Sermons

“Timor Mortis”

June 30th, 2018

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, by Christopher L. Webber on July 1, 2018.

“Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him.” (St. Mark 5:21ff.)

Do you know how much human life has changed just in the last hundred years? I’m not thinking abut airplanes and television and computers and space travel, I’m thinking about human life: human life has changed. I’m thinking about Jairus and his little daughter and issues of life and death.

My father, born at the beginning of the twentieth century was the youngest of some twelve or thirteen children. I don’t think he knew himself how many. He was the youngest and several of his siblings had died before he was born and he never knew them. I can only account for five who were still around when I was growing up toward the middle of the century, only five who had survived into middle age. My mother was one of eight or nine of whom I also knew only five. Several of her siblings died in childbirth or infancy and she never knew them. My parents on the other hand, had four children and they all grew up and three are still around. My wife and I had four and they are all still here. with ages between 50 and 60. Life expectancy in 1900 was less than that, less than fifty; now it’s upwards of 75. Infant mortality over the 20th century declined by 90%. Our lives have changed that much just in the last hundred years.

I’ve just finished a book about a man who died in 1865. He and his wife had ten children of whom five died before the age of six. That was typical. Three of them died in the span of six weeks one summer in a cholera epidemic. Can you imagine having four children and losing three of them, not all at once, but one this week and one the next week and a third several weeks after that? Six months later he wrote to a friend, “The first sharp bitterness is past,” but “oh it is sad to have no children playing around the hearthstone. I try, and may God give me the Grace to succeed, to look into other little glad eyes, and listen to other little glad voices; and I try to reason myself out of the selfishness that they are not mine. Oh that meeting hereafter!”

There’s a prayer in the Prayer Book that asks God to make us “deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of human life . . .” It was written in the 17th century I don’t think they needed it. If they didn’t know life was short and uncertain, they weren’t paying attention. I think we need it now more than they ever did. But Jesus lived in that other world and so did Jairus.

We heard in the gospel how Jairus “Fell down at Jesus’ feet” – this distinguished leader in his community fell face down in the dust to ask for Jesus’ help – and begged him repeatedly to come to his little daughter lying at the point of death. I think we an understand where he was coming from. Yes, it was common for small children to die, but that made it no easier for their parents. To lose a child is never easy, whether to death or American border guards. These days neither should happen and thank goodness the threat of disease and death at least is greatly diminished. Or has it? What about our world? I remember Fr. Schmidt talking about how the AIDS epidemic hit this parish not that long ago and killed so many. What other virus is lurking out there that might hit some other population or all of us?

I went back to Connecticut last week to dedicate a gravestone for my wife – and me – and I preached at the small country church that I served for the last four years before I moved here to California. The gospel last Sunday was the story of Jesus and his disciples in a storm on the Lake of Galilee and when they woke Jesus up, he asked them, “Why are you afraid?” Why? They were afraid of dying, that’s why. It’s normal to fear dying.

So death and the fear of death is a common theme this week and last, and if you get on the subject of the fear of death in the northwest corner of Connecticut you can’t help think about Sandy Hook and the twenty children and six teachers and staff gunned down one morning five and a half years ago. I think it’s like Pearl Harbor and Kennedy’s assassination and 9/11: if you were alive at that time, you remember where you were. I was in my car between my home and the church I was serving when the first reports came in. Sandy Hook was about 25 miles from that church. People had friends there. I knew the parish priest who lost children from the church school. Since then there’s been Parkland and Houston and an average of one school shooting every week this year – to say nothing of non-school shootings like the one in Annapolis on Thursday.

Did you see the interview with the girl in Parkland who said she wasn’t surprised by the shooting She expected it would happen, she said; the only question was, When. Do your children or grandchildren go to school with that assumption, that expectation: it’s just a question of when? So mothers wonder when the phone rings, when the cell phone goes off during the school day, whether this time it’s their school, their child. Jairus’ world had no cure for disease and we have no cure for guns. It’s a sickness that leads to death. But maybe some ways Jairus’ world was safer. At least there were no guns. But one way or another, death and the fear of death have not changed that much over the centuries.

I remember an old Scottish poem I came across years ago with the repeated refrain: “Timor mortis conturbat me:” “Fear of death distresses me” Let me read you just a very short bit of a very long poem with the Scottish dialect cleaned up but the Latin tag line still in place.

I that in health once was and gladness,
Am troubled now with sick and sadness,
And feebled with infirmity;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

On to the dead go all estates,
Princes, prelates, and potentates,
Both rich and poor of all degree;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He spares no lord for his presence,
Nor clerk for his intelligence;
His awful stroke may no man flee;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes Blind Harry and Sandy Traill
Slaine with his schour of mortall haill,
Quick Patrick Johnston might not flee;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Since he has all my brothers tane,
He will not let me live alane,
It seems I may his next prey be;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

That’s just a few of the many verses that make the point, rub it in, insist we pay attention. Well, that was six or seven hundred years ago but in the largest sense nothing has changed: death is still out there, and still disturbing. There’s a more recent American litany of the fear of death that skips the Latin and says it in plain English. You can find You-tube recordings by Lead Belly and Johnny Cash. I used to have a CD of Paul Robeson singing it and I would play it driving back and forth between Sharon and Bantam, Connecticut, between my home and the church. There were other songs on the same disc, but this one speaks to the subject of death and dying. You may know it yourself in some other version.

“There’s a man agoing round taking names, taking names;
There’s a man agoing round taking names;
he has taken my father’s name and has left my soul in pain;
there’s a man agoing round taking names.”

There’s a verse for every member of the family:

“There’s a man agoing round taking names, taking names,
There’s a man agoing round taking names,
he has taken my wife’s name and has left my soul in pain
there’s a man a-going round taking names.”

Does it make it easier to deal with somehow if we make poems or sing about it? The first reading today told us, “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.” That raises more theological and philosophical problems than I can deal with in one sermon. All I tell you this morning is, it’s here and it’s real and we have to deal with it. That’s where the gospel comes in.

Death is real and we have to deal with it. Sometimes we encounter it early. My grandmother lived with us when I was small and died when I was seven. I remember the open casket in the living room. My best friend died suddenly not yet 50. That was hard. My sister was killed in a climbing accident, also not yet 50 And last October, my wife died. I’ll come back to that because that was different – that was qualitatively different.

I think it was fear of death that terrified those disciples on the lake: the boat might sink – and they couldn’t swim. They were afraid of dying. They were afraid of that ultimate border between the known and the unknown: the fear of death. You can’t fix that by voting or volunteering or contributing. You can contribute to cancer research and so on and postpone it but it’s still out there. Average life expectancy, as I said, is a lot longer than it was a century ago but there’s still an average number that includes everybody sooner or later. The bottom line death rate remains 100%. There’s a “sell by” date which I have already passed. and you can’t postpone it forever.

Of course, whatever happened that night on the lake was only background to what happened in Jerusalem. They had given Jesus their lives, left everything to follow him, and then he, too, was dead, gone, beyond reach, and they were abandoned, and alone, and hopeless, and afraid. They hadn’t been listening, you see. They hadn’t been paying attention. “Why are you afraid?” Jesus asked them. Jesus shared their fear of death, but faced it for them and came again, rose again, to show them there was no reason to fear. And they went out with that message: He is risen; death is conquered; we are free of the fear of death forever. Christ has won the victory, conquered death, and offers us the gift of resurrection life.

Now, I’ve believed that, more or less, my whole life. But I’ve learned something more this last year. My wife died, as I said, last October. I came here not long after that for a funeral service and last week we dedicated the stone that marks her burial place and mine. As I said, I’ve lost friends and family members before, but this was different, this was qualitatively different. What I’ve slowly realized as the days and weeks have gone by is that death has lost its sting, lost its terror. Husband and wife, we say, “become one flesh in holy matrimony” I take that seriously. I experienced it. And it means that I was involved in her death in a whole new way: that where she is, I am already – and how can I be afraid of being there forever?

As I asked myself questions like that – came to that realization – I also realized in a whole new way, and at a deeper level what I have always claimed to believe at the very center of the Christian faith: that Jesus died, that he rose again to eternal life and that in him, I also have life. You see, just as I was joined in one body with my wife in marriage, so I was made one body with Jesus in baptism. And if they now live in resurrection life, so I also live that same life now, I begin now to share that life which is forever.

Now, I’m still planning to hang a round a good while longer. I’ve got lots of plans, lots of things to do, but when the time comes, as it will, a lot of the fear is gone, and should have been gone long ago because you and I are also one with Christ in baptism, and he also has passed through death into life and in him I share already the fuller, richer life still to come. And this life that we were given in baptism is the life we receive today at the altar: “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Why are you afraid? You are the people of God in whom Christ is alive and in whom we live; in whom we have the gift and the promise of life both now and hereafter forever.

Visitations

May 29th, 2018

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on the Feast of the Visitation, 2016.

Isn’t it interesting that the calendar brings Memorial Day and the Feast of the Visitation so close together? It can’t help but make you thoughtful.

At first glance, Donald Trump’s visit to the tomb of the unknowns at Arlington and Mary’s visit to her cousin Hannah haven’t a lot in common, but the larger themes of war and peace mark both occasions and need, I think, to be looked at together.

Begin with the readings assigned. Both readings today give us a song of peace: Hannah’s song and Mary’s are similar. Mary’s, in fact, is based on Hannah’s and both celebrate humility and lowliness and both celebrate the downfall of pride. God, we are told, has an agenda and that agenda is the downfall of human power and the raising up by God’s power of the weak and the helpless.

Memorial Day on the other hand tends to celebrate military power. To be technical, it simply remembers those who died for their country and asks no questions about the worthiness of the cause. But surely the cause does matter. There’s been a lot of controversy this last year about statues and war memorials. My daughter went for years to a church on Memorial Avenue in Richmond Virginia where every few blocks there’s a traffic circle and in the middle of the traffic circle a statue of a confederate leader on horseback. The one exception is the last statue which gives us Arthur Ashe holding a tennis racket. Which, I wonder, will be longer remembered?

But what are we to do with the generals? I don’t have a big need, myself, to take them down. Memorial Avenue left unchanged is a powerful statement on the foolishness of war. Here are all these generals carved in stone, and all around them a city that has long abandoned what they fought to preserve. No one has accurate numbers, but nearly a million young men died in the Civil War, far more in the North than the South, and more than in all our other wars together.

This is, we like to say, a great country, but was there then no one able to avert that disaster? Why did so many have to die to gain freedom for slaves? Why were so many willing to die in defense of the indefensible, in defense of slavery, in defense of the power to buy and sell human beings?

But how many men and women have died in American wars more recently: in Vietnam in a losing cause, in Afghanistan to no obvious purpose? So, yes, let us remember those who have died, but let us also remember those who sent them to die when there was nothing to be gained by so doing.

I happen to be reading the second volume of a three-volume biography of Winston Churchill [William Manchester: “The Last Lion”] and volume two is the story of the ten years from 1930-1940 when war could have been prevented if politicians had been more centered on peace and less centered on winning the next election. How many millions died in World War II because politicians failed to act sensibly? By all means honor those who died, but not without questioning the necessity of those deaths.

Do you remember the story of Brer Rabbit and the tar baby? I sometimes think a good many wars are like that: the harder you fight, the more you get stuck. The more men die in Afghanistan the harder is to get out – because it will signify that they died in vain. But having more men and women die in vain is not the answer. Donald Trump and Barack Obama don’t have much in common but both announced themselves opposed to the war in Afghanistan and neither could find the courage to end it because they didn’t dare look like a loser. And how many more need to die before someone has the courage to act?

I’m supposed to be talking about the Visitation: the coming together of two pregnant women whose sons would change history without drawing a single sword. And one of them sings a song, basically the same song that Hannah sang a thousand years earlier, about the putting down of the rich and powerful and the raising up of the lowly. “He has scattered the proud . . . He has brought down the powerful . . . He has lifted up the lowly . . .” That is God’s priority. Let us pray that someday it will also be ours.

Who Do I Belong To

May 13th, 2018

A sermon preached at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on May 13, 2018.

“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”  St. John 17:16

So who do you belong to? Jesus said, “They do not belong to the world.” He’s talking about his followers. He’s talking about us. He’s saying, “We do not belong to the world.” So who do we belong to?

There was a time when millions of Americans belonged to slave owners. It was pretty clear in those days who belonged to who. I’ve just finished writing a biography of James McCune Smith, a man who lived in the first half of the 19th century, a black American born in slavery in New York City when it was still legal in New York State to own slaves. As the battle over slavery heated up plantation owners would often argue that the slaves had a better life than the factory workers in New England. But Smith wrote an essay suggesting that there was no record of a New England factory worker fleeing south to become a slave. “There is not,” he pointed out, any record “of a single free black, who has gone down South and offered himself a candidate for the enjoyment of slavery. There is no impediment in his way. He has merely to go as far South as Baltimore, walk about the streets, and hold his tongue; the law will do the rest, and he will become a slave. No one has gone.” On the contrary, Smith pointed out, a thousand slaves a year were escaping to the North, but it is “a well-known fact,” he wrote, “that men, whatever the color of their skin, will not in their thousands run away from a good living.”

Who owns you? Who owns us? Every now and again I have to get to an early appointment and I walk down 19th Avenue between 7:30 and 8:30 in the morning and I see fifteen or twenty young men and women dressed alike in tight blue jeans and jackets leaning against a wall studying their iPhones. And suddenly an enormous bus comes up and scoops them up and off they go to the salt mines of Silicon Valley. Sometimes I’ll be walking up or down the street late in the day and see the same bus come back and let them out again still studying their cell phones.

Who owns them? What would Jesus say or James McCune Smith about who they belong to? What would they say of themselves? They might tell you that they own that iPhone in front of their face, but maybe not. Maybe it owns them. It certainly seems to control them. I don’t imagine they pick cotton in Silicon Valley. I imagine that they’re free to walk away from their work at any time, but who do they belong to, what purpose do they see for their lives? What is their vision? Is it to create the next big thing in the world of silicon chips or to make payments on a small house in suburban Oakland or Santa Somewhere. What’s the vision?

I doubt most of you are waiting for the morning bus to Silicon Valley but what are you waiting for, what treadmill are you on? To what are you committed? Jesus said, “You do not belong to the world.” But who do we belong to? And what difference does it make?

I’ve been asking myself these questions with a new urgency in recent months. Two or three things have changed in my life that have made me look again. First, I was asked to take on the writing of memorials for my college class. My college alumni magazine publishes short memorials 200 words or less for deceased classmates. We were upwards of 700 60-some years ago, but we’re down to less than half that now and new obituaries arrive in my on-line mail box almost every week. It makes you thoughtful. John Jones, graduated from Princeton, went on to earn an MBA from Harvard, worked for a giant investment firm for forty years and retired to Florida. Why? What difference did he make? Maybe he worked tirelessly for the local soup kitchen, maybe he left his millions to UNICEF. Sometimes the obituary notices such things; more often not. Who will write what about me? As I said, It makes me thoughtful.

And then, as many of you know, my wife died last fall and my life is changed in a fundamental way. I made decisions 60-some years ago about who I belonged to and I was ordained and I was married. And I think those were good decisions. I’m still committed to both of them. But I began to think last winter that I ought to think again about who I was, who I am, who I will be, and one way of looking at it is in the gospel this morning: Jesus said of his followers, “They do not belong to the world . . .”

That’s good. I have no desire to belong to this world. So who do I belong to and how do I live out that belonging? Yes, I belong to my wife – still do – but not visibly and physically and yes, I belong to God’s church and am still able to do ministry and then there’s all this writing I do and I’m an officer of the retirement home where I live and my family is evolving and changing – nothing ever says the same from one day to another – and who am I and is God still the center? And who do I belong to? Who controls my life? How do I establish priorities?

I was thinking about all that last winter and thinking I needed to find some time to be quiet and prayerful and deepen the relationship with God that a priest can take too much for granted and I happened to see an ad in a Christian magazine for a Trappist monastery in South Carolina that was offering the opportunity to be a monk for a month, and I thought, “That’s what I need.” So I wrote to them and they wrote back and I leave for Mepkin Abbey at the end of August. I have every intention of coming back. I plan to be back at the end of September. No small voice is telling me to stay longer. Not yet anyway. Though one should never say never. But the program is daunting: Up at 3 am for two hours of prayer then breakfast and more prayer and eucharist then three hours of work then lunch and an optional siesta than three more hours of work. They raise mushrooms, and I had a big garden and orchard for twenty years and worked with a tractor and chain saw, so mushrooms should be easy – even for six hours a day. Then comes supper and vespers and compline and bed at 8 pm. The Trappists are also an order renowned for their keeping of silence. What they call the “Grand Silence” extends From 8 pm to 8 am but they cultivate what they call “A general atmosphere of silence.” The point is to be able to listen and to let God speak. That’s what I’m looking for: to be able to listen and be clear about who I belong to. I won’t pretend not to be nervous about it. But I think it provides what I need right now: a chance to be quiet and to ask direction and think and pray about the big questions: Who am I? And what do I really know of God? And is my life really centered on God? Who owns me? Who owns my life? St Paul says in another place: You are not your own; you were bought with a price. I do not belong to the world. No. I think, I believe, I belong to God. But am I sure? Or have I need running away? Isn’t it maybe time to take another look?

Now, I’m fortunate because I have this opportunity. I couldn’t have done it ten years ago. And it’s not for everyone – I’m sure it’s not – but it is, I think, a benchmark for everyone. If not that, then what? When did I last ask myself serious questions? When did I last look carefully at my pattern of life, at my relationship with God, at my commitment of time and talent and treasure – the traditional three T’s. Do I truly “not belong to the world” and what am I doing to control the world’s claim on my life?

I read an article in last week’s New Yorker about a man who had worked for the CIA doing various things in Afghanistan and then transitioned to a private-sector intelligence analysis firm advising corporations and governments on matters of geopolitics and risk. But he began to feel like a fraud because he could see the flaws in other societies but he didn’t know his own neighborhood. Savannah, Georgia, where he lives, has one of the highest crime rates in the country, so why, he asked himself, was he worrying about Afghanistan. So he quit his job and joined the local police force taking a pay cut of over $100,000 a year. That’s not a decision you make if you belong to the world. It’s a decision you make if you see yourself as being responsible for the life that is given you for a purpose.

If you belong to the world you measure your life one way; if not, there are other concerns – and it’s not my comfort or my security or my convenience. If I belong to the world, the world shapes me; if not, I look for ways to make a difference. The Gospel this morning tell us – Jesus tells us – “You – I – do not belong to the world.” My home is not here. There is nothing I can’t live without except Jesus. I can say that easily enough but I’m not sure it’s true and I want to find out. I pray that you do too. For a slave in the cotton fields of Alabama it was clear who they belonged to and if they could they ran away, they boarded the underground railroad and headed north. For us, it’s usually not as clear but often our lives are shaped by priorities that have not much to do with an eternal purpose. And I think that requires some thoughtfulness: am I using what God has given me in talents and possessions to make a difference? Do they own me? Does the world own me? Or am I finding ways to give my gifts to serve others, to make a difference? Am I, you might say, willing to keep on picking cotton, or am I willing to take the risk of heading for freedom in an unknown country where I could make my life count for something? Does the world own me or does Jesus? These are questions I think we need to ask ourselves from time to time.

Being a Vine

April 29th, 2018

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, on April 29, 2018.

“I AM the vine.” St. John 15:5

There’s a little history book discussion group I belong to that has been reading a book called “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America” (Frances Fitzgerald, Simon and Schuster, 2017) and we meet next Tuesday to discuss it. I was looking forward to reading it, hoping for some insights, but I’m not sure I got any. What I did notice was that what started as a religious movement two centuries ago seemed to become more and more a political movement as we came down to the present day What started out with a particular teaching about the Holy Spirit and religious revival became more and more about names like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and organizations like the Family Research Council and Christian Broadcasting Network and narrowly focused groups aimed at enlisting politicians and winning elections and something called “the Christian right”

The book actually ended on a fairly hopeful note with a discussion of the increasing influence of “millennials” and concern for social justice issues. But better yet, one member of the discussion group sent us a copy of a speech he found on line by the President of Fuller Seminary, one of the most prestigious evangelical seminaries anywhere. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s in Menlo Park – not far away – and it claims approximately 4,000 students from 90 countries and 110 denominations. I read the speech with amazement and hope. Dr. Labberton, the president of the seminary, told his evangelical audience:

“When evangelical leaders like us gather, it is often with a spirit of optimistic hope, known for “pressing on” in the work of the gospel. For me, this is not a time of pressing on. I feel a personal urgency to stop, to pray, to listen, to confess, and to repent and want to call us to do the same. Only the Spirit “who is in the world to convict us of sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8) can bring us to clarity about the crisis we face. As I have sought that conviction, here is what I have come to believe: The central crisis facing us is that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been betrayed and shamed by an evangelicalism that has violated its own moral and spiritual integrity. This is not a crisis imposed from outside the household of faith, but from within. The core of the crisis is not specifically about Trump, or Hillary, or Obama, or the electoral college, or Comey, or Mueller, (MULLER) or abortion, or LGBTQIA+ debates, or Supreme Court appointees. Instead the crisis is caused by the way a toxic evangelicalism has engaged with these issues in such a way as to turn the gospel into Good News that is fake. Now on public display is an indisputable collusion between prominent evangelicalism and many forms of insidious racist, misogynistic, materialistic, and political power. The wind and the rain and the floods have come, and, as Jesus said, they will reveal our foundation. In this moment for evangelicalism, what the storms have exposed is a foundation not of solid rock but of sand.”

So OK – we have things to talk about. We do have elements of a common faith. And we need to ask, Who are we as Christians? What unites us? Why are we here? How can we get to work to serve Jesus here and now? What’s obvious is that we are not ready for the Second Coming, and we do have things to talk about and maybe we have some on both sides prepared to talk and more important prepared to listen.

The basic problem of course is that we are human beings who need structure to shape our lives We need rules, budgets, buildings, programs, meetings. That’s where it really comes apart: meetings: vestries, conventions, synods, committees, sub-committees. . . Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do it to Jesus? We do it because we have to – without structure our lives fall apart – but with structure, we lose the spirit and have to refocus again and again and remind ourselves what it’s all about, why we are here. The Gospel this morning tells us. It says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

It all come back to that, to our relationship with Jesus. It’s just as simple as that – and just as complicated: our relationship with Jesus. “I am the vine,” Jesus said; “And you are the branches.” “Abide in me.” It’s simple. It’s simple to be branches of a vine: just don’t fall off. Hang in there. It’s simple. Just be there, be where the nourishment is. Simple. But being human, we always make it complicated. I am the vine; you are the branches. Abide in me.” Simple. And we mess it up. Time after time.

But of course, this idea of a vine is what the English teachers call a “metaphor”: like reality, but different. We may be a metaphorical vine, with metaphorical roots, but we’re actually human beings with unmetaphorical feet that walk us away from where we ought to be. We don’t have visible roots; we don’t have an obvious structure that just naturally draws nourishment up out of the ground, along the trunk, into the branches. We have the disadvantage of being seemingly separate human beings who have the ability to go our own way, think our own thoughts, and be vegetarians or carnivores, Democrats or Republicans, Christians or Muslims, Shiites or Sunnis, Episcopalians or Seventh Day Adventists or Two-seed in the Spirit Predestinarian Baptists. So where the vine just does its thing, we make it hard for ourselves. We have to figure out first what our thing is. Who are we? Who do we want to be – not what, but who. Are we going to be like a vine or like a bunch of lego pieces that may fit together and may not.

Where do we go wrong? The simple answer is that we don’t listen to today’s Gospel and Jesus’ words. It’s about life in the vine. It’s about sharing life, Jesus’ risen life, and we also call that “communion,” Food for the journey and that food for the journey is here at the altar: shared life, sharing eternal life, Jesus’ risen life, right here, right now, in a living relationship, we are branches drawing life from the vine.

I’m sorry for Christians who lack that center. It goes back to ancient controversies – times when people argued over what it meant to be in communion, to receive communion, what specifically it meant. And some walked away from the ancient pattern: better not to have communion at all than to do it wrong or share it with someone we disagree with as to what it meant. We’re getting over that. More and more churches are bringing communion back to a central place, but meanwhile we find ourselves divided over issues and rules and structures – yes, and politics. And we walk away from communion as if that would solve something. Ideally it should be Communion first, not last. We need to share life, But lots of Christians aren’t ready for that; don’t value it, don’t see it as central. We’ve got a long way to go even to get to square one.

Jesus said “Do this” and that ought to be the beginning, but instead it’s a goal. But we need to keep focused on that goal. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches, abide in me.” He never said, so far as I know, “Here’s the rule book; obey it.” Or “here’s an organization chart and rules for electing Vestries.” Rules can be very helpful; because we’re human we have to have them but they’re not the gospel and they can be changed. We keep trying to put rules first and communion second.

But the goal is communion. We belong to a communion, the Anglican communion. We’re not Congregationalists where each local church is self-governing or at the other extreme Roman Catholics governed by the Bishop of Rome. We’re not Methodists with a particular Method or Baptists insisting on believer baptism or Lutherans with allegiance to a particular 16th century theologian. We’re a communion, united in worship, united by the life we share at the altar. But even in communion we find ourselves divided by the same issues Dr. Labberton was talking about at Fuller Seminary: There are, he said, “many forms of insidious racist, misogynistic, materialistic, and political power . . . that turn the gospel into good news that is fake.” For example: let’s talk about sex. Jesus never said, “You have to agree about sex.” But some people won’t talk to people who disagree with them about sex. And what makes it so tragic is that none of us – none of us – really knows what we’re talking about when it comes to sex.

Let me tell you some history. Ten years ago, the last time the bishops of our worldwide Anglican Communion tried to come together in England, as they have usually done every ten years, some of the bishops wouldn’t even go to the meeting because they disagreed with their brother and sister bishops. about various issues concerning sex – what was allowable and what wasn’t. They made it that important even though, on the record, Anglican Bishops would get a failing grade on that subject. I made a study the last time they met, about ten years ago of the history of the Lambeth Conference and I paid particular attention to their changing wisdom about sex. It all began in the nineteenth century when they first met and were confronted by a question from African bishops about polygamy. It wasn’t something English or American bishops had thought about very much, but they quickly agreed that polygamy was bad and polygamists couldn’t be baptized. There were missionaries in Africa who were saying, “We’ve got this man who wants to be baptized, but he’s got ten wives. What should we do?” And the bishops said, “Well, you can baptize his wives, but not him – not unless he sends nine of them away.” And the missionaries said, “But what would happen to all those wives without his support and protection? What would become of nine-tenths of the children?” And the bishops said, “Not our problem; we don’t do polygamy.” That was in 1888. In 1998 they looked at it again and said, “Well, actually, maybe; if he promises not to marry again, it might be OK.” Times have changed; so the rules have changed. If you are a rule-bound church, you wind up in big trouble. In 1908 the bishops said, “If you get a divorce, you can’t marry again and if you do marry again, you can’t come to communion. In 1968 they said, “Divorce happens but life has to go on. We all make mistakes, but there’s forgiveness in Jesus.” In 1920 the bishops said “Birth control is really bad.” In 1968 they said, “Family planning is really good.” Right now a lot of them still want to say that same sex unions are bad and I’d be more inclined to accept that if they had ever gotten it right about sex before. So, yes, give the bishops an F on sex, but fortunately it’s not critical because we’re not a church governed by rules; our unity is in communion, in the vine, in Jesus. Rules can be changed.

And still we have problems. There are Anglican dioceses in both America and Africa that want to divide the church over issues of sexuality. There are African dioceses that refuse to come to Anglican Communion meetings because they say they are just holding to the faith that western missionaries taught them a hundred years ago and they’re right – that is what they were taught and how do you account for change when you were taught an unchanging faith? The one thing I’m sure of is that we can’t solve issues by division: We can only solve them in the vine, only when we all draw our life from the same source. Anything else fundamentally alters the nature of our communion and puts us at odds with the gospel this morning that tells us to abide in Jesus, in communion, in the vine.

Why, at this point in human history, with attitudes toward sexuality changing from day to day , would we choose to draw a line in the sand and say “This is it: my way or the highway.” That baffles me. I know how much my own ideas have changed on this subject over the years and I’m glad I’ve been free to change. I want to keep my options open, not set in concrete in 2018. Evangelicals could maybe learn from us – that is from our mistakes – and we could learn from them and we could both learn by our own experience that it’s easy to put the emphasis in the wrong place – to worry about the wrong things, to care more about the rules than the vine. But we desperately need to work toward a deeper and fuller communion so that we can move forward on the things that matter like homelessness and the environment and medical policies and tax policies shaped by a concern for others rather than personal greed or our own narrow and limited understanding.

I don’t expect evangelicals to adopt the Book of Common Prayer any time soon and I don’t expect Anglicans, Episcopalians, to figure out ways to come to a common mind on issues of human sexuality, but maybe we can agree on what today’s Gospel reminds us of: that life comes first – the sharing of the life that flows through the vine to the branches.

The Anglican Communion has a seal it adopted maybe 60-70 years ago that shows a globe and a bishop’s miter and around the globe in Greek it says – “The truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) That’s a great verse to take as emblematic of what we’re all about: truth and freedom. It’s just that simple and just that hard. Apart from love it’s impossible. But with God, with Love, all things are possible and it begins here at the altar where we are nourished in a common life. He is the vine; we are the branches; our life is in him.