Last week New York’s Assistant Bishop, Mary Glasspool wrote this reflection / sermon for the priests of our diocese. Given the divisions and trauma that we as a nation (and as The Episcopal Church) are going through, I thought her words were prophetically important for us as Christians. I ask you to read these words, and remembering that while the context was her teaching the priests of our diocese, I believe we can all benefit from her reflection
I was speaking with a friend of mine this past week who had just returned from a retreat at Iona Abbey in Scotland. Part of our conversation centered on the worship there, and my friend reported being startled when, during the prayers of the people at one of the services, the officiant invited the following: Let us pray for those parts of the world that suffer strife and division: the Middle East, Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, and the United States.
In a very real way, I was reassured that there is a recognition outside of our own country that there is division and strife here, and that we are being prayed for specifically because of it. And the prayer shined a light on a reality that we are living every day: that of a divided and conflicted country. I keep thinking that there is a huge opportunity for the Church to model for people what it looks like to deal in a healthy manner with conflict; to show a better way of bringing about justice; to do the work of love in deeply wounded places. There are so many biblical passages we could adopt for this journey. I think of Paul’s words to the Church in Rome. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. (Romans 12:9-10) I wonder if we pay enough attention to that last statement – Outdo one another in showing honor
Americans are taught from childhood that competition is good. It builds character, strengthens drive, fuels ambition, and pushes us to do our best. But the competitive spirit has been bred so successfully that it now extends far beyond our playing fields or boardrooms or shop floors. Competition between spouses destroys the trust and love necessary to maintain and cultivate the relationship. Competition between children escalates into gang wars that destroy families, neighborhoods, and lives. Competition between Christians also exists, and like other misplaced matches of world rivalry, it is a competition that creates only losers. Individual churches and whole denominations have eagerly bought into the numbers game, convinced that more is better, that biggest is best. The church with more members, a bigger choir, a dizzying array of special classes and programs – we deem these churches as winners
The Apostle Paul does call Christians to enter into serious competition. But it is a contest with a considerable difference. There is no winner-take-all warfare against outsiders waged in the name of liberty, justice, and the American Way. The biblical challenge calls Christians to outdo one another in showing honor – not sanctuary size or annual budgets or number of people. The fullness of living that Paul outlines is not the fullness of size, but the fullness of the Spirit, the fullness of Christ. Instead of pitting Christians against Christians, in competition for Church members, supremacy of theological viewpoint, or (God help us) wealth and power; Paul suggests other ways of outdoing each other. Let’s see who can love the most, with all that true loving costs. Let’s see who can forgive the most, even when the woundedness still hurts. Associate with the lowly. Bless those who persecute you. Outdo one another in honoring people. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Outdoing one another in honor is not the world’s way of competing. The world, in fact, may brand the Church as foolish, futile, and failing. But the Church can still serve God’s world by modeling what it means to love, despite the hate being thrown around on a daily basis; to minister justice with compassion (in the words of this week’s collect), and by competing not for numbers, size, or even being theologically correct – but for joy, compassion, true justice, and forgiveness. The world should know that we are Christians not because we’re right, but because of our love.
With much love for all of you,