back when we were in elementary school – he’s that smart a guy – that what he saw in this verse was a human Jesus, a Jesus with imperfections we can all relate to – why, he called this woman a dog, even HE got angry and insulted people! Clearly, the argument isn’t over what the passage means, but over how many meanings it has.

And yet, even though all these meanings are real and valid, fights over which matter more are commonplace. We’re always losing the full message. And it’s not just happening to mainline vs. fundamentalist Christians like I talked about earlier, but to the larger United States. We’ve begun to vote on these differences, and to call one another names – those elitist liberals who control the press and want to socialize medicine, those backwards conservatives who ignorantly cling to their guns and want to take us back to the Stone Age. I don’t deny that I’m guilty of this too!

These differences may not be splitting St. Luke’s, but they are beginning to creep into our larger Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion. We see this in the Bishops of San Joaquin and Pittsburgh, attempting to break away from the larger whole while gaining power for themselves, and in the Archbishops of Nigeria and Sydney, refusing to attend the Lambeth Conference. We’re at a point where some in our society, on both the left and the right, won’t even TALK to those who emphasize a different element of the faith.

But step away from the conflicts and look at the actual text. It’s all there, the justice AND the purity. I am so proud of the Jubilee Ministry here at St. Luke’s. The things that have developed here over the last six years are nothing short of breathtaking – the St. Vincent’s ministry, the MDG funds, Father David’s weekly e-mail reflections. I was proud to watch this new direction begin when I was in high school, and my only regret about leaving town for college is that I haven’t been here to watch it flourish and develop. But while we do have amazing justice ministries in this parish and this diocese, we don’t deny the messages of sin and grace in the Bible. We’ve had many sermons and studies on that topic too. We hold these themes in concert.

I have a friend in New Hampshire, his name’s Jim but we call him “Thork.” Thork graduated two years ago, and shared his faith at the Navigators Christian Fellowship senior spotlight night that year. Thork noted that our campus’ Christians usually split into the same old two groups – social justice vs. personal purity. He said that despite the split, these two facets of Christianity are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have a coin without two sides, and you can’t have true Christianity without both serving “the least of these” and an effort to “go and sin no more.” The two Christian camps should stop quarreling, and recognize one another’s validity and importance. Nevertheless, it is a good thing both camps exist. We need challenge, and our natural inclination is to focus only on the part of faith that comes easiest to us as individuals. The existence of that other group of individuals, whichever group it is, throws Scripture back in our faces and provides us with that challenge.

Thork later e-mailed me, “My prayer is that as we draw closer to Christ, he would draw us closer to each other. My vision is that we (conservative and liberal Christians) are climbing opposite sides of a pyramid. We can come together – and we can only come together - as we draw closer to He who is at the peak.”

Thork’s right, we do need that challenge if we’re going to find Christ, for again, every little verse contains a wealth of different meanings. Every little verse contains a wealth of different meanings. It is that complexity that convinces me that the message of forgiveness in today’s readings is so very vital. And yet even these readings contain multiple lessons.

In the Gospel, we see Jesus telling Peter to forgive not seven times, but seventy seven, and giving us yet another beautiful parable: “In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Well, I searched the Internet yesterday for the words “forgiveness Bible,” and came back with 4.9 million different results. That’s a lot, but “forgiveness sermon” was a little more manageable, with a mere 1.7 million webpages. So I narrowed the search down even further to “sermon, Matthew 18:21-35,” and it still came back with over 29,000 results. That’s a lot of different meanings and lessons for just one passage. There are, of course, the basics: the importance of forgiving, how hard it is to forgive, and how wonderful it feels to unburden yourself of anger. One could discuss personal vs. societal forgiveness, or the Sacrament of confession. There’s historical context of a world where forgiveness could only be obtained at the central Temple location. Even the importance of the number seven, and other Biblical numbers. What resonates most with me is not so much the importance of forgiving others, but the importance of ASKING for forgiveness for one’s self.

The beauty about forgiveness is that, when we are able to do as Jesus says and let it come from the heart, all hate and anger washes away. Forgiveness doesn’t have to be patronizing, although it can feel that way when we are the ones being forgiven. “I forgive you. You are the bad person here, on the shameful end of the stick, and I the victim, but I am a big person and I forgive you.”

No, true forgiveness, from the heart, is much more soothing and Christ-like than that. We’re taught that sin is not just bad behavior; it is anything that separates us from God and God’s will. In that case, I would suggest forgiveness, as that which heals sin, is anything that brings us closer to God. Reconciliation, a process that brings split groups together and heals the body of Christ, is a mutual form of forgiveness, and it is something that our Anglican Communion, our world, and our country all so desperately need.

We see that the Bible is complex – the multiple messages contained in passages about the Canaanite woman, or this verse about forgiveness. Our Book of Common Prayer’s catechism may only be one one hundredth the length of the Roman Catholic catechism, but the two do agree on at least one thing: the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit and God still uses it to speak to us thousands of years later.

But while the Bible may be infallible, we are not. The lens through which the Bible is read – our eyes, our minds – is a very foggy lens indeed. Just because the book’s words contain the truth does not mean we understand those words; it does mean that it can be read so easily. The Bible is the truth, not necessarily my interpretation of it. When a book is so complex, when a passage can contain so many meanings, there is no way for any person or church to have the market cornered. There is a certain arrogance in believing otherwise, and I see that arrogance in the crisis facing our church today.

As a college student in New Hampshire, I feel I have two bishops – one, Jim Waggoner, whom I love and admire very, very much, but also the infamous Gene Robinson, who is ultimately in charge of my campus ministry and parish. And I think he’s great. He is, bar none, the best Episcopal preacher I have ever heard and an inspiring leader. But, that having been said, when The Episcopal Church decides that it knows what’s best for the Anglican Communion, that it knows better than other Anglican provinces what the Bible says about justice and sexuality and decides to abandon a communal agreement made only five years prior and expects everyone else to just deal with it, it is taking on that arrogance and ignoring the world’s complexities. It doesn’t matter if we are ultimately right, as I believe we are; we can’t treat our brothers and sisters in such a dismissive way.

Yet by the same token, when the Archbishops of Nigeria and Uganda say only THEY know what Scripture says and that THEY are the world’s only true confessing Anglican church, when they declare themselves the new leaders of us all and say that if we refuse to adapt their views we are guilty of practicing COLONIALISM, they too show that arrogance.

There is no forgiveness in the scenario that confronts us Anglicans today. As long as fingers are being pointed out and not in, the church will continue to walk apart from God. If we listen to today’s Gospel and seek true forgiveness from the heart, then we seek reconciliation. Forgiveness, reconciliation, is willing to admit that our opponents – be they conservative Anglicans or liberal Anglicans, be they Obama Democrats, McCain Republicans, or, yes, Paul and Barr Libertarians – that our opponents may actually have a good point once in awhile, and that we must always listen to them if we’re to ever hear that point. If God really does love all His children, if they really are all equal, then we must walk together.

This is where Paul’s epistle comes in: “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

When asked to define Anglicanism, Desmond Tutu said simply, “We meet.” We meet. We forgive, we look past our differences and worship God together. We set aside arrogance, recognizing that in a world so complex with a Bible so layered, there is no room for hubris. Like Paul says, we ALL stand before God, and it is never up to us to judge.

What’s more, reconciliation isn’t just about Scriptural interpretation in a post-Lambeth world, or even economic complexities in an election year when even the good guys are distorting the facts and simplifying reality. No, the need for reconciliation and forgiveness, for healing, is everywhere we look. There’s no room for impatience in the grocery checkout line when the person in front of you has 90 items and takes an extra 5 minutes to count out exact change. There’s not even room for hatred when a black Ford F250 with a really big trailer swings out of the Super One parking lot on Hayden Avenue and swerves into your lane forcing you right off the road last week when you’re just trying to drive to Rustler’s Roost for lunch with a friend from church! He’s lucky I made it!

But forgiveness is not a one way street. The guy endangered me, he was wrong. I thought unchristian thoughts, I was wrong. Nor is forgiveness condescending, or the property of a mere few. It is the healing of mutual wounds, and it is any process that draws us closer to God. It is what is demanded of us in a complex world by a complex book, and Paul shows us that it leaves no room for arrogance. Talking to Fr. David last night, I was reminded that arrogance is also in the parable, when the forgiven slave refuses to forgive. He only goes halfway, refusing to pass along that gift, allowing his master to lift him up but refusing to do the same for those beneath even him. That belittling of others, tat accepting forgiveness while refusing to forgive, is an arrogance, and he was punished for it. It’s right there in our Lord’s prayer: forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Yet arrogance is probably the sin I myself am most guilty of. I am just a 21 year old SNOT who has not yet received any formal theological training, so I ask your forgiveness for any arrogance that I may have displayed in this sermon or at any point in the last eight years. With any luck, the places I have been the last three – New Hampshire, New Orleans, DC, Kootenai Medical Center – have shown me that the world is too complex for that behavior.

These complexities should come as no surprise. OF COURSE the God who gave us the intricate patterns of a butterfly’s wings, the ins and outs of the laws of physics I sure don’t understand, the molecular structure of an earthworm, the interconnections of our circulatory and respiratory systems – OF COURSE that God also gave us a complex operating manual. And these real world complexities are why I am convinced that God exists. Nothing so intricate, and nothing so beautiful, can possibly be random. All politics aside, that’s what I love most about my Jesus.


nic said...

Great sermon... Paul emphasizes our misnistry should be one of reconsiliation - nice to see your ephasis there as well.
To be understood, the Bible must be discussed, it can't be understood from only one point of view. You have some great perspective. We should always find unity in what is essential, and liberty in non-sessentials.

Nathan Empsall said...

Thanks, Nic!

James said...

Very good; very good indeed.

My favourite bit is I would suggest forgiveness, as that which heals sin, is anything that brings us closer to God. I wish I had said that.

Nathan Empsall said...

Thank you, James! I was rather proud of that myself. It wasn't something I had thought about before, it occurred to me as I wrote, but I really liked it. The Spirit leads! :)