Saturday, May 3, 2008

Should You Yell "Fire!" in a Crowded Church?

Fr. Tim Fountain
Sermon for Easter 7, 2008 (Sunday after Ascension Day)

Try to imagine the confusion of the first Christians.
They had just received Jesus back from the grave at Easter
But then (Acts 1:6-14) he ascended into heaven, and "a cloud took him out of their sight."
He did not leave them specific timelines or details: "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority."
He just left them a promise: they would receive the power of the Holy Spirit and be his witnesses "to the ends of the earth."
So they stayed together and prayed.

Today we are together, praying, during a very confusing time in church life.
On the one hand, Good Shepherd is doing great.
On the other hand things in the diocese and the Episcopal denomination around us seem to be headed from bad to worse. Last month, a judge in Virginia, where the Episcopal Church is suing a group of parishes, rejected the Episcopal Church claim that that it is not divided. The judge wrote, …it blinks at reality to characterize the ongoing division within the Diocese, ECUSA, and the Anglican Communion as anything but a division of the first magnitude, especially given the involvement of numerous churches in states across the country, the participation of hundreds of church leaders, both lay and pastoral, who have found themselves "taking sides" against their brethren, the determination by thousands of church members in Virginia and elsewhere to "walk apart"…, the creation of new and substantial religious entities, such as CANA, with their own structures and disciplines, the rapidity with which the ECUSA's problems became that of the Anglican Communion, and the consequent impact-in some cases the extraordinary impact-on its provinces around the world, and, perhaps most importantly, the creation of a level of distress among many church members so profound and wrenching as to lead them to cast votes in an attempt to disaffiliate from a church which has been their home and heritage throughout their lives, and often back for generations.
I don’t like to bring these things up (and the Vestry doesn’t like me to bring them up) because it is like yelling "Fire!" in a crowded church – why create an ordeal when our stuff is going so darn well?

I do it because of what Peter says about fiery ordeals
1) Fiery ordeals are normal.
Peter says, "Do not be surprised."
The church has an adversary, the devil, prowling around like a lion seeking people to devour. There will always be ordeals.
2) Fiery ordeals test what we are made of.
The Greek word that Peter used for "test" is sometimes translated "prove" – how we respond to the ordeal proves what we are about.
Do we really rejoice that Christ cares for us, even though some situations are unpleasant?
Do we really stay humble when we think we are right and someone else is wrong?
Do we really discipline ourselves to do things God’s way, even when others aren’t playing by God’s rules?
Do we really resist the devil, even when that is painful or costly?
3) Fiery ordeals bond us with other faithful Christians.
"…for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering." One of the best things about all the current ordeals in the church and the world is that faithful Christians from very different races, cultures and backgrounds are connecting with one another for support. I find myself in touch with people in other states and even other countries, sharing prayer and encouragement.
At the end of our Gospel, Jesus prays for us: "Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one." As God preserves us in stressful times, we are built up in unity with God and one another.
4) Fiery ordeals make us run to the only true safety that exists:
"Cast all your anxiety on God, because he cares for you."
"After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever."

Like the first disciples, watching Jesus rise up into the clouds, I don’t know all the timelines and details of what’s next. But I believe what the Vestry heard when we studied the Bible at our planning retreat this year:
We need to put Jesus Christ in first place
We need to help one another do that

And somehow, in some way I don’t fully understand, the fiery ordeals of the church are the Lord’s way to make us do both. Let’s stay together and pray together and see how "God exalts us in due time." Amen.


cp said...

Do we really stay humble when we think we are right and someone else is wrong?
Do we really discipline ourselves to do things God’s way, even when others aren’t playing by God’s rules?
Do we really resist the devil, even when that is painful or costly?

Good questions to ask, whether you support the Episcopal Church or not.

TLF+ said...

Thanks, cp - they were painful questions that came up as I read this Sunday's selections from I Peter 4 & 5.

I give myself maybe a "C" (and that's probably generous) across the board - and certainly an "F" on how I handle some of them, at least some of the time.

cp said...

We totally see eye to eye on this one! It's important to be passionate about your belief, but I know I can get pretty low grades in the humility dept too. We are called to speak the truth, but we must love our neighbor as ourselves with the simple act of shutting up and listening! (Easier said than done!)

The lectionary is a gift we can all celebrate. It seems to focus on something I need this week whether I am interested in hearing it or not!

More food for thought on this week's readings from Rev. Kathy Monson Lutes (St Andrews, Rapid City) in this morning's sermon:

To be humble is a tough go in this present culture. To be humble is not the same as subservient, or meek, or a doormat. I don’t see humble modeled much in our culture. I see posturing, I see the elevation of individual achievement, I see the need to be right. I see hero worship instead of mentoring.

To be humble is to admit to ourselves and to others that we may be wrong or that we may grow. It is to approach the others of God’s creation with an attitude that in the encounter, in the conversation, in the work and in the play, that we will be transformed, that we will be changed, that something amazing may happen and we will see the face of God. To be humble is to ask for and accept forgiveness. To be humble is to walk hand in hand with Jesus in our midst, Jesus in the other, Jesus in our suffering, and in our joy.

To be humble is to be who God creates us to be; to be humble is glory.

TLF+ said...

Preaching is especially tricky in these times. It is one of the last "one-directional" forms of communication...where else do people have to just sit and not respond? It is humbling to be trusted with a pulpit.

As Kathy+ says in the sermon quote, good leaders are, in fact, mentors. They are strong enough to trust and empower others. Only very insecure people need the hero worship mentioned in the sermon quote... or to beat any critics out of existence.

But even a good mentor needs to have some confidence in the truth and value of what he or she imparts to others. And that invariably leads to questions of right and wrong, and boundaries of what will or won't be accepted in a group.

For me, the application for the Episcopal Church would involve some sort of gracious separation of our conflicted factions. The truth claims that are offered cannot be reconciled - Integrity could not be true to itself if it were forced to have me as a mentor; The kind of Biblical authority that traditional Anglicans find true and valuable cannot be honored under Liberal Protestantism (TEC's leadership).

Letting the "sides" have some breathing room, with open lines of communication, some common work in serving human need, and prayerful hope that the One who raised Jesus from the dead might give us new and unexpected life together seems to me to be the only Christlike way forward.

Any other model - litigation, Confessional Statements w/ disciplinary teeth, whatever, means the submission of one "side" to the other.

I do not consider it burdensome to ask forgiveness - I have said/posted some pretty harsh stuff in the course of all the controversies and surely wounded people in the process.

But as Kathy+ so rightly preaches, humility does NOT = submissive doormat. And the teaching and work of the church that I believe to be true to the mind of Christ cannot be compromised to appease those who don't agree.

So, how do we make room for one another with the kind of humility this sermon describes? How can we become the "meek" and blessed by Jesus?

Progressives don't see that happening via an Anglican Covenant, and traditionalists don't experience that via TEC's appeal to "unique polity and hierarchical boundaries."

So, what's the application of the sermon as you see it, vis a vis the current church distress?

Alice C. Linsley said...

Preach without fear. Speak the truth in love and humility.

Fiery ordeals do indeed form friendships. I've made friends for life with those who for the sake of the Gospel have proven themselves to be my true brothers and sisters. I count you, Fr. Tim, among them and I give thanks for your life and witness.

David Handy+ said...

When I first read the title of the sermon and saw the picture of the leaping flames, I assumed that this would somehow be a message about the fire of the Holy Spirit since it's for Pentecost. But this semon about the "fiery ordeal" we are going through in TEC and the whole Anglican Communion is also timely.

Personally, it reminds me of the ancient legend of the Phoenix, which dies in a blazing fire susopposedly about every 500 years or so (if I recall correctly). And then the new Phoenix rises from the ashes of the old one. Interestingly enough, the Anglican tradition is about 500 years old (i.e., since the original Reformation). And the "third pope," Clement of Rome, writing about the time of the book of Revelation (around AD 96 or so) draws upon that ancient legend of the Phoenix in discussing the resurrection, perhaps lending it a bit more legitimacy.

Today, in the Daily Office we read about the LORD telling Samuel to stop grieving over Saul, and go ahead and anoint a new king for Israel, and so he anoints David the young shepherd boy (1 Sam. 16). When I heard that, I sensed the Lord saying something similar to me. How long are you going to keep on mourning over the demise of TEC and the disintegration of the old form of Anglicanism? It's time to move on...

David Handy+ said...

Oops. My mistake on the timing of the sermon. I see now that it was for this past Sunday, the one after the Ascension and not Pentecost. But in this time leading up to Pentecost, perhaps it's still germane.

Some of you may still be mourning the breakup and collaps of TEC. If so, I'm not trying to chide or criticize anyone for being where they are and still mourning the Fall of Anglicanism in North America. That's OK. I was just sharing a personal prompting I felt in my own case.

Saul is probably the most tragic figure in the Old Testament. He started out with so much potential and promise..."How are the mighty fallen!," David lamented after Saul's death in battle later.

And the parallel to TEC seems very apt to me. How is this formerly mighty denomination fallen. It had so much promise. But it has fallen into insanity and is now in the process of destroying itself.

Lord, have mercy. And raise up and anoint the young Global South Anglicanism that will replace the old fallen one.