Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Sausalito CA on September 27, 2015.
Several weeks ago, at the 9:30 children’s service, I invited the children to sit silently and imagine God holding them and hugging them in his warm embrace. I also encouraged them to listen to the silence, telling them that it is often in silence that God speaks. (St. John of the Cross says, “Silence is God’s first language. Everything else is a poor translation.”) After a good 30 seconds of silence, I asked them what they had heard. One child said that he heard some birds chirping outside; another said she heard some leaves rustling; and another heard the loud fan of the projector spinning. A new family was visiting that morning, whose daughter and son were eager to participate. The daughter responded to my question, saying, “I heard God speak to me.”
“Wow!” I said. Slightly apprehensive but mostly curious, I asked, “What did God say to you?”
She said, “God told me that he loves everybody, even the bad people.”
I think everyone in the room felt the beauty of this child’s wisdom and compassion, which was clearly divinely inspired. I imagine we were all thinking, “Out of the mouths of babes, you, Lord, have perfected your praise.” After thanking the young girl for sharing her wonderful divine revelation with us, her younger brother piped up and said, “I also heard God speak to me!”
“Ok, wow! What did God say to you?”
“God told me that he loves everybody, except for the bad people.”
We all chuckled a bit at the contradiction and I wasn’t entirely sure how to respond, except I knew I wanted to affirm both of them as receivers and channels of God’s voice. What would you say?
In many ways, these two siblings represented the church, made up of diverse peoples with different and sometimes opposing beliefs. We all believe we are listening to the same God, but sometimes we hear very different things; sometimes things that, on the surface, appear to contradict each other. Although I might want to stress the mercy of God, which I experience and receive in my moments of prayer and silence just like the little girl, I still need to be in conversation with those who stress the justice of God, which they likely experience in their prayer and silence, just like the little boy, who is the girl’s brother, part of his family. The two children invited me to see that those Christians who hold different beliefs than me are still part of my spiritual family. Those Anglicans who hold very different beliefs than me are still part of the Anglican family. In many ways, I need them.
I proudly identify as an Episcopalian and an Anglican even though it is difficult some because I know many Anglicans hold beliefs that I reject and even abhor. The worldwide Anglican Communion, made up of more than 80 million members in more than 165 countries, is the third largest Christian communion in the world (after the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches) and is therefore very likely to have diverse and opposing beliefs held among its many members. It seems the Holy Spirit says one thing to a young, white, educated male Episcopalian in Sausalito CA and something quite different to an African female Anglican in the diocese of Mundri in the Episcopal Church of South Sudan. (By the way, the average Anglican is a sub Saharan African woman in her 30s). Is God speaking out of both sides of his mouth or is God a Mystery too big for our limited minds to understand?
Things get even muddier when we witness the rapid growth and apparent success of conservative mega-churches and Anglican churches that promote a Prosperity Gospel that promises health and wealth to those who pray hard enough. In the meantime, the Episcopal Church in the United States (which is made up of about 2 million members) dwindles at a disturbing rate. Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey used to say that on a given Sunday, there are now more Anglicans worshipping in the province of Nigeria than all the Episcopalians in the United Kingdom, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand put together. As these growing Anglican churches spread a theology that I find disturbing and at times very dangerous, I want to cry out like Joshua in our reading from Numbers and say, “Stop them!” And with John from the Gospel and say, “Jesus, these people are doing some disturbing things in your name. We gotta stop them! They’re not really following us and I don’t think they’re following you.”
And although I disagree strongly with other Anglicans and Christians, I am convicted by these readings. Moses responds to Joshua by saying, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them.”
Yeah, but Moses, these people are not your prophets and God’s spirit is not on them. At least, I’m pretty sure they’re not prophets.
And Jesus says to John, “Do not stop them; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”
Yeah, but Jesus, these people seem to be against us and against what you represent. Or at least against what I think you represent.
Jesus then says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” In last week’s Gospel, Jesus took a child in his arms while he was teaching his disciples and I imagine him still holding this same child in his warm embrace while saying these words. “If you get in the way of my love and my perfect will for this child, it would be better for you to get out of the way completely. If you condemn or reject this child, you will have hell to pay.”
Which brings me back to the 9:30 service where two siblings have just experienced the warm embrace of God in silence and received two different messages from the divine. I responded to them by saying, “Well, it looks like we have two different theologies here and that’s ok.” I’m glad I said that and still a part of me wishes I also said something like, “Remember that you two are family and that you need each other. You will learn a lot about God from one another. You might disagree and you might want the other one to stop saying things that you don’t think are true about God. But stay in conversation, even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard. Stay in dialogue.”
In his address to the very polarized US Congress, Pope Francis said several times, “I want to be in dialogue with you” thus encouraging us to remain in dialogue with each another: liberals in dialogue with conservatives and Republicans in dialogue with Democrats. In his address, Pope Francis upheld Thomas Merton as a symbol of this openness to dialogue with others. Merton, whom I often quote in sermons, was a Trappist monk who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Louisville KY, which I actually visited earlier this summer. In one of my favorite books of his New Seeds of Contemplation, he writes, “As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them.”
Staying in conversation with those with whom we strongly disagree is hard work. It can be painful and full of anguish because, as Merton says, it is a resetting of a Body of broken bones.
Jesus says, “Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt loses its saltiness, what good is it? Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” Fire refines and salt helps bring out the true flavor in that which is salted. We are fire and salt to one another. Although it can hurt and burn, dialogue with one another (especially with those with whom we disagree) sharpens us and refines us and can ultimately bring out the best in us.
The current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby suggests that the church members of the Anglican Communion now loosen its ties with one another in the midst of its profound disagreements. Instead of being a “communion,” he suggests calling the churches a family, a family of adult siblings who are free to disagree but cannot change the fact that they are still family. Although this loosening of ties feels somewhat tragic and almost like a moving away from the powerful salt and fire of dialogue amidst disagreement, I hope we remain committed to one another as a family. Several years ago, I attended a meeting on the Study of Anglicanism in Chicago led by former presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey. While George Carey was lamenting the shattered state of the Anglican Communion, Frank Griswold was acknowledging the ultimately good pain and burn of the salt and fire of dialogue within the communion. Several times he explained and framed the state of the Anglican Communion or Anglican family by quoting Thomas Merton: “As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them.”
Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good. Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.
What I love so much about the Episcopal Church is that, after the Liturgy of the Word, we always gather together at the Table, as a spiritual family, even when we might disagree with one another, even when we might not like the sermon. There are as many different interpretations of the readings this morning as there are people in this church (as there are people in this world). And that’s ok because we are committed to one another even when we interpret Scripture differently and disagree. And I hope we can be committed to the salt and fire of dialogue, knowing that our brothers and sisters can refine us and ultimately bring out the best in us as we reset our body of broken bones. Amen.