“can’t we all just get along?” – a sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost

preachinga sermon, based on Amos 7.7-15 and Mark 6.14-29, preached with the people of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on Sunday, July 12, 2015

“Can’t we all just get along?” So implored Rodney King in 1992 when the acquittal of Los Angeles police officers charged with having used excessive force during his arrest for driving under the influence sparked a riot; exposing long simmering tensions along fault lines of race and inequality, law and injustice, power and powerlessness. Twenty-three years later, we are reminded repeatedly that these electrified, incendiary third-rails remain.

Not only these. We live in tumultuous times of little concord and much discord. My mother ascribed to the Thumperian Principle, so named for Thumper the rabbit in the animated film Bambi, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Her close second word of sage counsel, “Never discuss politics or religion.” These days, in addition to that age-old pair of taboo topics, pick a subject, any subject – climate change, the Confederate battle flag,[1] gun control, immigration, marriage equality, the economy, particularly wealth disparity and poverty and the disappearing middle class – and the air of the public square will fill with the sorrowful noise of uncivil discourse, replete with strident critiques, sometimes, more sorrowfully, misrepresentations of positions and, by some, most sorrowfully, verbal assaults on persons.

“Can’t we all just get along?” Agree to disagree? Blessedly, sometimes, yes.

Our recently concluded General Convention, among many things, authorized marriage rites for same-sex couples and revised the marriage canon, making it gender-neutral.[2] With attitudes regarding these issues running a wide spectrum of pro and con, I was heartened by two particular responses. The first, a statement by twenty dissenting bishops who uphold the traditional understanding of marriage and who committed themselves “to the Church and its people, even in the midst of painful disagreement,” to “disagree…openly and transparently and charitably, pray(ing) for the grace to be clear about our convictions and to love brothers and sisters with whom we disagree…includ(ing) our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, walk(ing) with them, pray(ing) with and for them, and seek(ing) ways to engage in pastoral conversation.”[3] The second, Bishop Andrew Waldo’s post-convention Pastoral Letter in which he notes, “I have sensed our continuing desire to stay together – not necessarily resolving the differences among us, but learning how and deciding to live together as brothers and sisters in Christ in spite of those differences.”[4]

“Can’t we all just get along?” Agree to disagree? Sometimes, yes, and, reflecting on our scripture readings,[5] sometimes, no. And both the “yes” and the “no” are true of the church’s ministry; at times, of consolation and at other times, confrontation. In this, I recall an old adage that a God of mercy and judgment comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.[6] The latter, being the ministry, the godly calling of Amos and John the Baptist.

Amos - Sculpture, The Plumb Line and the City, Coventry Cathedral, EnglandAmos beheld a vision: God standing at a wall, plumb line in hand, measuring, judging the spiritual and ethical un-uprightness, the tottering, wavering faithfulness of the people Israel. Amos’ prophecy of doom and destruction so distressed the priest Amaziah that he appealed to King Jeroboam to silence God’s prophet, “Amos conspires against you…the land cannot bear all his words.” Not waiting for the king’s reply, Amaziah, afraid and doubtless driven by self-interest, as religion and state shared a self-protective symbiosis, confronted Amos, “Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary and a temple of the kingdom.” Amos, confessing that he was no prophet and testifying of God’s call to this ministry, continued to prophesy.

Eight centuries later, John the baptizer denounced King Herod for violating the Torah[7] by marrying his sister-in-law Herodias. Herodias hated John and wanted him dead. Herod, believing John to be righteous and holy, admired him. Herod, pressured by his wife and finding perplexing pleasure in listening to the prophet’s condemnation, compromised, placing John under protective custody in prison. (Now, I cannot imagine how Herod could take delight in being condemned; save that, in his heart of hearts, he acknowledged his wrong and, thus, honored John – who, though incarcerated, refusing to be silenced, boldly continued to prophesy – for speaking the truth.) On Herod’s birthday, Herodias seized her opportunity; her daughter dancing, leading a pleased Herod to promise her anything. And a time of celebration became John’s dying day.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by Caravaggio, National Gallery, London, c. 1607-10

Amos. After him, John. After them, Jesus. After them, us. We come after these three; chiefly Jesus. We, baptized in God’s Name, have answered Jesus’ call, “Follow me” in his life and ministry to be as he is, to do as he does (note well that I didn’t say to be as Jesus was and to do as Jesus did, but rather, as he is and does, for Jesus is alive through the Spirit in us!), which, in this context, is to reach out with love especially to those with whom we disagree.

How hard this is! Most of us, I imagine, are fairly wedded to our worldviews; the lenses through which we perceive and process the reality around and within us to make sense of the world and ourselves. And most of us, most of the time like, are partial to our perspectives, and find consolation with those who share our views.

But as important as the comfort of gathering with those who are like us with whom we most easily dwell in peace is the challenge of being with “the other,” engaging those who differ and disagree. All the while, keeping our heads, hearts, and hands open to the reality that there is one race. Human. There is one life we live and one world we inhabit. This. And, as Christians, no matter how greatly, vociferously, vehemently we disagree one with another, we are one, for “there is one body and one Spirit…one hope of (our) calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all”.[8] For our unity rests in the presence and power of God, not in our human agreements.

And, St. Christopher’s, with the coming of Jim Trimble,[9] your new vicar, and continuing with him your life and labor as a Christian community, I beseech and trust that you alway make the effort of engaging all others, taking the risk of challenge and change, of being challenged and changed. In this, you will not repeat that cardinal, sometimes blood-stained lesson of human history – illustrated in Amos condemned by those who could not bear his prophecy, John beheaded for daring to denounce the king’s immorality, and Jesus crucified for proclaiming to the powerful and privileged of state and religion that God’s kingdom of love and justice for all had come – of repudiating, sometimes killing the disturbers of our peace.

And, truth be told, when the occasion demands, when the status quo, when things as they are reek of the iniquity of inequality and injustice, we, following Amos, John, and Jesus, are to be disturbers of the peace.

Illustrations: Sculpture, The Plumb Line and the City, Coventry Cathedral, England and Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by Caravaggio, National Gallery, London, c. 1607-10

[1] On July 9, 2015, the South Carolina legislature voted to remove the Confederate battle flag, viewed by many as a symbol of racism and, for increasing numbers of a folk, a divisive emblem, from the grounds of the state capitol. On the following day, the flag was taken down.

[2] The 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church met in Salt Lake City, June 25-July 3, 2015. Resolutions A054 and A036, respectively.

[3] From Communion Partners Salt Lake City Statement, July 2, 2015

[4] From A Pastoral Letter from +Bishop Andrew Waldo (of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina) concerning votes during General Convention: July 2, 2015

[5] Amos 7.7-15 and Mark 6.14-29

[6] Originally coined by journalist and humorist Finley Peter Dunne in 1902 concerning the purpose of newspapers and, in 1987, adapted by Martin Marty to refer to the mercy and judgment of God.

[7] Leviticus 18.16; 20.21

[8] Ephesians 4.4-6

[9] The Reverend James Trimble’s first Sunday as vicar of St. Christopher’s Church is Sunday, August 9, 2015.

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2 thoughts on ““can’t we all just get along?” – a sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost

  1. What an incredibly timely sermon!!! “Can’t we all just get along???” I remember getting a t-shirt with the slogan in 1992. and I believe I still have it as a work-out shirt. I’m thinking of pulling it out and wearing it out in public, given all of the issues and challenges that cause us to disagree in this country that you mentioned in the sermon.

    My mom used to say the same thing as yours “if you don’t have anything nice to say, just don’t say anything”… and we never, EVER discussed politics in our house.

    Today, I’m more willing than at any time in my life to make a sincere effort to get to know and to get along with others who aren’t like me, I have to say, I’m reaping huge rewards from my efforts too. I’ve been invited to places I’ve not been invited in the past, I’ve been able to hear views totally foreign to mine, and I’m happy to agree to disagree with the person, and will even insist on “hugging it out” before parting. I remember you saying that as you get older, you too have shifted to being more open to other views. It’s a great feeling too.

    I’m so hopeful that as more issues like this pervade our society, that more and more of us will be able to agree to disagree without hate and that we’ll all recognize, as you shared, that we’re all of the HUMAN race and should be kinder to one another.

    Thanks as always Paul, for giving us awesome food for thought not just for today, but throughout the week!

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  2. You’re welcome, Loretta. Thanks, too, for your kind words, as always. Another thing I’ve learned – or, rather, I should say I am learning – as my aging (and, in that, perhaps having/gaining more experience at this adventure called “life”) opens me to listen and learn of other, indeed, “the other”, those who differ and disagree. Whenever I find myself able to articulate a counter/contrary view as well as another who holds that view AND whenever I am able to carry that understanding into my next conversation about that subject, indeed, to have that counter/contrary view become a part of MY understanding of that subject, then I know I have listened and learned.

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